Friday, August 26, 2011

Good Day in the Desa

It was over a year ago that I sat in the NY Peace Corps office on Varick Street listening to a panel of returned PCVs discuss their experiences. A member of the audience asked them each to describe a bad day and a good day at site. One former PCV talked about receiving hand-written notes from fellow volunteers passed via Ugandan taxi cab drivers. Another chose successfully washing/drying clothes during the rainy season in Honduras as a memorable high point. I sat there in my business suit and Onitsuka Tiger sneaks (I miss you, so) after a long day of work, trying to comprehend what my life would be like if I joined. If I actually did this thing, what would I consider a good day?*

Well, here you go. Picture it – Bojonegoro, 2011...

Pagi Pagi (Early Morning)
You wake up at 3:40am - 10 minutes late for Sahur, and your host ibu seems a little perturbed, but you make a joke about dreaming about cake and that seems to blow things over. You down 3 glasses of cold water and then eat rice, fish, fried tempe, a fried egg, and top it off with papaya, salak, a nice cup of hot chocolate and then a couple more glasses of water for good measure. Oddly – today no one puts any food on your plate or asks you to “tamba lagi” (take again). That, right there, sets the tone for a great day. Today, you are the master of your makan (eating) domain! 

You pop your PC pre-natal vitamin, hit the kamar kecil (bathroom), do some flossing, and then head back to sleep for 2 more hours. Luckily it is a little chilly, and you can relish the rare feeling of wanting to cozy under covers.  

Pagi (Morning)
You get to sleep in until 6am, sweep your room a bit, and then hit the mandi. Wednesdays are the butterfly collar, tie, and shoulder pads uniform day, but somehow, today, you make it work. You throw your wet hair up in an Anne Shirley-type ‘do, pack up your laptop, koosh ball, stickers and class lists and take to the bike. You leave early enough so you can do a smooth pedal from the village onto the main road without your normal spaz reactions upon sighting oncoming traffic. You hit the light just right and turn at the intersection like a breeze. No accidents were caused today.
Aside: there had been a slight incident a couple of weeks ago where two motorcycles collided feet from you due to one driver doing a double-take upon sighting your skin.
You successfully avoid hitting the hoards of students walking to school and evade getting hit by the numerous motorcycles and buses whizzing by. 

You arrive at school, chat with a couple of students and enter the teacher room which is still empty. You juice up the laptop and catch Ma and Pa on skype for a quick video chat before the teachers start rolling in. You get the latest details on the weekend events in Wappingers Falls and wish them a “Good Night” as you get ready to start your day. 

You share plans quickly with your counterpart on what you will teach about 5 minutes before you are supposed to enter the classroom. You successfully pull off the activities you planned and your counterpart improves upon them, making the class even more enjoyable for the students. You do this for 4 more classes. More importantly, every student in the 10th grade spoke English today.

Siang (Around Noon-time)
After class you are asked to attend a meeting where they ask you to be on a team to design a curriculum for an advanced English class. You break it to the them that you really have no idea what you are doing. You say you will try to help, and they seem to be ok with that.

Students come to speak with you in the teacher room which is exciting because they are always painfully shy. OK – you forced them to do this by assigning “You must talk to Ms. Erin for 1 minute outside of class” as homework, but you will take the obligatory interactions as a success anyway. 

In between students popping in and trying not to look busy, you discuss elections and campaigning in America with a fellow teacher who you have secretly dubbed your BFF.  Another teacher you want to be friends with sits next to you and wants to see pictures on your laptop of Brooklyn and family and friends. You show her these, and you love that the teachers are learning the names of your nieces and nephews. 

At around 1pm, you ride your bike home, and it is “sepi” or quiet, so you can cross the main road with ease and hear the greetings from some of the neighbors and village kids, “Ms Erin!” 

You mandi (bathe) to wash the half a day's sweat off and change into your pajamas (John Jay X-C Tshirt and Hello Kitty shorts). You play a few rounds of bekel (sort of like jax) with your host niece and watch as your host dad falls asleep upright while sitting on the couch. After being urged several times to “istirahat” (rest), you settle in for a nap while listening to your favorite playlist on your ipod. You have about an hour and a half before the kids starting peaking in your bedroom window to go for an afternoon bike ride through the villages. Before bike time, however, you get a call from one of the Beji Bros and mengobrol (chat) a bit, swapping tales. 

Sore (Afternoon)
At around 4pm, the bike posse (today consisting of Ila, Friska, Putri, Ajeng, and Imas) takes you on a different route and you encounter a whole other part of the desa you never knew existed. You run into a few familiar faces and new babies to scare along the way. You wish you brought your camera as you follow the trail of kids competing to coast on their bikes with feet off the pedals and legs straddled in the air. You pass through the smoke clouds from the massive ovens baking bricks made from the clay taken from along the Solo River. You give the workers, dark-skinned and sweaty from the heat, a quick “Mangga” (Javanese greeting), and they throw you a wave. It is cool and breezy, and one of the regular ibus you usually greet along the way calls out “Mau hujan”. It wants to rain. 

You stop at your regular spot along the river, and the kids have taken to competing at throwing rocks as far as they can into it. They urge you to throw one and you figure since there are so few things you do well (i.e. bikeriding, hulahooping, bekel-playing), you need to throw these kids a bone, so you impress them with a lofty heave to the center of the river. You hear one of the local kids calling “bule” from his house, but you know his name is Agil, and he just wants you to talk to him. 

You look out on the Solo River speckled with fishermen in perahu (small boats), and you gaze across the way at the farmers tending to goats and sheep. The sun is setting in one of those rays-shooting-out-from-behind the-clouds-and-you-have-the-promise-that-everything-will-be-OK kind of sunsets. You look at these kids as they ask you how to say “sapi” in English (cow), and you wish you could gather them up in your arms or video tape them exactly how they are right now as a rag-tag, ever-changing team of village posse who often trade bikes and switch on and off as to who rides "di belakang" (on the rack in the back). You wonder what they will be like in two more years or even when they grow up, and you hope their dreams of becoming teachers, doctors, police women, and midwives come true. And you immediately flash forward to June 2013 and are momentarily overcome, literally losing your breath, at the thought of ever having to say good-bye to them – because you know it may be forever. 

You take the ride with the posse back home realizing you’ve picked up three newcomers along the way. Your “bule”-calling pal, Agil, along with Anisa and Ifa ride all the way to your house from the next village so they can know where you live. You encourage them to return home before maghrib so as not to endanger yourself with a kidnapping rep. You shoot a “hey” to your 11-year old best friend across the jalan (street) as you pull up to your house, and your host niece laughs that you still have to walk your bike up the narrow entrance to your driveway. 

Around Maghrib (Evening)
You throw wonderfully cold buckets of water over yourself in the mandi (bath) and retire to your room to jot down a few notes down about your day so you won’t forget when you look back 1, 5, 10, 20 years from now. 

You hear the call for maghrib as your niece pokes her face in your window from outside, “Ms. Erin, makan!” You open your bedroom door, walk to the fridge and feel the refreshment of cold water flowing down your throat as you think nothing could ever be quite as satisfying.

You eat fish, rice, and fruit until full. You drink your chocolate milk, and you lie on the cold, linoleum floor with your family in front of the TV. The fan your host dad fixed starts to make an odd, random screeching sound. It does this every night, but it never ceases being funny, so you all enjoy a hearty laugh over it together. Your niece has learned how to say, “Fan cry!” in English, and that keeps the laughs going. 

Malam (Night)
Most of your family goes to the masjid for Tareewah prayers, and you start to fall asleep right there on the Winnie the Pooh mat that only a few short weeks ago you doubted could ever be considered comfortable (yet your host ibu sleeps there most nights). The fact that your eyes are closed in no way disparages your niece from continuing to speak to you in Indonesian. This is an interesting twist from the extreme terror you inspired in her only a few short weeks ago. She is excitedly speaking about Idul Fitri when all of her family will come to the village to celebrate. She asks you how to say, “Saudara saya datang ke sini,” in English. You tell her, “My brother will come here,” and she repeats it to herself as you fade off to sleep around 7:45pm. 

Sempurna. Perfect.

*For those who enjoy the dark side and want a taste of elements of a bad day, please consider the following:
  • You are told unceasingly when and how much to eat. Most days you can laugh off and ignore it, but, at times, when the chips are down, it can really send you over the edge. 
  • You are often sitting in rooms filled with people speaking Javanese, of which you know little. This could last for hours.  
  • You are sometimes given news way after you wish you knew it or not told the whole story (I was asked to meet some kids in a nearby village at 8am. I was then told at 9:30am it would be at 10am and it included riding my bike on a rock road that felt like I was riding over lumpy dead bodies for a good 30 minutes in the hot sun without having eaten or drank anything. The whole time I was trying to focus on not falling over, I was being followed by a fellow teacher on a motor cycle and expected to answer questions. "Meeting the kids" meant teaching them English for 2 hours with nothing prepared).   
  • The times you want to be alone are the times your niece and the village kids have their faces pressed up against your window as you try to change your clothes. They only consider your shriek of terror to be a sign of encouragement to continue to invade your privacy (note: privacy is a totally different concept here, but still, it can get to you).
  • The times you wish you had someone around with whom you can communicate easily are the times you are alone.
  • You are constantly asked the obvious: "Are you washing clothes?" as I am crouching over a bucket of suds, scrubbing my school uniform. "Are you still ironing?" as I am running a hot iron across my NYL T-shirt, and so on. 
  • Your teacher wants you to read from the book in front of class for the full hour of class so the kids can learn pronunciation from a native speaker. They don’t even know the meaning of the words, so you wonder how focusing on pronunciation will help anyone. Half of the class is also asleep. You totally understand why because you are bored listening to yourself.
  • You are sitting in the teacher room when there are no classes scheduled for the day and wonder why people don't just go home. They'd be outta there so fast in America. You look around and some teachers have literally been staring ahead doing nothing for what seems to be hours. You try to use the time to look up ideas for teaching on the internet or write some lesson plans, but you are constantly told “you are always so busy". As a result, you have to somehow find time to prepare for class outside of school and spend the loads of free time at school just trying to look available to chat. 
  • Some days the coping mechanisms and the carefully placed Inception-like illusions you've constructed start to break down, and, briefly, you realize exactly how far away you are from the people you love - and that you can't just walk a block to your favorite BK hangout or randomly decide to jump on a train for dinner at Catalano's or a dance party and IHOP breakfast in CT.    
I am pretty sure I will face some of my worst days in Indonesia, but I feel pretty certain Indonesia also brings the promise of some of my best ones yet to come. 

To more good days in the desa...


    1. i want your village.. mine is not nearly as fun..

    2. Nothing like settling in for a little post-hurricane lunch of tempeh at my work desk while reading your blog posts. you are so very missed, but reading this makes you feel so much closer. xoxo!

    3. Just had some tempe goreng myself. Right there with you, pal. Glad you survived Irene.