A Year of Living Dangerously

Monday, July 25, 2005

The fish are our friends!

Gina announced before we even left Jakarta that she was not going to take a bath while in Sirombu. "You don't mind if I smell, do you?" She had not gotten over learning that there were fish in the well where we stayed last time. “You know what fish do in water?” I just laughed. I intend to bath. It’s so hot here and you never get away from it, plus mosquito repellent and sun block. Very sticky.

It’s been almost exactly one month since my first trip to Nias. It is amazing for me how accustomed I have become to Indonesia. The trip to Nias was now like clockwork. Well, not exactly clockwork, for there were a lot of hiccups, but I was completely comfortable with each phase.

We were delayed landing in Medan because of rain. And then bumped on our flight out in the morning because of rain. And then we were delayed again because of rain. Of course I’m looking out the windows and thinking that this is nothing compared to some of the snow storms during which I’ve landed in the Northeast. Anyway, I guess it’s all relative and what you are used to. I’m also not a pilot.

Under ordinary circumstances, delays are difficult to deal with when traveling for business, but this time it was worse. There was a holiday taking place on Nias – “Children’s Day.” I don’t know much about the holiday, but it meant that all flights were booked leaving Nias from Friday until Tuesday. SO, we were only scheduled to be in Nias from Wednesday morning until Thursday afternoon. Arriving Wednesday afternoon made it really tight to get to Sirombu, do our work and get back. We actually got to the airport only 15 minutes before the flight took off on the way back. They practically grabbed my bag from my hands as we walked in the door.

I did meet a very good looking, Australian surfer on the way over though. I noticed when we were first checking in and he ended up sitting next to me on the plane! I’m never that lucky. Named Adam, he’s a professional life guard and gets 8 weeks off every year. This year, he’s spending 5 of them in Nias, staying with a local family and spear fishing for his dinner. Maybe I should drop out of business school… (just kidding, Dad)

Of course, I have a horrific cold. So here I am sitting next to this tan, blue-eyed, Australian surfer and I’m sneezing and sniffling the whole flight. And then the pain in my sinuses was so bad as we were landing, I was tearing up. Such a great way to make a first impression.

Yedi, a member of our task force, met us at the airport. Our first stop when we landed in Gunung Sitoli was at Meta’s fathers’ house. Meta, again, is another member of our task force. This was where we spent our last night during our last trip. This also seems to be where Yedi lives. I was all confused for a bit, but Gina finally explained to me that most of our task force are members of the same extended family.

This is also where the well is being dug. Yedi told me they have drilled to 18 meters and have not yet hit water. They are going to keep going until 24 meters and if they don’t hit water, then they will try another spot. They weren’t drilling when we were there because it was raining.

Side note: I would have taken a picture, but all there was to see was a single pole, about 4’ tall, sticking out of the ground.

Meta’s father works for the local government in Nias. He recommended to Frans & Gina that the local government help choose the families to move into the first houses completed in Sirombu. This would help prevent jealousy between families. The government is also closer to people and has the means to determine which families most need. Additionally, it would foster good relations with the government.

Everything around socialization and politics of aid work is really fascinating to me. It is a side of life I’m very much not experienced in, coming from finance. It never would have occurred to me to ask the local government to make this decision for us, but I can see its win-win benefits. This is also only one example of the kinds of things I’m learning.

Next it was on to Sirombu – the 3 hours of turbulence.

Yedi was in the car with us. First couple of hours were pretty quiet, but towards the end we were talking and laughing. I don’t even remember what about, but we had a really good time. Oh yes, I did tell everyone the story that the first time I was in Sirombu, during the task force meeting, how the word “America” kept coming up. I, of course, didn’t speak Indonesian very well then (and still don’t for that matter) and thought they were talking about me. I had no idea why they were talking about me, but was cool with it.

It wasn’t until a couple of weeks later that I realized they were saying “Ama Ika,” which is the name of one of the task force members. Missed that one. When I told everyone this, they all completely lost it. I can appreciate the humor in it too.

Some how the topic of the fish in the mandi (well) in Sirombu came up. Yedi explained that if the fish are alive, then you know that the water is not contaminated. I was impressed. Very logical. If there is a dead fish floating in the well, you know it is probably not a good idea to use it to bath in.

Gina immediately changed her opinion about the mandi. She decided the fish were a good thing and loudly declared, “the fish are our friends!”

From the road, we could see that construction on the houses is proceeding very well. Houses are complete and look great. After stopping for lunch/dinner of noodles, we walked around the construction area. There are still a few things that need to be done before the houses will really be livable though: 1) furniture, 2) linoleum/vinal floor covering, 3) plate covers for the electrical outlets. Also, construction is still going on right next to the completed houses, so if we move families in – there is danger with the construction equipment and the children.

While it’s difficult to pass tents while on the way to inspect completed houses, I know that it is just plain unsafe for the families right now. Another month and we should be able to section off the completed area sufficiently to allow some families to move in.

Also, the donors are getting anxious, understandably. They have paid for houses and they know that the houses are complete. It is hard to understand why the houses can not be moved into unless you stand there and really see the danger.

We learned upon arriving in Sirombu that the seas/ocean was too rough because of the rain for us to go to Hinako. I was disappointed because we needed to do fact finding on the elementary schools in Hinako and see how many new houses are still needed. However, we were really crunched for time at this point because of all the delays getting to Sirombu. If we missed our flight back, we wouldn’t get another until next Wednesday.

We spent the night at Beni’s house (Beni is another task force member and Fona’s cousin). This is the house we stayed at last time – Fona’s Aunt’s house. Well it turns out it is also Beni’s house. Everyone’s related.

We slept again in bamboo shelter. I had real trouble sleeping because the mosquitoes were eating me alive. Even with insect repellent on, I couldn’t lay still.

Around 3 AM, there was an after shock – only 4.3 and it was over in less than 10 seconds. It was the first earthquake I’ve ever felt. Last visit, there was a 5.5 and I slept through it.

The next morning, Gina mandi'd. "The fish is my friend!"

Ama Ika (task force member) showed up with 4 coconuts. We spent probably 45 minutes examining the different ages, cracking them open and getting good visuals of the meat. One of my major tasks for this visit was to examine the coconuts and figure out how many we could get on a daily basis, sustainably. It looks like we’ll be able to get about 10,000 coconuts per day of the exact age we need for virgin coconut oil production. This is enough coconuts to produce adequate quantities of oil for a facility to function profitably.

Next steps for VCO is to obtain funding for a Phase I – which would be about a month of research. It would require bringing Phillip Johnson out to Sirombu, along with an environmental expert to check on the health of the trees. We would do a deep dive analysis on the optimum quantities and best logistical routes, etc.

After that, a Phase II (or final) proposal would be made – detailing the specific financial investment required and exact processes, logistics, outputs, etc. If Phase II is funded, then equipment would be ordered and the facility would be built, etc.

If everything goes well, we could have the Phase II proposal complete before I leave Indonesia (which is exactly 1 month away now). This would make me very happy. Initial reading on VCO was given to me the day I flew into town. I know more about it (right now) than anyone else at UID. It would be very cool if I could get it to fly before I have to leave.

We spent the morning visiting all of the schools involved in our scholarship proposal. Gina spoke with each of the principles individually about getting updated information. In the mean time, Frans and I got video footage of the schools and Sirombu village to put together for the donors. Frans did the shooting while I narrated.

Side note: As soon as I can get some of it edited into good clips, I’ll try to post it where people can download and see.

I had already seen the schools, but it was still disturbing. Some of the children don’t have real shoes – they wear flip flops. The high school has metal walls, dirt floors, and a palm-thatched roof. The teacher has a blackboard about 4’ x 6’ to work with, nothing else. There’s a big field in front of the middle school and apparently they don’t have a lawn mower. Instead, they get all of the middle school children out in a line with machetes to trim the grass.

Despite all of this, the children are so friendly and seem so happy. Maybe they don’t know anything different. Maybe they are content. I can only try to imagine how they do it.

While driving between the middle school and the elementary school, I noticed that there some children playing on the side of the street. I asked Gina why they weren’t in school. She said that they probably could not afford the “school fees.” School fees are only 20,000 rupiah per month – just about $2.

It breaks my heart to see kids not going to school because of that. It makes me want to jump out of the car and just give that kid the $2. At the same time, I don’t really know enough about that one child’s circumstances and also how other children and other children’s families would react. They have to struggle to put their kids in school. Who knows what they have to go through.

Our current scholarship proposal that is being funded actually only covers the children that were victims of the tsunami. In other words, only 10% of the students in the school. The rest of them live far enough away from the shore that they were not affected. Gina turned to me and said that she really wants to find donors to cover all of the students. But she’s starting with this and then working from there. A complete scholarship program for all of the children would get the few out of the streets.

Baby steps.

When we came to one of the elementary schools, Frans & I went into one of the class rooms. Children were diligently working on their exercises. One of the children, I noticed, had blond hair. I thought he was a western child, but when he turned around, the shape of his eyes showed he was Asian.

He is albino. I didn’t catch his name or get to look at him for long, but I just happened to briefly glance at his arms. The skin was red, scarred, crusty and flakey. It looked like he had suffered from severe, repeated sun burns. An albino child with no protection from the sun here must suffer extraordinarily under the sun of the equator. He’ll probably get skin cancer before he’s 15!

Frans & I had to continue taping and finish up to make it to the airport. We didn’t have time to dally at all around. In the car, on our way, I turned to Yedi and asked how many doctors there were in Sirombu. It turns out there is only one for the entire district (county). One!

I then asked Yedi if he would do me a favor. Would he please see if he could get the doctor to visit the little albino boy? I gave Yedi all the cash I had with me ($50) and told him to email me if it costs more. I also asked him to email and tell me if the doctor recommends anything. I’ll do what I can to get that boy help. Sun block? Long sleeved shirts? Poor little guy!

My second trip to Nias was successful in that it was productive. However, it was just as heart wrenching as the last. I hope it never affects me less.