Wal-Mart Revelations

I distinctly remember the first time in my life when I felt like a minority in my own country. This was sometime in the early 2000’s when my sister was living in Miami, and we were in need of some items for her apartment so we traveled a few minutes by car to the local Wal-Mart. In the twenty minutes that we spent inside, we were the only Caucasians, and the only ones speaking English other than our bi-lingual cashier. Yes, this is a rather stereotypical scenario, and I’m sure I’m not the first person to have some form of cultural awakening in Wal-Mart, or Miami for that matter. However contrived the scenario may have been, it made me cognizant of the ever-churning melting pot that is America. No longer a country of black and white, America has grown to embrace the full spectrum of color and culture. This realization about identity in America resurfaced recently when I found myself surrounded by 50 of my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers in Indonesia. When we set foot on Indonesian soil for the first time, we were immediately seen through a magnifying glass. We were a motley crew to say the least, and it should come as no surprise that over the next three months, the two most common questions asked of us were “where do you come from?” followed by “what do Americans look like?”

I was one of a select few who had a relatively straightforward response. I was born in a fairly homogenous town in America, and my ancestry is confined to most of Western Europe. Other volunteers constantly had to clarify; “I am Vietnamese and Chinese, but yes, home for me is America.” In another exchange, I witnessed Indonesians boldly dance in front of a friend with their arms flailing about, saying dari India, dari India (“I’m from India, I’m from India.”) Politely, she corrected them “I was born in America, but I am Sri Lankan.” They’d retort, “Sri Lanka? Where is that? Ohhh, well you might as well be Indian!” I had to reconsider the implication of identity and movement and realize the expansive territory that comes with the two. In nations that aren’t as upwardly mobile as America, your identity is a static concept often dictated by your physical appearance.

As Peace Corps volunteers, we are often considered the lens through which others see our country. In some instances, we are the first Americans ever met. The way we inadvertently portray our country from what and how we eat, to our opinions of Obama, will color their own opinions of America. Yes, most have access to a TV in which images of America frequently pan across the screen, but there is a disconnect between that America and the America we are choosing to represent. My favorite question being, “Is Hollywood real?” Last week I was asked if I had medicine to cure someone with Downs Syndrome. I initially thought this question absurd, but after pausing for a moment, I realized that in popular media there is medicine for everything and Downs Syndrome doesn’t exist.

The more you travel and see the world, the more you’re sharpening and refining your senses, and your relationship to people and place. Home becomes a moveable ideal. In many ways this is a huge liberation from the way I previously viewed home; a de-materialization of sorts. In my early twenties, I seemed to place more stock in material investment than spiritual investment. When I first made the decision to move abroad to Thailand, it was brought to my attention that I had simply acquired more things than necessary. I began the purge of picking and choosing what I wanted to take with me, and since then have attempted to shift the focus away from the material and towards emotional and mental contentment. Home can be whatever is carried around inside you, so you might as well make it a place full of happy faces and beautiful places.

In many ways, it gives me a great sense of pride that I can say I’ve felt like a minority in my own country, and that I’m now in a country that affords me the privilege to travel and act as a cultural liaison to other countries. My views and opinions are the synthesis of many cultures, and the more people I meet and encounter the more my worldview expands and contracts, loses focus and refocuses. But, what I’ve learned from travel and life abroad is that movement comes at a price and that price is being able to reflect on your position in the world, and where you stand.

Musings on Pirates and Toilet Paper

In my attempt to document the major happenings of late, I neglected to capture the microcosms that comprise daily life in Surade. Given my recent trip to Singapore, and the string of holidays in August, it’s also been difficult to fall into a steady routine. There have been a number of recurring questions I’ve received over the last few months regarding daily activities, which deserve response. In particular, what is it like living in the world’s most populous Muslim country? What’s this I hear about you not having toilet paper? Where have all the males gone? Do you really know how to speak the language of pirates? Fortunately, these questions are loosely related and for the most part fall under the large umbrella of Islam (yes, even pirates). Unfortunately, my knowledge of Islam is limited, so bear with me as I attempt to explain things to the best of my understanding.
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So yes, life in the world’s largest Muslim country, what’s it like? Well, for starters it begins early. The neighboring mosque has its first call to prayer at 4:45 am at which point I bolt upright in bed (yes, it’s that loud) and either decide to get up or frantically search for my earphones. The remaining four calls to prayer dictate what’s to be done with the rest of the day. As a result of these prayer times, we have class six days a week from 7 am- 1:45 pm (the Friday class schedule is shortened to account for a longer prayer time). I’ve previously lived in other countries where Catholicism and Buddhism are the majority religions, but this is my first experience living in a country where the majority religion so thoroughly pervades daily life. Given that 88% of Indonesians identify themselves as Muslim, and the overall impact of the religion on all activities, Indonesia is in many ways a spiritual economy. Religious practices are often linked to broader projects of economic change. The following quote from a human resources manager by the name of Sukarno helps to elucidate the influence of Islam on daily life, and how Indonesia could be classified as a spiritual economy:
When we were a small developing country in the 1970s we thought that worship [ibadah] meant praying, giving alms [zakat], or going on the hajj. That is not true, in fact, from studying the Qur’an we know that passages dealing with these things are only about 20 percent of the content, the rest of the Qur’an is about human relations. The crucial thing is that in everyday activity—waking up and going to work, doing family errands, and so forth— one’ s intentions [niat] are toward worship. . . . In the hadith there is the story of Muhammad and the stone maker. Muhammad saw two people. One was always at the mosque, engaged in ritual. The other was working so hard, providing for his family, that he didn’t have time for ritual. Yet, it was he who went to heaven while the former did not.images

The first principal of Indonesia’s philosophical foundation is “the belief in the one and only God.” When we first arrived to Indonesia, all Peace Corps volunteers were required to get identification cards. One of the questions asked of us when issuing the cards was “what is your religion?” I guess this struck me as odd, and it seemed irrelevant information to tag onto my height, weight and eye color. I was given the option to choose between six religions that are recognized in Indonesia: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confuscianism. Agnosticism, atheism, and blasphemy are not options because they are considered illegal. For a country whose motto is “unity in diversity” it doesn’t seem fair to require someone to choose a religion without accounting for all beliefs- God or no God. Hence, an interesting paradox has emerged where democracy has been met with an unintended decline in religious freedom. There are a number of reasons why nothing has been altered regarding some of the out-of-date religious practices. Mainly, the majority (including the Government) chooses to be passive and silent about matters, and there’s also a growing radicalization. Despite this over-arching generalization of Islam in Indonesia, I’ve felt nothing but acceptance and support within my own community. During Ramadan, I spent a significant amount of time at the mosque, and each time I was graciously received by countless smiling and excited Muslims. They were happy to expand their community. A woman pulled me aside and with hand gestures explained that tall, short, American, Indonesian — we are all the same. It’s not there yet, but Indonesia is a country that is a model for tolerance and pluralism (albeit with some interesting parameters), but more importantly it is one of only a select few countries where democracy and Islam are attempting to work.

Is it true you really don’t have toilet paper?
Upon entering any Indonesian bathroom, the song “The Final Countdown” usually starts playing in my head. There’s a certain degree of build up required before showering or having a bowel movement over here, a “yea, I can do this.” If there’s one thing to be said favorably about the bathroom situation it’s that it’s efficient. You get in, do your thing, and get out. You don’t want to sit in a squat position for longer than necessary, nor do you want to shock your nervous system with too many buckets of cold water. The bathroom, which for some is a nice place to retreat from the hustle and bustle of daily life to read your favorite magazine is not the same kind of sanctuary here. Your old habits immediately change. There are particular rules regarding personal hygiene when going to the toilet, the code known as Qadaa’al-haajah. One code states that eating any food while on the toilet is strictly forbidden (and for good reason- talk about a balancing act!). Another explicit issue mentioned by the Qur’an is one of washing hands especially following going to the toilet. Cleanliness is necessary before any type of worship in Islam. Which is not to say that you can’t use toilet paper, but years and years of conditioned cleaning by water has made toilet paper virtually extinct. For the first month, this took some getting used to, and I certainly didn’t want to be caught somewhere with a case of Allah’s revenge without being equipped with the necessary supplies. Since getting used to the squatty potties and no toilet paper, it’s not so bad. In fact, studies show that squatting is the preferable and healthiest option for defecating. It’s a tough habit to break, but if it frees up more time and trees then I might as well get used to it.

Where have all the males gone?
Since moving to Surade, it’s become increasingly apparent that the ratio of males to females is about one male to every three females. A month before the birth of my baby sister, we were all sitting around discussing the gender of the soon-to-be baby, and there was a unanimous vote hoping she’d be a boy. Why did everyone want a boy I asked? The answer I received is that there’s a shortage of males. I started to take note, and on my teaching staff, in the classroom, and even in town there were indeed a lack of males. In the classroom this could be explained because most males choose to go to SMK (or trade school) rather than my school, SMAN, because there is a greater job placement after SMK for specialized professions such as mechanics, computers, etc. Beyond the classroom, most of the men are absent from the household because they are working in the fields during the day. The fathers in four of the houses surrounding mine harvest rice and gula merah (red sugar) for most of the day. The last trend I picked up on is the number of men who smoke cigarettes, and the ensuing health complications. I’ve noticed this trend to a startling degree- many woman who have 2 and 3 year olds but are already widows. 67% of Indonesian men smoke, and each year smoking-related illnesses kill at least 200,000 people (the number of females who smoke is 5%).


The other half of this argument is the outwardly communal nature of the females. The men assume more of a background position, smoking their cigarettes and drinking coffee with one another or spending time at the mosque. The mosque is more frequented by males, because it’s considered harem for women who are having their periods to enter the mosque. Some females still go out to the fields and work, but most choose to spend their time at home washing, cooking, and taking care of the kids.

Can you really speak the language of pirates?
When I first found out I was moving to Indonesia, I joked with some of my friends that I was finally going to live out my dream of becoming a pirate. In the land of 17,000 islands anyone can become a pirate. One of my proudest moments in country came when watching the TV series, Archie with some of my fellow volunteers. In the particular episode we were watching, pirates hijacked Archie’s ship. When the pirates aboard the ship started speaking, we miraculously understood them. We went back to re-watch the episode just to make sure our ears weren’t failing us, and lo and behold, they were speaking Bahasa Indonesia. This was like discovering the key to a whole different universe.
In August, various articles were published about Indonesia having the world’s most pirate-infested waters. It turns out I was not alone in thinking that Indonesia is the ideal place to be a pirate. A few years ago most of the pirate activity was taking place in Somalia and the Malacca Strait, however, those areas proved to be easy places to catch pirates with their exposed coastline and open waters. Indonesia, on the other hand has thousands of isolated island groups, shallow estuaries, and mangrove forests that are ideal for hiding pirates and their booty. Aboard most of these boats, the modern-day pirates speak Malay, Bahasa Indonesia or a regional dialect. Bahasa Indonesia is a standardized register of Malay, and other than a few words (most of which differ because the colonization of the Dutch in Indonesia) the languages are virtually indistinguishable. It may not be the official language, but considering that Indonesia is the number one region for pirate activity in the world, and Southeast Asia and the Indian sub-continent are the second most trafficked pirate region in the world, Bahasa Indonesia or a dialect of Malay is currently the most widely spoken language of pirates. riskiest-areas-to-ship-where-the-pirates-rule-the-seas
Perhaps even more interesting is the correlation between pirate activity and Islam. It may just happen to be a coincidence that todays most pirate infested waters were the same waters used by Arab traders to spread Islam. The following are the most pirated waters this year: Indonesia (43 attacks), Somalia (31 attacks), Nigeria (22 attacks), the Gulf of Aden (10 attacks; coastlines: Somalia and Yemen), and the Red Sea (7 arracks, coastlines: Saudi Arabia and Egypt). All of the aforementioned countries have an overwhelming Muslim majority, with the exception of Nigeria, whose Muslim population is now slightly smaller than its Catholic population. If you’re caught in a scuffle in waters previously frequented by Arab traders, it would serve you well to speak Arabic in addition to Bahasa Indonesia. Perhaps Indonesia is preparing me for pirate life after all (Arabic is the most common language learned in schools in Indonesia after the local language and BI).

Chicken Feet Soup for the Indonesian Soul

In the month of August the Indonesian calendar witnessed the celebration of Ramadan, Idul Fitri, and Independence Day. For those of you not living in Indonesia and looking for some frame of reference, it’s comparable to celebrating Hannukah and Christmas, and then New Years Eve a week later. Only here there seems to be a great deal more family time, and a lot less (no) alcohol to temper the situation. There’s an Indonesian saying that your neighbors are closer to you than your furthest family members. In fact, it’s difficult to determine where one bloodline ends and the other begins. In the end they all just flow together. When I first moved here, it was like meeting the Dugger family as each person came forward to introduce himself or herself as a sister or brother. Since then, my relationship with each of these people has deepened. The renewed focus on friends and family after a month of Ramadan equipped everyone with a heightened social duty to participate in life’s many milestones. The subsequent events made me feel like I was an extra in the movie, Being John Malkovich, as I ventured through the different portals of life. I visited the homes of newborns, went to cemeteries to sing passages of the Koran to the deceased, and paid respect to the dying. What stood out among these events wasn’t a singular event, rather the accessibility and rawness of the emotions from each event. For the first time in my life, I was able to see these events with the perspective of an outsider looking in, rather than from an insider looking out. Which is not to say that these events didn’t affect me personally- they did- but they also allowed me to witness deeper cultural norms that are usually kept at bay.


Perhaps it has something to do with living on the world’s most populous island, but here the frequency that you’re faced with life and death is far greater than what it is back home. In addition to the greater frequency, it’s also much more raw. Whether it’s life or death, we choose to keep these events behind white, sterile curtains (yes, I am aware of the sanitary measures that are in place as well). Somewhere between the curtains you allow yourself to filter through the emotions you want to come to the surface and those you don’t. In the process you lose a bit of the humanness. If it’s not life or death we’re dealing with, we create our own walls that will somehow allow us to keep our deepest sorrows private. Later, it’s possible to seek solace in your own room and process the emotions however you see fit while keeping up the bulletproof image. Here the pain and emotion that you bear is a shared weight, and everyone experiences it in the open.
Monkey-ing around with my favorite 2-year olds in the neighborhood

Monkey-ing around with my favorite 2-year olds in the neighborhood

When we visited the home of the dying man, his mattress had been removed from his room and was positioned in the middle of the living room where it was surrounded by over forty friends and family members. In an earlier post, I made a comment about the Javanese, and their love of slumber parties. No matter whose house you’re at on the island of Java, there will be a full supply of mattresses, lest you decide you want to spend the night there. This first struck me as rather bizarre, and just plain uncomfortable (these aren’t memory foam or extra pillow top mattresses either). It’s still something that I’m getting used to but I have come to accept as common practice. Everyone was there to keep him company and remind him of his fondest memories before passing away.
It was a similar process when my Ibu gave birth. The mattress was drug out into the front room, and all my neighbors came streaming in the house to accompany her while she had her contractions. She later walked herself to the car and was driven to the Bidan’s (midwife’s) house to give birth. Upon her return a few hours later, she miraculously seemed unphased by the whole ordeal. That night she slept with my bapak, four of the neighborhood children and their mothers, and a few aunts from out of town in our living room. I carefully tiptoed over the sprawled out bodies each night on my way to the bathroom-what a gauntlet! When my Ibu wasn’t able to produce milk for the first days after delivery, our neighbor (the mother of a 2-year old) stepped right up to the plate. Sometimes I’m still caught off guard by how communal everyone is over here, but always with the best interests at heart.
Trying to fully engage in the culture here when you know that just across the ocean your family is experiencing the same milestones, albeit in their own ways leaves you feeling like you’ve reached a bittersweet standstill. You have one foot in the water, and the other out. In the back of my head, I can’t help but think that after two years expire I’ll return to one family, and leave the other. When we visited the grave of the deceased, the first number my eye jumped to was the woman’s birth year- 1948. This year happens to be the same birth year as my own mother. I started thinking about her, the portrait of happiness and health, while simultaneously feeling a bit guilty that I was here looking at this gravestone. Proximity is after all the greatest indicator of a relationship’s vitality. A few days later, when my Ibu gave birth and the baby was born on my Mom’s 65th birthday, it was a fortuitous coincidence. I could take a step back and be grateful for experiencing life’s milestones on two continents and even more grateful for my simple, rice-field life. Sipping on a coconut, and watching the sun set on the rice paddies, I was able to ponder and process the weight of these emotions without the usual distractions or feeling like there was somewhere else I needed to be.
We closed the month of August, and the marathon holiday season with a trip to Ujung Genting to see the baby green sea turtles off. They provided a nice microcosm of life, and setting those tenacious buggers out to sea without looking back bolstered my enthusiasm for what’s to come.

*Chicken Feet Soup is a nod to the series, Chicken Soup for the teenage soul. Throughout Ramadan, one of our staple ‘soul-healing’ foods was chicken feet soup.

The Ramadan Diaries (Indonesia style)

It’s Ramadan, so much to my delight Surade is a shadow of its usual self. For once, my bike and I have free reign of the pockmarked and scarred tarmac, and can explore for hours without exhaust spewing out at us from buses and motos. Small, white faces painted with talc powder periodically emerge from the rice paddies, and run to the road to greet me, “hellooooo hellooooo mistaaaaaaa.” Inside, their parents lay listlessly, biding time until they can break their fast. The torrential rainstorms of late have turned the roads into a series of muddy ponds, and I return home looking like an abstract expressionist painting, much to my ibu’s dismay. It’s times like these I feel like a kid again, and am happy that here it’s so easy to disengage from the pretenses of professional life. However, in this marathon month of fasting, it’s a fine balance to sustain energy from sun up until sun down.


The word Ramadan, which literally means “scorching heat or dryness” is equally appropriate in Indonesia as it is in parts of the Middle East. We’re currently in musim panas or, the hot season, which is usually no misnomer, but for the last week our seasons have been inverted, and the weather is behaving more like we’re in musim hujan or the rainy season. Muslims in Indonesia are also more fortunate than other Muslims around the world, particularly Muslims in Scandinavian countries, because we live close to the equator where the days and nights are of almost equal length. I may reconsider my bandwagon fasting if I were expected to go twenty hours without eating, like some people closer to the poles. Fortunately, there is a clause in the Koran that exempts certain individuals from fasting, including those on a journey (the Peace Corps may count as an extended journey):
Whosoever of you is present, let him fast the month, and whosoever of you is sick or on a journey, a number of other days. Allah desires for you ease; He desires not hardship for you; and that you should complete the period, and that you should magnify Allah for having guided you, and that perhaps you may be thankful.
Despite such exemptions, some Muslims choose to carry on with their fasting. My Ibu is currently 8 months pregnant, and still elects to fast. It’s possible to make up for the days where you missed fasting later in the year, but this is difficult since no one else is fasting with you. Since living in a Muslim country, I’ve noticed that ubiquity is the real problem. I rarely think about alcohol or food, because here they are not constantly surrounding me. The purpose of fasting is meant to teach Muslims about self-restraint, discipline and generosity. This is a novel concept, and I personally can bear testament to the fruit of its labors, however I do have to question its practices when it can potentially harm another individual. A recent study conducted by Columbia University found that pregnant woman who fast during Ramadan are likely to have children born premature and with learning disabilities. I try and imagine how I will package this information and deliver it to my Ibu, but know my effort will be in vain. We live in a very remote town lacking any machine where she can see her baby, learning disabilities are rarely recognized and her response will be what it is to almost everything. Inshallah –God willing.
Since I’ve merely scratched the surface of what it means to be a Muslim during Ramadan, I cannot attest to the degree in which Ramadan impacts ones mental and spiritual being. Beyond abstaining from food and drink, Ramadan is a time to improve your relationship with yourself, and also improve your relationship with others. The suhoor (meal just before sunrise) and iftar (meal just after sunset) have quickly become my favorite times of day (along with my morning bike ride). Yes, I like that they involve food, but I also appreciate that they represent a sacred time for everyone to spend with their families and close friends.

My one complaint about my host family in Batu is that we never had a chance to have a family meal. Rather, we ate in shifts throughout the day. It was later explained to me that if you’re living with a family where one or both of the parents are farmers, their eating times are erratic and dictated by the weather and growing season. I encountered the same problem when I moved in with my new family in Surade. My Bapak spends long hours in the rice paddies, and rarely is there a moment for us to sit down and talk. During Ramadan the time carved out of the day for the suhoor and iftar provide ample time to joke with one another and discuss the events of the day. With my Ibu, this time is used for masak-ing (cooking)101 Indonesian style. We grill snakes from the pond, prepare skin of the cow for my bapak, and on occasion make food that is palatable. The other day while she was teaching me to make my favorite dish, karedok (small green eggplant, cucumber, and bean sprouts in a spicy peanut sauce), I had my trusty dictionary close by so I could transcribe the recipe in English. The recipe calls for a lot of MSG, a heaping spoon full of salt, a hefty pinch palm sugar andddddd acid. Yes, acid! That night the karedok did taste unusually delicious. This is why food is the great cultural unifier, despite what may be lost in translation.

Time to get integrated!

Growing up in an individualistic culture, nothing can quite prepare you for life in a collectivist culture. Ironically, the two times in my life where I’ve felt most alone have been in some of the world’s most densely populated places. Born and raised in America, you’re taught to be self-reliant, and the goals and achievement of the individual are emphasized over any particular group or collective. In Southeast Asia, the cultures emphasize the sense of self as a member of a larger collective. It is fundamental to take care of every member of the family. When I moved to Southeast Asia for the first time I asserted my self-sufficiency and independence, and was left feeling alienated and unsure how to successfully integrate. It took some effort, but gradually I learned to let go of this mindset, and embrace the vibrancy and collectivism surrounding me.

The first three months at permanent site Peace Corps imposes a mandatory community integration period. This time is crucial for relationship building and establishing a strong foundation within the community. It just so happens that our mandatory integration period coincides with the Indonesian school holiday, and also Ramadan. This means that our routine has gone from highly structured and being a part of the densest groups of bules (white people) in Indonesia to no structure, and being the only bule for a 200 km.. Moving to permanent site was difficult not only because it meant severing ties with friends and family, but it also meant mustering up newfound energy to start anew. Maintaining that energy for the next two years will prove to be the ultimate test. In the words of Winston Churchill, “success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.” It will be a continual challenge to figure out, get used to, and become effective in unfamiliar circumstances amidst unfamiliar people.

I’m constantly reminding myself that my mere presence may cause a person to consider a new way of doing things. Simply by existing, I may call into question a plurality of behaviors, beliefs, and opinions. Why am I eating such little rice, and why am I not eating it with my hands? Is Hollywood real? Is it true that Barak Obama likes Bakso (a type of meatball soup that is very popular in Indonesia)? Did I ride my bike here from America? Today, I met with a teacher counterpart and his family. His wife and daughter kept motioning towards my face and smiling excitedly. They could not conceal their delight over my nose. Yes, my nose. My nose happens to be big and pointy like the nose of an Arab. They were happy to see such a nose in real life because it’s unlike flat Asian noses, which apparently “look like squatting frogs.” This story reminded me of another nose story that was relayed to me the previous week. The first time my friends’ parents met it was in the Philippines, where her father was serving in the Air Force. He entered the store where her Filipina mother happened to be working and all she could say to him was “you has a noses like Jesus Christ.” It was love at first sight, and they’ve been together ever since. (Keep in mind we’re dealing with a Muslim majority in Indonesia, and a Catholic majority in the Philippines).

The most important thing I can take away from the first few weeks in my new home is to embrace the ambiguity. The flux of day-to-day life is the time meant for exploration and observation. I’ve learned to say yes to all the invitations –well most. I’ve been asked multiple times to spend the night somewhere, but politely decline (that goes back to the collectivist culture mentioned earlier–the whole family sometimes sleeps in one bed). Saying yes to a social invitation in a collectivist culture goes along way. I’ll leave with some parting comments from our Director of Programing and Training, since her message is so apt to what we’re currently experiencing. “Before claiming that nothing is happening, take a step back and notice that people are making their livings, feeding their families, finding solace and joy in their faith, guiding and chiding their children, taking pride in their traditions, and may be truly uncertain about how to involve a foreigner in their lives. Show them that you’d simply like to be with them.”

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