Tales from the South Pacific — Empathy and Integration Lessons from West Papua, Indonesia

Sorong Sunset.jpg

View from the final meal restaurant, Sorong, Indonesia, December 2018

My son, Braden (age 20) and I have been traveling for the last three weeks — literally to the ends of the Earth.  We visited West Papua, Indonesia, and the island of Misool, for a sea kayaking ‘vacation’ (I use that word pretty loosely!)  While it wasn’t particularly relaxing, or a vacation, without going into a lot of negative detail, both Braden and I learned tons.  In our little group, we call this kind of a trip a ‘Monkey Stomp’. I’ll let your conjecture run wild on what that means.  🙂

Misool Rain

Father and Son, in the tropical rain. Ain’t we a pair.

This part of the world is covered with small, limestone islands, eroded at the base like ice cubes that have had hot water poured on them.  What that means is the ground itself, in many places, is covered by super-sharp rocks that, while beautiful, are more than happy to cut deep to the bone.  Just add protruding, embedded sea shells.  It makes for a tremendous landscape, but not necessarily one so great for human habitation.

Braden Sea Kayak Inverted Island

Crazy limestone karst geology, and Braden in a sea kayak.  Clothing courtesy of Northwest River Supplies

As such, it’s most populated (and thinly at that) by temporary fishing encampments, and small villages.  The people, all some mix of Papuan and the crazy-quilt Indonesian genetic stock, are all essentially modern tribal v-Meme, working mostly in a gift economy, with strong family ties.  Villages are headed up by an ‘elected’ official, a kepala desa, who really functions more as a ‘Big Man’ (a la Jared Diamond’s analysis) than someone who uses coercive force or hard authority to accomplish their will.  While living standards have improved — two big signs were the prevalence of bottled water, and of course, the virtually ubiquitous cell phone — time scales still slip, and time is much more locked to the natural environment than in anything resembling modern society.

During the course of the trip, we visited a series of human settlements. We started at Sorong, which is really a small city, and resembles more the ramshackle, sprawling towns in the Caribbean I’ve been to (Puerto Limon in Costa Rica came to mind immediately) than any ordered establishment. StreetsofSorong

The streets of Sorong, outside the central market.  That’s a mosque at the end of the street.

From there, it was a literal 150 mile ferry ride across to Misool, the Muslim town of Yalu (sp?), which was the real jumping-off point for a 30 km boat ride to a small island homestay.  During the rest of the trip, we visited a Muslim village, a Christian village, and a corporate pearl farm.  All three offered insights on how social organization manifests itself with both time scales and spatial scales.

As you read through the rest of this, it’s pretty important to not moralize, especially about the influence of religion – go full post-modern!  The way the people lived — their deep v-Meme — was a click up from full-on tribal.  As such, everywhere we went, we were the out-group and an oddity.  Six tourists, two white guides, and two Indonesian guides comprised the group.  Because of our Indonesian guides, who were great, we had the opportunity to ask questions and carry on with the locals — something I always like to do!  We could also ground ourselves and really validate our observations.  The other thing, not surprisingly considering the dominance of the gift economy in many aspects of life, is that the locals really had very little interest in making money off of us.  In all places, they were really just happy to see us.  We were space aliens, and entertaining ones at that.

Josh Cell Phone (1)

Josh getting his picture taken. That’s her cell phone.

Many of the people, and a good hunk of the women seemed to take a particular fascination with me.  My son attributes this to the fact that I am literally massive to them (I was twice many of the folks’ size) and I know how to use facial gestures to connect (hey — gotta practice what you preach!)  Not meaning to go full guru on you, but it never hurts to beam love at all the people you meet when you’re traveling.  It really makes a difference.  And it’s just not that hard.

Panda Moment

These women from the Christian village Tomolol came running out with flowers and wanted us to take a picture of them and their baby.

One thing that was painfully obvious was the blight of garbage that all these villages were dealing with. Chief among these were bottles from bottled water, and some soft drinks, though because of the advancements in modern packaging, processed food producers have found ways to package small, sugar-laden snacks in $.10 packages, that are eaten, and then immediately discarded.

Snack Kiosk

A Muslim-run kiosk at the edge of the Christian village.  There are virtually no tensions between the different religions in Indonesia that we saw or read about.

The effects of cultural sidebars on trash disposal were immediately obvious.  In the Muslim and full-on tribal encampments, trash was literally everywhere, and there was little effort to even deal with human feces.  One dive site we visited, which had the most amazing below-water coral field I had ever seen, also had evidence of slicks of human waste.

Fishing Encampment

View from above — this fishing encampment is in existence for only six months of the year, next to one of the most amazing reefs you’ll ever see.

One step up was the Christian village.  Obviously visited in the past by missionaries (we didn’t find out which denomination) the spatial scales of responsibility had obviously been expanded to people’s front yards.

White Jesus

White Jesus was about 20′ tall.  Braden and I had a politically incorrect laugh at all of it.

Cooking was still pretty primitive, and locals burned wood collected from the forest.

Wood gathering

West Papuan woman hauling firewood

But where there was distance between them and their extended family units, there was garbage.  Here’s a shot of a bunch of cake boxes discarded in a ravine next to a street of houses, neatly lined with nice yards.

Village Donut Boxes

Finally, the most socially ordered place we visited was the corporate platform that supported the pearl farm.  We visited them after one of our party got stung by jellyfish.  Braden and I put on our Action Hero costumes, and pulled one of our guides out of the water screaming.  Kudos to her — as a professional sea kayaker, she was still plenty tough, and after we loaded her in her boat, we chased her the five km. to the pearl farm platform, where the people on the platform offered aid, as well as food, to us.

Pearl Platform Sandy Jellyfish

Sandy in hot water — the best immediate cure for jellyfish stings

I’ve been fortunate to have been raised in a kinda-Muslim household (my father was from Iran) and I immediately trotted off to the small kiosk on the platform to buy cigarettes, candy, and cookies, which we promptly distributed to our hosts.  Never underestimate the power of the appropriate rituals.

Pearl Platform Hejib shot

Braden going full tribal, holding a kid while smoking a cigarette while the woman in a hejib took his picture.

Simultaneously, they were serving us tea, coffee, and finally a bowl of soup as we played with the children, and I chatted up the men running the platform with the appropriate amount of humor.

Pearl Platform fine china

Why not use the fine china when visitors show up?

Pearl Platform Muslim Women

The local women repairing baskets and checking out the biggest thing to happen in those parts in a while.

It rained that crazy tropical rain while our guide recovered. And then we were back on the water.

Pearl Platform Rain (1)


One of the most (pathologically) interesting aspects of the trip, as I mentioned before, was the prevalence of bottled water and incumbent trash associated with it.  Since this blog is supposed to be about design thinking, at least occasionally, I was forced to ponder many efforts ongoing at various universities, involving students, fixated on building water purification systems for remote villages such as this one.  These activities have been literally going on forever, and almost always revolve around things like sand filters, or lately, sipping straws or other such devices for water purification.

It’s not like these things aren’t well-meaning — they certainly are — but one can see the effect of rising incomes in places like this really changing the dynamic of water acquisition and use across this landscape.  The minute you bump up living standards, the first things people gravitate to are clean water, cell phones, and sugary snacks. When it comes to clean water, they’re down.  But the idea of centralized water distribution is so far out of both their abilities, and their v-Meme stack on how to fix their problems, they can’t even conceive of it.  If they were really going to have a networked water system, the first thing they’d have to have would be a hierarchical community structure — which, of course, they don’t have.

So, they buy bottled water.  And because their scales of responsibility are temporally short, and spatially small, there is no facility for trash collection, nor any larger sense of cleanliness in the ocean environment.  Pollution is normalized as well, as most of the huts are built over the water, and people defecate in a hole that the tide then cleans. The end result is that one ends up with tons of plastic.  Everywhere.

I came away from the trip with a strong sense of urgency around a need for trash incineration in remote communities.  The optimal kind of solution would use trash to produce electricity (a potentially straightforward transaction that might work), which many of these communities also don’t have. Once again, think of the social structure necessary to run a grid, especially one that could stand up to that tropical rain.  Whatever waste-to-power solution developed has to be at the right scale, and likely won’t involve long-range power transmission.  Distributed generation is going to have to be prioritized.  And it’s going to have to be simple.

My views on design validity — there is nothing like a site visit and customer interviews to make you understand exactly what people are living through if you’re going to design a solution for them — were profoundly reinforced.  While designing a straw that they’re always supposed to use to suck water out of the mud might appeal to a Western designer, it’s not going to appeal to the mother of a young infant in one of those villages, who would rather just grab a bottle she can afford, is packaged in clear packaging, and give it to her child.  The fact that this behavior creates another problem — waste disposal — is not going to matter to that mother, and her immediate concern over her family’s health.

It also takes a lot of education to appreciate the effect of bacterial infection as well.  The school in the Christian village had a large poster hanging outside exhorting all attendees to wash their hands.

Hand Wash Sign

I’ve seen this also in rural China.  A deeper understanding of the effects of microbes is a higher v-Meme phenomenon.  And given a confusing information field, once again, the mother is going to go for the clear packaged water.

Over and over, in a variety of situations, the way the people lived in the villages were the direct result of their own unique ‘sense making’ exercise.  That sense making was dependent on the various scales of awareness that they had, linked to their tribal v-Meme development, as well as their ability to integrate this with the cultural sidebars they were also given.

And things aren’t all bad.  A great example of that was the relative safety we all felt against theft while visiting the various settlements.  Everyone familiar with Muslim culture knows that stealing is prohibited (and no — they don’t chop hands off in Indonesia) but the effect is that as a traveler, while I wouldn’t go so far as just leaving temptation out, relative to other Developing Country venues I’ve been in, I never thought someone wanted to grab my money belt.  Most of the villages were Muslim, all had mosques, and there were calls to prayer the typical three-five times/day.  Cultural influences filled in the holes for larger awareness and longer time scales missing from the more short-term rationality displayed in the context of village life.

We also didn’t get sick, and anyone also familiar with Muslim culture knows that there is an emphasis on personal hygiene.  Bottled water available also came from the ubiquitous five gallon jugs that adorn our office water coolers.

Travel does cure ignorance.  It also shows the value of walking into situations with few, if any preconceptions.  Braden and I were there for a vacation.  We didn’t know what to expect. The fact that it turned into a larger, expansive awareness exercise, considering all the things that happened, will benefit both of us in the future.  And I know I’ll start a waste incineration project with my students in the spring.

But maybe, next time, I’m just going to go someplace closer and sit on the beach.  Maybe!

A big shout-out to Northwest River Supplies in Moscow, ID for providing gear and clothing for our trip.  Thanks, gang!



3 thoughts on “Tales from the South Pacific — Empathy and Integration Lessons from West Papua, Indonesia

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