I feel utterly and completely disoriented here. Gorontalo is a small country town but it is 100 times more confusing than New York. New York may be a big city, but its streets are laid out in a neat numbered grid, subway and bus stops are labeled, maps are plentiful and if all else fails, you can plug your start point and end point into www.hopstop.com and figure out how to get from A to Z. Here, streets have names like Jalan Walanda Maramis, which I can never remember, especially if I don’t see it written down. Plus, the streets change names every two years or so when the head of the department of transportation changes. I kid you not. But it doesn’t really matter because when you are out and about it is very hard to find a street sign anyway. People here get around by knowing landmarks. But the confusing thing, at least for me, is that all the streets look exactly alike! Row after row of small colorful houses, mosques, “warung” (street food stands), coconut trees, mango trees and beautiful flowers. Street after street of motorcycles, bentors, and pedestrians. It’s all a giant backwoods maze to me.
Another thing that makes it hard to get a feel for the place is the fact that nobody walks anywhere. I can’t just leave my house and go for a walk around town. First of all, the town is just too spread out for that. Second of all, it’s just too damn hot to actually walk anywhere. So, the thing to do, for those of us who don’t have cars and that’s most people, is to hop in a bentor, those ubiquitous covered benches attached to motorcycles. A bentor driver will take you wherever you want to go and they are 100 times easier to flag down than a New York taxi. The downside is you have to speak Indonesian with them and you have to know not only how to pronounce the name of the place where you are going but also be prepared to give the driver directions how to get there. And you have to know in advance about how much the ride should cost so you don’t get ripped off because, needless to say, these bentors do not have running meters. I’ve taken a handful of bentor rides so far, but fortunately always accompanied by an Indonesian who has done the talking. One of these days very, very soon, I will have to do this by myself as this is how I will be going to work every day. At least I know what to say to the driver in that situation. I just have to say “UNG” – short for Universitas Negeri Gorontalo.
But it’s the other situations that overwhelm me. For instance, I want to go buy some new pillows and a mattress cover for my bed. Santi, my counterpart’s wife, mentioned that there is a certain store where I can go buy these things. I am dependant on her to take me sometime when she has time. If I wanted to go by myself tomorrow, I would have no idea what the store was called, how to get there or what to say to the bentor driver. And I can’t just check the phone book or look it up in the online yellow pages for Gorontalo. These things don’t exist. In fact, they don’t even make maps of Gorontalo. And the tiny one in my Lonely Planet guide is useless. I only know how to get to the local supermarkets. All the specialty shops that line the many, many streets of Gorontalo remain inaccessible to me.
And speaking of shops and shopping, I deeply regret not bringing more clothes with me. I wanted to pack light, figuring I could buy some new things once I got here. How wrong I was! I went shopping for clothes one night with Santi and her friend Desi. Where did we go? To the supermarket. And supermarkets the world over are not known for their stylish fashions. After that, we went to a Muslim boutique. Neither supermarkets nor Muslim boutiques are where I usually go clothes shopping. But I tried to be flexible and opened-minded as I browsed the racks looking for something wearable. I am so flexible that by “wearable” I mean something in my size. And this is no easy feat. Women here are generally tiny. I literally tower several heads over people. As a result, clothes labeled XL are still too small for me. I finally found a pair of skinny jeans labeled 2XL that I fit into. I was so ecstatic about this accomplishment that I almost bought them, despite the hot pink zippers on the butt. Thankfully, the store didn’t accept credit cards so I was forced to put them back. Hot pink zippers?? Has it come to that? Really? What I wouldn’t give for an hour in a GAP right now…