Today is the 17th of June. For the last several months I’ve been eagerly marking the occasion of the seventeenth, making sure that my friends and family know what this day means: I’m one month closer to the end of my service. Exactly two months from today will be my last day as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and a couple months following that I’ll be home. Home.
A few weeks ago my batch had our Close of Service Conference. Peace Corps service often feels divided into segments by the conferences: Pre-Service training, In-Service Training, Mid-Service Training, and Close of Service Conference. It’s a good way to mark the time during this experience where time seems kind of arbitrary and the Peace Corps cliche about days taking forever but months flying by feels absolutely true. Every so often we get together as a group, take stock of where we are in our service, learn some things, reconnect, and marvel at how few of us are left. During our COS Conference there were 49 of the original 88 that stepped off the plane in Manila almost two years ago. People left voluntarily or involuntarily, for medical, personal, and family reasons, and our Peace Corps family has kept shrinking. We all close our service at different times, so this was the last time we would be together as a group.
This conference was focused on wrapping up our time in the Philippines and the transition back home. We celebrated our successes, laughed over the stories of our ridiculous struggles, talked about what’s expected of us in the last few months (apparently giving a framed portrait of myself as a remembrance would be greatly appreciated but I’m going to find other gifts to hand out), learned about opportunities available to us when we get home, and heard from previously COSed volunteers about life after the Peace Corps. Apparently we’re never going to find jobs and grocery stores will make us cry. Thanks, that’s comforting.
This conference felt like a goodbye, but I still have those last two months to go. I have work to finish up here, with library books to finish processing, a training session to run, and hopefully some sort of events in order to make the students interested in reading the 350 books that the school is getting as part of this project. Additionally, I’m going to see a friend for my birthday and going to another friend’s site to help train her students on running a library so that her library development project will be sustainable after she leaves. Then there’s the paperwork involved with closing my service, a goodbye party which is apparently not optional in Filipino culture, cleaning and packing, a few days in Manila to wrap things up, and then I’m done and off on more adventures before I finally get home sometime in October. There’s going to be a lot for me to process about everything that I’ve been through in the past two years, and that’s going to take a while, but for right now I’m focusing on these last two months…and occasionally daydreaming about home.
I know this is going to sound really spoiled, but here goes: I’ve been on a lot of beach vacations since I’ve been in the Philippines, and even though I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every one of them I decided to do something different for my last big vacation before I close my service in August. I wanted to experience some history and culture that I wouldn’t get to see in the Philippines, so I flew off to Indonesia, specifically the island of Java.
Things I just learned about Java and Indonesia from Googling it so I could write this list:
The population of the island is 145 million, according to a 2015 census, making it the most populous island on Earth. (Luzon, in the Philippines, is fourth.)
It’s the thirteenth largest island on Earth.
It contains more than half of the total population of Indonesia, despite being its fourth largest island.
More than two thirds of the island’s land is under cultivation, mostly with rice.
Religious history in Indonesia is extremely varied, with Buddhist and Hindu influences, mixed with pre-Islamic Javanese traditions.
The vast majority of Indonesians (more than 87%) are Muslim. In fact, Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any country in the world. Islam was introduced through Arab Muslim traders.
The Indonesian constitution recognizes six religions.
Indonesia was a colony of the Netherlands, and known as the Dutch East Indies, for approximately 140 years (there was a bit of time when the British took over then gave it back to the Dutch). Japan occupied the colony during World War II, after which Indonesia gained independence.
The three major languages spoken on Java are Javanese, Sundanese and Madurese.
I arrived in Jakarta after midnight and made my way to my hostel for a short few hours of sleep before I got on a train the next morning. (As a side note, almost two years of flying in and out of the airport in Manila has made me think that it’s normal for a major international airport to be smack dab in the middle of the city. It strikes me as odd when I have to get on a highway to get to the actual city I’m visiting. Urban planning? What’s that?)
The next morning I took a train to central Java, to the city of Yogyakarta, which is known as the cultural center of Indonesia and it’s where I spent most of my vacation. The train wasn’t exactly the same caliber of fanciness as the bullet train I took in Japan, but it was perfectly comfortable. I spent the part of the ride that I wasn’t sleeping staring out the window as the Javanese countryside passed by. Honestly, it looked a lot like the Philippines, but that doesn’t mean that the palm trees and rice fields streaming past my window were any less beautiful.
One of the things I most wanted to do in Indonesia was see the sunrise from the top of Borobudur Temple, which dates from the 8th century and is one of the largest Buddhist temples in the world. I signed up for a tour with Kaleidoscope of Java Tours and I couldn’t have been more happy with them. We got to enter the temple before sunrise, which not every tour provides, and our guide was possibly the sweetest person in the world. She took the time to explain what we were looking at, and that made a big difference in my appreciation of the temple.
The main temple is a stupa built in three tiers around a hill which was a natural centre: a pyramidal base with five concentric square terraces, the trunk of a cone with three circular platforms and, at the top, a monumental stupa. The walls and balustrades are decorated with fine low reliefs, covering a total surface area of 2,520 m2. Around the circular platforms are 72 openwork stupas, each containing a statue of the Buddha.
The vertical division of Borobudur Temple into base, body, and superstructure perfectly accords with the conception of the Universe in Buddhist cosmology. It is believed that the universe is divided into three superimposing spheres, kamadhatu, rupadhatu, and arupadhatu, representing respectively the sphere of desires where we are bound to our desires, thesphere of forms where we abandon our desires but are still bound to name and form, and the sphere of formlessness where there is no longer either name or form. At Borobudur Temple, the kamadhatu is represented by the base, the rupadhatu by the five square terraces, and the arupadhatu by the three circular platforms as well as the big stupa. The whole structure shows a unique blending of the very central ideas of ancestor worship, related to the idea of a terraced mountain, combined with the Buddhist concept of attaining Nirvana.
The tour also took us to Mendut temple and monastery, which is near Borobudur. These two temples, along with a third, are situated in a straight line and are probably related in some way but the exact significance of their placement has been lost to time.
I didn’t see a whole lot of the monastery because I was overheated and not feeling well so I found a bench situated in a shaded area that got a nice breeze and took a ten minute nap. Turns out Buddhist monasteries are nice and quiet and perfect for napping.
This exquisite temple, set within a cute neighbourhood around 3.5km east of Borobudur, may look insignificant compared with its mighty neighbour, but it houses the most outstanding statue in its original setting of any temple in Java. The magnificent 3m-high figure of Buddha is flanked by bodhisattvas: Lokesvara on the left and Vairapana on the right. The Buddha is also notable for his posture: he sits Western-style with both feet on the ground.
Another day I got to observe the batik process. Batik is a process of wax-resist dying that originated in Indonesia that can be used to create intricate, colorful designs. The fabric can then be made into anything you can imagine and some of it can go for a very high price, which is only fair given the amount of skill and time that goes into creating the designs.
First the design is traced onto the fabric in pencil.
Then all the parts of the design that should stay white are traced using hot wax and tool called a tjanting, which is basically a stick with a small copper well to hold the wax, with a spout to apply the wax to the fabric.
Sometimes, for intricate repeating pattern, the first step is to stamp the design onto the fabric using copper stamps dipped in wax. This reduces the time needed in tracing the design and waxing the white areas of the design.
Next the fabric is dyed the first color, and once it’s dry wax is applied to the parts of the design that should stay that color. Wax keeps the dye from penetrating the fabric so the color underneath is preserved through the many layers of color that are added before the fabric is finished.
This is where the fabrics are dyed:
After all the colors have been applied the wax is removed by rinsing the fabric in boiling water, at which point the colors are all revealed.
Then it’s hung to dry.
The next day I took a trip to Prambanan Temple Compounds. It’s easy to reach by public bus so I didn’t take a tour and just enjoyed wandering around the temples and taking pictures. These are Hindu temples built in the 10th century. Overall there are 240 temples in the compound in various sizes as well as states of collapse, with some remaining as piles of rubble.
That night I went to see the Ramayana ballet, a traditional Javanese ballet that is based on an epic poem about the divine prince Rama and his wife Sita. It’s originally an Indian story, but it’s presented in a uniquely Javanese style. You can see the ballet at Prambanan, but it was sold out when I attempted to get my ticket, so I saw a different performance in the city. It was a mesmerizing performance.
When I wasn’t running around to temples and ballets I was having a good time just wandering around. I always felt comfortable and people were happy to help point me in the right direction if I looked too lost. Yogyakarta has a vibrant arts culture and it was fun to see surprising bits of street art pop up when I didn’t expect them. Also, it was interesting to observe a Muslim culture after almost two years living in a strongly Catholic country. I enjoyed hearing the sound of the call to prayer as I wandered around the city.
I took the train back to Jakarta and spent a couple of nights there, but I didn’t do much exploring. Jakarta is very busy and crowded and vacation is exhausting so I spent most of the last day of my trip relaxing.
I had a lot of fun visiting Java and I’m glad that I went by myself. This was my first international trip by myself, and it was nice to be able to do what I wanted. I wish I had more time to explore other parts of the country, but maybe someday I’ll be back.
The next step is gluing a pocket into each book. I’m going to get glue everywhere, I can see it now.
These pockets are made by printing them on the back of scrap paper and folding over the edges. Next a card will get inserted in each pocket, but the ones I was given don’t quite fit, so they need to be trimmed.
4/3-Today is the first time that I can remember missing Opening Day for the Cubs. However, I’m going to be spending my day in a warehouse full of books, picking out appropriate ones for my library project.
4/3-I spent five and a half hours in a hot, dusty warehouse picking out books. I’m exhausted and achy but I now have 300 fiction books for my students to read.
4/4-Laundry service has become one of my favorite things. Few things make me as happy as a bag full of clean, fluffy, folded clothes.
4/9-I can tell that it’s the hot season: cold water bucket baths have become the best part of my day.
4/17-Today a motorcycle with two men drove past me and I did a double take when I saw that the guy on the back was busy shaving. At least it wasn’t the guy who was driving.
4/20-I hate ants even more than I hate cockroaches. Especially the mean bitey ones that like to get into my bed. Terrible way to wake up in the morning.
4/20-Getting the front seat of the van always makes it feel like my lucky day.
4/22-At the airport this morning there were four nuns eating hot dogs for breakfast.
4/24-Today I took an eight hour train ride across Java. Rural Indonesia looks a lot like the Philippines.
4/25-My day: woke up at 3:30 AM. Watched sunrise from the top of an ancient Buddhist temple. Took a short nap on a bench in a monastery.
4/26-Until tonight I didn’t realize that I haven’t seen any street dogs in Indonesia, when I saw a Shih Tzu run down the street and into a pizza parlor.
4/27-Today I heard Sweet Child o’ Mine while visiting Prambanan, an ancient Hindu temple, because what else would I hear?