Monday, December 5, 2011


Freedom. Independence. It isn’t just for George Michael, Linda Evangelista, and Naomi Campbell lip-synching in suggestive poses.

Once I felt comfortable enough with my host sister, Nanda, I asked her what she thought about Americans after watching all of the movies she said she enjoyed (American Pie movies, various horror flicks, etc). She said, “I think it is more free there.” From the way she said it, I asked, “But, not in a good way?” 

“No”, she said.

I’ve had this interaction a few times. Hollywood movies have really taken us down a notch in the eyes of global morality. I can guarantee I would not have had some of the conversations I was forced to have while traveling in India had “Sex and the City” never existed. But, this is part of the culture from whence I come. 

When this topic came up with my current host dad, he asked me which I would choose. I pondered the things that I have enjoyed living here, and I had to take mental stock of which culture truly allows for more freedom. 

One would think America is obviously more free. However, in some ways, living in a non-litigious society like East Java allows for some liberties not available in the US. 
  • For instance, three total strangers from a foreign land (my training village mates and I) walked up to a random elementary school and asked if we could play with 50 or so of the kids for a community project the following day. This was no problem. No permission slips, no background checks, nothing. We didn’t even ask the principal. Totally copacetic. 
  • In addition, in our training village, parties were thrown weekly, blocking off main streets and playing mind-numbing music from 5am until 2am the following day. No permission was needed to do this, and neighbors just had to bear it (actually, no one in the village ever seemed to mind at all - just us volunteers). Any town in America would have had the cops coming to the door after about an hour of “disturbing the peace”. Here, perfectly OK.* This is also in addition to the regular calls to prayer or occasional 2-day, non-stop readings of the entire Koran over loudspeakers. No stamp of approval from the folks in town necessary. It's all AOK.
  • At Bromo, I was standing on the precipice of the mouth of an active volcano with nothing preventing any one of the hundred or so crazy tourists behind me from casually nudging me over the edge to my death. In America, there is no way a place like Bromo would have been open to visitors in its current post-eruption state with its multitude of safety hazards. But I am thankful it’s not in America, and I’m thankful I got a chance to see it just as I did.

No banister, railing or blockade between me and the mysteries of the deep. Please note remnants of prior railing blown by last eruption. Freedom. It tastes oddly of sulfur.  

  • Similarly, on a recent jaunt to Kayangan Api, or a natural eternal flame near my site, I fulfilled a lifelong dream I never knew I had - to stand in fire. I can't think of a public place in the US where I could have checked that item off my list.

Climbing over the railing to get a closer look at the bubbling, gaseous well before us.

So, so far in the tally in America vs. Indonesia – if you want to throw a spontaneous English camp, throw an all-night rager, stand in the midst of burning flames, or get a tourist attraction up and running quickly, Indonesia’s your girl. Where else can you load a motorcycle with 4+ of your family members sans helmets? And where can a 4 year-old exercise his God-given right to handle highly dangerous instruments for igniting fires? Freedom! I mean, don’t we Americans get a little too caught up in the “what ifs” and potential dangers of things anyway? Maybe it’s time we let loose a little.

I was recently rereading "Rivertown" by Peter Hessler to keep me in the Peace Corps mood, and on July 4th he gives his students in China an assignment to write their own Declaration of Independence from the things that enslave them. It got me to thinking about what I would have declared independence from in my life in America: time, money, maybe worry. And somehow, I realized I have gained some of that independence a little here in Indonesia. 

  • Time - For the last 10 years, my life had been overscheduled. I have only myself to blame. I love to create itineraries and calendars and run from one event to the next, sometimes internally complaining about how much I have to do. In one day, I would run a half marathon, shower at a friend’s apartment near the park, stop by work to clear out some emails, jump on a subway to a bridal shower, and then ride the Metro-North to hit a family gathering later that evening. It’s no wonder I catch myself feeling a bit lazy here. But I have to remind myself that maybe this is just a welcome taste of some unscheduled freedom. 
  • Money/material objects -  I am not living in poverty here, but people in my village generally have less money than a family in the US. I can never quite get my mind around the economics of things – how the price of something here would cost four times as much in America, but most everyday items are cheap here compared to US standards. It costs me less than $2 to get from my village to Surabaya, which is a 4-hour bus ride away. I get upset if I have to pay more than 50 cents for an ice cream, but a deck of UNO cards costing Rp 35,000, or less than $4, is a pretty extravagant purchase. The parents of the kids in my village can’t afford it, and that's what keeps the kids coming around - being able to use me for my expensive UNO cards. Anyway, in a certain sense, my volunteer status allows me to forget about money for a little bit as I am able to live pretty comfortably here on the small allowance we receive.
The short time I’ve been here has also made me realize that I have a lot of...stuff. This always seems to be the case. It sort of traps you and bogs you down – this accumulation of things. There is a certain freedom in not having too much stuff – or being able to teach English in a room that doesn’t have a lot of fancy equipment, colorful bulletin boards or props. You just have to get right to the meat of things and use what’s around you. I am still learning this, but, in a way, it can be somewhat liberating. 

    • Safety - Community works differently here. People in the village may not only be neighbors, but there is a high probability they are related in some way. This creates a safety net where kids from age 3 on up can roam around the village, free to run in and out of any neighbor’s house at will as long as they are home for maghrib (the call to prayer at sundown). Front doors to houses are always open unless everyone inside is sleeping. The community here protects – so much so, that it is rare to go to the police with any issues. 
    I may be naïve on this one still, but it also seems to bring an innocence to kids where they are sheltered and protected from things longer than they would be in the US. I realize there are probably a fair share of social issues seething beneath the surface that I cannot yet see, but occasionally, I consider the idea of my 13 year-old niece coming to live out the remainder of her teen years here with the built-in safety that this community provides. Not sure how she’d feel about missing out on field hockey, though.
      With all of these new-found freedoms afforded by my change of life, there are some freedoms in the US that I do miss. 
      • I miss being able to bust out and go for a run at night like I used to in Brooklyn, simply because I felt like it. 
      • I miss not having to tell anyone where I am going.
      • I miss blending in.   
      • I miss seeing the smooching scene at the end of “Enchanted” that has been censored from TV viewing for being too risqué.
      • I miss being able to fight openly with people when we are annoyed or disagree with one another. And I miss the feeling of release and relief that brings once true feelings have been aired openly. 
      • I miss being able to roll my eyes.  
      • I miss quiet.
      • I miss living in a cat-free abode.
      • I miss being able to skip breakfast or dinner if I want. 
      • I miss hugs. 
      • I miss being able to wear a tank top and boxers walking around the house when it is 90 degrees outside. 
      • I miss being able to find a place where I can be outside and be completely alone. 
      I miss being able to do things when I want to do them in the way I want, without anyone watching or judging. The greatest sacrifice of Peace Corps so far, aside from being half a globe away from family and friends, has been giving up these things I didn’t realize I’d miss.

      So, who really is more free? And how would I answer my host dad’s question of which culture’s freedom I would choose?

      I don’t know. 

      Getting my hands on a cheesesteak sure would be keen, though. And maybe some more Swiss Cake Rolls. 

      In closing, I will post some fun pictures from Indonesian Independence Day ceremonies where students reenacted overtaking the Dutch (this occurred back in August, but it seemed fitting to the topic to post now). It was so funny, I cried, causing my standard caking of SPF 45 sunblock to run into my eyes. I’m pretty sure the students around me must have thought I was overwhelmed by the performance.

      Student faintings are standard at any gathering, and here is one of the Red Cross students helping one off the field.

      Dutch flag of red, white and blue is up on the left.

      The freedom fighters come in from the right. The kids playing the Dutch won't know what hit 'em.

      Chaos and flag down

      Man down. The Dutch flag is ripped of its blue and hoisted with the red and white of the Indonesian flag today.
      Fallen getting carried off the field of battle and everyone chanting and singing. Amazing.
      *Actually, these ragers do not exist in my current village. The culture here is different with all parties ending way before sundown. Although, the continuous reading of the Koran through day and night still occurs. In fact, there is a reading from a nearby masjid projecting through my screenless window even as I write.

      1 comment:

      1. you are hilarious and i am so glad you are here sharing in this adventure.. :)