Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A Little Gish Back in a Big Pond

Writing a final blog can be intimidating. That's perhaps the reason why it's been exactly a month since coming home, and I still have yet to post anything. There is pressure to have something really wise to say and future plans to parade. Every time I think I'll sit down and write about everything I've learned, I decide that watching an episode of Top Gear is a way better use of my time. Besides, I don't have any future plans yet, and I always feel an edge of snootiness when talking about "thethingslivingabroadhastaughtme." I don't really think there's anything I can say that hasn't been said way more articulately by my fellow Fellows. So go read their blogs. Seriously, I have, and they are good. 

If fact, the only reason I finally forced myself to turn off Netflicks is because of a quote from my friend Deirdre's blog that finally inspired me. Behold:

“You get a strange feeling when you’re about to leave a place, like you’ll not only miss the people you love but you’ll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, because you’ll never be this way ever again.”

THAT'S IT! (Watch this clip for full Lucy-effect)


One of the more popular questions I get from friends and family is, "What do you miss the most?" I ramble through a totally predictable list: friends, some foods, cheap massages, cheap everything, etc. But this quote gets at a truth that a whole month of reflection (cough: TopGear-watching) didn't reveal. I really liked who I was in Indonesia. I loved the work that I did. I loved the hobbies that I did. And, I loved the people surrounding me during both of those activities. I was a big fish in a little pond by the end. I was traveling the country for the Embassy (the EMBASSY), and I was placing in nearly every triathlon I entered (extreme height advantage). Since being home, my big ideals of going bigger and better in the next chapter have shrunk to aspirations of mediocrity and justaslongasthere'shealthcare. My ego deflates just a little bit more every time I fill out another application for part-time work doing the exact same thing I did before leaving for Indonesia. I'm back to being just a little Gish in a big, big pond. 

But then this happened: 
I turned 30 and decided to celebrate by putting on a uni-tard and jumping into Lake Erie. I had to face my fears of joining my first-ever American triathlon eventually. With height advantage gone, I figured I'd be sent to the middle of the pack. My friend and fellow 30-year-old-repatriate, Tabitha, came up from Columbus to offer moral support and join the race. 
We raced. We finished. We high-fived. Then, we decided to go shower and celebrate our mediocrity with chicken waffles and gospel music. Before we left the race area, I wanted to swing by the results board just for another kick to my ego. Much to my wide-eyed surprise, this is what I saw:
We totally rocked it! We weren't mediocre at all! All I could think was that the work that we put in while in Indonesia really transferred over well to America. This, of course, is the point at which I make my triathlon a metaphor for life. Wait for it....

If some part of the awesome-Indonesia me was able to show up again during a triathlon, then it must hold true that other parts of my life will see similar results. I don't have to miss the old me because I can count on just building on everything that version of me learned. It was an identity that didn't just end the minute I got on the airplane to come home. It's just a great base for the new identity that I'm going to rock in America. 

So, yeah, I'm still a little fish, but I've got a lot to go on. And, having some (a ton) of room to grow is never a bad thing. Cheers to the old me - you'll never be forgotten, and cheers to the new 30-something me - at least you still look good in a uni-tard. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

You're speCIAl

I've lived for three years in Indonesia with an inflated sense of coolness. When people hear that I work with police, they tend to make their own assumptions about what I "really" do. These assumptions usually work to my benefit.

For example, the ojek (motorbike taxis) drivers next to my apartment confided to my friend and colleague Jess that they would never give her an unfair price for fear that she would report to me, her senior. When she pressed them a bit more, they leaned in to whisper that they all knew I worked for INTERPOL. Wink wink, nudge nudge.

At times, it works against me. Like directly after my unfortunate run in with coral and sea urchins (see last blog entry), my fellow triathletes puzzled, "I thought the agency trained you for stuff like this?" Wink wink, nudge nudge.

I could go on.

Don't get me wrong, I adore the attention. But I'm just not that cool...yet. Wink wink, nudge nudge. I do, however, get to work everyday with people who are that cool.

Most days, I'm in the classroom working with officers from all parts of Indonesia. They work in narcotics, criminal investigation, traffic, patrol, and more. In the past three years, I've worked with nearly 600 police officers. They each brought their own experiences to the classroom; stories of guerrilla warfare, undercover sting operations, and post-disaster search and rescue missions. I came to Indonesia with zero knowledge of law enforcement lingo or operations, so there was often a role reversal of teacher and student in the classroom. We worked out a nice exchange, though. They supplied the stories, and Jess and I supplied the language.

Every September through November for the past three years, I've also had the privilege of helping to prepare Indonesian police members (about 420) before they deploy for Darfur, Sudan. These officers all come from the Mobile Brigade, or special forces. They put on their blue berets and serve in Sudan for one year patrolling the perimeter of the refugee camps and so much more.

Just this year, Jess and I started making connections with the Indonesian military as well. We befriended, Colm Downes, a man from the British Council who is tasked with prepping soldiers before they embark on their own UN Mission in Lebanon. This connection to Colm is how I recently found myself with a microphone standing in front of 925 military personnel.

When Colm mentioned that he would be teaching in the less-than-ideal environment of 925 students to one teacher, I offered to even up the ratio a bit to 2 on 426.5. This seemed much more reasonable.

I showed up with my teaching tot bag and followed Colm through the BDU-wearing soldiers who were lounging around the dining hall-cum-classroom while waiting for class to start. I was led to a table at the front where I could take in the whole scene. After I politely asked for the handgun to be removed from my chair, I settled in for what would promise to be an interesting 50 minutes. The soldiers all filtered in and we eventually got down to business, and by 'we', I mean 'Colm.' I snuck to the back of the room where I could observe quietly between the soldiers and their rucksacks - each piled neatly with a blue UN helmet and automatic rifle. I tried to do my part by circulating around and offering to help various groups of soldiers practice beginner introductions, and by 'helping' I mean 'creating an absolute ruckus.' I offered to help with their English, and they asked for photos.

It was from my quasi-inconspicuous position at the back of the dining hall that I heard Colm wrapping up the class - and introducing me to 925 of his closest friends. He told them that I was an American teaching English for the police. He then told them that I spoke way more Bahasa Indonesia than he did, so perhaps they would want me to come up and say a few words. They agreed.

That's how this happened.

I'd like to say that after three years of learning language and working with very impressive police officers, that addressing a room full of soldiers would be easy, but I can't. I can say that my heart was beating out of my chest and sweat beads were covering my forehead as I was handed the microphone. My brain wanted to say really inspirational things like, "Go get 'em" and "Be all that you can be," etc. But it came out like this:

"Um...saya....Jackie. Saya....dari....(wipes sweat from forehead)...Amerika." And so on.

I guess it wasn't that bad. And Indonesians being Indonesians, they were so very gracious and accepting of the few words that I could get out. It was tough, but I also couldn't ask for a better final experience in Indonesia. It is so representative of all the great experiences I've had with amazing men and women in Indonesia. Here's hoping that the future - wherever it may lead - will allow me raise to their level of coolness.

Wink wink, nudge nudge.


Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Call me Gishboger: Tales from the High Sea


Call me Gisboger. A hardened sailor, I am not. I’m pretty much afraid of everything that lies just below the water’s surface. Coral, jellyfish, sting rays, plastic bags, half-decayed bodies like in the book Hatchet, etc. Here in the land of 17,000 islands, I find myself constantly begging forgiveness for not having any interest in scuba diving, despite the fact that the archipelago is known far and wide as one of the world’s best diving destinations. I like swimming. I’m not particularly afraid of drowning. I even like snorkeling and checking out the undersea treasures from a safe distance. Maybe I just watched too many National Geographic features on man-of-war jellies and those beautiful lionfish that can paralyze you with one prick of their spine. I usually tell people that scuba diving is just too expensive, but between you and me, the idea is about as appealing to me as jumping out of a plane or walking across hot coals.

When I started joining open-water swim practices for triathlon training, I added the sea urchin to my long list of things-to-stay-away-from-in-the-water. Urchins, known here as bulu babi, or fur of the pig, are spiky black things about the size of a volley ball. They are easily found in the shallows on coral or the submerged parts of docks and piers. My fellow Indonesian swimmers told me that if you get too close, they will shoot their black spikes into whatever flesh has the misfortune of being the closest to it, usually feet. It’s basically the porcupine of the sea.

This fear of being turned into a human pin cushion got me into a bit of trouble last week. I joined around 40 other swimmers to swim a short 300 meters between two islands. The current came from two directions and there was quite a bit of chop, but my swim partner and I swam successfully to the outer rim of our destination island. We both popped out of the water at the same time when we realized that we went from deep sea to shallow coral within a matter of two or three strokes. We both acknowledged the shallow water and then continued with our stroke to find a clear path to shore. Only as soon as I resumed my swim, I found myself face to face with a whole field of sea urchin. It took me less than a second to realize that only about two feet of water was separating the whole of my body from being impaled by those little jerks. It took me half a second more to go into a full-on panic. Because of the chop, the water levels changes dramatically with each wave, possibly changing my two feet of saving grace to two-inches of pure hell. 

I switched to a more surface-friendly breast stroke and quickly climbed onto a large, sea-urchin free slab of coral. The killing field was to my back, so if I kept my grip, I knew I would be fine. I needed to stay perched long enough to wait for the other swimmers to reach the island so that we could all swim back together. While sitting, I became acutely aware of the fact that my coral stronghold was less rock-like and more sandpaper mixed with razor blades-like. Wave after wave knocked me backwards, sideways, and completely off the coral, giving me a fresh new scratch each time I had to up right myself.

At this point, it may seem obvious to ask why I didn't just leap off said torture device into the welcome arms of the sea. The short answer is that I went temporarily insane with fear. This fact was confirmed when two of my swim partners had to come to my rescue, and I sobbed openly into their shoulders as they too fell victim to the razor-blade coral. My heroes reasoned me back into reality and the water away from both demon sea creatures and razors. 

We started for a boat that was waiting near by, but in the few strokes I took toward the boat, I regained my sanity and all the searing shame that came with it. I was angry at myself and the stupid ocean, so I took out my anger by pounding the waves back towards the island from which we originally came. I was determined to swim back. The current, however, was determined to compound my shame by keeping me locked in treadmill mode. My swim partner and I were at full-steam, punching into the water, but every time we looked up to check our progress, we were in exactly the same position. For twenty minutes, we were stuck in the middle of the two islands swimming no where fast. It was then that I remembered that my legs and hands were covered in open sores. More memories of National Geographic came flooding back, only this time 'Shark Week' was the feature presentation. Since I was not interested in testing out the keen sense of smell that sharks have, I gave the signal for surrender - I waved both arms frantically to the boat. 

The boat rescue was nothing short of a silver screen moment, if silver screen moments include ropes tossed to swimmers in peril followed up by the unceremonious hauling of said swimmers over the boat edge followed by uncontrolled slipping and flopping onto the boat floor.

I had given up. I sat in the boat and licked both my physical and emotional wounds. The sea showed me exactly what I was made of that day, and I wasn't too happy about it. But, I'll be back. Hear that, Moby, I mean Bulu Babi? I'll be back.



Thursday, February 21, 2013

Dem Bones


For two and a half years, I've had Tana Toraja on my list of 'must sees' before leaving Indonesia. Every time I heard mention of this village in central Sulawesi, the descriptions always played out like a National Geographic special. The place is well known for its manic funeral ceremonies and creepily life-like effigies. Add to that tales of babies buried in trees and claims that the original Torajan's descended from 'starships', and who could resist?

No matter how many stories I heard or wiki pages I read, I just couldn't get a grasp of just what goes on there second-hand. Amazingly, within minutes of getting out of the cramped tour van with half a dozen other Fellows, all of the stories I had heard of the place were validated with startling un-clarity.

If it weren't for the fact that Toraja is squarely located in the archipelago, I would be tempted to think that I, myself, had taken a starship to reach the village instead of an 8-hour, cockroach-infested charter bus ride. Swooping bamboo roofs decorated with water buffalo horns and ornate carvings store everything from rice, to families, to corpses awaiting their final burial (often times the latter two under the same roof). The buffalo horns are all that remain of sacrificial water buffalo that are slaughtered during funerals in order to feed all of the family and community members who attend. The carvings are hand-made with each symbol representing some aspect of Torajan life.

We were 'lucky' because there just happened to be a funeral going on the first day we arrived. Being that funerals are central to the culture and that they have become a huge tourist attraction, anyone can attend them. The only requirement, we were told, was to wear black and bring a small gift of tobacco. So, we bought some smokes and headed the outskirts of the village where many temporary seating structures had been set up around the main swoop-roofed building containing the guest of honor (i.e. dead guy) and a small dirt court-yard with one hitching post. We took up residence in one of the temporary seating platforms with some other tourists. While we waited, our guide explained that funerals are social events almost on the same scale of Indian weddings.

They are so expensive that the normal waiting period between death and funeral is two to three years while the family raises the money for enough buffalo and pigs to feed everyone who will in return help build the temporary funeral structures.  And...AND...during that time, the body remains within the family's home. So there we were, cross-legged on a bamboo platform, and the procession began led by three squealing pigs hogtied and ready for sacrifice. Behind the pigs were the immediate family members. The family sat in another platform where distant relatives, community members, and government officials took turns bringing them gifts of tobacco, tea, and coffee. Meanwhile, the pigs stayed in the courtyard on their side. Our tour guide assured us that they would be taken out of sight for the actual slaughtering. Oh good. No sooner had the pigs stopped their heinous squealing, than loud chanting and stomping could be heard from the structure housing the remains. Apparently, the coffin had to the moved from the back room to the front room with much fanfare. The move may have been prompted by the arrival of a large water buffalo. The beast was tied up to the lone hitching post in the courtyard. We looked anxiously to our guide to tell us that the buffalo would also be taken out of sight for the slaughtering, but this was not so. Instead, a man with a large machete swiftly slit the buffalo's throat, causing thrashing and blood splattering that will be imprinted on my memory forever. That's when we decided we had seen enough of this particular cultural tradition. It was time to move onto something slightly less morbid, like graves.
There are several different types of Torajan graves depending on the deceased's class. The very rich can be interned in 'modern' graves which are cement structures much like window-less houses. These grave's occupants are denoted by either portraits of the deceased hung at the top of the grave or by effigies wearing the deceased's clothes. If the family cannot afford such luxurious housing, their loved ones might instead be placed in a coffin and placed high up on a cliff or in a cave. The lower the class, the lower the placement. Our guide told us that the coffins, exposed to the weather, eventually breakdown and fall - cradle and all. We found ourselves face to...skull (?) with an amalgam of human bones and old coffins.

Any bones that fall out of place are either tossed into the nearest coffin or placed in neat piles. My favorite moment of the whole trip may have been when we were descending from some cliff graves and a lone human skull was knocked loose and came tumbling past us. Just in case you were wondering, a bouncing human skull sounds just like a whiffle ball.


The very poor do not get lofty placements away from grave robbers. Instead, they usually take up residence in caves at the bottom of a cliff. Here, family members honor the dead with photos, half-full drink bottles, and anything that represented their life. We saw one teacher's grave surrounded by textbooks. You can't take it with you, man.

We left the cliff graves and traveled to a large cave hidden beyond some rice fields. This place was filled with similar wooden coffins and armies of effigies standing guard. It was like a cross between The Goonies and Disney World's Small World ride.

Hey you guys!!!

It's a small world after all...
Dem Bones, Dem Bones...

Even babies have a place in this strange death-obsessed culture (throwing me back to dead-baby jokes that were popular with my brothers in the last 1990s, but I digress). Babies who die before getting their first tooth are given a special spot in a tree. A square just large enough for a standing baby is cut out of the tree. The baby is placed in standing up (so his or her spirit can go straight up to heaven) and then covered with a palm tree door. After a few years, the tree grows over the opening completely, and the baby becomes part of the tree.
Baby graves




The last graves we visited were those of past kings and queens of the various Torajan tribes. Royalty is reserved stone graves that are pain-stakingly chiseled out of a sheer cliff. Their striking effigies are placed directly in front of the grave, usually whole families being placed together in the same spot. The bodies are carried to their final resting spot on top of the shoulders of their family members. Their transport structures resemble the same swoop-roofed houses in the villages. Each coffin carrier can only be used once, so they are left at the base of the cliff after the body is safely deposited.

To get the taste of death out of our mouths, we finished our trip by taking a walk up a high hill overlooking the beautiful rice paddies of Toraja. We sipped on Torajan coffee and contemplated the ethics of ordering buffalo and pig off of the cafe's menu after having recently witnessing the violent death of their brethren. (It was delicious).

That's Tana Toraja in a nut-skull, but don't take my word for it. Jump on the next starship heading for Central Sulawesi and satisfy your own morbid curiosity. You won't be disappointed.


Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Blessed Life: Buddhist Edition

If you've ever asked yourself -  Just what is the nectar of the gods? - you've come to the right blog. The answer is...wait, what am I doing? If I just tell you, you might not read the rest of the blog. Well, smartypants, I'm not going to tell you until the end. How do you like that? Get your mouse off that scroll bar.

For this edition of Blessed Life we travel to the Buddhist nation of Thailand.* 

Step one: Walk to the nearest temple. Tourist traps are not as plentiful as they are near Hindu temples, so navigation can be done easily and inconspicuously. Also, no one cares what color skin you wear.

Step two (optional): Purchase flower necklaces, elephant statues, or various fruits to leave in exchange for your blessing.

Step 3: Recruit a gaggle of adorable children to guide you through the prayer process. Payment optional. Ice cream is an acceptable form of compensation.

Step 4: Remove shoes before approaching the alter.

Step 5: Light four sticks of incense with the lit candles in front of the alter.

Step 6: Place the incense between your two palms (prayer position).

Step 7: Kneel in front of the alter.

Step 8: Bow your head to the incense for X number of times. (Warning: If you're busy taking pictures of your colleagues attempts at prayers, you may miss the specifics on appropriate bowing numbers).

Step 9: Stick incense sticks in the big urn filled with sand.

Step 10: Grab the Yahtzee dice tube that is filled with small wooden sticks. Shake the container at chest height (still kneeling) with the opening facing away from you. Shake until one of the sticks shakes out. Give your stick to a child-come-guide.

Step 11: Child-come-guide will hand you a piece of paper with your blessing/fortune on it.

Step 12: Hand it back the child for translation because the blessing/fortune is only written in Thai and Chinese.

Step 13: Several children will read aloud your blessing/fortune - in Thai. Listen politely anyways.
video


Step 14: Ask them if the blessing is good (thumbs up) or bad (thumbs down). Allow children time to argue this point.

Step 15: If the answer is good, fold the blessing/fortune and stick it in your pocket. If it is bad, allow the children to take it away and then later retrieve it while they are not looking.

Step 16: Put your shoes back on and say goodbye to the child guides.

Now, for the answer to the nectar of the gods question. As far as I can make out, it's Orange Fanta. Straw preferred.**

*This account is written as an amusing account of this outsider's experience with a religion that she knows nothing about. It is written more to entertain and less to inform. It is not in any way meant to trivialize the religion.
**Actually, as it was explained to us, the offerings are allowed to be any widely-available foods or drinks by design, so that all people are freely and cheaply allowed to worship.

Blessed Life: Hindu Edition

For twenty-nine years, I have been a run-of-the-mill, Midwestern protestant, and I will likely remain as some form or another of that for the rest of my life. For twenty-seven of those years, I really never had cause or opportunity to explore other religions. Here, where the government officially recognizes five religions: Islam, Christian, Catholic, Buddhist, and Hindu, all* religions are observed and appreciated. There are outbursts of intolerance - church burnings, riots, and revenge deaths blamed on religious difference - but mostly people are comfortable knowing you hold some belief in God (or several of them as the case may be). People are actively curious about the practices of other religions, especially when those practices happen in beautiful, tourist settings - say, for instance, on the island of Bali. So, just for example, if one were to have a business trip to the island to interview Tourist police, and one happened, by chance, to have some extra time on his or her hands, it's perfectly acceptable to educate oneself on the practices of the local culture.

A work/religious exploration trip to Bali might look like this:

Step 1: Travel to a famous Hindu temple. Tanah Lot - one of seven sea Hindu temples forming a chain along Bali's southwest coast - would do nicely. 

Step 2: Pay the required entry fee. Navigate through the gauntlet of tourist traps lined up strategically between the parking lot and temple. The trick is not to make eye-contact.

Step 3: Pose for photos with other tourists in front of temple.**

Step 4: Go past the cave with the poisonous snakes who guard the temple. Donations accepted.

Step 5: Pose for photos with other tourists in front of temple.**

Step 6: Wash hands, feet, and face with the holy water coming out of a bamboo pole from the center of the rock.

Step 7: Be sprinkled with holy water by temple man number one.

Step 8: Allow man number two to press rice to your forehead.

Step 9: Allow man number two to put a flower behind your ear.

Step 10: Pose for photos with other tourists in front of temple.**

With coworkers: Freshly blessed.





 Step 11 (optional): Stop at one of the tourist restaurants for a refreshing coconut.
* All in this case only refers to one of those 5 religions.
** May only affect those tourists wearing white skin. Can be avoided by wearing a permanent scowl in addition to white skin, but this is discouraged and may void the blessing.