Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Motorbike Ethnography

Since getting here I have fallen in love with riding on motorbikes. Feeling the wind blowing back my hair and the cool breeze on my face is lovely, but the thing I really love is being able to see the people around me in their day to day. Being in the car on the way to class simply is not the same. Seeing the villagers of Kesiman from behind darkened glass, up high in the elevated mini-SUV type thingie we have for the class just doesn’t give you the same view as the back of the motorbike. Yesterday as I zoomed along with Roro, my research facilitator (and all around brilliant, ballsy superwoman) I saw the following: woman on back of motorbike holding medium sized television- not flat screen- while man up front drove; man with toddler sitting behind him on bike, with sarong sash around them to keep the toddler tied to him while he drove; man driving with small child tucked up front between legs, two small children behind him, mom on end holding baby (yes, five people on one bike).

In the U.S. motorcycles scare the shit out of me . I’ve only ever been on one once at home, and even seeing them on the street driving past me makes me nervous. The difference? We go a million miles an hour at home. We want everything- food, wealth, arrival at destination- to be instantaneous, regardless of the consequences of our safety, not to mention the environmental consequences of driving at a pace that is not so swell for gas mileage. Riding here, going 20-30 miles an hour, I can see the sites around me and get a small glimpse of the way that the villagers around me actually live. Got a bunch of rice to bring to your warung (small food stand/restaurant)? You gotta haul that shit on your bike. Nini (grandma) sick? Ain’t no ambulance here (except for dogs, more on that in an upcoming post), throw Nini over your lap and get to the hospital.

More than just being the most economical and, given the state of the roads, pragmatic means of transport here, I have found another happy effect of riding on the bike vs. riding in the car: people are much more candid and relaxed when riding then in formal settings. The depth of topic and ease with which people speak with me while riding has been far greater than any other setting, even if it’s something ‘causal’ over lunch or dinner. We celebrated another student’s birthday this evening over dinner, and I opted to skip the cab ride back to my homestay and ride back with L., one of the other students who is from West Papua. Over dinner the waitress had asked us all where we come from, and he said Papua. When she responded by saying that, “oh, you’re from Indonesia!” he got really insistent that, No, he was Papuan, not Indonesian.

I asked him about it on the ride back. While watching the moon rise up over the multiple flower nurseries (to serve tourist hotels) , he told me how the U.S. and Indonesian governments pressured individual Papuans to ‘vote’ to join Indonesia, using threats of violence and economically coercive measures. Papua is tremendously rich in natural resources, and its geographically strategic location in the sixties (think Cold War politics), along with the promise of economic gain from copper and gold mines, made it beneficial for the U.S. to ‘help’ Indonesia work to persuade the Papuans to join Indonesia.

My feelings on U.S. intervention in general aside- as I know next to nothing in this context, I can’t form anything like a well informed opinion- the way that this has played out on the individual level is startling. The question of ‘who’ one is is so centrally located to ‘where’ one comes from. L. was telling me about Papua’s national songs, and it made me think of the song “God Bless the USA.” While my patriotism is firmly planted in a rather critical perspective that seeks to improve my country through constructive consideration of past events, I am still very, very proud of the ideals that my country was founded upon, for which many of us are still striving- life, liberty, independence. These ideas are so central to who I am and what I value as an individual, that it’s difficult for me to imagine what it would be like if someone were to superimpose a different nationality upon me against my will. Especially given that I live in an era where my country has absolutely hegemonic influence over every aspect I see abroad, I can’t conceptualize what it must be like to have every aspect that I identify with as “American” subverted by a more powerful nation.

As much angst as I have prior to traveling to study abroad, this type of moment, open and listening to another human who is open and sharing something from a perspective so radically different than my own that I simply would never have ever encountered it at home, despite the fact that I live in a very ‘international’ city, is why I push myself to study in places to which I’m not necessarily ‘comfortable’ traveling. Going into post-conflict zones is life changing because , as someone who has grown up within the safety of THE dominant world power, for the first time you have narratives counter to what you have been taught growing up thrown in your face. Nowhere to hide, no way to deny. Sitting at home you can watch documentaries or see YouTube videos uploaded with critical narratives and perspectives on the U.S.’s influence abroad, but it’s too easy to change the channel or say, “that’s such bullshit”. Perhaps the facts of what L. presented to me aren’t actually what went down. Who knows? I am not in a position to read a tremendous amount about the issue nor criticize the U.S.’s policies towards W. Papua, and that’s certainly not the purpose of this post.

My point is this: being able to have this conversation tonight changed the way that I understood my own identity both as a person who thinks of herself as fitting into this category of “American”, and as a person who is a citizen of a country that- from this particular Papuan’s perspective- subverted his country’s independence for my country’s political and economic gain. This shifts the way I think about myself, and also gives me a better understanding of the way that others view me. In the context of conflict resolution work, understanding – or at least acknowledging the presence of the tension resulting from- both of these things is vital if one wants to have any shot of being able to meet across the table. Or, at the very least, on the back of a motorbike.

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