Wednesday, October 31, 2007

What the Dili yo?

So I am in Dili. Dili is the capital of the world’s newest country, Timor Leste (established 2002). You probably have older things in your refrigerator.

I haven’t seen much of the country yet, as the hotel is right next door to the office and I spend most of my time in one of those two places. I will give you a little bit of fun background on things that I have learned in my security briefing yesterday. (Delivered by the biggest Ken doll I have ever seen.)

In addition to your general corruption, pollution, poverty, power cuts etc. problems of a standard developing world city, Dili has a smidge of a problem with politically motivated riots and gang violence. Though the curfew has recently been lifted (you can now go out after 6 pm), it is recommended that people don’t travel alone at night and that women don’t take taxis after dark. (We just fit so easily into the trunk.)

The World Bank office is directly next door to my hotel on the road that faces the beach (great sunsets apparently). It is safe to walk between these to places, and to any nearby restaurants in the direction of Jesus. (Catholics. Always with the giant Jesus overlooking the city.)

Do not, however, walk towards the restaurants in other direction late at night. While the WB building is on one side of the hotel, the other next door neighbor is a particularly militant IDP camp. [IDP means Internally Displaced Person, UN lingo for refugees.] And once the IDPs get to a-drinkin’ all hell can break lose.

Arriving at the WB building, there is a concrete slab and with a simple metal cross on it just outside the gate. I thought it was a just remnant of an old fence, but apparently it is marks the site where someone was killed.

World Bank Timor Leste: “No one killed out front since May!”

And I have this great driver named Ano. He looks like the guy that your mother won’t let you go out with in high school. Sunglasses all the time, tattoos, tricked out black Nissan… It even has one of those weird ultimate-spoiler things on the back, like the cars in Jersey. I felt like such a badass rolling up to my meeting with the UNDP.

I am making it sound worse that it is. Mostly to get a reaction out of my mother who has been in full blown panic mode since I arrived. Don’t worry Mom, I will be fine.

And happy Halloween to everyone. (I am sort of hoping they don’t celebrate it here.)

Friday, October 26, 2007

Coming Soon to a Tsunami-Affected Islamic Separatist Province Near You!

So I am at the end of my time here in Aceh. Nothing too thrilling happened here this week, most the usual drill of survey piloting. I don’t even have any pictures. For those of you looking for excitement, this is not the posting. For those of you that just want an update, I will offer a typical day here in Aceh.

At 4:45 in the morning the mosque next to my hotel window starts the morning prayer call. Normally this doesn’t bother me, I actually think for the muezzin that do well it is really beautiful. This one, however, is bone-jarringly loud and goes on for a half hour instead of the usual few minutes. I roll over and eventually get back to sleep, until the alarm goes of at 6:30.

I walk into the bathroom to use the squat toilet. I dump a scoop full of water from the tiled basin to flush, then dump the second scoop over my head to wash my face. I brush my teeth from my water bottle, then take another scoop of water to wash the soap and toothpaste down the drain in the floor. I put on a full length skirt and long sleeved button down shirt, my wannabe Mormon missionary get-up from Tajikistan. I twist my slightly greasy hair into a bun, liberally apply sunscreen, grab my hijab and head to breakfast.

Breakfast is leftover rice with too much chili. Normally I won’t eat much, but I skipped dinner the night before to get a couple more hours sleep. (We didn’t get in from the field until after 10.) Chili rice it is. Over breakfast we de-brief our survey team from yesterday and set out the plan for the day. Load the bags, pile into the Kijang 4x4, and head out.

The first interview I observe is with an ex-combatant from the Aceh independence movement. The top half of his arm is completely scarred and he carried a photograph of himself topless in his shirt pocket. His back looks like thatch because of the scars from a whipping he received from soldiers when he was caught as a rebel. Our survey indicated that his faith in formal government systems of justice is somewhat minimal.

Second interview is with a widow in a bamboo house. Since I can’t understand the language being spoken, I spend most of the time making faces at two little girls playing on the floor next to us – both of us trying not to get caught. When they are chased out, I spend the rest of the interview trying to figure out whether the tickling on the back on my legs is sweat or ants.

Lunch was served on the floor of the unfinished mosque. It was rice and sauce, with a piece of chicken – take-out from a nearby town that came wrapped in a banana leaf. I showed my usual dexterity eating with my hands (plus my headscarf kept falling when I leaned forward to eat.) I spend five minutes outside picking the bits of rice off of my scarf and skirt.

At the interview immediately after lunch, Dad was stuck watching the kid during the interview. Little boy was about three and his father was one of the richest and most educated people in the village. Boy starts out by knocking the tea glasses down because he doesn't have one. Then he screams and hits Dad's leg until Dad forks over what even I consider an obscene sum of money to give to a toddler. Then Boy discovers the cigarette lighter, which he is obviously an old pro at because he knows how to turn the flame all the way up and singe an eyebrow. Grandma comes home to see Boy sitting on the rug, having removed his pants, drinking a cup of ultra-caffeinated sugar tea, and trying to light the money on fire with a small blowtorch. In another testament to the universality of humanity, her expression was vintage "I can't believe my daughter married this bonehead, no matter how much money he has..."

We push through with the rest of the surveys, and just after dark, load up the car to head back to the main city, about two hours drive. We stop for duck and shrimp dinner at a roadside joint. Back in Banda Aceh, we check into a nice hotel and crash. Back up at 6 to incorporate the edits from the day before and head out to survey tsunami-effect areas.

Yeah, like I mention, not every day can be an adventure. I am heading down towards Timor Leste tomorrow (I saw towards because the Indonesian low cost carrier I am flying was naughty and customs impounded six planes from its fleet this week – throwing a bit of a wrench in the schedule…)

Monday, October 22, 2007

Islam and Kristen

So I spent the last week on the Maluku islands, out near Papua. You generally know that when you are headed to a place described as “out near Papua,” it is going to be an interesting week.

A brief history of the Maluku islands: They were commonly known in the 17th century as the Moloccas, or the original Spice Islands. They are the starting point for things like cloves and nutmeg that were eventually grown in tropics around the world. The islands are divided between Muslim and Christian populations (“Islam” and “Kristen” as it is in local language) and a few years back there were riots between the two groups. Now, the World Bank is doing a program to increase access to justice in these areas, and I am here to write and pilot a baseline survey.

My partner in crime for this little adventure was a Jakarta-based Australian who, for our purposes, shall be known as Captain Kangaroo. The two of us, plus three local consultants from main city of Ambon, one happy-go-lucky chauffeur (who was a terrible driver), and a Kijang 4x4, set out the next day to cross the bay for Serum Island, where we would working for the week. As with all best laid plans, the hope was to start out early. That was over before it began when we hit a snag at the ferry dock. After the “troubles” a couple years back, NGO workers descended on the province to do post-conflict reconciliation work. I will reserve my judgment if their programs had any lasting effects beyond firmly establishing the precedent that white people pay more for the ferry. As it is against World Bank official regulations to bribe the harbor mafia, and therefore a complete bitch to expense, we weren’t going to do that. After a few hours squabbling, we were finally off.

With this delay, the first day was sort of a wash. The second day we decided that we should go to a remote indigenous village. The survey we were testing was designed to assess the impact of access to justice programs for vulnerable groups, included in which are both remote and indigenous populations. Fine. I guess we need to go there and figure that out.

The night before we got out the map and selected a village that looked to be about an hour drive followed by an hour walk. Seemed remote enough to suit our purposes but still within reason. We set off the next morning at 6:30 am. (Again, best laid plans…) The drive takes about an hour to get to the small village where we pick up a guide. Always a bad sign, he carries a stout and well-used walking stick. We drive another hour as the road steadily deteriorates.

Eventually we run out of road and hop out to start the walk. We are informed at this point that the walk is actually 2.5 hours. Shit. We are past the point of no return in terms of having time to go to another remote village so there isn’t much choice but to go anyway. We walk up a hill through thigh high grass to top of the first hill. The guide points to where we are going. It is a tiny wisp of smoke rising from the thick forest. The good news is that it is about the same elevation at which we are currently. The bad news is that the only way to get there is to walk into the valley then back up the other side. We are informed at this time that the walk will actually take 3.5 hours because 2.5 is the time that is takes the locals to do it. (We are not locals, Captain Kangaroo and I are foreigners and the other three are “city people” from the thriving metropolis of Ambon.) I look down at my collared shirt and full length sensible skirt, already dark with patches of sweat. Then it starts raining.

We climb to the top of the hill, then start down the valley. The going is slick as the dirt trail becomes mud. Even though I wore my most sensible flats that day, they are not meant for this. Passing the other direction are a steady flow of people from the village carrying sacks of cloves – the major crop of the village where we are headed. They shake their heads and tell us to be careful. Grabbing on shrubs and long grass, I skid down the path to the bottom of the valley.

Here is where it gets interesting. The fields are behind us and we are standing on the edge of a dense rainforest. The only way to the other side of the valley is to cross the river about one kilometer through the forest. The only way to get to the river is to follow the stream that cuts a path through the trees.

I look down at mud-splattered leather shoes. There is no way I can walk through the river in these. The others are rolling up pants and sticking shoes into backpacks. Well, I guess some part of me always wanted to walk barefoot through a jungle. I un-strap my shoes, hitch up my skirt, and step in. (Worker’s Comp covers bilharzia right?)

The rocks are sharp and we pick our way through the calf deep water. We walk intermittently through the stream and on the path beside it. The path is nice because it is just mud and therefore soft, but I am constantly worried about stepping on snakes, spiders, centipedes or any other jungle-dwellers that might be hanging about the place.

We eventually make it to the river. The water in the center was up to my thighs (no hitching the skirt high enough here) and the current was fairly swift. More than once I stepped on something sharp and almost lost it. Relieved to make it to the other side, I wrung the river out of my now quite-bedraggled sensible skirt and strapped my shoes back on.

The walk itself would have been pretty had it not been almost completely vertical. The trail wound through the forest, through pineapple patches, thick undergrowth and past giant drum trees. As the hours wore on and we got higher, we passed people up in the trees harvesting cloves. Finally, after nearly three hours, soaked through with sweat and rain, we arrived in the village.

The village chief was surprised to see white people. Apparently we usually think this is too hard and turn back at the water. Captain Kangaroo and I also were the only ones in our group that kept pace with the guide the whole time. We arrived 15 minutes ahead of the rest of our team.

First off I drank a half a pitcher of water. We hadn’t anticipated the hike and didn’t have a half liter between all of us. It was untreated local water – which had the distinctive flavor of smoked gouda cheese – but at that moment I more than willing to trade dehydration now for dysentery later. Properly hydrated, we went to work, spending the afternoon walking through streets covered with cloves drying on palm mats, and testing the surveys. At three we had to call it quits to make it to the car before dark. Back down the mountain and across the river we went.

The driver was waiting for us with bottles of water when we got back to the car. Captain Kangaroo and I were the first ones to arrive – 2.5 hours flat. The driver had said that he had met some of the villagers walking with the clove harvest. They told him about the two white people on the mountain. They were amazing! They were able to walk just as fast as the villagers and the lady was even wearing a skirt! Major street cred for the World Bank.

The rest of the week was much tamer. The Captain and I decided that one remote village was plenty and stuck to places that can be driven to. The days are long, we work from usually 7 am (we stopped doing that up-at-dawn thing because it always seemed to backfire) and we have gone to midnight almost every night. But the food is good. Pretty much the only thing to eat here is fresh fish (and shrimp and squid) grilled on a coconut husk fire, which is pretty much okay with me. We were even able to find a Christian place for dinner one night that served alcohol. (Those crazy Kristens and their beer.)

Now I am back in Jakarta, desperately trying to fit a week of work into a couple of hours. Headed out to Aceh in the morning...

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Bali Birthday

There are times in one's life when there is a tendency to be reflective. To look at your life, and where you are, and wonder if you took the right turns along the way. I had one of those moments – sitting alone, on my 28th birthday, looking at my dusty backpack, knowing that I was still single, owned no assets, and had a checking account that would be stretched to put a down payment on a new car – much less anything else.

Then they made the boarding announcement for my flight to Bali. The path of life looks a lot better when it goes through Bali.

And so I set off for my Bali Birthday adventure. There was a long weekend here for the end of Ramadan (Selamat Idul Fitri 1428 h!), four days in Bali for me. I arrived late on Thursday night in the village of Ubud in the center of the island. The extent of the birthday festivities that night was thoroughly checking the room for spiders, and then going to sleep.

The next day I did all the things that women like to do on their birthdays, shopping and the spa. Ubud is know for its chic galleries and many jewelry designers. I spent the morning collecting Christmas gifts (and just a couple little things for me). Eventually, my enthusiasm for consumerism started to wane, so I decided to do something cultural. I went to the Sacred Monkey Sanctuary in the south of town. I should have know it was going to be a complete shit show from the sign at the entrance. The first thing I hear is the high pitched squeal of a spoiled American three year old, "No Monkey! My Banana!" I left the little blond curly thing to the mercy of the God of Rabid Things and continued into the park. The little vermin were everywhere (monkeys – not three year olds), crawling and climbing. I walked through the tress, admired the carved stonework and the Hindu temples, and just generally kept to myself. After a while, my spirit was sufficiently calm and I decided I was ready for round 2 at the shops. As I headed for the gate, I suddenly felt a sharp tug on my shopping bag full of Christmas gifts, and heard the high pitched squeal of a spoiled American 28 year old, "No Monkey! My Shopping!" I found myself in a tug-of-war with a sizable grey monkey. Neither of us was giving up any time soon, and I might still be there if the bag had not ripped. I gathered my gifts from the ground and strode off as dignifiedly as I could while that little grey bastard bounced up and down on a nearby tree branch, shrieking and waving the scraps of black plastic at me. Damn Monkeys.

Sufficiently unmellowed by the experience, I sought refuge in a spa. The rose petal pedicure helped. And things were going well with the facial until the special 15 minute "relaxation time" came. I was supposed to lay back and listen to the waterfall as my mud masque dried. I lasted about 5 before I peeled off my eye patches and dug out my paperback.

You will be happy to know however that I was able to recover enough to spend the rest of the day shopping. That night I was supposed to go to a traditional Balinese dance performance. I lingered over my chardonnay at dinner. I really didn't want to go. I got the tickets because I thought it was important to see some traditional aspects of the local culture. But dance bores the living crap out of me. And I felt vaguely wrong about spending the last night of Ramadan in the world's most populous Muslim country at a Hindu dance performance (Bali is the exception in Indonesia, they are 95 percent Hindu.)

I got there 15 minutes late and had to stand in the back. The first half was nice. Dancers in extravagant costumes re-enacted scenes from the Ramayana (which I did actually read in Mrs. Fleming's 9th grade Global Studies class, but can't remember at all) around a fire chandelier. They were surrounded by a large group of what seemed to refugees from Old Timers Day at suma wrestling arena, who clapped and chanted and generally served the function of a Greek chorus.

For the second half, the chandelier was removed. A man carried out a basket that could have comfortable contained a European economy car, filled with dry coconut husks. He dumped them in a pile in the middle of the stage. Then a boy danced out with a bottle of clear fluid that unmistakably smelled like lighter fluid. He doused the pile. An Indonesian woman in the front row gathers her two children and moves to the back. A man with a torch walks out and woosh, we have a bonfire. As the fire crackles, a man in a straw rooster costume dances out with bare feet.

Now, to quote that cultural icon famous across the world, Eminem, things are about to get heavy.

The barefoot guy in the straw costume runs into the fire, kicking sparks and flame everywhere. He dances out and two fire sweeper guy sweep the coals into a pile again. Straw Rooster runs into it again, kicking sparks and flame. The smoke by now is thick and people in the first row are covering their faces and fleeing for the back. Clearing space for me to get a good seat. Another pile, another pass by Straw Rooster. This time the burning coconuts land in the first row of seats of the left side, scattering Japanese tourists and sending 10 megapixal digital cameras flying. The English guy in front of me calmly tapped out his smoldering tee-shirt sleeve. This goes on for another 10 minutes or so until the embers are burned almost completely to ash. Then the house lights come on, the bucket brigade arrives to extinguish the stage and Straw Rooster sits down, his legs black to the knees, and collects tips from a blackened and slightly traumatized audience. I left with a new respect for dancers.

The next morning I got up early for a walk about the rice paddies. The Lonely Planet had mapped out a nice route, on which I promptly got completely lost and spent two hours wandering around, trying to ask directions from very confused farmers. Got some good pictures though.

That afternoon I headed for Amed, a fishing and scuba diving village on the east coast. For a whopping $9 a night, I got a big room at a hotel on the beach, with a balcony overlooking the ocean. Black sand beach and excellent snorkeling a couple meters off the beach. Which was nice and all, but let's be honest, I was there to dive.

A twenty minute drive away was the wreck of the USS Liberty. A supply ship sunk by Japanese torpedoes in WWII, it has since broken apart and has some beautiful coral growing on it. The first drive I did was a night dive. There is something excitingly clandestine about walking across the beach in full scuba gear under a moonless sky. You feel ready to invade a country. The dive itself was one of the best I've done. Night time is feeding time, so it is neat in a sort of Nature Channel way to see them eating each other. And there are huge parrot fish that are out at night. They are up to five feet long and three feet tall. They look like tropical fish on steroids. Plus they have these huge buck teeth for gnawing on the coral. So they look like hillbilly tropical fish on steroids.

But the best part was the flashlight fish. They have glowing strips about their foreheads. When you put out your dive lamps, they will swim around you. Suspended in water and in the pitch black, you are surrounded by hundreds of shimmering blue lights. It's like being in space. Incredible feeling.

The next day I made two more dives, one on the wreck in the daylight and one on a nearby coral wall. Both were really nice, and generally I would say that there isn't anything comparable to swimming around something man-made under the water, but they paled in comparison to the night before.

That evening I set out for Titra Gangaa, a cute little village in the rice terrace country. In the morning I took a tour of the local rice terraces, sunlight hitting the green with the volcano in the back and the ocean in front. Beautiful. Peaceful. Relaxing. Or as relaxing as I ever find anything.

I am going to stick in a couple extra pictures here at the end because my mother doesn't think I post enough pictures.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Shootin' the Breeze in Jakarta

So I am in Jakarta. Working. Travel to exotic locales is infinitely less interesting when all you ever see is your hotel room, the back of a taxi and the inside of an office in a high-rise building. (There are a bunch of high-rises here in Jakarta, rising out the smog like mountains above the cloud line.)

The trip over was uneventful – though I did have my most interesting breakfast to date at the airport hotel in Tokyo. Boiled fish paste with wasabi, seaweed, pickled vegetables, and a stack of silver dollar pancakes. Not bad, all things considered. Way better than the in-flight eel.

Today is Sunday, so I took the day off to see the tourist sites that Jakarta has to offer. In deciding how I was going to get across down to the historic district, I had two choices. Go WorldBank, and take an air-conditioned taxi, or let the inner backpacker come out a play a bit, and get on the public train.

[Little background on the transportation scene here: it sucks. The city is built to handle the traffic of a middle income developing country, then apparently surprised the city planners one morning by waking up the fifth biggest city in the world. Gridlock is the rule during rush hour, and it can take 2 hours to go 6 or 7 miles. Walking would be faster, but those same forward looking city planners opted not to include sidewalks in their designs. Nothing moves fast enough to kill you if it hit you, but it hotter than hell here with dizzying level of pollution. The train serves a limited area but is the fastest way to get around many times, if you can get on. The cars look like low-rent versions of the NYC subway cars from the 1980s, with the graffiti and less than subtle eau d’urine flavoring. At rush hour, the cars move slowly along the tracks, with hundreds crammed inside, scores hanging off the holes-that-would-be-doors-had-there-been-doors, wind-surfer style, and a couple hundred more sprawled across the roof.]

I chose train over traffic. And was lucky to get a pole two rows in from the windsurfers by the open door. Good breeze.

So eventually I arrived in the historic district. It was certainly old. There were the remnants of the Dutch colonial presence, your standard cannons, lighthouses and now-fetid canals. The lighthouse was actually pretty neat because no one had bothered to block off the dangerous bits (I love countries without liability laws), and you could climb all the way out on to the shingled roof, balance with the weather vain, and check out the harbor. It was actually not a bad view. Good breeze.

Other highlights included: The puppet museum, with incredible intricate hand cut paper shadow puppets. I had wanted to see a performance, but there are none until the holy month of Ramadan ends [Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world], so I had to make do with poking around the displays. The old Dutch officers club, still teak paneling and ceiling fans, but they let any old yahoo come in now and order strawberry juice. The Chinese quarter, which like every Chinese quarter in the world, is characterized by colorful temples and confusingly inexpensive electronics. And those little turtles.

Sorry this isn’t more interesting this time. Like I mentioned, that whole work thing puts a damper on the adventure. Things should pick up over the next couple weeks, I am going to spend the long weekend for the end of Ramadan backpacking in Bali, then we are going pilot testing in a couple of the more remote parts of the country. I’ll try to take pictures of the head-hunters after we interview them – I am not really sure how the cannibals feel about cameras, but I am not going to push the issue too much.