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Thursday, April 1, 2010

My Village

My village

I have been taught how to say: I live in the small area, named…, larger area, named…, the district named…, large district of Batu, East Java, Indonesia. For security reasons we are not allowed to list our actual locations in blogs. But in Indonesia it is really important to know all these things. The local R W is head of about 10 families. He is responsible for knowing every time someone extra spends the night. He needed my official name, birthday, passport number and place of birth before I actually arrived. He reports to the person above him, who reports to the person above him and so forth. My host father (bapak) explained to me that at 9:00 pm I must close my window. Just before that time he carefully locks the gate to our little compound. Inside the gated area are our house and 2 other house that belong to the grown daughters of my family and the little shop on the street that belongs to one of the daughters.

One of the daughters is a tourist official in Batu. She wears a uniform and mostly helps Indonesian tourists who come to this area because it is quite mountainous and “cool” (the locals think) and there are lots of conference centers in Batu. She has a husband and 2 children. Dea is a 17 year old who goes to high school and an older daughter goes to the same University in Malang where our training sessions are held. Many days one or the other come over and practice English / Indonesian words with me.

The other family in the compound is a mother who runs the little shop, her husband and the 5 year old naughty little boy. I found out that they have an expression when you ask how old someone is: “Six, this year,” means that he is 5. The shop is about 10 feet by 10 feet, has a roof and is open on all sides. There are packets of instant coffee packaged in tear apart individual packages hanging from the roof. She sells a little bit of everything.

In language and culture class I asked about this practice of having an honored child and the teacher said, oh yes, he was the favorite in his family. This 5 year old boy rides a bicycle through the house, and people just make the hand gesture for go outside, but don’t enforce it. He grabs the remote and turns the channel while people are watching and the teenage granddaughter yells at him, but no one takes the remote away. He comes into the kitchen and takes raw food while my ibu is cooking, spits it out and she shakes her head, stops what she is doing, cleans up after him and goes back to cooking. His teeth are brown and rotten. He only eats sugar things. I have seen his mother spoon feed him a few bites of rice and vegetables to get him to eat something healthy. Males are the favorite and the first grandson is an honored position. In language class we learn to say our name and then to give our birth order. When ever I show pictures of my kids they want to know who is the oldest, who is the youngest.

It takes about 20 minutes to walk to the place where I go to school each day. My idea of a village was rural, but there are so many people on the island of Java, that the homes are very close together and I would call this a town. All the streets in this village are paved. There is a concrete water ditch along the side of the roads. Several times each day someone invites me in. I nod and smile and say Thank you and Later. That’s the polite way to refuse an invitation. At least that’s what I think I am saying.

The first day I walked, I missed the little path that goes to our classroom and kept walking for another 10 minutes. Then I stopped and asked a man, “Where is the balai desa”, the village office and he said “which village office” and I realized that I had walked into another neighborhood. He told me to go back and I did find the little pathway. I stopped in the shade to wait for the other PC trainees and woman came around the corner and invited me into her warehouse which is open to the street. She was reading a newspaper and my picture was in it! I laughed and took out a little money and motioned that I would like to buy a paper. She took me around the corner to a little shop and a fellow PC trainee and I bought the last 2 Malang newspapers that had our pictures in it. I asked my host country language instructor to translate it and he said that I had talked to the reporters in Indonesian, and the reporter had said that Ibu Colleen could speak Indonesian in a way like when you are eating cake and some of it falls out of your mouth. We all laughed. I also told the reporters what my Ibu had served for breakfast: kosong, cassava leaves and I thought it was very delicious and they reported that as well. When I brought the newspaper home my family was thrilled that my Ibu’s cooking was in the Malang paper saying how good it was. Malang is about 20 minutes away and is the 2nd biggest city in East Java.

The teenager in my extended family also reported that her friends saw the interview on TV. Evidently the reporters randomly picked my village, from among the 4 villages where Peace Corps trainees are stationed and my friends volunteered me to talk to the press, so I am the famous American who gave an interview on her first day in East Java.

We have begun going to a big high school in Malang, the University town and the English teacher in the big city also told me that she saw my interview. At High School we attended several classes and each time when I introduce myself I say, “My name is Colleen Young, nickname, Oma (Grandma.)” And the kids laugh and clap. Many of the other teachers use a shortened version of their name when they introduce themselves, but I guess to have a grandma as a teacher is unusual.

My family does call me Oma. We struggle with communicating, but there is a love here that is so big. I feel like I am some precious treasure that dropped out of the sky. Older village women stroke my cheeks and my nose and tell me that I am beautiful. Our language instructor tells us that all of us have sharp noses and that is what Indonesians think is the best. The older women are my favorites. Their faces are so soft when they press their cheeks against mine. Their eyes sparkle. They want to hold my hand and stroke my arm. Little kids are fascinated with white people, but sometimes afraid to get too close. If they are in a group they will yell Hello, Mister to me or sometimes, how are you. But individually they are shy. I play little games with them to get them to smile.

I had to use the bathroom several times one morning and my family was worried about me being sick and called me at school to make sure I was okay. It’s sweet and touching how much they worry and tell me “Hati, hati” be careful, every time I walk in the neighborhood or go to school.

Actually I really do need to be careful. My house is on a busy street. There are no sidewalks. The cars pass each other going in the wrong direction and motorcycles go where ever they want. There are lots of motorcycles. The principal at the Malang high school told me that most of her students come to school on motorcycles. The little bus costs 20 -30 cents and it’s cheaper to just put gas in your motorcycle. You can see families with 2 adults and 2 children on motorcycles. The mother wraps a scarf around her baby and ties him to her chest. The older children sit up front and put their hands on the handlebars. Women ride side saddle behind their husbands.

On the street maybe ¼ of the women have head coverings. My own host mother only wears it when she goes to the mosque, several times a week. She is so much fun. I get up around 4:00am each day when prayers begin. Often I sit on the front porch and nod to the people who walk by. By 5:00am my mother is up and we go together to buy the food for the day, vegetables and tofu wrapped in little pieces of newspaper. She starts the rice cooking and spends the first 2 hours chopping and cooking. Our house has a little refrigerator, but most of the food is kept in a cabinet. Sometimes we walk to the rice fields. Sunday mornings she and I go to the village office and do calisthenics with the other older women. The music is fun and I’m not the worst one in the class. I stand at the back so I won’t block the view for the other 40 women. The largest woman in the village is the instructor, not any of the slim ones. My ibu is the at the head of the class and I can tell that many of the women respect her. All the women wear pants and t-shirts to class and about ½ of them have the jilbab, head covering on.

This morning my ibu told me that I would need to eat alone because she was going to Batu for a Chi Gung class. At least that’s what I understood. A friend of hers picked her up on her motorcycle. My ibu, my host mother is 58 and her husband, my host father is 66. They call me Oma too.

I kept blowing the fuse in the house every time I put my computer plug into a socket. I learned how to open the electricity meter and throw the only switch the other way. My host father showed me how to unplug the refrigerator first, but now we have figured out that I can plug the computer into the socket above the window and the lights in the house will still work. I think it’s on a circuit that goes to one of the other houses in our compound.

As I am typing this I can hear music in the street. There is a wedding tonight and the music is so loud I couldn’t talk above it. But inside the house, away from the wedding place its fine.

I shower twice a day and I really do need it. The water is cold and I take a deep breath before I pour it over me using the water dipper.

It has rained most days since we have been here, usually passing showers that last for ½ hour or so several times each day. I keep my umbrella with me all the time.

I wash my clothes by hand every 3 or 4 days and hang them outside on a collapsible clothes rack. When I have to go to Malang to the high school I iron my outfit for the day. I explained to my host mother that many people in America do iron their clothes but that I am not one of them. She lets me go to the village looking a little wrinkled but on town days I iron.

The host families of the 5 trainees in my village take turns making us lunch. We walk to the house of the day and eat lunch together. It’s a fun time to learn about the other Peace Corps trainees and our Indonesian language instructor.

I drink sugar sweetened tea many times a day: when I first wake up, at breakfast, during coffee break, at lunch, when I return from school and often at dinner and just before bed. Some of the other volunteers are in “coffee” houses where coffee is served all the time. My ibu drinks tea. The words I use at every meal are: this is delicious and thank you, comma, enough and thank you, comma, later while I am patting my stomach. It’s impolite to say no in any form and especially no, thank you when someone is offering you food. I haven’t figured out a polite way to say I’m stuffed to the gills. My favorite food is whole shrimp dipped in batter and fried. You eat the tails and everything. We eat rice at every meal and ladle soup with vegetables and other stuff on top. The food gets cooked in the morning and we eat it throughout the day. When no one is eating it, it’s covered with a thing that looks like an upside down dish draining pan with holes in it.

My village is on a mountain side. I am half way up a mountain called Kawi and next to a mountain called Panderman. At the top of Kawi there is a special religious site that Indonesians visit at night. I hope it stops raining so I can get permission to go there. My group wants to go camping and the locals in charge have suggested that this would not be appropriate because there would be no one there who could cook our food and no bathroom facilities. You can’t go anywhere without permission. We are working on it.

And the answer for my classroom back in New Mexico is that yes, it is impolite to point your feet at someone but that only applies when you cross your leg when you are sitting. The women in our group were instructed to never cross our legs when we are in public, but we can cross our feet when we are sitting in a chair. It’s totally in bad taste to show the soles of your feet to someone. When we sit on the floor while eating at someone’s house the females are not allowed to cross our legs, we need to keep them together and bend our knees to one side. The first time I sat this way for an hour, my legs had fallen asleep and I wasn’t sure I could stand up.

Okay, that’s enough of all my random thoughts.


  1. Colleen -- It is such a delight to receive your updates. You make me feel like I am there with you. Thank you so much for including me in your list to receive your wonderful tales of adventures many of us wish we had the guts to go off and do ourselves. With fondness,
    Jeanne M

  2. Hello my fellow Peace Corp Volunteer. I hope this message finds you well. My name is Farfum Ladroma and I am an education volunteer in the Kingdom of Tonga in the South Pacific. I am writing to you all today because I need your help! My students and I at GPS MATAMAKA (an outer-island Government Primary School in Vava’u) are pursuing a “POSTCARD PROJECT.” I am asking for other PCVs outside of Tonga to please send us a postcard from your host country. We are trying to collect as many postcards from around the world, especially in countries where Peace Corps is currently operating. This project will help enhance my student’s understanding of other cultures and share what Peace Corps volunteers do all across the globe. I will keep a running list of all the postcards received with their origin on my blog at: You may check if your postcard successfully makes it to Tonga. This will be a great cultural exchange for everyone involved and a lot of fun. Please help out if you can and tell everyone you know (even your friends and families back home)! I would greatly appreciate your participation. Thank you very much and malo ‘aupito mei Tonga.
    Please send postcards to:
    c/o Peace Corps
    P.O. Box 136
    Neiafu, VAVA’U

    -Farfum (aka Feleti)