First Impressions & Peace Corps Flashbacks

by Tabitha Kidwell

I apologize for the delay, but I have obviously been in transit. It is so great to finally be here after months of waiting and getting ready and saying good-bye. I’ve been at the end of things for so long, that it is really refreshing to be at the beginning. I was in Washington for an orientation from August 8-12, then traveling until Monday, August 14, and then visiting my town until yesterday. Now I’m in Jakarta for an orientation and will head southeast to Bandung for three weeks of language training!

Maybe it is the fact of being at the beginning of something that makes me think so often of my two years in Madagascar. That was the last time I really took the plunge like this, in a totally unfamiliar place for such an extended amount of time. In preparing, I’ve been comforted by the fact that life here should be so much more comfortable than my life for two years in Madagascar, where I had no plumbing, intermittent electricity, and only one computer in town with internet (which moved at glacial speed). I imagined going in that the two experiences (both generously sponsored by the American government) would have a lot of similarities, and that is absolutely accurate! I’m being flooded with memories from my time in the Peace Corps: training in a freezing town in the highlands, moving into my house in a boiling town on the coast, beer- and sun-soaked volunteer reunions for the holidays, teaching classes of 80 students in their blue smocks… These memories seem more tangible now than they have for the past five years!

While it’s definitely simplistic to say that Indonesia is like Madagascar, they have their similarities! Both countries are, of course, tropical. Both abound with beaches, palm trees and tropical fruits. The people themselves look like Malagasy people, and for good reason: rather than hop right over from Africa, the original inhabitants of Madagascar paddled their canoes all the way across the Indian Ocean from – you guessed it – Indonesia! Malagasy shares much of its core vocabulary with Ma’anyan, a language spoken in southern Borneo. Wikipedia remarks: “it is not clear precisely when or why such colonization took place.” But it did, and they brought along their Malayo-Polynesian language and a general cultural mania for rice. Malagasy people eat more rice per capita than any other country on the earth, but the Indonesians are really giving them a run for their money. My counterpart already took me to the store specifically “to buy rice” and would not leave my house until he had (1) shown me how to use the rice cooker and (2) secured a promise that I would cook rice for lunch, if not breakfast, the next day. In both countries, when said rice is consumed, the utensil of choice is not a fork but a large spoon not unlike a shovel.

Of course, Madagascar and Indonesia have some remarkable differences! For one, the population of Indonesia is about 20 times as big as that of Madagascar, and they are light years more developed. I’m typing this in a posh hotel in downtown Jakarta, and outside the window I can see no less than 26 high rise buildings. I can think of precisely one in the entire country of Madagascar. To get back and forth from all those buildings, they have lots of well-maintained roads clogged with lots of cars and busses and taxis and more motorcycles than I ever could have imagined. Even outside of Jakarta, the traffic is incredible! I had to drive back and forth from Salatiga to the regional capital a few times last week to go to the immigration office. Even though it’s only 50 kilometers, the drive takes two hours because you hardly ever get above 30 mph. It’s just town after town and traffic jam after traffic jam! I knew that Java was the most densely populated island in the world, but I wasn’t prepared for what that would actually look like. In Madagascar, I would have killed for roads like this. Given how many motorcycles they seem to come with, I may have been better off with the pot-holes and the mud.

Similarities and differences aside, I’m still thinking about Madagascar a lot. Life will be significantly easier here (Hot water! Window panes! Wi-fi at home! American fast food!), but I’d forgotten the parts of life in Madagascar that made it fun despite the lack of modern conveniences: the relationships, cultural knowledge, and support I had there. I’m comparing the Indonesia of day three with the Madagascar of month 24, and it has no chance of stacking up. Yet. It took a long time to figure things out in Madagascar, but then I knew how to negotiate gracefully through society. I feel clumsy and clueless right now. But I guess that is what happens when you are at the beginning of things. So for now, I’m going to enjoy my beginning, and let the rest fall into place.

5 Comments to “First Impressions & Peace Corps Flashbacks”

  1. In the words of an 18 (maybe 17?) year old Tabbie “Don’t worry, [you’ll] get it.”

    So excited for you!! 🙂

  2. I love this post. Reading it brings back memories for me too! -M

  3. Oh, Tabitha, you are such a wordsmith. I am reminded of Robbie’s blogs during his travels—minus all the spelling and grammatical errors (which I cherish, now!). We will certainly be lifting you up. If you have time, I hope you can connect with our friends there. I bet you’ll be a scooter owner eventually!!

  4. I love how you compare the differences/similarities to where you are vs Madagascar – but your reasons for doing this remain the same… to follow your passion and soak it all up as part of the adventure!

    Miss and love you – keep these posts coming, can’t get enough!

  5. Glad you made it there safe and sound. As for the driving and the motorcycles, it could be worse…it could be India.

    Good luck!

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