I remember first arriving in San Francisco for Peace Corps Staging. I was late. A storm had been making it’s way across the central United States, and my flight from Chicago was delayed. After landing, I hurriedly made my way to the shuttle vans and got in the first one I saw. It was not the one Peace Corps recommended. As we pulled away from the airport I wondered if I was on my way to the hotel or if the driver had led me on just to get a customer.
But I wasn’t alone in the van. A young woman had also decided to risk using this company. She entered the van speaking fluent French on her cell-phone, but took a breath to tell the driver where she wanted to go. He repeated back to her the name of the wrong town. She tried again, and again he said the wrong town. She hung up the phone and tried a handful more times before looking at me incredulously. Having just gone through this myself, I smiled, and soon we were joking about our predicament. She told me that her father lives in Paris and her mother lives in San Francisco, and that she divides her time between the two cities. I thought that sounded pretty good, and for a moment I forgot I was about to leave the country for 27 months!
In the busy weeks since that first shuttle ride, I have had so many interesting conversations. It’s one of the best parts about being a Peace Corps Volunteer… you get to meet interesting people! A few that I want to remember:
- The night before we left America, sitting in a restaurant watching Butler lose the NCAA Tournament. We were talking about what it was like to live in Europe.
- The 16-hour flight to Hong Kong. I talked with one of the married couples in our group about their adventure in Spain, serving free soup to people walking the St. James trail.
- A lunch break during one of the HUB days, talking to two volunteers about their lives in California.
- The 5-hour bus ride to Bojonegoro. This one still makes me smile. We were talking about the physics of time and what crazy dreams Einstein must have had.
And just recently I can add one more to the list, a conversation with my new host father. He is a spiritual leader in the village. Last week during dinner, he showed me a book with 89 names in it and tried to explain to me, for a good 45 minutes, what those names meant. He went to his room and showed me a stick that he has, and kept repeating “tidak hujan!” over and over again. I knew that meant ‘no rain,’ but had no idea what was going on.
Later that evening, Bapak told me to come to the living room to meet two of his friends. He had the book with him. The two men paid him some money, and Bapak added their names into the book. They told me they were putting on a Wayang show later that week. Bapak shot me a look, picked up the stick and said “tidak hujan!” And suddenly I got it. Any time someone has something going on, like a Wayang show, and they don’t want it to rain, they pay my Bapak to put the stick up. It’s supposedly a magical stick called a sodolangan that is made from the branch of a coconut tree. He told me it comes from Jogya Palace and that his family used to stay there. He has put the stick up 89 times, and, apparently, 89 times it hasn’t rained.
What a victory it was to figure this out! A minor one, but a victory nonetheless. I thought afterwards how much effort we had both invested in this conversation, and just when it appeared that it was all for nothing, you have a breakthrough. Bapak sort of fell down into his chair exhausted afterwards, but I felt ready to tackle some more! Successfully communicating across language and culture is one of the best feelings in the world.