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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Student Funeral

This morning I slept in late – till 6am. I wasn’t feeling well. I’ve had a sore throat for a week and my feet hurt and I have to pack today because I will be moving to a new house tomorrow or the next day. So I didn’t go to my regular 6am church service. I just got up and took a mandi bath and ate the food my ibu had ready for me under the fly cover and washed my clothes and hung them out to dry.

Then I looked at my cell phone and there was a text message from one of my co-teachers: ‘Oma, one of our student die, if you want to go her house, please come to school. At 6.30.” It was already 7:15. I immediately sent a text: “I am coming now.” One of the great things about “rubber time’ is that nothing happens when it’s supposed to happen. I put on my jilbab and the painful school (dress) shoes and walked / ran the 20 minutes to school. I was 5 minutes from school when a car pulled over. It was my vice principal and I hopped into his car. Inside was another teacher and a 4 foot by 3 foot funeral wreath made to look like flowers but made out of paper and sticks. It had a banner with the name of my Islamic High School.

I found out that the student was one of my 11th graders in the smartest science class. She had had been in a motorcycle accident the afternoon before. We drove about 20 minutes to a small village where the vice principal was looking for a field past the police station. We parked in the field and I recognized about 40 of our 56 teachers and several hundred students.

We followed the funeral wreath into an open courtyard where there was a large tent set up. All the women went one direction and I followed them. We each shook hands and brought them to our heart. Many of the students and teachers had tears in their eyes, but it is not okay to cry in this culture and each one of them was holding the tears in. We filed past the female family members and shook each of their hands and brought them to our hearts. The family also was not crying. The teachers gave the family large baskets with bags of rice inside.

It was raining lightly and all of the women went and sat in a covered courtyard with an indoor /outdoor carpet over the concrete, so we took off our shoes before we stepped inside. I looked around and tried to determine what this place was. It looked like it might be a small mosque and we were in the covered courtyard adjacent to the mosque. My school has 900 students and a quick count showed that maybe 500 of them were there. The men and boys sat in front, all the women and girls sat behind. There were only 2 children there under high school age. The chanting began as soon as we sat cross legged or legs to the side. I went to a wall and sat with my back against it. I have learned that I can not sit for nearly as long as most Indonesians without some kind of support.

During the hour long Arabic chanting service, women passed out plastic water cups with a sealed tops and what looked like a half a piece of bread sealed in a plastic bag. Some of the triangles were green which usually means they taste more like cake than bread. These were handed from woman to woman. About ½ hour into the chanting, the men filed out and the body was brought and put on a table in front of the women. It was wrapped in cloth and rolled into a rug. It was placed on an aluminum frame that was approximately the size of a coffin but open on all sides. Two women who looked like a mother and a grandmother came to the front and carefully arranged the coverings while they held back their tears. I saw several teachers with a covered bowl. Inside were many 50.000 Rp. bills. ($5.00 – a little more than a daily standard wage for most Indonesians and my subsistence allowance as well.) They gave this to the mother and grandmother.

A green cloth was draped over the whole structure and 6 men came and grabbed the handles on the aluminum frame and took the body out under the tent. A man with a microphone spoke for about 10 minutes, praying in Arabic and introducing our school principal. The principal prayed in Arabic for several minutes and then gave a speech about the student. In the speech he said she was in grade 11 Science Class 2 and you could hear about 40 student voices say “three.” He said, “Oh yes, Class 3.” During his 20 minute speech the 6 men holding the coffin structure on their shoulders would sometimes ask for a replacement and step back while another man took their place. The principal ended his speech with “May you have healthy travels.” This was the cue that people were waiting for and the men with the body stepped forward. In front of them was a man carrying a decorative golden umbrella with coins dangling from the spokes.

All 800 or so people followed the body up the street. The teachers I was with waited for the principal and vice principal to bring their cars. We piled in. Some teachers drove their motorcycles. The graveyard was less than ½ mile away. We were driven most of the way and then walked on the path to a beautiful hill looking out over rice fields. There were the traditional graveyard trees with lots of spreading branches and very few leaves. I don’t know their name, but they have been planted in every graveyard I’ve seen here in Indonesia. They make beautiful white flowers. The cemetery was steep and because it had been raining it was very muddy. I stood near the back as the wrapped body was lowered into the hole and shovelfuls of dirt were put inside. People stood until the grave was filled in then some of them put a little handful of dirt/mud on top. A man spoke for a few minutes and then everyone turned around and headed back down the street.

I saw a man with a live chicken in a plastic bag. When I asked my teachers what he was doing they said that it was not Islam culture, but Javanese culture. I asked if the chicken was going to be killed. One person said, no, it would be released. Another person said, yes, that it’s blood would be put on the grave. The three people I asked all made a point to tell me that it was not a part of the Islamic service.

On the way down the hill one of the teachers told me that the student had been killed very close to my house when she made a turn and another motorcycle hit her. She had not been wearing a helmet and was taken to a hospital but died a few hours later from head trauma.

Most of the teachers waited for the car, but another female teacher and I walked back to the original location. The students talked with us as we walked, laughing and joking about the mud and explaining to me that the correct word is not “death party” but something more like “grave ceremony” and that there would be another prayer service in 7 days and also 100 days.

I got another ride with the vice principal and on the way home he told me that he would pick me up tomorrow after school and drive me and all my belongings to my new home with my new family. He told me that the new family would be good and I should not be worried. He dropped me off on the main road and I walked the 10 minutes back to my house.

Yesterday the vice principal came to my home and together we did an official asking for forgiveness if we had offended the family in any way and explaining that it is not their fault that I am moving to another house.

I’m exhausted. My son’s dog died two days ago. I didn’t tell any Indonesians. In a culture where dogs feared and avoided, I couldn’t think of a way to explain the concept ‘beloved pet,.who brought so much joy to our lives.”

Is it more of a loss if the person is brilliant and talented and beautiful? What if they are a trouble maker, disruptive and challenging?

I said I would serve in Peace Corps for 27 months under conditions of hardship if necessary. I don’t think feeling sick, worried and sad qualifies as hardship. I think I’ll scrap the lessons I had planned for this week and instead talk about motorcycle safety and losing someone you love. I know I will feel healthy and happy and optimistic at some point; but I don’t feel like that today.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

You’re a cheap smile, Oma.

I am teaching “compliments” this week. I have saved 10 Pringles like canisters – they are called Mr. Potato over here. I cut out squares of stiff cardboard and put reward stickers on each one: Awesome, Marvelous, Great Job, Fantastic, Wow, You are Great, etc. The students must first copy the list of compliments from their English books / paper magazines into their writing books. Then I meet with them in groups of 4 and have them speak the compliments. I give them feedback – That’s wonderful! You are so smart. I’m proud of you! Then they get the Mr. Potato and more colorful compliments that other students have made. Then they have to copy each of these into their writing books. When they are finished I check their work and when it is correct, I put a sticker from America into their writing books – Way to go! You are a star!..... Then they select from beautiful colored paper and must write their own compliments that they make up on their own - on the paper, in their books and on the board. When they are finished I correct the items on the board and collect up what they wrote so I can check for accuracy.

It’s exhausting. But at the end of each class the students are engaged and able to give each other compliments. So it’s worth it! My favorite compliment is; “You’re a cheap smile, Oma.” The teachers have assured me that this is a GOOD genuine compliment. Also: You’re Comfortable. And I like your force. I’ve been thinking about what kind of a difference I make over here in Indonesia. Maybe my legacy will just be that I was a cheap smile. Maybe it will be enough.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Valentine's Day

Thank you, Bart, for the photo. It’s from an Islamic magazine.

Last week I had an idea that I would give each of the 54 teachers in my school a little snack for Valentine’s Day. I began making little hearts with the saying “Happy Valentine’s Day” to attach to each one. Several teachers saw me doing this and there was an agitated discussion in Javanese. I can speak beginner Indonesian, but I only know basic greetings in the local language. When people want to include me in the conversation, they speak in Indonesian. When they are just chatting with each other or they want to exclude me, they speak Javanese.

Two days later, my co-teacher timidly said to me, “Actually, Oma, there is something I must tell you.” This was very unusual and I gave her my full attention. She said, “I am so sorry, Oma, but Muslims are forbidden to share Valentine’s Day.” I asked her if it would be wrong for me to give a snack with a little heart attached and she said, “Yes, actually, we are forbidden to accept it.”

I immediately sent out a text message to my fellow volunteers with a heads up that at my Islamic High School, Muslims aren’t allowed to accept a small snack with a heart attached for Valentine’s Day.

On Sunday, at Church, I saw the words written in English “Happy Valentine’s Day” so I figured I could leave my snacks at the church / pre-school.

I woke up early on Monday, February 14th and called my daughter in the States. It was perfect timing, Sunday afternoon at her home and she was just putting her children down for a nap. My heart filled to the brim as my grandchildren said, “I love you.” And gave me kisses into the phone. My daughter said that Peace Corps should warn us in advance about possible social blunders like Valentine’s Day. I explained that it’s just part of the process of being in the first group of volunteers in a new country.

I dropped off my Valentine’s Day snacks at the little pre-school / church on the corner and went to school. At school there was a flag ceremony and assembly and I listened to a half hour speech about why Valentine’s Day is not a part of Islam. I was told that at some schools there was a raid to confiscate any Valentine’s Day cards or hearts or candy that students might want to give to each other. At another volunteer’s site, they were having a co-ed sleep over at the school because the next day, Feb. 15th, is the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday!

I have been hunting for a new place to live. My current family told me that they are spending more than what I give them on food and they want more money. This may be true, I have no idea what food costs and they make me wonderful food. I offered to eat less meat and expensive fruits and vegetables but that was not the solution they wanted. Peace Corps said that I should not give them more money. The vice principal of my school went to visit my family and he decided that the school would not give them more money. He said the problem was cultural, that they just want to give me the best of everything. I eat alone and my food is set out under a plastic fly cover. Sometimes I can not eat everything and if I don’t eat it for breakfast, it’s there for me to eat for lunch or dinner or breakfast the next day. So I started eating just half my meal and saving the rest for the next meal. My vice principal told me that I should eat all my food.

There was another discussion with Peace Corps concerning the money that the local police station is taking every three months to “register” me. The Peace Corps person in charge of safety and security visted my local police and they all agreed that I no longer need to be “registered” but did not admit to taking any “administration fees” I asked Sukmawan, my hero, the Safety and Security Officer for Peace Corps to tell my host father that he doesn’t need to go to the police station any more.

My host father had a stoke several years ago and I don’t know what behavior is normal Javanese behavior, what behavior is just his personality and what behavior would be attributed to possible brain damage from the stroke.

After the discussion, Sukmawan told me that I absolutely need to find a new place to live. He then called my vice principal to tell him also.

My vice principal told me to look around and find a new place to live and that I should wait until I found the new place to tell my current family. So I have been asking people that I meet on the street if they know of a boarding house that has an available room and I made an announcement to the 70 students in my English Club that I was looking for a new home.

Anyway, on Monday, Valentine’s Day, my vice principal asked me to accompany him to look at a nearby house. Another teacher went with us because it is a few blocks from her home. It seems fine. This family was also concerned because they don’t always cook meals and they eat the food from previous meals and they don’t have a refrigerator. I explained that I am not a raja (a queen) and that if there was no food I would eat “outside” at the school canteen or the little shops set up along the street, that sell many different foods.

We agreed and hooray! On the 1st of the month, my vice principal will help me bring my things in his car to my new house.

On Valentine’s Day after school I went to my local school supply place and got some more colored paper for a lesson on giving compliments and they charged me half of what they did last time! Most places do not have prices on the things for sale and bargaining is one of my least favorite things about Indonesia but I love it when I feel like I get a good deal!

That evening I told my host family that I would move to a new house on the 1st of the month. They said they wanted to go to Kalimantan, the different island where one of their daughters and her family is living.

I will probably never know the reasoning behind all this. Did my family want me to move out so they could go to Kalimantan? Did they ask for more money because it is a part of the Indonesian bargaining system? Was I actually eating too much expensive food? Do Muslims at my school think that Valentine’s Day = Free Sex? Do they not like Valentine’s Day because it is Catholic? Is it wrong to say I love you?

I may be culturally inappropriate but I’ll say it anyway. Thank you to my family and friends and people who read my blog. I appreciate your love, support, interest and concern. I love you.

Oma Colleen