Just Another Day In Indonesia…

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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly from Week 1.5

It’s been a week and a half since I moved to my new home. I’ve made some major changes (i.e., new house, new school, new family, new foods to try, new habits, new questions) and I’ve enjoyed some minor accomplishments (i.e., setting up my water filter, biking around and not getting lost (yes!), memorizing dozens of names, and remembering to take my malaria pill today because it’s Thursday). I have been doing lots of things and I’m sure I could fill many blog posts but I’ll keep it short and just give you the good, the bad, and the ugly of Week 1.5.

The Good

There’s a lot that can fit here, and for that, I am grateful.

First of all, my counterparts* are awesome. Especially Bu Chris, who is just an incredible woman. I really should dedicate an entire blog post to her, but for now I will just say that I am so grateful that I get to work with her for two years.

My school is really nice. It’s a big place with just under 1000 students. There is some cool stuff happening here! Lots of extracurriculars, student-designed murals advocating good environmental practices, and friendly teachers. The English department meets once a week, which generally is a rare practice in Indonesian schools (or so I have heard). I have been surprised by the amount of energy and enthusiasm behind improving teacher practices and methods already…I was expecting to come in and have to build this kind of motivation, but (at least some of) the teachers are ready. They are continually asking me if I have suggestions to improve things, which is a little overwhelming in my first week, but the intention is good. I’m excited to work here and encourage the teachers and strengthen the ongoing efforts to improve learning and teaching. I expect that sustainability will also be easier to accomplish here since the teachers are already trying to make changes. Awesome.

That being said, they have put me to work! I have been revising the curriculum (or part of it, anyway) for 11th grade that is used all throughout my regency. It’s exciting to know that I’m helping to create better materials not just for my school but for schools all over Tulungagung. The English teachers also want to meet with me to plan for the coming semester and make lesson plans. I thought I would have to twist their arms to meet with me, but they set it all up ahead of time…let’s hope this enthusiasm continues, as working with an American counterpart is usually a great deal more work for Indonesian teachers (but the benefits can be great). I’m here to work, so I’m really happy to be doing so, and I CAN’T WAIT to get into the classroom and actually teach.

Even though I’m not teaching yet, I have been meeting several students. It’s common here for students to hang out with teachers, visit their houses, and call or text them. Coming from an American background, that seems a little strange but it is awesome for community integration. Not to mention my students seem cool and I want to be friends with them! It reminds me of hanging out with my sisters. J Last weekend the students (I refer to all of them as ‘my students’ although I actually don’t have my class schedule yet, so who knows who I will actually be teaching!) had a school magazine (aka yearbook) competition with schools across three regencies. I didn’t fully understand the concept, but basically they had to create large 3D model with a theme based on environmental protection and design a 2D newspaper. I actually had helped create the 3D model the weekend prior and my students were so excited when I came to support them at the competition. It was held in an event hall and the whole thing strongly reminded me of the State Fair. I was basically in an exhibition hall and the days consisted of sitting and sitting and waiting and maybe explaining our model to anyone passing by. I didn’t mind the waiting though because I got to spend time with my students! Generally Indonesians (especially children and youth) are really shy when you first meet them, and most of my students fit the bill. I figure the more time I spend with them, the more they will warm up to me and the better the next 2 years will be. One of my students, Yoga, is fluent in English. He is so fluent, in fact, that the school had him translate my introductory speech from English to bahasa Indonesia, rather than using one of the English teachers. Yoga has been a bridge between me and the other students and other people in the community. I’m so grateful!

Biking has been another highlight. This area is FLAT. I love it. Bu Chris lent me her bike when I got here and I just finally bought my own beautiful bike today. Since Day 1 I’ve been exploring on my bike, and when I went to the school magazine competition (held in Tulungagung city) I actually biked there with Yoga. Everyone here was shocked and amazed that I would bike almost 20 km without dying of exhaustion (there are few Indonesians who would try to attempt such a feat) but honestly, it was really not a big deal. I’m pumped for more bike adventures…next on the list is visiting Justin (fellow Oregonian!) in a nearby (aka, 25-35 km away) city with Bu Chris.

My family here is pretty great and I already feel kerasan (at home, comfortable) here. I have the most adorable little host nephew Rafa, age 2. He loves kites so we will sit outside and count the kites together. Besides Rafa, there’s my ibu who graciously speaks ever-so-slowly for me, my bapak who always has a smile on his face, my host sister #1 + husband (speaks decent English!) + 13-yr-old son who, on my third day here, made me “tea special for Miss Sarah!” and host sister #2 (mother of Rafa) who also happens to be a tailor! Well, a tailor-turned-mother-and-school-teacher, really, but she is still making me a batik shirt. My house has 3 sewing machines, so maybe I will have her teach me her ways….

And that leads me to my ultimate highlight…yesterday my counterparts took me shopping for my uniform. I was dreading that….no one wants to wear ugly, hot khaki and grey uniforms day after day. Lucky for me, I have the perfect school for me. My principal has decided I have to have a uniform, but if it’s too hot, I don’t have to wear it. Also, teachers wear uniforms Mon-Wed but they wear batik Thurs-Sat. And…saving the best for last…they are uniform in color only which means I got to design my own uniform! Buying fabric and designing clothes has quickly become my new and most favorite hobby here and I’m worried that my budget won’t support this newfound addiction. Yesterday was my lucky day! My cps took me to a beautiful batik shop and told me to pick out two kinds of fabric…whatever I wanted. I was a little kid in a candy shop. I spent probably 30 minutes touching all the fabrics, holding them up to the light, laying them next to each other….finally I had to pick and that was the hardest part of the day. The icing on the cake was that the fabric was really nice and expensive cotton…far more than I would pay for myself. Thank you SMA for footing the bill! After that we went to another fabric shop where I got to pick out the fabric for my two uniforms (khaki and grey) and I searched until I found the lightest material available. My cps said I could get MORE batik there because it was so cheap. So 3 batiks and 2 uniforms worth of fabric later, we were off to the tailor. I was designing and drafting away in the car, and to any readers from Oro2Ombo, I copied was inspired by some of your designs so my new bajus may look familiar. J Ahhh…I still have a smile on my face from my day at the fabric store. I think my closest may fill rapidly if I’m not careful…

The Bad

So since coming to Indonesia and especially when moving to a new site, my personal policy has been “say yes to everything the first time” followed by “try it once before you pass judgment.” Of course there are situations in which this doesn’t apply, but that’s just my general rule of thumb. Part of the reason is because I want to portray myself as someone who wants to be involved in the community and who is eager to experience new things. I know that if I say ‘no’ to a lot of things right off the bat, people will hesitate to invite me later. All that to say, it can make my life exhausting at the worst of times and exhilarating at the best of times.

Last Sunday was my low point. My “say yes to everything” philosophy landed me square in the middle of a parade – and I was the main attraction. Let’s back up a bit. On Saturday evening two people I had never met before came to my house to invite me to a circumcision party (side note #1: circumcisions are a BIG DEAL here and boys are circumcised around the age of 12 or 13). Usually at such an event, there is only one boy who is circumcised but at this grand event, there were to be 29 boys circumcised. (Side note #2: Try communicating ‘circumcision’ across a language barrier and you get lots of awkward miming.) I said “yes” to attending the event, and the next morning I found myself bicycling on my way behind the gentleman who had come to my house the previous evening. When we arrived there were hordes of children all dressed up, waving flags and banners. Turns out there was a parade. To make a long and painful story short, I was asked to sit in the front becak (aka, rickshaw or peddicab) and I was told we would go “keliling” (around). I should have known better, but I was so overwhelmed by the amount of Indonesians jabbering about things I couldn’t understand that I just fell back on my “say yes” philosophy and got in the becak. For one hour we drove around the town through streets lined with Indonesians (armed with cameras, of course) who were eager to snap as many shots of me as possible. I was told to smile and wave (which I did not) and I quickly realized I a) never want to be famous and b) never have a desire to be in a parade again.

But the damage wasn’t done yet! Oh no, the entire parade was aired on television tonight, including prominent shots of me trying to hide inside my becak and a few shots of me shaking hands with various Indonesians. (Other interesting tidbits included circumcisions shown on TV – with appropriate blurring, of course – and a boy who, when asked, described his experience as “enak” [delicious]…I should count my blessings that I didn’t appear on TV while undergoing an operation!) My entire family crowded around the television to ohhh and ahhhh about their new celebrity while I just covered my face in embarrassment. Add that to the fact that I appeared in the local newspaper (Jawa Pos) last week (also without my consent) and I have truly become famous in a week and a half in Tulungagung.

More thoughts on life as an Indonesian celebrity to follow…

The Ugly

My mosquito allergy has reared its ugly head. Two days ago I was at school and sneaking beneath the desks (as Dr. Leonard would say) were some terrible mosquitoes who mercilessly covered my feet in bites. Whenever a mosquito bites me here, I feel something burning my skin, even before it turns red or swells. My feet were burning. By that afternoon the bites had swollen up to the size of quarters and on top of that they are bruising. I have no idea how or why but now my feet are all the colors of the rainbow and so stiff it hurts to walk. Oh yes, I almost forgot, the bites are blistering too. (I wasn’t joking when I said this was ugly…I will spare you pictures.) I think I’m on the upswing…at least they didn’t hurt so bad last night and I was able to sleep. I’m hoping that this is a rare occurrence for the next two years and/or my tolerance for these nasty buggers increases.

* counterparts (CPs for short) is one of those PC terms. Basically, when PCVs teach English in Indonesia, we don’t teach alone. Instead, there are always 2 teachers in the classroom: 1 American and 1 Indonesian. A friend of mine recently asked if that wouldn’t just be a waste of resources? Good question. It might seem that way at first with so many students, but actually a large part of my job as a PCV is teacher training. PC is really pushing for sustainable change (something I am 110% in agreement with) and so that means working with an Indonesian teacher to implement changes into the system that they can continue after we leave.


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I’m here!

Just a quick post to let you all know that I’ve made it to Tulungagung safe and sound and I’m getting all set up in my new home. Luckily for me I have internet access at school so once I settle into a routine, it should be easier to communicate with people back home.

A quick overview of my new place: My home is beautiful and bigger than I expected. My family already provided me with a mosquito net and it is huge so it really looks like a bed canopy (and it has a flower decor). I love it. I have a huge closet (much bigger than even the closet I shared with my sisters back home) and a desk and chair and a small table, mirror, and stool. All this is a room that I think is 9 x 9 meters (at least that’s what my counterpart said. So there’s not enough room to use my new yoga mat, but it still feels spacious and beautiful. True to form, I’ve started decorating my room with maps and pictures. 🙂 It was strange to realize that (if all goes well) I will living in this room longer than I’ve lived in any room for the past 5 years! So that being said, I might as well make it look nice. Pictures coming soon…

My new family is very nice. It’s a bigger family than I expected (yay!) with lots of various relatives coming in and out of the house.

My school is huge and beautiful. There are so many students, almost 1000! There are 29 classes in all. Yesterday (Monday) I was introduced to all the students and I gave a short speech…in English, lucky for me. When the students are all together they are noisy and active (“You’re beautiful!” they kept shouting) but on their own they are malu (shy and/or embarrassed). Even so, they are not as malu as other Indonesian students I’ve met so I think they will warm up to me in no time.

After my short speech to the students I had to give another speech/introduction to the teachers, this time in bahasa Indonesia! There’s nothing like being put in front of a room of almost 100 strangers and asked to speak in a language that 3 months ago, you didn’t know a word of. All in all, I think I did pretty well and everyone was quick to compliment my language skills. Then it was off to meet two kepala desas (head of the village) where I was accompanied by 7 of my fellow teachers. Speaking of my colleagues (weird to say that), they are very excited that I’m here. They were so excited, in fact, that before I even got to Tulungagung, 8 of them met me in Blitar, the next regency over, where we had lunch and did some sightseeing at Sukarno’s (Indonesia’s first president and – many say – most highly esteemed national hero) grave. My counterparts (fellow English teachers) are great advocates for me and they are constantly checking in to make sure everything is going well at home and at school.

Well that’s just the short version, but it’s about time to start today’s adventures (apparently I’m visiting the two families who weren’t selected to be my homestay families, can you say awkward?) so more to come!

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PST In Numbers

73 : Days in Pre Service Training

77 : Days since I left home (counting my travel day and staging in D.C.)

8 (I think?) : HUB Days

2027 : Pictures I’ve taken

9 : Times I’ve taught (practicum schools and model schools)

9 : Books I’ve finished reading since boarding the plane (still working on 10, 11, and 12)

: Number of words for rice I have learned in either Bahasa Indonesia or Javanese

40 (approx.) : Family members (of my current host family) I’ve met

1,194 : Number of books loaded onto my Kindle (gettin’ ready for Ramadan- Read-A-Thon!)

: Number of physical books I borrowed from the Peace Corps library (ok, ok, so I’m a book hoarder. But I read them fast and I give them back or pass them on!)

5 : Items of clothing I’ve had tailor-made

190 (approx.) : Number of times I’ve eaten rice (3 times a day every day)

11 : The most hours I slept in one day while in Batu (and yet I’m still tired?)

4 : AM – the earliest I got up on any given day

7 : PM – the earliest I went to bed on any given day

1 : Birthday I’ve had in a country outside the states

9 : Number of weeks it took my youngest host brother to warm up to me (now he is basically attached to me)

3 : Number of hours I played foursquare yesterday

12 : cards/packages I’ve received from friends and family back home (you guys are seriously the best and it makes my day every time. Terima kasih – thank you!)

2.5 : Months complete, 24 to go!

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Being Uncomfortable

Only two days left (as I type) and I’m moving to Tulungagung (Friday the 15th!). I’m excited, a little nervous, ready to get to work, and also anticipating a long first three months at site. Yesterday I had my final interview and I found myself really happy with PST, overall. I feel prepared to go live at site and teach for the next two years. I’ve definitely grown since I arrived here. I can handle attention better (although I still don’t understand comments about how beautiful my nose is), my language skills have skyrocketed thanks to the awesome teachers here, and best of all, I’ve become really comfortable living here in an Indonesian home.

Comfort is a double-edged sword. I’m proud of the fact I feel like I fit in here, at least as much as I can with cultural differences, and that has been a huge accomplishment. But when you get too comfortable somewhere, it’s hard to challenge yourself, it’s hard to grow. A huge part of why I chose to do Peace Corps was because I wanted to be uncomfortable. I wanted the personal growth that comes with pushing my boundaries and trying new things. I wanted to learn to adapt in a new situation. I want to work through some of my weaknesses and become stronger.

All that to say, I was talking to a fellow volunteer the other day and I was lamenting the fact that I am about to move out of my newfound comfort zone in Batu and I will have to start over with a new family, new school, thousands of introductions and millions of photographs. And then I caught myself and I remembered why I came here. Being uncomfortable may not be fun, but it will be worth it. And hopefully the most uncomfortable part won’t last long, as I have the language skills to be able to adapt more quickly than I did when I arrived in Batu. By the time I get to IST (in service training) in October, I sure hope Tulungagung will feel like the home that Batu feels like now.

With that in mind, I think I’m ready to go! Wish me luck and once I’m settled and have internet access I will be updating again! J

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What Sarah Said

This is a long-overdue post about my site visit an ID5 PCV living in Madiun but I didn’t want to just skip it because it was one of the highlights of PST for me. In Week 7 all of us Trainees packed up our overnight bags and got on various angkots (basically a mini bus that is the size of a minivan…but without the seats…see my facebook for photos), buses, and travels (like a private bus) and headed out to visit current volunteers who have been living in Indonesia for a year now. (Sidenote: our groups are labeled with our country label “ID” and the number of the group. My group is ID6 because we are the sixth group of PCVs to be in Indonesia, but that number is a little confusing because ID1, ID2, and ID3 were here in the 60’s. So we are the third consecutive group to…

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Community Gatherings

Seeing as we’re nearing the end of PST, I realized I should probably start working on that portfolio thing (due Monday, yikes). One of the optional assignments is record all the different community gatherings you attended, and I thought that rather than writing this all out on a piece of paper that will get thrown away, why don’t I blog and then everyone back home who is interested can learn more about the different events I’ve been too. Genius, I know. If you recall I went to a Muslim baby dedication, which I wrote about back here. In the past few weeks, I’ve been lucky enough to get to see lots of other ceremonies/events (although I still haven’t been to a wedding, a funeral, or circumcision).

1000 Death Day

One day I was dutifully studying in my living room when my aunt came in and asked if I wanted to help cook. It was the middle of the afternoon, not yet time to get ready for dinner…what were they cooking? I followed her back into her kitchen where my other aunt was sitting and I saw that they were in full-blown production mode, making 100+ kue ketan. Kue means “cake” in bahasa Indonesia and “ketan” basically means wrapped in banana leaves – and the thing that is wrapped is usually rice. Kue ketan can be savory, with chicken or beef inside, or it can be sweet, with coconut. Ours was sweet. They sat me down and handed me some banana leafs. “Here, wrap up the rice.” So I did, and as I wrapped and tied and wrapped and tied, I was trying to understand why we were making so many rice cakes. A few days later, I got my answer. I came home from language class to find that there were copious amounts of food in the house. Everyone keep telling me, “Seribu hari, seribu hari,” when I asked why. Most of the food was in my aunt’s house and she made me eat firsts and seconds, followed by a round of kue ketan. The next day in class my language teacher explained that in Javanese culture when someone dies they reach to bury the body…usually within 24 hours. After that there are a series of commemorations for the deceased. If I recall correctly, these take place 40 days after the death, 100 days after the death, and the last one is 1000 days (seribu hari) after the death. In this case, my aunt’s father had died 1000 days ago and it was his final commemoration. As far as I know there wasn’t a ceremony, per se, just lots and lots of food that got delivered in little boxes to friends and family (this is the most typical way that the Javanese celebrate anything).

Wayang Kulit

 Wayang kulit has so far been my favorite Javanese cultural tradition. Wayang kulit are shadow puppets and a wayang show will last start anytime from 8-10 PM and last until between 2-4 AM. (When people here sleep is a mystery I have yet to solve…) There is one puppet master and he has to have the incredible ability to sit crosslegged for 6-8 hours and perform the puppet show sendiri (by himself). It’s amazing! A few weeks ago our village was lucky enough to host a wayang show (on the same day as bantenga…see below). There were a couple hundred people there and while I only got to watch about an hour (we had our final language exam the next day) it was really interesting. The music is traditional, and it features gamelon (see below), plus there are always female singers. The puppet show follows the music, and it is fascinating to watch…although I did get really sleepy after awhile. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, here are some photos to give you an idea of what’s it is like.


Silat is Javanese traditional martial arts. My village held a silat show over a month ago and I went with my family. There were probably 100 people there and the silat students were from elementary school through adults (possibly the adults were teachers, but anyway, they still demonstrated silat). There was traditional music playing and the silat was set to the music so it looked like a cross between interpretative dance, martial arts, and yoga. The student(s) would move slowly and then hold a pose before transitioning to the next movement. It was very fluid and really beautiful to watch. As usual, this didn’t start until 9 or10 PM and lasted until early in the morning. I didn’t stay too long so I only got to see a few students but I definitely want to see more.

Hari Kartini

April 21st is Kartini Day. Kartini was one of the first Indonesian feminists, and she fought tirelessly for women’s rights, including education for girls. Before her time girls couldn’t go to school in Indonesia but thanks to her hard work there were laws passed mandating that girls go to school, just like boys. On April 21st our group went to the local preschool/kindergarten (called ‘play group’ here) where the children were all dressed up and ready to march in a parade. Some were in an actual marching band, and I was very impressed by their musical abilities at such a young age. Others were dressed up in traditional clothes and LOTS of makeup. It was strange and a little creepy, actually, to see all these little girls dressed up to look like women with full hairdos and makeup and everything. I didn’t really like that part, but it was pretty funny to see my little host brother Panji (age 5) with a fake moustache. J (For photos, see my facebook album.)

Bentanga (sp?)

Bentanga happened in my village on the same day as wayang but it took place earlier in the afternoon. I also saw it in Batu City the following weekend. Bentang is the wild (mythical?) bull of Java. In bentanga, men and/or boys dress up in a bull costume (think dragon costume for Chinese New Year…several people underneath a long piece of cloth with a huge mask of a bull’s head leading the way). There are also bull masks for single people. The scene takes place in the street. First, there will be one man who is covering the nose and mouth of another man/boy. Sometimes their head or face is covered with a cloth. They appear to be losing consciousness and they go into a trance state. According to my cousin, they are inviting the spirit of the bull to possess them. Once they are possessed, they start moving jerkily and they wear the bull mask and dance around a little. There is another man with a whip and he will whip the man-bull. At one point I saw a boy laying on the ground, his face covered by a cloth, and a man whipping him. Honestly, this whole thing was really creepy and made me uncomfortable. I had a couple interesting discussions with my family about it. My cousin Ratih and my brother Ilham both really don’t like it and say that it’s bad but my 5-year-old brother Panji is fascinated by it and always asks to see the photos I took of bentanga (coming soon on facebook).

Malang Tempo Duolu: “The Malang Before Time”

MTD is a festival that takes place every year in the city of Malang, which is the biggest city close to me (during training). During the weekend-long festival, everyone who participates dresses like they did back in the olden days and there are perfomances of various types of traditional music and dance, along with LOTS of street vendors and items for sale. I didn’t really get to see any crazy costumes but the place was PACKED. I also bought a gorgeous batik scarf that I basically haven’t stopped wearing since I purchased it…especially now that I’m adjusting to the climate and I’ve realized, yes, Batu is cold!

So that wraps up my list for now of community events/gatherings/festivals, etc. Javanese cultural is rich with traditional dance, music, entertainment, and other customs. I have enjoyed seeing this myriad of activities and I’m hoping to learn more about the history and meaning of these cultural traditions while I’m here.