Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Road to Kotabaru

It's a long drive to Kotabaru. I found this out, first hand, this last weekend. Kotabaru is a small city on an island (Palau Laut) off the eastern coast of South Kalimantan. Looking at a map of Borneo you would think… "oh, not so far." And in fact you would be right. A flight to Kotabaru from Banjarmasin is under an hour. But if you look at a map that shows roads, you would see a road that winds close to the coast to Batalucin which is where you'd catch a ferry to the island. There are some mountains, or as I learned on this trip gunung, between Banjarmasin and Batalucin, making a direct crossover difficult. But this indirect route was not really the key reason the trip to Kotabaru took 9 hours each way. It was the road itself.

Originally we were going to get flown there but the plane used between these two cities was grounded for repairs. I say better to know before being in the air. So the organizers of the workshop offered to hire a driver to take us. Before leaving Banjarmasin I heard many different estimates as to how long it would take to drive there. 6 hrs was the lowest bid whereas 8 was the highest. Only after our driver picked us up did we get the most up to date travel time as he had come from there to get us. Oy, I thought…. Well I've been in an airplane much longer than this so I figured I'd just try to sleep and relax. Not at all possible because of said road.

The road, like the rest of us in Kalimantan, suffers from the whims of the rainy season. It's pockmarked with sinkholes that the drivers have to swerve around, weaving in and out of oncoming traffic. Some stretches the road were completely washed away leaving those bumpy craters my brother would be proud to 4 wheel drive through. The Lonely Planet makes no mention of this. They say it takes 5 hours by bus. My driver passed these busses, leaving them in a cloud of dust.


Once in Kotabaru, we ate and went straight to our hotel so I could get my beauty rest as my workshop was scheduled to begin at 8 the next morning. I was nervous as I usually am before meeting a new group of students. I had no idea what their level would be. I was about to teach a handful of high school English teachers, all with a variety of backgrounds. Kalimantan, and much of Indonesia, has a shortage of English teachers who have degrees in English. It seems that the ones who do have this degree want to be in the bigger cities and are unwilling to live in more isolated areas. So my students had educational backgrounds in Biology, Economics, Mathematics and only a couple with degrees in English.

The workshop lasted for a day and a half. The first day was set up to weave between theoretical background and real activities that implement more communication in English, less grammar translation. But their first reaction to me when I first began speaking was priceless. As excited as they were to see and work with an American, many of them cringed and gave me the wide eyed look of fear as if they didn't understand me. But I continued to talk in my teacher voice and once the initial shock wore off (within a few minutes) they were nodding and answering my questions and engaging fully in the activities I'd planned for them.


As successful as this workshop was and as jazzed as I felt about working with these teachers, who showed themselves to be quite creative and motivated, my highlight of the trip was meeting Linda, whom I'm affectionately calling my healer. I may never meet her again but I have the greatest fondness for her which began the first day I was there.

To begin, she cooked all the food we ate and was sure to make special vegetarian arrangements for me full of a yummy variety of mushrooms and vegetables. She gets her coconut milk from the coconut, uses the best ingredients and knows a heap of information about what grows in the forest. I had noticed there was a forest behind the school and asked at lunch if I could walk around and take pictures. So they obliged me and she led the way. She showed me plants that were used for coughs, for helping women heal after birth and just pointed out things that your eyes would pass had you not known it was there. She didn't really speak any English so everyone translated for me but it didn't matter, I was in awe of this person. And only later did I find out more: she learned how to do traditional massage and was pretty good.

I had been battling a small cold the week before leaving but the long bumpy drive and the fact that I didn't sleep well in Kotabaru made it so that on Sunday I felt sick with some sniffles and a slight sore throat. I still had a couple of hours of the workshop to facilitate, luckily it was a group work brainstorming session at this point and the participants were now doing 90% of the work. But once I hit the two hour mark I needed a break and I was adamant not to let the organizers make me stick around without taking it. So I hurried up to our central "chill out" spot and Linda was there. I was coughing feeling dizzy and she encouraged me to get a massage. I didn't argue. It worked wonders. It was the break and attention I had needed for a while and helped me to feel much more centered.

We drove back that same day, leaving this beautiful island at noon. I really hope it doesn't get over developed with time and industry. What we didn't see on the way due to arriving at 10 pm at night was now illuminated in day light. This gave me an opportunity to see villages and the beautiful beach at Pagatan as well as some bits of natural rainforest. But what you've read about Borneo's landscape is true. I was recently emailed the most recent National Geographic article about what is happening to the rainforests here. (Thanks Cat!) The road we took happens to cut between huge expanses of palm plantations. Other areas show signs of having been cleared with charred jagged tree stumps poking out amongst some youthful green grassy growth as the land tries to recover. Palm oil: a fabulous new replacement for those trans-fat laden hydrogenated oils in those pre-packed cookies you and I adore and the base for many of the bio fuels we all know and love. And of course rubber trees, rice fields, all those tropical crops are here. Next week, I'm leading my speaking students to discuss this topic we venture deeper into our unit on 'discussing controversial issues.'

Kotabaru's key industry is cement. One of the main organizers of the event, I Nyoman Rudi (Rudi for short) is Hindu from Bali. He says there is a small (couple hundred people) Hindu community there. Although Kotabaru is primarily Muslim like Indonesia, the use of the jilbab (Muslim head cover for women) was far less than in Banjarmasin.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

A Man Fishing Under the House

Well it is most definitely the rainy season here. The most obvious of tell tale signs is… well it rains a lot. Sometimes it rains so hard that it pounds in the tiled roofs while I'm teaching. It can be so loud that all I can do is quickly yell out some group work directions and put the students into groups to talk amongst themselves. It makes it much more difficult for me to monitor their English output… or was that Banjarese for a moment? They are supposed to monitor each other… I've set that into their group work job descriptions but you know how language learners are. Those silly students will always gravitate towards the easiest path and the L1.

It was one of those intense rainy afternoons that I saw one of the best heart warming sights of my visit here. The rain had stopped and I was on my way back to the house after teaching. A young girl about the age of 6 was proudly stomping through puddles of water that had accumulated on the road leading into campus. She was happily occupying her time while waiting for her parents to finish their conversation with some other boring adults. Sadly I only had my camera phone to immortalize this joyous celebration of Kalimantan's famous rainy season. Just this last week I saw an article that the plain wooden 'stick' has been inducted into the toy hall of fame. This and the cardboard box are universal toys that open the child's imagination to wonders beyond our mere planet. Right? I too remember sitting in my cardboard space ship with my wooden light saver pointed at my annoying older brother. Well I nominate the mud puddle for the next round of inaugurations. That and a pile of autumn leaves. This girl was so simply happy jumping from the sidewalk's edge making the biggest splash imaginable followed up by her own "whoa!" of amazement and personal discovery… yes some things are universal.

But the highlight of the week was the man in the title… fishing under my house. Oh I know, it's bizarre but true! I couldn't stop laughing at the notion of someone fishing under my house. A rough translation of Kalimantan is "land of rivers." So what happens when you have this much water flowing everywhere? Well we basically live in a swamp, marsh, whatever you want to call it. The houses are built over this water, at one time on high stilts. Now the modern day house is built only a few feet from the ground. There is water under my house as with all other buildings here. I can hear fish splash and I'm sure other animals as well… under my living room! On Thursday afternoon last week, after I finished teaching, I saw a man standing next to my house, with a fishing pole pointed towards my foundation. Yes, fishing under my house. But really, aren't they my fish… on my property??? I didn't know whether to pretend to be incensed or just break into laughter. Actually I was not angry at all, it was the most surreal thing that I could think of to tell you about. And so that you would believe me, I got some photos from both outside and through my window. I have to say; so far this was the wildest cultural thing I could have ever imagined here! I certainly hope he was able to feed his family after trolling under my house!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

An Expat on Election Day

If there is anything that would make voting feel more important, it's probably living abroad. This is an amazing year to be living abroad. Indonesians here have been caught up in the fervor of the U.S. elections, but oddly, on Election Day, I was the only one who really wanted to be glued to sources of information.

I had conducted a series of culture workshops on U.S. elections and politics. We entered discussions of what characteristics are representative of a good leader and a successful politician. I also guided them through analyzing political cartoons filled with topics of the sinking economy, and politicians that never address the main issues by changing the topic or distraction tactics. The students loved it. The faculty culture class was all over it.

The day of the elections, as the polls were closing in each of the time zones in the U.S., I was watching speeches. It was the debate and speech competition week here at my University so I was sitting, listening and evaluating students' speeches on "A student's role for leadership." Although interesting to hear their take on this topic they couldn't compete with the best speech of the day: Obama's. Afterwards, my colleagues insisted that I go out to lunch with them, after all it was free as we were judges for the speeches…. But I had no appetite. I tried to encourage them to either come over to my house or let's go find a TV to find out who won, what happened! (It was about noon my time.) They just looked at me and smiled in their Indonesian way of saying… "It's not a big deal, just eat your lunch. Eating is important right now." It felt so odd at this moment to realize as much as the world watched and waited, it wasn't with the same intensity and anxiety as someone who had actually participated in the elections! How could I eat in a historical moment like this? Who won?

Two weeks ago, I cast my ballot. I found out through an ELF colleague here that Fed Ex would mail ballots for expats for free. With the Fed Ex office being so close, the hardest part was studying all the measures. Everyone here was so excited that Americans could vote by mail. It isn't the case in Indonesia. You must either show up to the polls or if abroad, travel to an Embassy. We really have it good! Perhaps they spent their excitement on my voting early… who knows but all the while during lunch I was visibly anxious and they just smiled in wonderment at me and talked about other things, like the student's speeches.

So I returned home, first turned on BBC news which was giving some pretty good and well rounded coverage of the event. It was already decided, according to the news scroll, Obama had secured 330 of the electoral votes at this point. It was a victory and yes I was very, very happy. (Probably to the disappointment of Uncle Curtis… sorry) I turned to the CNN coverage; yes the verdict was the same… of course! And within an hour, Obama began his very eloquent and unifying speech. I was in tears, excited, thought of all my friends at home who were celebrating and the party in Santa Cruz where Jacques was and I was with them in spirit as an expat in Kalimantan.

The Banjarmasin Post, the local paper, came knocking at my door to see how I was with the results and was I having a party? They knew how I felt, they had already interviewed me about it all last week and at that time I had given the reporter a U.S. Embassy issued booklet about the U.S. government for extra background knowledge. No celebration was planned for or by me last night but I am attempting to gather my friends (expats and Indonesians alike) who are living in Banjarmasin to have some fun, go to Karaoke etc. this Saturday. A celebration of… well, a new hope is in order. If you are in the neighborhood, stop on by!