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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Snowflakes and Mecca

This blog is really about two different things –making paper snow flakes and visiting the homes of people who have been to Mecca.


At my school, and I think it’s the standard practice at all schools, the students must pay to take the semester exams. The ones who don’t have the money are given a paper waiver and their parents must pay next week or they won’t get their report cards. Each student is assigned a test number. All the classrooms become test rooms and every desk has a paper glued to it saying which student is assigned to that seat. All my student desks are small tables with a shelf a big as a drawer underneath. Two students sit at each desk in wooden chairs. Each desk has two students but they are in different grades. For example all grade 10 students would be on the right side of each desk and all grade 11 students would be on the left side of each desk. This is done so students can’t look at the paper of the person next to them and copy their work.

I saw a list of teachers authorized to give the exams and grade the papers. My name was not on the list, so I am not allowed to “proctor” an exam by myself. I go with different teachers and help them by making sure each student has the correct test, fill in the dot type answer sheet and scrap paper. All Math tests are given at one time. All English tests are given at a different time and the time is specified on the corner of the national test. However the bells at my school are handled by various different people so we approximate the national schedule.

I walk into the classroom, make sure the students begin with a 3 or 4 minute long Arabic prayer, which I have been practicing saying with them, then we hand out the papers and every student has to sign their name on an official form showing that they are present for the exam. The teacher signs this same paper on 2 places.

Then the adventure begins. Generally the students are quiet for the first 45 minutes or so. Some of the exams are for 90 minutes, others are 2 hours. The tests are hard. The English one had massive amounts of vocabulary that we hadn’t covered in class. One teacher told me, “Actually, Oma, the students are forbidden to cheat.” That’s the dilemma.

Some teachers read magazines during the test. Others send text messages on their cell phones. As the week progresses, some of them use the time to enter grades onto various different forms. I made up my mind that I would occupy my time by cutting out paper snowflakes. I cut them out of scrap paper and tape them to the windows of the classroom where I am assisting. I walk around the class and sometimes that is a deterrent to the cheating. I let the teacher in charge make the decision about what she will tolerate in that classroom. Sometimes it’s painful for me to witness the amount of what our western morals would call “dishonesty.” But I personally know that I can’t change any one’s morals and it appears to me that helping your neighbor is a cultural norm here in Indonesia. Some teachers are more lenient than others. Some classes are more blatant than others. Sometimes it’s so noisy as the students ask each other questions, that the students themselves are trying to shush the talkers. Sometimes they are fairly well behaved for the majority of the test period. Sometimes it feels like a group effort is happening right in front of me and it’s all I can do to concentrate on my own task at hand.

The students are fascinated with paper snowflakes. They watch me cut them out and tape them to the windows and sometimes hold out their hands asking for them. My thought is that the first people who hand in their tests early are generally not cheating as much as the ones who wait. I give snowflakes to the individual students who turn in their papers early. When the test is done I teach every one who wants to learn, how to fold and cut them. I always bring 2 pairs of scissors and sometimes my fellow teacher will make a few.

During an average test I make approximately 50 snowflakes. I’ve gotten pretty fast. So there are now paper snowflakes decorating the windows of various classrooms and the teacher room at my school. I also put them all over my mirror in my bedroom. It’s the only Christmas decoration I have.

Christmas is not big in my city. Where I live the people are mostly Muslim. The only other sign of Christmas is a Christmas tree with lights in my church and red, green and orange (?) crepe paper hanging from the rafters. There may be Christmas trees in other churches, I don’t know. Last Sunday we sang Indonesian words about Bethlehem and the birth of the child of Allah to the tune of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.

Next week, for Christmas, I will go to the regional capital and meet up with the other volunteers. There are 16 volunteers who will be together – 2 of us have visitors from the states and won’t be joining the group. We’re playing the gift exchange game – a traditional favorite with my family, where each person brings a gift and you pick one wrapped gift but can exchange it for an already opened gift if you want. The game gets pretty lively as people swap and trade (sometimes reluctantly) for various gifts.

Then in the evening we’ll have Christmas dinner at the home of our assistant country director. That’s really nice of Betsy. She and Joyce, the financial officer are hosting a big PC volunteer party and then inviting all the staff for desert. It’s really great to be a part of this first Peace Corps group in Indonesia!

On Dec 26th, I’ll return to my site for a day, and then go to a 3 day overnight English camp at my sister Madrasah (Islamic High School) where Angela teaches. The students and teachers at my school have been preparing stories and drama and poems and songs that they will perform at the English camp. Then Angela and I will go to spend vacation time over New Year’s on the island of Lombok, which is supposed to be like what Bali was 30 years ago. We’ll meet up with 5 other PC Volunteers for the first 3 days.

The only other Christmas item I have is an electronic advent calendar that my friends Corky and Kathy sent me from Salt Lake City. Every day I get to click on a different part of the winter scene and some Christmas music plays and I watch a little skit about Christmas in a rural village. Many times I have taken my computer to school and let the teachers “play” with the advent calendar. They like to click on the presents and pick out the wrapping paper. But they do not understand why there are so many dogs in the scene. Muslims are forbidden to have dogs and generally people avoid the few dogs that are around. If there is a dog on my street, everyone I greet will warn me, “There’s a dog up ahead.”

So Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! I don’t want to carry my computer around with me and I don’t know if I’ll be able to access the internet for the next few weeks.


On a totally non related topic, I had a very interesting Thursday. A notice was written on the teacher white board that something would be happening at 11:00. We were all told to come to school early so we could get the testing done early so we go to the “haji” celebrations. When ever I asked what it was all about I couldn’t get a clear answer, something about visiting people and Mecca. I told people I wanted to go but I was concerned that I can’t ride a motorcycle (Peace Corps rules) and people told me that the places were too far to walk. Three different English speaking teachers told me that maybe I would be tired and go home. I walked out of the teacher room feeling pretty sad. I really did want to participate. Outside was a rental van and many of the teachers were getting into it. I walked up to the group and they told me there wasn’t any room. I asked if it was because I was Christian and they said “Never mind.” This is the usual translation of literally, “No what what.” and it can also mean, “No problem.” One teacher suggested I ask the vice principal for a ride in his car. Now, when I’ve been politely informed several times that the answer is “No” I generally stop asking, but I really did want to go so I asked for the fifth time and he was glad to let me come! Other people piled in his car and we headed off for a 6 hour adventure. It began to dawn on me that the teachers were trying to give me an excuse if I didn’t want to come. The “Oh, Oma, I think you will be too tired.” Was their way of saying that if they were my age, they would be too tired and would want a good reason to stay at home.

But what a cultural trip! We stopped at 6 different houses where teachers or parents of teachers or committee member at our school had just returned from the mandatory pilgrimage to Mecca. As we approached each house, men went one way and women went the other way. We were fed bowls of real food (rice, vegetables and some meat) and then went to a different part of the house, still separated by sexes and sat on the floor or one time we sat in chairs in front of lots of different snacks: raisins, dates, cookies, candies, garlic little chips and lots of other things. Little “shot” glasses filled with water from Mecca were passed to each guest. Many homes had banner with pictures of the pilgrims and scenes of Mecca in the background. The host or hostess would begin with an Arabic prayer and then talk about their deeper relationship with Allah. (I think.) I know some of these teachers and I have to tell you, they were remarkably calm and peaceful! The Mecca returnees were all dressed in white and we would shake the hands and rub cheeks with the women of the house and bow to the men as we entered the house and when we left. Watching them and listening to them you really could see the change in their demeanor.

As we filed out after the prayers and blessings we were given a gift bag. Some of them had a dish with a package of dry noodles and some prayer beads; others had bars of soap and pamphlets of Arabic / Indonesian payers. At one home we each got a prayer rug! Some presents were in cloth bags with draw strings. Others were in printed paper bags with pictures and names of the Mecca returnees on the front.

I asked about the expense. The teachers in my car all agreed that going to Mecca was very expensive and although it is one of the 5 requirements of being a Muslim, they were all praying that some day they would be rich enough to afford to go and then return and put on a big feast and give presents to hundreds of people. And I do mean hundreds. There were about 75 people in my group and as we approached each house, we would wait for the group in front of us to be finished and then we would join the food line and then go to the prayer place. I know several days are set aside for the celebrations. When I got home and showed my ibu-mama all my loot (and gave her the food and dishes) she showed me that the night before she had been to one of the homes and had the same presents.

And I should also tell you that we stopped at a mosque so that the teachers could do one of the 5 daily ritual washings and kneeling and bowing prayers before we continued on our journey to pray at the individual houses.

The people who teach at my school live anywhere from a few minutes to an hour away from the school. The teachers in my car were impressed when I pointed out where I had walked. I could have made it on foot to 3 different homes, if I had directions, but the other 3 were way too far away. But then I would have missed the whole “group” thing. All the teachers were wearing their blue uniforms and jilbabs. I have figured out which days are tan days and which days are blue days and generally I wear something that blends in with the group. And of course, I wear the appropriate color jilbab. As we approached each house we could see the sea of blue that showed that the other teachers had already made it there.

After the last stop the teachers in my car asked me to teach them an English song that they could teach their children. I taught them, “One little, two little, three little Indians.” I probably should have said “native Americans,’ oh well. I needed a very simple song that they could remember. The whole car was laughing when they tried to sing it really fast and then tried to sing it backwards (10, 9, 8…)

The teachers asked me about the snowflakes and I had some pre-made as examples in my backpack. They asked if they could take them home! Who would have thought that recycling scrap paper into paper snowflakes would be such a fascinating thing!

Love and hugs and jingle bells and candy canes to all of you!

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