Saturday, July 21, 2012

Love Letters at Mid-Service

"Peace Corps is not a team sport."

I've been touting this ditty for a few months now, so I apologize to those who have heard it repeated. I do agree with this statement…to some extent. 
  • More than a year ago, I could be seen kneeling in front of the baggage scales at the JFK check-in, with the insides of my baggage sprawled before me as I tried to unpack and repack to make weight. It was a sorry scene played out by myself. 
  • Knowing little more than a few phrases in Indonesian, I was left at the doorstep of my training host family…on my own.  
  • After training, I got into a car with complete strangers to travel to my new home for the next 2 years. I was the sole bule traveling with people who looked at me like I was an alien. 
  • I could be seen taking my temperature with PC issued thermometers as I moaned in my bed at what turned out to be the early onset of dengue fever…also alone.
So, yeah, in a way it’s a solo event. PCVs each have to find their own way to keep going on duka days, and it’d be a tough job if we didn’t have some internal mechanism for constantly rebounding creatively. For instance, during Ramadhan this year, after breaking fast with my family and they've gone off to the nightly Tarawih prayers, I have committed myself to getting the stress relief and exercise I need after a day of fasting by dancing around my room to Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” (thanks Elle). You do what you gotta to get by.  

But – the thing is – I’d be crazy or more of an egotist than I ever thought if I truly believed I was doing this on my own. Between you and me, kids - on paper, this has been a rough seven months or so. But also somehow, in a weird way…not really - because I've had stellar support all around from family, friends, PC Staff, PCVs, my host families, my school, and my host community. It is an intricate and extensive netting strategically placed to catch me should I ever fall from my Circus of the Stars trapeze (which, no matter how impossible, still remains a dream of mine - especially if I should be allowed to share tent space with a young Alfonso Ribeiro or Rick Schroder).

What follows are love letters written to my family, my fellow volunteers, and my fellow teachers at my school at some point over the past 6 months. In an attempt to chronicle this experience, I wanted to publicly share about what it’s like to have such extraordinary people on my team. (Heads up – there’s a lot of talk of buses. Cut me some slack. I do spend a lot of time on them). 

Love to my Family:
16 April 2012 - Renewal
I was going on my 7th hour on a bus earlier today after having said good-bye to yet another volunteer who is going home early and stopping to visit another who always seems to be on the fence, and I realized I have been here a year.

It seems it.

Not in a bad way really, but I realized this thing is.....LONG. Sorry about that.

Discussing with Trish when she was here, she kept saying it must be so hard for me here. And I told her that it really isn't. It is hard being away from friends and family, for sure, and I certainly have had my fill of blaring Indonesian music on those long bus rides and that tough, fatty beef (blegh), but I said that, hands down, it is harder for my family.
I get to be here and be distracted by all of this craziness. I meet new people, learn new things...there is something new every day. I had to build a whole other life here, and I am propelled from one thing to the next. Sure, it is tiring sometimes or annoying or uncomfortable. Sure, it is different. But after going through a standard low period recently and being grumpy the past couple of weeks during skype or phone calls, I realized I haven't done a very good job rallying on the home front.

So - You made it through one year!!!!! Good job everybody! You guys have been calling, keeping me updated, skyping, sending a record number of packages (at time of writing, I am currently trying to a kick a Dove caramel habit. It's a quarter bag a day). You have supported me the whole way on this ridiculous whim of mine. Heck, Mike had to travel halfway around the world just to suffer through a beating at badminton at the hands of my fellow teachers. It is much appreciated, and I don't say it enough.

If this were a marathon, at this point, I'd say to myself, "OK, let's do that last bit one more time. You did it once. You can do it again." While I may not exactly be at the half, or the figurative Long Island City/Buzzie's Bar point of this thing, I feel the cheers, and this time next year will be the home stretch. I can't imagine what it is like on that side, but I hope you can rally to do it again. It is a great gift you have given me, and I will probably spend the rest of my life trying to repay it.

In the words of Michael's favorite singer, oh family "well you came and you gave without taking...and I miss you today."*

*Incidentally, my training host sister was not happy when I told her the song was actually about a dog.
Love to my fellow PCVs:
19 February 2012 - Here We Are (after 4 days of language camp)
Today, I was ushered onto my third moving bus of the day after darting across a busy jalan, dodging sepeda motors. I took my seat and felt proud to hold my own in describing what exactly I was doing in such a place to the ibus and conductor who were questioning my presence. Knowing this is something I absolutely could not have done last year at this time or could have ever imagined I would EVER be able to do -  and the fact that this is now old hat to me, I allowed myself to sit back and dwell a bit in my awesomeness in growing so much in the past year. 
The standard East Java scenes of pasars, padis, Indomarets and masjids continued to flash by, and then we entered a forest offering some enjoyable shade and a break from the everyday views. I realized we were hitting a town where Wawan mentioned an ID6er will most likely be placed. I tried to take note of the area should I ever visit him/her in the future, hardly believing this could be happening sooner rather than later.

And I was so happy.

Even with the competing dangdut karaoke and bus musicians, the sweat and the cramped space -  I hit the suka.

Somehow when I wasn't looking, we rounded a bend. At some point, 5-8 hour bus rides became no big deal, and saying good-bye to each other to go back to site somehow got easier. And coming together when we get to do so is so comfortable that Elle can shove me over on the bed when I've taken it over, I can ridicule Jay's meticulous sign making, Tim will have patience to teach me guitar, John can get us all talking about our weirdest co-worker and demonstrate his sign dancing, Krystal will travel for what she thought would be an hour (really 2+) just to hang and walk a few miles along a busy road with us, Natasha will make us amazing brownies and patiently try to help me differentiate my memper-s from my memper-kans, and Nicole can unabashedly reveal that she didn't truly know the meaning of the word "uncle" until watching the Lion King.

It just feels like family to me - a weird, special, poop-discussing, joffle-making, juice-drinking, juggling PC Indo family that I am proud to say I will be a part of for the rest of my life. One that supports and gets me back on my feet to get back out there and do what I came here to do. That is pretty amazing.
As this thing picks up its pace, and I realize I am no longer just fighting to make it through to the next day - I have started to think about that time when we are at home later in our lives thinking back on this whole mess. Maybe I won't remember how to successfully di-, ter-, or ke-an in bahasa Indonesia, but I am pretty sure I'll look back and feel lucky I was with you all in the attempt.  So, thanks.
Love to my school:
20 June 2012 - Syukuran and Speech at a teacher meeting at 1 year anniversary. It was delivered in English and translated by teachers from my Teacher’s English Club.
Yesterday, coming from Ngawi, a road I’ve taken so many times now – I started to pass places that have become so familiar -  Bu Yoan’s house, Bu Yani’s road by the market, Sariyo  where I went swimming with Class XI and my neighbors, Kampoeng Nonong where I broke fast during Ramadhan with Mbak Nur, Mbak Ira, Bu Nuris, Pak Novi, Pak Rizani, and Bu Olif, the badminton court where Pak Yusuf, Pak Edy and I play, and then I passed MAN [our school]. And I felt …home.
I was happy to be coming home.
And that is because of all of you.
I want to thank you so much for being kind and patient with me this past year. I especially want to thank Pak Bambang, Pak Syaif, Pak Matt, and Bu Olif for all of their help. 
I came here one year ago – with different skin, from a different culture, and from a different religion – but you welcomed me. I am so thankful that you let me be your friend, and even moreso - I am honored to be a part of your family.
I want to thank you so much.  It has meant more to me than you will ever know.
Love from my students:
“I sorry, Bu. I always sleep.” -  Sutrisno, Class XI
Love from my Ila, my host niece:
"Ms Erin – you lose again. You shuffle!" (I may have lost in UNO, but, hey, let’s check out that English!)
Love from my kids:

And now, let's review objectives:
1) Year 1 Objective: Survive 
  • Objective attained. We did it!!!! Good job everybody!
2) Year 2 Objective: Be an Effective Volunteer 
  • Hmm. Whatever that means. We may need to call a team meeting on this one, guys. Let’s bring it in, people….


  1. Erin I love you and I love this blog post. You articulated it very well. xo

  2. can't wait to share hair shedding and sample-dropping space once again! love!

  3. Awww I love it Erin, a great way to share the experience and all the different facets of connections we have with people. Also, completely agree with you goal for year one was survive, now it's time to do something!

  4. I'm happy if you have good planning in Indonesia, and tried to understand with condition in my country. I 'll be happy ,if you give a support to Elizabeth Cannon (Volunteer in my school)to try understand with condition in ramadhan.
    I also will be happy if all of volunteer can share the experience with all of teachers in Indonesia.

  5. i always feel so inspired after i finish reading your blog :) thanks so much for helping me stick around