Saturday, June 11, 2011

First Underwater Photos Published!

I used to want to be a marine biologist but I realized in college that I had more of a knack for languages than lab reports. Still, I have always loved the ocean and I have always loved swimming. The diving I have done these past two years in Indonesia has reignited my love affair with the ocean and has shown me that even though I am not a professional marine biologist, I can can still be passionate about the ocean in other ways. I have done 168 dives to date, I am a certified PADI Rescue Diver and I have also fallen in love with underwater photography. At this point in my life, if you asked me what my absolute dream job would be I would say a freelance travel writer and underwater photographer since this job would combine my loves of writing, traveling, diving and photography. Therefore, it's perhaps no surprise that I consider the publication of my first dive article and underwater photos to be the unofficial highlight of my two-year fellowship in Indonesia.

Rantje first asked me to write an article for 'What's Happening?', the free North Sulawesi tourism magazine, more than a year ago near the end of my first fellowship year in Gorontalo and now it's finally been published in the Spring 2011 edition of the magazine. And he really surprised me by submitting two of my own photographs with the article! I knew there would be the photo of me with the Salavador Dali sponge because we did a special underwater photo shoot for that last year but I had no idea my own photos would be published! I was thrilled when Rantje sent me the hard copies in the mail last week. However, my photos were extremely dark because the publisher got the printing saturation wrong on the first run. Fortunately, this mistake was corrected in subsequent printings and in the online version of my article that you can read here on page 18.

Although I've been fortunate to dive in some pretty spectacular places like Komodo, Nusa Lembongan, Bunaken, Lembeh, and the Togean Islands, Gorontalo will always be my absolute favorite diving destination in Indonesia for all of the reasons that I listed in my article. Since leaving Gorontalo, I've been back twice to dive - once in December with my sister and Mark and once again in March with Megan and Christina. I love diving there, I love diving with Rantje and the gang and I love introducing Gorontalo to other divers. That's why I was thrilled once again when Rantje unveiled Miguel's Diving's new t-shirt design:

Miguel's Diving t-shirt
The diver with the wavy blond hair admiring a Salvador Dali sponge while a whale shark passes overhead? That's me!!

My diving days in Gorontalo have come to an end (for now) but I find it beyond fitting that my departure from Indonesia is marked by the publication of my article about diving in Gorontalo and the introduction of the new Gorontalo t-shirts with my likeness!

I hear there will be a new ELF in Gorontalo next year. I really hope that person is a diver too so he or she can enjoy Gorontalo's hidden paradise! 

Friday, June 10, 2011

Durian - What's The Big Stink?

I had somehow managed to survive nearly two years in Indonesia without sampling what can arguably be called its most famous fruit - durian. Resembling a large, slightly oblong bowling ball covered in spikes, this is a fruit with a colorful, or should I say, malodorous, reputation. Banned in hotels and airplanes for its intensely fragrant aroma (stench?), this is not a fruit to be messed with. Food and travel writer Richard Sterling once famously described its odor as a mix of 'pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock'. Anthony Bourdain, host of the popular food and travel show 'Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations', noted that after eating durian, 'your breath will smell as if you'd been French-kissing your dead grandmother'. In spite of these descriptions by Western writers, durian remains a popular flavor here in Indonesia for everything from ice-cream to condoms.

You would really have to like durian a lot to use these...

With just over a week left in Indonesia, I decided that I had to try durian just once to see what all the fuss was about. It seems that people either love it or hate it and I was curious about which category I would fall into.

After my ICRS farewell party, where I had mentioned my desire to try durian before I left Indonesia, one of my coworkers offered to take me to a roadside durian stand on the way back to my guesthouse. I was all for the idea. We drove down Jl. Kaliurang until we came to a row of 5 or 6 durian sellers on the side of the road. We parked the car, crossed two busy lanes of traffic and then sat down on the mat next to several big mounds of durians. The durian seller started sniffing different fruits until he picked one that was suitably ripe for us. He sliced it open with a huge machete type knife and then set the two halves down in front of us.

Time to dig in!

I pulled out a big chunk of gooey, light yellow colored fruit. I cautiously took a bite, expecting it to taste something like a pungently ripe piece of soft cheese and was surprised to find that it didn't taste like that at all. And, for that matter, it didn't taste like for turpentine, onions or gym socks, either. It had a mild, not unpleasant taste, sort of like almonds. And the texture was creamy and custard-like. Dicky and I ate our way through the first layer of fruit and then the seller cut the halves in half again to reveal further seeds and flesh. We kept eating. I surprised myself by eating so much of it. I had imagined just taking one bite and then being done but it really wasn't bad at all. Dicky asked me to rate it on a scale of 1 to 10 and I gave it a 7. Maybe that was a little high, but I think I was factoring in the whole authentic experience of sitting at the side of a busy road with my Indonesian colleague and the durian seller while countless motorbikes whizzed by.

Devouring the roadside delicacy 

As we ate our way through the entire fruit, Dicky told me interesting facts like how the durians we were eating weren't from Yogya because the durian season in Yogya is only from November to February. The durians we were eating came from Sumatra. He also said it was possible to get drunk by eating durian. Well, I didn't feel drunk at the end of our culinary adventure but I do sort of agree with Anthony Bourdain's comment about the aftertaste!

I'm glad I tried it and I was happy that the odor and taste of that particular durian weren't as bad as I expected but I think my life will go on just fine without durian once I'm back in the US.

Mission successful. Still smiling after my first durian experience.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Monkey Thief of Uluwatu

Last week, the entire ICRS office went to Bali for a couple of days. Several of my Indonesian colleagues had never been there before so the purpose of our trip was to spend time together and see some of Bali's famous sites like Pura Luhur Uluwatu, a Hindu temple perched on a step cliff. Since we were traveling as a group, I didn't even bother to bring my Lonely Planet guide book. If I had, I would have read this warning about Uluwatu: "This temple is home to scores of grey monkeys. Greedy little buggers, when they're not energetically fornicating, they snatch sunglasses, handbags, hats and anything else within reach. Of course, if you want to start a riot, throw them your banana." Boy, do I wish I had read that warning beforehand! Or paid attention to any of the other warnings that followed...

When we arrived at Uluwatu, the guide at the front gate warned all of us to take off our hats, jewelery and glasses because the monkeys would take them. Now, I had been to the Sacred Monkey Forest in Ubud and had no problems with the monkeys there. So, I figured I could handle these monkeys, too. After all, if I didn't bother them, they would have no reason to bother me, right? And besides, if I took off my glasses I would barely be able to see anything. And what's the point of visiting one of the most famous sites in Bali if I can't see it? With those thoughts in mind, I confidently set off on the path to the temple.

I walked right past this sign:

And this one:

The message was repeated in Indonesian, French, Italian, German and a couple of other languages.

I walked right up to the edge of the cliff and oohh'ed and ahhh'ed at the beautiful view:

I heard some people start to shriek and when I turned around I quickly spotted the cause of all the commotion. A monkey was nonchalantly sitting on a wall munching away on someone's glasses. How funny, I thought, and took a picture:

Even after hearing the guide's warning, seeing the signs, and seeing a monkey furiously nibbling away at someone else's glasses, I still did not remove my own glasses. I figured I wasn't standing next to the wall or under a tree or anywhere where a monkey could suddenly jump on me. And surely I would sense it if a monkey started crawling up my leg or something.

So, there I was minding my own business taking in the scenery when all of the sudden my vision became terribly blurry. What the...?! NOOOOOOO!!! A monkey had come out of nowhere and snatched off my glasses before I even realized he was there. Squinting, I tried to make out where the monkey had run off to but there was more than one monkey and I couldn't tell them apart. Oh noooooo! My glasses!!! My brand new glasses that I had just bought in Washington, DC in April! And now I had no idea where they were. I could feel the tears welling up as I realized how utterly helpless I was. A monkey had just run off with my new $400 glasses and I couldn't do anything about it. I felt like I had been mugged.

Fortunately, my predicament didn't go unnoticed. Mas Ramang, one of my colleagues, attempted to go after the monkey. But that monkey wasn't going to give up the glasses for nothing. He quickly scampered off. Someone else gave chase and came back with my glasses a few (very long) moments later. THANK GOD!! Then he asked for a tip for the food he used to bribe the monkey. I was too flustered to do anything but one of our tour guides paid him 10,000 Rp., about $1 - thank you, thank you, thank you. So worth it!

I gingerly put the glasses back on my face but quickly realized something was wrong. Taking them off again, I noticed that the lenses were smeared with monkey saliva. Ewww.... A closer inspection also revealed that the monkey had chewed up the ends of the branches, taken a big chunk out of the frame over my left eye, and dented both lenses in various places. Sigh. At least I could see again and the glasses sat properly on my face.

But I wasn't going to take any more chances. I had finally learned my lesson. I put those glasses in my bag, vowing not to put them on again until we were safely back in the car.

I continued walking around Uluwatu with my coworkers but it wasn't much fun because 1) I couldn't see very well and 2) I was terrified of the monkeys. I felt like I was in a real live horror movie where unseen beasts could attack at any given moment. I couldn't wait to get out of there!

Smiling blindly through the terror

Back in the parking lot, Charlotte found these abandoned glasses glistening on the ground - a sad reminder of another tourist who did not follow the rules:

At our next stop of the day, I saw this t-shirt for sale that pretty much sums up how I feel about the aggressive monkeys of Uluwatu:

I realize it was totally my own fault that the monkey snatched my glasses. I was given ample warnings and blithely ignored them. Still, I wonder if Lenscrafters will replace them free of charge...

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Great Job Search of 2011

With only 5 weeks left of my contract in Indonesia and only one more payment from Georgetown on the horizon, my thoughts have been increasingly focused on my financial situation and the big question of what am I going to do next to earn money? I've dubbed my job search The Great Job Search of 2011 and have entered the process optimistically, comparing it to a big raffle.

Every job application I send off is like a raffle ticket. Clicking 'submit' or 'send' represents a chance to win the big prize worth tens of thousands of dollars - a full-time job with benefits! And even if I don't win the big prize right away, there are a lot of smaller prizes to be raffled off as well, namely telephone interviews and on-campus interviews. Over the past month and a half, I've submitted 8 applications to various jobs. I've already gotten one rejection email but I'm not going to let that get me down because I still have 7 tickets left in the bowl. And the great part is, there's no limit to the number of tickets I can buy! I'll just keep buying and buying until I win something. 

So, where am I looking and what kind of job do I want? 

Well, it's been clear to me for a while now that I want to live in the United States again for the foreseeable future. While I'm grateful for all my adventures and experiences overseas, I feel that my life is waiting for me back home. I want to share Thanksgiving dinner with my family and I want to spend time with my cousins' children (especially my goddaughter). Basically, I just want to feel more a part of the fabric of my own life. My number one rule for the job search is I can only apply to places that are within a day's drive of my family. Essentially, this means I am only considering jobs in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states. And I have a particular focus on the DC metro area because of a certain someone :-). 

As for the type of job I want, well, there are some options. The obvious choice would be to apply for faculty ESL positions since I've got the degree and I've certainly got the experience. A big problem with ESL positions, however, is that many of them are for adjunct/part-time work. Occasionally, I'll see postings for full-time positions - and I've even applied for one - but those are pretty rare. Another consideration is that, after teaching English for seven years, I'd like to spice things up a bit. Call it the career version of the seven-year itch, but I just have a really strong urge to do something a little bit different. That's why ESL jobs with added responsibilities in the direction of language program administration or campus-wide ESL support are appealing. Another strong area of interest for me is international education. I've applied for a handful of jobs with the title of International Student Advisor, where I would be responsible for counseling international students about academic, visa and cross-cultural adjustment issues. I would also get the opportunity to develop workshops and programs to cater to the needs of those students as they transition into American culture. 

I'm excited about the possibilities out there. I search the job boards every day hoping to find some interesting gems to apply to. I realize that 8 applications in a month and a half is not much. My pace may have started off slow but it's definitely picking up speed now that my contract is coming to an end and unemployment looms. If anyone reading this happens to have some leads for me, please send them along. You never know which application will be the winning ticket! 

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Take A Chance On Me

For those of you who may be wondering, my trip to Washington, DC to visit Henry last month went really well. In his words, it went better than expected and it meant a lot to him that I came all that way to see him. All of the weirdness I felt over New Year's was gone and we had a lot of fun together. My first night there he took me to the Melting Pot restaurant where we feasted on cheese fondue, salad, meat fondue and dessert fondue. And we washed it all down with a bottle of Riesling. It was delicious! The next day we headed off for our road trip to North Carolina. We spent a couple of days exploring the Outer Banks and then headed back to DC via Charlottesville, VA, where we stopped to see Monticello and dine on food from yesteryear at Michie's Tavern. Somewhere in between eating delicious food and laughing along to Car Talk podcasts on our road trip, we realized that we can be a couple again.

But we still have our challenges. Since the trip, Henry and I have been emailing a lot and talking about the issues that didn't get discussed while I was there. Maybe this is because we were too busy sightseeing or meeting up with my friends for dinner in DC. Or maybe it was because we were just too shy. Whatever the reason, we're talking more now than we have in a long time and I think that's a very good thing.

I'll be back in the U.S. soon and we'll take it from there!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Love On Hold...

When Henry and I first talked about the possibility of a long-distance relationship back in August, I hesitated. Long distance relationships have never really worked out for me and I thought for sure that a long-distance romance based on only 3 days together wouldn't stand a chance.

But Henry has surprised me over and over again these past few months. He's been the perfect long-distance boyfriend: he calls when he says he will; he listens, really listens when we talk or gchat; he's interested in my life; he counts the days in disbelief that we DON'T communicate; he sends flowers and hand-written cards; he comments on my Facebook status updates; he tells me about his family and he talks about the future. He also supported me through that whole medical scare I had last year by letting me know I could call him any time of day or night and he even consulted his own doctor about my mysterious conditions. In short, he's been absolutely wonderful to me and knowing he is in my life has given me a certain confidence and happy buzz. 

Everything was going just great between us - until he came to Indonesia over New Year's to visit.

Things didn't bode well for his trip right from the start. His luggage was held up in Brussels and didn't arrive in Jakarta until the end of his trip. On his second full day in Indonesia, we flew to Lombok and transferred to Gili Air by boat. The seas were a bit rough and when he jumped off the boat, his iPhone, forgotten in his pocket, was instantly swamped. As frustrating as either of those two events would have been for some, Henry wasn't phased. He hadn't come to Indonesia to show off his fashionable beach wear or spend all day glued to his email messages. He came to spend time with me and see my world.

To prepare for his trip he spent a lot of time, energy and money in learning how to scuba dive. His goals were to see this underwater world of mine that I rave about so much and to take pictures of us wearing goofy scuba masks. To get his certification, he did his Open Water dives in a rock quarry in Virgina, in December, huddled around a space heater with the other guys in between dives. He even did his Advanced Open Water as well to increase his confidence underwater. Only later, after I subjected him to diving with sharks and diving in a frightening current, did he admit that diving actually terrifies him. But he tried it anyway. He tried it for me.

So, between the lost luggage and the dead iPhone and his fear of diving, Henry had a lot on his mind and was completely thrown off guard by what happened next. So was I. In fact, neither one of us could have predicted it. My tall, blond, blue-eyed guy who I had been missing for months just traveled half away across the world to see me and I freaked out. Finally, we were in the same place again but for some reason I was nervous, uptight, stand-offish and just not myself. Things grew incredibly strained between us and after five nights of a pretty icy reception from me, he cut his trip short and flew back to the US, heartbroken. 

In the months since he left, both have us have been trying to figure out what happened and make sense of it all. What went wrong? How come this man, who felt like such an intimate soul mate from afar, suddenly felt like a stranger to me in person? Why did I feel such an overwhelming need for space and breathing room?  You would think after four months of not seeing him I would jump at the chance to...well...jump into bed with him. But instead I felt paralyzed. And the more he tried to be affectionate, the more I pushed him away. I spent so much time thinking about how awkward and uncomfortable I felt, that I completely failed to see just how confusing and dismaying my behavior was to him. All he wanted to do was hold me but for some reason I couldn't relax in his arms. 

Right now we're at a terrible impasse where we're broken up but neither of us wants to be. Well, at least I'm sure I don't want to be. I had no plans to end the most wonderful relationship I've ever been in and I'm sitting here still stunned that that's what happened. I've tried to explain myself to Henry and I've asked for his forgiveness and a chance to give this relationship another try. So, after much consideration, discussion and planning, we're going to see each other again in just a few days in Washington, D.C! If our chemistry clicks this time, I think this love story might still have a happy ending. 

Monday, March 28, 2011


Here are some images from my most recent trip to Gorontalo. In all likelihood, it was probably my last trip there for a very long time but that's kinda hard to think about. So, I'll just call it my most recent trip.

Blue starfish

Detail of ruby-lined sea cucumber

Gorgonian crab

Unidentified crab



Randall's sailfin goby

Tiny shrimp on blue starfish

With Christina and Megan

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Orangutans in Borneo

'Tom' - King of the Orangutans
Indonesia is a great country for seeing magnificent animals in their natural habitats. I've been lucky enough already to see whale sharks off the coast of Gorontalo, manta rays off the coasts of Bali and Flores and Komodo dragons on Rinca Island. Now I can also say I've seen orangutans, proboscis monkeys, and gibbons in the jungles of Borneo. Inspired by friends' photos last year, I quickly said yes when Mark started organizing an orangutan river trip for the end of February. Our merry band of travelers included Mark and his friend Dave, visiting from Alaska; my ELF friends Noreen and Michaela; and my housemates Melanie and Anastasia from Yogya.

Lonely Planet describes these orangutan river trips to Tanjung Puting National Park in Central Kalimantan (part of Indonesian Borneo) as "the world's easiest adventure travel" and I'd have to agree. An English-speaking guide named Ambo (like Rambo without the 'r', he told us) met our plane at the tiny airport in Pangkalan Bun and whisked us off by car to our awaiting klotok on the river. This traditional river boat would be our home for the next three days and two nights as we leisurely cruised up and down the rivers of the park, disembarking only to visit orangutan rehabilitation camps. My friends and I spent all of our time on the klotok topside and the crew did a fantastic job of transforming our living space from a lounging area to a dining area to a sleeping area and back again multiple times. We ate delicious food, slept under mosquito nets at night and kept our eyes peeled for primates in the trees.

A klotok heading up river

Dining topside

Early morning on the klotok

Looking for wildlife
Proboscis monkey - look at that nose and the long tail!

Orangutan rehabilitation has actually been deemed controversial. The original idea was to train formerly captive orangutans to live in the wild but this idea backfired when scientists realized that the reintroduced orangutans were spreading human diseases they had picked up in captivity to native orangutan populations, who were also forced to compete for food and mates. Currently, orangutans are only rehabilitated into areas with no native populations. 

A mother and baby eating bananas

Michaela, Anastasia, Melanie and Mark at an orangutan feeding station

Did you know 'orangutan' is an Indonesian word that means 'forest person'?

Treehugger :-)

There WERE crocodiles in the river! My friends saw some but I didn't :-(

A gibbon! We would listen to their calls while eating breakfast on the klotok.

A wild boar at a feeding station

Orangutans are only found in the wild in Borneo and Sumatra.

Melanie, Michaela and Noreen

Me on a boat in Borneo :-)
One of the unexpected highlights of the trip was seeing fireflies at night. At home, fireflies seem to come out individually and spread themselves out over a large area. Here, the fireflies came out in droves and would concentrate themselves around individual trees, giving the effect of Christmas trees covered in live twinkling lights. I've never seen anything like it. 

Cruising down up and down the river was magical for all the reasons I've already mentioned but it was also thrilling to think about some of the other, unseen animals of the jungle just beyond the riverbanks like sun bears, clouded leopards, and pythons...

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Does Vagina Chalk Really Exist?

Via Via is one of my favorite restaurants in Yogya. Calling itself a 'travelers' cafe', it not only offers up a delicious mix of world cuisines and live jazz on Friday nights but it also organizes interesting sightseeing trips around town using local forms of transportation. One of the tours on offer is the 'Jamu Tour'.

Jamu is the word for traditional herbal Indonesian medicines and you can see jamu sellers all over town - these women are easily recognized by the big woven baskets of traditional medicine they carry around strapped to their backs. And yes, they're always women. This is because women are believed to have magical powers for making jamu - a carefully concocted blend of bark, leaves, roots, and fruit used to heal an array of ailments.

Anastasia, Melanie, Michaela and Jackie and I headed down to Via Via early one morning to meet our tour guide in front of the restaurant. We were interested in learning more about the traditional medicines but we were even more intrigued by the existence of something called vagina chalk. Apparently, there is a special stick of chalk that Indonesian women insert into their vaginas before sex to make themselves drier. Say what?! Yes, apparently, Indonesian men desire their women to be dry because that means they are more virtuous or something. We simply had to find out more about this.

After meeting our guide, we climbed into our three awaiting becaks, a type of bicycle rickshaw, and headed off to the local market to visit the stall of a woman who sells jamu ingredients. We stood around her stall for a good long while sampling the many fruits and leaves she had to offer. Then we piled back into our becaks and went to the house of a retired jamu seller to see these raw ingredients transformed into a special elixir.

Jamu ingredients for sale at the local market

Anastasia and Jackie in a becak

Anastasia paints a sticky rice face mask on Melanie.

Turmeric and asam are ground together for our jamu.

Jamu maker and her final product - a jamu juice to relieve menstrual cramps
All of this facial mask making and turmeric juice sampling was fine and good but when we got back to Via Via we begged our tour guide to tell us about the 'sexy' jamus we had heard about. She laughed, disappeared inside the store and reappeared a few minutes with this box of questionable items.

Note the 'Worldy Stick of Joy'!! A.k.a. 'vagina chalk' this was the item we had only heard rumors about before. And now here it was. It really exists! Women really use this!!

Vagina chalk!
The box was filled with all sorts of interesting powder and capsule jamus. There were jamus to increase sexual stamina for men, tighten the vagina, and even ones for 'late menstruation' i.e. abortion. We weren't tempted to buy anything but later one of Michaela's friends commented on her blog, "If you get me anything - anything at all [from Indonesia] - it has to be the Vagina Chalk."

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Ancient Temples of Borobudur & Prambanan

The Buddhist temple of Borobudur and the Hindu temple compound known as Prambanan are Yogyakarta's most popular tourist attractions. Although one is Buddhist and the other Hindu, these two places of worship have very similar histories. Both were built in the ninth century, abandoned shortly thereafter, and devastated by disaster and neglect for centuries. Today both are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and are right in my backyard.

I visited both of these sites for the first time in September and then again in February when my ELF friends Jackie and Michaela came to visit. We left the ICRS guesthouse at 5:30 in the morning to beat the heat and the crowds. Our efforts paid off because we had Borobudur practically all to ourselves on a gloriously sunny morning. But by the time we got to Prambanan, the midday sun was at its strongest and we felt ourselves fading fast and in need of some frozen mango drinks at Parsley. However, before we called it a day we got in some great photo-ops and learned some interesting facts.

The origins of the name 'Borobudur' are disputed 
but it might mean 'temple above the hill'.

Borobudur was abandoned in the 10th century
 and remained buried under volcanic ash until its rediscovery in the 18th century.

Borobudur is Indonesia's most visited tourist attraction.

There are 2,672 relief panels representing Buddhist cosmology 
from the lusty everyday to Nirvana.
Originally there were 504 Buddha statues.
Today more than 300 are damaged and more than 40 are missing.

One of the few intact Buddha statues. Many statues were decapitated soon after Borobudur's rediscovery in the 18th century. The heads can be found in museums all over the world.
There are more Buddha statues inside each of these latticed stupas. This top level of the temple was closed because the Buddhas in the stupas are still covered in ash from the recent 2010 eruptions of Mt. Merapi.

Like Borobudur, Prambanan was abandoned in the 10th century, probably because of a volcanic eruption, and  was further damaged in a big earthquake in the 16th century. Proper restoration began in the 20th century but earthquakes remain a constant threat. The main temple is still closed to visitors today because of the 2006 Yogya earthquake.
Four-headed Hindu statue in one of the smaller shrines.