There and Back Again

It would seem to be time to post a little update of sorts. I’m back in America but this journey looks like it will never really be over.

I came home in a blur of emotion and plane tickets at the end of November. I didn’t have the heart to post after that for fear it would be too fresh. And also because my life wasn’t quite together yet. Things were floating in this amorphous mass of humanity and I wanted things to settle a bit so I could get my head moving in a direction to which I was more accustomed.

Hiking with my two favorite people at Pinnacles National Park

Hiking with my two favorite people at Pinnacles National Park

Family really close at hand...

Family really close at hand…

So here I am. I’ve been back in the good old US of A for 69 days. 2 months.

I spent the first few weeks eating everything I could get my hands on and settling in to speaking English all the time. I remembered what it was like to have my family at hand and to walk around freely. I lasted maybe three weeks before I started panicking because I didn’t have a job or any monetary prospects, so at about three weeks and one day I was employed. I’m now working two part time jobs while I save money to move to LA in the fall. I’m a few steps away from having my teaching credential so that I can drop the part time office job and fill my days with substitute teaching gigs. I just cut all my hair off, went clothes shopping, and bought my first car; I’m basically a happy American girl.

I shaved most of my head. Take that, world.

I shaved most of my head. Take that, world.

But what happened? Was it all some dream?

Well, no. I walk out of the bathroom most days amazed that hot water just comes out of the sink. I have a hot shower every morning. Can I truly express to you the magic and solace in a hot shower? In the regularity and dependability of that sanctuary? Probably not. People complain about their coffees having the wrong taste or their plans not going just so and I laugh. Quietly and to myself so I don’t sound like one of those people, but I laugh. I am constantly trying to check my privilege as I settle back into a life of shiny toys and instant gratification; a world of fast internet and amazing chocolate; a world of cute boots and snuggly dogs; a world of plenty. I don’t want to forget that I learned what it was like to live without any of that. I found my creature comforts and lived better than many when I was in Indonesia, but I saw the inside of a life few have the pleasure to view. And it changed me. And I’m thrilled about that.

So here I sit, writing about my life with my hazelnut latte and a bagel, huddled against a cold I had forgotten existed, and I tell you that it was real. My rabbit hole lead me here and reminds me every day to be grateful. To be brave. To be strong. And to be me; glorious, quirky, crazy me.

Creative Destruction

This is Felix. See that bag, there? It's full of tricks.

This is Felix. See that bag, there? It’s full of tricks.

I have a great many marketable skills at my disposal. I’m a good electrician, I can cook pretty well, I can sing on key, and I go big. Alright, so maybe that last isn’t really marketable, but my point is that I have developed a bag of tricks, so to speak. I keep adding to the bag as I get older, and now is no exception.

I have become quite gifted at the art of burning things down when I have decided it’s time to build something new. Well, folks, the time is nigh.

I’m coming home.

I’ve known for a while that this was an eventuality I was wrestling towards. It has honestly been one of the most difficult decisions of my life. I’ve come at it from places of guilt, of anger, of determination, and now of pride. It has slowly come to my attention over the last few months that I have not been happy here. Not just an inkling of displeasure but a genuine discomfort. Rule one is that if you are not happy you are the only person who can act to rectify that situation. So, I did. I acted. I changed the way I went to class, I added activities with local youth outside of school, I altered my workout regimen, I went through and systematically sorted through to try and squash this bug. But it didn’t die. I would leave my house in the morning and dread the ride to school. I would try and let off steam but the catcalls and comments would make me boil over. I was having arguments in my head before they could even became a reality. And finally the only thing I could see left to change was my environs.

No, but really. How could you not love this place?

No, but really. How could you not love this place?

I must take this moment to make it perfectly clear that I do, despite its quarks and irksome details, love Indonesia. I love it like the super annoying kid sibling that kicks you and laughs at your pain. Sometimes I want to strangle it, but even in those moments I have this deep and pure love for this country and its peoples. I have, generally, never been so completely welcomed by a group of complete strangers. My host mother took me into her home and treated me like her own child. My two best friends at school led me by the arm and made me feel included and welcome. My students grew to respect and love me as a mentor and teacher.

Despite all these wonderful and inspiring parts of my service, there is a darker side. I’m a big fan of lists and order. In any decision process you can generally pin me down and have me admit I made a pro/con list. I even broke up with a boy that way. And now, it seems, this list has come back to solve another relationship riddled with irreconcilable differences. There are a myriad things on the pros side of my list. As I mentioned, my students, my host family, my sheer will and pride, etc. However, on the cons side there were a few things and then this glaring singularity. It was this seemingly infinitely small thing but it was infinitely dense and could not be overcome. I no longer felt that the benefits outweighed the unwanted attention and outright sexual harassment to which I was being exposed.

Many of you may not know about this part. I’ve hinted at certain instances here and there but I try to keep it light in the blogosphere. This is not light. This is the heaviest of singularities. New universe, status. Peace Corps Indonesia is still considered an ‘adolescent’ program. We are no longer shiny and new with extra money at our disposal, but we’re still not a mature program with clean procedures and lines in place. To their credit, the staff have been working tirelessly to put these procedures in motion, however, one must consider the constant turnover in American staff (there are only ever three in country and they are required to change every 5 years or so) and the green nature of the program and, consequently, its local staff. We are only 5 years old. You can’t grow a program specific to a country in 5 years. You can have a damn good start, but it’s not a lego set with pre-printed instructions. It’s an ikea bookshelf with extra dowels leftover and directions in Swedish. So, with each group they listen to our feedback. They ask us questions and try to mold the program accordingly. Each individual’s needs will, of course, be different, and so unfortunately there is a requirement that they cater to the masses. In short: they’re trying to figure it out. Everything they learned from my experience will be applied to future groups and, indeed, already has been in some cases. I was able to help facilitate an open forum for communication about unwanted attention and sexual harassment in further trainings. They reached out to me and other volunteers to assist them in creating new sessions to ensure the continuation of important information to the volunteers to keep them safer and healthier. We are taking steps to arm every volunteer with the tools they will need to deal with the inevitabilities of these wretched events.

But that wasn’t enough to keep me here. Someone put it to my nerdy self in terms of physics. An object in motion requires very little energy to keep it in motion. It requires a great expenditure of energy, however, to stop an object already in motion. The easiest course might have been to continue my service and see it through to its terminus. The cons of such an action, however, were heavier than the pros, though the latter list was bursting. It was no longer a question of could I complete my service, but should I. And maybe that voice screaming at me to suck it up and carry on was coming from a place of hubris and folly.

My wonderful Ibu Haji Esin. I couldn't have done it without her.

My wonderful Ibu Haji Esin. I couldn’t have done it without her.

So. I made a tough call. I spent the last week in a living hell. I said goodbye to sobbing students and cried along with them as they told me how much I had changed their lives. I hugged my Ibu for the last time (for the foreseeable future) today. That woman who stood with me through everything and yelled at people on my behalf. I am leaving friends that I will keep for my lifetime to fend for themselves. I’m leaving my new home behind. This is not easy. But I’ve never been afraid of the tough choices before, and I certainly will not stand down now.

No Place Like Home

These are just the book boxes. Don't carry more than one at once...

These are just the book boxes. Don’t carry more than one at once…

I’ve moved around a lot in my life. After I moved out of my parents’ house I went full nomad and by the time I headed out here I had moving down to a science. All of my belongings could fit into 6 banker’s boxes, 4 of which were full of books. My parents moved after I was already in college, so I have technically never even lived in their house. What I mean to say is, there’s no one building that I would point at and say “I grew up there.” I have memories strewn across the country like a very comforting trail of breadcrumbs. I have had my little hiding places in various houses, apartments, trailers, theatres, and rose gardens. I call Santa Cruz my home town because it feels small and comfortable and safe, but after I moved out I made San Francisco my home. I chose it. I built my life there. I made the decisions and picked out the apartments and made things happen for me. I explored the new nooks and crannies and I made it mine. That place became a part of me.

But I don’t miss it that much anymore.

When I first moved to Indonesia, I would open google maps on my computer and it would pop up immediately to San Francisco, centered on my old house. I would navigate away from that image as quickly as possible because it hurt. I would look at my little peninsula on that screen and feel a visceral pain that would grab my gut and not let go. I couldn’t tell you if it was the people or the streets or the food or what I missed most about it. Maybe it was the combination of all the those pieces which made a whole. The City has a pulse, a life, a soul. I missed everything about it and I thought to myself, “Is this what home is?”



I know everyone says that home is where the heart is, and hell, there’s a song about leaving your heart in San Francisco. There’s even a giant piece of art to commemorate said hit. But then I was sitting in bed earlier today and I realized; I can look at a map of San Francisco now. That sharp edge is gone.

With all my moving, I made a personal philosophy some time back: It takes two years to really get settled in a new place. After about six months you’ve stopped focusing on what your new location is not and have turned your attention instead onto what it is. At the end of year one you’ve stopped missing it with the all-consuming sense you once had, you’ve made some friends, and you’re really getting your feet wet. Some time in the middle of year two you make real routines and lasting connections, and understand the flow of your new surroundings. By the end of year two you’re all settled into your new place and it’s as if you were never anywhere else. For this reason I usually moved into a new apartment and neighborhood after one year. I liked to keep things fresh.

Here I am, one year five and a half months into service and, for some reason, I’m surprised that I still manage to fit into my original hypothesis. I’m not comfortable here, per se, but the part where that burning longing ebbs holds true.

The closest thing to home I'll get for now.

The closest thing to home I’ll get for now.

So, to answer my own question, I’m going to have to say: Yes. That is what home is. But a part of me used to think you could only have one home at a time. That because San Francisco was my home, Santa Cruz or my grandmother’s house could no longer be my home, but I was sorely mistaken. The rose garden in Raleigh, my parents’ house in Santa Cruz, my grandmother’s house, and the entirety of San Francisco are still my home. And when I get back I have the opportunity to make a whole new home. Life is moving forward at a million miles an hour, even in this place where time stands still, and to focus so much on what I had seems frivolous and a little foolish. I loved my life there. I learned so much. And now I am here, in Indonesia, learning more. Later I will be in LA, learning yet more. After that… who knows?

Indo the wild, wild west

It happened. I am officially a Peace Corps Volunteer. I took an oath in front of the US Ambassador and shook his hand as he gave me a pin to prove I said the words of all federal employees.

Check out our KILLER PC Pins. And those faces.

Check out our KILLER PC Pins. And those faces.

We met, we smiled, we sang the Indonesian national anthem, we shook hands and took pictures, some of us are in the papers, we hugged and said goodbye, and that was that. Like most ceremonies. Some of us went out afterward for an adult beverage which was nice but I had to get home to pack and spend my last night with host family numero uno. Now, they are something I did not account for. They are overwhelming with affection and kindness and caring. I couldn’t cough without someone asking how I was and I couldn’t be on the phone without someone wanting to say hi. It was suffocating. And I miss them. I did not expect to nearly cry as I left their house for the last time. As I high fived Miss Noreen for the last time. I know these are things that should have occurred to me, but they didn’t. So, I miss them. They were good and patient and kind. I do hope to visit them if given the opportunity to help with training next year. Even if the mandi water is freezing.

A last photo with Ibu, Nenek, Sam (the PCV who lived with this family last year), and some of us ID-7s.

A last photo with Ibu, Nenek, Sam (the PCV who lived with this family last year), and some of us ID-7s.

After a prolonged goodbye, we got on a train Tuesday at around Noon. 16 hours later we arrived in Bandung. Lemme say that again. SIXTEEN hours. On a train. I would really love never to do that again. Somehow I think that’s not a very likely hope, but a girl can dream. It was fun, though. All 20 of us were seated together so we, of course, played train mafia and other fun and ridiculous games. We got to Bandung at around 4a and everyone shuffled out in a dazed and exhausted stupor akin to a bad zombie movie whilst carrying all of our wordly possessions. We crossed the street and promptly passed out in our hotel. We were lovingly awoken at 11a to come down and meet our principals/vice principals/counter parts/whoever decided to show up from our school. You heard me right, folks. We traveled 16 hours, didn’t really sleep, and then got dressed up to meet our future employers. Woot. We were thrilled.

Luckily for me, my counterpart (Pak Dayat) is one of the nicest people on the planet. He is so excited to have me here and he made that very clear. Publicly. We had three wonderful nights in the hotel with warm showers and a wealth of restaurants nearby. We found Indian Food and Pizza Hut. It was a cultural oasis. The few of us who needed to stay a third night had a grand time having a girls’ night. We did facials while some of us got a massage and we watched a chick flick whilst doing our nails. It certainly wasn’t an accurate depiction of what life would be like at site but it was a lovely way to celebrate our last night in a city.

Alan, the only man to be invited to girls' night.

Alan, the only man to be invited to girls’ night.

Alan (the only male in girls’ night) and I are neighbors. I mean, for the Peace Corps, you can’t get much closer than he and I are. It’s apparently about 30 minutes to an hour by bike. Because of this fun little fact we were able to hitch a ride together to site as his Vice Principle and my Counterpart had ridden together. So, we buckled up (figuratively, not literally, as there were no seat belts in the back seat) and settled in for our 6 (ish?) hour ride to site.

It was really quite beautiful. We passed countless rice patties littered with farmers and palm trees. Alan dubbed one particularly green expanse The Shire of Indonesia. As we were passing through the windy roads of Gunung Gelap (Dark Mountain) we drove into clouds and I thought I was home again. With the exception of a few odd trees I could have been on Hwy 17 going to Santa Cruz.

I swear, we drove into a cloud.

I swear, we drove into a cloud.

We arrived at my house first. I was reminded of a time that seems both years ago and yesterday. I thought about when I was delivered to my family in Batu. I couldn’t speak a word of real Indonesian, I was nearly quivering like a leaf, there were tons of people there to receive me. I wasn’t quaking this time and I can speak quite a bit of Indonesian now. My Ibu was out when I arrived with no one in the house but her family that had been visiting from Bandung. It was a peculiar way to arrive, but no matter. I found my room, explored the house, and settled in to unpack. There are some major stores nearby as well as a little collection of local shops. My house is very quiet and there’s a well in the back that looks like a small child covered in black hair may crawl out at any moment. I am making a ton of friends with local children and teachers. My school seems really fantastic if somewhat huge. My desa is darling and the beach is beautiful and close. When I buy a bike I should be able to get there fairly quickly.

The boys and I enjoying the beach at sunset.

The boys and I enjoying the beach at sunset.

It’s amazing how much you really get used to given enough time and resilience. When I first came to Indonesia I was constantly worried about the heat and the squatty potty and the mandis. Now it’s just the heat; the other two are a normal daily occurrence. There is always a measure of resolve you don’t know you have until you’re in the middle of using it, some measure of resilience you didn’t know you had until you refuse to stumble. There are, of course, new challenges in a new village. New sources of excitement, new people, new family, new language, new life. I told my mother something once that she recently quoted back to me (god, I hate having myself quoted at myself): It takes you 6 months to stop feeling uncomfortable in a new place and a year to be comfortable. Alright, so maybe she didn’t remember the exact quote but I’ll give her props for trying. Trust me on that, though. I’ve moved a lot. In a month I will know people and feel a little more secure. Two, and I’ll have a friend or two. Six, I’ll feel like I’ve been here forever. At one year I’ll be able to shake things up. It’s a process; it’s slow and it can be tedious, but it’s necessary. It’s why I’m here for two years and not on some 6 month program. I want to really help. Lasting, effective, sustainable change. So buckle down, saddle up, batten down the hatches, and any other silly clichés you can think of, because we’re in for quite a ride.

Otters, Monkeys, and Snakes. Oh my!

We felt like children being sent off to kindergarten all over again.

We felt like children being sent off to kindergarten all over again.

I seem to have found myself in a classroom this week, pretending to be a teacher. Go figure. After weeks of language and TEFL training, they finally threw us in the ring. I spent the first three days in class observing my fellow PCVs in the field. Then came Thursday. I successfully survived class. I wouldn’t say it went off without a hitch since I ran out of material 30 minutes early, but with the quick witted help of Miss Courtney James I managed to recover and finish out the class with nary a hiccup. I do believe I may have managed to make passive sentences fun. In your face grammar skeptics. I continue to teach next week on Monday and Tuesday. I’m going to continue to teach far too advanced a lesson to an underwhelmed class and try to make it fun. But hey, at least my worksheets are adorable. Years of Stage Management paid off, it would seem.

Other than that, it’s been a relatively calm week as far as PST goes. I haven’t broken anything or made too may cultural faux pas. We went to Alun-Alun in Batos (Batu town square) last weekend and that was lovely. It’s an odd little gathering of giant fruit-shaped markets with a ferris wheel at the center. Don’t ask me, I have no idea.

Our time is laid out and scheduled to the smallest detail, it’s exhausting. But I’m finding time to hang out with my host family quite a bit. I have no other option, really. I came home for a break the other day to a blissfully empty house. Not 20 minutes later it was full of people. There comes a point where a girl just wants some alone time, you know? Especially this one. But that’s what they made going to bed early for.

They even have sambal (a traditional spice akin to the red rooster stuff) at Pizza Hut...

They even have sambal (a traditional spice akin to the red rooster stuff) at Pizza Hut…

After a rather tame week and previous weekend it was obviously time to get into some trouble. We began with a deliciously gluttonous American meal at Pizza Hut. I can’t fully express to you the heaven experienced in one piece of pizza. It’s damn near sinfully amazing. This was followed by Stand Up Comedy. In Indonesian. That’s right, this gal went to a show where every word counts as it was performed in a language she didn’t know. Luckily for Alan and me, Ary (our CL) got up and did a short bit in English, after which a few comedians did speak English. We got a lot of stares and were definitely made fun of more than once in ways we didn’t understand. It was fabulous.

Saturday promised to be a jumble of ridiculous as well. We started with our language midterm (eek!) after which we needed some well-earned free time. The original plan was to head to Matos (Malang town square) and watch Iron Man 3 before heading over for some sober karaoke. Iron Man was, woefully but expectedly, sold out. (Fear not, my friends, I fully expect to go back and try again later. I will see Iron Man 3, by god!) We killed time in the mall for a while waiting for the rest of the gang to arrive; it’s a blissful little American oasis to wander through. And then there was karaoke. Oh yes. Loud, obnoxious, ridiculous, awful, fun karaoke.

Sunday held rich new promise of snuggling with wild animals and hikes into nature. Alex, Andorra, Courtney, Aubrey, and I headed to this small, local, quasi-zoo for the morning. We had SO much fun. I got to hold a snake, a monkey, three birds, an otter, and this odd mink-like creature I can’t identify but want to keep. I definitely need a pet monkey now. And maybe a pet otter. And definitely a pet mink-like-thing. After we had had our fill of insanely adorable, we made a play for my house to eat noodles and rice before venturing out into the wilderness on our own. Yes, this could turn into a scary movie very shortly.

So, we head to the main street to catch an Angkot to what we expect to be a very close waterfall our friends found. We hop on and he delivers us to Selecta, a local water park of sorts. Which is nice, but not where we’re going. We politely inform him we wish to go elsewhere and he gets a little exasperated at our lack of Indonesian but promises to take us. We turn around and head into Batu. Which is exactly the wrong direction. This is when we begin to worry. I clarify on multiple occasions that we want to go to Coban Rondo and he continues to insist he is assisting us. So we sit complacently in the angkot as it whisks us further and further the wrong way. We get to the terminal and he tells us to catch another angkot to Coban Rondo. We, of course, comply. We tell the driver where we want to go and we eventually get on the road. And we drive. And drive. And drive. I begin to get a little worried that we’re getting steadily into the middle of absolutely nowhere and none of us know how we’re going to get home. It brings back memories of a ride to Batos in which Courtney voluntold us to dance in a parade without knowing how we would get home. I smiled at the memory and we decided to press on. This definitely wasn’t going to be the same waterfall our friends went to, but it had to be well worth it.

I can't even handle the awesome of this place.

I can’t even handle the awesome of this place.

After steadily climbing a mountain for 30 – 45 minutes we are deposited onto the side of a road with a lone sign as our guide and the promise of another angkot driver that we’re close. What else to do but walk? And walk we did. And walk. And walk. Up a mountain. We finally reached Coban Rondo, expecting a little park and a waterfall. Foolishness. We get there, pay the entry fee ($1USD, a hefty price), and walk some more. We don’t have a map or a guide but there’s only one road so we can’t get too lost. The whole time the sun is getting steadily lower in the sky. After a little over 30 minutes of walking (and 30 minutes closer to sunset in a village we don’t know surrounded by people we’ve never met miles from the closest angkot stop) we stumble upon what, at first, appears to be a small village. We nearly fell over ourselves racing toward the sound of water after all the rapt anticipation. It was everything we had hoped for and more. I have seen few waterfalls to rival it’s size and intensity. I would be interested to find the story behind the superstition that follows this particular falls. It would seem that Rondo means “Divorce” and it’s said that if you go to this particular falls with your significant other your relationship will be doomed to failure.

We weren’t able to spend a lot of time at the falls considering we were well past our intended departure time. Just in case you thought we couldn’t get any more ridiculous, here you go: As we’re walking back I pull Courtney aside and say “Girl, if anyone can get us a ride down this mountain, it’s you.” Court, in all her precocious glory, accepts the request dutifully. She proceeds to find space on a bus headed to Batu (one of the places from which we can get home) with a High School English Camp. You read that right, folks, we hitched a ride back to Batu with a gaggle of excited High School kids and their teachers. For free.

Our lovely hosts took us half way home on a bus for free.

Our lovely hosts took us half way home on a bus for free.

From there we hopped off the bus in all our bule glory with much affection and adoration for our lovely hosts to get onto our final angkot of the night. An orange angkot (the one we want) pulls over to grab us without being haled and proceeds to take us…in the wrong direction. After explicit instructions on where we wanted to go. At this point I’m almost too tired to fight. Eventually he turns around and we’re headed in the right direction for the first time since we left on our little journey. What better way to travel home than with a bumpin’ angkot. Yesirree, he turned up some tunes and we had a blast. We danced and sang along in the back of the angkot. (Much to everyone’s amazement and amusement. I mean, everyone. We stopped people in their tracks on the street. As we are wont to do.)

So. Who’s coming to visit!