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Dec. 31st, 2006

Nias field trip: Thoughts on (re)development

I'm in Sydney now, and have a few notes to record in this journal before calling it quits. I'll keep it short and sweet. Then I'll save this journal to pdf via the LJ book tool (thanks, CPL!). It should make an interesting record of a pivotal year in my life. I'll be writing at LeftVegDrunk only from now on.

The week before last I joined a couple of blokes from an INGO in Gunung Sitoli on a day trip to a village north of town. It's the place we went snorkelling a while back, so I was taking a box of books and stuff to them as a thank you for the lobsters.

The two fellas I joined were Indonesian, one from Nias and the other from Aceh. We visited a couple of schools, picked up building materials in the ute and dropped them off further up the road, and then met with the village head and some local women for the purpose of interviews about a project in the village.

Whenever you get out in to the rural areas of Nias, simply being there is enough to teach you something about the people and the place. On this day, though, the highlight was the conversation I had with these two young Indonesians. It was quite an eye-opener, especially given that the Javanese couple I had tried to engage about political issues were not interested at all.

We stopped for IndoMie and Coke for lunch at a small village and then things got interesting.

It all started when one of the fellas - a young bloke from Nias - asked me whether there were "villages like this one" in Australia. I said that there was nowhere in Australia that looked like the place we were in. I described country towns and major regional centres. I also said that, in Australia, if there were roads like the ones we were traveling on then people would complain to the government and they would be fixed. He replied, “Here, people don’t bother complaining to the government because they know nothing will happen. They just live how they can.”

We talked for a while about the differences between Australia and Nias - roads, schools, public health, tertiary education, welfare, jobs. The Nias bloke took all of this in - his brother had once studied in Australia on a government scholarship, so he knew a little about Australia anyway - and summed his thoughts up by saying, “So the big question is: when will Indonesia become Australia?”

As we discussed a few things it became clear that local people (well, some of them at least) consider Nias to be a much-neglected region of Indonesia. My new mate put it pretty bluntly. “Some people say, ‘I hope there will be another earthquake, because then the government will care about us.’”

The other fella is Acehnese. He had a lot to say, too, and laughed when I suggested that out Javanese housemates had not wanted to discuss politics with me. He told me a lot about the education system in Nias - how teachers are trained, what they are paid, how many kids attend, the issues facing children and their parents. This was invaluable. And he seemed to agree with the view that the island was neglected - underdeveloped.

On the way back to Gunung Sitoli I remarked upon the amount of rekonstruksi going on - we passed drains being dug, bridges being built, homes taking shape on the roadside, trucks and bechaks loaded up with materials. But the Acehnese bloke smiled sadly when I said this and replied, “No, there is no rekonstruksi. This is konstruksi. Before the aid came to Nias there was nothing.”

* * *

This is my last little post in this journal. I'm back at my main journal now. I'll be living in Nias for the next nine to twelve months, so I hope that I will expand up on these notes during that time. This journal will be closed off now and kept as a record of the first year I spent traveling and living in Southeast Asia. See ya.

Dec. 15th, 2006

Silly bloody ring tone

Before I departed Australia a couple of months ago I had a few beers with some mates out at the Oaks, south west of Sydney. While we were chugging down schooners at the delightful Oaks Hotel, I found myself laughing at my mate’s mobile phone ring tone. It was the sound of a rooster crowing. The other blokes in the pub were amused, too.

Like a good tourist, I lost my phone during my first couple of days in Indonesia, so in Medan I bought a newie. I immediately selected the rooster ring tone. What a great idea that turned out to be.

Living on Miga Hill we are surrounded by jungle and by the sounds that accompany it. Moreso, though, we are within earshot of the various animals that our neighbours keep. Over the past few weeks I have become accustomed to dogs barking, pigs squealing, and roosters crowing.

In fact, a couple of weeks ago I realised that I had become so used to hearing the sound of a rooster crowing that I hadn’t realised my phone was ringing. Apologies to all of those who tried calling. Oops.

‘Tempel Masak’ and ‘Door Smeer’ explained at last

There are two roadside signs that I see all over the place that I have been unable to translate from Indonesian. All I know is that they are related in some way to sepeda motor (motor bikes). The first is Tempel Masak, often written in white paint on an old tyre. Masak, according to every dictionary I have checked, means ‘to cook’. The second is Door Smeer. Today an Indonesia fella explained them to me.

Masak does indeed mean cooking in this context. The word tempel means something like metal or solder. So Tempel Masak means ‘cooking metal’. It’s a motorcycle repair shop. The Indonesian fella had a bit of a laugh when he explained Door smeer. He says it has no english equivalent. It means “car wash for motor bikes”.

Rice growing on Nias – A tragic paradox

I don’t know all that much about it yet, but a few things that I have learned about the rice industry on Nias Island have got me concerned. I want to look into it further and perhaps speak with some NGOs in the field, but for now I want to tap out a few quick things as a starting point.

Naturally enough, rice forms a basis of the Indonesian diet. Yet if you are a poor family you may not be able to afford to buy rice. If so, rice may be supplemented with that other staple food, sweet potato, or in extreme cases replaced by sweet potato. This has nutrition impacts.

Rice is one of three cash crops grown on Nias, the others being cocoa and rubber. There is no rice processing plant on the island, so all rice grown here is shipped to Sumatera for processing.

A major problem for cash-croppers on Nias is the monopoly or oligopoly of buyers from the mainland. This means that the buyer sets the price at which the locally produced crops are purchased from farmers. So you may have consumer price inflation on the island (as a result of the inflow of aid dollars, maybe) but no commensurate increase in the sale value of your cash crops.

Processed rice is shipped back to Nias for retail sale. If retail prices are increasing and crop values are remaining static, then farming families may find themselves priced out of the market for the very rice they have grown. That’s when the ubiquitous sweet potato gardens growing around every rural home come into the picture, and sweet potato supplements or replaces rice in the family’s diet.

If things go poorly, you may have a situation whereby rice farmers cannot afford to buy processed rice. An over-reliance on sweet potato as a staple food may then lead to malnutrition.

In Teluk Dalam, Vasco and I saw a young boy with his hand extended to us for money. His mother then pulled him away and they disappeared into the crowd. He had blonde streaks in his hair. I didn’t know at the time, but I now understand that this is a result of malnutrition. Another common health effect of malnutrition is stunted growth, which we are pretty sure we identified in some of the villages through which we travelled.

This is a rough sketch that needs further research. More soon.

Fruit fondling

A couple of weeks ago I ate an odd-looking fruit called sour sop for the very first time. A certain shit-stirrer and her crazy Filipina mate were telling me it was very stringy and needed to be chewed adequately or it would, you know, come out stringy, too. Anyway, I quite enjoyed it, and have kept an eye out for it at the markets ever since.

It turns out that there is a row of three sour sop trees in our yard. Well, it’s the area between our house and the fence that surrounds it, so I had assumed it was our yard. It seems I assumed wrong.

You see, I had my eye on a beautiful big fruit hanging on one of the trees. I had consulted widely about how to tell if the fruit is ripe, and had commenced a fruit fondling regime whereby I paid the trees a visit each morning and groped them to see if they were ready to pick. I’d decided that the big one would be ready in a day’s time, and was excited at the prospect of having it for dessert that night. It was that large that I imagined it would probably feed us for three or four days.

Next morning it was gone. I had been out-fondled by an anonymous fruit-pincher with little regard for my hard work and patience. (I can just imagine some nice, sweet old Nias lady with a machete on the end of her bamboo walking cane, just casually lopping the fruit and dropping it into her bag with a satisfying plop. I hope it was awful.)

We now have four new fruits dangling from the three trees. I have been fondling them again to see how they are tracking, and this time I am confident of grabbing one before the keen-eyed locals do. I reckon I’ll get them a day or two early, then wrap them in a plastic bag and pop them in the fridge. Then we will feast for a week. I’ll let you know how it goes.

“Saya dua blas.”

One morning this week I decided to walk into town because the weather was quite cool after some overnight rain. By the time I had done my shopping, though, I’d changed my mind a little and was sweating up a storm. So I spotted a becak and asked to be taken to the foot of Miga Hill.

I started chatting with the driver. He was a very young-looking bloke. I asked whether he could make the trip for 10,000 rupiah, which is pretty standard for the trip. He wanted twice that amount – naturally. I then asked his name and his age, just practicing my still-shaky Indonesian. He told me he was 12 years old.

Schools in Nias – as in many other parts of the developing (or less-developed, perhaps) world – operate two shifts each day in order to make the most of limited resources. This means that, in an environment of chronic unemployment or underemployment, kids go to work at a very young age and use the half of the day when they are not at school to earn an income for their family.

I suppose a young fella like my becak driver would have a few options. He could find work as a labourer – the high demand for building materials at present means that many workers are needed in quarries and in trucks.* I understand that the minimum daily wage is around five Aussie dollars, although it is not always adhered to.

Alternatively, he might work in a shop or restaurant with his family, perhaps without a paid income of any sort. (I have been served food by a lot of very young kids – I buy my bottles of beer from a girl who is five.) Or he could drive a becak, earning as much as he is able to negotiate from his passengers less whatever costs are associated with the vehicle itself.

There are other ways of earning an income, too, although these seem to be the most common for young people. Another option for the very desperate is to leave Nias for Sumatera where they can seek work on a plantation or in a factory.

My young driver probably sees nothing wrong with his situation, and his mates likely work after school hours, too. His work is not regulated by an award or a contract – indeed, he probably doesn’t even exist as far as the formal national economy is concerned. He pays no tax, he will receive no workers compensation when he is hit by a speeding Hilux, and he has no superannuation.

When I hopped out of the little seat and onto the dusty roadside, he did an expert u-turn and started peddling his way back into town. He had his next customer before he was out of sight.

* This demand is also met by elderly workers. One morning I walked past three very ancient and toothless women hauling gravel at a road works site. This is apparently quite common – they accept lower wages and their families need the income. I want to look into this more before writing about it in some detail.

Dec. 14th, 2006

A weekend adventure in South Nias (3 of 3)

A traditional village: rich in history, poor in tourists

After Sunday breakfast and a fuel stop at a dodgy-looking bensin place, Penny steered north again into unknown territory. We were on the road to a series of traditional upland villages which had been tourist attractions before the tsunami and the earthquake.

We had climbed quite high into the hills when we reached a fork in the road and were unsure how to proceed. Turning right, we followed a narrowing stone street and all of a sudden found ourselves in a massive town square. We stopped abruptly, and a local fella quickly asked us to park our bike and walk.

We stood in a T junction. Three wide streets led away from us each paved with stone and lined with tall traditional Nias houses. These houses are timber, on stilts, slightly rounded, and have high, pointed, thatched roofs. Stone walls stood nearby – for the much-famed stone-jumping that a couple of local blokes offered to perform – and a series of stone tablets, apparently where dead bodies were laid in the past.

I can’t say much more about the village – locals swamped us urging us to buy souvenirs or visit their shop nearby. It was all a little desperate, and given we had neither cash nor camera, we offered our excuses politely and left as soon as we could without causing offence. I’d like to return one day soon, better prepared for the whole tourist experience.

The Gomo Track and bum suffering

On the way home I decided that we should take an alternate route via an inland town named Gomo. Sadly, I had imagined a road from Gomo to Gunung Sitoli – there was none. Gomo is a dead end town and we had to turn around and head back to Teluk Dalam. I won’t forget that in a hurry. None of this would have been a problem, though, had it not been for the two or three torturous and painful hours we spent on The Gomo Trail!

I’ve seen some pretty shitty roads in Nias, but the road to Gomo is something special: steep inclines, sunken asphalt, collapsed bridges, loose rocks, and the usual collection of livestock obstacles. We shared the driving, and each of us spent some time on foot while the other attempted to negotiate the evil road ahead of us.

There were some highlights, though, as the land we travelled through was pretty stunning. We crossed several wide rivers, flowing clear and clean down from the mountains north of us, often cascading over rocks. And in the upland area we entered a plateau where rice fields were planted either side of a river and hills rose in the distance. Truly beautiful.

Gomo was a non-descript little town, although I think we’d have been more aware of our surroundings had we not been bum suffering quite so much from the bumpy road. The news that we had to turn around and brave the trail again was met with resignation, but we opted to see it as an adventure and a funny story, so we pushed on in good spirits.

By the time we were cruising north along the coastal road once more, our arses were battered and sore. We were constantly shifting in our seats and had to stop a few times just to stretch our glutes! But we had taken on the Gomo Trail and beaten it. It had been a very Nias weekend.

A weekend adventure in South Nias (2 of 3)

Teluk Dalam and Lagundri

The port town of Teluk Dalam passed us very quickly – we were hot, tired, and a bit sore. We stopped for lunch and a few cold drinks and then headed off again. But what I managed to see of the town was crowded, dusty, and noisy. The main street seemed to be chock-full of stalls and food vendors. A young boy approached us for money before being dragged away by his mother. I got the impression that the town was much poorer – and impacted less by the international aid community – than Gunung Sitoli.

The road out of town took us along the coast again. Evidence of last year’s earthquake was in plain sight – caved-in stretches of road, sunken bridges, collapsed concrete buildings, lop-sided timber homes. We could also see how the land had risen relative to sea level, meaning that rocks and coral are exposed, beaches contain stagnant pools of water, and the water itself is now a hundred or more metres further from the beach. That said, the views were stunning – palm trees lining the road, some beaut swimming areas filled with bobbing and splashing kids, and flat blue water in a series of beautiful bays.

Our final stop was Lagundri, a village of sorts that in the past has been something of a tourist attraction. Now the surf boards collect dust and the losmen (guest houses) are pretty much empty. There were some waves, but exposed rocks and a receding water line make them fairly unattractive. We saw perhaps half a dozen tourists.

At the end of the road – literally! – we found a sprawling resort. It, too, was almost empty. In it’s prime it would have been quite an attraction. It now carries an air of tragic decay and decline. Its bungalows are empty and dusty, the restaurant is bare and has no fish, the power is out for most of the day, and the swimming pool resembles a septic tank. It’s a pity that the dozens of empty bungalows cannot be used to house some of the islands displaced population who still occupy tent camps.

A very quiet dinner

That evening we took Penny for a cruise. We selected a couple of inland roads to see what was about. The first was a rocky mess and we abandoned it after a while, but the second led us into a quiet, dark village. There was no electricity, so families sat in front of their homes – some traditional, some more modern-looking – chatting by the light of fluoro lamps or candles. It was here that we found a small roadside shack that had sambal bottles on the table, so we stopped for dinner.

This rumah makan (restaurant) was literally a covered veranda area attached to a family’s timber home. As we entered, five kids were seated at the table eating their dinner and mum was tidying up behind a small counter. You should have seen the stares. The kids scattered so we could sit, and continued staring. We dined on elaborately prepared instant noodles served by a young girl. And we were treated to some singing, dancing, shy chit-chat, and a visit by a young fella (the kids’ cousin) who called in to buy two cigarettes. He was eighteen years old and took the opportunity to practice his excellent English skills. (I think Vasco may have something to say about that chat.)

When it was time to pay the bill, mum bumped up the price of each item a little. Her daughter wasn’t onto the game at first and insisted on a lower price, but mum won out and we happily paid. Good on her. I guess they don’t see many foreigners. A very interesting evening.

A weekend adventure in South Nias (1 of 3)

(Net access has been more limited than usual owing to some satellite issues. I’m now posting a swag of entries to catch up. This one is a bit long, too, so I will post in three instalments.)

On Saturday morning, Vasco and I set off on a weekend trip. Armed with a full tank of fuel, itchy feet, and an appalling sense of direction, we mounted Penny and headed south from Gunung Sitoli with our eyes set on the south of Nias Island. We both learnt a lot across the next day and a half. I’ll try to capture some of it here.

The winding road south of Gunung Sitoli

The road south of Gunung Sitoli took us past the airport and the Pertamina depot, through several villages, and along the coast line. The road is in decent condition in relative terms, but is quite a schizophrenic affair – some stretches of new bitumen are lovely while other decaying sections are pot-holed, rocky, and littered with loose rocks. The locals are adept at weaving between the various obstacles, although for us it presented something of a challenge.

We cruised through two villages where Saturday markets where in full swing. The road was blocked by people for a few hundred metres. Stalls and food sellers lined each side of the road, and the side streets were likewise throbbing with noise, colour, and movement. We stopped to stock up on pancakes – travellers’ food, you see – and said a hundred hellos as we walked through the crowd. Not too many foreigners stop at these markets, I guess.

Rice country and sea views

One of the highlights of the ride south came when we entered the rice-growing flatlands. The road was good – flat and straight – and the views were stunning. To either side we could see vibrant green fields of young plants that extended back to the nearby hills and mountains. Little walkways and huts dotted the fields. It was idyllic. We stopped to drink in the scene. In Cambodia and Laos I had seen fields of rice and wondered how they would look in the wet season. Now I know.

The road more or less followed the coast line, particularly as we travelled across a small mountain range on our approach to the port town of Teluk Dalam. Quite abruptly we found ourselves on a very high stretch of road overlooking the ocean and the rocky beach hundreds of feet below. Again, we felt compelled to stop and take it all in.

Dec. 3rd, 2006

A day at Sisarahili

Yesterday morning a group of intrepid explorers set off from Gunung Sitoli to the community of Sisarahili to the north. The day unfolded with new friends, a picnic, beautiful views, fishing, and snorkeling. A couple of snaps can be found here.
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