Friday, June 21, 2013

An interview with myself 8 months into placement:

Have you lost weight? 
Why yes, thank you for asking grandma.  I’m not entirely sure how much weight I have lost since arriving here (scales are really hard to come by), but every time I post a picture of myself on Facebook it seems I am bombarded with comments on how skinny I look.  I’m not sure whether to take this as an indication that I was much more festively plump than I perceived myself to be prior to leaving, or that people think I’m looking more emaciated than usual.  Either way, I definitely weigh less now than I did upon my departure.  This is not for lack of trying to keep my weight up, I think the issue lies mainly with the fact that no matter how much you’re eating, rice isn’t particularly nutritionally dense.  Unfortunately, it comprises a significant component of the diet here.

As people are fond of saying here: If you haven’t eaten rice, you haven’t eaten.   I find it monotonous at times, and seek out alternatives when I can but it’s tough in a society where normal practise is to eat rice with every single meal.

I am taking multivitamins and probiotics in an effort to up my nutritional intake, and try to eat lots of fruit and vegetables.  I’m not prone to eating huge quantities of meat and stick exclusively to tofu and tempeh as protein sources if I am cooking for myself (which I do probably  40% of the time) but will not shy away from ordering meat in restaurants. I am also exercising fairly regularly because I know muscle is heavier (and healthier) than fat.  Any other suggestions for keeping weight on are appreciated.

What’s the worst thing about living there?
Fortunately nothing jumps out as being “definitely the worst thing”, life here just comes with its own set of little difficulties, some of which you get used to, others you don’t.   Homesickness is definitely an issue sometimes.  In contrast to my time in Thailand I am much more socially cut off here than I was there and I think that that, combined with a less vibrant social circle by virtue of Ende being a much smaller and quieter place than Chiang Mai was during my year in Thailand, leads me to feel the absence of friends and loved ones from back home more acutely.

Also, although you get used to it, not ever having hot, clean water can be annoying.  The drinking water here definitely comes with a thriving community of parasites and bacteria, so all my drinking water is filtered.  I made the mistake recently of taking a look at the water that comes straight from the tap, and there is definitely a healthy and diverse population of tiny scurrying macrofauna crawling and swimming around in it. This I think helps to contribute to the fact that even after a good scrub in the shower, I never feel really and truly clean.  I suppose if we could see the world on a microscopic scale, we would all be more aware of the fact that no matter how much you shower you are always completely covered in a film of bacteria, I’m just aware of the fact that that mine is a little thicker than usual at the moment.

That said, the thing I probably find more frustrating is when there is no water at all, which happens perhaps a few times per week.  The water will just go off for a few hours, and there’s nothing you can do about it.  I find that’s not too much of an issue although it has happened a few times just as I finish exercising and want to take a shower or boil water or do the dishes, which has been trying.

The worst of all though was probably a few times in the rainy season when the water, electricity and phone signal would all go out simultaneously, cutting you off entirely.  This has probably happened four or five times now, and all of them during the rainy season.  The dry season has fortunately brought less frequent outages and a stronger more consistent phone signal.

What’s the best thing about living there?
Not ever being cold, ever. I love that about life here.

People are also as a general rule overwhelmingly friendly which is great most of the time, and terrible some of the time.  When you’re having a bad day and don’t feel like making small talk with generally well-meaning strangers on the street who all have the same questions for you, it can be difficult to balance Indonesian politeness with North American directness in your desire to just be left alone.

What were some low points?
Again, nothing really specific comes to mind (I have long been thankful for my selectively spotty memory, I literally forget most crappy days in a few weeks).

There was a low point following the purchase of my air conditioning when I was called foolish by a friend after having tried to do everything myself, having bought and paid for the installation of a unit that used more power than the electricity current to my room could provide, as well as the significant additional charges to upgrade to said electricity.  She went on to tell me I could simply have replaced the unit with a cheaper, smaller one that wouldn’t have needed as much power or required changing the electricity flow to my room.  I regret not asking for help.

Also, having Jess visit is fantastic but I always feel pretty low for about a week after she heads back home and I have to reacclimatize to being on my own again.

What were some high points?
I was very proud of myself after successfully giving my first lecture in Indonesian back in April.  It was far from smooth but I got through it, and am now just a few weeks from the end of the semester.  Teaching in Indonesian has been both a huge struggle and amazing, in the sense that it has really, really stretched my abilities but looking back I can gauge my progress over the semester and feel really proud of how far I have come.  I do feel a little bit sorry for my students this first semester who have to deal with a teacher with such a heavy accent who’s grasp of the language is still fairly weak from an academic standpoint, but I expect next semester’s students will have things easier as my language skills have come a long way.  I have also had to become really good at making Powerpoint slides that are as interesting and clear as possible because I can’t always be sure I can rely on being able to explain things with perfect clarity verbally (plus pictures help hold student attention).  The fact that I take lots and lots of photographs comes in incredibly handy.

The unedited draft of my slides for my lecture next week can be found HERE.

What do you miss most about life back home?
One of the things I miss most I think is having 24 hour access to an insanely wide variety of healthy fruits, vegetables and specialty ingredients.  I love cooking, and do cook here a lot of the time, but one definitely needs to be creative because the range of ingredients to choose from are very very limited.  Current staples in my home cooking diet are:

Tomato, water spinach, mustard greens, carrots, garlic, shallots, ginger, fresh turmeric, lemons
Papaya, banana
Rice, flour, oatmeal
Tofu, Tempeh (chicken/beef/seafood are available but I have never bought them from the market.  Cooking for one is a pain but it’s easier if you can cook enough to have 3 days of leftovers, which I wouldn’t be comfortable doing with meat/fish dishes)
Other things I can get my hands on
Peanut butter, honey, various sauces, coconut milk

You get creative, and Jess coming to visit and bringing extra ingredients from home to supplement my diet has been fantastically helpful but I am definitely looking forward to gorging myself on all the foods I can’t get here when I get home visiting Toronto in a few months (Ethiopian anyone?).

What do you miss least about life back home?
Being cold.

Oh, also how much time  I would waste on YouTube/the internet in general.  I have no idea what the latest memes are, or what viral videos are hot right now and I couldn’t care less.

Any tips on staying sane for anyone interested in doing something similar?
Find your “thing”?  Many people take up painting or something like that to help fill down time.  I know another volunteer bought a ukulele while here with the intent of teaching herself to play.  I also happen to know it hasn’t been out of the bag since she brought it home but I think she had the right idea.

For me, it has been podcasts.  I have an ever-growing list of subscriptions that I listen to constantly.  It’s nice because I can download new ones when I visit the net café and listen to them incessantly between visits.  Favourites include:, Radiolab, This American Life, You Made it Weird with Pete Holmes, Q on CBC Radio, Stuff You Should Know, and Fresh Air

What is the strangest thing you’ve eaten?
Hmmm…I still haven’t tried dog, despite multiple offers, but I think my resolve never to eat it is slowly being worn down.  There’s nothing inherent that sets them apart from all the other animals we happily shove in our mouths and the opportunity certainly comes up often enough.  I have also heard horror stories of other volunteers who have unwittingly been tricked into eating it, so who knows, maybe I’ve had it already.

What is a typical weekday like?
I work Monday through Saturday and my work days generally look like this:
7AM – Alarm rings, press snooze three or four times.
7:20 – Wake up, shower, cook breakfast (oatmeal with bananas or eggs)
8:15 – Try to leave for work, but remember that I should do dishes and brush your teeth before you go
8:40 – Leave for work
8:44 – Arrive at work, but notice the office clock, which is always fast, makes it look like you’re rolling in at 9.  Sigh to yourself.
9:00 – If you woke up late (due to overzealous use of the snooze button), order breakfast at work. Chices: rice with beef, rice with fish or rice with egg
9:30 – Work on lecture slides
12:30PM – Socialize with coworkers, generally very little work gets done the last hour or so of the workday unless I have something specific I need to finish that day.  Sometimes I will also order lunch at work as well (Choices: See breakfast)
1:30 – Work finished, head home for lunch.
2 – I teach English lessons twice a week at 2pm.  If today isn’t one of those days, take a nap from 2-4
4 – Head to the farm for an hour and a half or so of work before it gets dark
6:30 – get home (it’s pitch black), shower (assuming the water is on) and think about dinner, while listening to podcasts.
7 -Head to the market to pick up fresh produce for dinner
8 – Get home and start cooking rice while you prep veggies for your one burner stove, while listening to podcasts.
10- eat (it takes forever to cook when you’re working with one burner. Everything has to be done sequentially!)
11 – Do dishes and relax, probably with a movie or a book.
12AM Sleep, rinse, and repeat.

Are you still healthy?
Define healthy…It definitely took a little while for life here to wear down my built-up, vitamin fortified North American immune system, but I think the constant bombardment by germs, viruses and bacteria have finally breached the walls of my immune sytstem’s defences.  For the most part I feel fine, but things like food poisoning and the flu have increasingly become my regular companions. 

The air quality here is really terrible a lot of the time as much of the garbage generated is burned by the side of the road and mixes with exhaust fumes to ruin my ability to breathe unhindered a lot of the time.  True, I do suffer from seasonal pollen and dust allergies but they have really gone haywire here.  It’s mostly an annoyance but I do worry that constantly exhibiting flu symptoms depresses my immune status. 

One can be fairly careful where and what one eats when on vacation for a few weeks in the tropics but as far as protecting yourself through uber vigilance for months on end? Forget it. You’re going to slip up eventually.  Having grown up with a strong immune system, I have not in the past been particularly careful while travelling to avoid potentially contaminated food or water and up until this trip I have largely been lucky in avoiding illness while travelling.  I think nearer my arrival it mattered less because my immune system was better but as time has worn on, I have fallen victim with greater and greater frequency to food poisoning.  Not fun, but part of life here.

On the upside, no one will ever look at you funny if you opt out of something citing stomach issues, because they all understand.  Quite the opposite in fact ,people are happy to openly discuss the frequency of their illness related bowel movements, I had a conversation in the office with my boss this very morning about her various techniques for dealing with diarrhea (over breakfast, no less).

Emotionally, I would say my health is quite good, especially considering the circumstances.  Living overseas inherently involves a slightly elevated baseline level of stress that follows you wherever you go.  I knew that going in, it has been a problem at times and tends to wear you out especially in extra-unfamiliar situations, but it can be managed with practise.  Aside from the very occasional struggle with late-night bouts of the "WHAT-AM- I-EVEN-DOING-HERE?"s, I feel as though  I am stable and I am taking care of myself emotionally by getting lots of sleep, taking time for myself and trying to stop and reflect on things when I can.

Why don’t you post more frequently?
What, you mean every 6 months isn’t enough for you?  I post a monthly album on Facebook but may also try to post some of my better shots here more frequently as well.  It's just a HUGE pain not having internet at home or at work because you've got to sit down and do it all at once, and unless you count checking my email or facebook on my phone, I'm really just not on the internet all that often (maybe two or three times per week?).  Cut a guy some slack.

What’s been frustrating you lately?
The fact that my classes are Thursdays and there have literally been 4 Thursdays thus far this semester that have happened to land on holidays (there have been 4 classes taught in total so far, as well as the midterm given).  This is just part of the package when living in a country with 5 official religions.

It is also annoying how quickly nutrient cycling operates in a climate where moisture and heat are so readily available.  Anything organic practically disappears before your eyes in the unending clamor for sustenance among both macro and microbiotic  communities. One of the upsides is that you can make compost from organic waste in less than ¼ of the time it would take in Canada, but the other side of that coin is that EVERYTHING rots this quickly.  I have plans this weekend to do a long overdue deep-clean of my room which will mean cleaning the mold that’s been growing out of control on my closet as it is slowly broken down by the microorganisms that are everywhere.  It also means that if I don’t wear a shirt and it stays in my closet for too long, it will have mold growing on it as well. It will also mean replacing the wooden broom which I bought to keep water from pooling on my poorly graded bathroom floor but which is also moldy and gross at his point after 4 months of use. Although it does keep my bathroom floor marginally drier than it would be otherwise (is there anything worse than a wet bathroom floor? I submit that there is not.)  Many have also heard about the veritable forest of multicolored mold, fungi and living slime that was the inside of my fridge following a power outage while I was away for a week on vacation over Christmas. Highly annoying.

I think that just about covers it.

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