Wednesday, September 30, 2009

“The wind must have blown that toilet over there” and other frustrations

(DISCLAIMER: This entry is just one big long rant.)

My house is STILL a work in progress and it’s starting to really, really irritate me. I wanted to be patient at first and not appear to be a needy American who needs everything done immediately. I also wanted to show my respect for Ramadan by not demanding that all these work projects be done during the month of fasting. But this situation is getting ridiculous. I arrived in Gorontalo nearly one month ago and here is a list of problems I still have with the house:

1. The work on the front gate has been abandoned. This means I have an unfinished gate, lots of garbage littering the front of the house, and now my neighbors think it’s OK to park and WASH their cars in my open driveway. This is not OK. Especially when I’m going to get charged for their water usage. Today I finally confronted the owner of a black jeep which had been the leading culprit. Turns out it belongs to my next-door neighbor, who is a POLICEMAN. You’d think he would know better. Anyway, he seemed nice enough. He lives with his wife, son and kitchen help and I’m tempted to make a deal with him; he can park his car in my driveway whenever he wants IF I can come eat a hot meal at his house whenever I want.

2. The toilet in my bedroom bathroom was replaced with a flush toilet soon after I arrived, but the old one is STILL sitting outside my door. You’d think that part of the toilet replacement project would be to remove the old toilet. But apparently the workmen think my front door is a more appropriate place to keep it.

3. When I complained about said garbage (including the abandoned toilet) to the guy whose brother or whatever owns the house and was responsible for organizing the workmen, the response was that the wind must have blown everything over there and that I should hire a cleaning service to get it removed. Really? The wind? The wind blew that toilet over by my front door? The wind blew over six upright half empty bottles of Fanta and Coke right next to my door on top of a neat piles of abandoned tiles? The wind left that bag of cement next to the toilet? Come on, people!

4. My sink still leaks. If any water goes down the left side of the sink it immediately forms a small pond at my feet. This is very annoying. For small things I can get away with just using the right side of the sink, but anytime I want to wash something larger than a plate, water inevitably does down the left drain and onto my foot.

5. Small animals of some sort have figured out how to get up into the crawl space above my ceiling and scurry around all the time. Not a day goes by that I don’t hear them at some point. It is especially annoying when I’m lying in bed trying to relax at the end of another draining day. I’m not sure what they are. At first I thought rats, but then I thought cats because there have been some ugly, scary, diseased looking cats loitering around my house and sometimes the noises above sound like cats chasing each other.

6. My washing machine STILL hasn’t been installed. This means I have to bring my laundry to the local laundry place where they wash, dry, iron and perfume my clothes for a ridiculously cheap price. The downside is that I have to wait 3-4 days for my clothes to be ready for pick-up. This is a problem because I have very few clothes. After getting back from Bali, I had to wash my underwear in the kitchen sink (not bathroom sink, mind you, because I don’t have one of those).

7. I also don’t have a water dispenser yet. Since the tap water isn’t safe to drink or cook with, everyone is supposed to use bottled water. Everyone uses what I would call the standard “office water cooler” at home. They are really great because they give you instant hot water as well as room temperature water. This is especially useful for making tea and instant noodles instead of boiling up a pot of water on the camping stove (forget having a microwave). Part of the reason I don’t have a dispenser yet is I’m not sure if I’m supposed to pay for one out of pocket or if that’s something my host university is supposed to provide me with.

8. I’m supposed to have a generator to help me weather the frequent power outages here, but my counterpart STILL hasn’t taken me shopping for one yet and this is hardly the sort of thing I would try to look for on my own.

9. The house is basically unfurnished except for my bedroom where I have a bed, two night tables, a wardrobe and a vanity all in reasonably good condition. I also have a formal sitting area by my front door with uncomfortable plastic chairs that I never use. So let’s not count that part. Between the living room and the kitchen I have two tables and a collection of old, broken and ripped office chairs. I also have a TV that sits on top of a very dusty cabinet of sorts with sliding glass doors, one of which is missing and one of which is broken. And finally, I have two guest bedrooms that are completely devoid of furniture.

10. I still need to go shopping for other essentials like a reading lamp for the bedroom and a clothes rack to dry my clothes on once the washing machine finally gets installed.

The main reason that all of the above is not getting done is because I am COMPLETELY dependent on other people since the language barrier is so huge. I need locals to arrange to have things done for me and to take me shopping, which leads me to another problem; I’m not really sure who is supposed to help me. Is it my official university counterpart? Is it the head of the English department? Is it the guy in charge of the International Cooperation and Partnerships Office? Is it my co-teacher who was in charge of the International Cooperation and Partnerships Office last year? Is it another lecturer in the department who wants to practice their English with me? Is it the guy whose brother or whatever owns the house? All is know is that whenever I speak to one of them about a problem their response is inevitably that someone else was supposed to be doing that for me, but not to worry, they will contact them and something will be done “this week”. Well, “this week” has proved to be a very vague term. And I have the sneaking suspicion that all of this responsibility avoidance has something to do with the concept of saving face. No one wants to be put on the spot for not having done their job, so they shift the blame to someone else. It is very, very frustrating and I am very, very close to contacting the RELO office in Jakarta and having George’s amazingly efficient and tactful assistant Dian get on this case.

Between the power outages, the gas stove, the wildlife running around upstairs, the lack of drinking water and the laundry washing in the sink, I feel that I could almost be camping. My housing situation is probably just one level up from camping and I don’t think that’s how it should be. In Bali I was even the runner-up for the “worstie” award for having the worst housing situation out of all of the Indonesia ELFs.

The most annoying part about this whole housing situation is that I end up spending more time worrying, complaining, talking and writing about these problems than I do on my job. As my friend and fellow ELF Sarah reminds me, I’m an experienced teacher with a master’s degree. I am the expert my host university hired to help with all sorts of professional English Language Teaching activities. They are supposed to supply me with acceptable, comfortable housing so I can get my job done. But right now I’m way too busy worrying about the possible rats above my head to even start thinking about my professional projects.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Unexpected Encounters

Indonesia never fails to surprise me with unexpected encounters. On the trip home from Bali (where I actually met a fellow diver from Basel, Switzerland!), I happened to run into the two Fulbright ETAs (English Teaching Assistants) who will be working in Limboto, a town about 20 minutes away from Gorontalo by car. I had first met Alexa and Sarah during the State Department orientation sessions in Jakarta, where we got into small groups to brainstorm some teaching activities for the coming year. I knew they would be arriving in Limboto sometime in late September but it was quite a surprise to run into them at the Jakarta airport and realize we were on the same flight to Gorontalo.

However, this surprise meeting pales in comparison to the surprise awaiting us at the Gorontalo airport. Unbeknownst to any of us, Alexa and Sarah’s schools had organized a welcoming committee to greet our plane. Immediately after disembarking on the tarmac, we were whisked to the VIP reception area where we were greeted by at least 50 students and teachers. They were holding a big banner welcoming Alexa and Sarah and ceremoniously gave each of them a big flower necklace.

I felt a little out of place since this welcome was definitely not intended for me. I hovered in the background feeling distinctly self-conscious about the fact that I hadn’t showered that morning since I got up at 3:30 to get to the airport. However, to my great dismay, my presence did not escape notice. After the girls had been given their necklaces of flowers, I was pulled into the requisite photo shoot that followed. The teachers and students were all nicely dressed - the women with their coordinating jilbabs and the men in crisp clean shirts. I felt sorely underdressed for the occasion in my dirty jeans and running shoes. Not only that but I was also wearing my new Absolute Scuba t-shirt from the dive shop in Padang Bai, which probably isn’t the most appropriate thing I could have been wearing considering that I am primarily here to teach English and not to scuba dive. Hundreds of photos were taken of us and even some just of me. I am sure that I will be making another newspaper appearance one of these days in what is guaranteed to be another unflattering picture.

Following this friendly ambush, I was also included in the welcoming dinner at a restaurant in Gorontalo. There were about 12 of us there. I had been planning on taking a taxi from the airport and then making a supermarket run when I got home, but being taken out to dinner and then being driven home by fellow teachers was infinitely nicer. But by the end of the meal I was exhausted. It had been a crazy long day – leaving Padang Bai at 4am to drive to the airport in Denpasar, a 3-hour layover plus a 2-hour delay in Jakarta, a brief stop Makassar and then finally arriving in Gorontalo around 6 pm. But I am glad that Sarah and Alexa are here. It’s nice to know that there are some fellow English teachers living only 20 minutes away from me. They are about a decade younger than me and fresh out of college but I think our circumstances will bond us together.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Vacation in Bali

Before the Edul Fitri holidays, I ended up teaching only one class and then I left for a week of vacation in Bali with other English Language Fellows in Indonesia - not a bad teaching to vacation ratio, eh? At first it felt sort of ridiculous to be leaving for vacation after teaching only one class, but adjusting to life in Gorontalo has not been easy and I had been looking forward to this vacation in Bali for many reasons: to have a chance to speak English with other Americans, to share stories about the frustrations of our new lives in Indonesia, to strengthen new friendships with the other ELFs (who are proving to be an amazing support system), to sip cocktails at sunset, to take hot showers, to have the freedom to wear dresses that reveal my shoulders and legs and to escape the incessant cries of “Hello, Mrs!”, to name just a few.

All these wonderful things happened on the trip, plus a few not so wonderful things. For instance, the first morning in Canggu we were all jolted awake early in the morning by a 5.8 earthquake. We were all fine but it was still a bit startling. Later that same day, I discovered that my year-old digital underwater camera had water damage and was unusable. Oh, the horrible irony of being in a beautiful place such as Bali without a camera! Finally, on day 3 I was attacked by a swarm of sand flies and/or jellyfish while getting out of the water, had an allergic reaction on the back of my left knee and was covered with itchy red welts for the rest of the trip. A doctor in Padang Bai gave me some strong antihistamine pills and the leg seems to be doing better now.

All that aside, I had a fabulous time in Bali and one of the greatest things about the trip was that I got to go diving in Indonesia for the first time. I have been in love with tropical oceans ever since I was a little girl reading Jacques Cousteau books at our beach house on Long Island. So, to finally put on a BCV, regulator and weight belt in warm, tropical waters and to sink fifteen meters below the surface to see the amazing corals and fishes that I had read about was a childhood dream come true. Off Pulau Menjangan in northwest Bali there was a large coral wall where I saw a giant clam, coral fans, clown fish and anemones, orange anemonefish, angelfish, butterflyfish, coralfish, and all sorts of other rainbowy, shimmery and striped fishes that I can’t even identify. It was beautiful. A few days later I went to Manta Point off Nusa Penida in eastern Bali where I got to dive with giant manta rays. They were absolutely breathtaking. These huge giant dark shapes would slowly appear out of the deep blue depths and gently flap up and down as they swam around us. Mesmerizing.

(Photo Credit: Markus Schmid)

I am hooked on diving. I’ve only done these three dives since getting my Open Water certification, but I know I’ll be back for more. There’s the majestic beauty of the underwater life, the exhilaration of heading out to sea in the dive boat, the satisfaction of a day well spent and the warm camaraderie of fellow divers from all over the world that makes me know that diving is going to become an important part of my life. I’m excited to take the Advanced course sometime soon and to check out the local diving in Gorontalo, the Togean Islands, and around Bunaken off Manado in north Sulawesi.

Here's a picture of me in my element:

(Photo Credit: Markus Schmid)

And here I am post dive and deliriously happy:

(Photo Credit: Markus Schmid)

And here's the whole group of us on the dive boat:

(Photo credit: Stephanie Krommenacker)

Last but not least, my sister, who is a reporter for a local paper back home, interviewed a woman this past summer for an article on her husband who had recently passed away. They were very into diving and had traveled the world together. At the end of the interview, the woman disclosed this piece of advice to my sister, “Now, I don’t know whether you’re married or single or what your status is, but you’ll meet the nicest guys on scuba trips.”

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

And so the semester begins

Figuring out my academic schedule for the semester has been another challenge I’ve been dealing with this past week. The English department wants me to teach Writing IV, Speaking IV and Cross Cultural Understanding. There are so many students that each class is further divided into subsections A, B, C, and sometimes D. And I’m supposed to be team teaching these classes as well. Originally, the department wanted me to teach three sections of Writing IV, three sections of Speaking IV and four of Cross Cultural Understanding. With each lesson being an hour and 40 minutes long, this added up to more than the 12 hours per week that the ELF Program says we are to devote to classroom teaching. (This is because we’re supposed to be working on conference presentations, teacher training workshops, community outreach programs and material development to name just a few “side” projects.) So, I was alarmed at the number of hours the school wanted me to teach in the classroom and I was confused about the whole team teaching thing. What did “team teaching” mean in this context? Would both of us co-teachers be in the classroom at the same time? Would we be lesson planning together? Would one teacher get classes A and B and the other C and D? Would we create the syllabi together?

After a few meetings with my co-teachers plus some emails back to Jonna, the Fellow from last year, things started to become clearer, but it still seems like a bizarre system to me. To illustrate, this semester I am teaching Writing A, B and C from September to December by myself. For Cross Cultural Understanding I will be teaching sections A,B,C and D but only until midterm. Then I stop teaching these classes and my co-teacher takes over until the final in December. As for the Speaking classes, I won’t be teaching these until AFTER midterm.

Another strange thing about the start of the semester is that the semester started last week and I am starting this week. On one hand, this was great for me because it gave me more time to settle into my house and figure out the town, which was DEFINITELY needed. On the other hand, there were a couple of days last week when students appeared at the door as I was puttering around in my new office and asked if there was class that day and which of the two teachers listed on the schedule would be teaching. I truthfully told them that the department hadn’t yet finalized the teaching schedule but that my classes would begin the following week. They seemed to accept this, but I felt awful. There were classrooms full of students waiting for teachers who did not appear. Why didn’t the department notify the students that these classes would begin at a later date?

Yesterday, wearing some of my new custom tailored Indonesian clothes, I stepped into my Writing C classroom for the first time. And right away I was confronted with another cultural quirk. Since the end of Ramadan is approaching, many students have already left Gorontalo to go visit their families for the Edul Fitri celebrations (in much the same way that Americans leave their homes in mass exodus to visit their families for Thanksgiving). So, out of a class of 31 registered students, I had only 14 on the first day!

Today I showed up for work only to find out that there was no electricity in the building. It was one of those sudden periods of mati lampu or dead light. I wondered how I was going to print my lesson plan for my Cross Cultural Understanding class. Maybe my laptop would have enough battery power for me to open the Word document and make a few notes. However, no sooner had I gotten to my office then the “chairman” for my Cross Cultural Understanding class appeared.

Each class here has a “chairman” who is a teacher’s go-to person for communication about the class, including getting the class list and negotiating class meeting times. The chairman was wondering if we would have class today because at least 75% of the students (in his estimation) had already left for the Edul Fitri holiday. He also added that he himself was “physically shocked” to find out that we were supposed to have class today. I hesitated as I considered my response. I was prepared and ready to teach. I had a whole lesson prepared with an icebreaker and discussions about the definition of culture and the culture iceberg, etc. I was ready to go and eager to teach my lesson. But I also didn’t want to teach to a virtually empty room and either have to ditch the carefully made lesson plan to wing it with some Q & A session about American culture or to have to re-teach the same lesson after the holiday. Neither option seemed very enticing. I told the chairman that I would let him know my decision after talking to the head of the department. So, to make a long story short, I ended up canceling class for today. And maybe tomorrow too. I’ll see if the chairmen for my Writing A class and CCU B appear in my office first thing tomorrow morning to negotiate a new start date! The head of the department said the decision was up to me.