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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Snapshot: Kendari, Sulawesi Tenggara

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A fun little rumah makan (restaurant) on the water.

Shortly after arriving back in Indonesia, I had the opportunity to travel to several cities across the archipelago, as part of inspecting and preparing sites that had not had an ETA before this year.  This “Snapshot” series is composed of short pieces about my all-too-brief visits to these beautiful and fascinating places, which are now the temporary homes of ETAs from the 2016-17 cohort.

My first site visit was to Kendari, in Southeastern Sulawesi.  In many ways, going to Kendari felt a bit like returning to my second home in Indonesia, Gorontalo.  Boarding the same flight from Jakarta to Makassar that was so often part of my way back to site after training or travel to other parts of Indonesia, I was unprepared for the way nostalgia would crash down upon me, so soon after leaving Gorontalo.  After arriving in Kendari, I was constantly struck by how similar the two places were.  The way the sun beat down upon us and The way smoke billowed up against the background of a clear blue sky (so different from the haze I am now more accustomed to seeing in Jakarta) from the ikan bakar (grilled fish) stands lining the streets took me back to nights at my favorite warungs (hole-in-the-wall restaurants) with friends.  The way the tones of their Bahasa Indonesia danced up and down like children jumping rope echoed the lilt of my teachers’ joking in dewan guru (the teachers’ room) at MAN Model, the very accent I also had developed during my time there, for which my coworkers still tease me on occasion.

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In the center of Kendari there stands a massive menara (tower), originally built for a Qur’an-reading competition.  Though the stairs in the tower are slowly rusting away, I decided to follow the lead of the local young people, and climb it anyway (much to the horror of the colleague who was in Kendari with me): I was rewarded for my slight insanity with some beautiful views of Kendari.

Kendari and Gorontalo do in fact have a lot in common.  Both are coastal towns in Sulawesi.  Both are the ibu kota (capital) of their province.  Both are Muslim-majority areas.  Both are fairly conservative.  Both are stopover points on the way to popular tourist destinations, but are not often considered tourist destinations themselves.

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Sinonggi, also know as papeda, a local dish made from sagu.

But of course, Kendari and Gorontalo are not one and the same.  Kendari is significantly bigger than Gorontalo, with more than twice the population size, and this changed the feel of the town considerably.  The bits of local language thrown in were not Bahasa Gorontalo, and even certain mannerisms were different, reminding me that I could not so easily slip into my Gorontalo ways and pass as someone familiar with Kendari.  These differences only made me enjoy my time there more, and I am excited to talk to the ETAs who will live there when they return to Jakarta for their MidYear Enrichment Conference, to learn more about these differences from folks who have had more than a few days there.

Nonetheless, there was something very universally familiar woven into Kendari, and I loved that.  I’m excited for the three ETAs who are placed in Kendari this year, and I hope that someday they might feel the same way I did, boarding that plane out of Java, headed for Sulawesi, headed for home.

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.

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.

To Market, To Market

When I first came to Indonesia, I was terrified of the pasar (market).  It was loud, crowded, hot, and full of entirely unfamiliar and not always pleasant smells.  And in Indonesia, unless you are at the rare stall that uses harga pas (fixed price), you are expected to menawar (bargain), and I am terrible at haggling: I’m never aggressive enough, and always end up either stubbornly walking away on the principle that I should not be grossly overcharged just because I am a foreigner (therefore empty handed), or submitting to being charged harga bule (the foreigner’s price) (therefore with damaged pride).

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Approaching the market, surrounded by bentors, as it always is.

Throughout my first grant, I rarely had any need for the pasar, as I ate all of my meals at school and wasn’t overly fond of berbelanja (shopping), generally speaking.  Every so often, I stopped by the fruit stalls that were near the entrance of a market I would pass on my way home from school, and bought batik fabric (the one thing, other than books, I do enjoy shopping for) from the market a handful of times, but for the most part, I avoided them.

This year, I live right in the middle of two of the main markets in town.  Pasar Selasa (the Tuesday Market) is perhaps a ten minute walk from my house, and Pasar Rabu (the Wednesday Market), is a mere five.  And both semesters, my class schedule has allowed me a free morning on at least one of these days.  Since I am on my own for meals this year, and wanted to do some of my own cooking—instead of just eating at the warung near my house—without paying ridiculous grocery store prices, I decided I would need to brave the market.

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The tarps give everything in the market a warm orange glow.

For the first few months, market day was my least favorite day of the week.  I would wake up early, knowing it would take me at least a half hour of hovering in my front room to work up the courage to actually walk out the door and head to the market.  Market day was a day of dripping with sweat under the make-shift tents, no matter how close to opening I arrived.  Market day was trying to get fair price for the vegetables on my list without having to go to too many sellers.  Market day was trying to weave through the crowd amidst the cacophony of shouting (in Indonesian mostly, but the occasional English, too)—“Ayam! Ayam! (Chicken! Chicken!) Miss! Cantik! (Beautiful!) Ikan!  Ikan! (Fish Fish!) Mister! You like fish?”—as I tried to find the one tempe and tahu (tofu) seller that I had been promised was at the back of the market[1].

Some people are good at this kind of chaos.  I am not one of them.

Still, I kept going, every week, week after week, month after month.  I told myself the fresh vegetables were worth it (and they absolutely are), and refused to give up and only eat out.  And slowly, market day became a bit less intimidating.

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My tempe/tahu lady on the right, and Mr. Kopi on the right.  They’re always teasing one another, and I ended up capturing it when I tried to take a picture of them.

By this point, I am well-known at Pasar Selasa (Pasar Rabu is no longer as convenient because of my new school schedule).  I have my favourite sellers from which to buy various delicious, fresh vegetables and fruits, and they are always telling me what is in season and how the weather is affecting various crops (it has been particularly dry this year, and the manner in which they lament this fact takes me back to my own farming community in New York).  The man I buy eggs from asks me about my classes.  The fish sellers know by now that I do not buy fish, and have ceased to try to tempt me with their fresh, still-flopping wares, except occasionally in jest.  There is a man who sells coffee next to the only stall that sells tempe/tahu, and it has become a running joke for him to try to convince me to buy coffee from him, even though I always tell him that I only drink tea.  I didn’t make it to the market at all in January (except for the occasional quick trip to get eggs for breakfast), because I had gotten busy, and when I finally went for a full-fledged shopping trip in early February, my tempe/tahu lady actually asked me if I was okay: after not seeing me for so many weeks, she thought maybe I was ill; I smiled warmly at her kindness, and noted to myself that I wouldn’t have this element of community if I had given up on the market  experience entirely.

Though I feel I have gotten much better at the ins and outs of market life in Indonesia, I have yet to master it, and I look forward to my relaxed, quiet farmers’ markets at home.  But nonetheless, the pasar has become a key part of my life here, and I have come to find joy in the chaos.

[1] While I am not a vegetarian, I find that cooking meat for one person is far more work than it is worth, especially with only a single burner in which to cook anything, so I tend to only eat meat when I go to a warung.