In another life I used to live in Switzerland and I can’t help but compare my first few days in Gorontalo to my life there.
First of all, there’s the business of staring. I am 5’9 (176 cm) with dark blond hair and blue eyes. In Switzerland I blended in without a problem. Or at least it seemed so to me. Outwardly, I don’t think I looked that much different than the people around me. Maybe my clothes were very American at first, but otherwise, the only way I signaled my foreignness was when I opened my mouth. I am obviously not a native Swiss-German speaker. Here, I am the only white person in town, or at least that I have seen so far. I literally cannot leave my house without people staring unabashedly at me and more often than not calling out, “Hello Miss!” Sometimes I even get “Hey Mister!” It doesn’t seem to matter to people here that I am not a man. “Hey Mister!” is just about the one stock phrase that people know so that’s what they say. Maybe it also has something to do with the fact that they use one pronoun dia to mean both he and she. Anyway, the staring is very unsettling. Children giggle and run away from me. I feel like there’s something wrong with me. Do I have horns? Did I forget to put my clothes on this morning? Am I gesturing with my left hand? What are people staring at??
Next up is the issue of cleanliness. In Switzerland, when you change apartments you have to hire a professional cleaning crew to give the place a thorough cleaning before the keys are handed over to the next tenant. Grumble as we may about the cost of this (calculated per square meter of living space), everyone is happy when they can move into a spotless new place. Now here, I can tell that effort has obviously been put into cleaning the place up, but still. The differences are in the details. Spider webs, rusty tin can stains on the counter, dusty cabinets, piles of grit in forgotten corners, and random things left behind like old toothbrushes and used lotion containers are just a few examples. Maybe I’ve become a little bit Swiss over the years. One of the first things I did here was go to the supermarket to buy cleaning supplies.
Then there are the appliances. In Switzerland, apartments are renovated before you move in. Here, the upgrades didn’t happen until I arrived. For the past two days I have relinquished use of my bathroom and bedroom to the crew of men who are installing a flush toilet and shower. They arrive early in the morning, take a break midday, and leave around 4:30. They wander in and out and I can scarcely converse with them. Meanwhile, while scrubbing the double basin kitchen sink, I realized that one of the drains leaks. I tested my suspicion and soon had a small pond at my feet. Lovely.
And let’s not forget about the garbage situation. In Switzerland, everything is recycled in a neat and orderly way. You take your bags of recyclables to the nearest blue recycling bin seemingly located on every other street corner and sort your glass by color. They even collect used light bulbs in the supermarket. Here there is no such thing as recycling. And don’t forget that since the tap water is not suitable for drinking, everyone drinks bottled water. Just think of all those millions and millions of plastic bottles not being recycled. It’s painful. I asked my counterpart what I should do with my household garbage and his answer was to just put it out on the street and it will be collected. Thinking of how my garbage in Switzerland was regularly picked up on Tuesdays and Fridays, I asked him what days the pickup would be. He said no one knows, it’s nothing regular. Every once in a while someone will come. Maybe. Hmm.
On the other hand, I get the feeling that my neighbors here are looking out for me. In Switzerland, I lived in an apartment building full of people I either never met or just exchanged greetings with in the hall. Here, they come over uninvited and keep me company for hours. And then there’s the food. Yesterday, the woman from a few houses over brought me bananas, peanuts and hot tea for breakfast. Apparently eating bananas and peanuts together is a Gorontalo thing. And then she made lunch for me, which was even more remarkable because her family is fasting for Ramadan. So, they invited me over, put these wonderful fish, shrimp and vegetable dishes in front of me and then proceeded to sit and watch me eat. They thought it was so funny that I used a fork and that the hot pepper made me hiccup. For dessert, I was given fresh mango from one of their mango trees. Delicious! Today she brought over nasi goreng (fried rice), eggs, and hot tea for breakfast. And just this afternoon, as the workers were leaving and I was thinking about how much Gorontalo is not like Switzerland, my neighbor’s two little boys appeared in my kitchen and presented me with an es alpukat- an avocado smoothie made with ice, sugar, condensed milk and chocolate syrup. What was I complaining about again?