Life Lessons Post Peace Corps

Sometimes life happens. It never warns you it’s going to, it just sort of springs out of a dark alley and decks you in the face. Hard. But that’s sort of what life is for. Without it aren’t we just… dead?

In his element

In his element

I’ve been really content to whine for the last week about life happening. Well. It hasn’t been a constant whine, but there was some serious malcontent and more than a few tears. My partner in crime and life had a serious accident with a table saw and nearly amputated the tip of his finger. I’ve been told I ought to preface this story with his occupation in order to maximize the depth and intensity of this particular injury: Pianist. Maybe that contextualizes how detrimental the loss of a digit can be.

Spoiler: He’s ok and he will be able to keep the whole finger with some serious physical therapy and perhaps a bone surgery. He’s not out of the woods yet, but there’s definitely a trail now. So take a breath so you can focus on the point here.

His accident precludes him from returning to the graduate program in which he is enrolled for the fall semester; because how can you study an art you can’t actually practice? He is also a composer and a vocalist, but if he can’t play his own stuff there is an issue. Without his return to school we can’t raise what we need to move out of the in-law studio attached to his mother’s house and down to our very own apartment in LA.

Cue the whine.

The man nearly lost his finger tip, seriously derailed his dream, and I’m sad because we have to postpone our move?

So here’s where the perspective kicks in. And all told, it’s a damn shame it took me as long as it did to find it. He still has his hand. He is alive. I have all of my digits. I live in America. There will be no lapse in jobs for me. We are together with no lack of momentum and there doesn’t look to be anything changing about any of that.

I thought I was better prepared for the hiccups in life because I spent so long focusing in Indonesia on keeping my head in the right place. Sure, this isn’t me complaining because that coffee shop just never gets my order right, but there’s still a lot to be thankful for and I’m sorry to say I couldn’t see any of that for a minute.

Can you find Ash? Hint: He's underneath Maple.

Can you find Ash? Hint: He’s underneath Maple.

Of course, the flip side to that coin is that everyone must be allowed their moment to mourn. When I didn’t get into Yale for grad school I called home crying and my step-dad told me he understood my disappointment and that I was welcome and justified in crying for the day. But that’s it. The next day, he told me, he expected me to be up and ready to figure out what my Plan B was. It’s a piece of advice I’ve taken to heart. So, I took my mandated day (ok…maybe two or three) and I cried about it and now it’s time to move on.

Now it’s time to figure out how to live in the moment while planning for the future instead of getting through today just to see tomorrow. We decided to adopt two lovely kittens and redecorate the Studio. I am studying up for a few exams I need for teachery things and he is catching up on some non-finger slicing work. We have three months at least and four at most until we re-orient on the next southerly step and instead of marking the days off on my comic book calendar I’ve decided to find the awesome in being here. Because life happens and perspective is key.

And there’s cheese here, so it can’t be all that bad.

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.

Expectations’ End

This is absolutely what I expected.

This is absolutely what I expected.

When you go in for the initial interview with the recruitment officer for the Peace Corps they ask you a ton of personal questions you don’t expect. They also give you some quick little tips and tricks about Peace Corps. The biggest thing they try to hammer home is not to bring any expectations to the table. Of course, at this point, you’ve already broken that rule by walking into the interview expecting it to be like a normal job interview. I took the advice as best I could and I thought, “Good, I’m all set. I have zero expectations! I’ve got this!” But expectations are not a thing you just cut out of your system. Humans, by nature, seek patterns and demand categorization. We expect. Once we got into Pre-Service Training (PST) they continued to harp on the concept of leaving all expectations behind. This isn’t the service you think you’re going to have.

Before I knew anything else about Peace Corps I expected it was an agency that sent people to remote places to dig ditches and collect rainwater. I was so wrong. I expected the process to be efficient. So wrong. I expected to be in a tiny village living in a lean-to. So wrong. I expected not to have internet. So wrong. I expected to have a relatively easy time doing my job. So wrong. There were so many little expectations I didn’t even realize I had and, almost without fail, each has been tossed on the ground and trampled by reality.

This isn't my house, but it's close enough to reality.

This isn’t my house, but it’s close enough to reality.

I seldom feel like I’m in the Peace Corps. I live in a decently nice house, I have electricity almost all the time, the well water isn’t safe to drink but that’s ok, I have internet in my room, and I have my iPhone with a data plan. I can’t say I expected any of that. I honestly think I expected to be in a mud hut on the plains of Africa. Instead I am living on the most populous island in the world in a fairly large little town with many modern conveniences. This, of course, varies from country to country and even from village to village in Indonesia. Many of my friends have to ride some distance for internet or even to withdraw money from an ATM. Maybe they didn’t expect that either.

Now, though, is the time to parse reality from expectations. There are many things I never expected. I never expected to be so happy when I first convinced my Ibu to hug me. I never expected to love riding my bike. I never expected to want to punch people in the face for saying hi too much. I never expected to become the woman I am today.

Learn from it, bruh.

Learn from it, bruh.

As I’m sure many of you have gleaned, things can be difficult here. Street harassment and catcalls, truancy and absence at school, living and functioning in equatorial heat, sharing your room with small creatures. Instead of focusing, however, on how things should be or could be it seems important to take a step back and acknowledge this is how they are. There’s an adage from I have no idea where that says, “If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.” Things are as they are, for now at least. To steal and adapt the words of Rafiki, you either learn from it or run from it. You adapt to the situations as they are and gently set down the baggage you carried for how things are expected to go. This is not America. This is not California.

So instead of focusing on the things that can weigh me down, I choose to focus on all of the wonderfully surprising things I did not expect. I have found myself in a family here. My host mother now refers to me as “Sayang” or “Dear” because she’s adopted me as her own. I escape to a deserted beach and drink straight from fresh coconuts for fun. I have adorable kittens aplenty with which to play. My students make me happier than anything else here. On vacation I can go to Bali or, better yet, deserted islands.

It’s well past time to accept what is and cherish the little things I find here, because before I know it these 7 months will be gone and so will I.

What he said.

What he said.

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?”

Art!

Art!

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?

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.

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.