Volunteer Voice: A spirit of adventure!

As a past student of biology, Indonesia has long held a special place in my heart, both for its abundant natural beauty and for its vast biological resources. Located in the equatorial region of the Pacific Ocean, Borneo is the third largest island in the world. Although its size is massive, at nearly 740,000 square kilometers, its human population is slight.

This is what I saw on my first boat ride into Sukadana:
Boat Journey - Photo by Bethany Kois
Boat Journey 2 - Photo by Bethany Kois
Boat Journey 3 - Photo by Bethany Kois
Boat Journey 4 - Photo by Bethany Kois

Instead, Borneo houses one of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth. The forests of Borneo include: heath, mangrove, peat swamp, freshwater swamp, lowland dipterocarp, ironwood, and hill dipterocarp. Living within these forests are up to 15,000 different flowering plants, more than 3,000 species of trees, including 267 species of dipterocarps, 44 endemic mammals, including 13 different primates, 260 insect species, 30 species of freshwater fish, 7 frog species, 6 lizard species, 5 crab species, and 2 snake species.

Just one hundred years ago, 95% of Borneo’s land area was still covered in forest. Sadly, over the years, that percentage has rapidly decreased due to changes in forest management and governance, as well as the exploitation of timber throughout the island and the conversion of forestland into industrial or other uses. Thus, my heart soared this past fall when I was fortunate enough to volunteer with ASRI in Sukadana, Indonesia. I’d like to share my story with you with the hope that you’ll be motivated to do the same. It would be wonderful if we, as former volunteers, could create and maintain a support network to continue contributing to Health In Harmony's and ASRI's shared mission, from home.

I think my story, as most stories do, begins with my first impression of Sukadana. Those of you familiar with the boat passage from Pontianak to Sukadana will likely relate. After two long days of airline travel and one overnight stay in an air-conditioned Pontianak room, I hopped into a taxi and made my way to the speedboat dock. Yes, I was a bit jetlagged, but my enthusiasm was high! Having severely limited Indonesian language skills, I somehow managed to purchase a ticket for the river trip and took my seat on the boat. For the next five hours, I saw water, people, boats - the views are captured on the right.

First glimpses of Sukadana:
Sukadana First Sightings 2 - Photo by Bethany Kois Sukadana First Sightings 1 - Photo by Bethany Kois

As we pulled into the Sukadana harbor, I was nervous, full of pent up energy, and ready to help with any project ASRI might throw at me. I was met at the dock and transported to the ASRI clinic. Upon my arrival at the clinic, ASRI staffers were hard at work and halfway through an important afternoon meeting. Luckily for me, I was shepherded off to the place that would be my home for the next two months. I fell right asleep. Undoubtedly, my excitement had masked my true level of exhaustion.

These smiling faces, and this dinner, greeted me:
Dinner with the house 1 - Photo by Bethany KoisDinner with the house 2 - Photo by Bethany Kois

Upon waking, I was met with lively greetings from my new housemates and offered a place at dinner with a larger group. Nothing beats waking up to smiles and food! (HUGE thanks Etty, Vera, Vina, Monica, Will, and Ronald. You are wonderful and are sorely missed!)

Over the next few weeks, I gradually acclimated myself to the new environment. I was provided with a bicycle for travel needs and was introduced to food, market, and fun around the village. Virtually every local personality I encountered greeted me with welcome smiles and open arms. I must say, having lived in both large and tiny towns throughout the years, I have yet to experience the warmth extended to me by those I met in Sukadana. And, what a pleasure it was to get around entirely by bicycle!

Speaking of bicycles and vibrant personalities, my later impressions of Sukadana had much to do with one individual in particular: Hotlin. My introduction to Hotlin occurred within the first week of my stay. If I recall correctly, she shared an amazing, but as yet unknown to me, food dish and offered to guide me around town via bicycle transport. Of course, being the adventurous type myself, I happily ate and cycled with her at every opportunity. Our friendship makes perfect sense, given our strong personalities and thirst for challenge and discovery. It wasn’t long after these initial expeditions that we began to plot a nutty journey. We decided to travel by bicycle to Milano, a semi-nearby village. I realized later that bicycle travel of such a distance was not a typical occurrence on the island. At 10am, Hotlin met me with an odd, but delicious, green-colored beverage made of sugar and rice. Given our bike ride would be a few hours, we enthusiastically gulped the carb-laden drink and got on our way. As we explored the beauty that is Borneo, we shared knowing glances and appreciative nods. Villagers that saw us marveled at our bravery for traveling so far using a method of transportation locally considered only for the lower classes. When we returned to Sukadana that evening, exhausted but proud of our accomplishment, we were already plotting a bigger bicycle challenge.

First bike trip, photo 1 - photo by Bethany Kois First bike trip, photo 2 - photo by Bethany Kois First bike trip, photo 3 - photo by Bethany Kois First bike trip, photo 4 - photo by Bethany Kois


For our next feat, we planned a trip to the far away town of Ketapang. Knowing the ride would take an entire day, we planned a Saturday departure, overnight stay, and Sunday morning ride back. This time, we were really in for it: the ride would take about seven hours one way. When we talked of our plans with locals and ASRI staffers, they expressed incredulity. We received quizzical looks from all. In fact, once on the trail, nearly every person we passed inquired as to our genesis and destination. Each and every time, after our distance was revealed, villagers were dumbstruck. They simply could not believe that two women, who must have had the means to travel by car, would choose to travel so far by bike and would be so HAPPY about it! Well, we sure were. Happy about it, that is. Especially once we arrived in Ketapang, had a well-deserved dinner, and got a good rest. The next morning, we struggled through sore butt bicycle syndrome and pushed hard to finish our challenge. Riding into Sukadana after such a long and arduous trip was exhilarating! We both felt a huge sense of accomplishment. Here’s what we saw along the way:

Bike trip 2, Ketapang - Photo 1 - photo by Bethany Kois Bike trip 2, Ketapang - Photo 2 - photo by Bethany Kois Bike trip 2, Ketapang - Photo 3 - photo by Bethany Kois Bike trip 2, Ketapang - Photo 4 - photo by Bethany Kois
Bike trip 2, Ketapang - Photo 4 - photo by Bethany Kois

I know, I know. You’re thinking, what next?! Well, yes, there’s more. Shortly after our Ketapang ride, Hotlin came to me with another inspired adventure: traveling to Pontianak, hoisting our bikes on the speedboat, then riding from Pontianak to the ferry crossing, overnighting on the ferry, and riding from the ferry drop off back to Sukadana. Riding for this trip would easily exceed the bicycle travel time we had already put in. Plus, we’d be riding after an uncomfortable night of passenger class ferry accommodation, i.e., sleeping on the floor. Could we do it? Was it safe? What were we thinking?! Whatever. We could do it and we did. This time, however, we took a few other girls along.

Our Pontianak adventure:
Bike Ride 3, Pontianak - Photo 4 - Photo by Bethany KoisBike Ride 3, Pontianak - Photo 1 - Photo by Bethany Kois Bike Ride 3, Pontianak - Photo 2 - Photo by Bethany Kois Bike Ride 3, Pontianak - Photo 3 - Photo by Bethany KoisBike Ride 3, Pontianak - Photo 5 - Photo by Bethany KoisBike Ride 3, Pontianak - Photo 6 - Photo by Bethany Kois

By now, you may be wondering why I am storytelling about my bicycle adventures with Hotlin and not about the volunteer work I did while living in Sukadana. Relevant question. I did do plenty of work. More importantly, though, I met a bevy of amazing people who forever changed my view of the world. Their impact on me and on our global community cannot be understated. They are inspirational. These individuals should be applauded and supported. Their story and the story of those who they help should be told around the world.

Hotlin! Photo by Bethany KoisAnd so, this passage is dedicated wholeheartedly to one of those individuals: Hotlin. A woman filled to the brim with positivity, courage, spirit, and persistent capacity. Of course, Hotlin’s adventuring certainly didn’t stop after my Sukadana departure. In fact, I’d venture to say her strength and efforts have since increased! This summer, Hotlin is running the Borneo International Marathon to raise funds for a dental wing in the new ASRI community health center. She is a dynamo. As a runner myself, I could not be more supportive of this, her first, marathon. So, I’m writing to invite you to join me right now in promoting and supporting her charity run! Let’s get the word out to encourage friends, neighbors, and everyone we know to support Hotlin in her first marathon and help her meet her marathon fundraising goals!

As former volunteers yourselves, you know ASRI needs continued funding support. You’re already aware that environmental degradation in Borneo is severe and ongoing. You know that affordable community healthcare is a desperate necessity to villagers in Sukadana. Because you’ve been there, you’ve seen the need first hand and you recognize how much work still remains. HIH helps ASRI help Sukadana and the surrounding communities by offering medical treatment, educating on environmental and health issues, and, using alternative livelihood training, giving families a way to go from illegally logging precious rainforest trees to becoming independent agricultural entrepreneurs.

The work of ASRI happens largely because of volunteers like us. As volunteers in Sukadana, we contributed our skills and our knowledge. Our contribution was welcomed and appreciated by the warm community. If your Indonesian experience was anything like mine, you traveled home with a happy heart and a full belly. I now hope our volunteer community can contribute more than skills at a time when monetary support is critical for continuation of ASRI programming. I ask that each past volunteer commit to raising at least $100 for the upcoming Borneo International Marathon event. The funds raised will allow construction of the new hospital and, ultimately, will allow ASRI to make a broader impact in Borneo.

Please join Hotlin in making this happen! I know that many of you feel similarly inspired by the work of ASRI and will want to participate. You can do so by sharing the Borneo International Marathon fundraising effort through Facebook and Twitter. If you’re more of a party planner, consider organizing an event at your house to tell your family and friends about Hotlin, the cause, and how they can contribute. As marathon training ramps up, she’ll post pictures of her run adventures on the ASRI and HIH Facebook pages. If you’d like to contribute as a supporter or a charity runner in the event, GREAT! Just think how fantastic it would be to gather a group of past volunteers together, in Sukadana or otherwise, for a fun weekend!

The marathon is scheduled for May 4th, 2013. If you are interested in promoting, fundraising, or supporting, please let Rosevan Vickery (rosevan@www.healthinharmony.org), Health In Harmony’s Communications & Development person, know right away! It will be excellent to have past volunteers along on this next adventure. 

with coconut - Photo courtesy of Bethany Kois
See you soon!
- Bethany


About Bethany Kois | View all posts by Bethany Kois

Bethany is the Research Director at Health In Harmony, based in Charles City, IA.