By Cael Geier —
The spirit of Indonesia is welcoming. In locals I have met, I find no trace of reluctance to see a foreigner walking the streets, nor do I feel harassed by vendors as I have in other developing countries. A simple greeting and smile are easily accepted everywhere, and returned in kind. I feel extremely grateful, as my experience here has been enriched by the people I have come with—volunteers of Canada World Youth (CWY) and KEMENPORA.
Our program, Youth Leaders in Action, is comprised of nine Indonesian youth under the age of 25, each paired with a Canadian counter-partner of a similar age. After spending three months in Nanaimo, B.C. we have come to the Indonesian region of Pulau Seribu (Thousand Islands), to live on Pulau Kelapa (Coconut Island).
Previously a youth program dedicated to cultural exchange, CWY has more recently changed its focus towards community work. This change came to be when the Canadian International Development Agency revoked crucial funding for this program, forcing CWY to seek out new funds from sources dedicated to community development and foreign aid. Our goals now are laid out under four headings: environment, health, eco-tourism, and gender equality. Of the five youth volunteer programs taking place in Indonesia, three have been chosen to focus their efforts in the environmental sector, my program included.
For a country of 250 million people, Indonesia does not have much land. It is a very crowded country. For example, Pulau Kelapa is home to 7,000 people during the week and sleeps an additional 2,000 every weekend. Yet for me, it takes 15 minutes to walk end-to-end at an average pace. With this in mind, I found that it is hard to detect environmental consciousness in the locals I have met. There simply is no room for it. Nature has made way for houses and streets so tightly built, that cars do not drive here and neighbours can hear each other snore at night.
It was quite a shock upon arrival to be thrusted into a completely different culture, which is built upon Islam as a foundation and has the security of a close knit community as its roof. Coming out of northern BC I had little to no knowledge of Islam. The little I did know came to me through the filters of news reports and an online presence, which did little justice to the people who practice as Muslims.
Over the past months I have learned much about how working class Indonesians value their religion and what it offers them. My learning greatly contrasts the terrifying persona that extremist jihadists have been donned by media. I have shared a bed with a young Indonesian man for two months now, and every morning he wakes at 5:30 a.m. to pray, the first of five times a day. This practice of self-discipline is one of many that shows how devoted he is, putting me to shame, I feel, when I struggle to wake at 9:00 a.m.
The call to pray five times a day is a daily reminder that I am no longer in Canada. The singing of the Al ‘ Karran from megaphones atop the many mosques scattered throughout the chaotic streets can be heard from anywhere on Pulau Kelapa. Evening prayer call is followed by Magrib, a time in which all people are at home, and the streets are silent for roughly five minutes. I find family gathering together once a day is something to be valued and is less than uncommon in Canada. These practices of Islam were at one time shocking to me, but no longer.
Throughout our time in Indonesia, our projects have been designed to raise environmental awareness and spark interest in local youth who can build a more sustainable future.
To ensure CWY projects are being carried out in a semi-uniform manner, each volunteer group has been given guidelines for approaching the community, and quotas of community members to be involved. The hopes of CWY are that our projects will be continued by locals after we leave. Our projects include designing and planting 25 environmental sign boards, planting 4,000 mangrove trees, creating an ecotourism presence for our island, and holding environmental workshops on cleanliness and proper recycling practices.
The first project our group decided to tackle was the environmental sign boards. This presented a challenge for the team as the signs’ messages need to be written in Bahasa Indonesia, but half of our group speaks English or French as their mother tongue. It required a lot of brainstorming and translation for us to agree upon 25 signs that had messages we thought locals would actually care about. Our goal was to place the signs in areas that are public, where people do not have the right to litter. At playgrounds we installed signs which read, “Play = Yes; Littering = No” and along paths beside the oceans are signs which remind people, “This view is more beautiful without garbage.” With the aid of very willing locals, it took us two days before all of the signs were firmly planted in cement. We were pleased to see how eager people are to help us, but it will be even better if those people start to change their littering habits.
Upon arrival to Pulau Kelapa we realized that the people here are very familiar with mangrove trees. In years past, the community took initiative with the financial aid of CNOOC (Chinese National Offshore Oil Company) to plant 200,000 mangroves. It was clearly a successful project, because presently there are large areas of mangrove forest lying parallel to the coast line, 10-15 meters away from the land. These forests, in the future years, will offer shelter to fish nurseries and provide nutrients for sea life. In turn, it will help the local fishing industry, and prevent erosion of the coast line. In theory, the only downside of the mangrove forests is the loss of swimming area for island visitors, but in reality we hope it will offer a more sustainable tourist appeal: ecotourism. Overall, our mangrove planting experience helped us bond with community members and our group feels productive to have contributed to the islands’ future.
With the program coming to a close, I have been reflecting on my past two months on Pulau Kelapa. There is no doubt that my experiences here have shaped my views of the world, but I also hope that our group’s time here has had a positive influence on the locals.
I truly hope that our efforts to promote cleanliness and sustainable living have not been lost in translation. As the first non-tourist residents from outside of Indonesia to live on this island, we have been treated unreasonably well. I look forward to returning in the future to see the smiles of the people I have come to know, despite the language barriers. One day I plan to return and see the mangrove forest we helped to plant.
Cael Geier is an aspiring world traveller from Terrace, BC and recently returned from a six-month youth exchange program. One year out of high school, he is currently working as a construction labourer with hopes of earning enough money to afford a higher education and see more of the world in his spare time.