A Year of Living Dangerously

Friday, July 29, 2005

You know you've been living in Jakarta too long when...

So last week, my maid didn’t show up one of the days she was supposed to. This wouldn’t really have been a problem for me, except it was right after the weekend of scuba diving lessons and right before I was to leave for Nias. In other words, I needed clean t-shirts for Nias and I didn’t have any. I was a little flustered because I had to re-think what I would take with me to Nias.

It wasn’t until this week, when I was home, that I realized I know where the washing machine is – it’s in my apartment. And I know where the soap is. AND I know how to use washing machines! If I had really wanted my t-shirts, I could have just washed them myself. It’s not like I don’t do my laundry all the time back in the States.

I think what shocked me most was the fact that the thought hadn’t even occurred to me. It was the first sure sign that I had become too used to having a made and very accustomed to this lifestyle and culture.

Of course, I was chatting with Tracy over IM that night and told her about this. She offered to do my laundry for me for a few weeks after I got home, if it would help me re-adjust to the American culture more easily. I told her to stuff it.

I was reading a humor book last night about funny real-life stories that happened here in Jakarta and quirky people who live here. It is written by an expat who opened and runs a bar here. At the back of the book, there is a couple of pages entitled “You know you’ve been in Jakarta too long when…” One of the comments is, “when the footprints on the toilet seat are your own.” Unfortunately, I don’t remember any more of them, although they were quite funny and I got 90% of the references. Well, I think this laundry situation fits into that category.

Frans and Gina used to have their own company before they joined UID. They were wedding planners. They said the largest wedding they have ever planned was for just over 4,000 people. I was floored. Then they said that the average was 1,200. How much does this cost? ~$35k USD. In Indonesia, that kind of money goes a very long way. They feed all of the guests and generally there are more than 5 bands and dance groups. There is always an MC and the event is practically a theater production.

I have been invited to 5 weddings since I’ve been living here myself, although I have not been able to make it to a single one. I also don’t know the people getting married, only friends of the cousins of someone who is married to someone who met the bride once. The family will send out 400 invitations and then triple the number to get the number of expected guests, because it is common for everyone to bring their kids and neighbors and friends. Unbelievable.

Frans said because the weddings are so large, there are always a few people a the wedding that do not know anyone. They crash the wedding for the food. I didn’t believe this until Frans said he had done it! He and his friends, back when they were young and broke, would put on nice batik shirts and go crash a wedding. They would go in a larger group, but enter the wedding in small groups of 2 or 4. Then they would meet up inside and act like they hadn’t seen each other in a long time. This way it would look like they know people at the wedding and that they belong. The bride-side would assume the groom new them and vice versa. He said on good days, they would even get pictures with the bride and groom! How many times have you done this Frans? So many he has lost count. I told him he could justify it as vocational training and market research for his subsequent career as a wedding planner. He laughed.

The early part of this week was absolutely crazy busy with work. Since we just got back from Nias, we needed to update the various donors on progress that has been made. Plus, we need to go back to Nias next week, so we’ve had to plan for that.

Next week when we go back, we’ll be bringing with us one of the donors for the Scholarship Program, as well as her body guard and translator. Also coming will be 2 gentlemen proposing an economic recovery and vocational education program to the same donor. They are from a different organization, Next Step, not UID. And finally, I’ll be bringing PJ and an environmental specialist from Conservation International. We are doing a deep dive on the VCO production facility. After this I hope we will have enough information to finish the full proposal.

On Tuesday, we were also taken off-guard by a request from one of our donors to meet with Warwick Purser.

Warwick Purser
White-haired older gentleman with fantastic style. He runs a handicraft business here in Indonesia that supplies lots of products to Target and other larger retailers back in the States. Lives in Puri Casablanca. Married, but not children. I did hear he’s in the process of adopting a 12-year-old boy from Aceh who was orphaned during the tsunami.

What is most interesting about this spur-of-the-moment business meeting was that Warwick and I did a double take when we met. Richard McHowat had told me about him when we met for lunch because we both live at Puri Casablanca. Richard thought we would enjoy talking and might perhaps want to meet for dinner. We hadn’t yet caught up with each other though. Being introduced to each other here at UID was quite a surprise.

The proposal we’d be working on – handicrafts in Aceh – has 2 big components. 1) It requires meeting the high shopping season in Indonesia, which is coming up in late October and early November. People buy each other gifts for the Muslim new year then. 2) It would provide more professional training around the handicrafts and skills that already exist in Aceh, bringing them up to a standard that would provide sustainable employment and industry long-term.

UID’s role will be to find/build and sponsor the workshop (the actual building) where production would occur. Frans is looking into this right now. One partner offered a potential location on some land where an orphanage is currently located. There is enough space to also build a workshop and the orphanage would be willing allow the workshop, if skills and training was provided to the children. This is very much just a possibility and no way beyond even initial thought stages, but it is a great possibility – and very much an integrated project.

One of the best parts of working with United in Diversity is the fact that the projects are not just a one-time hit. I mean, we don’t just donate boats and then leave. UID’s projects are meant to have a more long-term lasting effect. Provide a workshop with jobs, but that also teaches local children skills. Provide boats, but also nets and maintenance and also technique education. THAT is United in Diversity.

Similarly, we had another introductory meeting this week with an organization based in Colorado Springs → Next Step. The organization is a partner of YCAB (one of our partners) and they have been recruited to make a presentation on economic recovery for Sirombu. The leader of the team is named Wolfgang Fernandez.

Wolfgang Fernandez
Venezuelan by birth, but has lived all over the world. He speaks Spanish, English, French, Italian, Portuguese, German and Dutch. He lives in Colorado Springs, where his children are, although he’s divorced. He travels here to Indonesia a lot. Very friendly. Very direct. Very smart. Very level-headed.

Side note: When we first met, Frans introduced me as from MIT. Wolfgang asked, “and MIT stands for?” He knew the institution but wasn’t really expecting me to be from the school. I think he thought that it might be some other organization with the same letters that he just didn’t know about. His expression when I said, “Massachusetts Institute of Technology?” was priceless.

They asked us a lot about our work in Sirombu and what we knew of the village. They have not yet been there and were trying to come up with ideas of programs and industries they can start. They will provide tools and training and more.

Wolfgang turned to me, just a few minutes in the meeting, and asked, “You’re the MBA. What would you recommend for starting for industry?” To which, I paused, and said, “Well, focus on the natural materials already in place. For example, cocoa grows all over the island. It could be harvested and organized. Another option is additional vocational training for the fisherman – teach them different fishing techniques. There is also a traditional handicraft of grass woven mats – organize the women to make those for sale. Also, look into patchouli oil. The plant can be grown there, bailed and processed in Singapore.” (These were all ideas that had been brought to my attention one way or another over the last 2 months. Also I found out later that Frans is already working on the vocational training for the fishermen).

One of Wolfgang’s other questions was whether we thought Sirombu was the right place for an economic recovery project, or if he should stick to Gunung Sitoli, the capital. Gunung Sitoli would, of course, be easier logistically. Our answer was that the people in Gunung Sitoli already have a lot of help and they naturally have a lot more options, just because it is a city. Sirombu villagers do not have many options. No companies come there. There is no tourism. To help the village, things need to be started there. So, of course, it may be a little more difficult geographically, but it will have a comparatively higher benefit for the community. It also adds another facet to the integrated community solution for Sirombu.

On that note, about the logistics to Sirombu, I’ve heard a lot of surprised comments about the work that we are doing in Sirombu. The village is extremely remote. It is often ignored because it is just “too hard” for the NGOs to get to or really work in.

What is interesting about that comment is there are a lot of reports about relatively little actually being accomplished in Aceh. It is said that the bureaucracy there is overwhelming and making work virtually impossible. Where as in Nias, a more remote location, we already have houses up and we’ll be moving people in.

It appears in development work that it is not natural obstacles that are the most difficult to cross, but bureaucratic and social obstacles.