Wednesday, June 22, 2011

One Day in an Indonesian Village

***Edit 7/8/11

Click here for the high-quality version on Vimeo

Thanks for the tip. You know who you are.

Hooray, it's finally up!

My village's community project film is live on YouTube!

Watch it!

Comment, rate, inquire, opine--all that web 2.0 stuff! And link to it in whatever social media stuff you've got!

The more discussion it facilitates about...anything...the better.

Also, apologies for the relatively poor quality of the video...the original is much better. There was no other way to get it onto YouTube.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Food in Indo (Part 1)

One of the first questions I get from Indonesians upon meeting them is what I think of the food here. I mean, I always get it. I don't think I've met anyone who didn't ask me what I think of the food in this country. They usually have two primary curiosities:

1. Do you like it? (They wring their hands and shiver with anticipation)

2. Is it too spicy for you? (Their eyes light up with an evil gleam, awaiting affirmation)

Whether you like Indonesian food is irrelevant. The only answer to the question is: Yes, you do. Saying otherwise would be steel-edged, Terminatorian cruelty. Indonesians, you see, love their own food, and they want you to love it, too. I have not yet met an Indonesian who professed to prefer "ethnic" to local.

At first, this took me by surprise, as America is full of variety, and most of my friends are hummus-eating artsy-fartsy types who extoll exotic "cuisine" over unhealthy, bland "food". If it comes from another country, especially one peopled by those who don't look like Europeans/Americans, it's probably imbued with some wholesome, salt-of-the-earth nourishment that realigns your chi and keeps pandas from extinction. But even those blue collar, God-fearing, meat-and-potatoes types are susceptible to burritos. People in America love foreign food, often more than "classic" American grub.

The foodscape here is very different. Every meal has a center, and that center is white rice. You might have one or two meals a week that don't involve rice, which means you're eating noodles. Indonesians claim--boast, really--that they simply don't feel full if they don't eat rice. For them, it's a sign that rice is the realest food out there; everything else is relegated to the role of snack. Now, I'm no doctor, but for me, it's a sign that they have larger stomachs than everyone else, because they're stuffing them three times a day with a food that expands after ingestion. Thus, the owner of a stomach constantly crammed with rice is rendered incapable of feeling full if said owner only eats things that aren't rice. Be that as it may, they love their rice. They take it more seriously here, too. Exhibit A: In the Indonesian language, there are four different words for rice…

1. While still growing in a paddy, it's called padi.
2. While still unhulled and unhusked, it's called gabah.
3. After hulling and husking, but before cooking, it's called beras.
4. When it's cooked and ready to eat, it's nasi.

Rice is king, and the only variable is what should flank it on the plate. Thankfully for my pampered American palate, there is variety here. Meat is relatively expensive here, so often enough there is none. If it's a meatless meal, you'll usually get tempeh (fried), tofu (fried), or eggs (fried) for the protein portion. There's usually some sort of vegetable, or combination of veggies. If there is meat, it's probably chicken, either grilled or in a soup. There's also a kind of beef soup called rawon that, if you ignore the spiciness, isn't so far from a kind of potatoless, carrotless Irish stew. Obviously, there is never pork.

Fish pose an interesting quandary for the non-vegetarian. I don't like seeing a creature's face while I'm eating its meat, which has turned me into whatever the inverse of a pescetarian is. That's because fish here are always cooked whole and served whole on the plate, heads, bones, scales, tails, and all. You're just supposed to dig out the meat. Which, don't get me wrong, is fantastic. No sugarcoating reality -- you are literally face-to-face with the thing you are eating. If you've got the intestinal fortitude to rip the guts off of an animal, pack them into your mouth, and spit out the bones, congrats on your membership in the Circle of Life. If, however, you do not have the mettle it takes to pick meat out of an animal's head, you just don't eat it. And the world is better off because meat consumption is reduced to less unsustainable levels. Win-win(?)

Of course, the food here is spicy as well. Indonesians don't like food that isn't spicy. And they're kind of smug about that, as well, if we can be honest here. They're usually licking their chops when they inquire about your ability to handle the spice factor. You can practically see them thinking: …Come on…just sayyyyy it…TELL ME IT'S TOO SPICY OH GOD I NEED TO HEAR IT!!!!

Here's the truth. It's spicy. But if you're used to eating Thai food above wussy spice level or putting real hot sauce on your tacos, then it ain't no thing. You can handle it. What's more likely to get you is accidentally popping an entire hot chili pepper into your mouth and chewing before you realize what's happening and ask yourself why the hell anyone would sneak whole chili peppers in a plate of rice. At that point, you'll feel like you just chomped on a chunk of lava and any natives around you will go into hysterics.

About half of the time, food is pre-spiced. The other half you have a spicy homemade paste the color of salsa called sambel on the side, to add as you like. Sometimes it's sambelkecap, which is a spicy AND sweet.


"Why, yes, I generally take tea with my sugar"

Which leads me into the third main thing about how Indonesians like their food: sweet. Kids love sweets. They love sweet drinks. I often see little kids prowling the streets, lips pursed around straws that snake their way into little plastic bags full of fluorescent looking liquids. The only limits on how many kids you can make happy and/or bribe are how much candy you can carry around with you and the amount of littering you're willing to put up with seeing after those wrappers open. Tea and coffee, the two beverages served most often at home, are usually sweetened to the point that you wonder what the stuff actually tastes like. Homemade sweets are normal for dessert, and are also put on the table basically any time you visit anyone, or if there is some social gathering (meaning anything that involves either a party or a communal prayer at someone's house). It is quite difficult to convince Indonesians that you like things without sugar.

All this eating sweets and the, uh, less-than-comprehensive education about dental hygiene, not to mention the general lack of medical/dental insurance, means that most people have some tooth issues. There is also a high incidence of diabetes here (colloquially referred to as kencing manis, or sweet piss).

I'm going to cut this topic off here, though it is far from exhausted, because I've run over a thousand words and attention spans are likely flagging right now. Also, it's late and I'm tired. I shall return to the topic of food soon, because it is truly a central feature of Indonesian social life and there remains a lot to say about it.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Some Reflections

Ten weeks since staging. Pre-Service Training is over. Including tonight (Monday 6/14/11), we will spend three more nights with our host families before moving to permanent sites, where we will meet our new host families and do our best to settle in for the next couple years. Tomorrow we meet and spend the entire day with the principals of the schools at which we will be teaching. They have come in from around the province of East Java to take part in the getting-to-know-you day that Peace Corps staff has planned for tomorrow. They will be present for swearing-in on Wednesday.

Ah, swearing-in. Finally, shedding the worn out trainee coat and graduating to the gown of Volunteer. I know I haven't made a substantial update on how I, personally, am doing in many weeks. This time, it hasn't been just because I was busy (although I was). I obviously had time to post about other things, and I have had a little time to write for myself, privately. It's just this whole summing-up business isn't easy when you're in the thick of things. The time hasn't been right.


Perhaps I can give you a clearer picture of what training was like, now that it's done. You (should) already know that the 28 trainees--originally 30, but one couple had to leave because of a serious illness in their family--were divided between six villages in the Batu area. For the first three weeks, every village, which contained between four and six trainees, would have four hours of language instruction in the morning, followed by lunch, and then usually activities of one sort or another. Sometimes those activities were assignments aimed at increasing our integration in the village (creating a map, meeting the mayor, etc.). Sometimes they were actual training. Training, aside from language, includes health, safety & security, TEFL, and cultural. And, occasionally, some other random topic.

Usually, every Friday the entire group of trainees, all 30/28, would meet in Malang for what is called "Hub Day", and there would be a series of sessions from all the aspects of training. This is also usually where we would get our shots done (lots of immunizations to be had). Hub Day lasts from about 8am to 4pm. It was our chance for us all to see each other, swap stories, swap media, make plans for the weekend, etc * ∞. Saturdays were usually free--they called it "self-directed activities". Sundays were also free, but were to be reserved for spending time with our host families.

From weeks 4 to 6, we had our teaching practicums. I taught in a vocational school, as noted in a previous blog. At first we were observing, and then we had to design activities, and later full lesson plans. We all had to teach at least one class (I taught several). It was pretty much everyone's first experience co-teaching. Co-teaching will be how we do things at permanent site: ideally, in every class, there will be me and an Indonesian counterpart. Imagine a large metaphorical asterisk next to that word 'ideally'. During practicum, we would go to schools in the morning and do language class in the afternoons. This was challenging, very tiring.

Week 7 was the week for site visits and site announcements. Everyone was assigned to visit a current volunteer at their home/school. I went to see Bart Thanhauser, whose blog is now linked from my page. The visit was great. Really awesome to hang out with a current volunteer, someone who's sorta been around the block. Great to see how he has integrated into his community and get at least a sense of what the day-to-day could be like. I stayed two nights at his place, returned on Wednesday (of week 7), and the next day was site announcements. That is, we were told where our permanent site would be and the outline of our living situation. I learned the make-up of my new host family.

I will be teaching in a madrasah (a religious high school). This suits me just fine, since I have an interest in religion and the religious and non-religious schools are basically the same. Curriculum is the same, except madrasah students have more instruction in religion and also must study Arabic. But I did my practicum at a vocational school and visited Bart, who teaches at a madrasah, and the schools did not strike me as drastically different. I look forward to learning a few words of Arabic.

At first, getting my site announcement made me sad. The rest of my village-mates are geographically close to each other, but far away from me. Most of the people I was close to during training are far away from me. I was melancholy the rest of the day. It had nothing to do with the site itself--just being far away from people. I pretty quickly realized that it didn't matter much. If you are a PCV in Indonesia, most of the time you will be on your own, no matter where your friends are. I think this reality just began to register in my mind at that point. You lose sight of it while in training, because in training you see and talk with Americans every day. You still speak more English than Indonesian. So that started sinking in.

I was sad, but my host family was THRILLED, because my site is actually only about 90 minutes away from my current village, which means I'm within visiting distance. The last three weeks, I have heard every single day about how I must come and visit if I have a free day. Any time my host parents are feeling especially affectionate (or sad at my impending departure) they remind me of this. I plan to visit, of course. Another perk of my site is that I'm within 90 minutes of Malang, which means I can continue to see the cultural facilitators, who have become good friends.

Anyway, that was week 7. Week 8 was Community Project. Every village group had to design and carry out a three-day project/event to do in their village. The idea was to achieve something with your village, hopefully giving something back to them. Villages chose things like making murals, running English camps, an American culture exposition, and trash clean-up (read previous entry to get a sense of why this is a great idea). My village made a film. The idea was mine, and my village mates liked it. We all took cameras and filmed the things we thought made up everyday activities in our village. It being my idea, and I being the one with the software and the gusto, I had to edit, which took a long time. I sorted through several hours of footage and at least 20 gigs of video to make a 10-minute movie, divided into four parts. There is no dialogue--it's just footage and still-images of the things we see and notice. What makes up a day in the life of the village, as seen by American eyes. We screened the film in the village office and the sub-village hall. Total audience, approximately 60 people. But many neighbors saw the film as well, and I'd say the total viewership has about doubled. This is the video I've been trying to post on YouTube for a long time, but YouTube is not having it. Just keeps coughing it up. Still trying to resolve this issue.

We also wanted to start a sort of dialogue about different perspectives after screening the film, but that mostly fizzled out. Turns out it's not exactly natural for Indonesians to dissect foreign cultural perceptions, much less their own perceptions about foreign perceptions. Pretty American/college-y thing to do. Lesson learned.

Week 9 was local languages. I studied Javanese (about 7 trainees studied Madurese, because they will be either on the island of Madura or in predominantly Madurese-ethnic areas of Java). This was difficult, mostly for the across-the-board lack of motivation all trainees felt. Nobody enjoys feeling confused and struggling to say basic things. And nobody enjoys having to do it twice in two months, especially when everyone already speaks Indonesian. Still, I'm glad we did it. I definitely have a better grasp of what people are talking about when they speak to each other in Javanese. Beyond local languages, we didn't have that much else to do, so the pace of days slowed down in week 9. I think I started to get a better feel for how actual life might be. Maybe it was just that I had some free time during the day, which was pretty much non-existent during the rest of PST.

And now we're in Week 10. Swearing-in. Today we had our last Hub Day. Tomorrow we meet our principals. Wednesday we take the oath and become Volunteers. It is customary that at swearing-in, two Volunteers give speeches in whatever language the of the country is. Since I'm more or less the strongest in Indonesian, I'm giving one of the speeches. This is in addition to a number of speeches by other, far more important, people who are not Volunteers. I also have to lead off reading (in Indonesian) this paragraph of oaths that we are all taking. So I had to write a speech. I wrote it in English, and it has been translated into Indonesian for me by Ning, queen of the language facilitators, personal teacher of His Excellence, the Ambassador of the United States to Indonesia. Who, by the way, will be attending. After the ceremony, I may post the text in both languages on this blog for posterity and showing off purposes.


This is a long entry. It's overdue. I guess the question now is the classic:

"How do you feel? Tell me about how you're feeling"

I feel really great. Strong. My confidence is very high right now. Training has been excellent. I worked hard and I was mindful of how I managed my time and money, and it has paid off. In terms of language and cultural integration, I have met my expectations. If you know me, you know I set the bar very high for myself (looking at you, mom and dad). And in this instance, I am pleased with myself. That's the language/cultural side of things.

My experience in the teaching practicum was another confidence booster. A lot of the unknowns were removed from the equation after being in front of a class. There still are some important variables (e.g. the character of my counterparts and my schedule), but the algebra is simpler now. I know I am comfortable in front of a class. I know I can get them to enjoy themselves. I know I can command their attention. And I know I have all the resources I need in terms of human support to do my job well. I'm looking forward to it.

I am excited. The last two months have galloped along. Now it's time to get to work. Enough handholding, enough wondering what everything will be like. I'm ready.

Of course, I would hardly be human if everything were peachy all the time. There have been hard moments. In an earlier entry, or in one of the videologs, I mentioned how the rhythm of life is very important here. Many weeks after saying that, I stand by that opinion, and it is more firm in me than before. A couple times I've stumbled over triggers, which initiated periods of two or three days over which my concentration flagged. Oh, I did my assignments, showed up where I was needed. But my head was elsewhere. Talking with old ghosts, I guess. Some nostalgia, some sadness.

But never anything to make me rethink this commitment. I can honestly say: I have not once considered leaving early. Challenges here will be dealt with as they come up, but they have no connection to my desire to be here. And being really honest, so far, this is not that trying. It's challenging, but it's not like I'm suffering here. Getting sick and throwing up sucks, and never seeing friends/family from home ain't the best either, and seeing millions of things every day that I wish I could fix requires patience, but I feel an aliveness here that I didn't feel before. Not a sense of 'Oh, I'm off doing good, important work that is changing the world, hooray for me' (confidence is one thing and pretension is another), but a sense that I am living a sort of unity right now.

Living a unity. I'm not making money--not doing it, not interested, and not allowed--so that is not a viable metric. What does it really feel like? It feels like my job is to be me. Being in training, walking around my village, talking with people, learning the language, integrating in the community--it's all part of my job, and it's all the time. It can be tiring, but it is invigorating, too. There really aren't any moments without meaning. And in those few hours that I am alone, responsible to no one but myself, I feel a gratitude that was lacking before. Before coming here, I had loads of time to myself. As much as I wanted. Now, me-time is limited. But that makes it precious.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Why All Roosters Should Be Turned into Chicken Nuggets

Let me start this off by saying that I am a friendly person. I really am. I'd say I possess at least the same quantity of root benevolence and benign inclinations as your average feller. There are, however, some things, people, and situations in this world that spawn primal, usually irrational, and invariably abominable stirrings in me. The List isn't long, and includes items both trivial and profound. Some examples:

1. Human trafficking.
2. Being trapped in an enclosed space with a weeping infant.
3. Bullying.


I'm not saying that all these things equal are equally nefarious or serious. Some are there because they are morally offensive, some because they are just irksome. I'll leave it up to you to decide what's important and what's not. What I am saying is that items on The List all share a certain power to frost my balmy exterior and pour gasoline on whatever glowing corner of my soul is responsible for making me hot under the collar (how's that for mixing metaphors?!?!).

What usually happens is I will witness or encounter Item X from the list, and whatever harmless thing I was doing or thinking will be hijacked by thoughts of "justice", which usually means revenge. I start scheming all kinds of schemes: grandiose fantasies of retribution, magnificent angel-of-death-like visitations of terror, or petty punishments. The unifying thread of my imaginings is that they are out of all proportion to the real demands of justice, if such demands can even objectively be said to exist.

Okay, that is my preface. So you understand when I say that I think all roosters should be made into chicken nuggets, I know I'm not being fair. Just like when I say that babies on airplanes should be stored with cargo. I know I sound mean. I know I'm being a mean little person with a mean little heart. I get it. But it's just how I feel in the moment. Let's agree that I'm a flawed, irrational creature like the rest of humanity, there are a few things that make me mad, and move on.

It's taken me two months, but I realized this morning that The List now includes:

427. Roosters crowing in the morning.

My host parents raise chickens in a coop for eggs and probably meat, and inside the coop is this one brown and jet black colored rooster. And most of the people in the village let their roosters strut around yards, or even wherever they please, the whole day. So there's a lot of cocks walking around. After the din of the morning calls to prayer subsides (about 4:30am), those roosters are awake.

And when roosters are awake, they make this awful cock-a-doodling racket asyoumighthaveheard. Each bird has its own voice and call--some high, some low, some drawn out, some staccato, some with many notes, some more of a monotonous howl. Most of them are pretty throaty. And they do it at random intervals, usually not exceeding 20 seconds. I don't know, maybe it's the randomness that puts me over the edge. When things are predictable, it's easier to tune them out, just a simple task for your brain to tut-tut it into the background. But the timing of the crowing is haphazard.

I imagine little sound-wave soldiers with helmets and parachutes being shot out of a cannon into my ear. And the little troops are holding miniature two-handed dental drills, hell-bent on shredding the fabric of my precious eardrums and those little hairs in your ear that let you hear but never grow back. And if you know me personally, you know that hearing is, like, my thing, and I am thus far more likely to react negatively to sound than to sight. Maybe this is why roosters drive me nuts. I don't know.

All I know is that when roosters crow, they do this thing where they stand up real straight and stretch out their necks while opening their horrible little beaks to let out that shrieking foulness. And every time I see this, or picture it in my mind, an imaginary samurai sword appears in my hand.

I strike. Swiftly, cleanly. One fluid, lightning motion. The stupid bird is still mid-cock-a-doodle when his cold reptilian eye registers shock at the reality that, yes, justice is finally being served and he is paying for his crimes against humanity and poultry alike.

This fantasy plays itself over and over in my head every time. In my fantasy, I don't care what happens to the bird. Let him be turned into nuggets--I could use a taste of home. All that matters is that that pointless (seriously, what is the point?), ludicrous crowing has been forever hushed. And while we're dreaming, let all roosters suffer the same fate, since they're clearly all bastards.

At this point, my rational mind might get a foothold and manage to make an objection that this is not exactly fair. Then another rooster crows. And I remember that they all beat their hens. I swear, I've seen it. A hen clucking in panic, head down, tail up in the corner of a coop, while some fancy-plumed dictatorial cock pecks at her for god-knows-what reason. Wife-beating is an unchecked reality among domestic fowl, and decapitating roosters mid-squawk seems just about fair to me. Then, chicken nuggets with barbecue sauce for all.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Getting Sick (warning: gross)

Edit (6/9/11): Thanks for the wishes everyone, I'm fine now. I was able to go to class the next day. Everyone in my village now knows that I will not eat watermelon or drink coconut water, and that my stomach is still scared of noodles.

(May 6, 2011)
So, one more right of passage behind me. After eight weeks of ease and luck, I finally got sick last night. I don't mean a cold--I've already had one since coming to Indonesia. I'm talking about vomiting and diarrhea…the good stuff. Around 10:00 last night, my stomach was feeling really unsettled, which is part of the reason I was still up in the first place. I couldn't find a comfortable position to lie in my bed, and the rumbling in my belly was picking up.
I started feeling queasy. And queasier. I went into my bathroom, thinking I might have to throw up. I squatted in front of the toilet, and sure enough: BLLLLAAAARRRGGGGG. Hello, noodles from three hours ago! Still curiously undigested. After a wave of stomach contractions, my first barf baby was born. He shall be called…Ralph!
It was pretty gross, but I figured I would feel better after that. How naive I seem to myself now. Five minutes later, I had to throw up some more. After that, my stomach was more or less empty. Then came the diarrhea. And let me tell you: getting diarrhea when you have to wipe with your hand SUCKS, because even though you end up cleaner, you go through soap like nobody's business.
At this point I started getting chills, so I put on the one jacket I brought with me to Indonesia. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror: Yeah, looking good there in your waterproof rain jacket and boxer shorts. Another consequence of squat toilets and diarrhea is that it doesn't make much sense to wear pants. So if there had been anyone to see, I would have been quite a laughable sight.
Anyway, I spent the next four hours alternating between vomiting and diarrhea. Even though there was nothing left in my stomach, it continued to try to expel whatever offensive thing got into it earlier that day. I went from throwing up dinner to throwing up saliva to dry heaving to vomiting some bitter yellowy fluid (yellow bile?). Meanwhile, I had diarrhea to contend with. At one point, both Mr. Diarrhea and Mr. Barf were knocking at the door, so I had to choose one end to aim at the toilet and one to aim at the floor. I think that's a pretty obvious decision, especially considering my stomach was already empty. Still, it was the first (and hopefully last) time in my life I was presented with that choice.
My retching was enough to wake up my host mom, who was very sweetly worried about me. I explained what was going on, and though there wasn't much she could do, she still stayed up the whole night to be sure she could help if needed. My host father, who came home at 1:30am from the family shop, also stayed up. Eventually, sometime around 3:00am, I was able to drift off to sleep for a little while. I called the Peace Corps doctor around 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning, told him my symptoms, and got his recommendation. I felt better by that time--at least I wasn't puking anymore--but I was still very weak. Basically, today was the day for rehydration. He told me to rest, eat soft foods if I was hungry, and drink a bunch of water with oral rehydration salts.
Water with oral rehydration salts tastes like what I imagine gatorade would taste like if there were absolutely no sweeteners in it. To put it redundantly, it tastes like watered-down seawater. But it's got electrolytes (man!), which is what my body had run out of. For the rest of the day I felt progressively better. Unfortunately, this poop 'n puke adventure cost me the first day of class in Javanese. Annoying.
After going over the lead-up to my sickness, it was concluded that things went awry when I ate watermelon in combination with honey-and-sugar-sweetened young coconut water, an apple, and drank sweet tea. My parents say this was far too much sugar, and that the real problem was the watermelon. Apparently everyone here knows not to eat watermelon with other sweet stuff. I think the coconut might have been the culprit for the D, and watermelon (in combination with everything else I ate that day) responsible for the V. I'm pretty much set on never eating watermelon or drinking coconut water again. I don't even like coconut water! Tastes like sweat to me. I was just drinking it to be polite. Call this a lesson learned.

Trash and Waste

Where there are people, there is trash. I'm pretty sure I read that somewhere and concluded that it is one of the wiser observations about humanity I've come across.

Indonesia is no exception. Trash is all over the place, quite literally. For as much natural beauty as Java has, it is somewhat sullied by the ubiquity of rubbish. On the streets, in fields, in the streams and rivers, clogging up gutters, littering the floors of shops--trash is everywhere. The reason? In most places in Indonesia, it is perfectly acceptable to litter. If you buy a drink or a snack and have no more use for the packaging, you can just chuck it wherever you feel like. Trash bins and garbage cans are rare enough, and where they do exist, they're usually positioned in strange, inefficient configurations.

In my village, trash that accumulates in houses is usually disposed of through one of several methods. Organic trash is often enough used to feed the animals that they raise. Inorganic trash is usually collected into a plastic bag and thrown into a stream next to the main road. Yes, you read that correctly. I have seen people dump out garbage from a trash bin directly into streams/canals. That water is carried down to the agricultural fields, where the trash accumulates again. The other method of disposing of trash is by burning it. In the course of a regular day, I'll usually see (or smell) a handful of houses burning piles of trash. That strange plastic-smoke odor tends to fill the air as I walk home in the evenings.

As an American, everything about the way trash is handled here shocks. Children throw candy wrappers on the ground and parents don't bat an eyelash. If you ask them, people will say that so much trash in public areas is ugly, but there is no hint of effort to tackle the problem. It's hard to imagine how the people could be so indifferent, but one of the other trainees offered a (partial) explanation that sounds somewhat reasonable. He said that the phenomenon of purchasing goods wrapped in plastic is relatively new here in Indonesia. For most people, it's only been a few decades since the food they buy started being packaged in plastic/aluminum/cardboard. For example, street vendors used to serve their food wrapped in banana leaves, not in plastic bags. Likewise, "packaging" used to use all organic materials (because that is what was available), so there was no net damage to the environment by throwing trash wherever you wanted. The problem is that this attitude, which was harmless fifty years ago, has carried over into an age where its product is now detrimental.

On my second or third weekend here, I was holding onto an empty plastic water bottle until I could find a trash can. My Ibu saw me holding it, took it from my hand, and dropped it on the ground.

This is how Indonesian people do it.

I picked up the bottle. I am not Indonesian. If you are American, you don't do this.

She tried to take it from me again, but I wouldn't let her have it. I put it in my pocket and disposed of it in some trash bin later on. The stand was purely moral--the ground was already littered with plastic bottles and wrappers, and it's highly likely that the trash from whatever bin I put the bottle in would just have been dealt with in an equally irresponsible fashion.

So far, none of the trainees I know have budged on their American approach to littering--it's wrong, and none of us do it. But it can be discouraging sometimes. For example, my friend Jenn, who is very conscientious about environmental protection, would often put any trash she accumulated while out of the house into her pockets or backpack (remember: no trash cans anywhere) and wait until she got home to throw it away. She thought this was a good way to deal with it until she realized that all the trash in her house is unceremoniously dumped into the canal directly in front of it.

The whole issue is appalling, not least of all because nobody seems to think of it as a problem. And to my eyes, which have done a bit of traveling, the appeal of Indonesia's natural beauty would be stronger if it weren't smudged by omnipresent rubbish.


I don't mean to smear this country. Seeing the way that trash is dealt with here prompted me to think about the ways in which Americans are environmentally irresponsible. We might feel shocked and self-righteous at the sight of shameless littering, but we don't bat an eyelash at the unbelievable amounts of energy we consume as individuals.

In my house, for example, electricity is consumed in just a handful of ways. Each room has exactly one light bulb (the high efficiency kind). The tiny, ancient, bunny-eared television set is turned on for many hours every day. People plug in phone chargers--or computer chargers, if you're me. There is a refrigerator, though it is not used the way it should be (that's a whole story in itself). And the rice cooker is often used to whip up the next batch in an endless procession of white rice. And that is all. No air conditioning, no electricity used for water heating, no dishwasher, no washing machine/dryer for clothing. No extra lights, no computers or extra television sets, no stereos, no plug-in fans, no vacuum cleaners, no electric stove or oven (cooking is done on a small gas stove).

Consumption of electricity per person here is a minute fraction of what it is in the US. In my completely unscientific estimate, a single four-person household here probably uses about 2% of the electricity used by a comparable household in the States. And when you consider how that power is generated in America (cough fossil fuels cough), it becomes clear that we, as Americans, are not standing on moral high ground when it comes to environmental responsibility. I mean, there are certainly attitudes and technologies in America that would be beneficial to cultivate in the developing world, but we ought always to keep in mind that WE are the truly wasteful ones. It seems that as long as we don't have to see the consequences of waste with our eyes, we can persist in our wasteful habits.

And, to be honest, I would have to do a lot more research on what happens to trash in the US before being able to conclude that we actually deal with it in a "responsible" way. All I know is that I don't see it all over the place, but that doesn't mean it's being dealt with the right way.