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

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