A Year of Living Dangerously

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

A Million Star Hotel

I have to admit I’ve been avoiding writing this post. This post is about my final trip to Nias – which ended over a week ago already. Granted I’ve spent the last week lounging in Bali, but I’ve sat down to write this a few times and haven’t gotten very far. I’m not struggling because the trip was bad in anyway. Quite the opposite – it was truly extraordinary. And maybe because it was so unbelievable, I’m not sure how to vocalize it. Maybe it’s because I’m worried that actually trying to explain my feelings, they words will not do them justice – perhaps even make the events seem trivial. I’m not really sure, but I have been avoiding writing this.

I know I posted the itinerary just before we left. If you look at that – you can see we had our work cut out for us. It was a very large group going:

Gina, Frans & I
Fiona (UBS – United Bank of Switzerland)
Fiona’s bodyguard
Ibu K (I never got her name right – from Singapore)
Phillip Johnson
Erwin (from Conservation International)

And we would be meeting Wolfgang and Kris in Sirombu.

Tuesday – travel to Medan
Frans left early in the morning and spent the day in Aceh. He met us in Medan that night. He needed to go to Aceh to check out potential manufacturing sites/workshop locations for the project with Warwick Purser – handicraft production.

PJ arrived in our offices around noon. We hooked him up with internet while Gina and I finished the few last minute things we needed to do before we could leave.

PJ very clearly has been burned by big corporations using his knowledge and throwing him away in the past. He is therefore very skittish and worried about loosing knowledge when he doesn’t really know a person. F, G & I have managed to gain his trust. It took a while, but he completely understands now that the only interest we have in VCO is if it can help the Sirombu community. Anyway, the point is, now that he trusts us and we’re taking him to Sirombu – he was like a little kid. So happy and excited for adventure. It was really fun hanging out with him.

It was also obvious that he really has been broke and hasn’t had many luxuries in his life. Gina went with him to his hotel room to make sure he understood everything. The novel concept of using the plastic card to open the door and turn on the lights, etc.

Anyway, on the plane to Medan, PJ & I got right to work. He told me all about his successful tests using a cold process for VCO extraction – in other words not drying the coconut meat before expelling it, but instead expelling it and then spinning the oil out of the milk using a centrifuge. This is awesome because the driers were the bottleneck in the last process and that could be eliminated. Also, ¼ the electricity is needed for the new process. This is all good news.

Met up with Frans in Medan and we all went to KFC for dinner. We then went to Fiona’s hotel to meet her, but she arrived really late. By the time she got in at 11PM, we had time for introductions and then went back to our hotel room and went to sleep.

Fiona (27) is British, about 5’ 10”, with curly short blond hair and green eyes. She went to university in Dunkirk, where she studied French, Spanish and Linguistics. She said she was very anti-big corporation when she was in college and never expected to end up working at a place like UBS (United Bank of Switzerland) in Corporate Social Responsibility. She now has a 6-month contract in Hong Kong coordinating the bank’s donations to tsunami-recovery projects. She is interesting, nice, and young – we spoke the same language.

Wednesday – UBS and PJ meet Sirombu
Oof, early day. Flight is at 7AM, so we met at the airport at 6AM. This is also where we met Erwin for the first time. He showed up with a small backpack and a CI vest and hat.

Erwin is Indonesian, thin, about 5’ 8”. Big wide smile. Smokes. Very quiet. He works for Conservation International as a “policy maker.” That’s what he said. I’m not entirely sure what that means though. He’s been with CI for 5 years now and says he really likes his job. Erwin is a funny guy, because one minute he’s right behind you and the next he’s completely disappeared. Throughout the trip, I really had to keep my eyes on him because we periodically lost him. At one point we even had to send a task force member to search an area for him. But, very concerned with his job and the environment – very serious about inspecting the coral and the trees. Oh, and he could sleep anywhere.

On the flight to Nias, I ended up sitting next to Fiona. It was nice because it gave us a chance to chat, where we really wouldn’t be spending much time together for the rest of the trip. We had different objectives and she would be working more with F&G, while I focused on VCO with PJ & Erwin.

We talked about our respective pasts and I told her a lot about UID and some of our other projects and what the organization is doing from a broader perspective. I showed her the VCO proposal and then also showed her the videos that Frans & I had put together.

We had quite the caravan going to Sirombu from Gunung Sitoli – 3 vehicles. PJ, Erwin & I in one, F, G & Yedi in another, and Fiona, bodyguard, Ibu K in the third. We could have gotten by with only two vehicles with the number of people, but we needed more because of the various departure times. PJ & I talked coconut the way there as well as a lot of other things.
So great to drive into Sirombu and see all the roofs of the houses. The houses looked really good – all with doors, all painted, electricity, etc. The flooring and the furniture still hadn’t arrived and the water wasn’t hooked up yet, but aside from that, the houses looked really good.

It’s funny, when Fiona was first planning her trip to Sirombu, her secretary emailed Gina and asked if there was a resort or hotel in the town that could be reserved. Gina told us all about this – so funny. Gina of course replied politely that she would arrange accommodation for Fiona.

This story about the resort had been shared around and I don’t know who was the person that said it – but someone commented that “Fiona asked for a 5-star hotel, but instead she got a million-star hotel.”

I think that is the nicest way of saying that you are so far out in the boondox that you have no choice to sleep under the night sky – one that beautifully shows millions of stars and no pollution.

I like million star hotels. Sirombu certainly has a beautifully clear bright sky at night.

Oh, the houses were also where the whole group would be staying for the few nights that we were there. We could sleep there until the move in day, no problem. To many of us to stay at Fona’s Aunt’s house. They (ZTO) even had AC hooked up in the few bedrooms we would be sleeping in. J

Wolfgang and Kris were snoozing in one of the houses when we pulled up. They seemed to have learned a lot and enjoyed the past 4 – 5 days learning about potential economic recovery work in Sirombu.

We had lunch upon arrival with the principles of the schools. PJ and Erwin explored around the houses and talked to the task force members while the meeting was going on. I was called upon to video tape.

The scholarship program that we UBS is sponsoring through us actually only covers 10% of the students – just the students who were affected (lost their house/family) from the tsunami. The other 90% of the students live inland enough that they were not affected.

One of the questions that the principles asked Fiona, of course, was if she could help the rest of the students. The unfortunate response was that the money she had to give had been donated by UBS employees to help the victims of the tsunami. Therefore, it unfortunately is out of her control, but it cannot go to the other students, because they weren’t affected.

It was difficult for me to hear this answer, as I’m sure it was for the principles. I understand it of course, but is just a side of humanitarian work that I hadn’t experienced yet. I’m sure I will see a lot more of this – money being left in trust for specific uses – as I continue work in NGOs.

After lunch, we headed down to the pier to start a tour of Sirombu. “We” included Fiona, bodyguard, Ibu K, PJ, Erwin, Wolfgang, Kris, various task force members, Yedi, the drivers for all of our cars, F, G, & I. Quite the group.

It was perfect timing for PJ & I, because a shipment of copra was just coming in from the Hinako Islands.

Kopra (a.k.a. copra) is smoked, thick coconut meat. It is de-husked, de-shelled, smoked and then bagged in the islands. It is then shipped in bulk format to some central industrial hub, where it is then processed into coconut oil. It is different from VCO though – in that it is highly processed and bleached and all-sorts of things are done to it. Through the process, it looses its aromatic quality as well as the majority of its nutrients. It smells.

I’m really glad that we got there at that particular time, because I was really able to see what kopra is. Up to this point, I was rather confused about what kopra really is and how it is processed. We also got a view of how the bags were brought up to the pier. It took 2 men with a weird rope pulling system to pull a bag up from the small ferry-boat that brought the bags to the pier from the larger boat.

F&G spent time showing Fiona et al the pier and explaining its uselessness. I had a few minutes to catch up with Wolfgang. When Wolfgang had come to our offices, we had shown him the videos we had made of the Sirombu schools. I remember watching his face and the shock/disgust at the school conditions was very apparent. So, I was curious how he was handling the last few days in Sirombu – how he was dealing with seeing the living conditions first hand.

Wolfgang, who had been all smiles and friendly up to that point, turned with a very solemn expression and said, “I watched a boy die yesterday.” Wolf had been doing research, and in the process, passed close to the nearest clinic. He decided to stop and check it out. In the clinic, there was a man with a rather blank expression, who had brought his son in for treatment. Unfortunately, there were no doctors or nurses on location that day. The next nurse would be stopping in that evening.

The man had brought his son in and the boy had malaria. He was clearly very close to death. Wolf said the boys eyes were rolling back into his head and then would come back and then would roll again. The only thing that the attendants at the clinic could do was give him an IV with fluids. They had nothing else they could do.

Wolfgang & Kris asked the father if they could take the boy to the hospital in Gunung Sitoli. They though this might be the only chance for him, but it would be hard long ride. The man was willing to sign a release giving Wolfgang all necessary authority and no liability, but the man wouldn’t come. Apparently, the man had 6 other children at home and all of the other children and his wife all had malaria. His entire family was dying around him and there was nothing he could do. And the mosquito didn’t even have the grace to bite the man too and put him out of his misery.

The child died within 10 minutes of Wolfgang’s and Kris’ arrival at the clinic. They didn’t even have time to get the boy into the car.

By this point, talking to Wolfgang, I was in a state of half shock, half bawling. The poor boy. The poor man!

Wolfgang said he hadn’t shared this with anyone else yet. I was the first. It’s not the kind of story that when people meet up and say “hey! How are ya?!” you can just lay on them. He told me because I had expressed a real interest in how the past few days had been and what he had experienced.

I think Wolfgang’s experience at the clinic was similar to my reaction to the little albino boy last visit – one that just totally rips your heart open and changes your perspective for the rest of your life. I think of the little albino boy every day and hope we can find some way to help him.

We both managed to regain our composure after about 15 minutes – at least well enough to focus on the work we had to do right then. I think my spirit was kind of shot for the rest of the day though.

We, then entire group of 15 of us, then walked further up the point towards a group of villagers processing kopra. We got a good first-hand view of them de-husking, de-shelling and then tossing the meat over their shoulders into an elevated shelf where it was smoked. They burned the husks underneath to create the smoke. They were really efficient at extracting the coconut meat.

One of the task force members, Peni, spoke to one of them and then next thing we knew, he was 40 feet in the air – up a tree getting coconuts for us to drink the water of. So cool. He just flew right up the tree. Peni (who I had met on my first visit to Sirombu and we had already become friends) turned to me and said that the man, the one in the tree, is both deaf and dumb. What a day of reality checks.

PJ oohed and aahed over the fragrance from the coconuts. Good quality coconuts. Will make good VCO. He then commented that the empty government building at the end of the pier would make a good factory.

We (the whole big group of 20 or so) then walked through the ruins of Sirombu Village – where the tsunami destroyed everything. After that, we headed to the tent village, where Fiona spoke with a few children. And after that, we all went back to the houses to relax a bit after a long day, mandi if desired, or whatever before dinner.

After dinner – Fiona, F, G, Wolf, and Ibu K had a meeting about the scholarship program and the economic recovery proposal. PJ and I sat on the porch and discussed VCO.

Top things we needed to focus on the next day:
1. health of trees
2. coconut acquisition – process and price
3. logistics of delivery of coconuts
4. logistics of transporting finished VCO
5. manufacturing site

Another big concern is on-going management of the facility and on-going ownership. Obviously, the donors will want the facility to be owned by village, but it needs to be under the control of someone with management experience and interest in seeing it be profitable. This is a going to be a mind-bender for me. Certainly not something we could solve that day.

Thursday – Hinako Boat Trip
Thursday the crazy entourage of the day before split into 2.

Team 1:
Led by F & G, the team included Fiona, bodyguard, Ibu K, and Yedi. They took Fiona to the schools to see them in session. After that, they returned to Gunung Sitoli for a meeting with local government officials there. Fiona then flew back to Medan that afternoon. F & G then met with Ama Herti in Gunung Sitoli.

Ama Herti
Ama Herti is a member of the task force and about 50 years old. He is also a local government official in Gunung Sitoli and has played a very important role helping UID work with the government and also socialize the projects with the villagers.

After meeting with Ama Herti, they (F, G, Yedi and Ama Herti) came back to Sirombu and met with all of the task force members and Peter and some other ZTO workers. They planned the activities for Friday’s moving in ceremony.

Team 2:
Led by moi, included PJ, Erwin, Wolfgang, Kris, Peni, and Ama Vike. We hopped a charter boat out to the Hinako Islands to inspect the coconut trees on the islands.

Man was it a gorgeous day. Sitting on the roof of a boat, cruising out over the ocean, it was just stunning. The boat can hold 25+ people. It was a substantial boat that we chartered. $60 for the day.

PJ forgot his flip flops on the mainland. We get off the boat, “where are your shoes?” He had taken them off while waiting on the beach, and forgotten to take them with him while he boarded the big boat.

Ama Vike tried on my sunglasses while we were on the boat. He really liked them. I said he could keep them. He was really touched.

Like the west side of Nias, the Hinako Islands were also raised about 2 or so meters out of the sea during the earthquake of March 28th. As a result, all of the islands now have a new beach of coral rocks around them. Makes a rather unusual landscape.

The Hinako Islands are also famous (besides for their coconuts) for being fantastic surfing, in fact some of the best surfing in all of Indonesia. The smallest wave is 5 meters apparently. Surfers come from all around to go here and they love it especially because it is so remote and unpopulated – no competition for waves.

Interestingly, the rise of the islands has changed the locations of the best waves because the face of the ocean floor is now different – so the water reacts differently and breaks in different places.

The islands are cool and breezy. They are on the Indian Ocean side of Nias.

The tsunami didn’t affect the islands very much. The water just passed right over the islands in the form of a big swell. The villagers told us it came up to their waist. They were all able to get to high ground before the water came. They were lucky.

We landed on the island and had to walk a kilometer to the village. Along the way, we passed the remains of a cooking oil facility. The facility had stopped production before the tsunami hit, for unrelated (and also unknown) reasons. The facility had it’s own pier. It had been in production for many years, so we know that the village could support a facility.

What surprised me as we walked along was that the houses looked really nice. Many of them were trimmed with carved wood and clearly buildings that people had loved and cared for. Additionally, many of the women we met were wearing gold jewelry – and no small pieces.

We reached Ama Vike’s house in the center of Hinako Village and sat down on the porch. Slowly, men from the village gathered, including the village head. PJ led the discussion, mostly in bahasa, asking all sorts of questions and extracting the information he needed from the men.

PJ really is an impressive guy. He had all of the men captivated and involved in the conversation. He was so friendly and honest and also effective. Good at working with people. He really impressed me.

We learned that the people of the Hinako Islands are relatively wealthy when compared to most of Nias and they are the wealthiest of everyone in Sirombu District. They are land owners – and it is very profitable land with lots of good quality coconut trees.

In fact, the people of Hinako do not know how to climb coconut trees. They consider themselves above that. They hire tree climbers from another village to climb for them. The tree climbers are the sort of migrant workers of Nias – they work in the rubber factories when needed, climb trees when the time is right, etc. The tree climbers either get 2,000 rupiah for climbing the tree and cutting down all of the coconuts OR they get 1/3 of the profits from kopra sales (but that means they have to do all of the husking, de-shelling, smoking, bagging, and transporting themselves). The land owners get the other 2/3.

Interestingly, production of copra from Hinako was estimated at 150k kilos of copra per month pre-earthquake. If you estimate 4 coconuts per kilo of kopra – that equals 600,000 nuts harvested each month. That’s a lot of coconuts. The volume we are talking about for the VCO is 3,000 nuts per day – or ~60,000 nuts per month. Learning about the capacity for kopra production at least eased us of any concerns about being able to support our coconut requirements.

However, kopra production has dropped to approximately 80k kilos per month (320,000 coconuts) after the earthquake. Apparently, the tree climbers are suffering from trauma, or in other words, they are scared of something further happening and are therefore avoiding the island. Ama Vika assured me that if we offer a good price for the coconuts, that enough climbers would come to support our needs.

A few minutes later, out came a glass with a slightly yellow-ish liquid in it. The villagers press their own coconut oil – for cooking and consumption at home. They do not market it. PJ got ahold of it and immediately started swooning over the aroma. Ina Vika (Ama Vike’s wife) had pressed it. She immediately started prepping water bottles of the stuff for us to take back with us.

While we were talking, Wolfgang and Kris left and went and examined the town and the school. They took my camera with them and got a good look at the post-earthquake conditions of all of the buildings.

Wolf and Kris told me later that they spoke with a teacher at the elementary school and the teacher said that they didn’t need any help. Wolfgang took a look around the school and saw broken ceilings, floors and desks. The conditions were much better than those in Sirombu, but none-the-less not good.

I didn’t get to see the school (only the pictures), but 2 things frustrated me about this. First, that the teacher wasn’t more concerned about the conditions. Secondly, with all the gold jewelry and money in the community – why do the villagers let their children go to school some place like that. Gina explained to me later that the villagers feel the school’s condition is the government’s responsibility.

After a while, I thought about this second point more and realized how hypocritical I was being. How many well off families let their children go to a school that is hurting for money and don’t help? Granted I’m not a parent yet, so the scenario is not directly applicable. But it just hit home that it is not really a problem in Indonesia, but really a problem world-wide.

Also while PJ & I were talking to the men of the village, Erwin was off somewhere. Who knows where. But he did show back up with some palm leaves. He must have found someone to show him where the bugs were getting at the coconut trees. He said that it looked to him like some sort of worm was eating the tree and that he would take the leaves back to Medan for analysis.

Finally, also while we were talking, one of the task force members was standing not 10 feet away poking at a tree. The next thing I knew, he handed me a fresh star fruit – right off the tree. Very cool. Tasted great!

Ina Vike made us lunch – rice and fried chicken. Funny thing, Wolfgang and I were both disappointed that we were served chicken and not fish. Good fish is not common in the city, so we get excited for it. However, for the villagers, it is every day food. To honor guests, they serve chicken. By giving up a chicken, they are also forfeiting all of the eggs that would be produced by the chicken. It’s a big honor. Different perspectives.

After lunch, Ina Vike presented me with a straw bag – purple and yellow colored with red corners. The weaving of straw bags like this one is a traditional handicraft of Sirombu and the Hinako Islands. She had made this bag herself. I was totally touched. I think it may be the nicest present I’ve gotten in a long time!

We made our way back through the Hinako Village after lunch, towards the boat. We stopped to examine a well – now dry. Because the island is lifted, where there used to be water, there now is none. They are working on relocating water sources and had found a good spring out on the coral beach. An open air mandi was constructed down there around it. It was more open than anything else.

It was such a beautiful day and the water was such a gorgeous, crystal clear blue, all of us non-native-Nias people swam out to the boat. The task force members and locals watched in amusement. It was glorious. Once we got to the boat, we proceeded to climb on board and then dive off the roof. So much fun. I, of course, cut my leg on part of the boat and ended up with all sorts of bruises from this. Completely worth it.

We didn’t get back to Sirombu until rather late. We made a couple of stops along the way and at one point lost Erwin. We had to send someone with a motorcycle to find him.

The group that went to the islands had really good spirit. It felt like a team and like a coherent expedition. We had learned a lot and had a really great time in the process.

The day was also special for me because it was the first time I was out and about in Nias with out Frans and Gina. In a way, I almost felt like a teenager allowed out of the house by herself for the first time. And it was because of me that PJ and Erwin were visiting the islands – because of a project that I had done all the research for, the writing, everything. This was my trip. And it felt really good! Not to mention the fact that it was outdoors in a stunning place on a gorgeous day – the types of days I dream of.

We had fish for dinner that night. J And PJ and I sat up late talking about the proposal and what else needed to be done for it to be completed. F & G got back really late from Gunung Sitoli and then proceeded to hold a meeting. They didn’t finish their preparations for Friday until the wee hours of the morning.

Friday – Moving Day
Goodness, I’m sitting here thinking about how great this day was and I’m already getting choked up. Okay. Here goes.

I actually got to sleep in a little – this was a nice break for me.

I woke to find Gina performing traditional medicine in our bedroom. Her neck, she said, was really tight and she couldn’t turn her head to one side. She said it was really painful. So, she was using a peppermint balm, putting it on her skin and then rubbing it with the edge of a coin. This resulted in big red lines. I don’t have any clue what it is for or how it works, but I hope she feels better.

I spent the morning downloading and editing photos from the 2 days before. This way my memory space would be completely clear for that afternoon.

Frans went with Ama Herti and talked to the local government. With the help of the local government, they chose 14 families to move into the new houses that day. The families were chosen based on need – starting with widows with children, then elderly and then families with really young children.

Each of the families then had to be visited individually and told the news. Frans said that he cried at each house – just so happy to tell them and they were so happy to hear. They were requested to be at the houses at 4 PM, when a signing ceremony would take place. After the ceremony, they could move in when ever and at whatever pace they would like.

A couple of the families were also asked to be packed and ready. We wanted to capture some video of families moving out of their tents and taking the tents down and moving all of their belongings. People were more than happy to help with that. After lunch, I helped prep the ceremony site – putting out the chairs and picking up the garbage from around the buildings.

Side note: I did the garbage collection naturally because it needed to be done. But I think it made a big impact with the task force members and the people I work with there. I think they were all surprised that I (a westerner and a woman) was willing to stoop to that – simply because it needed to be done and the site would look better with it complete. It’s a small thing for us, but several remarked afterwards.

I also noticed that this trip, all of the locals had been treating me as one of their own – no longer a stranger in a strange land. It was a really great feeling. I was included and people were happy to see me. Even one of our drivers immediately asked if I had come when F & G got off the plane. It was nice to feel so accepted.

Around 3 PM, Gina & I piled into one of the cars and drove to one of the family’s tents. They were packed – they had less belongings as a family than I took to Indonesia for the summer – and ready to go. 3 children, a husband and wife. Their tent was a gigantic blue tarp held up by bamboo poles. The local children enjoyed helping to rip that thing down.

We went to a second family and picked them up as well. They didn’t want their tent to be touched – they decided they didn’t want to touch it, not even look at it. And they had a relatively nice tent. There was a husband, his wife, her sister, and 3 children again in this family. So nice.

That second family also happened to be tented right next to the oldest lady we were moving. She was to get a home too. She was partially lame and taken care of by her only son. He was deaf and mute. After the ceremony, Gina and I helped this lady walk and find her new house. We got to help her turn the key to her new home. It was really really great.

Okay, I’m tearing up again. Breathe in. Breathe out.

The “ceremony” wasn’t extravagant. A few local officials made speeches. Frans spoke. Forms were signed and keys were passed. Finally, a blessing was said both in English and in bahasa, blessing the new houses and the tenants.

Afterwards, the families were allowed to walk and find their new homes. They could move in whenever they wanted.

After helping the elderly lady to her home, I kind of walked quietly up the road between the houses and just watched everyone. I saw kids playing between the houses. One was running around, holding the keys in his hand, waving them in the air.

It’s a real community. It’s not just for walls and a roof. These are nice houses and the people like them. They looked happy.

I don’t think I’m doing a very good job of really expressing the magic of seeing people – people who had lived in a tent for more than 7 months – entering their new homes for the first time.

That night, as F, G, the task force, and I all feasted on 2 gigantic fish (roasted over an open fire), we could see lights on and people going to sleep in the houses. They had already moved in. This was now their home.

The housing project – 240 homes + a clinic + a school + new piers – is a BIG project. Frans is managing the entire process, with Gina by his side all the way. I had the opportunity to help with it this summer by writing many of the updates and participating in the planning meetings, etc. But, I just helped. This day meant a lot for me. I can only imagine how much more magnified it was for Frans & Gina. They have worked so hard to make this happen. Seeing people move in was amazing, knowing it’s because of F & G (and a little me) made it magical. It was magical.

This was now definitely my last trip to Sirombu this summer. (Notice I did not say ever!). I really can’t imagine a better way to close it.