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.

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.

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.