Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Impressions from the Last Month / How It's Going

The last month my drive to write has cooled off a bit, but that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been anything to write about.  Things have just sort of been all over the place.  This post will reflect that.  Oh, and it’s really long.


I wrote that Ramadan post after five days of fasting.  There were 25 more days after it.  I didn’t cheat once, but I was over it by the end of the month.  I felt good about my ability to control my cravings, which only approached “unbearable” one time—when I met up with other PCVs in Madiun but couldn’t eat anything with the ones who weren’t fasting.  Tough, but good to be in control of myself. 

On the other hand, it was less of a bonding and spiritual experience than I had hoped.  Not being able to drink water is really limiting physically, so I wasn’t able to ride my bike places for the whole month.  This meant a lot of time spent indoors, which was making me a little bit insane by the end of the fasting period.   Most people were very impressed that I fasted the whole time and I did feel like it earned me street cred, but I didn’t feel really closer to people.  Also, I think I learned an important lesson: ascetic activity that is not accompanied by serious mental focus is only one step above masochism.  Fasting is pretty ascetic, but the spiritual dimension was lacking for me because I wasn’t taking advantage of the physical deprivation to pursue anything greater.  At some points I just felt like it was pointless to fast in that way if there is neither a religious obligation nor a personal spiritual goal.  For me it was just about seeing if I could do it and knowing that I would never count my fasting experience as authentic if I cheated.  Other than that goal (which was sufficient this time around), I didn’t have a good answer for “what’s the point?” by the end of Ramadan.  Therefore…

Next year, I probably will not be so strict with fasting.  Having done it once and correctly, I will not have the same need to prove myself to…myself.  The drawbacks are pretty big, especially the physical limitation.  Plus, next year I’ll be able to take vacation away from my site during the two-week Lebaran holiday, which I shall want to do without the weight of not eating or drinking holding me back. 

On the final night before Idul Fitri, which marks the end of fasting, is a ritual called takbiran.  The takbir is the Arabic phrase Allahu akbar, which is variously translated as “God is Great”, “God is Greater”, or “God is Greatest”.  It’s one of the most common religious phrases in the Islamic world and becomes the slogan of seemingly every political movement that wants to cast itself as righteous.  Anyway, in my village takbiran means chanting Allahu akbar in the mosque through the entire night and broadcasting those chants to the entire village.  In my village it was about ten hours straight of men passing around the microphone and saying the same thing over and over in a terrible droning “melody”.  I couldn’t fall asleep.  By the time 6:00am rolled around, I was pissed off and half-delirious from sleep deprivation.  Being cranky and tired, I just spent the morning sleeping while everyone in the village was going from house to house asking neighbors forgiveness for any physical and mental transgressions.  At that moment, hungry and sleep deprived and with a brain liquefied by ten hours of takbiran, I was in no mood to ask other people to forgive me.  This might constitute the greatest anticlimax of my whole Ramadan experience, because going around to the neighbors and asking for forgiveness is pretty much the most social thing about the fasting month.  And I skipped it.

Point of interest:  As Lebaran/Idul Fitri is the biggest holiday of the year in Indonesia, it is often compared to Christmas in America.  There are some oft-cited similarities: Traffic is horrible, people go across country to be with their families, many children get presents—usually new clothes—and there’s a two-week vacation from school.  One thing other thing that I never heard anyone talk about is the phrase Mohon maaf lahir dan batin (more or less: “Implore forgiveness external and internal”).  This is the formal phrase you use to ask for forgiveness, which you think would be uttered with great solemnity.  In actuality, it’s said in approximately the same tone as “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” in America.  It’s written on banners and advertisements and pops up in television commercials, which often caused me to wonder how it’s possible for a corporation or political group or restaurant to ask forgiveness from a bunch of people it doesn’t know.  Is the concept of mental and physical forgiveness really applicable between a television network/restaurant/celebrity and anonymous individuals?  The idea of asking forgiveness from strangers is odd.


So school was out for a couple weeks, and since resuming two weeks ago the situation has improved immensely.  I had worked it out with my principal that my pre-Lebaran schedule would change after the holiday was over.  In my new schedule, I have five different groups of students (the accelerated group from 10th grade and the Science track and Language track kids from 11th grade).  This is infinitely preferable to my former schedule.  Planning is much, much better.  My days are stable.  I have been able to organize myself in a way that makes me happy and allows for a measure of routine and predictability, which is precious here in Indonesia. 

I work with two other English teachers, and I’m sort of taking the lead in having us work as a unit.  I’ve managed to get us to sit down every week to plan what will be taught for a week in advance.  Since we don’t have English books and they are both cool with departing from the national curriculum, we are developing almost all of our own materials.  This is one area where more progress must be made—especially in terms of sharing the workload.  I hope that over the semester and year, we will develop into an efficient team.  I dream that this sort of team spirit and efficiency will survive after my service is over.  If I achieve that, I’d call my service successful.  Time will tell.

I let all my students choose nicknames and had them make name cards/placards.  They were allowed to use their normal nicknames or invent new ones, but I warned them that anything they chose was going to be the thing I called them for the entire time I live in Indonesia.  On any assignment they turn in and on my attendance/tardiness/participation sheet, I just use their nicknames.  This is making it easier to learn who they are.  The girls are usually much tougher to remember because they wear headscarves (which cover ears and hair and neck) and long clothing and so look much more alike than the boys.  But it’s coming along nicely, and there some very interesting names in my classes (we have a CR7, a Rambo, a Hernandez, a [male] Chelsea, and a Justin).

Extracurriculars still haven’t started, and it’s almost October.  Next week has got to be the week.  I need to devote more energy to developing this.  I’ve got plans and approval for an English Club, and English Development thing, a Teacher’s English Class, and possibly also an American Games and Sports afterschool activity.  We’ll see which ones fizzle and which ones take off.  The difference between English Club and English Development is that the former should/will be more about fun and activities while the latter should/will be more seriously focused on developing basic skills that are chronically overlooked here—e.g. how to say the letters of the alphabet, practicing with numbers, learning useful grammar points, intonation, pronunciation, etc.

I am, at some point in the near future, going to make a post about what a day in school is actually like, also touching on the character of the students and teachers here, what level their English is at, and how classes run. 

Independence Day

August 17th was Indonesia’s 66th birthday.  I didn’t write any blogs about it because I had an idea for one DavidFosterWallace-style mega post about my experience on that day that would capture the essence of life in Indonesia through the eyes of a foreigner.  Yeah, ambitious.  I still have the notes from that, but I never got far into the write-up, and it doesn’t look promising.  For me it was an upsetting experience, watching the ceremony.  Everyone was fasting, yet more than a thousand kids had to stand out in the heat and sunlight for like two hours while this series of ceremonies took place.  Some highlights…

At least seven girls fainted.  There was an ambulance waiting from the beginning, as it is common for people to faint due to the heat and the restrictive clothing.  And this time it coincided with fasting.  Another 30 or so students, including a number of boys, had to be escorted from the main group because they were woozy and in danger of passing out.

Teams of students were waiting behind all the formations of kids to run in and catch the people who were passing out.  They took them to a shady area in the back.

There was a re-enactment of Indonesia’s struggle for independence from the Dutch, complete with horse riders and peasants bursting into song and cruel soldiers miming beating peaceful villagers.  One of the riders fell off his horse.

The “fireworks”, which were more like propelled firecrackers, were launched by a group of older men at the back.  They were supposed to shoot up into the air and explode and make a loud noise.  Most of them did that, though they were unnervingly low in the air.  Some of them shot into the crowd of students.  One firecracker landed next to a medical team, and the girls jumped away in terror about half a second before the damned thing exploded where they were just standing.  There was much screaming.


September 16th marked the completion of three months at our permanent sites.  After three months at site, we are allowed to start using our vacation time and spend nights outside of our villages.  To mark the occasion, I went on vacation to Yogyakarta (aka Jogja, not the same as Jakarta) from Friday until yesterday (Tuesday).  I had been looking forward to it for a good month.  I missed two days of teaching. 

We were supposed to meet up on Saturday, but since it takes eight hours to get to Jogja, I decided to leave on Friday after classes.  I was giddy, practically dancing around, in school that day.  I took the executive bus (quicker, smoother, air conditioned, more expensive, doesn’t allow buskers/vendors) and sat next to a very nice young man from Jogja named Aris, whom I hope to meet again some day.  I invited him to hang with me and my friends the next day, but he had fallen ill and couldn’t join.  I stayed in a hostel that night with Elle.  The hostel was beautiful but empty, because it’s a quiet time for tourism in Jogja.  It was actually pretty ghostlike when I got there—no guests and no employees.  I walked around the whole house looking for someone until I stumbled into a room with a sleeping Indonesian whom I could not wake up, despite repeated efforts (including shaking him).  Eventually the other hostel managers returned from wherever they were and we got things straightened out.  Elle arrived later, and it was wonderful to be able to hang out and talk freely and just generally revel in the beauty that lies in being able to be yourself.

The next day we went to the villa we had rented in the middle of Jogja.  It was glorious.  Walled in, green grass, private swimming pool, comfortable bed-chairs to lounge in next to the pool, outdoor bed on the patio, outdoor table on the patio, more chairs for lounging, beautiful tiling, fridge, air conditioning, lovely kitchen to cook in, multiple beds, massive bed/bedroom with gorgeous white bedding for everyone to share, two overhead showers with water as hot as you want, a sit-down toilet (!), and lots of peace and quiet.

I kind of don’t want to try to write about the vacation, because it was perfect beyond words and you wouldn’t understand it if you weren’t there anyway.  There were some external, touristy activities, but luckily they were kept to a minimum.  We did walk around the Kraton, or palace area, visited the underground mosque, went to Malioboro street, and made a trip to Borobudur temple.  These things were all right, but they’re also all the kind of thing I’d much rather do alone than in a group.  Exploring a new place ought to be done alone, and I had this in mind from the beginning, so I wasn’t disappointed at being underwhelmed by what Jogja had to offer.  From the beginning, the point of this vacation was to not feel engulfed by the foreignness of Indonesia.

So the true highlight was just being.  Just being relaxed.  Just being American.  Just doing what we wanted to do when we wanted to do it.  We spent so much time cooking beautiful meals and listening to music, drinking beer and talking, talking, talking.  Getting to know one another, swapping war stories, laughing our faces off, doing things just for the hell of it.  And did I mention there was always music playing?  Everyone contributed some essential quality to the dynamic, everyone helped to do what needed to be done.  Nobody was selfish.  We invited various Indonesian friends to come to our villa, which pretty soon started feeling like our house, so they could eat with us and spend time with us in our natural state.  That feeling of being a host rather than a guest or stranger was fantastic.  There were so many moments, especially around the table, where people just grinned and giggled out of sheer happiness and gratitude.  And when it was just us after eating, we were doing some intense personal bonding, aided by our long-unmet friend, Alcohol.  If I had to choose a single word to sum up those four days, it would be golden. 

On the first day in the villa, I was walking to the convenience store to buy something when I just ran into Pak Wanto.  I was walking in the general direction of the main road and there he was in the street!  Pak Wanto was my Javanese language teacher for the week that I and other PCVs studied local languages back in training.  I knew he, like all the other language teachers, lived in Jogja, but running into him less than a hundred yards from the place we were staying was beyond coincidence.  He had been on my mind recently because I was thinking about the Javanese culture lessons he had given me and my classmates.  He’s something of an expert on Javanese culture, a very sophisticated man, but with a simultaneously humble and confident presence.  He seems very serious, but when he laughs it lights everyone up.  And he teaches language for a living, so he speaks very clearly and knows exactly how to read the people he’s talking with, viz. if they understand what he’s saying or not.  The day after running into him, he came over to eat dinner with us (his first time trying Mexican food), and it was wonderful to have him.  Interactions with Indonesians who have substantial knowledge about the outside world as well as a cultivated grasp of their own culture yields the most rewarding exchanges. 

I don’t have pictures from the trip, but the others do.  When those pics go up on the internet, I’ll either steal and repost them here or post links to their blogs. 

Going back home was difficult.  I think the perfection of the vacation probably couldn’t have been achieved if it hadn’t been preceded by five and a half months of constant struggle and frequent isolation. 


I’m good.  Aside from the things listed, I’ve done a wee bit of reading and a good bit of music playing/recording.  I’ve got some friends here at my site, and I’ve got my PCV friends.  Things in my host family are pretty good.  I get along with everyone, though they are not the closest people to me.  I spend a lot of time at my house, and when I go out to sit or talk with neighbors, they always chide me to come out more.  Part of me agrees that I should be more focused on silatorahmi, which is a concept of being a good neighbor and taking active interest in all the people you live near.  And the other part says that sitting on the porch shooting the shit with the neighbors, or watching inane television with my host family, is not something I’m obligated to do if I’m not in the mood.  I have a good level of integration, but I also maintain a certain distance and independence, which I value.  Nonetheless, this tension between spending time alone and spending time with my family and neighbors remains imbalanced, and I will try to work on it more in the coming months.
My language skills are advancing in stop-and-go fashion, depending on how much I push myself to study.  But they are developed enough to handle all normal situations with ease, and I don’t really ever get into situations where I can’t understand what the other person is trying to say.  From time to time it becomes clear to me just how far along I’ve come in less than half a year—how many subtleties and cultural nuances I’ve picked up in and through language—and it makes me feel good.  Earlier I set a goal to be “fluent” by nine months.  The problem is I’m not sure what constitutes fluency.  There are some topics that I can discuss fluently.  There are others that I can talk about at a slower pace, and there are some that are a struggle.  But I have been able to live whole days without speaking English and to discuss conceptual things at a deeper level.  I am able to ask questions and understand explanations about religion and culture and history, as well as to express frustrations, with self-assurance.  I go through spurts of motivation to study Indonesian through reading and listening exercises, and they usually advance my skills.  These spurts of motivation are usually followed by longer periods of apathy.  It does require some serious discipline to do this all alone with no teacher or co-learners, so I don’t get too dismayed by those droughts of enthusiasm.

Two weeks from now will make six months in Indonesia.  At that point, I will write more about the personal side of things, taking a look at the last half year of my life.


P.S.  Not to toot my own horn, but I love this new background.  I hope you love it too, because it's going to stay for a long, long time.

1 comment:

  1. Go ahead and toot your own horn, I'm diggin the background too! One week til IST!