from Sept 18:  We’d just come from a sighting of 5-6 pesut foraging in the tributary to Muara Siran, and I’d grown a little frustrated by my seeming inability to pull it together and take focused photos…it was a tricky sighting, with the dolphins surfacing all scattered about and at long intervals, and we spent an hour trying to get good photos.  I was actually relieved to leave the uncooperative dolphins (jerks!) and move on.

As we arrived at the confluence with the main river, Jian exlaimed, “Pesut!”

And there was indeed a pesut.  One individual, foraging, in water littered with water hyacinth and other debris.  Rarely easy to get a photo of one solitary pesut foraging…

Which is why I felt like a champion when I managed to get this shot the next time I saw our lone pesut surface (once) a few minutes later.  Redemption!

Driving Past the Mosque

In Bangkok!  Some thoughts from yesterday’s journey from Samarinda, Indonesia. I was prompted to post this because I read this article this morning, which articulately expresses most of my views on the whole awful film fiasco.

In the taxi from Samarinda to Balikpapan yesterday morning, I passed a large and gorgeous mosque (not the one pictured).  Illuminated by the copper-toned morning sunlight, a lively crowd buzzed and bustled in front of the mosque grounds: a large, sweatsuit-clad group moving in synchrony through various aerobics exercises; eager consumers clustering around food carts; families milling around.

Sunset soccer game near the mosque in Muara Kaman Ulu, on the Mahakam River

I thought, “I wish that more people in the US could see this.”  The recent mess of unreasoned violence sparked by a hideously stupid film is reinforcing the widespread view (held even by some of my family and friends) that Islam is a religion of violence and irrational outrage.  But these people in front of the mosque weren’t burning flags or chanting “Death to America” or throwing stones.  They were focused on calisthenics and good food and enjoying a beautiful morning.  Like many people of many other faiths and cultures would also be doing on a weekend morning.

I wish more people in America could get to know the lovely people – mostly Muslim – who I came to know during my time in the country.  I wish they could see the very many positive things that stem from people’s faith in that religion.  I wish they could understand that people can embrace Islam as a religion and not be anti-American fanatics (and then, I wish that they would see why it wouldn’t matter if Barack Obama were Muslim, as so many still seem to mistakenly believe). (Side note: I’d prefer if he weren’t religious at all.  But that’s a different issue…)

Though my time in Indonesia was not extensive (a total of 2.5 months over 2 years), I enjoyed learning more about a religion that I hadn’t previously known anything about.  It’s fascinating. And I never felt any judgment for holding non-Islamic, nebulously Buddhist-agnostic-animistic beliefs; the only somewhat uncomfortable moment came when I was chatting with the wife of the village head (essentially, our host) and she asked me if I’d ever marry a Muslim man.  And that was mainly uncomfortable because I lacked sufficient Bahasa Indonesia skills to explain why I’d prefer someone who wasn’t religious.  I guess being woken up by the 4:30 am call to prayer most mornings was also a bit uncomfortable…

In fact, in terms of religion and spiritual beliefs, I felt far more comfortable in Indonesia than I did in the very-Christian Philippines, where I grew weary of people’s earnest efforts to convert me.

Yes, many laws and cultural norms in Indonesia reflect conservative values that stem from religion (e.g., the “anti-pornography” bill, which uses a rather wide definition of “pornography”), and I’m sure that I would have found them oppressive had I spent more time in the country.  And yes, there are fundamenalists who support oppression and unreasoned violence.

But, in the US, there are also laws and cultural norms shaped by Puritanical beliefs, not to mention the slew of ultra-conservative policies that the right is trying to impose upon a “free” and “secular” nation.  And I am just as afraid of fundamentalist Christians as I am of fundamentalist Muslims.

Perhaps this is one reason I love Thailand so much… I am absolutely not afraid of “fundamentalist Buddhists”.

Exuberantly feeding.

Back in Samarinda today after a wonderful field season on the Sungai Mahakam.

Behavior noted during yesterday’s pesut (Irrawaddy dolphin) sighting:

“Feeding/foraging, moving upstream. Exuberantly. Farewell party.”

feeding exuberantly.

We had a great sighting late in the afternoon, on our last day of fieldwork on the Mahakam River.  Lunging, low  jumping, sideways swimming with tail swipes…we stayed with the pesut for over an hour as they made their way upstream from Muara Pela to Kota Bangun.   Good thing that Jian disagreed with me when I suggested turning around and going home earlier.

The lighting was low, so the photos are grainy (had to up the ISO), and I’ve found it hard to take sharp photos of these river waddies (they like to pop up hither and thither – my manual focus skills are not yet up to speed!).  But we got good ‘nuff photos for the fins, and some cool shots of the frolicking.

Also had a bonus otter sighting – thanks to the keen eye of ace boatman, Darwis.


Realized that the ‘Waddies have given me nice send-off sighting on the last day of survey at each of my completed sites – Malampaya Sound, Guimaras Strait, and now, the Sungai Mahakam.  Which raises my expectations for what will happen during my last day of survey in Trat, sometime in January or February 2013…

A great way to end a wonderful, mellow, fun field season.

Until we meet again, take care & keep smiling, Waddies (and people and other critters) of the Mahakam!

Off to the river

There’s something kind of languid about the phrase “the river”.  Down by the river.  Rollin’ on the river. Off to the river we go.

My newest field book is labeled and ready to go. I’m…somewhat packed.  I’m semi-organized.  Research permit stuff seems to be complete.  It’s time for fieldwork!

Will be focusing on the Central Kutai area on the Mahakam River for the next 4 weeks or so, doing the usual dolphin-human activity boat surveys, photo-ID, questionnaires, and key informant interviews.  We’ll also be doing some visual observations to complement acoustic research being conducted by colleagues from Japan.

Not yet sure where exactly we’ll stay, or what the exact schedule is, but that’s fine!  There are options around, and the city of Kota Bangun (in the middle-ish of the study area) is large enough to supply most of our needs that might come up.  I’m anticipating a relatively low-pressure, fun, relaxed field season.  Because…we’ll be rollin’ on the river.

I also anticipate eating a whole lot of tempeh and sambal.  There might be a whole lot more Tara to love in four weeks…

And so, I’m off to bed to rest up before the start of my last field season of 2012!  Won’t be updating until the end of September.  Fingers crossed that I’ll have plenty of gorgeous scenic photos and crisp, life-like dolphin photos to share.


PART 1. Bangkok.
PART 2. Jakarta.

It was a relief to leave Jakarta and fly to Balikpapan, the capital of the province Kalimantan Timur (SE Borneo).  From Balikpapan, it’s a 3 hour drive to Samarinda, where my collaborators/friends Danielle and Budi of the NGO Y.K. RASI live, and where I needed to apply for my KITAS.

The day after my arrival, Danielle escorted me to the local immigration office.

samarinda immigration office

Monday, August 13

  1. Samarinda Immigration, with Danielle: “You need to fill out form 24, 26, 27.  Also, you need 3 4cm x 6cm photos, and 3 4cm x 3 cm photos.  And a letter from the sponsor. Also, you have to buy a special envelope from the stall outside.”None of this had been mentioned anywhere before.  I came fully armed with 4×6 and 2×3 photos, but I had not anticipated the need for 4×3.  Surprises keep things fun though, I suppose.
  2. Go get 4×3 cm photos taken.  My photo order envelope was labeled “Ms. Bule” – which means “Ms. Foreigner.”  Buy a special stamp to put on the sponsor letter. Fill out the forms at Danielle’s house while she types up the letter and calls Budi so he can come sign it, as he’s the official sponsor.  Discover that the form I grabbed from the box labeled “26” was actually a 27.  Grow puzzled as to the need for separate forms 24 and 27, as 95% of the questions are identical.
  3. Samarinda immigration: Fill out form 26. Also about 90% similar to forms 24 and 27, except for one section:

“Sorry, Danielle, what does this mean?”
“Color of your skin…hmm… that’s tricky… you’re not really  ‘white’.  Hmmm… ‘coklat muda’? Means ‘light chocolate’?”
“Sure, that works! And this?”
“Hair. Coklat.”
“Eyes? I usually just say brown.”
“They’re a bit greenish too… maybe ‘coklat muda’ again.  All this sounds delicious.”  (She was fasting for Ramadhan…).

“What shape is your face?”
“It’s not as if they have 6 photos to base this off of, or anything.  So… what is the shape of my face?”
“Let’s say…oval?”

We wait a little while, then get called. The man looks over the various forms and photos and copies.  “OK, so…do you have the letter authorizing the visa to the embassy in Bangkok?”  No, I did not, because the purpose of the letter was to pick up the visa from Bangkok, which I’d done already, as you can tell from the presence of the visa in my passport.  Fortunately, and completely by accident, I had it on a jump drive in my bag.

4. Wander around from store to store, crossing the busy street multiple times as we searched for an open print shop with a functional printer.  Finally arrived at a snazzy new print/advertising store, which really wasn’t geared toward these modest document print jobs.  But Danielle asked the friendly staff if they could help, and they kindly obliged – without charging anything!

5. Samarinda immigration:  Drop off the letters.  Thank you, good bye!

there’s a man who covers the motorcycle seats outside the immigration office so they don’t get too hot. for a modest tip of 500-1000 rupiah (~5 to 10 US cents)

Wednesday, August 15
Back to the Samarinda immigration office to get my photo taken (more photos?), fingerprints taken, and money taken.

And now, I’m doing some work back at the house.  And getting ready for some working vacation time – off to Derawan while the offices are all closed for Independence Day and Idul Fitri.  Then I’ll fly back to Balikpapan, where the scavenger hunt continues.

I should note that, as tedious as the process itself is, I’ve found the people in the various offices to be pleasant and even helpful. So, that makes things easier.

All of this had me thinking, “I…don’t know that I’d do research in Indonesia again.”  But then Danielle showed me photos from some of her coastal surveys in the area, and there is some fascinating stuff going on here.  And it’s a fantastic country.  And I really haven’t seen much of it at all.  So…maybe I’d go through all this again.  Only, maybe I’d hire someone else to run around Jakarta.  And maybe I’d schedule it at some time other than a major religious holiday.



PART 1. Bangkok.


Arrived late at night on August 7.  Happy to see that the driver I’d hired to take me to the hotel was there with my name on a sign (love that).  He was friendly, and his car was clean and new and functional (these things are not guaranteed). I enjoyed playing with my new smartphone while sitting in Jakarta traffic. The hotel was a lovely bed and breakfast with a lush tropical garden and pool (as suggested by Geoff).

jakarta bed & breakfast

The next morning, the quest for the research permit continued. I, for some reason, decided not to follow Geoff’s advice about hiring someone, and instead decided I wanted to experience this all first-hand…fortunately, I had the assistance of a local volunteer – an eager and bright undergraduate who would be joining my research team – who I’d asked to help me find my way around Jakarta.

Wednesday, August 8
RISTEK: I receive letters & instructions from a helpful man:

  1. “First, go to the Police HQ to apply for a travel permit.  You can pick that up the next day.”
  2. “Then you need to go to the Immigration Office here to request a letter to Immigration in Samarinda, and also to request an extension of the deadline to register at that office, since you are supposed to report within 7 days of arriving in the country.  You’ll be charged 200,000 rupiah each day after that.  But since you might be in Jakarta until 7 days after, you should ask for this extension.”
  3. “Then you need to come back here on Friday, because the official who needs to sign your research permit will not be here until Friday.  You will pay then – USD 250 or about 2,500,000 rupiah.  Then you take that permit and the Police travel letter to the Ministry of Home Affairs.” (Paying over “a million” anything does give one pause, even if the exchange rate is ~9500 rupiah: 1 USD).
  4. “Ministry of Home Affairs will give you a letter one business day later.  This letter is for the governor in Samarinda and the police in Balikpapan.”
  5. “Then you can leave Jakarta, and apply for your KITAS in Samarinda, report to the governor, and report to the police in Balikpapan with a copy of the KITAS.  While you are waiting for the KITAS, maybe you can start your research…your local counterpart can discuss with you.”
so many letters. for getting more letters.

Met the local volunteer.  We went to MABES Polri – Police headquarters: Once we found the correct office (took us several tries, wandering around in the hot, humid yet dusty, air – it’s the INTELKAM office, for your future reference), it was smooth.

Next stop: Immigration Office – “You have to report to Samarinda by the 15th at the latest.”  “Ah…but…the letter I just gave you asks for an extension until the 22nd.”  “Yes. Go to Samarinda by the 15th.”  At that point, I was optimistic that I’d be done in Jakarta by then, so I didn’t pursue the matter further.

Next: Lunch…for me…and overview of project with volunteer.  I felt bad eating in front of the volunteer, who was fasting, but I felt like I was about to pass out.

discreet daytime eating behind a screen

Thursday, August 9:
MABES Polri: Dropped off my claim slip, waited about 40 minutes until my name was called, picked up the travel permit.
Immigration Office: Picked up the letter, the purpose of which remained unclear.
Another mall-time lunch.

eating in malls seemed easiest during hot days + ramadhan. did you know that a&w now serves veggies burgers?

Friday, August 10:
RISTEK: The very helpful man who had conversed with me on Wednesday did not seem to recognize me.  “Yes, who are you?  What do you need?”  But I got my research permit and forked over 1,300,000 rupiah that they asked for.  I decided I would not question this discount.

Ministry of Home Affairs: Last major step!  Then good to go!  Just have to pick up the letter on Monday, and… “They say you can pick it up on…Thursday,” translated the volunteer.  “…Thursday?”  “Yes…the officials who need to sign are on holiday already.”  “Thursday…the 16th…ah.”

Quick sidebar to assess the options.  The volunteer arranged for an employee in her father’s office to pick up the letter on Thursday and mail it to my collaborators in Samarinda, so that I could go ahead to Samarinda and report to immigration there.

research permit and travel letter. i feel so official.

Booked a flight to Samarinda for Sunday (wow, look at me, living on the edge with all these last-minute flight bookings!).  Alert the patient, helpful, and wonderful Danielle and Budi (local collaborators) that I will be arriving at their home in a couple of nights.