Thursday, June 28, 2012

Preparing to go to Bhutan

Just rec'd an email - "I hope you are . . . preparing for the journey to Himalaya." "Himalayas!" Hard to put into words what that word evoked. As we flew into India 3 years ago we kept reminding how unbelievable our visit to India was - now it is Bhutan and the Himalayas. Parts of the world that seemed exotic during our childhood are now embedded in our memories.

We will be the guest of Rattu who has done the heavy lifting and will accompany us. Traveling with a friend makes a memorable trip even more memorable. We ate the best local food and visited unexpected places with friends in Kuching, Bogor, and Racine.

Bhutan is a small country (pop. 700,000) and to preserve its culture it has strict visa requirements and limits the number of tourists. Most people enter as part of a tour group; a few come as official guest or as a personal guest of a Bhutanese. Making an instant friendship with a Bhutanese won't work. Rattu was a student in my class during my Fulbright in Penang. We took advantage of being unaccompanied foreigners to explore the island, to see a medium become a god (see Sept 14, 2008 entry) , and to be treated to another student's personalized eating/sight tour of the Georgetown area.

 So on to the visa. We complete the visa and the personal guest applications, which specified our arrival and departure dates, and mailed them. When our applications had not arrived within two weeks we went to DHL. Both the DHL and Pos Malaysia copies arrived in Bhutan on the same day! Later I wrote a personal letter to the Director of Immigration stating the purpose of my visit. I was thrown off by the next request - a letter verifying that I was a lecturer in Malaysia. I interpret this as documenting that I am currently a lecturer, but the best I could do (which was what I actually needed to do was) was to document that I had been a lecturer at USM. The current acting dean at USM did not have immediate access to the 2008 file. She wrote a letter stating that I had been employed by USM in 2008. It did the trick. There always seemed to be one more thing. Doug had to produce the pages from his passport to verify that he had been in Malaysia in 2008 and thus had met Rattu. Rattu handled every step; he would tell me what was needed and then transmit the information to the Immigration Department. Our visa was issued in his name - so if we behave badly they know who to blame.

Let me mention only two other steps. Only one airline flies to Bhutan, Druk Airlines, and it has two planes. One can't just call a travel agent and get tickets - single travelers (non-tour guests) to Bhutan are not that common. A travel agent friend of Rattu bought the tickets. We will reimburse him when we arrive. As for money we brought USD back from the US and obtained more here. A process the involved getting USD through a bank transfer, withdrawing RM from an ATM, and then getting USD from a money changer. Now I understand what money changers in Malaysia do.

Yesterday we went to National Handicraft Centre to buy some souvenirs. We had already gotten dry fruit, as recommended by a former Malaysian diplomat. The center was having its bridal show. So if you want to see what is being promoted to modern Malaysian brides here are some of the gowns on display. (BTW Hindu brides wear saris and the one Malay wedding I went to the bride wore a white gown.)

A bevy of brides
And the color of the year is?
A special hobby is noting signs that simply leave us puzzled. The map believe is of East Asia (I cropped out SE Asia). Note in the upper right hand corner

Still not sure about the Kansas reference

Monday, June 25, 2012

10th Hari Organik by CETDEM

June 23rd marked the 10th occurrence of Hari Organik (Organic Day) in the Klang Valley. The event was held in the park adjacent to the market in SS2, Petaling Jaya.
Preparations began several months prior to the event, but I became involved one month prior. Individuals were tasked with program organization, seedling propagation (Chinese herbs), publicity, publications, baking, tent rentals for commercial vendors, vetting of vendors for organik products, site setup, and finance. This is a well-oiled machine where things just appear to happen.
A discussion on Composting

I was tasked with re-editing the press release, and preparing the inventory of publications to be sold at Hari Organik. The publications included many written, edited and/or published by CETDEM. Others included 'organik' farming materials written for the Malaysia and Asian audience. The bestselling item was a RM 5 colour brochure detailing how you can create your own home compost. CETDEM even sold compost bins for the adventurous. BTW composting is really easy.

Liz was in charge of selling Chinese herb seeds. Now we all know she know nothing about seeds and growing plants, much less Chinese herbs. However that did not stop Liz from pulling in experts who could tell people which herbs were easy to grow, and which herbs could be planted together. All told, over 100 RM2 packets of seeds were sold.
Lush Chinese Seedlings
Chinese herb seedlings were also sold. They had been grown organically from seed and progressively transplanted. It was amazing to see the plants being sold, when two weeks earlier; they looked to the untrained eye (mine) to be on their last legs. They had been transplanted the day before into larger pots and were suffering. They were being watered using an eyedropper to minimize the damage to the fragile seedlings. CETDEM uses collected rainwater and homemade compost in this project.
Slow food is an important part of Hari Organik. Home baked bread products were sold, all made from 'organik' materials. Herbal snacks were available, and a gentleman from Penang made steamed noodle rolls which delighted the attendees of Hari Organik. Staff was provided with rice, chicken curry and vegetable curries to snack on, but in keeping with the focus of Hari Organik, we provided our own recyclable plates and utensils to minimize waste. It was amazing to see the garbage bins at cleanup. No plastic bottles, no plastic bags, no excess waste paper.
Slow Food (Fast Eaters?)
Vendors of organik products flanked the main stage. I visited a fermented organik soy products vendor (I replenished my supply of light soy sauce), kampong honey (I purchased honey, made from bees that had feasted on cinnamon flowers), and a vendor of bath soaps.  There were vendors of organik noodles, and many other supplies too numerous to mention.  At the end of the day, we heard sales teams from one of vendors vocalizing cheers.  Everybody cleaned up their work spaces.
All in all, we had fun, after a tiring day that began at 7am.  Our friends left us at our condo and went off to the Bukit Bandar Raya AGM (annual general meeting) for the neighborhood association.  Local democracy in action.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Crowdsourcing Software & Sexual Harassment Mapping

I received an email from a friend who wrote "Liz I thought you retired? I see that you have quite a bit going on work wise." How true. One project is with  SHout (Sexual Harassment Out), a collaboration of Malaysian NGOs. I attend its meetings and take on small tasks. An early task was to learn what was happening in other parts of the world. I found Egypt's, compelling, Clearly, others were similarly captivated.  Currently interactive maps are posted in BangladeshLebanon, and Syria, and others are under development in Ramallah and Turkey.. I offered to write a technical note on what it would take to install, implement and maintain such a map in Malaysia. As I worked on the project I was reminded that good ideas cannot simply be transferred from one place to another. Unless the adopters make the project their own, it is probably doomed.

An interactive map does not guarantee that reports will be made, data will be used, or sexual harassment will diminish. First, reporting incidences is easy - they can be sent by SMS, app (iphone, android), web, tweet, or email - but one has to be motivated and know how to report. Publicity helps; the number of reports received are said to vary directly with the amount of publicity. Second, such a project may be not be received with widespread enthusiasm. Some may ask what the maps say about a country and its men, or will the sponsoring group compete with other NGOs for funds? So the map may be just one piece in the struggle against sexual harassment. In Egypt the map "hangs there." Its messages are read and verified. From time to time research is conducted and reports written. But Harassmap focuses n community outreach.

The information reported is embedded in the culture: All the groups ask for the same information (incident, date, time and place). The incidence check lists vary among the countries and reflect each country's concerns. Egypt's list includes ogling, catcall, invitations for sex, sexual assault and so on. Bangladesh added incidences such as, abduction, acid attacks, forced or under-aged marriage, forced or influenced suicide, and murder. (The "submit reports page states "report any incidents against women and girls that you have seen yourself,") Syria list is chilling. Its scroll down menus categorize incidences as those committed by government forces, Shabiha forces, or others. The list includes detention for sexual violence or enslavement and sexual assaults against boys and men. To further illustrate how difficult life in Syria is the home page has a link on digital security. 

Volunteers and outreach: Harassmap's volunteer link links to its community outreach guide and a volunteer application. Volunteers are explicitly recruited to work on community outreach, social media, research, and supporting efforts other countries with the emphasis on community outreach. On the first Saturday of each month between 50 and 100 members go out in small teams to talk with people in their neighborhoods about sexual harassment. About 50 percent of the volunteers are men, who are involved because they do not want their mothers, wives, girlfriends, or daughters to be harassed. The founders had envisioned volunteers who could organize and manage themselves, in actuality the volunteers require active input and support from the Cairo group.

A note on Facebook: Each website has a FB page (the entries are seldom in English).  From a conversation with Harassmap I learned that its FB page announces events and supports communications among volunteers; some community outreach teams have created their own FB pages.  Harassmap believes that FB works better than a blog, and their blog shows llittle current use. 

A note on software: The crowdsourcing software in Ushadidi, an open source platform. Two women at Bijoya, who work in digital communications, installed it from their desktops. Harassmap was installed by a tech savvy volunteer. Harassmap has largely ignore the system since, it works just fine with no loving care.

A final note:  Perhaps the visual representation of the maps motivates people to act, but the real work continues to be on the ground. The deep roots of sexual harassment was evident in Tahrir Square, Cairo, when women protesting sexual harassment were attacked. 

Monday, June 4, 2012

Backyard Naturalist?

We were drawn to our condo by its a long balcony overlooking a green area. Although I was not attracted by the barbed wire surrounding the property. We were told that it was to keep out the monkeys. We suspected that all the monkeys had two legs or as an Indonesian friend said, "The monkeys wear shoes." Our cynicism was proved wrong when this fellow showed up, stayed around for two or three days, and then moved on.

The monkey was our most recent short term visitors. For nearly a month we heard a rooster crowing and then it stopped. He surely ended up as some one's dinner. Another day we heard loud squawking. Three birds were attacking a monitor lizard. He scurried through the brush and hasn't been seen since. Then there was the day I noticed a vague presence near my feet as I was working on the computer. A pigeon had come in to greet me. Since then we have kept the hall door, which allows ventilation, shut.

The most reliable visitors are the birds - they fly overhead, sit in the trees, visit our balcony, and chirp endlessly. To improve our bird watching skills we went to the practice session held in conjunction with the national "My garden bird watch" count. We learned that our count last year was totally invalid and surely discarded. Among our errors - counting from the same location more than once, counting birds that flew overhead, and counting the number of sighted (to eliminate the possibility of double counting we should have reported the maximum number seen at one time).
Sending off groups to learn how to count the bird
We took advantage of local expertise to ask for advice for bird watching friends who might come to Malaysia. They recommended visiting the Malaysian Nature Society website  and its bird group website. The information on events and trips can serve as a start on planning where to go. At the practice session we saw local birds as well a pair of ibis that had escaped from the neighboring Bird Park (exotic escapees were not to be counted).

Seated on our balcony trying to identify a bird
On Sunday morning we set aside the required 30 minutes and counted 5 birds representing 4 species. We heard far more (must have been seen to be counted) and later in the afternoon we saw two new species (could not count since our time had passed).

Here is a link to see and hear our local birds. The call of the Asian Koel is the bird sound that reminds us that we are in Malaysia.