Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Fish Spa

I love spas - thermal baths, mud baths, hot stone massages, chocolate body scrubs - you name it and I'll probably be game. So when I found out about something here in Indonesia called a fish spa, I couldn't resist. What was this all about?

I got my chance to try one when I was exiled in Jakarta. I happened to be wondering around the Grand Indonesia mall with my Fulbrighter friend Megan. We had just had a delicious lunch when Megan asked, "What do you feel like doing now?" And I responded, "How about a fish spa?" Megan was a little dubious about the whole idea. A fish what? 

So we walked over to the store and looked in the window. There were several large tanks with fish of varying sizes. A few people were sitting on cushioned seats next to the tanks with their feet dangling in the water. It looked harmless enough and Megan decided it would be fun to try after all. We inquired about the prices and then soon found ourselves having our feet washed in preparation.Then we sat on the cushioned seats and peered into the tank below. Gingerly we both lowered our feet in and were instantly swarmed by eager fish. Megan shrieked in surprise and then started giggling - nibbling fish are very ticklish!


Nibble, nibble
A pamphlet we picked up on the way out provided a bit of background information on this whole phenomenon. Fish spas apparently started in Turkey and other parts of the Middle East hundreds of years ago and are now growing in popularity in Asia. The fish used for this, a member of the carp family called garra rufa, love to dine on dead skin....yum!

As the pamphlet puts it, "this fish acts like pumice stone, rubbing off the dead epidermis layer of the skin, and leaving behind baby-smooth skin. The feeling of the fish nibbling is highly relaxing and you will experience the sensation of "micro massage" to your skin. It stimulates the acupressure points of your body and regulates the nervous system to generate the sense of well being and healthy lifestyle."

I enjoyed the 20 minute foot therapy. It feels super ticklish for the first couple of minutes and then you sort of get used to it. It's a novel way to get your feet feeling smooth and pretty. However, even I am a little reluctant to try to the 45 minute full body fish spa that is advertised in the pamphlet...

Monday, December 13, 2010

Diving Pulau Weh

Pulau Weh is a little tiny island off the northern tip of Sumatra, a short ferry ride away from Banda Aceh. Megan and I made sure to squeeze in a few days of diving after our workshop in Banda Aceh. 

Durban Hingebeak Shrimp

School of Juvenile Striped Catfish

Upside Down Lionfish

Peacock Mantis Shrimp
After a few fun days of diving, we packed up all our gear and took an hour long shuttle ride to the port town of Sabang to catch our ferry back to Banda Aceh. We said goodbye to our driver, loaded our bags on the boat and took our seats. An hour or so later, we were still sitting at the dock. Then there came some announcement in Indonesian over the loudspeaker followed by a mass exodus of all the Indonesian passengers on the boat. We eventually figured out that the ferry had been canceled for the day because of rough seas. The next ferry wouldn't be leaving until the following morning. So, we gathered our bags again and disembarked. Luckily, our driver was still lingering around the ferry terminal and agreed to take us back to the dive resort for a discounted price. As a bonus, we got to do an extra dive that day and it was a great one - a big dogtooth tuna swam right up to me as I descended, we saw a blacktip reef shark and lots of giant moray eels and, as a final highlight, we saw dolphins from the boat on our way back to the resort.

When we finally returned to Banda Aceh the next day, our host Khairil told us that it's very unusual for the ferries to be canceled; it happens only a few times a year. He then went on to say that there had been several fatal ferry accidents in recent years on the Banda Aceh - Pulau Weh route because of overloaded boats going out in bad weather. After hearing that, we were even more glad that our ferry the day before had been canceled. We had to rebook our return flight to Jakarta but it was more than worth it for an extra day of diving and a SAFE return to Banda Aceh.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Tsunami Sightseeing in Banda Aceh

I never imagined that I would ever go to Banda Aceh, Indonesia. As I sat in the kitchen of my parents' house in NJ on December 26, 2004 watching the news of the devastating tsunami in Asia unfold, that area of the world seemed about as far away from my current reality as one could possibly get. Finding myself living in Indonesia six years later, a natural curiosity led me to do a little bit of tsunami sightseeing while I was in Banda Aceh for my workshop last month with Megan.

NGO money actually led to the construction of a tsunami museum in Banda Aceh, but it still wasn't open when we visited. Fortunately, Megan and I had two lovely hosts, Khairil and Jal, who were willing to drive us around town to the different sites. Our first stop, even before checking into our hotel, was to see the power generator vessel, a 2500 ton ship that was carried inland about 4km by the tsunami. For a small donation, we were able to climb up on the ship, explore the decks and admire the view of the newly rebuilt town below.

Power generator vessel
Later on I heard from a colleague in Yogya that the ship actually came to rest on several houses, tragically killing the families inside. Several years later when one of the surviving children got married, the wedding reception was held on the deck of the ship.

Power generator vessel as seen from Taman Edukasi Tsunami Park
Located in the Taman Edukasi Tsunami Park is a powerful display of photographs documenting the aftermath of the tsunami in Banda Aceh. Despite all the coverage I watched six years ago, the full extent of the tragedy first hit me as I studied photos of the destruction. Megan and I talked about how we had somehow been under the impression that most victims of the tsunami were just washed out to sea. No doubt we got this idea from American TV, which does not generally show dead bodies. But here, photo after photo showed the corpses as they were found: blackened, bloated, half flesh and half bone. I have never seen anything like it. One particular image of a body stuck to fence as if caught in a drain particularly moved me. The tsunami claimed more than 230,000 lives in 14 countries. These figures are just statistics until you look at the pictures and the reality of the disaster sets in.

Taman Edukasi Tsunami also has a playground, planted flowers and lots of families wandering around with their kids. As if to show life goes on, this young girl happily posed for me by the Taman Edukasi Tsunami sign:

A few days later we went to see another remnant of the tsunami - the famous fishing boat on a house. While I walked around the boat taking pictures, a man came out of the house next door and struck up a conversation with me in surprisingly good English. He told me the story of how 54 people took refuge in the boat for 7 hours until the waters receded. The man turned out to be a member of a well-known singing group in Indonesia and showed me pictures of both the destruction in the neighborhood and members of his group in better days. Although he had escaped the tsunami unharmed, several members of his band had perished. He also told me he once performed with Cat Stevens. This performance may have been at a benefit concert in Jakarta the month after the tsunami where Yusuf Islam (aka Cat Stevens) performed with many local musicians to raise money for Aceh province.

Boat on a house

From another angle

Neighbor (and family) who told me about the boat and Cat Stevens
In the center of town there is also a large park with a display called "Aceh Thanks the World." The paths of the park are lined with monuments in the shape of the bow of a ship with messages of thanks and peace to all the countries of the world who donated disaster relief funds to help Aceh rebuild. 

Aceh thanks the United States
Tsunamis are not uncommon in this part of the world. Sadly, just two weeks before my visit to Banda Aceh another tsunami struck the Mentawai Islands off the west coast of Sumatra, killing hundreds. Although I have no current plans to go there, you never know.

Friday, December 3, 2010

On Wearing a Headscarf

Muslim women in Indonesia are encouraged to wear headscarves, known here as jilbabs, out of a sense of modesty in lines with the Islamic faith. The wearing of such headscarves is optional in most parts of Indonesia, and from what I've observed on Sulawesi and Java, the rules surrounding the wearing of jilbabs are pretty lax. However, there is at least one part of Indonesia where Muslim women are required to wear headscarves - Banda Aceh. When Megan and I were invited to this conservative city to give a workshop on English Language Teaching, our co-workers in Yogyakarta and Manado strongly encouraged us to cover our heads as a sign of respect.

I had only worn a headscarf here in Indonesia on one other occasion, for a friend's wedding in Gorontalo last year, and that was a bit of a mistake. My intention was to try to look a bit more dressed up for her special day but I ended up attracting a lot of unnecessary attention to myself that I felt should have been given to the bride instead.

So, I didn't really have much experience when it came to wearing headscarves and had to ask around at the office to see if anyone had any I could borrow for the trip to Banda Aceh. Megan did some shopping in Manado as well and we compared notes in Jakarta. I was impressed...and intimidated... when Megan pulled a proper pull-over-the-head type jilbab out of her suitcase as well as matching arm covers! I displayed my borrowed collection of scarves as well as one of my own batik scarves I got in Yogya and admitted to Megan that I didn't have any idea how to wear it. Fortunately, Megan had learned how to properly drape a head scarf from one of her Muslim students in Chicago. For the rest of the trip, I happily let Megan do this for me!

On the day of our flight to Banda Aceh, we decided to put on our headscarves before we even got in the taxi. We did this because we wanted to be respectful right from the very start of our trip. Sharia law is strictly enforced in Banda Aceh and the Sharia police have been known to dole out 40 public lashings to Muslim women caught without proper headscarves or caught wearing too-tight clothing. These people don't mess around. We later found out from our host that it's not necessary at all for non-Muslim women to wear headscarves in Banda Aceh and people probably would not have thought twice about seeing two bules in line to check in for a flight to Banda Aceh without them. But we didn't know this then and I'm glad we didn't because I got to experience what it's like to wear a jilbab for a few days.

In recent years in America and Europe there has been a lot of public outcry about the wearing of headscarves. The headscarf is often seen as a symbol of the inferiority or invisibility of women or as a threat to Western ideals about the separation of religion and public life. It seems to me that a lot of this debate stems from Islamaphobia. Personally, I liked wearing a jilbab for a few days.

As a fashion accessory, the jilbab is pure genius. It makes any outfit look instantly dressier and more put together. In fact, Muslim women have a staggering number of headscarves in just about every Crayola color imaginable that they color-coordinate with their outfits. A sparkly pin or two to hold the scarf in place adds a little extra bling to the look as well. And in Indonesia, where humidity and lack of air-conditioning has forced me to wear my hair pulled back in a rather boring pony-tail most days, the jilbab is a welcomed answer to bad hair day issues. It's way more glamorous than a baseball cap.

Feeling well-dressed in my batik scarf from Yogya
More surprisingly, wearing a jilbab suddenly made me feel visible and accepted in a country where there's no getting around the fact that I'm a bule. For starters, people started addressing me as Ibu instead of Mrs, Miss, Ma'am or nothing at all. Airport porters rushed to assist me with my bags, gazing at me with awe. Random strangers told me how beautiful I looked (ok, granted I get a lot of this too without wearing a headscarf but now the compliment felt more genuine and respectful instead of creepy). And, best of all, the flight attendant on Garuda asked me, IN INDONESIAN,  if I wanted to eat nasi ayam (chicken with rice) or nasi ikan (fish with rice). What a victory - I was no longer the invisible or gawked at bule.

Two American tourists in Banda Aceh

Megan and I with our jilbab-wearing workshop participants

With a bit of reluctance, I packed my scarves away after I returned to Jakarta. The only annoying thing about wearing a headscarf is getting it to stay in place for an entire day. Mine kept slipping off, forcing me to ask Megan to readjust it or to re-drape it myself in a decidedly less elegant way. But I think Muslim women actually wear a sort of under jilbab cover that keeps the whole thing in place. I had also been concerned about how I would react to having my head covered in the heat of Indonesia but I found that I actually didn't mind. Just like wearing jeans and a long-sleeved shirt on a hot day, wearing a headscarf also prevents sunburn!

There are a lot of practical reasons for wearing a headscarf and my little experiment helped me to see the headscarf as normal, rather than a marker of difference. However, I believe the wearing of headscarves, especially for Muslim women, should be optional and based on personal preference, as it is in most of Indonesia. 40 public lashings for not wearing one seems very harsh and unnecessary.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Story Behind the Dress

I was excited when I found out that the ELFs had once again been invited to the Marine Ball in Jakarta and even more excited when I realized that this year I could actually go. Jackie, Noreen, Michaela and Megan were all planning on attending too, so it promised to be a fun night out. We might even get to see our boss tear it up on the dance floor! Jackie was organizing our tickets and offering up her apartment as a place for all of us to crash, so the only thing I had to worry about was finding a fancy dress. What should have been a fun task turned into one of the most challenging of my fellowship so far - it ain't easy finding a floor-length ball gown in Indonesia!

About a month before the big event I went looking for a dress in Yogya. First I went to Galleria Mall where I found a small collection of dresses at the Matahari Department Store. It was an odd assortment and grew even odder when the saleswoman told me that the dresses were one-size-fits-all. How is that even possible? Without bothering to try anything on, I headed over to Amplatz Mall and also left empty handed. It occurred to me that searching for a dress in my size in a country where the women tend to be significantly smaller than me was going to be a bit more challenging than I had thought. I briefly considered getting a dress made but once I found out I was flying to Jakarta for a doctor's appointment, I figured I would be able to find something easily in one of the dozens of malls in the capital city.

In between doctor's visits I spent practically the entire week I was in Jakarta hunting for a dress. I tried on dresses at Pondok Indah Mall, Senayan City Mall, Mangga Dua Square, Artha Gading Mall, and Grand Indonesia. Mostly I went by myself but sometimes I went with Jackie and her friends and colleagues who seemed eager to help. (Jackie and Megan, by the way, had smartly decided to get dresses made as soon as they found out about the ball and thus avoided the several weeks of fruitless searching that Michaela, Noreen and I endured). The dresses I found generally fell into three categories of undesirableness: dresses that seemed like costumes for little girls wanting to dress up as princesses (including two-piece dresses with puffy sleeves and corsets), dresses that were cute but that I couldn't even zip up, and dresses that were outrageously priced. Once while checking out Senayan Plaza Mall I made the mistake of wandering into a Roberto Cavalli store thinking I might find something on the 70% off rack. Ha! 70% off of 56 million Rp ($6,222) was still WAY more than I would ever dream of spending on a dress. 

An example of a dress I really liked but couldn't zip up
A nice Seibu dress...

...but more than I could afford
I left Jakarta empty handed but returned about a week later and hit the malls again with renewed determination with Michaela and Noreen. Starting to feel the time crunch, we decided that our best bet was to go back to Grand Indonesia where we had seen nice but expensive dresses in the $200 and up range at Seibu. Although this was more than any of us wanted to spend for dresses we would wear once at an event where we weren't even bringing dates, we were starting to worry that we wouldn't be able to attend the ball at all if we didn't have dresses - just like Cinderella! However, we were still confident that if we just forked up the money at Seibu we would at least have something to wear and could stop spending all our free time roaming Jakarta's many malls. Once we arrived at Seibu we formulated an action plan and got to work. We scoured the racks, plucking anything that was labeled size 12 or higher, regardless of style, color or price and disappeared into the dressing rooms. Noreen got lucky and found a very cute white cocktail dress. So what if it wasn't floor length. It looked stunning on her and, to borrow Henry's expression, the price was merely rude rather than outright offensive. 

Michaela and I weren't as lucky. We tried on dress after dress and continually ran into the same problem - these dresses just weren't made for our body types. We struggled with zippers and puzzled over molded bra cups that just didn't sit in the right place. The number of dresses to try on grew smaller and smaller. Our definition of 'fit' didn't including flattering or stylish. It got to the point where we were just looking for something that would zip up. At the end of the day, it came down to just one option - two orange dresses that hung on our bodies like shapeless potato sacks. These were the only dresses in all of Jakarta that fit us. We stared at our reflections in the mirror and decided that we weren't quite ready to take that step. We held out hope that we would find something in Bandung - a known shopping mecca.

Unfortunately, Bandung had nothing to offer and after the TEFLIN conference we found ourselves back in Jakarta with one day to go before the ball and still no dresses. We had one hope left. Jackie and Megan claimed to have seen a small dress shop in Ambassador Mall that appeared to have dresses in Western (a.k.a big) sizes. We headed over there, joking that if this didn't work out at least we could still go back and buy the matching potato sack dresses. At The Fairly Bridal Boutique, the saleswoman pulled out a suitcase of extra large dresses and got to work outfitting us. The first couple of dresses we tried on were kinda ridiculous - I tried on a light pink number that made me look like I was wearing a Greek Goddess Halloween costume and Michaela's wasn't much better. However, someone somewhere must have been looking out for us because both of us FINALLY managed to find dresses that fit us reasonably well and weren't half bad to look at. My dress is actually part batik, a traditional Javanese material. Someday I hope I can wear this dress again and have it serve as a conversation piece at a cocktail party. 'Oh this? Why yes, I bought this in Indonesia,' I'll say casually.

My dress - I love the way it twirls!
We were all able to attend the ball after all!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Scuba Diving Class: A Boyfriend's Perspective

And now for something completely different. Today's post is brought to you by my first guest author - a man who shows us he's willing to go to some pretty lengthy extremes to follow his girlfriend into her underwater realm! This is an account of Henry's first pool session this past weekend for his Open Water diving certification.


Scuba Diving Class: A Boyfriend's Perspective
By Henry Chance

I awoke to find myself in a Richmond, Virginia hotel room.  Most Saturday mornings this would be a troubling start, but today I had work to do.  Today I will to get fitted for fins, a mask & snorkel, and learn how to breathe at the bottom of a pool.  This is day one of my scuba certification class. 

Regular readers will recall back in August, when a seemingly innocent offer of dinner and a chance to rekindle a college friendship flared into something much more!  In just over a month I will fly to Indonesia for a twelve day visit to once again sweep Julianne off her feet, and see my girlfriend the mermaid’s aquatic world. 

So I got up and readied for the day.  The lesson was scheduled from 11:00 to 5:00 so I grabbed a hearty breakfast in the hotel.  I answered a few work emails I missed the night before, took a trip to the drug store and the post office for an important errand, and made my way to Richmond Dive and Travel.  Route 60, south of Downtown Richmond, is a wide two lane road with simple brick houses and small businesses on half-acre lots.  Most of the houses looked like they might be unlocked.  I parked my car outside the Dive Center entrance, opened the door and walked in. 

The Dive Center’s storefront was small, clean and had a smooth cement floor crowded with racks and racks of dive equipment.  I was also the only one there.  I paced the rough aisles and walked up to the cash register, where a doorway led to another room.  An air compressor labored somewhere in the back.  I ducked my head in as a man in his mid 40s came around the corner.  His eyes widened in surprise for a second. “You must be Henry,” he said and reached out a hand.  Carl introduced himself and bustled around, explaining the day to me and looking for various pieces and parts to fit me.  Richmond Dive and Travel is insistent about their students owning their own essential gear.  Beginners don’t need to buy their own wetsuit or scuba tank, however I was fitted for fins, boots, a weight belt, dive mask, and snorkel all for $224. 

Julianne had warned me to try not to get swept up by the flashy glittery gear.  Very sound advice for an engineering guy who loves gadgets.  Fortunately, Carl wasn’t looking to sell me the entire shop.  In fact, most of his store appeared to have simple honest equipment at prices that were merely rude rather than outright offensive.  While wrangling a flipper around my ankle, the shop door opened and a stout man came in.  He wore a thin pair of sweats and a Richmond Fire Department t-shirt.  He looked like he was built to comfortably squeeze through the doorway of a burning building and kick down a wall to get out.  After introducing me to Sam, Carl said “Let’s get started on your paperwork and the quiz.” 

Twenty minutes later, Carl graded my quiz while a third instructor, Nathan, came in.  Nathan was almost as tall as me with a strong build and a shock of red hair.  Carl finished up some paperwork while I made small talk with Nathan and Sam, asking about their dive experience and why they took up the sport.  Carl put aside my paperwork and said “Well Henry, I guess we need to fit you for a wet suit.  Go with Sam and he will find you an extra large to try on.”  We went outside to an outbuilding where wetsuits, air tanks and other rental equipment were kept.  Sam held several one piece neoprene suits up to me and muttered mostly to himself about large and extra large sizes.  I couldn’t see any difference. 

Sam sent me back into the test room to try on the one piece wetsuit, where fortune frowned upon me.  I held the large piece of neoprene up to my body planning my entrance and exit strategies.  Brute force seemed my best bet.  I stripped down to my bathing suit, made sure the wetsuit was as unzipped as possible and stepped in.  For those of you who don’t know, neoprene is snug.  I wriggled and struggled to get both my feet through the legs with partial success.  I got the left foot through, stepped on the suit’s right leg with my other foot, stumbled back and reassessed.  I have an analytical mind.  I can do this.  I started working on the left side, hauling and grabbing at neoprene until I got most of the legging over the calf and up to the knee.  I switched back to the right side and started hauling.  The feet weren’t fitting through well.  I couldn’t figure out why.  A few minutes of grunting and heavy breathing later and I was ready to try for the arms.  The suit’s waist was still around my thighs, but I figured I could help myself by getting leverage from my shoulders and back to pull the neoprene up.  But how to get the arms up and over?  I shrugged one shoulder in and stood up straight.  The suit sloped at a diagonal across my chest.  If Tarzan had worn a neoprene hide rather than a leopard skin the fit would have looked something like mine.  Undeterred I shrugged my other shoulder into the wetsuit and stood straight, this time with both arms above my head.  Muscles strained against dark synthetic fabric, and the waist slid up enough that I could almost walk.  A few more cinches and the suit was on.  I could even breathe.  I grabbed the cord attached to the wetsuit’s large zipper and closed it, CAREFULLY.  Every guy treats a zipper touching his skin with utmost respect and delicacy.  It’s a survival instinct older than zippers. 

All that effort and the suit felt… actually not bad!  The thick neoprene made my muscles feel springy and tight, like whipcord under tension.  The suit wrapped around my throat fairly tight, but I walked back out front to greet my instructors.  Nathan and Sam eyed me speculatively. 

“How’s it feel?” Carl asked without looking up.
“Fine”, I replied.”
“It’s on backwards.”
“It’s on backwards,” Nathan reiterated.  I stood there squinting at him in confusion.
Your suit’s on backwards”, Nathan said with a patient voice.  “The zipper’s supposed to be in the back.” 

That made absolutely no sense to me but I shrugged and turned back to Carl.  Carl went over a couple other points while the neoprene continued to hug my jugular.  He told me to get changed again, then put everything into a mesh bag to go to the pool.  “And next time put the suit on with the zipper in the back.”  Right.  I nodded and went back in to change. 

Back in the exam room, I unzipped the suit and made no additional progress undressing for the next two minutes.  It turns out wetsuits are designed to peel off your shoulders simply by gripping the collar with both hands and straightening your arms down to your waist.  Then, it’s simple to slide your arms free.  But I couldn’t make that motion because my suit was facing the wrong way.  Instead I ripped and clawed my left shoulder out of the suit half way, then did the same to the right.  But the zipper only went so far.  In short order I had trapped myself in an improvised straight jacket that was constricting my lungs with my own arms!  Mild claustrophobia set in and I began thrashing to draw a full breath and cease the constriction.  Failing that, I forced myself to calm down and went back to contorting one side of my body until I could get an arm free.  Light at the end of the tunnel!  The rest was uncomplicated though not easy. 

I finished packing my gear as another diver-in-training, Brendan, arrived.  Brendan is a Marine looking to join the Navy Seals.  So he was here to learn something about diving before he went to training.  We headed to a YMCA pool in separate cars.  Carl went to open the back door for us while everyone else unloaded bags, air tanks, lead weights and some other gear.  First, Brendan and I had to prove we could swim and tread water.  No problem.  We spent 25 minutes swimming laps with fins on and treading water in the deep end.  The instructors spent the time talking about a recent industry trade show in Las Vegas.  All their questions started with “Did you see the _______ over by…?”  I can only imagine the wide range of toys and gadgets glittering in Las Vegas, a town famous for encouraging bad financial decisions!  This diving thing could prove a very expensive hobby. 

Next the three instructors took turns walking us through each piece of gear.  When that was done we assembled our gear, jumped in the water and donned our gear in the water.  Nathan took over the remainder of the training.  With crisp military precision, he walked us through the agenda.  We would practice breathing, switching between snorkel and scuba mask on the fly.  We would learn to drain the water out of our scuba mask WHILE UNDERWATER (like James Bond did in Operation Thunderball).  We would learn what to do if we ran out of air, how to manage our equipment, etc. 

So step one, breathing underwater.  I put the scuba mask on and immediately realized how much I missed breathing through my nose.  Scuba masks cover the eyes and nose in an airtight seal.  Thus when I tried to inhale like normal, I got nothing.  Two seconds later I relearned how to breathe (because nothing motivates like a deadline) and crouched on my knees under the water.  It took some practice getting the regulator to do what I wanted, but eventually we came to an understanding.  I didn’t have as much luck with my weight belt. 

Here’s something you may not know.  The human body, plus an air tank, plus a buoyancy control device (BCD) make divers very light.  So they wear lead weights to help them submerge.  The weights must be measured carefully.  Too much and the diver can’t surface.  Not enough weight or poorly balanced weights give you my situation.  Our second drill involved lying belly down on the surface of the pool.  I went to crouch down and my feet lifted off the pool floor. I tried again.  The same thing happened.  Nathan gave me two additional five pound weights and told me to exhale thereby reducing my buoyancy.  Okay, no problem.

Floating on the water’s surface, I exhaled deeply and slowly submerged three feet to the bottom of the pool.  But I inhaled and immediately started to rise.  So I exhaled.  I hovered for a second then sank back down, just as out of breath as before.  I inhaled and started ascending again.  My predicament was amusing for all of two seconds before another problem arose.  I started listing to one side. 

Here’s something else you may not know.  Tall guys, as a rule, are not graceful creatures.  Give us incredibly long footwear, confine us in a close space and our sense of balance goes out the window.  Back to the situation at hand, I’m tilting to one side.  My natural reaction is to get my feet under me and try again, but I can’t.  The tips of my fins are striking bottom and my ankle won’t flex because it’s stuck in the stupid flipper!  Natural reaction number two is to thrash wildly.  The theory is that something will give, and I’ll wind up in a different situation than I am in right now.  Even odds it’s a better one.  At the very least, thrashing might help control my spin.  But I can’t.  The pool wall is directly to my left.  My dive buddy Brandon is in front of me and there are three instructors within arms length of me who would get smacked as I tried to right myself.  That and the 3,000psi air tanks strapped to each of our backs encouraged me to move slowly.  My listing to port capsized me when I reached the surface.  I spun my arms and kick my legs a couple times finally righting myself as I coughed and sputtered.  Nathan came up from the bottom.  “Okay, let’s try this again and this time, try to stay level.” 

One try later, Sam and Carl start stuffing my BCD’s pockets with lead weights anywhere they can hide them.  I finally submerge.  Ha ha!  The rest of the afternoon passes without incident and we actually have some fun.  At the end of the day I pack up my bought and borrowed gear and head to my hotel.  The forward facing wetsuit peeled off almost easily this time.  I drove to my hotel room and after three trips to and from the car, all the scuba equipment was rinsed and drying in the shower.  I opted for a bowl bath by the sink and tried to tell myself I’m only giving up my bathroom this one time.  I also started to rethink my suitcase strategy for the upcoming trip to Indonesia.

For tomorrow’s pool dive we’ll be in the deep end.  I’m looking forward to it.  Partly because this diving thing may actually be fun some day!  I’m not doing the diving world any favors just now, but I can start to see why people enjoy the sport.  Mostly though, I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s class because every diving class I complete, every necessary piece of equipment I buy, brings me one step closer to her, my mermaid.  

Monday, November 22, 2010

Indonesia's Brigadoon

The musical Brigadoon tells the story of an enchanted village in Scotland that appears out of the mist every one hundred years and disappears again after only one day. I saw the movie version many many years ago and really don't remember too much about it but it immediately came to mind when I arrived in Bandung at the beginning of November for the TEFLIN conference. (Teachers of English as a Foreign Language in Indonesia). Like Brigadoon, Bandung (even the names sound kinda similar, right?) seems to have almost magical, surreal qualities.

The only thing I really knew about Bandung beforehand was its reputation for having a cooler climate than the rest of Indonesia. I also knew that my housemate Anastasia lived with a host family there during high school and really liked it. Perhaps that's an understatement; she raves about Bandung all the time. And the Bandung Institute of Technology is quite famous. And the city is also a shopping mecca for outlet stores. Ok, so maybe I knew more than one thing about Bandung before I went, but knowing those few things still left me unprepared.

We traveled by bus from Jakarta and I was blown away by the beautiful landscape. The urban sprawl of Jakarta quickly gave way to stunning mountains, terraced rice paddies and tea plantations, waterfalls, and traditional houses. Without a doubt, this was the most breathtaking scenery I have ever seen in Indonesia. This is a landscape photographer's dream. I could hardly do it justice by snapping pictures from the bus, but here's one shot to give you an idea of the gorgeous terraced tea plantations.

Mile after mile of stunning landscapes
Then we arrived at our hotel, the GH Universal, which looked like a palace up in the hills. In the lobby there was a bubbling fountain and a magnificent chandelier. And whole room was draped in heavy red velvet curtains from ceiling to floor. I quickly checked in and made my way to my room. As soon as I opened the door, classical music filled my ears and it took me a moment to realize it was coming from my TV. The place oozed over-the-top romance and decadence, but who am I to complain. I kinda loved it. And the bed was quite possibly one of the most comfortable beds I have ever sleep in.

Yes, the bed is draped in black lace
The food at the conference also took me by surprise. It was delicious. And for those of you who have been following this blog regularly over the past year, you know that this is not an adjective I typically use for Indonesian food. The meal at the end-of-conference dinner and cultural show was absolutely fantastic. I enjoyed trying the different Sundanese dishes and the sweet, hot drinks. Maybe this cusine explains why my housemate Anastasia is so enthusiastic about Indonesian food. Her enthusiasm truly puzzled me before, but now I see where she's coming from.

The cultural show itself exceeded all my expectations too. There were a few traditional numbers, which were quite good and energetic. And then Heather, one of the Fulbright ETAs in Bandung, took to the stage and started singing. Suddenly, students poured onto the dance floor from every table at the dinner and women were rockin' out in their jilbabs and the night exploded into one big long dance party. There was a congo line, there was some swing dancing, there was even a moment when the band played 'November Rain' and a line of people sat in front of the stage and waved their lighters. Imagine that - a band covering Guns N' Roses at the TEFLIN conference! This night was truly unlike any other English language teaching event I had ever attended in Indonesia.

'Everybody needs somebody'
Between the nice cool weather, the gorgeous landscapes, the 'romantical'  hotel (to use Noreen's expression), the delicious food and the night of musical madness at the TEFLIN conference, Bandung really did prove itself to be Indonesia's version of Brigadoon, an enchanted village in the mist. I just hope I don't have to wait 100 years until my next visit.

Jackie by a mist covered volcano crater

The angklung -a traditional Sundanese instrument

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Medical Mystery

For the past few months, I have been troubled by an array of odd symptoms and even odder medical advice. It all started the day my plane landed back in NJ after my first ten months in Indonesia. I noticed that the right side of my body sometimes felt very strange - a little bit numb, some tingling sensations - and felt colder than the left side of my body. And then the left side of my mouth started drooping! Alarmed, I went to see a doctor at home who ended up sending me for an MRI to rule out the possibility of MS. The MRI came back normal and the doctor concluded my symptoms must be caused by stress. This seemed to be a cop out answer to me since there was nothing in my life that I was feeling particularly stressed about. But in any event, my symptoms lessened and I returned to Indonesia feeling relatively fine.

However, by the beginning of October I was forced to acknowledge that I really wasn't fine. The odd sensations and mouth drooping were back, I felt unusually tired and lightheaded at the end of the day, I was having trouble gripping things in my right hand and, most disturbingly, there was a period of two to three days when I experienced really bad headaches that made my head feel like it was going to explode. These shooting pains in my head scared me enough to confide in Ingrid and seek out a doctor in Yogya. Ingrid did some research and took me to a doctor that several people had recommended.

Unfortunately, this doctor in Yogya turned out to be a bit wacky. His initial assessment of me was done through iris imaging. We looked at pictures of my eyes on a TV screen and he told us how spots on the iris correlated to organs of my body. My heart and lungs were fine but he mentioned in passing that I have a dirty left ovary. I'm sorry, what? A dirty left ovary?? But I quickly forgot about this as he announced his provisional diagnosis. According to him, I had a 'viral infection on a nerve in the brain'. Yikes! A brain infection?? And he can tell this by looking at pictures of my eyes? I was doubtful, but he ordered some blood work done and I figured a blood test would probably be a more reliable measure.

So the next day Ingrid and I went back to see him about the results of the blood test. He glanced at the paper we handed him from the lab and he announced that I have rubella. Really? I knew I had been vaccinated against rubella as a child and I didn't have a rash so this struck me as odd, but perhaps there was an Indonesian strand of the virus that I did not have immunity against. What do I know; I'm certainly not a doctor. Anyway, he prescribed two different medications, 6 to 12 rounds of physiotherapy, a detoxifying ionic foot bath (more on that in a minute) and last but not least he wanted me to wear a cervical collar for a month to put my facial muscles back in place. A cervical collar!! I asked him many questions but I could tell he was getting impatient. Ingrid translated that he felt like he was giving a lecture. He ended our session by saying that if I had any more questions I should just Google them. I promised myself I would do just that as soon as I got home, but first there was the experience of the ionic foot bath.

The ionic foot bath consisted of a tub of cold water with some sort of metal device that was plugged into a machine. The guy in charge (the attendant, the technician?) explained that the impurities from my body would float out of my feet and collect on the surface of the water as a layer of scum. Well, those weren't his exact words but that was the idea. If the scum formed one circle that meant I was relatively healthy. If the scum formed separate circles, it meant there was a problem somewhere. I peered into the tub; three distinct circles had formed. The guy looked at me sadly and shook his head. He told me the best thing to do in my case was to pray. Then he held up a worn copy of an English language book entitled 'Alone with God' and asked me if I wanted to read it. I politely declined and high tailed it out of there with Ingrid. I'm not saying prayer won't help, but it's not exactly what I wanted to hear at the doctor's office!

Back in my room, I Googled 'rubella' and found out that the blood work I had gotten done tested positive for the presence of IgG rubella antibodies, which should be present since I was vaccinated. I had tested negative for IgM rubella antibodies, which would have indicated that I currently had the virus. I sat there dumbfounded by the idea that the doctor I had gone to see had misinterpreted a simple blood test like this. On the spot I discounted everything he said to me - which to be honest was kind of hard to swallow anyway - and wrote to my RELO supervisors to see what I should do next. They suggested I fly to Jakarta to see a more reputable doctor at the International SOS Clinic.

On the day of my flight to Jakarta I found out that the neurologist I was scheduled to see had to cancel because of an emergency surgery. At the last minute RELO was able to get me another appointment with another neurologist at a Jakarta hospital. This doctor listened to what I had to say, did a few physical tests and told me I had migraines. Now, migraines sounded much more plausible than rubella but it still didn't ring true for me. I had been experiencing all these weird symptoms for over three months and only had one bout of bad headaches. And there was no aura or sensitivity to light or noise or any of the classic other migraine symptoms. I also didn't care for his recommendation of avoiding cheese, chocolate, coffee, citrus and cola. No cheese?? That's a horrible, horrible thing to forbid a girl who spent her twenties in a country famous for its cheese and who was cheese deprived for the entire 10 months she spent in Gorontalo.

To get a second opinion, I booked another appointment with the SOS doctor that I was originally supposed to go see. Of the three doctors I saw, Dr. Amanda did the most thorough testing and questioning. In fact she was so thorough that she sent me to get more extensive blood work done, an EEG and two evoked potentials tests called VEP and SSEP. The SSEP test was horribly painful. My body was hooked up to all sorts of electrodes and tortured with a vibrating current. It was most painful in my feet.

When the lab doctor wordlessly handed me her report at the end of the session, all I saw where the following words in bold type on the top of the page: Diagnosis: Multiple Sclerosis. At first I was stunned. Oh no!! And then I was angry. Who does that??? Who hands somebody a diagnosis of MS without saying a word about it?? It was shocking and I spent the taxi ride back to Jackie's quietly contemplating my fate and calling my parents. By the time I got back to the apartment I was visibly upset when I told the other girls. But Megan, to whom I will be forever grateful, calmed me down and explained that this was probably just a bad translation. A better wording would have been something like this: Reason for Test: Possibility of Multiple Sclerosis. Megan also pointed to the conclusion section of the report which said nothing about MS and just stated that the test results were compatible with sensory neuropathy in both lower extremities. What did that mean? Well, I had to wait another week or so before I could go back for a follow up appointment with Dr. Amanda.

When I finally got to sit down again with Dr. Amanda, I learned that I have a calcium deficiency. I had grown up knowing that I should drink milk for strong bones but I never realized before or had forgotten that calcium ions transmit messages from one nerve to the next. My decreased level of calcium was slowing these transmissions and causing nerve pain! Dr. Amanda speculates that I depleted my calcium stores living in Gorontalo where I pretty much involuntarily eliminated milk, cheese and broccoli from my diet. Never underestimate the importance of cheese! No wonder I craved pizza practically every time I left Gorontalo. My body was literally crying out for it. To fix this, Dr. Amanda prescribed me some calcium/vitamin D supplements and B12 supplements for good measure. I also asked her if there were any specific foods I should be eating as well, thinking she might say something like milk or cheese. But instead she replied, "Bone." Bone?!?! Bone has never been a diet staple in the part of the world where I'm from. She clarified by explaining that those little tiny fish that Indonesians dry and salt are a very good source of calcium. Right. Dried whole fish. Sounds yummy!

I tried the dried fish one night with some nasi goreng. They tasted just like bacon!
After months of worrying about what could be wrong with me, I'm relieved to find out it's something as simple and treatable as a calcium deficiency. I'm so glad it's not MS or migraines or a 'brain infection'. I just need to eat more cheese...and bone!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Escape from Merapi

In mid-October I moved into a new cubicle at ICRS. The new office space has tons of advantages: it's much bigger than my previous cramped quarters; it's centrally located in the hub of all ICRS activity so I don't feel like I'm all alone in the building when five o'clock rolls around; it's right next to Ingrid and Ipung's desks so I can easily chat, ask questions and steal some warm pisang goreng from Ingrid; it's close to the coffee and tea supply; and perhaps most impressively, it boasts a great view of Mount Merapi on a clear day. I thought it was pretty darn cool to have an office with a view of a volcano but on Oct 22 I noticed that the volcano seemed to be smoking. I pointed this alarming fact out to Ingrid, who told me that it's normal to see smoke coming from Merapi since it's an active volcano but also reassured me that we had nothing to worry about.

When I came home from work on Oct 25, I learned from my housemate Anastasia, who's always on top of the news, that experts were predicting an imminent eruption of Mount Merapi and had already started evacuating nearby villages. We sat glued to the TV that night, wondering what might happen next. The very next day, Oct 26, Merapi started to erupt, spewing ash and rocks into the air. That night found all of us once again glued to the TV in the common room as we watched the ash-covered evacuees talk to local reporters. A light ash rain fell in the background as people wearing face masks huddled together. I couldn't help but wonder why the shelters were so close to the volcano. Why weren't these people being taken farther away? Like to Yogya, a city about 25 km away and out of the danger zone where we were just comfortably sitting around watching the events unfold on TV?

I got the answer to my question the next day at work when Ipung explained to me that the villagers were reluctant to move far away from their cattle and livestock on the slopes. These animals represented their sole means of earning a living; if the animals died, so would their livelihoods. The men felt a strong need to stay close to their homes so they could run back and check on their cows during periods of low volcanic activity. If the authorities had insisted on evacuating these people farther away, they probably would have refused to evacuate at all.

I also learned that day that the eruption had already claimed a number of lives, including that of an elderly man known as Mbah Maridjan who was regarded as the spiritual guardian of the volcano. For many years, Mbah Maridjan's responsibility was to appease the gods of the 'Fire Mountain' with offerings of rice or flowers. Locals believed that if a serious eruption was imminent, Maridjan would be warned in a vision. On Oct 26 he stubbornly chose to ignore official orders to evacuate. His ash-covered body was later found in a praying position. Tragically, 13 other bodies of people who had either followed his example of staying despite evacuation orders or who had tried to persuade him to leave were found as well, including those of a journalist and a Red Cross volunteer. News of his death spread quickly through ICRS and saddened many.

Mount Merapi as seen on Oct 27 from my office window

On Oct 28 I flew to Jakarta. No one had ordered me to evacuate; I just happened to have a doctor's appointment. I also had plans to stay out of town for the next two weeks because of a conference in Bandung, the Marine Ball in Jakarta and another workshop in Banda Aceh. My timing couldn't have been better. The day after I arrived in Jakarta I started to get frightening reports from friends back in Yogya: Merapi had erupted two more times, the airport was shut down, and the volcanic ash had reached Yogya - it even dusted our guesthouse. Merapi was nowhere near being done erupting. In fact, she was just gathering energy. I was glad to be out of harm's way, but I worried for those still in Yogya.

On Nov 5 I woke up to the following text message from my counterpart, "Julianne, don't get back to Jogja first, Mt Merapi is getting worst. Ipung." A text from RELO followed shortly thereafter asking all ELFs to confirm our locations and to warn us to stay away from Mt Merapi, Yogya and Solo. It turns out that in the early morning hours of Nov 5 there had been what the media was calling the "worst eruption of the century". This eruption would eventually push the death toll up from 44 to over 250 and counting and triggered a series of emergency actions: my host university canceled all its classes for the week and many of UGM's buildings were converted into shelters for displaced people; the Indonesian government promised they would reimburse farmers for the loss of their cattle in an effort to convince them to stay away from Merapi's deadly slopes; and AMINEF pulled the ETAs out of the region and temporarily relocated them to Jakarta. In the days immediately following the eruption, I heard tales of intense rain, lightening and even a 5.6 earthquake in Yogya (said to be unrelated to Merapi, but still).

There have been no major eruptions since Nov 5, the danger zone has decreased in some areas and classes have resumed at UGM and ICRS. However, Merapi continues to cough and rumble. How long this will go on is anyone's guess. Ingrid and Ipung report that Yogya is feeling normal again but on Nov 10 the U.S. State Department issued a travel alert for the area until Dec 31. The ETAs have been moved from Jakarta to work indefinitely at other schools on Java; Demi is now in Bandung and Brett is in East Java.

As for me, I'm stuck in Jakarta for the time being. My original flight back to Yogya was scheduled for Nov 14 but the Yogya airport is closed until Nov 20. But even then, is it safe to go back? Demi tells me that AMINEF is keeping the ETAs out of the region until the Indonesian government officially lowers Merapi's alert status. Consequently, RELO is checking with the Embassy Regional Security Office about when it will be safe for me to return. In the meantime, I'm being put up in nice hotels in Jakarta and RELO is giving me various little projects to work on. Yesterday I was a guest visitor in an Access Microscholarship Program English class. I'll return tomorrow to lead the class through some speaking and writing activities. On Friday and Saturday I'm volunteering to help interview Indonesian high school students for a year-long exchange program in the U.S. These are interesting tasks, but I hope it will be safe enough for me to return to Yogya soon to resume my life and regular classes there. It's not easy being in this state of limbo and uncertainty and I miss my friends and housemates in Yogya.

Quick Update

Wow...it's been a while since I last updated this blog. The reason is not that nothing has been happening but rather that so much has been happening that I haven't had time to catch my breath and write it all down. In short, I had a medical mystery to solve, an erupting volcano to escape from, a couple of English language teaching workshops to deliver, a fancy ball to attend, a dive trip to go on and a lot of other sightseeing, shopping and traveling to do - just a typical few weeks in the life of an English Language Fellow in Indonesia! In my next several posts I will try to bring you all up to speed.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

World's Most Expensive Coffee

On the islands of Java and Sumatra there lives a small cat-like animal called a civet (or luwak by the locals). This cute little animal likes to eat cherry coffee berries. The coffee berries tumble around in the civet's digestive system, some chemical reactions happen, and then the still-intact coffee beans are pooped out. These beans are then washed, dried, roasted and brewed as usual. 

A luwak (www.elephantmountaincoffee.com)
Cherry coffee berries (www.kealaolafarm.com)
Luwak poop (www.wb7.itrademarket.com)
World's most expensive coffee (www.artsyspot.com)
Although I've lived in Indonesia for more than a year, I had never tried this specialty until today. I was walking around the Grand Indonesia Mall in Jakarta with Jackie and her friend Miranda when I spied a Kopi Luwak cafe. Spontaneously, I suggested we go in. The sign on the table reminded us that kopi luak is the world's most expensive coffee; a pound of the stuff apparently goes for $300 in the US. And at certain establishments one cup of this special joe can cost $50. Fortunately for us, this particular cafe was selling it for about $8 a cup, which, while still super expensive for a cup of coffee in Indonesia, is still much cheaper than $50 in the US. So, I ordered one cup for Jackie and me to try.

No sooner had we placed our order than we were approached by a camera crew from CNN wondering if they could interview me as I drank my first cup of kopi luwak! What a way to make this special moment even more extraordinary! The woman interviewing me turned out to be Sara Sidner, an international correspondent based in New Delhi who was putting together a multi-day feature on Indonesia that will air November 22nd to 26th. She asked me if I came here today especially to drink kopi luwak (no, it was a spontaneous decision), how I thought it tasted (good...I guess), if I thought it was worth the price (well, maybe just once to try it) and a few other questions. I wonder if my interview will make it on air. 

With Jackie, Miranda and Sara Sidner at Kopi Luwak Cafe
What I didn't say was how surprised I was that the coffee wasn't freshly brewed. Instead, the waitress came over with an empty mug, a bag of powder and a thermos of hot water. Essentially, she was making instant coffee for me at the table. Really? I'm paying $8 a cup for instant coffee? To her credit, she let us all sniff the contents of the powder bag before she stirred in the water. It smelled aromatic enough. We were then instructed to wait two minutes for the coffee to settle in the mug. The camera crew hovered nearby as Miranda kept an eye on her watch. And then the moment of truth. I raised my mug, inhaled deeply and took my first sip. I was expecting to be wow'ed by its exotic flavor and hints of whoknowswhat but instead it just sort of tasted like regular coffee, albeit a very dark and silky one. I usually don't drink black coffee and had to fight the urge to add milk and sugar. I will say, though, that it had a very nice, clean aftertaste. 

If anyone sees us on TV, please let me know!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Stoning of Soraya M

Every other Friday afternoon there's a movie screening followed by a discussion at my host institution for the PhD students at ICRS (Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies) and the master's degree students at CRCS (Center for Religious and Cross Cultural Studies). The thought-provoking movies selected for discussion tend to focus on injustice, violence, and cross cultural conflict. So far this semester, I've seen Raise the Red Lantern (about the power struggle between the four wives of a wealthy Chinese merchant in 1920s China); Crash (about racial discrimination in modern day Los Angeles); and now The Stoning of Soraya M (about an innocent woman who is wrongly stoned to death for adultery under Islamic Sharia Law in Iran in 1986). Soraya's story is shocking, heartbreaking, and, worst of all, true.

In the opening scene, a woman is shown chasing dogs away from the remains of a body by a river. The woman collects the bones, washes them gently in the river and then buries them. As she is finishing her task, she notices a bus pulling a broken-down car along the main road to the village. It turns out the car belongs to a French/Iranian journalist who wants to get to the border by nightfall and is adamant that the local mechanic fix his car as soon as possible. The woman notices the tape recorder in the journalist's bag as he is speaking to the mechanic and attempts through a series of rushed whispered conversations to convince him that she has an important story to tell if he will listen.

The journalist makes his way to Zahra's house and the majority of the story is told through flashbacks as Zahra recounts the fate of her niece, Soraya, who was stoned to death the night before the journalist's arrival. Soraya, a 35 year-old mother of four children, is married to an abusive, philandering husband named Ali who wants a divorce so he can marry the 14 year-old daughter of one of his prisoners and he can't afford to have two wives. Soraya refuses to divorce him because she would then be left with no means to support the children. When a neighbor's wife dies, the village elders and Ali decide that Soraya should go help the widower and his son with the cooking and cleaning. Zahra manages to negotiate a salary for Soraya so she can slowly start to gain financial independence. This arrangement works for a little while, but Ali starts to get impatient and thinks up a new way to get ride of his wife - he accuses her of sleeping with the widower and he and the corrupt village leader threaten the widower with his life and his son's life to go along with the allegations, knowing that under Sharia Law the punishment for adultery is death by stoning.

Ali convinces all the men of the village, and many of the women, that Soraya is guilty of adultery. Zahra tries to sneak Soraya out of the house, but the attempt is futile - the house is surrounded by men with guns. So, Zahra does her best to help prepare Soraya for the inevitable. She helps her get dressed in a beautiful white gown and tells her that she will make it her duty to tell her story to the world. When the time comes, Soraya is led out of the house and buried waist deep in a dirt hole. Her hands are bound and she is positioned facing the villagers. One by one, the villagers pick up the stones and hit their target. Soraya's husband, her father and even her own sons join in. The scene is prolonged and painful; it shows the effect of each and every stone for several long minutes. The stones hit, Soraya's head swings down and the up, blood drips down her face turning her white gown red, and she makes eye contact with the crowd. Cries of Allahu Akbar! (God is Great!) fill the air as eventually everyone starts throwing stones at once until Soraya is dead. That night there is a great celebration in the village. While the villagers are celebrating, Zahra and a few other women take Soraya's body down to the river. They aren't allowed to bury her so they leave her by the water, where we know from the opening scene that her body will be eaten by wild dogs.

Then the film returns to the present where Zahra and the journalist are finishing their conversation. The mechanic, who we now recognize as the widower, arrives to announce that the car is ready. The journalist packs up his equipment and tries to leave town. The village elders stop him to ask what the old woman has been talking to him about for so long. They say that what happens in the village, stays in the village. The head of the village then destroys the tape with Soraya's story. The journalist storms off in his car. The villagers watch him drive off, smugly thinking they have prevented the story from leaking out. Little do they know that Zahra has outsmarted them again. She's waiting for the journalist down the road with the true tape held high in her hand. She successfully passes it off to him. The villagers see what has happened and try to run after the car. There's a tense moment when the old car stalls, but then the journalist gets it going again and successfully drives out of town with Soraya's story intact.

This incident really happened in Iran in 1986. The French/Iranian journalist wrote a book about Soraya's story called La femme Lapidee, which was published in 1990. The film, The Stoning of Soraya M, came out just last year.

The story left me in tears. The tyrannical husband, the mob-mentality of the villagers, the betrayal of Soraya's sons, the desperate attempts of Zahra to stop the inevitable, the brutal, bloody stoning scene. Why would anyone do this?? Many people in the story knew what was happening was wrong but still did nothing to stop it. An extra cruel turn of events comes at the end when we learn that Ali's marriage to the 14 year-old is off because the girl's father was executed. Soraya's death was for nothing - except that Zahra's promise to Soraya came true. The world now knows her story and a lot more about the similar fates of women in other countries where Sharia Law is practiced. If you haven't seen this movie yet, I highly recommend it. For Soraya's sake and sake of women like her, it's important that the world know what's going on. And what continues to happen in Iran to this day.

It was especially interesting to watch this movie about Islamic Sharia Law in a room full of practicing Muslims. The cries of Allahu Akbar! (God is Great!) by the murdering mob was deeply disturbing for many in the audience. Many Indonesian students were shocked. 'This is Islam??' Others were quick to point out that what Ali and the corrupt village elder did was manipulate religion to fit their cause, an ongoing theme in studies focusing on religious violence. Such manipulation is by no means restricted to Islam either.

One ICRS student also shared a very interesting academic theory as for why people would engage in an act as barbaric as stoning, especially to someone they know, love, and might even regard as innocent. Once an act of adultery has been committed, there is a disequilibrium in the community. In order to restore harmony, a scapegoat (guilty or innocent) must be found. Every stone that is thrown is a means to restore this harmony and win back God's good will. The otherwise inexplicable celebration scene following the stoning can be seen as a celebration of the restoration of harmony or equilibrium to the community. Powerful stuff, huh?

The aspects of Sharia Law depicted in this film also made me think about my upcoming trip to Banda Aceh, an Indonesian town in northern Sumatra governed by Sharia Law, where I've been asked to present a workshop next month. I've heard about the strict curfews and dress codes as well as the recent law change allowing stoning. Is it really true that right here in Indonesia adulterers can be punished with death by stoning? I dared to raise this question to the room. The response I got was that although death by stoning is on the books in Aceh, it's meant to scare people into behaving properly. The fact that four eye witnesses to the same act of adultery are needed to convict someone makes it highly unlikely that anyone will ever meet their end this way. A little online research at home revealed that the Acehenese defend their stoning law by asking how is it different from other countries with strict laws, such as death by lethal injection in the United States. The region also wants to attract tourists to the area so they can see for themselves how Sharia Law helps create a peaceful and secure community. Stay tuned for my reports from Aceh next month.