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...


Anonymous said...

Your blogs are so well written and when they show up on my email screen, it's the first thing that I go to. I just love reading about your adventures. Ditch the skirts. Georgia

BigBirdFan said...

Why would you hike in a skirt??? Bob