Odds and Endgames

One of the hallmark words for describing Peace Corps is ‘experience’.  Part of the reason we do it is for the ‘experience’, but that word is rather nebulous.  What exactly is meant by it?  In an over-arching, yet still implicit, sense, it is that we learn and are learned from, share and are shared with, love and are loved by.  In an explicit way, though, we have stories.  As with anything that can be so searingly formative as Peace Corps service, we collect stories of various kinds.  Often very small and insignificant alone, they are merely parts of the puzzle.  Eventually they form a gestalt, a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, for this service is indeed greater (for the Volunteer) than the collection of a few stories, but those tales provide the backdrop to what we all achieve.  This ‘experience’ can entertain, it can inspire, it can educate, it can disgust, and it can surprise.  That is because behind all of those emotions are the discreet stories we have of students discussing morality all the way to leeches crawling around the bathroom.

I’ve shared several of those stories here, but there are many that fell through the cracks.  They may have been just passing moments or they may not have fit into a greater theme that I was trying to convey.  I’d like to take a moment here to share a few of the things that I haven’t mentioned for one reason or another.


‘Patience is merely frustration with an unfortunate lack of appropriate weaponry.’

There are a few things that, traditionally, a Javanese man needs to be considered an adult.  Things like a house, a horse (see: motorcycle), and a kris (wavy dagger for really gettin’ ceremonial).  And a bird.  It’s rather common to see a bird hanging outside an Indonesian household.  It can be a sign of status.  The brighter your bird is and the more it consistently pisses off your neighbors, the more expensive your bird must be.  My host brother and host father decided to take this to the next level.  It started last year with two birds living in a small cage outside my room.  Keep in mind that my room is upstairs and I am the only one who resides there.  Over the next few months, our bird total increased to four, then six, then eight.  We currently have eleven birds residing in our house, the vast majority of which live right outside my room.  While I was away for almost a week, a small aviary was constructed in the upstairs part of the house.


I’m up to my neck in birds! Sadly, with this monstrosity, that’s true.

I was not asked about or informed of this project.  It just happened.  So now my new friends can not only screech to their hearts’ content right outside my bedroom door, they can also flutter about and slam into plastic mesh whenever the urge strikes them.


From left to right: Wingnut, Feather Flocklier, Stephen Squawking, Chirpes, Captain Peckard, and Kevin. Not pictured: Cat Food, Gunther McFeathersburg III Esquire, and Scrattlepuss.

It is a constant struggle not to cut open that mesh and free both the birds and my god damn sanity.

Closing Time


I’ve heard from old soldiers that they can fall asleep anywhere at any time, a result of their war experience and general grizzledness.  I think the same might go for Peace Corps Volunteers.  Even amidst the buzz and commotion of a pub on Christmas, Sam still finds time for a bit of shut-eye.

Follow Your Nose!

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A gift from one of my social studies classes.  A fruit bird complete with star fruit wings and pineapple tail feathers.

Vacation Semeru-ined

Recently, my friend Jay and I had planned to climb the tallest mountain on Java, Semeru, during National Exams.  We traveled for several hours out to the base camp, only to learn that it was still closed.  Each year, they shut the trail down because rainy season weather makes it too dangerous and it gives the mountain ecosystem a chance to recover from dry season traffic.  They pushed their opening date back a month, which left Jay and I in the lurch as far as ‘things to do’ is concerned.  We decided to walk from the base of Semeru to Bromo Mountain, another active volcano further along in the same range.  After a few hours of hoofing it, including an impromptu dance session in a small shelter to keep warm in the night rain, we reached a homestay to rest our heads.

That morning, we decided our plan of action would be, instead of walking in the valley to our destination, to climb the system of ridges that goes to same place, but looked more interesting.  We knew there was no trail and there was some vegetation, so we’d be doing some bushwhacking…but our expectations were put to shame.

Can you find Jay?

Can you find Jay?

It took us a solid 3 hours to go a few kilometers, but it was incredibly satisfying to reach the top of the ridge where we could enjoy our feast.


Those instant noodles were consumed raw. Becoming a bit of a tradition, I think.  The foot, however, was not eaten.

We approached Bromo on foot from the back side, something rarely done, and appeared out of the mist to walk a knife’s edge along the gaping maw of the mountain.

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True Purposes


Burn calories while you sleep! Hold dirty laundry! Entertain the foreigner! All for 75.99! Call now!

About a year ago, my family had a treadmill installed in the middle of the house.  I’m not exactly sure why, as no one uses it for its designed purpose.  Fortunately, Gita has found the real Spirit of the Treadmill.

True Skill


That’ll show ’em for…flying near my backpack?

Living in a place like Indonesia, one learns different methods for killing mosquitoes.  The particular technique depends upon the situation.  This was a superb example of the Cloudburst technique, catching 3 of the fuckers in one clap.

And finally,

What a Picture is Worth


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A student took a silly picture from Facebook and turned it into an incredible pencil drawing.


(The sarung is the thing around my neck.)

Alright, so perhaps this wasn’t a collection of stories but rather a collection of pictures I wanted to share.  The principle is the same, though.   These bits and pieces drift together into a flotsam of unexpected sentimentality.  Sometimes, when I’m feeling down about the macro effect of my service here, and the inescapable truth that I haven’t changed much of anything, I take it down to the micro.  Look at the bits, and the whole because so much more clear.

Categories: Uncategorized | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “Odds and Endgames

  1. melanie aleman

    Love the pics and stories. That picture of Sam is epic. I’m also drowning in birds over here…

  2. Elizabeth Alford

    As always, your selection of pictures and your writing tell such wonderful stories. Proud of you.

  3. Nina

    Hi John..sorry I have been incognito for some time..but I liked this piece very much…you are so right about the individual insignificance of many events, happenings, incidents…put together it all looks quite different and it will look even more different months and years ahead….At least for me the meaning, the results got stronger and stronger, unexpectedly so…Wishing you the best as you sort out next steps…and great that you will be traveling. Greatest adventures to you… Nina and John R.

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