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Friday, January 14, 2011

Safety and Security

All the volunteers in Indonesia just got a text message from the country director that tomorrow night 20/20 will air a segment about Peace Corps Safety and Security. The text said to contact him or the assistant director if we had any questions and that safety & security is the single most important priority of the Agency. I thought I’d give you my viewpoint on this issue.

While my daughter was serving in Peace Corps in Malawi one of her fellow volunteers died. She had been drinking and went swimming in a lake with two friends who couldn’t save her when she was far from shore.

Before I arrived in Indonesia I had read that 10 years ago hundreds of elderly people were killed in East Java because they were “witches.” I brought this up in our training sessions and frankly was not impressed with the answers they gave. Maybe they didn’t want to alarm the other volunteers; maybe they thought I was being dramatic. I don’t know. Peace Corps did not seem to even know about the incident of a human head being paraded in the town where our training was being held. They mentioned that there was political and civil unrest and that we would be immune from all of that. I wasn’t convinced.

However, it now seems to me that they were right. I am strange, white, tall and have long gray hair, but that doesn’t fit the description of “witches” in Indonesia. I feel well protected and loved by my neighbors and the people at my school. It is a little distressing that people really do believe in witches but that’s the culture here.

We have an emergency action plan that goes into place if there is civil unrest or a natural disaster. The few times when people have demonstrated against the United States, we were warned in advance where the demonstrations would be and were told to avoid those areas.

The main danger I see is being killed by a vehicle. The roads here are narrow enough to qualify as “one way streets” in America, but here the traffic goes both ways because mostly people ride motorcycles. The line that is sometimes painted down the middle of the road is merely a suggestion. When I walk along the road, I am very careful to step into the weeds whenever I hear a honk. Then I look to see if it is someone I know. Often it is just someone warning me that they are driving past me. As far as I can tell cars, buses and trucks have the right of way over pedestrians and bicycles because they are bigger! I want to definitely be off the road when a truck and a bus pass each other.

I have felt in danger a few times. Once was on the boat to the private island off Lombok. The sea was really rough and sometimes we were in the middle of 5 foot high waves of water. Our little fishing boat had about 10 inches of clearance from regular water level to the edge of the boat. I put my life jacket on. Peace Corps Indonesia requires all volunteers to have life jackets when they are in boats. Some volunteers don’t bring them. They are bulky and awkward. I strap mine around the outside of my backpack and this was the first time I actually ever put it on. I figured even if I died people would say, “She died doing what she loved.” And it would be true.

Peace Corps medical requested that we keep a little card with us that contain emergency phone numbers and addresses. I have a little laminated card on the back of my cell phone and I try to keep a spare one in my pocket most of the time. When the seas got rough I practiced saying in Indonesia the 2 phone numbers that I have memorized – our Indonesia security officer and our Indonesian doctor. Memorizing the numbers was also was a suggestion from Peace Corps staff.

During our pre-service training we had a session on sexual assault in Indonesia. We were told that usually it is not reported and that the standard procedure is that the girl must marry the man who raped her! Of course, we as Americans would receive the best of care, blah, blah, blah. My mind couldn’t take in the rest – usually the girls family makes her marry the man who raped her! I know that being older is not a guarantee of freedom from sexual assault, but it helps. I have never felt threatened or intimidated by a man here. When construction workers yell, “I love you.” I smile or sometimes say, “Great English.” It’s often one of the few phrases they know.

I have been in 3 earth quakes that were serious enough for the family that I am living with to check and make sure I was okay and nothing got broken. I live a few miles away from a volcano that is on the “active” list and sometimes gets upgraded to “more likely to explode.”

I was robbed but I didn’t know it at the time. A man standing behind me on the bus opened my backpack and took out my wallet. I’m a lot more cautious now. I lock my backpack with a little flexible lock and I keep my money in a canvas money pouch on a string around my neck and inside my clothes.

Once I was on a bus that felt totally unsafe. The driver was driving erratically. He was passing cars when there barely was enough room. If I was going to a far city, I would have gotten out and caught the next bus. That time I took my chances and prayed and put an imaginary plastic bubble of safety around all of us. I may not be a witch, but that doesn’t stop me from trying a few magic tricks of my own and asking for spiritual assistance!

We were told that last year a third of the volunteers in Cambodia had come down with Dengue Fever. We have been supplied with mosquito nets and ceramic water filters. We’ve taken 3 pre-rabies shots so that if we get bitten by a rabid animal we only need a few more. Rabies is fatal.

Sometimes sanitation is a problem. In a country with no toilet paper, what can you expect? But I signed up knowing that this might be like it was when I lived in rural Appalachia. Or the years I lived in the mountains with an outhouse. It’s not so bad. My facilities here are much better than they’ve been at other times in my life.

I walk by myself in rural places while it’s still dark because it’s the only cool time of the day and I don’t feel afraid. There really are a lot of community members that I greet most every day and they may not know exactly where I live but they know I’m a teacher at the Madrasah and they would help me if I had any problems.

I remember in Jakarta when we were warned that sidewalks sometimes have 3 or 4 foot holes in them. It’s so common now that I don’t even notice. Sidewalks are often built over the sewer system and the access holes cave in. Very few people walk anyway, so I guess they don’t need to repair them.

Once some fellow volunteers were literally taken for a ride by a taxi. They called our Peace Corps security officer and he told the cab driver to take them where they needed to go and even helped the guy who may have been lost or just thought the volunteers would pay the extra money if he drove them around a lot. I don’t know. Wawan, our security officer is awesome.

And I’d trust our medical officer, Dr. Leonard, with my life. There are only certain hospitals that meet international standards and those are the ones we’d be sent to if we needed care – or they’d send us to Thailand or back to the States if it was really serious.

We have a lot of safety rules: World wide Peace Corps volunteers are not allowed to ride motorcycles because they are so dangerous. If we ride a bicycle, we have to wear a helmet – which Peace Corps provided. We get free sunscreen and mosquito repellant and vitamins and band aids, all kinds of misc. medicine and condoms. And we get instructions on how to use all the above mentioned items!

One of my friends, Phil in Arizona told me that when I return to the States it will probably be too boring because it’s like I’m in a battle zone here. Bugs, exotic diseases, crazy bus drivers, a few drunken tourists with fireworks…. yeah, it’s a little different. But I don’t think very many people here have guns and there are a lot fewer cars. Sometimes it’s hard to step outside your comfort zone, but that’s where the rewards are the greatest. Safety and security – I don’t know. Life doesn’t come with guarantees. I am doing what I love and I feel supported by Peace Corps safety and security policies. I’m curious about the 20/20 program. If someone watches it, please tell me what you think.

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