Saturday, May 1, 2010

I live in the Tropics

Sometimes I forget, because I do not usually see monkeys or large lizards. I do, though, see coconuts everyday, and turquoise ocean every week, and now finally, I did the ultimate act of tropical life and contracted a tropical disease. I believe I have typhoid. Not a full on fever, the doctor tells me, but rather, what I translate as just a touch of typhoid. For a bit I wasn’t sure if I had typhus or tyhoid, but after some googling it was decided that it would be better to have the sickness contracted from contaminated food than the sickness carried by lice and rats. For the past few days I’ve been stuck on a couch or in bed, being cared for by my dear friends. If you have to have a fancy type of food poisoning, it doesn’t hurt to be in the tropics where the goodies your friends bring over include spicy seafood soup and fresh guava juice, but here I go again bragging about being sick…

In any case, I am much too busy to be sick and have, in fact missed two out of my last three days of work! Today I had my first cup of coffee in a week (coming off a pretty strong addiction just in time to go back to America, land of coffee imported from here) and went to work at eight. I taught two classes of adults, one class of four year olds, and had my last tutoring session with the twelve year-old Korean- quite an exciting day for my first day back and last day teaching. I am feeling pretty good about finishing up here in Aceh, and am happy to report that great things do come in the end. My imminent departure has sparked a slew of get togethers including a trip to a freshwater pool I never knew about (there were many monkeys around…and military personnel swimming laps), and a trip to the beach with some of the roughest waves I’ve seen in awhile. It was an amazingly fun weekend, with amazingly sweet students. There couldn’t have been a better way to spend the days before crashing into my couch.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010


Two months after returning to Banda, my housing is finally settled. After looking at boarding houses, guesthouses, and apartments- all of which fell through for various, annoying reasons- it was decided, after five minutes of looking at the house I’ve been living in since January, that I may stay. Finally!

While my new home is a twenty-five minute drive from work, it is only a few minutes from Blangpadang, a popular park for exercising. Repaired and somewhat rebuilt after the tsunami, Blangpadang has a track, soccer fields, and basketball courts. Hull-shaped plaques with flags from each country that contributed aid encircle the park, and there is also a small plane –amongst the first in Indonesia- mounted on a cement pillar.
Sunday mornings Blangpadang is packed with aerobics fanatics of all ages in a multitude of colors. It is an amazing sight, hundreds of people in multi-colored track suits, veils waving around, all in time to the calls of several instructors on the central gazebo. Amped up techno music keeps everyone moving from 6:30 to around 9am, after which people flock to nearby porridge, doughnut, and beverage stands.

Everyday, around 5:30 the track is pretty full of people walking, running, and chitchatting. There are always a few older people running barefoot. I’ve started running (always with footwear) at about this time. Banda’s intense sun finally gives way to the ocean breeze by then. I start at my house, run through the neighborhood, around the track a few times, and then back home.
At this pace, I’ve gotten to know the neighborhood in a way that is impossible on a motorbike. I know I am a spectacle in my neon green pants with orange racer stripes, long t-shirt, and dangling ipod. My ponytail bounces all around and I make sure to smile at those neighbors lingering around the road. My particular favorite, though, is an older woman who is almost always sitting, or lying, on a bench in a very small, open roadside restaurant. She’s usually wearing a large, floral dress, and her extremely red lipstick accents her large smile in an inviting way. We make a point of always waving and smiling as I run my course.

A few days ago, I was trying to drag myself through a short run. This was a day where exercising seemed impossible; I was exhausted, the sun was practically yelling at me for even trying. The temptation to walk was so great but then there she was, this lovely woman just ahead of me doing the most remarkable thing. By the time I reached the stall, she had everyone up and waiting for me. I pulled my lazy body over to the sound of applause- she had orchestrated a very real standing ovation. I raised my hands up to the sky like a true athlete and thanked my audience. This is a far cry from my last house where I gave up running after being chased down by twelve-year-old boys on a motorbike.
This is it, victory.


Saturday, February 27, 2010

Happy Belated New Years (a post from when my blog was in google limbo..)

Friday, December 18th, 2009 was the Muslim New Year (year 1432). But in Central Java, Thursday night was the Javanese New Year as well. This special night is strikingly different from the New Year’s celebrations in the Western world, which welcome January 1st like royalty with fanfares, fireworks, and general excess. Here, though, the New Year is coaxed in on prayer and a song sung by the Sultan and his court. The people of Yogyakarta then respectfully and silently, pray into the New Year on an hour-long walk around the old palace city.

I expected to be overwhelmed by silence. Instead only in brief moments did I notice the quiet, and the shuffling of feet and sandals over the noise of my thoughts. In a city of motorbikes, jingling vendors, and a surplus population, the ability to walk empty streets and hear only the occasional chuckle of a tea seller, was truly extraordinary.

It was like a marathon, the course blocked off by policemen and lined with spectators, many of whom were part of the counter culture art scene of Yogya’s many universities. Their expensive cameras with Pinocchio-like lenses, their dark rimmed glasses, and thick swooping bangs were like counter culture nametags. As the flashes went off, threatening that shy New Year, I wondered how many art projects and zine’s I would be in the next day. Why weren’t these people joining our procession? Are they not Javanese or simply too modern? This was the first time for my Javanese friend who accompanied me and he had lived in Yogya for years...

We were, though, part of hundreds of others who diligently participate year after year. We walked amongst the young and old, people with their children and grandchildren. Batik cloth was ubiquitous and every few minutes someone would stop to swap sandals for bare feet. We moved collectively to a changing rhythm -slow, fast, slow- through streets that would be unrecognizable to the early Yogya royalty, the first to whisper in the New Year. Neon store signs illuminated asphalt and glinted off the kris (traditional dagger) of the royal, sarong-clad police ahead of me. Time seemed to stretch as we all pattered on in the procession. Pollution made way for starlight and even the children were quiet as we shuffled into early morning, each in their own thoughts, arm in arm, reflecting on the past and hopes for the future.

It was a visible challenge for some to remain silent this long. Different from the Balinese day of silence ceremony where families stay indoors, this procession creates a visible community. Introspection is coupled with the awareness of a moving human river. All emerge together into the palace courtyard, back into the usual chatter, welcomed by warm night snacks and tea stalls. The New Year has begun.

*I found out later that some people choose to circle the palace grounds up to seven times and there are other sorts of ceremonies that occur at home, before and after the walk. I wonder what time these people got home…


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

How Curiosity Killed Tact: A tale of cultural similarity.

There have been a few obstacles to getting this blog back, but please look forward to weekly posts. This one's rather lengthy... thanks for your patience!

At first I waited for it. I knew it was coming, that moment when, like a three year old, the perpetrator would become anxious, eyes would dart left then quickly right, then quickly center. Before I could intercept with a joke, tangent, or fake cell phone call, lips would rip apart in a cannon and it'd be out there. Like someone who knows they've just spit up all over my favorite sweater, they're hoping I will appease their unoriginal question, validate it -them- with an answer because, yes, they are that charming, interesting, funny, and ultimately deserving of my time and energy and trip down memory lane to explain that, no, I do not know why it happened, and no, it was not fun. In fact, I cannot imagine a scenario in which being woken up at six in the morning by gunshots to your home could possibly be enjoyable. And yet, three months later, I am still answering those questions. “You're Michelle?.” Statement-question. “ The one who's house got shot,” another statement question. Here's where the eyes start to shift around a little more and then ...“How was it?”

Three months ago, today, I was woken up at six am by a series of gunshots. I did not sprawl onto the floor per the news stories. I did not go running into the hallway. I stayed in bed. I waited for the gunshots to end and then realized I was awake and waited for a sign that I had actually heard something real. And, well, eventually, my housemate and I came to realize that someone had been shooting and something had been shot. I still do not know conclusively who or why and this post is certainly not the place for me to speculate. What I do know is that my neighbors got the chicken we would have had for Thanksgiving dinner and that we gave thanks anyway for the peace we still had. I also know that a story like this in the communities of Banda Aceh fuels enough curiosity to kill nearly everyone's sense of tact.

I have tried my hardest to see this as a cultural misunderstanding. Perhaps in Acehnese culture it is acceptable, perhaps even more polite, to address and inquire after the unfortunate events in the life of a new acquaintance. Maybe ignoring the fire of a distant neighbor's house or the burglary of your friend's cousin's car would be considered quite rude. This would be, of course, gossip and what better to fill the hours of coffee consumption in which nearly every Acehnese partakes. My constant awareness of potential intercultural indiscretions is why I then take these inquisitions, introductions, and yes, annoyances, in stride and answer briefly but politely the shopkeepers, the person who met me once at a coffee shop nine months ago, and the bike mechanic.

But, then what is the excuse of my fellow foreigners, of my fellow Americans? The community of foreigners here is ever shrinking, but that is not to say that I am close friends with the 300-400 foreigners who still reside in the province of Aceh. What is the excuse for the cannon-like mouth opening on a new acquaintance who is casually holding a drink I poured her at a party? Is this really the place to discuss my personal disaster? And what about the man I met thirty seconds ago who is about to join my friends and me for dinner? Why is he allowed to dribble out this question? Why should I be interested in how this affected whether or not he came here to volunteer? I can only assume that this phenomenon is a testament to the power of human curiosity and the blunders into which it may take us. I also implore the man at the stationary store, and the American development worker to ask yourselves first, how would you feel?

Fortunately, this is what several remarkable students did just a couple days after it happened. In class together we discussed the possible motives, and more importantly, ramifications for the Acehnese and foreigner communities, the two being quite interlinked given the tumultuous politics of this region. We decided that more important than what had happened is what would happen next, and that people need to discuss just what's been going on. Three “attacks” on foreigners, all grossly inflated by the media were enough to spur NGO curfews and a cleansing of company logos off of vehicles.

I am fortunate enough to have a journalist in my class and he took our discussion quite seriously. Instead of simply handing in the homework assignment -to write a personal narrative about the presence of foreigners in Aceh- he wrote two very positive news articles, and published them both. They are both in Indonesian (so much for the homework assignment). The first entitled ,“I am a foreigner, but I am also a Teacher”, used our classroom discussion to humanize the experience. The second, “The Children of Aceh are not Smart” (I would have picked a different title), outlines how necessary it is to have teachers here and how disastrous and embarrassing the attack was. It affirms that Aceh is peaceful and that those who attempt to disrupt the peace are a tiny minority and will not be successful.

These articles are beautiful gestures that are a great part of why I returned to Banda after our rather forced vacation. This person -and all those students in that particular class- were willing to engage in a serious and critical discussion about the unfortunate events that happened. So here I am, three months later, answering the same questions over and over again. I take serious comfort in remembering what this student did for me, and for himself and his community. He publicly expressed his opinions, despite fear from his colleagues about the consequences.

I am happy to report that things here are peaceful. Today is a beautiful and sunny day and I am enjoying a cup of coffee, just as I always do. In a few minutes I will teach another class of students, several of whom will be surprised to see me back (the semester just started). I am happy to be here and look forward to the rest of my time in Banda.


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Strange Day in Penayung aka China Town

Today, I tried to eat lunch at the nameless alleyway restaurant that caters to Christians and foreigners by serving such rareties as pork and a delicious iced tea. It was full of military men in uniform. With large automatic guns, appetites. and loud mouths. So I did not eat there today. Instead, I went past their empty, green truck, and around the corner to a noodle cart with a name, attached to a coffee shop also full –but less full- of somewhat less rambunctious soldiers. These men were all on a few hours of vacation from military training in a town not too far away (the last time I heard about a military training was while staring at a charred shack on the pristine beach- they were apparently doing an anti-terrorism training) and chose to spend their break here, in China town (dubbed as such by the foreigners).
Over my iced coffee I can see a Church, complete with clock and cross. In front of me are several active games of mah-jong and the menu includes Ifumie and Mie Tiaw Kuah. Other places in this part of town have Buddha statues with small pillars of burning incense. The women wear their long hair uncovered, and there is light bare skin all around. While all Chinese-Indonesians speak Indonesian, some also speak “Chinese” but there’s no distinguishing between Mandarin, Cantonese, or any other dialect.
This part of town seems to be sectioned off more or less by religion and minority status, as it seems predominantly non-Muslim. There are many Christians also of Batak descent (the Batak come from Central Sumatera around the Lake Toba area) in this area as well. The nameless pork restaurant is run by a Batak family and the alleyway bar (that I was very recently taken to by a friend) is run by Batak women. During my one and only trip to this particular place I was very pleased to be serenaded by a very loud, and mostly in tune chorus of men singing Batak songs with one guitar players and a round (or several) of drinks. The joint was dim, small, at the end of a dark alleyway and full of men having a good time. It was great. I am told there is a Chinese-run brewery behind another Church but as of this post, I have not yet had the occasion to find it. Rumor has it that too much of this liquor can cause blindness.
While I always enjoy my time – and noodles- in this part of town, it was quite unusual to see so many military men today. It was a clear reminder of the division of duties between the military (national government) and local religious police. Despite the reports from the foreign press, I have only ever interacted with the former. Like me, they are from other cities and seeking out comfort food where they can find it.

More to come soon.


Thursday, December 31, 2009


Thanks to Julie's amazing networking abilities and the genius of Darren Lewis, my google account has been reactivated! I'm in snowy Reno, Nevada for a few more days and then will be flying back to Indonesia. Check back for new posts and a whole heap of photos very soon! Happy holidays!


Friday, June 19, 2009

Hello, um, Security?

I wonder just what it means to be “toughing it out.” As a foreign woman, there seems to be a lot of pressure to maintain your Western independence, to be able to be out and about unaccompanied. I am in awe of my friends who bicycle late at night alone, and persist despite harassment issues. I get to ride my motorbike and zoom past heckles and cat calls. I’ve only had someone follow me once and I think I may have accidentally motorbike flirted (or perhaps that’s extending the benefit of the doubt...).
I’ve written before about the distinct divide between NGO neighborhoods and my own, and often envied their more care free communities. Alternatively, those neighborhoods make for profitable pockets of foreigners and much of the crime and harassment I hear about happens there. I was told today there’s a specific street where the majority of foreigner-targeted theft occurs. It’s a block from the military base. The thief can run back to the safety of the compound if he gets caught.
I really have enjoyed having a women’s house this year. In contrast to my predominately male house last year, it’s well decorated, mostly clean, and we employ a gardener. We can have women friends over and with that big wall in the back, even lounge in a tank top. But I still get scared at night when those branches are rustling. I can’t help thinking against all my Western-born independence that I wish there was a man around the house. Maybe then the neighbors would stop taking our mangos.