Just Another Day In Indonesia…

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Recently I took part in an awesome and inspiring 2-night, 3-day camp for female students called iGLOW: Indonesian Girls Leading Our World. I had been part of the planning process for the camp for months. Last year was the first year there was a GLOW camp in Indonesia, but they are common in many Peace Corps countries. This year we expanded to four camps across East Java!

The goals of the camp are for girls to develop new friendships, work together, build self-confidence, reach for high goals, and generally be empowered to be strong leaders. This is especially important in a country where boys and men traditionally are given leadership roles while girls and women play more subservient roles. When asked why this is the case, the answer given is often tied to religion or cultural customs but the truth is there are plenty of strong (and religiously devout) Indonesian female leaders. Camp iGLOW recruited some of these women to speak to the students about topics covering gender stereotypes, inner beauty, health & nutrition, reproductive health, higher education, leadership, healthy relationships, human trafficking, and more. When the girls weren’t in sessions they spent time in small groups creating posters, preparing for a talent show on the last day, doing early morning exercise (senam, yoga, or basketball), dancing together during our bonfire/dance party, and more. I certainly didn’t sleep much (maybe 3 or 4 hours a night?) and I’m sure the girls didn’t either, but fun was had by one and all, and good lessons were learned.

The camp concluded with the a closing ceremony where the girls read this commitment (in bahasa Indonesia) together:

1. Personal Commitment

a. I promise to love myself for my beauty inside as well as out.

b. I promise to never settle for anything less than what’s best for me in relationships, with my body, the opportunities I allow for myself and for my future.

c. I promise to never give up on what I’m passionate about.

2. Commitment to share knowledge with women in your community

a. I promise to share the skills and knowledge I’ve gained at iGLOW Day with the other students at my school and members of my community.

b. I promise to become a leader in advancing the role/image of women and girls at my school and in my community.

3. Commitment to promoting the image of strong women around the world

a. I promise to continue working to promote a positive image of Indonesian women and women around the world.


I think my photos can tell the rest of the story.

To all the lovely PCVs who helped with Camp iGLOW, keep glowing!!



Ice breakers – “find a friend”



Meeting in their small groups for the first time


Early morning senam


Sessions! This one is leadership.


Making posters about healthy relationships


The “Sit” Game – working together


Most of our amazing speakers (mostly this picture is proof that I attended the camp because, as the photographer, I was rarely in the photos!)


Talent Show at the end of the weekend


The pink group posing with the iGLOW Flag that each group contributed to


(almost) all of us!



Me and my fabulous eight iGLOW girls.

For more photos, see my facebook!


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One Year Reflections, Part Two [Lessons Learned]

I promised a post about the projects I’ve worked on over the last year and I started writing it and basically bored myself to sleep. It’s not that I’m not interested in talking about these projects but after a while it sounded way too much like my VRF (Volunteer Report File) that I have to fill out three times a year. I’d rather write about the different themes I’ve noticed in myself and my experience over the past year, so here we go.


People make my experience what it is.

My last post really elaborated on this. What I forgot to share about are the other volunteers I am privileged to know. My group, ID6, is the third batch of volunteers here in Indonesia since the program reopened in 2010. I may be biased but I think my group totally rocks. There’s so many cool, inspiring, fun people. Most of us met up recently to meet the new batch of volunteers, ID7. I hadn’t seen several of my friends since our training last October so it was great to have a reunion (even if it was brief). We ate non-Indonesian food, we told stories, we vented, we met the new trainees, and then we partied like rock stars for the last time with the batch of PCVs that came before us, ID5. We didn’t sleep much, but it was worth it. And as for ID7, they seem awesome. I’m pumped to have them here, and they seem like a great group. I was especially excited to meet two volunteers from SE Portland! What a small world! I got to spend even more time with then when I helped as a resource volunteer during TEFL training last week (look for an upcoming post on this).


I love teaching.

I guess I knew this before Peace Corps, but my service has only confirmed it: I do really like being in the classroom and working with students. I like helping people understand a new concept or idea. I like being silly with my students and making them laugh. I hope I’ve made English fun for them. The truth is, English won’t be important in all of their lives (maybe not even many of their lives) but I hope that the experience of learning something in a new way has been beneficial to them. This leads to my next point, which is…


Teaching English is not that important to me.

I do think English can provide opportunities for my students but I’ve never been that passionate about teaching English in particular. What I do love is when my counterpart and I will use teaching English as a method to start a deeper conversation, like when we asked students to write essays on one thing they would change at their school. I also love using the material to bring up important topics, like teaching announcements by showing video clips of PSAs about topics my CP identified as affecting the lives of our students (reckless driving, peer pressure, smoking, etc). But teaching grammar? Not my cup of tea.


I’m adaptable.

Again, I knew this before Peace Corps (my mom told me this before I even came here) but it’s fairly easy for me to adapt to new situations, especially when traveling/living in another country. It’s usually harder for me to adapt back to the ‘familiar’ at home…maybe because I change with each new experience and I have to negotiate what those changes mean when I find myself returning home to a situation that looks and feels the same as when I left.


I’m less scared of things.

Spiders, mice, rats, cockroaches, snakes…you name it, we’ve got it. And while I don’t like these creatures, I’m more likely to laugh when I see a mouse run across the room than scream and run away. (I do still ask my host dad to kill/remove any large critter that makes its way into my room, though.)


Internet is a precious resource…

…and all too often Indonesia feels like it’s running short. (But, seriously, I do not understand internet here and why it so often shuts off or stops working.)


Indonesia could make me an introvert.

Every time I’ve done one of those personality tests I’m always split between introvert and extrovert. On the one hand, I love being with people, I feed off that energy, I’m a verbal processor, and I don’t really like being alone. On the other hand, I don’t like big groups. I find those exhausting, and I prefer small groups of people where you can have more meaningful conversation. Also, I don’t really like being labeled and I don’t feel like I fit the extrovert or introvert category to a tee, so why choose? But my time in Indonesia is fostering the introvert side of me. Before I came here, by far my biggest concern was isolation. I was afraid of being away from people because maybe I needed them by nature of who I was. Well, if that was true, I came to the right island – Java is the most densely populated island in the world. Living with a host family has been ideal for me because there are people around but I’m not necessarily doing activities with them all the time. But at the same time I’ve grown much more comfortable with silence and solitude and if I don’t have a couple hours to drink tea and read books in the evening then I feel too busy/overly stimulated (put another way, Indonesia could be turning me into a grandma).


I like to delegate.

Clearly, my dad has raised me well because my dad is one of the best delegators around (case in point, he always “delegated” all household chores to us kids and told us his role in cleaning the house was finished – he was the delegator). Anyway, whenever I can I prefer to delegate responsibilities, especially to student leaders. Students here don’t get too many opportunities to have real leadership and responsibility, unless they join scouts or OSIS (think student council). Our English Club elected student leaders for the first time this year and I push them to think of activities, help plan and lead, etc. It makes less work for me, which is nice, but more importantly it teaches students responsibility. Sometimes the activities flop and that’s ok. If I rescued them every time that happened they would just depend on me to be the one in charge all the time. I want to empower them to be able to make decisions and problem solve. Long story short: I’m passionate about youth development and it’s been exciting to see my students grow in their confidence, leadership skills, and critical thinking skills.


I am a product of my environment.

Recently I’ve received some kudos from fellow volunteers for the “success” I’ve had in my community. My gut reaction is to deflect this because I don’t think the successes here are due to my presence as much as the fact that I have wonderful people to work with. The truth is, my community is unique. My area is more religiously diverse (and tolerant), more liberal – and by that I mean more accepting of differences and less strictly conservative, and more progressive than other areas in East Java where PCVs live. A few examples: around my town there are eight churches. They may be small but that’s a very high number for an area in East Java. My Catholic counterpart can discuss God in class without it being a divisive topic because there is a genuine level of respect for people with different opinions (and she’s clearly not trying to convert anyone). The fact that students can dance at my school – and dance Gangnam Style at that! – shows that my school is more liberal than many of my friends’ schools (it helps that it’s not a religious high school). Clothing is less restrictive here; girls wear knee-length shorts, less girls and women wear veils (though that doesn’t mean they are opposed to the veil but for one reason or another they have chosen not to be veiled…topic for another post). And perhaps it’s a bold claim to say my area is more progressive than others but I’m basing that partly on facts…girls in my area are more likely to work or go to college after high school and the average age of marriage is higher here than in other places….and partly I’m basing this on observation: last week the teachers in my regency protested because they were unhappy with the process for choosing principals and the fact that their bonuses would be taken away. I haven’t heard of teachers protesting in any other area before. Anyway, these are just a few examples to give you an idea of the environment I’ve been placed in. I’ve done lots of exciting and inspiring things with my counterparts and my students, but I think it’s really because they are awesome people who are ready to work hard. Maybe I’ve been a catalyst but I’m not the reason for success; rather, my “success” is a product of my environment.


I love having a sense of home here.

Recently every time I have gone on vacation I’ve had stressful travel experiences and I just can’t wait to go home. I like home. I can relax here.

Here’s a story from yesterday that illustrates how I feel about being here for one year:

I’m riding home on a borrowed bicycle after ketoprak (Javanese drama) practice. I’m definitely feeling like a Peace Corps Volunteer because I’m reminded, again, that I am not allowed to ride on a motorcycle. Every single teacher and student at the practice rode a motorcycle (the one who drove me in a car had left early) and I was stuck until someone kindly lent me a bike. So I’m biking and as I leave the house where we had practice I feel the stares of people who have not seen me before. I hear people yelling, “Hello, bule, how are you?” I can’t decide if I prefer being called “bule” or “mister.” How about neither. I stare straight ahead, concentrating on avoiding the potholes. This road is so bad, I think this borrowed bicycle will fall to pieces. I turn onto the road that leads past school to home, three kilometers to go. These potholes are familiar to me. I know when to swerve to the left and the right, I know when to slow down because motorcyclists might suddenly turn in front of me. I stop at the bridge to take a picture of the breathtaking view that never ceases to amaze me. I live in a beautiful place. Now I’m only two kilometers away. This is where I start to feel like I’m at home. Suddenly I find myself in the middle of a throng of people setting up something that looks like carnival. Actually, what is really looks like is Last Thursday on Alberta Street in the summer, minus the pot and alcohol. As I push my way through the crowd I get more stares and I hear lots of “bule” comments from people who don’t know me. But then I see the head of the village who greets me with, “Hello, Sarah!” and I feel known. I bike on and yell a greeting as I pass my counterpart’s mother. I’m close to school. A student who I don’t teach drives me and says hello to me. I bike on, only one kilometer from home. The children from down the street yell, “Miss Saraaaaah!” as I pass by. I turn right, onto my street. I nod to the elderly man who sits on his porch and waves and monggo’s me every afternoon. I see my neighbors and I say hi. “Going home?” they ask. “Yes,” I reply. And now I’m almost to my house. And down the street, so far that I can hardly see, one of the elementary school kids jumps up and down and waves his arm at me. I turn into my house where my family exclaims, “Sarah’s home! It’s so late!” I see my host brother, sister, nephews, mother…and I feel known.


This is how I know I’ve been here for one year. I’m not merely a bule to everyone. I’ve created ties with these people in this place and it’s good.


I’m looking forward to the next year here.

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One Year Reflections, Part One [The People]

This is the big one, the post reflecting on (more than) one year in Indonesia. I arrived last April 4th to a country that was strange and exciting. I remember my big concerns were 1) mosquitoes, 2) hot weather, 3) spicy food, 4) making friends, 5) missing my family and friends (not necessarily in that order). After one year I can say that none of these are a big concern now! It’s certainly hot but I’ve adjusted. I continue to miss my family and friends (more on that later) but I’ve established a sense of home here and I’ve made new friends (volunteers and Indonesians alike!) and I’ve found a new family in my lovely host family and a “keluarga besar” (“big family” – their phrase, but I agree wholeheartedly) in my school community. The months have flown by, despite some days where the hours drag on, and now it’s time to take a step back and reflect.

I’ve been at site for ten (eleven?) months now and I’m busier than ever. My weekly activities include teaching Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. On Wednesdays I lesson plan with my three counterparts and occasionally I have MGMPs which is a meeting with all the English teachers to collaborate and share ideas. I was hoping for MGMPs to be a steady weekly activity but second semester in Indonesia is just crazy and there have been so many class cancellations and irregular days that this hasn’t happened. We’ll keep trying. On Fridays I don’t go to school (yay!) but I keep busy with an afternoon les for elementary school kiddos. Wednesdays are my new speaking les for my high schoolers that I mentioned in my previous post. Thursdays are English Club after school. Saturdays I have my own language class with my amazing tutor, Seno, who was quickly become one of my closest friends at site (more on this later). Sundays are free from weekly commitments but I usually find plenty of things to keep me busy – including doing my laundry and cleaning my room. When you add my responsibilities for VAC and planning iGLOW to the list, it’s easy to see how I fill my time. (But keep in mind that most weeks have canceled days so I haven’t had a full week with all these activities in at least a month!)

Most of these activities are enjoyable and energize me, especially when my cps and I teach a good lesson or when I get to do activities with my students. Lesson planning is not so invigorating but it’s really important for sustainability and I’m blessed to have cps who are motivated, hard-working, and patient with me. Currently, my favorite activity is my new speaking les. I really enjoy hearing my students share more of their opinions, ideas, and experiences. I’m also glad to have a chance to gently correct some common mistakes. They’re eager to learn and they’re fun to be around. I always think of them as my adik-adik (little siblings) more than my students. As I spend time with my students (in speaking les, English club, Friday les, and during our random activities like cooking together) and read their English journals I realize that the single most important part of my service has been developing relationships with these students. They are so bright and creative and inquisitive. They trust me too, and they ask for advice on everything. It reminds me of my days of being a PA (resident advisor for you non-SPUers) when I oversaw an all freshman floor and I got all sorts of questions. Besides the obvious English questions, my students ask me for advice on how to grow taller like an American, how to eat a healthy diet, how to study effectively, how to forgive their friends who hurt them, how to make new friends, how to be more independent from their parents (but also respectful), how to mange their time, how to deal with a teacher they dislike, and how to increase their self-confidence…and don’t even get me started on the relationship advice! They aren’t afraid to ask questions about my experience on everything from relationships to drinking alcohol to balancing work and school commitments. Sometimes I don’t know how to answer them. A few weeks ago I got the question, “Miss, what is the opposite of a virgin?” In a culture that is quite conservative and highly religious, I’m amazed and impressed by the openness with which my students approach some of these topics (three cheers for my brave students!). I’m glad that I’m a safe person for my students to talk to, and I don’t take the responsibility lightly. Of course I have to be careful with my responses to make sure they are culturally appropriate and respectful but I think I’ve done ok so far (knock on wood). Overall, I’m just really honored to have my students open up to me and let me into their lives. It’s a gift.

On the home front, I absolutely love my host family. This is the perfect situation for me. Before I moved to site I was really worried that this wouldn’t be a good fit. I wanted a big host family with younger children. Instead my form said there was a host mother and father in their sixties and a son in his thirties. I was afraid I would lonely and maybe my host brother would be a creep. I couldn’t have been more wrong. First of all, my host family has three more adult children, two of whom are married with kids of their own. One, Bu Udin, is pregnant so there will be a new baby in the family in June! I’m excited. Secondly, my host brother is great and not a creep at all. On the contrary, he deserves an award for dropping me off at the train station at 4 AM on countless occasions, picking me up from said train station at 2 AM once, and picking up my friends from the bus/train every time they come to visit. And finally, my house is the neighborhood hub. Many of the neighbors are relatives but even the ones who aren’t come and go freely. The neighborhood kids love hanging out here and most of them come for extra lessons from my host sister Bu Nova, my ibu, or me. I think this situation is unique, even for Indonesia. I’ve visited other volunteers and I’ve been to many houses of Indonesian friends and counterparts and my house is one of the most open and inviting places of all the ones I’ve been to. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I love spending time with people at my house. I make a point to talk with my ibu every day, sometimes at dinner, sometimes sitting on the porch in the afternoon, and fill her in on whatever is going on. I think this has really helped my language skills and it makes me feel that much more comfortable here. And there’s something wonderful about just sitting on the porch and chatting. I want this to always be part of my life. I’ve also discovered that my host family knows basically everything so they are excellent resources if I have any questions or need anything. And the icing on the cake is that they are willing to try whatever concoction I whip up in the kitchen, which is more than I can say about most of my other Indonesian acquaintances!

Speaking of language skills, I have a wonderful tutor who I meet with most Saturdays. Seno is a college student in her sixth semester studying English (the same age as my brother). She’s probably more fluent in English than anyone I know here (especially because she is still studying the language daily) and I thought that might be a barrier to me really learning bahasa Indonesia when we met together. Sometimes I do slip into just using English but I think it’s helped a lot to be able to explain things in more than one language. More importantly, Seno has become one of my closest friends. We talk about anything and everything during our meetings. Seno is passionate about many things I’m passionate about, including justice and equality and women’s issues and teaching students well and asking good questions. If I need advice, I ask Seno what she would do. If I need to vent, I tell her what’s going on (and try to explain it in bahasa Indonesia). Seno also helps me with my Friday les and she’s great with kids. She will be an excellent teacher someday. Besides language class, sometimes we just hang out and that’s wonderful. Seno is really my only friend who is close to my age at site and I miss interacting with my peers so my Saturday afternoon class has quickly become one of my favorite times of the week.

It’s not all rainbows and butterflies. While many relationships have been blossoming, some have been rocky. Without going into too much detail on a public blog, I’ve had more trouble working with older Indonesians, especially the ones who are in positions of power or authority due to age or position. These people are always treated with deference and respect and when I am frustrated with one of their decisions, I’m unsure how to handle this in a culturally respectable manner. My rebellious streak always comes out, the part of me that says “I won’t obey unless I agree and think this rule is reasonable!” When I work hard for something and someone in authority vetoes it I immediately want to fight back. These are the days when I feel most American and most different from people around me. The good news is that I’ve seen growth in these areas. Honestly, I just needed an attitude change plus heaps of patience and kindness.

And then there’s the relationships I’m missing…one year may have flown by but when I think about people from home I definitely feel like it’s been a long time. I miss my family like a constant dull ache. I think of them all the time and I’ve been lucky to be able to use skype, email, and phone calls to stay in touch. But missing birthdays and holidays and spring breaks and plays/recitals and more is still hard. The truth is, I’ve always been close with my family and I never went more than two or three months without seeing them until now. I have some friends who have been constant and steady in communicating with me. They are my supports. But the reality is most people aren’t as good with long-distance communication and everyone is busy, including me. Really crappy internet and a 14 hour time difference doesn’t help. I haven’t talked to most of my friends since January or earlier. I miss them a lot. I even have vivid dreams where we’re hanging out, and, when I wake, I’m always sad to realize it was only a dream. I’m coming home in less than ONE MONTH, and, oddly enough, that’s made me miss people more. Maybe it’s because I can practically count down the days until I see them again. It’s a reality now, not just a long and distant future hope.

When I focus on what I am doing here, I am so content. I’m very glad to be a PCV. Overall, I love life in Indonesia. I’ve developed beautiful relationships with my host family, my coworkers, my students and more…I’m glad I have another year to spend with them. But when I think about home I realize that it is a sacrifice being here. I am giving up time I could spend with people at home. At the end of day, my world has expanded. I’ve set down roots in twojkjnk places. I have a rich life here in Indonesia, though I simultaneously miss my former life in Portland and Seattle. But it’s worth it. I’ve been stretched and changed and I’m looking forward to another year of crazy, new experiences before I head off into the great unknown post-Peace Corps (and that’s a hint, don’t ask me what I’m doing after PC because I have no idea!). Thank you, friends and family, for all your support. I’m able to do what I do because I have people helping me by listening to vent (especially my fellow PCVs), encouraging me, praying for me, and occasionally sending me chocolate. For my fellow ID6s, congratulations on one year! We’re doing it.