Saya bersyukur (I am grateful)

This afternoon, riding home on the minibus (angkot) from the city, I found myself slipping into a thousand-yard stare to the surprised looks, shouts my way, and pointed questions jeered from the street. A long day among days spent sticking out for my appearance and my origins, my kettle was close to boiled up.  But just as I began breathing slowly to lower my blood pressure, the adhan (call to prayer) rang out over the dusky road.  Suddenly, the water bottles and cookies and snacks popped out of bags and everyone in the angkot and joined in, jovially offering goodies to eat and drink to the eight other strangers riding along.

Traditionally, dates are the food of breaking the fast around the world, but sometimes a palmier will have to do.

Here, the days can sometimes be stressful, or hectic, or slow, or entirely mixed, but I live for these moments when the ageless tradition of breaking bread brings a flash of clarity to the question, “What am I doing here?”  The ibu (lady) sitting across the way smiled at me and offered me tofu stuffed with glass noodles and carrots, the mother sitting to my left cracked open seaweed chips and a chocolate milk for her toddler, the high-school-aged girl at my right passed a box of palmier cookies.  In an instant, a smile crept across my lips and stretched so wide that it could not fit.  Far from being a Muslim, or an Indonesian, what I witnessed was the creation of a community that would last as long as one of us remained in the angkot.  We smiled and laughed and thanked each other in Bahasa Indonesia, Sundanese, and English, speeding on into the night.


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The timeline of my Peace Corps application

October 2013: I realized that Marseille was wonderful and magical and I needed something beyond it.  I had thought about applying to the Peace Corps before, but having just gone through an intercontinental move entirely on my own, I realized that I had underestimated my own power.

October-December 2013: Gather materials, write, rewrite essays, and fill out forms for my application.

January 2014: Turn everything in.

February 2014: I got an interview!  Schedule and prep, voraciously scouring the Peace Corps wiki for sample interview questions.  Check them out, here.

March 11, 2014: Interview over videochat with recruiter, assigned to me at random.  Turned out she had seen me speak about teaching in France at a teleconference at Pitt two months before– small world! The connection kept popping in and out, but at the end she offered me a list of countries for which I was eligible.  I picked Lesotho first, which departed in the summer.  She nominated me on the spot, but the program filled up the next day, before my nomination could be considered.  Indonesia it was!

late March, 2014: get fingerprints taken at the city Commisariat (police station) for the FBI background check.  They take pity on me and do them on the spot, for free.  Thanking my lucky stars.

June 2014: Curious to hear about the progress of my application, I send a note to the recruiter with the shortlist of why I am a great candidate for Indonesia specifically.

August 2, 2014: I receive my acceptance e-mail!

August 20, 2014: Appointment at the US consulate in Marseille, where I turn in my passport and visa documents.

September 15, 2014 – December 2014: Fill out my medical portfolio.  Again, thanking my lucky stars for living in France, where I have medical insurance that covers nearly all of this.  The only drawback is that I had to translate every document into French, then guide the doctors, gynecologist, dentist, and lab technicians through the documents to be filled out in English.  Lab results translated back into English for the Peace Corps, too.  Get that checked and approved by an official translator.

There were a few issues with my medical portfolio, so I was very glad I started early.

December 18, 2014: My passport documents were stamped incorrectly in France, which I find out in late November.  I have returned to the US and try (3 times) to get them filed correctly.  Turns out you just need to go to a Post Office, BUT BRING ANY INSTRUCTIONS THE PEACE CORPS GIVES YOU.  The first post office I visited, the clerk refused to believe that she could give me the signed and stamped envelope to be sent through FedEx.  The second one, I was prepared with printouts of my acceptance letter, Peace Corps’ instructions for mailing the passport and visa documents, including a phone number of someone at the Peace Corps Headquarters who could confirm this information.

January – February 2015: Assemble my bags, again voraciously scouring the packing lists of previous Indonesia volunteers, general packing lists on the Peace Corps wiki, and taking advantage of the Peace Corps discounts!

mid-February 2015: Conference call about departure with Peace Corps Indonesia officials and other prospective ID9 volunteers.

March 16, 2015: Staging conference in LA.  I had no problem having SWTSato Travel fly me from Boston, rather than my home of record.  I may have gotten lucky, but it was definitely worth a try.

March 17, 2015: Depart for Surabaya, via LA-Narita (Tokyo), Narita-Changi (Singapore), Changi-Surabaya.

March 19th: 2015: Arrive in Surabaya.  Begin Pre-Service Training!

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Ramadan Mubarak!

Ramadan Mubarak everyone!  It’s hour 5 today, this second day of Ramadan, and I am “masih kuat,” “still strong.”  Typing from the administrative office, and “Creep” by Radiohead just came on the radio.  Everything in Leuwiliang has slowed down significantly now that everyone is fasting.  After the squeezes of Pre-Service Training, nothing feels as good as a little down-time.  Still, I’ve been going through some of the materials that the ID7 I’m following left behind and stepping cautiously around my old and unsavory habit of an all-or-nothing approach to discipline…

So far, there is a “GOALs” board (Met the neighbors? √) up in my room and am almost finished with a ginormous wall calendar comprising the entirety of service, a technique I found helpful in Marseille, when a quick glance at the calendar gave me renewed spirit at the prospect of things to come.  But like these first few days of Ramadan, it seems better to focus on the short-term.  If I can make it through ten minutes, an hour seems shorter, the days slip by, and I gradually gain mastery over my time.

Masih kuat!

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Hello from M.A.N. LEUWILIANG!

Hello from Leuwiliang, Bogor, West Java, INDONESIA!  I am a Peace Corps volunteer in the education sector, teaching in a public Islamic high school, a Madrasah Aliyah Negeri, with four fabulous counterparts and many, many bright and lively students.  This was also my study abroad blog for the 2011-2012 academic year, spent in Alexandria, Egypt and Menton, France.  Many of those experiences parallel things I have witnessed here, in cultural, religious, and sociological terms, but also in that I came to better understand my place in the world through them:

Sure of only my love of languages and my drive to explore, I saw Arabic among the offered courses as I planned out my first college semester. A line of poetry I had seen only days earlier flowed through my head: “Let the beauty we love be what we do/ There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground,” by the medieval Sufi poet, Rumi. Two challenging years later, despite the news of revolution brewing, I turned in my study abroad application for Egypt, fall 2011. My experiences growing up between cultures had already showed me that the best way to know anything truly is to see it for myself. So, in addition to pursuing my love of the Arabic language, I was fixated on the growing Arab political and social movements: I wanted to be in the eye of the storm, in a nexus of social movement, of revolution, and of profound change.

As with Peace Corps core expectation number 3, it was very challenging to adjust to a new culture and a different way of life. In Alexandria, as with experiences abroad since, my response was a multi-pronged approach. I did my Arabic homework and participated in class, but I was careful to add as much enjoyment to the experience as possible to never feel drained by the effort. I took dance classes, hung out in sheesha cafés with other students, tried local delicacies, traveled to all four corners of the country, and visited sites of modern and ancient significance, all the while seeking out conversations with people I met along the way. For the next four months, my professors, other students, the women I met on the tram, and everyone in between filled me with their stories and, oftentimes, their visions of a better Egypt. At the end of my semester, as my facebook feed flooded with proud posts of inked fingers—proof of voting in the first post-revolution elections—I knew that my study of Arabic and Egyptian culture was my way to kneel and kiss the ground, as Rumi had said. Likewise, I cannot imagine a life in which the beauty I love (languages, cultures other than my own, change) is not what I do. Peace Corps gives me the chance to pursue these passions and skills in a way that serves others, where, instead of coming into the nexus of change, I can be that nexus in my own way. Following my experiences conversant between cultures, my greater trajectory is to pursue a career in international development. Peace Corps will be a step forward on that track and the best way I know to use my skills fully to the benefit of others. With the aid of an ear for different means of communication, a confidence in holding my own in unfamiliar situations, and a determination to turn what I love into what I do, I am proud to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer.

*  *  *

The views and anecdotes expressed here are intended to offer a window into my experiences during my Peace Corps service in Indonesia and a chance to share what I have learned in the process. The stories, jokes, and videos provided here are in good humor and my experiences alone.  They do not reflect any position of the U.S. government, the Peace Corps, or Indonesians, but mine alone.

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There are tons of things I should not be complaining about.  I live in France, I’m contractually obligated to only 12 hours of work per week, I can leave my landlord to scrub the bathtub if I damn well please— life is pretty easy.  But some of the things that give me pause in this first year of life as a “Big Girl” spiral toward the same point: a lot of the things we are taught to believe about the way the world works are off.

Quite off, if we’re talking about Marseille.


As the third biggest city in metropolitan France, there’s a lot to cover.  The glorious sunshine (300 days of the year, Hallelujah!), the sea, the history, the views… But when I told a lady sitting next to me on a cross-Atlantic flight that this is where I would call home for the next 8 months, she looked me straight on and said, stone-faced, “Honey, are you sure? You know it’s like *whispering* the Middle East?!”

Right.  I’m not saying there are no problems.  This city has issues of unemployment, child poverty, drug abuse, violence.  The kids I teach are going through some of these problems.  I don’t pretend to understand what it’s like to live with that reality every day; I have the choice to commute to their neighborhood for work, whereas they were quite literally born into their circumstances.  This is where I find myself getting the most angry at people who make comments like the lady on the plane.

These kids are brilliant.  They are bright-eyed, excited, good learners, kind.  It gives France a bad name, a prejudiced, bigoted name that can only whisper of the diversity that exists in this city to dismiss it, or parts of it (the famous “Quartiers Nords”) as part of the chaff to be swept from the table in favor of homogeneity of culture.

Maybe you believe that as an outsider I cannot understand.  Maybe you’re right.  But I am here to assert that A) not everyone is like that whispering woman in the window seat, and B) these kids deserve so much more than outright dismissal, just like this city.


Rant over.  If you’re ready to hear more about this city of surprises, read on.

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Thea Walks the World

The idea: in each new country or notable city I visit, take a 10 to 20 second video that starts with me walking and then pans around to take in my surroundings.

The intention: bring together a six-month span of travel in a fun way

The timing: Paris, France in December 2011 to Blue Bell, Pennsylvania in May 2012

The locations: Paris, Cologne, Aarhus… just watch it.

The result:

A big fat THANK YOU to all those who were involved, especially Aunt Margaret, Uncle Eric, Nina & Sarah, Malin, Laurie, Caitlin, Claire, Ciera, Lauren, Nina, Gracie, PhoebeMaia, Katie, my Mom, Moutaz (for the music), Sander, and Jorge.




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Is This The End?

Dear Reader,

So I know I said a little while ago that I wasn’t sure I’d keep the blog going after I arrive in the US, but I realized I have not been as diligent or inspired with my posting as before, and so I have a lot left to say about my experiences that might prove useful or interesting to other travelers (such as how to NOT buy bus tickets in Morocco).  This merits at least a few weeks of posts still to make sure I cover some of the remaining comment-worthy territory, which is another way of saying I’m not sure I’m ready to let go of this thing yet.  I am already going through some culture shock and though I’m ecstatic to be home with my family, there is a lot to process… and that’s why I started this blog in the first place: to process things in a healthy way.  I want to keep going to keep doing that for a little longer at least.

The results of this year have been UNREAL: I’m just shy of 12,000 views with 35 wordpress followers, 8 comment followers, and 743 facebook followers– humbling figures considering the simple aims of this thing and DEFINITELY not what I ever expected.  Thank you to all those who have followed along from the start and welcome to those who have just arrived here!   It’s been an enlightening adventure for me and I hope you’ve enjoyed it, too.



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