Saturday, October 31, 2009

On (not) learning Indonesian

I had hoped that by this point in my stay I would be able to write about how quickly I’m picking up Indonesian, how confidently I interact with shopkeepers and bentor drivers, and what fun I am having learning new words and phrases. Unfortunately, things have turned out a bit differently than I expected and, alarmingly, I find that my attitude towards learning Indonesian is somewhat indifferent.

Oh, I had high hopes in the beginning. I downloaded free learning Indonesian podcasts. I ordered the Bahasa Indonesia version of Rosetta Stone months before I even left for Indonesia. I looked forward to the evenings when I could escape the normalcy of my everyday life to click on my Rosetta Stone boxes and daydream about my upcoming adventures in Indonesia.

But since arriving in country, I have not used Rosetta Stone even once. And this is not because I spend my spare time chatting with the locals instead of sitting in front of a computer. Nope, it’s because I feel utterly and totally unmotivated to learn the language. It’s not a heritage language for me (like French), it’s not related to English (like German), it’s not a major world language (like Chinese or Spanish), nor is it top on the list of “critical languages” we need to learn in order to intercept terrorist messages (like Arabic). Furthermore, I’m not dating an Indonesian, living with an Indonesian family or working in an Indonesian-only language environment. So, what, really, is the point of learning it?

And this is where I get disappointed. For years, I have imagined myself to be a “language person”. I majored in French in college. I learned to speak German fluently while in Switzerland and loved learning Swiss German as well. I studied applied linguistics and second language acquisition in grad school. And to top it off, I’ve been a language teacher for the past seven years and know a ton of language learning strategies. I thought I would pick up Indonesian automatically. I thought it would be a mental challenge I would delight in.

But somewhere along the way I lost the desire to learn the language. Maybe it was after walking by piles of smelly garbage, or dealing with bathrooms at work with no soap, paper or light bulbs. Or maybe it was living in a house that needs constant repairs. Or maybe it was avoiding bentor drivers who declare their love for me. Maybe I heard the phrase, “Hello, Mrs.!” one time too many. Or maybe it was having people change plans at the last minute all the time. Maybe the fried food, the nausea, and the diarrhea played a role. Or maybe it was getting ripped off by the same bentor drivers that previously declared their love for me. Maybe it was the frustration at not finding clothes in my size or being able to walk around town by myself. Maybe it was the lack of an explanation about how the academic schedule is supposed to work. Maybe it was the nights spent listening to the rats above my head. Maybe it was witnessing my neighbor beat his 8 year-old son with a plastic bat for crying too much when his mother took off with me for dinner one night. Maybe it was all of these things.

There has been no “honeymoon” period for me here. I didn’t get off the plane and think everything was oh so wonderful and beautiful and exotic. It has been tough here from the start and I pretty much instantly decided that this is not a country I will be spending a long time in. Perhaps distancing myself from the language is some sort of unconscious protest; I will not be drawn in. I will not acclimate. I don’t belong here. I don’t want to belong here.

So where does that leave me? I am becoming the person I always hated; I am becoming the foreign expat who doesn’t speak the local language and becomes frustrated when others can’t speak English. I hope this will change, but right now I’m just not feeling very motivated to learn Indonesian.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Endless summer in Indonesia

“Endless summer” is what I thought as I sat in the front seat of a blue mikrolet with the window down, the sun shining in and random Indonesian pop songs blasting through the speakers as we drove past countless palm trees and up and down curvy roads that hugged the coast.

Mikrolets are a type of mini-van used as public transportation between local towns and villages when the distance you want to go is greater than what can reasonably be covered by bentor. These mikrolets differ from regular mini-vans in a number of significant ways. Most noticeably, there is just a big opening where you would expect to see a side door. This opening encourages people to stand on the runner, hold on to the roof and ride to their destination with their bodies completely OUTSIDE of the car. Secondly, instead of a regular-sized steering wheel there is a mini steering wheel that is about the size of a small dinner plate. Then there’s the music. To entertain riders on the journey from one village to the next, drivers blast a playlist of the latest hit songs. The stereo equipment in these mikrolets seems to be the most advanced technology in the entire car. Finally, for reasons I have yet to figure out, emblazoned across the windshields in cursive script are random words that might be used to indentify each vehicle. Memorably, I have seen ones labeled “Sexy” and “Obama”.

On the road in a mikrolet:

I had been invited to accompany a literature class to the beach. The apparent purpose of the expedition was to lead the students to water and let them be inspired to write poetry in English. When we arrived at Olele Beach, we trooped over volcanic rock and mounds of abandoned coconut husks to get to a little platform where we hung out for about an hour. The two lecturers instructed the students to “be inspired” and then retreated to a bench to chat. The students, meanwhile, seemed more interested in taking pictures with me than writing poetry. But who knows, maybe I’ll be mentioned in their poems later! Stranger things have happened.

Here’s a picture of me with some of the students at Olele:

I had been looking forward to going to Olele because I had heard it was such a great snorkeling and diving spot. But the water was pretty inaccessible, unless you wanted to climb over lots of painful volcanic rock. There was really no beach to speak of here. So, when the hour was up we packed up and moved to Molotabu Beach.

But before I get into that, let me digress briefly to tell you about my unusual bathroom experience here. After traveling for at least an hour over bumpy roads and guzzling an isotonic drink called Mi-Zone, I needed to pee badly as soon as we arrived. Of course, there is no such thing as public facilities here. I briefly considered peeing behind a tree or a rock, but knowing that 40 or so students were watching my every move, I reconsidered and asked one of the lecturers instead if he knew where I could pee. He led me down the path to a fisherman’s house and asked me to wait outside while he asked if it was ok. Since coming to Indonesia, I have been ushered inside many random houses to pee. Facilities have ranged from very nice to just a concrete floor off the side of the house with a bucket of water. But this experience beats them all.

After getting permission to enter the house, I hoisted myself up the step stool to the elevated bamboo floor. The house is probably the simplest thing you could imagine. There was an entry room with a small space for sleeping curtained off in the corner. After this came an even smaller room with a loose stone floor, a table and several plastic chairs. Beyond this was a tiny kitchen. There is where I was told to pee. On the kitchen floor. The floor was made of wooden planks and right in the middle of one was a sort of crudely made hole. Next to this was a bucket of water with a plastic scoop. I peered dubiously into the hole, noticing the little chickens that were walking around underneath. But when you have to go, you have to go. So I squatted down and did my business, feeling bad for the chickens below who got an unexpected shower. I cleaned myself off and glanced around at the dishes drying next me and wondered if this was really where the family pees or if this was actually just a hole to drain their cooking and washing water. Chances are they go to the bathroom somewhere outside behind a tree but wanted to offer me, the guest, something nicer. I thanked them graciously on my way out.

View of the fisherman’s house through the palm trees:

And here are some fishermen at work:

Back to the mikrolets and on to Molotabu Beach. This place was everything I imagined the local beaches to be. There was an actual beach, little shady huts with elevated bamboo platforms for sitting, vendors selling bottled drinks and food, boat and inner tube rentals and plenty of accessible coral reefs to explore with my mask and snorkel. I was in heaven. I grabbed my disposable waterproof camera that I had picked up in Bali and happily paddled around for a long time looking at the underwater life. There were giant blue starfish; black, white and yellow bannerfish; tiny electric blue fish; rainbowy colored fish; long thin pipefish of various sorts; and numerous other things that I couldn’t quite identify. One of them looked like a pufferfish or a boxfish, but I’m not sure. Another one looked alarmingly like a barracuda.

Molotabu Beach:

Group shot in one of the little huts:

Some underwater life:

Two of my students swam out to join me:

Lazy days at the beach make it hard for me to believe it’s October. I see Facebook status updates and read emails from home that recount apple picking, drinking mulled cider, eating pumpkin bread, and other very typical fall activities. Sometimes I have a strong urge to throw on a thick sweater and cuddle up in front of the fireplace with a hot beverage on a cool, crisp autumn day. Other times I think how lucky I am to be living my endless summer in Indonesia.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Three weddings and a funeral

So far this month, I have been invited to three weddings and a funeral. Well, technically, that’s three wedding receptions and one post-funeral celebration.

The first wedding reception was for Helena’s uncle. In the somewhat typical fashion of last minute wedding invitations here, Helena asked me at work on the day of the wedding if I’d like to come with her to the reception that evening. Having never been to a Gorontalese wedding, I seized the opportunity. I went home after work and quickly changed into the most festive top I had in my closet – a maroon three-quarters length number festooned with numerous shiny black plastic pieces, pink pearls and swirly embroidered patterns. I was ready.

The wedding reception was held at the family’s house. At first, the bride and groom were hidden in a small room of the house while some sort of ceremony was being performed. While waiting for their grand entrance, we sat outside on plastic chairs that had been set up in rows and drank a melon syrup drink that we had been given at the door. I also pocketed my wedding favor – a miniature drum. Finally, the bride and groom emerged from the ceremony room and made their way towards an elaborately decorated stage that featured a special chair just for them. Traditional wedding attire for Indonesian brides and grooms is pretty spectacular. Both were draped in layers of colorful, ornate fabric and the bride was wearing an enormous (and heavy-looking) headpiece. No wonder she just sits on her special chair all night. Mingling with that thing on your head would be next to impossible and you could probably poke someone’s eye out with all the spiky leaves on the top. Actually, the groom had a headpiece too, but it didn’t look nearly as cumbersome as the bride’s.

Some rather long-winded and undecipherable speeches and recitations were given in Indonesian and Arabic and then it was announced that it was time to eat. Now, at American weddings, people are seated at assigned tables and are either called up to the buffet by table number or are served the meal at their seats. Here, it couldn’t be more different. After the announcement was made that the food was ready, there was a mad rush to the buffet tables. People could have been trampled. It was out of control. Helena and I hung back for a minute and then cautiously approached the least crowded buffet table. Once we had loaded up our plates with rice, chicken and gado-gado (a tasty vegetable dish with peanut sauce, tofu and boiled eggs), we went back to our seats where we ate with our plates on our laps. That’s right. There were no tables. Everyone was dressed in their finest and eating messy, saucy foods on their laps.

Besides the missing tables, the wedding also lacked alcohol and dancing. I understand this is a Muslim country, but a wedding reception without alcohol and dancing doesn’t really seem like much of a reception to me. To be fair, there was live music. A band and a singer had been hired to perform some popular Indonesian songs, but no one danced to these. Amusingly, the MC of the wedding took great pleasure in announcing my presence there. “It is a great honor to have a white foreigner here. She is maybe from America or the Netherlands,” he reportedly said at the beginning of the evening, as translated by Helena. After the meal he disbelievingly announced, “The white foreigner is still with us!” Towards the end, he even invited me to sing a song for everybody, but I politely declined. After about two hours of sitting and eating, we shook hands with the bride and groom, posed for a few formal photos and then went home. It was a very short reception compared to the gala affairs at home that end with dancing until four o’clock in the morning or bonfires on the beach.

The second wedding reception was for a lecturer in the English department at UNG who I’m not entirely sure I had ever met before. The events were the same as the first wedding: people sat in rows of chairs facing an elaborate stage where the couple sat in their special chair, blessings were given, excerpts were read from the Koran, and then it was time to eat. The only difference this time was that the reception was not held at a home, but at a very fancy reception hall.

The third wedding, for Ibu Noni’s brother, will be next weekend. Apparently, the six weeks after Ramadan is prime wedding season.

On a more somber note, the mother of one of my new Indonesian acquaintances passed away Wednesday afternoon after battling a long illness. On Friday afternoon, I was invited to go to the memorial service. I was instructed to wear white and if I didn’t have that then blue, as white and blue are the traditional funeral colors. Dressed head to toe in dark blue with a turquoise cloth flower pinned to my shirt, I was expecting a serious event and was prepared to see people crying and in various states of mourning. Instead, the speakers were making jokes (“You can’t read the Koran on Facebook!”) and the guests were laughing and carrying on whispered conversations with each other the entire time. Puzzled, I asked my friend Tia about this. She informed me that Ramang’s mother had already been buried on Wednesday.

Muslims are buried on the same day they die and everything happens rather quickly. Muslims pray five times a day, and the dead should be buried within the space of two calls to prayer. The time to mourn publicly and be sad is on the day of the death and the burial. Afterwards, Muslims traditionally hold memorial services for their departed 7, 20, 40 and 100 days after the death. The purpose of these ceremonies is to entertain the family and friends of the deceased and help them feel less sad. Even though Ramang’s mother had passed away only two days ago, the purpose of this event was clearly to entertain the mourners.

I paused to reflect on the way things are done in America – funeral and burial in the same day and then nothing. Maybe this was better? Maybe it helps with the mourning process to have friends and family gather at specified intervals to remember the deceased in a formal but light-hearted way. I shared this new insight with my counterpart who basically said, yeah, sometimes it’s nice but many people consider these ceremonies to be a burden. I can see how that might be true. If, for example, you know 3 people who die in any given year, that’s at least 15 afternoons you would have to spend at memorial services. So, I guess it does add up, but I still like the idea of formally gathering friends and family to remember loved ones who have passed away.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

An improvised Lonely Planet guide to Gorontalo

During the first week of my Writing IV classes, I had my students write about interesting things to see and do in Gorontalo. Modeled after something I was required to do at the community college I taught at in New York, I called this a “Writing Diagnostic” – a timed in-class essay that would tell me something about their writing level. I promised them that I would then use their writing to create a customized grammar activity for the next class, emphasizing important errors. What I didn’t tell them, but maybe they guessed, was that the activity had a third objective - namely to provide me with a free detailed guide to Gorontalo, something that is sorely missing from Lonely Planet Indonesia. Last weekend I got to go to Monano Beach, one of the many beaches in the area, and this past weekend I got a chance to visit a couple more places.

Pentadio Resort – This spot was mentioned again and again in the essays as a great place to go swimming. My students raved about warm water, a number of different pools, slides, toys for children, spa treatments, etc. I imagined a luxury resort hotel tucked away in the palm trees of the village of Talaga. Alexa, Sarah and I checked it out on Saturday morning and although it was a far cry from the luxury resort I had imagined, it was still a decent pool. The entrance was marked with an elaborate gate and towering statues, but, as is typical of many places around here, the paint had faded and peeled off, leaving the impression that the “resort” had long since experienced its heyday. To add to its mystic, I had heard from multiple sources that the pool is said to be haunted by those who have drowned in its waters. I was explicitly advised not to go there in the late afternoon or evening as this is when the ghosts are active.

Here’s a picture of the pool fringed by palm trees and looking anything but haunted:

Here’s a picture of Sarah and me in our appropriately conservative swimming costumes warming up for our swim:

Otanaha Fortress – Left behind by the Portuguese, this fortress sits atop a hill outside Limboto. Accompanied by Helena, a lecturer from UNG who lives nearby, I took a bentor up to the top and checked out the spectacular view of Limboto Lake, the mountains, and the surrounding villages. The site is actually made up of the ruins of three separate fortresses: Otanaha, Otahiya and Ulupahu. An interesting fact I learned from one of my students is that bird eggs were used as one of the building materials. Here’s a view from Otanaha looking down at one of the other two smaller fortresses:

And here’s me relaxing at the top with Helena:

After taking this photo we climbed down 420 steep steps to the bottom and my calves are still sore. (I personally would have elected to take the bentor back down the hill, but I guess using the stairs is part of the whole experience).

Limboto Lake – Multiple students recommended taking a boat to an island in the middle of the lake where you can catch your own fish and have it cooked at the island’s restaurant. When I asked Helena about this, she said she knew of no such restaurant. Hmm. In any case, it’s still the dry season so the water level of the lake is pretty low. Maybe the boat to the island only appears in the wet season, like the dry-docked pedalo boats we passed…

Here’s a picture of Helena and me by the lake:

There are many more places my students recommended. Top on my wish list are Olele Beach and Saronde Island, which are both supposed to be great for snorkeling and diving. There’s also Bolihutuo Beach, Libuo Beach, Bitila Island, Molotabu Beach, Exotic Beach, etc. And let’s not forget about the Lombongo hot springs and waterfall! It’s my goal to check out new places every weekend. And I’m very excited for the start of the Gorontalo dive season, which runs from November to April.