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.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Diving in Gorontalo

On Sunday I went diving for the first time in Gorontalo and the experience was so remarkable that I can only relate it to maybe living in Paris for nearly three months before finally seeing the Eiffel Tower. I finally had that “pinch me I’m here” moment that hits every tourist when they finally visit a place they’ve always dreamed of seeing, like the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Gorontalo may not have much to offer tourists above ground, but the underwater world here offers first-class diving and the opportunity to see various endemic species found only in these waters, many of which are still unknown to science.

The local dive shop, Miguel’s Diving, is run by Rantje Allen, an American who has lived in Gorontalo for over ten years and has done a lot of work in establishing dive sites and educating local fishing communities about the dangers of common fishing practices, such as blast fishing and potassium cyanide poisoning. He works closely with the governor of Gorontalo, who is also a diver, on marine conservation issues. It was a privilege to dive with him. Along with Rantje, there was an American from Ohio, two Swedes from Stockholm and Rantje’s local assistant dive guide, Yunis, on this trip.

Our first dive was at Swirling Steps, a site normally not recommended for inexperienced divers because of its strong currents. But on Sunday there was no current so down we went. The water looked so clear from the dive boat that I was doubtful about doing a back roll entry because it looked like I was going to hit my head on the coral! But I was reassured that the coral was actually several meters underwater. For the next 44 minutes I was submerged in a world of sheer exotic beauty. Rantje had a writing slate with him and helpfully wrote down the names of some of the creatures we saw. Not long into the dive, he turned towards me and made a punching-like motion with his fist. This is the diving signal for “danger”. Intrigued, I looked past him to the coral wall as he scribbled “scorpionfish” on his slate. Scorpionfish have venomous fin spines and are not to be messed with. In worse case scenarios, scorpionfish stings can lead to violent pain, unconsciousness and even extended comas. After taking a look from a safe distance we moved on. Some other curious creatures we saw included garden eels and jaw fish. Garden eels stick up from the sand and sort of move their bodies like a beckoning finger. Likewise, jaw fish also live in the sand and poke their heads up to see what’s going on. Other highlights included seeing a blue spotted stingray, a giant clam and the best one of all - a green sea turtle!

The second dive was at Traffic Circle, located right off Olele Beach, where I had previously gone with some students; from the dive boat I could even see the hut we sat at. More captivating than the hut though, was the pod of Risso’s dolphins that were swimming in the distance. These dolphins are distinguished by their blunt noses and the fact that their bodies become lighter in color as they age, while their dorsal fins remain dark. They also like to fight each other, which explains the scars below:

We all watched the dolphins for a while and then some of us hopped overboard to snorkel for a bit. It felt so liberating to be in the water sans scuba gear with just my swimsuit, mask and snorkel and it was exciting to know that the dolphins were frolicking just meters away.

The second dive brought even more surprises. Rantje’s assistant, Yunis, is an expert in spotting very small creatures. On this dive, he showed us all a teeny, tiny bright pink soft coral crab that was clinging to some coral. Remarkably, this soft coral crab has the ability to mimic the spiny appearance of the coral it is on. How cool is that? I also saw my first Salvador Dali sponges - the name that Rantje gave to these previously unknown giant sponges that resemble a surreal Dali painting with their ornately swirly carvings. This is the only place in the world where these sponges exist. Other endemic species we saw were cigar sponges and a small fish known as a yellow blenny. And I probably swam by countless other endemic species without even realizing it. That is part of the reason why diving in Gorontalo is so thrilling.

The third dive was at a site called Honeycomb East, not too far from Traffic Circle. The big feature of this dive was a “swim through”, a hole in the reef that you can swim through. Even though you can see the other side from the entrance, I decided to swim around instead, since I haven’t been trained in overhead environments. Like Traffic Circle, there were numerous Salvador Dali and cigar sponges here. There were also Napoleon wrasse (some pretty big fish!) and beautifully colored clown triggerfish with black and white polka dots. A highlight of this dive was seeing a yellow pufferfish taking a nap in a coral crevice. So cute!

That night all of us divers (minus Yunis, but plus the American’s wife and her friend) went out to dinner at a Chinese place in town. Over bowls of delicious wantons and fried rice, we chatted about diving in Sulawesi and life in Gorontalo. The two Swedes came to Gorontalo after a week of live-aboard diving in the Lembah Straits in north Sulawesi. A week of diving, eating, and sleeping on a live-aboard boat sounds like heaven! I hope I get the chance to do that while I’m in Indonesia.

All in all, Sunday was the best day I’ve had in Gorontalo to date. Like I said, it was really a “pinch me I’m here” kind of day. I see Gorontalo in a whole new light now and feel supremely lucky to be living here. I finally understand why the people at the dive shop back in NJ were so envious of me moving to Sulawesi!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

To Renew or Not to Renew…That is the Question

I recently got an email from my supervisor at the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta letting us ELFs know that it is already time to start thinking about whether we want to renew our fellowships for 2010-2011. Since we’re not even 3 months in to the 10-month fellowship, it seems really early to be asking this question, but that’s how the program rolls.

Given my recent posts about not wanting to learn Indonesian, power outages, lack of Internet connectivity, housing issues, food issues, etc., you may be somewhat surprised to hear that I am even considering staying in Indonesia for another year. Yes, there are a lot of frustrations to living here, but never once have I wished I didn’t come.

I am changing and growing every day here. In these two short months alone, I have learned volumes about Islam and have confronted poverty first hand. Moreover, for the first time in my life, I am living in a collectivist culture, which constantly challenges all my individualist notions about how society works. My intercultural competence is increasing daily and I know that this fellowship, whether it lasts one year or two, will be yet another defining experience of my life.

This fellowship is also a great opportunity to develop professionally. Earlier this month, I gave a workshop on “Integrating Skills” to lecturers in the English department at UNG. Next month, I will be presenting on “Using Peer Reviews to Improve Student Writing” at the TEFLIN conference (Teachers of English as a Foreign Language in Indonesia) in Malang. Then, in January there will be a series of workshops in Makassar, Yogyakarta and Solo.

Also, let’s not forget the incredible diving and travel opportunities that living in this part of the world affords. This year, I will be spending my Christmas vacation in Bali and Australia bumming around with Courtney, Stephanie and my friend Nat, who lives in Sydney. Then I’m heading back to Sulawesi to take the PADI Advanced Open Water Diver course in Bunaken with Mark. And that’s just talking about now until mid January. The travel opportunities here are fantastic and if I stay another year, then there’s so much more I could see…

Plus, this fellowship has introduced me to nine amazingly smart, funny and down-to-earth teachers who are quickly becoming good friends. As an added bonus, I also have totally awesome ETAs. I must admit, I really like the company I’m keeping here. Granted, next year this group will change, but fortunately some of the other ELFs are also thinking about renewing.

Finally, staying another year would guarantee me a job and an income. This gig pays pretty well for an English teaching job and there are all sorts of added bonuses like free housing, paid travel and living expenses, and program funding. I know many people back home who have multiple degrees and are out of work. I know people working part-time jobs but wishing they had full-time jobs. I know people in their 30s who have moved back in with their parents to save a little money. This is a full-time job that guarantees me a salary, housing, multiple allowances and a huge, life-changing adventure to boot.

So, what’s holding me back? What would be my reasons for not renewing? Well, the biggest reason is that I miss my family and friends a lot. Distance is hard and it’s even harder when you’re troubled by the thought that you might never see your loved ones again. This thought has haunted me for the past five years, ever since my family survived a fatal car accident in Iceland. This fear was brought to the forefront of my thoughts again when the father of one of the other ELFs died suddenly at the beginning of the semester. Knowing that life can be extinguished in an instant forces me to wonder if it’s not selfish of me to be living so far away from home for so long.

The other reasons I have for not renewing are not nearly as compelling. Clearly, life would be much easier and more comfortable back in the States or in Western Europe - I could easily find stores that sell the things I need and I wouldn’t have to worry about power outages or lack of Internet connectivity. I would be able to understand what people are saying to me and would have a clearer understanding of workplace expectations. What’s more, bathrooms in the U.S. and Western Europe have Western toilets, toilet paper, soap and light bulbs! How amazing! And then there’s the food issue - I miss cheese and wine and pizza and burgers and lox bagels and Mexican food and Italian food and New York City Restaurant Week. On a slightly more essential note, I feel like I have zero dating opportunities here and this is a part of my life that I don’t particularly enjoy putting on hold. For one, it’s rather hard to meet people here that I would be interested in dating and two, even if I did manage to find a boyfriend here, he certainly wouldn’t be able to spend the night, given the predominant Muslim beliefs about dating and marriage.

On the other hand, my philosophy of life is well expressed by this Anais Nin quote, “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage”. Accordingly, my life so far has been a collection of amazing experiences that probably never would have happened if I hadn’t found the courage to leave my comfort zone and strike out into unfamiliar territory. Living in Indonesia is my latest adventure and I’d like to think my life will be that much more extraordinary if I stay another year.

I have until December 10th to decide.