I've collaborated with travel expert (I need one of those these days!) and new blogging friend, Kendra Thornton, to talk about some of the favorite things about our respective hometowns.
“So, what’s Indonesia like?”
I (Rebecca) hear the question all the time when I return to visit any of my old hometowns in America.
It seems strange to call a tiny island on the other side of the world from all that’s familiar my “hometown.” But for the past eight years, I’ve lived in Tarakan, Indonesia, an island about 10 by 13 miles in size, just on the equator, on the edge of an endangered rainforest and way outside of my comfort zone.
I live there with my three cute kids, my handsome jungle pilot hubby, and more than my share of geckos, shrews, cockroaches, ants and monitor lizards—none of which are pets.
What’s it like? Green. Hot. Fascinating. Adventurous. Noisy. Exciting. New. Spiritual. Friendly. Hard. Poor. Rich. Beautiful.
And most of all, life-changing.
While it’s a place, the people are what my adopted hometown has used to change me.
Indonesia has more than 700 different living languages, and on my small island, at least 10 are used. And from those tribal groups come specific styles of traditional dress, dance, religion, music, architecture, to name a few. In Tarakan, you can meet someone who grew up on the ocean—literally born and raised on a boat barely bigger than a canoe. You can meet someone whose grandfather was a headhunter, but is now part of a peace-loving tribe that lives mostly off the rainforest. And if you follow my recommended list of places to visit, you just might meet a king.
So, here’s my list of things to visit to get you as close as possible to my hometown’s biggest asset.
- Wet market. Tarakan has several markets that sell everything from the best mango you’ll ever taste to live chickens to traditional baskets to laundry soap. It’s the main place where locals buy their food for the day in a place where there is no Costco, not everyone has a refrigerator and food is almost always made from scratch. It’s also a great place to meet people of different Indonesian cultures. No matter how busy the place gets, there’s always time conversation, laughter and relationships.
- The village on the docks: Built entirely on stilts over water, this neighborhood of several thousand people links land and ocean through a network of wooden planked paths. Watch your step as you wave at the children calling out to you. Stop in the tiny shops in front of the homes to buy rice or fresh coconut. And notice how both the very poor and the rich have chosen to build homes in a way unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
- Traditional Tidung House. Make time to meet a real-live king of an ancient Borneo tribe at this hand-carved museum and pavilion and house and pond. The Tidung tribe (of some 200,000 people) is one of the original tribes to the island of Tarakan. And they are one of the friendliest, offering visitors hot tea, some informal language lessons and a free tour of the grounds. And if you show up on a Sunday afternoon, come hungry and ready to be invited to have a meal with the tribe’s royal, but very down-to-earth, family.
- Green rice: It’s hard to choose just one place to eat in Tarakan. You can eat fish that was just caught, baked to perfection, topped with several types of spicy sauces .You can top veggies with rich peanut sauce. Or enjoy fresh clams, shrimp, crab in a café overlooking the ocean. But one of my favorites is a place where the rice is green, the food is so popular it runs out before the line does, and where the cook is so friendly she remembers my kids’ names. It’s located on the grounds of the airport and while the sign on the door names it simply “Kantin,” (Canteen) everyone knows it as “Nasi Hijau” or Green Rice. Tell them I sent you and maybe they’ll save you some.
- A small plane or a smaller boat. Tarakan is a jumping off place for the remote rainforest of Borneo and other nearby islands. Take a Mission Aviation Fellowship plane if you want to go jungle-trekking or just visit a rustic village. Take a speed boat to some of the nearby islands of Derawan, Sangalaki, and Kakaban that offer amazing snorkeling and SCUBA diving trips.
But whatever you do, plan time for the people. And watch your life become changed.
Back stateside, one of the biggest, busiest cities is Chicago, Illinois. Home to millions, one of their local advocates, Kendra Thornton, is here to talk about her favorite aspects of the city.
Kendra: From the outdoor parks and the booming downtown scene, to the wonderful artistry and the skyscrapers around every corner, Chicago is BIG. However, one of my favorite parts about this big city is the way that people take such ownership over everything local that it makes you feel cultured and at home no matter where you are. Whether at a Cubs game, or shopping at one of the local boutiques, you will find the true Chicago spirit.
1. When it comes to shopping, Chicago is one of the best places to be. One of my personal favorite places to find anything from stylish shoes to a winter sweater is Oak Street. While only one block, Oak Street offers tremendous shopping options to even to most keen dresser. Also, Oak Street is very historical as an area, with many of the boutiques being old, converted town homes and brownstones. This adds to the Chicago feel as you are shopping.
2. It may sound touristy, but one of my favorite places to bring my kids on a Saturday during the fall is Navy Pier. There is so much to do, with rides, shopping, dining, and more. One of the coolest aspects of this park is the 150-foot tall Ferris wheel. When at the peak of the wheel, you have a gorgeous view of the city on one side, and of Lake Michigan on the other. It is a gorgeous scene, and the kids love it as well. This Ferris wheel is modeled after the original Ferris wheel, built in 1893 for Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition, so there is some history behind it as well.
3. This might not sounds like much of an activity, per se, but one of my favorite things about Chicago is just admiring the beauty of the city as a whole. It is architecturally impressive with its massive buildings, including the Willis Tower (America’s tallest buildings). For anyone else coming to visit to roam the city, use a site like gogobot to check out an extensive list of hotels in Chicago. Many of the older hotels still have their original designs, giving you a feel of what life was one like in Chicago. To really love a city, you can’t just love what’s inside it, but the actual city itself.
4. There are numerous food options in Chicago that I love, but one of my favorites is Fred’s at Barneys. This modern day bistro is a classy establishment with high-end items, but for a downtown Chicago restaurant, the prices are not through the roof. One thing I am always blown away by here is the customer service; they go the extra mile to make sure the customer has a great dining experience.
photo credit, NASA Goddard Photo and Video