Monday, December 22, 2008

Happy Holidays!

Well the end of the term is here… at least for me. The university continues for a couple of weeks and then has finals. I made sure to finish my classes by this week and am already giving finals. I couldn't imagine still having to work on Christmas Day, it is so ingrained in me that this entire week should be off that this was one unexpected surprise to me. Of course an Islamic University wouldn't celebrate Christmas! Not that I expected them to but somehow I just expected the academic calendar to follow an American one. It is a weird feeling, like a small tickly itch and you can't quite figure out where to scratch to relieve the discomfort.

There hasn't been much show for the Christmas holiday season here. On TV there are plenty of commercials telling you how you can download a Christmas ringtone, and some TV announcements of something going on in Jakarta but locally, not really anything. I was surprised with a small thrill of joy and comfort when I saw a small amount of Christmas decorations adorning the local mall. It does get dark here early and with the rainy season, it feels like the season for light festivals is due for us. My internal clock seems to know its Christmas.

I won't be home for Christmas. I am sad about that but I will celebrate in style. Those of us ELFs who are staying behind are going to do it up properly with a party on Christmas Eve in Yogyakarta hosted by ELF Ben. On the 27th I will fly from there to Bali and meet mon amour, Jacques. I haven't seen him since my departure at SFO. Even though we make it a point to talk to each other every week, it's not the same. He's going to be my Santa too bringing me tons of goodies I've requested from the U.S. (mostly food from Trader Joes!), and then we'll travel around together. Highlights to look for in my future blog posts will be a deeper look into Bali's art and temple culture, a trip to see the orangutan in Kalilmantan, puppets in Yogyakarta… I'll don't know when I'll be able to post the photos nor my next blog post but I will keep the stories coming so definitely check in after the New Year!

Happy Christmas, New Year, Yule, Hanukah… See you next year!


Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Banjarmasin is a city that has its fair share of dirt and pollution. The rivers that run through it are a muddy chocolaty color due to the rainy run off from mining and presumably non environmentally sound construction practices and who knows what else. To that end, it is nice to know that some areas of South Kalimantan show the same purity Mother Nature intended. Loksado is one of these places.

Last weekend I experienced Loksado, one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen in person. Getting to Loksado requires about a 3 ½ hour 'taksi' to a small town called Kandangan. From there you hop on another hour long transport up a small and slightly windy road into the hills, past small villages and through a remarkable jungle. Accompanied by Puji and Citra, one of the students and friend from the University, I rode to Loksado local style. I rode from Kandangan crammed in the back of a truck carrying other passengers and supplies for some of the villages saving about 140,000 rupia by not hiring a car with a driver.

We stayed at a newer hotel in Loksado, a good rate and perched on a little island in the middle of the river right in the middle of the village. From there, we gathered some water, and our things and we went on a hike to the nearest waterfall. We left the hotel around 1:30 and it was going to be about a 2 hour hike in to the falls. Our guide was Darsani, one of Puji's students whose family lives in a small village down the river from Loksado. Having a local guide is important for a number of reasons. One is to have someone who can speak the local dialect, Banjarese, which may share some similarities to Bahasa, Puji says she really can't understand it. Another obvious reason to have a guide is a local knows where to go and how to get there. The third reason is to help prevent you from being the subject of black magic… or so I'm told.

Dyak tribes are the 'pagans' of Borneo. Some of these tribes were once head hunters, but still practice their old religious spiritual ways refusing to be converted to government recognized religion. It is unclear whether I met Dyaks while in Loksado, I saw no rituals, sacrifices nor heads on spears. My company wouldn't want to admit if the friendly people in these villages were Dyak… it would just be too scary to fathom. But the signs of Islam were most definitely not as evident as they are in Banjarmasin. Although I saw a Mosque in Loksado, I didn't see Mosques in any of the villages we hiked through. Women weren't covered and people lived their lives more in line with surviving in the Jungle and with the resources that were available right there such as using bamboo, extracting sap from the rubber trees and cultivating/drying spices for sale. The villages have longhouses where you can be invited to stay the night and sleep on a bamboo mat on the floor for a small fee. Although I know some Americans who have done this, we didn't. Part of the reason is my travel companions' worries of black magic. There are many stories, some claimed to be first hand or of a friend or relative falling victim to mysterious black magic pranks. One such is how the Dyak will cast a spell on your food and you will find yourself throwing up glass or pieces of metal or stories of the vampires and vampire ghosts, or the unborn baby missing from its mother's womb; stories for perhaps another blog post. These stories I find intriguing as part of the rich history of Borneo but my colleagues shudder in fear if they even hint about these stories to me.

So we focused on the beauty of the area. The 2 hour hike to the falls, what normally in my normal climate would have been fairly easy ended up almost causing me heatstroke at the 1.5 hour mark. Note to self: don't forget to bring pump water filter on next hike. The weather was hot and humid, mosquitoes were in full force, but despite these set backs, it was amazing and gorgeous. We zig zagged across the river over swinging suspension bridges that might make you wonder if they could support anyone's weight. But knowing many motorcycles use this path (and having seen it myself) I knew these bridges would hold and I walked across with full trust.

It was cooler at the falls and breath taking. We walked across a makeshift bamboo foot bridges onto the rocks around the fall and the cool pool of water. I released my feet from my hiking boots, dangled my feet in the pool and eagerly splashed myself with the water. After about 30 minutes there, we headed back. The hike to the falls was a gradual incline most of the way so needless to say it was faster getting back. A good thing too as it gets dark early here and it was already 4. Once we arrive to Loksado it had just gotten dark and luckily there were enough lights out so that we could see the path ways… at least until we got into the hotel room and then the power went out, Borneo style.

Our second and last day in Loksado was the day we went bamboo rafting which was the best rafting trip I've ever taken. We took a transport down the road to where a hot springs resort is. Bypassing the fabulous opportunity of being the only girl in a swimsuit (and the only bule), we decided to just go for the rafting trip before heading home. We walked through the small village, past our rafting guide's home with his curious family looking on then down to the river where the guide lashed together a seat for us on the bamboo raft in just under 20 minutes.

The rafting trip took about an hour and all I can say is look at my photos. I found it to be calming and soothing and if I ever had any doubt that we have a Creator or a God, this doubt would have been sincerely challenged while meandering through this beautiful scenery on Borneo. It really makes you realize how important it is to protect and sustain what gifts we've been given. I can honestly say that this will be one of my best memories here. And a worthy punctuation to this rafting trip was that it ended at Darsani's home (right on the river) where his mother cooked us an amazing lunch from things found right there on the riverside.

She served us rice, the soft meat of the bamboo plant cooked in coconut milk, boiled leaves from the sweet potato plant seasoned with garlic and onion, egg for me, river fish for everyone else, tea, and as much fruit as we could manage to carry home. I still have tons of rambutan (the hairy fruit) in my refrigerator. Hope I can eat it all or distribute it soon.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Bule Bule… or Being Thankful

Bule, or bulai, is the term Indonesians use to describe people like me. It means a Caucasian individual but it pretty much refers to all westerners. So the call out to us is usually first "bule, bule" followed with a "Hello mister." Yeah, mister. Although I may have blogged this before, it stands to be repeated because over the past two weeks I've had a lot of 'bule' time and it surprises me how refreshing it is to not be a mister, or as my students call me "mom" a translation of "Ibu" which can be either Mom or Ms.

My most recent bule action was last night I went out to pizza with some of the local bules here. One was the roommate of one I met back in September (Americans) and the others are an Australian couple and their 6 month old baby. The baby, Jack, kept staring at me as intently as Indonesian children do. I think he was curious about the bule that wasn't his mother. Although the pizza isn't like home, the company was good and we hope to get together relatively soon again before everyone scatters for Christmas.

The biggest bule gathering was the fabulous Thanksgiving feast in Surabaya. Surabaya is the second biggest city in this country, of course Jakarta being the first. The U.S. Consul's house hosted the gathering. She wasn't there but others from the U.S. expat community were. This meant I had a real Thanksgiving with all the smells and flavors of home. There was roasted turkey (although I didn't eat any), mashed potatoes, STUFFING, cranberry sauce, STUFFING, pie… and of course STUFFING. About 7 of us ELFs were able to make it and then a large handful of the Fulbright English Teaching Assistants (ETA) were there enjoying the wine and festivities with us. It was good times.

To make this event even more special, I shared a nice hotel room with my ELF friends, we shared stories, had the hotel lights go out on us at a climactic point of a horror film and I had a couple of nice HOT showers. Oh bliss! Not all sites here are as sparse as mine but living in Indonesia really teaches you to live without… and, well, I'm still learning not having mastered this exercise. So I indulged… came back and experienced a days worth of culture shock once again. It was weird because I really thought I was over that. All the things that I had broken down and learned to accept over the past months came reeling back, the things I was happy to forget while in a more modern environment. What was even more surprising was how quickly acclimated back to my life in Banjarmasin. What helps the most is staying busy, teaching. What doesn't help is frequent cancellations of my culture and language class with the faculty on Fridays and my attempt to do collaborative workshops here with the teachers never seems to be able to launch for one reason or another. Banjar time, Banjar time, Banjar time: My mantra to help me try to understand. I really want to stay busy and really work with the teachers here but you know the famed Rolling Stones song "You Can't Always Get What You Want."

Another bule adventure I had last week was when I met up with my local ETAs, Dan and Emmy. They live about an hour from here and teach at pesantrens, the Islamic boarding schools. They definitely are more remote than me so coming into Banjarmasin is coming into the big city. We went to the floating market with my office mates. I kind of wondered what the hype was, especially since getting up at 4:30 was pretty tough. But I can now say that I did one of Banjarmasin's famous attractions. It is a real commerce event, not really a tourist attraction. They trade fruits and veggies out on the water and it is said you can get the best price here… but that also means you have to hire your Klotok (a wobbly motorized boat that takes you out to find these great deals) so maybe it balances out in the end. We bypassed the monkey island and from the stories I've heard of it, a good thing. I didn't want to slap any vile monkeys who are pretty aggressive while looking for food handouts from the visiting humans, another sign of man's disruption of nature's balance. My Australian friend, Mick, said one of them bit him on the back of the leg for denying it food.

Dan, Emmy, Puji and I also went to Snow World that same afternoon. It is essentially a big freezer on the way to the airport full of ice sculptures, a big snow slide and no photos allowed. Puji is great at showing us Indonesian style… pretend you didn't read the signs until the security guard says something. We got quite a few photos. It was fun to play on the ice slide and amazing to be in this cold environment that I didn't think I'd see until next winter. I also enjoyed witnessing Puji's intrigue with watching her breath exhale in small clouds. My first comment walking in there, remarking on the energy it must take to keep so much ice cool in Indonesia, was "Ahh, so THIS is why we've been having so many rolling blackouts!"