August 11, 2013

Few people in the USA know about the 1965 genocide in Indonesia that killed at least 1 million people, including 10% of Bali’s total population. During an impromptu conversation with my supervisor at work, we both cried as I learned the story of America’s role in the subsequent 32-year reign of terror and continued corporate stranglehold in Indonesia.

 Please note, this historical account is simplified and is largely a retelling of the story as it was told to me through two films, personal conversations, and online research. Many history textbooks – and western governments – will disagree with what I say, and of course you have every right to question it as well. 

In the years following Indonesia’s official independence in 1945, the Dutch and Japanese continued to vie for control of the country. President Sukarno knew that the developed world was not about to give up its access to Indonesia’s rich natural resources without a fight. He recognized the value of preserving the rich cultural heritage of each island, while banding together to create a strong identity and ability to collectively resist foreign intrusion. He refused to join the Olympics and the United Nations, believing them to be a subtle manifestation of colonial oppression, and at one point said to the US government, “To hell with your aid!”

“Well,” thought the western leaders, “this simply won’t do.” Using “fighting the commies” as their excuse, the USA worked to create a faction among the Indonesian army, bribing several corrupt generals, handing them a list of people to kill, promising them unimaginable riches and power if they complied. Entire villages were slaughtered in the bloody chaos, along with the pro-Indonesian politicians including Sukarno. Suharto, one of the bribed generals, was installed as the next president. Western leaders patted each other on the back and toasted the victory. ‘The west’s best news for years in Asia,” claimed Time Magazine; “the greatest prize in the Southeast Asian area,” boasted Nixon.

The millions of dollars that Suharto received came at a terrible price for Indonesia. Laws restricting foreign corporations’ ability to “develop” the country vanished overnight. Foreign corporations swooped in and set up deadly efficient mechanisms for siphoning away the country’s resources. Destroying the sacred virgin forest and forcing Indonesians into mindless labor in dangerous working conditions fueled a life of luxury for American CEOs and a desire to buy, buy, buy for the markets they pressed their products on to. Suharto reigned for 32 years and corporate greed continues to plague the country today.

These days, hegemony manifests in sneakier ways. Foreign aid is not only often inefficient and misguided, but shamelessly self-serving. After the tsunami hit the Indonesian island of Aceh in 2004, the main road to the island was destroyed, which seriously complicated sending emergency aid to the island. So it was natural that US AID built a road into Aceh as part of its recovery program. But barely any of Aceh’s citizens owned cars, so why did they build a six-lane highway? Less than a year later, with brand-new foreign-owned palm oil plantations and cement factories lining the road, those six lanes got put to good use hauling Aceh’s natural resources off to foreign markets.

My coworker knows a man who compiled a document comparing the reported results of several UN-funded projects with reports compiled by objective auditors.

UN report: “Now 20 farmers are able to improve their soil and increase their yields by 30% thanks to the tractors, fertilizer and training we brought to the village.”

The real story: “Yields increased by 30% the first year. Now the tractor is sitting in the corner of the field rusting, because it was a cheap piece of junk with no way for locals to order spare parts and no instructions on maintenance given. The soil is ruined and two people died from an overexposure of pesticide whose application instructions were written only in Chinese.”

Time and time again, you could laugh until you cried. I don’t wish to imply that all of the work that the UN and World Bank is a joke and a conspiracy, just cautioning us all to question the true motives behind our governments’ actions. I learned that lesson two years ago in Madagascar, where major global environmental organizations stole forest from villages and made money selling credits for the carbon they “saved,” and stacks of funded proposals gathered dust in old filing cabinets as officials pocketed the money and fabricated reports at their leisure. At the time I prayed that that was just Madagascar, a country of basically nonexistent infrastructure, governance and accountability. But no – it had little to do with Madagascar’s people, and everything to do with the western world’s manipulation of struggling post-colonial cultures like it.

Everyone shares a different side to the story, but my boss’ account and subsequent research shatters any belief I had that the bureaucratic institutions in the USA and other powerful countries are set up for altruistic motives. So where to go from here? When you support organizations through your time and money, make sure they prioritize helping local communities develop greater agency. Locally-owned NGOs often do the best work, with the greatest percentage of aid money remaining in the local community (with large foreign NGOs, typically only 10% of the money actually reaches the country, much of which pays the western workers’ salaries). Look for organizations with a specific, clear mission. Know exactly where your money’s going. And just be aware, question everything. Keep the dialogue about events like the Holocaust, Apartheid (shout out to Moriah), and 1965 alive, for through acknowledging these past atrocities we can recognize and stand up against similar threats to in the present.

For an accessible, quick read into how geopolitics influenced Indonesia 50 years ago and today, I would suggest reading this review of The Act of Killing, a documentary about the genocide. http://www.tcdailyplanet.net/arts/2013/08/01/act-killing-director-joshua-oppenheimer-talks-about-uncovering-indonesian-genocide

For a detailed account of how international politics unfolded in Indonesia in 1965, take a look at the series of articles that begins here http://www.workers.org/indonesia/intro.html


On the Road

July 28, 2013

In late June, as soon as I was certain which windy dirt road my office was on, I took to the streets of Bali on a bicycle for my 1.5-hour daily commute. I started and ended my workday by dodging potholes, little children on oversized bicycles, motorcycles tooling along the shoulder of opposing traffic, trucks pulling into the road without looking. After one week of losing as much weight from the stress as from the exercise, I decided to learn to ride a motorcycle. At least if I can go the same speed as traffic, I thought, it’d be a little less dangerous.

I spent about 5 hours learning to ride a gas-powered scooter with Yan Beer, the guy who cooks me pancakes every morning at the homestay. The ubiquitous little Honda Vario scooters are actually quite easy to operate – brakes like a bicycle, hand accelerator, little buttons for the horn, lights and turn signals, pushed with the thumb. Seems simple, but maintaining full awareness of one’s surroundings on the road in Bali requires extreme concentration. For the first two shaky hours on that bike, I was sure we were going to hit a pothole and fall over, get pulled over by the police, get flattened by a truck full of chickens, or any of a dozen other terrifying yet completely plausible fates. Yan Beer assured me that if I got stopped by the police and was asked to show my nonexistent international motorcycle license, five dollars would take care of the problem.

Somehow paranoia melted away into confidence over my two days of training. On the third day, I felt good enough to take the scooter to the office alone. My family was quite concerned about this decision, so I called them when I got to the office, to tell them I had made it safely. The phone was passed to three people over 10 confused minutes of multilingual dialogue, as they couldn’t figure out for the life of them why I would be calling if I weren’t suffering from some terrible problem. When I came home at the end of the day Yan Beer exclaimed, “Charrrlie! You okay? This morning I think police take you to jail!” But after everyone ascertained that I was okay, I heard Mama boasting to the construction workers in Indonesian, “So clever, just two days and she can ride the motorbike with no problem!”

Even though I’ve never had a problem on the road, I always ride with laser diligence because I know that most people don’t. Riding along one day, I was alarmed to see myself suddenly completely surrounded by a sea of blue and white – 10-year-olds in school uniforms piled three to a bike, zooming home for their lunch break. It’s surprisingly common to see a man in full temple dress smoking, texting, and driving the motorbike with one hand with a child clinging to his back. Traffic often grinds to a dead stop behind hordes of teenage boys marching in formation across the entire width of main roads (marching competitions are popular here). Piles of sand and ceremonies also slow traffic to a crawl on a regular basis. In such times of desperation, motorcyclists ride on the wrong side of the road, squeeze through tiny gaps between cars and cruise along sidewalks. Riding a bicycle one day, I became part of an unprecedented triple pass maneuver: a car passing me, a motorcyclist passing outside that car, another motorcyclist passing outside the first, all on a narrow two-lane road.

Avoiding 40 minutes on the scooter every day is one reason I’ve decided to move to the village where my office is located. But as harrowing as that commute sometimes feels, there is nothing quite like riding around the back roads of Bali on a motorbike, zipping through palm trees and rice fields, ocean breeze and frangipani blossoms on the wind, flat out speechless about how wild and precious the world is and how the hell I got so lucky in life.

I’m Back!

Hello, patient friends! Life for the past two months has been a twirling whirlwind of visitors, new friends, joy, hard-earned life lessons, busy times at the office and…just plain living. But I now live alone in a wild jungle compound at the edge of a village, with very expensive internet, so I’ve been taking more time to breathe, dance, listen to the bugs and ceremonial chanting floating on the breeze, reflect…and write. Stay tuned; there’s a lot to come, for as Dad remarked on his visit, “in Bali, everywhere you turn, there’s a story…”

I also made a life-altering decision last week: I’ll be staying in Indonesia at least one year longer than I originally intended, so there will be many, many more stories to come. I’ll be in the USA from late December through mid-February to make sure I can spend quality time with all of my loved ones (and eat as much Chipotle as I can handle!).

Then I’ll be returning to Bali, where my heart has put down roots and sprouted wings.

IDEP: on subak, climate change, and resilience

July 14, 2013

Last Friday my computer and I took a much-needed break from each other and I spent the morning chopping up soil and weeding at the demonstration garden at the Indonesian Development of Education and Permaculture Foundation. Formerly directed by the CEO of Alam Santi (my company), IDEP develops media and education programs in permaculture, community-led sanitation, disaster preparedness and resilience. While sweat poured down my neck in the humidity and my shoes squished in deep mud after an unseasonal heavy rain, I had an enlightening chat with a man from Australia. David has been a professor of Indonesian studies for 20 years, and has just shifted his career focus to urban permaculture. Much of our conversation escapes me, but I was fascinated by his description of community organization in Bali.

Governance in Bali has many layers; among these is the subak system, unique because governance is arranged along the path of a vital resource – water. At the source of each river system, there is a temple with a high priest who controls the flow of the water to different villages at different times of the year according to the Balinese calendar. The Balinese have complex systems to channel water strategically through fields in the dry season and control fields in the wet season. It involves people all over the watershed working together to direct the water to the right place at the right time. In addition to the large temple at the source of the water and smaller ones throughout, there is another large temple where the water finally meets the ocean. The line between the water, the rice, and the gods blurs because the well being of the ecosystem, including people, is interdependent on all three.

The system worked magnificently for more than a thousand years. But when the Dutch colonized the island, the traditional governance structures were disrupted and the tightly managed subak system began to collapse. During the Green Revolution in the 1970s, the Indonesian government forced farmers to use toxic chemicals on the rice paddies. The carefully directed water became poison and the system was no longer able to serve peoples’ needs. Now, a third blow to the system comes in the form of climate change. The average rainfall for the month of July over the past 20 years is approximately two inches. Since I arrived three weeks ago in late June, it has rained at least one foot. Crops are dying from being waterlogged, and the entire system is thrown off. The complex Balinese calendar has directed daily life, from crop planting cycles to auspicious days for marriage, for hundreds of years. But it’s no longer working, with disastrous results that are quietly reaching a tipping point.

A friend of my boss is writing a thesis on the Balinese calendar and climate change. He visited several high priests (recall, the ones at the temples at the sources of the rivers), to ask what could be done. And the priests said that there exists a calendar modified for the effects of climate change; the ancient Balinese predicted that the climate might shift one day and wanted to build adaptation into the system. Petra’s friend was incredulous that the priests hadn’t released this new calendar. Just wait, they said. The new calendar will be released once life becomes intolerable under the current system.

I am frightened for what will happen to Bali, along with the rest of the world, as climate change progresses. But I am glad that Indonesia has IDEP on its side to help communities adapt to climate change and natural disasters alike, and to dredge silver linings up from sorrow. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami killed over 170,000 people in the province of Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra. Along with hundreds of other unsung heroes, IDEP rushed in to aid communities with emergency food, sanitation and housing. The NGO quickly developed the Green Hand permaculture field school to create new life in a devastated community. Aceh had been suffering from a civil war for three decades, and the tragedy of the tsunami was the catalyst for peace negotiations that began to resolve the conflict. Three of my colleagues personally trained thousands of former teenage soldiers in permaculture and disaster preparedness. One of my Balinese acquaintances became a wildly successful organic farmer after attending the field school in Aceh in 2007. A decade ago he thought he had no future and his life was worthless, but permaculture ignited in him the same passion that it did for me. The magic transcends culture.

No one wishes that the tsunami had happened, and I certainly hope the climate will readjust to normal before life “becomes intolerable.” But as no one but the gods can predict the future, I’m grateful to IDEP for helping communities sustainably prepare for the unknown. And for helping me gain new friendships, cultural insights, and free heirloom tomatoes! Check them out at idepfoundation.org and browse through their free media, including an excellent companion planting chart, at https://sites.google.com/site/idepmedia/

at the pavilion

July 7, 2013

A popular form of accommodation in Bali is the homestay, typically a family who has built a few extra rooms and offers warm hospitality and a relatively authentic Balinese family experience at a startlingly low price. At my guesthouse, Sandat Bali, sitting in the bale (pavilion) at the center of the family compound signals, “I am relaxed and ready to socialize!” As I sat there writing in my journal yesterday, Wayan, the owner’s adult son, sat down next to me.

We started leafing through an architectural catalogue together. He is currently building an addition to the guesthouse that will become a small restaurant, a yoga space, and 6 more bedrooms, doubling their current capacity for guests. The addition, he explained, will help him better fulfill his dream of running a guesthouse where guests feel like a family not just with their Indonesian hosts, but also with all of the guests there. He loves designing spaces, lighting up as we turned the pages of the catalogue’s sparkling kitchens, pointing out features he’s included in the addition. In spite of the passion for architecture, he has spent the past six years working on cruise ships to make money to send back home. Thousands of jobs in hospitality evaporated overnight when the tourism industry in Bali crashed after the 2002 bombings, and working on cruise ships became a popular path for the suddenly unemployed.

On the other side of the mango tree, Papa finished working with a reflexology patient, smoked a few cigarettes, and then walked around with a flashlight hunting down all the frogs and putting them in a plastic bag. He usually puts the bag out by the street, where the chirping won’t interrupt his sleep, and the frogs slowly make their way back to the pond during the night. It reminds me of a Sisyphean ritual from my own childhood, moving the same toads from the pool to the pond every night of the first warm weeks of spring.

Mama soon pounced on me as usual, saying, “You want eat dinner? Tempeh yes? Okay!” She barely speaks English, but that doesn’t slow down her maternal desire to feed people constantly. After dinner one night she asked me if I wanted some fruit. Without waiting for a response, she brought out a plastic bag and said, “Most expensive fruit in market, today for you.” Smiling proudly, she gave me an apple grown in the United States.

A woman from France weaving macramé, a woman from China handing out some raisin buns she just baked, a couple from Brazil desperately trying to keep their son from pulling all the books off the shelf, various family members beaming, “Charlie! You are home!” Whatever I find there, I know it will make me smile.

a many-layered place

July 5, 2013

I arrived in Ubud just over a week ago. It’s a sprawling town famous as Bali’s artistic and spiritual center, and among the tourist-expatriate crowd there is an unparalleled focus on holistic living. I am sure that there are more organic vegetarian restaurants per capita than even Portland, Oregon, as well as a rainbow of yoga studios, spas, traditional art classes, and healing centers. Bali, as the only Hindu island in the Islamic Indonesian archipelago, is known as “the island of the gods” for its 20000 temples in an area 1/5 that of Massachusetts. Art is so woven into the vernacular here that you can barely tell the houses from the temples. Each day, every family places a freshly woven basket of banana leaves, flowers, and incense outside their door as an offering to the gods and demons.  In fact, “art” was not a concept in the Balinese language until Europeans started arriving on the island and discussing art as something separate from the spirituality / life from which it was previously inseparable.  With its magnificent cliffs tumbling into white sand beaches, secret rainforest temples, sunken crater lakes and rice terraces, there is no shortage of natural beauty. For the moment I politely ignore the presence of Kuta, the beach town famous as the debauchery-ridden playground of Australians on holiday.

But the focus on tourists and expats who have come here to cleanse their minds of clutter and bodies of chemicals, Eat-Pray-Love style, masks some harsher realities of the island. In my mind there is an ever increasing disparity between what expatriates see and want to be a part of (paradise incarnate with organic food and a vibrant, intact traditional culture), and the reality that Indonesians are poisoning themselves with chemicals in their foods and in their fields, largely ignorant of the effects, because if that box of powder came from Western factories it must be good stuff, right? It’s the same story all over the developing world. Here it’s just more heartbreaking because it’s exaggerated by the surface emphasis on healthy living. I’ve only touched the tip of this understanding. Suffice it to say that Bali is a many-layered place, and I’m going to keep peeling this onion till I see it all, even if it makes me cry.

Anyway, this disparity is one place where my company comes in. I am interning at Alam Santi Sustainable Living Design, who does sustainable property development. The company’s primary project right now is to create Bali’s first ecovillage, a 100-person settlement with a focus on developing a strong sense of community, using permaculture principles to create resilient ecosystems designed to enhance the existing landscape, and using the most sustainable materials possible to go beyond “no impact” to “positive impact.” It is located about 6 miles south of Ubud. My role is to manage the construction of and develop a business plan for an adjacent 5-acre organic demonstration farm and “living classroom” complex. The farm is part of the neighborhood’s outreach program to help neighboring villages understand how to start diverse, small organic farms to conserve Bali’s rapidly diminishing natural resources. Many locals have expressed interest in organic farming but are unsure how to get started and how to manage risk, and the farm will run regular workshops and provide support to those who want to get started, in addition to providing a local source of chemical-free food. Their websites (alamsantidesign.com and tamanpetanu.com) have a panoply of wonderful information if you’re interested further. Also, my coworkers are all delightful, truth seeking, slightly nuts wise old souls. Like me, they view “sustainability” not just as sustaining, but creating an environment in which creativity, relationships, life and diversity can flourish. I’ve only been with them for a few days, but feel so blessed to spend the next 5 months…and maybe longer…learning from this group.

monkey business

June 30

I had been musing on how to write an intellectually stimulating post about my time in the Monkey Forest last weekend, and decided it was too tough of a challenge. Everyone’s cool with just reading about monkeys for a bit, right?

Monkey Forest is an ancient temple complex in the only remaining forested area close to downtown Ubud. The Holy Spring temple is the stuff of dreams. A stone bridge crossing a deep river gorge with towering virgin ficus trees, forming a canopy high overhead. Because I could see a 60 foot cross section of these enormous trees’ root systems, they felt as tall and immortal to me as the sequoias in California that I hiked among last summer. The temple was a sprawling complex of stone figures – Komodo dragons guarding a cave in the side of a cliff, monkeys sitting on the edges of a koi pond, deities surrounding small springs, mossed over and seeming to barely emerge from the tangled jungle.

But the real attraction for most of the hundreds of tourists who visit each day is the monkeys, not the forest. These bratty little macaques are everywhere, but I figured that for me they’d look but not touch, since I had not bought any bananas for them. I set up shop on a bench with my Kindle and journal in the early afternoon, live Gamelan music playing in the background, ready to settle in for a good day of studying Indonesian. After about 20 minutes, a foot-long monkey hopped onto my backpack. I looked at him, and he tried to snatch my Kindle. Not happening, bro. The monkey hissed at me and smacked my hand, and the Kindle went flying across the pavement, fortunately still functional after its unexpected little adventure. I kept studying. After 10 more minutes, I saw a monkey approaching me from behind. This one, seemingly more benevolent, proceeded to sit on my head, making some rather revolting squishy noises as he chewed a banana inches from my ear. I sure didn’t want this one to smack me or grind his banana peel into my head, so I sat there frozen still with an awkward expression for about a minute until a guard came over and shooed the monkey away.

One more try at studying. But within 10 minutes a full-grown male macaque leaped upon an Australian tourist’s plastic shopping bag and shredded it to bits, causing two dozen bananas to fall on the ground. A feeding frenzy commenced. Amidst the chaos and banana carnage, two more monkeys came over to me. One jumped on my lap and screeched, while the other grabbed my Nalgene and scampered on top of the temple roof.  I don’t know how the guard got that bottle back, but I thanked him profusely and packed up to leave, carefully avoiding banana goop and over-stuffed lumbering simians on my way out. I finished my studying in peace at a classy organic restaurant that Carmela had recommended, over a meal of goat cheese and mushroom quesadillas with a strawberry-coconut vegan milk shake.