On the crumbling road to the village our pickup truck is pulled over by the police. “What’s happening?” I ask. “They want to see if he has licence, they just look for money,” she tuts. “Always like this.”
Our young driver flicks down the sunshade with a long, green-painted fingernail and nervously retrieves his papers. All in order. They keep fishing.
25 minutes later, Irma is still calling around for someone to use as leverage. “We also have someone with power,” she says. But a cousin in the police force is too busy to help and eventually the truck’s owner arrives on his motorbike. We leave him negotiating and the driver makes a dash for it, relieved. We’re running an hour late, but we’re on Indonesian time. “It’s normal,” she sighs.
It’s my second day on the tiny Indonesian island, off the coast of Flores and 1,500 km east of Bali. I’m here to research a story about a development tech NGO called Kopernik, which works with “last mile” communities; off-the-grid villages that are too difficult for most organisations to assist.
The idea behind Kopernik is to develop simple, cheap technologies that address a particular, pervasive problem (like kerosene-free cookstoves that reduce health and fire risks, or solar-powered lighting for homes without electricity), and then employ locals to introduce the items to the communities, while getting feedback from potential customers at small tech fairs in remote villages.
The products are sold at cost-price, meaning Kopernik doesn’t turn a profit, but neither do people feel obliged to accept them as donations only to leave them rotting in the back yard. The aim is make people more invested in the process so that they will tell the NGO exactly what won’t work and what should be improved – avoiding a common development problem where a simple design issue goes unnoticed until thousands of now-useless units have been produced and distributed.
Edit: if you want to learn more about this awesome project, please click here to read my article on this for How We Get to Next.
When I told the NGO that I’d love to go along to their next tech fair, I hadn’t really considered what “last mile” meant. The lovely lady I spoke to while still in Bali explained that the fair was 10 days away, in Flores. I looked at a map and thought, “Oh, that’s totally fine to do overland!”
It was only when I was well into the journey (which involved an amazing four-day boat trip from the Gili Islands to Flores – more on that here) that I realised just how rugged and untouched the Eastern islands of Indonesia are, and how slow travel across them can be.
The realisation hit when I reached Flores.
With deadlines approaching, I’d spent much of the choppy journey hanging onto the roof of the boat with one hand and typing articles with the other, but as phone coverage was (understandably) patchy out on the open sea, I’d been cut off for a few days, unable to speak to anyone from the NGO. Flores is so far from Jakarta, where I’d bought my SIM card, that the network doesn’t extend out here and I had to buy a new one anyway.
So it wasn’t until the boat docked in Labuanbajo and could check my emails that I discovered I still needed to cross the entire length of the island (500 km) to Maumere, to meet Irma, my translator and guide, then take another four hour bus to Larantuka, get a boat to Lembata (an island which apparently averages 12 foreign visitors per year, has no public transport and terrible roads), and from there, find some way to reach a teeny tiny village in the middle of nowhere.
This is how I found myself – three days, four excruciatingly long bus rides, one boat and several motorbike and pickup truck journeys later – on an incredibly bumpy ride to to the village with Irma.
And I’m so glad I did. Flores is possibly the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen in my life: sprinkled with volcanoes, covered in untouched jungle, encircled in endless, empty, white-sand beach. This place doesn’t just have hot springs, it has hot waterfalls. The rice paddies that cascade down the hillsides are so lush and gorgeous that they barely seem real. The whole island looks like the Gods drew a map of paradise, then crumpled it up and tried halfheartedly to smooth it out again.
Watching the view out of the window on a winding bus journey along a road so high that we pierced through a purple cloud, I was so overcome that I cried, and I’m bloody English.
With its two active and frequently smoking volcanoes, Lembata felt pretty magical too – all the more so because of the incredible kindness of Irma’s family. The only hotel I could see any evidence of was still being built, so Irma organised for me to stay at her cousin’s house, and took me to have dinner at her mother’s house, on the family rice-farming plot.
This was an experience in itself. Word had got out that there was a Westerner on the island, and I’d been followed all day by local people who wanted me to hold their babies (apparently it’s for good luck? Having stayed up all night trying to get 3G coverage on the roof in order to could submit some edits on a story for the Guardian, I really shouldn’t have been trusted to hold anyone’s baby).
When I got to Irma’s mother’s home, the whole family showed up out of curiosity, but shyness and language barriers meant that I basically just sat in the middle of a circle of chairs while everyone watched me eat in silence. Thankfully, an adorable toddler (I’m still not sure who he belonged to) put an end to the awkwardness by climbing onto my lap and prodding my weird pointy caucasian nose, everyone laughed, the atmosphere relaxed, and said toddler immediately fell asleep on me, giving me a purpose for the rest of the evening. Meanwhile, Irma’s two sons, who live with her mother, bundled her in excitement and the three chatted happily for hours.
Some Uncomfortable Truths
The following day, though, on the boat back to Flores, Irma was heartbroken. The downside of growing up in a remote patch of paradise is that there are barely any jobs outside of rice farming, which is why she leaves her boys with her mother to work in Lembata – and, in the past, as a nanny in Singapore and Australia. Being apart from the kids was tough, but as well as needing money to provide for them, I could tell from our chats that the narrow world of Lembata made her restless. She had an urge to travel, to meet new people, to work abroad.
Obviously, I can relate.
After we’d left the night before, her mother had called her to say that the boys were distraught.
“She told me not to go round again for a while as it upsets them too much,” Irma explained. I didn’t know what to say.
“How old are you?” she said suddenly. I told her.
“You’re a year older than me!” she exclaimed, surprised. “Why don’t you have any children?”
“I – um…” I floundered for a moment, not knowing how to respond. “My backpack is kind of small. I don’t think they’d fit.”
Irma laughed, but then gazed out over the waves in pensive silence. I realised she might have taken what I said as a criticism and I felt terrible.
Not for the first time since I left the UK, I’d met someone very much like me, but from a very different world… and realised, again, how unbelievably lucky I am to have the freedom to decide my circumstances, and not the other way around.