20 minus 1 = 19
The only other old person in my group is on his way back to America. I found out last night that Mike was struggling with the language, diarrhea, cultural adjustment and his commitment. He made the decision to leave and is already gone. That leaves 18 young people ages 22-25 and me. (Age 61.) He wasn’t in my village and I last spoke with him for about 30 minutes on Friday when all 20 of us got together for training in gender issues and police protection. But we had a common bond in that our brains were slow and the recent college grads picked up things so much faster.
This is hard. And I do think it’s harder on older people. We come from a place in our lives when we have been competent and a comfortable satisfaction with who we are to a place where we are totally incompetent, watching other people question our ability to adjust and survive. It takes a lot of humility to make mistake after mistake and still keep trying. I can’t tell you how many times I realized that I was handing someone something with my left hand. Or suddenly figured out that the way you eat with your fingers in to push the food into your mouth with your thumb rather than licking it. Sometimes all I can do laugh at my stupidity.
I’m so glad I got a head start on the language. In Salt Lake I was learning the word of the day and then after a while, the phrase of the day. Here we are expected to learn 50 or so new words each day. Okay, I guess they don’t really expect us to learn them all, but by being exposed to so much new stuff, I guess the theory is that we will retain some of it. It’s embarrassing to know that someone has told you the word you need so many times and you just can’t pull it up out of your memory bank.
In the 2 weeks I’ve been in the village, there have only been a few days when I didn’t have diarrhea. Every meal is white rice and a variety of spicy, meaty, fishy, vegetable soup and fried tofu and fried egg. I like the food, especially the leaves of the cassava plant and the whole fried shrimp that you eat head, shells and all but I think it takes a while for American stomachs to adjust.
Today my language class went to a park in Malang. People came up to us and asked if they could stand next to us while their friends took our picture. We are an oddity. Every time I walk in my village people ask me, “Where are you going?” It’s just the polite greeting but they really do want to keep track of where I am going. One day I went in the opposite direction to meet up with my friend, Scott, at his house and in one block 15 different people wanted to know where I was going.
The people of Indonesia are so polite. I ask my ‘mother” and “father” for permission to take a mandi (pour water over myself and get clean) permission to go to school and permission to go to sleep. It’s just how things are done. Our mission here is to be culturally sensitive. If I walk in front of someone I hold out my arm and bend over to indicate that I am asking permission for intruding in their space.
But I have some good friends. My Indonesian family loves me absolutely. They can’t understand most of what I say or do, but my Ibu (mother, a few years younger than I am) smiles from ear to ear when I do manage to make myself clear. She and her daughter where on the porch when I left this morning. My toes have blisters from the closed toe shoes that we have to wear on Tuesdays and Thursdays when we teach in the local high school. On other days we can wear sandals, but it really is a good preparation for how we need to dress every day once we are teachers. So I had put on a dorky pair of socks with my shoes. My skirt didn’t go all the way to the ground so you could see a few inches of skin in between the socks and the skirt. I explained to her in Indonesian that even in America my children say that I don’t understand being fashionable. She got it! One good thing about being old is that I really don’t care if I look strange.
The other Peace Corps trainees are wonderful. When I said I felt sad because I was the only old person left, Maggie said, “Well, I’m the only red head.” And Luckas said, “I’m the only person born in Poland.” And Andy said, “I’m the only boy scout.” There’s something about sharing a common trauma that bonds you together, like people in a life boat, somehow helping them survive makes it easier to have faith that I too will survive.
I’m in. I love teaching the classes during our practice sessions with the students in Malang. I love having the guts to get on the local transport and ask for help. I love the friendliness and hospitality and strangeness of the people of Indonesia. I love what all of this is demanding of me. It’s one thing to do something well and feel good about it and it’s totally even better to mess up and feel good about that too. I surrender. I surrender to the non stop traffic just inches from where I am walking. I surrender to not understanding what people are saying to me. I surrender to sore toes and sweaty armpits and smiles and little children who press my hand to their face. I surrender to tiny guppy eyeballs and tails in the food I’m eating. I surrender to drenching rain. I surrender to prayers that I don’t understand from 4am till evening darkness. I surrender to the Peace Corps medical officer telling us that we probably will all get dengue fever. I surrender to a whole village knowing what is happening in my bowels.
I’m in. Homesickness, missing my grandchildren, wishing I could see their faces on Easter morning. Legs cramping from squatting for so long above the pit toilet. Watching spiders bigger than my hand dangling overhead. Hair and towels that smell musty because they just won’t dry in this humidity. Maybe I’m just stubborn. I’m in. Heaven help me. I’m here and I’m staying.