A Holiday Story

I came upon the holidays with a certain level of dread. Now, don’t get me wrong, this is far from unusual. For those of you who know me, you know I’ve got a pretty classic case of Grinch with a pinch of extra bitter when it comes to Christmas. I’ve never had anything against Thanksgiving, though. I tend to like our Southern-style and tex-mex menu as we all crowd into one small house and pick up any strays that Santa Cruz has to offer. New Years… eh. Almost always a disappointment. So I tend to expect very little from the “Holiday Season” as a whole.

But you know what’s funny? Something we all know too well: You never really appreciate what you had until it’s gone. As November reared its ugly head I knew I was in trouble.

Look how fancy and special!!

Look how fancy and special!!

As IST came to a close we got an invitation for everyone in the Barat Pack (those volunteers living in West Java) to head out to the home of Ms. Kristen Bauer, US Charge d’Affaires in Jakarta. (No, I don’t know what that really means or what she does on the regular, but doesn’t it just sound classy??) We were all stoked for the opportunity to schmooze with some diplomats so the RSVP was unanimous and resoundingly excited.

It’s about two hours to Jakarta from Bandung by train and for me to get to Bandung is more than a little bit of a trek so instead of lumping the whole journey into a day I met up with some pals in Bandung. One of my nearest and dearest, Girl Alex (there are a lot of Alex’s in PC Indo, we have to distinguish somehow), and a regular Barat Packer, Dan, met up with me in the Big City. We had a grand ol’ time at our usual haunts of delicious Western food and spent some extra time shooting zombies at a local arcade. Because, y’know, I’m still about 8 years old on the inside.

The tongue helps master the art.

The tongue helps master the art.

When we arrived at our hostel the next day I was happily surprised at the epic nature of our little hostel. This isn’t saying overly much, as I have not seen many hostels in my day, but this was certainly a backpacker’s heaven. There was a pool table, Game Center, and mini-movie area downstairs as well as an adorable little roof garden. I wasn’t in Jakarta long so I didn’t get time to explore very much but I did enjoy a very nice taco and some tequila shots, so I would say that’s plenty enough exploring for this gal.

Soon enough we are all scampering about trying to discern what “Smart Casual” means. It was certainly one of those moments when I was missing my American ensemble. You come here and get so used to the local fashion of batik as formal that when you’re faced with trying to look western-style classy again you’re sort of at a loss. I fumbled through alright, in the end, with some help from my ladies on hair.

Dude. Look at that house. It's huge.

Dude. Look at that house. It’s huge.

We piled into three taxis to try and find our way to Ms. Bauer’s house. After a few failed attempts and circling the block for a bit we stumbled out of the cars to the armed guard and giant walls that could only signal a dignitary’s abode. We showed ID and had our names checked off of a list as we filed into the grounds. I did very well in resisting every urge I had to make an unreasonably large number of comments on being on “THE list” and having my people call their people. You should all be very proud.

After living in a desa for so long I think I forgot myself and how to act in such situations because my jaw nearly hit the floor when I saw the size of her house. Easily a mansion, exquisitely furnished and decorated. You walked into the front room to a grand piano that looks seldom used and continued into one of the two sitting rooms while the caterer was setting up the food in the dining room. Never in my life have I felt more out of place than in that moment, feeling like a small and relatively poor girl from a village who had to scramble to find anything appropriate to wear and sometimes forgets English words after being in the desa too long. But as I walked in and loosened up a bit (red wine may have aided in said relaxing) I realized all of these people were a joy. Ms. Bauer was there with her husband as well as a gaggle of Returned PCVs (RPCVs) who now worked in Indonesia for the American Government in a number of capacities. We were fortunate enough to even have the new Ambassador show up for an hour or two. He had just arrived in the country a week prior and turned out to be quite a charming gentleman.

Happy Holidays from PC Indo! Aren't we the cutest??

Happy Holidays from PC Indo! Aren’t we the cutest??

As lovely as it was to get all dressed up with everyone and meet new people, I was honestly just there for the food. I can say this with a growing level of certainty as I look back on that evening and my mouth still waters. It was a perfect American Thanksgiving feast. It started with a fabulous squash salad, then came the Turkey (First Thanksgiving where I actually ate some!), followed by corn casserole, mashed potatoes, mashed sweet potatoes, cooked veggies, and even individual sized apple pies and pumpkin pie mousse. When they opened the trays you could sense the anticipation from every PCV in that room as we pretended politely to listen to the Ambassador speak before we ate.

We spent the rest of the night chatting and eating and enjoying the complimentary wine until heading back to the hostel to hang out on the roof for a bit. I went home not long after and returned to desa life, leaving the extravagance of the big city behind for a bit.

As Christmas loomed it’s ugly head ever nearer Courtney, Girl Alex, and I decided to stay a little closer to home for this vacation and try to do something relaxing and, above all, cheap. In keeping with these ideals, some folks came to my neck of the woods and we rented a little beach house for Christmas! We managed to drag along our friends AJ from the West and Steven from the East.

The only way to spend time at the beach: build a sand recliner and chillax under an umbrella.

The only way to spend time at the beach: build a sand recliner and chillax under an umbrella.

I went up to Bandung to collect everyone and escort them to my site, as it can be a little tough to get here if you’ve never been. We set up camp at our little house on my favorite tourist beach, Sayangheulang, and immediately began to embrace beach bum life. I don’t think Court spent more than 5 hours away from the beach at any given time and she most certainly left a few shades darker. I could most frequently be found hidden under my umbrella, usually fully clothed, and with more sunscreen than is really useful to keep me safe from that equator sun. I, unfortunately, did not come away completely unscathed but I did the best I could. (Special shout out to my family from everyone here in appreciation for the two bottles of SPF 50 we went through! Maybe some aloe in the next package?)

It was a marvelous blur of building our very own Christmas tree, making bonfires on the beach, watching the stars twinkle in and out behind clouds, and cooking delightfully delicious western inspired meals.

At the end of the week we all returned to stay in my tiny house for a few days to save money. We still cooked on our own and even walked to a nearby beach one day. Before we left for Bandung for New Years we topped off our Christmas extravaganza with a spa day! That’s right, folks, I have a little salon in my village that does an amazing “Cream Bath”. Basically you get a deep conditioner and a pretty killer scalp massage and arm massage. All of that goodness for $7.50. BAM. That’s a lot for me, but I just wanted you Americans to be jealous for a second.

Look at these ladies! Ready for anything!

Look at these ladies! Ready for anything!

New Years, for once, did not let me down. We spent far too long traveling the circuitous, serpentine road and all but Aji proceeded to pass out as soon as we checked in to our lovely home-away-from-home hostel. After rising from our near comatose states, we ladies got cute as can be for our New Years adventures.

We found Aji (he has a marvelous habit of wandering wherever his little heart will take him) and had a pleasant dinner at our favorite local eatery. Not too pricey with some lovely pasta and reasonably priced booze. (It’s always happy hour there. It’s a magical place…) I had a craving to dance like a crazy woman, so we took our leave of our little red signed place (after 6 months I still can’t remember the name) at around 11:30 and went to a club not far away. It was loud, over crowded, the beer was ungodly expensive, there was a cover charge, and I loved it. Even without tourists everywhere it oozed this sense of raucous American nightlife that I had so been craving. It’s not something I desire very often, but sometimes you need a dose of irresponsibly loud music to remind you you don’t really like it all that much. We danced and were merry on the floor as the DJ rang in the New Year with very little pomp or circumstance while we watched from our rooftop debauchery as fireworks erupted over the Bandung skyline.

Aji took a dive over the three of us for this photo op. Ever the funny man.

Aji took a dive over the three of us for this photo op. Ever the funny man.

Courtney and Girl Alex were not feeling top notch after the long ride and a crippling stomach bug so they opted to return to their cozy beds shortly after midnight. Aji and I, however, had other plans. We bounced between bars and clubs like hyper charged ping pong balls. (Anyone remember the movie Flubber? Yeah. Now you’re with me.) Someone made the mistake of letting loose two like minded people on the city at New Years after months of conservative seclusion in little desas. Once places started to shut down around us, we decided it might be a good idea to amble on back to the inn. We grabbed some grub from a local mini-mart and giggled our way back to the hostel where, as luck would have it, Girl Alex was just calling her cab to get her to the airport on time. We ate our coco-puff inspired cereal (sorry Kevin…) and drank our lemon water and proceeded to raise a weary Alex’s spirits at 4:30a. After a fond farewell to our final Eastern comrade we proceeded to our respective sleeping areas and promptly passed out. Of course, I woke up mid afternoon the next day and had a lovely FaceTime with my family in which I still had on last night’s make-up and earrings. Totally respectable adult, here.

Aji and Court and I spent the day bonding and laughing and watching The Hobbit 2 (totally worth it) before we said our good-byes the next day. I hustled to the bus station the next morning and managed to grab the direct line back to my site. Approximately 6 hours later, over the aforementioned serpentine and circuitous road, I happily greeted my host family and retreated into the quiet confines of my room, whence I have yet to emerge.

I love people and I love my friends. I love vacation and, as it so happened, I loved this year’s holiday season. But even with all of that, there is this void, a marked hole where Christmas used to be. As much as I do loathe the idea of what the holiday has become, I love my family and its traditions. I love that I’m the only one who insists on bringing down every stuffed animal we have acquired over my and my sister’s lifetimes. I love that my mother still gets all stupid over every single ornament. I love that Kevin reads to us every Christmas Eve and that my sister and I, until this year, have never once spent a Christmas Eve apart. Not even in separate rooms. Not even in separate beds anymore. In all my 26 years I’ve never spent a Christmas away from my family. The one Christmas I had to be away for the day, my mom postponed the entire holiday until I got home. Even when I was a bratty teenager I showed up; when I was a punky college kid, I never missed it. But now, as I (somewhat) mature, I find that I missed it when it mattered the most. What this boils down to is that, until I get home in 2015, I don’t get to have a proper Christmas. I don’t get the stuffed animals and the family snuggles and the weird ornaments we’ve collected over the years. I tried to replace them this year and, while I came out with something fun, it was not my Christmas. It was a pale shadow of a tradition that, as it turns out, I hold very close to my heart.

Lest I leave you on such a sad note, let me remind myself to think of this time as its own version of reality. Sure, I don’t get the Christmas I treasure, but I get different versions of the holiday. I got a delightful New Years and a mouth wateringly tasty Thanksgiving. There will always be a level of difficulty when it comes to my beloved American Holidays (Valentine’s is coming up and I have to say, I’m not too sad to live without that one. St. Patrick’s will be a little rough, though…) but I traded them in for Ramadan and Indonesian Independence Day. A different sort but exciting in its own new and adventurous way. And, ultimately, this experience made me realize how much those silly experiences mean to me and how much I can’t wait to get home and be my Grinchy self again. (Note: My heart DID NOT grow three sizes. It stayed the same Grinchy size.)

A Vacation Worth Fighting For, Conclusion

I know I took some 90's kids back with this one.

I know I took some 90’s kids back with this one.

Of course we made it to the island safely. Don’t be dumb. I wouldn’t be writing this if we hadn’t. Unless I was ghost writing. Literally, not figuratively. Like that awesome show from the 90’s.

Anyways. I slept through most of the second half of the boat ride from Hell so I didn’t revisit my Pop Mie. That was a reunion no one wanted to see.

I popped my head up at one point and saw in the far distance the shape of the island beginning to appear on the horizon. I can only imagine how welcome a site that would be if you had been at sea for weeks or months. Those old sailors get so many kudos from this girl because I was elated to see land again after only 6 or 7 hours.

Karimunjawa literally means “a stone’s throw from Jawa” in the local dialect of Javanese. It’s a small archipelago which consists of about 27 islands and it’s 80 km (50 miles) from Jepara.

Since we had hitched a ride with a supply boat we were deposited onto the local harbor, not the tourist entrance. We slowly recovered our land legs, paid the man, and began a brief exploration of the island to find another homestay. Our biggest goal is always cost, obviously, so when our original place was booked and the next asked for $20 per room, we high tailed it to the furthest homestay possible. Matt took a trip down a side street and found a kind Ibu (Vocab: female head of house) willing to let us stay in two rooms for the two nights we were in town. There was no A/C, but we’re Peace Corps volunteers. We don’t need no stinking cool air! So we thought.

Look at that moon! And the water! And the mountain! Agh!

Look at that moon! And the water! And the mountain! Agh!

Matt and Brie took us to a little cove near this massive hotel about 30 minutes’ walk away from our homestay to begin our paradise vacation. It had a stellar view, a private beach (aptly named Nirvana Beach), and an adorable vibe. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t afford it even when I had a real job, but it was nice to pretend for a minute.

On the way back from our imaginary life we came across a half abandoned shack with advertisements of snorkeling and boat rentals. After poking around for a moment a shirtless man came running out of the house to greet us. We spoke with him for a while and haggled the price until he ultimately agreed to rent us a boat for the entirety of the next day with snorkeling gear and a guide.

We finished up the night with the cutest dinner at the alun alun (Vocab: sort of like a town square) where the boys picked their own freshly caught fish and I feasted on Mie Goreng (sort of like Chow Mein, it’s a fried noodle dish) and some tempe. (don’t judge me) We grabbed our food from one of the many street vendors and sat on a tarp to watch the people gather while the cats and ducks scavenged for anything they could steal. After we ate our fill we returned to our modest accommodations and proceeded to find out none of us would sleep a wink in the heat. The boys spread out on the couches in the living room and the tile floors to try and escape the heat while Brie and I left the door open and slept facing the fan as she occasionally spritzed us with water to cool off. Needless to say, when 6a rolled around we were all ready to get out of that house. I should probably mention that Karimunjawa doesn’t have electricity during the day. That’s right, folks. This quaint and darling little island has just enough electricity to power the villages for the evening hours. So, with a half charged phone and no plans of using it we set out for the harbor!

Tut tut, looks like rain.

Tut tut, looks like rain.

We bought lunch to bring with us at a local warung (Vocab: small, local eatery) for ourselves as well as the guide and the guy driving the boat (Sailor? Pilot? Boat driving guy?), as is custom in these ventures, and set sail for Pulau Cendikian. (Literally translated from Javanese to mean the Island of the Wise. No idea what the story is there, I’ll have to get it next time.) Because this is the trip of ridiculous travel, as we set sail what do we see in the distance? Nothing other than pouring rain from a dark cloud. The guide asked us if we minded going through the rain. He assured us that once we got to the island it would be clear again. At this point, we were ready for anything. Onward!

While the view ahead of us was less than comforting, looking back on the island as we sailed away was one of the most peaceful and beautiful things I’ve ever seen. The mountains loomed over the bluest waters I could imagine. It was all covered in vibrant greens and lined with brilliant white sandy beaches. It couldn’t possibly get any better than this…

Looking away from the rain to find the picture of paradise.

Looking away from the rain to find the picture of paradise.

We passed through the storm, as promised, unharmed and barely phased. The trip to Pulau Cendikian took about 45 minutes. Our guide kept assuring us that the island would be nigh deserted because most tourists don’t like to travel that far. On our way out we passed several smaller islands, some deserted and others with small huts. They all looked cute but our guide was taking us to the prime snorkeling location.

You could see straight to the bottom from the side of the boat!

You could see straight to the bottom from the side of the boat!

For those of you who know me even a little well or read my blog on Bali, you’ll know I have a completely understandable fear of Lake Monsters. (Lake Monsters defined as anything remotely creepy that lives in a lake, pond, puddle, river, ocean, sea, sound, inlet, etc… It usually has tentacles and can often kill and eat you, but not always.) HOWEVER, I was determined to go snorkeling even if it killed me!

We geared up and everyone jumped off the boat. Matt had brought some waterproof pouches for our phones so we could try to take pictures underwater. We were both a little too chicken to test those out at first so I stayed onboard to take pictures of folks jumping in the water. And maybe also because I was about to get in water with living creatures. Like, ones that were close and that I could see.

After the initial shock of being in natural water in which I could not touch the bottom wore off, I really rather enjoyed myself. The guide was right, this was the most amazing coral I had ever seen. The colors were vibrant and it was teeming with life. I discovered my new favorite color in this deep, royal purple fish that swam by. Brie found a giant sea urchin looking creature with what looked like tentacles. When we showed our guide he immediately made it very clear if we touched it we would die. I saw more fish in more colors than I knew existed in every shape, size, and variety. We stayed in the water for an hour or more, the whole time I was buzzing around singing “A Whole New World” in my head, completely awestruck by the beauty below.

Brie in her natural habitat.

Brie in her natural habitat.

Eventually we decided to head in to shore. Jel, our guide, showed us the only safe route to the beach and we followed him in (navigating carefully through a gate made of trees planted firmly amongst the coral) while the boat made its way closer to our location. We are a perpetually nomadic group of wanderers so, of course, we began walking. Next thing I know I look up to see Brie parked in the middle of this vast expanse of sand bar peaking above crystal clear water. It’s like a scene from a movie. We all laid out in the water (which later proved to be a poor life choice for my skin) and relaxed as the waves lapped over us.

We had our lunch on the boat and continued to our next destination. We snorkeled in another spot that proved fun but not quite as amazing as the first. Although, I did get to see Sea Anemone filled with little families of clown fish right on the great abyss. No wonder Marlin was so afraid of it. The sea is filled with the bustle of life and then this drop into nothingness. It’s freaky. We got out to walk around this island too, but at this point I had come to realize my extra strength sunscreen was not invincible. In other words, I was burned to a bright red crisp. It hurt to move and every second the sun touched my skin I was in pain. I stopped about half way around the island to retreat to a shady spot and wait for the others to finish their trek.

Our outlines while standing on a beach with no island against a sun setting on paradise.

Our outlines while standing on a beach with no island against a sun setting on paradise.

We were promised a beautiful sunset, so Jel led us to a sandbar in the middle of the ocean. You heard me right, we parked the boat (weighed anchor? Don’t judge me. I don’t do boat terminology!) and hopped right out into the shallows. He called it “the beach with no island.” We played around there for a while, relaxing in the water and watching the sun set slowly into one of the many islands nearby.

We polished off the night with another fresh picked fish meal (and tempe) on the alun alun and returned to our sweltering establishments. Of course, most of us were also sunburned this time so the previous misery was ten fold.

We woke up early and decided to come full circle by spending our final morning on Nirvana Beach. The boys played soccer with a found ball and palm trees for a goal; Brie reclined in the water; I hid in the shade; and Matt floated here and there, hiding from sunlight and putting his chair in the water. On the way to the boat we realized we would need some sort of lunch so we stopped at a local eatery to take some food to go. It was about then we realized we were running late and the boat was about to leave without us. We shook ourselves from our paradise-induced coma of calm and rushed the poor warung women into a frenzy as Brie ran ahead to hold the boat.

T stayed behind with Alex to finish paying the bill while Matt and I hustled to catch up to Brie. We were running along with our full luggage on our backs when suddenly I remembered I have asthma. And that I had forgotten my inhaler at home. So, that put an immediate end to running for me and Matt carried my things onto the boat. We got there and remembered it’s Indonesia (rubber time!) which meant we could have strolled at a leisurely pace and been just fine. Silly Americans.

The speed boat took a mere 5 hours to get us to Semarang, to the place that sort of began it all. We bargained forever to get a reasonable rate on a taxi and finally found our way to the bus terminal to head to Surabaya (see number 7 below).

I'm talking about a looooota places. Here's a play by play!

I’m talking about a looooota places. Here’s a play by play!

This would be known as the closest thing to beat the bus ride to Jepara. As I may have mentioned a few times, we’re a cheap bunch of volunteers. We get paid an average of $2 a day. We cut corners, skimp on necessities, and bargain like mad. This is not always the brightest of ideas. We opted out of the Air Conditioned nice bus for the jam packed alternative. It was supposed to be a direct night bus, but little did we know we had signed up for something more akin to the Knight Bus from Harry Potter. At one point I looked up from my puddle of sweat to realize we were driving on the wrong side of the road. Apparently the traffic was so bad on the left that the driver had decided to pass as many trucks as he could by driving on the shoulder of the right side of the road. In case the traffic from hell and the driver from HP wasn’t enough, some time around 2a I was awoken by a loud bang, smoke streaming from the back of the bus, and an exploded lightbulb crashing down a few seats ahead of me. It would seem that all the intense driving and the insane heat caused the bus to overheat which in turn started a small engine fire and shorted the lights. You know, no big deal. I have never seen a group of Indonesians move as quickly as they did to get off that bus. Maybe it says something about us that we were all the last off the bus, dazed, half asleep, and wide eyed. Of course as we were disembarking in pitch blackness (remember, the lights exploded), T slipped on the stairs and cut his finger open. Good ol’ momma bear me rushed back onto the bus (there was significantly less smoke now) to grab my travel first aid kit and wash his wound road side. I stood there trying my best not to be ungodly amounts of angry while telling myself that asking questions would help no one. We had to wait a mere 20 minutes or so until the driver decided it was time to make it happen. He, along with a group of passengers, pushed the bus until it started up again. Everyone rushed to climb aboard and we were back on our way. Seems legit?

Just wasting time with friends. What could be better?

Just wasting time with friends. What could be better?

We finally arrived at the bus terminal in Surabaya at 4a, awoke some poor taxi driver from his slumber, and found our way to our hotel. Lest something be easy, we arrived to find all of our rooms had been changed and that Brie wasn’t even on the list. After 10 minutes or so of trying to communicate with the front desk guy, who started calling around to our friends to ask them questions… at 4a… I was ready to flip a table. Instead of doing so (It’s culturally inappropriate to lose your temper here. Also, there were no free tables around.) I told Brie to grab her stuff and sleep in my bed that night. Luckily, I had been texting my roomie all night and knew which room I was in. Upon arriving to this conclusion we left to the boys to their own devices and promptly passed out sharing a twin bed.

The next week is a blur of training sessions and amazing food. The first night I was there for dinner I passed on the provided Indonesian food in favor of a local Indian place. It was followed by Italian, American, and junk food over the subsequent nights. There was a Starbucks at the nearby mall that I make no pretenses about being unabashedly happy to see. I walked in, got a Vanilla Latte and a piece of chocolate mousse cake! That may sound like your average American morning, but it’s such a rare treat here. I was aghast at paying 60.000 Rupiah ($6) for the package. I could feed my whole family for a week for that much money in the desa! Matt, T, and I even led a successful quest for McDonald’s breakfast one day. I’m not ashamed to say I loved every greasy bite of it.

It was absolutely amazing to see everyone in one place again after three months without them. Our group is so big, it’s hard to get everyone together; even in Bali there were people missing. It’s amazing how sometimes it’s enough just to be surrounded by like-minded people who love you. We didn’t even need to go out every night, we were content to gather in someone’s hotel room and play games, watch movies, or just talk.

Me and my friends made our own costumes! Meet Thor, Wonder Woman, and (of course) Batman!

Me and my friends made our own costumes! Meet Thor, Wonder Woman, and (of course) Batman!

We threw a Halloween party that included most of the ID7s and some of our predecessors, the ID6s. I don’t think I’ve ever explained the numbers before. See, each group in country gets a number. We are the 7th group to be in Indonesia. This is a little misleading, however, since the first three groups were in 1963-5. The new program started up again in 2010 with ID4. ID7 is, therefore, the fourth group in country since PC Indonesia was reopened. You get to be wicked close to your group but it’s always fun to intermingle. I love any opportunity to see the 6’s! So, we had a blast at our Halloween mixer. I made my very own Batman costume (obviously), the inspiration for which is a costume an elementary school kid would make. I think I was successful. The only downside to this lovely shindig is when I pulled one of my epic Margaux Moments. I was B-lining toward the door on a mission when I tripped on a tiny, camouflaged stair and went sprawling. I landed on another stair that decided my kneecap should really be more acquainted with my shin bone. I spent much of the rest of the party sitting with my leg elevated. Those of us who live in West Java were supposed to be on a train to Purwakarta (see number 8 on the map) the next morning at 6a. I called the doctor who very much insisted this would not be happening for me. Needless to say, I was more than a little unhappy about this turn of events.

Epic Margaux Moment

Epic Margaux Moment

The doctor demanded I have X-Rays after examining my baseball sized knee. She was worried about a possible fracture to the kneecap, which would quite unfortunate. I agreed to head in, I let her wrap up the knee, and I even kept it elevated with an ice pack. Much more than I’ve done for a wound in a long time! Usually I’m of the opinion that you should be able to walk everything off, damn the consequences, but a busted knee gives even me pause.

I spent the next three days relegated to my hotel room, occasionally crutching my way around for food or Starbucks but otherwise enjoying some relaxing time in my A/C filled hotel room. As far as consequences go, this wasn’t half bad.

Finally, the doctor read the X-Rays and cleared me to head home saying there was no fracture and that I should heal just fine. There might be some straining of the ligaments but nothing too bad or too permanent. Peace Corps then booked me a plane (A PLANE!) to Bandung (which reduced my travel time from 12 hours to 1.5) where a driver picked me up and drove me to Purwakarta.

I spent a mere two days there finishing up my training with my Indonesian teacher counterpart (CP) after which a group of us headed back to Bandung. Four volunteers needed to go to the hospital for varying reasons. It seems IST (In Service Training) was hard on all of us. I followed along with a few others to have a nice last few meals and as a sort of cool-down from all the fun.

Returning to site was not the easiest thing I’ve done since coming to Indonesia. While I do love it here, it can be hard to be plunged back into village life after coming from three weeks of being, well, normal. It’s like living in the desa is living in a dream. You’re different and it always shows. People always look at you as an outsider, an ‘other’. Then you come to the big cities and you see a bunch of your close friends and the PC staff. No one points or yells or calls to you. You don’t have to eat rice with every meal. You wake up to what feels like real life from the dream of the desa and then you fall asleep again. You drift back into this other world.

Dressed for a parade, my students make it all worth it.

Dressed for a parade, my students make it all worth it.

As hard as that may be, when I walked into my first class to a chorus of excited shouts from my students I was so happy to be back. Every class has told me how much they missed me while I was gone. Every student squeals and comes to greet me. They’re such a wonderful group of kids and they make every second here worthwhile.

And so I leave you with this excerpt from a song from Mulan (which I may have changed a word for…):

For a long time we’ve been
Marching off to battle
In our thundering herd
We feel a lot like cattle
Like the pounding beat
Our aching feet aren’t
easy to ignore
Hey, think of instead
A vacation worth fighting for!!!!!!!!

A Vacation Worth Fighting For, Part One

This is the story of how I died.

Ok, maybe not. Maybe I just wanted a little Doctor Who reference. This is the story of how I almost died? It doesn’t have the same ring to it. And it’s still blatant hyperbole.

Bu Dewi and her adorable daughter!

Bu Dewi and her adorable daughter!

Anyhow. I left site what seems like a million years ago. Indonesia is famous (infamous…?) for its “rubber time” or “flexible time” or “no such thing as time” attitude. For a recovering Stage Manager this can be a bit, well, trying. It is, however, a great exercise in patience and learning to be a little less of a hardass. My plans for leaving site were, therefore,  flexible and fluid. When one of my best friends at site (the awesome music teacher, Bu Dewi) asked if I wanted to accompany her to Bandung to visit with her family for the holiday Eid al-Adha I embraced my new found sense of ‘go-with-the-flow’ and accepted her kind invitation. I was already planning to head up to Bandung later in the week and I love her and her family so I was more than happy to push up my departure from Wednesday to Sunday.

Mid skinning a goat with a sheep up next.

Mid skinning a goat with a sheep up next.

So. Eid al-Adha is a Muslim holiday during which a goat, cow, or other livestock is sacrificed in a town square or public location. It is meant to represent the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his only son. From there the skinning, butchering, and distribution of the meat varies. In line with most things about this amazing culture, it’s a very inclusive and giving tradition. (Don’t be a judger-bunny. We kill animals too, we’re generally just too squeamish to do it for a good reason or in public.) Some people give a great deal of the meat away to those in need, others share with all their friends and family. Once you get past the blood it’s really a lovely holiday. I actually missed most of the local slaughters since we were shopping and driving around most of the time I was with her family. It wasn’t until I got to Matt’s site in Gebang that I saw them skinning a goat up close and personal.

I started in Bandung (see number 1 below) and spent a few days with Bu Dewi’s adorable family. From my village to Bandung is about a 7 hour drive. A few days later, I hopped a train to Cirebon (see number two) (the closest large town near Matt and Brie) which took me another 4-5 hours. I spent a day with Brie and toured around Matt’s site and then we all headed to Semarang (see number three) on a bus together to grab a ferry to paradise.

I'm talking about a looooota places. Here's a play by play!

I’m talking about a looooota places. Here’s a play by play!

But this is Indonesia in the Peace Corps. Nothing is ever that simple. We hadn’t been on the bus for more than an hour when Brie got a text message from the man who runs the ferries out of Semerang saying that the waves were too high and that the ferries were, therefore, cancelled until further notice. The three of us spent a few moments in utter despair until we collectively realized we would not be defeated so easily. With Brie’s master skills of travel and planning, Matt’s incessantly positive attitude, and my language we called everyone and their mother about getting transport to Karimunjawa. We were pushing the latter half of the afternoon and the people with whom we needed to speak were slowly packing up for the day and turning off their phones. In order to get to Karimunjawa you have two options for ports, Semerang or Jepara. We decided we would meet up with T (our friend headed in from East Java) in Semerang as planned, pick up Alex (our other friend headed in from the West) at 4a and then immediately head to Jepara, a town an hour or more east of Semerang (see number 4).

Look at that 5 star hotel!

Look at that 5 star hotel!

In true Peace Corps/backpacking style, we found the cheapest and scariest motel to rest our bags. I say bags because we, being the brilliant and invincible young people we are, decided to stay up all night playing cards, eating, and enjoying general merriment. We figured if Alex was getting in at 4a what was the point of sleeping anyhow? Not to mention we were fairly certain our motel doubled as either a brothel or a place for axe murderers.

After what should have been an expected delay of Alex’s train of nearly an hour and a half (rubber time) we found a mini-bus to take us to Jepara. We would later look back on this bus ride as one of the worst since coming to Indonesia. I say one of the worst because, as we would later confirm, it can always get worse. It was hot, over-crowded, bumpy, and we all had too much luggage with zero sleep. After our fantastic ride we were deposited in the middle of nowhere Jepara. We had very few plans or ideas of what we were doing next. The main plan had been to get there; we hadn’t gotten much farther than that. The first order of business was to find a local homestay that had room for us for one night. We found a lovely house with a nice family willing to give us an air-conditioned room with two mattresses. When I say a room with two mattresses I should probably specify that there was enough room for two mattresses. On the floor. And nothing else. There was a small ledge near the far wall for a few bags and then the space for the door to open (which also led to the tiny mandi).

Coral is quite painful. In case you were wondering.

Coral is quite painful. In case you were wondering.

After getting situated in our new digs, we decided to hunt down the ferry office and beg for tickets. Beg we did. Or, beg Brie and Matt did. To no avail. They came back empty handed and with heavy hearts. We wondered aimlessly for a bit until Brie, the master of travel, busted out her Lonely Planet – Indonesia and found us a nearby island to play on. We headed to Pulau Pendek (I believe that was the name. It means Short Island) to get our beach on. We walked around the entire island looking for the white sandy beaches promised in Brie’s Lonely Planet only to find tiny swaths of water covered in coral. In addition to a moderate amount of disappointment due to the surroundings, the man with the boat said our time there had to be brief because he was worried about the waves. It was at about this point I wanted to raise my fist to the sky and damn Poseidon in all of his stormy, angry glory. But I definitely did not. If the Odyssey has taught me nothing else, it’s taught me to keep my mouth shut with that guy.

After we returned from our small journey and ate dinner at a local warung, (Vocab: a small eatery) we parked ourselves on the harbor to watch the sun set. It was about this time a small miracle happened. Along came a group of European tourists Matt and Brie had met whilst begging for tickets that very morning. Their Indonesian friend let us know that he had managed to get 1 extra ticket on the normal ferry leaving the next day as well as enough seats for all of us on a local fisherman’s boat leaving the next morning at 6a. We passed on the ticket for the ferry in favor of all of us traveling together on the fisherman’s boat. We had all but given up, with conversations of splitting the group to go to Solo, or to stay in Jepara, or to continue on to Surabaya when along came this wonderful man with his miraculous gifts.

With a renewed sense of vigor and glee, we headed back to our homestay, played some cards, and then piled all five of us into our tiny, two mattress room where we woke at random intervals, as excited as children before Christmas.

Eggs and Kripik and Goats, Oh my!

Eggs and Kripik and Goats, Oh my!

Then there was the boat ride. Mom, you may want to go ahead and skip to the next entry. We had a hasty breakfast of Pop Mie (Indonesian Cup-a-Noodles) and walked over to the dock where we met our ship to find them still piling on all of the supplies. It was a regularly scheduled trip for our fisherman friend to Karimunjawa to bring a boat packed full of everything from boxes of dried food to two live goats. We found two of our European pals and our miraculous Indonesian friend on the dock. After much waiting (remember, rubber time) we piled on to the boat and began our voyage.

Over the next hour or so we began to push things aside in order to make enough room for all of us. They cleared off the top of the cabin and covered it with a tarp so that four or five of us could sit up there. I have never been on a boat for this long and certainly never this far from shore. I looked out at one point, maybe three hours into the trip, only to find there was no land to be seen anywhere. There was nothing but pristine water in all directions. Some of you may know this is a huge bucket list item I just accomplished.

Now, before I continue I’d like to introduce you all to a short poem by one of my favorite poets, Ms. Emily Dickinson.

Nothing but ocean as far as the eye can see...

Nothing but ocean as far as the eye can see…

For each ecstatic instant
We must an anguish pay
In keen and quivering ratio
To the ecstasy.

For each beloved hour
Sharp pittances of years,
Bitter contested farthings
And coffers heaped with tears.

This is maybe a little darker and harsher than my intent, but it sets it up nicely. We worked so hard to get to this island. We planned and the plans failed. We nearly gave up. We sweat, almost cried, we travelled all over the place. And then we got onto this boat.

I want to take this time to remind you that the regular ferry refused to go because the waves were too high. This may have been a wise decision on their part. Somewhere in the middle of the 8 hour journey we were all convinced we were never going to make it home alive. The waves started to really pick up but it wasn’t until one particularly intense wave when we realized how serious this was. Matt was leaning back, stretching his arms behind him, when suddenly they were in the water. Those of us on top of the cabin braced ourselves on the small railing and the captain ordered us all to the right hand side of the boat (port? stern?) in order to counteract the sway of the waves. As Matt later told me, it was when the woman who had lived on Karimunjawa her whole life started crying that he knew this was no normal trip.

To be continued!

Will they survive the trip? What happened to the boat! Did the goats make it out alive?? Tune in next week (or sooner) for the next installment of A Vacation Worth Fighting For!

Spades, Roses, and a Whole Lotta Bali

Before I get on with how absolutely wonderful my Bali vacation was I would like to begin with some real life. This is a bit of a doozy of an entry as far as length is concerned. I contemplated making it a two-parter but it seemed like more work than I cared to exert so I warn you in advance.

I have come to realize that I may have painted roses with no thorns in this blog about my life here as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Let us call a spade a spade.

Peace Corps claims to be the hardest job you will ever love. This may very well be correct. I have so much fun here. Living in a village is such a treat for so many reasons. You learn about yourself. You learn what you can stand. You learn where your personal lines are. Yes, I will shower with a bucket but no, I still will not eat meat. What is important to you? Is it important enough to fight for? What things do you look back on about your life in America and gasp in wonder? Either because it sounds so good or because you can’t imagine ever needing that sort of thing. So, there is a great deal of good and insight to be had. But it comes at a price.

The things that I find the hardest are not what one would expect. Most of my American friends think it would be the bucket baths or the squatty potty, but you kind of get used to those. Granted, I still get really frakking excited whenever I get a warm shower and toilet paper, not gonna lie.

I left my family in America. This has been harder for me than I anticipated. I am making new family here in Indonesia, but there are some people you just can’t help but miss with every bone in your body. This may seem an obvious point to most people, but it snuck up on me.

I have a wicked hard time with what’s referred to as Listening Fatigue. This is what happens when you spend an extended period of time speaking in and listening to a foreign language (usually one in which you are not fluent) and your brain reaches its threshold for stimulus in that language. There are some days where, at the end of the day, I can’t understand the most basic sentence in Indonesian anymore because I’ve been speaking it all day. It absolutely kills the mind. I have to put myself in a time out in my room until the batteries reset and I am able to handle more language.

I can’t tell you how many times people have told me I will never find a husband or I won’t be a good wife because I can’t cook or can’t sew or can’t clean. Our little secret, I can do any and all of those things. My ability or lack thereof will in no way, however, determine my suitability as a mate. This takes us back to a two way street of cultural exchange, where I get to explain to them in America sometimes the man stays at home with the kids. Often both parents cook and clean. It’s a simple matter of keeping the conversation open, which is the whole reason I’m here. But after a full class load of sweet but loud students, a little tickle in your throat promising to turn into a wicked cold you don’t have time for, and eating rice for the umpteenth day in a row, having that conversation again seems nigh impossible.

You are constantly noticed and scrutinized here. When I say that, I don’t mean that people are picking on me 24/7, I mean that I am the only white person who lives in my village. So much so, that when the Canadians moved in a few villages away I heard about it in my village. Anyone different makes a big splash in my area. While people are getting a little more used to seeing a white face around town, most still haven’t met me, so I often get bombarded with children chasing my bike; people of all ages staring and often calling out “Bule bule bule”, screaming for me to come to them, or yelling “Hello Mister”; and a steady stream of people asking to take their pictures with me. These are all relatively small, if irksome, things to go through and one would think a volunteer would more easily disregard these things. Well, we do. And then it doesn’t stop. After weeks of teaching long days in a constant state of vaguely sleep deprived heat exhaustion the ‘Misters’ and the questions and the chasing children can wear away at you. I have always been a bit of an introvert naturally. This doesn’t mean I’m not personable, it just means that I like to deal with humans in moderation. I recharge my batteries alone and I like to slide under the radar when possible. That isn’t always an option here. On my good days I have the patience and strength to smile and nod my way through the strenuous or the tiresome aspect of being the center of everyone’s attention, but they aren’t all good days. Some days I am tired and I am hot and I just want to sit in my shorts in front of my fan without children yelling for me outside my window. I don’t get to pick the days and I don’t get to change them. I have learned a little more about myself and what I need to be happy. I know when it’s time for me to go to hibernate.

The cultural differences are always manageable but not always easily so. On top of that we are constantly fighting against an educational curriculum that, let’s be honest, needs improvement. We teach Genre Based English at the government run SMA (high school), which is something that even native English speakers have a hard time with. The teachers are often fantastic, but the curriculum fights against us. You have to find ways to work on grammar and vocabulary while teaching them the difference between Narrative and Recount text. It would be too much for most American students.

I think this might be Bromo from the sky. The one in front seems to be smoking. Either way, gorgeous view.

I think this might be Bromo from the sky. The one in front seems to be smoking. Either way, gorgeous view.

So, when I say I earned my vacation, I promise you, I mean it. I am so lucky to be in Indonesia and I am so lucky to love my site. I really do think my school is fantastic. When I first came to school we already had an English Club in place that was so official they had their own t-shirts! That said, being around people who make me feel so refreshingly and wonderfully normal is a vacation in and of itself.

We’ve been planning on Bali for about three months now, since before we got to permanent site. I bought my plane ticket before I met my principal. We weren’t allowed to travel without our family or principal for the first three months at site and we all knew we would want to spend some quality time together after that.

Those of us in the Barat Pack (aka. The 19 of us who live in West Java) that were going met up a day early in Bandung to get the vacation started right. Also, and slightly more importantly, because we didn’t want to miss our plane. We navigated the airport just fine after leaving the hostel and flew out without a hitch. After a whopping 1.5 hour flight and a 1 hour time change we arrived in Bali. We lost no time in rushing to our beautiful series of villas tucked away off the main strip.



We were in Kuta, Bali which is at the southern tip of the island. It’s where most of the tourists end up and it is certainly a one time visit, as I generally prefer a location a little less crowded. Our accommodations were absolutely perfect. There was a walkway leading up to a series of small houses with one or two rooms each and a patio. We occupied at least 4 to 5 of these and each house had from 5 to 7 people. Peace Corps paycheck means you BARGAIN.

Walking down the main strip (Jl. Legian) is a bit of an overwhelming nightmare at times. People pop out of alleys to try and sell you things at exorbitant rates while saying things like “Hello, darling,” and “You are so beautiful, come over here.” I went to try and buy a pair of sunglasses after I lost mine and the guy started the bargaining process at 80.000 Rupiah! That’s $8 for you American folk, and while that may not seem like a lot to you, it’s outrageous to me! I won’t spend that kind of money, least of all on knock off sunglasses, especially when I could buy an entire meal and a half for that. So I got him down to the same thing I pay in my village, 25.000 Rupiah ($2.50). Way more my speed. This is how every shopping exchange went. They would start in English, I would counter in Indonesian, and then I would win.

Joe tears up as he and Inge give Lu away to Thai on their faux-wedding day.

Joe tears up as he and Inge give Lu away to Thai on their faux-wedding day.

I swear to Batman I could have gone to Bali for the food alone. I did not eat rice one single day while I was there. Not ONCE. It was splendid. We had some (less than authentic) Mexican food, ah-freaking-mazing Italian food, fake Indian food, and even some American food sprinkled in there. I know it doesn’t sound that exciting to those of you living in a country where the world caters to your foodie desires, but I was in pig heaven. (Except not really, because it’s one of the few places in Indonesia where you are allowed to eat pig.)

Part of the schedule of events while visiting Bali was to stage a faux-wedding for two of our volunteers. They are close friends and have had countless inquiries as to their marital status. (See the above discussion about marriage) They decided to say they were marrying each other. We all later decided the charade would be too much to hold up and that lying wasn’t the way to go, but who doesn’t love a fake wedding on a beach in Bali? I mean, really. There was a bride and groom given away by our teary-eyed Peace Corps ID7 mom and dad (Inge and Joe). There was a Maid of Honor, a Best Man, a Flower Girl, a Ring Bearer, and even our own sort-of Priest!

I seem to have a way with the monkeys. I do love that face, though. I was worried he would try and rip an earring out...

I seem to have a way with the monkeys. I do love that face, though. I was worried he would try and rip an earring out…

We had a wonderful time dancing and visiting and loving life. I went snorkeling for the first time in my life. Well, no, that’s a lie. I went snorkeling for the first time in my adult life since I’ve developed an overbearing fear of swimming in natural water due to the inexorable existence of Lake Monsters. (Lake Monsters defined as anything remotely creepy that lives in a lake, pond, puddle, river, ocean, sea, sound, inlet, etc… It usually has tentacles and can often kill and eat you, but not always.) I survived the whole hour! Nothing even tried to eat me! Just the little fish that ate the bread I tossed in! It helped that the water was so clear I could see all the way to the bottom. It really was breathtaking.

We took a trip to see a little bit of culture on our weekend of binging on foods I can’t find on my island. We went to the Hindu temple at Uluwatu. That’s the the trip I have no pictures of my own to show you because I spent the entire day blissfully phone and camera free. It was almost like I was living my life instead of recording it. The magic can’t be rivaled, I really suggest you all spend at least one day of every vacation like that. The temple was gorgeous and way older than America and it sits on this cliff face more beautiful than any I’ve ever seen. And I lived on cliffs. There were plenty of monkeys there and, in true Dr. Dolittle style, I befriended a few. I had to draw the line when they crawled atop my head. Call me crazy, but a girl has to have her boundaries.

Our private paradise. That's me and my friends on the horizon tide pooling.

Our private paradise. That’s me and my friends on the horizon tide pooling.

We ogled over the scenery there for a short while and then continued on to a nearly secluded beach deep in a cliff face away from most American tourists. It looked like a paradise in a picture. The water was a deep blue with a hundred yards of tide pools before the waves crashed onto white coral sands. I spent the day tide pooling and sitting in the water. Not doing anything, just sitting belly button deep in the water. Because I could. And it was clear, so I knew there were no Lake Monsters.

I needed this vacation. I needed to see my friends. I needed to be the very craziest parts of me. I needed to relax. I needed to be free. And then, after four days in Bali, I needed to come home. Alan and I started our journey home the morning after getting into Bandung on a night flight. We met up with some of his teachers once we got about half way home and they drove us the rest of the way after we got some food. I’m a little uneasy saying it, but I was so excited to eat Sundanese food again. I gobbled up the rice and the Fried Tempe and the Perkadel and all the rest like I was starving. When I saw my host family I was so happy, there was squealing and hugging and hours of talking. Just like my time here has made me better appreciate the things I love most about America, my time away from site makes me all the happier to be back, to see my kids, to go to school, to talk to my community, and to do my job.