Thursday, December 17, 2009

Torosiaje - A Bajo Village on Stilts

Last weekend I had the chance to discover a wonderfully remote corner of Sulawesi – the traditional fishing village of Torosiaje, home of the Bajo sea nomads. Since the 10th century, the Bajo sea nomads (also known as sea gypsies) have roamed the seas off eastern Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Although they used to have a nomadic lifestyle searching for pearls, tortoiseshell and sea cucumbers to present to the sultans of the region, modern governments have accused them of piracy and have forced them to lead a more permanent lifestyle on land. However, the Bajo of Torosiaje don’t quite live on land; they live in a unique and fascinating village on stilts.

Ramang, a friend of mine from Gorontalo who works for an NGO active in preserving the wetlands around Torosiaje, invited Sarah, Alexa and I to join him and another NGO friend of his, Honk, on an overnight trip to this remarkable village. The trip to Torosiaje involved a long 6 hour car ride over winding, bumpy roads plus a short 20 minute boat ride from the mainland out to the village. We arrived at sunset, which gave the already otherworldly location an even more surreal feel. Houses on stilts grew closer and closer while shadows of fishing boats contrasted with the brilliant colors of the setting sun.

After a welcoming snack of tea and cookies, Alexa, Sarah and I checked out the guesthouse where we would be staying overnight. Located at the end of a long wooden walkway rife with missing planks, it offered the most basic accommodation possible, but we loved it instantly. Electricity was provided from a generator, but we asked our host to turn it off so we could enjoy quiet sounds of the sea at night. The guesthouse, like all the houses in the village, was on stilts and had a porch with a set of stairs that went right down to the water. Looking down at the coral and fish below us, we were very tempted to take a midnight swim, but nixed that idea since the toilets for the entire village, including our guesthouse, were essentially holes in the floor directly over the water.

Our guesthouse:

Before retiring for the night, we had a delicious dinner of fresh fish and rice at our host’s house. I’ve never been a big fan of fish served with the head and tail still attached, but this weekend was a turning point. Starting with lunch en route at Bolihutuo Beach, where was no choice except for cooked whole fish, my aversion dissipated. That’s because the fish was served with dabu dabu iris – a local salsa made with coconut oil, onions, tomatoes and chilies. I had been avoiding it because spicy food makes me hiccup, but at this particular restaurant they served the dabu dabu iris without the spicy chilies and it was heavenly. It’s a good thing I took a new liking to this dish because it was served for three consecutive meals.

After successfully navigating the holes in the walkway with our flashlights, we arrived back at our guesthouse and spent the rest of the evening stargazing. The stars here were amazing. The three of us laid down on the walkway with our feet dangling over the edge and made wishes on the shooting stars. We slept really well that night and awoke the next morning to the sound of the fishing boats gliding past the house. In our pajamas, we sat on the porch and watched the sunrise at 5:30.

Not long after sunrise, the village came to life and we quickly threw on some clothes to take a walk around. The villagers were hard at work at their daily activities of cooking, doing laundry by hand, chopping wood, drying fish, cutting coconuts and chatting with each other. People were happy to pose for pictures and it was fun being in such a remote, traditional place and being able to greet the people in Bahasa Indonesia – Selamat pagi! Good morning!

Drying fish:

After a breakfast of fried rice and eggs, we took a traditional fishing boat out to an uninhabited offshore island for a little snorkeling and exploring. The beach was beautiful. The water was various shades of deep tropical blues and we could just make out the village of Torosiaje on the opposite shore against the mountainous backdrop of Sulawesi. Our snorkeling was cut a bit short by the presence of stinging plankton where the shelf dropped off, but even very close to shore in about one foot of water there was a lot to see. Sarah and I spent a good amount of time here watching sand-camouflaged starfish move at a surprisingly rapid pace over the bottom.

This trip was so amazing and special that it helped confirm the decision I had already made: I’m going to request to stay a second year in Indonesia. Hopefully, I can stay on Sulawesi. I’m starting to feel a strong connection to my island and would like to have more time to explore it.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Grabe & Stoller Come to Town!

I have encountered the names Grabe & Stoller several times in my TESOL career. I think I first became aware of them was when a friend and I were doing a mammoth assessment project on reading and writing ability in grad school. I just checked our references – their names appear no fewer than six times. Then last year I saw them present at the TESOL conference in Denver. Their presentation on “Debunking Myths about L2 Reading Instruction” was dynamic, interactive and made a lasting impression. Needless to say, I was thrilled when my supervisor from the U.S. Embassy informed me that Grabe & Stoller would be coming to Gorontalo as English Language Specialists to present two 90-minute workshops on reading and vocabulary at UNG. It was hard to imagine two such big names in the TESOL field coming to my remote little outpost in Indonesia, but they were here, it’s true! Here’s a picture of us to prove it:

As we shared meals, car rides and even a bentor sightseeing trip around town, Grabe & Stoller became Bill and Fredricka. What an amazing opportunity to get to know two such big movers and shakers in the field on a very personal level. We chatted about what it’s like to live and teach in Gorontalo and they asked for my opinion about how the workshops went and what I thought the participants got out of them. Interestingly, Fredricka told me how she and Bill found the reading text she used in her workshop here years ago when they were preparing another TESOL presentation. The text just so happened to be about biodiversity in Sulawesi! She never dreamed that she would actually come here, let alone use the text as a basis for a vocabulary workshop here.

Fredricka was especially interested in taking a bentor ride around town. Bill decided he was too tall for one, so he stayed back at the hotel while Fredricka and I went exploring. I’d like to mention here that I now have the next best thing to a personal chauffeur – an English speaking bentor driver who I can text to pick me up anywhere. Ahmad has made my life here much easier since I met him last week. A friend of Tia’s, he attends a hospitality professional school in the mornings and is free to drive me around town in the afternoons and evenings. So, he was the man I texted when Fredricka announced her interest in seeing the town with this special type of transportation. We only had half an hour to spare, but we managed to visit the oldest mosque in town, go down an arcaded shopping street and most importantly, Fredricka got a taste of what it’s like to ride in this type of public transportation that sort of feels like riding in an awkward Epcot center amusement park ride. Here’s a picture of Fredricka, Ahmad and I at the end of our little tour around town:

Bill and Fredricka’s short stay in Gorontalo ended with a group dinner at a new seafood restaurant right on the ocean. We arrived too late to catch the sunset, which I image must be magnificent from this spot, but we did see a fantastic lightening show in the distance. Over non-alcoholic mango, soursop, jackfruit and avocado cocktails, we talked about the events of the past two days with my supervisor from the Embassy, his assistant, my counterpart, the head of the English department at UNG and another lecturer in the department. Getting to know Bill and Fredricka on such a personal level is a great perk of being an ELF!