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…

I Had An Experience

“I had an experience, I don’t know how to put it into words.” – Don Draper

My backyard where things get real rural.

My backyard, my calming escape, where things get real rural, a place where the dancing paddies remind me that nature is always effortlessly soothing and beautiful.

Elaine, Erin, Nis, and the kids do a happy jib as my two worlds collide. I'm hidden in there somewhere.

Elaine, Erin, Nis, and the kids do a happy jig as my two worlds collide. I’m hidden in there somewhere.

Astagafirullah! My sister was here. I blinked once. Loh! Suddenly I’m left staring April deep in the eyes as January, February, and March, respectively, pretend like I didn’t just neglect them. I’m back. I realize that it’s silly to be quoting a fictional character from Mad Man. Don Draper isn’t exactly a person whom I particularly idolize. On a recent evening, feeling at a loss on how to revive this blog, I had some Mad Men playing in the background when this line caught me. For once, I could empathize with Don as he alluded to a series of indescribable complexities happening around him. Succinctly summarized, and I realize not the most unique of phrases, it applies to my service in this moment, and very well might be how I respond when rando’s ask me: “So, how was the Peace Corps in Indonesia?”

lazy sunday

Roni and friends daydreams in the hammock on a lazy Sunday.

Rony and friends daydream in the hammock on a lazy Sunday.

Trying to digest each memory, attempting to dissect and repackage those memories into something comprehensible for my friends and family had once made me neurotic, like I was always falling behind in keeping them up to date, even if it didn’t mean much to them, it meant a lot to me. Ultimately, I saw it as an investment into my readjustment phase for when I return to the States. An enormous amount of change was happening on every level—I was maturing, I felt it, and it was scary (!)—remember Java Dreamin’? With time, that urge to always be repackaging gradually dissipated but now four months deep into 2013, I find myself at a loss for real words to delineate what’s been happening without poking fun at something or composing something that William Zinsser wouldn’t scoff at (maybe he would scoff at this). I couldn’t sneak back in with another vacation post when I’ve been busy working but had little visually to show for it.

The world map and motivational wall now graces the walls of the new computer lab at school.

World map (not pictured) and motivational wall that was once open space outside now graces the walls of the new computer lab at school. I begged my principle not to paint over it.

End of the semester sandwich making contest, 17 groups representing each class at SMANDA. The winner? A mixed tempeh patty with homemade peanut sauce.

End of the semester sandwich making contest, 17 groups representing each class at SMANDA. The winner? Class X6 who made a  mixed tempeh patty with homemade peanut sauce.


The winners, X6, who made my taste buds dance with their creative twist: a Javanese veggie patty.

Devi, part of the prep team, who made my taste buds dance with their creative twist on the veggie burger: a Javanese tempeh patty.

And would you really have wanted me to explain my recent thoughts on… how my brain often lags when speaking English at normal pace with friends because it doesn’t immediately register which language I should be processing? …what it feels like to be crammed into a tiny van originally made for eight but filled to capacity with TWENTY-THREE adults respectively (aduhhhh)…for two straight hours  (mind you, as I compromise my personal space under a tropical blanket of heat during fumerific traffic jams)? …personal space, what’s that (no, really, I’ve sincerely forgotten. Why would you want to sleep two in a double bed when you could cozily fit four? That’s a serious question)? …my random cravings for gorengan? …recent lesson plans? …how I plan to prevent Dawar from becoming a factory capital/suburb of Surabaya?…how my heart flutters a little bit when my kids excessively roll their r’s out of habit? …the small, yet humbling moments where I found myself in the neighborhood shop having conversations with several ibu’s about laundry detergents that won’t make my hands peel…how the other evening between tutoring, the kids and I got distracted and chased mosquitos in my living room with an electrical racket like the cold-blooded mosquito exterminators we were (there were so many mosquitos [read: zapping and sparks], it was like the 4th of July)? …why during vacation, my friends and I decided to fall asleep, bertiga, hip-to-hip, in the same bed when we had already paid for an extra room? …how I feel about another student getting pregnant? …tedious IGLOW planning? … how terrified and thrilled I am about leaving my Indonesia family five short weeks from now?

The word boss is thrown around frequently in Java, people like to say "yes, boss!" even though no one is really talking to their boss. Well, here I am with my boss and other teachers at the school posing for our annual calendar photo.

The word boss is thrown around frequently in Java, people like to say “yes, boss!” even though no one is really talking to their boss. Well, here I am with my boss and all of the female teachers at the school posing for our annual calendar photo.

Another lazy, hot Sunday, spent in my room with the kids. They like to play in my room because it "smells good", I have a spring bed (which isn't very common in the desa) anddddd because I have a FAN!

Another lazy, hot Sunday, spent in my room with the kids. They like to play in my room because it “smells good”, I have a spring bed (which isn’t very common in the desa) anddddd because I have a FAN!

My host niece, Kela. She's just turned one and is walking/wobbling around quickly. Points to me where you ask her where her "auntie" is.

My host niece, Kela. She’s just turned one and is walking/wobbling around quickly. Points to me when you ask her where her “auntie” is.

Peace Corps for me has gradually grown from being several hills, valleys, and peaks (with the occasional jungle) into an eloquent Everest of memories that I can’t wait to look back on and fully understand in the years to come. Sure, there’s been a few hiccups that I could have done without. Excluding those, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Every day is a blessing. Every day is full of surprises –big and small, meaningful and trivial– all essentially adding up to something. That something, I’m still trying to grasp. I had an experience. I don’t know how to put it into words.

Backyard paddies.

Backyard paddies.

I met my host grandmother for the first time last month.. she was on her way out to the fields. She gave off the loveliest of auras!

Last month while walking in the paddies with my host sister, Nis, I met my host grandmother for the first time .. she was on her way out to the fields. She gave off the loveliest of auras!

My host sister just started taking a photography class at university, on Sunday morning, we went out to practice. This a result of that. Sugar cane stalks on my head but also represents my constant balancing act.

My host sister just started taking a photography class at university, on a Sunday morning, we went out to practice. This a result of that. It may just look like sugar cane stalks on my head but it also represents my constant balancing act that I call Peace Corps.

Patience, Yeah?

I took about ONE THOUSAND ONE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY FIVE photos in the past two weeks. I just got home. I’d forgotten how stifling the Indonesian humidity actually was. Resettling back into the village, cleaning up the rainy season’s holiday gift that just keeps on giving (mold), and trying to settle a treaty between the laundry lords and the sun lords but so far the uninvited cloud lords seem to be dominating the talks.

Last night I dreamt I was still roaming the back streets of Yangon with some people I’m missing very much. Eager to share what’s been going on, I’ll leave you with a preview.


TWO sets of siblings (+ONE honorary sibling) coming together from THREE different countries to visit TWO more…

THOUSANDS of ancient temples, ONE gorgeous dreamlike lake, COUNTLESS adorable trash puppies, TWENTY PLUS hotel rejections, reoccurring confusion between FOUR different currency conversions during ONE big holiday reunion that was too much wonderfulness to actually quantify, REALLY

(and ONE jar of Trader Joe’s Cookie Butter confiscated by the Bangkok airport security, and that’s the closest I’ve come to really crying in a long time)

Stay tuned.

IMG_0194 IMG_0197 IMG_0211 IMG_0258 IMG_1349 IMG_0937

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.

When You Give A Kid A Camera

I had my first formal photography lessons when I was nine. While using an old manual Nikon, under the artistic guidance of Jen Fariello, I learned to visualize ordinary settings and situations from alternative perspectives. In short, it was an unforgettable summer, laying down the foundations of a creative platform to abide by and one of the reasons why I love photography and am a very visual learner today. I wish shooting with film was as common today as it was then (there’s nothing like the high from both the exhilaration and the chemicals that you get developing your own rolls) but I haven’t found one place in Java that accepts film — I’ve looked! Alas embracing digital technology is unavoidable and unless one has the right tools to get those creative juices organically flowing, homogeneity ensues, especially in a culture like Java’s. Now that I’ve got quite a following of neighborhood children, just as impressionable and curious as I was at that age, I’ve taken this as an opportunity to get their sticky sugarcane paws on my camera and see what happens…

(throwback: the first time this happened resulted in one of my absolute favorites that without a doubt may define a huge portion of my service and give reason to why I have 4 new cavity fillings):

Let’s be real: teaching photography isn’t easy, especially in a foreign language. Even I’m still learning how to use my camera. I’m not perfect at all. The kids I work with are naturally bold so what I’ve focused on the most is getting the kids to hold the camera properly, reducing camera shake, framing shots, and cleansing all posed ‘peace/punk/cherrybelle-sign-y’ shots of their friends out of their little systems in order to capture something more intuitive. They see things that I don’t. They value beauty in things that I may not. Some naturally possess the eye and some don’t. Either way, giving encouragement and trusting that they won’t shatter one of my most expensive possessions is crucial to their creative learning….

For being elementary school children, I’m impressed. A few of my recent favorites:

That brings me to ask: Does anyone have any ideas how to start a sustainable photography project in the villages?

The Perks of Peaking

I’m going backwards a bit with this post. School is school. Grading is grading. Teenagers are… [hormonal/temperamental/heartbreaking] teenagers. Cute village tots are still cute village tots. And if you forgot, Indonesia is still really, really HOT. Every day has its fair share of bizarre moments, of up’s and down’s, of beauty, but nothing sticks out enough that I feel the urge to share. I’d rather share some photos from a recent hiking trip to Mount Lawu that I took back in August, with a bunch of bomb-diggity friends of mine. I needn’t explain much because two of them have already done that quite well… check it: DP‘s ‘Doing Lawu‘ & JAlf‘s ‘The Sky Is Open‘.

What isn’t depicted in these photos (thanks JAlf):

A group of 7 of us rode up to the trail head, driven by a slightly crazy and more than slightly awesome person, to begin at around 10 at night.  We made our leisurely way up through the posts along the trail, stopping at post 3 (of 5) to eat and sleep a bit.  We sat in the frigid night air consuming trail mix, cookies, and peanuts.  Unfortunately, the stop also lowered our body temperatures to the point that it felt my muscles were doing some sort of sadistic foxtrot under my skin.  We, again, relied on the Cuddle Puddle™ to save us.  We raked ourselves together into a leaf pile of people and attempted to get some fitful rest before going on toward the top.

All I have to say is, thank goodness for Cuddle Puddles™ or I’d have frozen to death.


(1) The initial ‘we peaked’ jig looked something like like this. note: I have about 25 more of these —

(2) The sarongs kept us warm and cozy and then the bromance kicked in…

(3) After the bromance wore-off [just a little], there was more dancing, pop-tart toasting (minus a real toaster, more like a cheersing), mini-naps in the sun, and overall happiness to have peaked Lawu together. 

(4) Perhaps hiking down wasn’t as smooth as it should have been. There were some wrong turns that led us to rock climb (it wasn’t enjoyable), we were hungry and tired, legs felt like jell-o, thighs were kiiiiiickin’ tight, and we all felt gross. The aftermath was nice though as we slept and were fed liiiiberally.


side note: Not a day goes by where I regret that I brought a down vest and wool socks to Indonesia. Even though Indonesia is HOT, mountains are COLD.

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.