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

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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.

sammy

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.