Year Two

My friend, Kady, came over to stay with me a few weeks ago. She’s still relatively new to site but we get along just great. As we were turning in I realized there were perhaps a few things I should cover, should she desire to roam my house alone. I explained that, in the kitchen, the left half is for cooking, cleaning, and the like, while the right half is the domain of the rat. I explained that she may need to cross into Splinter’s side for spices or rice, but that she did so at her own risk. I proceeded to advise against washing dishes standing too closely to the sink, as there is a mouse and many cockroaches who live beneath the broken cupboards and that they occasionally like to explore. I then mentioned that, should she need to use the little girl’s room in the middle of the night, she should be aware that there is a creature of unknown origins living above the well on the way to the mandi (bathroom area). I placated her, saying it shouldn’t bother her so long as she let it know she was coming. It might rattle the pots and pans a bit but, as I have yet to see and identify this creature, I was reasonably sure it wouldn’t lash out. Once in the mandi, I warned, be sure to watch out for lizards and cockroaches, as they tend to make that their evening play place. I explained she should pull water from the middle of the latrine with the bucket instead of the sides, since it’s mosquito larvae season and I could not guarantee the water would be free of the little buggers. I suggested she not look up while in there, as the spiders tend to move their webs further down in the night. I concluded with a brief suggestion that she flush some water down the toilet before using it, as centipedes, millipedes, and other wormy things had been known to crawl up the piping.

I went through this rather extensive list without a blink or a sideways glance.

Squatting Potty Contemplations

Squatting Potty Contemplations

Today I went swimming at the local hotel pool. I got back and, since I have a thing about being covered in gross pool water, I went right to the mandi to bathe. It is culturally inappropriate to wear bathing suits for women, so I swim in my leggings and a shirt. While in the mandi I decided it would be most efficient to wash my sports bra and leggings, since those are items I frequently wear here. The obvious conclusion, then, was to grab a bucket and do the hand washing while I let my conditioner do its thing. The next thing I know I’m crouched in the mandi completely nude, hand washing my clothes in a bucket. Because this seemed easiest.

Earlier in the week my computer suffered various misfortunes which have led to it being currently out of commission. (No. I did not drop it.) I’m hoping it’s as simple a fix as buying a new charger next week, but it could be as complicated as ordering the requisite parts and opening my poor girl up. I was forlorn for an evening when I realized my safe haven of movies and Friends was (hopefully temporarily) a thing of the past. After a night of fitful sleep, however, I decided I was done worrying about it. I loaded my iPad with podcasts, started a new book, and went for a bike ride. Because there was nothing more I could do about my poor computer at the moment.

This is my life.

A break in the never ending traffic.

A break in the never ending traffic.

Year two promises to be… interesting. In those three anecdotes alone I feel I have efficiently elucidated the odd situations which, to me, now seem common place. It is only through a concerted effort that I pull myself away from the situation enough to fully examine it through western eyes and take a note to giggle about it at a later date. Not giggle to demean, or mock the experience, but instead to hold on to it tightly with both hands. I endure a 75 mile commute through circuitous mountain roads for 6 hours to get to the city. During Idul Fitri that time doubles to a whopping 12 hour commute. I have covered that much ground in an hour before. How did I handle that particular 12 hour commute? I listened to music, some podcasts, a book on tape, and played puzzles with Alan.

This country, this place, these experiences have pushed the boundaries of everything I knew. They have tested patience I would have sworn I did not possess. I have screamed and cried and railed against the many pieces of this place that make me crazy, but as I stand on the precipice of year two all I can do is take a moment, look around, drink it in, and chuckle.

Damn, this is going to make one hell of a story someday.

Venus, Mars, Jupiter… You know. One of those.

I live in a place where street harassment is a matter of course, where women are taught never to go anywhere alone, where sexual harassment is a woman’s fault. And, you know what, you probably do too. This isn’t a problem that is exclusive to Indonesia or developing countries. This isn’t a problem that you can ignore and say to yourself, “Well, this doesn’t really affect me.” A recent study states that 1 in 4 women will be raped before they get their college diploma. One in four. And that’s just in America. A worldwide study from 2013 states that “… figures indicate that 35% of women worldwide have experienced […] sexual violence in their lifetime.” That translates to 7 out of every 20 women in the world. This has weighed heavier on my mind since my recent trip home to America. I went back for a month and found that, while I could freely wear shorts and a tank without fear of retribution, I still got an odd whistle or two whilst riding my bike. It may seem small to some of you, I know. Just a little whistle out of someone’s window. What’s that in the grand scheme of things? He didn’t stop and ogle, he didn’t yell lecherous desires, he didn’t hurt you, right? Wrong. Even that small whistle, that odd comment, that sideways glance, or double-take hurts. It reinforces the sensation that even in my own country, in my hometown, in my own culture, I am an ‘other’. I am an object. A thing. Have you ever been a thing? Have you ever stopped to notice how often you are made to feel like a thing? Some object to be handled and touched or worshipped and ogled but never respected. After all, why would you respect a thing?

Uhm, what? I tell boys to fuck off all the time. In many languages.

Uhm, what? I tell boys to fuck off all the time. In many languages.

There has been a rash of attention around a recent anti-feminism movement. Women raising signs to declare why they don’t need feminism, why feminism is overrated or excessive or wrong. There are men and some women I have met who rail against their current perceived definition of feminism. People look at the movement now and say to themselves, “Why do women need special treatment? We’re equal now! They’re just making a stink about nothing!” And that sentiment truly, deeply, and profoundly causes me a visceral pain.

Everyone, therefore, seems to be writing about feminism of late. Everyone’s blog has something to say or some opinion to spout. I hesitated to attack this subject and, indeed, have rewritten this post several times because it didn’t ring. It didn’t resonate with new ideas or fresh, catchy one liners. It didn’t scream me. It was watered down and scared. And that was my problem with draft one…

and two…

and three.

I was scared to be honest. Scared to be wrong. Scared to be loud. Scared to be right. Scared to be another yelling feminist protecting my rights as an equal human being. I don’t take kindly to being intimidated. I don’t take kindly to being frightened by the trollers of blogs that have become the Big Bad Wolf. So I will not broach this subject with tact or trepidation or hesitation or any semblance of fear of retaliation or dissent.

Let me begin by saying I am not “Anti-man.” I quite like my boyfriend and, in fact, would venture to say that the majority of my close friends are, actually, male. I don’t judge a human for the genitals they have or the gender they project. As I’ve mentioned before, I was taught to get to know someone before I hate them. Now I just try and dislike everyone equally until they prove they’re not going to bother me overmuch.

Not necessary. Unless requested.

Not necessary. Unless requested.

However, when I am riding my bike through my village and there is a man on the side of the street, I give him a wide berth. Why? Is it because I inherently do not trust any men? Well, not exactly. Experience has taught me that if I give a bad person, of any gender, the opportunity to harass me, they just might. I have had no women reach out and grab some part of me while riding my bike. I have had no children jump in front of me to attempt to get me to stop. So, safety dictates I give men a little extra space so as not to present them with an easy target.

A good friend of mine seems to believe this behavior sets up an expectation for men to misbehave. A sort of permission. If I think they will behave like ruffians then it makes it ok for them to do so (in their mind). If I give them the benefit of the doubt and expect them to act like gentlemen, they just might rise to that expectation as well. I love this idea sort of like I like communism. It really sounds great on paper and in writing, but my faith in humanity is just not that great. How many potential opportunities for physical harassment would I have to face to give some men the chance to shine? How does that pro/con list turn out? I wish I could say I’m a big enough person to chase down the few that bother me and respect the rest even more, but something tells me I’ll just end up killing a man that way.

These problems are not some group hallucination all feminists share. I’m not imagining these things or hiding behind laws and court orders to do a job I feel incapable of doing. When something displeases me, I feel as though I am fairly straightforward and vocal about it. In fact, I seem to remember swearing at a man in three languages only a few weeks ago. Feminists don’t stop defending themselves because we have laws to help, but rather strive to correct and repair the institutionalized, ignored aspects of sexism that still exist. In my opinion, a proper feminist will look for inequalities in both directions, not just defending women’s rights, but also those of men and boys, children and the under privileged. In my less-than-humble opinion a true and good feminist will fight for Human Rights regardless of stipulation. Because, to me, that’s what a feminist is. Someone who stands their ground in order to get folks to stop taking away rights inherently allowed to fellow humans.

Human RightsThat said, women’s rights are not special rights. I don’t want special rights. I don’t need a leg up or special allowance. I don’t need anyone to makes excuses for me or pave the road for me. And, you know what, that really hasn’t happened. I want the right to be equal. I don’t think I should be able to take advantage of men or belittle them in order to advance. I don’t think I should get special treatment because I’ve been pulled back by institutionalized sexism. I just want to feel safe. I want to be comfortable. I want to worry less. I want boys to be taught not to rape girls instead of girls being taught never to leave their drink alone at a party. I want men to understand there are so many reasons for women to still be worried but I also want women to remember that not all men are bad. I want not to have to fight tooth and nail for some opportunities. I want to not have to break into the boy’s club for certain job opportunities. I just want to be equal. Does that sound so bad?

Human Rights WorldThis leads nicely into my biggest and baddest pet peeve. Why must you worry so about who is better, feminists or anti-feminists, men or women, gays or straights, Mars or Venus, cats or dogs, circles or squares? It is so easy to lose one’s self in the preoccupation of labels and picking sides and, consequently, to lose track of the goal. We seem to think there are these great caverns of difference that divide humans based on their gender identity and, I’m not sorry to say, it’s just not true. Ultimately, we’re all made of star stuff and should be treated as such. We share 50% of our DNA with bananas. We all entered this world smelly and covered in gore, screaming. So stop taking yourself so seriously and teach your children to perpetuate a world in which women are safe and where boys aren’t told to “Be a Man.

The Race Card

This is my card. Ok. It's not a race card, per se, but I'm gonna go ahead and say it's a card I should not ignore.

This is my card. Ok. It’s not a race card, per se, but I’m gonna go ahead and say it’s a card I should not ignore.

For those of you who don’t know, it’s sometimes difficult to pin down a specific place to claim when someone asks me, “Where are you from?” Here, the answer is simple: America. In America, however, the answer can vary greatly depending upon my needs and the situation. I spent the first 16 years of my life in North Carolina, which would, in most people’s minds, make me a solid shoe-in for a southerner. I then moved to California where I finished high school and spent the next 10 years calling it home while generally renouncing the South. Not just any years, mind you, but the years I feel like molded me into the woman I am and pushed me onto the path along which I currently gad. I decided that this makes me mostly Californian. Pretty much my entire family is from Massachusetts. I have Okie blood and Oregon blood too, but the family reunions are in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Almost all of my sporting allegiance, and most of my heart is wrapped up in New England, so that makes me part New Englander too, if you ask me. All of this circuitous talk about identifying the self is leading up to the fact that I’ve lived in a variety of places and been surrounded by a plethora of people. I was raised in a very liberal and openminded house. We were taught never to judge someone based on their religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or color of their skin. The rule was to always get to know a person before you hate them. Or, in my case as an adult, hate everyone the same regardless of superficial features until they convince you to like them.

Growing up in the south meant I was constantly surrounded by a pretty diverse rainbow of skin tones. I saw race, we all do, but as a white girl it never mattered to me. I was friends with people regardless of race or ethnicity, but I also never understood what it was like to be anything other than white. I still don’t, obviously, being the lily white lady that I am. It’s very unlikely I will be judged based on my skin color alone in that way; it’s never something I really had to think about.

And then I moved here.

This lovely lady is demonstrating the whiteness of the whitest of breads, much like my skin.

This lovely lady is demonstrating the whiteness of the whitest of breads, much like my skin.

There is very little racial diversity on this island. Combine that with the 350 years of colonial imperialism from the Dutch and you have this western-worshipping mindset that makes a white girl stand out in a crowd. Or a rice paddy. Or a corner store.

After living here for a year I have become very cognizant of my own skin: the color, the texture, the various levels of tan. Every piece of my skin that is exposed (which usually isn’t all that much) draws my mind in some way now because I know it’s different. I know people stare at me for no other reason than because of the skin I was born with. People yell after me, they approach me, try to talk to me, to get my attention because of some tiny genetic marker that slated me for paler than paper.

I never considered myself an overly private person before I moved to this country. I am great at parties, a good leader, generally pretty charismatic and outgoing, but it turns out I’m quite the introvert. I do well in large groups for a limited time and then must regroup by myself in order to recharge the ol’ batteries. It would also seem I don’t much care to be the center of a lot of attention. I suppose there’s a reason I gave up acting so long ago. I don’t like to be stared at and watched. The only place I am not stared at, pointed at, yelled after, or otherwise accosted is at home, in my room. Generally the attention is positive. It’s people who are excited to see a bule and just want to say hello. They don’t really have negative associations with my skin color except to place me on a scale that is even further from a real person. Generally, women are objectified, no matter what country you’re in. Here, being a white woman makes me even more of an object: a pretty porcelain doll that couldn’t possibly adhere to the same rules that apply to everyone else.

I still don’t understand what it must be like for other races in America. I can’t fathom being discriminated against for my race, especially since I’ve only been identified as an ‘other’ in circumstances where it gives me a general advantage, but I feel like I now have a vague understanding of how much I truly do not understand. For the first time in my life I have had moments where all I wanted to do was disappear and scrub the white out of my skin just to have a moment of peace, and it breaks my heart to imagine there are people who may have felt like that their whole lives.

So I tell my kids they’re beautiful. All of them. I talk about how, in America, a lot of people really like to be dark or tan. I tell them that I love their noses and their dark hair and brown eyes. I tell them they are perfect just the way they are. And I’m not lying. These people are generous and kind, they do not have the unnatural suspicion with which I was raised, they smile and make friends for no reason at all. And not one part of that has the slightest bit to do with the color of their skin or the way they look.

I try to find the perspective on days when I want to disappear. I try to remember that many of them have never seen someone with blue eyes in person, whereas I grew up around a veritable rainbow of eyes, hair, and skin. When I try to remember all of that, I find that I so thoroughly cannot relate and decide to again embrace what my left foot says, “Know Thyself.” Know that you know nothing and that there are some things you may never be able to understand. I will never be able to relate to the clamor to say hello or the shock when they see my eyes, but as long as I retain the ability to remember the perspective and appreciate the difference, I have hope that I won’t lose my mind. Everyone has a story and I just have to remember theirs.

Look at this beautiful rainbow, courtesy of a National Geographic project. Every one of those kids is perfect.

Look at this beautiful rainbow, courtesy of a National Geographic project. Every one of those kids is perfect.

The Anniversary Edition

Our merry band of volunteers in the first week we arrived.

Our merry band of volunteers in the first week we arrived.

My goal was to have already written this piece so I could publish it nicely and neatly on my one year anniversary of living in Indonesia. Aptly, however, life seldom follows the plan you set out for yourself and so here I am, one year in, trying to sort of what it all means.

As with most things in the Peace Corps I am of mixed feelings about my anniversary. I can’t believe it’s really been a whole year but at the same time I can’t believe I have a whole year to go.

So, what have I learned? What is different? What are the things I can point at and say, a year in, Indonesia has done this? Well, these are questions we actually ask ourselves a lot as Peace Corps Volunteers, not just on special days and occasions, but also on the average weekday. Why am I here? What am I doing? What have I done? Where am I going?

These seem as though they could be questions asked by any twenty-something regardless of job or international location but when you live in a place that is not your own on a contract you know will end you start to reevaluate things a little more heavily. So, what in the world am I doing? I have upended my life, quit my very comfortable job, said goodbye to the people I love, moved to a country in which I do not speak the language, and became a Peace Corps Volunteer. Of course, on the other hand, I restarted my life, quit a job in which I was unhappy, achieved a better idea of who actually loves me, learned a new language in a new country, and became a Peace Corps Volunteer.

I am not the same girl I was when I stepped onto that plane a year ago. I don’t plan to be the same girl as I am now when I step off that plane in a year. The only thing that’s certain in life is death and taxes, right? Isn’t that how the old Ben Franklin adage goes? I’d like to add just a few things to that list: stars and changes. The only thing that will never stop changing is that everything changes. Even my love of the stars is heavily based on their constant fluctuation and alteration juxtaposed against their seeming consistency and reliability. You never look at the same sky twice. Just so, I find it highly unlikely you will ever meet the same person twice. What, then, is so different about my personal changes after a year in Peace Corps versus the average human’s changes after a year of life?

To find the answer I think we need to get down to some real talk. Some people play the victim with their Peace Corps service and claim the whole thing is awful. Those are the people who usually Early Terminate (ET). Other people whitewash the whole thing and talk about nothing but the overwhelming love and joy of service. I have always strived to walk right down the middle in life, especially when it comes to situations such as these. So, we get back to the question, why have my changes while in Peace Corps been so different than that of your average Jill? Because this nonsense is hard. I get up everyday and I make the choice to stay. It’s not some inherent truth of life, it is a daily decision I make. I decide to snooze my alarm eight times and sometime between snooze number four and five, I decide that maybe I’ll stay in this country for another day. It’s the freedom in that choice alone that keeps me going. This is my decision. My choice. So when I have bad days I can look around and say, “Well, kid, you chose this.” Then, when I have those magical moments of happiness, I can look around and say, “Hot damn, gaux, you chose this!”

How have I changed, though? We know that I have, but the specifics are a bit harder for me to pinpoint. I’m still the same girl who stops mid-sentence when she realizes she has American chocolate in the freezer. (Twice.) I’m still the girl who mercilessly protects the people she loves. I’m still the girl who will move mountains for the people who mean the most to her. But my methods have changed. I value my own time now. I acknowledge my own strength. I am more patient on occasion. I am more tolerant in some ways and less in others. I have filled out a good amount of unused potential in the emotional growth category and for that I am impressed and grateful.

The Peace Corps Cycle of Vulnerability and Adjustment. And illustration of our emotions for the 27 months we serve.

The Peace Corps Cycle of Vulnerability and Adjustment. And illustration of our emotions for the 27 months we serve.

During our various training sessions they show us this nifty little graph of a PCV’s emotions. Of course, being me, I scoffed at it at first, thinking there was no way I would fall so easily into the predictions of some mass equation. The second time I saw it, however, was a little later in service and I thought to myself, “Well. Shit.” So, I’m slated for what they call a “Mid-Service Crisis” any month now. What does that mean for me? Well, it means I spend a lot of time thinking about how little I feel I do. It means I think back on the things I could have done and I reprimand myself for not doing more. I think I am perhaps in the midst of said crisis at present, but I am hopeful that the difficulty will just propel me that much further. So, I started looking for secondary projects to inspire me and I’ve pulled out old materials to renew my attempts to lesson plan. It would seem that even in what could be called a ‘crisis’ the new version of me remains solution oriented and hopeful. I’ll go ahead and put another tick in the positive change category.

One year down, one year two months and seven (ish) days to go. In the loving words of Doctor Who, “Well, there’s so much to discover. Think of how much wiser we’ll be by the end of this.”

The trusty Barat Pack of ID-7 now, one year later.

The trusty Barat Pack of ID-7 now, one year later.

A New Found Patriot

I’ve never identified myself as a particularly patriotic person. I look at politicians as mostly blood-sucking liars, a large number of our policies make me want to gag, I grew up in an era of George W Bush when I was embarrassed of my president, I don’t like fireworks or the fourth of July, and I often lied when abroad and said I was Canadian. Our PR as an American stereotype is less than ideal.

When I think about people who are overly proud to be American, the first thing that comes to mind is a group of overgrown beard-having, camo-overall wearing, backwater hillbillies waving a confederate flag around while playing the banjo as their hunting rifles rest on their knees. I understand that this is a stereotype, and is probably somewhat colored by the fact that I spent most of my childhood in the south. I’m not proud of it, but I am, at least, self aware. But even now, when searching for a good American flag image to post, I find them mostly plastered on websites about ‘taking back our country from the aliens’ and urls like ‘lawersgunsmoneyamerica.’ C’mon, guys…

Of course, I still always knew my country was something at least a little special. I said the Pledge of Allegiance every morning in elementary school, I knew people who had worked their damnedest to get into the country (legally or otherwise), and I knew that the heart of our origins was based, at least somewhat, in something good. But I was taught to train a more critical eye on myself and, therefore, my country. Most people look at our forefathers with this reverence and awe; I look at them as faulted men who achieved historically significant tasks. Most people find our history rich and thriving; I look at how many we slaughtered to get here and question the washing of our history books.

Now I have left my home country and traveled to one of the furthest places I can get on this planet, both in geographic distance and cultural experience. Because of this, I look at my country through very different eyes. I have, in large part, Indonesians themselves to thank for this.

You can't look at these adorable children and not swoon at least a little.

You can’t look at these adorable children and not swoon at least a little.

I was recently called upon to judge various competitions: A singing contest for kindergarten and elementary schools, and an English Speech Competition for local elementary schools. The speakers at the latter were asked to memorize one of a number of pre-written monologues covering a variety of topics. About a third of the 50 students chose one called Our Country, Indonesia. It discussed the pride of being Indonesian, of being free, and embracing the diverse cultures that compose this nation. My little singers were asked to choose two of a few songs to sing solo in front of their adjudicators and peers. 95% of them began with a piece proclaiming their national pride. The most popular of said songs is called “Aku Anak Indonesia” (“I am an Indonesian child”) and the lyrics are as follows (with my less than poetic translation):


I am an Indonesian child, a child who is free
I have one homeland, one nation, one language


Indonesia, Indonesia
I am proud to be an Indonesian child


Founded on the equator, my land is Indonesia
A thousand islands, diverse peoples, one body and soul


Indonesia, Indonesia
I’m proud to be an Indonesian child.
Indonesia, Indonesia
I’m proud to be an Indonesian child.


I am an Indonesian child, a child who is free
I have one homeland, one nation, one language


Indonesia, Indonesia
I’m proud to be an Indonesian child.
I’m proud to be an Indonesian child.

Freedom. Sing it, little dude.

Freedom. Sing it, little dude.

Now, I’m in no way fluent yet, but these kids were singing this song for hours. Eventually I started to pick out words and phrases I understood. They each marched proudly to the front of the stage and held their fists in the air while positively oozing this patriotism and pride. I’ve never seen anything like it in America. Sure, we have our patriotic moments; we pledge allegiance to the flag in elementary school, take off our hats for the national anthem, and we even blow things up on the fourth of July, but there was a sparkle in these children’s eyes that can’t be matched by the recitation of rote words to a flag.

Indonesia is still a new nation; they finally earned their independence from 350 years of Dutch colonialism (as well as a few other invaders in the void left by the Dutch) in 1945. Lemme say it again, ya’ll, 194-freaking-5. That was only 68 years ago; a paltry 2 and a half generations. There are possibly people alive today who remember what it was like in the struggle for Indonesian independence. Now contrast that to our own American independence which took place some 237 years ago. We are 8 generations removed from the struggle for freedom and the pride that comes with such victory. Children here boast loudly that they are Indonesian and they are free while I grew up taking this fact very much for granted. Of course I was free, that’s how it’s supposed to be, right? I could maybe even be president one day, as long as we can get in gear for a female in charge. You know, in Indonesia’s six presidents, the fifth was a woman. They’ve already got us beat there. Before Obama, our biggest variation of the previous 43 presidents was electing a Catholic, JFK. Good job, America, good job.

The students and teachers gather after successfully running an English Speech Competition.

The students and teachers gather after successfully running an English Speech Competition.

So I look at these bright, proud little faces and I have to reevaluate what I was born into. America is a land of religious freedom. We have more social equality than most (but we’ve still got a long way to go.) And, for the first time in my life, I’m genuinely, unabashedly, proud to be an American. This isn’t to say I agree with all Americans or all policies (looking at you, Arizona…), but I can finally take a step back and approve of the label as a whole. People often assume I’m Canadian because there is a small group of Canadians in a nearby village and, for the first time, I am quick to correct them. “I’m not Canadian, sir/ma’am, I’m American.” I want to wear shirts with Obama’s face on them and American flags printed all over it, I want little American Flag accessories and red, white, and blue stationary, I want to yell from the rooftops that I come from the land of opportunity.

US and Indonesia.

US and Indonesia.

I also want to hold up the hand of every Indonesian child and yell with them that they are free. I want to join in on the Independence Day parades and march in celebration of “Merdeka” (Freedom). I want to applaud them for their growth as a nation and encourage them never to give up. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) was the first president to be elected by direct election in 2004. The next election will be held in a few short months and I’m so excited I get to see it. I’m excited to encourage everyone to vote and to strive for their ideal. I’m excited to live in Indonesia not only for the respect I gain for this country, but the perspective it gives me on my own.

So, hi. My name is Margaux. I’m proud to be an American and I’m so proud to live in Indonesia.

Merdeka, folks. Freedom.

You’ve Got A Friend In Me…

The dictionary has a great deal to say about the word friend:

friend |frend| noun

  • a person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically exclusive of sexual or family relations.
  • a person who acts as a supporter of a cause, organization, or country by giving financial or other help: join the Friends of Guilford Free Library.
  • a person who is not an enemy or who is on the same side: she was unsure whether he was friend or foe.
  • a familiar or helpful thing: he settled for that old friend the compensation grant.
  • (often as a polite form of address or in ironic reference) an acquaintance or a stranger one comes across: my friends, let me introduce myself.
  • a contact associated with a social networking website: all of a sudden you’ve got 50 friends online who need to stay connected.

It’s a relatively small word, but it evolves with us as we grow and mature. When we’re young we have play dates and swap pudding cups for jello snacks. As we get older we acquire BFFs and inseparable other halves represented in little broken heart necklaces. In college we wander through a myriad of meaningful and monotonous interactions that stick or don’t. We move past college into some semblance of work force and we develop new levels of friendships, various rings of intimacy and import.

The lovely Bu Dewi and I in a becak one rainy day in Bandung.

The lovely Bu Dewi and I in a becak one rainy day in Bandung.

Like most girls my age I’ve gone through a great many friends. Some had terrible endings, others grew apart, and yet more will stay in my life forever as mile markers on the road of my life. This era of networking and social media has fooled us into thinking the number of Friends on our Facebook page reflects the number of people we could turn to if our world fell apart and, I’m sad to report, this is a gross fabrication for most of us. Facebook currently claims I have 1,217 friends. That word, in this context, means something different than the friends of yore, something other than the people who know your inner workings and can anticipate your needs. Different even than the people who have met your immediate family and understand where you come from. Different still from the people you see every day and from whom you hide your little eccentricities. (If you look at the definition I provided, it’s the newest addition to the growing list of nuances associated with the word.)

So, what is a friend to me now? Here? How has this most recent life event changed my perception of the word and its weight?

I’m not proud to admit that when I first came to site I didn’t have high hopes for making actual friends. This is mainly because of my age and gender, it didn’t seem a viable option to be able to relate to another woman in a way that would make me consider them a real, genuine friend; someone I could come to with problems and sorrows as well as successes. And this is one of my biggest lessons so far, one I should have learned in kindergarden: Never judge a person or situation too quickly. Never judge a book by its cover.

My wonderful partner in crime in all things theatre, Bu Diah.

My wonderful partner in crime in all things theatre, Bu Diah.

With a great deal of time and shared effort, I have made genuine friends here. Even when something happens back home I can turn to Bu Dewi and Bu Diah here and rely on them for support. They will make excuses when I need to be alone, they try and understand my point of view, they help me navigate the cultural landscape, they have become my pillars in my community. I’m friends with their families and we spend time together outside of school. I’ve even been on a brief vacation with Bu Dewi. They have taken me under their wings and the result on me has been astounding.

Indonesians are generally a very hospitable people and often very generous. One of the questions I get a lot is, “Miss, do you feel at home here?” The answer may vary from day to day but I can honestly say that the reason I ever feel betah (at home) here at all is because of my friends.

Probably three of my favorite people remaining in Indonesia.

Probably three of my favorite people remaining in Indonesia.

Another new discovery is the bond I have found with the other PCVs here. I am so lucky to have been placed in Indonesia, in such a very small community. I have read about other countries with over 100 volunteers for each group and I can’t imagine being in one so large. I can easily picture feeling lost in the shuffle of hundreds of feet and unimportant among the masses. But here, there are only 45 other volunteers from my group now. In the West we have a close-knit family of 19. You couldn’t get lost in this crowd if you tried. So, where on the spectrum of friends do these folks fit? Are they the Facebook friends of new or something else? Something different? Something closer to family.

My fellow PCVs

My fellow PCVs

It’s a very strange dichotomy to have with such a big group and one the I will now venture to explain. When I first arrived at staging in San Francisco, I met a group of 50 other like-minded nut cases. When we got to Indonesia we had some sensitivity training on how to be effective “allies” in this country and environment. These people have grown to become my family here. They’re the people that understand what I’m going through and how to help. We have a bond that is forged in hardship and in success, one that was thrust upon us by circumstance and became very strong in a very short amount of time. I imagine it could be akin to a grown up and more intense version of what going to a summer camp could feel like. Or a more permanent connection similar to the what happens when you’re in a play with someone. You experience all of these traumatic events, these peaks and valleys of emotion and you turn to those nearest you to cushion the fall. That is what these people have become. My rocks and my cushions, my family and my friends, my safety and my courage. But I met each of them for the first time 10 months ago. None of these people know what I was like in High School, or in College, they haven’t met my parents or my family. They don’t understand the series of events that crafted the woman they met until I explain it to them. And even then, how can that ever be enough? If something goes wrong at home, I have to take the time to explain the myriad of ways it affects me and why before they can even begin to understand what to do or why it hurts. And I’m just not that fond of talking. But even so, they find a way to exist when I need them to and give me space when I require it.

Fia, Girl Alex, and I at a Giants game. I miss my girls!

Fia, Girl Alex, and I at a Giants game. I miss my girls!

Then there are my friends back home who know and love me. They have weathered the test of time, trials beyond count, and stand by me for everything I am and, more importantly, everything I am not. But they’re not here. There is so much life that is happening here and so little I can do to explain it accurately. I can put it into words and explain as much as I’m able but nothing I ever do will be enough.

Look at those faces...

Look at those faces…

So I’m learning to be more flexible about people and relationships. Not everything is as easy as a heart necklace proclaiming your love for your BFF. But the complication makes them all so beautiful. I have a rainbow of friends and relationships: old ones, new ones, strained ones, close ones. I have people I know I will never lose, people that will stand up and fight for me, and people who will remind me to fight on my own.

I am not an island, even when I live on one, and for that I am so grateful. Every single one of these people has watched me grow and learned about me as I learn about them. Whether it’s been over the past ten months or the past ten years; whether we speak the same language or a mix of many.

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.)