Thursday, April 29, 2010

Coming to a happy ending?

One thing I was surprised by during the Bali trip was my defending of Sidrap. Several times during Indonesia-bash-sessions, which ETAs, and other ex-pats, are prone to (we’ve got to vent to someone, sometime), I felt really defensive when someone said something negative about my placement.
This is coming from a guy that was all but ready to call it quits and pack up not that many months ago; though the fact that, knock on wood, mati lampu has become much less frequent and I now have internet in my room has helped my placement a lot. I was stunned as I was telling people that ‘No, the situation isn’t that bad at all’ ‘The ride to Makassar goes fast’ and ‘the food is actually pretty good’.
What was I saying?! Just ask anyone that reads my blog and knows how I live here; it’s atrocious, appalling, and abysmal!
Isn’t it?

It’s very difficult for me to communicate the situation I’m in here. I truly value this experience and I have a feeling when I look back in a few months that my feelings will be turning towards loving it here (with time memories grow more fond, right?). But (and there’s always a but) this country/situation has constant aggravations. Depending on my mood (which has a HUGE impact) those aggravations can roll off my back or can cause near melt-downs. It’s really kind of scary the swings in opinion I can have here: sometimes I really love it and appreciate the colossal amount that everyone has done for me, but then at other times I’m really annoyed by all the issues I deal with. Lately however, the issues have become less and I’ve gotten really good at dealing with them; I have become more comfortable and accustomed to life here than I ever would have expected 6 or 7 months ago. This is certainly a unique experience I have been undertaking, and somewhat stunningly, I think I’m going to miss it (once I’m safe, comfortable, clean, and allowed privacy back in the US!).

Re…Renver…Rever … apa?

One thing I was told about before I came, read about and have been experiencing for the past 8 months, but just lately has registered with me is the lack of reverence that Indonesians typically display.
To me, a performance or a presentation and certainly a formal prayer, are, by definition, times when people should be quiet and show their respect. I mentioned it earlier, but here that respect doesn’t come across like that. It is kind of refreshing to see a people not take themselves so seriously as to think that everyone must be quiet and conservative to humor a particular belief. This is especially true considering the rap that Islam occasionally gets in the US as ultra-conservative. It is also a little disconcerting at first however; until you realize there is no disrespect meant, it’s frankly pretty annoying. This idea at least helps to explain my Bali temple experiences too (which was only exacerbated because Bali is a tourist trap).
This seeming lack of reverence reverberates throughout Indonesian culture and I think at times I have mis-indentified it as several different maladies (such as a general lack of maturity (though I still stand by that to some extent), little boys being allowed to get away with anything, being yelled at on the streets, etc.), when in reality it is simply a cultural attitude not to worry too much about anyone thing particularly what we consider ‘manners’. That is not always the case however, and occasionally strict adherence is required for some things (of course I never know what those things are!).

One particular example of this lack of reverence is eating. This in particularly was annoying me until one of the other ETAs mentioned how unimportant meals are in Indonesia. With the exception of feasts/celebrations, meals are not an event at all, simply a time to get the food you need. Even those feasts are not the ornate, well-organized occasions a Westerner may expect. In fact, there is no word in Indonesian for meal (that I’ve found at least). Breakfast is makan pagi (eat morning), lunch makan siang (eat mid-day) and finally makan malam (you guessed it, eat night).
Once I realized this it made me feel more normal about my eating with Imran’s family. I felt a little awkward because rarely did anyone beside a screaming kid eat with me. But it’s just a cultural difference. Food isn’t really a big deal here (apparently explaining some of the lack of delicious food and also why there aren’t many Indonesian restaurants internationally). The main meal is eaten around midday, but typical dishes are prepared in such a way that they can sit out at room temperature for an extended period of time, even in this weather; I know you don’t believe they’d stay good, but as long as you don’t have dysentery, it seems to work.

It’s kind of surprising to me that such a blatant cultural difference has taken me this long to identify, but now that I have, I see it everywhere. Of course this comes just as I’m getting ready to leave…4 weeks!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A touristy experience

I have to say I was actually ready to return from Bali when my plane took off Sunday evening. While Bali is certainly a nice place with some great sights it is way too touristy for me. Constantly being hassled to pay this, buy this, look at this, come here, go there is not my idea of traveling. So while I’m glad I went to Bali, I’m also not disappointed that I left it for last and almost didn’t make it there.
I did however REALLY enjoy the food. In fact this was really an eating weekend. In one day I ate French toast, 2 servings of ice cream, three good beers, a serving of traditional pork (babi guling is a Bali specialty and included tender pork, blood sausage, and delicious crispy skin and crunchy cracklings), a banana nut muffin, rye bread, a chicken sandwich and garlic mashed potatoes! And every other day I had at least one meal of MEXICAN food! So yeah, Bali has some redeeming features!

A total of 4 of us ETAs stayed in Ubud for 2 nights with one day looking around the city and buying gifts. Ubud is almost as touristy as Kuta (which is not actually Indonesia, but actually an Australian party town moved to an Indonesian island), but in a completely different way. Instead of clubs, and surfing, Ubud is all about cafes and art. It was kind of fun to walk around the city looking in a bunch of stores and galleries (Mom and Leith, you guys would have loved it…and left completely broke), but I spent my money in the local market. After 3 hours of bargaining I was exhausted! I really like bargaining for things, but when it becomes necessary to bargain for absolutely everything and the people you are bargaining with start out at ridiculous prices, it’s really just a pain; at one point the price dropped on something I wanted by 200% as soon as I spoke a single word of Indonesian! I ended up paying less than 1/6 of the original price.
After the day of shopping and eating in Ubud the next day we went on a temple tour which was pretty disappointing to be honest. Even at these temples we were constantly harassed by someone for something. Despite this Pura Besakih (aka the ‘mother temple’) was pretty interesting, once we finally got in past the ‘mandatory guides’ (they weren’t but we ended up paying a guy a little, mostly just to be left alone).
At several of the temples, most of us were struck by how insincere some of the temples seemed. While it was demanded that tourists wear sarongs and sashes, there were other people throwing their cigarettes around and hawkers of all kinds in the temples. I have absolutely no qualms with wearing appropriate clothing, but when it seems like that is required mostly so that tourists have to rent a sarong, that isn’t right. This is supposed to be a holy location, but it turns into a gimmick. I don’t know how else to describe it other than to say that there was not an authentic feel, it seemed the temples were there primarily for tourists to see; though to be fair we did go to the biggest temples that tourists commonly visit.
One slight exception was Gunung Kawi Temple, though there were souvenir stands there too. This was my favorite place we visited; the valley/rice/palm tree views were stunning. In fact, the valley was so lush with growth you could hardly tell there was a draw there. As for the temple, there are numerous temples carved into solid rock. Outside of these older temples there are newer, and in my opinion more sterile looking shrines.

So all in all I considered Bali to be too touristy, though 30 years ago I bet it was a great place to visit. I’m also guessing that if Bali was the only place in Indo you visited you would love it, but after seeing so much else Bali seemed like a hole. Though I did enjoy the touristy-ness in that it allowed me to eat food I had forgotten was so delicious!

Here are some of the pictures:

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Dancing Horses

Saturday I headed to West Sulawesi with Daya and Yusran (who we nicknamed the domestic bule, meaning it was 2 bule and a tiny woman on a big adventure) on the recommendation of one of the teachers from here. She comes from a city that annually has a, as she described it, horse party, and apparently this year was the biggest ever (100+ horses).
Obviously I had no clue what I was getting myself into, but Daya asked if I wanted to go and she pretty much organized everything so I of course said yes. After leaving at 8am and not arriving to the city until after 12, knowing we were going to return at 4, and not really sure what we were seeing, I was less than thrilled. The drive was pretty nice though and it let me see some different parts of Sulawesi. The city was right on the ocean too, and, as per usual, a good attitude and some patience turned it into a good day. A family member of the teacher (she was in Makassar) came and found us and led us to their home where we were of course fed and stared at (more me than Yusran and Daya!).
To cut the story short, the party turned out to be a parade of ‘dancing horses’ with children riding. The 2 girls from the family we knew had just finished with their reading of the holy Koran; I’m not sure if this was standard for all. There were about 30 horses with boys (wearing, what I imagine as, Arab wear (turban, long white dress-thing)) and 70 or so with girls (some wearing bright traditional Mandar, the local people, wear, others wearing traditional Muslim wear (according to Daya)). Apparently this is a very old tradition, though no one knew how old. There are stories of the Mandar and their horses going back hundreds of years though so I’m guessing it’s old!
In addition to the horses, there were also groups with lots of hide and wood drums usually played by guys from 7 or 8 to 70 or 80. They really got into their music and there was lots of dancing. With all the music, bright colors, and happy people it reminded me a bit of Brasil. In combination with the parade (I really like ‘horse party’ much better) there, in the last few years has been some sort of weeklong sailing competition too (maybe there are ancient ties here, hard to get the whole story, even with fluent translators). One result was that I was not the only bule (not counting Yusran either, Daya called him the domestic bule when he got in the car and then later some random people thought he was a bule too).

I’ve tried to get a video from the parade up with no luck, but I have pictures here in an old album:

Speaking of pictures, the first is a link to the pictures from Jakarta, and the 2nd to the Pesantren album I have going, some new pictures relate to some of the stuff below.

Some other highlights from the weekend:
So last blog I mentioned that I don’t list all the day to day stuff anymore, well day was particular interesting so I thought I share a couple highlights.
First was walking out my back door in the morning to see a bunch of middle schoolers pulling the feathers off of ducks and grilling them up. I shrugged my shoulders, of course took some pictures, and went back to planning travels (I bought a bunch of tickets today!).
Luckily that duck ended up leading to my favorite food here in Indonesia itik! Itik is a type of duck; it looks just like a classic duck to me, but they also have bebek here which is translated as duck also, but is shorter and fatter. Itik is found all around Indonesia, but apparently is a specialty here.
My next weird moment came at dinner when I was eating left over itik (just picking at it really since even when it was fresh, the meal made my stomach feel a little funky). As I grabbed a piece of itik (it is always chopped up into annoyingly small pieces that are mostly bone), I pulled at a piece of meat, not recognizing it (not a new thing, I routinely have no idea what part of an animal I am eating here). After wiping away a bit of the sauce I realized I was being stared at…yeah I was holding half a duck head in my hands!
As I was walking over to dinner Imran’s kids were getting ready to go do some martial arts, I assumed, somewhere nearby. As it turns out it was a large portion of the pesantren and they were doing them on the basketball court (which has been used for everything, but basketball). I wasn’t feeling that great (this sinus infection/cold won’t go away), but I did go out and take some pictures. There is just something a little odd to see a bunch of teenage girls in Tae-Kwan-Do uniforms…and jilbabs.
Oh Indonesia, how I’ll miss your absurd ‘normal days’.

I already had this written, but because my internet is as it is, I hadn't posted it. Then Yusran came and grabbed me Sunday afternoon and took me to see a Rooster competition. That turned out not to be much (it did make for some interesting sentences from him since the translation he knew was cock) so Yus took me out to see some of his family. As per usual I had no clue what I was getting into, but I had a pretty good time and got some tasty snacks.

What an interesting weekend!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Catching up on a couple things

First the biggest and most exciting news for me: my after-grant travels are setting up. I’ll work my way backwards: I moved my US return ticket back as far as I could to the end of August (28th). Which means I’ll have a little time on my own after mom leaves; she’ll be here from Jul 14 to Aug 16. I’ve spent a bunch of time setting up an itinerary for her and I. Usually I like to just have a rough outline, but since it is the tourist hi-season and we have a limited amount of time, pre-booking is a probably a good idea. Before mom arrives though, Steph is going to travel the Philippines and probably Thailand with me for the month of June! I’m also hoping to get Vietnam in before mom comes.
So far, I’ve booked my tickets to the Philippines; I fly out of Singapore on the 31st. AMINEF doesn’t care when exactly we end (between May 27-31) so I’ll probably leave the Pesantren on the 27th or 28th and go to Makassar for a night or two. AMINEF will buy my Makassar to Jakarta ticket and then I’ll fly on to Singapore (the first part of my return ticket). I’ll probably do all that on the 29th or 30th. If I go on the 29th I can see Singapore a little bit. The other news is that I found a hostel in Singapore that will hold my extra luggage for free. So now I don’t have to FedEx it back (big savings!), but I probably should use their hostel for more than a night, though they said I don’t have to.

Next topic: I’ve heard from a couple people that I sound negative on some of my blogs, and reading over some old ones, yeah I can see that. The reason for that is that the blog is my opportunity to vent a little bit, and besides, boring everyday life is not something people really want to read about; granted what I call boring and normal now is probably not so normal in the US. So I guess just know that I really do enjoy it here, but (and I’m paraphrasing this from Katie, she wrote it too well not to) I’m not a skilled enough writer to incorporate all the amazing and fun experiences I have with the day to day challenges and headaches; instead I just list them all in a big group.

NEXT! Coming back from Makassar on Monday night I realized I hadn’t properly described the road between Makassar and ParePare. I may have mentioned that the road was a little broken, but that doesn’t begin to do it justice, and this road plays a big part in my life here as any time I try to escape I have to navigate it. First you need to realize that this is THE road coming north from Makassar; there may be another road on the east coast of our peninsula, but by all accounts it’s even worse. To put it in a little perspective, this road has the importance of say I-5 running from Portland to Eugene.
To be fair, the main reason the road is so bad is that they are attempting to expand it from a normal Indo road to a 4 lane high way; I say attempting for a reason. Right now the drive from ParePare to Mak, which is less than 100 miles, takes a minimum of 4 hours, and those are not pleasant hours. Driving is really just a free for all. All of the drivers just guess which the best way to go is. They have to chose because there are multiple levels, a couple different lanes, and the fact that you of course don’t have any real traffic laws (want to drive down the wrong lane? Go for it!). It’s basically some twisted, perverted, crazy video game. The multiple levels come from the fact that they’re building the new road in about 100ft segments at a time and the new parts are raised about 1ft above the old road. The result is that you end up ramping (gravel, dirt, etc. meaning lots of potholes and not level at all) onto and off of the new segments. So you end up hauling ass on a nice new chunk of road as far as you can, slamming on the breaks so that you can turn of and tumble down the ramp to the old broken/potholed road. It’s an experience to say the least! Oh yeah gotta add that most of the time your stuffed in a SUV that has had an extra row of seats added so that there are routinely 11 people, and as many as 20, jammed in a car with all their bags and such.
One other thing that adds to the experience, and what I don’t understand, is the number of food stands along the road. In particular, there is this stretch of fruit stands selling a citrus fruit that is basically a big, sweeter grapefruit. I’ve gone down to Makassar a lot of times, and not ONCE have I seen someone stop there to buy these things, yet there are over 100 hundred stands each jam packed with nearly a hundred fruits a piece. I just don’t get it! The other entertainment to watch on the way down is the people just sitting along the side of road staring at nothing for (presumably) hours on end. As you can tell, I find this road terribly interesting (yes that is sarcasm dripping out of your computer screen).

Ok that’s enough for now. Hopefully I’ll get another one up before I head to Bali next weekend (22nd to 25th).

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Back from Jakarta

If I’m posting this it means I’m finally back to Sidrap after the weekend in Jakarta. It took a little longer to get back than I wanted or anticipated because we stayed Sunday night in Makassar since we didn’t land until almost 8pm. I’ll cut the story to this: on the way to Jimmy’s I stopped at an ATM to get money to front to Daya so that she could buy phones for her store and that ATM decided to eat my card. After a bunch of running around and hassle I got my card back. I’m still going to watch my account closely though.
On to the more important topics…the national English competition. Thursday afternoon Daya, Febby and I eventually caught a bus and got to Makassar. This was the first time Febby had returned to Makassar since she was about 5 years old (i.e. she hadn’t been to the only big city near her in over 10 years). We got some dinner and they spent the night with Daya’s cousin while I crashed with Jimmy (how many times has that guy bailed me out and let me stay there?...too many!). Actually, I met Jimmy at a bar where he was having a beer with a former ETA (that I had ran into when I was returning from Sumatra) so we sat around and talked for a while.
The next morning I got a cab and picked up Daya and Febby on the way to the airport. We of course got there earlier than we needed to because Daya didn’t want to be late! This was the first time she has ever left the province, so I understood wanting to be prompt. It worked out because we met up with Jimmy and his student (who had received a ride from Jimmy’s school) and all checked in together. Later, we met the rest of the SulSel crew at the gate and we all took off for Jakarta.
The flight was pretty mundane even though it was Daya and Febby’s first. I was surprised a bit, but they didn’t seem to be nervous at all (though they later said they were).
In Jakarta we met up with a bunch of the other ETAs in the airport, but we all took separate cabs (eventually) to the hotel. At check-in I was pleasantly surprised to see that AMINEF had given everyone (ETAs, students, and chaperones) Rp300,000 for meals we needed to buy. I thought I was going to be buying Febby some meals, because I really wanted the whole weekend to be free for her.
The next thing I knew I was in cab headed to some big, grand mall in the middle of Jakarta (because despite what they had said previously and our complaints, AMINEF put us in a hotel in the middle of nowhere). The mall was RIDICULOUS! All you need to know about it is that parked outside I saw the first Porsche 4-door coupe I’ve ever seen! I didn’t even know those were outside of Europe yet!
I also got some sushi and build-your-own frozen yogurt! That evening there was a welcome dinner and ice breakers, but for the most part the ETAs caught up with each other and we let the students hangout by themselves.
The next day was the competition which consisted of each student giving their presentation. I thought Febby did very well for herself, though due to some nerves her pronunciation was not as good as during some of her practices. In my opinion, she was in the middle of the pack, maybe on the lower end. She didn’t win any of the awards, but I thought she did just fine. It was pretty funny watching the ETAs, we were like proud parents; I was nervous for her when Febby was presenting.
We also felt like parents when we had to constantly keep herding them along at various times (Daya was a help on that most of the time, though at other times I had to keep her moving too!). One time in particular was that night when we took our students out to see some of Jakarta. There were several groups, but I took Febby and Daya to see the giant mall I had gone to previously. I made a point on the night that it was all about Febby and Daya doing whatever they wanted to do; this was their moment to get to have a new experience.
Febby is so shy that she didn’t talk much with the other students that came with us, and Daya was feeling very ill. In fact, when I eventually sent them back in a cab (I was staying for some nightlife with the ETAs), Daya scared me. I left them walking around a bit before returning to the hotel, but 3mins later I got a call from Febby on Daya’s phone crying/screaming “I need you mister!”. To cut it short, Daya had gotten some sharp pains in her feet and basically collapsed. Luckily the pains subsided, but when I found them she was sobbing and needless to say I was freaking out a bit.
The next morning she was feeling fine and everyone piled into 2 tour buses to go see Monas (the national monument). That was mundane, but I think Febby enjoyed it. After that it was back to the airport (like Febby said, this whole weekend was sitting, waiting, repeat). We didn’t fly out until 3:30 though so we had a TON of time to kill. After Jimmy and I finally got our 3 students (Daya was the 3rd) herded through security (any store selling something pulled them like a magnet!), we headed straight to an Executive lounge where you get all the food you can eat and all the soft drinks you want, plus free internet, a pool table and much more comfortable chairs. Considering that a standard meal in the airport is at least Rp25.000, the Rp50.000 entrance was a really good deal, and Jimmy and I made it pay!
The flight went off without a problem and we were back in Makassar for my little ATM fiasco.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Northern Sumatra II: Pulau Weh, Danau Toba, and Medan

After plenty of walking around in Banda Aceh it was time to head to Pulau Weh (pulau=island). All in all, I wasn’t particularly impressed with Weh. For me, there were too many Euro-hippy-tourists (I hadn’t seen that many dreadlocks since I lived in Portland!), and not enough activities to keep me entertained. The main reason for the dearth of ‘Aaron-activities’ was that I don’t dive. Diving is the main pull for tourists, but surprisingly the snorkeling was just ok. A big detractor from snorkeling was all of the tiny stinging jellyfish; at times there were so many jellyfish that you couldn’t even see! Jimmy, Ricky and Dani had a pretty horrible jellyfish/mosquito adventure during a swim/hike. Another reason that I wasn’t a big fan of the island was that the prices were higher than elsewhere in Indonesia; this is the 2nd time I’ve seen this in dive sites.
For the most part it was Kerry, V and I hanging out because the other ETAs were divers. We managed to find some things to do including hiking to a waterfall (and then going for a swim and waterfall-shower) and to the northwest-most point in Indonesia (not much to see there). The rest of time was just hanging out on a tropical island and eating food. Speaking of those two things…the food on the island was an interesting Indonesian interpretation of Western food delivered in a VERY ‘island-time’ manner; I kid you not, at one dinner it took 3 and a half HOURS for Dani to get chopped fruit! That was particularly bad, but it was indicative of the time it took.
One other interesting aspect of the area we stayed was that there wasn’t really a road. Cars could drive to the beginning of the ‘town’, but after that you passed through a gateway and from there on out it was all by foot up and down the hilly brick walkway.
We spent about 3 days on Weh and then headed out early in the morning through Medan to Lake Toba and onto the Samsoir Island. All told we traveled for about 18 hours using, a minibus, a ferry, a SUV taxi, a plane, a taxi, a bus, a chartered boat and plenty of walking! In retrospect though, it was well worth it. We eventually spent the night in a surprisingly nice place for ~$5/night/room with hot water! And one of the nicest things about Toba is that you actually want hot water! When I woke up the next morning and saw where we were I was blown away; it actually reminded me a bit of Oregon.
Lake Toba is the largest lake in all of SE Asia and is the crater of a volcano, because of that there are forested walls rising up from the water. In combination with the cool temperatures there was also a fair amount of clouds and rain (see why it reminded me of Oregon?!). We were actually staying on a huge island (Samsoir) in Toba that itself has a lake and some stunning hills/cliffs.
The time on Toba went by pretty quickly even though we didn’t really do much. We did enjoy some pretty good food though including pizza, but also some traditional foods; it seems like the local spices there are different from elsewhere in Indo, particularly anise seed and some sort of menthol-y nut thing.
One day we rented some bikes and saw some sites which were the highlight for me. During that time we also went to a museum and checked out a traditional dance. At the museum it seemed to me that a lot of the houses, colors/patterns, and even the dances were pretty similar to Toraja. I didn’t take part in the dance, though the rest of ETAs did. I always feel a little awkward at ‘traditional’ things like that anyways, and taking part just makes it worse to me.
While we may not have actually done a lot, I felt like I could have easily spent 2 weeks at Toba, just looking around, relaxing, trying out all the different restaurants and hotels (the area we stayed is absolutely packed with nothing but tourist spots). Unfortunately for me though, everyone else had to head back Saturday morning so I went with them.
We eventually got into Medan that evening. From there V, Dani and I, each with a big backpack hopped on one sidecar-style becak (motorcycle taxi); we were quite a sight to behold I’m sure. The next day was Kerry’s birthday so we headed out for some ‘night activities’! Apparently the highlight was seeing a famous Indonesian singer called Geisha. I say apparently because I have never heard of her, but the other ETAs said she is pretty famous.
I ended up staying a few days in Medan as well because there wasn’t any class back at the pesantren and I was able to change my ticket for free. With that time I was able to see Medan (similar to Makassar, but cleaner, a little nicer, and many fewer ‘Hello Mister’s), John’s school there, a bunch of crocodiles, an over-the-top Christian temple that tried to incorporate too much, and even eat horse for the first time!
Considering I wasn’t even going to get to Sumatra, I really enjoyed my time there, and the 2 weeks went by really fast.
Now I’m getting ready to head to Jakarta for the national English competition; that will definitely warrant a post. Until then…

Friday, April 2, 2010

Northern Sumatra, part 1: Makassar to Banda Aceh

I went from no break for the national testing to being gone for 2 weeks and then having half a week of relaxing when I returned; oh Indonesia! I’m certainly not complaining though, as northern Sumatra was one of my favorite trips in all of Indo. A big part of that was that I didn’t do as much as I usually try to fit in, in fact most of the time was just relaxing with the other ETAs, but even more it helped that other people organized things, leaving me free to just enjoy for a change! That is one thing that Indo has taught me: to lay back and just do what other people organize, even if it isn’t exactly what I want to do. Basically it’s taken a bit of the control freak out of me, and even when I do ‘plan’ I find myself doing the Indonesian thing: ‘let’s see the condition’ then decide. It’s the only way to get anything done here.
Anyways onto the trip. I went down to Makassar Thursday morning and met a friend of a friend who had studied a semester at Oregon State. Andi is originally from Makassar and now works at a hospital in Mak; he seems like a very motivated and well connected guy. I ended up spending the whole day and night with him (at his insistence). It was a pretty Indonesian experience: I meet a guy for the first time and proceed to go around with him all day as he insists on feeding me and then we go sing karaoke before I end up eating late night street food and spending the night at his friends house.
After less than 2 hours of sleep he then dropped me off at the airport where I somehow managed to deal with the ridiculously childish and impatient people in the check-in line (I really thought one woman was going to throw a temper-tantrum) and get onto my flight before I passed out (don’t even remember take off).
I eventually got to one of the few cheap places to stay in Banda Aceh (Uncle’s) and in some AC. After lunch and a nap I headed downtown to go explore. One unexpected highlight was enjoying an A&W Rootbeer; I used to love rootbeer, but that was probably my first one in a decade. As I was walking along sucking down my rootbeer, I suddenly realized how clearly western I looked (as if being a tall white person wasn’t enough!) in a city that less than a week before had captured 2 terrorists with supposed ties to Al-Queda (sorry mom decided not to drop that little tid-bit of info until I got home safe and sound).
Needless to say I sucked down the rootbeer really fast and chucked the cup even faster! In all honesty though, throughout my time in Banda Aceh I felt that it was as friendly and safe of a city as I have found in Indonesia. During my afternoon wanderings I talked to many locals including a water from a local gold shop owner and his friends and at least an hour chatting about sports, politics, and just about anything else with one older guy and his friends at a local coffee shop (Acehnese coffee is supposedly particularly good, though I couldn’t really tell after all the sugar they added, but it was fun to watch them make it: straining it through fine mesh and pouring it from up-hi [similar to Malaysian teh-tarik for anyone who has watch Anthony Bourdain]). It seemed like as soon as I told the locals that I was a teacher acting as a tourist and not affiliated with an NGO they warmed up substantially. I certainly don’t want to diminish all of the incredible good that NGO’s did post-tsunami, but they certainly did have some negative impacts as well. In particular they drove prices for everything in the area to ridiculous highs because they would come in and pay whatever was asked (you have to spend all of about 2mins in Indonesia to realize how ridiculous that is). It got so bad that the locals couldn’t even afford to buy houses or rent building spaces; one or two months of an NGO using the building was more than a year or more of a normal local rate.
While I’m on a bit of a NGO rant, I also had very mixed emotions about what the NGO’s constructed and how the money was spent. Clearly Banda Aceh owes many NGOs and governments a great deal (a fact they seem to fully realize judging by the number of placards thanking various groups); just walking around the city demonstrates that. Banda Aceh is one of the, if not the cleanest and best laid out cities I have seen in Indo (starting from scratch will do that) and it is remarkably well established considering the devastation of 5.5 years ago. With all that said, some of the planning seems a little out of place and over the top. For instance, there was a park I walked through that was clearly western designed; it favorably-made me think of home until I started to look closer: the center piece, a lake, was half full of water, and completely full of trash and about the only people using the park were washing in the drain off from the lake. So I guess what I am saying is that it seems like the NGOs came in with a lot of money and just started throwing it around: doing and building things as their western minds found logical. That’s great, fantastic, the city was rebuilt very quickly and has some fine infrastructure you won’t find elsewhere in Indonesia. The problem is much of that isn’t being used, wasn’t completely finished, or simply seems completely out of place. Not to mention the incredible amount of good that could have been done if that $13billion+ that was donated by the world had been spent frugally and spread around all of Indonesia. Again I’m not trying to be negative, I was just surprised by how I felt and what I noticed. My opinion was also influenced by the locals I talked to that seemed less than pleased with the NGOs, though most of the NGOs have recently pulled out and prices are starting to return to normal.
Back to the feel of the city though. Aceh (the province) has a reputation as being a very strict Muslim community. For example, in the National Geo article about Indo they mention that there are police going around enforcing head coverings and forcing men to Friday Prayer. Uh…no! I was there when Friday prayer was being called…no police. And I saw all of one burqa (full body cover) in my 2.5 days in Aceh; that would be 1 less than I saw in the 20mins I spent in the bus station in Makassar on my way back. I was also pretty amazed by the amount of touching and flirting I got from the women asking me for pictures (though to be fair, I think some of those were Indo tourists).
All in all I found Banda Aceh to be one of my more favorite cities in Indonesia, though it’s not much of a tourist location to be honest: the Mesjid Raya is gorgeous in the evening, the history of resistance by the Acehenese against the Dutch is interesting and has some sites, and the tsunami sites: a 350-ton boat in the middle of the city miles from the ocean, a fishing boat on the roof of a house, several mass graves (the one we visited purportedly entombed 47,000 people), the architecturally interesting but still un-finished tsunami museum, are somewhat interesting, everything can be seen in one long day.
Maybe that was part of the charm for me though; we know how I like to get away from the other bules…which was a bit of a problem at our next stop: Pulau Weh.
That will wait until the next posting though.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Catching Up

I’ve just posted a ton of blogs that I had written sometime ago, but hadn’t had a chance to post yet because my internet was down before I took off on my Sumatra trip, which will have a post up soon too. You'll need to click through to the blog if you're getting the email.

In the meantime here are the pictures from N. Sumatra:

And here are some pics from the announcement ceremony in an old album


Soapbox Part Dua: Corruption at the core

Written: March 17
WARNING: I’m climbing back on the soap-box a bit and without real facts or research, just my experiences and uninformed opinions!

I mentioned corruption briefly in my last soapbox moment as well as a few other previous posts, but thought that I would dedicate a whole blog to it now.

The level of corruption in daily life in Indonesia is truly atrocious and it is THE limiting factor to Indo’s growth. The sad part is that everyone knows it. I have had conversations about it with people I have just met and to a person, everyone says it’s a very bad thing, but when it comes to it they all partake in it. Thus the amount of actual change is very little and progressing slowly. But hey it is a young country emerging from a political culture of extreme nepotism.
That’s not an excuse though; if Indonesia wants to be a global power (and frankly it is positioned to be one if it gets itself straightened out) it must eliminate the everyday corruption. That’s the difference here and in the US or other countries. I’m not naïve enough to say that we don’t have corruption, but on a daily basis we do not run into road blocks thrown up just to make some money, or find it necessary to pay the police for them to do their jobs. And that’s the problem here in Indonesia: the corruption literally runs from top to bottom; from the lowliest local politician living in a gaudy house while his neighbors live in shacks to the vice president being embroiled in the big Century Bank scandal.
In my opinion, the majority of the corruption is due to individuals finally coming into power and feeling that it is now their turn to earn a buck. As I mentioned Indonesia is just now emerging from the rule of Suharto and his extreme levels of KKN (corruption, collusion and nepotism). Basically all of today’s leaders were raised in a culture where KKN was standard and expected. So now that they are the leaders, they feel it is their right to be able to make some money as well. And that’s what it comes down to, people need/want more money, and there is simply not enough to go around. For years, Indonesia has been brutally exploited (there is no other word for it) by numerous colonial powers. The primary culprit was the Dutch who invested a stunningly little amount into infrastructure for the country considering they ruled for centuries. The result is that the everyday citizen has little while the rulers/powerful business owners are wealthy. The normal people see that and of course want a piece, so then when they get a chance to step into a role of power they take the opportunity to set themselves (and their families) for life.
The complicated thing is that in the Indonesian culture it is important to treat your superiors (conventionally this is meant to be your elders, but the politicians have stepped into that role as well) and everyone else for that matter, with a great deal of respect. One fairly common practice is to bring gifts to people when you work with them or visit them, and of course if they are your superior the gift should be a little nicer (another side effect of treating everyone with respect is that I am constantly bombarded with ‘hello mister’!). This is great and all, but at times it becomes very difficult to separate what is corruption, and what is simply being ‘Indonesian polite’.
Unfortunately I don’t have any remedies for this one either if I did, they wouldn’t let me leave this country, they would insist I become president. Well assuming I bribed the right people at least! Really though the only remedy to NKK is time and strong leaders willing to buck the trend so that the accepted status-quo is not taking bribes. Hopefully that time will come, and the start of it may be happening right now as the first step is recognition and that is certainly not lacking anywhere in this country. Now there just need to be people brave and strong enough to actually do something.
Good luck Indonesia!

Soapbox Part Satu: Slapped by Palm Oil

Written: March 16
Occasionally I get fired up enough to talk about a political/social/environmental/’fill-in-the-blank’ topic to get into a heated debate with people, but very rarely do I care enough to write an article/email/etc or to ask people to do something. It’s because of this dearth of action that I hope this one has more impact. I don’t know what got into me, but this is something that is too easy to glance over, but too important to ignore.

In previous postings I may have previously mentioned the lack of concern for environment here in Indo, and how it was a bit disturbing. Mostly what I was referring to was the atrocious amount of plastic garbage EVERYWHERE, the typical person’s attitude toward littering (it doesn’t exist; of course you throw garbage out the bus window or on the ground beside you), and the noxious habit of burning all garbage. These are all obvious maladies of Indonesia and ones that really do detract from its beauty. They are not however the biggest issue for the Indonesian environment.
The biggest issue is undoubtedly the legal, and even more so, illegal, exploitation of the land. Whether it is mining or logging or over-fishing or palm oil, Indonesia and its stunning beauty and biodiversity is literally being ripped to shreds. Clearly Indonesia is a growing country and thus needs to make the most of its natural resources so that it may continue to develop; I’m not naïve enough to sit in a country that has exploited its natural resources and tell others they can’t do the same thing.
The problem in Indonesia is the illegal exploitation and this traces back to Indonesia’s largest nation-wide problem: corruption. I didn’t come to write about corruption though (see Soapbox, part dua), my concern for today was the way the environment is being unnecessarily shredded here. This ties to corruption however because while laws are passed and movements made to protect the environment, these may be circumnavigated by local politicians looking to line their pockets or by enforcement agents looking to do the same thing.
I come from a logging family (something that raises some eye-brows here, but I’ve gotten good at in one breath saying my father is a logger, but that logging in the US is different, more like farming) and I border-line despise environmentalists, namely the extreme ones. It is because of that background that I really believe that if the laws and movements to protect the environment were actually enforced (and hopefully expanded somewhat), Indonesia would probably be able to attain a level of steady and a much more sustainable, if not quite as rapid, growth. That fact is the really aggravating part to me.

So that’s a lot of negative, and I always hate when people just write ‘bitch-blogs’, so what can people actually do? Sadly, the average American can’t do a whole lot. While this is the world’s problem (just look up an article about the amount of endemic biodiversity in Borneo, it’s absolutely stunning), it is Indonesia’s land (as well as Malaysia’s to some extent) and thus they are the ones that will need to enact the ultimate change.
What I will say is that one of the worst culprits, palm oil, is something that can be helped from abroad. Palm oil plantations are rather notorious here for flattening rainforest, burning the land (often resulting in fires that rage out of control), and then planting orderly, single-species plantations. Initially when I went to Kalimantan and heard my friend complaining about palm oil I wrote her off as a bit of an environmentalist nut, but then I started looking around and doing some reading. You know what? She was right; these companies really are having appalling consequences for the environment and the local peoples. But I said this problem could be helped from abroad, so on to that. Palm oil is a wide spread cooking oil, it is used in cosmetics and now amongst its numerous other uses it is being touted as a bio-fuel. I’m a realist, I know that you can’t always completely boycott a product, it’s simply too widespread, but I would ask this:

Think about it. Next time you’re looking at the ingredients or the nutrition facts, do a quick scan, see if palm oil is listed. If it is, think about reaching for a different product (granted that one may have it too). But more than anything, realize what is going on, one of the most diverse wild jungles in the entire world is being turned into a tropical ‘Mid-West’ full of nothing, but orderly rows of crops.

Ok, I’m off my soapbox; I hope that wasn’t too painful. I don’t do that very often, but it really is tragic what is happening.

As for me, my internet has been down for a few days. Hopefully this actually gets put up before I leave tomorrow for one last extended trip first to Pulau (island) Weh and then Danau (lake) Toba, both in Northern Sumatra.

The big announcement and a whole new Sidrap

Written: March 14
Here at PPUW, this past Saturday was the big announcement ceremony for the national English competition that the ETAs organized. I wanted to make all of the contestants here feel good about their accomplishments particularly because I’m not sure how they’ll stack up relative to the other ETA’s finalists. To do that, I, with a BIG hand from Daya, organized a ceremony to announce the winner and to give out some prizes to our 3 finalists as well as some certificates of commendation to a total of 9 students. While I wasn’t sure it was all going to come together, everything went particularly well with the families of the students recognized all showing up.
For the past 2 weeks Daya and I have been successfully deflecting the nonstop questions of the other teachers who wanted to know the winner; even more, for the past month and a half I have been deflecting the, ahem, ‘suggestions’ on how to run the competition and who to take.
My winner ended up being a 10th grade girl, that clearly had the best submission. Though I have to say some of the submissions were better than I expected. Lately the students seem to be making significant improvements; it may have taken nearly 6months, but hey, better late than never!
As for my winner, Febby, she apparently edited her story somewhere around 10 times. Clearly she put in the work, and the results showed. She was able to use a fair amount of figurative language and her response fit with the prompt quite well. So for all her hard work she will be getting a free trip to Jakarta, compliments of AMINEF. What makes it even more special to me is that Febby’s family is not very well off, so much so that her mother, and perhaps her father as well, is forced to work as housekeepers in Malaysia, where there is a better per capita; they send money back home to the family. To see an individual truly earn an experience she would never otherwise be able to attain is very special, and I’m glad I could be part of it.
In addition to sending Febby to Jakarta, AMINEF will also be sending Daya (and of course me); the reason being the winner was a girl. I was very excited to be able to help Daya get an opportunity like this as well. She has never even left the province so to get to go to her Nation’s capital, and for free (!), is pretty special. On the topic of Daya, just in the past week she has really loosened up and is becoming, dare I say, almost western in her joking and sayings. This coming from a woman, that I had difficulty speaking to when I first arrived (though to be fair I’m pretty sure most of that was nerves). To think compare my first arrival and how she was acting to this weekend when she was playing tour guide it’s really stunning.
The reason that Daya was playing tour guide was that as part of the announcement ceremony Ab, the ETA in Tanah Toraja (about 4 hours north of me), came down to take part and also serve as the final judge. He got in Friday afternoon and took off around lunch time today (Sunday). The biggest activities while Ab was here included: the most-well attended English Club ever (over half the pesantren was there to ask Ab questions), the obligatory pesantren tour (5000 chickens included), a walk around the area to get a feel (when I realized that the locals have become comfortable enough with me to not gasp and run away now; a big step!), Ab’s first time trying durian, a drive to the regency capital (Pankerjene) which included lots of stops for pictures and some food including dessert at Daya’s home, and a trip to the new Rappang Market which is much bigger, cleaner and nicer than the old traditional market.
To have someone come visit me here was really refreshing too; the only other person who has even seen the pesantren was Jimmy who stayed one night, but little more than 12hrs. Not only was it great to have some real discussions and conversations with someone, it was also a ton of fun to get to show off my area (and yes, it is MY area now!). And by showing it off, I was kind of seeing the place with new eyes again and realizing that it is a pretty good, if far from perfect, situation.
All in all a great weekend, and one of the few remaining that I will spend here. The next 2, and perhaps 3, will be spent traveling since there is the big national exam (which determines if and where the 12th graders can go for university). Should be fun, and only 11 more weeks until I start my big travels!

Ghostly thoughts

Written: A while ago

Full disclosure moment, I’m writing this blog after reading another ETA’s posting (Katie Bosdorff has a really entertaining blog at ). Katie brought up a good point about how common a belief in ghosts is here, and not just a passing ‘yeah there might be ghosts’, more along the lines of ‘A ghost just closed the door and I better appease him or I’ll die’.
In fact some people take ghosts real enough that they list that as a main reason not to live or even hang out alone. Armchair Anthropologist Tangent: to my critiquing mind that sounds an awful lot like a social construct made to keep everyone in line with the strong communalistic notions that dominate this country, but hey maybe I’m just a bitter only-child from America (making me stereotypically perhaps the least communal category on Earth) who misses his privacy. Side story off of that, my counterpart apparently thinks it is ok to open my door (without any warning) at 8am (actually at anytime). I only have one room, so that’s like walking into a person’s bedroom. Then again, I guess doors are still a bit of a new concept (traditional Bugis homes don’t have proper doors between interior rooms, sometimes there is a cloth that hangs down).

Ok back from the tangents to the spirits. Beyond the fact that I don’t believe in that sort of thing, I found it a bit surprising considering the strong Muslim beliefs in Indo; I mean one of the 5 pillars of Islam is that there is one and only God. Apparently no one sees an issue here though.
That brings up a good point though, the intermixing of Islam/any of the 5 recognized religions in Indo (a person MUST choose one of the 5 choices and it’s listed on their identity card; as I’ve said before, religion plays a more prominent role in Indonesian’s lives). A mixture of religion and beliefs is actually the norm here (to me at least) over a strict adherence to only one belief.
It’s actually a little refreshing to see something like that. In a world that is constantly being torn apart by ‘religious conflicts’ it’s very pleasing to see that there is a location where religions not only get along, but freely mix beliefs. I’m not sure why that is here, but I suspect it has something to do with the Dutch being too busy exploiting natural resources to be preachers as well, and Islam being brought by traders, not clergy.
Those that know something about Indo might ask how just how nicely the religions play here; there have been uprisings and conflicts between religions at various times in the fairly recent history. To my limited knowledge it seems that most of these conflicts started with some other provocation and then people started grouping together along religious lines (hey there are only 5 groups you can join there). I also have a sneaking suspicion that this is how many ‘religious conflicts’ get started, but I’ll avoid hopping up on a blog soap box : )

Anyways that’s just a little insight to life over here that I thought people might find interesting. Thanks to Katie for giving me the idea and for letting me share her blog with people.