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… .”

One Month

As my first month of Peace Corps training comes to an end, Indonesia is starting to feel more like home.  My favorite part of the day is the morning hike down the mountain. I leave the house at around 6. Before I go, I usually take a moment to remind myself what I’m doing here, and then I’m off. The whole way down, I wave and say good morning to every villager I meet, and there are spots when the trees open up and I can look out at the mountains. The view is different every morning. Sometimes the clouds collide into the mountains perfectly, sometimes they cover everything, and sometimes there are no clouds.

Asma Nadia and The International Book Project

I’ve had a lot of fun the last couple of weeks riding around the village on my bicycle snapping photos.  I am helping a student of mine named Wilda start a Rumah Baca in our community, and the organizations we are requesting books from, Asma Nadia and the International Book Project, asked us to send them pictures of the area.

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Text of Speech for Indonesian Speech Contest

This is the text of a speech on fashion my student, Wilda, delivered at a province-wide speech competition.  I helped her write and prepare for the speech.  She got 4th place.

Fashion Can Be Beautiful

Assalamualaikum Wr. Wb.

In the name of Allah, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy.  Praise belongs to Allah for allowing us to gather here for this speech contest.

I would like to thank the jury and everyone for gathering here to listen to my speech under the title, “Fashion Can Be Beautiful.”

Ladies and Gentlemen:

For muslims, fashion must be polite, neat, and beautiful.  This is God’s will.  And from my point of view, as a member of Indonesia’s young generation, I can tell you that balancing God’s will with current fashion trends in this fast changing modern era is not easy.  It’s hard.  It’s confusing.  There’s all these different things to consider, like: What will my friends think?  What will my parents think?  What does the Quran say?  How should I interpret what the Quran says?  And last but not least, what is beauty, and who decides?  What helps me sort all of this out is a quote from the Hadis that says, “Allah is all-beautiful, and loves beauty.”  When I read this I know that embracing beauty through fashion is not forbidden, but encouraged as a form of worship to Allah.  And I know that there doesn’t have to be a conflict between Islamic fashion and the modern world.  We are allowed to change.  So to illustrate this further I’m going to talk a little bit about the Jilbab.

As we all know, Islam has Syariat, or laws, to manage all of the things which happen to its followers.  The Quran directs all women believers, in Al-Ahzab verse 59, “to make their outer garments hang low over them so as to be recognized and not insulted.”  So Jilbabs are a commandment of Allah.  But they’re more than just a commandment.  They’re lahir-batin, outer and inner.  They’re proof that a woman has devoted her life to God, and that she has accepted God into her heart.  Marwa El Sherbini is an example of the seriousness of that devotion.

Marwa was a pharmacist from Egypt who lived and worked in Germany.  She was only 31 years old.  One day a man accused her of being a terrorist and told her to take off her Jilbab.  But Marwa declined and called the police.  The police arrested the man and there was a trial.  During his trial, the man took a knife from his clothes and stabbed Marwa 17 times.

This story should make us ask ourselves why Marwa refused to take off her Jilbab.  Had she done so the man may have left her alone and gone on his way.  But, then again, perhaps not.  The man was trying to strip away Marwa’s identity as a Muslim woman.  He was seeking to humiliate Marwa by getting her to renounce her faith, and taking off the Jilbab was his way of doing that.  We see, therefore, that a relationship exists between the Jilbab and one’s heart.

It has been said that the Jilbab is like a crown for women, a crown which gets its value from faith in God.  Think about that for a second.  A crown not made of gold or diamonds but just as beautiful, and made of cheap, regular cloth.  You see, without faith, the Jilbab is worthless.  Faith is inner beauty; it is a beautiful thing, having faith.  And women believers must respect, keep, and defend their Jilbab as they do their faith.  If Marwa would rather die to defend her Jilbab, then today, the young generation can find a way to reach a balance between God’s will and the modern era.  And in many ways, we are already doing that.  We are trying to combine the Jilbab with modern dress while still holding on to Islamic syariat.  For instance, there are now stores full of Jilbabs with different styles, different colors, different designs, and made of different materials.  And they are appropriately called “modern Jilbabs.”

So as “modern muslims,” we must realize that fashion is influencing our lifestyle and how we think.  We cannot avoid it.  Islam is Rahmatan Lil ‘alamin, which means the wisdom of Islam must be spread out to all people of the world.  Because of that, Islam is not always textual/strict when defining a law.  Some laws are contextual/flexible, and believers must balance Islamic laws with the reality of the situation.  We have to be smart and separate the good things from the bad.  And the way to do this is by our faith, our inner beauty.

It has been said that all people are born beautiful but let bad things come into their lives.  The Jilbab is a way to protect against that, to feel close to Allah and make us think twice before doing something bad.  So in conclusion, I’d like to say, 1)It’s ok to change with the modern era; 2) Fashion, as the Jilbab illustrates, is lahir-batin, outer and inner; and 3) Faith, or inner beauty, is a form of worship to God.

Ok, that’s all of my speech.  Thank you for your attention and Assalamualaikum Wr. Wb.