dog days

red no-school days are always dreaded for their potential for dullness. luckily, i haven’t been in too much pain over the past few free days, thanks to the little moments and tiny adventures that make living here lovely.

the last day we taught before the vacation for lebaran—the big celebration at the end of Ramadan—classes ended early so that the teachers could have a nice… long…really jam-packed with lots of discussion in the high form of Javanese…long… meeting about scheduling holiday activities. i almost cried from boredom, spending the meeting smsing with scott about… well, something along the lines of, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, even if you’re miserable.

it wasn’t a very good demonstration of patience. however, relieving stress by bitching with american friends, as ugly as it usually is, is a good way to deal with crappy situations without involving (and offending) host country nationals. my volunteer friends have a perfect idea of what’s going on in my life. our capacity for mutual empathy is off the charts. i’d rather get the nasty stuff out of my system than reach a breaking point and lose it in front of a counterpart or friend at site.

once the meeting was over, i was calmer, but definitely bitter about the hour and a half i’d never be able to gain back (my frustration was aggravated by the fasting: normally we get snack boxes to help us through). heading home was a good idea for my nerves, so i said goodbye to bu heri. we shook hands, knowing we might not meet again for about a week or so. as i turned away, she said “goodbye, miss. i always miss you.” i texted scott about it, and his reply: “totally worth it.”

now i don’t know how many friends bu heri has besides her coworkers. since i spend more time with her than with other teachers, it stands to reason that she spends a lot of time with me. i hope that she is as challenged and stimulated by our relationship as i am. i know we mean a lot to one another, and building relationships is one of the main reasons i’m doing all of this. there’s nobody here (who’s not a kid) more cherished than bu heri. so, about sitting through the terrible meeting—and slogging through tedious lesson planning sessions, yanking my hair out during communication breakdowns, and feeling too often like i’m pulling teeth, trying to teach an old dog wholly-too-foreign new tricks? totally worth it.

and after saying farewell to bu heri, the lazy vacation days started. i won’t see my students for two weeks. yesterday, i made some great progress with grad school applications and had a nice afternoon snacking and drinking coffee. i get a few days’ break from fasting, since my body is temporarily ‘unclean.’ it is a much welcomed reprieve, though i’m looking forward to continuing the challenge of completing the fast. i’m doing much better than last year; by this point last ramadan my lips were so horribly chapped from dehydration that i had to break down and drink water each of the last ten days or so. up til now, this year, i’m feeling okay.

today, much of the same, internet work and getting application materials ready. i took a trip into town to mail some treats to the states and buy some envelopes for sending in hard copies of application stuff. on the way back home i chatted with a lady on the angkot about her experience working as a housemaid in saudi arabia (though the era of indonesian laborers in that country may be coming to an end). the lady had worked for two families over the course of five years, traveling there all by herself, and had largely positive experiences, though conditions were strict. when she leftindonesia, she said, she had one kid in elementary school and another in middle school. when she came back, the kids were in middle school and high school, respectively. i told her i lasted here for about five months before i started going real off-the-wall crazy to see my friends and family. can you imagine being away for five years?

chatting with the lady was a chance for me to practice the rapid-fire questioning skills i’ve picked up after being on the receiving end of third degree questionings for the better part of a year and a half. i asked her all sorts of things: what’s the weather like, what’s the land like, do saudi people want to learn about or travel to indonesia, what was your language experience like, what’s the food like, how did you get involved in the program, could you travel, what were your daily duties, were you treated well, what’s the migrant worker community like, did you go to mecca, did you start because you needed the money or because you wanted to travel?

she responded graciously. she was initially motivated to work because of her family’s poor economic situation, but her husband forbade her from working in malaysia or singapore. for whatever reason—perhaps safety? or prestige?—she was permitted to work in Saudi Arabia. when a recruiter for the government program, called TKI (Tenaga Kerja Indonesia, Indonesian Work Force; for ladies, TKW, Tenaga Kerja Wanita, Womens’ Work Force) came to her area, she drafted herself, had a medical exam, and got her paperwork in order. she took off a few weeks later.

saudi arabia, she said, is a beautiful place, but when it’s hot, very hot, and when it’s cold, very cold. some saudi people, she decribed, enjoy vacationing in bali when they have the money or if they want to find an indonesian wife (which seemed strange since bali is mostly hindu, and pretty liberal). her employers had traveled before to indonesiaand spoke a little bit of bahasa: she herself grew up reading and studying qur’anic arabic, which is completely different from any of the dialects of modern spoken arabic, so in saudi arabia she spoke a mixture of bahasa, classic arabic, and modern arabic picked up in her daily life. she couldn’t travel at all—whether in-country or back home to indonesia—without permission of her employer, and if she did travel around saudi arabia she had to wear a full burqa-type chadar, covering everything but her eyes in huge drapings of black fabric. still, she had four months off each year, and spent lots of time traveling with her wealthy boss. she was treated well, unlike some migrant workers, who have sadly been beaten or killed by their employers.

but there are more positives, she said, for the lucky folks. there are so many indonesian workers in saudi arabia, she said, that you can find basically any type of food you’d like to eat and you don’t have to search far for friends to make. wealthier households sometimes have multiple laborers, and more often than not the whole staff is indonesian. she did indeed get to go to mecca when she was there, luckily, but didn’t consider it making the pilgrimage (hajj) because she wasn’t going to mecca from her home.

our conversation was presided over by a beautiful and toothless old grandma, swathed in a purple veil, smacking her lips, smiling constantly. i sometimes get down on myself for wanting to be more observant and less active in my interactions with adults—i tend to be a watcher, like the grandma, instead of a bundle of supremely bouncy extraversion—but i was pleased in this instance to notice not only my deeply genuine curiosity for the woman’s experiences but my easy gregariousness. i felt a real lack of concern for any imperfect impressions of my barrage of questions and grammatical acrobatics* made on her. though it gets subtler, cultural adjustment never truly ends; i’m getting more comfortable here.

lazy day evenings, just like school day evenings, are still filled with the charmed and charming neighborhood little ones, playing games, adventuring, and practicing being human. today, a special day: lia’s dad’s homecoming from his two month work stint in kalimantan, doing construction work. though he’s only back temporarily, this was the first time in lia’s nine years of life that she was apart from her father for any substantial length of time. seeing her so happy was a pleasure. plus, i got to see him, too—he’s like my second host dad, very different and much younger from ayah. he sleeps over with bu yati and lia when my host parents are out of town, which can be for weeks at a time.

today he was more social than i’ve ever seen him; it was obvious that he was elated to be home (and not only because survived the terrible, exhausting, malodorous passenger ferry from kalimantan to jawa—i think you know the one i mean). thankfully, he’s now making enough money to do some renovations on their house, where the three of them—lia, bu yati, and pak surat—live with his parents. it’s a dirt-floored place with woven bamboo walls, a wood-burning stove, two bedrooms, and an open-air kamar mandi with a tilted concrete water basin and a plastic bucket for standing in while bathing. they’re presently rebuilding the living room walls with brick, which will be a lovely improvement, especially appreciable when the heavy rains return in a couple of months. paksurat will be able to stick around for a few weeks at most, but it seems as if the family’s sacrifice will be worth it, and at least he doesn’t need to go as far as saudi arabia.



*yes, the whole conversation was in Indonesian. we peace corps volunteers are badasses. and now it’s time for a long aside… i had a great moment in surabaya a couple weeks ago during the mid-service conference—a moment of realizing how far i’ve come with my language and communication skills.

i had gone  to the mall to break the fast with some friends before my mid-service dental appointment, scheduled for seven. i had planned to head to the dentist’s office alone, in a taxi, from the mall.  the address i stuffed into my purse before leaving the hotel (rule number one of taxi traveling in a non-english speaking country: before you leave, write down where you need to go. bring it with you; you don’t need any language skills to show it to the cabbie). but i failed to notice that when i ran back upstairs to my room to unload a couple of books, i unloaded the slip of paper with the address on it. as luck would have it, the moment i realized this was when i was escalating down to the line of cabbies in front of the mall, t-minus twenty five minutes to dental appointment, no time to go back to the hotel, no clue about the dentist’s name or the name of the street. all i remembered that it was somewhere near my hotel and there was a banking complex—bank mega—on the corner.

i explained it all to a cabbie at the front of the row of waiting taxis: i’m going to the dentist, it’s on a side street somewhere within walking distance of the hotel i’m staying at, and there’s a bank on the corner. he knew the area, he said, and i believed him: he was a friendly and older gentleman (sometimes the young whippersnappers like to say they know where you mean just to get your fare. you end up going around in circles or stopping at each corner to ask for help as the meter racks up the rupiah and the cabbie tries to find your destination). amused by my plight and charmed by what i can only assume he saw as my silly-young-girlishness, he was ultimately endeared to me, if a little slightly patronizing.

i planned to text a fellow volunteer for the address while we were en route, but, as per newton’s laws, my phone died just as i tried to send the message. so, the cabbie just took me to the dentist that he thought i was talking about. i had no idea if it was the right one; where you find one dentist inindonesia, you find a bunch more, and always on the same street. there were some guys resembling security guards standing on the curb in front of this one, though, and, knowing that all volunteers had dental appointments at this same place, i asked them if they had seen any foreigners around. they had. they mentioned andrea’s name. i was in the right place. problem solving skills and marvelous language abilities be praised! success! and i did it alone!

the trip was a sweet victory and a nice chance to see proof—an actual result—of growth and progress. i still remember the way my heart beat and my brow broke into a cool sweat the first time i rode an angkot alone inmalang, after three months of riding the very same route from my homestay to campus, always together with my entire training group. in surabaya, from the time i realized on the escalator that i didn’t have the address to the time i walked though the dentist’s door, i didn’t even flinch.


great ideas

hey, do you have any questions? like bart and noel, i’m fielding questions from my, ahem, readership. i’ll answer probably anything, about peace corps, indonesia, islam, my life here, teaching english, or other stuff, like snub-nosed golden monkeys, how to build a good campfire, or the benefits of daily sitting. comment here or send questions via facebook. my mind grapes will do their best.


influence, influence

something new: i’m tutoring a college sophomore in English, at my house. he’s an amazing kid from the next town over from my village. he wants to become a veterinarian in korea or the states, so his tefl scores need to be high. luckily i can help him out… for free.* to protect the the innocent, i’ll call him the kid.

when i first arrived here, lots of students came by asking for private English lessons. they’d hear a rumor that a foreigner was here and assume that i’d be offering or selling lessons. at that time i was very averse to the idea; i was so busy adjusting and working on lesson planning for school that i couldn’t afford to spend time that way. i couldn’t see the efficiency of working with one or two students for even a few short hours a week—i was focused on giving group lessons or starting English clubs so that i could reach more kids.  plus, i needed evenings to myself, for downtime.

but now, things are different. this kid, my student, showed up one evening at my front door. he requested lessons for the months of his summer vacation from college. he didn’t use any Indonesian during the conversation—something the others didn’t do—even when he had to struggle a little bit for Norm to find the file. he had a specific idea of what he wanted to study as well as a clear idea of why he needed to improve his English. he came to my house three times before he caught me at home.

this was back in June. since i knew Ramadan was coming and the lessons would be temporary, and because the kid seemed very with it and motivated,
i agreed to teaching the private lessons. i had been looking for a way to fill my extra hours since extra-curriculars hadn’t yet started at school (still haven’t). i had also come to realize that working one-on-one with somebody isn’t any less valuable than working with a group, though it may not fit the ideal model of sustainable development in the pc sense. i agreed to help, acceding that a few hours a week of extra English practice could open some very big doors for this kid.**

the kid rides his motorcycle over to my house a few days a week, in the afternoons, and we work on conversation, grammar, and vocabulary. we use the grammar bible—azar—and I share magazines, science articles, and books. it’s been lovely getting to know him. his English is already great; besides the English teachers at my school, his language is the best in town. we’re learning lots and i’m getting the chance to teach some higher level grammar stuff (noun clause? let me look that up real quick).

it’s so strange to think of myself as occupying a big place in a young person’s life, which i’m sure i do being for many of them the first foreigner they’ve ever met. even stranger is to think of how i’m (potentially, negatively, positively) influencing these kids. of course, as teachers, we do indeed make impressions on our students, but teachers with whom we have very close one-on-one relationships are all the more influential. my two flute instructors, Stephanie and Carmen, were a couple of the most influential people during my adolescence; they taught my private lessons. i can confidently say that if i hadn’t known Stephanie, i would not have moved toIndiana. that’s a huge amount of life-changing influence. those two ladies had an enormous impact on me in other ways, too,, more so than most if not all of my high school teachers (and my teachers’ influence was considerable).

it’s hubristic to think that i’m influencing this kid in the same way as Stephanie did me, though nice to think that there’s a possibility of it, or a possibility of having a small fraction of that type of positive influence. i know the value of having in your life an older person who’s a young adult, not too much older than you, who’s a good role model, a source of inspiration, someone different than you to help expand your mind. someone still relatively young and hip.*** given the range of our topics of conversation—colonialism, pop culture, plastic surgery, American and Indonesian history, love and marriage, genealogy, religion—i’m sure he’s learning more than just English.

peace corps volunteers can have huge influence. that’s undeniable. one of the pcvs in my group, luke, met a pcv in his small village inPolandwhen he was a child. luke moved to the states when he was fifteen and always remembered that pcv. now, he’s a volunteer himself. of course, that’s a horribly abridged version of the story, but you see.

so, i wouldn’t have moved toIndianaif it weren’t for Stephanie. back to me and the kid. what if this kid gets a motivation boost from me, studies English until he’s nutty, passes the tefl test with flying colors (because he’s only got a short way to go before his ability is high enough for this to happen), goes to korea to study and work, and then says he wouldn’t have done it if it weren’t for me? even the possibility of that happening—however slim or great—is a huge motivation for me. i know how amazing it is to achieve the dream of working and living abroad. if i could help one kid do this, or be the final push he needs towards ensuring that he makes it happen for himself, i’d consider this pc service a job well done.

of course, that would be a very concrete piece of evidence that i have influenced my students. thinking about the tiny ways in which i influence them, especially
the very young ones, is strange. like, realizing fifteen years after the fact the ways that babysitters or older cousins positively or negatively influenced me, or remembering the sense of loss when one of them faded out of my life. and what do i remember about them? i told lauren once about how i remembered a lady named sandee, a college-aged supervisor at my elementary day care. i remember she had short blonde hair and wore grey sweatshirts a lot, and could make neat sound effects. weird, huh? but i remember her being very positive and loving, a good force, a cool role model. did i aspire to be a blonde, sweatshirt-clad voice actor? obviously no. there was something more subtle, something less easy to pinpoint.

what will the kids i teach here remember about me, after i disappear from their daily lives? will any of them end up doing something great and saying—like i do
about Stephanie—if it weren’t for sam, i wouldn’t be where i am today? or will they remember me as influencing them in more subtle ways? either way, that’s sustainability, creating positive change that lasts long after i’ve gone. this is why the relationships i have with these kids are the most important part of my life here. of course, it makes me feel like i’m working all the time and pressuring myself to perform, to go outside and interact when i want (and sometimes need) to stay in and relax, but… in the end, what’s better than hanging out with kids all day? it’s good for the kids and good for the soul, and it’s the real path to sustainable change.^



*i did take the new harry potter off of his computer, though. and requested that he help me teach les to the little kids. promoting volunteerism! excellent!

**some of the kids who came to my door back when i first arrived could barely speak any English. i wonder what the ethical debate would look like about refusing to spend large amounts of one-on-one time with students who have studied for years but have no grasp of basic English versus jumping at the chance to spend large amounts of time with someone who has advanced skills in the language. of course, very big doors could be opened for any Indonesian kid who becomes proficient in English, and i’d like to help them all. but based on the pc framework, i don’t have to give private lessons, and anyways, can tutoring one student be considered sustainable development work (it is direct skills transfer)? does this fit into the project goal of working with youth to help improve their employability? does it count if it’s one kid? i can probably get the kid closer toward his absolutely achievable goal in the short amount of time i’m here than if i was starting with someone else from square one, someone who may be less motivated or capable to continue studying on their own once i’m gone, someone who may want to work abroad but would need to put more work into their English than a couple extra hours a week. is it justifiable for me to have turned the others away but to have accepted the kid as my student? if the others had shown up again now that i’ve adjusted and have extra time, would i teach them? maybe. bottom line: tutoring him is better than not tutoring him, and my time is available.

***i wear chucks now.

^coming soon: what is change, who’s changing what under whose terms, what are the positive and negative changes i’m making and experiencing, and who says what i’m doing is right at all? i’m still not convinced that this peace corps thing isn’t some weird sort of neo-colonialism or feel-good political insurance policy. stand by!


i’ve been writing a few little paragraphs here and there, but nothing worth posting. the new school year and the new (positive) feeling of the pressure of time have been keeping me very busy, as have our mid-service conference, preparing to take the gre, working on essays for various applications, and lots of delicious reading. i’ve spent a fair amount of time preparing a few packages, letters, and post cards to send home, too, though i haven’t been able to get to the post office. here’s to this week.

my new students are fun though adjusting to the change has been tricky. the students are adapting to me and i’m still getting over the sadness of seeing last year’s kids move on. unfortunately, i haven’t even met all of my new students: we’re building two new classrooms and while we wait the 10th grade students i’m supposed to teach have been distributed amongst the other 10th grade classes, which i don’t teach. but my other sections are 11th graders, whom i’ve met and teach for all their English hours. getting to know them is nice. there’s an additional challenge of trying to read the kids and identify who may have special needs; there’s no real system of support for kids with special needs, at least in more rural areas of the country. as much as i disagree with some of the ways students with special needs are served in our country, a poor system is better than nothing, and the situation here seems a shame (from my perspective).

but there are positives. so far, everything about this new school year is easier than last year. it seems simple enough that year two would be easier, but it’s impossible to imagine accurately just how profound the difference is. i’ve been describing to some of the volunteers who experienced their first year of teaching last year that i feel just as green as if i hadn’t had any experience teaching in the states, especially in a formal setting; though i had a decent grasp on basics, co-teaching a new subject to an unfamiliar demographic was just as difficult as my first year. now, i’ve got more language, more good jokes to please indonesian teens, lesson plans to reflect on and adjust, and lots more motivation because i know what to expect. that’s the biggest difference—i feel so much more in control because i now have the foresight to understand that there’s little i can control beyond myself.

and then there are those good things on the horizon: workshops for teachers, textbook collaborations, English camps, a big leadership summit. feeling the pressure of nine months is a good way to focus rambunctious energies.

thusly i plod, loving and supporting the students and trying to stay patient with everyone else (including myself). please send me a little positivity so i can find the time and dedication to keep updating this for you.

xo. sam.

happy independence day, august 17