The Journey to Raung, Part I—Expectations of Getting Things Done in the Peace Corps
Twelve months ago, I would have considered the prospect of driving nine hours from Houghton to Chicago just for a twenty minute meeting absurd. This, howeve, is essentially what I did last week, and I was strangely okay with it.
One of the last parting advices I received before leaving to Indonesia was “Just try to get one thing done each day.” I think this advice serves many functions. First, it serves as encouragement—and maybe even as a reminder—to stay productive each day. During my year at Michigan Tech before joining the Peace Corps, I remember meeting one RPCV who said the hardest part of her days during service was often just getting out of bed. This woman didn’t strike me as shy or lazy. In fact the opposite was true. She had a very energetic and outgoing personality, yet she still admitted to the struggles of simply starting her day. Why was this? I don’t think she was any lazier or less motivated while she was a Peace Corps Volunteer. I don’t think it had anything to do with not enjoying her time abroad because she spoke fondly of her service. Instead, I think she just found the whole thing exhausting. She was living in a small village in Mali, and the routine daily tasks of leaving the house, standing out physically, and conversing in a new language that you are forever learning is exhausting. I can sympathize with those statements now. Sometimes you have to really psych yourself just to go over to the neighbor’s house and somehow get excited for the fact that you aren’t going to understand everything that is being said in conversation. This is, indeed, a scary prospect—one that we are not used to accepting during pre-Peace Corps life.
Second, “get one thing done each day” acts as a reminder to curb expectations and be happy with accomplishing only one thing on a given day. Counting on wildly productive days while operating in a foreign environment can drive you crazy because wildly productive days are a lot harder to come by than they were back home. One memory from the beginning of my time in Genteng stands out as a good example of this. One afternoon, before the school semester had started, I decided there were several things I wanted to get done before the day was over. I quickly jotted down my list: pick up uniform from the tailor, mail letters, buy a radio, get the seat on my bicycle adjusted, and search for a copy of Harry Potter DVDs with Indonesian subtitles.
It was about one o’clock in the afternoon when I scribbled out my list, which I thought gave me plenty of time to accomplish all of my tasks. After all, I knew where the tailor’s shop was, I knew where the post office was, and I knew where I could get my bike repaired. It seemed all I would have to search for was a place to buy a radio and DVDs. I asked my host family about stores to buy radios, and my host father said he knew of several that he could show me. I also asked my host father—while pointing to a copy of my host siblings’ Harry Potter #6 DVD—if it was possible to buy ‘that’ in Genteng. He said it was and that he would take me to that store as well. Loaded up on encouraging answers from Bapak and his willingness to bike around with me on my errands had me feeling pretty confident that I’d return home before maghrib with all of the chores on my list crossed off.
I could turn the rest of the evening into a really long story, but I think it will suffice to say that I returned home around seven o’clock with not one of my tasks completed. The post office turned out to be closed that day, so there was no way I was going to mail my letters. Failing to finish the other items on the list, however, was a different matter. I ended up on a wild-goose chase that included visits to run down houses, what had to have been several circles around Genteng, and entrances into stereo and TV retailers on my quest to buy a small radio. When it came to searching for DVDs, it turns out my host father interpreted my pointing at the Harry Potter DVD to mean I wanted to buy blank CD-Rs. As it turned out, the computer supply store didn’t carry any copies of Harry Potter or any other movie for that matter. The confusion over the radio and the movie took up so much time that both the bike shop and the tailor were closed by the time we were ready to move on. It was already dark and time to head home. I ate dinner and mandied that night frustrated by the fact that I had accomplished nothing.
Contrast those high expectations and utter failures with the modest goals and ultimate satisfaction in my recent attempts to plan a trip to Gunung Raung. Gunung Raung is the second tallest volcano on Java, and it’s geologic history records a violent past. Unfortunately, the volcano is poorly monitored as the only two seismometers installed are right next to each other about nine kilometers from the summit. With the guidance of USGS scientists, the staff at the Raung Volcano Observatory and myself have been tasked with scouting possible locations for new equipment near the summit of the volcano. The observatory’s collection of files and information included a brochure for a ranger station at the trail head of on the northern side of the mountain, but the listed telephone number was disconnected. We searched the internet for advice and suggestions on how and where to start a hike up Raung, but information was scarce. Raung is not a popular tourist destination, and most of the websites with information are outdated or too vague to be helpful. My CP from the observatory, Karyono, and I ultimately came to the conclusion that the only way to gather more information about the possibility of hiking Raung was to make a trip out to the supposed ranger station in Bondowoso.
Armed with nothing more than a village name, Sumber Wringin, and the phrase “Kami mau mendaki Gunung Raung” (We want to hike Raung), Karyono and I departed Genteng at six thirty on a Friday morning. We had one goal for the day: find out exactly how and where we could start a hike up Gunung Raung. We didn’t even know if a ranger station still existed or if there would be anyone in Sumber Wringin who could provide us with helpful information. The trip was a little bit of a shot in the dark.
After a three hour bus ride, two one-hour angkot rides, another one hour bus ride, and a final one hour angkot ride, Karyono and I arrived in Sumber Wringin. For entertainment value, I should also add that part of that journey included being momentarily lost at an intersection where the only person to give us directions was an old Madurese lady who spoke neither Bahasa Indonesia nor Bahasa Jawa. Thanks to enough gesticulations and articulations of place names, Karyono and I were eventually directed to the ranger station. I can’t express the defeat I felt as we approached what appeared to be an abandoned building from the front, and I can’t express the following elation when we found a middle-aged couple and a police officer manning the station in the back. I was actually going to get to fulfill my day’s single task.
Our meeting at the ranger station had to be short. The driver who transported us across our last leg had traveled to the rarely visited end of his route and said he would wait for us no more than thirty minutes at the passenger-less end of his line. Karyono and I took down information about guides and porters, expected weather conditions, trail conditions, and costs before making arrangements to hike the following Wednesday. After noting the station’s updated phone number, we were back out the door.
The return trip only took six hours, putting us into Genteng around eight p.m. After waiting out a rain storm at a warung, I finally made it home around nine thirty. Despite taking fifteen hours to travel ~180 km with the sole purpose of having a twenty minute conversation, I couldn’t help but wonder if my day was well spent. As I lay on my bed trying to fall asleep, I began scheme ways that I could have made the day more ‘productive.’ It crossed my mind that I probably could have phoned any random toko in the Bondowoso area until I found someone who knew the number for or at least knew of the ranger station. Calling the local police station might have yielded positive results also. Still, successfully acquiring information via phone call would have led to the same number of things getting accomplished (i.e., one thing) as going to Sumber Wringin in person. And since I have decided to accept that accomplishing one thing is an okay day, I’ll take the experience of traveling all day over a phone conversation.