I’m in Jakarta, home to 9.2 million people in the night and 12 million people during daylight hours. It’s amazing. Traffic goes in the “wrong” direction. Crossing the street is a major adventure. We were told there are 5 million motorcycles in the city. They don’t have to obey the traffic rules, so they come from both directions. My fellow Peace Corps trainees are wonderful. We travel in groups, and generally the cars seem to pay more attention to several, glassy eyed, tall, white people in the middle of the road. The little song that I used to sing with my grandchildren, “look both ways when you cross the street.” takes on new meaning.
There are twenty of us trainees. We won’t become official Peace Corps volunteers until we pass the language competency test and swear in sometime in June. At 61, I’m the oldest. There is a 57 year old man who’s a retired principal in the California school system and 7 young men and 11 young women between the ages of 22 – 25. My new best friends have been to almost every country in the world! Angela was born in Malaysia; Gio was born in Puerto Rico. Nisha is from India. Sarah is from Hawaii and first saw snow when she was 18. Diana has lived in the Middle East. Maggie was in Germany for a year. Samantha worked on the Navajo Indian Reservation. Travis has lived in Malaysia. Luke was born in Poland and as a child met a Peace Corps Volunteer who inspired him to submit his application. What a group! We were chosen because we had no medical issues, had foreign experience or interests, appeared to be self starters and didn’t hesitate when the PC staff in Washington DC first approached us about ‘Something different.” Being the first ones in a new country means that we won’t have the support systems set up that the volunteers who follow us will have. The PC office is Surabaya is not yet ready for business. There is no address where you can send mail or packages.
The Peace Corps staff explained the process that culminated in us getting here. The government of Indonesia has been requesting Peace Corps volunteers and when the US (and the lawyers from both countries) finally ironed out all the details, the Indonesian government felt they could use 2000 volunteers! The 20 of us are treated like royalty. In San Francisco the Consul General hosted a dinner for us in his home. We were on the agenda to meet with President Obama but his visit has been delayed.
At first I did get special treatment because I knew more Bahasa than the others. They wanted me to sit beside them during language training and ask me questions when we couldn’t understand what the language trainers were telling us. In San Francisco I greeted the Consul General in his national language. Now that we have had our first language sessions I am no longer the number one student. I’m so glad I practiced before I came. My brain is slow but there is a little storehouse of words that I can use. The young volunteers can hear something said TWICE and have it stored in their memory. The things that took me two days to finally remember they master in 2 minutes. The pace is intense. Instead of the word of the day we have the 60-70 words of the day.
Our day starts at 6:00 AM breakfast and Bahasa Indonesia conversation practice. From 8:30 – 6:30 we have language lessons, culture training, explanations of what is expected of us, safety briefings, and medical updates. The idea is to give us enough information and practical experiences that we can choose whether we want to become volunteers or not. Once we “swear in.” after 3 months of training, our permanent assignments are counting on us being there for the remaining 24 months.
The Language and Cultural Trainers are women from the area near where we will be staying. They are less than 5 feet tall, have long Muslim head scarves and smiles that go from ear to ear.
On Tuesday we go our training villages. They are all near Batu, East Java, which is near Malang, the major University City. The PC staff has told us that the families have as many questions about us that we have about them. One house will have a regular toilet, the rest have squat toilets. None have toilet paper. We’re expected to “wash off.” We will all have a bedroom to ourselves. The families have been told that we are to eat whatever they serve, don’t make anything special; just give us typical Indonesian food. We are to be treated like extended family, not guests, so we help out around the house too.
At each of the 4 training sites there are 5 homes that have offered to take us in and one home where our trainer will live. We will meet at the offices for the official in charge of each village for lessons every day except Sunday when we will have specific assignments that need to be accomplished – cultural trips and visits to other places. Our malaria medicine and rabies shots begin once we are “in village.”
Almost all our host families are farmers. Almost all are Muslim. Some have children, some are retired people. Each house has electricity, but it may not be on very consistently. None of the families speak English. They normally talk in their local dialect, but have agreed to speak Bahasa, the national language, which they learn at school, while we are there. The staff who visited the villages said that little children will come and take our hands and kiss them to show how much they appreciate us being there. There is a high risk of getting TB from the people in the village when they cough.
Eleven families requested women, 5 requested men and 4 had no preference. That works out well because we are 12 women and 8 men. None of the families have pets, which is good because we’re not allowed to get anywhere near an animal until day 28 when we have the 3rd rabies shot in our system. I think we’re not supposed to touch animals after that either. We’re not allowed to travel to Bali until further notification because it is having a rabies outbreak.
Yesterday we got lessons in how to set up the water filtration systems and today the topic was “diarrhea.” Lyn, the medical officer went through a flow chart of all the different colors, consistencies, and styles of onset, duration times and side effects to correctly diagnose which of the 6 types of diarrhea we are having and how to treat it. For every single one of them the treatment is to let if flow rather than stop it up. For most the solution is to drink more water. For some you should get bed rest. For some you take an aspirin.
The training is intense, to put it mildly. I’ll try to find an internet café and update the blog a few times during the next three months, but mostly I’m just trying to keep my head above water as the waterfall heads over the cliff.