Monday, October 28, 2013

Birthday Overseas

I turned 40 last weekend. I feel confident that the festivities around my birthday reflect the energy and excitement of the past decade and set an auspicious beginning to the next.  I still feel like there has been a math error somewhere along the way, but I am just going to roll with it and model the adage that you are only as old as you feel.

L-R Me, Elizabeth, Pari, Carin, Ash, Arjun
Stage 1 of my birthday project took place about 5 weeks ago. Shortly after arriving in Yogya, I learned that 2 other women in my house were also October babies... and we would all be entering a new decade, 20's, 30's and 40's. Unfortunately, our travel schedules had us in different places on any of the birthdays, so we started early. It was decided that a suitable celebration for three such worldly, wise and fascinating women would be a trip to a breakfast buffet to stuff ourselves silly. So, we gathered our best housemates, put on our finest elastic-waisted clothing and headed to the remarkable buffet at a fancy hotel.

We play in a band... a gamelan band
We enjoyed gorging on cheese and bread (not commonly found here) and thoroughly confusing the guy manning the juicer station with our odd juice requests (I tried to recreate apple, kale, ginger juice using Indonesian ingredients). It might have been our indulgence in too many lattes (also rarely found here), but we got a little adventurous and asked if Ash, one of the birthday girls and a student of gamelan, might sit in with the players. Unfortunately, they had retired for the day, so it was up to the rest of us to back her up (much to her mortification), but the staff seemed to enjoy the spectacle of foreigners ineptly jamming.

After lunch and jamming time, we wandered around the hotel garden, feeding the fish and waiting for our food stupor to subside. It was a lovely relaxing afternoon with wonderful friends... the kind of day I can't get enough of. It was topped off by a surprise cake from Elizabeth who had hidden it in the warung next door because the birthday ladies were always around and she couldn't get it past us.

Feeding the fish and letting them grab our fingers
Wait. What? Who is turning 40?
Stage 2 of the birthday celebration was not really a celebration, but a trip that I wanted to take. I had thought that it would be great to celebrate my birthday by taking a houseboat tour to see orangutans in Tajung Puting National Park. As it turned out, there was a long weekend earlier in October, so several people from ASRI decided to take the trip then. I invited myself along. Seven intrepid volunteers and one esteemed staff member made the journey to float through jungle rivers and take occasional walks to see orangutans. Look for a future post with more details... Although my fellow travelers did not consider this trip part of my birthday celebration, we began to discuss the final stage of the celebration and hatch plans for the actual birthday.
You know that this guy knows how to party

I'm on a boat.. with my friends. (Jesse, Hotlin, me, Shannon,
Sophie, Jaelin, George) Photo credit: Karen
Stage 3, my actual birthday was spent in Sukadana. I have met many people with my birthday or days adjacent, and here is no exception. October 25th is the birthday of Dr. Ronald and this offered me the opportunity to witness some Indonesian traditions. Indonesian tradition is the opposite of the American. If it is your birthday, you treat everyone... and in Indonesia, when you have a party, everyone is invited. This was a little intimidating for me since I haven't gotten a paycheck since August. The other tradition... much to the dismay of Ronald... is the throwing of flour and eggs.
Ronald embracing his flouring as Nur, Hotlin and Jesse gloat
and Etty hides... her birthday is coming up!
So, I had that to look forward to...

My actual birthday didn't start out so well. I was happy to get a phone call from my mom, who had figured out how to call me at the right time in Indonesia to be the first to say happy birthday, but I realized that I was not feeling great. Hotlin had planned a brunch, and I really didn't want to disappoint, or admit that I was sick on my birthday. Upon emerging from my room, howeve, I was greeted by a smiling Hotlin who had procured beautiful hibiscus flowers. My day began to brighten. I made a big mug of strong coffee and inquired about getting a massage. I was very pleased to hear that the "pijat" or local masseuse/healer/chiropractor would be coming to the house to treat one of the other brunch guests so it was likely that she could see me as well. And the day was a little brighter.
 As the coffee kicked in, our friends started to arrive. Mary and Anto showed up with stuff for chai and Jesse brought fruit. Hotlin provided her famous steamed coconut cakes made with all local ingredients (coconut, rice flour, palm sugar) as well as coconut pancakes that we ate with jam. The laughter of friends and the amazing food brought me to the brink of health.
Chilling with friends on my birthday made me happy l-r Jesse
(who is looking at lyrics, being rude), Hotlin, Anto, Mary
The massage carried me the rest of the way. As the pijat relentlessly kneaded my muscles and pulled on my limbs, my friends began to make music. I was carried away to a state of bliss. Yes, the way to enter your 40s. A little more bliss... when I asked the pijat how much she charged, she indicated that I could pay what I thought was right. Apparently, the going rate in the city is $5, but our here it is $3... yes, $3 for a one hour massage.

After a steamy morning, there was a nice rain that cooled us down enough for an impromptu session of yoga on the beach. Flowing through asanas in time with the ocean was transcendent despite some intense gawking at the white folks doing weird things on the beach and the noises of a normal Saturday afternoon.
Yoga on this beach... there are worse ways to spend your day
The final event of the day... yes, it is still my birthday... was a party on the amazing deck at the house shared by Shannon, George, and Jesse. To avoid the financial burden of me footing the bill for everyone, we decided to make it a potluck... the food was amazing.

Shannon and the martabak cake
By far the most amazing piece was a bit of Frankenstein baking pulled off by Shannon. She prides herself on her cooking creativity and the cake that she made for my birthday was an exemplar of this talent. She made the cakes of martabak, a thick Indonesian pancake much loved by all who travel here. The martabak can only be purchased in the evenings when the martabak carts come out... they will not share their recipes, so Shannon tasked George with the job of obtaining the foundation as she made a delicious fudge-like frosting to hold the whole thing together. She topped it off with decorations that she had made. Delicious doesn't even begin to describe it. Even our Indonesian friends who were dubious of this Indo-American creation came back for seconds.

We sat around in yet another food coma chatting and sipping on whisky (another rare treat) way past bedtime here in Sukadana (usually 9pm). Eventually, as is wont to happen here, the electricity cut out and we headed home.

Nur, Asnat and Nomi enjoying the martabak cake

George with and empty plate and Ronald with no flour

As I crawled into bed I had two thoughts. First, the only thing that could have made the birthday any better was the inclusion of my friends and family from home. Second... how did I get away without being covered in flour and egg?

I gave myself over to being 40 shortly after I turned 39. My 30s had some great events but, as is frequently the case with large emotional growth spurts, there was a lot of tough stuff too. All of this tough stuff leaves me entering my 40s with a better sense of who I am and how I want to travel through life than I have ever had... This is going to be fun! 

Thursday, October 24, 2013

A month in Sukadana

About a month ago, I moved from the city to the town of Sukadana in the province of West Kalimantan on the island of Borneo. I am working as a volunteer with an organization named Alam Sehat Lestari (ASRI) that provides healthcare and other services in support of conservation in an around Gunung Palung National Park, home to approximately 10% of the remaining wild orangutans on the planet.

Sukadana is a large village tucked in between the ocean and the protected tropical rainforest of the park. It has two intersections and most of the roads are somewhat paved.

Village life presents a whole new side of Indonesia. For example, I have been wanting to post to this blog for a week, but when I have time, the power seems to go out... because it goes out every day for varying lengths of time. Village life requires a great deal of flexibility and creativity as residents take advantage when there is power, or water, or fruit... because you don't know when you will have it again.

Hiking through Gunung Palung National Park
The first weekend here, I joined several volunteers for a steamy hike into one of the camps in the national park that surrounds us. Unfortunately, our quest for glimpses of wild orangutans was unfruitful.

There was also a fire at the reforestation site that devastated 5 years of work. We rushed out to the site on a Sunday night to assist in the battle against the flames. We lost and the site was destroyed.
Crew fighting fire with small sprayer and sticks
Despite valiant efforts, the fire grew to this.
There have been happier outings with the staff. We all drove 2 hours to the largest town in the area to attend the wedding of one of the nurses from the clinic. Indonesian weddings are confusing but basically, the bride and groom and parents form a living tableau and sit there all day as friends come and go and eat food in front of them while staring at the tableau. The group of foreigners added an interesting twist to the event.

Members of the ASRI staff greeting the wedding party.

Kids at the wedding thought the white folks were pretty cool
But the real adventure has been more internal and hard to capture with exciting visuals.

Being a foreigner in a village is an entirely different experience than being a foreigner in a city. I am rather fortunate that the nature of the organization with which I am volunteering provides a small cohort of other Americans to share my cultural missteps and general cluelessness.

In the village, I am an oddity that is treated with an unearned amount of respect and fragility. On a recent trip to a field site, some unplanned events required that the conservation director (also and American and rather new to the organization) spend the night at the home of the site manager. Initially, he was very embarrassed to have us. His house is simple. The furnishing consist of a table and a tv. There are no chairs, no beds, no dressers. The bathroom is an uncovered wooden platform outside the back of the house with a tarp for some privacy. Our host did not want us to judge him by his living conditions. He didn't want us to see how little he had to offer because he didn't want to appear to be a small person.

His wife had to request food from neighbors to feed us. The village is remote and you have to plan the week's meals carefully. Several people gave the little that they could spare and we enjoyed a really nice meal.

This experience gave me even more respect for our hosts. They are able to live on so little yet work so hard. Our host has been working for ASRI for 5 years. He was once an illegal logger but became a conservationist in charge of a reforestation site. Now, this man is no saint and he should not be idealized. He is a normal human being who works hard and makes big mistakes. In some ways we are all so different, but in others we are the same.

Dragon fruit juice is favorite
Life in Sukadana has given me a lot of time for some deep reflection. There are very few after work activities. Basically you can choose to go to the beach and drink juice or go someplace else and drink juice. Occasionally, there is an outing for martabak, but that will be a post of its own. When the sun goes down at 5:30, it is really dark... no street lights, few lights in houses... and most folks start getting ready for bed. We are so close to the equator that the day length doesn't really change. The shortest day of the year (which is in June) is 11h 49m and 47s. The longest day (December) is 12h 25m 6s... A difference of about 25 minutes compared to the difference between longest and shortest days in Colorado is about 6 hours.

My daily schedule starts by 5 or 6 am when I get up and try to get some exercise before the oppressive heat swells. By 7am, it is time to start sweating, so I bath using a bucket and a large tub of water (called a mandi) and eat breakfast with my roommate Hotlin. We work from 8-4 and then try to find some evening activity... often trying to catch the sunset. Bedtime is 9pm.

Weekends are long. ASRI provides housing to volunteers and staff. Each house has a "pembantu" or helper who cleans, cooks and does laundry. While we are 'all capable of taking care of ourselves, it is expected that people with jobs employ other people in order to enhance the economic well-being of the community. With our basic maintenance chores attended to, we have a lot of leisure time. Entertainment is generally simple as there are no theaters, music venues or bars. Each weekend someone puts together a soccer (here it is called 'futsal') game and the rest of the time we enjoy simple things, like watching baby goats or hanging out in front of a fan. Occasionally, we risk severe jellyfish stings and take a swim in the less-than-crystal-clear ocean. Of course, I also have a lot of work to do too! Fortunately, part of my work is to build relationships and you can't do that while tethered to a computer!

These baby goats have been a source of amusement for hours on end.
A Sunday afternoon game of "futsal" on the beach with staff