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One week left!

27 May

How does it feel to wake up with only one week left in my Peace Corps service?

Click here to find out

I can hardly contain myself. I’m absolutely giddy, and at any moment I could be on the brink of tears.

Suddenly I feel so free, nothing matters. All of the little things that concern me, stress me, bother me…in a week they’ll all be gone.
Yet at the same time EVERYTHING matters. The time is so limited.  Because of that, all of the things that I have come to appreciate and love about this experience —the people, my village, all of the day in and day out stuff I’ve become comfortable and familiar with — all of the good stuff, equally will be gone in a week. Every moment is precious.

I find myself in an odd dance with everyone around me. Living our lives as usual, yet with the acute awareness of my imminent departure. It’s hard to leave, yes, but to reiterate Erin’s post and something I’ve now felt from the both sides—  it’s harder for the one that’s being left, than the one doing the leaving…

I’m a reflective person. It’s often easier for me to make sense of something in hindsight when I can piece it all together. So for now, I won’t try any further to explain what all is happening in my head. I’d rather focus on a few highlights from last week.

Gelar Seni and an official goodbye

Last Sunday was our school’s Gelar Seni. It is a combination between a graduation ceremony and an arts showcase. If video didn’t take so long to upload and I had software to edit it with, I’d consider posting a few pieces from it. It’s one of my favorite events because it allows me to see my students’ in such a different light where their creativity isn’t limited by the walls of their classroom. (See last year’s Gelar Seni post for some examples.) There were a variety of performances including student bands, dance routines, dramas, the school choir and more. It also gave me the opportunity to officially thank my school community and ask for forgiveness. (Asking for forgiveness is very common here. During special holidays or events or even something as simple as speaking up at a teacher’s meeting, people will often say they are sorry and ask for forgiveness for any mistakes they have made. This includes mistakes that they are unaware they have made.)

Teacher’s Workshop in Bondowoso

After weeks of on and off frustrations with class cancellations, counterparts’ dwindling motivation, and the other typical inconsistencies at my school, we ended on a good note. At our Sustainability Conference  back in March my principal, counterpart and I discussed having a workshop in our district to share our best practices. With some pushing from me and help from the wonderful English teachers at the local MGMP (English teacher’s professional group), we had the workshop last week. It was a hit! Sixty teachers from junior and senior high schools in Bondowoso and English teachers from local tutoring centers attended. They learned a little bit about me, the U.S. (Arizona to be more specific), Peace Corps and a lot about activities and techniques to use in their classrooms to engage their students more and set them up for success in learning English as a Foreign Language. I’ve been receiving emails and texts from teacher’s who’ve already tried out some of the new activities in their classes. They said their students loved it! Hooray for sustainability and spreading best practices!

One last weekend trip

A while back I got the idea to go paragliding in Batu from a few other volunteers who had attempted it. The weather wasn’t right, so they weren’t actually able to do it. Then I kept hearing about it and seeing it. I quickly added it to my “Before I leave Peace Corps Indonesia Bucket List.” It wasn’t too difficult to recruit a fellow volunteer up for jumping off a mountain with essentially a glorified kite.

Here we go! Attempt #1:

Mike had a little more luck with the wind than I did.

Here we go again! Attempt #2

We did it!

Snapshots from THE Indonesian Wedding (part two)

14 May

My last post focused on the first part of wedding celebrations for my host sister. It featured photos from the Ijab which is the actual wedding ceremony. It is custom here for there to be two wedding receptions or pesta pernikahan. One is hosted by the groom’s parent’s and one is hosted by the bride’s parents. Sometimes these parties immediately follow the ceremony or are combined. In the case of my host sister and her now-husband, they chose to have the wedding receptions two months after the ceremony. So the festivities officially concluded this weekend. This post includes photos from the day of reception my host parents (the parents of the bride) held. Instead of holding the reception at our home, they choose to hold it at a local hall, likely because of the sheer number of guests they invited. The above photo of my host father is probably one of my favorite. He just looks like a boss donning his suit, which Indonesians rarely wear in the village. He also is kind of the man around town, well respected and a local RW (sub-division village leader.) So it’s kind of a big deal that he is giving away his second and youngest daughter to be married.

The party was a hit, albeit hot and way more crowded, at times, than the picture above shows. My host brother-in-law (not the newlywed one) later commented that they should have had a bigger place for the 1,200 plus guests that ended up showing up. The crazy thing was even after the party was over and we returned home, more people showed up at our house to give their congratulations. This once again sent everyone around in a frenzy to cater to the guests offering them food and entertaining them. (I’m not sure if you can beat Indonesian hospitality, or at least that of my host family’s.) After it all, the rambunctious place that my home had become was silent again. Everyone had passed out. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them as tired as I did between the events of this weekend and the event back in March.

All in all it was a great weekend. I was happy that I got to be part of the wedding celebrations, including the wedding party with my matching seragam (uniform).

Photo of the whole wedding party taken by a member of the wedding photography crew. I’m second from the end on the right.

Snapshots from THE Indonesian Wedding (part one)

13 May

The bride and groomAs I approach the finish line of my service, it was fitting that this weekend was spent basked in celebration with my host family and community members for my host sister’s wedding party. Weddings are typically a business matter for my host family rather than a personal matter.  My host mother is a stylist and my host brother-in-law is a wedding decorator and coordinator. They work together and partner up with local caterers and photographers to meet the matrimonial and celebrational needs in the community. I’ve been to quite a few weddings and have even posted about it before. Though, this was a different ordeal because it was personal.

All the stops were pulled out to make it a memorable event. It started with the wedding ceremony back in March, known as Ijab, which this post focuses on. My next post will include the photos from the wedding reception held this weekend.  I’ve written a little bit about the ceremony in between photos, and as usual you can also mouse over the photos for captions. To learn more about Muslim wedding practices you can look here. Though, from my experience, the many Islamic practices carried out here seems to always be masterfully blended with the long-running traditional Javanese/Madurese/Indonesian culture to form a completely unique to Java practice.

Our front yard was transformed overnight into a wedding hall with tents, tarps, carpets and draped cloth. A band comprising of mostly percussion instruments is ready to get it started. The crew, composed of neighbors who’ve been working around the clock, takes a quick break before guests arrive.

When guests do arrive, as is custom the men and women occupy different areas. The men sit outside under the tent. The women sit inside lining the walls of the room. Celebratory flowers, cakes and gifts sprawl across the floor.

The bride and groom take their positions beside each other with the bride’s veil draped over both of them. Both the bride and groom are adorned in jasmine which smells incredible. They wear a splendid mash-up of Javanese, Muslim and modern formal attire.

After the vows and signing the documents, the groom gives the bride a ring and gifts. From what I understand of how my family practices there was no dowry or bride price. Yet the gifts to the bride may have been a modern interpretation or custom along those lines. The gifts included practical items like nice toiletries, new undergarments (Oh la la!) as well as jewelry and they were given from the groom and his family to the bride. Afterwards the newlywed couple goes around and individually greets everyone of their respective sex.

Following that everyone prays for the success, health and happiness of the new couple.

No Indonesian occasion would be complete without eating together.

And per custom, once everyone eats, they grab their snack boxes and head out.

Once most of the guests have left the photo shoot begins. Shortly thereafter everyone changes back into their house clothes and gets right back to work taking down decorations and cleaning up.

Snapshots from Tanjung Puting National Park

19 Apr

I just got back from a short trip I had been fantasizing about for a while. It was essentially the Disneyland Jungle Boat Cruise— but the real life version of it. My friends ElleJohn and I spent a few days voyaging down the Kumai and Sekonyer Rivers in Kalimantan, better known to most as Borneo. This is part of  the Tanjung Puting National Park, a conservation for the jungle and it’s inhabitants which includes orangutans. Through talking to a local guide we got wind that unfortunately bits of this area are still being sold off little by little to make room for more palm plantations. This is especially maddening?  saddening news after having the opportunity to visit a place like this.

Despite that if you’re into ecotourism it’s a worthwhile little adventure.  Here’s a few snippets:

(Mouse over for captions.)

Snapshots from Idul Adha (Hari Qurban)

27 Oct


became this…

within a matter of hours earlier today.

Yesterday was Idul Adha or Hari Qurban. Though yesterday was pretty uneventful with only a prayer session. The real event was today…

Quick facts a la Wikipedia:

Screenshot of quick facts on Idul Adha from

This is my second year experiencing Idul Adha. I wrote about my first experience in this blog post from last year. I went easy on the graphic photos then. However, this year I find myself not only more desensitized, but also left with the feeling that you come here to see something different right? To see a glimpse of life in a different part of the world. Well, this is it. So here we go! (Mouse over for captions. Also I promise it’s not that bad. I’d like to think I was tasteful in shooting and choosing images.)


A few differences between this year and last year:

  • Last year I didn’t actually see the cows get killed. However, between then and now I had witnessed a goat get killed for a celebration my host family held back in March. Like I said, I felt more desensitized having seen it before. I think last year it would have been much more difficult to watch.
  • Last year the whole thing had me feeling rather somber. So it was hard to make sense of everyone else’s nonchalant and merry attitude. This year I understood and accepted it more. These things didn’t bother me as much. Perhaps a sign of how I’ve adapted?
  • Continuing on that note, I thought there was a certain peacefulness and respect in the way they killed the cow. Specifically I saw some students stroking the cow’s face to calm it as it was being tied up. I also liked how they said a prayer before, and while  the religion teacher cut its throat he covered it with a banana leaf, making the whole thing much less gory.
  • This year I actually ate some of the meat. It’s difficult to get over the images of a cow’s windpipe sticking out from its neck, the sound of pouring blood filling a ditch and not to mention the smell of it all. But after the fact I was able to shake it off, teach a class and meet with my co-teachers. Meanwhile back in the school kitchen staff and students were cookin’ up Nasi Rawon, a beef and rice stew. Enticed by the fact that this may be the freshest beef I ever have the opportunity to eat, I tried it. Always try something once right?

A different kind of celebrity

18 Sep

Note: Some may be wondering what the response has been here to the YouTube film that has sparked protests around the Muslim world. While there have been protests in major cities, so far the protests have been relatively peaceful. Police have had to use tear gas and water cannons to control the crowd and there has been burning of American flags. This is obviously unsettling, but I just want everyone to know that where I am I have been largely unaffected. So far I have not felt any adverse reaction to this being an American living in East Java. All of the Muslim people I know are peaceful and life has been going on as usual. Additionally, Peace Corps does an excellent job of keeping volunteers updated on developments as volunteer safety is a priority. If you are curious to see where protests have been happening The Atlantic Wire has a map of where protests are taking place. I think it’s also important to remember that words said or actions taken by some do not represent everyone or even the majority in any given group. It saddens me that individuals can incite so much anger and hate, especially as someone who works towards breaking down stereotypes and barriers everyday between Muslims and Americans. That’s all I will say about that, and now to our regularly scheduled programming…


It’s not a word that’s meant to be derogatory, but it still gets under my skin.

It means foreigner. Typically it refers to Caucasian people, but it can suffice for any foreigner.

There’s also Tourist and Mister. The latter of which I believe is actually intended to be polite.

Regardless, to me it says, you and I? We’re not the same.

You’re different.

Continue reading

Snapshots from Halal Bihalal

8 Sep

In East Java, the “most wonderful time of the year” has just passed. Ramadan and the following holiday, Idul Fitri or Hari Lebaran (or Eid-ul-Fitr or some variation of that in most parts of the world) is the equivalent to Christmastime in the U.S. The two celebrations/holiday seasons are far different but do share a few common threads…they’re the most significant religious holidays (respectively speaking), they disrupt the daily rhythm of life (though in different ways) and both tend to send people into a shopping frenzy on the brink of their concluding. So we’ve just gone through our version of that here, and things are pitter-pattering back to normal.

Ramadan in general was much more enjoyable than last year. It spurred deeper connections and observations into the Islamic faith and my community. It also made me rather sentimental during the last breaking of the fast, knowing it’d likely be my last time participating.  In addition to fasting, I also choose to go on the mudik, a jumble of nearly everyone on one of the world’s most densely populated islands hitting the road and heading to their hometowns to visit family and friends all at the same time. It was slightly chaotic.

Included in all this is Halal Bihalal. During Halal Bihalal you ask forgiveness from any former wrongdoings on your part towards that person with the phrase “Mohon maaf lahir dan batin” which roughly translates to “I’m apologizing from my heart and soul.” I’ve seen this said with the kind of sincerity it implies, but in many cases it came off less so.

Therefore the last few months have been pretty busy with the false start of school blending into the holidays, time off, holidays, celebrating, traveling around. I hadn’t captured quite as much of Ramadan as I had hoped to, but I’ll leave you with a few photos from the Halal Bihalal celebrations at my school with my school being my strongest tie to my community other than my host family.

Halal Bihalal is celebrated, as many things are in Indonesia in gathering together with family and friends, ceremony, prayer and food. Above are pictures from Halal Bihalal celebrated among teachers and staff the day before school resumed from the two week break. The photos below are from Halal Bihalal celebrated the next morning with students before lessons began.

A trip to the dentist

25 Jul

I was going to make this a Confession Sunday post, but I can’t wait. I need to get this out in the open…

My mouth is forever tainted.

It is cavity-ridden.

I’m not talking like one or two cavities which might be standard for some five-year old in the U.S. after blowing through his Halloween stash. I’m not talking four or five, which might be particularly unpleasant news from the dentist. I’m talking like almost every tooth in my mouth now has a cavity of some sort whereas a little over a year ago I did not have one.

Let that sink in.

I know. I was in disbelief too—dentist had to show me. Though I wasn’t sure what I was looking at since I’d never gotten one before. With a mirror tilted at just the right angle he pointed out each tooth and said “cavity, cavity, cavity, cavity, cavity, cavity, cavity…this one is ok, cavity, this is ok too, cavity, cavity, cavity, cavity…”

Peace Corps volunteers’ health and dental care is put in the hands of Peace Corps itself. Each post has a medical staff that minimally consists of a Peace Corps approved doctor and a medical assistant or nurse. The dental work, at least in the case of Indonesia, is outsourced to a facility deemed to meet U.S. standards in the host country. ← a note on this later

Aside from any medical or dental issues that may arise during service, all volunteers are given an annual physical, as well as, a dental check-up and cleaning. Fortunately I haven’t suffered a whole lot physically in this country.[i]
While other volunteers here have had their bouts of giardia, dengue, e. coli, fungal infections and who knows what else, I had always felt fortunate to have only had a cold or flu. And it wasn’t even as bad as the annual cold or flu I’d get back in the U.S. Other than that I have suffered from the occasional food poisoning and traveler’s diarrhea. Sakit perut or “sick stomach” is what the Indonesians call it. I doubt anyone could refute that that is not part of Peace Corps. In fact, loose bowel movements aren’t that unordinary and I’m fairly sure that talking about it and other shitastrophies are running jokes in almost any Peace Corps country. The other day I read an online story and in the comments section someone had said something to the effect of “You must have been a Peace Corps volunteer. We always considered shitting your pants initiation into Peace Corps Turkmenistan….” Don’t ask me what I was reading.

Seriously. I can’t remember.

Fortunately, I have not had that experience, nor this one. It’s a good thing too because I can really be a baby about any brush with illness or injury.[ii] So luckily no one has had to put up with that side of me yet.

As it turns out, I couldn’t get off that easily.

Let’s go back a bit, shall we…

My pristine teeth were once a point of pride. Prior to Peace Corps I had never had a cavity.[iii] I had also gone to the same dentist my entire life. Dr. Kline is one of the most gentle, kind-hearted men I’ve ever met. As a kid it was easy to assume he had a double life as a superhero. He was just that great of a person. As the years wore on his deepening wrinkles portrayed nothing but a lifetime of smiling. This was very apt for a dentist.  His staff was devoted. They remained consistent figures in my life. Every six months I would see them. We would catch up. Not only did they know me by name, but they knew more about me than your average dental staff should know or would care to know. It gave the growing city of Chandler and the sprawling suburb of Phoenix a hometown feel.

This led me to be one of the only people I knew who would proclaim “I love going to the dentist!” How could you not when you were in the hands of Dr. Kline and his tender staff? They knew me. They knew my teeth.

More dental history

I had braces for a year and a half in high school and a palette expander. My mother had a hard time justifying the cost of orthodontics just to give me a bigger mouth. Nevertheless she conceded. So even my few feral teeth shaped up. A year or two later I had my wisdom teeth out. Two of which were becoming impacted and thus threatening their newly arranged peers. Tragedy was avoided.

And so yes. My teeth were a point of pride. I felt fortunate to have what many people told me were “good genes” and access to great dental care throughout my life. People often commented, “They’re so white”[iv] and “They’re so straight. Did you have braces?” Why, yes. Yes I did. Please continue to adorn me with praise of my gorgeous smile and the gems that make it so winning.

As a direct result of this kind of attention that my teeth frequently got me, as well as the self-confidence instilled in me from Dr. Kline and his staff from a young age, I enjoyed my dental hygiene practices. I was always excited by the fact that a visit to the dentist meant walking away with a bag filled with goodies—new toothbrush in the color of my choice, travel floss and toothpaste from a selection of flavors, coupons for more dental products. Score. I swear by Oral-B® Glide floss[v], which I stocked up on before I came to Indonesia. It’s like flossing with silk ribbons for heaven’s sake! I also am a big fan of Sensodyne®  Pronamel® toothpaste which had the stamp of approval from pre-dental school friends. They were just about the only people outside of the dental office who’d humor me in discussions of the horrors of acid wear on your enamel and brushing too hard.

And so poor David, I feel ya bud. I find myself wondering the same thing: “Is this real life?”

Could this be happening to me?

And how can it be?

You can ask most anyone back home. I’m not a sweets person. I don’t mind them of course. But I would take a garlicy hummus over chocolate cake almost any day, and I rarely eat candy. I don’t buy the stuff. So I only eat it when it happens to be around. We just can’t let it go to waste.

Indonesia changed things. When the only accessible comfort and taste of home is something sweet (Oreos and Snickers), it’s what you go to in times of need. So yes, I’m guilty of indulging in much more candy and sweets than any other time in my life. I’ve undergone emotional and mental stresses that have pushed me over the edge. They’ve transformed me into a monster who considers two Snickers bars (or was it three?) a dinner when I don’t have the heart to eat another plate of rice and tofu.  That only happened once. Don’t judge me. I’ve become something that makes up reasons why I must immediately consume an eight-piece pack of fun-sized Snickers and half a cinema-sized box of Sprees upon receiving a care package filled with nothing but candy. On a particularly rough day I wallowed in my room hunched over a full-sized Butterfinger.  It wasn’t until I was licking the chocolate smeared wrapper clean that I realized how pathetic I would look to anyone who could have seen behind my closed bedroom door at that moment. Oh, the despair.

And now I pay for it.

Earlier this month we went to the dentist in groups of five, scheduled every evening following our mid-service training activities. I was the first in our group to have my checkup and cleaning. It lasted all of 10 minutes and the quality of care was questionable. Our Peace Corps doctor admits this and has agreed that we will get a second opinion.

I walked out into the lobby. The four others looked up. We played a guessing game.

“Guess how many cavities I have.”

“None” was the first response because every PCV in Indonesia knows how surprising that would be after a year on the desa diet of the overly fried and sweetened.

After thirty seconds or so of way-too low guesses, with composure masking a tinge of rage, I informed them that, no. In fact, almost every tooth in my mouth had a cavity.

To which the responses were consolation followed by fear for the results of their imminent visits.

I came close to crying as the next volunteer made her way to the dentist’s chair. But I held it together, partly so because I was just in shock. I’ve never heard of someone having almost all of their teeth have cavities. Or at least anyone I know. It doesn’t make sense. I mentally reviewed my dental history. Then I blamed some greater being or outside force. What have I done to deserve this? Didn’t I do everything right? I use Glide® floss and brush twice a day with a soft-bristled brush!  I even swish water around in my mouth after having a sugary drink or snack. Why me?

As selfish as it is, it didn’t help that one by one they came back clean. No cavities. Only one other volunteer had a good number, but it was nothing to compete with mine.

And so upon returning to the hotel the guessing game continued, and we joked that I won the cavity contest to mask my inner pain.

I felt my mortality. So I am not immune to everything. Huh.

Then came the shame. How can I ever go back to Dr. Kline? And what of my now-dental school friends? What will they say? A series of familiar faces shaking their heads in disappointment rotated through my mind.

Now that I have returned to site I’ve been compelled to up my dental hygiene game. I’m still not completely convinced this can be as I wait to hear back from PCMO Dr. Leonard. Will there be another dentist’s appointment? Will I have cavities filled here? And if I don’t how much worse will my teeth deteriorate in this next year?

In a way it’s melodramatic. (I told you I was a baby about injury and illness.) And what’s worse is, secretly, the one thing that makes me feel better is walking down the main street to school and seeing the toothless grins of the elderly and the children skipping to the elementary school with teeth rotting out of their heads.

First world/Whitegirlproblems#? Maybe. It’s devastating to me. Look what I have sacrificed to be here!

Look what I had to sacrifice in the first place, something as meaningful and miniscule as a bit of pride and my perfect dental record in a land where people only go to the dentist to get their aching teeth yanked out.

Photo credit: The fantastical Elle Chang.


[ii] I once got a black eye and a hairline fracture in my orbital bone. I was fairly certain my face would never go back to normal.back

[iii] It is possible I once had a cavity in one of my baby teeth that has since fallen out. So it doesn’t count.back

[iv] Full disclosure, I did have my stint with Crest Whitestrips post-braces in high school. It was a thing. Everyone did it, but didn’t like to admit it. I must say though, I started out at a pretty good place not being a coffee, tea or soda drinker.back

[v] Formerly Crest® Glide floss.back

[vi] Thank you Jay for the footnote idea.back

Snapshots from the past six months (And a few things I’m learning about photography)

22 Jun

This post is a bit random but I was looking through pictures from the last six months and here are my favorites: (Mouse over for captions and context. You can also click the photo to see it larger.)

The photos don’t have much to do with each other, other than they give a small glimpse into my life here. But also I noticed a few things in going through my photos.

1. My favorite photos almost always include people. For whatever reason I find them much more engaging.

2. They are always my best, technically-speaking. The above photos have little to no editing. (Part of that is because I finally learned how to set a custom white balance. If you’re learning to use a DSLR like me and you haven’t tried this feature yet, I highly suggest messing with it—it makes such a difference in getting the right colors.)

3. Good photos are few and far between. I’ve taken many more pictures in the last six months than any other period in the past. A few thousand. Many were deleted because they just didn’t turn out, and I fear I’m becoming a bit of a snob when it comes photos. So out of all those, these nine were my favorites (excluding those I’ve posted for other special events or from my travels.)

4. It’s more difficult to photograph every day life than it is to take good photos while traveling. It’s easy to be inspired by new sights and experiences so that you can’t help but start snapping away. It’s much more difficult to see every day life with fresh eyes and a sense of wonder.

“Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder” – E.B. White

Snapshots from Gelar Seni

24 May

This past weekend my school held a graduation celebration and arts showcase. Class time was occasionally repurposed and weeks and weeks had been spent in putting together this event.  The graduation was less of a ceremony and more of a representation since students will find out tomorrow whether or not they passed the National Exams and thus can graduate from high school. I’m told that oftentimes schools, including my own, have 100% passing rates. It’s also no secret that the National Exams are rife with cheating scandals to get student to pass. I assume here it’s no different, though from my observations my school seemed to follow the appropriate procedures from the district and whatnot in proctoring the exams.

The Purna Siswa and Gelar Seni event started around 6:30 p.m. though classically running on jam karet, most didn’t arrive until an hour or two later. The schedule was so far behind that the entire event wrapped around 1:30 a.m. I think it was originally supposed to end around 10 p.m. or possibly midnight at the very latest. I got home at 2 a.m. which is unthinkable here.

Each class contributed something to the show. Some did short dramas, some dance routines–both modern and traditional, student bands took to the stage. The conclusion was highly anticipated amongst the student population as there was a reggae guest band performing. (Go figure they are crazy about reggae here!)  It was great to see students perform and see how talented some of them are. Additionally I got to see a completely different side of their lives. Girls without jilbabs, some even sporting mini skirts and performing the most suggestive dance moves I’ve seen in a long time. Meanwhile I’m sitting next to my principal in shock. The boys attempted to mosh and skank but were tamed by nearby teachers acting as chaperones. I came away with a slightly different view of the teachers, students and community than notions I had had prior. Essentially that—not that I didn’t doubt this completely before, I just hadn’t seen it—they know how to loosen up and have a good time.