I was sitting on the steps of the masjid (mosque) with the girls who were excused from prayers because of menstruation. The 50 or so girls were gathered around and the religion teacher who always smiles was letting the girls speak quietly with me. Usually they need to be silent while the others are praying. Linda knows a lot of English so she was helping her friends who were shy. A girl named Happy was sitting next to me, gently stroking my arm and asked me:
Why do Americans have spots?
I looked at my arm and sure enough, there were spots all over. I explained that not all Americans have spots, but that I did because I was old. Now I am wondering. Was she asking about freckles?
I’m trying to retrain my brain to distinguish faces. All the girls at my school are covered from head to foot, no ankles showing. And they are all dressed the same with identical uniforms and jilbabs, all you see are their faces and hands. They are all short with sweet round faces and big brown eyes and smooth creamy latte colored skin. And there are about 600 girls and 150 boys. They boys look and behave different. I can see their ears and necks and hair. There are a lot more visual clues to distinguish them. I have to concentrate harder with the girls. And people in Indonesia have multiple names: their legal name on the school roster, the name they usually use, which is often a few syllables out of their long name, and the nickname that the other kids give them. There are no last names, but often people have 2 or 3 multi syllable names (5-10 sounds to remember for each person.)
The girls have started coming up to me and taking my hand and pressing it to their cheek or forehead as a sign of respect. As I’m walking around town kids on motorcycles will call out “Oma!” That’s my name here. At my training village, my family called me that and it just fits. It’s the Dutch word for “grandma.” All the Indonesians and lots of the Americans call me that now. I introduce myself as “Oma Colleen. Please call me Oma.” I like being a grandma and it’s an easy name for people to remember.
In my village which has about 4000 high school kids enrolled in several high schools there are no other foreigners. I asked. There was a man who used to come from an hour away and visit occasionally but he left a year ago. One word that people ask me all the time is: Sendiri? Alone? I get offered rides on motor bikes every day. It’s difficult for Indonesians to understand that Peace Corps volunteers are not allowed to even sit on a motorcycle. I explain that if I sit down on one and someone takes a photo that I will be sent home to America. The idea that I walk alone is so strange to them.
My family is wonderful. Their daughter spent some time in America and she gave her mom some Coke Zero so every lunch I get 3 ounces of Coke Zero with ice! For breakfast this morning I had sardines in tomato sauce, white rice, cassava leaves and carrot soup, fried shrimp (I think – they have lots of legs and antennas and little bodies, maybe they are some kind of crawdad/shrimp) and 2 kinds of bananas..
It rains almost every day. Just before it pours it gets really hot and humid. My body is readjusting to this new level of heat. Three months ago the initial heat rash went away without much intervention. These new spots on my back, neck and legs are just wave two. I read the Peace Corps medical manual and it recommends keeping the skin cool and dry, bathing with mild soap, wearing light weight loose fitting cotton clothing and avoiding sitting on plastic or vinyl and drinking plenty of water and don’t scratch. Okay, Dr. Lyn, I’m doing all the appropriate things.
Why do Americans have spots? Why do people sweat and get old? Why are the children in Indonesia so charming? Why would a little teenage girl sit next to met and think I know the answers to life's questions?