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. 

1 comment:

  1. love these lists. Some time last year, a man I hugely admired told me I should stop consuming information. Stop reading, listening to music, etc. Your post made me think of this. Not that you've stopped entirely, but I think there's something in the decrease. What's going on for you there? Anything interesting? I've become so sold on learning how to be from the thoughts of classic storytellers, philosophers. Been hungrily reading and trying to integrate their ideas. But Proust says life is the best teacher of all (yes i know the irony here), and it seems to me you, Tim, are one of those few people who are able to learn from her. It's hard, I think. I was walking through the park yesterday (I walk a lot it's what I mostly do these days) and I saw a religious couple. Maybe this story will make a bit of sense to you. I don't know. But the man was facing east as we are required to do - pray toward Jerusalem - and the woman, who is "less" (this is a false accepted understanding of the tradition) required to pray was facing west, staring into one of the more inspiring sunsets I've seen. What a fear and a lesson. Will God distract us from God? Blah ohk I should have paid attention to your entry more. Anyway, I hope you don't write too much less.