Sunday, April 22, 2012


Getting There

When Jay posted an announcement and description of a plan to hike Gunung Raung in Bondowoso, he was met with enthusiasm and interest from at least 20 PCVs.   This being Indonesia, stuff—scheduling difficulties, weather, etc.—got in the way.  By the time a date was fixed, only four volunteers remained: Jay, John Alford, Nicole, and me. 

At the top of Raung is Indonesia's largest volcanic crater.  By all accounts, it's a site to behold. Raung isn’t Everest, but it’s not a walk in Central Park either.  It takes nine hours to make it to the summit, which eclipses 3,300 meters, or close to 11,000 feet.  There’s no water on the mountain, and the descent takes at least another six hours.  It was decided that the hike would take place during national exams (when we don’t have to teach).  We would start Tuesday evening, climb throughout the night, and spend a few hours at the top to watch the sunrise.  Then we would descend, finishing on Wednesday afternoon, go to Nicole’s house, enjoy an evening of recovery, and go home on Thursday morning.  I’d arrive sometime in the evening, sleep, and make it to school the next morning to give my students a test.

I woke up at four in the morning on Tuesday.  It takes about 10 hours to reach Bondowoso—the nearest important city to the mountain—by bus.  From there it would be another two hours to get to the mountain itself.  Generally speaking, the magic number for public transport here is four.  You can go from pretty much anywhere to pretty much anywhere else in four rides.  

After waiting for 25 minutes in the pre-dawn for a bus, I stepped on the first one that appeared.  That bus (#1) was actually the wrong one, only going about half way to Jombang, my immediate destination.  It dropped me there, where I switched to an angkot (#2) headed for Jombang.  Apparently the driver of that angkot didn’t see any profit in taking the passengers all the way to the market, so he dropped us off in front of a different angkot and gave a slice of our fares to its driver.  We got in that angkot (#3), which took us to the market in short order.  I waited there for about ten minutes for a bus heading to Mojokerto, where I planned to meet John Alford.  The bus (#4) I got on was packed.  I stood for the entire 45-minute ride between Jombang and Mojokerto, and since there was no handrail, I sort of pressed my hands against an overhead luggage compartment for balance.  The position wasn’t much different than the one you assume at an airport security check with a full body scanner.  For most of an hour. 

I got off at the terminal in Mojokerto and met John.  He and I quickly learned that our planned route of Mojokerto to Probolinggo doesn’t exist.  We would have to go through Surabaya first.  So we hopped onto the first bus (#5) headed that way.  This, too, was packed.  I counted approximately 50 seats on the bus, but there were certainly over 100 passengers at some points.  It’s fortunate that most people here don’t know English, or the conductor may have understood me as I cursed him aloud for his greed and villainy each time he let more people on. 

In Surabaya, we were determined to take a Patas bus.  Most buses we ride are comparable to steerage class on ocean liners.  Patas is a step up: it’s air conditioned, makes only planned stops, and the vehicles have shock absorbers.  So we found a Patas bus heading to Probolinggo (#6) and passed a smooth couple of hours in relative luxury.  I even managed to get 45 minutes of dearly needed sleep.  At Probolinggo it became clear that the gods demanded suffering as payment for our previous comfort, so we had to get on one of the worst buses (#7) in Indonesia.  Smoke-filled, roasting, and filled with an annoying assortment of passengers.  To our right was a man texting on a cell phone with quite literally the loudest alert tone I’ve ever had the misfortune to hear.  To the fore, a procession of buskers, including not one, but two separate karaoke singers, one of whom actually set up shop right next to our seats.  And surrounding us, a swarm of smokers bent on hotboxing the bus. 

After several hours in that dump-with-wheels, we had to get off in a little town called Besuki to get on the bus that would finally bring us to Bondowoso city.  We waited for a quarter hour, and just as I had started heading to a nearby convenience store to look for an ATM, the big red bus (#8) pulled in.  Mercifully, this one was rather empty, so we were comfortable the whole ride.  Alas, neither would this go unpunished.  Shortly after arriving in Bondowoso, I realized that I no longer had my wallet.  I searched myself and my backpack several times, then tried to find the bus, which had already departed.  I talked to some staff at the terminal, but it was clear there was very little chance of getting the wallet back.  I was 100% sure I’d lost it on that last bus, because I’d taken it out to purchase a strawless bag of soymilk.  I didn’t have much money in it—only 4,000 rupiah, or less than 50 cents.  But it did have several important ID cards, as well as my ATM card.  Not to mention, I’d had that wallet since I was a freshman in college, and it had sentimental value. 

By this point, the four of us were gathered at the Bondowoso terminal, and we took a microlet (#9), which is a large angkot/small bus, in the direction we needed to go.  When we wanted to change to another angkot, we discovered that the one we’d counted on had stopped running earlier in the day.  We called the “base camp”—the place where hikers of Mt. Raung start out and pay and maybe hire a guide—to arrange for them to pick us up in a private car.  Before they sent anyone, however, we were offered a ride by a random man in an SUV (#10).  That’s Indonesia for you.  The random guy turned out to be a principal at a nearby school who spoke excellent English, and he’d even heard about Nicole from the principal of her school.  A pleasant ride ensued, and we made it to the base camp by 5:15pm. 

We spent about 45 minutes preparing to go.  We unloaded the dispensables, purchased a lot of water (four to five liters per person), and decided not to hire a guide.  As the sky darkened, we climbed into the final truck (#11) that would take us to the start of the trail.  Night had fallen, and we were heading up a mountain.  The four of us were giddy with excitement.  Between jokes and jabber we peered at the stars, which were growing ever clearer.  Fireflies blinked in the tree-tops.  A bumpy half-hour trip brought us to the start of the trail.  We hopped out of the truck.


Reality Check

If you’ve read carefully, you may be asking yourself whether I actually planned so imprudently.  That is, whether I planned (after a four-hour night’s sleep) to spend 14 hours getting to a mountain that would take nine hours to climb, with no breaks.  Yeah, I guess I did.  After all, my early twenties are running out.



As happens in any long trip, we began in high spirits.  Each of us carried nightpiercing LEDs to light the way.  We talked and joked, and we stopped frequently to stare at the stars.  The first time we all looked up together, a meteor  tore through the  sky.  Auspicious!  I was wearing an undershirt, a tough collared athletic short-sleeve, cargo shorts, and my white Converse basketball shoes.

The first part of the trail was a gentle gradient, winding through farmland.  Not too long after, we entered the forest—perhaps you’d call it jungle?  The trail was quite clear, and we were thankful we didn’t pay the 300,000 rupiah ($33) for a guide.  We zigged through the forest and zagged through a stretch of sawgrass and zigged back into the woods.  For a long stretch, the trail got muddier and slipperier, and the plants were covered in dew, which soaked the fronts of our pants.  Little missteps here and there, and soon mud flecked our clothing and skin.  

Most vegetation in the forest is benign, but there are a few hazards: occasional thorny vines, concealed roots that can snatch your foot, and small, sharp, broken branches that might poke you in the head or eye if you’re not vigilant.  Wearing shorts, as I was, keeps you from overheating but exposes your shins and ankles to the endless abrasion of the plants that flank and pinch the trail.  It’s dark, but you can feel your legs turning pink from the buildup of tiny scrapes.

Some three hours in, we weren’t quite as rosy-cheeked as we’d been upon setting off.  We took turns losing our footing and grasping violently for deep-rooted plants to prevent an embarrassing and painful tumble.  It must have been in some such tumble that I picked up a hitchhiker.   We stopped to take a short break, and I shone the light on my leg to see just how muddy things had gotten.  To my curiosity and surprise, there was an animal on my left leg that I’d never actually seen before.  It only took me about two seconds looking at it to realize it was a leech.  I couldn’t feel it on there, but it was black and squishy and attached to me, slightly to the right of the shin.  My friends and I stood around for half a minute, not sure what exactly to do. 

You should probably get that off.

How do I do that?

I think you have to burn them off.

                        Yeah, I heard you have to burn them off.

            Do you have any fire?

I didn’t bring a lighter.

            Oh, screw it.

So I ripped the little bloodsucker off my leg and watched with fascination as a small amount of blood drip from the wound.  Ten minutes later, it was still dripping—quite slowly—and I wondered aloud whether leech saliva contains an anticoagulant.

I think it does!

            It must, right?

I wiped the blood off with a leaf and got a band-aid from Nicole.  Apart from the novelty and initial grossness, it wasn’t a big deal.  We pressed on.  I pulled two more leeches off my hands within the next half hour, but they were tiny.  None of my friends found any on their skin—I was the only victim.  It seems my blood is uninteresting to mosquitos, but succulent to leeches. 

The hours dragged on, we climbed and climbed.  We passed a tent with some campers.  The trail was never objectively brutal for too long, but the general difficulty rose with each hour of toil.  Though we were well-stocked with water, food was in short supply.  Between the four of us, we had a box of crackers (maybe 50) and two fun-sized bags of Pop-Mie, which is akin to ramen noodles.  Having no equipment to cook, we would just eat them dry.  A quarter of a bag of noodles and about 12 crackers per person for a sixteen-hour hike.

As we battled up the mountain, we moved into new layers of silence.   There were layers sprinkled with chirping creatures, and others with a purring windy overtone, and still others that were absolute, seemingly infinite.  When we stopped to rest, the sense of physical relief blended into the hypnotic serenity—standing up again was difficult.  It’s interesting how, in total silence, your identity fades a bit.  If nothing speaks or sounds, everything seems connected.

Past midnight, we were still making our way up the mountain.  By this point I had learned something about myself.  My body is limited.  A truism, yes, but something that makes an impression when you really feel it.  After an hour of hiking, my groin started getting rather painful.  It worsened steadily, until by around five or six hours, it was hard to lift my right leg more than a foot in the air.  Every other step was sharp and painful, and I dreaded having to climb over logs.  I reached for every tree trunk I could see to pull myself and reduce the strain on my right leg.  Why was the impression of limitedness so strong?  Because this was not due to injury.  This is an anatomical design flaw, and it’s mine for life.  If I challenge myself physically, I must expect this problem to recur. 

By one or two in the morning, Nicole and I were plodding along, emitting the occasional groans and exchanging occasional weary words, rather far behind Jay and John, who were fresher and swifter.  At one point we stopped to rest and lay down on the ground, and I nearly fell asleep.  When John and Jay stopped to wait for us, I would inquire about our elevation. 

What are we at?

            2,600 meters.  I think the trail goes up to about 2,900.

300 to go, then.

                        Okay, let’s push on.  We can do this.

Each time I started walking after rest, I could feel my heart begin pounding furiously.  I wondered, Is the air so thin here, or am I just weak, or do I need to eat?  Somewhere in those last 200 meters, I was actually afraid that my legs might give out.  I remember being in high school trying out the bench press, and the feeling of starting a rep that I was unsure I could complete—sometimes the bar made it up, sometimes not.  I was afraid at a couple points that my leg just might not have what it takes to lift my body anymore. 

Finally, Nicole and I caught up to John and Jay where they’d been waiting for us on a flat bit of terrain.  We were still a hundred meters below the summit, but when I sat down to rest my back and legs, I knew that there would be no more hiking that night.  It was 3:30 in the morning.  Without even searching for the least uncomfortable patch of ground, or one sheltered from the wind, we lay down in a huddle— some call it the cuddle puddle.


Night, Morning, & Descent

At over 2,800 meters, the air was cold.  Our shoes and socks were soaked through because of all the mud and dew.  All of us had intolerably icy feet.  I hadn’t brought long pants, but I did have a sarong with me.  We put on all the clothes we’d brought—for me, an undershirt, t-shirt, waterproof jacket, shorts, and sarong—and tried to sleep for a time.  Unbeknownst to us at the time, we’d lain down in a particularly windy spot, which made sleep all the more elusive.  We were on our backs, heads toward the mountain, feet pointing to the enormous misty valley below, where little lights glimmered.  Strangely, the stars seemed dimmer than they had lower on the mountain.  We thought it might be a thin layer of clouds or light pollution.

I was trembling with cold and frequently shifted to positions that seemed warmer.  On my right, Jay started shivering.  When I put my hand on his leg to knead some warmth into him, he sprang up in a panic.  He’d been asleep and thought an animal was climbing on him.  We all giggled and chuckled—Jay too—warmly as the confusion in his expression was replaced with understanding and laughter.

After an hour or so trying to sleep, the sky began to lighten.  I awaited the morning with great anticipation.  My feet were frozen and my whole body chilled, and the sun was a promise of warmth and comfort.  As it rose and bathed us in daylight, we set out our shoes and socks to dry.  I discovered a posture of sitting on top of my feet that would return feeling to them and keep them warm—as long as I didn’t move.  Jay opened up the Pop-Mie and the four of us devoured the two small bags.  After you’ve climbed a mountain, even the cheapest food tastes like ambrosia. 

I sat in the sun and couldn’t resist lying down again.  I fell asleep on the cold ground with the light shining on my face.  The others succumbed to the spell of sunshine and drifted off as well, and there we lay for an hour or more.  After waking, I sat while the other boys paced, waiting for their shoes and socks to dry.  Jay and John were eager to complete the last 100 meters to top.  I’d had enough and declined to join them.  I was thinking about my groin, my fatigue, and the upcoming six hour descent.  A two-hour round trip to start the day didn’t appeal to me.  Nicole also chose to stay behind.

I slept again, as did Nicole, and after waking up we basked in the growing warmth of the morning.  I took off my jacket and sarong and put on sunscreen.  My feet were now toasty and cheerful.  The two of us passed an hour in conversation.  We didn’t have any materials for making fire, but in the spirit of enterprise, we tried to use my glasses and a bottle of water to concentrate the sunlight and ignite some kindling that we gathered.  It didn’t work, but that was beside the point.  The morning was overpowering in its pleasantness. 

Eventually Jay and John returned, looking both tired and invigorated.  They reported that the crater atop the mountain was an incredible sight, and they’d taken lots of pictures.  For another hour we lounged at our ‘campsite’, and then we decided to begin the descent.  My backpack was significantly lighter.  High school science tells me that one liter of water weighs one kilogram.  I was starting the descent four kilos lighter than I’d started the climb. 

Clouds had blown in over the course of the morning, so the sun’s intensity, which turns savage in the middle of the day—even more so in the jungle—was restrained.  Another boon: walking downhill doesn’t use the same muscles as walking uphill.  All the strain goes to the calves and knees (more or less fresh at this point), so my ailing groin was largely spared.  I picked up a large walking stick.  Seeing the whole trail and forest in the light was a whole different experience than plunging through at night.  John and Jay spotted a monkey in the trees.  Conscious that this trip would take a long time, I made an effort to keep up conversation as much as possible, both for morale and to pass time more quickly (and simply to exchange with friends).  Anytime it was silent for too long, I shot a question to my nearest companion. 

Working with less sleep and two extra hours of hiking in the early morning, Jay and John were more tired and more impatient on the way down.  I could see they wanted to be finished already, even more than myself.  They got ahead of me and Nicole, occasionally stopping to let us catch up and take a group breather.  The time passed quickly, but as we neared the last third of the descent, everything seemed to slow down.  Soon I was expecting to come upon the end of the trail at every turn.

Did we really go all this way last night?

            We must have.  The end’s gotta be right up here somewhere.

Nicole and I talked about many things—various aspects of service, challenges, plans for the future, our own takes on personal development, and even a touch of philosophy.  Surely we were approaching the end of the trail.  We started feeling uncertain.  Just how far down was the starting spot, and how probable was it that we had taken or would take a wrong fork in the trail?  Jay and John were out of sight, far ahead of us, so we couldn’t consult with them.  Six hours into the hike, we were almost positive we should already have arrived.  We marched on, our misgivings mounting.  Climbing at night had left us largely unable to recognize our surroundings, so it was unclear whether we’d trodden this ground the day before.  At some point, I felt certain that we’d gone too far.  We called out to John and Jay, but there was no answer. 

It was already four in the afternoon.  I had thought we’d be finished by three.  The clouds which had been shielding us from the sun’s severity were turning dark and drizzling.  It gets dark by six on Java, and the thought of being lost in the dark without food was depressing.  Eventually we decided to turn back and see if we’d taken a wrong fork.  Nicole tried continuously to send text messages to the other boys, but signal was never present long enough to make a phone call.  We walked back up the trail, then stopped.  After some discussion, we decided to continue backtracking and look for signal.  My anxiety was deepening.  I trudged half-angrily back towards the mountain, trying not to think about what we’d do after dark.  And then Jay called out to us.  He was running up the trail behind us.

It turns out we hadn’t gone far enough.  At our point of farthest progress, where I stood on a fallen tree and called out to Jay and John, we were only about five minutes away from the end.  Jay apologized for getting so far ahead of us and assured us that he and John had also been confused and on the verge of turning around when they came upon the end of the trail.  I felt embarrassed, because I’d been sure we had to turn back.  We finished the last 20 minutes of the walk in silence.  John was waiting by the truck that would bring us back to the base camp.  He seemed particularly tired.  After all, he had been keeping the fastest pace and rested the least out of everyone.  The driver quickly set up a tarp and blanket in the truckbed, and we climbed in and crumpled to the floor.



Shortly after we started bouncing along the road to the base camp, it started to rain.  Then to pour.  We were all so exhausted by this point that we didn’t even utter complaints. Instead, Jay and I started a delirious conversation.

If you just think, like, I want it to rain right now, then it’s great that it’s raining.  You know, we should just say: It’s raining! This is awesome!

Yeah, that’s true.  It just depends on what you want.  Sometimes I think that about pain.  Maybe if I can convince myself that I enjoy my leg hurting, it won’t bother me that it hurts.

That reminds me of an article I read about football wide receivers who run routes over the middle.  Routes over the middle are where you are almost certain to get the crap knocked out of you.  The person they were interviewing explained that if you were assigned to a route like that, you have to just psyche yourself up for it and say: All right, baby, time to get hit! Yes! Let’s do this!

And so on.  The rain soaked into my pants, and I was cold again.  Once we made it to the paved part of the road, the driver turned off the engine and cruised in neutral most of the rest of the way to the base camp.  Cold and wet in the back, we were fantasizing about hot drinks and warm, sumptuous repasts.  By the time we arrived, the rain had stopped.  We stumbled out of the truck, ready for baths.  There were two bathrooms, so John and Jay both went in to wash and change.  As they did, the rain suddenly came flooding down.  It was hard to hear others talking over the crashing of the water on corrugated roofs. 

I was grateful for the bath, though the water was icy.  It felt good to be clean, and thus it was miserable when I had to put my soiled shirt back on.  I had forgotten to pack a second shirt (though I did bring three pairs of socks—all necessary).  After baths, we ate soto ayam that the hostess had prepared for us.  We hired an angkot to take us to Nicole’s house, where we planned to stay the night.  During the ride from the mountain to the basecamp, as it was raining on us, we had hatched a plan to make pancakes and cookies at Nicole’s.  We were desperate for something warm and gooey and sweet.  So we figured out how we might do this, and the cookies were replaced with brownies.

The angkot ride was furious.  As we had the van to ourselves, we all tried to rest.  I lay down on the bench with my head in Nicole’s lap and fell asleep.  I awoke when we had reached her site.  We carried our shoes—nobody wanted to put them on again—and bags across the street and entered Nicole’s house.  Her family was smiling and welcoming.  The house was warm and clean.  We were ready to drop, but the lure of brownies and pancakes was too strong.  Nicole lives next door to a grocery store, where we were able to buy baking powder and flour.  Predictably, the locals stared at the four of us and giggled when they thought we couldn’t see.

Nicole kindly lent me a shirt that wasn’t suffused with two days of sweat.  And so we baked brownies from a mix that Nicole had received from the US, and Jay made pancakes.  The only mishap was when Jay poured several tablespoons of rock salt into the flour, mistaking it for crystal sugar.  With the help of a sieve, we straightened it out.  An hour after arriving at Nicole’s, we were feasting on chocolate chip pancakes and brownies.  After having our fill, we went to sleep.  The three boys slept in Nicole’s bed, and she took a guest bed in a different room. 

The whole trip to that point made me think about the nature of deprivation and pleasure.  After walking uphill for several hours, there is an indescribable pleasure in taking a few steps on level ground.  When you’ve spent a night tossing and turning in the cold, there is really nothing more gratifying than warm sunlight on your skin.  When your body aches from constant exertion and inadequate rest, the idea of curling up with three people in a single bed seems like a luxury.  When you’ve spent hours standing up, crushed by the crowd of passengers, on a bus without air conditioning, having your own seat and a personal flow of air are nothing short of royal opulence.  When you spend a year in a country of never-ending clamor and commotion, the silence of a mountaintop is holy. 

Really, my entire time in Indonesia has served to reinforce the lesson: We derive joy from experiences in proportion to the deprivation that precedes them.  Is there any sense, then, in overindulging in anything?  Perhaps one ought to seek deprivation in order to transform the ordinary into the exceptional.



I had planned to wake and start the home journey at six in the morning on Thursday.  Naturally, then, I got up at eight.  Everyone else was up before me—classic, if you know anything about me.  We ate breakfast and discussed how we would return.  Having used eleven in the fiasco on Tuesday, I was determined to get home with as few vehicles as possible.  I also started thinking about my lost wallet and how I’d have to get all those new cards.  We tallied up my debt—I owed Jay and John money for covering various expenses, and I would owe John more by the end of the day, as he was funding my trip home. 

We all said good-bye.  John and I boarded a bus to Bondowoso.  There we waited for a bus heading to Surabaya.  John’s route would diverge from mine at Pasuruan.  In the meantime I spoke with one of the security officers at the terminal.  He asked me where I was from, and I answered Kediri.  “Ah. Kok kelihatanya seperti orang berkulit putih?” Oh. Why do you look like a white person?  Amused, I explained the situation.  I was proud that he was willing to believe I was Indonesian—no accent to betray me.  Eventually the bus was ready to depart and John and I got on.  The trip to Surabaya would take seven hours and require us to change buses (but not re-purchase tickets) in Probolinggo, which was a godsend.  The first bus was hot and awful.  The second bus was air-conditioned and with well-cushioned seats.  At Pasuruan, John got off the bus and I was finally on my own again. 

He had given me 50,000 rupiah in Bondowoso.  I had 22,000 left after buying the ticket to Surabaya.  I calculated that from Surabaya, 15,000 would be enough to get me home.  As we approached Surabaya, I started worrying about the time.  My route was Surabaya-Jombang-Home, but I had to be in Jombang before 7:30, when the last bus leaves.  Having left Nicole’s house three hours later than I originally intended, I was mildly concerned. 

And then I got stuck. 

Over the course of an hour, somewhere close to Surabaya, the bus didn’t move more than 200 meters.  Traffic in Indonesian urban areas is horrendous—Jakarta reputedly has the world’s worst traffic.  I sat in the bus, growing more and more nervous.  3:00pm…4:00pm…4:30pm.  We just sat there.  Men got out of the bus to smoke cigarettes and urinate next to the highway.  I started sending out distressed SMS’s and cursing the gods.  The bus driver had put in a VCD of corny karaoke, and when it had finished after an hour, he put it in again.  Thumbscrews were boring into my head above the ears.

I didn’t have an others means to get home, and if stranded, I wouldn’t be able to pay for accommodations or hire special transport.  I only had enough to get home by the cheapest means, and I had no money and no access to money.  It felt cruel and unfair.  By the time we started moving again, I was sure of failure.  I arrived in the Surabaya terminal at 5:15pm, ignored the horde of men trying to direct me to Bali, and ran onto a bus headed for Jombang.  Surabaya to Jombang can’t really be done in under two and a half hours, and I had barely two hours to make it.  Plus, we were going to have to get out of Surabaya, whose traffic got me into this trouble.  Soon after the bus pulled out of the station at about 5:30, it became clear that the driver meant business.  He and I were both in a hurry.

I could continue in detail about the plots to get home that I was cooking up as the bus raced along the highway, but I will spare you.  I was resigned to my fate, but unsure how I would deal with it.  I was terribly hungry, not having eaten anything since a light breakfast in the morning at Nicole’s.  I was afraid to spend any money the whole day—I might not have enough to make it back to site.  As I stared out of the window, miserable and stony-faced, the man next to me offered me some fried tofu, which I instinctively declined with a wave of my hand.  I regretted it immediately, but didn’t have the pluck to ask for it after turning it down.  Suddenly, much sooner than I expected, the conductor announced that we’d be going through Mojokerto.  My heart leapt.  We were making unbelievable time.  Jombang was only about 45 minutes from Mojokerto, and it was still 6:40.  We were on pace to make it.

From that point it was simply a matter of rooting for the driver.  My heart cheered at every dangerous pass and irresponsible game of chicken.  I cursed every passenger that got on the bus and caused it to stop momentarily.  As we crossed the border from Mojokerto into Jombang, I readied myself.  I moved to the front of the bus as we neared the terminal.  The bus doesn’t enter the terminal after five: it just unloads passengers at an intersection nearby.  I jumped out before the bus even stopped. 

As usual, I was immediately swarmed by pedicab drivers asking me where I was going and motioning me into their vehicles.  I shook them off, saying I didn’t have any money—they give up rather quickly when you tell them that—and sprinted into the terminal.  It was 7:20.  Three minutes later, I was winded and sweaty, but I laid eyes on the most welcome sight of the day: my crummy, shoddy, Puspa Indah bus sitting in the terminal.  The driver and conductor saw me hauling ass into the terminal.  Fittingly and unnecessarily, they called out “Terakhir! Terakhir! Malang terakhir!” Last one! Last one! Last one to Malang!  Yes, I know, thanks.

I got into the bus, panting and sweating, relieved beyond measure.  Ten minutes later, we pulled out of the terminal.  An hour after that, I was home.  I could not have been more delighted to see nasi pecel waiting on the table.  Two massive plates and a shower later, I was in bed.


The whole journey felt like a protracted test of endurance and stamina and patience.  And I’m convinced I would not have been emotionally or mentally equipped for such a trip without the year spent in Indonesia before it.  Learning the patience to sit spend an entire day on buses without getting cross; not minding deprivation of food and comfort—even looking forward to it because of trust in the sweetness of having those things restored; acquiring the calm and flexibility to shrug off the things I cannot control and to focus on what is within my power.  It’s not that the experience was without stress.  But this newfound endurance preserved my capacity to appreciate of the beauty of these exhausting, extreme, sublime three days.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

One Year


April 6th marks the end of my first year in Indonesia. It’s not quite the half-way mark (that’s about six weeks from now), but it’s quite a milestone nonetheless.

It’s probably obvious from my steadily decreasing output, but these days I don’t feel the same urge to write that I did before.  Time passes and I encounter fewer and fewer surprises, so the need to process my experiences via writing diminishes. Moreover, I feel less compulsion to transmit any insights that come to me.  In my first six to eight months here, knowing that people were reading my posts was an oddly important source of validation.  Now—well, I guess it’s just not as important. 

Not that it’s disappeared altogether.  I’m still writing—albeit far less than before—and it still makes me happy to think that people are reading.  The major stuff in my life now has to do with the details of my work, my relationships with people in Indonesia, and personal growth.  There’s only so much one can write about growth before it all turns into vanity and repetitiveness.  As for my work, it’s something that I find interesting, but I think it would not greatly interest outsiders.  Plus, there’s something vaguely lame about being told that I’m “doing a great job” and “making a difference” by the well-intentioned, despite its coming from a place of affection.

I certainly don’t expect to stop writing.  I don’t think I’ll write any more infrequently than I have been, and time may see an uptick.  Who knows.  But at least I’ve got a good excuse!  I really have been busy.  With each week that passes, I’m better integrated than the week before.  Over the last month I’ve had a couple occasions to travel away from my site, and I’ve been shocked by how swiftly the readjustment takes place when I return.  Previously it would have taken days, or even a week, to get back into the rhythm, meanwhile warding off the Stuck-by-Myself-in-the-Middle-of-Nowhere blues.  Now it’s fast—about a day to readjust, and no blues. 

It has to be fast, because there’s always something going on.  When school is in session, I have extracurricular activities every day of the week.  My speaking/conversation club is up to six groups (30 kids), and it’s still growing.  As for the one-on-one student conversations, about 80% of my students have already had them, and we’ve got two full months to spare.  When I first arrived in Indonesia, I was somewhat anxious that I wouldn’t be able to think up or carry out any worthwhile community projects, but now I see I’ve got more ideas than I could possibly ever carry out.

Anyway, this being the one year anniversary, I thought I’d make a couple of lists.  Everyone loves lists!


In the last year, I have not…

1.     Been outside of Indonesia.
2.     Seen a person I knew from before coming here (in the flesh!).
3.     Taken any illicit drugs.
4.     Watched a complete tennis, basketball, or football match.
5.     Driven a motor vehicle or paid for gas.
6.     Worn contact lenses.
7.     Attended a live concert.
8.     Drunk alcohol or eaten pork in my house/village/district.
9.     Eaten a sub sandwich.
10. Seen snow.
11. Played tennis.
12. Needed to use clothing to protect against cold.
13. Used anti-mosquito spray.
14. Watched any portion of a presidential debate.
15. Personally witnessed anyone argue about politics—Indonesian or American.
16. Entered a church.
17. Eaten cereal with milk for breakfast.
18. Eaten a blueberry, cherry, or raspberry.  Actually, I tried one of those gross pink cherries they put in milkshakes, but I spit it out.
19. Pet a cat. (I did pet one dog!)
20. Used conveniences such as a dishwasher, laundry machine, or vacuum cleaner.
21. Used hair conditioner.  I’ve used shampoo a couple of times, but mostly rely on body wash to take care of things.
22. Worn blue jeans.
23. Thought about quitting Peace Corps.  The commitment is rock solid.
24. Seen a woman driving a vehicle with an adult male passenger.  If there’s a man old enough to drive, he’s the one driving.  And I haven’t seen any female public transport drivers either.


Sixty-Three Things I’ve Done in the Last Year That I’d Never Done Before

1.     I’ve used squat toilets.  Many, many times.
2.     I’ve taken bucket baths with freezing water (as well as with pleasantly cool water).
3.     I’ve lived full days without speaking English—very few, but there have been some.
4.     I’ve seen a volcano erupting.
5.     I’ve been caressed by an older woman that I didn’t know.
6.     I’ve gotten a professional massage.
7.     I’ve visited a Hindu temple.
8.     I’ve visited a Buddhist temple.
9.     I’ve participated in Friday prayers at a mosque.
10. I’ve eaten whole chili peppers to make bland food interesting.
11. I’ve ridden in a van with 20 people.
12. I’ve succeeded in bargaining an asking price down by 65%.
13. I’ve pooped in places that were neither the toilet nor my pants.
14. I’ve had to vomit and diarrhea at the same time.
15. I’ve eaten durian, dragonfruit, snakefruit, cassava, lychee, and rambutan.
16. I’ve taught in a classroom.
17. I’ve played guitar and sung Britney Spears in front of 30+ kids.
18. I’ve worn sandals to school.  Call me weird, but I never did that, even as a student in Florida.
19. I’ve looked at people wearing crazy batik patterns and admired their sense of style.
20. I’ve picked tiny fish heads out of my food.
21. I’ve been (unwittingly) offered maggoty chicken.
22. I’ve seen rice being harvested.
23. I’ve seen six people riding one motorcycle.
24. I’ve seen a pedestrian get hit by a motorcycle at about 30mph.
25. I’ve watched a person who was supposedly possessed by a demon leaping around in traffic on all fours, snarling and making wild noises.
26. I’ve witnessed people littering without any sense that it’s somehow contrary to societal norms.
27. I’ve had children and adolescents greet me by bowing and touching their face to my hand.
28. I’ve used the same greeting on a couple of occasions.
29. I’ve paid $1.50 for my lunch and felt I was getting ripped off.
30. I’ve gotten bed bugs.
31. I’ve worn a sarong, aka man-skirt.
32. I’ve organized my life and activities with a calendar.
33. I’ve eaten rice with my hands.
34. I’ve heard a real-life adzan (call to prayer).  By now I’ve heard well over a thousand.
35. I’ve seen a monkey tied to a stick.
36. I’ve slept under a mosquito net.
37. I’ve drunk the world’s most expensive coffee…for a quarter the price you would pay in the US.
38. I’ve gone five weeks without being in the presence of another white person.
39. I’ve given a speech in a foreign language in front of more than a hundred and fifty people.
40. I’ve fasted—no food, no water—between sunrise and sunset for a full month.
41. I’ve lied about my religious beliefs.
42. I’ve gotten a sunburn so bad that it left my forehead swollen.
43. I’ve drunk an avocado milkshake.
44. I’ve organized and carried out the painting of a mural.
45. I’ve played a 4-on-1 game of half-court basketball, and won.
46. I’ve been discomfited by PDA on public transportation.
47. I’ve seen a fish swimming in my bathwater and used it anyway.
48. I’ve abstained from listening to music for an extended period of time.
49. I’ve swerved off the road while riding my bicycle to avoid collisions with oncoming vehicles driving in my lane.
50. I’ve stood up for the entirety of a two-and-a-half-hour bus ride through mountains.
51. I’ve washed my clothing by hand.
52. I’ve recorded music of my own composition with lyrics.
53. I’ve posted videos to YouTube.
54. I’ve had a lizard drop from the ceiling onto my foot—without a flinch.
55. I’ve opted for a cold shower over a hot shower.
56. I’ve purchased a digital camera and used it regularly.
57. I’ve seen animal blood all over the same floor and in the same buckets that are used to wash clothing at my house.
58. I’ve seen an old man emptying his bowels into a canal in public.
59. I’ve seen a man crouching on the side of the road, staring into oblivion, completely naked.
60. I’ve succeeded at team juggling: five balls, two men, one goal.
61. I’ve stared at someone because they were white.
62. I’ve been woken by the smell of burning plastic garbage.
63. I’ve sported facial hair!



Not having headphones has changed some things for me.  I never spend time just listening to music anymore, and I rarely watch movies.  I’ve started reading again—though not at the insane pace I was keeping in the first few months of service.  I have also started listening to audiobooks, which is lovely.  How could I ever have strayed so far from the simple, powerful pleasure of listening to a story?  I listened to all of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, and I’ve been enjoying some of Shakespeare’s plays since then.  



I’ve undergone a handful of important changes in the last year.  The most basic—which I’ve written about—has been a deep strengthening of my confidence coupled with a great reduction in fear.  I’ve coped well with all the adversity here.  What was once a feeling that I could succeed at anything is now a conviction.  I now have a better understanding of my talents and abilities.  And I know where my limits are when it comes to dealing with other people. 

Balancing that greater confidence are a couple new points of humility.  I didn’t set out to change all of Indonesia.  I knew, intellectually, that it’s foolish to expect or even hope to transform systems, especially as a single person working from the bottom.  Nonetheless, much naiveté has left me.  I think I’m more in tune with reality and possibility than I used to be.  This has helped me to concentrate my energy on achievable goals.  A second point of humility:  Since getting here, I have developed a far more acute sense of my own mortality.  Until this year, I felt invincible.  Now I know I’m mortal, and that knowledge has been largely responsible for keeping me humble and driving me to work harder.

Another important change in the last year has been in regards to my understanding of the non-Western world.  Indonesia hardly represents the whole “non-Western” world, but I think being here is enough to get a sense of the kinds of differences between the developing and the rich world.  Even those Westerners, like myself, who are instinctively fascinated with the developing world and defend it against cultural chauvinism can be perilously blind to its realities.

To go beyond that—I’ve also become more willing to admit that there are things that I simply can’t understand about the world.  I discussed this with my friend Samantha the other day.  I could never have imagined life in Indonesia before living here.  I read plenty about it before I came, but nothing approaches the actuality.  And now that I know I could never have imagined this—it has been proven by experience—I’m open to the idea that there must be a enormous amount of shit that I just don’t get.  I will never understand the experience of a soldier in Afghanistan or the cares and worries of a Chinese migrant worker.  At least now I know that.  In Rumsfeldian terminology, such things are ‘known unknowns’.  Coming to Indonesia, a lot ‘unknown unknowns’ have transformed to ‘known knowns’ and ‘known unknowns’.  Attempts at empathy run into trouble when there are too many unknown unknowns.

A final change has to do with old ghosts, as you might call them.   Interpersonal issues, ex-relationship issues, tensions.  The ghosts once had sharp teeth, but they’ve fallen out with time, distance, and growth.  A gummy bite can’t break the skin.  Being free of old, irrelevant anxieties has been most welcome.


Random #2

A lot of Volunteers get into the meat of their service and have to radically recalibrate their expectations about the kind of difference they can make.  Having known that before leaving for Indonesia, I came in with as few expectations as possible.  Largely thanks to that, I haven’t been disappointed by my “ineffectiveness”.  In the areas where I’ve concentrated my energy—adopting fair grading practices, revamping the way English is taught in my classes, getting teachers to be more accountable, making personal connections with the students, making them more comfortable with speech, making English interesting—I think I’ve been effective.  That doesn’t mean I’ve succeeded at everything.  My English Development extracurricular died rather pathetically, and after a few successes my English Club followed.  The initial plans for a teacher’s English course have never borne fruit, nor have several other project ideas.  But some things have succeeded, or served a purpose while they were ongoing. 

Another fourteen months or so lie ahead.  I’ve had the feeling since I got here that once I got to the half-way point—the top of the mountain, so to speak—everything would speed up.  That’s still my suspicion.  It seems like a long time still, but I know it’s going to blaze by, and I really want to make it count.