Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Beautiful People

The Dayak people are one of the last people groups in the world that globalization has reached. It has only been in the past 10-15 years that their traditional hunter-gatherer, subsistance lifestyles have been replaced by reliance on money and buying their food.

We spent an afternoon with one of the Dayak villages up the Mahakam river. The journey there took nearly 24 hours by house boat, with the last 4 hours of the journey continueing in motorized dug out canoes. Along the way we came across many riverside communities. In fact, they weren’t even river ‘side’, these communities were actually built on stilts in the middle of the river! Along the way we saw proboscis monkeys, a poisonous snake, a monotor lizard and many brightly coloured birds and butterflies. If you ever get an opportunity to spend the afternoon going up a river in the rainforest in a dugout canoe, do it, whether you have an interesting destination or not, the trip will be well worth it.

Arriving at the Dayak village brought forth a mix of emotions. Women and children in brightly coloured clothing were scurrying along the boardwalk to gather at the place where our welcome ceremony would take place. It is true that this community relies heavily on ecotourism to survive and this source of income allows many of the men to avoid having to work for logging or coal mining companies. But who were we to come into this beautiful, isolated little village and demand that they entertain us with their dances? Was our very presence cheapening their sacred traditions? They involved us in the ceremony and as we danced with them we ever so slightly gained a glimpse of what it means to be Dayak.

However even the term ‘Dayak’ has no distinct meaning anymore. The clash of traditional and modern was obvious from the dancers we saw in front of us dressed in traditional clothing and the other villagers watching their friends perform as they were dressed in ‘Nike’, ‘Slipknot’ and ‘Oakley’ t-shirts.

After the ceremony we talked with the chief and Victor, the one man in the village who speaks English. When I asked him how he learned to speak English he told me “the radio”. Imagine the dedication it would take to learn a language strictly by listening to someone on the radio! I can’t imagine what it would be like to have that dedication because I speak the universal language. There are no other languages I absolutely need to know. Sure learning other languages is fun when I’m travelling and is respectful to the cultures and people I visit, but I will always be able to find someone who speaks English, and I will never fully understand what drove Victor to learn English from a radio program.

As our dugout canoes sped along through the river and the setting sun filled the sky with striking oranges, pinks and purples, I sat and wondered about the existance of this remote group of people and how different the lives of the children in the village are compared to when their parents were young.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The following two blogs are ones that I submitted as assignments on the expedition website. But I thought that seeing as many of you are probably not following the expedition website, you might like to read them on here.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

What's the big idea?

Solutions to the environmental, economic and social problems we face in the 21st century are as numerous as the people willing to face them. These solutions range from turning out the lights when to developing sustainable nuclear energy. But often our greatest attempts to be environmentally and socially conscious have little chance of making a physical difference. Even the most sacrificial attempts by a large group of people are counteracted by the consumptive behaviour of a few. It’s frustrating. If I’m going to put alot of time, money and energy into trying to make a difference in the world I want to actually make a difference.

Not to say that these efforts are entirely frivolous. The difference they make comes in the form of restructuring social mindsets, changing the way people think about where our food, clothing and electricity come from. This is an important shift, and I don’t want to undermine it. But we are currently facing the problem of depleting our sources of fossil fuels within my lifetime and an increasing global population that can not be supported by the earth if we continue with ‘business as normal’. We need solutions that will not just change the way we think, but solutions that will revolutionize what we eat, how we conduct business and how the majority of people in the world receive their income.

We need big ideas. This week we were at Samboja Lestari, a project which is the brain child of Wilie Smits. Wilie is a solver of large problems and we were privileged enough to spend a day and a half with him listening to lectures about some of his big ideas.

Wilie’s idea was to replant the rainforest on a desolate grassland. With a forestry degree in hand Wilie set about turning degraded land into beautiful, healthy forest within 5 years. Not only did his project create a new forest habitat for animals, among other benefits it also meant that the wells of the community now held water during the dry season, it provided jobs for hundreds of people who were previously either unemployed or relied on jobs in the coal mining industry, which causes environmental and health problems. Although the project is currently facing problems with funding, upkeep and leadership, the fact remains that someone saw a problem, came up with a solution and implemented it. Within a very short period of time he was able to change an entire region of the world.

Some of Wilies ideas are quite controversial. They seem entirely unrealistic from a logistics standpoint. But I would argue that more than anything right now, at this critical time in history, we need people who are big thinkers. We need people who have the capacity to come up with solutions that solve problems on numerous levels. The next project Wilie is working on is the use of sugar palms as the next biodiesel. The idea is that sugar palms can provide a viable income for numerous farmers, do not deplete the soil of nutrients and can’t be turned into monoculture crops because they only survive in mixed forests. Not to mention that palm sugar would solve many of the obesity problems in the world because it is not a refined sugar and is actually good for your body.

It was refreshing to listen to someone who is untethered by the details of reality and simply putting his brilliance towards developing solutions that seem more intuitive than the way we are currently doing things. The world needs more big ideas.

To learn more about the creation of Samboja Lestarie check outhttp://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/willie_smits_restores_a_rainfores....

The Thumb in the Mirror

In Indonesia we stick out like a sore thumb, or more accurately, like a white thumb. Everywhere we go people stop what they are doing and watch us go, as if the circus has come to town. Children run up to us yelling, “Hey mister! Hey mister! What your name?” It feels strange to be a novelty when you’re used to being the norm.

However, our skin colour is not simply a novelty. In many economically developing countries ‘whiteness’ is a goal they are striving for. From pop music, to chic shopping malls, to skin whitening lotion and medical procedures. There is this sense that the ‘white man’ has it made. It is a racist ideology, one that ignores the faults and weaknesses of a society. And as a result of this striving we are losing something very important: the distinction of cultures. In response to the question, “why should we care about losing the culture of some remote tribe in the middle of the Amazon, or the Congo basin or the depths of Borneo?”, Wade Davis uses the analogy of a plane losing its rivets. In the long run it may not matter if we lose a rivet here or there, but eventually the entire plane will fall apart. And I would add that even if it doesn’t fall completely apart, who wants to fly in plane that is missing rivets?

This ‘superiority’ that is attributed to white skin seems to have stemmed from the days of colonialism; the race to grab all remaining land yet unclaimed by Europe and cultivate its land, ‘civilize’ its indigenous people, and ingrain European cultural values into their society. Cultural values that place the white man/woman at the top of the ladder. Although we’ve come a long way towards establishing equality and human rights since then, this mindset is still prevalent. I can see it in the men who give up the best seats at the outdoor market as soon as we arrive, the people who attempt to snap pictures of us with their cell phones as we pass, as if we’ve achieved some kind of celebrity status without doing anything at all. It’s in the minds of some of the women who act as if they are inferior to us by not looking us in the eye and the children who try to touch our arms just to get in contact with white skin. I’m tired of being stereotyped as superior.

In some ways it makes sense. Humanity will always judge itself in comparison to others. And when it comes down to it, western countries have achieved levels of health care, education and technological innovation, the combination of which is unmatched in most other areas of the world. But it has come at a cost. Our loss of community and interdependence with others and our inability to be content with what we have are side effects of our progress.

In a series of lectures by Ryszard Kapuscinski the idea of humanity as a mirror is presented. We will always compare ourselves to ‘Others’, and our curiosity about other places, people and cultures comes from an understanding that “to know ourselves we have to know Others, who act as the mirror in which we see ourselves reflected...to understand ourselves better we have to understand Others, to compare ourselves with them, to measure ourselves against them.” This is where I find myself right now, using these people and this culture as a mirror and measuring myself against them. I’m holding my white thumb up to the mirror and, in contrast to the colonial mindset, I’m finding that in so many ways I don’t measure up.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

I'm in Balikpapan baby!

I arrived in Balikpapan late last night after a relatively short day of traveling from Singapore. I unexpectedly ran into my friends Matt and Tim at the airport in Jakarta. I am realizing that traveling alone is fun and I was able to change my plans on a whim and didn't have to consult any one else about the day's plans...but being in the company of good friends will always be more fulfilling.

My initial impressions of this city have all been positive. Being Caucasian is a novelty here, but we don't get hassled about it, just alot of people who want to take pictures with us and shake our hands. The children love to practice their English to get our attention, which mostly consists of "how are you today?" and "hey mister!"

Today we went to the market where we got rubber boots for when we go trekking through the mangroves, and rain ponchos. I'm having a hard time getting used to the currency which is extremely inflated, $1 US= about 10000 rupiah. I got a meal for dinner tonight which cost me 5000 rupiah...50 cents.

We also went to the beach today and I had a avocado and chocolate smoothie which was really delicious. And then I did some handstands on the beach.

Indonesia is a Muslim country which means it is quite an interesting experience to be traveling as a woman. It is not such a repressive society here, but I can't really go anywhere without a guy accompanying me, which I am not used to. More to come on that later. It also means that I will be woken up every morning at 4:30am by the call to prayer, which involves a guy singing in Arabic through the megaphone at the mosque next to our hotel, he keeps singing until 5:30...I'm don't feel very respectful of Islam that early in the morning.

It is now time for bed.


Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Of shoppers, safe sex and stinky fruit

Singapore has more shopping malls per square meter than anywhere else in the world.

Actually, that is my own statistic, I made up right now based on nothing but my own experience, but I'm 90% sure it's true. Singaporeans seem to be hell bent on buying stuff. In fact, today I came across the first 'Eco-mall' in Singapore (perhaps the world?). If that sounds like a contradiction...it is, entirely. They call it an eco-mall because they planted some trees and built part of it with a solar roof and let vines take over a small portion of one of the walls. The humor in all this planet saving architecture is that the 'eco' portion of the mall serves no other purpose than to put up a few signs explaining why solar energy and plants are good. Signs that will be read by few hell-bent shoppers rushing to catch the latest sales.

Now amidst the crazy shoppers who tend to make up the majority of the population I've met some interesting people. I met a Korean man named Paul and a boy named Kwong Hwo who helped me find my way out of the jungle at the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. I met Jans, a friend of my friends Rachel and Caleb, who showed me around Chinatown, introduced me to Singaporean coffee (which is made with condensed milk...why didn't I think of that?), and explored the Raffles hotel with me...it's ginormous and has Sikh guards and is the most expensive hotel in all of Asia, possibly the world. I met Oliver, who has a degree in Psychological Evolution and was studying the grooming behaviour of monkeys. And today I met a man named Abdullah who sold me a coconut guitar and told me a story about how he was supposed to come to Canada to collect a bunch of money for some Muslim charity, but somebody cheated him out of his fortunes.

As with all foreign countries, signs have been a constant source of amusement for me. Street signs, subway signs, advertisements, warnings, etc. Some of the highlights have been:
On the doors to the subway...play play?

Apparently just saying 'no food' doesn't cover durians. I found out after I took this picture that the reason is because they are the stinkiest fruit ever! They smell like farts and if they are at a market you can smell them over a block away!

Encase you didn't think they were serious.
For those who need a diagram on exactly how to pick up their dog's poo.

And lastly, for the 'safe sex' portion of the title.

I met this woman on the bus. She assured me I could get a t-shirt just like hers in Thailand for 'very cheap'. Sometimes obnoxious t-shirts can be explained by the fact that the person probably doesn't understand what it is that their shirt implies in English, but this woman had no excuse. And considering that sexuality is highly repressed in Singapore, maybe she's just trying to make a point?Click on this picture to make it bigger, you'll want to get a good look at this t-shirt.

Friday, January 1, 2010

I knew I was off to a good start on this trip when I got to the magazine stand at the Calgary airport. Scanning the shelves for some decent reading material amongst the fashion magazines, Men's Health and Cosmo, I eventually settled on the January edition of National Geographic. And I discovered that one of the cover stories this month is entitled "Tough Love in Singapore" and is all about how Singapore has gotten to where it is today as a fully developed city in Southeast Asia. There was also a story on endangered species trafficking in Southeast Asia that talked about the illegal trading of orangutan's from Borneo. So with the National Geographic gods/publishers on my side I set out for the long journey ahead of me.

Along the way I met some very interesting people, including a audio installation guy from Vancouver with a degree in ethics philosophy, a brother and sister returning to Hong Kong to visit their dying grandmother and an Indonesian sports agent from Jakarta who taught me the basics of Indonesian for when I go to Borneo.

I arrived at my friend Phoebe's mom's apartment yesterday evening and it is the most incredible place, complete with a swimming pool and guards who were expecting me! I went out to eat supper at one of the infamous hawker food stands last night and had spicy vermicelli soup and bread, which looked liked toasted whole grain bread in the picture, but was actually stark white bread with thick fishy tasting paste on the top...not the best introduction to Singaporean food.

Some things I've discovered about Singapore over the last 12 hours:

-When we think of 'Asian' we generally think Chinese, Japanese and Indian, but there are SO many different Asian nationalities here and slight differences in appearances that I didn't think about before.

-The government is trying to make English the official language, which is very convenient for me, the white western traveler, but makes me wonder what is being lost with this forced westernization.

-In Southeast Asia, Singapore=shopping, most people on the train are laden with shopping bags from stores with familiar European and North American names. Also, their malls are open until 11:30pm every night and are bustling with as many people as we might expect to find at West Edmonton Mall on December 24th...except this is everyday, year round!

-My new favorite thing in the world is Dragonfruit, I bought 3 of them for just over $1 CDN yesterday

-It is 60 degrees hotter here than in is in Red Deer right now...isn't that disgusting?

It is now 8:30 in the morning and time to go exploring!