My First Month at Site

By Nick Choa
June 20, 2017

When I first arrived at my permanent site in East Java, it felt like a complete break from the routine of the 10-week Pre-Service Training.

I had grown used to every minute of my day being planned and accounted for, but I suddenly found myself in a new bedroom with an empty schedule and an unfamiliar site to explore. My first instinct was to lie down and play music. I wanted to sleep all day, to stay in my room be passive, but there was another voice telling me that it would be a mistake to start my time here in that way. I realized pretty quickly that it would be easy to get swallowed up by empty hours and the unfamiliarity of being in a new place. I forced myself up and started trying to establish a routine.

Ramadan and its daily activities have been a central part of my experience in Indonesia so far. During Ramadan, Muslims fast from the first call to prayer at 4:00 AM until sundown at 5:15. The pace of daily life is slow during Ramadan, as people try to conserve energy and stay healthy during the fast. Many businesses and restaurants are shut all day until customers emerge in the early evening. Like most Peace Corps volunteers in Indonesia, I joined in on the fasting and started waking up with my family for sahur, a meal at 4:00 am. 

I felt conspiratorial pounding cups of tea and eating in the dark with my host parents, but grew to like the feeling of a secret pre-dawn meal. After eating, people typically stay awake for a few minutes to digest, and then go back to sleep until it’s time to wake up again for work. I managed four days of fasting before falling victim to my first bout of Peace Corps stomach issues, which forced me to abandon the fast and get back on my normal diet. I might still work up the energy to jump back on the wagon.

Mosque_Nick Choa
The mosque in my village from where you can hear the call to prayer five times a day

My host dad, Pak Daniyal, works at a bank in a nearby city, but took a few days off to welcome me and help me get settled when I arrived. He is a geography buff. He says he could name all 50 US states in alphabetical order, once upon a time, but is out of practice. My host mom, Bu Evi, owns Cantiqué Salon—a beauty salon a few minutes away from my school near the village market. There is a sign that hangs over our house that reads House of Beauty, and I often drop by the salon with Pak Daniyal when he takes me out to see something. The salon is especially popular during Ramadan, so Evi has been at work until late most days.

Evi and Daniyal have a daughter named Alya, who is 20 years old and studies in Jakarta. She texted me in English when I arrived to say welcome, and to warn me that in a small village like this one people are friendly and there might be photo requests incoming—a warning I’ve since found to be prudent and accurate. I seem to attract gift baskets like a magnet. I have sometimes found myself biking through the gate to my house with plastic bags full of cookies and oranges and no memory of how they got slung over my handlebars to begin with. I haven’t met Alya in person yet but like many Indonesians she will come home for Idul Fitri, the holiday after Ramadan, and I will have a chance to say hello face-to-face. 

The chimneys_Nick Choa
The smoke from the chimneys colors up my village sky, though not in a very good way.

Time has a funny way of moving here. It seems to stretch during the day, to the point where I find myself living moment to moment, but weeks or even a month can pass in the blink of an eye with none of the rhythm I’m accustomed to back home. There is always the temptation to retreat to my room and read, watch TV, or otherwise preserve my own space, identity, and mental state. But I have found that a willingness to be open and curious about what is going on here leads to interesting discoveries and experiences. It feels like being mindful and noticing what is happening around me has made being here easier. A question I often get is “Kerasan?” “Feel at home?” No, not yet, really. But I think there is something to be said for slowly opening up the bubble we tend to construct. For listening and allowing things to happen outside of our control. Doing so has made my first month here interesting and meaningful, at least during this month of pre-dawn feasts and liquid hours, where each day seems to flow into the next.

Nick Choa

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