The Spirit of GLOW Comes Alive (And That Spirit Ain’t Holy)

What words come to mind when you think about a camp for girls?

Inspiration? Bonding? ❤ to <3’s into the wee hours? Tears? Campfires? Petty-drama? More bonding? A girls camp wouldn’t be complete without all of these things but what about spirits?


During the days building up to Camp IGLOW, I couldn’t help but feel giddy butterflies in my stomach, not out of nervousness or anxiety but because I couldn’t wait to share the joys of camp with my students. In the States, heading off to camp signifies a growth of sorts. Leaving your families for several days or weeks at a time, to stay somewhere “unfamiliar”, to make new friends, to create new memories and inside jokes that only your new friends will understand. IGLOW was no different.

When my kids have free time, most of them spend it at home, parked in front of the TV. They are missing out.  

Within the first day our girls were allllll sorts of camped up. They had already forged those new relationships, some even holding hands with one another between sessions (so sweet), and had gotten into the whole exhausted “I love it but I wanna nap” session routine.

During day three, after outbound activities were finished, we took a short trek up to a local waterfall that the area is known for. Sitting in pools of fresh spring water in our clothes and taking hundreds of photos… little did we know that we would come back with not just 80 participants but 80 participants and an Indonesian particispirit.

What are these spirits I speak of? I’m still trying to figure that out myself. It’s a common phenomenon not only in Java but also throughout Asia and 99% of those I have spoken with believes in these “spirits”.

During my two teaching years in Java, I’ve seen dozens of female students suddenly start screaming or sobbing, and watched as their eyes rolled into the backs of their heads, their normal selves completely lost as they slowly became incapacitated and eventually unconscious. The common term for it is kesurupanIt’s so common that when it happens, no one freaks out. Instead of notifying parents, peers remove the victims’ limp, unconscious body to lay down in the nurses’s office. A shaman (every school seems to have one, ours happens to be the school groundskeeper) is called in. Yes, you read that right, a S-H-A-M-A-N. After the unconscious stage, the victim (most often always a female) begins sobbing, rolling around with her fists tightly balled as her friends stand by, one fanning and the other trying to break the grip to prevent her nails from digging into her palms. Once the shaman begins doing what he does (usually reading verses from the holy book and rubbing the toes of said victim), the victim begins moaning, sometimes screaming, and voila, just like that, the student breaks a sweat and returns normal, with no memory of the possession.

Everyone agrees that these spirits are more likely to possess someone who is daydreaming or has “empty thoughts”. The year before I arrived in Indonesia, one of my good friends was known to be possessed quite frequently that people thought she was actually crazy. She wasn’t. The following year, she was fine. 

If that sounds crazy to you, that’s because it IS crazy. It doesn’t make an ounce of sense. Why only female teens? Why don’t they strike during exams? Why didn’t they possess me in high school? I did a fair share of daydreaming then. I don’t want to believe in the spirits but I can’t think of any other logical explanation that would make any sense.

Example #728 of how living here has left me feeling not only confused about certain cultural customs, but also utterly puzzled.

After visiting the waterfall and returning to campus before sessions started up again, one student got a headache, so she skipped session to rest. Within a couple of hours, her condition worsened. She began rocking and rolling around on the mattress, moaning, fists balled, eyes closed. Kesurupan. Her friends claimed she picked it up at the waterfall, where many “nature spirits” hang out. One of my students who was rooming with her said their other group members were teasing her, “jahat, (mean) miss”, she said. Apparently her friends had taunted her so much about not getting possessed that the exact opposite happened. As her condition worsened, a local shaman was called in…

While all of us were standing in the upper courtyard* in a circle during the reflective candlelight ceremony, one by one, each girl shared their proudest personal achievement, when suddenly loud moans erupted from the teacher’s area. Some girls looked around with puzzled expressions but we continued. The spirit had been released and all became peaceful again…

Later that evening during the talent showcase, the electricity went out. Lo and behold, many believed spirits were still present among us. The girls began to sing an Islamic hymn together with the intentions of releasing the spirits. Sitting against the wall in the glowing aula of candlesticks melting into the floor, bouncing the warmest hues off of our participants’ faces, chanting the same melodic prayer over and over again, is a special moment that will stick with me. Not only did it define Java’s powerful Islamic unity but also the power of a unified community, that believes in the necessity of harmony to ward off forces of evil. Without any commotion, without any discussion, they just prayed until they felt safe again.

In the end, I was happy that the girls had gotten their camp experience… with a Javanese twist.

___

* = originally we had organized the ceremony in the lower courtyard, but a participant fought against the idea, claiming she’d seen a ghost…check out Melanie’s insightful post: Traditional Ghosts in Indonesia

13 from Camp IGLOW Pacet 2013

The raw numbers: 80 camp participants, ~10 counterparts, 8 Peace Corps Volunteers, from 6 different regencies, 5 NGO collaborations, 4 days, 3 nights, a waterfall and a particular kesurupan (spirit/possession) decided to join, and countless Rp spent on crunchy oleh-oleh. To celebrate the accomplishments and successes of the Mojo area’s 2nd Annual Camp IGLOW – Indonesian Girls Leading Our World, I’d like to share 13 photos from IGLOW Pacet 2013. Some words of appreciation dulu, please: Thank you to everyone who poured their hearts and souls into this, those who spent hours upon endless hours translating materials, those who bugged their CPs and principals endlessly, those schools and CPs who supported IGLOW, those who donated, and those who were dedicated, sincerely believing in this project– who saw it from start to finish–for making this past weekend’s event one of the most inspiring and successful yet. Oh meee, this is getting keju-y.

Lastly congrats to all PCVs who built upon the first camp’s successes in 2012 and made it blossom into FOUR this year! That’s amazing. And to Bu Sari & Natasha, if I haven’t said it enough, you’re both too great for words to describe.

In no particular order, scroll over for captions…

The Power of Disappointment

Let’s jump right in.

I’ll be highlighting some of the recent challenges that have forced me to taste the lovely, tangy concoction of failure, disappointment, and bewilderment with a splash of bitterness. I’m aiming to stay neutral without getting into too many specifics or placing blame. 

Because I’m generally a positive lady, I’m putting those germinating gray hairs back in their place by rightfully sprinkling throughout this post 10 things that make my time here wonderful and sweet.

***

Top 10: Working for and promoting peace, tolerance, and understanding, damn it.

Top 10: Would it be inaccurate to say that this photo sums up my Peace Corps work? Working for and promoting peace, cultural awareness, tolerance, and understanding, damn it.

***

Mid-October: I was going through packets of aspirin at record speeds like I was trying to qualify for an olympic event. By mid-week, I was burning out harrrrd. I could feel the occasional ‘wrinkles of disapproval’ beginning to furrow deeper into my forehead as the gray hairs aggressively began to materialize, rooting themselves in place with no exit plan…was this my idea of aging gracefully? At 24 years-old, let’s say that again, twenty-fourdefinitely not. It felt like the spunky, youthful side of me was drowning in a shallow reservoir somewhere.

I came home from school unusually angry one day. Nothing in particular had triggered the rush of fury, but certain events of daily life had taken an unsettling turn in my mind and ignited something within. I literally felt like I was on fire with restlessness. I texted my sister back in the States out of desperation for some feedback but really I wanted to think everything through before I vented to someone, so I wrote. The all too versatile “F-bomb” made several appearances throughout as I released everything unto an innocent sheet of scratch paper. After writing, I was better. I ate two big mangoes and felt less like a Mentos/Coca-Cola explosion and more like a calm cup of chamomile tea.

***

Top 10: pillow talk, need I say more?

Top 10: pillow talk, need I say more?

***

From Peace Corps itself, I’ve coped with a vast range of interesting experiences, both good and bad, that at this point, I can proudly say have challenged me and aided in a lot of personal growth that wouldn’t have happened any other way and isn’t as self-evident as other shifts in attitude may be. But what I’ve realized in this past month is that dealing with disappointment never gets easier and doesn’t exactly mature over time like its cousin failure does. What it’s done has caused me to think more about the social culture in acceptance of unfortunate behaviors versus what they could or should be, and what prevents positive change from happening at such a mediocre level, weighing the consequences of each.

I still don’t have many answers.

***

Top 10: The endless exploration of the unknown with new and old friends alike whenever the time allows.

Top 10: The endless exploration of the unknown with new and old friends alike whenever the time allows.

***

With second year comes clarity on multiple levels. And with that clarity comes a burgeoning sense of responsibility and accountability that wasn’t as obvious during first year. Everything is less foreign and therefore I feel comfortable enough to navigate through situations while connecting and sharing honest opinions with those I’ve forged intimate trust with, instead of basking in the novelty of certain moments looking helplessly like this (for those with slow internet connections, it’s my favorite confusing pug video!).

For me, second year isn’t about holding back, and with the months racing by, it’s also not about wasting time (sampai jumpa, Facebook) either.

I’ve also learned that working in a school especially at the bottom level, with all of its erratic structures and scheduling on top of the pressures to appease the local governments, is actually a very, very chaotic environment where very little can be controlled, only tamed to an extent by bureaucracy.

With that said, I’m constantly asking myself, “with so much out of my own control, and occasional awkward cultural barriers that I’m unable to surpass, in the end, why should I care? Why don’t others around me seem to be bothered by the same things?” As much as I become frustrated with disruptive students and rare rotten apple teachers, I cared because I am a human being wanting to help another human being. This may not be my real life forever, but it is someone’s real life. Immunity to empathy is impossible for me. It’s that simple. Is it okay to be that simple?  

***

Top 10: My family of ID5's, there's too much love and admiration to fit into one tiny caption.

Top 10: My family of ID5’s, there’s too much love and admiration to fit into one tiny caption. (Natasha, where’d you go??!)

***

Teen pregnancy. This semester alone, four 10th and 11th grade girls had been quietly removed from my school. For one semester at my school, that’s four times as many as usual. I’m not sure if I should look at that number with relief as being relatively low considering there’s essentially zero educational guidance on sexual reproduction or whether I should continue to pout and see that number as daunting because the lives of my own students have taken an unexpected turn for motherhood before they even had the opportunity to explore their potentials as young women with big ideas? Or am I being too much of an idealist when these girls were already destined to be married off after graduating from high school, their potentials already caged and locked away since the moment of birth?

While eating dinner one evening, I was reading one of Indonesia’s leading newspapers, the Jawa Pos, when a gruesome article about an illegal abortion clinic caught my attention. Struggling to follow all of the details, I asked my sister to help me understand some unrecognizable vocabulary, which led to us to talk about the students who’d been kicked out. I wasn’t stunned when she said that the girls at our school had been stupid, stupid for engaging in premarital activities, stupid for not knowing the consequences of having sex [for the first time]. I didn’t feel the same. Mostly I felt pity. I felt pity because while their behavior was risky and seemingly irresponsible, where and how were they supposed to learn about these consequences? If this dialogue isn’t happening at home or at school… whose responsibility is it to provide guidance and resources? What about the dangers that pregnancies pose on girls whose bodies have not yet fully developed? How many more teen parents are needed until we can come to terms with the bigger issue?

***

Top 10: The little ones. Caring for them like they were my own little brothers and sisters.

***

Being a teacher isn’t easy. I realize that this problem goes much deeper and that I will come off sounding like the naive novice teacher that I am.

I’ll risk it.

When a student fails to meet the basic competencies required of them, should they still be allowed to proceed to the next grade level where work is supposedly more challenging and builds upon previous knowledge? How about the lazy boys in classes who have doggie paddled and cheated their way throughout their educational careers? The ones who sit in the back and don’t do shit and get away with it. What about me and other teachers? What about the time we spend thinking about our lesson plans and keeping classes of forty hot, hormonal teens entertained and under control?

Who is wasting whose time?

I was in a dilemma: Continuing teaching a class primarily composed of lazy boys (with a few quiet although hardworking girls) who don’t give an absolute damn about much of what happens inside of school (I’d like to believe deep down in my heart that they are passionate about other things, and that’s fine, but come on, work with me here, only 90 minutes), continue to accept them as a challenge and exert the energy it takes to calm them down and keep them interested OR drop them and adopt another class who values my time?

I ended up choosing the latter which made me feel like an utter jerk. Was I letting them down? What about the kids who were good? Was I kicking Peace Corps’ core values in the face?

I gave them opportunities to make up for their terrible behavior, I simplified my lessons, I gave them second chances, my time and foolishly my trust and hopes that they would do better the following week, but they spoiled it.

Coming close to breaking down in front of the class, trying to instill a sense of value in learning (beyond English) and how other students their own ages in their own country would never be given the opportunities to have the same quality of education that they typically sleep through (I seemed to be making a point that was getting through), making them promise they’d try harder next time, and then returning the following week expecting changes only to see bad habits persisting, I felt disappointed in the students, but mostly in myself, for trying my hardest and still failing. I asked myself “what would heroic PCV [name here] do?” but stopped second guessing myself, realizing that only I could help myself. Ultimately my decision was to drop the class and pick up another, and I couldn’t have been happier with that decision.

The worry of personal responsibility and making hard decisions during second year weighs heavily on me this year. How can I still have students who can’t seem to draw contextual clues of when to use “good morning” and “good afternoon” when they’ve been receiving English instruction for the majority of their lives? Is that my failing as a teacher? Or is it the structure and quality of learning they’d been receiving before I stepped foot on Java? I don’t know, but I’m trying to fix what I can. Glacial pace is better than no pace at all, right?

***

Top 10: Relaxing with friends, sarong picnics, being ourselves together. ID’s, each and every one of you are beyond words great.

***

Thirsty for guidance. What do you do when you have a student with obvious parental negligence issues? When this student has an obviously uncomfortable skin problem all over their body that has gone untreated? When this same student is a bully and is bullied in their class?  When all teachers know about this student and their disruptive behavior problems but no one does anything about it? The signs are obvious, but what is my role?

How about the student who wears glasses, sits close enough to the board, and still must rely on his classmates to help him because he can’t see clearly enough? Who’s going to help him?

Or the student who goes around harassing his female classmates? Grabbing them inappropriately and is regularly caught peeking into the bathrooms? How about when you find out the consequences don’t apply to him specifically because of his wealth and his parents’ position on the school board? Will this behavior progress into something worse? Could he end up seriously harming someone in the future? What is my role, what is my school’s role? Aren’t we supposed to provide a safe learning environment for all students?

These are all too common anywhere and I’m not openly trying to absorb the burden but sometimes I wonder how I can live with myself when there’s resources and preventative measures to take and no one willing to take them?

***

Top 10: My sassy, smart, spunky English Club girls. Sure, they may ask a fair share of silly questions and talk about certain things ad nauseam but they’re still fun. Who else can I rely on to ride 20k’s with me just for a glass of es oyen? A rainbow of jilbabs, they’re adorable.

***

I’ll give you crazy. I walked into a typically rowdy class one afternoon to find that they were eerily quiet and tame. I later found out that the teacher in the previous period had given them a pretty nasty piece of her mind.

You’re nothing. You’re a social class. You’re dumb and you’ll never be anything. 

Sure, sometimes the kids can get really crazy and you feel like going Kindergarten Cop – Arnold – I – Can – Swallow – You – Whole – If – You – Provoke – Me – Schwarzenegger on their asses, but they’re teenagers bursting with epinephrine and energy. You make ’em sit still in a classroom for 7 hours, and that’s what happens. Madness.

I can’t imagine anything else worse to say to a classroom full of already insecure and confused students who are expected to study 15 subjects per semester, let’s say that again, fifTEEN (!), 6 days a week, in one overcrowded classroom in the wilting heat all day, all year-round.

As my friends in high school would say to someone who was being a real jerk, “you’re a real grade A [asshole].”

Educators should be like a second set of parents, willing to guide, support, and encourage, nothing less.

***

Top 10: Getting to know teachers on a personal level. How welcoming and hospitable people can be when they haven’t known you for very long and yet treat you as family.

***

Teachers who personally attack students by challenging their intelligence and self-worth.

A student at my school, who excels in less academic ways, but whose forte is in the creative arts, recently represented our school in a region-wide competition. Our principal wouldn’t allow permission for any of our teachers to accompany the student to the competition in the city, so she had to go alone. During the competition, she observed the other participants who were receiving endless showers of support and encouragement by their own schools. Where was hers? That’s a pretty crappy feeling. This student ended up taking 1st place in the competition (booyakasha!), and went on to win 1st place again at a higher tier, which has qualified her to represent our school and our regency in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, sometime next semester. Cue Journeyjust a small town girl… 

The excitement had backfired in many ways though, with teacher’s interrogating her in class…

You couldn’t have possibly written that by yourself. You must have had lots of help from someone. How could [student] have won? They aren’t good in [xyz class]. [Student] probably only won because [student xyz from xyz school] couldn’t attend the competition. 

***

Top 10: The 10 + mango producing trees in my yard that has made recent breakfasts holy-moley amazing. What's in the bowl? Mangoes, dates, almonds, walnuts, honey, and dried oats. Hale yah!

Top 10: The 10 + mango producing trees in my yard that has made recent breakfasts holy-moley amazing. What’s in the bowl? Mangoes, dates, almonds, walnuts, honey, and dried oats. Hale yah!

***

How can a group of people be so accepting of something they know is morally wrong, irresponsible, self-degrading or just plain inhumane, especially in the workplace where we all *supposedly* view one another as family. I’m talking the big, bad, and the ugly: physical abuse and sexual harassment.

***

Top 10: Hanging out with students outside of school and learning about their other creative talents.

Top 10: Hanging out with students outside of school and learning about their other creative talents.

***

I can’t say much else but that it’s hard living here sometimes. I see and feel more than I want to, but I’m learning as much as I can to build resilience to move forward and do good where I can.

Merah, Putih, Selalu In My Hati

Did August 17th really just come and go like that? This year’s independence day was essentially the same as last years… it still overlapped with Ramadan, we still had a massive militaristic flag raising ceremony in a crunchy dry nearby field and there was lots of yelling of commands — this year was different in that the sun was less forgiving (translation: more students fainted), there was more sweating, there was less staring, I knew what to expect, and I had a keren fisheye lens to capture the ceremony.

Selamat menikmati foto-fotonya! (Scroll over for captions)

___

___

(merahred, putihwhite, selalualways, hati heart)

 

Grab Your Sajadah, We’re Goin’ to Tarawih

Tarawih pronounced ::baby tongue roll:: /tae/RAH/weh/

‘Refers to extra congregational prayers performed by Muslims at night in the Islamic month of Ramadan. Contrary to popular belief, they are not compulsory. However, many Muslims pray these prayers in the evening during Ramadan. Some scholars maintain that Tarawih is neither fard or a Sunnah (obligational), but is the preponed Tahajjud (night prayer) prayer shifted to post-Isha’ for the ease of believers. But majority of Sunni scholars regard the Tarawih prayers as Sunnat al-Mu’akkadah, a salaat (prayer) that was performed by the Islamic prophet Muhammad very consistently.’

(Thanks for having my back, Wiki)

___

One evening, I was spending time with my principal at her home in Mojo – she’s like my Indonesian mother – and naturally she’s always making sure that I’m getting the full ‘Indonesian experience’, following everything up with ‘Miss Elle, mau ikut?‘ (wanna come?). When I seemingly found myself to be failing at one of my Ramadan goals, to be invited to Tarawih, I nearly jumped out of my batik with excitement when she invited me to come along. She lent me a mekeno / rukuh (the covering that all women wear to attend these prayer sessions) and a sajadah (prayer rug) to borrow. Once I slipped on the rukuh, that covered my hair and the rest of my body, leaving my face and hands exposed, I felt protected, my identity concealed — blending in, I felt fearless entering the mosque in a neighborhood that wasn’t my own. 

Being in the mosque reminded me of being in a yoga class to an extent – the amount of concentration and channeling an alternative mindset – the relaxing atmosphere, where you could leave or take a rest at your own discretion, no pressure. Even though I didn’t understand the prayers being read over the mic, I interpreted them in my own way. It was very calming if anything. I sat next to my principal as she went through the motions several times, just observing. Those brief moments of cultural observation brought some of the most unique feelings that I haven’t channeled in awhile. Something that I can’t quite explain or put my finger to, but it was powerful and in those moments sitting there and hanging out with the kids, I felt something deeper for Indonesia, a beauty of understanding maybe or accepting something… I don’t know what… but it was the perfect time to feel that way amongst all of the Ramadan repetitiveness and having been here for over a year-semi-slump. Photo-time: scroll over for captions.

For You, My Venus, My Sun

venus doin' its thang!

(if you look really hard, you can see Venus on the left edge, middle section, pretty wild, no?)

Thanks to some RPCV’s who work for NASA promoting science education, many of us were lucky enough to receive packets filled with educational materials about the Venus’s rare journey across the Sun. Aside from all of the cool learning materials included, the most useful things we received were the stylish solar-viewing glasses.

Confession: Like many around me, this was also my first time using solar glasses

Personally I haven’t studied astronomy since I took a course at UVA many summer’s ago. Another confession I’d forgotten the order of the planets. I brushed up on some solar knowledge to give people some idea of what to expect, not to mention new terms in Indonesian so others would understand why I was telling them to put on funny glasses.  Once or twice while briefing people, I heard ‘Venus? Apa itu?’ — Venus? What’s that?

All of the buzz was getting me so excited about the event, so much that the night before that I had a wild dream about it. Sort of. In that dream, I could see a rotating reflection of the Earth, or something like it. Perhaps what I had imagined was a hybrid of what the Sun and the Moon would be like if they produced a beaming offspring. Even though I was on Earth, it was like I was looking at it from another planet. It was so magnificent in size, swallowing the surrounding bits of sky, sparkling as if trapped in a storm of glitter, with cartoon like stars twinkling (like when a Looney Tunes character punches a villain), lighting up the night. I kept chasing the Earth trying to get a better view of where I stood on the Earth but constantly failed, wherever I went, the view was blocked by wild branches…it was trippy.

_____

The following day at school, my CP and I told students and teachers about Venus’s journey across the Sun, an event that wouldn’t occur for another 105 years from now. Let’s be honest, unless we all learn how to Austin Powersify (yes, I make verbs in my free time) ourselves, we ain’t gettin’ another chance. Try making that pitch clear to people who were blatantly terrified of putting on solar-glasses (I’m looking at you Yakulit lady). Saying they weren’t berani (tough/brave) enough. Oh come on. Sure, the glasses weren’t exactly styled after chic Rayfarer’s and surely they weren’t covered in Satanic saliva, so what’s there to be scared of? They’re safe! Once the glasses were on, students trickled out of their classrooms in packs until the crowds began to form lines, waiting to see the Sun’s temporary beauty mark.

The majority of the responses were:

  • Oh it’s so tiny!
  • Miss, it’s so itsy bitsy!
  • Waaaaaa cilik (little)!
  • It looks like a fly on the sun!
  • Ngak ketok! (I can’t see it!)

Additionally, before the semester ended, my counterpart and I taught a brief section on basic poetry. I set up poetry stations around the room, demonstrating different poetic exercises, one of which was a sense stimulating creative writing exercise based on one’s personal relationship with the Sun, any way they interpreted it. Aided by a fierce poster of the Sun (thanks again, NASA), the kids came up with some pretty creative stuff; some quite impressive and made me laugh. In their own words, I will leave you with a few odes..

The Sun…

If I go to the sun

I can’t run

And it’s not fun

In there it so hot

And I want to out

Because in there not have a lot

So we can’t to sport

The sun is very big

Well, in there we can’t find a pig

and you will sick

if you see it

(students from XI IPA2)

My Journey to the Sun

When I have a chance

To go to the sun

I will invite my son

I’m thankful for it to God

I will fly like bird

And roast some breads

Sun is very hot

And I feel ‘cekot-cekot ‘ (throbbing pain in the head)

I will go around the planet

like an astronaut

No gravitation

And it very entertain

I will sleep in the sun

Cook in there

Take a bath by sun’s warmth

And when I go to home

I will be a “Dust Man”

Hahaha…

(Wahyu from XI IPA2)

Your color is beautiful

Your shape is like a ball

Yours rays decorate the world

You’re never tired to ray this world

Without your ray, the world becomes dark

You’re always there every afternoon

You bright the dark with your rays

Although you far over there

I can always fill your wam

I’m sorry if I often abuse you verbally

Because your hot ray

You’re very present in my life

(students from XI IPA3)

You look circle

Out light in afternoon

Give hot weather in Earth

No life, no people, no trees, no water

Lonely, be alone, and hot

It’s a source of life

(students from XI IPA3)