Choking on Smoke, While the Western World Fears Smoked Bacon

I recently had the chance to talk with a friend from home, and amidst all of our general catch up talk and laughter, we also ended up talking about our varied frustrations regarding the dangers of bacon and the dangers of smog.

The two are related, believe it or not.  Recently, various social media platforms I use, as well as various newspapers I follow, blew up with the news that WHO had declared bacon just as dangerous as cigarettes.  And to be honest, seeing how pervasive this news was, I found myself a little angry.  Now, while I’ m sure this news will have effects on the agricultural industry around the world and will create great controversy among dietitians for some time, none of this is why I was upset by the article (though, as a farm-girl, I do care about how media coverage affects agriculture, as well as well-thought advancements in health).  I was angry because while I saw numerous articles about smoked bacon in various newspapers, what I wasn’t seeing was articles about the smoke that almost completely obscures Indonesia when viewed from space.

This smoke comes from the burning of forests in order to “improve” the soil for paper pulp and palm oil production.  This practice, combined with the fact that the rains have come late this year, means that the fires have been even more damaging than in previous years, even though they are generally pretty awful every year.

Meanwhile, the Facebook feeds of my fellow ETAs in Indonesia, past and present, fill with articles about the haze in various parts of Indonesia, from the Mogabay article that talks about officials in Palangkaraya wearing face masks inside parliament, to the Jakarta Globe article that calls the fire crisis the biggest environmental crime of the 21st century. There is the BBC article about potential child evacuation, and the Jakarta Post’s article which calls this an humanitarian crisis.

For us, here and now, it is personal.  Two of our fellow ETAs have been evacuated more than once from their site (and have maintained blogs about their experiences, here and here), due to the smog being so hazardous.  This means they have been significantly delayed in being able to immerse fully and connect with the communities in which they are supposed to be engaging.  (And they are the lucky ones, by comparison–many residents do not have the means to leave these smog-filled cities.  It is only because we are fortunate enough to be part of a program with people whose job it is to consider our well-being that we are able to leave places deemed too dangerous to live in…everyone just has to try to keep on living.)  Other ETAs live in cities not filled with enough smog for them to be evacuated, but their lives are still defined by its presence.  Their friends, their coworkers, their students, are living in a place that is choking… pictures of smoke from space cannot speak as loudly as the distinct relationship this smog has to people’s everyday lives.

In some ways, it is a weird, twisted privilege that we are living here at this time of crisis.  If we did not live here, and did not have the connection to this place that we do, I wonder if we would have any idea this was happening.  We would probably be just as clueless as many of our fellow American’s back home.  Because so often, this part of the world simply does not make the news in Western countries.

I do not blame my friends or family members back home for not knowing the details of what is going on here.  If I did not live here, I would be guilty of just as much ignorance.  My news feeds are filled daily with articles about the U.S. presidential race (which really isn’t even yet underway), but nothing regarding the fires that are burning beautiful, necessary jungles to the ground.  And even as I try to expand the news coverage I receive, and I begin to learn more about issues and triumphs in Asia and South America, Africa, the second largest continent in both area and population, remains a blank space in my understanding of the world.

My friend tries to comfort my inane Western guilt: “If we tried to keep up on the news in all parts of the world, it would be a full time job.  That’s why we have the media: it’s their full-time job.” It’s a systematic issue, I know, and one I have no power, or qualifications, to change.

But I cannot help but fume–sometimes silently, sometimes quite vocally–when the world gets up in arms about bacon, while meanwhile… Indonesia is burning.

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17,508 Islands, and Not Enough Time

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Taped to the wall above the couch where I place my students when they come to me for advice, homework help, and sometimes just to chat (when I’m alone in my room I’m usually either working at my desk or sitting on the tile floor… it’s cooler there), is a map of Indonesia I found in a tourist shop.  I’ve always had a love for maps (there is also a map of the U.S. and my trusty beach-ball globe in my living room, and I turn to both constantly when I’m sharing fun facts and stories about friends with my students), and this map of the incredible country in which I find myself is probably my favorite part of my décor.

It is also a constant reminder of how vast and diverse Indonesia is.  Though I want more than anything to be able to explore the far reaches of this country and find some way to piece together my understanding of its various complexities, there are not enough months in a lifetime, much less my grant period, to be able to do so.  However, I have been able to catch glimpses of others’ experiences in different parts of Indonesia, by reading blogs not unlike my own.

There are a total of thirty-five ETAs in my Indonesian Fulbright cohort, and many of them also keep blogs about their own experiences.  If you would like to check them out, I have listed them below, organized by the island on which these ETAs find themselves.

There is also a website, entitled Indonesiaful, that was started in 2012 and is maintained by current ETAs that includes articles of various kinds regarding our experience in Indonesia.  I highly recommend it, as some of the ETAs who do not keep personal blogs have submitted articles, and because Indonesiaful is an ongoing project, and will offer perspectives on Indonesia for years to come.

Java

Anna, Wonosari

Ben, Yogyakarta

Elisa, Semarang

Clare, Semarang

Lauren, Kendal 

Kalimantan

Chris, Benjarmasin

Sulawesi

Rebecca, Gorontalo

Emily, Gorontalo

Sumatra

Moniek, Pekanbaru

Stephanie, Pekanbaru

Laurien, Medan

Sarah, Medan

West Timor

Katy, Atambua

Raul, Atambua

Jay, Kupang

Josh, Kupang