Friday, August 30, 2013

Fat and Happy: Living Body Positive in Indonesia

We are, as volunteers, a special kind of zoo animal in our village habitat, and as much as we strive and hope to seamlessly assimilate in our community, no one will ever totally forget we’re the Waldo in an Indonesian scene. Sometimes I think my family just breaks out the krupuk (fried animal skin chips) and waits to see what I’ll do next. This unrelenting interest in all things bule is coupled with a complete lack of hesitancy at commenting on what I wear to what I eat, to what time I go to sleep and how I wash my clothes. It also provokes a regular discourse on my physical appearance.

Daily, my Indonesian family, co-workers, and neighbors tell me I’m fat, similar to the way they’d mention my skin is white or that the sky is blue. Indonesians, in general, will blithely comment on various physical attributes in a manner that would astound, if not horrify, the average American. My first few days in Kediri, a teacher gestured at my sweaty, suffering face and said, “so much sweat!” while making a gesture that likened my face to a sweat fountain. Indonesians don’t carry our Victorian England manners, which historically call for all observers to politely ignore typically “embarrassing” occurrences, like being a sweat monster, or weight gain— at least not until you’re gossiping behind closed doors. 

Many of my fellow PCVs have expressed frustration, embarrassment, or hurt feelings over comments from Indonesians about their physical appearance. I can’t speak to all of it—I will never have the experience of receiving appraisal on my skin color for anything less than being “so beautiful and white.” Indonesia has its own bucket of problems over skin color associations and a beauty market that exploits internalized racism from Dutch Colonialism into a myriad of skin bleaching products. But I can speak about the regular commentary from my peanut gallery of teachers who love to talk about my weight and body shape.

My co-workers expressed concern that I wasn’t settling in well by saying my face looked thin. A few days later one of the same teachers told me she could tell I was feeling very comfortable because of how round my face was. Had my face changed in either direction in those few days? Not at all.Teachers are highly interested in how much weight I’ve lost since moving to Indonesia, and love to tell visitors that “first, when Emily come here, she is very fat. Now, she is slim.” Try as I might, I can’t convince my co-workers that any weight I’ve lost is minimal, and that if anything I’ve returned to my “resting weight”- the weight I was in America before I went on a Farewell Stateside Food and Beer Tour and subsequently gained a little right before coming to Indonesia.

Indonesians talk frankly about physical appearances and differences on every end of the spectrum: who is the “blackest” of the teachers, who is the fairest (other than Miss Bule), who is “Mr. Skeleton” (our very thin VP of Communications), who is the shortest… I would be less comfortable with the regular joking about fatness, if it wasn’t accompanied by jokes about every other body type. Even then, I do occasionally feel uncomfortable with how Indonesians call out each other- especially when teachers point out certain students as being fatter than the others, or the shortest, or on the flip side the most attractive. (Nothing weirder than my counterpart making a boy stand at the front of the class and asking me if I think he is the most handsome boy in school.) But this is a cultural discomfort I adapt to.

Even though it sometimes catches me off guard, overall I think the casual tossing about of the word fat is pretty freaking awesome. Using the word fat as a neutral descriptor, and not an insult or a way of expressing ugliness or unhappiness (ugh I feel so FAT today), is pretty radical by American standards. And even more radical, Indonesians often use it to connote happiness.

The semiotics of fatness differ all around the world, that is, what we perceive fat to mean or imply, and how we react and respond to fatness. In America, we associate fat almost in totality with negative aspects: unhealthiness and unattractiveness, to start off with, and then on the next level: laziness, lack of discipline, low self-esteemetc etc. I would say maybe the exceptions are fat baby animals ((ADORABLE)) or fat people who are trying to lose weight ((INSPIRATIONAL)). We live in a Western culture that moralizes body shape and health, when in so many cases, “good health” is a privilege built around genetics, education and awareness, economic status (and in turn access to better quality food, safe and free places to exercise, gym memberships), and a life free from chronic illness or damaging accidents. Not only do we moralize “good health” and idealize certain body types, we police others.

As Americans, we are constantly bombarded by media messages that tell us to be dissatisfied with our bodies, constantly discontent with our physical appearances. Those media messages are being spun by advertising, and that advertising is coming from a diet and exercise industry that has literally invented insecurities as a way of selling their products and services. It’s all capitalism, with a healthy dose of kyriarchy to especially target women, and often YOUNG women—one of the demographics with the most disposable income to spend on improving themselves to meet a false standard of beauty. Intersectional exploitation, it’s a skill that advertising has mastered.

For all my PCVs out there, if something makes you truly uncomfortable or unhappy, I fully believe in asserting that issue, even if it breaks Javanese politeness. I like to say, “that is not polite in America” (I’ve used this when I get too many questions about boyfriends or how much money I made at my old job, or when a teacher tried to adjust my clothes). Indonesia is a land of limited vocabulary, and there is a very good chance no one would call you fat back in the states.

But also, confront what it is about “fat” that makes you so uncomfortable… it might not be something that you have to accept about yourself, but it may be an internalized reaction that would serve you well to challenge. If it is, as it is in so many cases, a connection between fat and attractiveness, question those beauty standards. And question why you fear being connected with a mainstream media conception of what is unattractive. We don’t owe it to anyone to present ourselves in a palatable L’Oreal/Weight Watchers/ Jillian Michaels approved form of aesthetic consumption, because we aren’t here, present on this earth, to be aesthetically desirable to others.  Maybe that gets a little radical for some people—of course, the average person wants to feel attractive. I like to feel attractive. But I don’t buy into the means of attractive that are so often presented as my only option. There is a difference in how I feel attractive and how I am told by the Media Machine to be attractive. As bell hooks so aptly says, “unlearn your socialization.” Here’s hoping we can all reach our own contentment in our own skins. Consider fat as a state of happiness. Be fat, be happy.

 

If you’re interested more in Fat Acceptance and slash or Health at Every Size, I recommend the following resources:

Health at Every Size by Dr. Linda Bacon

The Obesity Myth by Paul Campbell

Lessons from the Fat-O-Sphere by Kate Harding

Two Whole Cakes by Lesley Kinzel (who also blogs about fat acceptance at xojane.com)

Dances with Fat, maintained by blogger and fat dancer Ragan Chastain

Also, neverending kudos to fellow PCV-Indonesia Francesca, who wrote a blog post on “The Fat Issue” and reminded me that I had had this languishing in my drafts for months!!

Jungle2Jungle, or, Who’s the dog here, Harry?*

I didn’t experience as much culture shock coming back to America as I expected. Possibly because I had spent hours in deep meditation, visualizing walking into a Chipotle, or the sensation of a spacious, cool leather sofa beneath my butt. America is freaking awesome, y’all. It was everything I visualized and more. I’m pretty sure that the Peace Corps is a secret right wing conspiracy effort to round up all us liberal hippie pinkos and teach us a lesson in patriotism. America is great, and not just because cheese and alcohol is so much more affordable. Kiss your next tax return and thank it for smooth roads and traffic lights and public libraries (unless you’re in Pittsburgh, which in that case I guess you can be like, thanks for the snow plows). I occasionally had to battle the impulse to lay down on a smooth stretch of asphalt, gently weeping, and serenade it with Whitney Houston songs. Because I WILL always love you, America.

Time moves so much differently in the desa. I hadn’t been in the classroom since May, and while I filled those two months with some great  vacations and times with other PCVs, I also spent a solid majority of that time dancing with mild depression from all the sexual harassment I’d experienced in the past year (see last post, “The Unfun One”). So those weeks leading up to my trip home felt even longer than I anticipated—much like dog years vs human years, desa days vs anywhere other than the desa days are about a 7:1 ratio. Sometimes I felt like I had been gone for ages from the hustle and bustle of America, as I virtually watched friends get married, have babies, start new jobs while I was like, today I spoke maybe five times out loud and watched an entire season of The Sopranos in thirty six hours.

Thankfully, going home I realized that while many things had changed, I still felt and fit in the same. My friends and family were waiting for me, just like my giant collection of high heels and handbags. Sweet materialism! I was if anything awestruck by large shopping malls, and on more than one occasion was hit with a spontaneous overflow of emotion at how beautiful bathrooms were. I was the only one gawking at the ranging diversity of body shapes and skin colors, and I occasionally forgot that everyone around me understood what I was saying. I’m glad to report back to all PCVs that within a few days, all the damage that Peace Corps living had wrought on my body cleared up—my skin was glowing and fresh, my hair wasn’t falling out, I slept through the night and I wasn’t crippled with psychosomatic back pain. It gets better! All the times I had laid in bed wracked with some parasitic illness, worried that I was doing my body irreparable harm—going back to America has laid those fears to rest.

Slipping back into America felt natural and immediate, but I had brought back a lot of Indonesia with me. From the language to my treatment of time, I often found myself fighting conflicting instincts. I’d verbally apologize for handing people things with my left hand, but wearing a bikini on the beach once again felt like nothing (granted, I’ve never been the best at adhering to modesty culture in Indonesia). I ultimately made my friends learn a few Indonesian words so I could continue to respond with “mungkin” or “bisa,” and any other language blurring they politely ignored. I was surprised how much I missed Indonesia. I missed the language, and the backbending helpfulness of the people, and street food push carts. I missed being able to tell what time it was by call to prayer, and I chafed at being held responsible to the constraints of time. I had fully acculturated to the “rubber time” lifestyle and I have found fixed time systems wanting.

Going to America and coming back to Indonesia awakened a new sense of perspective in me. Its hard to refer to either one as my primary “home,” now. I realized how much I had changed in the past seventeen months—really, growing into the person I wanted to be—and how much I understood about Indonesia. If I hadn’t had a chance to go back to America, I might not have noticed the change from being constantly confused to at peace with my place in the culture. In America I found myself almost craving that sense of, I don’t know—that charmed Peace Corps volunteer existence of understanding the culture while not being a part of it, and the opportunity to play outside the rules of the culture as well.  

The America -Intermission also shed some light on my perspective on Peace Corps and service. It was a reminder that Peace Corps is a great program in many ways, especially if you take it on a holistic Thee Goals basis, but there are other programs that are more capable at wide spread aid and development, or better qualified than your general rag tag band of PCVs. It was a reminder that I’m twenty three, and that Peace Corps in the grand scheme is only a small part of my life. Its easy, when you’ve clocked as much time as a volunteer has in their village and community, to let that life and that reality fill up your entire experience—I think it’s especially easy for us younger volunteers. But its only one reality, and soon enough I’ll be going to a new reality that’s almost as far removed from a rural village in Indonesia as possible. I started making plans for the future, and grudgingly not grudgingly at all, wholeheartedly, that future looks like Pittsburgh and a five year plan with Michelle.

 
Coming back to Indonesia, I was greeted with a text that some well laid plans for a teachers workshop my counterparts and I had set down pre-vacation had been thrown out the window in my absence. It was frustrating, to say the least, but it was also a reminder that my potential as a single volunteer in a single community is limited. It’s limited by a broken education system and an impotent bureaucratic structure that rivals the pneumatic tubes of Brazil.** My first days back at school, my hard working CPs are already swamped with extra tasks and jobs from the principal that they say they don’t have time to go to class with me. Peace Corps service for me has been an ongoing, seventeen month lesson in adjusting expectations. I still occasionally fight those white knight dreams of revolutionizing my school and making it a beatific, efficient place of learning. But my America-Intermission has reminded me once again to make manageable goals: teach some good lessons, empower a few teachers, bolster the still developing aspects of PC Indonesia infrastructure that I can (peer support network, etc), and spend time with my PCV family as well as my Indonesian family.

*You are. You are the dog.

** the movie, you philistine. not the country.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Un-Fun One about Safety, Harassment, Crying, and Dreams of Baseball Bat Wielding Vigilante Justice

Trigger Warning: I will be talking about sexual harassment, frankly but not graphically. I will also be talking about rape culture and situations that might be distressing for some people. Here is a puppy. Please, if you need a break, come back to the puppy photo and take a deep breath. 

I think that the randomly sampled American, no matter how conservative, would agree with the following statement: A woman has the right to walk down the street without intimidation, harassment, or threats of violence. Its only when we start adding qualifiers that disagreement blooms—a drunk woman, a woman of color, a trans woman, a woman wearing fishnets and a miniskirt, a butch woman; a dark street, a dangerous street, a street where a lot of men are loitering. Then we start getting hedgy—well she shouldn’t have worn that or she should’ve known better, to the downright condemning—she was asking for it. To some people, just the way a woman is—being a woman of color, being a trans woman—is reason enough for harassment or assault; for others it can be the way she presents herself, through her preferences to dress masculine, or revealingly; or it can be her actions—she was getting drunk, or, she was being flirtatious.

Where opinion splits, we see the shadow of rape culture. When we start using qualifiers to decide how a woman deserves safety, we see the shadow of rape culture. When we place culpability on the victim and not on the harassers, or, more importantly to me, on the society which is fostering these beliefs, we see the shadow of rape culture. When we accept that violence is most common to those that are the most oppressed in society, we see the shadow of rape culture.

Rape culture is a pervasive aspect of our learned culture that excuses aggressive behaviors, blames victims, skews our language and perception, and damages people of all genders. Rape culture is perpetuated by both men and women, through the way we are socialized growing up, through our media, through our pornography, and yes, through the sometimes invisible but still very present oppression by misogyny in our society. Rape culture means women have to “be smart” if they want to go out of the house, that the law and media is not always on the side of the victim, and that some people believe victimhood is up for debate.

My problem in Indonesia is, so far in my experiences, the culture requires not even a pathetic kind of excuse of qualifier to accept that harassment and violence to women happens. If a woman is walking down the street, there’s a very likely probability that she will be harassed, or feel threatened, or even experience violence, no matter what she is wearing or doing. Again, I can’t proclaim to know the nuances of Indonesian culture. But this has been my experience as a woman, and the experiences conveyed to me by women with whom I live and work in my community.

Originally, after several incidents of harassment I assumed that I was attracting this negative attention because I was so visibly foreign, and PCVs in general become magnets for microaggressions, unwanted attention, and harassment. But after speaking with different Indonesian women in Peace Corps staff and my community, I learned that they had been suffering through this kind of harassment their entire lives, and more times than  I had (granted, I’ve only been here a year). I was shocked at a sense of “this is how it is” that I received from these women. Similar to my doctor’s response when I was getting strange mini illnesses—Welcome to Indonesia! You will be a little sick all the time, and apparently harassed as well.

I’m not saying that my male PCV peers can’t be harassed, or even sexually harassed. But I’d argue that a male peer wouldn’t have the same sense of fear that I experience.  For example, both myself and one of my male PCV friends have experienced someone being a little too interested in us, and receiving a lot of unwanted texting and phone calls. While it was certainly frustrating and uncomfortable for him, he never felt unsafe and after insisting on his disinterest, he was left alone. For me, it escalated to getting numerous phone calls in the middle of the night and barrages of texts. My harasser was the boyfriend of a family member in my homestay during training, and I had never even spoken to him directly. While I immediately told him that I didn’t return his interest and asked him to leave me alone, it only ended when a Peace Corps staff member called him and threatened to call the police. I spent most of training with a constant, back of my mind worry that I would come home one day and he would be sitting in my living room. He still occasionally calls me, but I have his number blocked and saved so I am only notified afterwards that he tried to contact me.

That was my first experience with harassment in Indonesia, and its not unique. Other female PCVs have received late night phone calls, repeated hang ups, and excessive messaging from near strangers who have gotten our numbers from other people. Because cell phone numbers are swapped like trading cards here, I had to lay a ground rule with my coworkers that they could not give my number to anyone without my permission first. Still there are times when local officials will come to school and demand my number, and I am supposed to give them the entirety of my contact information or else it will embarrass my principal that I’m refusing. And who knows what the intentions of any of these strangers could be, because a small part of me sees almost every male stranger as a threat. One of my favorite authors, Margaret Atwood, said, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

Perhaps that sounds paranoid to the reader back in America, but consider this: that as an American woman, I also am afraid to park in a parking garage at night, leave my drink on a table at a bar and turn my back, go anywhere even slightly secluded with someone I recently met. The first time I went on a date with someone I had met during the OkCupid Adventures of Fall 2011, I sent his full name, the address of the restaurant where we were meeting, and a time when I would check in with a friend who kept her phone with her all night. All of those things are basic “safety tips” I could’ve read in Cosmo. We could even argue that those are “common sense” tips for women at this point. And that’s rape culture. Those are signs that we as a culture have accepted violence against women to the point that popular magazines will publish ten ways to escape an attacker, in pink Helvetica font.

But within American culture, I still have a right to react angrily, aggressively, and assertively if I am being harassed or threatened, and the randomly sampled American would probably agree with that. But in Javanese culture specifically, direct confrontation is highly frowned upon. One thing I’ve been struggling with in service is how to protect my personal agency, which has been developed in America, while being flexible in a culture where certain aggressions are tolerated with blank smiles. I had explained to my coworkers that for an American, being constantly asked if I was single and then trying to set me up with strangers made me uncomfortable, yet it was something I regularly submitted to here. A few days later, local government officials came to my school and invited me to lunch with another coworker, and they spent the entire lunch trying to convince me I should marry one of their companions, a single man in his forties who kept leering at me. Because these are a) men who b) are in positions of authority over my coworker, she weakly looked at me and said in English, they are just joking, don’t be mad, yeah? But how am I supposed to balance Indonesian “just joking” with what would be American “workplace harassment” ?

woof, lets take a puppy break. look at dem ears.

The second time I was harassed, I was walking down a city street with two other male PCVs and I was groped by a passing male motorcyclist. My friends hadn’t even noticed it happening until I erupted into an angry, profanity laced tirade of shouting at the back of the motorcyclist as he zoomed away. At least in this occasion, I was able to express my anger, in a small way similar to how I would’ve reacted in America. This drive by groping isn’t a rare occurrence for women, just like people of all genders are occasionally mugged by passing motorcyclists. It’s common enough that I now purposefully walk as far on the inside of the sidewalk as possible, hoping that no one will be able to reach me. When I returned to my permanent site after that incident, it was hard to ride my bike or walk down the street without feeling tense anytime I heard a motorcycle come up behind me. But I still have to go places, and motorcycles aren’t going away any time soon.

Just like I occasionally have to walk places alone, like I was doing the third time I was harassed. This time it was broad daylight, I was wearing the Indonesian clothing I wear in the classroom, and I was walking on a busy, pedestrian filled street. A man started following me down the sidewalk, which I noticed immediately. I repeatedly would stop walking, he would repeatedly walk past me and then attempt to hide and wait for me again. I eventually went inside a restaurant and called the friend I had just eaten lunch with, and he had to come get me and walk with me the rest of the way to my transportation. While I waited, my stalker paced outside the restaurant watching me. That was probably the most threatening of all the incidents, and it was confusing. A whole line of people eating at food stands watched this messed up dance I was doing with my stalker, and because none of them said anything or reacted, I wasn’t sure at first if I was overreacting, or misreading the cultural atmosphere, or projecting my paranoia. And when I finally discerned that it was truly an issue, I didn’t know how to convey what was happening to anyone who might’ve been willing to help me.

And finally, the last time I’ve been harassed was just this past weekend at a bus terminal. While waiting for a bus, a group of men who were loitering at a nearby bus lane started catcalling me and trying to get my attention. As a rule I’m pretty friendly and chatty when travelling, and have never had an incident riding public transportation since my service started. But once they caught my attention, one of them flashed me, to the laughter of all the others. After a year in-country, I know just how disrespectful that action is, and I felt entirely degraded. I ignored them till they dissipated, and I crammed onto an already crowded bus because I wanted to get out of the terminal as quickly as possible. It took a few minutes for everything to register with me, and I was probably the most surprised person on the bus when I burst into semi-hysterical sobbing once we pulled away. I have never witnessed a bus full of Indonesians so quiet as the moment when every person stopped and watched me, while the bus ticketer tried to comfort me in Javanese.

The major frustration, running through all these incidents, is that I was always abiding by every possible preventative measure, and yet I’m still not “safe.” Sometimes it feels just by existing, I’m warranting harassment, harassment that I feel powerless to fight or assert myself against because of the cultural standards of behavior, and a fear that any response might incite my harassers more. And those are the feelings I’ve been dealing with for the past few days. Like, I wish I could cruise through life with a bright pink baseball bat on my shoulder, doling out vigilante justice in the name of the oppressed vulnerables everywhere, like an angry Batman with better hair. But sadly, vigilante justice is frowned upon in some circles. BLERGH, socially established standards of conduct. 

Some readers are probably interested to know how Peace Corps responds to what we call “Safety and Security Incidents.” During training, we are educated about harassment, mostly regarding our status as foreigners. We learn ways to avoid pickpocketing, hear stories of drugged snacks being sold on buses, and spent two different sessions on sexual assault and Peace Corps’ commitment to victims, which includes complete privacy and a promise that victims are never culpable or deserving of blame. The material is a mix of international Peace Corps programming and specifically Indonesian information. Because my program is so new, statistics on volunteer safety and incidents are still being gathered and stabilized. But I assume pretty safely that as the program develops, there are more safety and harassment incidents occurring than Peace Corps staff expected when we started as trainees.

We have an Indonesian staff member who is the Safety and Security Officer, and any incidents are reported to her.  She records the details of the incident, and depending on the event and the volunteer’s interest, can facilitate reporting it to the police. Our Peace Corps Medical Officers are trained for aiding volunteers in distress. We even have a Peer Support Network of trained volunteers who are available to communicate with PCVs in need and help be liaisons in situations that involve dealing with Peace Corps Staff. If you’re wondering, I am a Peer Support Counselor, and ironically enough, I’m one of the liaisons specifically for sexual harassment.

Along with in-country support, there is a sexual assault hotline, part of the Office of Victim Advocacy in DC. After my third incident, the Victim Advocacy office contacted me, but I didn’t choose to respond until after my fourth incident. I received an email back within a few hours of contacting the advocacy officer, and within twelve hours she called me from America (in the morning, before typical officer hours, while she was still at home). From there, I was offered several options, including being flown home to work with a counselor for up to 45 days. As tempting as that offer was, I chose to speak with a counselor in America via phone call—however the office is so swamped that it might take three weeks for me to talk to someone, which maybe says something about Peace Corps needing to up their counseling staff.

I cannot stress enough how cared for by Peace Corps staff I felt at every point. From calling my Program Manager on a Sunday night in near hysterics, to my medical officer texting me late at night, the staff has been nothing but supportive, available, and validating. And this issue of harassment is on the minds of Peace Corps, both in country and back in DC. The advocacy officer and I spoke at length about the general climate of harassment worldwide that volunteers experience, and how Peace Corps is actively pursuing ways to protect volunteers. But it does seem, from the conversation, that everyone is a little at a loss for what action to take, because only so many preventative measures can be taken, when what really needs to happen is a cultural shift in the treatment of women and vulnerables in host country societies and governments.

It’s hard for me to say, as a Peace Corps volunteer, that an aspect of a foreign culture is just absolutely wrong. A major motivation for me to join service was to confront and explore the places where cultures conflict and hopefully come away with an understanding that different does not always imply better or worse. But the culture of harassment, and accepting that harassment, is wrong. It’s wrong to be afraid to travel alone, following all the cultural “rules,” and still know that it might not protect you. It’s wrong to subject women to fear and intimidation, to make them feel like their bodies are communal property, and then expect them to accept it passively.

It’s also a burden of the culture that isn’t in my power to fix, and while I can attempt to educate or promote conversation about issues of harassment and violence towards women, it is ultimately up to the citizens of Indonesia to change their country, through laws and awareness and action. At the end of the day, I have the option to go back to my country, where I instinctively understand and operate within familiar cultural climates, where I feel empowered by laws and society to be aggressive and assertive of my rights to safety, and also, honestly, where I have privileges to be able to expect a certain level of daily safety, that not all American women can enjoy.

But, I don’t want to go back to my country just yet. I still have another year at site, working in my community and in my school, and thankfully I’ve never felt unsafe or threatened in my desa. So what I’m struggling with now is how to live within a culture that in so many ways I have adapted to, yet in this way I so strongly disagree with and oftentimes feel endangered by. I have to find a way to live and deal with the harassment culture, the attention I engender for being so visibly different than the norm, but other times simply because I am a woman, without falling apart under the stress and also, not becoming desensitized and complacent to ill treatment. When one of my friends called me after a stressful day of her own, she told me she was so angry at the culture for the constant harassment she was experiencing that day, but then she felt guilty for her anger. But I say, stay angry. I would rather be angry than accept harassment culture for the norm, not matter how un-peaceful it might sound to say that. The day that I become blasé to sexual harassment is the day that I know I probably should head home. 

Some of my favorite grassroot resources for ending violence against women, combatting rape culture, and victims advocacy:

India’s Gulabi Gang, a group of women in pink saris who regularly shame and confront domestic abusers. 

Hollaback, founded in New York City after a woman took a cell phone photo of a subway flasher and used it to prosecute him, now committed to confronting street harassment through activism and empowerment.

SlutWalk, a rally and response to a Toronto policeman’s advice that if women want to avoid being raped they should stop dressing like sluts. SlutWalk protests have taken place in 22 countries, and aim to bring solidarity to victims as well as expose the sexism of rape culture.

FORCE, Baltimore based, is a project to give voice to the victims of assault through promoting enthusiastic consent and empowering survivors through activism, art installations, and occasionally leaving feminist message panties at Victoria’s Secret locations.

I’d also recommend Susan Brownmiller’s classic work “Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape,” (credited with establishing the truth that rape is an act of power, not lust); Jaclyn Friedman/Jessica Valenti’s anthology “Yes Means Yes:Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape,” and finally, this article on rape culture in America and understanding the daily concerns women face in regards to safety and harassment.

WE MADE IT! SNUGGLE SOMEONE (CONSENSUALLY)

Friday, April 19, 2013

One Year Deep: The State of the Wardrobe Address

Citizens of my blog readership, a year has come and gone since I left the cool breezes of America’s shores for the stickier climes of Indonesia. At times, I wondered what the heck I’d gotten myself into. Those times usually involved me crouched over a squatty potty infested with parasites. 

Intestinal traumas and grinding slow pace of life aside, Peace Corps service is undoubtedly making me a better person, one who is flexible, understanding, developing a keen sense of cultural criticism, and enjoys playing it by ear and can throw down a solid full wheel pose. Hopefully my Peace Corps service is also making my school community a better place, if in small, marginal, baby steps kind of ways.

If there’s one way Peace Corps service is making a big impact, its on my wardrobe. Who could’ve really imagined that a year of handwashing in cold water would alter the quality of clothing? Who knows if anything is really clean, as I haphazardly pour detergent from a reused cookie jar into a bucket of waters with a “fingers crossed” attitude? Did I expect all my clothes to be covered in a thin layer of strange musty mold-dust for the past six months as I’ve waited out rainy season?

The Foundational Pieces


Whatever you wanna call them- underoos, unmentionables, etc - they have suffered the worst of all the clothing I brought from America. Shockingly, hand scrubbing your delicates with a bristle brush does not keep them delicate for long. Picture the saddest, most pathetic pair of underoos you own, that pair you keep in the back of your drawer in case all your other clothing catches on fire and that’s the last thing you could possibly wear short of wrapping yourself in a sheet toga. That’s what all my delicates look like at this point. It’s less of a Secret, and more of a Shamed to Hang This In Front of My House I Look Like I Cant Afford Underwear. Sorry, Victoria. And I’ve basically given up ever wearing anything other than sports bras ever since an incident at school wear a female co-worker spotted a tiny gap between the buttons of my button down and exclaimed in a panic that she could see my “milks.”

Yes. In Indonesia, the most common slang for breasts is milks. It was a Moment. So, in an effort to never remind anyone that I am anatomically female, I’ve embraced the sad, elastic world that is athletic support wear.

Lululemon, Despite Being a Company of the Devil, Still the Best

If you follow the exciting world of yoga wear, you might know that Lululemon, after several years of declining quality control decried by us poor fools who continued to hand over our debit cards while hoping that “this time Lulu changed”, recently recalled some 60% of pants because the Luon was so sheer. And while Lulu has terrible quality control and a complete unwillingness to extend their sizing above a 12, with fat yoga babes regularly posting on their Facebook wall promising everything short of a first born son to add a few more sizes, I must admit that their pants and capris have yet to fail me. 

While my VS leggings have fallen victim to bagginess, unfortunate rips and sun fading, Lulu pants are still as inky black as the souls of the corporate machine that refuses to acknowledge sliding quality. Pilling has happened, as expected, but I literally wear Lulu every day— pants to school and capris at home— and I’m amazed at how they’ve retained shape in a world of handwringing and line drying. I have concluded that Luon is woven with the spirits of tiny kittens to keep it so magical.

Girl You Got Some Nice Pants but Lemme See That Batik

Batik is the traditional fabric of Indonesia, with patterns varying from island to region. Methods of making batik include drawing an outline in wax and painting the fabric, to rolling a print onto cloth, to more modern machine designed prints to hand dyed. Batik comes in every color and pattern you could imagine, and while some might liken it to a Hawaiian shirt, I am a huge fan. My Western dress clothes have been replaced with batik of all different styles and patterns. Though there are a few fabrics that have been gifted to me that I wouldn’t have chosen for myself, I’ve gained some beautiful pieces that I will definitely wear in America. Did I mention that except for one shirt, all of my batiks have been hand tailored specifically for me? For the cool price of three dollars.

The Sarong Song

I don’t know how I ever went to the beach before without a beach sarong. Like, how was I living life without the ultimate piece of fabric, one that you can wear in a myriad of styles and then use on the beach as a blanket and towel? I’ve collected them from three islands- Bali, Gili Air and Gili Trawangan. I have printed ones, I have a woven one, I have one in nearly every color of the rainbow (red, yellow, your number is up). I never travel without at least one sarong now. Its an emergency blanket, a shawl, a means of modestly changing when you’re in a hotel room with four other volunteers because you’d rather save money on a hotel room and be able to buy an extra dish of Naan at the Indian restaurant. I’m a sucker for sarongs, and vendors in Bali can see it in my eyes as I creep closer and they spin me stories about good luck sea horses and special local price. Sarongs also make excellent gifts to bring home to America.

Let’s Talk About Shoes, Baby

Now that I’ve started storing my dress shoes in my desk at school, they are safe from anymore wear and tear. I wear sandals to and from school, typically my Rainbow flippies which are truly, the ultimate travellers sandal. I’ve worn those bad boys every where, including into the ocean a few times, and they’ve been worth every penny. Shoe health is overall positive, though we did have a casualty in the form of a pair of old black flats that both molded over AND gained a coat of rust on their chain trim during rainy season. And of course, there have been additions to the family. I mean, there are still Paylesses in Indonesia. After fighting my nature for nearly a year, I purchased a pair of wedged sandals that send me once again to lofty heights. They are strictly city shoes and I keep them in my cubby box in Surabaya. I also bought Crocs. Not ashamed. Crocs Pride. While we’re on accessories, I’ll mention that a few very gaudy pieces of costume jewelry have been gifted onto me that will one day enjoy life on the give away shelf of the PC lounge. Also, handbags have been purchased specifically of the Authentic Imitation variety. I like to send gloating Instagram photos to friends about how high quality these “fakes” are. I mean, they’re all being made here in se asia, y’all, and some go to western stores and some stay here. I have some half-cooked ideas that buying them from an Indonesian means more money is getting back to the country of worker origin than spending ticket price back in America, but thats some really shallow dialogue on labor so dont quote me on that.

IN CLOSING, on a good day I wake up and put in my contacts and a wear a bra and a dress shirt, and other times I spend so many days in the same tank top sweat pants combo that you’d think I was still a sophomore in college and saving my laundry quarters for Sheetz sandwiches. Either way, I haven’t worn a pair of pants with an actual zipper fly in months. 

Monday, April 15, 2013
Peace Corps Indonesia ID-6 Peer Support (Kerasan Crew) waiting for the ID-7 trainees to land in Surabaya! We had a great week of Orientation and we are so proud of the fifty one trainees who are on their way to their training sites!

Peace Corps Indonesia ID-6 Peer Support (Kerasan Crew) waiting for the ID-7 trainees to land in Surabaya! We had a great week of Orientation and we are so proud of the fifty one trainees who are on their way to their training sites!

Monday, April 1, 2013

This weekend was my school’s birthday celebration. There was a Jalan Santai- kind of like a parade where all the students walk through the surrounding villages. We walked on main roads, and no, traffic was not closed for the duration of the jalan santai. Spotted two different monkeys chained up in front of houses… terrifying. What is their purpose? Are they guard monkeys?

Back at school there was a Bazaar, with each class setting up a stall to sell snacks, drinks, and little knick knacks. It was akin to the bus vendors or walking through shop streets in Bali- students were calling me and waving me over and trying to sell me “very delicious, very cheap” snacks. 

Along with the Bazaar were door prizes, student performances, and a concert! Students wore their class tees- I love my advanced class students’ mustache shirts!

Sunday, March 31, 2013

rainy season is still lingering, after nearly six months. ready for it to be gone so my clothes will finally stop getting musty and weird. but, it is fun watching the neighborhood anak anak go nuts.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

(The Weather Is) Hot for Teacher: A few thoughts on working as a volunteer educator

Before I started my volunteer service, I think my Peace Corps aspirations were pretty big and starry eyed. I don’t know if I wanted to “save the world,” but I definitely had big ideas for my effects on my future community, maybe even the future country. Part of truly becoming a PCV, in my opinion, is learning to scale down from those big dreams to small, sometimes microscopic goals. Sometimes, the only comfort at the end of the day is that one student answered a complicated grammar question correctly. Other days it’s positive feedback from a counterpart who has been spending time outside the classroom and outside school thinking about new education ideas. And when I wake up every morning, I don’t really know what that day will bring, “success” wise.

image

(no pressure, just trying to meet my saving the world quota)

Working as a TEFL education volunteer, I teach at an Islamic high school in a semi-rural community. My school has 750+ students in 10th-12th grade. A school week runs Monday-Saturday and a school day lasts from 7 am to 1:30 pm on average, with 90 minute classes and two fifteen minute breaks. There are five English teachers teaching twenty two classes of students, students who study English for four hours a week, along with 15-16 other subjects a semester. At the end of their senior year students sit for a series of standardized national exams that in part determine their future college careers and also reflect on the school’s standing.

If this is the setting for education in my community, let me list the complications: substandard text and resources, frequent class cancellations for reasons ranging from school events to a luncheon in the teachers office, rampant cheating on homework, tests, and the national exam, hot and stuffy classrooms in tropical heat, complacent pensioned educators with low motivation, bureaucratic demands that leave teachers needlessly overworked.

So, with that setting and those complications, the average TEFL volunteer enters and is confronted with lots of confusion and misunderstandings and may or may not fully understand the workings of the average Indonesian school, and is working with a staff that may or may not fully understand the Peace Corps program. There are some things about the Indonesian classroom that are culturally so unfamiliar to American volunteers and teachers that we immediately see it as a problem—like chatter between students (a sign of disrespect in an American classroom), or the cheating, or teachers coming to class late.  It’s also uncomfortably, sweating through your dress clothes, hot. I’m afraid that I will start involuntarily sweating whenever I don a button down shirt, just from the association, whenever I’m back in the US.

Every volunteer has their sticking points, and their personal projects for the classroom. Some people are really into grading—which I would consider to be lax in the Indonesian education system when I’m being polite, and completely arbitrary when I’m having a less polite moment. Others want to create a habit of timeliness in the classroom. For me initially, I saw certain actions in the classroom as very unfamiliar and therefore “wrong.” Part way through my first semester, though, I came to a decision that it wasn’t my place to necessarily “Westernize” the classroom, that is, to have my classes mimic the familiar behaviors and atmosphere I was accustomed to. There’s a confusing thin line in the beginning between what is a problem and what is culturally unfamiliar. I realized that the student chatter wasn’t disrespectful to me, and I saw that when a day’s schedule allows for no lunch breaks or time to change after phys ed class, it was helpful to supply a ten minute delay between classes. Once I let go of that stress to have a familiar classroom, I was open and available to work within the parameters of my school and Indonesian culture.

Still, it’s easy to be caught up in the frustrations of system corruption and bureaucratic nightmares, to be discouraged by an education system that at times seems to be working against the students’ own potential successes. It’s easy to grow cynical about your service only being a form of soft diplomacy to make America look good, or resigned that the effect you’re making is minimal at best and trivial at the worst.

When I hit those walls of frustration or discouragement, I remember my Imaginary Wall of Real Heroes. The wall might be imaginary, but the heroes are not. They’re all Indonesians that I have met so far in my service and had conversations about the state of education here, about the problems and the possible solutions. Because as an American, and as a single volunteer, I’m not here to “fix” the system. But the Indonesian people I meet, especially the young adults and teens who already have a critical eye on their nation’s education system, they’re the real agents of change. They’re the ones who will shape future policies and call for improvements. The Imaginary Wall is a teacher’s bulletin board, decorated fifth-grade style with patterned paper back ground and that decorative border edging. It also has this quote posted on it: Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.” - Margaret Mead.

My Imaginary Wall of Real Heroes includes:

>My past counterpart, Aini, who is a recent college graduate and new teacher, who sees regular issues in the school system, from sexist and obsolete hierarchy to stagnant teaching methods.

>My counterpart Pak Mustain, who is constantly pushing for dynamic methodology and continuing teacher education.

>A visiting education department official who admonished both students and teachers to read more, to improve their lives and expand their knowledge.

>A twelve year old girl I met when visiting an MTS (Islamic middle school), who asked me what Indonesian schools can do to match the development of Western countries.

>A man I met on the bus who runs an English course in Surabaya, who saw a real problem with the lack of critical thinking skills in both adults and students. (He also paid for my bus fare that day).

>Sarah’s Bahasa Indonesia tutor, who is a young college student and future English teacher, who is already planning how she can improve classroom culture and education.

>All of the Peace Corps Indonesia staff, who are all actively involved in developing the Indonesian education system by working in partner with the Indonesian government and providing back up and resources to us volunteers.

I think I really stepped into the role as an education volunteer when I learned to be an open resource to my counterparts, and to serve where my community called me. Very few, if any, of my pre-service training ideas or plans for what I would do at permanent site have come to fruition here. Instead, I adapted to a new batch of needs. We covered this in PST, this engagement with community and understanding their needs vs your desires of service. And in many ways, I couldn’t fathom what my site and my school would need from me while still in training. There’s so much to Peace Corps that you can only learn once you hit the ground running (or stumbling).

What I’ve been happy to see develop is a demand for teacher training, for information about student centered classrooms and dynamic activities and ways to engage students. Every month, I visit a local middle school to “give motivation” to the students there (and on the side, promote my high school). These visits were my school’s idea, because they had a shiny new bule to advertise. I had a few demands of my own, if these promotional visits were to take place—that I wanted the English Team (as we English teachers call ourselves) to all take part in doing activities with the middle school students as well.

At first, my counterparts were demure, in that I was the “guest celebrity” and they didn’t want the students to feel like they didn’t get the full native speaker experience. But after a few visits, I noticed—almost to my irritation at first—that Bu Nikma was on the mic giving instructions for our English games. After about thirty seconds, I was pleased as punch to see her taking the leadership initiative and showing ownership of the materials we had planned together.

image

(Bu Nikma, leading the English game at a middle school)

And then, while planning with a middle school, the teachers asked me if I would lead a “lesson” for the teachers as well. So together with my counterpart, who gave me feedback about what activities and methods I brought to the classroom that he found most useful, I assembled an hour long presentation for all the teachers of this middle school. When we planned to visit a school this past January, I offered the teacher training workshop as well as the student activities (this is my solace in being part of my school’s shameless self-promotion). The middle school agreed, and they jokingly asked if we would host an “English Camp” for teachers at some point.

Which we are now planning for March.

I had no idea that teacher training would be where my site called me to serve, back in PST. But being open to my community’s needs, instead of my preconceived ideas, was essential. It was a lesson in humility, in a big way. It’s also a lesson in patience. I might not see direct, tangible changes at the rate I would desire. I’m not going to see a revolutionized education system during my time in Indonesia. But I choose to dwell on the small, personal connections I make with individuals, that might encourage a teacher to try a new activity in the classroom, or give a student more confidence when answering a question.

In closing, this quote has been a huge motivator for me during service. I first saw it while I was still in America, and I think it holds the essence of development work:

image

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

There and Back Again (Part Two)

The next day (the twenty-eighth of December, if you’re tracking on your calendar), we took an hour taxi ride to the north-west coast and the small harbor that sent equally small boats to the downright tiny islands of the Gilis. This taxi ride was akin to a glorious Jurassic Park safari ride. Lombok is SO beautiful, incredibly lush and mountainous. At some points I thought we must be driving past the back side of a landscaped resort, but it was truly just the all natural beauty of Lombok island. It was a Friday afternoon, and as Lombok is a Muslim island, I watched men and boys head towards mosques for obligatory Friday prayer. Watching such a routine activity in juxtaposition with the jungle made me feel surprisingly at home, even while being three islands away (or um, a thousand miles away… looks like I’m getting comfortable in Indonesia).

We got out of the taxi at the harbor which was flooded because—surprise!—another torrential rainstorm. In the harbor’s tiny and kind of depressing ticketing building, we encountered the first of a few experiences with “Indonesians fed up with foreign tourists,” which leads me to another-

ASIDE: Living in Java, and being the only foreigner at site just heightens this, PCVs are accustomed to the back bending politeness, friendliness, and helpfulness of Indonesians. What I’ve observed, traveling in areas frequented by so many foreign tourists, is a bit of residual reluctance towards that over-reaching helpfulness. And after observing white foreign tourists and their interactions not only with nationals working in the service industry, but even with non-white tourists as well, I think this reluctance must be a reaction to the rudeness of tourists. Watching tourists scold service staff, get angry over bills, and generally complain was something I hadn’t really seen in nine months—a kind of Western rudeness that isn’t natural in daily life here. It had me thinking a lot about intersections of race, class, service industry and post-colonialism, and a Western sense of entitlement that means that while you’re in a foreign company, engaging with a service staff that has learned English (a rare tourist knew Bahasa Indonesia, not to mention Bahasa Sesak), you maintain no consideration to cultural differences, language barriers, and general politeness that dehumanizes the people who live on the island you are cavorting on. And the scary part was, the longer I spent on GiliTrawangan the more I caught myself slipping into the same attitude.

At the harbor, the ticketers informed us that the boat we wanted only left once a day and we had missed it by about five hours. They offered no other assistance except to tell us we could charter a boat for 200.000,00 rp, vs the 10.000,00 rp a public boat cost. After dodging a few shady charter boat hustlers and consulting the wisdom of Lonely Planet, we figured a public boat route first to the most popular island, Gili Trawangan, and then island hop over to far island Gili Air, where our friend Sierra was waiting.

The Gilis are three tiny islands off the north west coast of Lombok. The largest, geographically, is Gili Trawangan. It is also the most popular for the party-seeking tourist. The middle island, Gili Meno, is the quietest and least developed, while the last island, Gili Air, is a blend of “active,” with restaurants, shops, and dive schools, and a quiet coast of bungalows and homestays.

We took a crowded wooden boat—a flat bottomed, roofed boat—loaded with tourists, crates of food and beer, barrels of drinking water, et al to GiliTrawangan. Everything must be brought in by boat to the Gilis. We saw mattresses, TVs, and furniture delivered by boat as well. It was maybe a thirty minute sea voyage, and I spent only 25 minutes of it concerned that we would sink under the weight of so many foreign backpackers and crates of Bintang. When we landed on the beach of Gili T, it was still pouring rain, so Liz and I sought refuge in a beach side restaurant until the next boat would take us to Gili Air.

(hiding from the rain at Juku restaurant)

This torrential rain never let up, and we walked the (seemingly desolate) beach of Gili Air to Sierra’s bungalow barefoot, the sandy roads flooded at some points up to my knees. Getting to the relatively dry sanctuary of Sierra’s little beachy bungalow, complete with front porch and roofless bathroom (less exotic during rainy season), was just the kind of relief we needed. After hanging up our thoroughly soaked belongings, the rain broke and we got our first clear view of the Gilis- coral strewn white beaches, perfectly clear aquamarine water, and lush tropical trees in the center of the island.

(tide out on Gili Air)

That night we FEASTED at yet another one of the beachside restaurants that are so popular in the Gilis—set up so that dining takes place right on the beach (no ceilings or walls needed), and across the road are the kitchens. The three of us wound up ordering “a few” items off the menu to share, to the point where our waiter expressed concerned that we had ordered too much food (he was right).

In the morning, Liz and I went for a long walk around the island, looking at properties and hotels and basically turning into a 40 year old married couple. We embarked on a search for a restaurant I tentatively recalled passing that advertised homemade baguettes, and after looking to the point that I was convinced I hallucinated that crusty goodness, we found the beach side breadly promised land with baguettes that were both homemade and the size of a footlong Subway sandwich. We also entered into a drawn out haggle with a sarong salesman who was cruising the beach that morning. Now, back at site I have adopted the “anything can be cheaper” bargaining mentality, like any thrifty Indonesian housewife. I’ve watched and learned from my co-workers in the souvenir markets during my school trip to Bali. But in the Gilis, where prices are by foreign tourists’ reckonings dirt cheap, it is downright rare for a bule to engage in a cutthroat battle of wits. We went from friendly banter to wheedling to jokes about wanting the Indonesian, not tourist price, to fake crying that we were volunteers who don’t get paid in American money, to a point where we unabashedly fighting over a fifty cent difference. (At one point, when I refused the offered price of 80.000,00 rp, the salesman called me out in English­—its only eight dollars!). Needless to say, concessions were made on both sides but Liz and I walked away with two moderately priced sarongs just in time for a midday swim.

 I am utterly convinced that Gili Air is the loveliest place in the world. It was sparkling clean (a rarity in Indonesia), quiet, and a living, breathing example of what you might see flipping through a tropical beach calendar. Its like walking through a stock photo of “Exotic Beach Getaway.”

Would I Do It Again: Twenty Hours (ish) in Gili Air. Verdict: I Left My Heart in Gili Air.

Getting back to Gili T meant the same island hopper boat, and by this point I was mostly convinced we weren’t going to sink into the sea. Getting my first good look at Gili T, it was easy to spot the differences between its milder sister island. We were back to trash lined streets and beaches (sadly, Gili T is the last island to get hit by the current, so a lot of trash washed up on its eastern shore), a row of ATMs (which would all be emptied come New Year’s Day!) and a street crowded with tourists.

Sierra, Liz and I were all booked at the same homestay in Gili T, which we had secured months in advance at a super low online flash sale rate (woo!). This homestay was mysteriously without address, and so we asked around for directions. A restaurant employee told us to walk to the right, and it would be right behind the mosque. If you aren’t already aware, Muslims pray five times a day, including a designated time at four in the morning. To ensure practitioners don’t miss prayer, mosques (and their mini representatives, mushollas), blast the call to prayer five times a day. I cannot adequately express just how loud the call to prayer is projected. It’s akin to the level of volume you’d hear at a rock concert. But of all the tourists on Gili Trawangan to deal with call to prayer, a bunch of Peace Corps volunteers from East Java are definitely the ones to bite the bullet. At this point, I don’t even notice call to prayer, or accelerating motorcycles, or the early morning proclamations of roosters.

Speaking of which, motorized transportation is forbidden on all three of the Gilis, which is great in terms of safety, pollution, and noise. Instead, there are small horse carts that can cart the lazier tourists from the boat landing beach to their hotels (granted, the islands on the far side are a bit of a walk). I’m saddened to report that we never boarded a horse cart, but they were very sad horses and I potentially would’ve felt more Liberal American Privilege Guilt riding in one of those vs the bicycle carts back at site.

The homestay was a great little piece of property, walled and gated for privacy, with a pretty garden and rooms that seemed almost luxurious after so much travelling (they were not luxurious). Really, just being able to use the bathroom without rain pouring in was an upgrade. The shower did have an open skylight, so there were a few times I showered in a mix of sea water and rain. We had some troubles with the owner of the homestay. Granted, while he did kill a giant spider for us (after watching the three of us run screaming from Sierra’s room), he also attempted to scam us on several counts… still trying to get Agoda.com to hit us up with some apology room credits.

(morning lounge on Gili Trawangan)

We weren’t the only volunteers on the island. About a third of all the Peace Corps Indonesia volunteers made their way to Gili Trawangan at some point in the days surrounding New Years, staying at accommodations sprinkled around the island. Usually we’d all meet up in the evening for dinner or at one of the many beach bars, my favorites including an Indian restaurant with hookah and a reggae bar that covered CCR and Dylan. And of course, we found a traditional Indonesian warung (small shack that serves food) where we bought fried rice and fried noodles for breakfast every morning. We settled in on the plastic stools, pulled up to a dirty counter, looking at the swarm of flies hovering over the food and felt truly at home.

Some of my day time adventure highlights included swimming with some Gili T locals (eight year old boys) who were thrilled to find that Liz and I spoke Bahasa Indonesia and in turn thrilled us and agreed to teach us a few words in Bahasa Sesak. We spent an hour splashing around in the clear, calm water with these kids, talking to them about living on Gili T and what it was like to live in America. I also walked the whole island with some volunteers, about a four hour jalander, stopping to relax at different beach huts to read and snorkel, and getting to see the undeveloped north end of the island. Liz and I also rented bikes for a day and biked the island several times, stopping for snorkeling along the way. We got to see some excellent snorkeling, and the water is so shallow around the Gilis that we were floating right over the fish. We began our day of snorkeling with a traumatic tumble into the mud (RIP all of Liz’s electronics ever), but it ended with snorkeling in a light rainstorm, until we saw lightning and our friend Brian told us the kids had to get out of the pool.

(Gili Trawangan’s less developed side of the island)

New Year’s Eve night on Gili T meant crowds, unsupervised fireworks, and never ending happy hours as the countless beach restos and bars tried to pull in customers. NYE was, in my opinion, pretty tame. No one seemed to be having as good a time as the countless Lombok teen boys who take the boat over for the celebrations. They dominated the dance floors and seemed perfectly content to dance in groups by themselves, though given the chance, would encircle female tourists and dance in an ever-shrinking circle around them without ever really attempting to touch. It was definitely one of the strangers nights I’ve spent on the dance floor. Liz and I wound up going home pretty early, and the biggest casualty is that I ate some pretty gross nasi campur at two in the morning.

After five nights on Gili T, I was anticipating the Long Journey Home. In an attempt to upgrade and cut down on time, we haggled with a boat company to secure tickets from Gili T directly to Bali, and an accompanying car ride to Kuta, Bali (this cut out nearly twelve hours of travel time for me and Liz). It was good to close on a sweet bargain and a good meal of Indian food. The next morning we hustled onto a speed boat for a less swiftly than promised sea voyage. The boat was fast, and I spent the trip as usual gauging my travel mates survival skills and wondering if I could outlast them in a shark feeding frenzy. At one point, Justin looked over at me and asked if I was having fun on the boat ride, just as we hit a big wave and were air born. My answering scream and scramble to hold his hand told him all he needed to know.

Would I do it again: Five nights in Gili Trawangan. Verdict: Probably for a few less nights. If I could do it again, I would’ve spent maybe three nights on Gili T and a few more nights on Gili Air. My body and wallet could only stand so many nights of party-all-the-time.

Finally, we crashed in a hostel in Kuta, Bali. Kuta is possibly the Ke$ha of Indonesia. It’s a little dirty, a lot low brow, but always a good time. Our hostel was on Jalan Poppies 1, a back street known for cheap accommodations, cheaper massages, and the cheapest shopping around. Despite being a narrow one way alley, cars and motorcycles attempt both directions of travel. Souvenirs stalls are full of sarongs, Bintang memorabilia, and plenty of painted “fertility” knickknacks—yes, I am talking about penis keychains (one of my co-workers told me this is not pornography, its art). The vendors cat call with Western terms of endearment like “sweetie” and “darling” as you walk past. I was itching to get a-haggling for sarongs, but I held back, knowing that I would soon return to Kuta this March.

Instead, I spent my dwindling rupiahs on FOOD. Namely, fish tacos and chicken enchiladas at a fully authentic Mexican restaurant a few meters down the street from my hostel. And again the next morning, Liz and I went for a long walk and then explored BeachWalk Mall, a deluxe open air mall with several unique interpretations of Christmas decorations. We had a morning meal of Burger King and Coldstone Creamery, two of those tastes of home we’d yet to experience in the past ten months.

(you can see the beach from BeachWalk Mall) (not pictured, ice cream)

To once again cut down on time, Liz and I rented a car to drive us to the ferry back to Java island. It was more expensive than the bus (which I saw zooming around mountain corners), and definitely more money than hitch hiking, but we got to sit in air conditioned comfort and for once see the main road by day. And then we were back on the lurching ferry home to Java, and spent maybe four hours trying to sleep in the lobby of the train station till we could board our night train to Surabaya. We had a few hours of rest at the Peace Corps office, specifically in the volunteer lounge, before taking the bus back to site.

When I first moved to Indonesia, current volunteers had told me how they loved to shower in the Peace Corps volunteer lounge bathroom. At the time, with the memories of daily hot showers still fresh in my mind, I thought that was more than a little odd. But instead I found myself wholeheartedly yearning for that hot shower at the end of my journeys, and it was the last real Western thing I did before heading back to my village.

Would I do it Again: Two weeks and five islands. Verdict: YES!

Is it College or is it Peace Corps? A Guessing Game.

1. After a series of low-enthusiasm garnering meals, I sprinkle Old Bay on white rice and consider it fine dining. College or Peace Corps?

2. Yoga pants are decidedly appropriate wardrobe choices for any imaginable event. College or Peace Corps?

3. I can and have watched full seasons of television series in a handful of days. College or Peace Corps?

4. I wait to do laundry until the last possible moment, to the point where the awaiting amount of clothing is an embarrassment. College or Peace Corps?

5. Thriftiness has reached new highs (lows) as I debate the purchase of a pack of oreos with the same seriousness I would consider buying a car. College or Peace Corps?

If you guessed Peace Corps for every answer, congratulations! You’re a winner!