Ramadan is a torpid affair. Not much happens. For my cohort and me the vacuous schedules of our various schools gives us very little to do for our first month at our permanent site. All this free time is great for picking up new hobbies, exploring the desa, meeting the community, planning for lessons, or considering secondary projects to take on over the next two years. Unfortunately, I have done practically none of these things.
I don’t know my desa very well yet, I live on the outskirts and my school is about 100 meters away so I don’t spend much time out on the streets. I’ve talked to maybe four or five desa-folk in the few times I have been out and about. I don’t know anything about my teaching schedule for the coming year so I’m not too motivated to plan for lessons. Ramadan seems to have bested me. However, I have picked up a new hobby of sorts: timekeeping.
At the time this is posted I will have 716 more days of living in Indonesia until COS. 102 weeks or 24 months left. 87.32 percent until I head back to America. By many metrics this is a substantial amount of time. The year is the largest time-unit commonly used and easily comprehendible by humans, and Peace Corps service is TWO of them.
When I told people I would be living in Indonesia for two years, volunteering with the Peace Corps, one of the initial reactions would be in regards to how long I’d be “gone.” And when people would say they had wanted to join the Peace Corps one of the main reasons was the length of commitment. Two years is a long time to be away from home. It’s a long time to leave a career, family, friends, a significant other. There’s no guarantee any of these things will wait. Indeed, it’s very likely life will not wait.
The length of time required is frequently used as an excuse to not join the Peace Corps. Though this seems to be an easy façade raised to answer a question that has no simple answer. There are certainly good reasons to not suspend one’s regularly scheduled life for two years to live in conditions of “hardship” in a developing country, but “two years is too long,” is not one of them.
Luckily, I do not consider two years to be all that long a period of time. There are many things I’ve done for longer and hated much more, e.g. high school (except for your class, which was always a delight, Mrs. Fracek).
I don’t hate being in Indonesia at all. In fact, I am quite happy. However, I do not think every American could live happily in Indonesia for two years. I believe it is this uncertainty about whether or not one can be happy long-term in difficult circumstances, partnered with a fear of leaving behind a life which could change greatly over two years, which makes serving in the Peace Corps seem indomitably challenging.
Happiness. The idea that everyone can be happy, or at least try to be happy, is so fundamentally American. The Declaration of Independence lists the “pursuit of Happiness,” as an unalienable right. I think being happy is very important, and like all important things, it needs to be analyzed and considered thoroughly. And one of my favorite concepts with which to consider the happiness is the hedonic treadmill.
The hedonic treadmill, also known as hedonic adaptation, is the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes.
Essentially, while people may find joy and delight after buying some fancy gizmo, meeting someone special, or accomplishing a long-sought goal, they will eventually return to the same level of ‘happy’ they were before whatever elating event they just went through. The same is true of sadness. After a loss, be it life, property, or vocation, people will eventually gravitate back toward the level of happiness they were at before their traumatic experience. It is through this lens that I try to view my time, and emotional state, while in Indonesia.
There have been many instances when I have thought that some aspect of living in my desa would be incredibly difficult. Washing my clothes by hand, not being able to walk to anything besides my school, living an hour and a half away from the district capital. I thought that each of these things would be problematic, but now, after a month under these circumstances, they have proven to be almost inconsequential. The transition from novelty to normalcy is very subtle and surprisingly fast.
I am at least as happy in Indonesia as I was in Oklahoma, and I’d like to think, generally, I am happier here than I was back in the States. Changes happening in America while I am away have been a concern for me. I worry about missing important events, being left behind, in a sense. To deal with the occasional pangs of nostalgia I prefer to think of this separation from my old life as a time capsule. America is in a time capsule, and come June 2018 it will be cracked open and there will be a period of mutual investigation. The changes two years bring on will be something to look forward to as much as something to fear.
On the days when two years seems incomprehensibly long, when things are looking glum, or when I miss America, I turn back to my new hobby. Though this time I count up. I’ve been in the Peace Corps for 104 days, in Indonesia for 94, an official volunteer for 30. And when I think about how I am 12.86% finished with my service I wonder where the time has gone. It seems as though only last week my cohort was delayed in Los Angeles because our visas were not yet ready.
I am aware that keeping track of time, especially so closely is a dangerous game to play. A watched pot doesn’t boil. The axiom “time moves slower under observation” is one I count on. Savoring the present, whilst monitoring the days ahead, and minding the days past is a tricky balance to be struck. And as speeding up time is a capricious feat, and ultimately more dangerous than slowing it down, I choose to impede its passage and to watch its steady march instead of hastening it along.
Patience and endurance are two of the most valuable virtues one can wield when dealing with any length of time deemed “long.” After all, it’s not by a river’s strength which, through the eons, carves a canyon. Not sure what is the canyon and what is the river in that metaphor, but here are some pictures from between stints of checking on the carving progress of that canyon.