Thursday, December 17, 2009

Torosiaje - A Bajo Village on Stilts

Last weekend I had the chance to discover a wonderfully remote corner of Sulawesi – the traditional fishing village of Torosiaje, home of the Bajo sea nomads. Since the 10th century, the Bajo sea nomads (also known as sea gypsies) have roamed the seas off eastern Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Although they used to have a nomadic lifestyle searching for pearls, tortoiseshell and sea cucumbers to present to the sultans of the region, modern governments have accused them of piracy and have forced them to lead a more permanent lifestyle on land. However, the Bajo of Torosiaje don’t quite live on land; they live in a unique and fascinating village on stilts.

Ramang, a friend of mine from Gorontalo who works for an NGO active in preserving the wetlands around Torosiaje, invited Sarah, Alexa and I to join him and another NGO friend of his, Honk, on an overnight trip to this remarkable village. The trip to Torosiaje involved a long 6 hour car ride over winding, bumpy roads plus a short 20 minute boat ride from the mainland out to the village. We arrived at sunset, which gave the already otherworldly location an even more surreal feel. Houses on stilts grew closer and closer while shadows of fishing boats contrasted with the brilliant colors of the setting sun.

After a welcoming snack of tea and cookies, Alexa, Sarah and I checked out the guesthouse where we would be staying overnight. Located at the end of a long wooden walkway rife with missing planks, it offered the most basic accommodation possible, but we loved it instantly. Electricity was provided from a generator, but we asked our host to turn it off so we could enjoy quiet sounds of the sea at night. The guesthouse, like all the houses in the village, was on stilts and had a porch with a set of stairs that went right down to the water. Looking down at the coral and fish below us, we were very tempted to take a midnight swim, but nixed that idea since the toilets for the entire village, including our guesthouse, were essentially holes in the floor directly over the water.

Our guesthouse:

Before retiring for the night, we had a delicious dinner of fresh fish and rice at our host’s house. I’ve never been a big fan of fish served with the head and tail still attached, but this weekend was a turning point. Starting with lunch en route at Bolihutuo Beach, where was no choice except for cooked whole fish, my aversion dissipated. That’s because the fish was served with dabu dabu iris – a local salsa made with coconut oil, onions, tomatoes and chilies. I had been avoiding it because spicy food makes me hiccup, but at this particular restaurant they served the dabu dabu iris without the spicy chilies and it was heavenly. It’s a good thing I took a new liking to this dish because it was served for three consecutive meals.

After successfully navigating the holes in the walkway with our flashlights, we arrived back at our guesthouse and spent the rest of the evening stargazing. The stars here were amazing. The three of us laid down on the walkway with our feet dangling over the edge and made wishes on the shooting stars. We slept really well that night and awoke the next morning to the sound of the fishing boats gliding past the house. In our pajamas, we sat on the porch and watched the sunrise at 5:30.

Not long after sunrise, the village came to life and we quickly threw on some clothes to take a walk around. The villagers were hard at work at their daily activities of cooking, doing laundry by hand, chopping wood, drying fish, cutting coconuts and chatting with each other. People were happy to pose for pictures and it was fun being in such a remote, traditional place and being able to greet the people in Bahasa Indonesia – Selamat pagi! Good morning!

Drying fish:

After a breakfast of fried rice and eggs, we took a traditional fishing boat out to an uninhabited offshore island for a little snorkeling and exploring. The beach was beautiful. The water was various shades of deep tropical blues and we could just make out the village of Torosiaje on the opposite shore against the mountainous backdrop of Sulawesi. Our snorkeling was cut a bit short by the presence of stinging plankton where the shelf dropped off, but even very close to shore in about one foot of water there was a lot to see. Sarah and I spent a good amount of time here watching sand-camouflaged starfish move at a surprisingly rapid pace over the bottom.

This trip was so amazing and special that it helped confirm the decision I had already made: I’m going to request to stay a second year in Indonesia. Hopefully, I can stay on Sulawesi. I’m starting to feel a strong connection to my island and would like to have more time to explore it.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Grabe & Stoller Come to Town!

I have encountered the names Grabe & Stoller several times in my TESOL career. I think I first became aware of them was when a friend and I were doing a mammoth assessment project on reading and writing ability in grad school. I just checked our references – their names appear no fewer than six times. Then last year I saw them present at the TESOL conference in Denver. Their presentation on “Debunking Myths about L2 Reading Instruction” was dynamic, interactive and made a lasting impression. Needless to say, I was thrilled when my supervisor from the U.S. Embassy informed me that Grabe & Stoller would be coming to Gorontalo as English Language Specialists to present two 90-minute workshops on reading and vocabulary at UNG. It was hard to imagine two such big names in the TESOL field coming to my remote little outpost in Indonesia, but they were here, it’s true! Here’s a picture of us to prove it:

As we shared meals, car rides and even a bentor sightseeing trip around town, Grabe & Stoller became Bill and Fredricka. What an amazing opportunity to get to know two such big movers and shakers in the field on a very personal level. We chatted about what it’s like to live and teach in Gorontalo and they asked for my opinion about how the workshops went and what I thought the participants got out of them. Interestingly, Fredricka told me how she and Bill found the reading text she used in her workshop here years ago when they were preparing another TESOL presentation. The text just so happened to be about biodiversity in Sulawesi! She never dreamed that she would actually come here, let alone use the text as a basis for a vocabulary workshop here.

Fredricka was especially interested in taking a bentor ride around town. Bill decided he was too tall for one, so he stayed back at the hotel while Fredricka and I went exploring. I’d like to mention here that I now have the next best thing to a personal chauffeur – an English speaking bentor driver who I can text to pick me up anywhere. Ahmad has made my life here much easier since I met him last week. A friend of Tia’s, he attends a hospitality professional school in the mornings and is free to drive me around town in the afternoons and evenings. So, he was the man I texted when Fredricka announced her interest in seeing the town with this special type of transportation. We only had half an hour to spare, but we managed to visit the oldest mosque in town, go down an arcaded shopping street and most importantly, Fredricka got a taste of what it’s like to ride in this type of public transportation that sort of feels like riding in an awkward Epcot center amusement park ride. Here’s a picture of Fredricka, Ahmad and I at the end of our little tour around town:

Bill and Fredricka’s short stay in Gorontalo ended with a group dinner at a new seafood restaurant right on the ocean. We arrived too late to catch the sunset, which I image must be magnificent from this spot, but we did see a fantastic lightening show in the distance. Over non-alcoholic mango, soursop, jackfruit and avocado cocktails, we talked about the events of the past two days with my supervisor from the Embassy, his assistant, my counterpart, the head of the English department at UNG and another lecturer in the department. Getting to know Bill and Fredricka on such a personal level is a great perk of being an ELF!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Q&A with Julianne

One of my most devoted blog followers recently sent me a snail-mail letter enclosed in a Thanksgiving card that included a list of random things that she wanted to know more about. I decided to answer her questions here on my blog because, as every teacher knows, if one student asks a question, others are probably wondering the same thing. I encourage you to keep asking me questions!

1. What do you know about dangerous and poisonous wildlife where you are, things such as moray eels, sharks, scorpions, snakes, etc.?

Fortunately, there is no dangerous or poisonous wildlife on land that I am aware of. In the water, there are scorpionfish, stonefish, sea snakes, and stingrays. When diving, it is easy to avoid these creatures because you’re not walking along the bottom, where stingrays lurk, and you shouldn’t be sticking your hands in crevices where scorpionfish and stonefish hang out anyway. Sea snakes can sometimes approach, but it’s best to just keep your distance and give them plenty of room. Sharks are out there too, of course, but are only a threat if they are attracted by blood or flashy jewelry that they might mistake for prey.

2. Tell us about your experience grocery shopping and what meals you prepare for yourself and if you eat out often and where you go.

About once a week I go to the Galael supermarket to stock up on pasta, tomato sauce, processed cheese, eggs, cereal, milk, yogurt, and instant coffee (a sad but true fact is that even though Indonesia produces and exports some of the world’s finest coffees, the supermarket shelves are just lined with instant powders). Options are limited here and although I find my supermarket selections less than thrilling, they still give me the freedom to eat some Western foods at home.

The restaurants in Gorontalo are mostly either Indonesian or Chinese, with the exception of KFC, where I ate my Thanksgiving dinner. Unlike KFC in America, the one here doesn’t serve any biscuits or sides of mac n’cheese or veggies. It’s strictly fried chicken and rice, which, when you think about it, doesn’t really make it much different from all the other Indonesian restaurants selling fried chicken and rice.

During the week, I always eat lunch at a cafĂ© at school – usually mie kuah dan telur (instant noodles with a hard-boiled egg) or tahu isi (fried tofu with a vegetable filling) with rice. In the evenings, I sometimes have a club sandwich or a “pizza” at the Quality Hotel or I’ll pop into Cafesera or Den Bagoes on the way home for some Indonesian fare like tempe (beancurd cake), tahu lontong (tofu with pressed rice in a peanut sauce), milu siram (Gorontalese corn soup) or gado-gado (vegetables with tofu in a peanut sauce).

I’m not crazy about any of these dishes and am always thrilled to get out of town to eat somewhere different. For instance, a couple of weeks ago I went to an Indian restaurant in Yogyakarta where the food tasted divine! Lack of culinary variety remains one of the hardest challenges for me here in Gorontalo, especially after two years in New York.

3. Is your generator up and running? How do you deal with power shortages? Ever have to get rid of food because it spoils?

Yes, my generator is up and running but I don’t actually use it that often even though my power normally goes off at least once a day. When the power goes out in the evenings, I generally use this time to make phone calls or listen to my iPod. Now that I have a new battery in my laptop (thanks to Maura’s boyfriend who bought me a new one in Jakarta), I can also draft a blog or watch a DVD during a power outage. I only power up the generator if I need to get school work done or if I have people over. The thing is horrifically loud! I don’t worry about food spoiling because I generally don’t buy food that spoils. Even my milk is UHT.

4. I think I recognized some of your new Indonesian tops, but are you wearing them with jeans? Did you get matching pants for any of the tops?

I just dropped off some material at the tailor’s the other day, so keep your eyes open for me wearing some new custom made tops! I pair all my tops with five pairs of long work pants that I had the tailor make for me as well – black, brown, tan, blue and gray stripped. I generally save my jeans for the weekends or evenings even though there’s no strict rule against wearing jeans at work.

5. Are you taking your malaria pills daily? Are there a lot of mosquitoes in the dry season? What will the rainy season be like?

I haven’t taken a single malaria pill. After arriving here, I learned that malaria is not a problem in Gorontalo. In fact, when people do show up at the hospitals with malaria, they are immediately questioned about what areas outside of Gorontalo they have recently visited. That said, it is possible to get Dengue fever here but there is no prophylactic for that. We’ve switched over to the rainy season now, but I haven’t noticed a change in the number of mosquitoes.

6. Is it too soon to tell if you will return to Indonesia next year, seek another ELF assignment, or seek a college teaching job?

At this point, I’m leaning more towards staying in Indonesia for another year. Despite all the challenges, this is an extraordinary experience.

7. Are you going to get a maid like one of the other ELFs did?

I have hired a cleaning lady and am very pleased with my decision. Having her come once a week to mop the floors, dust, scrub the toilets, and clean the windows saves me hours of time that I can put to better use grading papers or sightseeing. She asks for about $8 a week, which I gladly hand over. For me, this is an insignificant amount equivalent to maybe two grande lattes at Starbucks in New York. For her, it is a large sum of money that will enable her and her family to afford their basic necessities.

8. Why is the diving season only from November to April?

I asked myself the same question! It turns out that for the other six months of the year the seas are too rough for diving due to local weather conditions. My first scheduled dive on November 1st was canceled because the waves were still too high.

Selamat Hari Raya Idul Adha!

Warning: This post contains graphic descriptions and photos. Vegetarians may want to think twice about reading this.

Several weeks ago I found out that UNG would be closed on November 27th for a Muslim holiday. Fantastic, I thought – a three-day weekend! I didn’t know what the holiday was called or even what was being celebrated until about two days beforehand. When I finally did find out what it was all about, I was extremely surprised, to say the least. The holiday is Idul Adha, which roughly translates as Festival of Sacrifice, and involves the slaughtering of many cows and goats. This tradition stems from the Muslim belief that they should sacrifice something for others as a way of honoring Abraham’s devotion to Allah. As the story goes, Allah appeared to Abraham one day and ordered him to sacrifice his son to prove his loyalty. When Abraham went to kill his son, the son turned into a goat. An important part of the holiday is distributing the meat from the sacrifice to the neighbors and especially to the poor.

Tia invited me to come watch the slaughtering of a cow in her family’s yard. I wasn’t sure if I could stomach it, since I generally don’t like to think about where my meat comes from, but I decided to go for the cultural experience and I kept telling myself that what I was witnessing was just a religious ritual, not the brutal killing of an innocent animal. I also tried reminding myself that killing animals is just part of the food chain. Every single cheeseburger I’ve ever enjoyed was made possible by the death of a cow. Consequently, I tried to make myself feel as numb and objective as possible as I witnessed one of Tia’s relatives slit the cow’s throat. From my vantage point, I had a clear view of the squirting blood. I watched in horrified fascination as the blood quickly filled a dirt hole that that had been dug under the cow’s head for this sole purpose. The cow’s tongue hung limply out of its mouth and the animal made a few last full body twitches before finally dying. Then the men began skinning it. It is a sight I will never forget.

Many families, like Tia’s, perform their own private sacrifice. Alternatively, people can also go to a sacrifice at the nearest mosque. So, after we watched the sacrifice at Tia’s place, we went around town in a bentor and visited several mosques that were at various later stages of the ritual process.

The first mosque we stopped at was one that I pass every day on my way to work. Today, there was a tent set up in the yard and a dozen or so men were at work chopping up the meat of eight cows. People crowded around to watch the work as women served the men cool drinks and rice snacks wrapped in banana leaves. Children played nearby and the atmosphere was one of great happiness and merriment.

Down another road we stopped at another mosque where this man was happy to pose with his big knife.

At yet another mosque we could see the men dividing up the meat into equal portions on huge sheets of banana leaves.

At the last mosque we saw the final stage of the process. The meat portions were waiting in plastic bags to be picked up by those holding meat vouchers that had been distributed to the needy prior to the holiday.

And finally, I will leave you with this charming picture of a man holding a cow’s head. He joked that the two of them were twins, but I didn’t really get the joke.