Yesterday I arrived at my village. It’s a cluster of several hundred houses near the town of Batu in East Java, Indonesia. It’s about 20 minutes North West of a major town, Malang, which houses the University Mohammadyah which is our host university and location of training office for Peace Corps. (PC)
In Malang all 20 of us volunteers stood in line and were given 4 injections: Dengue fever, Rabies, Hep A and Hep B (I think – all I know is that we got a little piece of candy, a chewable aspirin and a drink of water when we were finished. We had been told that we were going to the mountains where it would be cool. Cool is a relative term. It was a little cooler than Jakarta, but the sweat was dripping from all our faces.
After shots, the head of the University came to welcome us to Indonesia and we had a delightful box lunch with a little green bean stuck in the middle of a sandwich, like a toothpick. I was hungry so I basically gobbled the sandwich and Wow! That little green bean was a mega hot chili pepper in disguise! I tried to keep my eyes and nose from running too much while the officials gave their speeches.
There are 5 Peace Corps volunteers in each village. I had been told that my family consisted of a mother (ibu) a few years younger than me and a father (bapak) a few years older and a naughty grandchild who lived next door. As the bus pulled into my village, a very happy four and half foot tall woman came up to me and wanted to take my bags and hug me on both checks. I gave her a flower that we had been given on the airplane when we arrived in Jakarta. Then the 5 Americans went inside to a meeting and official welcome from the head of the village, and then we walked 2 minutes up an alley with a stream and goats to the “office” – the small classroom where we will have language and technical instruction. When we returned to the main village offices the same woman and an older smiling man took all my bags and put me in the back seat of a teeny tiny minivan. I waved goodbye to my Peace Corps friends and embraced the ambiguity. (That’s the phrase that we were given in San Francisco that will enable us to survive for the next 27 months.)
My training village home has 2 living rooms, a front bedroom where I am sleeping, and a bedroom for my Ibu and Bapak, a kitchen and a bathroom. The kitchen has a bunk bed, wardrobes, a table and chairs and a counter with no sink. Between the kitchen and the bathroom is a small area where there are pans of water on the floor.
The bathroom is all tiled and has a platform about 4 inches off the ground with a ceramic swat toilet. The ceramic piece has a washboard like area about the size of a foot on either side of a hole and a sloping depression a few inches deep into the hole. The hole is about 4 inches across and has water in it. Next to the toilet is the mandi. It’s a tiled water container about 2 feet across and 3 feet tall. It’s also on a raised platform. There is a tiled ledge around the mandi and a dipper setting on the ledge. At the hotel in Jakarta I had practiced using the water hose which came with each western style toilet. There’s no hose in this bathroom. There is a little shelf with toothbrushes and a bar of soap and 2 towels hanging on a peg. And no toilet paper.
I sit and chat with my host mother and father. In less than 60 seconds I have used up all of my Indonesian words. They keep smiling and talking in a foreign language saying things which they want me to repeat. Each time I repeat the word they just said, they say it again with exaggerated mouth gestures because I’m not repeating it back right. After they say the word 5 or 6 times I say something that approaches what they are trying to get me to say and they nod and smile. This goes on for several hours as many people come to the house and I shake hands and smile, pretend to chat for 20 minutes till they are no longer using the one word I can recognize: America and then go to my room to put stuff away before more people come. I take out my stack of pictures and point and explain who the people are. My children become #1, #2 and #3. There is a teenage grandchild who lives next door. She arrives home from school and can interpret some of my English.
I need to use the bathroom so I say the word for it, “small room” and excuse myself “permisi” and figure out how to pee. I try to splash the dipper of water over my private area. I get water everywhere but my clothes are kind of dark and it doesn’t show. For dinner we have rice with 2 bowls of soupy stuff that you spoon over the rice and 1 inch squared chicken cubes with bones and brown fried things about ½ the size of a deck of cards. A few times I catch myself picking up the food with my left hand and seeing my host mother stare at me. Ooops.
I forgot to mention, you take off your shoes or flip flops when you come inside a house, sometimes you put on a different pair of flip flops – my host mother asks me: mandi? And I nod yes. She pantomimes that when I take a mandi, a bath, that I should wear flip flops so I don’t fall. I take my towel and hang it on the spare hook in the bathroom. Take off all my clothes and pour the water from the dipper all over me. It’s chilly but not horrible. Kind of like jumping into a cold swimming pool.
My host mother calls me sister. She sits close to me and pats my leg and puts her arm around me and teaches me to say “I love you” in Bahasa Indonesia. My host father shows me the 8 or so picture on the wall. He is a retired tax official and can say a few English words. The pictures of each of his 2 daughters as they were married are very elaborate. The bride and groom have fancy outfits and crowns on their heads. The other women in the family have unusual make-up on. He teaches me the words for: East Java culture.” In the evening we go next door to the little shop which is owned by my mother’s daughter. She is one of the people I have met on our front porch. We sit on a little bench which will hold my mother, me and one other small older Indonesian woman.
In the evening, Maggie, another PC volunteer in my village and the young man who is to be our host country national language and culture teacher came to my house. I had just gone to bed and had my knee length night shirt on. There was a lot of knocking at my bedroom door and I opened it to discover that several well dressed men and women were sitting in the living room. My bedroom door opens to the living room. Ooops, I know we’re not supposed to be seen with this few clothes on. I went back in, put on a pair of pants, tucked in my night shirt and visited with Maggie and her family. Our families are related. I think my Bapak (father) is cousins with Maggie’s Ibu (mother.) While the Indonesians were chatting away Maggie looks at me with terror in her eyes and asks if I’ve figure out how to use the toilet yet. Some of the people in the room can speak a little English, so very quietly and carefully she tells me that there’s no way she can poop into that little hole and what are we really supposed to do with the dipper of water. I tell her –let’s talk tomorrow at language class.
During the night I figure out the logistics of how to poop into the hole. How to hold the dipper with your right hand and pour the water onto your left hand, how to scrub off the poo from my butt and then wash my hand by using more water poured from the dipper onto my left hand. Then I turn around. Oh my gosh. The poop is floating. This will never do. I use a huge dipper of water and thank goodness the poop disappears into the hole. Never letting go of the dipper in my right hand I carefully wash my left hand some more with a little piece of soap.
In the morning I wake up around 4am as the mosques began the call to prayer. I thought I could hear praying from 4 or 5 different directions. After 30 minutes the closer ones stopped and I could hear that the prayers were coming from perhaps 20 different directions. After the call to prayer, the chickens and the rooster began to make noise.
My host mother has asked me the night before if I would like to go walking at 5am. I readily agreed. We go outside into the cool morning light. I have my sandals on but I notice many older people are walking barefoot. The kids have flip flops on. We walk to see the rice fields and the school where my teenage granddaughter goes. She calls me Oma – the name for grandmother. When we come home I ask my host mother and father and from what they say I gather that people like to get the cold from the ground into their feet and up into their calves. It promotes good health. Every day since then I have walked barefoot with my mother in the morning.
At breakfast I become a lot more conscious of only touching the food with my right hand.
The Indonesian from the University Mohammadaya who set up our home stays comes and offers to take me to the training class this first morning. I would rather walk, but it would be impolite to refuse, so I get a ride to the class. We spend all morning learning the Indonesian national language. In my home, they mostly speak Javanese but when kids go to school the classes are taught in the national language and that is the language that we will be using to teach English.
After lunch the American in charge of training comes to our class and asks us to evaluate what we have learned so far. Every person says we absolutely should have been given some information about what to do in the bathroom. Several women tell me that they are afraid to poop. I give a little demonstration in Potty Training 101 Indonesian style and offer to teach the next class of volunteers too.
After class I walk to another volunteer’s house because his host uncle has offered to drive him to Batu, 20 minutes away to purchase a cell phone. All of us are required to purchase cell phones for security. I ask him to please call my host mother so she knows I will be late. We go to a town square with lots of little shops and the uncle negotiates a good price for us for our cell phones and minutes. When he drives me home, it is dark. I have only a vague idea where my house is. He drives slowly and suddenly it makes sense. I find my house, thank him profusely, walk inside and hug my host mother and she serves the food which she and her husband had been waiting to eat until I came home. The teenage granddaughter comes over and figures out how to install the sim card and set up my cell phone. She has it in the Indonesian mode so I can learn more Indonesian words. After a few minutes, it becomes obvious that I don’t know how to do this in English, much less Indonesian and she changes it over for me. I send a text message (my first ever) to my training officer giving him my new phone number and settle down for a few hours of Bahasa language practice. I’m totally exhausted, fulfilled and happy when I fall asleep.