Smooth Sailing

Life is pretty cool. I’ve developed my routine here already: wake up at 8, walk to the neighborhood coconut stand for a morning coconut water, walk to work, work (with lunch at noon with fellow part of the day), walk to the gym and workout, walk to a local restaurant for dinner, tool around for an hour or two browsing the net or writing, sleep at about 1.

It’s the 9-5 office life but I like it because I am excited to be working with the UN, and in material of my genuine interest. If I didn’t like it, I think there’d be a big problem.

On weekends, we interns venture out of Jakarta for some adventure, solace in the quiet and air that doesn’t make us wheeze. Last weekend, we went to Bandung, where we visited a volcano boasting a lake at the top inside the crater with sea-foam green, smoking water. A sulfuric smell permeated the air and we proceeded to bathe in the salubrious pool, relishing the tingling of our skin beneath the fizzing pebbles and shells. A facewash I use at home contains volcanic sulfur….obviously far more exciting to experience the real thing (a theme in developing countries where less saturated markets and more access to sources of production makes for more genuine experience).

This past weekend I traveled to Bogor and Puncak, and visited botanical gardens and tea plantations. On the train, I get to talking with the guy sitting next to me and find he’s a Pakistani refugee living at a center in Bogor awaiting his papers from UNHCR to settle in Australia. He’s been here 9 months but says refugees aren’t supposed to work because if UNHCR finds out they’ll close the case. Many end up working informally to have some sort of income, but in his case, family and friends wire money from Pakistan.

Saturday night, a UNDP supervisor (Gina) who is kind of a legend invited the interns out for a night of clubbing. Gina’s friend was DJ’ing at this club, whose 3 levels, model show and bottle service made for an intense and very fun night, where Sarah and I danced the night away.

Gina and I actually met in Hanoi by complete chance (though she says nothing is chance). I was leaving the Temple of Literature searching for a map when I saw a girl standing on the corner studying – a city map! “Hey! Can I look on with you?” Once set with directions to the next destination (which happened to be the unfortunate Ho Chi Minh museum), I hopped a moto ready to speed off when for some reason I felt compelled to ask the moto driver to stop as I passed Gina to ask where she was from:

“Indonesia? Really? I’m moving there next week to intern for the UN in Jakarta!”

“We’ll be in the same building. I work for the UN in Jakarta. Here’s my card; see you there.”

Really, what are the chances? Life never ceases to amaze me.

This past week was busy- the Indonesian government is formulating a social security and injury protection scheme for workers, and the ILO is heavily involved in its planning. We held a 2-day conference for which we invited ministers from other countries that have implemented social security for workers such as Japan, Malaysia and Korea. The Japanese representatives were the most friendly and I had to restrain myself from laughing at their eager and enthusiastic demeanour. They also gave us green tea flavored Kit Kat bars from Japan, which proves the Japanese are simply delightful.

What I found interesting at the conference- where workers, employers and government representatives were present- was sincerity not so often found at such events. Workers passionately vocalized their demand for more security, employers admitted attempts to avoid certain labor laws are all too common, and the government said it is carefully considering how the social security plan will be crafted since it will be expensive. “We don’t want to end up like Europe, which is in debt because of social services. People now live to be 85, and with all the people in Indonesia, that’s going to be expensive,” one minister said.

The extent to which the ILO works with the government is very surprising to me. I did not know how much the two worked together before I began the internship; I had always thought the UN was meant to be more independent to keep governments in check and create regulations independent of national sovereignty. Wrong. The government is a stakeholder in projects, and often helps implements them. The UN needs government approval, so needs to keep a friendly rapport. This makes it difficult for the UN to act in cases where the government is in violation or disagreement of its mission. Maybe this is why so many people present at an open invite UN meeting last week blasted the UN for its irrelevance. I myself was frustrated when I was told I should show the good and bad when writing features about working conditions or profiles of workers after visiting a garment factory, and thought back to writing on this topic with freedom as a journalist. It seems NGOs and (independent) newspapers are the entities with the most autonomy in this game. Still, if the UN didn’t do a lot what it does, who would?

Apparently, the UN is currently struggling a bit with redefining its role in Indonesia, which was recently deemed a middle-income country despite the stark income inequality and widespread, visible poverty. “What does the UN do in a middle income country?” one American student at our intern lunch asked, vexing over his salad. “And now donors will pull funding still so badly needed by many Indonesians.”

Our intern lunches are entertaining- A very mixed group from France, Nigeria, Canada, Italy, the US, India, Lithuania, Israel, Malaysia and Pakistan sharing our summer experiences together. The most insightful comment so far came from the hangry Nigerian/Canadian girl while impatiently awaiting her meal: “Girrrrl that’s why colonialism is messed up. Takin’ all those people and mixin’ them around, causin’ all these problems. Mmhmm, colonialism is bad.” Love this girl.

Tomorrow I’m lunching with the guy directing the Thai- based Triangle project in Indonesia to find out more about what it is doing. The aim is to eradicate exploitation of labor and forced labor in Asean, and I’m curious to know how given the herculean task. The US just downgraded Thailand on the human trafficking index, placing it in the same category as embarrassingly unstable countries such as Syria and North Korea and reflecting how pervasive the problem is in Asean.

Other than that, I’m on a good health kick. Joined a gym here last week, where I was greeted with a loud ‘HIIIIIII WELCOMEEE WHERE YA FROM!?!? from the instructor upon stepping into the first group class- called ‘Seduction’- where we learned pop dance moves to the song ‘Big Booty’ and I spent a moment pondering how I went from D1 Varsity athlete to this that I now considered my exercise. My landlady asked her masseuse to treat me weekly, where I pay $12 for a 2-hour massage session. And the morning coconut water, afternoon $1 fresh carrot/beet/apple juice and dinners of spinach, seaweed, tofu and mushrooms are all helping to make me feel pretty darn great 🙂

Bogor Botanical Garden:Image


tea plantations:Image




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