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


Bear Family Does Yangon

the bear family

Planning my trip Myanmar, I’ll admit that I didn’t have any set expectations. I shouldn’t even be allowed to use the word “planning”, perhaps convincing four other people to embark on one of my crazy unforgettable dreams would be more appropriate. I can assure you that more energy and sweat was spent obtaining visas and making sure passport photos were printed and cut correctly. In fact so little planning aside from purchasing plane tickets (ahem except for David someone ahem) went into our initial itinerary, as in we may or may not have wandered around aimlessly begging hostels and in one desperate instance a monastery to allow us just two centimeters of floor space for a night.

back streets with monks and a vendor

Did we realize that it was peak season in one of the most sought after mysterious time warps of countries? Meh-beh yes. Did we realize how crazy imbalanced the person to bed ratio would be? Meh-beh no. It seems that those approving visas in tourism affairs have yet to send a kind memo informing those in the hotel industry. Through luck and charm, we unfortunately never got the chance to take shifts in the hammock that I’d brought over nor did we have to sleep in any monasteries or on the streets (though it would’ve been fun to write those posts: “The Bear Family Swings…in Hammocks…Yeah, Hammocks!” or “The Bear Family Goes Homeless Buddhist”).

crossing the street, waving men

more apartments

Boarding a hotel shuttle bus whose glory days must have surpassed sixty years, some of us were given free tourism magazines. When I wasn’t busy daydreaming out the window and inhaling the local aromas unpleasantly belched from the many old vehicles that still operate on clunky noise/fresh air contaminating carburetors, I was busy memorizing Burmese phrases out of the tourism magazine with Elaine, sometimes adding a Texan twang (a successful method that once helped me to remember difficult Indonesian phrases during training). Hey Elaine… what’s “hello”? JaY-ZHoo-BaY… noooo, my dear… the other oneeee…MINGAH-LAH-BAH!!!! YESSS! Girl, you so SMART… Jay-ZHoo-BaY (thank you).

Weaving between the back alleys of a market, we crossed a discreet set of train tracks

Weaving between the back alleys of a market, we crossed a discreet set of train tracks

Each set of balconies seemed to have a wire dangling from it attached to a pulley down below... perhaps their carrier pigeons got lazy.

Each set of balconies seemed to have a wire dangling from it attached to a pulley above and a small clip for letters down below… perhaps their carrier pigeons got lazy.

I swear I spent that hour memorizing many more things, but those phrases failed to reappear when we wandered hungrily into a small food stall. I felt like the biggest tourist sitting there among the locals, not knowing how to order because there was no visible menu. Between lots of pointing, nodding, and smiling, they brought something out that resembled nothing but delicious bowls of noodles that left us quite pleased…until dinner blew our minds (and not our wallets).First taste of Yangon

first dinner

Until only a few years ago, before the government adopted Naypyidaw as its new capital, Yangon (aka Rangoon), a quaint southern port city tucked along the Irrawaddy delta, had been flexing its political muscle for nearly 120 years. Over the more recent decades as power has slowly transitioned from militaristic rule to something that currently resembles bits and pieces of an aspiring democracy, Yangon has unintentionally been able to preserve the unique and alluring colonial quality that is rarely found anywhere anymore (except for Cuba and popular Victorian-era lit).

peering into an alley

old colonial style apartments

Some young men cutting and polishing precious gems in the back of a shop

Some young men cutting and polishing precious gems in the back of a shop

An attempt to see the romanticized Bay of Bengal was in actuality met by tall, restrictive barbwire fences, train tracks, and a non-conspicuous looking warehouse with a corrugated facade. Maybe we had made a wrong turn and missed the mock Jersey Shore boardwalk selling Jell-O shooters and all you can eat funnel cakes (that post would’ve been called “Bear Family Receives An Unexpected Visit From Sir Stomachache and A Madame Hangover, Respectively”). We were a little bit disappointed but not enough to stop us from exploring.street cuties

We ended up wandering around, watching our every step to dodge the blood-red betel nut chew-splatters that decoratively stained the sidewalks until we unexpectedly discovered one of a supposed thirty-six (as of only three months ago or so) [discreetly placed] functioning ATM machines in the entire country of over sixty million people. Interesting fact: The kyat’s largest bank note is K10,000 which is about $11. But since ATM machines only dispensed K5,000 notes, it wasn’t hard to make it rain with only $50.

Fashion emergency: Someone should tell this guy that any self-respecting rapper hasn’t swagged around in studded denim button-ups since…NEVER

Fashion emergency: Someone should tell this guy that any self-respecting rapper hasn’t swagged around in studded denim button-ups since…NEVER

Plus! Daniel’s post: Burma Photos: Part I, Temples and Towns.

Up next: Bears Gone ‘dagon

Hari Besar: Turning 24

I turned twenty-four last week. That number seems so adult, so mature, and so arbitrary. Everyone keeps telling me that I’m going to love twenty-four, that twenty-four was a great year, as if it’s a darling puppy that’s going to bring me good luck, unconditional support, love, answers to trivial life questions, and endless jars of Nutella and occasionally make mistakes on my floor until ::inhale:: bleghtwenty-fiveblegh rings in next September. Sure, twenty-four isn’t old, like, at all (though, I know more than a handful of Indonesians who would beg to differ, suggesting daily that I should just quit life and get married here, after all, my eggs aren’t getting any younger. Ew); the majority of my tenacious twenties patiently await my next jig into legitimate adulthood. I still have awhile before the gray hairs germinate. And until I’m twenty-EIGHT, fifteen year-old me will continue to grace my current American identification card. It’s become more obvious every day that with nine months remaining in my time here, that the post-service possibilities are plenteous. That’s a reassuring thought, one that I’ll share soon enough.


Give me your [celebration] ‘face’:

Four of some of my best friends (refer to attractive photos above) made the arduous trek over to Dawar, if only for one night, to celebrate my ulang tahun desa-style. After becoming fluent (not by choice) in the goyang à la Dawar, it was only fair that I let my guests relax and get their equilibriums back in order to prevent further internal vertigo. That road is bad!

What was on the agenda for the rest of the day?

  • set up the hammock (thanks, DPs)
  • watch various silly videos (ahem — David Bisbal pirouetting and Shuffle 101)
  • round up bikes for epic adventures to dried up reservoirs with the village tots
  • **unexpected bonus! Cut my foot on a cracked mud path, ouch, shed a little blood like a champ & slowly savor the sunset as friends alternate between dragging one another on bikes via bungee cord because a chain decided to get kinky**
  • as night ensues, gather cheap Chinese fireworks, head to the sugarcane fields, blow stuff up, malam exploration/enjoy full moon
  • head home to set up makeshift movie viewing area and expose John Hoban to the heroic childhood hit that is Heavyweights. A very underestimated Ben Stiller film, indeed.


The next day, we headed to visit my school where teachers surprised me with cake and endless Indo-hugs. I got a little teary, but most of it came out in the form of snot, as I was also battling an epic Indo-cold, that left me voiceless just days prior. Before I knew it, we were turning things up a notch and boarding a veryyyy crowded panda-clad bus bound for Surabaya to continue the celebrations with more wonderful friends. Everything that should happen when one is in Surabaya, happened: slushies, canoodling, Italian, G&T’s, cake, rooftop dance party. For some, birthdays are just ordinary days that come and go but not for this lady. That just isn’t my style. Thank you to everyone who welcomed my twenty-fourth with me and made it sangat special. I am blessed to have wonderful friends both at home and abroad.


To 24. BAM! 

The Ramadan Diaries

I didn’t fast last year. Surely, I could make several excuses for why I couldn’t do it last year. In short, I wasn’t ready and I wasn’t tough enough. My mind and body weren’t ready. Adjusting to site and school and everything was overwhelming. This year I’m in a much better place and I felt ready. I feel stable enough, strong enough. For those of you who know me well, you probably know that I have close to zero restraint when it comes to appetites and needs and general self-control. I’m a true glut and it started at a very young age… I was that 4 year-old (while my mom was still sleeping) that would scoot a chair up to the freezer on Saturday mornings to snatch jars of caviar (leftovers from restaurants my mom worked at), only to eat scoopfuls of it with my bare hands until they were empty (caviar and cartoons, what a good life it was) and my mouth black or red (depending on the caviar, man). I matured into that 7 year-old that (again, when my mom wasn’t looking) once ate an entire 12-pack of those mini bags of Lay’s potato chips because they were so salty and delicious. I couldn’t stop myself. I proceeded to get really sick and learned my lesson quickly. Consequently, I’m still that 20-something year-old that buys a block of fine cheese and a fresh baguette and eats all of it within a few hours, by myself (I’ll share if asked, I swear!). On the flip side, my gluttonous habits could be worse, the substances much worse, but they’re not. I’ve been blessed because whenever I’ve been hungry or thirsty, I’ve been able to satiate those needs. I am thankful for that. Really.

I’m going to fast throughout the duration of Ramadan (July 21st-August 20th).This time around though, I am working on isolating my mind and its sometimes overbearing thoughts from my physical needs. It’s as simple as that. When my mind begins to wander towards breaking into my stash of granola bars, or I feel tempted to walk across the street to the toko to buy some double-stuffed Oreos, I’m going to extinguish those thoughts. Pfffffff. I’m not going to cave.

Last year, I nearly went crazy during Ramadan. Thankfully, my restlessness eventually morphed into productivity and I started experimenting with cooking with my family. This time around, I’m staying busy while listening to my body. When I’m tired, I’ll nap. When I’m hungry, I’ll nap… and remember that everyone else around me is suffering from the same hunger pangs. There’s a lot of free time which has given me time to think about what I want out of this year. That means better documentation, and so I came up with a multimedia project that I’ve dubbed The Ramadan Diaries. It’s essentially a project composed of my written thoughts every couple of hours upon waking up to those final hours before breaking fast, how people are behaving, how activities or lack thereof are altering the community’s overall atmosphere, and what I’m doing to stay active all while capturing photos and videos of what’s going on around me. For example, the other day, two female neighbors come over to my house with two plump chickens. I knew what was going to happen and surely those poor chickens knew they wouldn’t live to cluck again. I proceeded to capture a video of my host brother slowly sawing at the chickens’ throats with a very dull knife (poor things), blood squirted everywhere, the chickens tried to escape, I could barely watch, but in a sick-twisted-experimental-documentary-non-PETA-approved-kind-of-way, I’m glad I captured that moment. That’s just one unique Ramadan moment in my village. The past three days have been fun but also challenging, I constantly feel sluggish and weak. My nose keeps on tricking me into smelling certain things that are obviously not around, like McDonald’s chocolate sundaes and french fries. Other PCV’s, please feel free to join in on The Ramadan Diaries. The final product should make for an interesting short!

I will be documenting all of The Ramadan Diaries scribblings in a separate tab at the top of my blog.

Scribblings from the past three days:

Day 1: Saturday, July 21st

3:30a: why in the world is there someone knocking on my door? am I still dreaming?

what I ate: little over a cup of oatmeal with honey with a thick slice of papaya, a piece of tofu, and an apple. chugged a lot of water.

after eating — those last few bites of papaya were difficult. I kept stirring it around in my bowl, cutting it into smaller slices with my spoon, thinking that would make it magically appear in my stomach. But I feel good. I woke up and felt alive and awake. Mbak Nur (30, host sister) looked completely opposite of what I just described. My ibu had to yell her name several times until she emerged from her bedroom. She came out looking like she had just put an entire bag of Sour Patch Kids in her mouth. It was the ultimate stank face. The family scarfed their food down within a matter of seconds it seemed, their bodies moved slowly except for the spoon to mouth motion. I couldn’t get myself to produce any clear or comprehensive thoughts during that time except for these scribblings. Now, will I be able to fall asleep again?

4:46a: fell asleep once more after reading

8:16a: woke up to face the day. As I walked past my family’s prayer room on my way to the mandi, I found my bapak spread out all over the floor and prayer rugs, snoring like a big grizzly bear, mouth all open, palms up.

3:08p: spent all day at school, skyping and feeding my mind since I couldn’t feed my tummy. The stomach has been growling for a few hours now but I know I’ll be okay, only a few hours more until buka. Just took a sip of water (I’m occasionally allowing that) behind my door where Jay-Z looked me in the eyes (a magazine cover I taped the back of my door) where I read a sticky note that says ‘wake up and do yo’ damn thang’

5:27p: motorcycles are racing by. The increased revving a direct result of their stomachs on the prowl. It’s almost that time. I think my nose is beginning to hallucinate. I smell french fries… could it be, ibu, could it be? My host sister is playing an acoustic version of Justin Bieber’s ‘Baby’ on repeat and I’m not sure if it’s the hunger, but I am IRRITATED and want to chuck her phone into one of the mango trees in our yard.

Day 2: Sunday, July 22nd

3:16a: knock on door, interrupts my dreams. I sleep for 2 more minutes and force myself to get out of bed.

3:39a: ate two pieces of papaya, cup of oatmeal, one piece of tofu, one piece of tempe. Found it difficult to focus my eyes on something while I ate. My mind feels slow.  Host sis asks if I’m still sleepy. DUH. Can’t tell if bapak is praying in the dark or if he’s just fallen asleep sitting up. Wouldn’t put either one past him. Oh, he’s awake and eating.

Sounds — hissing from the boiling water on the stovetop, fuzzy speakers coming from mosque

3:46a: I’ve eaten 6+ pieces of papaya in the past 12 hours and yet my body isn’t responding as it usually does to eating that much papaya. Dear fiber, please do your thang. I worry about constipation. Going back to lay down.

4:46a: fall asleep once more

6:16a: zombie pee, return to bed

9:20a: I could have kept sleeping. Read, caught up with Erin, watched an episode of Sherlock. Every time I stand up, I get an intense rush of blood that blurs my vision and I must hold onto the door frame. Internal struggle not to break into my granola bar stash. I can just imagine crushing the sweet almonds between my teeth. Stop it. But the raisins!… Stop it. The family is moving slowly around the house doing their daily activities. I keep finding my ibu sitting, making these dreadful faces of of utter energy drainage. She looks absolutely exhausted and I often worry about her health.

2:15-3:15p: Nap time!!!!

4:00p: Ajeng comes over for TOEFL help. Never did I ever think I’d enjoy explaining English grammar rules, just this one time, to keep my mind off of my stomach.

5:30p: too tired for 2nd mandi of the day. This must be the first time in a year that I’ve skipped taking a 2nd mandi altogether at site. I’m no longer hungry. Just weak. My family’s just bought pecel! And ote-ote! Must eat!

6:25p: didn’t overeat but feel uncomfortably full. As always I’m the last one to finish my meal — everyone scarfs theirs down as if it’s a race. It’s eerily quiet outside. Not a moving motorcycle in sight.

Day 3: Monday, July 23rd

2:01a: awoken briefly by neighborhood children banging on drums to wake everyone up for sahur (first meal taken before dawn).

3:16a: awoken from dreams of cruising around Sam’s Club on a search for a massive pack of Twizzler’s Pull ‘n Peel to bring back to Indonesia. I never find it. Slip on shirt that I just picked up from the laundry lady that I’ve managed to dribble toothpaste on several times now. Go eat. I have already managed to break the first rule of Ramadan. I lied to my ibu who sees my bowl of veggies, she suggests I add some rice so I don’t become hungry later. I say I already have some. WHY ELLE WHY.

3:46a: in the past thirty minutes, the bathrooms been occupied and I fear I could have a shitastrophe. To be fair, this was the first time since I came to site that I’ve eaten anything but oatmeal for my first meal. The intestines are moaning. Everyone’s spent this morning going into my host sister’s room, crawling into her and her husbands bed to check on the baby. It’s a unique occurance, really.

3:54a: return to bed until I gotta be up for school.

A fun photo from last year when I sat in my room and tried to think about anything but food and ended up becoming a MONSTER:

I ate this entire jar of Nutella in 6 days. Haven’t touched the stuff since! At least not unsupervised…

Welcome Video

Yo fellow followers, this is a brief welcome video that I helped to put together to officially welcome the new group of volunteers to our ‘keluarga besar’ (big family). It’s a brief compilation of some of our positive moments as well as clips from daily life, playing with kids, cooking, and most importantly dancing for fun (hey we have lots of spare time). Enjoy.

Look out for more videos in the future!

Tiga Ratus | 300 | Three Hundred

Three hundred days in Indonesia has earned me the right to draw clichés stemming from mountains and life. I’ve been hiking a lot recently. I’ve been hiking mountains. And been hiking a separate journey in my mind. I’d slipped a few times, fallen on my bum. Sometimes uncomfortably cold. Hungry. Feeling defeated… but in the good way (!)  because I’ve always managed to get back up. Dragging my exhausted body up a mountain and back down again is in itself an impressive feat. Proof that my mind is everything and that whatever I focus my on doing, my body will keep its promise to follow, even if it seems impossible. No matter how many deranged scenarios that I’ve mentally invented during hiking of ‘what if I just threw myself over this cliff so I don’t have to hike back down?’ or ‘how much money would I pay for a gondola to bring me back down?’, I’ve always made it.

Since vacation ended, I’d felt like I was resuming where I’d left off on my mentally demanding journey, with intense waves of loneliness following in the wake, overwhelmed with feeling isolated, restricted to the boundaries of my village, and overwhelmed with the concept of time–and how I should change the way I’d been perceiving it to prevent having an existential crisis. I say this because since November, I’d lost track of living in the present, there were too many exciting countdowns to various reunions and events to keep me focused and just still. I don’t want to look back on my Peace Corps experience as one I spent counting down. I’ve spent too much time counting down until Peace Corps!

Over winter break my first year in college, I got the worst fever that I can remember, so horrible that I started hallucinating in my sleep. I still vividly remember waking up, crying, still hallucinating, and pacing my house while my mom attempted to calm me down. I was hallucinating about building this massive skyscraper-like structure by myself while entrapped in this labyrinth of never-ending wooden scaffolding. It was so overwhelming that I couldn’t sleep alone for a few nights. For a while I was looking at my experience here as just a big picture, creating lists of ideas I wanted to accomplish. Just like my fever-induced hallucination, thinking this way can be really overwhelming and make me feel pusing (dizzy). Like looking at a mountain as a whole from afar rather than rationally contemplating the attainable and realistic steps it takes to reach the peak. And understanding that I don’t have to do it alone or keep being so hard on myself. I’m only one person. I was thinking, just because I love hiking doesn’t mean I have to be amazing at it, breaking records, and doing it like it ain’t no thang. I’m allowed to go at my own pace as long as I keep my promise. I realize every day how young I still am and how I’ve still got a world ahead of me to continue discovering, and though I won’t face the same challenges that I do here, overcoming difficulties doesn’t ever stop, it just gets more complicated, the little struggles here are only making me stronger. There may be immunizations for many other nasty diseases known to man but occasional sulking, feeling like an outcast, and being an emotional nutcase is part of being a PCV. Beautiful and ironic, isn’t it?

I’m not having any sort of crisis like this post may imply, in fact I’ve been having a really solid run these past few weeks since getting back into the normal swing of things. However my body has been aching like I just got hit by a train since climbing nearby Mt. Penanggungan with my wonderful KeJombaKerto cluster-mates (they rock, for realz) last weekend.

KeJombaKerto cluster, keepin' it cute while rather exhausted.

Truong is a real-life superhero, reason #4895 why my cluster rules

My host sisters have been laughing at me hobbling around the house like an eighty year-old. And I’ve been [unhealthily] avoiding drinking as much water as I usually do for fear of getting stuck in the squat position or worse, getting stuck in the bathroom in the squat position! It’s been suggested I see the masseuse (on which account I texted the village masseuse who replied that she needed her own masseuse *FAIL*), and there’s been other explicit conversations about massages in general, initiated by some goofy teachers who have their minds stuck in other places…Four days after the hike and I can finally walk around without wanting to cry.

Other than the normal PCV mood-swings, everything’s been going well: tutorin’ the kids, developin’ my potential secondary project with other teachers, gettin’ asked to visit different schools’ events, paintin’ a world map at school, and still gettin’ asked unique questions on the reg, gem of the week: Do you have the Dalai Lama’s Facebook or e-mail address? (UHHHH I WISH I DID! Certainly I’d have many of life’s bewildering questions answered by now. I wonder if the Dalai Lama is that technologically in-tune?)

Acoustic competition hosted by my regency's MGMP, my students respectively won 3rd place! Felt like a proud mama.