Day Trip to Gunung Ijen

A friend in the east lives just below the Ijen Volcano Complex, a group of volcanos with a wild reputation. Together these volcanos form an elevated plateau about 12 miles wide. We took a jeep part way and hiked to the top of one volcano, Ijen, to see it’s turquoise-colored acid crater lake.

Visitors who arrive at the right time of night witness a unique sight, the walls of the caldera alight in blue flames. We didn’t see the blue fire but we did see its source, sulphur deposits. Long ago, Ijen, with its fluorescent-colored rocks, burning water, and noxious gasses, was thought to be the gateway to another, darker world. Today miners trek down the crater twice a day, trading their health for relatively competitive wages in a region where many earn a modest living in wet rice cultivation.

How We Learn to Wash our Hands

This is a post about water and sanitation in rural Indonesia and a collective attempt at making things better at one school. This is a continuation on my theme of finding and adapting existing solutions to common problems in my “neighborhood.” This is an essay about real people and the circumstances we find ourselves in. This is my story about how we learn to wash our hands.

Statistics rarely express the depth and nuance of a problem but they make for a decent starting point. Here’s one I’ve had on my mind for a while now: over 40% of Indonesians lack access to proper sanitation. That’s roughly the combined populations of France and the U.K.

I’m reminded of this statistic each time I see people defecate in the open. Some folks here use the river because they have no other means. When sewage escapes the river, when people use stagnant water, or fail to wash with soap, it often leads to preventable diseases like amoebas, tapeworms, E. coli, Typhoid fever or worse. Each year over 50,000 people die from diarrhea alone. This should be alarming.

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The Green Warriors

As a follow up to my post on finding local solutions, my first example comes from a small, vibrant group of people who call themselves the Laskar Hijau or “Green Warriors.”

I read about the Green Warriors in a local newspaper last semester and called to arrange a meeting with a man who goes by “AA.” He kindly invited me and a couple of teacher friends to meet him at his home in Klakah, about 20 minutes out of town. He described the group as a community of friends with a common cause, environmental conservation. Despite this humble label their name conveys a truly radical element in the way they interact with environmental issues and institutions. These folks are nothing short of activists, leading a popular cause in politically complaisant rural East Java.

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On Finding, Not Searching

For what seems like far too long, I had felt stuck in a puddle of ambiguity each time I asked myself: “What exactly are you doing, Matt?”

A professor was the first to tell me: “Peace Corps is great but it’s not real development work. And you will gain so much more from the experience than you can give back.” For over 50 years now, volunteers have formed their own interpretations on the agency’s goals and the meaning of service. At over a year in, my own views are still forming from my own niche, out here, in the developing world. But don’t go just yet! This isn’t a depressing post!

Last school year came to an unceremonious close. Against my better judgement, I tallied up my professional accomplishments from the previous two semesters only to find my impact lacking. I came to the conclusion that too many structural barriers had prevented me from achieving my goals, namely improving the numbers on our Project Framework in some meaningful way. Today, I don’t think this view is necessarily wrong but it’s not that simple either. We must embrace ambiguity if we wish to arrive at a point of view beyond it.

Volunteers perform myriad jobs under the banner of technical training and building friendship. I happen to believe the agency’s greatest strengths, at least here in Indonesia, all have to do with organizing at the community level. This thought came to me only after failing, in so many fantastic ways, to successfully challenge the status quo at school. The most valuable commodity I can offer is not so much technical but my will to put people, ideas, and resources together. Here I share a lesson my community taught me about organizing.

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My First Race, up on Mt. Bromo

The truth is I’ve never fancied myself a runner. I used to run in high school and college but I have never registered for a race nor have I ever donned lycra shorts, thankfully. Runners are tall, graceful, and exceedingly disciplined. I am none of these. Despite this, I found myself atop Mt. Bromo last Saturday. I was there to run the half-marathon.

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