During this time of sharing and reflecting upon what’s good in the world, BoomerCafé Co-Founder and Executive Editor Greg Dobbs has visited a desperate part of the world, Indonesia, which is suffering from scarcity of clean water. He was preparing a report for his “day job” as a news correspondent for HD Net. Greg shares what he saw in this letter to family, friends, and the BoomerCafé community:
I came to Indonesia to shoot a program about water, and once you’re here and you see the way so many people in the world’s fourth most populous country live, (fourth after China, India, and the USA), it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out that the water they cook with… and bathe in… and clean their teeth in… and drink… is less than ideal. Less than totally clean; less than totally safe.
But before I tell you about it, I’ll tell you about the one thing that can kill you here even quicker than the water: the roads. A cameraman and I landed on a flight from Malaysia in the grimy teeming industrial city of Palembang, on the island of Sumatra. We were met by our hosts (from the World Bank, with whose water specialists we are working), and immediately boarded two cars for a four-and-a-half hour drive to the northwest, to three rural villages near a small city by the name of Muara Enim.
Do you know how many times in four-and-a-half hours your heart beats? I do. Or in the case of this drive, how many beats it can skip and still be ticking? I think I know that one too.
Words can’t even adequately describe what driving here is like. Because the words stand still on the page, while in reality you never stop moving, weaving sideways and careening forward, all at the same time, while the oncoming traffic is flying in a beeline right towards you. And even if I can describe in writing what happens to you, I know I can’t describe the sheer terror as it’s happening. Indonesia isn’t the first Third World country in which I’ve been driven. But it may be the most frightening.
For starters, when passing another vehicle, you begin from between one and two feet behind it. No kidding. You’re barreling down the road at 50, 60, 70 miles per hour, close enough to spit on the taillights in front of you, then suddenly without any view of the road ahead, your car pulls out to pass. But once you’re out there, no one else gives way and no one slows down. In our long drives to and from Muara Enim, I can say with unexaggerated honesty that I didn’t see anyone give way or slow down. Not oncoming motorbikes, nor busses, nor trucks. Nor the slower vehicles you’re passing, with only a foot or two between them as suddenly someone’s coming at you head-on from the other direction and you need to squeeze back into the line. Nor, to be fair, did we give way ourselves, even once. NOT ONCE.
For the length of the drive it’s a two lane road, and there’s probably not a single straight section longer than a couple of hundred yards. Yet you’ll get behind a slow truck, or a slow line of trucks, and you’ll pull out to pass. The trouble is, when you do, you give the guy ahead of you the idea that he ought to pass whoever’s in front of him, until you’ve got two, three, four vehicles in a row, passing two, three, maybe four others going in the same direction.
The other trouble is, the very same thing is happening with the vehicles racing toward you in the other direction. Which means everyone but the lead vehicle going each way is passing in the blind. Absolutely blind. A curve in the road, the crest of a hill? They mean nothing. These drivers leave themselves a margin the width of a human hair. And sometimes barely even that. I truly believe that here in the world’s most populous Muslim nation, sometimes they think the only margin they need is the good grace of Allah. It’s enough to make your hair curl… which already happens soon enough anyway in this hot and humid climate.
My very worst moment on the drive to Muara Enim came as we started to pass a long convoy of identical dump trucks, maybe twenty of them. It was my worst moment because we had already passed them earlier, in clusters of three, four, sometimes five, each cluster a test of one’s courage. But we made a rest stop and they got ahead of us, so we had to do it again. Be still, my beating heart.
While here, I asked a couple of people to explain the rules of the road to me, but never got much of an understandable answer. Which leaves me to theorize: in our society, we’re taught not to drive dangerously. In this society (and others in the Third World), they’re taught to avoid dangerous drivers… while driving dangerously themselves. If anyone’s got a better guess I’d love to hear it!
Our drives to and from Muara Enim took place by the way in a cheap little Toyota station wagon, with the pickup of a lawn mower; the best it could do was kind of gather momentum. There were a few moments when I’d have given my house for a stronger engine. And just for good measure, when we stopped for gas, the cameraman noticed a thick twig, maybe an eighth of an inch across, apparently stuck to the side of the left rear tire. But it turns out it wasn’t stuck to the side; I bent down and fiddled with it and sure enough, it was being used as a plug, stuck inside a hole!
And I haven’t even mentioned the suicidal motorbike drivers who hug the center of the road and no matter how big the vehicle bearing down on them from behind or how loud his horn, don’t budge. Or the little kids in the countryside who have a dirt shoulder to walk along but instead walk on the already narrow pavement. Or the goats alongside them that could dart out without warning. Or the idle motorbikes that should be parked well away from the asphalt but instead stand atop it.
I also haven’t mentioned that on our drive back from Muara Enim, most of it was at night. In the rain. Dodging motorbikes with no lights. And trucks broken down, just sitting in the dark along the side of the road… but not actually off it. No cones, no lights, no warnings. You can only pray that the driver sees the apparition of a broken truck better than you do. And preferably, before you do too.
This is why, when I go to places like this, I alternate between thinking, “What the hell am I doing here?” and “I can’t believe I get to do this!” If you’re going to do the kind of work I do, sometimes you have to take drives like these (although I think next time I’ll find a good story in, like, Wichita). You also have to accommodate a few other things that might seem pretty unappealing at home.
Like eating. The food’s quite good here, in fact. And plentiful. But when for dinner the first night we went to the best restaurant in Muara Enim with nine-count-em-nine local Indonesian water executives and World Bank officials, I knew I was in trouble when the Indonesians themselves took every glass, every plate, and every utensil in front of them, and thoroughly wiped them down with napkins the way we’d wipe down a sink after guests go home. Then, after taking some local officials’ cues and ordering fried rice with fish, I walked off to the toilet and passed over a muddy and plainly polluted creek from which they catch the fish we’re eating. Wichita’s looking better and better.
Plus, they have a couple of funny habits here. One is, in this country that sits right along the equator, they like to leave their food out all day. Another is, within my experience they are tied with China for serving more things I’ve never seen before than anyplace else I’ve ever been. Or maybe things just look different without refrigeration.
Then, there’s Durian fruit. There was a sign in the room at my one-star hotel in Muara Enim — the best and only in town — which says, “Please, do not bring durian to our hotel.” Pets are okay, but not this fruit. Why not? Because its nickname is “stinky fruit.” Each is about the size of a large pineapple with squishy golf-ball sized chunks inside, and people sell them all along the road. In fact you know when you’re coming up on a Durian fruit stand, even if it’s around a curve, because half a minute before you reach it, you smell it. Why in God’s name these things are popular here (and elsewhere in Southeast Asia) I honestly don’t know, but I was determined to get through this trip without finding out. I failed. When we finished shooting in the first of the three rural villages near Muara Enim, the village chief invited us to sit and enjoy a treat: Durian fruit. It doesn’t taste half as bad as it smells … but that’s kind of like saying, slugs aren’t half as slimy as they look.
To be fair though, later that same day at the end of our shoot in another village, a second village chief took us to the land in front of his house where his wife had set up a little table with dark brown slick-looking slabs of— yes— Durian fruit. But this time it came in a different form: crushed and mixed with a little raw sugar and ground gummy rice. I don’t know why but somehow the sugar and rice mitigate the Durian. In fact it was one of the tastier things I’ve had here.
Then, there’s rice itself. I can only say, I sure hope it’s good for you. Lots and lots of rice. Because it’s not just part of every meal here, it is the foundation for all food— breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You eat it with your hands— pour curry and chilis and some sort of meat chunks or fish and green leaves over it all, then grab a glutinous lump with your fingers and go crazy. It’s even sold wrapped in waxen paper at the local McDonalds. Unless I’m forgetting something, I had rice with every single meal here. Come to think of it, Vietnam too. Note to Carol: no rice for dinner please, until further notice.
One of the best things about shooting a documentary here is, everyone’s warm and hospitable. I’ve been plenty of places where, when you stick a camera in someone’s face or even set it up from afar, either they wave you off, tell you to get lost… or they get lost themselves. But not here. Frankly, if it were me, I’d probably run you off if your camera was catching me in my worst moments… but for most of the people in the villages here, and millions in the cities, worst moments are the only moments they have.
Yet everyone, and I mean everyone, was cooperative and helpful. Before we’d leave a shooting location, there’d even be a little “thank you” ceremony for us. Maybe because they know we’re trying to bring attention to their bad water, which ultimately might help make it better. However, these ceremonies bring their own little challenges, because inevitably there’ll be some food and drink, and I can’t help but wonder whether I am about to cross into their food chain. But protocol makes demands, so I swallow, and chew, and pray to every god I know.
These thank you ceremonies take place just about everywhere we go. Paul, the cameraman, hates them; he’d rather be out somewhere looking through the camera. So when we arrive someplace, inevitably no matter how poor they are, people have something to eat and drink waiting for us. When it’s time to start, Paul disappears, and I shake hands all around (although if a woman doesn’t extend hers, I don’t offer mine in this Muslim nation), say thanks in the local tongue, holding my hands together as if in prayer, then sit at a table and begin to eat and drink. The funny thing is, nobody sits with me. There I am, sitting in the middle of the room or the field all alone, usually with at least a dozen people just standing there watching me. While the capital of Jakarta and a few other places in Indonesia are used to tourists, westerners really stand out where we’ve been. So much so that I’ve had children scream and cry when I gently patted their heads. But the grownups honor us. A few told me that they’ve actually never seen a “white man” before.
The fact is, just about anywhere I’ve ever gone, people are friendly to you if you’re friendly to them. Here it’s especially important for two reasons. First, they’re just plain nice people who smile back if you smile first. In the past I’ve always felt that people in North Africa, from Egypt to Morocco, are the nicest on earth. Even in Libya when I used to go down there in the 70s and 80s, while our governments didn’t see eye to eye, the people would give you their right arm if you needed it. Now I’ll add Indonesia to that list. The second reason to be friendly is, right now this isn’t the safest place for people like us to be— and by “us,” I mean the Australian cameraman, and me.
That’s because of the terrorist bombings on the Indonesian island of Bali six years ago. More than two hundred people died, mostly Australians, and just last month, three Islamic terrorists convicted of the crime were executed by a firing squad, which Australia urged Indonesia to do. The U.S.? We just get swept in. But the result is, Washington has issued a travel warning which says, don’t come. The result for us is, take an extra look around you when you walk out any door, be a little more wary when you’re on the street, and act extra nice with everyone you meet. That might go without saying, but there’s another reason beyond the obvious one: the people to whom you pay just a bit of special attention might be, in a hard situation, your most important allies.
Anyway, let me get to why we came. People in many parts of this country — which means across its more than 17,000 islands — use the same water for their toilet, their tub, and their tap. I could be more explicit but probably don’t have to be. That seems gross to us, of course, because we know how bad it is. They don’t. The cost of clean water is one problem. Public education about dirty water is another. Using the side of your home to deposit your waste is one problem. Having anyplace else to do it is another.
We spent our first day in rural villages, and from one of them, we followed people along an undulating muddy path to their only source of water: a well the color brown. As they carried their buckets, we carried our television gear, climbing and descending the better part of a mile (and coming close to slipping more than once). When we got to the well, others who preceded us were washing clothing and bodies and filling buckets to take back to their village. When you look at the filthy pools of water on the ground all around the well, you see that it seeps into the earth and eventually back into the well itself.
In another village, we went down a muddy bank to the river, where men and women have separate bamboo rafts tethered to the side. That’s where they go to refresh their bodies and their buckets. They’re brushing their teeth and washing their dishes and taking their water for cooking and drinking, all from the same place. When you look at the surface of the water flowing toward them, it’s already foul before they foul it more.
But this isn’t just a problem in rural villages. Far from it. Just today as I write this, in the city of Palembang, I stood on a bridge and looked down upon ramshackle wooden huts with tin roofs, built along the Musi River. The water is a nauseating shade of mud, and every form of debris is floating on the current. But even worse is what’s down below. We saw a man come out of his hut, for instance, and squat in a small half-open enclosure, which was built over the water. It was his toilet. We saw naked kids bathing in the water, women scrubbing their clothes and brushing their teeth and washing their vegetables and filling empty plastic water bottles— incredulous, we even watched a teenage boy doing back flips into the river from a wooden beam outside his house, as if he was on a diving board at a pool in Beverly Hills— all in this putrid cesspool whose smell alone was almost too much to bear. (That’s the other photo in the email: the kid was jumping from one of the huts on the left… while part of the time we were there, a man was over on the right, using the same water as his toilet.)
We also went to two homes where people have, for the first time in their lives, clean water coming into the house. One was a middle class home— poor by our standards but middle class here— and the water comes from a newly installed tap protruding from the wall right over a dank brick tub and right next to the home’s squatter toilet. The whole family was there for our arrival, and when the father marched me into this damp, dark, diminutive room to show me the tap, he had pride on his face like he was showing me his first born child.
The other was a lower class home, built on stilts because it stands atop a putrid pond where the mother used to put chlorine because that was her only water supply. Just two months ago she got a tap installed just outside the house with a short hose through which, intermittently, water slowly flows. As we sat on her rudimentary couch near the front door, we had two kids squeezed in with us, and the mother explained how happy she is to have clean water because the boy had often had white spots on his skin, which a doctor told her was some sort of skin disease from washing in the fetid water, and the girl had just been hospitalized for ten days with a serious case of diarrhea. Yet when we were outside watching the woman use her new tap, a huge rat appeared about five feet away. That’s because although they now have the tap, they still haven’t learned that the kind of standing water that surrounds their house, especially when every kind of rubbish is deposited in it, still breeds disease. You see those conditions almost everywhere.
The World Bank is trying to help Indonesia’s bigger cities improve both their capacity and their reach, to put clean water into more homes. It’s part of a pilot project which, if it succeeds, can be duplicated in other parts of the world where the quality of water we take for granted is only a dream. In fact the idea for this story came from a friend who’s with the American Water Works Association, a big alliance of U.S. water treatment plants, which is helping the World Bank. The thing is, we went to Palembang’s main water treatment plant, where water from this horrible Musi River comes in disgusting and goes out clean. What I learned was, water treatment isn’t high tech and doesn’t have to be. There only has to be a will, and the money to put it to work.
Just one more “third world” story to tell, and it’s not about water, or driving; in fact it’s not even all about Indonesia. But it’s emblematic of societies where somehow, they just don’t think like we do.
To get here from Vietnam, we had to fly late one night to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where we would go through Customs and enter the country to overnight before our morning flight to Indonesia.
There are two airports in Kuala Lumpur, including a spacious shiny new one. We weren’t there.
We were at an aging airport mobbed with people in funny clothes who didn’t look like they’d have a penny in their pocket. Too little space for too many hordes. No signage and total confusion about where to go and how to queue. It’s probably a part of the culture as it is in other countries, but these people all just crowd forward as if there’s no one else waiting in front of them or trying to get past them.
Our arrival was funny, if nearly disastrous. It’s just the cameraman and me, and on arrival we had seven cases altogether, which we piled onto two carts. We got outside the chaotic terminal into a solid unmoving mass of humanity, and when it was obvious no one was going to clear a path, we shouted, tapped people on shoulders, eventually physically pushed people out of our way. No choice.
We were headed for the taxi rank, which had so many people around it it looked like they were fleeing a tsunami. But the taxi rank is adjacent to an “island,” as at any airport where there are different “islands” for catching the shuttles to parking and hotels and so forth. But this island was different. It was sloped. I mean, it’s maybe three feet from curb to curb but if you can picture this, the curb on one side is a good foot higher than the curb on the other side.
You might see where this is going. With the cars bunched so close together, it’s impossible to push the carts along the roadway. So you’re trying to negotiate them through crowds (everyone’s struggling with their own carts) along this steep sloping island, which means you’re always fighting gravity. At one point, with the high side of the island on my right, the cart I was pushing, which among other things had our $80,000 camera balanced on top with my right hand gripping the handle, began to tip to the left. Suddenly the whole cart was going over. The trouble is, not only was the camera going to hit the ground, but it was all headed toward another cart a foot away piled high with luggage. I caught mine just in time and struggled with my one free hand to get it upright again, but the cart next to mine didn’t survive; it went into another cart, and altogether four carts full of baggage tipped over. Into the roadway, in the middle of the crowds. I didn’t stop and take my toll of the damage. I just got out of there fast as I could.
But that was child’s play compared to the airport at our penultimate stop, the city of Makassar on the island of Sulawesi.
Once we gathered our cases there and put them on two carts, we made our way out to the “greeting” area. But our landing coincided with a lot of chartered flights, bringing people home from the Haj. That’s when Muslims who can, make their once-in-a-lifetime visit to Mecca. So probably a thousand people were packed into the fenced in greeting area, all smiling and waving and screaming and women yelping to meet their loved ones coming home from the Haj. It is a great honor to do the Haj, because it indicates both religious obedience and financial prosperity. (Once someone has done the Haj, their name in print is preceded here by the letter “H.” So if it were me for example, in writing I’d be referred to as “Mr. H. Greg Dobbs.”)
Once again, we and our carts were foiled by islands and curbs. We had to push through the excited crowd to get from the terminal to the first curb, but thankfully it had a nice little ramp onto the roadway which let us easily reach the island on the other side. But the curb on that side was a good twelve inches high, with no ramp… and the taxi rank was three identical islands away. So every time anyone reaches an island, including us with our 187 pounds of gear, we have to unload everything and move it manually across the island, then physically lift the cart itself across, then set it down on the next roadway and load it again and cross to the next curb and do it all over again. Madness. When this place was built, what were these people thinking?!
But I don’t want to leave on a negative note, so let me praise the airlines in Asia; they make up for what the airports miss. In the course of my travels on this continent, I took one flight on Cathay Pacific Airlines, two on Air Asia, three on Vietnam Airlines, and three on Indonesia’s Garuda. Not once did a plane leave even five minutes late, all but one served mints and a meal, free, and I never waited more than five minutes for luggage, in fact twice it got to the carousel even before I did. Like the auto industry and the banking industry and the electronics industry and others, it kind of makes me wonder what’s gone wrong at home.
I’m ready to be home, and shall probably send this as I start the trip. I won’t miss the heat and I won’t miss the roads and I won’t miss the sad stories to which we were witness … but besides very nice people everywhere we went, I will miss one thing in particular: standing in a room, or an elevator, or a field, with a bunch of Indonesians, or Vietnamese, and having to drop my chin to look down upon them. Now I know how it feels in the States to be six-foot-plus.
May your new year bring blessings.
Category: Boomer Lifestyle