I’m an RPCV!

I don’t know where to start with this post. Somehow, incredibly, I am done with my Peace Corps service. There really is no good way to quantify this experience and all that I’m feeling at the end. Every PCV experience is unique, but we all also recognise a common ground in this. I know you will empathise with my sense of helplessness and emptiness. But also know that I feel more triumphant, joyful and complete than I ever have before.

Our COS (Close of Service) story is much like any other PCV story, didn’t go as planned and perfectly chaotic. Mac and I had spent our last weeks at site religiously going over the final plan. We were looking forward to it a lot and wanted to make this epic. The idea was we would leave site a little early to go to Bandung. Mac’s principal lives near there and we had been invited to stay with him and travel the area with him a bit. On May 13th we had packed, cleaned and said all our goodbyes.* It was such a strange feeling going down the mountain one last time, drinking in the last of our moments in Sagaranten.

Naturally, plans were thrown awry. About halfway to Bandung, Mac and I got a message from Peace Corps saying that there had been suicide attacks in Surabaya and we must stay where we are and await further instructions. This was serious, we’ve never had a standfast like this before and certainly never a level of terrorism like what had just happened. What followed were some very anxious and crazy days while we tried to figure out what to do. Peace Corps told us to return to site and stay safe until the threat was over. So we did.

I want to take the moment now to express just how sad I was at hearing about the attacks. Four churches and a police station in all, and there were dozens of people killed. The outrage I’ve heard from people here matches my own. Indonesia is a safe and tolerant place for the most part and terrorism does more than destroy families, it destroys communities. My greatest comfort is looking at how many people stepped up to help their neighbours, regardless of differences in religion. Also, Peace Corps Indonesia did an incredible job taking care of us and making sure we were safe. Not once during that crazy time did I feel personally unsafe, just worried for the safety of my friends and staff. They reacted with organised precision and had plans set up in case of escalation. No PCVs were hurt and everyone had a safe place to be. (Thanks Yoppie, you saved our butts!)

For better or worse Mac and I did manage to get to Surabaya in time for our scheduled COS date. All this anticipation, planning, counting down…. and it just… happened. Not to say the day wasn’t good or memorable. We signed a lot of paperwork and got the chance to sit down for some good reflection time with staff. At the end of the day we all rang the gong, got a pin and just like that we were RPCVs! I spent so much time looking forward to the day, I didn’t get the chance to really work through it in my head. I don’t feel any different. If anything, I felt a bit empty.

But now I do feel something. I keep looking back on these two years and marvel. I did it! I’m an RPCV! With that realisation comes such a rush of triumph but also a small nugget of anxiety. I no longer fall under the umbrella of Peace Corps. Yeah, I can ride a motorcycle whenever I want, but if I crash I’m on my own. It goes to show how strongly this has affected my life and identity. For over two years I have been a PCV in Indonesia. Now I don’t know what I am. I’m not a teacher. I’m not a volunteer. I can’t even truly say I’m a tourist here. I’m not worried but it’s definitely interesting.

I can’t tell you how much I’ve changed here. Sometimes I feel guilty when people say, ‘thank you for your service’. How can I express to them that I get so much more out of my service than I could ever give? How can I describe how special my CP was to me? How much she gave me in patience, kindness and friendship? How can I explain my growth as a person, a partner and a friend? I’ve learned just how tough I can be. I know how to sit for 8 hours on a bus with no AC and still be cheerful. I can speak a new language! All this change and experience just for me to come to class and teach English. I can never repay Indonesia for all she has given me. I guess I can only pass it on.

So congratulations to everyone making this transition. You guys rock. You’re the strongest people I know. To all those only halfway through: congratulations! You’re more than halfway through! You know just how strong you are and how much you can do. I have full confidence in you. To all those considering becoming a volunteer: DO IT! The most challenging thing I’ve ever chosen to do, but the most valuable. The best thing I’ve learned from this is that by giving just a little, you get so much more.


terima kasih atas semua pengalaman luar biasa. I can’t wait for my next adventure.


*The hardest goodbyes in my life. I cried so much.

Posted in Crazy, Indonesia, Lally, Peace Corps, Uncategorized | Leave a comment


It’s been a while since posting for sure! I promised myself that I wouldn’t fall into the last semester blues that seem to plague most PCVs. Well I’ve broken a lot of promises to myself in these last two years, one more won’t hurt.

I’m facing the end of my service already. How did that happen? I feel like it’s all been a strange dream and I’ll wake up back in Oregon tomorrow. It also feels like my whole life has been spent with bucket baths, itchy mosquito bites and endless plates of unsolicited rice. But there is an end. And it’s here.

This is a super crazy transition time for me. I have to somehow wrap up my experiences and service here, set myself up for life outside of the Peace Corps and at the same time deal with all the regular issues in my daily life. Naturally, for the last few weeks I did what any healthy grown up does – I shut down and stayed in my room. It’s not so bad, it’s just I’ve had a really hard time finding the motivation to go to school or start anything new. What’s the point if I’m leaving in a few months anyway? Yeah…

But last week I got to join in on the weekly family dinner known as Jumat’an (literally Friday’s night – but really Thursday night). My host family’s extended relatives all take turns to host weekly meals for everyone, preceded by prayers and gossip. I haven’t been for a few weeks what with illness, trainings and travelling. Last week my lovely CP hosted the group with her mother, husband and small daughter so I jumped at the opportunity to join in once more.

I remember my first time attending one of these gatherings. It was the night before fasting was due to start and everyone gathered in the biggest house of the group. Mac and I had been at site for all of two weeks and were still getting used to everything. This was the period of my service where I had no idea what was going on and couldn’t understand any attempts at explanations. Fun times.


This was way back in 2016, our first Jumat’an!


My CP’s darling little girl. She’s actually nomming on a chicken head after eating twice her weight in shrimp crackers. Her dad is behind her, watching to make sure she doesn’t go for the crackers (kerupuk) again. 

Since then I’ve gotten used to the usual swing of things for the night and here’s how it usually goes. Around 8 pm Mac, myself and the family all leave the house to walk to the hosting family member. Sometimes it’s a short walk down the street, other nights we trek through the back alleys and hills. When we arrive there are usually several people sitting in a circle against the wall on the floor. Women group together closest to the kitchen, men sit near the door. I used to think there was a special social reason for that until I realized that the women make the men sit in a place where their smoking will bother the least amount of people. Go ladies go! Snacks and tea are usually set out for people to nibble and sip while we wait for everyone to arrive. My favorite are the crunchy salty banana chips.  It’s noisy inside with kids playing and adults loudly gossiping about the village and politics. All conversation is in Sundanese so I usually just stare vaguely and munch on snacks. Usually the nights are timed with a celebration of some sort, be it a birthday or recognizing a child’s accomplishments in memorizing the Quran.

By 9pm usually everyone has arrived and the family patriarch clears his throat for attention. It took me a long time to figure out the hierarchy of the family. There are three older men who regularly attend. The eldest never actively participates in making announcements or leading prayers but he is the deciding factor for most major decisions. He mostly smokes and teases the babies. The second oldest is a tiny man with a fierce grin. He is in charge of making announcements, maybe because he’s the funniest (and the loudest). The first time I really connected with him was when I watched him severely scold two of the older boys for not wearing helmets on their way there, and then turning to make a baby laugh by putting a box on his head. He’s a goofy man. The third oldest man is the most religious and he leads the prayers. He doesn’t join in on the chatting very often and prefers to stay to the side quietly. I can respect the need for that in the chaos of large gatherings here.

After announcements and gossip the whole room joins together for about 15-20 minutes in chanting prayers in Arabic. It’s beautiful to listen to and will always remind me of my family here. It can get funny too because sometimes everyone starts skipping lines or rushing the notes because they’re hungry. I hear a lot of mumbling, especially on the women’s side. At first I was shocked by the seeming lack of reverence, but no one minds if there are conversations on the side or giggles in the corner. It’s all routine.



A little cousin. He’s so much bigger now! He’s also being a tad blasphemous with that prayer book. 


There are four generations in this picture!


He was bored with all the praying and wanted to eat.


Then the real fun starts. Food starts magically appearing from behind the room, mountains of it. Steaming bowls of rice, freshly fried tempeh, tasty sambal, boiled veggies (I suspect the veggies are only added for my sake as they’re generally untouched). Each hosting family does their best to outdo the other for the quality of food. I love these nights because they’re  a break from the usual routine of fried chicken, tempeh, tofu and rice. My favorite dish is young banana shoots boiled in coconut milk with ginger and spices. I also really like the chicken with shredded coconut. Meals during Ramadan are especially delicious because it’s a holiday so everyone goes all out. Rendang is the best holiday food of all. Slow cooked beef in coconut and spices (see a theme here?). It’s expensive but wonderful.

The food is all passed around the circle and everyone grabs what they like from the pots and bowls. We always eat on waxed paper with our fingers. It’s taken a very long time but I can now eat rice with my fingers without making a mess of myself! The women who cooked the food always refuse to eat until after everyone has eaten their fill and gone home. I’ve learned that food is freshest if you sit right next to the kitchen, but often passed over me to get to those furthest away. Finding the right seat is a political endeavour. If I’m too close to the kitchen I get piled on with all the food by solicitous ladies. I’ve managed to successfully negotiate the privilege of serving myself now. I always take less than I really want so I can impress everyone by asking for seconds. It can backfire though because usually the best food is snatched up quickly.


A typical spread. Veggies, tofu, tempeh, noodles, chicken sambal and rice.

Usually the effort to cook for everyone is three day’s work before the night itself. Three days work for about ten minutes of eating. It’s a strangely quiet time as everyone is stuffing their face as fast as possible. Remarkably quickly the food is gone and everyone starts trickling out to go home. By 10 I’m home and ready to sleep after such good food and company. Anywhere from 15 – 30 men, women and children usually attend.

I really love those evenings as a way to connect with the family and laugh at the antics of the kids. It’s insane how quickly they’ve grown! I may not understand anything around me or know anyone’s names, but I really feel like family on those nights.

Here’s to the last few weeks left with these wonderful people.



Posted in Culture, Indonesia, Peace Corps | 2 Comments

Asking for Help

I think it is impossible to live in another culture and not take something from it into your own heart. It often manifests in strange ways like accent, food tastes and word choice. Recently, I’ve noticed that my sentence structure in English has started to reflect an ‘Indonesian’ way of speaking – highly contextual and with often archaic vocabulary choices (diligent, I’m looking at you). I often don’t recognize these little changes until I interact with people from home, or my own country. It can be a little scary sometimes, not knowing what you might end up being at the end of this adventure.

I think the first few months of cultural adjustment are a bit of a battle inside. I remember wanting to throw myself into Indonesia and Sundanese culture but also reluctant to lose the parts of myself I found important. I really learned the limits of my own personality, how far I would bend and where I would stand firm. I feel confident now that the things I will defend about myself are those that are most important to me: my lack of religion, my views on human rights, my love of personal choice and freedom. If you get the chance, I suggest you read up on Gordon Matthew’s theory of Ikigai and personality. It summarizes a lot of what I’m trying to get at.

So in a lot of ways, life as an international adventurist is a lot of compromise in personality. I have learned the limitations of my own culture’s outlook as well as the advantages. While I can by no means call myself an expert on Indonesian culture, I have learned a lot of really wonderful aspects and incorporated them into my own world view. For example, I am way more flexible with punctuality. (Maybe that’s not wonderful, but it definitely is a survival skill here!) I like to think I’m less wasteful and willing to work with less. I also can appreciate the value of community.

Recently I’ve been working through another battle of the cultures in my head. Everyone knows that West is independent and East is community, but that stereotype doesn’t truly describe how far that affects everyday life. One of the most difficult for me is that asking for help from someone could be so impacted by this concept.

A few days ago I tried to describe the differences to a curious teacher. She wanted to know why I never ask for anything from her or other teachers. I’ve never requested so much as a pen from them. I was confused why she would be so concerned about this. It didn’t surprise me, we’ve already spoken about my need for alone time. It took us a while but I think we managed to come to an understanding about my independence.

But it made me realize, Americans have a hard time asking for help.* We’re an independent lot and take pride in being able to take care of ourselves. Children move out, get jobs and provide for themselves much earlier than Indonesian families. We dislike feeling dependent on each other and treat favors as transactions, rather than expectation. If we do ask for help it can be an awkward conversation.

Before I go on, let me define what I mean by asking for help. I’m not talking about needing a pen from a friend. I mean something deeper. When we need real intervention from another human being, we have a hard time starting the conversation. “Hey man, I really need cash. I hate to ask it of you but it’s bad.” – “Sweetie can you come take care of my dog for a few days? I know it’s a pain but I have no one else to turn to.” stuff like that.

It is far less stressful to ask for help here in Indonesia. In fact, it can be a different source of stress because individuals can be bombarded with outrageous requests from family and friends. It is just expected that you share, you help your community. My host father has a car and is constantly lending it out to neighbors. One of the biggest insults whispered through windows here is ‘stingy’ or ‘arrogant’. The worst villains on the soap operas are selfish and greedy. I love how generous this culture is because it’s so easy to be so. It also makes expectations on individuals very high, which can be stressful for the PCV. I rest easy at night knowing that all my needs and wants are just a request away.

But it’s still really hard for me to ask for help. I’m still really independent and I like that about myself. I’ve noticed that Americans like to try on their own before asking for help. I have to prove that I’ve exhausted all possible alternatives before turning to another. It’s just expected. (That makes teaching here frustrating sometimes because students turn to each other for ALL the answers. It’s not cheating, it’s sharing!) So I rarely tap into this social resource. I buy my own food, I clean my own room, I do my own work.

Image result for toph i carry my own weight

“I carry my OWN weight”

I also miss out a lot. Altruism isn’t a contract, isn’t a transaction. Altruism is a kind of communication. I’ve never heard anyone tell a friend, “Hey just remember you owe me a favor!” People can rely on absolute strangers for help with no expectations of paying them back. It makes crime so shocking here because it really is a violation of deep cultural instincts on harmony. It also makes it really, really hard to say no; even for small things. The word for ‘request’ and ‘please’ is the same in Indonesian (minta). (Actually there are several words for please, depending on context: tolong, minta, boleh, coba…) People here don’t ask much from me because I never ask from them. This independence I’ve fought for is sadly very isolating.

So I do think one of the good things I will incorporate into myself is the Indonesian habit of asking for help. I will try to be more open with myself and my needs, even for small things. Even if I can ‘carry my own weight’ sometimes I think it’s good to suspend that independence and let someone else take a small burden. In the end, it makes us come closer as humans. Some of my best friendships started with an unexpected favor. So I make this promise now: I will ask you for help because I trust you and I want to have a relationship with you. I won’t wait until I desperately need something because it’s not fair on you, or me. I will ask for help more often, and be there for your small wishes. I will help you with no obligations for the future because that is what good friends do.



Gotta show my amazing students off every time.



*Now, I feel obligated to remind everyone that I don’t speak for everyone and this is a broad-stroke conversation. So if you want to comment on how far off I am with this reflection, do so but be reminded that this blog is about MY experience so shove off (with love).

Posted in Culture, Indonesia, Peace Corps, Uncategorized, Unsafe Harbors | Leave a comment

Last Year I would have FREAKED!

There are days that can only be described as ‘Peace Corps’. These are the kinds of days where, no matter how well you prepare yourself, things just go wrong. But they don’t just go wrong, they go crazy to the point where you just find yourself questioning the reality of your life and the universe itself. Cats fall through the ceiling into your bath basin, students ask super inappropriate questions with innocent faces, or you take the first bite of that treat you’ve been saving for yourself only to find that ants have taken over and now you have surprise protein in your diet.

Don’t get me wrong, things like this happen all the time in my life. But there are some days where it ALL seems to happen. It’s fun.

Yesterday Mac and I traveled back from Bandung to our site. We had spent a week there working on an intensive language lab as well as leading sessions in the ID11 IST. It’s always hard to go from a week of decent beds, warm showers and western food but to site we must go. Normally it’s a tough trip but I’ve gotten  used to it. There’s a 4-6 hour bus (the nice bus with AC and almost no chickens), an angkot ride across the city (no AC and some chickens) and finally another bus ride up the mountain for 2-3 hours (AC has never been known here but there are even more chickens to make up for it!). It’s an all day trip which means no bathroom breaks or time to eat. Let’s just say I laugh when I hear horror stories of delayed flights back home. (Kat- dear sister-  yours is the exception. That was crazy)

So here we go! I had managed to get through the first half of the trip home and was happily squeezed onto the last rickety bus up the mountain. Let me tell you something about this bus, it’s ancient. I’m pretty sure this bus has been in service longer than I’ve been alive. You can see the road through holes in the floor, bottles of water are kept on standby to cool the engine and the seats have worn away to the something you only see in post-apocalyptic movies. This bus doesn’t move until the driver feels like enough people have gotten on. I could be stuck waiting at the base of the mountain anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours. Sometimes I like to play a game with the transportation here: butt to seat capacity ratios. This particular bus could ideally fit about twenty people. I’ve seen forty five one time (yes, I count babies). It’s an adventure even when things go right.

So yesterday I made the classic mistake of thinking that things might go right for once. About thirty minutes into the ride the bus shudders to a halt and we pull over on the road (not on the side, there is no side. We just stopped in the middle of the road). Immediately everyone jumps out of the bus to sit on the wall that keeps the mud from sliding onto the road. Snacks are mysteriously pulled from nowhere and kids start happily finding sticks and dirt clods to play with. One particular kid thought it was funny to take a really really hard snakefruit stone and throw it at my head. Damn, it hurt!

No one batted an eye at being stuck in the middle of nowhere. I was a tad concerned. We had no extra cash to hop on another bus (plus there’s only one other so who knows when it could come by). We aren’t allowed to ride motorcycles so I couldn’t hitch a ride that way. I didn’t know anyone nearby and home was 50km away. This situation had the potential to be a real bummer. For an hour we all sat there while the driver tinkered around with the engine, managing to get black grease all over himself and the seats. I just pulled out a book and read until life shuddered into the engine again, over an hour later. No problem, we were off again!

Now this is a super windy and bumpy road. Mac and I like to call it Jalan Ular Sakit (Sick Snake Road) to the amusement of many here. After three hours my hips and abs hurt from trying to keep myself upright. So halfway through I wasn’t surprised when the woman next to Mac pulled out a bag and started puking into it. She puked for the rest of the ride. Again, no one really noticed. I offered her some water to wash out her mouth but she refused (maybe because of masuk angin? not sure). Either way the dulcid tones of retching and splatting and spitting kept me company for the rest of the trip. At least I didn’t have to hold a bag of my own vomit for over an hour!

Sounds crazy yeah? Did I mention that you can’t drink much water because there’s no access to a toilet for 8+ hours? Did I share that literally the only thing I had eaten that day was peanuts? Did you know that I was also fighting off the last of a nasty cold? Let’s not mention the pollution, staring and unsolicited selfies that add flavor to any good trip. So why would I put myself through that at all? Because you just have to.


Did I also mention that none of this ordeal actually threw me off at all? It’s amazing. I’ve actually gotten accustomed to everything Indonesia can throw at me. A year ago I would have panicked when the bus broke down. I would have thrown the stone right back at that kid, and I would have puked my own guts up if someone did that next to me. I feel like this is one of the most amazing things to have come out of my service: I can handle anything life can throw at me now. (Universe, if you are listening this is NOT a challenge. Please be nice.) The things that infuriated me a year ago have no bearing on my life at all. It’s a nice feeling.

So here’s a list of some of the things that don’t freak me out anymore:

Picking lice out of kid’s hair in public:

Yeah, it sounds gross and it is, but it’s just not a big deal anymore. In the desa it’s nearly impossible to avoid lice in kids and adults. It’s not like I can go to a store and pick up some medicated shampoo. I’ll be sitting in a train station and the woman next to me happily runs her fingers through her kid’s hair for a few minutes before he runs off to chase chickens. It’s just something you do with your kids at spare moments. I’ve seen mothers soothe cranky kids with this treatment too so maybe it serves more of a function than just pest control. I should mention that this is habit I see more in the rural areas, than in the cities. In no way is this indicative of Indonesia as a whole.


You can fight it but you can’t escape it. Basically everyone here operates on ‘jam karet’ – rubber time. All last year I was working myself into a frustrated tizzy whenever my CP was late to class. It took a while but I learned to accept and move on. I’m not going to throw my energy into something that ultimately is a relatively harmless habit. Now I just plan around being 40 minutes late to the first class. It all balances out eventually and I can sleep in a little extra!


Pushy Ojek and taxi drivers:

Man this used to give me so much anxiety. At the end of a long trip to the city you get off the bus to be immediately mobbed by thirty men shouting at you to get on their motorcycle or taxi. It is intimidating enough but harder still to negotiate price with them. (200k to go 10 kilometers? Give me a break!) I’m certainly not the kind of person to push for anything and this was really hard to adjust to. But now I can walk the walk and shove my way through with no guilt at all. I used to hate having to brush people off and ignore pushy sellers because it felt so rude. Well not anymore. Back off pak, I’m taking my own way!

Leaving the lights on ALL THE TIME:

I’ve heard every reason under the sun for it but in Indonesia the lights are just left on no matter the time of day. The back room where junk is stored to quietly rot? Yep. The bedroom? Yep. Every light is left on and this used to bug me so much. It’s such an instinct for me to save power and turn off lights I’m not actually using. It was a bit of an issue for my family. I kept getting scolded, “Jangan mati lampu! Takut hantu akan masuk. Takut pencuri!” (Don’t turn off the lights, scared ghosts will come in, scared of thieves” So I just had to get used to it. They also had to adjust to the fact that I sleep in the dark. I know, I’m such a weird bule. I don’t get it because electricity is so expensive here now. Plus the whole terrible-for-the-environment thing. It should be mentioned that things like fans are NEVER kept on at night. There’s an assumption that you will die of some horrible sickness if you do. I don’t care, that fan is staying on 24/7 here.


I’m pretty sure I could go on all year with this list, but four is enough. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still struggling with some things here. (still can’t handle the staring and street harassment) What has changed though is my attitude toward challenges here. I don’t know when it happened but I really feel like I can take it on. This time last year I felt so helpless, anxious and frustrated (not to mention guilty – didn’t I chose this? Why don’t I love it?) Now I feel competent, if not powerful. I feel confident in myself and my ability to finish my service with dignity and pride. Now my biggest challenges are internal (motivation mainly) rather than external.

So I have some words for Peace Corps, for Indonesia and for the world: Bring it on. I can take you.


Obligatory cuteness photo. This guys was my favorite friend from our orphanage visit last year.

Posted in Crazy, Indonesia, Lally, Peace Corps, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Implicit Bias and that Mid-Service Crisis Everyone is Talking About

So yeah, I’m more than halfway done with my service! Mid Service Conference has come and gone and now I’m frantically trying to figure out what the hell I’m really doing here.

It’s amazing to me how different my troubles are when compared to this time last year. Last year I was trying to integrate into a new culture and community while figuring out what this whole teaching thing is about. I got frustrated every day with things like lateness or skipped classes. It was a confusing and strange time.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still constantly confused and frustrated, but I really do have a different attitude toward my service and Indonesia. I can understand 80% of the Indonesian spoken around me and maybe 20% of the Sundanese thrown about in my daily life. I can predict the daily flow of life in the desa and know when to plan for upset schedules or changed plans. Which is just weird.

Recently I’ve been listening to a fantastic podcast by NPR called Invisibilia. If you like podcasts I highly suggest it. They explore the invisible things that shape and change the human experience by exploring stories half rooted in science and more than a little of speculation. The purpose of each episode is to help listeners challenge the idea that some aspects of humanity are universal or set in stone. Things like fear, personality, your future self, even the idea that our brains can have their own culture and agenda. It sounds a bit woo woo, but trust me, they do a good job with sources.

The other day I was trying to pass my last three hours of travel back to site with something interesting so I started listening to an episode called, “The Culture Inside”. Usually these discussions have me nodding along or happily reordering my own perspective without challenging any deep set preconceptions. However, at the end of that drive, I was sober and introspective.

I’m pretty sure you’ve heard the term ‘implicit bias’ thrown about on the news a lot, especially in the wake of the latest police shootings. It’s hard to understand what it really means though. The basic idea is that we all have learned impulses and judgements on things like race, religion or socio-economic backgrounds. By learned I mean that certain inputs from society can shape our unconscious reactions to things. It’s a really useful skill of our brains actually. We experience something, react and then apply that reaction to any other experiences like it. The bushes rustling in the jungle will always be a tiger until proven wrong. It just is our brain’s way of protecting us. Sadly, we aren’t in the jungle any more and our brains can’t always tell the difference between real danger and ‘learned’ danger.

What amazes me is how many people can say and do really vile things based off their unconscious biases, and never realize it. If you think about it, people rarely think of themselves as racist. They just are acting off of a truth they have built for themselves. This makes it really hard to challenge it as a society.

There’s a simple psychological test to measure our brain’s ability to associate two unrelated things. Think of several colors: blue, puce, pink, red, yellow, black, orange, etc. Then think of emotions or feelings: angry, sick, tired, sad, happy, romantic, etc. Many people can agree that red and angry go together, just as pink and romantic have a relationship. And it isn’t too hard to realize that these are associations we have learned from our culture and society. It also doesn’t hurt too much to be challenged in those assumptions (like how black is associated with death in the west, but white is the color of mourning in many Asian cultures.)

So what if we replaced colors with names? One researcher, (don’t ask me his name but it’s in the podcast) did just that. Instead of colors he wrote down stereotypical names from different ethnicities and cultures and then matched them with each other. He never considered himself to be racist or bigoted but was shocked to see the results. My point is that implicit biases are really hard for you to recognize in yourself.

What does this have to do with my service? Sadly, a lot. I have recently had to face some really strong biases that have developed over the last year and a half. More specifically I realized that I’m instinctively biased against men older than 35 here in Indonesia.

A little background might help. It’s an unfortunate truth that female PCVs around the world must endure rampant sexual harassment in their daily lives. Catcalling, inappropriate questions, groping in the street, suggestive jokes and so on. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard men call out to me on the street or even at school. My worst experiences often come from older men at work. I get a lot of questions about my sex life, contraception choices and past lovers and I really struggle with it sometimes. In my first year it seemed never ending and I didn’t really have the cultural or lingual tools to cope with it productively.

Men over 35 here enjoy a lot of freedom in some ways. There isn’t a lot of social blow back to inappropriateness and not a lot of education either. Over and over I hear the excuse, “he’s just old, he doesn’t know any better.” or “boys will be boys”. It infuriated me but was a hard lesson to learn, some people just don’t realize they’re being inappropriate. The culture here just doesn’t have a lot of voice for women to fight back (at least in the ways an outsider can see).

Recently I’ve noticed  that I now assume that every older man I meet will harass me. I often refuse to chat on busses now or will walk across the street to avoid someone. I’m totally guilty of implicit bias. It makes travel and work awkward and stressful but it seemed like the only way to keep myself from being harassed.

So what can I do? I’ve had a lot of success in conversation. The male teachers in my school now know that I don’t like questions about my body or sex life and have started applying that to how they treat other women in the school. If a stranger asks about my sex life I stop and have a talk about how that’s inappropriate and wrong. Usually my wide-eyed directness is enough to get people to stop and think.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s really hard and takes a lot of energy, but really helps me out in the long run. I used to dread my two minute bike ride home because I pass three high schools on the way. Depending on the time of day I would cycle past a metaphorical tunnel of catcalling and shouts. One day I couldn’t take it any more so I screeched to a halt and shouted, “I’m a TEACHER! Don’t call me sexy, call me MISS!” Now I have rowdy groups of boys run out to call out, “Good morning! Hello miss!” Much better.

As for my instinctive bias, I just have to be willing to recognize when it happens and overcome the impulse to judge. It has really opened up a lot for me. On trains I get to talk to some really interesting people with fascinating stories. True, I still get exposed to a lot of filth, but at least this time I feel like I have the ability to handle it without poisoning future encounters. Former enemies have become some of my best allies in school. For example, a few 8th grade boys liked to wolf whistle me on the way to class. A few weeks ago I caught them teaching the new 7th grade students that miss Hilary doesn’t like things like that (and she will chase you around the courtyard if you do). Progress!

Recently I’ve been feeling really down about my service. I’m not making a difference here, none of my efforts will have an impact, the problems are bigger than I am… and so on. Having to recognize my own inability to be the classic open minded and flexible volunteer is a little tough too. But I think it’s a really valuable skill to be able to realize your own judgements of others. I thought I was a good person, but I’m totally guilty of implicit bias. It took exposure to other points of view and cultures to help me realize it. I don’t know, all I’m trying to say is it’s too easy to rely on our small perceptions of the world and that can do a lot of harm.

Sorry, this post rambles a bit but… :


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I Wish I was Indiana Jones

A couple weeks ago (more like a month now!) I finished up my spectacular holiday with the family and came back to site. Since then, not much has happened, other than getting to level 100 on my Skyrim character. School breaks in Indonesia are long and often uncertain in their ending. I haven’t taught since mid-March and I’m pretty sure I won’t really start up again until August or September.

So I have a lot of time on my hands. This means a lot of empty hours to miss my family and dream about things like having my own bathroom again or real bread. It’s easy to get mawkish and morose during this time, especially when more of your friends start leaving Peace Corps. So to counter that I’ve been working on little things. Drawing, making bracelets, writing, reading. Lot’s of ‘ing’ words that keep me sane. I’ve also been doing a lot of research and today I hope to share a little of it with you, dear readers!

Do you remember those old stories of lost jungle temples and daring explorers trekking through the mist to discover ancient civilizations and treasure? There’s something about it that captures everyone’s imagination. Stories like Atlantis, El Dorado and Iram of the Pillars litter our cultural landscapes. Incredibly, some of them turn out to be true.

Borobodur Temple is the world’s largest Buddhist temple and one of the most iconic monuments ever crafted. Much of its history is lost to legend and conjecture but we know a little. It was built during the reign of the Sailendra Dynasty in Central Java in the 9th Century, about 1200 years agon. At the same time around the world Britain was fighting off a Viking invasion, Charlemagne was crowned Emperor and Christianity starts to find its way through Eastern Europe.

The temple itself is an architectural anomaly of all the various cultures surrounding Indonesia. Javanese ancestor worship mingle with Buddhist conceptions of Nirvana, Indian Gupta artistic style and Hindu practices. It’s uniquely Indonesian and reflects just how diverse the country is ethnically and culturally. There’s no written record of construction but it’s thought that Borobodur was built in competition with the nearby Hindu kingdom.

Borobodur is situated in an elevated valley between two active volcanoes, Sundoro-Sumbing and Merbabu-Merapi. The Kedu plain is about 40 km away from Yogyakarta and is incredibly fertile; So good for agriculture that it’s been named ‘The Garden of Java’. Borobodur is surrounded by lush jungles and fecund rice fields, dotted by temples and monuments from many religions. Archaeologists believe that it was commissioned by King Rakai Panangkaran in competition with the neighboring Sanjaya Kingdom. For all the reasons it was built, Borobodur dominated the ancient landscape and attracted worshipers from the whole island, and possibly beyond.

Then, for unclear reasons, it was abandoned. The complex languished under centuries of volcanic ash and jungle vines until it became nothing more than a haunted hill. No one really knows why people stopped going there. It’s possible that it was a combination of volcanic eruptions, the fall of an empire and the gradual converstion of Islam in the region. Local legends spoke of a haunted hill that brought bad luck to any fool who trespassed. Prince Monconagoro of the Yogyakarta Sultanate visited the hill, took ‘the knight who was captured in a cage’ and died of a mysterious illness a day later. The jungle meant to keep what it took.

Then the British came. They always do, and they always seem to be seeking some lost city. The Spanish conquistadors searched for fabled gold and plunder while the British searched for glory and name (and land and resources). In 1814 the Lieutenant Governor-General Thomas Raffles took over as governor of Java. He was fascinated with Javanese culture and collected antiquities and stories. He was on tour when he heard of a lost monument deep in the jungle. He sent a Dutch engineer, H.C. Cornelius to make investigations. Cornelious and 200 local hired men felled trees, burned growth and dug at ash and soil to reveal the lost temple. It took years but by 1835 the entire complex was revealed to the sun again. It was remarkably well preserved for all its centuries of loss.

Sadly, the monument fell to a similar treatment to archaeological sites around the world. Souvenier hunters from Europe descended and chopped, pried and stole much of the original art. Even now tourists in Amsterdam can go see several heads of Buddha displayed in the national museum, taken from Borobodur. In 1882 the Dutch government recommended that the temple be completely disassembled and sold off to museums because of its unstable condition. Happily, this never happened but the damage is evident all the same. In 1902 the government commissioned a massive restoration project that lasted until 1911. They reset stones, strengthened balustrades, restored panels and arches and domes and even rebuilt the ancient drainage system.

It took a lot of work and more money but Borobodur is back to its former glory! (at least as close as they could make it anyway) I got to go with my mother very early one morning to spend a few happy hours climbing the steps and taking in the other-worldly carvings and art. This is a living temple, Buddhists from around the world make pilgrimages every year to pray and reflect. It’s rare I think to have that sort of interaction with a historical site. Although, it must be difficult to meditate and pray on the divine while hundreds of tourists are rolling through taking selfies and touching the panels. (Seriously, who touches the ancient architecture?? I was so annoyed.)

If you ever come to this amazing place, you should know a little about how one approaches it. Because this is a living, sacred temple visitors are expected to be respectful to it and the worshipers. Ladies are encouraged to wear long sleeved shirts and cover past the knee. Men are asked not to wear shorts, although sarongs are provided for free by the temple. (I saw many foreigners not abiding to these rules. You won’t be refused entry but it’s just polite I think.)

The temple has nine platforms in total. Visitors make a symbolic journey through the three realms of human cosmology: Kamadhatu (the world of desire), Rupadhatu (the world of forms) and Arupadhatu (the world of the formless). The three lower tiers are rife with artistic representations of everyday life. Feasting, hunting, labor, love, animals it all is there. I like seeing the cavorting monkeys dotted here and there. It seems some things never change. Each time you make a step up to the next platform, you are moving through another step of enlightenment. The higher you go, the simpler and more abstract the carvings become. At the very top you find Arupadhatu and Nirvana. There are no more elaborate panels and everything gets oddly quiet and heavy. All you see are domed stupas with resting Buddhas eternally watching the jungle. Sadly, many of them are damaged but it’s easy to imagine the original forms. It was really hot up at the top because we had left the shady shelter of the lower walls. Everything was open and revealed. Not even birds dared trespass. It really felt otherworldly. Sadly, the whole effect was spoiled somewhat by all the selfie sticks but I did enjoy watching a couple shy monks pull their phones out from their vibrant robes and snap a few of their own before settling down to meditate.

I’m really glad we got there when it opened at 6am. Just as my mother and I were heading back to the exit we saw two massive school groups screaming their way to the top. It means you have to wake up at 3:30, but it’s worth it.

I took way too many photos,  but here are some of my favorites:

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Fighting the Mid-Service Lows With Some Bali Highs!

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in Bali? Aaaaaaahhhhhhh…. relax. And yes, I realize that it’s probably a kind of Peace Corps betrayal to run away to Bali but I don’t care!

My wonderful family has flown in from thousands of miles away (about 16,000 combined actually!) to meet Mac and I in Jakarta. They happily braved the transit train, crammed themselves into tiny angkots and queasily endured the rickety mountain bus for an impressive eight hours, all to spend some time in my tiny desa. For three days we all ate my ibu’s delicious food and I got to show off my home. We even wore matching batik for the grand school tours. The whole neighborhood and beyond turned up to watch the bule parade and they were particularly amazed by my six foot tall brother standing next to me. It was really nice not being the only freakishly tall person for 50 km! It was exceptional being able to see my little community through new eyes. (My sister particularly enjoyed watching the massive dinosaur chickens hunt for mice and now I have lots of photos of doorways and locks from my archaeologist mother.)

Two families from completely different backgrounds and cultures still managed to sit down together and eat fresh tempeh and stewed beef on the floor. We told stories, laughed and made many helpless gestures as all of us stumbled through two languages. I got really tired out that night trying to keep up with fast-paced English and complex translations into Indonesian. It was amazing. And I learned something new! Some Indonesian mothers will pull stingers from the three inch hornets that buzz here and stick them into toddler’s bellies to stop them from weeing everywhere. Jungle potty-training sounds brutal, yet effective.

The next weekend flew by in Bandung with some delicious food and the freedom of no desa dress code. Ramadan has just started so everything was pretty dead, but we had fun all the same. We even got to meet up with a couple PCVs in town for the weekend too! My family got to see that, yes, we all talk about poop and rashes no matter the company. There was even a quick, vicious stomach bug that left me puking in the poor Uber guy’s car (don’t worry, I had a bag). No way I’m escaping Indonesia on my vacation for real!

Bali has been our longest stop so far. We have completely oozed our way into jungle villa bliss over here, complete with a saltwater dipping cool (or, as I like to call it, the sweat sluice) and hammock lounge area. It’s been glorious just chilling and chatting.


This morning I got to watch a Balinese dance sequence with gamelan music that told the story of the prince Sahadewa and his adventures with the Barong and the Rangda. It was almost impossible to keep up with the story but it was really fun to watch anyway. Those costumes are incredible and the skill of the dancers captivated us all. I did some research and I think I can recount the story itself to you to accompany my pictures:

There is a benevolent spirit in the forest called a Barong. He is often depicted as a huge shaggy lion-dog and needs two dancers to animate his bulk.



The Barong sets up the story by dancing around the forest. He shows off his clever feet and even reaches around to scratch an itch on his bum. He was soon joined by a monkey friend who jumped over the wall, rather than entering stage right.

Barong and monkey have some fun, mostly with monkey teasing his friend with a banana. Opposable thumbs are fun! Then, without warning, three masked men entered the stage and proceeded to beat up the poor monkey. A fight ensued and one man left the stage sans nose. Barong and monkey ran off to chase the men away.

Two young women enter. They are servants of Rangda, the evil spirit. They dance in synchronization and look around for the servants of the queen, Dewi Kunti. The dance featured a lot of precise hand and foot gestures as well as what looked like a painful position for the back. I loved their bright costumes and bells.

Once they finish their dance and exit, the two male servants enter. Their complicated costumes and swagger established them as slightly foolish figures. In fantastic tales of demons and gods it’s important to have someone ordinary to connect to I think. After some dialogue and posturing a fearsome witch appears and casts a spell to make the men angry with each other. Her beastly face and wicked claws left no doubt as to her evilness. The servants chased each other around the stage with switches and shouts. The king enters to end the fight and get things ready for his queen’s arrival.

Queen Dewi Kunti makes a grand and forbidding entrance. Her short dance looks a lot like the ones from the girls before, but she brings a certain regal attitude to her performance. I wouldn’t want to mess with this woman. According to the story she has promised to sacrifice her son, Sahadewa to the Rangda. The witch enters both her and the king, causing them to be angry. Poor prince Sahadewa pleads with his parents but is dragged to the forest and tied to a tree for sacrifice. The servants both cry and beg their masters to show mercy for the prince. They stay with him to wait for his terrible fate while the king and queen exit the stage.

As Sahadewa waits for the Rangda to come eat him the God Siwa appears with all his glory and special soundtrack. He walks on stage, throws a few flowers around and grants Sahadewa some handy immortality. I didn’t get a good picture of him but he had a fun way of flicking his hand out to throw flowers far out over the stage. Then the Rangda comes to eat the prince, accompanied by hooting attendants. The Rangda does her best to eat up Sahadewa but learns about his immorality and surrenders. She asks for him to redeem her. Sahadewa kills the Rangda who goes on to heaven.

One of Rangda’s servants, Kalika, asks for redemption as well but Sahadewa says no (I’m not sure why. Maybe she hadn’t eaten rice that day.) She gets very angry and changes into a boar to fight the prince. Three fools enter the stage and proceed to run around arguing how best to kill the boar. It’s a lighthearted scene with a lot of Stooge like behavior and tricks. The boar gets the best of them and runs off to change into a great bird and the fight continues. Kalika is defeated once more and changes into a Rangda herself. Sahadewa realizes he can’t kill her and meditates to change into a Barong (the benevolent spirit from before). The fight is powerful and unending. Villagers try to help but are possessed to commit suicide. The Barong blesses them with immortality to save them and chases off the Rangda. The fight still goes on, eternally.

That’s what I could gather of the story from the badly translated pamphlet and a little research. I imagine the true story itself is really rich and complicated but it has to be condensed a little for the tourists. It was really cool getting to see some traditional work and I was glad to skip the selfie session afterward.

Now for some quick pictures of Ubud:


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