Standing in the courtyard of the Jaipur City Palace a few years ago, I was plotting. How can I approach these two young, white women and convince them to hang out with me? It had been only a few days traveling in India on my own, and I was already exhausted from the attention of being the only white person in a never-ending sea of Indians (man, there are a lot of Indians!). I found myself disappointed at how quickly I had fallen into the “other” mentality. I was simply starving to swap stories with a fellow Westerner over the barrage of cultural differences I found myself buried under. Luckily, the ladies from Belgium saw my desperation, and I joined them for dinner at their hostel to debrief. I felt like a failure to be immediately drawn to people "the same” as me, and I vowed to avoid it in future travels.
Yes, I was going to do Peace Corps on my own. In fact, I was looking forward to spending two years in total seclusion. I had spent 10 years in NYC perfecting my hardened exterior and increasingly judgmental nature. While this made me better at making quick decisions and checking a ridiculously large amount of tasks off my “to do” lists, it had gotten to a point where one of my direct reports at work was found crying in the bathroom due to fear of me. Seeking guidance and consolation, I emailed an old friend out of the blue to confess: “It’s happened. I have grown completely heartless.” Two years isolated in the wilds of a foreign land seemed just about enough time to attempt to revive the dead inside.
I was also joining at a point in my life when most people start cutting back on relationships in pursuit of things like careers and families and whatnot, so I was unprepared and sort of unwilling to dust off the friend-making skills, at least with people of the Western persuasion. When I arrived at staging in San Francisco, I knew I’d go through the motions of ice breakers and chatting, but this thing was really going to be done solo. I’d proceed with the niceties and then go off on my merry way after training to my remote village, not caring how far away I was from another volunteer.
A few problems with this.
- In an internet age where most people are armed with a cell phone (or two) and a direct connection to their own facebook page, it’s actually pretty difficult to be totally disconnected nowadays.
- I also volunteer on an island with one of the highest population densities in the world (a fellow volunteer quotes on his blog that Java is roughly the size of Florida with 7 times the population). It also has one of the highest amounts of said facebook users. In general, a remote, secluded village is hard to come by.
- Looking back to my India story, after varying amounts of time immersed in a new culture, it is pretty tough to fight the urge to connect with someone who shares your cultural common ground. You need them to assist in sorting through the dizzying array of new experiences.
So, during PST, something happened. Site placements were announced, and I found myself crying into my Indonesian host mom’s arms over realizing I’d be 6 hours away from her and my training host family. More importantly, I was upset I would be almost 2 hours away from the nearest volunteer from my group. The furthest volunteer would clock in at over 13 hours away.
In a matter of months, I found myself needing these people who were once complete strangers. My biggest surprise of Peace Corps came with realizing the path to becoming a nicer person wasn’t one that would be traveled sendirian (alone). These folks, coupled with some significant amounts of down time, helped me remember some important, albeit saccharine, tenets of life:
- Everyone wants to be accepted and appreciated for who they are. If you can create a community where that is the case, it is pretty awesome. And isn’t that what we should strive for in the world-at-large anyway?
- And everyone has something to give.
Or, in my case, I have a lot I need to take. I need to gchat a volunteer when I need bike-riding tips. I need to call PC staff for anything from refilling my bug spray and advising which cab I should take to helping me negotiate school schedules. I need to vent to a fellow volunteer when I feel I am totally useless. I need to steal lesson plans when I have absolutely no idea what I am doing as a teacher. I need someone to hold the hotel key because I will obviously lose it after about ten minutes. Not sure how I thought I could survive two years away with little to no interaction with my fellow PCVs and PC staff. I certainly couldn't have survived the first 6 months without them.
Now, I don’t want to get caught up and lose focus on why I am here, which is to try to fulfill the three goals of Peace Corps below:
- Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
- Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
- Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
I certainly don't want to lose sight of the people I came here to serve or what I am supposed to do. I am still all about searching for ways to promote mutual understanding between our cultures. It does seem worth it, however, to take a moment here. It is penting (important) to recognize this experience would be severely more difficult if it were not for the support and inspiration of an amazing cast of characters I was lucky enough to be thrown into Indonesia with.
Here are some pics of some swingin' times with them. PC Indo Staff, ID(4), and IDFLY(5), in the immortal words of Hall and Oates, “you make-a my dreams come true..woo ooh.”
Bejoso Goes to Bromo
Badminton Tournament with PC Staff
|Nicole and Winarto (far right) would go on to take the entire tournament. I think it had everything to do with the matching headbands.|
|Maryono and I made it through the first round taking down Hoban and Whitney! Sorry guys.|
|We were defeated in round two by the Gables. They had an unfair advantage, being PC Indo's only married couple. Rematch, Paige and Dan!|
|After the tournament, we watched some serious badminton playing from PC staff. Mas Tim officiating.|
|Here begins a series of Bejoso training village pics. Some are blurry. Still enjoyable, nonetheless.|
|From right to left: Runners up, Brianna and Heru, receiving their medals. Nicole and Winarto await their glory.|