Monday, April 25, 2011

Dig a Little Deeper

In our daily lives we hear all sorts of rumor and innuendo, whether we choose to believe it, doubt it, or dismiss it is completely up to us. The basis for those choices may come from reason, faith, culture, upbringing, intuition, or our trust or distrust in the source of that information.

After hearing from various sources that many (or even most) of the girls in prostitution in Jakarta are from Indramayu, I was at first doubtful, because given the number of girls, it simply seemed improbable that so many of them would be from the same district. After hearing about these girls from a variety of sources including both international and local NGOs and from community members, my doubt dissipated and my interest was piqued. At one particular NGO I asked, through an interpreter, why it was that so many young prostituted girls came from the same region of Java. After several minutes of Bahasa, clarification, and more questions, none of which could I understand, the interpreter leaned over to me, obviously embarrassed. Then she said in a low voice "He says, it is their magic vaginas." Using all my willpower to hold in my reaction I asked, "Oh really? What makes them magic?" Because, you see, if you show your disbelief, those who do believe are hesitant to explore their reasons for their confidence. It was then explained that among other things, these girls were simply born to a breed of women with special sexual powers, further enhanced by prayers said over them by their parents. They asked God to bring their daughters wealth and prosperity, by way of their magic vaginas. My interpreter then leaned over, an incredulous look on her face, "I don't know if this is true, maybe they are not really magic?" I shrugged my shoulders, and said, "Maybe not..."

I told friends and co-workers the story, trying to explore this myth that had traveled from other parts of this island all the way to the capital, with otherwise grounded people unsure how else to explain the phenomenon. Then I hit the jackpot. I brought up the question again in an interview, and not just for my own curiosity mind you, but also because if the reason for so many girls from the same place being the subjects of commercial sexual exploitation could be identified, it would have significant implications for child protection programming.

Turns out that the person I was interviewing was writing his thesis about the girls from Indramayu, and there was much more to the story. It started when Indonesia was still under Dutch control, and the area was populated to expand agricultural use of the land, with all materials and produce entering and leaving the area by train. The train was also the main means of transportation at the time, and so the town grew up around the train tracks. With commerce and many travelers passing through, the sex trade sprang up. The region recognized and accepted this, so that even today when residents register their job in government records, they may elect to write sex worker. According to government data, in some sub-districts over 80% or women over 18 are sex workers,  with others as low as 15%.

So the girls who come to Jakarta from Indramayu may not have magic vaginas, but they do come from a place different from others in Indonesia, where sex work is not only normalized, but recognized by the government. Additionally, there exists a provision, stipulated by the community, that women must be married to engage in sex work, as that is what makes a female an adult. But girls also tend to marry young, could they be marrying just to get into "the family business"?  If girls, 14 - 18 for example, are viewed as adults by members of their community, but then move to a community that recognizes neither their adulthood nor their right to consent to sex, which set of values overrules the other? In what circumstances do we, as an international community or as outsiders, have the right to judge another cultures practices and beliefs? When do children become adults? When, if ever, do individuals have the right to bodily autonomy, including the right to sell access to that body?

More questions than answers as always. More to come as data collection started today!

Monday, April 11, 2011

All Aboard

Hello from Jakarta! Apparently my jetlag is still rearing its ugly head, I woke up at about 4am today! But rather than idle my hours away I thought I'd share a few tips about airplane flying. I know some of you are frequent travelers, but during my long flight to Taipei with very little entertainment I came up with a few tips that I wish I had known when I started.

1. You get to check bags for free! Don't bother hauling big bags on board unless you absolutely have to.

2. Airplanes are COLD, or can be. I usually bring a sweatshirt or fleece, even if I'm going to somewhere warm. Now I've even got an extra blanket in case the airline doesn't provide them.

3. Warm socks. You'll be taking your shoes off since your feet and legs will swell, don't let your toes get cold!

4. Dry Air. This can be killer, especially on long flights, I try to remember eye drops, chapstick, and lotion.

5. Hydrate! Since 3 or 4 little cups of water isn't enough over 12 or 15 hours, bring your own! Bring your empty water bottle from home and then fill it up once you've passed through security, rather than paying $4 for water in the airport.

6. Don't forget headphones in case they aren't provided

7. Snacks are a good idea, but don't forget you're essentially sitting still for more than half a day, so light snacks are best. Unless it's chocolate. Then it's always a good idea.

8. Sleep. I'm pretty bad at sleeping on airplanes, but a good eye mask, heavy duty earplugs, and a window seat so I can lean my head on the wall help make sure I get a little rest.

9. I take off my watch. Everyone may not like this, but it's no fun counting down the hours, I find it's better to just sit back and ignore the time. A watched pot and all that.

10. Mental conditioning. This may sound silly, but think about all those times you wished you had an hour just to listen to a new album or read a book or magazine. Just tell yourself you're enjoying sitting still, reading, listening to music and having someone bring you mini drinks and meals. After a while you just might believe it :)

There you have it! I'll have more interesting stories coming for you soon, but I've spent the weekend settling into Jakarta and having a lovely time seeing some sights with friends who live here. A beautiful city so far (with delicious food!).

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Come pick me up... I've landed

Amazing that it's April and this is my first post of 2011, I'll have a lot of writing to do if I'm going to realize my goal of posting more than I did in 2010 (20 times).

I'm currently on trip number four since I got home from Thailand; I've been to Bend, OR, Portland, OR, New York, NY and am now in New Mexico. Nothing to complain about at all, and it's been amazing to see friends and family. If I can say one thing about traveling as much as I do, a little over 1/3 of the time last year, is that it means you've got to do lots of visiting in the time you're home. On the other hand, with all those visits I'm still just learning my way around San Francisco, but all the little cafes, beautiful buildings, green parks, and blooming flowers have won me over so far. I realize this blog claims to be about everywhere but home, but no harm in showing you a little picture of what it's not about.

But as always, on to the next adventure!  I'm off to Jakarta, Indonesia on Friday April 8th for about 5 weeks. I'll be doing very similar work to what we did on the Thai/Lao PDR border, except this time in a huge city, with a population of mostly internal migrants who speak Bahasa. I've only spent a few days in Jakarta in the past, so I'm looking forward to getting to know the city, and also have a few friends living there which will be a nice change of pace from my solitary ways.

So, to get back in the blogging spirit, today I thought I'd answer a question that I often get from people when they hear what I do: "Why aren't you in [insert country with disaster/war here]?"   There are a number of answers to this, for example, I didn't go to Haiti because a. I don't speak French well enough and b. there were so many people with experience working in Haiti, that my particular expertise wouldn't have been value added. On the other hand, why am I not in Japan? I actually recently got a solicitation for someone to help coordinate psychosocial support for families who have had to leave their homes due to the potential effects of radiation. Sounds like a great gig! But I've got a lot going on, and in fact am currently booked with jobs through the beginning of July. So as much as I'd like to sit around waiting for the next complex emergency to happen so I could be on the ground and part of the professional aid team working there, a girl's got to make a living, and evaluation and research are how I do that. But yes, in the future I hope to be on the emergency rosters of some INGOs who do emergency response (and also have an employer who lets me run off whenever disaster strikes).

But for now I'm dreaming of the delicious food waiting for me in Jakarta, and fingers crossed I learn to do more than order coffee without sugar and noodles with shrimp in Bahasa this time!

As always I appreciate everyone who reads my blog, please feel free to leave comments on the page, email me etc. Also, if you're on the email list and would like to be taken off of it because you have Google Reader now, you check the blog on your own, or secretly don't like me clogging up your inbox, just let me know. I promise I won't hold it against you.

Happy Spring to everyone!