In theory, Sunday mornings are the one time I get to sleep in and enjoy “the weekend.” That’s a nice dream, but the reality is that my sleep often gets interrupted by the chatter and laughter of men gathering outside my window for their Sunday routine: the arisan burung, or bird reunion.
This bird reunion is an event held by my host father, which attracts a lot of men from my neighborhood to bring their birds and their cages and hang them in this bamboo contraption my host father had built in the front of the house (a few meters from my window.)
it’s a strange, but entertaining event to witness. Indonesian men bring their birds, let them get some new air and show them off to their friends, while smoking, drinking coffee and hanging out together. Nicole, a PCV in my area, pointed out that this arisan burung is the equivalent of a dog park in the United States – and she’s right. So perhaps…it’s not that strange after all?
Back in the day, teachers may have received apples from students. In Indonesia, entire classes of students celebrate certain events (such as getting through reciting the entire Al Qur’an) by giving all teachers food boxes. This is a common affair, but today I broke a record. Today alone, I received THREE food boxes and some additional kue, or snacks, from my school and students. I have enough rice to feed a family of 6!
(I’m currently thankful for the multitude of neighbors willing to take the surplus food off my hands.)
My last blog post was primarily about exchanging time for money (i.e. jobs), or in my case as a PCV, exchanging time for experiences. However, there’s another element to this thought and that is how time is best spent.
I’m generally content with all that I have accomplished in a year in Peace Corps. One could always do more, but I did what I could in the time given. Aside from the variety of activities that have made my life here fulfilling, there are certain personal outlooks that I’ve clarified and abstract things I’ve learned about myself. This newfound clarity has made my time spent here even more valuable and all this knowledge will be applied post PC.
Here are the some things I’ve learned in a year in Indonesia:
I am not an island.
In spite of loving my alone time, there’s a huge difference between being alone because you want to be, and being alone because you have no other choice. I was completely mentally prepared to enter Peace Corps. I truly believed that being away from friends and family was not going to be a big deal. While I do appreciate having time and no distractions to do activities that are difficult to do with others around (read, write, play guitar), I miss having the opportunity to hang with people I enjoy for longer than just a few days each month. I may be on an island, but I am not an island, and thus, I will never isolate myself from those I’m close to again.
Relationships are important.
I can’t decide if this lesson is primarily a consequence of getting older or if this experience drove me to the realization, but familial relationships and friendships are important. On some level we all know this, but as I get older, I can really understand how true friends are harder and harder to come by and that there is no replacement for family. In reality, all the people close to you are irreplaceable and it’s worth attempting to live close to them. Differently from what I thought before, there’s no shame in altering your life a little bit for the people that are truly important. (Now, if only my close friends weren’t scattered all over the world…can we all just move back to Ecuador?)
Time goes by quickly and a lot can change in a moment.
I knew this, but it’s still worth remembering to keep your priorities in check. How time is spent is so valuable that no one should ever do anything that isn’t worth his or her time or that takes away from something more valuable. Any person/activity/job, including a Peace Corps Volunteering job, should enhance your life and not feel like a great sacrifice. One should be thriving in the time spent and making the most of it – not simply enduring it.
This may be a little idealistic. Some people must endure awful activities/jobs to live and/or support their families, but if there’s a choice, it should be the most fulfilling one. Life is on a linear timeline and time is a finite resource. Once it’s gone—it’s gone—never to return again. Determining how to spend your time well, and who to spend it with—and recognizing when you should leave one path for another—is true wisdom. (Thanks, Sophie!)
Adventures are great, but thrills are short lived.
I came to Indonesia partly because it was an opportunity for an adventure—and it has been. But after a year, the thrill has worn off. Once the dust of excitement and newness settles, life in any location will have a feeling of redundancy. It grows from familiarity. What was once a huge thrilling adventure has become the daily life of another place – no matter how foreign or distant it was at beginning.
With good reason, this is a cliché: all of life is an adventure. It all depends on our attitude towards it. No one place is perfect, and it takes lifetimes to get to know it. Even in the seemingly mundane daily routines, there are beautiful things to admire and contemplate (which is why I love this blog post by Joe S.), and I’ve realized that I don’t always need a big igniting thrill to stimulate or sustain this outlook.
The concept of home is important…and people make better homes than places.
In Bahasa Indonesia, home is usually translated to rumah, which means “house.” Sometimes, it’s painfully difficult to explain the difference between house and home, and it has made me realize the importance of the concept. Because my life has been fragmented throughout various places, home is a difficult location to pinpoint. It’s not a house. It’s certain people. It’s not a country, because if those people weren’t there, it would just be any other place, no matter how familiar it may be. But that said, I am older, and though I love my family, my idea of home is based on a reality I lived when I was 16. Now, it’s almost ten years later, and I can’t just “go home” and live with my parents in the same way. So after the Peace Corps, I will have to build a new version of “home” with my own people…and that will be a challenge. But at least I do know that this home will not be here. (Sorry, Indonesia.)
Life is one constant readjustment.
It’s true that things are in constant transience, but some changes are much more abrupt, palpable and intrusive than others. This is especially so in the Peace Corps, when certain changes can greatly disturb the delicate balance/comfort of your life. Participating in Indonesian daily life does not help you deal with this.
Sometimes, I even feel slightly envious of how most Indonesians (and many other people all over the world) build their entire life in one place—their families and friends are a priority and seemingly, a constant presence. In a way, this redundant environment is really soothing. I can leave site for weeks and return to exactly the same thing. But this is deceiving.
During weeks of mirrored days, littered with class cancellations and gray clouds, time still passes incredibly fast. Though no clear season or change in the weather gives it much ceremony, my second “spring” in Indonesia is beginning. This marks students graduating and 11th graders becoming 12th graders. This means losing some of my favorite students. New 10th graders that have never met me will soon arrive.
Also, new Peace Corps trainees are entering and old PCVs are leaving, which means gaining, but also, losing, good friends. At the end of the day, we are people from many different cities of one big country, and though we’ve grown close here, after this, we may never see each other again, and that’s sad to think about. Readjusting to new people and being without old ones is hard, and it’s just another concentrated, bittersweet incidence of what I can expect for the rest of my life.
Making a difference is a subtle act.
Most of us are in the Peace Corps because we wanted to help people and to make a difference in their lives. Once we spend enough time here though, it becomes clear that these changes may not be appropriate in this context or would take more than two years to achieve. Most of the time, this “change” or “difference” is not something that can be seen or measured.
Yet, it’s there. We may be making a big impression on the life of someone we hardly even speak to and in ways we can’t even imagine. Likewise, people are making an impression on our lives. I can already name those than have left their impression on me. Back in Peace Corps Training, one of our training managers projected a quote that said: “You will plant trees whose shade you will never sit under.” Now, I really do believe that to be true.
Never walk under construction sites.
This isn’t exactly philosophical, but once I was walking in the Bondowoso bus terminal and the roof was under construction. I did not notice this until a sledgehammer fell from the roof right before the feet of my friend. Thank God nothing serious happened. Watching where you are going and not walking under construction sites should be common knowledge, I know, but I suppose dangerous areas are blocked off in places like the U.S! But this is Indonesia. Barefoot construction workers with non-professional experience are suspended on wooden or iron beams holding very dangerous tools. They get hurt often. And if you walk under them, you could get hurt or worse. Taking the time to walk around such sites in any location is important.
Though it seems like I’m totally successful and got everything under control (right!?), I’m often reflecting on my purpose in Peace Corps, life in general and whether I’m truly spending this time well. We can’t see the big picture from our limited perspective, but I do believe everything has a purpose. This can be hard to remember on bad days.
Finally, thank you, mother, for your infinite wisdom and for quoting songs from animated films. You saved me—yet again—from feeling completely defeated in my electricity-less room as I tormented over my purpose as a PCV in Indonesia, losing friends, feeling homeless and having no idea what to do post-PC. Families—particularly parents—are truly irreplaceable
When it comes down to it, any job is the exchange of your precious finite time for a certain amount of money. Lucky are those who get paid well for their time, and especially those who enjoy what they are doing. I believe that any job worth doing, one should be willing to do for free, and thus, I became a Peace Corps Volunteer. (Well, actually I became a Peace Corps Volunteer because I thought I would help make this world a better place, but for the purposes of this post, I’m setting aside that elusive and extremely idealistic goal.)
Being a volunteer isn’t about getting money, but being a PCV resembles more of a job than a true volunteering opportunity. Maybe, it’s more of an internship, where the PCV isn’t paid in currency, but in invaluable experiences.
In reality, PCVs aren’t working for free. We get money to live—relatively well—in a country that’s extremely inexpensive. Being a Peace Corps Volunteer is a tough job that goes beyond common perceptions of “full time.” Your role is to be a community member and that is 24/7. Unlike most jobs all over the world that are from a given time to another, this job goes outside teaching at school and it doesn’t stop unless you’re away from site.
To support these efforts, I receive about $200 per month, of which $80 goes to my host family for food, and the rest I must use for anything else I may need: toiletries, cell phone minutes (i.e.: pulsa), internet access, eating out (which I never do), etc. What volunteers do with their monthly allowance varies. Many spend all of it on necessary things at their sites. We aren’t supposed to be getting enough money to save, but out of the $120 dollars I have left over, about $100 goes untouched at my site most months, simply because 1) everything is so cheap that $5 can easily last me weeks and 2) there’s nothing to do/spend money on.
Monthly Allowance (i.e: Salary)
When I think about life in the U.S., I recall all the things on which I spent the money I earned. I made more than 10 times what I make here per month and it was so difficult to save money because everything is so outrageously expensive in the U.S. – and I didn’t even live in an expensive city. Sure, I live in a bit of fantasy world, because Peace Corps covers medical insurance and other expenses of the sort, but do you know how much money you save without owning a car, paying for gas, or paying car insurance? People in some parts of the U.S. are practically paying to go to work and here, the public transportation can be a bit of a hassle at times, but I’d take that and use the money saved to do ANYTHING else. (i.e: go to Surabaya/travel.) You can’t live in many places in the U.S. without owning a car and happy are those that do.
But…“there’s nothing to do.” That was a scary thing to contemplate when I first came to Indonesia. I usually have no problem entertaining myself—probably because I grew up mostly as an only child—and reading, writing, playing guitar, listening to music and chilling with my host family/school community in this small rural town consume my time and that’s fine. In the U.S. there are so many things to spend money on! Movies, restaurants, going out, drinking, internet, cable, concerts, clothes, shoes…all which are things I love and sometimes miss, but I love being removed from the temptation of buying things I’m perfectly happy without. (The only thing I’m not happy without is going to concerts, but even that can be achieved on rare occasions in Indonesia.)
I’m not bored, though at times I may get a bit lonesome. But the loneliness usually comes at the right time, which is right before I leave site again to meet up with other volunteers and/or travel. This is necessary to keep any person with such a demanding job, sane.
It’s somewhere between a blessing and a curse that Indonesia’s school schedules are littered with days and usually, weeks, of cancelled classes. On one hand, this can be extremely frustrating for a PCV. If you’re not busy with your teaching job, your purpose is indefinite and that can be hard to handle. But on the other hand, it gives one even more time to do things one enjoys. One could read more. Write more. Sleep more, if that’s what you’re into. (I’m not.) Do things you never had the time to do before, like planning girl camps or learning more about Garage Band and composing songs. In the U.S., I couldn’t have bought this quality of time, free from many of the usual distractions.
In addition to that, PCVs are allowed to be away from site for about 2 to 4 days every month and get 48 days of annual leave over a span of two years. FORTY EIGHT DAYS. That’s more than a month and a half of vacation. In most jobs in the U.S. you get two weeks per year. And we are in Indonesia! This place is filled with beautiful places to see and near other Asian countries that are just as beautiful, interesting and also, inexpensive.
(Using money I earned at home to fund these vacation days and the moral dilemma that brings may make up a whole other blog post in the near future.)
Coming from a job I didn’t find stimulating, what I was seeking with this opportunity was a challenge—and that’s exactly what I got. Teaching English in Indonesia is so difficult for a myriad of reasons that most days it feels like I’m climbing a hill of loose sand, taking one step forward and 20 steps back. If my job was only about teaching English I would quit, but in reality, my job description includes:
- learning a new language
- learning about a community
- engaging with all kinds of people (community members, students, teachers)
- engaging in extra curricular activities
- learning about Islam, Indonesia, myself in this context, etc.
- teaching about American culture
- promoting cultural exchanges, communication, peace and understanding
All the above are challenging in their own way, but most days, I enjoy doing them. Teaching and having exchanges with people is so rewarding. I am happy to take this over being in front of a computer in an office, no matter how much more I earned. You can’t buy this kind of satisfaction.
But still, all of this is exhausting. Like with any other job, what may have started out as a good thing, can burn you out when the job is so demanding. There’s a lot of compromise. You must live with a host family and give up some of your independence. This is hard for a 25 year old. You’re on call 24/7 with the community. You compromise relationships with family and friends for two years.
In addition, the cultural differences can be intense and the solitude adds to it. You can’t unwind every weekend with friends or family over drinks in a nice restaurant. You are on your own, unable to explain to most other people what the experience is like for you. I have also found that the local people I work with aren’t particularly understanding or empathetic to how challenging this job is and with good reason. They have never done anything like this before. Few people have. And so your PCV coworkers become an invaluable support system because they get it and can discuss it with you.
Honestly, this job is great in part because it has an end. I learn quickly and adapt easily and for these reasons, I think my first year as a PCV was what I would deem “successful.” But on that same note, it’s a little daunting to think of another year of more of the same. Knowing that it has an end point is a great motivator to keep me pouring my soul into every day. I’m not doing it to get a raise or promotion. I’m not getting into a lengthy career. I’m doing a job I can love for two years and then it will be time to do something else. Until then, I’ll keep working like I don’t need the money…because well, I don’t get any nor do I need it…and the time exchanged is well worth the experiences I receive in return.