Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Story Behind the Dress

I was excited when I found out that the ELFs had once again been invited to the Marine Ball in Jakarta and even more excited when I realized that this year I could actually go. Jackie, Noreen, Michaela and Megan were all planning on attending too, so it promised to be a fun night out. We might even get to see our boss tear it up on the dance floor! Jackie was organizing our tickets and offering up her apartment as a place for all of us to crash, so the only thing I had to worry about was finding a fancy dress. What should have been a fun task turned into one of the most challenging of my fellowship so far - it ain't easy finding a floor-length ball gown in Indonesia!

About a month before the big event I went looking for a dress in Yogya. First I went to Galleria Mall where I found a small collection of dresses at the Matahari Department Store. It was an odd assortment and grew even odder when the saleswoman told me that the dresses were one-size-fits-all. How is that even possible? Without bothering to try anything on, I headed over to Amplatz Mall and also left empty handed. It occurred to me that searching for a dress in my size in a country where the women tend to be significantly smaller than me was going to be a bit more challenging than I had thought. I briefly considered getting a dress made but once I found out I was flying to Jakarta for a doctor's appointment, I figured I would be able to find something easily in one of the dozens of malls in the capital city.

In between doctor's visits I spent practically the entire week I was in Jakarta hunting for a dress. I tried on dresses at Pondok Indah Mall, Senayan City Mall, Mangga Dua Square, Artha Gading Mall, and Grand Indonesia. Mostly I went by myself but sometimes I went with Jackie and her friends and colleagues who seemed eager to help. (Jackie and Megan, by the way, had smartly decided to get dresses made as soon as they found out about the ball and thus avoided the several weeks of fruitless searching that Michaela, Noreen and I endured). The dresses I found generally fell into three categories of undesirableness: dresses that seemed like costumes for little girls wanting to dress up as princesses (including two-piece dresses with puffy sleeves and corsets), dresses that were cute but that I couldn't even zip up, and dresses that were outrageously priced. Once while checking out Senayan Plaza Mall I made the mistake of wandering into a Roberto Cavalli store thinking I might find something on the 70% off rack. Ha! 70% off of 56 million Rp ($6,222) was still WAY more than I would ever dream of spending on a dress. 

An example of a dress I really liked but couldn't zip up
A nice Seibu dress...

...but more than I could afford
I left Jakarta empty handed but returned about a week later and hit the malls again with renewed determination with Michaela and Noreen. Starting to feel the time crunch, we decided that our best bet was to go back to Grand Indonesia where we had seen nice but expensive dresses in the $200 and up range at Seibu. Although this was more than any of us wanted to spend for dresses we would wear once at an event where we weren't even bringing dates, we were starting to worry that we wouldn't be able to attend the ball at all if we didn't have dresses - just like Cinderella! However, we were still confident that if we just forked up the money at Seibu we would at least have something to wear and could stop spending all our free time roaming Jakarta's many malls. Once we arrived at Seibu we formulated an action plan and got to work. We scoured the racks, plucking anything that was labeled size 12 or higher, regardless of style, color or price and disappeared into the dressing rooms. Noreen got lucky and found a very cute white cocktail dress. So what if it wasn't floor length. It looked stunning on her and, to borrow Henry's expression, the price was merely rude rather than outright offensive. 

Michaela and I weren't as lucky. We tried on dress after dress and continually ran into the same problem - these dresses just weren't made for our body types. We struggled with zippers and puzzled over molded bra cups that just didn't sit in the right place. The number of dresses to try on grew smaller and smaller. Our definition of 'fit' didn't including flattering or stylish. It got to the point where we were just looking for something that would zip up. At the end of the day, it came down to just one option - two orange dresses that hung on our bodies like shapeless potato sacks. These were the only dresses in all of Jakarta that fit us. We stared at our reflections in the mirror and decided that we weren't quite ready to take that step. We held out hope that we would find something in Bandung - a known shopping mecca.

Unfortunately, Bandung had nothing to offer and after the TEFLIN conference we found ourselves back in Jakarta with one day to go before the ball and still no dresses. We had one hope left. Jackie and Megan claimed to have seen a small dress shop in Ambassador Mall that appeared to have dresses in Western (a.k.a big) sizes. We headed over there, joking that if this didn't work out at least we could still go back and buy the matching potato sack dresses. At The Fairly Bridal Boutique, the saleswoman pulled out a suitcase of extra large dresses and got to work outfitting us. The first couple of dresses we tried on were kinda ridiculous - I tried on a light pink number that made me look like I was wearing a Greek Goddess Halloween costume and Michaela's wasn't much better. However, someone somewhere must have been looking out for us because both of us FINALLY managed to find dresses that fit us reasonably well and weren't half bad to look at. My dress is actually part batik, a traditional Javanese material. Someday I hope I can wear this dress again and have it serve as a conversation piece at a cocktail party. 'Oh this? Why yes, I bought this in Indonesia,' I'll say casually.

My dress - I love the way it twirls!
We were all able to attend the ball after all!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Scuba Diving Class: A Boyfriend's Perspective

And now for something completely different. Today's post is brought to you by my first guest author - a man who shows us he's willing to go to some pretty lengthy extremes to follow his girlfriend into her underwater realm! This is an account of Henry's first pool session this past weekend for his Open Water diving certification.


Scuba Diving Class: A Boyfriend's Perspective
By Henry Chance

I awoke to find myself in a Richmond, Virginia hotel room.  Most Saturday mornings this would be a troubling start, but today I had work to do.  Today I will to get fitted for fins, a mask & snorkel, and learn how to breathe at the bottom of a pool.  This is day one of my scuba certification class. 

Regular readers will recall back in August, when a seemingly innocent offer of dinner and a chance to rekindle a college friendship flared into something much more!  In just over a month I will fly to Indonesia for a twelve day visit to once again sweep Julianne off her feet, and see my girlfriend the mermaid’s aquatic world. 

So I got up and readied for the day.  The lesson was scheduled from 11:00 to 5:00 so I grabbed a hearty breakfast in the hotel.  I answered a few work emails I missed the night before, took a trip to the drug store and the post office for an important errand, and made my way to Richmond Dive and Travel.  Route 60, south of Downtown Richmond, is a wide two lane road with simple brick houses and small businesses on half-acre lots.  Most of the houses looked like they might be unlocked.  I parked my car outside the Dive Center entrance, opened the door and walked in. 

The Dive Center’s storefront was small, clean and had a smooth cement floor crowded with racks and racks of dive equipment.  I was also the only one there.  I paced the rough aisles and walked up to the cash register, where a doorway led to another room.  An air compressor labored somewhere in the back.  I ducked my head in as a man in his mid 40s came around the corner.  His eyes widened in surprise for a second. “You must be Henry,” he said and reached out a hand.  Carl introduced himself and bustled around, explaining the day to me and looking for various pieces and parts to fit me.  Richmond Dive and Travel is insistent about their students owning their own essential gear.  Beginners don’t need to buy their own wetsuit or scuba tank, however I was fitted for fins, boots, a weight belt, dive mask, and snorkel all for $224. 

Julianne had warned me to try not to get swept up by the flashy glittery gear.  Very sound advice for an engineering guy who loves gadgets.  Fortunately, Carl wasn’t looking to sell me the entire shop.  In fact, most of his store appeared to have simple honest equipment at prices that were merely rude rather than outright offensive.  While wrangling a flipper around my ankle, the shop door opened and a stout man came in.  He wore a thin pair of sweats and a Richmond Fire Department t-shirt.  He looked like he was built to comfortably squeeze through the doorway of a burning building and kick down a wall to get out.  After introducing me to Sam, Carl said “Let’s get started on your paperwork and the quiz.” 

Twenty minutes later, Carl graded my quiz while a third instructor, Nathan, came in.  Nathan was almost as tall as me with a strong build and a shock of red hair.  Carl finished up some paperwork while I made small talk with Nathan and Sam, asking about their dive experience and why they took up the sport.  Carl put aside my paperwork and said “Well Henry, I guess we need to fit you for a wet suit.  Go with Sam and he will find you an extra large to try on.”  We went outside to an outbuilding where wetsuits, air tanks and other rental equipment were kept.  Sam held several one piece neoprene suits up to me and muttered mostly to himself about large and extra large sizes.  I couldn’t see any difference. 

Sam sent me back into the test room to try on the one piece wetsuit, where fortune frowned upon me.  I held the large piece of neoprene up to my body planning my entrance and exit strategies.  Brute force seemed my best bet.  I stripped down to my bathing suit, made sure the wetsuit was as unzipped as possible and stepped in.  For those of you who don’t know, neoprene is snug.  I wriggled and struggled to get both my feet through the legs with partial success.  I got the left foot through, stepped on the suit’s right leg with my other foot, stumbled back and reassessed.  I have an analytical mind.  I can do this.  I started working on the left side, hauling and grabbing at neoprene until I got most of the legging over the calf and up to the knee.  I switched back to the right side and started hauling.  The feet weren’t fitting through well.  I couldn’t figure out why.  A few minutes of grunting and heavy breathing later and I was ready to try for the arms.  The suit’s waist was still around my thighs, but I figured I could help myself by getting leverage from my shoulders and back to pull the neoprene up.  But how to get the arms up and over?  I shrugged one shoulder in and stood up straight.  The suit sloped at a diagonal across my chest.  If Tarzan had worn a neoprene hide rather than a leopard skin the fit would have looked something like mine.  Undeterred I shrugged my other shoulder into the wetsuit and stood straight, this time with both arms above my head.  Muscles strained against dark synthetic fabric, and the waist slid up enough that I could almost walk.  A few more cinches and the suit was on.  I could even breathe.  I grabbed the cord attached to the wetsuit’s large zipper and closed it, CAREFULLY.  Every guy treats a zipper touching his skin with utmost respect and delicacy.  It’s a survival instinct older than zippers. 

All that effort and the suit felt… actually not bad!  The thick neoprene made my muscles feel springy and tight, like whipcord under tension.  The suit wrapped around my throat fairly tight, but I walked back out front to greet my instructors.  Nathan and Sam eyed me speculatively. 

“How’s it feel?” Carl asked without looking up.
“Fine”, I replied.”
“It’s on backwards.”
“It’s on backwards,” Nathan reiterated.  I stood there squinting at him in confusion.
Your suit’s on backwards”, Nathan said with a patient voice.  “The zipper’s supposed to be in the back.” 

That made absolutely no sense to me but I shrugged and turned back to Carl.  Carl went over a couple other points while the neoprene continued to hug my jugular.  He told me to get changed again, then put everything into a mesh bag to go to the pool.  “And next time put the suit on with the zipper in the back.”  Right.  I nodded and went back in to change. 

Back in the exam room, I unzipped the suit and made no additional progress undressing for the next two minutes.  It turns out wetsuits are designed to peel off your shoulders simply by gripping the collar with both hands and straightening your arms down to your waist.  Then, it’s simple to slide your arms free.  But I couldn’t make that motion because my suit was facing the wrong way.  Instead I ripped and clawed my left shoulder out of the suit half way, then did the same to the right.  But the zipper only went so far.  In short order I had trapped myself in an improvised straight jacket that was constricting my lungs with my own arms!  Mild claustrophobia set in and I began thrashing to draw a full breath and cease the constriction.  Failing that, I forced myself to calm down and went back to contorting one side of my body until I could get an arm free.  Light at the end of the tunnel!  The rest was uncomplicated though not easy. 

I finished packing my gear as another diver-in-training, Brendan, arrived.  Brendan is a Marine looking to join the Navy Seals.  So he was here to learn something about diving before he went to training.  We headed to a YMCA pool in separate cars.  Carl went to open the back door for us while everyone else unloaded bags, air tanks, lead weights and some other gear.  First, Brendan and I had to prove we could swim and tread water.  No problem.  We spent 25 minutes swimming laps with fins on and treading water in the deep end.  The instructors spent the time talking about a recent industry trade show in Las Vegas.  All their questions started with “Did you see the _______ over by…?”  I can only imagine the wide range of toys and gadgets glittering in Las Vegas, a town famous for encouraging bad financial decisions!  This diving thing could prove a very expensive hobby. 

Next the three instructors took turns walking us through each piece of gear.  When that was done we assembled our gear, jumped in the water and donned our gear in the water.  Nathan took over the remainder of the training.  With crisp military precision, he walked us through the agenda.  We would practice breathing, switching between snorkel and scuba mask on the fly.  We would learn to drain the water out of our scuba mask WHILE UNDERWATER (like James Bond did in Operation Thunderball).  We would learn what to do if we ran out of air, how to manage our equipment, etc. 

So step one, breathing underwater.  I put the scuba mask on and immediately realized how much I missed breathing through my nose.  Scuba masks cover the eyes and nose in an airtight seal.  Thus when I tried to inhale like normal, I got nothing.  Two seconds later I relearned how to breathe (because nothing motivates like a deadline) and crouched on my knees under the water.  It took some practice getting the regulator to do what I wanted, but eventually we came to an understanding.  I didn’t have as much luck with my weight belt. 

Here’s something you may not know.  The human body, plus an air tank, plus a buoyancy control device (BCD) make divers very light.  So they wear lead weights to help them submerge.  The weights must be measured carefully.  Too much and the diver can’t surface.  Not enough weight or poorly balanced weights give you my situation.  Our second drill involved lying belly down on the surface of the pool.  I went to crouch down and my feet lifted off the pool floor. I tried again.  The same thing happened.  Nathan gave me two additional five pound weights and told me to exhale thereby reducing my buoyancy.  Okay, no problem.

Floating on the water’s surface, I exhaled deeply and slowly submerged three feet to the bottom of the pool.  But I inhaled and immediately started to rise.  So I exhaled.  I hovered for a second then sank back down, just as out of breath as before.  I inhaled and started ascending again.  My predicament was amusing for all of two seconds before another problem arose.  I started listing to one side. 

Here’s something else you may not know.  Tall guys, as a rule, are not graceful creatures.  Give us incredibly long footwear, confine us in a close space and our sense of balance goes out the window.  Back to the situation at hand, I’m tilting to one side.  My natural reaction is to get my feet under me and try again, but I can’t.  The tips of my fins are striking bottom and my ankle won’t flex because it’s stuck in the stupid flipper!  Natural reaction number two is to thrash wildly.  The theory is that something will give, and I’ll wind up in a different situation than I am in right now.  Even odds it’s a better one.  At the very least, thrashing might help control my spin.  But I can’t.  The pool wall is directly to my left.  My dive buddy Brandon is in front of me and there are three instructors within arms length of me who would get smacked as I tried to right myself.  That and the 3,000psi air tanks strapped to each of our backs encouraged me to move slowly.  My listing to port capsized me when I reached the surface.  I spun my arms and kick my legs a couple times finally righting myself as I coughed and sputtered.  Nathan came up from the bottom.  “Okay, let’s try this again and this time, try to stay level.” 

One try later, Sam and Carl start stuffing my BCD’s pockets with lead weights anywhere they can hide them.  I finally submerge.  Ha ha!  The rest of the afternoon passes without incident and we actually have some fun.  At the end of the day I pack up my bought and borrowed gear and head to my hotel.  The forward facing wetsuit peeled off almost easily this time.  I drove to my hotel room and after three trips to and from the car, all the scuba equipment was rinsed and drying in the shower.  I opted for a bowl bath by the sink and tried to tell myself I’m only giving up my bathroom this one time.  I also started to rethink my suitcase strategy for the upcoming trip to Indonesia.

For tomorrow’s pool dive we’ll be in the deep end.  I’m looking forward to it.  Partly because this diving thing may actually be fun some day!  I’m not doing the diving world any favors just now, but I can start to see why people enjoy the sport.  Mostly though, I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s class because every diving class I complete, every necessary piece of equipment I buy, brings me one step closer to her, my mermaid.  

Monday, November 22, 2010

Indonesia's Brigadoon

The musical Brigadoon tells the story of an enchanted village in Scotland that appears out of the mist every one hundred years and disappears again after only one day. I saw the movie version many many years ago and really don't remember too much about it but it immediately came to mind when I arrived in Bandung at the beginning of November for the TEFLIN conference. (Teachers of English as a Foreign Language in Indonesia). Like Brigadoon, Bandung (even the names sound kinda similar, right?) seems to have almost magical, surreal qualities.

The only thing I really knew about Bandung beforehand was its reputation for having a cooler climate than the rest of Indonesia. I also knew that my housemate Anastasia lived with a host family there during high school and really liked it. Perhaps that's an understatement; she raves about Bandung all the time. And the Bandung Institute of Technology is quite famous. And the city is also a shopping mecca for outlet stores. Ok, so maybe I knew more than one thing about Bandung before I went, but knowing those few things still left me unprepared.

We traveled by bus from Jakarta and I was blown away by the beautiful landscape. The urban sprawl of Jakarta quickly gave way to stunning mountains, terraced rice paddies and tea plantations, waterfalls, and traditional houses. Without a doubt, this was the most breathtaking scenery I have ever seen in Indonesia. This is a landscape photographer's dream. I could hardly do it justice by snapping pictures from the bus, but here's one shot to give you an idea of the gorgeous terraced tea plantations.

Mile after mile of stunning landscapes
Then we arrived at our hotel, the GH Universal, which looked like a palace up in the hills. In the lobby there was a bubbling fountain and a magnificent chandelier. And whole room was draped in heavy red velvet curtains from ceiling to floor. I quickly checked in and made my way to my room. As soon as I opened the door, classical music filled my ears and it took me a moment to realize it was coming from my TV. The place oozed over-the-top romance and decadence, but who am I to complain. I kinda loved it. And the bed was quite possibly one of the most comfortable beds I have ever sleep in.

Yes, the bed is draped in black lace
The food at the conference also took me by surprise. It was delicious. And for those of you who have been following this blog regularly over the past year, you know that this is not an adjective I typically use for Indonesian food. The meal at the end-of-conference dinner and cultural show was absolutely fantastic. I enjoyed trying the different Sundanese dishes and the sweet, hot drinks. Maybe this cusine explains why my housemate Anastasia is so enthusiastic about Indonesian food. Her enthusiasm truly puzzled me before, but now I see where she's coming from.

The cultural show itself exceeded all my expectations too. There were a few traditional numbers, which were quite good and energetic. And then Heather, one of the Fulbright ETAs in Bandung, took to the stage and started singing. Suddenly, students poured onto the dance floor from every table at the dinner and women were rockin' out in their jilbabs and the night exploded into one big long dance party. There was a congo line, there was some swing dancing, there was even a moment when the band played 'November Rain' and a line of people sat in front of the stage and waved their lighters. Imagine that - a band covering Guns N' Roses at the TEFLIN conference! This night was truly unlike any other English language teaching event I had ever attended in Indonesia.

'Everybody needs somebody'
Between the nice cool weather, the gorgeous landscapes, the 'romantical'  hotel (to use Noreen's expression), the delicious food and the night of musical madness at the TEFLIN conference, Bandung really did prove itself to be Indonesia's version of Brigadoon, an enchanted village in the mist. I just hope I don't have to wait 100 years until my next visit.

Jackie by a mist covered volcano crater

The angklung -a traditional Sundanese instrument

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Medical Mystery

For the past few months, I have been troubled by an array of odd symptoms and even odder medical advice. It all started the day my plane landed back in NJ after my first ten months in Indonesia. I noticed that the right side of my body sometimes felt very strange - a little bit numb, some tingling sensations - and felt colder than the left side of my body. And then the left side of my mouth started drooping! Alarmed, I went to see a doctor at home who ended up sending me for an MRI to rule out the possibility of MS. The MRI came back normal and the doctor concluded my symptoms must be caused by stress. This seemed to be a cop out answer to me since there was nothing in my life that I was feeling particularly stressed about. But in any event, my symptoms lessened and I returned to Indonesia feeling relatively fine.

However, by the beginning of October I was forced to acknowledge that I really wasn't fine. The odd sensations and mouth drooping were back, I felt unusually tired and lightheaded at the end of the day, I was having trouble gripping things in my right hand and, most disturbingly, there was a period of two to three days when I experienced really bad headaches that made my head feel like it was going to explode. These shooting pains in my head scared me enough to confide in Ingrid and seek out a doctor in Yogya. Ingrid did some research and took me to a doctor that several people had recommended.

Unfortunately, this doctor in Yogya turned out to be a bit wacky. His initial assessment of me was done through iris imaging. We looked at pictures of my eyes on a TV screen and he told us how spots on the iris correlated to organs of my body. My heart and lungs were fine but he mentioned in passing that I have a dirty left ovary. I'm sorry, what? A dirty left ovary?? But I quickly forgot about this as he announced his provisional diagnosis. According to him, I had a 'viral infection on a nerve in the brain'. Yikes! A brain infection?? And he can tell this by looking at pictures of my eyes? I was doubtful, but he ordered some blood work done and I figured a blood test would probably be a more reliable measure.

So the next day Ingrid and I went back to see him about the results of the blood test. He glanced at the paper we handed him from the lab and he announced that I have rubella. Really? I knew I had been vaccinated against rubella as a child and I didn't have a rash so this struck me as odd, but perhaps there was an Indonesian strand of the virus that I did not have immunity against. What do I know; I'm certainly not a doctor. Anyway, he prescribed two different medications, 6 to 12 rounds of physiotherapy, a detoxifying ionic foot bath (more on that in a minute) and last but not least he wanted me to wear a cervical collar for a month to put my facial muscles back in place. A cervical collar!! I asked him many questions but I could tell he was getting impatient. Ingrid translated that he felt like he was giving a lecture. He ended our session by saying that if I had any more questions I should just Google them. I promised myself I would do just that as soon as I got home, but first there was the experience of the ionic foot bath.

The ionic foot bath consisted of a tub of cold water with some sort of metal device that was plugged into a machine. The guy in charge (the attendant, the technician?) explained that the impurities from my body would float out of my feet and collect on the surface of the water as a layer of scum. Well, those weren't his exact words but that was the idea. If the scum formed one circle that meant I was relatively healthy. If the scum formed separate circles, it meant there was a problem somewhere. I peered into the tub; three distinct circles had formed. The guy looked at me sadly and shook his head. He told me the best thing to do in my case was to pray. Then he held up a worn copy of an English language book entitled 'Alone with God' and asked me if I wanted to read it. I politely declined and high tailed it out of there with Ingrid. I'm not saying prayer won't help, but it's not exactly what I wanted to hear at the doctor's office!

Back in my room, I Googled 'rubella' and found out that the blood work I had gotten done tested positive for the presence of IgG rubella antibodies, which should be present since I was vaccinated. I had tested negative for IgM rubella antibodies, which would have indicated that I currently had the virus. I sat there dumbfounded by the idea that the doctor I had gone to see had misinterpreted a simple blood test like this. On the spot I discounted everything he said to me - which to be honest was kind of hard to swallow anyway - and wrote to my RELO supervisors to see what I should do next. They suggested I fly to Jakarta to see a more reputable doctor at the International SOS Clinic.

On the day of my flight to Jakarta I found out that the neurologist I was scheduled to see had to cancel because of an emergency surgery. At the last minute RELO was able to get me another appointment with another neurologist at a Jakarta hospital. This doctor listened to what I had to say, did a few physical tests and told me I had migraines. Now, migraines sounded much more plausible than rubella but it still didn't ring true for me. I had been experiencing all these weird symptoms for over three months and only had one bout of bad headaches. And there was no aura or sensitivity to light or noise or any of the classic other migraine symptoms. I also didn't care for his recommendation of avoiding cheese, chocolate, coffee, citrus and cola. No cheese?? That's a horrible, horrible thing to forbid a girl who spent her twenties in a country famous for its cheese and who was cheese deprived for the entire 10 months she spent in Gorontalo.

To get a second opinion, I booked another appointment with the SOS doctor that I was originally supposed to go see. Of the three doctors I saw, Dr. Amanda did the most thorough testing and questioning. In fact she was so thorough that she sent me to get more extensive blood work done, an EEG and two evoked potentials tests called VEP and SSEP. The SSEP test was horribly painful. My body was hooked up to all sorts of electrodes and tortured with a vibrating current. It was most painful in my feet.

When the lab doctor wordlessly handed me her report at the end of the session, all I saw where the following words in bold type on the top of the page: Diagnosis: Multiple Sclerosis. At first I was stunned. Oh no!! And then I was angry. Who does that??? Who hands somebody a diagnosis of MS without saying a word about it?? It was shocking and I spent the taxi ride back to Jackie's quietly contemplating my fate and calling my parents. By the time I got back to the apartment I was visibly upset when I told the other girls. But Megan, to whom I will be forever grateful, calmed me down and explained that this was probably just a bad translation. A better wording would have been something like this: Reason for Test: Possibility of Multiple Sclerosis. Megan also pointed to the conclusion section of the report which said nothing about MS and just stated that the test results were compatible with sensory neuropathy in both lower extremities. What did that mean? Well, I had to wait another week or so before I could go back for a follow up appointment with Dr. Amanda.

When I finally got to sit down again with Dr. Amanda, I learned that I have a calcium deficiency. I had grown up knowing that I should drink milk for strong bones but I never realized before or had forgotten that calcium ions transmit messages from one nerve to the next. My decreased level of calcium was slowing these transmissions and causing nerve pain! Dr. Amanda speculates that I depleted my calcium stores living in Gorontalo where I pretty much involuntarily eliminated milk, cheese and broccoli from my diet. Never underestimate the importance of cheese! No wonder I craved pizza practically every time I left Gorontalo. My body was literally crying out for it. To fix this, Dr. Amanda prescribed me some calcium/vitamin D supplements and B12 supplements for good measure. I also asked her if there were any specific foods I should be eating as well, thinking she might say something like milk or cheese. But instead she replied, "Bone." Bone?!?! Bone has never been a diet staple in the part of the world where I'm from. She clarified by explaining that those little tiny fish that Indonesians dry and salt are a very good source of calcium. Right. Dried whole fish. Sounds yummy!

I tried the dried fish one night with some nasi goreng. They tasted just like bacon!
After months of worrying about what could be wrong with me, I'm relieved to find out it's something as simple and treatable as a calcium deficiency. I'm so glad it's not MS or migraines or a 'brain infection'. I just need to eat more cheese...and bone!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Escape from Merapi

In mid-October I moved into a new cubicle at ICRS. The new office space has tons of advantages: it's much bigger than my previous cramped quarters; it's centrally located in the hub of all ICRS activity so I don't feel like I'm all alone in the building when five o'clock rolls around; it's right next to Ingrid and Ipung's desks so I can easily chat, ask questions and steal some warm pisang goreng from Ingrid; it's close to the coffee and tea supply; and perhaps most impressively, it boasts a great view of Mount Merapi on a clear day. I thought it was pretty darn cool to have an office with a view of a volcano but on Oct 22 I noticed that the volcano seemed to be smoking. I pointed this alarming fact out to Ingrid, who told me that it's normal to see smoke coming from Merapi since it's an active volcano but also reassured me that we had nothing to worry about.

When I came home from work on Oct 25, I learned from my housemate Anastasia, who's always on top of the news, that experts were predicting an imminent eruption of Mount Merapi and had already started evacuating nearby villages. We sat glued to the TV that night, wondering what might happen next. The very next day, Oct 26, Merapi started to erupt, spewing ash and rocks into the air. That night found all of us once again glued to the TV in the common room as we watched the ash-covered evacuees talk to local reporters. A light ash rain fell in the background as people wearing face masks huddled together. I couldn't help but wonder why the shelters were so close to the volcano. Why weren't these people being taken farther away? Like to Yogya, a city about 25 km away and out of the danger zone where we were just comfortably sitting around watching the events unfold on TV?

I got the answer to my question the next day at work when Ipung explained to me that the villagers were reluctant to move far away from their cattle and livestock on the slopes. These animals represented their sole means of earning a living; if the animals died, so would their livelihoods. The men felt a strong need to stay close to their homes so they could run back and check on their cows during periods of low volcanic activity. If the authorities had insisted on evacuating these people farther away, they probably would have refused to evacuate at all.

I also learned that day that the eruption had already claimed a number of lives, including that of an elderly man known as Mbah Maridjan who was regarded as the spiritual guardian of the volcano. For many years, Mbah Maridjan's responsibility was to appease the gods of the 'Fire Mountain' with offerings of rice or flowers. Locals believed that if a serious eruption was imminent, Maridjan would be warned in a vision. On Oct 26 he stubbornly chose to ignore official orders to evacuate. His ash-covered body was later found in a praying position. Tragically, 13 other bodies of people who had either followed his example of staying despite evacuation orders or who had tried to persuade him to leave were found as well, including those of a journalist and a Red Cross volunteer. News of his death spread quickly through ICRS and saddened many.

Mount Merapi as seen on Oct 27 from my office window

On Oct 28 I flew to Jakarta. No one had ordered me to evacuate; I just happened to have a doctor's appointment. I also had plans to stay out of town for the next two weeks because of a conference in Bandung, the Marine Ball in Jakarta and another workshop in Banda Aceh. My timing couldn't have been better. The day after I arrived in Jakarta I started to get frightening reports from friends back in Yogya: Merapi had erupted two more times, the airport was shut down, and the volcanic ash had reached Yogya - it even dusted our guesthouse. Merapi was nowhere near being done erupting. In fact, she was just gathering energy. I was glad to be out of harm's way, but I worried for those still in Yogya.

On Nov 5 I woke up to the following text message from my counterpart, "Julianne, don't get back to Jogja first, Mt Merapi is getting worst. Ipung." A text from RELO followed shortly thereafter asking all ELFs to confirm our locations and to warn us to stay away from Mt Merapi, Yogya and Solo. It turns out that in the early morning hours of Nov 5 there had been what the media was calling the "worst eruption of the century". This eruption would eventually push the death toll up from 44 to over 250 and counting and triggered a series of emergency actions: my host university canceled all its classes for the week and many of UGM's buildings were converted into shelters for displaced people; the Indonesian government promised they would reimburse farmers for the loss of their cattle in an effort to convince them to stay away from Merapi's deadly slopes; and AMINEF pulled the ETAs out of the region and temporarily relocated them to Jakarta. In the days immediately following the eruption, I heard tales of intense rain, lightening and even a 5.6 earthquake in Yogya (said to be unrelated to Merapi, but still).

There have been no major eruptions since Nov 5, the danger zone has decreased in some areas and classes have resumed at UGM and ICRS. However, Merapi continues to cough and rumble. How long this will go on is anyone's guess. Ingrid and Ipung report that Yogya is feeling normal again but on Nov 10 the U.S. State Department issued a travel alert for the area until Dec 31. The ETAs have been moved from Jakarta to work indefinitely at other schools on Java; Demi is now in Bandung and Brett is in East Java.

As for me, I'm stuck in Jakarta for the time being. My original flight back to Yogya was scheduled for Nov 14 but the Yogya airport is closed until Nov 20. But even then, is it safe to go back? Demi tells me that AMINEF is keeping the ETAs out of the region until the Indonesian government officially lowers Merapi's alert status. Consequently, RELO is checking with the Embassy Regional Security Office about when it will be safe for me to return. In the meantime, I'm being put up in nice hotels in Jakarta and RELO is giving me various little projects to work on. Yesterday I was a guest visitor in an Access Microscholarship Program English class. I'll return tomorrow to lead the class through some speaking and writing activities. On Friday and Saturday I'm volunteering to help interview Indonesian high school students for a year-long exchange program in the U.S. These are interesting tasks, but I hope it will be safe enough for me to return to Yogya soon to resume my life and regular classes there. It's not easy being in this state of limbo and uncertainty and I miss my friends and housemates in Yogya.

Quick Update's been a while since I last updated this blog. The reason is not that nothing has been happening but rather that so much has been happening that I haven't had time to catch my breath and write it all down. In short, I had a medical mystery to solve, an erupting volcano to escape from, a couple of English language teaching workshops to deliver, a fancy ball to attend, a dive trip to go on and a lot of other sightseeing, shopping and traveling to do - just a typical few weeks in the life of an English Language Fellow in Indonesia! In my next several posts I will try to bring you all up to speed.