Full of Everything, Full of Nothing

Today was a day! All week we’ve been looking forward to Sunday, our first day off since we began our Peace Corps adventures, though that was only one week ago. This is probably my last blog entry for a while since I’m moving on Tuesday morning to go into my rural training site, so I’m going to make this one a good one. Enjoy!

Frankly, I thought I’d start the day by waking up late and enjoying a lazy breakfast, thanks to the lovely Bintang from last night. Not the case! I woke up at about five and lay in bed until six, then went down to breakfast. I ate and started setting up the recipe blog and managed to write a few letters (haven’t gotten to the PO yet). I dressed and headed down to go out on the town at about 9 o’clock, just in time to say hello to a bunch of PC friends who had just returned from playing soccer with some locals. They excitedly told us about how some students asked to interview them for their English classes at their high schools. We decided to split into two groups for the day, and luckily our bahasa Indonesia guru-guru Ibu E and Ibu N decided to come with my group!!! They’re so amazingly sweet and kind and adorable. I love them. The others, the soccer players, decided to go off on their own…brave souls!

We first decided to visit the patung Obama at the S.D. Mentang. It was very tiny and rather anti-climactic, but we were still excited to see the statue of little Barry. We took a taxi there and three of us (no guru-guru!) were totally flustered because our driver kept speaking very fast bahasa Indonesia to us! He didn’t know how to get there… we had tiga taxsi, so we all stopped so our leader (our driver) could ask the second driver for directions. Whew. When we were standing outside the green gate, some kids rode by in a bejaj and yelled “OBAMA!!!” They were so excited, as were we! Our prez! Hooray!

After seeing Barry we walked for a bit and evenutally caught another tiga taxsi-taxsi to the Kota Tua, the Old Town. Let me just pause here and describe the roads in Jakarta. There are about five million motorcycles in the city alone, tons of bejaj, and many cars and buses (in addition to a public bus lane). There are lane lines painted on the roads, but I don’t think anyone really cares. You see people and motos waving in and out, cars narrowly missing motos crowded with families and children, and buses and taxsi-taxsi crowding each other nearly off the road. Almost all of the roads are three lanes wide, with turn lanes and curves at each corner. At some of the busier places, the stalls and lines of parked motorcycles and empty taxsi or bajaj wait along the edge of the road (ON the road) and people walk by… on the road. Crossing the street… I probably shouldn’t talk about this because my mother will certainly read this. There aren’t any crosswalks in most places and if there are crosswalks, they might as well be invisible. Our Ibu-Ibu would confidently yet slowly stride out into traffic with one hand up implying “Stop!” or maybe “Don’t kill me!” Then, we cross… quickly, or else? It’s insane. Motorcycles don’t even stop, it seems, but just lead you as a target and avoid you as you walk across (I don’t know if that makes any sense; I’ve been up for nearly 18 hours after 4 1/2 hours of sleep. Sorry!). I’m sure it’s like this in most major cities in most third world countries, but I’ve never seen anything like it. The only major city I’ve ever spent any substantial time in is NYC, so that’s all I have to compare with Jakarta; NYC is like Jakarta but busier, faster, dirtier, brighter, sweatier, smellier… you get the point. Anyways, Kota Tua.

Old Town is a big square full of people and centered around some sort of former official building that now serves as a museum. Immediately upon our arrival we were approached by twenty or thirty kids and teenagers who wanted to talk to us for class. The older ones wanted to practice their bahasa Inggris on us by interviewing us and asking short questions such as “Where are you from?” and “What do you like about this country?” We’d then pose for a picture. The younger ones wanted to practice their language with us. I’d estimate that we spent half an hour or more talking with these students and their teachers, right in the middle of the square! It was so interesting. We were immediate objects of attention because we were foreign; I think I counted four foreigners (white males) throughout Jakarta all day long today, which surprised me since we traveled around what seemed to me to be a fairly decently sized area (of course, Jakarta is huge and I’m sure we didn’t see anything). Foreigners, especially white people, are noteworthy. Many of the young ladies were extremely shy and giggly, wanting only to wave at us or snap a quick photo. Some people yelled basic English words and phrases at us, not wanting to engage significantly with us but not wanting to let us pass them by. Of course, many were begging. Adults and teachers on the whole seem to treat us respectfully, especially when they hear us trying to speak bahasa Indonesia.

But I was talking about Old Town! After we talked with the students, we split up into two groups. A couple people went into the museum while the rest of us decided to walk around Kota Tua and look at the buildings. They were, as their name suggests, old and bedraggled. Most of them were abandoned, which is a shame since they are beautiful and full of potential; there’s no money to rebuild and perhaps no desire to do so. Many street vendors crowded the alleys between the delapidated buildings, and we even saw a tattoo artist with an impromptu tattoo parlor out in the open on the side of the street. Yes, he was tattooing as we walked by. As we continued, we made our way out to the edge of Kota Tua and came upon a large river that reeked of sewage (I am very anxious to get out of the city and away from the stench of sewage and rotting garbage). We snapped a few shots and headed back to the square. After meeting up with the others, we chatted with a couple of more people and then decided to head to Chinatown. We walked there… (I think? Maybe we took a bus. We took the bus a few times today, which was great; the Ibu-Ibu helped us with directions and tickets were only Rp 3500 (roughly 35 cents) per. A couple of the buses were air conditioned!)

Chinatown was very provocative. We started out by walking down through the alleys past vendors with dingy pull-carts and piles of rotting garbage. Lots of people, motos, and mobil-mobil crowded the narrow streets until we made our way to a larger area with brightly decorated awnings and a huge Buddhist temple. After asking a local if it was acceptable, we went inside the temple. People were crowded inside, performing their prayer rituals and burning huge handfulls of enormous incense sticks, some as big as baseball bats. The room was red and the Buddhas (and other statues of unknown deities) were golden and gilt, and red candles as tall around as me and a foot and a half or more in diameter burned all around us. There were many offerings of fruit at tea at the base of the altar. The entire place was beautiful and mysterious, but I felt compelled to put my camera away and observe the temple without a viewfinder.

After we left the temple area (but not before we were stopped by a few more bahasa Inggris students), we meandered for a while and saw more of Chinatown’s less glamorous side. There’s so much poverty and garbage around, and anytime we saw standing water it was practically unrecognizable. Other interesting sights… caged birds, a man chopping up frog legs, old women sitting one after the other in the sun, more mangy cats, even more vending carts with unfamiliar foods (we tried some sort of dumpling or other, but were all nervous about getting sick), and many disenchanted locals. After stopping at a grocery and buying some teh botol apel and cementing the phrase berapa hagarnya? (how much is it?) in my mind (empat ribu, Rp 4000, $0.40… the same kind of bottled fruit tea you can buy at Bloomingfoods for $1.79+), we made our way to… a padang restaurant!!

It was just like we read about. The bowls and dishes of foods were piled high in the window and the room was small, dark, and hot. We sat at two tables and were given small bowls of water to rinse our fingers (although we were also fortunate enough to have some hand sanitizer on us; washing our hands in the local water and then eating with our hands, even if we have a utensil, is not the best idea). The Ibu-Ibu were gracious enough to help us “order” our meal. We were given plates of rice and the servers brought about a dozen small dishes of various unrecognizable foodstuffs, which we eventually discovered included: sambal, warm hard boiled eggs with brown sauce, ayam goreng and curried ayam, saucy cow’s hooves, fish goreng, chicken livers, stewed beef, vegetables with yellow sauce, and some sort of vegetable or potato goreng. We also had cow skin crackers which were similar to pork rinds. It was all interesting and delicious, though we were wary of our first meal in a less-than-clean establishment out on the town. After the meal, the server came and asked our teachers to help us figure out the bill based on what we ate; everything left unconsumed in the small bowls went back to the larger bowls in the window, ready for the next customer. After about ten minutes, our tab was delivered; lunch was about $1.30 per person! And that’s it. Nobody in Indonesia tips. We paid and chatted a little bit longer (and I went to the restroom to use my first squat toilet, which was fine. No sprayer, though, just a dipper!). Then, we made our way out of the restaurant and walked on the edge of Chinatown toward our next destination, the National Mosque (Masjid Istiqlal). On the way out of Chinatown, we passed more stalls and walked on the narrow edge of the street, past moving cars and motos as well as tiny stalls and larger shops filled with bags and bags of novelties and candies. We also saw someone selling rambutan, the fruit we were informally challenged to find before the week was up. Though we walked by too quickly to buy any, we noticed the red spiky hairs (rambut) that are its namesake.

After catching another bus and riding through the busy streets, we arrived at the National Mosque. There were silver gates surrounding the grounds and the dome loomed large in the sky with the crescent moon and star minaret. The only opening in the gate was a one-foot wide gap propped open with a block. As we entered and approached, our teachers, especially Ibu N, became increasingly excited. We snapped some pictures in front of the elaborate gold and marble sign before heading toward the main entrance to the mosque itself. We took off our shoes before climbing the creamy marble steps and meeting our security guide at the top. Ibu N said we had to have a guard with us at all times because of bomb threats and security issues, which made sense to me. He led us to the mosque and we first saw it from above, along a balcony that stretched around three sides of the enormous room. There were a few people praying or sleeping sprawled out on the huge floor; the security guard later told us that the mosque can hold almost a quarter of a million people (and does so at the end of Ramadan). The mosque was quiet, dim, and very calming. The women pray at the rear of the mosque and struck me as the most beautiful part of the visit, even more so than the gigantic glass dome and its silvery pillars or the singing during the call to prayer. I haven’t ever seen Muslim women (or men, for that matter) actually in a mosque or preparing to pray. Their white robes (Diana, what are they called?) were so beautiful.

On the way out of the mosque we saw an extremely large drum and a smaller one, both of which are used in a similar way to church bells. We went downstairs and waited for Ibu N to finish her prayers and suggested to our other guru that we might visit the large Catholic cathedral across the street. Both of the Ibu-Ibu said they had never been inside a church, just as I had never been inside a mosque. Many in our small group were familiar with Catholicism, so we told them what we knew and showed them around the cathedral, which was beautiful (but not as unfamiliar as to warrant a long description).

After the visits, we hopped on a bus and went home, finally! We were all rather exhausted and eager to get out of the sun, though nobody got (too severely) dehydrated or sunburned. Score one for team Peace Corps! We took the bus back to the hotel and a few of us went out to buy a cake for one of our fellows who’s celebrating a birthday. We managed to find a chocolatier and purchased a fancy black forest cake for Rp 16,700 ($16.70). Dinner was in the basement of Sarinah’s and it wasn’t too great. I had a mango lassy (which was great) and spicy nasi goreng that didn’t taste like anything but spicy. We walked back sleepily to the hotel, and from what I heard this morning, almost everyone slept the whole night through but still felt a little wonky today, probably from the sun and weather and activity yesterday.


Today was an exciting day of language class, speakers, and finding out our site assignments. Everyone wore their batik shirts and looked lovely. We had fun in language class because the first was taught by our PST director Pak Jack, who had us memorize and practice a dialog about saying hello and politely refusing to enter a stranger’s home. Also, Pak H, our homestay coordinator, spent some more time with us (he went to supper last night, too) and helped us practice our bahasa. The afternoon language class was taught by our regular guru-guru but was interesting because we had an assignment: mewawancarai! We had to go out into the hotel and find someone to interview. Mine went something like this:

S: Selamat siang, bapak. Saya mau Tanya!
My new friend: … O.K.
S: Siapa nama anda?
MNF: Nama saya (name omitted!)
S: Anda berasal dari mana?
MNF: Berasal dari Jawa.
S: Di mana anda tinggal?
MNF: Bekasi.
S: (I bombed this one. I was supposed to say…) Apakah anda punya saudara kandung?
MNF: Ya, saya punya saudara kandung, satu saudara laki-laki dan satu saudara perempuan.
S: Apa pekerjaan anda?
MNF: Saya seorang waiter.
S: Terimakasih banyak! Selamat siang!Anyway, it was supposed to be like that, but it was more like me sweating through my batik and wondering how silly I seemed. It was great, though! I saw MNF later on in the day and said senang jumpa dengan anda (nice to see you)! That was great!

After our later language class we got our homestay assignments! I’ll be living with a couple who has a 16 year old daughter. I’ll be in one of four villages (“clusters”) with four other folks. I’m in a “link” with nine others, but I only see them every couple of days. The only thing I know about my family is that they just moved into this house, which they own, but they wanted so much to have a volunteer stay with them that they moved into this house, which has a spare bedroom (one of the requirements for being a host family). I also learned that the families had to go through an application and screening process in order to have us, as well as providing a separate locked room.

As for me… I’m doing well. A little tired and loopy from our adventures so far, but I’m definitely adjusting. I feel fine, not homesick, not nervous, just excited and happy. Language acquisiton seems easier than I thought it would be and my new friends are all so wonderful. I’m really looking forward to PST and my new homestay; Jakarta has been amazing but I’m not a big city gal.

I don’t think it’s possible to get a better placement than PC Indonesia 1. My fellows are exceptional, as is the country and the people we’ve met, both Indonesian and American, especially those who have been instrumental in our coming here. They’re just as excited as we are !
Well, we just got back from Sarinah’s and I still need to pack and shower before our 4:00 am wake-up call (tonight may be interesting, too; I started my malaria medication today, which can give people wacky hallucinogenic dreams!). We’re flying to Malang tomorrow!!! I don’t know when I’ll next have internet! It’s a grand mystery! However, I should have a mailing address soon.

Leave me a little something to look forward to!


2 thoughts on “Full of Everything, Full of Nothing”

  1. hi there Sam. I”am happy that you are having fun. But you have to remember that when your 27 months are up that you have to come home.(lol) things are going ok here, working seven days a week until the end of april, if I last that long) such a boring life at this time, wish I was there with you. the people of Indonisa dont know how lucky they are to have you. more coments to follow
    take care, love you


  2. yes!! she’s in my group. she’s doing well! she wants you to email her or send her a note in her blog!! we don’t have internet in the village and since we’re always together we end up having internet access at the same times. peace!


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