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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving Popcorn Surprise

Thanksgiving Eve

I ate my first cockroach yesterday. It was the day before Thanksgiving. I had skipped lunch and arrived home with a sealed bag of popcorn. I had to return to school in 2 hours so I decided to just lay on my bed and read a National Geographic and eat popcorn. As I was absent mindedly munching away I noticed a texture that wasn’t popcorn. I looked inside the popcorn bag. There was one half of a cockroach covered in ants. I spit the mouthful of chewed up popcorn and the other half of the cockroach into my hand, walked outside and threw it away. Then I washed my hand and took some bottled water in my mouth and rinsed it out several times. Then I ate one of the little packets of M&M’s peanuts Halloween candy that my grandchildren had sent me to fully get rid of the cockroach taste.

Then I took a mandi bucket bath and got dressed to return to school for “Reading of the Qur’an” to celebrate my school’s 15th birthday. Earlier in the day I had received an official letter from the Principal, with his official seal and his signature and my copy had my name on it, stating that this event would be from 4pm till 7pm. I arrived at 4pm and was the first person there. Around 4:15 the custodial staff arrived and I helped them sweep and pick up trash. Then I sat on the steps outside the room where the Principal and some men teachers were reading the Qur’an (in Arabic) into a microphone. At 5:00 some women teachers arrived so I followed them. They went to the covered picnic table area next to our canteen and began assembling snack boxes. First you fold the decorative cardboard box, then you line it with brown paper waxed on one side, then you add a measured scoop of about a cup of white rice, one piece of fried semi barbeque flavored chicken, one slice of cucumber, one lettuce leaf with a sprig of basil, add one 1” by 2” little plastic baggie of sambal hot sauce, cover with another piece of brown paper and put a crupik – (fish / shrimp paste homemade cracker) on top, close the box, put it into a plastic bag and knot it and stack them 3 high. All this is done by the women and children in an assembly line type fashion, but if you get bored with folding and inserting tabs to make boxes, you can scoop rice or add cucumbers or help at whatever stage in the process there seems to be a bottleneck or do whatever your friend is doing so you can be near her and gab. I think we made about 200 boxes. Then we went to an area under a big (150 feet by 50 ft.) tent that had outdoor carpeting. We took our shoes off so we could walk on the outdoor carpet and all the women sat together at the far end. The men who had begun the initial reading of the Qur’an arrived and were joined by more men. We each received a little pamphlet in Arabic and the official welcoming and recognizing everyone was beginning. I stayed for the first half hour but by then it was 7pm and I was hungry. I had thrown away the rest of the popcorn and cockroach snack, so I told the women next to me that I was going home. One other woman had already left with her small child. They jumped up and handed me one of the meal boxes and a snack box with 2 kinds of cake and sweet rice. I put them in my backpack and began the 20 minute walk in the dark to my home. I stopped and bought a piece of chicken that I like better than the barbeque kind, ate that, gave my two boxes to my Ibu-mama and went to sleep.

Thanksgiving Day

I woke up at 3am. That’s a little early, even for me. Usually I wait till I hear the loudspeaker prayers that begin around 3:30am. But I’ve got some itchiness and sometimes I wake up and can’t fall asleep. It’s either some bugs biting me or scabies, which is little mites that burrow into your skin and lay eggs. It’s their fecal matter that people are allergic to and you usually wake up at night with a big urge to scratch. Yesterday, before I ate the popcorn I had bought a can of bug spray and my plan was to fumigate my room today and seal it up for several hours. I called my sons and left a Happy Thanksgiving message on their cell phones. That’s one great thing about Indonesian time – 3 am is 3pm in Texas, or maybe Boston now that it’s daylight savings time. Any way I wasn’t sure which time zone my traveling children were in anyway. I sealed up the room, did the big bug spray thing and went to school dressed in my fanciest outfit.

Because, I know you shouldn’t start a new paragraph with “because.” But, I kind of like to be naughty… because today is a very special day at my school! I had been asked to sing a song for 1000 people! We were having a Happy 15th Birthday Party for my school.

When I arrived I said “Happy Thanksgiving” to all my teacher friends and lots of my student friends. I was given a schedule of events and there at 1:00pm, was Oma Colleen. Okay. We began at 7am with prayers by selected speakers then a full assembly reading of the Qur’an. Then a sweet little old man who looks like he’s in his 70’s, who has seen me before and is head of the birthday celebration committee started to speak. He loves to sprinkle English into his speech and referred to me maybe 5 or 6 times. Most of the time what he said about me wasn’t true. Example: “Oma says you must discipline.” Or “Oma says “Money is time.” Every time he used my name I nodded and smiled. When he was done and came back and sat directly in front of me I told him, “Thank you, very much.” I really do appreciate that he uses some English. He’s an inspiration to the students. The student groups singing religious songs for several hours were really great! When the mayor of our county started into his second half hour, I excused myself and went to the bathroom. I came back to join in the clapping when he was finished.

Then the student announcers were saying my name and something else. I glanced at my cell phone clock. It was only 10:30. They motioned me forward. I walked up on the 3 foot elevated stage with 10 microphones and the announcers left. The piano player who practiced twice with me during the week, started playing the music. And I said, in Indonesian to the students: “I need your help.” And it was clear I really did! I started on the stage but then took the microphone into the audience and all 579 of my students and the other 300 students who have heard us sing this song many times and the 50 teachers and the 50 – 100 honored guests all joined me in “It’s a Small World After All.” It was fun.

The students at my school have amazing talent. This past week we have had volley ball tournaments and soccer tournaments and art tournaments where student groups compete with turning trash into art work. We’ve also had Arabic singing tournaments and drama contests and rock groups. Our best groups did a karate- dance routine and ice chopping demo and played the best rock music in Indonesia. Kids were dancing by the stage. Then the teachers took over and sang love ballads to each other, which the kids loved. Our men teachers did a really good job with a drum / guitar number too. We finished the day by unveiling a banner proclaiming that our school has a new name! We are now the Something, Something, Something Beautiful Campus of the Madrasah National Islamic School in Wlingi. We had a birthday cake with candles and the principal blew them all out during an amazing rain / thunder storm that did NOT knock the power out. I counted 22 speakers about 4 feet high. When I say, we PARTY, we party LOUD. My school is adjacent to rail road tracks and I have to tell you that we were LOTS louder than the train today.

At 2pm it was raining so hard the teacher in charge went up on stage and said we should call it quits. I ran back to the teacher lounge, put on my poncho, and walked the 20 minutes home in the rain. Inside my room the kill was good – dead flies, mosquitoes and a few of my less than tasty friends. I ate another bag of popcorn because once again I didn’t get any lunch. First I poured it into a Tupperware bowl that my Returned Peace Corps Volunteer daughter had said would be a good thing to bring with me to Indonesia. She was right. I could clearly see there were no cockroaches in this batch. I ate it all and now I’m waiting for my Thanksgiving Dinner.

I just got some texts from my fellow PC buddies.
Gio: “Well, eating thanksgiving dinner alone officially sucks! :- / How’d everyone elses day go? I want turkey and family…def going out 2 buy ice cream tonight!
Erika: Happy Thanksgiving guys. If you pretend REALLY hard, you can make your rice taste like turkey! No, really, try it:)

For the record, I had fried rice, a fried egg, lettuce leaves, tomato slice and semi pickled / fermented cucumber chunks. I ate alone, like I usually do. I pictured my family sitting in the 5 other chairs around the table with me and I tried to make the rice taste like turkey. I thought about the things that I’m grateful for: having a family, even if they are far away; having food to eat; having a place to sleep and having good friends who understand that we gave up a lot to come here.

On Saturday I am going to go to the US Consul General’s home 6 hours away and eat a turkey dinner with Americans, spend the night at the Peace Corps hotel, which may be where I picked up the crawling/burrowing bugs, then return to my site. I’m grateful I have this life in Indonesia.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Pink mushrooms

This morning for breakfast I had soup with pink mushrooms, carrot slices, green leaves and stems (maybe cassava) cauliflower and garlic. And I had white rice (of course) and deep fried shrimp with tails but no heads or eyes or antennas. Plus I had juice. Maybe it was an orange juice, guava juice combo.

What I’ve realized is that the varieties of food are different everywhere. Don’t know why it took me so long to figure out why peanuts don’t exactly taste like peanuts. Whatever variety of peanuts we have in the US are different from the kind that grows here. These are smaller and taste a little bit like soy nuts. The word for peanut is the same as the word for seed and nut. So I think I remember what peanuts and soy nuts taste like and I think these are peanuts with a soy taste, but they may be soy nuts with a peanut taste.

The mushrooms here are amazing. They are lacy and big and yummy. Today was the first time I had pink ones.

Meals are always a surprise. I enjoy lifting up the fly cover – a large plastic bowl – net and seeing what is under there. That’s what I will eat for the day. Many Peace Corps assignments include an individual house or room where the volunteer gets to fix her or his own food. Here in Indonesia, we are assigned to live with families who fix our food.

My daughter sent me some of my favorite herbal tea from America. In many ways I am a like a helpless baby. I have been forbidden to turn on the stove. The reason is that there were many stoves that were exploding in Indonesia and my family doesn’t trust me to turn it on. I think I’ll make sun tea – just put the tea bag in a water bottle and leave it in the sun. The advantage of not fixing my own food is that I have more time for other things and I eat less. The disadvantage is that it’s just another little aspect of life that I have no control over.

That’s the challenge of Peace Corps – accepting the things you cannot change and changing the things you can. I pick what I want to change carefully. Usually it begins with changing my own mind. This is a lot harder than it sounds.

Here’s your assignment for the day. Pick anything. Then change your mind about how you think about it.

Welcome to my life.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Animal Sacrifice

I will share my Experience first, and then give my Commentary later.

Today I watched a cow and 4 goats get slaughtered. The Arabic name is Qurban. According to the Qur’an the animal to be slaughtered could be a cow, a camel, a sheep or a goat.

When I arrived at school there was a big black cow tied to a tree at the edge of the flag ceremony field. I watched as a motorcycle arrived with a 3 foot by 3 foot platform on top of the rear part of the seat. This is a standard way to make a “truck like motorcycle” in Indonesia. 2 goats were sitting on the back with their feet tied. The motorcycle driver lifted each goat off and tied them to other trees near the cow.

The goats and cow were in great shape. I was told that this is a part of the ritual. The animals had no blemishes. They were big and fat and well groomed with perfect hair, no poop on them, fresh out of the bath. The students milling around commented on how big the cow was and also that it was black. They said this with wide eyes, “Oma, it is big and black.”

At 7:00 all the students were assembled on the flag ceremony field. A man who is not a teacher was telling the other men how to dig a hole near the cow. They made a depression in the dirt about a foot across and 6 inches deep. The tree that the cow was attached to had a post about 10 feet away and there was a cross beam about 5 feet off the ground.

One of the teachers called the assembly to order. The students were all standing in rows behind the male members of each class. Each class representative yelled at his class to make them stand straight then in unison they all saluted the teacher. This is the same formation they use every other Monday when we have a school wide flag ceremony.

The motorcycle arrived again with 2 more goats on the back. The students cheered. I was standing about 5 feet away from the animals in a row with the other teachers. As the goat delivery man was taking the goats to tie them to the next trees in the line, two of the goats tried to have sex. The students started laughing. The teachers ran up and pulled the goats apart and the teachers shook their heads. The goats were tied in a row about 3 feet away from each other. They were eating some grass while the teacher on the platform in front of the students made a short speech with a microphone.

The man in charge directed two of his helpers to rope the cow’s feet and pull them sideways underneath the cow so that the cow was now lying on its side. The helpers pulled the cow so that the rope around its neck was still attached to the tree and its body was pulled out so that its neck was over the hole that had been dug. A board was put under the cows head. The men began to stretch the cow’s neck adjusting the ropes so that there was about a 6 inch place between the rope that was being pulled to the front and the rope that was being pulled to the back. The teacher leading the ceremony began chanting and all 900 students and teachers were repeating “Allah akbar.” (God is great.) The man directing the stretching of the cow took a foot long knife and cut the cow’s throat. He put a sack in front of the cut so that the blood wouldn’t squirt on to the teachers. The blood began flowing into the hole in the ground. I watched as the heart continued to pump the blood out of the cow. I was standing 5 feet away from the dying cow.

Even when the head was severed almost all the way off, the cow still continued to jerk sometimes violently for about 15 minutes after its throat had been severed. I could see the cow’s windpipe had been cut in two. The cow didn’t make a sound other than thrashing around.

While the cow was still bleeding and thrashing and the crowd was chanting “Allah akbar,” the man teacher who sits next to me in the teacher room walked up to the first goat in the line. The helpers grabbed its legs and head and pulled it so that its neck was exposed. They lifted the goats head from the ground and put the board under it, next to the deeper hole that had been dug. My teacher friend took the big knife and cut the first goat’s throat. It bled out in about 3 minutes. The men threw the goat to the side and the 2nd goat was brought over to the blood hole. They held its legs and head so that it’s neck was over the blood hole and put the board under its head and my teacher friend cut the neck of the 2nd goat. The dead 2nd goat was thrown on top of the fist goat. The cow’s legs were still jerking. The two remaining goats were still eating grass. The students and teachers were still chanting being led by the teacher with the microphone.

The last 2 goats were killed the same way and their bodies thrown on top of the goat pile. When all the animals were dead, or at least the blood was only slowly trickling out of them, the assembly was dismissed and I walked back to the teacher room.

In front of the school office a large plastic tarp had been spread out with a table and black plastics bags with our school name on them. The names of the 4 teachers who had paid for the goats were listed on a large paper.

A man was carrying a hatchet over to the goat and cow kill area. The animals were being skinned. The men used the hatchet to cut up the animals. All the bones and the heads were cut apart. Some of the meat was hanging from the cross beam and some of it was on a tarp on the ground.

As the meat was cut it was put in a wheelbarrow and taken over to the table where female teachers and students cut it into approximately 4 inch cubes and put them into plastic bags and tied them shut. I had read that 1/3 of the meat goes to the family who paid for the animal, 1/3 goes to their community and friends and 1/3 goes to the poor. In class the day before vouchers had been handed out to some of the students. I saw that there were some parents who had the vouchers and were waiting near the final meat cutting and bagging area. They were smiling as they took home 2 bags of meat for each voucher.

It took several hours for all the meat to be cut and bagged. Teachers and students took their shoes and socks off and walked barefoot on the tarp while they cut and distributed the meat into different piles. During that time there were competitions in each classroom for middle school students who had been invited to our school and for our own best high school students who were competing with other Madrasahs (Islamic high schools) in my county. It was called an Olympiad.

Several hours later, I walked into the teacher room and saw that there were 2 bags of meat on my desk.

The Reflection
Repeat of the standard Peace Corps disclaimer – My thoughts are mine alone. I am quite sure that every Peace Corps person would have a different reaction to this day. I don’t intend to offend Muslims, Christians, Jews, Indonesians, or any one else. These are just my own thoughts. I love Indonesia and I’m glad I had the chance to see this Idul Adha day up close and personal.

As I was watching all this all I could think about was how Abraham was ready to do this to his own son. What kind of a God asks someone to cut the throat of their child and then at the last minutes says, forget it, you showed you were willing, now here’s a ram caught in the bushes for you to sacrifice instead. Christians, Muslims, and Jews – we all have this God! The idea of anyone, God included, asking you to do this to your only son, seems unfathomable to me. I know the New Testament God is the God of love, and killing is regulated so that you don’t do this to your relatives, but this experience woke up some part of my being that had been sleep walking in this life time.

I thought of the Aztecs cutting out the beating hearts of people. I thought about hunters cutting open animals they had killed. I’ve never actually watched something get killed. It was brutal. It took a long time for the animal to die. I suppose it was “merciful” in that it was done fast so they didn’t suffer as much. But it’s not quick. It was hard for me to see the difference between, now it is dying and now it is dead. I wanted to know, I wanted my mind to say, now this is no longer an animal. Now it is food. But I couldn’t draw the line clearly.

The chanting while all this was happening felt strange. I usually join in the Arabic prayers. I couldn’t this time. It was just too much. The people screaming, “God is great” when the animal should be screaming just didn’t seem right. The silence of the animals while they were dying was difficult. They were so compliant. I suppose they had no choice and the men were very efficient at getting them in the right positions but I wanted them to run away or cry out and of course they didn’t.

I was watching the sacrifice and the people around me and trying to distance myself from the voice in my head, but the voice was very loud. All animals that I eat have to be killed. Killing is brutal. For the first time in my life I had a gut level reaction in solidarity with vegetarians and Buddhists.

I took the meat home and I have eaten meat since I watched this animal sacrifice. I’m not a vegetarian. But I’m not a blind meat eater anymore. What we do to each other in the name of food, or religion or survival! May God have mercy on us! I’m glad I’ve joined the Peace Corps. I wonder what the world would be like if we really lived from the concept of Peace. Can anything live without killing something else? Even the bacteria kill each other.

This day of animal sacrifice has spawned a lot of questions and not many answers.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

I speak with President Obama

The night before the event we met with Robb, our contact person from the American Embassy. He was explaining to us that there would be a lot of waiting around, that we would travel in an Embassy bus and that we should address Michelle Obama as Mrs. Obama. He got a text message and said, please excuse me. He walked outside the room. The next day, when we were waiting for the bus after we had met with the President and listened to his speech, he told us that this message caught him off guard It said that the FLOTUS (First Lady of the United States) would not meet with the Peace Corps volunteers. He said his heart sank. But the message continued – The POTUS (Pres. Of the United States) wants to meet the volunteers. That night he made the decision not to tell us in advance.

On Nov 10th I woke up at 3:50am, recalled a dream about a person who died and then went back to the barbeque he had attended before his death and got to speak to everyone there and then came back again and again until finally his wife said, you don’t need to come back again. I’m writing all these random things into this account because I just want to give my grandchildren a little taste of what my life was like for one very important day. I took a shower and listened to the mosque prayers that began at 4:10.
Gio, my friend and fellow Peace Corps volunteer was my roommate and my fashion consultant and had figured out exactly what I should wear. I got dressed in my best batik (made in Indonesia) shirt, black dress pants, my Michelle Obama golden brown shoes (which I had bought in Salt Lake City because I suspected we were going to meet Mrs. Obama – they had told us to bring closed toe dress shoes.) This was the first time in Indonesia that I had worn panty hose. I put makeup on and fixed my hair in a long braid. I wore my gold necklace, a bead necklace, and earrings. The whole time I was getting dressed I was thinking – I want my granddaughter to have these beads and my grandson to get my ID badge and I need something for the one new grandbaby on the way and maybe I’ll get lucky and get another one, so I need to wear enough stuff so that I can share it later with all my grandchildren.

Gio was brushing the mold off her shoes. Downstairs at breakfast several of the other volunteers read the notes I was keeping and they told me that Travis, Scott and Truong all wiped the mold off their shoes too.

AT 4:50 we checked out of our rooms and left our bags in Betsy’s room – she’s the assistant country director and had extended her check out time so we’d have a place to keep our luggage and a place to change when we returned.

The hotel had breakfast ready for us at 5:00. The thing I remember most about this breakfast was there were tater tots, real American tasting tater tots and cereal and a yogurt drink that was so delicious. For so long breakfast has been rice, fried rice, some vegetables and protein like a piece of fried chicken or some beef - it’s just fun to eat something different like cereal.

Then we boarded the Embassy bus. There were 18 volunteers, Ken, the Peace Corps country director for Indonesia and Robb, the Embassy person who has been co-coordinating this adventure since it started in March. President and Mrs. Obama had requested meeting us in March when they were originally scheduled to come to Indonesia, but it got rescheduled for June and then again for November.

On the trip to University of Indonesia, Jakarta, we passed many trains with people sitting on top of the train. I was later told this is a common way to travel because you don’t have to have a ticket to sit on top of a train, but it’s pretty dangerous.

We also passed lots of cows, buffalos and goats for sale. Next week is Idul Adha to commemorate the time when Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son and when he raised the knife, God sent him an animal in the bushes instead. Abraham is one of the prophets that Muslims recognize and so is Jesus. They believe that Mohammad was the last prophet of God. Many Muslims kill a sacrificial animal and then cook the meat and distribute it to the poor for this holiday. Some of my fellow Peace Corps volunteers have seen pictures of the slaughter at their school last year. I asked at my school and I was told that we will kill one cow and 4 goats on Thursday by slicing their throats. Wow!

On the bus we are each given a ticket to the event. Mine is marked as number 4511. We were told that 6000 people had been given tickets. The ticket said “November 10, 2010 Speech by the President of the United States, Barack Obama University of Indonesia, Depok Campus Depok 16424 – Indonesia gates open at 6:00 a.m. Please limit personal items. For security reasons, do not bring bags. Signs, banners and umbrellas are not permitted. This ticket is free and not for sale. We request that you arrive by bus with your group, or that you come on foot. Individual vehicles cannot be accommodated."

The badge around my neck has the Peace Corps symbol – an American flag with the stars turning into doves and my name – Colleen Young, Tijeras, NM.

As we near the University I see lots more police men with rifles. There is a sign that says Salamat Datang (Welcome) and a picture of President Obama.

In the bus next to us there are young people who look like University students. One of them holds his ticket up to the window of his bus and we show him ours. We all smile. The placard on his bus says “Invited Bus.” It has a picture of American and Indonesian flags.

When we get to the University all the traffic stops so that the police can slide a dolly with a large mirror under every vehicle to check for bombs. This is also what happens when you arrive at any shopping mall in a private vehicle. Your car gets the undercarriage checked for explosives.

We are driven down a winding avenue with palm trees planted every 300 feet. We go past a lake with a park around the edge and what looks to be a natural jungle area. All the traffic is going one way to a drop off place in front of a big building.

We get out of the bus and put our cell phones, cameras, passports, and tickets on the luggage examination machine and walk through the airport type security detectors and women are directed to women police people and men are directed to men police people and every single person is wanded and patted down by a guard. Some people are given a stamp on their hand. We are escorted to a different place to stand.

A man comes up to our Embassy escort person, Robb, and asks him if he personally know every one of us. Robb says yes. I remember back to last night and how he knew all kinds of things about us. He knew that I was from New Mexico originally and had lived in Utah. He told me that he recognized us from our pictures. I think he knew that he was going to be asked that question and made a point of knowing each of us personally. We were escorted past people who are waiting and follow our guide into the secure area. About 50 feet from the main auditorium where President Obama will speak there was a tent set up with a sign – Peace Corps Event Tent.

We went inside and there was a flag of the United States on one side and a flag of Indonesia on the other in front of some potted plants. The banner over head read
Peace Corps - A new partnership between the American and Indonesia people. And a picture of the American flag flowing into the Indonesia flag. The tent was 17 feet by 35 feet, Noel paced it off and it had an air conditioner!

Some of us girls go use the restroom and we get to talking about the American secret service people that we’ve seen. This is a direct quote from Gio concerning what she thought she should say to the security guards. “I haven’t seen a man as fine as you in 8 months.”

Nisha shows me her 4 inch heels which she bought in a record tracking 10 minute shopping spree. Even with her heels on she’s still the shortest. She says, “No Angela is the shortest.”

Diana, Gio and Bart are all wearing their school uniform batik shirts. Oh no, Gio has a wardrobe malfunction and has to fix the safety pin that is holding the front of her shirt together.

We waited in the tent for several hours as the auditorium filled up with guests.

In the tent with us was the woman from the White house, Deliah Jackson, who was our contact person, Robb from the Embassy and Ken Puvak, our Peace Corps country director and the 18 volunteers.

We sit on the indoor/outdoor carpeting and play 20 questions to pass the time. Travis starts with a sports figure. We don’t guess him. It turns out to be Lance Armstrong. The others are Santa Claus, Robb and Pa Habib, our contact person from the University of Mohammadia in Malang. Then we guess state animals. Michigan is the white tailed deer. No one knows the New Mexico state question even though I give them a hint and tell them that it’s about colors. The state question is “Red or Green?” and it referrers to what kind of chili you want on your meal. Sarah tells us that the population of Hawaii used to me much greater than it is now, that the Mori people wiped out the pacifist Mori-ori people. (I don’t know if I got all that right.) Then we talk about our best Christmas gifts ever. Andrea says hers was a Barbie Power Wheels jeep and it still runs, they recently painted it green and turned it into a John Deere for her little cousin.

Robb and Deliah have us try several configurations before she settles on the boys and tall volunteers standing on the risers in the back and the short volunteers in the front – we practiced how we would each shake the “Principals” hand. We were still anticipating meeting Mrs. Obama. At this point Deliah and Robb start referring to the “Principal” like when the “Principal” walks in, how to file out so that we all shake the “Principal” hand etc.

Robb had said that the White House requested meeting the Peace Corps volunteers and they could be accompanied by one person from the Peace Corps staff and that he wasn’t sure he would be allowed to remain in the tent when the Principal came. Betsy, our assistant country director and Wawan, our security director were not allowed to come with us on the bus. They told us that many events were cut out of the program but that the White House had insisted that it wanted to keep this meeting with our first group of Peace Corps volunteers in Indonesia in 45 years.

Occasionally a man with a curly wire going into his ear and a microphone opens the tent door and peeks inside. We are all standing exactly as we should be - ready for the picture with Michelle Obama. Someone says “I want his job.”

Then they said to be ready, it was “imminent,” the tent door flapped a little and I could see Pres. Obama outside. When he walked in, I was still anticipating meeting with Mrs. Obama. He had on a blue suit and a blue tie.

He said. “What a good looking group.” I like your batik (the native Indonesian cloth that all our shirts were made from.) He said. We’re really happy that you’re here. It’s really important what you are doing in Indonesia. I’m very proud of the work that you are doing. He then stepped into the space that we had left and his official photographer took several pictures. When the photo session was finished he turned and reached out his hand to the first person on the right and asked “What is your name and where are you from?” We each said our name and the state where we were from. Lukas said he was from Chicago and Obama asked him where in Chicago. President Obama is tall and I had to look up to look him in the eye, even though I was on a 6 inch riser. I said I was from the National Forest in New Mexico and he asked me if I was a forestry volunteer. I said, “No, I’m an English teacher.” He reached out and took each one of our hands as we told him our names. He skipped over Noel who was standing next to me and came back to her last – very sharp – not just going up and down the rows in order but shipping around a bit and not missing any one of us. He spoke a little more – He asked “How’s your Bahasa Indonesia?” We all answered with the Bahasa word for “good” and he understood. Then he walked up to Ken and Ken introduced himself as the country director and the President said, “Why weren’t you in the photo?” And then he came back to the group and invited Ken to stand with us and we took another photo with our Peace Corps country director and President Obama in the picture.

Obama told us that most Americans don’t know about Indonesia and what we tell them is important. That aspect of our service is an important part of our mission here. Then he asked if we all were teachers. Then President Obama said “Thank you for coming to Indonesia.” And all of us responded, “Thank You!” Then he turned and walked out of the tent. He had spent about 10 or 15 minutes with us exclusively.

Then we filed out of the tent and walked to our reserved seats. We were in the first three rows on the left about 50 feet away from the President. I sat on the first row to the left of the stage where Obama spoke.

The first words the President said were in Arabic “Assalamu alaikum.” The Islamic greeting. The audience loved it! He said "When I first came to this country; I felt that I was coming to a different world." He was a grade school student and lived in Jakarta for 3 years. He said that he remembered the men and women who made a foreign child feel like a friend. Back then the buildings were just a few stories tall and the beceks (bicycle vehicles with 2 passengers in a seat in front) and bemos (little mini vans for public transport) outnumbered cars. "I remember my house had a mango tree in front and I would fly kites and catch dragon flies." He talked about the common humanity of all people. His step father was a native Indonesian and had been raised a Muslim. He talked about the respect for all religions that is fostered in Indonesia. He talked about his little sister who was born here. His mother retired and kept retuning for 20 years to Indonesia. He was honored that the President of Indonesia had presented an award in her honor. He said he never anticipated that he would return to Jakarta as the President of the United States. He said that he used to run in fields with water buffalos and goats.

He mentioned that his step father watched his own brother die in the fight for Indonesian independence. He said that his step father was in the Indonesian army and there was a reluctance to speak about issues, but now Indonesia is a democracy and there is no turning back from democracy and its spirit of tolerance. He said in Indonesian “the unity of Indonesia" and the audience cheered. He spoke of the deep enduring partnership between Indonesia and the United States, a partnership of equals. He talked about the battle for Surabaya – 55 years ago today. He talked about the trust ensuring that children were treated equally whether they were from Ache or Java.

He spoke about Development and that we have an interest in each others success.

He spoke about religion and said, "It is a fundamental steeped in spirituality." He said that he wanted to repair Muslim relations around the world. He said no single speech can eradicate mistrust. There were planes overhead. The president said that America is not and never will be at war with Islam. That we have a shared interest in building peace in a war torn world. He spoke about Iraq and Afghanistan and said that the stakes are high in resolving these issues. He said that one whispered rumor can obscure the truth. He referred to Pagasila, the 5 points of Indonesian democracy. He said that in Indonesia, Islam flourishes, but so do other faiths. He said that he was a Christian and that he visited the Mosque in Jakarta that had been designed by a Christian architect. He said that the spark of the divine lives within all of us. Unity was more powerful than division.

I listened to the President talk about Development, Democracy and Religion. I think it was a good speech, not controversial, mainly stressing our mutual interests with Indonesia. Every time he said a word or a phrase in Bahasa Indonesia – and he did that about 8 times, the crowd went wild with clapping. It seemed to me that the audience responded best when he talked about bakso and sate – two Indonesian foods that he recalled fondly.

I later heard that his 3rd grade teacher in Jakarta had said that the first year he didn’t speak Indonesian, the second year he spoke it well and the third year he was living in Indonesia he had mastered it. The person who told me this was trying to encourage me to think that I might get better too.

I don’t think Obama has been back to Indonesia since he was a child. He mentioned that the Sarinah shopping center was the tallest building in Jakarta back then. Now there are huge buildings.

While the President was speaking there were men who only looked at the audience. They all had the curly wires in their ears and walkie talkies with mouthpieces.

At the end of his speech, the President walked off the stage and went into the crowd to shake hands with the people in the rows directly in front of him. We were on the front row off to the side behind the pillars. All the faces I could see in the audience directly in front of him were Indonesian.

After the president left, the audience stayed in their seats for several minutes. I assumed that the President was leaving in his helicopter. Then they let the audience leave. When we were outside waiting for our bus, Robb got all of us a President Obama T shirt. It has his picture on it and says "Welcome back Mas (Brother) Obama to Remarkable Indonesia."

When the bus returned us to our hotel, we all changed out our formal clothes and then most of us headed to the 10 minutes away Sarinah shopping center that Obama had mentioned. One last splurge for Burger King. Ah, big city life! A few hours of freedom, then we’re back on the bus for the trip to the airport, back to our Peace Corps hotel in Surabaya and then leaving the next day, returning to our sites.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Tears in my throat

I haven’t written a real blog in a long time.

I want to be upbeat and insightful and contribute something to my little corner of the internet. The truth is that I’m having a hard time keeping the tears out of my throat. Life inside my skin is difficult right now.

And I can’t really point to the reason why.

It may be a part of the Peace Corps process.

Sadness is a part of it. I miss my family. I had no idea that not being present for my son’s wedding and now fully expecting that I will miss the birth of my grandchild would have such an impact.

And a level of worry has crept into my life. I thought by now that I would understand more about what is going on around me. I don’t. There are 5 additional people living in my house. The food is more erratic – my ibu-mama has been sick for the past week and has stopped cooking.

The week prior to that, I was sick and spent the time in bed and in the bathroom letting the food poisoning pass through me. I think food contamination is a better word, it doesn’t sound so ominous. The unofficial count was that 14 of the 18 volunteers experienced some form of it.

I got a letter from Peace Corps saying that no volunteer lives within 40km of the active volcano outside my window. Google earth and my maps tell me something different. I have no idea of the ramifications of that.

I no longer have my daily morning coffee support group. I don’t go to yoga. And my usual hour long meditation session on the Ipod broke the first week I was here.

This is the point where I reach into my soul and say, “You gave your word, you said you’d stay for 27 months, the path is just rocky right now, just keep walking.” I stubbed my toe the other day and the blood keeps soaking through the band aids. It’s a metaphor and a reality.

On the plus side:
I’ve become incredibly competent at my job. I love being a teacher. This past week I taught:
“Narrative text” based on a picture story from a Highlights magazine and pantomime to 5 different classes.
“Relief, pain, pleasure and request” using a set of cardboard sentences that I built into a game that the kids loved to 5 classes.
“Analytical exposition” to 2 classes where I simplified it into a lesson where the students wrote why TV is good and why TV is bad.
“Advertisement” lesson to 1 class – assisting the student teacher and making it fun for the kids
“Announcements and blurbs” to l class – assisting the student teacher with this one too.
And 1 other class where the student teacher passed out an incredibly complex story about “a buffalo, a tiger and a farmer” and I drew pictures on the board so that the students could follow along even though the vocabulary was beyond their comprehension.

And I taught a class on “English in the classroom” to the teachers and got them laughing and making up creative sentences.

I can take an incredibly complex piece of the curriculum and figure out what is essential and turn it into an adventure that the students and teachers and I all enjoy.

And I’m pleased that the Peace Corps Indonesia volunteers get to meet with President and Mrs. Obama this week.

I have lots of wonderful, surface level relationships with people who care about me.

Yet, I feel like I’m bobbing on the ocean. I have given up “home” – that place where people know who you are, where you go to rest and nourish yourself.

My optimistic spirit says that in all this painful birth giving process there’s got to baby somewhere. I think it exists on some level of my soul that I haven’t reached yet. I’m willing to keep going. But it doesn’t look pretty sometimes with tears in my throat and goo dripping out of my nose.