A Year of Living Dangerously

Friday, August 26, 2005

The plane ride home

I’m on the plane on my way home. I figured that since I really started this blog on the plane ride to Indonesia, this would be an appropriate time to write this final entry. It also happens to be convenient – since I’m stuck in one place for 18 hours (that’s just the Hong Kong – Toronto flight, the longest leg).

I’m not really sure where to start. Would I do this again? Yes. Definitely. I wouldn’t hesitate for an instant and, if possible, I would extend the stay. I began to feel like I was really beginning to have an individual impact on things about halfway through the stay. It would be nice to have longer to make that impact more lasting.

How am I feeling?
I was nervous on my way over. I’m kind of torn on my way back. Yes, I’m looking forward to seeing family and very much looking forward to school (Sloan rocks). But there is so much here that I still want to do. And I really love working with Frans & Gina.

Also, for the record, at no point while I was gone did I feel like I was in any danger. I’m sure when I get home, I’m going to get a lot of “I’m glad you’re home safe.” But to be honest, Indonesia is a big country – one of over 200,000,000 people. There are a few dangerous parts – but what country doesn’t have that? In the US, I know there are parts I should avoid. The problem with Indonesia is only that we, being so far away, don’t know which those parts are. As long as a person uses their head, they should not let fear of the unknown stop them from doing things or going places. Anyway, I didn’t feel like I was in any real danger at any point.

Best parts/worst/hardest parts?
Best part was probably walking quietly and alone down the dirt road in the Monaco complex in Sirombu and watching the children play between the houses, seeing how happy the villagers were and knowing that Sirombu will be a real community again.

Worst was realizing how slow projects go and that it is not because of resource constraints or geographical barriers – it is entirely due to bureaucratic crap.

Hardest part having to realize my own limitations for help and to stop and think through gifts – not just jump into them. In other words, my immediate reaction is you need a teacher? I can do that! But in reality, with my education and skills, I can do more for people in administrative capacities.

What did I miss most from the US?
The food. It’s not that I didn’t like the Indonesian food – because I did. Rendang is a new favorite. And the sea food restaurants ruled! But the lack of bread and vegetables created a different diet base that I just wasn’t used to.

What will I miss most from Indonesia?
Besides Frans, Gina & Maggie? And besides the work and especially traveling to Nias? Uh, my maid! You know, I only ever met her once – the day after I arrived. Since then I have actually never seen her. But my clothes magically appear in my closet – clean and pressed.

Did I meet my goals and expectations?
My personal goals for this trip started with using my skills in ways that add the most value to the victims of the natural disasters. Early on, we received a request for volunteer teachers from a school in Aceh. Reading the report, I was hit extremely hard by some of the facts and my initial reaction was to volunteer myself to be the teacher. Thinking about it later that day, I realized that with my education and background – I could provide more value to more people by applying my business knowledge to projects than by going immediately to the front line as a teacher. My background in operations finance and my education from the MIT Sloan School of Management are unusual assets and I that I can do more good for more people by not jumping at the first opportunity. I hope that the path I choose going forward will be one that takes advantage of what I can offer.

Secondly, my background is in operations finance and my goal is to transfer into relief operations after completing my MBA. This summer is an opportunity for me to experience working in the non-profit/international relief world. Is this an industry I really do want to work in? Can I handle seeing and working on projects that are emotionally heart wrenching? Yes. And I love having work that has meaning.

Lastly, and this is the area that I believe I have learned the most, I wanted to learn how to work directly with people who have been affected by the natural disasters. It sounds a lot more simple than it is. These people have lost everything and you need their help in order to help them. If you give boats and they are a shape that don’t work with the currents of the local water, they won’t be used. Or if you build them a house and put a western style toilet in it (which they may not have ever seen before and is not their custom to use), they may believe you are trying to change their culture. Learning how to help people effectively (giving them what they need and will use) is important for understanding other people in general, as well as learning about international relief work.

What did I learn? Did it complement b-school studies?
I think I already covered what I learned. But did it complement b-school? Yes, very much so. B-school teaches a lot of how to run a business efficiently. It does not teach how to work with people – especially ones with different levels of education or political agendas. (Well, you can take 1 or 2 classes on this stuff, but it is not the primary focus of school). The project management side of work was not challenging for me this summer, nor the business proposal creation side. What I learned was how to socialize ideas, deal with bureaucratic obstacles, and how to translate for 2 parties speaking the same language but not understanding each other. This was an extremely practical addition.

What now?
Oh man. Well, besides the obvious of moving back to Boston and starting classes, I will be looking for a field administration/operations/project management position. Granted, these don’t recruit at business schools and I don’t have a ton of industry experience to offer, so this will be a challenge. I guess I’ll start by talking to anyone and everyone I meet, see what I can learn and where I can go.

Wolfgang has also asked me to help him. I am not exactly sure what he will need and how I can fit in, but I have volunteered to do what I can. I know he talks a lot to potential donors and it would probably be very helpful to have another person who has been on the ground for people to ask questions of. What else he’ll need help with, I’m not sure.


Anyway, I’m going to go take advantage of the movies. If anyone has any other questions they would like to see answers to here, please feel free to send along!

-N