To date I have been in Indonesia for 3 months and 15 days as a Peace Corps volunteer. Even though I’ve only been here for this short amount of time, my journey actually began over a year ago. It started in February of 2012 when I decided to start filling out the application. I spent hours upon hours getting recommendations, writing essays and trying to wrap my head around what I was about to undertake. At that time, during the application process, I could have never fully wrapped my head around the commitment I was going to make. What did I know? I was filling out this application with the comforts of western technology while my family and friends surrounded me. I never could have really known what I was undertaking until I actually got here. Now after being here three months I can tell you I HAD NO IDEA what I was getting myself into. Before this experience I was fresh out college and had never travelled outside the US before. Let’s just say I was very naïve to what culture shock was and how it would affect me.
Well let’s fast forward to April 7, 2013. My big day! I was leaving my family, my friends and my boyfriend behind as I undertook one of the biggest adventures of my life. When I boarded the plane to San Francisco with tears in my eyes I was a mix of nervousness, excitement and sadness. Believe me it was a flurry of emotion. But I got through one of the hardest steps: leaving. I made it on to that plane and didn’t chicken out. Then the next few days flew by in a haze until I finally made it to my destination: Indonesia. The country where I would be spending the next two years living. I should mention that I was definitely not alone on this journey. I was sharing it with 55 other Americans who also decided to make the same courageous leap I was. We all had differing reasons and backgrounds but we all had one thing in common; we were excited and nervous as hell to start this journey. We were ID7. The 7th groups of Peace Corps volunteers to come to Indonesia and leave our mark here. We were definitely ready to do that.
Now we come to PST or Pre- Service Training. This was a 10-week intensive training period where the Peace Corps staff would try their best to prepare us for our journey ahead. The first week of PST was the second hardest week of my time in the Peace Corps so far, the first hardest I will explain later. It was an experience like no other I had ever dealt with. I was given a week of very very very basic language training and then dropped off to live with a family who did not speak any English. I had no idea how to express any of my basic needs except eating. I only knew a sliver of how to act in a culturally appropriate manner and I was only beginning to understand what Indonesian culture is really about. Needless to say it was terrifying. I will confess that I did cry the first night. It was scary. I felt so alone and out of my comfort zone that all I wanted to do was run. I wanted to run back home. I eventually pushed through and found the things that would get me through the crazy experience that is PST. The thing that got me through were the very people who were going through the exact same thing I was. The other Peace Corps Trainees. First and foremost, my language class. It consisted of Sonja, Chantal, Colin and Dan. These four people helped me get through PST the most. They sat through grueling four to five hour language classes and worked through PST assignments with me. They are to this day some of my strongest allies throughout the Peace Corps volunteers. Coming to a close second was Gunungsari 2. The other language group that shared our village. It consisted of another 6 volunteers. We spend countless hours together exploring this new strange country and we had a blast doing it. Then a close third the rest of the PC trainees that were along for the ride. We all helped each other in every way possible. Of course it was rough at times but we formed a large family that rode out PST together sharing the good times and the bad. Let me tell you there were WAY more good times than bad, WAY more laughing then crying. That was the great thing about PST. We formed an unbreakable bond that will carry us through at least our two years of service. Then came the crucial day of site announcement. It was a day that was well talked about throughout our time in PST. This was when we found out where we would be living and who we would be living near for the next two years. This was one of my favorite moments of PST. Before site announcement I was just trying to keep my expectations to a minimum. All I wanted was a beach. I got that and sooooo much more.
That fateful day I learned that I would be living on Madura, a small island to the northeast of the island Java but still in the province of East Java. On Madura live the Madurese, a culture of people very different from where I was living in PST. They spoke a different language and had differing traditions from the Javanese, with whom I currently lived. Before moving there I was warned by my PST host family that the Madurese were louder and more direct than Javanese people. At the time I thought “Hey that would be perfect! I’m louder and more direct also!”. For me I think it was a way of calming my nerves. It was a defense mechanism that I used to make myself not as nervous to be moving yet again. Now while that defense mechanism worked for a while, it didn’t work forever. I was a nervous wreck before I moved into my new house, with my new host family, far away from the friends I had made during PST. I had absolutely no idea what to expect. But it finally happened. I swore in as a Peace Crops Volunteer and then two days later I was off. I was driven to my new home by the principle of my new school accompanied by his son. His son happened to be a university student that had a decent grasp of English. The drive was about 6 hours from my old home to my new one. It was long and nerve racking.
Then it happened, the moment I had been waiting for. I arrived where I would be living and serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer. It was a house that was hidden right off the main road. We took a left on to a gravel road and drove for about a minute and I was there. Outside waiting for me were my Ibu, my host mom, and about 7 teachers from my school. It was great. It was then that I figured out that PST and actual service were completely different beasts. In PST I was surrounded by my American friends and people who understood what I was going through. Here that was not the case. Here I began my hardest week of PC so far. I was in an unfamiliar house with no one around who was similar to me. At first I felt very alone. I was going through culture shock all over but this time I didn’t have my friends in close proximity to pull me out of it. I only had myself. I know now that it was very much a mental thing. I wasn’t alone at all. I am living on one of the most densely populated islands on earth. There we’re people everywhere. I just had to find out where I fit in. The whole time I was wallowing in self-pity all I needed to do was open my eyes and I would find an amazing resource to help me fit in. It was my family. It took me a while but I eventually snapped out of the intense urge to run away and started trying to make some friends.
My family was very welcoming and very interested in getting to know me. Those first few days flew by in a blur of different emotions while I was getting used to my new home. I learned that I would be living with my host mom, host dad, and host brother and sister. My host brother is 6 and is currently infatuated with Spongebob and Shaun The Sheep. Both are dubbed over in Indonesian and seem like they are played 24 hours a day here. My host sister is 19 and is attending a university in Bangkalan, a large city close to where I live. She is a Sociology Major with about two years to go. My family is great. Very welcoming and supportive of the new strange habits that I seem to be bringing into their house. Some of these strange habits consist of; running in the mornings, talking walks on the beach by myself, not wanting to eat until I’m hungry, wanting to drink water instead of coffee or tea, using mosquito repellant, and the list goes on and on. Yes all of these have been strange habits for them. But they have welcomed me with open arms and are slowing by surly adapting to my new and strange ways. Less and less does my Ibu comment on how worried she is that I’m going to get skinny because I don’t eat as much rice as I should be (commenting on whether someone is skinny or fat is very normal here. If they say you look fat today, it means that your settling in nicely and that you look happy, so they worry that I’m going to lose weight and become unhappy or sick). Less and less do my counterparts at school comment on how I should be drinking the sugary tea their offering me than the water that I have chosen. Less and less are the people here opening commenting on all of my “strange” habits. I’m not saying that the comments don’t happen but they’re happening less with the people that I see frequently.
Through my three months here I have learned quite a few lessons already about myself and about the culture in Indonesia. I definitely have a lot of learning left to do but I’ll share some of the lessons that I’ve already learned.
1. Indonesian women are the backbone of this society. Every single Ibu I’ve had the pleasure of coming into contact with is an amazing woman. They can carry countless pounds of water, chickens, ducks, clothes and so much more on their heads with out even batting an eyelash. They can bring a group of rowdy teenage boys to silence with just one word. They can care for, feed and clothe whole families without ever thinking of themselves. They are a cut above the rest.
2. My site is gift from the Peace Crops gods. I have something that some PC volunteers would kill to have. I have the gift of quite. My site is off of a main road nestled right next to the ocean in a wooded area. We have neighbors but we can’t instantly see them when I walk out the front door. I have to go to them or they have to come to me. I don’t have people always asking me where I’m going or stopping me for a picture or asking where I’m from. I am able to walk from my house to the beach in 5 minutes and not come into contact with one person. I am able to have “me time” without shutting myself in my room. At first I thought it was going to be horrible having everything so quite all the time. That I would miss the hustle and bustle of a big city. But that was before I actually ventured into Ketapang, the town closest to me. I finally made that journey into town on my bike one day. When I did I had the Madurese directness I was warned about hit me smack between the eyes. Almost every single person in town turned and yelled some sort of greeting at me, or yelled “bule” or foreigner, they stopped me and wanted to take pictures or wanted to ask where I was from. Yeah as your reading this you might think, “hey that doesn’t sound so bad! They wanted to welcome you!” Well it’s kind of overwhelming as hell. It’s what I like to call my Indonesian “Celeb Status.” Simply because I have white skin and I look different than anything they’ve ever seen, a lot of people go out of their way to have some sort of interaction with me. And believe me after you take about 10 pictures with people you’ve never even talked to before and are gathering an even larger crowd the longer you stand there. Your mind decides that you want to get the F out of dodge as quickly as possible. This is the exact reason I believe that my site is so amazing. I don’t have to deal with this when I’m in my home. I don’t have people yelling things at me as I walk to the beach. I have peace and quite. I have a getaway.
3. Lastly I’ve really learned to cherish the little things. I’ve learned to really cherish the people that helped get to where I am. The people who have helped me through the hard times. The people who still continually help me through the hard times. The little kids who make me laugh while I’m struggling to teach them English. My host sister who understands why I get uncomfortable when a lot of people start to yell and want to talk to me. My counterparts for understanding that I’m not an expert teacher. My Bapak for letting me drag him into my LES to help me teach the kids. The ocean for always be there and being a calming force in my life. To the wise man who told me “long solo bike rides are good for the soul”. He was definitely right. For my fellow PCV’s who have always been there in good times and bad. For the beauty of this place I now call home. This is the biggest lesson I’ve learned and one that I will continue to learn. To look at everyday like it’s a fresh start and to go into everyday day wanting to find something to cherish.
Now I want to share some photos from my journey thus far….