Benteng Otanaha


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Stepping into the Past: Candi-Candi Borobudur dan Prambanan

While we studied abroad for a semester in London, a friend and I jokingly suggested, after realizing how many we had already visited, that we ought to plan our entire life’s bucket list around seeing every World Heritage Site on the planet… and then we actually looked at the World Heritage website and realized we did not have the time to see all of the sites in the United Kingdom, let alone the world. Even so, it gave me great satisfaction when a recent trip to Yogyakarta allowed me to add two more World Heritage sites to the small list of those I have been fortunate enough to visit: the Buddhist and Hindu temples Borobudur and Prambanan.

Borobudur and Prambanan are relics of a time before Indonesia was the Muslim-majority country it is today.  The history of religion in Indonesia is every bit as fascinating as its current status. Following its animistic stage, Indonesia was predominantly Hindu and Buddhist, until traders introduced Islam in the 8th century.  Islam gradually became the dominant religion in the western part of what is now Indonesia (Eastern Indonesia is actually
predominantly Protestant and Catholic), in what was probably one of the most peaceful religious transitions in history.
During some research I did for my Western Religions course as an undergraduate, I came across a book that suggested Indonesia, while technically still majority Hindu and Buddhist, was actually quite secular at the time, and therefore Islam filled the natural human need for belief for those who might have felt some lack.[1]  Islam blended with the religious cultures
that already existed on these scattered islands, and reminders of its time as a majority Hindu and Buddhist culture still remain all over Indonesia.


Candi Borobudur, or Borobudur Temple, perhaps a mere three hours outside of Yogya, in Magelang, is the largest Buddhist Temple in the world.  It is supposed to be a ninth—some suggest eighth—century structure, making it the kind of old I can never really wrap my
head around.  In the 14th century Borobudur sort of disappeared, known only by the locals, but in the early 1800s it was “rediscovered,” and has been one of Indonesia’s top tourist destinations, well, pretty much ever since.


Like so many ancient structures, Borobudur seems defined by rock, carvings, and stairs.  Though there is a direct route strait up to the top of the temple, it is also possible to weave your way around the entirety of the structure, following the story of a prince as he achieves Nirvana on over 2,500 relief panels that decorate the interior walls of the temple.  Acid rain and the general wear and tear that comes from being centuries old has damaged many of these incredible detailed panels, but somehow their impressiveness endures.


Perhaps the most memorable part of Borobudur is the over 500 Buddha statues which seem to cover every available surface.  One of these Buddha statues is supposedly lucky, though I was unable to figure out which one would bring me good fortune.  The seventy-two statues at the top of the temple sit within perforated bell-shaped structures called stupa, and they create a magical atmosphere that is only accentuated by the misty rain that accompanied my climb.


Buddhism is one of the major world religions that regrettably I know the least about, as the one religion course I was able to cram into my over-stuffed undergraduate schedule focused on the monotheistic religions of the world.  Borobudur is a sacred place of which I cannot fully understand the religious significance, but by which I am completely capable of being impressed.  I feel blessed by whatever gods inspired its creation to have been able to ascend this amazing and magical piece of history.


I was also able to explore a second well-known temple during my time in Yogyakarta.  A short train ride from Yogya sits Candi Prambanan.


Prambanan is not the largest Hindu site in the world, but it is the largest in Indonesia, believed to have been built in the 8th century.  It was essentially abandoned by the dawn of the 10th century, and an earthquake in the 16th century destroyed Prambanan almost in its entirety.  Like its Buddhist cousin, Borobudur, it gained attention in the 1800s, but reconstruction did not truly begin until the early 1900s.  Currently, much of the temple remains in haphazard piles of stones, awaiting the funds and energy needed to rebuild this incredible site.

What has been rebuilt, however, is absolutely gorgeous, and it only is made more incredible by the ruins surrounding it.  Perhaps it is because I always fall in love with a work-in process—unfinished paintings, the outline of a poem—but I found Prambanan to be so much more incredible that Borobudur, even if it was physically less impressive.  But that is just my personal preference.


There are six main temples in the center portion of Prambanan, all of which have been rebuilt. The three largest are dedicated to Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma.  Huge statues of these gods are in the center of each temple, and statues of lesser gods are tucked into smaller rooms around the edges.  The three slightly smaller temples which sit across from these three are for the vahana (a kind of messenger, from my understanding) for each of these main gods: Nandi for Shiva, Garuda for Vishnu, and Hamza for Brahma.  Of the three vahana, only Nandi remains: the statues for Garuda and Hamza were never found amongst the ruins.


At Borobudur I was pretty much left up to my own devices, guided only by the Lonely Planet guidebook that is my constant travel companion and the little online research I had done prior to my trip to Yogyakarta.  At Prambanan, however, we were given one of the best tours I have ever experienced from two local college students, who were giving tours free of charge as part of their training.  They were well-informed, humorous, and downright adorable.  When
they asked us to write our commentary after the fact, I gave the warmest review I’ve ever written, and it was completely deserved.


Historical tourist sites are my greatest guilty pleasure, and my time in Yogyakarta was
full of them.  Standing in the shadow of a structure that has withstood time probably longer than my family name makes me feel small and insignificant in the most wonderful way; and here, where sometimes this small-town farm girl is treated like a queen, a moment of
blissful inconsequence is precisely what I needed.

[1] I do not boast to be an historian, and so while I do feel somewhat guilty that I cannot seem to track down the name of said book—because I remember it as being excellent and everyone should read it—I’m going to forego any kind of citation and hope you’ll go off and do some of your own research and not rely entirely on me.

Birds, Flowers, and Surprise Temples: Exploring the City of Malang

Creating and maintaining a consistent schedule has proven to be quite the challenge here, and so it was only recently that my site mate and I were able to acclimate ourselves to our weekly responsibilities and coordinate regular free time.  We are fortunately both free every other Monday, which allows us to explore areas in and near Malang while also avoiding tourist traffic.  Recently, she and I explored some of the more famous places within the city limits.

Hotel Tugu is a high end hotel near the center of Malang.  Neither my travel book nor the internet were able to give me much information about this remarkable place, but I was able to glean that Hotel Tugu has a sister hotel on the island of Bali, and that many of the trees I saw on the premise were rescued from the Malang Botanical Gardens when parts of it were destroyed by developers.  Inside the Hotel itself are artifacts from Indonesia, both from traditional culture and from the days of Dutch colonialism, as well as other parts of Asia.  In this way, Hotel Tugu doubles as a museum, and is free to the public.


Very little is labeled in Hotel Tugu, so while wandering its ground floor is fascinating, it is not particularly informative.   The occasional bowl might be labeled with a simple tag saying “Ming Dynasty,” but no more information is provided, and many items are not labeled at all.  I have always loved the education I am able to get from the more organized museums I have experienced in America and Europe, but there was something about trying to puzzle out what the uses and origins of different objects were that somehow embodied the heart of inquiry that I believe is part of any museum visit.


At one end of Hotel Tugu there is a kind of temple hidden in a corner.  Its tall, imposing sides and shadowy alcoves only sometimes occupied by statues transported us out of the bustling city of Malang and into a peaceful, solitary place for self-reflection… at least until the honking of horns reminded us that the busy street was just on the other side of it’s cool, stone walls.  Due to a lack of labeling and a shortage of information about Hotel Tugu online, I am unsure whether this temple is a restoration or a replica, and I have no idea what its name is.  But I was extremely appreciative of its lack of ropes and barriers, which allowed me to breathe in, touch, and even climb on the mysteries of this inexplicable artifact.


Near Hotel Tugu there are some fairly well-known markets, one of which is Pasar Bunga, or the flower market.  Blooms in every color line the street, and it was extremely difficult for me to not bring home a little potted plant to brighten my apartment.  I’m unsure of the regulations regarding bringing houseplants across borders, and feel it would be unkind to adopt a tiny sprig of life that might not be able to benefit from a green thumb after my time here.  But this was only my first visit to the market: I might not be able to resist next time.


After a short walk, Pasar Bunga turns into Pasar Senggol, Malang’s relatively famous bird market.  “Senggol” is essentially Indonesian for “bump into,” in reference to the crowded nature of the market on weekends, and of most markets in Indonesia, to be honest.  Fortunately for my site mate and I, it was relatively quiet, being a Monday, and while the market was still crowded with wood, metal, and plastic cages of varying ornateness, there were few people.


The bird market is filled with the calls and colors of tropical birds.  Many of the birds at the market are native to Indonesia, though not necessarily to Malang.  These winged jungle inhabitants are not the pigeons, sparrows, and swifts I am accustomed to seeing flying above the fields around my school.


The market did not limit itself to tropical song birds, and it had more than its fair share of owls, eagles, crows (which are supposedly still used in black magic rituals) and the ever-present chickens.  There were also, cats, dogs, monkeys, gerbils, geckos, and even the occasional snake.  Like most of Indonesia, it was a mix of the exciting and the ordinary; sometimes the two can be found perfectly blended into one small cage, such as the chicks we found that had been dyed various colors, for reason unknown to us.


Seeing so many animals in tiny cages was as heartbreaking as it was incredible.  I’ve never fully understood the desire to cage an animal meant to fly, and seeing these tropical birds pant under the hot afternoon sun to which they are unaccustomed made me want to break open every cage and set them free, but part of being a cultural ambassador is trying to reign in such impulses, and seek to understand, rather than judge.  After telling her that I had visited the bird market, one of my co-teachers told me of her husband’s love for birds, and how he loves his pet birds like they were his children; it seems that is some ways, not all birds in cages must also be prisoners.  Having been raised in the agricultural industry, I am acutely aware of how complicated the concept of domestication can be, and how important it is to educate ourselves about the aspects of animal-human relationships with which we are unfamiliar.  When I am able to keep the more sensitive side of me in check, I find it is actually exciting to have my own ideas of the rights and wrongs of animal care challenged.


Malang does not go completely unnoticed by tourists, as it is on the island of Java, the favorite child of Indonesia, but it is certainly not as popular as the islands of Bali and Lombok, or the cultural city of Yogyakarta in Central Java.  But with its own unique blend of familiar western influences and unfamiliar traditions and history, I could not have asked for a better city in which to have been placed.  I find it entirely appropriate that Malang is one of the university cities of Indonesia, because if there is one thing I am always doing here, it is learning.