Saturday, December 25, 2010

Our finest gifts

Merry Christmas everybody! From Jimmy, Hotlin & Jacky
Here in Indonesia, we're having a very different Christmas experience, but one that is rich and meaningful nonetheless.  In fact, being so far removed from familiarity,  it's hard not to find new meaning and truth in the season that transcends any geographic, linguistic, or cultural divide.

Despite what I've thought in the past, Christmas really is about gifts.  Beginning with a little baby in a manger, given to bring peace and demonstrate love, the core of the holiday is about making even the simplest of gestures to share goodwill with others.  In Sukadana and now as we travel through Indonesia, it is obvious that people here have it figured out.

I began thinking about this spirit of giving in a conversation with Kinari, ASRI's founder and director.  Her vision and determination to build this amazing organization all stems from the gesture of using her gifts to bring health to people and the forests of Borneo.  Her gifts are fine, indeed.  The top graduate of her class at Yale's medical school and a survivor of one of the most challenging and best residency programs in the country, she could have picked any specialty, picked a salary, and practiced anywhere.  Instead, she gave, and continues to give, her self in this incredible service.

Christmas in Pontianak's Mega-mall.  Jacquelyn & Etty
Gifts don't have to be wrapped up in discrete little packages.  Jacquelyn and I have received small, inconspicuous gifts in the form of friendship and generosity since we set foot in Sukadana.  People who are very new to us and in some ways very different have gone out of their way to make sure we are included, comfortable, having fun, and well fed.  None of these gifts were given with expectations or hopes of reciprocation.  Rather, they were given because these new friends see ways that they can use their local familiarity, their comforts, and their gifts to make little moments in life better for us.

Sometimes gifts are wrapped, and come in humongous packages.  We received one of these types of gifts two days ago, wrapped in a huge aluminum cylinder that arrived in Jakarta from Sydney and New Zealand before that.  Ashley Saunders and Tom Dickinson, on their delayed honeymoon, came to spend the holiday and explore Indonesia with us.  We've been friends since Sewanee and have lived closely in Chapel Hill over the past 10 years, sharing great times on Franklin Street and in the swamps and mountains of North Carolina.  It's an incredible gift for these two to come and, in a way, reconnect us with the wonderful life and friends we have back home.  It's also a wonderful gift to share stories face to face with them, to recount our adventures, and to create some new ones.

Lunch on Christmas Eve with a couple of cool cats.
So it is that even here on the other side of the world, we're celebrating Christmas with just as much cheer and good tidings, and surrounded by magnificent gifts.  I'm working now on my own gifts, wondering which are my finest and to whom I should give them.  I wonder how I can do more to make others more comfortable and content.  I also hope that I can pay tribute to the incredible life we have back home and to honor those special people and places.  This spirit of gift giving isn't one that needs to end today, and thoughts of how to do good with these gifts will last a lifetime.

No chestnuts, no open fire, but warm and cozy all the same.
 Right now, I need to get out on the beach, find a snorkeling mask, decide if we can get down to Kuta Lombock to surf for a few days before heading toward Komodo Island for New Years.  It's going to be a busy Christmas day.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

'Tis the season... for planting a new rain forest

The klinik team, and a few of their seedlings

As halls are decked and stockings hung back home, the ASRI reforestation staff put up a few of their own trees this week - 26,000 of them, in fact.  Jacquelyn and I, along with most of the clinic staff, took a break from our usual Friday activities and visited the reforestation site to help finish the job.  Although our contribution was less than 1% of this total count, it was great to see the ‘other side’ of ASRI in action.

Planting all of these seedlings only took a week, but the ASRI reforestation team has worked hard in preparation throughout the past year.  They set up a research outpost and nursery at Laman Satang, a village just adjacent to Gunung Palung National Park, and chose a tract within one of the more heavily logged park sectors.  The better part of the year was spent growing the seedlings, sampling soil, and setting up experimental methods to share this work with other local and global reforestation efforts.  Since October, the reforestation team has added as many as 75 local workmen to help clear the tract and prepare it for planting.

Inspecting seedlings in the nursery.
ASRI’s tract is a tiny piece of the unfortunate landscape in much of Borneo, even within the national parks.  While government logging concessions destroyed over 50% of the virgin rain forest in West Kalimantan during the 1980’s and 90’s, illegal logging has increased more recently.  The global demand for timber, coupled with local economic deprivation and deficient resource protection make it too enticing and too easy to raze a few hectares.  Clear cut and then burned, the pristine lowland rain forest here and across the country is reduced to invasive grasses and shrubs, crowding out any chance for regrowth.
ASRI's 2010 reforestation tract, flanked by a few remaining trees

dr. Robin and one of his many new trees
 While the current rate of illegal logging will wipe out the remaining forest in West Kalimantan by mid-century, ASRI's work is a strong push in the opposite direction.  Now in their second year of planting, they have converted over 10 hectares of wasteland into a future forest that, with protection, will expand its borders and reconnect with patches of preserved forest.  What’s more, ASRI's work seems contagious.  The National Park Service has started their own reforestation program, and even hired a handful of staff that trained at ASRI last year.  By employing local people in the project, ASRI provides jobs in growing trees rather than cutting them.  Even more inspiring, it appears that ASRI is sharing its conservation ethic.   Earlier this year, local villagers gathered to stop a wildfire that approached last year’s reforested tract.  Such community action never occurs on any other uninhabited land.

Once again, Jacquelyn and I are in awe of the work being done here and the people who have the vision and dedication to make it happen.  As painful as it is to separate ourselves from friends and family over the holidays, it is quite a gift to be here.
Jimmy & Jacquelyn celebrating the final count, with dr. Hotlin and dr. Lucy.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Just Back from Kuching

A perfect city for a waterfront stroll.
 This week we traveled to Kuching, in Malaysian Borneo, to renew our visas (two more months!) and discovered a curious city with quite a feline temperament.  Wild and tame, lush and metropolitan, it's peculiarities left us feeling batted back and forth between pleasant surprises and a few frustrating, but ultimately laughable, disappointments.
Not a perfect city for a mouse.

    Kuching ("cat" in the local language) sits on the bank of the Sarawak River, about 10 km before it empties into the South China Sea, on the northwest coast of Borneo.  It's long been a commercial center, with Chinese, Indian, Arabic, and European traders setting up shop to trade with Malau locally and indegenous Dayak farther upstream.  It still carries the feel of a jumping-off point to the interior, which was once only penetrable by boat, was full of giant crocodiles, and where men measured their worth with their collection of heads.  Nowadays the many tour companies advertise with testimonials that boast of exotic adventures, and  also vouch for their clients' safe return.  
Our breakfast view.  Something for everyone.
  You wouldn't guess that deforestation is destroying human and environmental health upstream.  The city prizes its parks and waterfront, and massive, epiphyte-laden trees flank its high-rise hotels and banks and shopping malls.  Always a melting pot, white skin was even added to the mix in the 1800s when James Brooke was 'invited' to come be king of Sarawak, and help the Sultan of Brunei fend off the Dutch, Chinese, and pirates.  Now mosques (both Arabic and Indian), churches, and Buddhist temples harmoniously coexist among old English colonial buildings, business plazas and parks.
A fist-full of ATM rejections.
    Still, rafts of refuse in the river and the gaunt faces of boatmen suggest that the prosperity that pushed up the hotels hasn't spread equally.  Our own debacles with ATMs and inconsistencies between Eastern and Western banks hinted at underlying political differences.  And as amazed as we were with the diversity of cuisine, what we hoped to be our most fantastic meal was served with a good soaking of palm oil.  

    When the whirlwind trip came to an end, we were glad to return home to Sukadana.  With all the wonders that a new place can provide, the peculiarities and little annoyances made us ready to get back to familiarity.  It's nice to be back in a place where we've not only become intimately involved with the people, but where we can also participate in meaningful change.