I was messaging a stateside friend recently and at one point during the conversation my friend described Peace Corps service as “glamorous.” Of course I immediately listed out many of the unglamorous aspects of being a Peace Corps volunteer in Indonesia—wouldn’t want anyone thinking we have it too easy over here. But there actually are many “glamorous,” or “posh,” things about being a PCV.
Posh Corps is a term used by PCVs, and others, to describe countries where volunteers served and have access to many things they would have at home in the States. Internet, running water, regular electricity, drinkable water, a washing machine, a water heater, air conditioning and many more are all things which can make a volunteer’s time in the Peace Corps posh.
Some volunteers might have access to some, or many, of the comforts found in a developed country, however most do not. Many volunteers do get to experience certain things which certainly seem glamorous—especially if you follow Peace Corps on any of their social media accounts. Speaking foreign languages, enjoying beautiful landscapes, eating exotic foods, working in remote and unique locations with people far removed from the western world, all of which can seem pretty awesome, even glamorous. But for as many awesome, wonderful, glamorous, or posh parts of being a PCV there are at least as many parts not described in those terms.
So now, to balance the scales a bit, some of the best and worst features of serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Indonesia. This list is mostly comprised of things I’ve noticed or experienced myself. Each volunteer has a completely unique experience and what could be one volunteer’s favorite part of service could easily be another volunteer’s least favorite part of service.
I use the same phone here in Indonesia as I did in the States, an iPhone. Peace Corps Indonesia requires volunteers to have a cell phone, not necessarily a smart phone, but I’d say most volunteers here have a smartphone as it makes life much easier and cellular service is fairly economical. Having a smart phone is a huge convenience. I wrote my first two months of blog posts on my phone, something my thumbs still hold against me. I call my parents several times a week using things like Skype with very little cost to myself. If there’s a word in Indonesian or Sundanese I want to look up I can do so easily with my phone. However, being connected is a double-edged sword. It’s hard to be 10,000 miles away from friends and family, witness all that is going on in their lives, and yet have no part in it.
Some volunteers even have access to Wi-Fi at their house or school. My house does not have Wi-Fi but my school apparently does, though it rarely works, and when it does I would probably be better off using carrier pigeons to ferry my data around. Still, access to the Internet has not been hard to come by. Cell phone networks are well-developed on Java and rates for cellphone plans are reasonable.
If you have checked out Peace Corps on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter you will have noticed all the pictures of gorgeous sunsets over beautiful landscapes, rural and pristine villages hidden in the mountains far from civilization, or friendly children smiling for pictures with their new American pal. There are many wonderful sights PCVs get to soak in day after day during their two years of service, but there are also quite a few which probably wouldn’t end up on anyone’s Instagram. Piles of garbage, sometimes burning, a man going to the bathroom in a stream, endless traffic jams.
Java is very beautiful, but it is also incredibly crowded. PCVs often talk about how the problems they expected to have are nothing like the problems they actually ended up having. For me, the great density at which people live on Java, and the different relationship people have with the environment, has been a difficulty I did not anticipate.
I see many beautiful and picturesque scenes, but only see them. In America I lived in a wooded area on a farm, away from people, traffic, crowds. In Sumedang I live just a hundred yards away from nearly untouched jungle where wild animals can still be found, but that jungle seems much farther away than a hundred yards. There are not greenspaces here as there are where I am from. There is either developed land or untouched wilderness. I do not yet yearn for things left in America, though if I miss anything I miss nature.
Peace Corps does an excellent job taking care of volunteers’ medical needs. If I were to need medical treatment which could not be rendered in Indonesia I would be medically evacuated to the closest country which could, even if that meant returning to the United States. The healthcare in the Peace Corps is often cited as the best healthcare volunteers have ever had.
All Peace Corps trainees are given a medical kit stocked with all the over-the-counter medications and medical supplies they could ever need. From bandages to sunscreen and cough drops to aspirin just about everything is provided, and when a volunteer is about to run out of something it costs nothing to order more. Definitely one of the more posh aspects of Peace Corps.
Peace Corps volunteers receive excellent medical care because they are at real risk of contracting some deadly diseases. Dengue, a popular virus for PCVs to contract during their service, is a fun little illness that causes the infected person to feel as if their bones are breaking every time they move—probably why it’s called “bone break fever,” by some.
The number of illnesses a volunteer in a tropical climate could come across over two years is extensive. I have been fortunate in avoiding any major illnesses but even in the effort to remain healthy not everything can be peachy.
In order to avoid getting malaria all Peace Corps Indonesia volunteers are required to take one of three anti-malarial prophylactics: mefloquine, doxycycline, or malarone. Mefloquine is usually the first one volunteers will try. Mefloquine is a once weekly pill that has the potential to cause, among other things, restlessness, peeling skin, abnormal or vivid dreams, and hallucination. The other two options aren’t much more appealing in terms of potential side effects. There is a fourth option but it is reserved for use by people who absolutely can’t take any of the first three because it is rather costly.
I have chosen to stick with mefloquine because it is convenient since it is only taken once a week. Doxycycline is daily and tends to cause sensitivity to light and malarone is also daily but its side effects are not much better. I am fortunate in that my reaction to mefloquine has been a mostly good. Some volunteers have terrible nightmares and some adverse psychological reactions. However, I have not slept a continuous eight hours since I started taking mefloquine; I usually wake up twice every night which is unusual for me because I am well known to be very good at sleeping.
There are a lot of bugs in Indonesia. Some of the end up in the food, some of them carry malaria or other diseases. I haven’t had many problems with the bugs of Indonesia save one, the tomcat. The tomcat, or rove beetle, is a little innocuous looking creature that is anything but innocuous. The tomcat produces a toxin which is more deadly than cobra’s venom. Luckily, it’s hard to get the tomcat’s toxin into one’s blood stream as it neither bites nor stings. However, it does leak its signature toxin onto everything it comes in contact with and, particularly, human skin.
I’m not sure how exactly I managed to get tomcat toxin on me but I do recall seeing one in my room last week. The Peace Corps medical officer introduced us to this beetle during PST and showed us some rather horrifying skin reactions the tomcat had caused. I remember the reactions more than the bug but I have since tried to treat every bug like it could cause similar effects.
For the past week my left shoulder has looked a little bit like someone splashed acid, or some mild corrosive, on me. My reaction was a relatively mild one and has been barely even painful. Though still not a lot of fun.
Every PCV in Indonesia, as far as I know, has regular access to electricity at his or her site. For the most part, electricity is reliable and convenient in Indonesia, but power outages can be common in rural areas. They are common enough to not be surprising yet sporadic enough that they’re almost always an inconvenience. On a couple occasions I have been mid mandi when the power went out. On another occasion I was in the middle of some other bathroom business (take a guess) and the power went out. If you need a refresher on how the bathrooms work here you can read my post about the kamar kecil, but things don’t get any easier when it’s pitch black.
At this point in my service I am completely over the idea of toilet paper. Who needs it? Not me. But this is certainly not something people would label as a “glamorous” fact about Peace Corps service. It’s really a nonfactor by now.
One thing about the bathroom to which I have not yet adjusted is the lack mandi, or rather the lack of hot water. In Kediri the water couldn’t be cold enough. It was hot there. I am now in an area which is fairly cold, but still warm enough to warrant mandi-ing at least two times a day. Some people in Indonesia have hot water heaters to heat up their cold mountain water, my family is not one of them. I do not like being cold or in cold water. Essentially, every day is like the ice bucket challenge for me.
I have just completed my third week of school and it wasn’t until Wednesday that the teachers received a finalized class schedule. On Thursday we switched to the new schedule. A little odd since a change midweek would mean some classes will have met more than they were supposed to and others less. There is a very laidback approach when it comes to scheduling things. It has been frustrating for me to show up to school thinking I would teach three classes and end up actually teaching six, alone. The flexibility and easy going mindset of the typical Indonesian can be hard to mesh with—especially when I am so accustomed to strictly adhered to timelines and firm punctuality.
My post about jam karet (rubber time) might help shed some more light on the general Indonesian attitude towards time.
Many of these things might seem like complaints and, in many ways, they are. All of them laid out on a single page seems kind of awful but it’s rare when more than two of these things happen in the same day. Obviously Peace Corps service isn’t glamorous, but it is amazing, breath-taking, formative, eye-opening, and much more. And the important thing is that all of the good things about Peace Corps service far outweigh the bad.