Archive for January, 2014

January 30, 2014

A Charmed Life

by Tabitha Kidwell

In a previous blog, I mentioned how much I had loved camp growing up, and how much it influenced me. What I didn’t mention was that, my first week away at camp, I spent the first afternoon huddled in my bunk crying. I was paralyzed by homesickness until some cabinmates came in and invited me to play go fish.

It’s so lovely how life works, that you grow and change after every experience, becoming completely unlike what you were before, while still holding that former self within. 8-year-old Tabitha was afraid even to venture to the craft cabin alone; 31-year-old Tabitha doesn’t think twice about jetting off to the other side of the world or plunging to the bottom of the ocean. My life has been a series of experiences that have helped me build this independence, though it wasn’t always pleasant. When I left to study abroad in France my sophomore year of college, I sobbed as I went through security and turned back to wave goodbye to my mom. In Madagascar as a peace corps volunteer, I spent my 23rd birthday sulking alone in my concrete house while all my college friends were tailgating at the OSU-Miami football game back home. But now, I feel comfortable wherever I end up, and I go with the confidence that, even if something more exciting is happening at home, I’m exactly where I need to be. I’m so grateful that I have been able to build skills that help me feel as comfortable in the jungle of Indonesia or on the streets of Paris as in the hills of southeast Ohio or on High street. Actually, I probably feel more comfortable when traveling – every person you meet gives you the chance to reinvent yourself, and every new situation brings the promise of adventure.

This trip to Indonesia has certainly delivered on that promise – I saw things on this trip I had never seen before, and that I didn’t know if I would ever see in this lifetime. It began on the plane, when the stewardess looked out the window, shrieked with joy, and called me over to see what she had seen: the Aurora Borealis, visible as we flew over the north pole. She rushed down the aisle, showing everyone, visibly beaming. I asked her later if it was the first time she had seen the northern lights, and she looked at me perplexed and answered “No, almost every week.” Maybe seeing them just never gets old, but I think she loved being able to share the experience with her passengers, for many of whom this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I was as delighted by her reaction as by the Aurora itself!

Then, the camps took me all the way to Papua, the Malukus, and Northern Sulawesi. Papua, the eastern-most province in Indonesia, shares an island with Papua New Guinea, which is no longer even part of Asia. The Malukus perch between the waters of the Pacific and the Indian Oceans. I felt like I had been carried to a land that was “in no one continent and in no one sea,”* but truly on the edge of the world. Had I gone any farther away from home, I would have gotten closer. After a day spent scuba diving with my friend Jessica in Ambon, just as we were getting back to the resort, maybe 100 dolphins swam alongside our boat, jumping and twirling out of the water. They played and swam within 100 yards of the boat for a good 15 minutes before continuing on their way. The boat captain and dive guides were as thrilled as us; despite taking tourists out weekly, they said they had only seen so many dolphins a handful of times.

Then, I traveled to Bunaken, one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, with mountains rising from the sea and coral walls sinking to the bottom fo the sea. To complete my trilogy of stunning sights, and to balance out the vast, atmospheric phenomena and Disney-esque animal migration, I got to see my first seahorse while scuba diving here. He was a tiny little guy no bigger than my pinky fingernail, and pure white. I would have swum right by if my guide hadn’t pointed him out as he clung to the coral.

All of this has helped me to feel that I lead a really charmed life. I’ve had so many incredible opportunities, but I don’t feel like I have gone out and chased them – I feel like they have just come to me at the right time. This trip to Indonesia kind of fell right into my lap, in fact. Through all the years, though, the most important thing that I have learned is that who you are with is more important than who you are. When I think back to this trip to Indonesia, I’ll probably remember the aurora, the dolphins, and the seahorse, but I’ll also remember the people I shared those sights with. The charming students at the camps and my talented fellow counselors will loom even larger in my memory. Those girls at camp so many years ago taught me a lesson I still am learning today: there is always a new friend to be made and a new relationship to be built, if you just accept the invitation.

*Laurence Blair, Ring of Fire

January 29, 2014

The Opposite of Love’s a Need for Rest

by Tabitha Kidwell

Karaoke is interesting for me because I am always shocked to see the actual lyrics of songs. I can be relied upon to have sung them incorrectly for years. I was shocked to learn that in “Beat it,” Michael Jackson sang “no one wants to be defeated” rather than “no one wants to beat a fetus.” I mean, who does?

Last summer, driving home from a Lumineers concert with my friend Nate, I turned to him and asked “Do you really think the opposite of love is a need for rest?” He almost crashed the car laughing, because the actual words are “The opposite of love’s indifference.” I’ll admit that does make more sense, but my version really resonates with me right now. When you boil it down, the time we are spending with Indonesian high schoolers at these camps is just loving them. Look past the distracting games, songs, and silliness, and the important thing is that we are spending time together, building relationships and sending the message that they are important people. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.

Unfortunately, all this loving has left me exhausted. Because of troubles with my Indian visa, I had to delay my departure, and I didn’t get to Indonesia until the evening before our camp planning meeting. Within 36 hours of arriving in Indonesia, I was signing in campers. After the national camp, I went straight to visit Salatiga, and was caught up in a whirlwind 2-day visit where I actually got to see most of the people who had been so important to me for 2 years! Then, I took an overnight flight to Manokwari and helped lead the regional camp there. I flew to Ambon after that and basically collapsed in fatigue at my friend Jess’ house. We did some visiting of her city, ate a lot of rujak (sliced fruit topped with a sweet and spicy peanut sauce – trust me, it’s good), and even got to scuba dive one day, but I basically just slept and relaxed all week.

We led the Ambon camp last weekend, and then I flew to north Sulawesi to scuba dive at Bunaken, which is supposed to be one of the best dive sites in the world. The first morning here, I was fighting a cold, but I thought I was well enough to dive. The dives were amazing: great visibility and easy to navigate currents; lots of turtles, nudibrachs, and colorful fish; coral walls that seemed to stretch to the very bottom of the sea. When I surfaced, I felt better than I had before the dive – my nasal passages had been cleared out by nature’s giant neti pot. But that afternoon, I started coughing and turned feverish. I can’t remember a time I felt so sick and weak (at least with no alcohol involved!). So I slept 12 hours that night and spent most of the next day taking cold showers and letting the hotel staff deliver ginger tea to my hammock. I intend to spend the rest of my time here resting up in preparation for my final camp in Kendari. It’s too bad I can’t dive here, but if you’re going to be sick, you may as well be sick in a tropical paradise!

January 15, 2014

Access Camps 2014

by Tabitha Kidwell

Some of my happiest memories of childhood are from camp: milkshakes in the craft cabin; canoeing across the lake; watching the sunset while roasting marshmellows. For me, and for many American children, summers at camp were a time to be in nature, make new friends, and learn about ourselves. I went to camp every summer from 1991-2002, spending my final two summers there as a counselor. The time I spent making friendship bracelets, playing tag, and telling ghost stories had an influence on my life that can’t be measured.

Because of all that, I was thrilled to be invited back to Indonesia to help lead English camps this January. The campers were participants in the State Department’s Access Microscholarship program, which provides extra-curricular English classes to talented but underprivileged high school students. In America, bright high schoolers are overbooked with swim meets, music lessons, community service, student council, and other activities that build their confidence and shape them as future leaders; these Indonesian students have comparatively few opportunities. That made the camp experience even more meaningful for them!

Our first camp was the National camp just outside of Jakarta. It involved about 50 students from Jakarta, and 70 from 7 locations across Indonesia. For many of those students, this was the first time they had been to the capital, or even on an airplane! As they arrived at the airport, they were bussed into town to the @America cultural center at a mall in central Jakarta. They were split into teams named after national parks (Yosemite, Glacier, Everglades, etc.) and asked to create a “yell-yell” to perform for the Ambassador, who was in attendance to open the camp and judge their enthusiastic cheers. Then we climbed back on the bus to get a photo op at Monas, the National Monument, before heading out to a retreat center at Sentul, the closest we could get to wilderness in the outskirts of urban Jakarta. We spent the next three days out there singing campfire songs, playing games, and spending time with a remarkable group of young people. Indonesian people are unfailingly positive and happy, and these high schoolers were no exception. There wasn’t even a hint of the attitude and sarcasm you would expect from American teenagers; no slouching or rolling of eyes! In fact, they were easy to please and pretty much loved everything we did. To get feedback at the end of each day, we passed out post-its and asked students to write “old-fashioned tweets” about their opinion of camp activities. To be perfectly clear, this was basically just writing. On paper. With pens. But the kids loved it – they ran all over the room sticking “tweets” on the posters, the counselors, and each other. They begged for more post-its. Some of their comments:
“When I go home, I’ll tell my friends about how fun the national camp was.”
“I’ll never forget sleeping in a tent.”
“Today I learned how to make a teamwork.”
“Today I learned we must protect our planet… go green!”
“Because of Access Camp, I will be someone better than before.”
“Because of Access Camp, I will make my dreams come true.”
“Because of Access Camp, I will have a girlfriend.”

Even though we were all together for less than 72 hours, the intense nature of camp meant that relationships formed quickly. Muslim kids from Madura made inside jokes with Christian kids from Papua that were indecipherable to any of the adult leaders, Indonesian or American. Kids put up facebook pictures of them with their counselors and new friends. Tears were shed as the kids boarded the busses in the early hours of the final day. The campers left with the message that they are important, talented, powerful people, and we all left with happy memories.

Now, we’re taking the show on the road. Less than half of the students from the remote sites were able to come to Jakarta, so we are leading a series of regional camps. I, along with a rotating crew of counselors, will lead the first three camps – first in Manokwari, almost as far east as you can go in Indonesia, on the island of Papua New Guinea; then in Ambon, a little island in the Malukus that is still recovering from a period of Christian-Muslim violence; and then in Kendari, a city perched on one of the four arms of Sulawesi, the funniest shaped island in the world. After that, my tenure as an English Language Specialist will come to an end, and I’ll pass off camp leadership to the English Language Fellows for camps in Banda Aceh, the city at the top of Sumatra that was struck by the tsunami in 2004, Pekanbaru, a city in central Sumatra, and Kupang, which shares an island with newly independent East Timor in southeast Indonesia, far closer to Australia than Jakarta. The diversity of the camp sites is incredible, but the diversity of the individual campers is even greater. Each one is talented in their own way, and I hope that, by sharing a little bit of American culture through the camp program, we can help them to grow into leaders who will shape Indonesia’s future.

January 9, 2014

Six Months at Home

by Tabitha Kidwell

It’s hard for me to believe that the past six-months at home have already come and gone. I kept saying that this was the first time in my life I had “nothing to do” – i.e., no job or school to keep me occupied. As it began, I imagined it being a time of relaxation, soul searching, and afternoons spent with a cup of tea and a good book. I thought it would be a good opportunity to stop always “doing things” and learn just to be.

Well, that was a nice idea. I very quickly filled up the time with work, friends, family, yoga, and errands. My soul remains unsearched and many books unread. I often felt very busy even though I had total control over all my commitments. Though it wasn’t the relaxing time I had imagined, I think it was still a really beneficial period. I’m really glad I took the time to actually go visit grad schools; if I had applied to the schools I thought I wanted to go to a year ago, I would have ended up in completely wrong programs. I’m also glad I had time to devote to important relationships in my life: it was wonderful to spend a week withmy sister before her wedding, and I will always cherish all the time I got to spend with my Nana Bets. I even got to try my hand at business with Christmisc. I think I’ll stick with education, though selling ugly Christmas sweaters would probably be more lucrative.

And even though I was busy, I did have a lot of time to think, especially once I started spending a lot of time in the car popping from thrift store to thrift store in search of holiday garb. In the past, I might have spent that time thinking about my next lesson plan, troublesome students, papers I needed to write, or even just making my grocery list. Without all that, I had lots of space to just think about life. I spent a lot of time indulging my nostalgia. I thought about the hot summer nights spent sitting outside at Graeter’s in high school. I remembered how beautiful it was to walk around Miami’s campus in the autumn. I felt sad going back to the places I used to go when I lived in the Short North. I thought about ex-boyfriends and why things had gone wrong. I even contacted a couple of them just to see what would happen. Conventional wisdom would tell you that the impulse to call up an ex-boyfriend is best ignored, but I’m not about to start following conventional wisdom now. It was actually a really valuable experience. When we met up, I could see why I had been interested in them to begin with – I enjoyed their company, and really liked them as people. But it was clear to me that I didn’t want to see them again, that our relationship was in the past and belonged there. And I realized that was a good metaphor for all the things from my past that I found myself thinking about – it was lovely when it happened, it is a beautiful memory now, but it is gone. More than anything, I feel like I’ve spent the last six months tying up the loose strings of my life. I feel healed, whole, and ready for whatever the future will bring. Which I guess, in the end, is what I had hoped to achieve… even if I didn’t realize that’s where I was headed.

January 6, 2014

Visa Woes

by Tabitha Kidwell

There are many things that have kept me from blogging the past few weeks, but one major distraction has been trying to get my visa to go to India. Turns out, it’s a stressful process. And in my case, more stressful than anything should ever be.

I will take full responsibility for this whole snafu because I’ve been fairly certain I was going to India since I got home in July. I could have sent my application in then, but I didn’t even consider the possibility of needing a visa until the end of November, when an someone who had been to India asked me if I had one yet. I’ve been flitting all over Southeast Asia for the past two years getting visas on arrival or online a week before. I just didn’t even think about it.

So, I started working on it all at the end of November. I had to get a new drivers license that showed my new address, new id photos taken that showed my ears, a cashiers check, and a return mailing envelope. That may not sound like that much, but I was spending most of my time at Christmisc. at that point, and it took me like a week to get it all together. I mailed everything on December 6, and they got it on December 9. At this point, I wasn’t worried at all, given that they said on their website that it would take 7-11 business days, and there were still 18 business days before I had to depart for Indonesia/India/etc.

Well, I should have been worried. Ironically, the Indian consulate outsources their visa processing to a company called BLS. BLS is apparently grossly incompetent. I imagined they were hard at work, checking my travel details and making sure my ears were visible in my picture, but they didn’t even “accept the package” and enter my application into their system until December 17, a week and a half after the post office says they delivered it.

At that point, I started to panic a little. I spent $90 to send a new UPS envelope with overnight delivery in case we ran tight on time at the end (unfortunately, they didn’t end up using it). I called and called and no one answered the phones. I considered sending a muffin basket. I got a new number by calling their Indian citizen services line. I called that number and e-mailed and they “escalated” the processing. Blah blah blah, yadda yadda yadda, I continued calling and e-mailing and “escalating” steps in the process until finally it was “dispatched” on Monday, December 30. Plenty of time, I thought. Except that it didn’t show up in the post office tracking for over three days. I called to “escalate” on that third day, was informed that they didn’t know where my passport was, and ended up collapsed on the floor crying and flailing my limbs not unlike a toddler having a temper tantrum. My med student brother suggested I take one of the Percocet from my root canal last summer. Very helpful. Happily, the envelope showed up in the tracking system that night. On Friday morning, I went and talked to some very kind people at the post office and they said it could very possibly arrive on Saturday and I could even come in and pick it up if it arrived Saturday afternoon after the carriers had gone out.

Well, it did not. It is now Monday and I am anxiously waiting for the mail. The tracking system says “out for delivery,” so I feel confident, but wouldn’t be surprised if something else went wrong. I had to cancel last night’s ticket and buy a new one for tomorrow. Here’s the silver lining to this whole saga: I ended up being able to book a one way ticket to Jakarta using frequent flyer miles, and now have a credit on American Airlines. I still have to buy a return ticket, but I should be left with some extra traveling money. And the best news of all: I should be in Jakarta, far away from the “Polar Vortex” currently seizing the midwest, by Thursday afternoon, in plenty of time to do the work I am being paid to do. If my passport comes this afternoon, that is. And if it does not come, I’m probably going to need more Percocet.