can never have too many red-background ID photos. really.

First, I needed to pick up my Visa 315 from the Indonesian Embassy in Bangkok, since it would not be ready before I left the US for fieldwork in Thailand.  The emailed instructions seemed easy: “Just go bring these letters and pick up your visa in Bangkok.”  I envisioned breezing in, handing the letters and passport, and leaving within minutes  “Ta-ta, thank you very much, g’bye!”.  I planned on doing this on Thursday or Friday, August 2 or 3, the first days after finishing fieldwork in Thailand.  That would allow me a comfortable margin of time so that I could catch my August 6 flight to Jakarta.

Tuesday, July 31
I got wind of a “4-day weekend starting on Thursday” via an American friend, fellow Philippines Fulbrighter Lace, from her friend in Bangkok as we were planning out hang-out time over the weekend.  The original plan had been to just stay in town, but now they were contemplating a trip to Krabi or Chiang Mai.  I thought, “Oh man, I don’t know if I can join, since I need to do things at the consulate on Thursday or Friday… wait… why is there a 4-day weekend?  Is it the kind of 4-day weekend where embassies are closed?”

I casually asked my field assistants, “So…any… major holidays this month?”

“Oh, the Queen’s birthday is August 12.”
“Oh! Cool. So, there’s nothing this week, right?”
“Oh, yes, there is a Buddhist holiday!”
“So, government offices will be…”
“Closed! Yes, I think they will be closed. August 2 and 3.”

Ah, my ignorance of religious holidays… first Ramadhan, now this (“Asalha Puja”, which, again in my defense, also changes dates each year).  I couldn’t go to Bangkok any earlier, as one of my most important interviews was scheduled for the next afternoon.

I tried not to show my anxiety as my friends eagerly explained the significance of the holiday.  “On this day, Buddha realized these things:…”  “Oh! That’s very interesting…yes…”  It felt selfish to think, “Oh man, this meaningful day is really messing with my plans.”

makes the plans of mice and taras seem insignificant

It was challenging, though, as I get preoccupied when I get stressed, and I get stressed when my carefully crafted plans must be changed.  This is something that’s improved over the years, because, well, “plans” are never more than very tentative wishes when it comes to this kind of work and travel (and life, too, when you think about it).  I still have quite a bit of work to do on this front, however. Ely and Zion, the two field assistants with whom I worked the most in the Philippines, came to know that preoccupied look well – that “stress levels rising, trying to be calm, trying not to furrow brows because it makes me look angry, but I’m not angry, I’m just trying to figure things out, I’m just going to stare at nothing and be very quiet now” look.  I could see it in their concerned expressions and resulting eager (and, thankfully, helpful) efforts to assist my brainstorming.

Wednesday August 1
I called the consulate the next morning: “So…you’re closed for the Buddhist holiday?”
“Yes! We are closed!” the man exclaimed gleefully.
“Ah…so, how long does it take to process a 315 visa?”
“3 working days!”  It was nice that he was so happy.  It’s not something often encountered in visa offices.  I was trying to think positively.

I clearly would not be making my August 6 flight.  Rushed to Trat town for internet to cancel my flight…fortunately, I barely made the cut-off time for cancelling with a full refund.  Rebooked a flight for August 8.  This was a big step for me – I have never changed a flight before in my life.  “Ah well, at least this means I can go to Chiang Mai or Krabi with Lace and her friend!”.  Had a good interview (it was worth the extra day). Arrived in Bangkok late that nigiht.

Thursday and Friday, August 2 & 3
Plans with the friend and friend-of-friend to travel outside of Bangkok were cancelled since friend-of-friend had to visit some offices that were open on Friday, August 3.  What?  Offices would break up a 4-day weekend like that?

I couldn’t check until the morning of August 3.  I called…ringing…ringing…ringing…picked up?!

“Hello…is the visa section open today?”
“Yes! Open!” said the same gleeful man.
“So if I apply today, I can pick it up on Tuesday August 7?”

Cancelled the August 8 flight (again, just in time to get a full refund).  Went to the consulate.

“OK.  Fill this form. Do you have 2 photos on a red background and the fee and a photocopy of your passport?”
“No…I was told to just bring the letters.”
“Ohhhh…” (disapprovingly).  “Go across the street to change money, because we only take USD.  50 USD.  Then get the photos nearby, and photocopy your passport there.”

What trip to an immigration-related office is complete without needing to pop out again to pick up additional stuff?  I armed myself with 16 4×6, red-background photos, anticipating the process that awaited me in Jakarta.

Submitted.  Time to enjoy the weekend.  Rebooked a flight to Jakarta for August 7.

enjoying a day of biking around ayutthaya

Tuesday, August 7.
The visa office opened for pick-up at 2 pm.  My flight was at 5 pm.  Traffic would make it a 1-hour-plus trip to the airport. If things went smoothly, no problem.  If.  I showed up early, with a Buddhism-for-daily-life book for finding peace and happiness (“Fidelity” by Thich Nhat Hanh).  As I drank iced tea and ate cake in a nearby bakery, the book came to this passage:

Go ahead and try your best to have what you want, but in the meantime you can still be happy. For example, if you’re waiting for a visa so you can leave the country, don’t say, ‘I’ll only be happy once I’ve got the visa.’ Perhaps when you arrive in the other country, you won’t be happy there either.  So you have to train yourself to think: “Even if I don’t get the visa, it’s ok. I’m happy here.” That way if you’re able to obtain the visa, you’ll have the capacity to also accept the situation as it is in the other country.

Well. Good point, sir.

And it was indeed a good point, because this whole “up in the air”-ness, this whole cancelling multiple flights, was actually good for me, because of aforementioned anti-uptightness efforts and because a part of me actually enjoys being a free spirit.  And my advisors did tell me to try to relax this field season, and that there was little to no pressure since I already had enough data, and that my well-being was the priority.  Maybe I won’t make my flight.  Maybe things in Jakarta will take so long that I’ll have to radically change my research plan.  I’ll figure it out.  It’ll work out.

And if not?  Maybe I’ll just run away and go on vacation (maybe not, since my collaborators have done a lot to help me, but…hey, I’d make it up to them somehow!).  Maybe I’ll go somewhere and become a dive master.  I could go home tomorrow if I really wanted to.  I could feel the controlling part of me release its grip.  It felt good.  The world is my playground!

standing my ground outside the embassy

All the same, though, I staunchly defended my place in line outside the consulate.  And I felt precursors to stress pop up when the man at the visa window looked at my pick-up slip and said, “Go to the other window.”  The window with the huge line and marked with an Indonesian word that I didn’t know.  I showed my slip to someone behind that window, and she shook her head and said, patiently, “For visas, you go to the visa window.”  Yes, I thought so, too.

The man at the visa window was perplexed.  “You – passport?”  “I gave you my passport last week.”  “Indonesian passport?” “No…American…?”  “Wait a minute.”

He conferred with someone else, who took the slip and disappeared.  More discussion.  Furrowed brows.  Did…they lose my passport?  Am I going to have to come back tomorrow?  Or in 3 working days?

With what struck me as excessively slow and deliberate movements, the visa man showed me the slip.  “See, the cashier made a mistake and stamped the slip for a new Indonesian passport and for a visa.”

“Yes…I see…?”   The suspense!  What was going to happen next? (Calm, Tara, calm. The world is your playground, yes?).

More slow movement.  “Here is your passport and visa.”

“Oh, good. Terima kasih banyak!” (Thank you very much!) (Also, how cool is it that the people working there speak fluent Bahasa Indonesia, English, and Thai?).

got it! but i would’ve been happy anyway…right?

And off I went.  Flagged down a taxi, flew to the hotel to pick up my bags (love the patient staff at Wendy House who helped me with luggage storage arrangements), and off to the airport.

One step down.  A few more to go…



“It will take several days, and Jakarta is awful, so I recommend you hire someone to go around to the offices for you, so you can relax in the pool at the hotel.  Get a hotel with a pool.”  Such was the advice of fellow grad student Geoffrey, over two years ago, as he guided me through the Indonesian research permit process.  He’s done research in Indonesia for many years, and it was immensely helpful to have someone’s candid advice.  He also gave me a written account by another researcher of their Jakarta experience.  It did not make the process seem particularly enjoyable.

Here is a schematic provided by the Ministry of Research and Technology (RISTEK):

It turns out, the process is a little more convoluted than the diagram suggests.

Getting this process started was a huge “elephant on the to-do list” for over a year.  Fortunately, my procrastination meant that RISTEK had impelemented an online application system by the time I got around to applying, which made the initial part of the process much smoother.

There remained, however, the most onerous part of the process: getting the visa to get into the country, and reporting to every vaguely relevant office once in the country.  My plan was to fly in from Bangkok on August 12.  Then, my collaborator – Danielle – pointed out that, unfortunately, my schedule had me coming right at the end of Ramadhan, when offices are closed. How brilliant of me to not check on the timing of a major religious holiday (in my defense, the dates change each year). Changed my plan so that I’d fly in August 6 instead.

I had no idea how long each step would take – I did not know how long to allow for in Jakarta (I’ve been given estimates from 4 days to 10 days to 15), and did not know what offices I’d need to report to in Kalimantan Timur (the province where the field site is).  Indonesia’s Independence Day also fell right in the middle of when I need to be visiting offices.  It was clear that, if I didn’t arrive in Jakarta on August 6 or shortly thereafter, the whole process would be extended by multiple days, and my already-shortened field season of ~4 weeks might be laughably abbreviated.

On the plus side… the government holidays make an excellent time for the diving vacation that I was planning on taking at some point.

What follows is a 4-part, lengthy description of the giant scavenger hunt that stretches over 4 cities in 2 countries over about 3 weeks.  Perhaps it’s tedious reading, but there are a few amusing snippets scattered here and there.

Conservation needs Communities

It’s often said that “conservation is about people.” However, it’s apparent that many conservation endeavors struggle to meaningfully include people, their rights, and their potential; a common result is that conservation has negative impacts on human well-being, misses out on opportunities to apply the skills and knowledge of local people, and fails in the long-term. It is ethical, but also practical, to truly incorporate local communities in conservation efforts.

The issue of marine megafauna bycatch in small-scale fisheries highlights how critical this community-conservation connection truly is. The main solution to bycatch is for fishers to change their fishing practices – which almost certainly involves a change in expenses, effort, income, marketability, and even way of life and culture.

Pushing for this sort of change brings up challenging, but important, questions about ethics: Who has the right to drive the conservation process? What responsibilities come with this right? Who will bear the burden of this process and its outcomes, versus who will benefit?

This all exists in a context of complex social connections, interactions, and history.

Conservation is an inherently human endeavor. It is based on human values, it is concerned with human beliefs and behaviors, and it is implemented by (and sometimes inflicted upon!) humans.

If we are serious about improving conservation efforts, we need to substantially improve our recognition of the social processes of conservation. There is much to learn from the fields of development and humanitarian aid, organizational management, public health – but there are also common challenges and mistakes made across these fields.

It’s an exciting area of inquiry, with broad implications. I’m happy to be working on it!

Play is Sanuk

One of the reasons I love what I do is the travel – and my less research-oriented travel blog  entries will now be posted on this site and archived at the Ravoravo Roving Ramblings link in the top menu.  (Posts were previously at the separate blog Ravoravo Roving Ramblings).  With these posts, I keep friends and family updated on the adventures and misadventures and even some of the more mundane details of my wanderings.

About this blog:  “Ravoravo” means “happy” in Sakalava, a dialect of Malagasy spoken in northern Madagascar.  It’s one of my favorite words, from one of my favorite places.

Ravoravo in Madagascar

If you’re reading this, you likely already know me.  This is mainly for my loved ones and friends who want to follow me on my adventures.  Entries are likely largely copied-and-pasted from my personal journal, and are likely to feature awesome flavors ofpotato chipscoconutshostels burning down, and other non-research related travel experiences as well as thoughts related to the official reason why I travel (research).  This blog used to be onblogspot, but I decided wordpress looked more snazzy.