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?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

3-2-1-Blast off?

Still here!  Still doing well!  Feeling much better actually, vertigo was about as much fun as being intensely dizzy and nauseous all the time....

To explain a little bit, it came on inexplicably one morning when I sat up in bed (as one does...).  Immediately it was as though the room tilted jauntily to the left and began to spin like we were all having a great time at the circus.  Except we weren't at the circus.  Long story short, it lasted from Wednesday til Saturday at which point I grew fed up enough to head to the hospital where the doctor listened intently to my description of my symptoms and agreed with me that it sounded like vertigo.  I have been taking medication since and haven't had a dizzy spell so it looks like I'm (back) off to the races.

It's a good thing too, because I'm expected to land in Ende two days from now.  The three weeks of in-country training here in Bali passed in a flash.  I won't bore you with the details suffice to say it was intense but useful, and that I would now self-rate my Indonesian at approximately a "yep, still pretty lousy" out of ten.

Some pictorial highlights in no particular order included:

The beautiful beach in Sanur, a fifteen minute ride from our rooms in Renon.

Officials briefly considered changing the name of the "Red Zone" to the much more fun "Splash Zone" but Sea World threatened legal action
The Tsunami Evacuation map at the beach made me sleep a little better at night knowing we were situated outside the red zone should things go bad in a hurry (there "what to do in case of a natural disaster like a volcanic eruption or a tsunami" session in one of our orientation workshops)

Not to be confused with it's cousin, the white sand beach
Visiting this ridiculously beautiful black sand beach on a whim on the way home from a field trip with our language teacher.

The driver had been honking for fifteen minutes but the monkeys were nonplussed
Monkeys hanging out by cars in a parking lot in Ubud
The amazingly beautiful coastline by Tanah Lot temple
Tanah Lot temple itself (left), which is cut off from the mainland at high tide and has a natural spring welling up from inside it.  It was really crowded with tourists but we lined up with everyone else to splash fresh water from the spring on our faces and receive a blessing for safe travels from the priest there.

It took everything I had to pause momentarily to snap this picture before continuing to voraciously devouring my corn
Amazing spicy-salty-sweet BBQ corn in the park after dark

say cheese!...seriously though this was delicious and I'd get it again.

Food-wise I have been pretty adventurous since I arrived. I am known as the member of our volunteer group who is the least discerning about what he puts in his mouth and that has led me down some interesting paths here so far. After a morning dip in the ocean I was looking for a cheap breakfast spot (the trick is to see where the Indonesians are eating) and ended up at a tiny beach-side restaurant with no menu and a few plates on display, none of which contained food I could easily identify. After some verbal muddling around I was told they serve fish soup, and ordered some, with some of the stuff on one of the plates (I pointed at random), along with rice. I sat down to wait and before long I was brought a plate of rice topped with what I later found out to be fried octopus and what appeared to be the toothiest bowl of soup I had ever laid eyes on. He looked at me, I looked at him, he sized up me, I sized up him. Then I took out my spoon and took a bite of his face. The fish was fatty, but there was a decent amount of meat on it, and the broth it was in was spicy and salty and delicious! I got them to tell me the name of the fish in my soup in Indonesian and then immediately forgot it. If anyone can figure it out from the impressive specimen photo above I’d be obliged if you let me know. Despite my food adventures I am still without a food-related belly-ache! My Malaria meds (doxycycline) make my stomach feel terrible though. I am hoping my GI tract gets accustomed to being a bacterial wasteland before too much longer.

It’s strange, my stress levels are definitely elevated and I’m finding that that is wearing on me in ways I wouldn’t expect. It isn’t as though I am constantly in ‘fight or flight’ mode or anything, it’s a much sneakier feeling than that, like an underlying sense of discomfort that you can’t shake. You know how after a long day at the office or in the lab you just want to come home, take a load off and relax? I don’t have a place like that here to come home to and as a result of feeling a little bit out of my element at all times (except while sleeping) I feel like my fuse is shorter, I’m moodier and I get agitated with people or situations more easily. I’m not usually like that at all so when I catch myself being really negative about something really pretty mundane and unimportant it can come as kind of a shock. I am sure things will improve with time.

The last two days here in Bali have been spent meeting and working with representatives from our partner organization at a nice hotel in downtown Denpasar. It feels a lot like a retreat in the sense that our days are packed with ice breakers and team-building exercises, as well as quite a few helpful presentations and activities designed to help you get to know your partner organization (in my case, the university in Ende). It has been great to finally meet someone who I will be working with directly but it has also been a pretty sobering reality check. The other 3 volunteers have partner organizations where they will be able to operate in English (or get a translation if needed) while they are making the transition and picking up Bahasa Indonesia. Not so, at the university. My partner rep was a lovely woman who was very warm and friendly, but we couldn’t speak English to each other and thus ended up spending the entire day speaking Indonesian. She was occasionally able to translate a word or two when needed and I think she could likely understand a reasonable amount of what I was saying if I absolutely refused to speak Indonesian but why would I do that? At this point it is far more valuable for me to suck it up and smile while struggling to understand when we talk to each other. My major issue is that I have a limited vocabulary which really makes it difficult to discuss such beginner topics as expected volunteer placement challenges or expectations as far as my roles and responsibilities. I was happy that this initial meeting took place in Denpasar because the orientation facilitators were really helpful with translations, but then it hit me. On Thursday I get on a plane to fly to a place where this becomes my every-day reality and I am still feeling oh so unprepared. I allowed myself the luxury a minor breakdown alone in my room after lunch (I thought I had earned it) and it helped quite a bit actually. I’m telling you folks, a good hard cry does the body good every once in a while. This is just one of the many tools in my stress-relief arsenal that I will be taking with me to Ende on Thursday.

In closing I am feeling a mixture of excitement and dread in anticipation for Thursday’s departure. Although I am becoming a pro at living out of a duffel bag (which I will continue to do upon my arrival until I have found a more permanent living arrangement) I am really looking forward to finding a place to actually call home for the next two years. Taking things one day at a time helps, as does keeping in mind the fact that the thoughts and feelings and anxieties I’m experiencing are all perfectly normal parts of the transition process, however uncomfortable it may be at times.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Good grief, Charlie Brown

Training is exhausting!  I’ll likely write this post over a few days as usually don’t have the energy or the desire after a day of training or language classes to sit down and draft a blog post.


Overall, things are going really well!  Today marks the end of our first week (5 days) of language classes, and it has proven itself to be the most intensive structured language learning experience I’ve ever had.  I specify ‘structured’ because getting dropped in rural Costa Rica for 2 months of Master’s research last summer with little more than my wits and my laughably basic Spanish skills presented it’s own unique set linguistic challenges.  Whereas there I was left to pick up what I could ‘on the streets’, here we’ve got 3-8 hours of language class per day, which is great for picking up a language quickly but it is EXHAUSTING.  I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to sign up for free semi-private Bahasa Indonesia classes offered by the Indonesian Consulate in Toronto which I attended diligently throughout the summer, which are paying off like crazy in terms of the speed a which I am building up my skills but there’s so much to learn.


I can thankfully report that the rumours that Bahasa Indonesia is a pretty straightforward language to pick up are true (Note, the language is called Bahasa Indonesia, and not Bahasa as some told me.  Bahasa actually means “language” in Indonesian, although I did hear an Indonesian staff member refer to the language as Bahasa in conversation today so maybe (probably) you can use either?) 


Phonetic pronunciation, no tones, no tenses and the simplest pluralisation structure ever (repeat the noun twice) mean that it’s easy to pick up the basics  of the language quite quickly but then the real work begins.  I began language classes in pretty good stead as I already had the basics mostly under control but within this first week the difficulty has been ratcheted up daily and now the playing field has been levelled significantly and we’re all in unfamiliar territory.  Fortunately we also happen to have a fantastically patient language teacher who’s approach to language teaching has made this language learning experience different than any other I’d had before.  He is very much against direct translation of words, and tends to teach using as little English as possible, usually opting to act out the meaning of a word or explain it using Indonesian words we already know.  We’ve also been taught to sing a few simple Indonesian songs and have field trips which forces me to use my language skills (read: make a fool of myself, but more about that later) outside the classroom in real world situations.  Overall, although tiring I am really enjoying the process.  Homework tonight is to write 3 or 4 paragraphs about what we do each day as part of our daily routine which we are presenting in class for discussion (again, in Indonesian) tomorrow.  In the afternoon, we are also going out to interview people who grew up in our respective placement locations (for me, Ende which is on the island of Flores).  I have been in contact with the previous volunteer who’s job I am going to be assuming fully at the end of November when he leaves the placement and his advice was to really work on my language skills because there is practically no one who speaks English in Ende, and that no one at the University is fluent (I have brought some agricultural reference textbooks as well, but have been informed that I will have translate them into Indonesian before they will be useful to anyone, a task I plan to use as an excuse to really work on my language skills and which I can work at pretty independently as I work on finding my feet in Ende).  I anticipate the integration process is going to be pretty intense in that regard and I’m doing my best to prepare.


A few weeks ago, our morning language class covered numbers and bargaining.  Phrases like “Boleh kurang?”: Can you lower the price? Definitely come in handy in a place where haggling is a way of life.  As a fresh faced volunteer from North America, I have never been particularly good at the art of the hard bargain, and the next day, the women at the office were shocked and appalled when I told them I paid the equivalent of 2.50/kilo for the aptly named “snake fruit”.

Tastes kind of like apple...but not really

The trouble with bargaining is I`m still somewhat unsteady on my feet when it comes to numbers.  Thus, although I know the appropriate response to “25,000 Rupiah/kilo!” is “No! That’s ridiculously expensive! How about 11,000 Rupiah?”  I instead choose to stand there like a jackass and try to figure out what number “Dua puluh lima ribu sekilo” is, especially when she fires it at you so fast it sounds like “DUPULULIMSKILO!!!”


By the time I had figured out how much she was asking for, the old lady at the stall had scoffed, chuckled something to the woman at the next stall over and shovelled TWO kilos of fruit into a bag, tied it up and placed it firmly into my hand, at which point I was too embarrassed at my poor grasp of the language to argue the point further,  and walked away.


I have to stop writing now, I have been dealing with vertigo intermittently for the past two days and another bout has come on. I end up feeling very dizzy and nauseous for a while, while trying not to throw up or pass out.  Will explain/continue this later.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The journey has begun...

Selamat datang!

Hello and welcome to my Indonesian travel blog.  I meant to begin posting prior to my departure for Indonesia but departure preparation certainly got the best of me so I have ended up arriving before finding the time to sit down and write anything.  I have finally managed to find an internet connection strong enough to download a program that lets me edit blog posts from my room and save them to my computer to upload later, so it’s finally off to the races…now where do I begin?
The trip here was a long and arduous one, but Bali has definitely been worth the journey so far.  My itinerary saw me flying from Toronto to London (7 hours), followed by a 12 hour stopover during which I was able to catch up with two friends from Toronto who had recently moved there from Toronto.  Camden Market, Big Ben and an impromptu lesson on navigating "the tubes" were all crammed into a fun filled afternoon.  One of the highlights of the day was a bronze bust, supposedly in the likeness of Nelson Mandela.  I'm not exactly on a first name basis with the man but obviously neither was the sculptor given that they appeared to have taken some artistic liberties with the likeness.
Needless to say I was somewhat skeptical
Laughter and fun-times in foggy London-town were over all to soon and it was back to the airport for the 12.5 hour hop-skip over to Singapore, arriving just in time to sit through another 3 hour stop-over, though I had the good fortune to come across some immaculately clean washrooms.  I think having an photograph of the actual person who has to clean the toilets when you’ve finished with them is a fantastic way to ensure washrooms stay cleaner for longer.  Take a note, North America.
Mr. Rozall had outdone himself that day

I was travelling with two other Canadian volunteers but we had only corresponded by email prior to the trip so I was on the lookout for keen looking types that looked like they were headed the same place I was.  People-watching and eavesdropping are skills I have spent years honing to perfection and I was able to identify both other volunteers by the time we all got on the plane for the final 2 hour leg of the trip from Singapore to Bali.

I remember thinking as we landed and I changed my watch for the third time in 2 days that I would happily do terrible things in exchange for a warm, soft, preferably horizontal bed to sleep in for 3 or 4 days straight, Rip Van Winkle style.  For some reason I never anticipate just how much energy travelling takes out of you and would speculate that this trip was actually made much harder by being stretched over 2 days instead of taking a more direct route.  In any event, I was happy and excited to have arrived.

I vividly remember my first thought upon leaving the plane being “Holy heat and humidity, Batman!”, which I think summed up the situation pretty aptly.  It was 10 PM and we were picked up from the airport and whisked away to our kost, a motel-y place with four one bed one bath type rooms where we all happily peeled off our respective sweat-stained shirts and collapsed in our respective (hopefully) not-so-sweat-stained beds.
What has two thumbs and hasn't showered in 2 days?
I had hoped to avoid jet lag by forcing myself to stay awake through various legs of the plane journey but it looks like my plan failed miserably.  My attempts to tell my body that it was NOT in fact the middle of the day but actually the middle of the night were of no use, and I ended up laying awake a good portion of that first night.  Awaking the following day and taking stock of things I would definitely say my expectations had been exceeded.  A private room with hot water, A/C, a bicycle and a fridge stocked with the essentials did much to lift my spirits that first morning.  I was even able to get my first taste of Indonesian soap operas on TV.
Think "The Young and the Restless" but with sing-along karoke numbers!

The rest of the first day went by pretty quickly, we took a bike ride around the neighborhood with two of the other volunteers and stumbled on this ornately decorated temple in the middle of the city (one of many) And stuck my feet in the Indian Ocean (we’re talking bathtub/hotspring temperatures) and ended off with dinner at a tasty spot in town.  Thus far, the verdict on Indonesian food is three thumbs way up.
Or tepid soup?


Example: this morning we began our first day of in-country training at the country program office in town with banana leaf wrapped yellow rice with chicken, noodles, dried shrimp and fried potato cake. Delicious!

I have been working hard at making friends and already have a veritable army of cute housemates.  Lots of little spiders that seem to have taken up residence in the corner of my showers which I have no problem with and so long as they pay their rent by eating the mosquitos that like to fly through my windows at night and make me itch.  No roaches yet but plenty of tiny ants that will leave you alone as long as you take care not to rudely try to kill them with your back by lying on them with your shirt off while working out on your floor, in which case all bets are off (I found this one out the hard way).  This grasshopper was also doing his thing on a flower stamen just outside our front gate.
Scooter-splosion!I am also happy to report that the cheap AA battery operated point-and-shoot camera I bought appears to take great pictures if you’re gentle and patient with it, which is useful because although I have a nicer one, it’s bulkier and harder to whip out to capture moments like the explosion of scooters and motorcycles that happens every time a light changes.


Indonesia has been every bit as wonderful (and sometimes weird) as I expected so far, everyone I have met has been incredibly warm and welcoming and it has me really looking forward to getting through training and language lessons to get out to my actual placement location which has me in Flores, an island about 300 km east of Bali.  We keep being told that our placement locations will be very different from the tourist paradise that is Denpassar, Bali but more on that later, my grumbling belly tells me I’ve got some dinner to find.

Written while Listening to: the album The Flying Club Cup by Beirut.