Friday, June 21, 2013

An interview with myself 8 months into placement:

Have you lost weight? 
Why yes, thank you for asking grandma.  I’m not entirely sure how much weight I have lost since arriving here (scales are really hard to come by), but every time I post a picture of myself on Facebook it seems I am bombarded with comments on how skinny I look.  I’m not sure whether to take this as an indication that I was much more festively plump than I perceived myself to be prior to leaving, or that people think I’m looking more emaciated than usual.  Either way, I definitely weigh less now than I did upon my departure.  This is not for lack of trying to keep my weight up, I think the issue lies mainly with the fact that no matter how much you’re eating, rice isn’t particularly nutritionally dense.  Unfortunately, it comprises a significant component of the diet here.

As people are fond of saying here: If you haven’t eaten rice, you haven’t eaten.   I find it monotonous at times, and seek out alternatives when I can but it’s tough in a society where normal practise is to eat rice with every single meal.

I am taking multivitamins and probiotics in an effort to up my nutritional intake, and try to eat lots of fruit and vegetables.  I’m not prone to eating huge quantities of meat and stick exclusively to tofu and tempeh as protein sources if I am cooking for myself (which I do probably  40% of the time) but will not shy away from ordering meat in restaurants. I am also exercising fairly regularly because I know muscle is heavier (and healthier) than fat.  Any other suggestions for keeping weight on are appreciated.

What’s the worst thing about living there?
Fortunately nothing jumps out as being “definitely the worst thing”, life here just comes with its own set of little difficulties, some of which you get used to, others you don’t.   Homesickness is definitely an issue sometimes.  In contrast to my time in Thailand I am much more socially cut off here than I was there and I think that that, combined with a less vibrant social circle by virtue of Ende being a much smaller and quieter place than Chiang Mai was during my year in Thailand, leads me to feel the absence of friends and loved ones from back home more acutely.

Also, although you get used to it, not ever having hot, clean water can be annoying.  The drinking water here definitely comes with a thriving community of parasites and bacteria, so all my drinking water is filtered.  I made the mistake recently of taking a look at the water that comes straight from the tap, and there is definitely a healthy and diverse population of tiny scurrying macrofauna crawling and swimming around in it. This I think helps to contribute to the fact that even after a good scrub in the shower, I never feel really and truly clean.  I suppose if we could see the world on a microscopic scale, we would all be more aware of the fact that no matter how much you shower you are always completely covered in a film of bacteria, I’m just aware of the fact that that mine is a little thicker than usual at the moment.

That said, the thing I probably find more frustrating is when there is no water at all, which happens perhaps a few times per week.  The water will just go off for a few hours, and there’s nothing you can do about it.  I find that’s not too much of an issue although it has happened a few times just as I finish exercising and want to take a shower or boil water or do the dishes, which has been trying.

The worst of all though was probably a few times in the rainy season when the water, electricity and phone signal would all go out simultaneously, cutting you off entirely.  This has probably happened four or five times now, and all of them during the rainy season.  The dry season has fortunately brought less frequent outages and a stronger more consistent phone signal.

What’s the best thing about living there?
Not ever being cold, ever. I love that about life here.

People are also as a general rule overwhelmingly friendly which is great most of the time, and terrible some of the time.  When you’re having a bad day and don’t feel like making small talk with generally well-meaning strangers on the street who all have the same questions for you, it can be difficult to balance Indonesian politeness with North American directness in your desire to just be left alone.

What were some low points?
Again, nothing really specific comes to mind (I have long been thankful for my selectively spotty memory, I literally forget most crappy days in a few weeks).

There was a low point following the purchase of my air conditioning when I was called foolish by a friend after having tried to do everything myself, having bought and paid for the installation of a unit that used more power than the electricity current to my room could provide, as well as the significant additional charges to upgrade to said electricity.  She went on to tell me I could simply have replaced the unit with a cheaper, smaller one that wouldn’t have needed as much power or required changing the electricity flow to my room.  I regret not asking for help.

Also, having Jess visit is fantastic but I always feel pretty low for about a week after she heads back home and I have to reacclimatize to being on my own again.

What were some high points?
I was very proud of myself after successfully giving my first lecture in Indonesian back in April.  It was far from smooth but I got through it, and am now just a few weeks from the end of the semester.  Teaching in Indonesian has been both a huge struggle and amazing, in the sense that it has really, really stretched my abilities but looking back I can gauge my progress over the semester and feel really proud of how far I have come.  I do feel a little bit sorry for my students this first semester who have to deal with a teacher with such a heavy accent who’s grasp of the language is still fairly weak from an academic standpoint, but I expect next semester’s students will have things easier as my language skills have come a long way.  I have also had to become really good at making Powerpoint slides that are as interesting and clear as possible because I can’t always be sure I can rely on being able to explain things with perfect clarity verbally (plus pictures help hold student attention).  The fact that I take lots and lots of photographs comes in incredibly handy.

The unedited draft of my slides for my lecture next week can be found HERE.

What do you miss most about life back home?
One of the things I miss most I think is having 24 hour access to an insanely wide variety of healthy fruits, vegetables and specialty ingredients.  I love cooking, and do cook here a lot of the time, but one definitely needs to be creative because the range of ingredients to choose from are very very limited.  Current staples in my home cooking diet are:

Tomato, water spinach, mustard greens, carrots, garlic, shallots, ginger, fresh turmeric, lemons
Papaya, banana
Rice, flour, oatmeal
Tofu, Tempeh (chicken/beef/seafood are available but I have never bought them from the market.  Cooking for one is a pain but it’s easier if you can cook enough to have 3 days of leftovers, which I wouldn’t be comfortable doing with meat/fish dishes)
Other things I can get my hands on
Peanut butter, honey, various sauces, coconut milk

You get creative, and Jess coming to visit and bringing extra ingredients from home to supplement my diet has been fantastically helpful but I am definitely looking forward to gorging myself on all the foods I can’t get here when I get home visiting Toronto in a few months (Ethiopian anyone?).

What do you miss least about life back home?
Being cold.

Oh, also how much time  I would waste on YouTube/the internet in general.  I have no idea what the latest memes are, or what viral videos are hot right now and I couldn’t care less.

Any tips on staying sane for anyone interested in doing something similar?
Find your “thing”?  Many people take up painting or something like that to help fill down time.  I know another volunteer bought a ukulele while here with the intent of teaching herself to play.  I also happen to know it hasn’t been out of the bag since she brought it home but I think she had the right idea.

For me, it has been podcasts.  I have an ever-growing list of subscriptions that I listen to constantly.  It’s nice because I can download new ones when I visit the net cafĂ© and listen to them incessantly between visits.  Favourites include:, Radiolab, This American Life, You Made it Weird with Pete Holmes, Q on CBC Radio, Stuff You Should Know, and Fresh Air

What is the strangest thing you’ve eaten?
Hmmm…I still haven’t tried dog, despite multiple offers, but I think my resolve never to eat it is slowly being worn down.  There’s nothing inherent that sets them apart from all the other animals we happily shove in our mouths and the opportunity certainly comes up often enough.  I have also heard horror stories of other volunteers who have unwittingly been tricked into eating it, so who knows, maybe I’ve had it already.

What is a typical weekday like?
I work Monday through Saturday and my work days generally look like this:
7AM – Alarm rings, press snooze three or four times.
7:20 – Wake up, shower, cook breakfast (oatmeal with bananas or eggs)
8:15 – Try to leave for work, but remember that I should do dishes and brush your teeth before you go
8:40 – Leave for work
8:44 – Arrive at work, but notice the office clock, which is always fast, makes it look like you’re rolling in at 9.  Sigh to yourself.
9:00 – If you woke up late (due to overzealous use of the snooze button), order breakfast at work. Chices: rice with beef, rice with fish or rice with egg
9:30 – Work on lecture slides
12:30PM – Socialize with coworkers, generally very little work gets done the last hour or so of the workday unless I have something specific I need to finish that day.  Sometimes I will also order lunch at work as well (Choices: See breakfast)
1:30 – Work finished, head home for lunch.
2 – I teach English lessons twice a week at 2pm.  If today isn’t one of those days, take a nap from 2-4
4 – Head to the farm for an hour and a half or so of work before it gets dark
6:30 – get home (it’s pitch black), shower (assuming the water is on) and think about dinner, while listening to podcasts.
7 -Head to the market to pick up fresh produce for dinner
8 – Get home and start cooking rice while you prep veggies for your one burner stove, while listening to podcasts.
10- eat (it takes forever to cook when you’re working with one burner. Everything has to be done sequentially!)
11 – Do dishes and relax, probably with a movie or a book.
12AM Sleep, rinse, and repeat.

Are you still healthy?
Define healthy…It definitely took a little while for life here to wear down my built-up, vitamin fortified North American immune system, but I think the constant bombardment by germs, viruses and bacteria have finally breached the walls of my immune sytstem’s defences.  For the most part I feel fine, but things like food poisoning and the flu have increasingly become my regular companions. 

The air quality here is really terrible a lot of the time as much of the garbage generated is burned by the side of the road and mixes with exhaust fumes to ruin my ability to breathe unhindered a lot of the time.  True, I do suffer from seasonal pollen and dust allergies but they have really gone haywire here.  It’s mostly an annoyance but I do worry that constantly exhibiting flu symptoms depresses my immune status. 

One can be fairly careful where and what one eats when on vacation for a few weeks in the tropics but as far as protecting yourself through uber vigilance for months on end? Forget it. You’re going to slip up eventually.  Having grown up with a strong immune system, I have not in the past been particularly careful while travelling to avoid potentially contaminated food or water and up until this trip I have largely been lucky in avoiding illness while travelling.  I think nearer my arrival it mattered less because my immune system was better but as time has worn on, I have fallen victim with greater and greater frequency to food poisoning.  Not fun, but part of life here.

On the upside, no one will ever look at you funny if you opt out of something citing stomach issues, because they all understand.  Quite the opposite in fact ,people are happy to openly discuss the frequency of their illness related bowel movements, I had a conversation in the office with my boss this very morning about her various techniques for dealing with diarrhea (over breakfast, no less).

Emotionally, I would say my health is quite good, especially considering the circumstances.  Living overseas inherently involves a slightly elevated baseline level of stress that follows you wherever you go.  I knew that going in, it has been a problem at times and tends to wear you out especially in extra-unfamiliar situations, but it can be managed with practise.  Aside from the very occasional struggle with late-night bouts of the "WHAT-AM- I-EVEN-DOING-HERE?"s, I feel as though  I am stable and I am taking care of myself emotionally by getting lots of sleep, taking time for myself and trying to stop and reflect on things when I can.

Why don’t you post more frequently?
What, you mean every 6 months isn’t enough for you?  I post a monthly album on Facebook but may also try to post some of my better shots here more frequently as well.  It's just a HUGE pain not having internet at home or at work because you've got to sit down and do it all at once, and unless you count checking my email or facebook on my phone, I'm really just not on the internet all that often (maybe two or three times per week?).  Cut a guy some slack.

What’s been frustrating you lately?
The fact that my classes are Thursdays and there have literally been 4 Thursdays thus far this semester that have happened to land on holidays (there have been 4 classes taught in total so far, as well as the midterm given).  This is just part of the package when living in a country with 5 official religions.

It is also annoying how quickly nutrient cycling operates in a climate where moisture and heat are so readily available.  Anything organic practically disappears before your eyes in the unending clamor for sustenance among both macro and microbiotic  communities. One of the upsides is that you can make compost from organic waste in less than ¼ of the time it would take in Canada, but the other side of that coin is that EVERYTHING rots this quickly.  I have plans this weekend to do a long overdue deep-clean of my room which will mean cleaning the mold that’s been growing out of control on my closet as it is slowly broken down by the microorganisms that are everywhere.  It also means that if I don’t wear a shirt and it stays in my closet for too long, it will have mold growing on it as well. It will also mean replacing the wooden broom which I bought to keep water from pooling on my poorly graded bathroom floor but which is also moldy and gross at his point after 4 months of use. Although it does keep my bathroom floor marginally drier than it would be otherwise (is there anything worse than a wet bathroom floor? I submit that there is not.)  Many have also heard about the veritable forest of multicolored mold, fungi and living slime that was the inside of my fridge following a power outage while I was away for a week on vacation over Christmas. Highly annoying.

I think that just about covers it.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Work work work

Blogging from work so I don't have the internet speed to upload any pictures, although I have finally managed to get some pictures from my first 2 months here up on Facebook, though I also have a number of really interesting videos that I am still trying to find an internet connection fast enough to upload.

Little by little, I can feel my language skills improving, and with that comes greater confidence as far as approaching people.  My feelings definitely change from day to day but today was definitely an "up" day.

I spent over an hour this morning chatting helping a student who was having difficulty with concentration calculations.  I was really proud of myself for being able to explain the procedure for calculating how much pesticide to add to how much water to make a solution of a certain percentage to add to crops, completely in Indonesian, though with the help of a dictionary to be sure.

I have now created a website and uploaded 3 years worth of the biannual faculty journal publication.  I suggested it would be a good idea to try to get a link to the journal site from the main university website, but I was told that the university website went down about 5 months ago and has yet to be resurrected, so that was a no-go.  I am working on translating the abstracts from the most recent edition of the journal from Indonesian to English before uploading those as well.  Over the past week or so, I have also been working together with the head and assistant head of the department to put together an evaluation scheme for the assistant lecturers in the faculty.

Here in Indonesia, the title of "Professor" is quite difficult to gain.  A Professor is someone who has their PhD, and has spent between 10 and 15 years lecturing doing top notch research, taken on and graduated numerous grad students, etc etc.  It is the absolute highest education achievement one can attain.  Most lecturers have their Masters or Doctoral degrees, but have not yet earned the title of Prof.  Most lecturing and researching staff here at the university are given the title "Dosen" instead, which is one that also comes with it's fair share of respect.  I find that people are quite taken aback when I say I am lecturing in the faculty of agriculture, because that also makes me a dosen. The next question is almost always an incredulous Umur berapa? "How old are you?".  I almost always find a way to avoid answering, as another aspect of the culture here is that respect given is often heavily predicated on how old you are.  The elderly are highly venerated and can pretty much run wild through the streets if they feel like it (thus far the vast majority appear not to, but still) and nobody would say at thing out of respect.  While I do like the culture of respect here, it does put me at a disadvantage as far as my age goes.  My social position is an interesting one:

Being foreign puts me ahead
Being well educated puts me ahead
Being black puts me behind*
Working as a dosen puts me ahead
Being on the younger side puts me behind
Being a man puts me ahead

I'm sure there are many other factors I'm missing but you get the idea.

*As a black person I am lower in status than a white person would be.  People from Flores tend to have skin on the darker side (some as dark as my skin), and I am also sometimes mistaken for someone from Papua, another island in Indonesia where there is a sizeable black population. Like in many other countries, light skin is highly prized here, so you have an interesting situation where people from elsewhere in Indonesia tend to look down on "darker-skinned" islands like Flores. I also get the distinct sense that people from Flores tend to look down their noses at people from Papua.  Despite unity being a central value in Indonesia, this country is still deeply divided in many, many ways.  I also find my skin color to be advantageous often as well, because it helps me blend in here far better than if I had white skin, but it makes explaining the fact that I am in fact Canadian and not African immeasurably more difficult.  It also doesn't help that the other foreigner in town is also black and from Africa.  In short, people are very, very confused and I can hardly blame them as my identity isn't exactly straightforward.

Anyway, as of last year, my faculty (agriculture) was the first in the University to go through the process of hiring "Assistant dosens", recent graduates of the faculty who's job it is to assist the dosens with lecturing, marking, running practical sessions and assist students, in much the same role as a Teaching Assistant at a university in North America.  As this is the first batch, we are really blazing a trail and there is a strong desire to do things properly and establish a protocol for other faculties to follow.  Coming up with an evaluation scheme has been interesting though quite challenging as dealing with assessment categories like "Takes ininiative when appropriate" and "Follows policies and teaching procedures of the faculty and University" are really stretching my Indonesian to say the least.

I am sleeping better here than I ever have before though, as there is not a day where I am not exhausted by 11 and ready to flop into bed.  Being woken by a chorus of the 6am call to prayer and a trillion noisy roosters every morning is also a strong incentive to turn in early.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Days in Ende

The last few weeks in Ende have been busy but quite enjoyable.

I have now been working at the university for 3 weeks.  The first two weeks were spent trying to find my way around, learning the structure of the incredibly bureaucratic university administration structure and struggling to speak with my co-workers using my broken Indonesian, or “bahasa Campur” which means “mixed language” where you use Indonesian words when you know them and English words when you don’t.  It only works part of the time and only works in one direction because I still struggle to understand other people.  Some days are better than others but progress is definitely being made!  As my vocabulary grows slowly, I am also getting better at expressing complex ideas using very simple childish terms, or figuring out ways to reword sentences if I forget a key word.

I was also overjoyed towards the end of my first week to be asked to DO something for the first time since I arrived.  My boss (the head of the department) was told over and over during preparation for my arrival to make sure that I wasn’t overloaded with work during my integration period and that they would have to be very very patient as I found my way and learned the language.  Although I would agree that this approach is really important initially, it also means that I am often left with nothing in particular to do at work so I have been thus far splitting many of my work days between reading through the scant few english tropical agriculture and soil science textbooks I have at my disposal and practising Indonesian.  Then, late last week I was asked to translate an abstract from Indonesian to English.  I must have been more bored than I though because I was overjoyed to have been given a dedicated task and I immediately set to work.

The faculty of agriculture (fakultas pertanian) at the university publishes a journal twice per year comprised of scientific research articles written by staff and students.  Some of the abstracts from the previous versions were translated by the volunteer I am replacing but not all of them.  My job is to translate the abstracts of the remaining articles, a task which I quickly found was going to be harder than it sounds.  My biggest issue is that in an effort to begin the translation process, the abstracts have been Google-translated to english verbatim, before being edited by a third party, I’m not sure who but perhaps one of the students.  As a result, I am translating from often unintelligible english, to English, a much more difficult job that I continue to struggle with.  One of the abstracts was still in Indonesian and turned out to be MUCH easier to translate, because as things stand I am often throwing out much of the broken english abstracts and then trying to get the gist of the articles and re-writing a new abstract.  It is a tedious time-consuming process but it’s keeping me busy and also helping me pick up some of the scientific vocabulary that will be so key once I begin teaching.

I have also been asked set up an online space for the journals so that back issues can be available to anyone online, another crucial step in increasing the profile of the department and of the university.  This was a struggle as well (see if you can spot the theme of the day) since the University’s website has been down for months now with no signs of resurrection in the near future.  I ended up making a blog and uploading the articles there, which people seemed very happy with.  I’m constantly being stretched, and I love it much of the time so far.

Another change in the past few weeks was that the volunteer I am replacing here in Ende came to official end of his placement and left.  He’s Kenyan and has been living in Indonesia for 3 years now, 2 in Ende.  Having him here my first two weeks made the transition to life in Ende infinitely easier.  He was working full time as a lecturer in the agricultural department as well and his Indonesian skills set the bar incredibly high for me as his replacement.  It is obvious that he poured himself into work here with his whole heart, which is one of the reasons I was so surprised to learn he also had a wife and two young children whom he hadn’t seen for 3 years waiting for him back in Kenya.  His house was incredibly modest (which was well matched to his personality), a windowless cement room with no bathroom or shower (the shared facilities were around the corner) which would heat up during the day to impossible temperatures.  I didn’t find any of this out for the first week at least because he didn’t complain or moan about it, and was floored when I saw where he had been living the past almost 2 years.  That just seemed to be the kind of guy he was, quiet and unassuming but overflowing with wisdom about how to navigate life as a volunteer.  In other words, exactly the sort of person you would want showing you the ropes in a place like this.  His last week was an emotional one at the office.  There were two parties for him, the first taking place on a gorgeous at the beach with all of the faculty staff and some extended family members in attendance where we gorged ourselves on fresh fish and yellow rice and everyone gave speeches in Indonesian thanking Richard for all his hard work.

The second took place at the faculty and as I found out when I arrived, was a joint fare-well/welcome party for both of us.   I felt strongly that I wanted to express my gratitude for all the things he’d helped me with in the past few weeks so I prepared a short speech the night before and asked to be included in the list of speakers.  I basically just introduced myself and said that I was happy and excited to have the opportunity to work at the university and that although I hadn’t known him very long, I was very sad to see him go and wished him all the best with everything and that I would strive to continue the good work he had and the other members of the faculty had begun.  It was short, but I thought it captured what I wanted to express.  Partway through, when I got to the part about being happy and excited to be here I noticed the faintest of smiles from a few of the audience members.  Nearly imperceptible, but definitely smiles.  I didn't understand why and continued with my speech.  Afterward I asked around and was told that I had said I was "...both happy and incredibly sexually aroused to be here".  Looks like I chose the wrong word for excitement.

I will have to continue this post later, but will upload what I've got now.  I am having serious difficulties with electricity and internet access of late so pictures will have to wait for sometime when I can find a stronger connection.

And now for a few complaints:
Upon returning to Ende I found that my water wasn't working, my motorcycle tire was flat and that there appeared to have been a 4 day rat party on my balcony while I was away.  For those of you who aren't familiar, proper etiquette at a rat party entails peeing and pooping as much as possible in my pots, on my floor and under my gas burner.

Spent the evening reducing the poop-to-balcony ratio, cooking dinner, trying unsuccessfully to take my laundry to the cleaner (it was closed since it was Sunday but nobody tells you these things or posts a sign...), filling my motorbike tire and cooking dinner (though not doing the dishes thanks to the lack of water).  Then it was time to find internet for a skype date.  I usually go to the credit union and sit on the roof to use their internet but it was down so I drove to the university, where the internet was also down.  My phone network was also down (and still is, a day later, I'm not sure why), so texting to say I was late wasn't an option.  I finally managed to use the internet by dropping in on a friend and sitting on the floor in a spare room at her kos to use the net, but it made for a frustrating evening indeed.  Indonesia, you're wearing on me.  The water was back this morning, which presented me with the choice of either showering or doing my dishes from the previous night before work.  Bodily cleanliness won out, and the cold shower was refreshing.  I then dropped my laundry off before heading to work.

At work today we discussed the prospects of my beginning teaching in February and I expressed serious worry at my ability to take on a class due to language issues.  Instead I suggested I pair up with one of the assistant lecturers and work together through the semester, lecturing a little bit as I am able but mostly making the lecture slides, exams, practicals, etc and trying my hand at marking.  They said we had to discuss it with the curriculum head and we'd talk about it later.

This afternoon I am going to go drop in on one of the women in my English class.  I said I would text her yesterday when I got back to town to schedule lessons for this week which I would have, if I had had phone service...currently it appears my options are to go to her place or send her a letter in the mail.

Why does everything here have to be so complicated?  The combination of no internet OR phone service is driving me bananas.  I'm also currently trying to book some christmas plane tickets via email but have a problem in that I don't have an Indonesian bank account.  I am still on a tourist visa because of administrative issues with my organization which are still being sorted out and cannot open a bank account until they are.  As a result, I get envelopes of cash every month which I deposit directly into my account at the Under-The-Mattress National Bank of Indonesia.  Interest rates are abysmal.  Try wiring someone an envelope of cash...without the internet.

Ok.  Ok. Breathe. On the other hand I am healthy, and living some place quiet and beautiful that most people will never get the opportunity to see.  The upside to all these challenges is that being stretched like this provides the me with chance to grow in ways you couldn't if you weren't, right? Right.

Send me your calm, patient, everything-will-work-itself-out vibes if you can spare some.

Singa-pouring out my heart

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to write anything on the way to or from Singapore yesterday since I ended up leaving my computer in Bali so as not to have to carry it around all day.   As such, I’m instead writing from a different plane, heading the opposite direction from Bali back to Flores

Singapore yesterday was great.  I knew Singaore was one of the five countries that make up the Asian Tigers, having advanced both socially and economically by leaps and bounds in the late 90s and early 2000s but after having lived in Indonesia for upwards of a month now, I wasn’t prepared…

Oh! They just brought around lunch.  what a happy surprise!

Upon opening the box, I was disappointed to find a cup of water and a factory bun.  I didn’t try it but previous experience has taught me that these buns are sweet, yellow, sometimes filled with jam, custard, or what passes for chocolate here, and contain absolutely nothing of nutritional value (see picture).  I avoid them whenever I can.  I’m actually fairly hungry, and the disappointment was immediate.  I didn’t realize I was making a face until my cheeks started to ache.  I took a picture of myself and immediately cracked up, though quietly, as my seat-mates on either side are sleeping.

Anyway, as I was saying, Singapore was amazing.  It was impressively clean, and well laid out with wide roads and stoplights where people actually stopped!  It also had a fantastic transit system which I took full advantage of in my day exploring the city.  The morning was spent shopping with the other volunteer I was traveling with. I picked up a headset with a microphone which will mean I can stop spitting all over the top of my laptop screen as I lean in to speak directly into the integrated microphone, as well as a small pair of speakers.  My travel mate wanted to continue shopping but I was ready to get out and see the city so we parted ways and I skipped off to explore.  Singapore’s subway system is highly efficient and is almost identical to the London subway system in terms of using a pre-loaded card pay your fare and automated gates that automatically deduct from your balance when you exit based on how far you’ve travelled.  I was also impressed to see dedicated bus and bicycle lanes, which after the jagged, garbage strewn, open sewers and motorcycle choked traffic mayhem I have come to expect from Denpasar in Bali were like a vision from a dream.

My first instinct was to search out something for lunch I wouldn’t be able to get in Ende, so, naturally I headed to Little India where I enjoyed a delicious plate of indian curries, rice, naan, chapati and pickle and washed it down with a mago lassi (not shown).

  I suppose I could have asked for a spoon but everyone else was eating with their hands so I figured I’d do the same.  Indian food is much harder than Indonesian food to eat with your hands, so I ended up eating slowly and messily but thoroughly enjoyed the experience.  The flavor combinations were a delight for the senses and a welcome deviation from the equally delicious but by now somewhat monotonous Indonesian spice options. 

Lunch was followed by a lazy stroll through back alleys and side streets as I tried to memorize the sights and smells and sounds to take back with me.

After having my fill of the sights of Little India, my next stop was Chinatown which was also bustling with activity.  I cut my time in Chinatown short as it was getting late and I wanted to check out the harbor before having to get back and catch my flight but as I turned to head back toward the subway, a familiar smell tickled my unsuspecting nostrils. It was sweet, but also sour, with an oniony undertone and both floral and gym sock-esque notes.  I swivelled my head to see a man and woman tag-team frantically frying up durian flapjacks, the steam rising from their cooking surface filing the air with that unmistakable scent.

Oh…it appears we are landing in Sumba…I`d better switch off.  Sumba (which is in `Pulau Suba Barat`, as the lady next to me patiently explained.  That either means the Island of North Sumba or the island of South Sumba.  Just looked it up in my dictionary, it`s West Sumba) looks at least from the air and from the airstrip to be incredibly flat and dry compared to Ende, much more of an arid scrubby grassland feel than the lush greenery found in Ende.  These milk run flights are pretty standard, as the cheapest flights always involve stopovers somewhere or another.  Ende is our next stop though.

Anyway, back to SIngapore. I considered eating the durian for the sake of science and then thought better of it in the interest of seeing the waterfront.  Besides, I already tried durian once when someone showed up with it late one night and I had a few pieces.  The flavor jury is still deliberating.  I spent the last of my afternoon in Singapore wandering the waterfront while listening to Radiolab podcasts and also checked out the giant statue of Singapore’s national symbol, the “Merlion”, which is exactly what it sounds like.  Why can’t Canada have a mythical beast for a national animal?

The rest of the trip was uneventful, but now I understand better why at least three people made a joke about “making sure I came back afterwards” when I told them I was taking a trip to Singapore to renew my visa.  Heading back to my hot small room in Ende now feels odd.  I’m not yet to the point where going back there feels like “going home”, but I am sure I will get there at some point.

Friday, November 23, 2012


A week of conferencing in Bali comes to a close this evening, culminating in a night out on the town with all of the other volunteers from around Indonesia.  There are 15 of us in total, all working in Nussa Tenggara Timur (a southeastern province consisting of three large islands, of which Flores is the largest and most highly populated).

Unfortunately, despite the fact that tonight is one of those rare and elusive Fridays where I don't have to be up early for work on Saturday morning (I'm still getting used to the 6 day work week), I will instead be heading to the airport at 3:30 AM on Saturday to catch a 6 AM plane ride to Singapore for the day.  Apparently Indonesia has grown tired of me after nearly 60 days of muttered complaints and it's now time for my visa run.  I will be traveling with one of the other volunteers who arrived at the same time I did in October.  Don't tell her this, but I had asked if the flight could be scheduled so as to give us the longest possible time in Singapore and it appears my request was taken to heart by the staff responsible for booking our flights.  We will be in the world's third most densely populated country (and second most densely populated city-state: can you name them all? Vatican City is another one) a full twelve hours and I'm hoping to make the best of every single one.  We'll see how things go.  The other upside of a 3 hour plane ride is that it will give me the chance to actually sit down, unpack and work through the last few weeks in a way I haven't had time to yet...or that I have been avoiding.  I'm not sure which yet.

Expect to be shocked and amazed as I regale you with tales of triumph and woe relating to:

  • my new digs in town
  • workplace integration
  • my backyard neighbor's obscenely loud collection of chickens
  • living not-in-english
  • what it looks like to party like a rock star in Ende
  • my Indonesian to-do list\
  • and (maybe) much more

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Pictures of life on my side of the world

Instead of rambling on about all the things I've been up to, I thought that it might be more straightforward to upload a slew of pictures instead.  I will try to draft a wordier post over the next few days about the trials, tribulations and triumphs of my first few weeks in Ende.
Rice paddies in Ubud, Bali

Monkeys guarding a car in Ubud, Bali

The drive up to Kelimutu National Park to see the tri-colored lakes my second day in Ende

Roundabout in the middle of Ende
Student transport on the Kelimutu field trip

The package for my mosquito was "marvelous!"
Squid (left) with potatoes, cabage, eggplant and fish/chicken gravy (right)
Black sand beach in Ende
A house on a hill just outside of the central part of town
Running a biodiversity analysis activity at the farm
The university model farm
The view from the farm
My office

Sunset over Ende

One of the other volunteers is leaving today so I have to run to see him off at the airport.  As far as I know that leaves myself and one other volunteer from Kenya as the permanent foreign residents in Ende, a town of 80,000.

A more verbose update to come!

Monday, November 5, 2012


I'm beginning this post at work where I have just begun my second day.  Internet here is spotty at best, though I think the connection quality depends on the day and it has been raining all morning (my first real rainstorm here in Indonesia!) which may be making things more difficult.

Day 4 here in Ende now, and it has been busy but really really enjoyable so far.  I don't think I can upload pictures yet but let me paint you a mind picture of where I am living now.

Ende is a town of about 80,000 give or take, on the southern coast of the island of Flores, about equidistant from either end of the island.  It is backed by mountains and fronted by the Sawa sea.  Of those 80,000 permanent inhabitants there are currently 5 foreigners living in Ende.  3 of said foreigners (a PhD student from Argentina and two other volunteers working for the same organization as I am) are leaving in the next 3 weeks.  Flores itself is far bigger than I expected, driving from the Eastern to Western tip would take upwards of 18 hours I'm told.  It's stunningly beautiful here, with rice paddies, mountains, rivers and lush tropical forests all clinging tenuously to the steep slopes of mountains and valleys.  The relatively slow pace of life here can make one forget that Flores is located on the southern edge of the aptly known Ring of Fire, one of the most geologically and tectonically active areas on the planet.  

Seemingly as a testament to this, there was a mild Earthquake here my first day at the office (Day 1 in Ende).  I was sitting in a meeting and didn`t really notice anything until I was asked if I felt the Earthquake.  
"When?" I asked.  
"Now." was the response.   

I was the only one who seemed alarmed, which leads me to believe these things are pretty commonplace here.   As a general rule of thumb I have decided I am going to save my running and screaming for when others begin to run and scream.

There are at least 16 volcanoes on the island as far as I know, though I'm not sure how many of them are active.  There are two that can be seen from town, and I was told that the black sand beaches in town are black as a result of a violent eruption in the late 60s.

People here are absolutely lovely and although I am still having considerable difficulty getting around completely in Indonesian, I really like talking to people.  It is frustrating that my vocabulary is still so limited, because it makes both speaking and understanding difficult (and it makes me feel like an imbecile a lot of the time).  I can always pick out the words in a sentence, but I often find that although I can understand that I am being asked something, I often can't understand or can't quickly remember the meaning of a key word in a sentence.  Words like "but" or" "because" or "if" are far more common and thus easier to learn than words like "sunset" and "lake" and "garbage" but the latter are so much more integral to understanding when people speak to you.  I will get this, but it's going to take time.  I expect my life to get significantly more difficult when the other volunteers leave because they have been incredibly helpful so far in showing me the ropes and translating when necessary (which is still frustratingly often).

Case in point: I have a meeting with the dean and vice dean of the department this morning to set up a work plan for the time that I am here.  
The dean approached me this morning and said "Later we will meet along with the vice dean to talk"
"That sounds good, what will we be talking about?" I asked.
"We need to discuss your _______"
"I don't understand..."
"________ (slower)"
"Sorry, I don't understand (I'm embarassed at this point and would be blushing furiously if I were capable of blushing at all)"
"What you will do"
"Here? For work?"
"Sounds good, I will see you later!"

This was fortunately a situation in which the words could be put into simpler terms, but I often find I still can't understand said "simpler terms" if they include words I haven't picked up yet.  I was hoping that the volunteer I am replacing would be able to be there but I think he may have to teach, so it looks like I'm going to be doing this TRIAL BY FIRE style.  This has become my signature style of late, and I am working on perfecting my technique.

Patience and humour are going to be so key in not getting frustrated at the slowness with which things happen here, and at a much more basic level, at my own inability to converse.  Everyone here seems to be constantly  laughing and joking with each other here, no matter who they are, or where you are.  It makes for a light atmosphere at all times, but it doesn't help that humour is often one of the most difficult things to translate cross-culturally.  I spend a lot of my time smiling or trying to look genuine while laughing at jokes I didn't understand the punchline too, or even worse, being that guy who laughs hysterically 30 seconds later when someone kindly translates the joke to English.  I think I am going to have to get used to being that guy for the next little while.

As I took a bucket shower this morning, dousing myself in cold water from the cistern in my hotel bathroom, I reflected on the fact that my ecological footprint has dropped significantly and abruptly.  Over the next two years, my lifestyle will likely have a lower impact on the environment than it ever has (and perhaps ever will? depending on how things go...).  Things like not having hot water or air conditioning or a flush toilet at home, driving a motorcycle instead of a car and simply living in a place where the so many of the of energy consumptive comforts and luxuries of life back home are simply not available.  These will go a long way to reduce the amount of water, energy and resources required to sustain my lifestyle and should be kept in mind when I feel like things are getting too tough.  I don't want to seem arrogant or as though I am holding this up as a badge of honour because I fully realize that at the end of the day my actual situation is completely different in that I'm doing this all by choice and could technically "call it quits and go home" any time I feel I can't do it anymore.

Perhaps having that choice is the ultimate luxury?