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?