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.


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