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.