Monday, September 10, 2012

life as a whirlwind

Long time no blog.

Two months or so?  Yes, a long time…

1. There was Ramadan

I didn’t fast this time around.  I mean, I didn't eat or drink in the open at all, but on most days I noshed a bit in my room in the early afternoon.  There were actually several days on which I did fast fully and completely, but more because I just wouldn’t go out of my way to procure food (seeing as there was no food or water readily available).  I also managed to be productive during Ramadan, laying all the groundwork for Speaking Club, teaching certain fundamentals in my classes, and setting up/carrying out an MGMP workshop-y thing for the six schools in my area that have Peace Corps Volunteers.

Anyway, Ramadan was a much more pleasant experience for me this time around.  It was fine last year, but I was feeling the combined stresses of strict fasting, an unsettled school schedule, and in the inability to go anywhere.  This year I was way more active.

Of course, last year my Ramadan was a full month, whereas this year it only lasted two weeks for me.  That’s because…

2.  I went to the USA

What a trip.  I left right in the middle of Ramadan, planning to miss the second half of fasting and the holiday craziness surrounding Idul Fitri.  I feel a bit guilty for saying it, but there’s no love lost between me and the holiday season here.  Last year I didn’t get more than 15 minutes of sleep on the night before Idul Fitri because of the excruciating 12-hour takbiran marathon in the mosque next to my house.  I felt nothing but anger then, and did not even participate in the social asking-of-forgiveness activities.  This time, I was happy to be gone and avoid the whole horrid experience.

Just getting to America was its own adventure.  Everything started out as smooth as could be.  It was late at night when I flew from Surabaya to Jakarta.  The flight was on time, not crowded, quite pleasant.  As I was checking for my flight from Jakarta to Dubai, a problem surfaced: My passport had no visa in it.  The flight attendant checked me in, but told me to go to the immigration people and have them check my passport.  In case of any problems I was to return to the counter right away.  To make a long story short, I had brought the wrong passport.  I have one that’s specially issued by Peace Corps, in addition to my personal passport.  I had taken my personal passport, which does not have the correct visa.  I wasn’t going to be allowed to leave without the PC passport.

After a very stressful night of phone calls with the USA, coordination with people back at site, and discussion with airline/airport representatives, we were able to settle things without too much lost time and money.  At my expense, my counterpart, Ms. Ani, went to my house, grabbed the correct passport, took the bus to Surabaya, and got on a plane to Jakarta, where she delivered the passport to me in person.  A few hours later she got back on a plane and went home.  Now that’s friendship.  Luckily, it was Sunday, so she had time on her hands.  It was also her first time riding an airplane.  From the airline side of things, at first it seemed like this was going to cost a ton of money to fix, but Expedia was able to rebook me on all the same flights the next day without too great of a fee.  That had been a huge concern, because the airline had told me that one of the legs of my journey (Dubai-New York) was fully booked for the next two weeks.  I guess Expedia’s got a little weight they can throw around. 

All this meant that I had to spend a full 24 hours in Jakarta’s airport.  At some point in the middle of the night, I was searching for a functioning power outlet to charge my cell phone.  One man saw what I was doing and offered to show me where I could find one.  Later, he showed me a spot where I could sleep.  We got a couple pieces of cardboard and tried to sleep on the tile in this sort of unfinished shack thing in the airport.  I was curled up in my sarong .  It was super cute, especially when the dude, who was sleeping not more than two feet away from me, farted really loudly in my direction.  When I got up in the mid-morning, I had a terrible pain in my back and I’d caught a cold.  I passed most of the day in a café on the internet and hanging out with Ms. Ani when she arrived with my passport. 

In the evening, when I went through immigration for the second time, my heart was pounding, but I made it through without incident.  Thus commenced another day and a half of travel.  An eight-hour flight to Dubai, four-hour layover, fourteen-hour flight to New York, couple hours layover, three-hour flight to Ft. Lauderdale,  and a mercifully short trip from the airport to my house in Boca.  My eyes were bloodshot and stinging something terrible.  My older brother and dad were there to meet me at the airport, and my younger brother had stayed at the house to prepare dinner.  Welcome back, have a steak.


Being in the States was an interesting experience.  I felt really busy most of the time.  People there, and here in Indonesia, were curious about how it felt to be back in the States.  The most surprising thing was how not-foreign it was.  I mean, yeah, there were plenty of little things that caught my attention, and I was frequently thinking about how different the US and Indo are, but I wasn't in anything resembling shock.  There was some strangeness, though.  It was strange not to have to struggle.  It was strange that all the skills I’ve learned over the last year and a half were not at all relevant to everyday survival in the US.  Speak Indonesian?  Who cares.  Know all about life across the world?  Who cares.  There’s nothing satisfying in talking about your work if the person opposite you has no framework or background to appreciate what you say.  I guess that’s just as well, because I didn’t really feel like talking about my work all that much.  There’s just too much to describe, and mostly people don’t give much of a shit.  Which is all fine, I guess.  But it is a changeup from being completely immersed in this Peace Corps environment, where all your friends are going through the same thing and want to talk and hear about what you do, and have the capacity to really get it.

It was a bit strange being reminded about certain things in America.  People are whinier and more selfish.  There’s also a degree of obliviousness running through a lot of people.  I had forgotten what it’s like to having to deal with that, and I did my best not to let it stress me out.

Anyway, I spent most of my time with other people and very little by myself.  The time that I was alone was largely dedicated to studying for the GRE, which I took a couple days before the end of my trip.  One impression I left with was that whatever I do after Peace Corps needs to be arranged well in advance.  There is just no way I’m going back to America without a plan already in motion for what’s coming next.

The trip was very good, and it was the right thing to do, but leaving the USA I felt exhausted, mentally, physically, and emotionally.  I hadn’t had any time to be alone and process the experiences.  It says a lot that I was actually looking forward to the 40-hour trip back to my site so I could spend time alone to think and write and understand what was going on.

3. School has started for real again + the difference between 1st and 2nd year

After getting back, I didn’t really have any time to rest.  School started two days after I arrived.  Finally, all the craziness is behind, and the next couple months will be solid, relatively uninterrupted time for teaching and learning.  I’ve been back at it for two weeks.  In most ways it’s going really great.  In all aspects, teaching is much easier this year.  Planning is easier, because my CPs and I spent so many hours creating materials last year.  Teaching is easier because I have a much better idea of what works and what doesn’t, and there is no intimidation factor.  Last year, most classroom systems and policies (participation, grading, regular quizzes, individual conversations) were implemented haphazardly, as the ideas came to us.  This year we’ve been able to do it all at once, from the beginning, so everything feels far more structured.

My counterparts are taking a much larger leadership role than they did before, especially Ms. Ani.  I would like to see slightly more initiative from them, but the dependability factor, and their comfort in taking on the work that our collaboration entails, has multiplied several times.  That last statement is about to get a huge test.  Last year our Speaking Club topped out at 35 students (7 groups).  It was relatively easy to coordinate, because it grew organically as student interest grew over the course of a semester.  It was also easy because almost all the members were students that I taught personally.  This year is different.  Speaking Club is the English club.  We promoted it and had a pre-registration and real registration.  We tried to scare the kids by telling them how strict the rules are.  In the three days after we opened up the registration, 25 groups signed up (two of which are being kept on a waiting list, because we do not have the manpower to accommodate that many groups).  Yeah, 125 students.  The only way to service that many groups is with a solid commitment from all the English teachers and a group of student-volunteers.  All seven English teachers will be involved, as are eight 12th graders.  Even with fifteen people helping to facilitate, we’re going to be pushing it.  If we pull it off and hold it together, it’ll be the biggest contribution I’ve made to this school, and my proudest accomplishment as a PCV.  Yet the feeling this year is completely different.  It’s less personal.  I really want the club to work, but I have less control over it than I did last year.  I suppose that’s what sustainability is about.  It ain’t my baby anymore.  I want to have time for other activities, too, like basketball.

4.  Futurism

If there’s one thing I’ve carried back with me from the USA, it’s the sense that I need to be prepared for the future.  Something about being there popped the Peace Corps bubble that I’ve been living in the last year and a half.  I’ve only got nine months left as a PCV, unless I choose to extend, and I’ve got to know what’s next.  Do I tack another year onto my service?  Do I try to take advantage of non-competitive eligibility to land myself a federal job?  Do I try to find work in Asia?  Do I bust down the gates to grad school and get myself a master’s degree?

In reality, I’m pursuing multiple options right now.  I want to choose between concrete, not abstract, options.  I’ll apply to grad schools and look for jobs and see what kind of work I could do as a 3rd-year PCV.  When all these futures have a shape and color I’ll make my choice.  Still, it’s hard to devote an equal amount of time to the pursuit of all these paths, and harder still to do it while maintaining a sense of presence in and connection with my work as a PCV.  Figuring this out.