Tumbilotohe: Nights without Darkness

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The lapangan (field) in my old neighborhood.

When I was a first-year Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA), one of the speeches at the WORDS Competition (a speech and talent competition planned and executed by ETAs every year) from one of the students from Gorontalo centered around the tradition of Tumbilotohe, a festival of lights that is khusus Gorontalo (special or unique to Gorontalo).  Listening to her describe streets lined with oil lamps and fairy lights, it was clear to me that Tumbilotohe was a very special occasion for those from Gorontalo.

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Playing with a sparkler.

As a second-year ETA, I found myself placed in Gorontalo, and all year students, teachers, and friends from my community would tell me about Tumbilotohe, and insist that, if I could, I should stay past the end of my grant, so that I might experience it for myself.  Unfortunately, because as the new ETA Coordinator I needed to attend the Pre Departure Orientation in D.C. around that same time, I was not able to do so.

They say that the third time is a charm, and the old adage rang true for Tumbliotohe.  I extended my stay in Indonesia this year past the end date of my Coordinator responsibilities, and thus would remain in Southeast Asia for the entire month of Ramadan, and would be able to plan a trip to Gorontalo for Tumbilotohe.

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Some of the traditional lights set out on a wall.

Tumbilotohe, in Bahasa Gorotnalo (the language of Gorontalo), literally means something along the lines of “The Placing of Lights,” but as this does not really capture the essence of the festival, is often translated in English to “Nights without Darkness.”  It takes place during the final three nights of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, throughout the province of Gorontalo, in northern Sulawesi.  Traditionally, throughout Tumbilotohe Muslims, and sometimes even non-Muslims, line the streets outside their houses with oil lamps, sometimes placing them on the ground or on the fences around their houses, and sometimes tying them to bamboo archways.  The belief is that these lights will attract the attention of angels to Gorontalo, and the timing of this festival is due to the larger Muslim belief that acts of ibadah (acts of devotion) have more value during the last days of Ramadan.

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One of the streets closed to traffic so that pedestrians can walk.

In more recent years, the traditional lamps have given way to strings of fairy lights in every color of the rainbow, arching over the streets of Gorontalo.  The colors and designs are chosen by committees in each neighborhood, so no street is quite the same.  In some places, the streets are closed to vehicles during a few hours each night, so that people can walk under the lights and take it all in at a much slower pace.  Teenagers jovially compete to take the best selfie, and children dash through the crowds, waving sparklers as they go.  It truly does feel like a festival, and I found myself quickly swept up in the joy of the evenings.

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One of the lapangan in my co-teacher’s home village.

I missed the first day of Tumbilotohe because I was still visiting friends in Manado, but I arrived in time for the second night, which my friends assured me is always the peak night of the festival.  One of my co-teachers and I went by bentor (becak motor, or a rickshaw operated by motorbike), and explored the displays near the neighborhood where I lived when I was an ETA in Gorontalo.  Because I lived on the edge of the city, just a short ride from some of the closer villages, these displays were generally more traditional, and even if they were mostly composed of fairy lights, they did include the oil lamps in some way.  My favorite displays were in the lapangan (fields), usually used by local teenage boys to play sepak bolah (football/soccer) in the evenings: hundreds of oil lamps were tied to stakes and organized throughout the lapangan, truly giving meaning to the English translation of the festival, “Nights without Darkness.”

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The little girls who followed me around during my second night of Tumbilotohe.

The second night some of my previous students picked me up in a car and took me to some of the farther, more modern displays.  While I must admit that I have a preference for the more traditional lights, the tunnels of twinkling lights captured my imagination, and getting to experience that with some of the students I know and love so well was an absolute joy.  The highlight of the night was befriending a group of young girls, who insisted I take some of their sparklers; I taught them how to paint with light, and they were enthralled with the concept, and even as I was leaving they were teaching some of their friends this new magic trick they had learned.

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A very modern edition to Tumbilotohe.

The tradition of Tumbilotohe has been in existence for as long as anyone I know can remember, and is looked forward to with great anticipation each year.  As one of my friends from Gorontalo, who has since moved to Jakarta and who unfortunately could not mudik (go home for Idul Fitri) this year, said to me, “It just doesn’t feel like Ramadan without Tumbilotohe.”  After having had the privilege to experience Tumbilotohe myself, I can see why she feels that way, and I am certain that no Ramadan I celebrate will ever quite be the same.


It was really difficult to capture Tumbilotohe on camera, so I also took several videos, which I compiled into a larger clip which can be viewed here.  The song I chose for the background is a song in Bahasa Gorontalo, celebrating the city.

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The Art of Pulkam

Pulkam is short for pulang kampung, a phrase which roughly translates to “go home to your hometown.”  My recent travel for research happened to bring me back to both of the sites where I used to teach and live as an ETA (Fulbright English Teaching Assistant): Malang in East Java, and Gorontalo in Northern Sulawesi.  I made sure to sneak in time to visit my own people while in both of these places, though of course most of my focus was on research.  These were whirlwind trips, and while I didn’t get to see everyone I wanted to see, I did get to spend at least a little time with most of the people who are the reason I was so thrilled to be headed back to these places.

Last year, while I was an ETA in Gorontalo, I also had the opportunity to pulkam to Malang.  I have been so blessed to have been able to re-visit the various places that I have called home here several times, something not many ETA alumni have the chance to do.  Over time, I’ve noticed a few consistencies in the act of pulang kampung, regardless of when and where I have returned.  And so I offer my observations as a sort of “Grace’s Guide to Pulkam,” with the caveat that I am not an expert in anything at all (except maybe drinking jus alpokat), and these are based only on my own unique experiences.

Expect to eat a lot.  It sometimes seems as though Indonesians express their love through food (this is one of those things that I have found true across the archipelago).  Ibu-Ibu have always insisted that they simply cannot send me back to my mother thinner than I was when I arrived (regardless of how I might be feeling about my own bodyweight), because that would mean they had not properly cared for me.  Every time I pulkam, it feels almost as though people are trying to feed me as much during the few days I am there as they did during my nine months as an ETA.  Not that I necessarily mind.  Each region of Indonesia has its own special foods, and heaven knows I miss the foods from the places I lived in.   I have been craving the ikan bakar (grilled fish), binte biluhuta (a fish and corn soup)[1], and tinutuan (a sort of pumpkin “porridge” with lots of greens)[2] of northern Sulawesi ever since I left (I have found a place that makes almost passable tinituan in Jakarta, but let’s face it: it’s better in Sulawesi).  And unless you have been to Malang, you will not understand why I think bakso (meatballs, usually served in broth) is the best thing since sliced bread (which really isn’t all that great, in comparison), or why I worship tempe as the goddess of all proteins, or why I feel I can make the best apple crisp in Indonesia–even with just a toaster oven–because those apel Malang are just magical.   Just like I generally miss American dishes when I am here, and generally miss Indonesian food when I go back to the States, I also miss these daerah (area)-specific dishes when I move from one Indonesian city to another, and I am not all that bothered by the excess of lunch and dinner invites I receive (so long as I get to pay for one or two) or the few pounds I put on every time I pulkam. 

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A few photos from my pulkam to Gotontalo.

Bring gifts, but more importantly, bring stories.  I haven’t been able to pin down whether or not this applies to anyone who goes on pulkam, but at least for ETAs, there is definitely the expectation that you will bring gifts or oleh-oleh (souvenirs) back for people, and I have always tried to oblige as best as my budget and suitcase-space will allow.  This gift-giving is a way to show people that you have remembered them, and I am 100% for that.  But because I’ve always struggled with what I perceive as the materialism so prevalent in Indonesia (why do physical gifts need to be brought everywhere? and why does the size and cost matter so much?), I try not to simply bring gifts, but gifts that come with a story.  Last year I brought kerawang, the traditional fabric of Gorontalo, to my friends in Malang, because it gave me an excuse to talk about the ways in which Gorontalo culture differs from Javanese culture, something which was so influential my second year.  And this year, in addition to some little trinkets from Jakarta (the capital city is notorious for not having good oleh-oleh), I also brought small souvenirs from Korea, which allowed me to talk to about my time there visiting the South Korean Fulbright Commission, and just generally how much I have learned about the ETA Program this year, since I am seeing it from a different perspective.  In the end these stories still matter more.  Even if you bring oleh-oleh that doesn’t necessarily come with a story, you will find it quickly set aside as everyone asks you a million questions about what you have been up to, and fills you in on the latest gossip on their end.  There is a cultural expectation that you bring something material, yes, but do not confuse this with a prioritizing of objects over a person.  People are still more excited about you than anything you bring.

Anticipate a lot of selfies.  Selfies are a bit like food.  They are a way for people to show you that they missed you, that they are excited to see you again.  While teachers and other adult friends will definitely request these, you will probably get these requests most often from your students.  Don’t say no.  Be prepared to smile for so many selfies that your face hurts.  And then make sure that someone sends those photos to you.  One of my housemates, a Fulbright Research Alumna and a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (in Indonesia both times), often says that no matter how many photographs she has of beautiful vistas, it is the foto-foto of people that she values the most.  And it’s true.  At home I have many beautiful fabrics from the various places I have visited in Indonesia, and USBs full of photos I have had the privilege to visit.  But it is the class photos I took at the end of each year, and the group shots I have with fellow teachers and friends, that I treasure most from my two years as an ETA.  Having the opportunity to add to that collection of photographs of the people I love brings far more joy than seeing Komodo Dragons or hiking a mountain.  And though you might have the opportunity to pulkam once, the fact is that you may not have the opportunity to do so again.  Those sweaty selfies will be priceless later.  Make sure you get copies.

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A few photos from my pulkam to Malang.

Prepare yourself for the less-pleasant parts.  It won’t all be joyous.  There may be people you never wanted to see again.  I know I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I narrowly escaped meeting a particular teacher during my first pulkam to Malang, and had a moment of panic when I did run into this guru during my most recent pulkam.  My pulkam to Gorontalo also had its share of awkward interactions with men from my neighborhood.  And, let’s be honest, I do not think that either of the cities I lived in as an ETA are perfect.  There are parts of them that drove me insane when I lived there, and those exasperating characteristics have not disappeared just because I moved away.  The bentor (becak motor, a rickshaw with a motorbike instead of a bicycle) drivers in Gorontalo are still amongst the most persistent harassers I have come across in Indonesia, and it only took one bentor ride on my way to rent a motorbike for my visit in the city for me to remember why I had chosen to ride a motorbike as an ETA, avoiding bentor drivers as best as I could. I spent my nine months in Malang navigating the politics of my school’s two campuses, including the poor treatment of my Papuan students, and was yet again smacked in the face with the Javanese idea of their own superiority when during my pulkam an entire teacher’s room—mostly full of new teachers who did not work at the school when I was an ETA there and did not know about my fiery responses to racism—immediately began making derogatory jokes about orang Sulawesi (the people of Sulawesi), after hearing where I had been placed my second year as an ETA.  But in the end, all of these irritations were like mosquito bites from an incredible hike: I noticed them, and was highly displeased, but it did not cause me to regret my decision to go.

Assume there will be changes.  Whether you were gone for a few months or a few years, you will not be going back to the same place you lived in as an ETA.  In Gorontalo, one of the few placements last year at which ETAs could boast that they had the ability to live without an Indomaret or Alfamart, because there simply weren’t any, there is now one or the other on every corner, and this change has happened in the mere nine months I have been gone.  It also has an increase in stoplights, some of which even have the recorded reminders to wear helmets that I am accustomed to hearing only in larger Indonesian cities.  “Gorontalo so mo jadi kota besar!” (“Gorontalo is already becoming a big city!”) came out of my mouth more times than I care to count.  In Malang, at the end of this academic year the two campuses of my school are actually going to split into two schools, one of which will be a military academy, and so if I do have the opportunity to visit Malang again, SMAN 10, as I knew it, will not even exist.  In both places, some of the teachers I loved no longer teach at my schools, and a few friendly faces have even sadly passed away.  And of course, my students are older, some of them even graduated.  And I have changed.  I’m no longer the fresh-faced ETA that came to Malang her first year in Indonesia: I’m a little more haggard, a little wiser, though somehow still just as stubbornly optimistic about the futures of my kiddos in spite of what other teachers may say (some things never change).  And I’m certainly not completely the small-town girl of Gorontalo anymore: though I’ll never call myself a city girl, I have changed in certain ways in order to survive Jakarta, and it shows in everything from my confidence to my accent, as noted by my friends in both my old sites.  These changes—in your school, in your community, in yourself—are often positive, though not always, and they are almost always jarring.  Take them all in: you’ll have time to digest them when you are finished with your pulkam.

Know that it will not be enough time.  You might not get to see everyone.  Even if you do, you will probably feel you did not fully get to catch up with them.  You will not be able to visit all of your favorite haunts.  You will not get to eat all of your favorite dishes.  The fact is, there is a reason this is pulkam: you no longer live in this place.  And you cannot fit nine months of an ETA experience into a few days.

Pulkam is bittersweet.  If you are the crying type (and I am) you might cry harder when you leave from your pulkam visit than you did when you left your site at the end of your grant.  Highs are high and lows are lows when you are an ETA, and that doesn’t end when you find yourself an alumnus.

Breathe deep.  Take it all in.  The smiles, the tears, the laughter, the grimaces.  It is an emotional rollercoaster, but it a privilege to be able to go along for the ride.  In the end, my only real advice is this: feel what feelings come, and then feel lucky to have felt any of it at all.  That is the art of the ETA pulang kampung.  Perhaps it is the art of being an ETA at all.

[1] Binte biluhuta is Bahasa Gorontalo; in Bahasa Indonesia, this dish is known as milu siram.

[2] Tinituan is Bahasa Manado; in Bahasa Indonesia, this dish is known as Bubur (porridge) Manado.

Last Lines: The End of My Gorontalo Chapter

There are entire blogs, Tumblr accounts, etc. dedicated to the last lines of novels.  I myself wonder at the lack of attention given to the last lines of chapters: those few words that transition the reader out of one adventure and into the next.  These are often my favorite lines of a novel, some for their subtlety, others for their pomp and circumstance, and still others that somehow manage to be both at once.

If my time in Gorontalo was a chapter in a book, it’s last line would have been of that last sort, a perfect blend of quiet moments and full-scale productions.

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It may have taken me until my last day at site to see the marching band perform, but that didn’t make it any less amazing.

I left site in the week after finals, which meant I had no more real responsibilities with my school: no classes to teach, no clubs to run, no meeting to attend.  I was thankful for this time and space to really say goodbye to the place I had come to call home; to finally learn how to make tinituan from my closest friend and her mother, after months of planning to do so; to ride my motorbike along my favorite roads one last time; to stop by my favorite martabak sellers and ask them to make me one last of my usual orders; to tell the folks at the internet café, who have become almost like family because I have spent so much time there, that they wouldn’t be seeing me around anymore… my job was done.

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Coordinated costumes, giggles, and balloons…

But it was not all quiet goodbyes.  My final full day at site was an adventuresome one: it began with a jalan sehat (literally, “healthy walk”) in honor of my school’s birthday, which coincided with my leaving; I was finally able to see the school’s marching band perform, after passing by their practice for nine months; and as a themed costume contest was part of the parade, my last day was spent surrounded by the enthusiasm and creativity that I so love to celebrate in my brilliant students.  In the afternoon, my school held a perpisahan, or going-away party, for me, complete with speeches and singing: even I wrote a speech, and sang in front of a crowd for the first time since becoming an ETA in Indonesia (how I managed to escape this for so long is a mystery).  There was a stage, there was a banner, and there was more love than I could ever deserve.

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One last sweaty, happy group photo with some of my students.

My final morning in Gorontalo was spent with some of my favorite teachers, packing up the last of my things and stopping to eat delicious ikan bakar, one last time.  We piled into cars, and headed off to the airport.  We laughed, we cried, we hugged, and said goodbye.

And then it was over.  I boarded the plane with my sitemates, every bit as important to my time here than anyone from my school or community, and headed to Jakarta for the End-of-Year Conference, to say goodbye to the cohort that was my extended family this grant period.

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One of my Indonesian Moms.

Again and again throughout my last week at site, I told people: “It’s not just goodbye, it’s see you later.”  And as I am returning to Indonesia again, I know that I will see many of the wonderful people from that side of the globe again, and I do hope that I will cross paths in the future with the ETAs I have come to love.

But I will never again live in Gorontalo as the ETA at MAN Model.  That chapter of my life is over, and a new chapter is beginning.  The people and places will carry over—if not in my actual everyday existence, then in the cornerstones of my heart—because though this may be a new chapter, but it is still the same story.  But they will take on a new role, as the plot twists into a new shape.

I am sad and excited to turn the page.  I will miss the tale this chapter told.  I can’t wait to see what the next chapter brings.

The Streets of Gorontalo

Last week, I taught my final classes, something I will write about eventually, but not just yet.  This means my students are testing this week, and so after almost nine months of constantly working on various projects for school, I find myself with something like free time.  I still have several projects to put the finishing touches on, and plans to solidify in order to properly say goodbye to everyone here (I’m having a party at my house, and my school is planning an event at which I may even be expected to sing in front of the whole school, so there is still plenty to do for all of that).  Still, with no classes to attend and plan for, I’m much less crazy-busy than I have been.

And so, one morning before going to visit some dear friends who have been instrumental in making my time here wonderful, I set out on my motorbike, camera in hand to just take a short jaunt through the kota (city) that I have called home for the past nine months and take some photos, something I have always wanted to do, but never found the time for.

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This is Patung Saronde, or Saronde Statue, which depicts two traditional Gorontalo dancers.  This stature is at a traffic circle downtown, and is regularly used as a reference point when people give me instructions to a small toko (shop) or rumah makan (restaurant).  It is also right around the corner from Coffee Toffee, where I do all of my internet work, and where the staff have essentially become extended family.  Even if I’m just passing by, I can’t help but smile.

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This is the largest masjid (mosque) in Kota Gorontalo.  There is a mosque on every corner in Gorontalo, each one with its own personality, and I have come to orient myself in the city by which mosque I am passing.

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In the city square stands a statue dedicated to Nani Wartabone, the local Gorontalo hero.  Historically, he is credited as being the leader who brought Gorontalo to independence, two whole years before the rest of the nation, fighting the Dutch with determination and bravery.  According to legend, he possessed powers such as teleportation, which helped him to defeat the colonizers.

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This may not look like much, but crossing this jembatan (bridge) means you are headed out of the kota and onto a winding road that follows the shoreline, taking you past beautiful beaches and the bluest ocean you will ever see.  I have learned to be less afraid of the sea by heading out on this road and going snorkeling and swimming with friends, finding incredible beauty beneath the waves.  Next year, living in the concrete jungle that is Jakarta, I will miss the hot sand between my toes, and the peaceful silence you always find underwater.

Also pictured here is and angkot, one of the more popular forms of transportation in Indonesia.  Gorontalo doesn’t really have any angkot routes in the city, but there are several that go back and forth from the villages outside of the city.

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One the subject of jembatan, this one holds a special place in my heart.  This marks the city limits in a different direction, on the way out to the village where one of my site mates lives, works, and just generally inspires me with all she does.  She has developed an amazing relationship with her community, and often shares this with other ETAs, myself included, and I cannot thank her enough for it.

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This view was captured from yet another bridge, which also marks the edge of the city limits in yet another direction.  This road is by far my favorite for motorbike rides at the end of a stressful day: it leads up into the mountains, above the coast.  The road is steep and more than a little broken, but the views are incredible, the air cooler and fresher.  Nothing heals my soul faster than heading out this way.

While six photos and a little bit of babbling might be all that my computer, my schedule, and Gorontalo internet will allow, there is no way that these can encompass what the streets of Gorontalo have come to mean to me.  It can’t show how the sun bakes my skin if I am riding at midday, or the way the street of warungs (food stalls) smell of ikan bakar (grilled fish) and sate tuna every night.  It can’t express the insurmountable small joy of buying bensin (petrol) from a particularly sweet Ibu from one of the thousands of petrol stands you find on the side of the road, or the way riding through a downpour is simultaneously frustrating and and slightly dangerous, and one of the most fun and refreshing parts of living in Indonesia.

My time here has been defined by the ways and the reasons I have traversed these jalan (street): work, travel, weddings, shopping, the simple need to get on my motorbike and escape…  The better I know the city, the more it feels like home, and by this point I not only know the twists and turns and intersections, but many of them are embedded with memories of my adventures and misadventures.  Gorontalo no longer feels like home.  It is home.

 

A Mini Post on Mini Monkeys

On a recent Friday afternoon adventure with one of my site mates, we went hiking into the jungle near Gorontalo.  I love the jungles of Indonesia: there is just something so alive about them.

This particular jungle was special, because tucked into the heart of it were some of the cutest animals I have ever seen: tarsiers.

The tarsier is a tiny primate endemic to Sulawesi.  There are five or six different kinds, and the particular kind we got to see was a “new” species, tarsier ekor panjang, or long tailed tarsier.  Most people look for tarsiers in Northern Sulawesi, near Manado, but it turns out another one of Gorontalo’s big secrets is that it is also home to these adorable little buggers.

It’s days like this when I can’t believe how lucky I am to live here.  Because how many people get to see such wonderful creatures in person?

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Meeting Whale Sharks: In Which I Am a Bad Tourist, and Learn Some Important Lessons

As my time in Gorontalo draws to a close, I have been trying to spend as much time as possible with the people who have made my time here such a positive experience, and this includes my students.  After English Club one day, a few students invited me to go with them that weekend to see whale sharks which had been congregating near a village just a little outside of the city.  The decision seemed easy: an opportunity to hang out with my kiddos outside of school and see whale sharks?  Yes, please.

One my site mates regularly dives in Gorontalo, and had told me that the set-up for this whole operation was less than ideal, which is fairly typical for Indonesian tourist attractions (it is still a developing country, after all).  I assumed, therefore, that I would be walking into great disorganization and questionable safety practices.

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My kiddos on their way to see whale sharks for the first time.

I was right.  A haphazard tent was set up for guests to pay for their boats, and while we were required to wear life vests, most of the life vests did not fasten correctly (I think I annoyed some people by insisting that they find ones that did for my kids who couldn’t swim, but I don’t mind annoying people at all when my kid’s safety is at stake).  The ocean looked pretty peaceful at first, which reassured me, but once we past some rocks jutting out into the water, we could see the entire operation, and the chaos was a little terrifying.  Dozens of boats were in the cordoned-off area, with the men rowing them banging on the sides of their vessels, and the folks in the boats taking selfies with one another.  I assumed we wouldn’t see any sharks at all, with everything that was going on, since most animals do not like crowds and noise.

But then a huge, dark shadow passed under my boat.  And then another.  I couldn’t believe it: even with all the commotion, there were still whale sharks.

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A whale shark searching for food from a boat captain.

Of course, this was because they were being fed.  For an additional fee, people could have their boat driver bring a bag of shrimp along with them, to attract the whale sharks to come up close to their boat.  This led to a lot of people screaming when the peaceful giants swam to the surface, and gave people the opportunity to touch them as well. I admit, though I fought with my driver at first, telling him it wasn’t good to touch the sharks (not that I really knew if that was true, but it seemed a good rule), later when more and more people were telling me it was, in fact, fine, I reached out and touched the next one that surfaced on the nose.

There’s a whole lot wrong with this picture.  Even before talking to my site mate afterwards, who knows far more about ocean life than I, and doing a little research of my own, there were some things I knew were not okay.  But there were others I did not figure out until after the fact, and that it not good.

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A young whale shark passing under my boat.

I do want to take a moment to appreciate the beautiful parts of this experience.  Because it really was incredible.  Even though the sharks near the surface were smaller, younger animals, they were still massive.  It will never cease to amazing me that creatures so big eat tiny shrimp and krill, and the way they glide so gently through the water.  To see them in person, and so close, was absolutely amazing.  My girls still talk about it every day: it really is a kind of once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

But a lot of mistakes were made too.  Some of the mistakes I made were arguably out of my control, and I could not have prevented engaging in them unless I did not go with my students at all (which, quite frankly, might have been something worth considering, but that would need to be weighed against how much my students gained from seeing these majestic creatures in person).  But others could have been prevented if I had been responsible and done research ahead of time.  Lesson learned.

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Whale sharks are known for being incredibly gentle, but this level of comfort with humans could be potentially dangerous.

Do I feel that some improvements should be made to the operation as it stands, so that people can be informed at site as to how to act around these amazing animals, and so that the operation itself is more wildlife-friendly?  Yes, absolutely.  But I also learned, far later than I should have, that I shouldn’t rely on that being the case, and should always do my own research before I go somewhere.

My mother always told me, “Learn from my mistakes, so you can go off and make your own instead of making the same ones as me.”  I’ve always tried to take the same approach with my students, and so I’ve talked about all I’ve learned since going with my English Club, as well as with other students who have heard about our trip.  It doesn’t discourage students from going and seeing the whale sharks themselves, and in many ways I don’t want it to, but I do have students tell me that they won’t feed them, and won’t touch them.  And that’s a start: they’re doing better than I did.

 

For more information about what you should and should not do when going to see whale sharks, check out this site.

Benteng Otanaha

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One of the watch towers at Benteng Otanaha.

One of the few tourist sites listed in the Lonely Planet for Gorontalo is a place called “Benteng Otanaha” (benteng being the Indonesian word for fort).  I have passed the entrance to this tempat wisata (tourist site) many times on my way to visit one of my sitemates, but have never found the time to actually stop and see what the fuss is all about.

So when my school canceled classes the Friday before the national exam, and the other English teachers asked if I had time to jalan-jalan (travel around[1]) with them, and maybe go to Benteng Otanaha, I most assuredly said yes.

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The co-teachers on some of the stairs we did actually climb.

We left in the morning, so that we could be there before it became too hot—and it is sweltering by about ten o’clock in Gorontalo—in the car of one of the teachers.  There are over three hundred stairs leading up to Benteng Otanaha, where it overlooks the surrounding area.  But, in part because we had limited time (there is a special Muslim midday prayer on Fridays, and my teachers did not want to miss it), and in part because the idea of willingly making yourself sticky and gross from sweat is a somewhat baffling idea for most grown Indonesians, we bypassed all of those stairs and drove to the top.  I’ll have to go back and count the stairs at a later date.

The fort, believed to have been built by the Portuguese, itself is not very big, and is essentially made up of three watch towers.  But the stone walls are simultaneously sturdy and crumbling, the way any historical site should be, and scrambling up and down them with my co-teachers (taking plenty of photos along the way, of course), made for quite the enjoyable excursion.

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Taking in the view.

It also gave my teachers the opportunity to regale me with tales of the bravery of Nani Wartebone, the local hero who was instrumental in helping Gorontalo gain independence from the Dutch[2].  I have heard all kinds of stories about Nani Wartebone since coming here, from the believable (he was born and raised in a desa right near one of my sitemate’s schools), to the not-so-believable (some say he was able to teleport, and that’s how he was able to beat the Dutch).  The man who has become a legend here did much of his fighting in the area around Benteng Otanaha, so the site is especially significant for a place that has been free from colonial rule for less than one hundred years.

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Danau Limboto, as seen from Benteng Otanaha.

Because Benteng Otanaha is so high up on the hills, it offers a wonderful view of the surrounding areas, including Danau (Lake) Limboto.  The lake used to be much larger than it is now, and from Otanaha my teachers pointed out the old boundaries; in many cases, there are now whole neighborhoods where there used to be water, because those areas have been dry for so long.  It was a sad reminder as to the damage humans can do to their environment.  Nonetheless, what remains of the lake is still beautiful.

We finished our jalan-jalan in time to enjoy a delicious lunch of ikan bakar (grilled fish) together, before heading back to our respective homes.  My co-teachers have become something like family here, and it was fabulous to spend a morning with them outside of school.

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The fam.  A little sweaty, but still happy as can be.

[1] Jalan is the word for “walk,” but when it is doubled like this, it can mean almost any activity that can be done outdoors: going for a walk, wandering around, traveling…

[2] Gorontalo was actually independent from Dutch control two years before the rest of Indonesia, and there was even a still-often-talked-about visit from Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president, to make sure that Gorontalo was actually going to become part of the rest of the nation.