– By Ian Morse, ETA in Gorontalo –
When I walk around town, it’s not uncommon to hear shouts of Mister! from people I have never seen before. Mostly, it seems, people just want to acknowledge the foreigner since they don’t see many like me in Gorontalo, at least outside of their television.
But it’s becoming more common that a Mister! comes from a friend.
When my neighbor and I stopped for gas a week ago, I ignored the first few misters I heard. But one seemed persistent. I turned and down the road, a man stood with legs spread and arms wide. Where did you just come from? A typical question, but he acted like he knew me. From over there, I answered. Then I took a closer look.
It was Rijal, and this was the fourth occasion that I had seen him somewhere in the province. He was washing his angkot (a small bus). I called his name from two houses away and he pumped his arm at my achievement in remembering his name. Indeed, I did have three times to practice.
The first time I met Rijal was in my first or second week. He drove a student and me to a nearby pool to meet other teachers, and he witnessed my first taste of sweet corn grilled by the side of the road. Through a great, shining white grin, he told me he was only a year older than me, 23, and he had a child with his wife. On the way home, he devoted the rest of his phone data plan to a Facebook live video of the three of us.
Yet I forgot his name the second time we met. When the school ordered a few buses to transport students across the province for a sports day, Rijal appeared behind me with his angkot. He asked if I remembered his name. Nope. But he didn’t remember mine either. A few weeks later, I walked out of the bathroom on a nearby island. What’s up? I heard from several meters away. I answered but paid little attention. He held his glance a bit longer than usual, so I stared back until I realized. Rijal laughed again when I tried to guess his name (even though he still couldn’t guess mine).
You’re not supposed to see someone you know so far away right? Something must be a little fishy after seeing someone four times. Maybe I ought to expect that I’ve already met everyone I see.
On our way back from that island, there was a honk behind us, then a wave from the driver. It was a man I had met in a nearby city, seen later at the fish market in the big city, and now on a road on the other side of the province. Three weeks previous, a few hours away, a teacher and I found someone to direct us back home. It was none other than a fellow soccer player from the games outside my house.
I’m quickly realizing the kind of place Gorontalo province really is. A 1.2-million-strong small town. Everybody seems to know each other, even the newcomer who has only been here three months. I’ve lived in many places, but I’ve never lived in a place so sparsely populated but so strongly connected. It’s strange to think I found the most close-knit community on the other side of the world.
The province’s geography tends to force people together. This sliver of land in the North of Sulawesi is buttressed from the sea by forested mountains, and almost everything fits in the valley in between. The main city of Gorontalo lies at the mouth of the biggest river in the eastern part of the province. Two roads connect it to the rest of the province, one in the North and one in the South. They eventually converge, creating a heavily travelled but poorly managed road stretching west. Everyone will travel these roads eventually, and most people outside the city live on them. It makes it easy to point out where someone lives: by the school over there, next to the statue, at the intersection. When I told a new acquaintance I met in the city that I lived in “Tabongo by the big field,” she knew exactly where. Incidentally, she and her father often sold vegetables at a market near me.
Such a big small town also means that many of the things I do are soon spread, especially as a foreigner. A day after I had held a discussion in the city, the daughter of a warung owner sent me pictures of myself. She either had a spy at the event or somehow my face travelled through cyber space to this breakfast stand I frequent.
After not long here at all, I feel sure that I can travel anywhere and find a friend or make a new acquaintance along the way. It’s definitely comforting when every day feels like treading new waters. This does however mean that I should get better at learning names.