From 3 to 45

IMG_20180223_011639_499It was everything Peace Corps wanted it to be. Sustained. Community-based. Empowering for women. A partnership in every sense of the word.

An aspiring artist in my village drew the butterfly logo. Students from my high school posed for photos of themselves reading our books. Darien Book Aid and The International Book Project sent us books. YPPI in Surabaya sent us books. The U.S. Consulate gave us books. The University of Malang and Education USA gave us educational materials. My Mom and Dad sent us books. Wilda’s family gave us space and helped set everything up. And Wilda still teaches them.

President Obama’s book to his daughters is on the shelf. Andrea Hirata’s Laskar Pelangi. My tattered and torn copy of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. Anies Baswedan’s Indonesia Mengajar. Ted Kennedy’s True Compass.

When I walked in for the first time in three years, somehow I felt Thoreau in the room. (And rightfully so, since I always looked to his essays for guidance.)

The United States government should be proud. Indonesia should be proud.

Look at these kids: IMG_20180223_012020_006

It was absolutely thrilling making Kupu-kupu Buku Wilda. Like hitting a home run in Little League. When I left in 2014, we had three students. Now there’s 45. Just amazing.

The Coming Of The New Deal

20171228_191321Flipping through an old Arthur Schlesinger Jr. book at Kupu Kupu Buku Wilda.

You could replace “Roosevelt” and “New Dealers” with “Peace Corps” and “Volunteers:”

“What Roosevelt gave the New Dealers was an opportunity to put ideas to work. Motives, of course, we’re mixed. For some, it was a job, or a passing enthusiasm, or a road to personal power. But for the best of them, the satisfaction lay, as Francis Biddle once put it,

In some deep sense of giving and sharing, far below any surface pleasure of work well done, but rooted in the relief of escaping the loneliness and boredom of oneself, and the unreality of personal ambition. The satisfaction derived from sinking individual effort into the community itself, the common goal and the common end. This is no escape from self; it is the realization of self.

They often suffered frustration and disillusion. They worked to the edge of collapse. They had moments when they hated Washington and government and Roosevelt. Yet for most of them this was the happiest time and the deepest fulfillment they would ever know.”

Boy, I lived this. In Peace Corps and Peaceworker, I lived this. 

Walking Across the Frontier

I loved being a Peace Corps Volunteer. God, I loved it so much.

It was like being a lock on the far end of a chain stretching across time, connecting me to the New Frontier and all the people who made it. William Lederer and Eugene Burdick. The students at the University of Michigan. That first group of Volunteers, on their way to Ghana. Sargent Shriver. JFK.

I wanted to be a part of that more than anything else in the world.

When I was a kid my Dad had a tape of JFK’s speeches: The Speeches Collection: John F. Kennedy. He would watch it from time to time, and I would sit and watch it with him.

But based on my observations of him in 1952, and in 1956, and last Saturday, Mr. Truman regards an open convention as one which studies all the candidates, reviews their records, and then takes his advice. We would look at each other, my Dad and I, at this line, eyebrows raised, as if we’d just seen Dick Butkus tackle somebody. Oooooo.

The classic circus elephant line. I run against a candidate who reminds me of the symbol of his party, the circus elephant, head full of ivory, a long memory and no vision, and you have seen elephants being led around the circus ring, they grab the tale of the elephant in front of them. Roaring laughter. “The Kennedy’s knew how to throw a punch,” my Dad said.

Then the Democratic Acceptance Speech. Dad thought it was too long, but it was my favorite one: But the New Frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises. It is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer to the American people, but what I intend to ask of them. It appeals to their pride — It appeals to our pride, not our security. It holds out the promise of more sacrifice instead of more security. 

So inspiring. So empowering. I reread the words sometimes to remind myself why I went to Indonesia. Why I was so determined to become a Peace Corps Volunteer. The feeling those words instilled in me as a kid, I still get it even now.



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.

Peace Corps Homestay Experience

The road to my village is winding and steep.  A grand view of mountains and blue sky can be seen from the roadside.  Motorcycles hurry up and down in organized chaos, some carrying giant loads of produce on the back.  And a network of big black spiders occupy the treetops.

I rode up this road for the first time two weeks ago to meet my host family.  Two volunteers were in the car with me, also preparing to meet their host families.  We talked about the gifts we had brought for them, and our lives back in America.

When we arrived at the first house, and the volunteer began grabbing his luggage out of the trunk, my stomach dropped.  Suddenly I realized this would be the first time we were truly left alone in Indonesian culture, and I knew in a couple minutes it would be my turn.  As our car drove away, I looked back and saw the volunteer through the doorway, sitting on the couch with a big smile on his face, his family surrounding him.

And then the car made its way further up the hill.  These moments I spent looking out at the mountains, trying not to think of anything.  But soon we pulled into a driveway, and the Program Manager turned around and said my name.

I exited the car, grabbed my guitar that I had lugged halfway across the world along with two bags of luggage, and walked into the house.  The Program Manager stayed a few short minutes to introduce me, and then said goodbye.

There was a lot of smiling going on as we sat there trying to speak to each other but having little success.  One of the first things they tried to communicate to me was to pour some of my coffee onto the small plate the cup sits on.  This is something a lot of people in the village do, apparently because it makes the hot coffee a little easier to drink.  I thought about how awful it would be if the first thing I did here was spill coffee on their living room floor, and at first declined, but my Bapak insisted.  They watched closely as I poured the coffee, and the smiles returned when I slurped it off the plate.

The rest of the evening was spent showing me around the house, putting the mosquito net up, trying to figure out who left their laptop in the car when they got dropped off, and eating my first Indonesian dinner.  I fell asleep listening to my favorite songs on my iPod, especially “Guaranteed:”  “… All my destinations will accept the one that’s me / So I can breathe… .”