My first photo exhibition

So the great news of the day is that I’m opening my very first solo exhibition today in Rennes, France. Going international straight away, how awesome is that!

The topic is From Destruction to Construction, Indonesia and it has the collection of my favorite photos from my two years living and travelling around that part of the world. It is accompanied by small stories to purvey a sense of an atmosphere, but it is all unfortunately in French.

Photography exhibition of Berit RenserI feel Indonesia has something creative and destructive in it simultaneously. It has found a way to hold together 17,000 islands as one nation, while still praising its far-reaching differences. It has survived to keep together six religions as neighbours and sometimes mix it up so naturally that one starts to see the hypocricy of the presented conflict of civilizations in the Western world.

But then again, Indonesia can well be perfectly self-destructive. Overflowing with dangers of natural resources, spiced up with the carelessness of their own surroundings – a lot that the country has to offer has been destroyed internally, just to be soon built up again.

Maybe that’s why foreigners praise Indonesia – even though a chaos at a first sight, it follows its natural cycles of destruction and creation at its own pace.

All the photos are also for sale at a very affordable price and in case someone from the blog is interested to get something nice on the wall, you can write me a personal letter.

And great thanks for Marie who has helped me to take care of all this mess in France!

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Serial: The Secret Language of Corruption

Each step you take in Indonesia, a small bribe goes along. If there is no problem, a problem will be invented and solved for a small sweetener. There are stories where a robbed one is held in police station as long as they lose the patience or at the doctor’s waiting room until the health cannot take it anymore, so that they would pay some bribe just to fasten the process. After that, of course, things get done immediately.

Sometimes they drive you around between different offices, keep your car stuck at the customs or keep visiting your home for some random papers. An European mostly doesn’t surrender and plays along until the corrupters get tired after hours. But an Indonesian tallows the system with cash notes without even questioning why has the tradition grown into something intangible like this.

Nothing without money

Though the West is more likely to be blamed in capitalism, then the power of money seems to have even a bigger role in Indonesia. People would do anything for money and nothing without it. And it is not always money that has to be paid, but an even wider concept – a gift (hadiah in Indonesian) and gifts should always be shared.

The city of Jogja is covered in posters which promise awards for the ones who attend. “Come to concert and win money”, “Take part in out bicycle ride and win a scooter”, “attend the seminar and receive a free language course”, as if a concert, a bicycle ride and a seminar weren’t worth visiting on their own.

Unfortunately also our program was forced to follow the road if we wanted to have any participators, because we started receiving questions concerning the extra profits of cleaning up the whole city, the profits of coming together and discussing about the green environment and the profits of changing something in the mindset of people. And as a cherry on a cake, when arriving at the city hall to fix the final logistics of the clean up day with fifty leaders from the riverside communities, an envelope of 12 000 rupiah (1 euro) was given to participators as a thank you for wanting to clean their neighborhood.

Food and paper as a form of a present

If the organizer has a bit less money and not too many sponsors to back up the activities, then the poor man can buy his guests in another way. Two most effective ways are food and paper.

Food definitely is not a shortage in Indonesia and I never saw a gathering within my time spent there where no food was given out. But even if it is a banquet hall, food is still served in boxes and a new box brought in each few hours. There is rice, snacks, sauce, fruits and everything else packed separately in plastic bags and accompanied by a plastic spoon. Boxes are given and thrown away so easily as if Indonesian kids had never heard horror stories of starving children in Africa in their childhood. 

The same applies for papers. While Kalimantan, Papua and Sumatra’s forests are cut down breathless, a tradition in Jawa follows that the more paper, the better. Therefore a gift can also be given in a form of certificate. To earn it, one really needs to do nothing. He needs to be there, write down his name, gulp down the content of the food box and be awarded with the recognition.

So in this country where things are given out without ever asking: do I or the other really deserve it, how can one ever overcome corruption?

Anyway, we wish a strong will to the new governor or Jakarta!

** Read how it really works: http://www.letsdoitworld.org and do not get discouraged by my subjective blog posts about leading the project. The stories are intended to be entertaining, therefore I will mostly describe the conflicts instead of successful moments, which there were plenty as well. How ever it all sounds to you, I still believe this one one truly amazing project and should be carried out in all parts of the world. Hopefully, with your help.

Serial: Moneygames

Our meeting takes place somewhere in a noodle bar, synth sound playing on the background and an old man in worker’s clothes singing out-of-tune karaoke so loud that we can hardly hear other tones. But I have been invited here by a leader of a female organization who, covered with gold and tinsel, doesn’t seem to fit in the environment, She listens to the overview of our project, brings on an important face and suggests us to join their monthly gathering to find support.

The meeting of women happens on the top floor of a hotel, where an empty echoing banquet hall for 20 people has been set for us. One by one middle aged dames walk in the hall, all of them appearing as if from a Bollywood movie. They waddle there on their 10-cm heels, hardly being able to move their legs under tight dresses. They hug, kiss and chirp between each other, scrutinizing in each other shopping bags.

Then the official meeting starts. The leader opens the get-together with some fancy words and as it is common here, murmurs it all into a microphone that echos so much that one can hardly understand the message, but at least everyone is forced to listen. So here we are, at an important happening where “Javanese culture’s backbones and values are being developed and the traditions carried on,” and a lot more available for a read in a brochure.

This is some kind of a Tupperwear meeting,” Marie whispers in my ear when one of the guests has started to introduce some fabrics and to wrap them around women as a commercial. The women explore and investigate, probe about the tying techniques and marvel the patterns, which all evokes a homogeneous chatter.

Once the presentation of fabrics is done, the microphone is given to Marie. She speaks emotionally about the need for a clean environment and garbage problem, how we are looking for sponsors and people with similar worldviews. I look around and see how the dames start pulling out their golden phones from the handbags. One adjusts her fringe, the other refreshes her pink lipstick and only two of them try to pretend to be interested, but nonchalance is reflecting from their faces.

Once Marie is done with her presentation the leader gets the microphone again and thanks us for the topic. She then takes the lead:

Ok, my friends, now it’s time for some money collection. Everyone, put 500 000 (45 euros) in the envelope. I will gather it all and then…”

Our hearts are beating. Is it possible they will donate something for us? Oh dear, that will be our lucky day, we are so running out of funds already.

…will choose the lucky winner. Who will go home with 10 million ruupias?”

She shakes a box with nametags and draws one out of there.

Sari, congratulations! You just won 10 million. A good day to go shopping for you!” 

** Read how it really works: http://www.letsdoitworld.org and do not get discouraged by my subjective blog posts about leading the project. The stories are intended to be entertaining, therefore I will mostly describe the conflicts instead of successful moments, which there were plenty as well. How ever it all sounds to you, I still believe this one one truly amazing project and should be carried out in all parts of the world. Hopefully, with your help.

Serial: The recyceler-cows project

A phone rings and a man speaking in English, claiming to be from the environmental office of Jogja says to have read about our project from the newspaper and is interested in meeting us to discuss possible ways of collaboration. Wow, from the government! Calling us! Want to help and support the program. That kind of attention doesn’t fall on us every day and naturally we are flattered.

We meet up, they show great concern, they appreciate our struggle, promise to give their best to make it work and we agree mutually that they will become the leading force of our logistics compartment. They promise to find us one representative who will follow our meetings.

During our next get-together a silent girl hidden under a headscarf appears from the city office. She hardly says a word during the whole discussion but only smiles in agreement to what ever anyone says. Only when it’s time to talk about the recycling system of the city, her voice raises, she tosses a few brochures in front of us and starts elucidating Jogja’s garbage reuse ideas.

First, a waste truck comes and collects bags from the houses. It will then be proceeded to the landfill where recycling process starts…”

Then the girl turns the page and our eyes grow boiling red. A huge pile of trash, cows and coats walking on it, is presented as something to be proud of.

…Then the neighbourhood people bring their animals to the landfill, who start eating the organic waste.”

A cow with a plastic bag in its mouth looks at me from the picture.

And how could a cow tell a difference, which is organic and which non-organic? And if the cow eats plastic and later we will eat the cow? These questions flew the little girl to the world of question marks for a moment, but she didn’t float there for too long:

This system has worked for years,” we hear as an answer as if it made clear everything.

Despite all the girl promises to draft a budget concerning the logistics of collecting the trash and hand it in in 2 weeks time.  

Pic taken from Dora’s FB wall

Two weeks have passed, but there are no news from the Jogja environmental office. The same time our faith in their wish to do something diminishes in seconds. We walk into one of their cabinets and see the everyday life of officials. In a large classroom type of space at some empty tables a few people are sitting down. One reads a magazine, one stares at a fly, one plays tetris with her phone and the rest two gulp down greasy burgers.

Oh, sorry, we haven’t had time yet to deal with the budget!” one of them murmurs through his beard.

Another week passes and our souls get anxious. I send a SMS.

What about the budget, is it getting ready?”

and I receive as an answer “Ready! It’s 27 000 ruupias”.

Yes, indeed, the local government offered us a budget as big as 3 euros after a 3 week waiting. So there was nothing else left to do than to grab the pen and paper, figure an approximate cost of human resources, trucks and gas, guess the amount of waste in the whole city and put it all together ourselves.

187 000 000 seems fine?”

Yeah, whatever, better than 3 euros at least.” 

** Read how it really works: http://www.letsdoitworld.org and do not get discouraged by my subjective blog posts about leading the project. The stories are intended to be entertaining, therefore I will mostly describe the conflicts instead of successful moments, which there were plenty as well. How ever it all sounds to you, I still believe this one one truly amazing project and should be carried out in all parts of the world. Hopefully, with your help.

Serial: No communication and miscommunication

After a prolonged and tiring meeting with the local government, we settled the deadline – two weeks from that moment they would present us the crucial information. All happy with the agreement, we concentrated on other things. Within the two weeks me met for other reasons, we nodded, we smiled politely and seemed to share a mutual understanding. But on the day of deadline there is just a great silence. Another week passed that we started to ask for explanations. Mildly and overpolitely, like they do here in Indonesia.

“Excuse me, sir, did you, by any change, happened to have an infinitesimal moment to have a glimpse on our project, or not yet?

“No, not yet. I’m sorry, it’s not a problem I hope.”

“Well, dear sir, excuse me for my frankness, but, at the moment, I hope you understand, we have fifty people waiting for the results to continue working. I’m sorry to say that.”

“Oh, dear Lord, I’m thoroughly sorry. I’m sorry. You see, madam, the be honest with you, if I may, we didn’t really understand what we had to do.”

Then everything starts again. Telling the same story, making a new deadline, spending more and more hours explaining and seeing the same faces nodding as they did before. This time we are smarter and call them every few days to make sure we are still in the same boat.

This story doesn’t stand alone but is an exemplary one to illustrate most of our endeavours. If we said a poster was beautiful, only needed to change the colour from red to green, next day the whole design was marred, but still red. If we asked someone to invite our team members to an internal meeting, he forwarded it to all public Facebook groups. There were ones who quitted three weeks before, but forgot to mention it, forgot to share e-mails passwords or forgot to put our logos on event posters. But if you call and ask, then everything is always going flawless. No problems, no questions, no hesitations no negations. Until one day…

..”Sorry, I hope it’s Ok. We just had a miscommunication.”

“So you are sure all equipment and space will be provided by you?”

“Right.”

“And we don’t need to pay rent for space?”

“Right.”

“And our way of saying thank you is providing food for teachers who stay as guards?”

“Right.”

Being exhilarated by the simplicity of our negotiation didn’t last long though. Two days later a sms arrived:

“And where was the transportation for teachers? And no presents? They came there from their free time!”

All this made me want to bang my already fragile head against my phone, as nothing seemed to make any sense at this point. The only way to get myself out of that problem was to reply as an Indonesian would reply. But the same time I thought that the day of me understanding Indonesian subliminal messages would probably never come.

And you can imagine my glee when at the same moment two men at my next table were discussing some business deals when one of them said: “Sorry, miscommunication, iya?!”

It is not just me!

Serial: Anyone responsible here?

Do you know this anecdote about blondes (I am a natural blonde, so let’s all laugh about ourselves during this post). “How many blondes do you need to change a light bulb? Answer: 10. One holds the bulb and the others spin the ladder.”

I find this anecdote suiting perfectly with Indonesian working styles, where it takes three extra people to get something done. To sell three different products one needs six guys, as no one has a very clear overview what they are selling, no one has the right to take any decisions and you always need a friend to delegate the problems to.

In the situation where no real power is given to workers, no one cares to take the responsibility either. So each time they screw something up they can just shrug carelessly as nothing depends on them anyway. Probably it was the friend’s fault, who even more probably doesn’t know anything about the issue. So all in all, no one knows who should be answerable, but definitely not him and not concerning the matter that has just ruined the customer’s life.

The only solution then is turn to the boss, where all the fingers point, but mind you to go down that road. The Boss is a mythical creature who floats somewhere between the mundane and the divine and whose time is so precious that he can only be reached through the endless corridor of stamped, signed letters carried on a velvet pillow. The letters will linger between offices for so long that the details of the case have marred to the point they become unidentifiable. The only solution to the problem will be the predicted: Maaf iya? Tidak apa-apa iya? (Sorry, hope it’s ok).

A poor European, who mainly tries to keep promises, will perish in anguish. Especially if the poor European has promised to feed 150 people during two days but nothing goes according to the plan:

By the breakfast of an important morning exactly half of the promised sushi arrives to our environmentally-friendly event. And it arrives in fifteen plastic boxes in six plastic bags even though we especially emphasized that we need to set an example with how we are supposed to serve food*. The boys give us some vouchers and say that they hope they can use those another day. But they won’t be hungry the other day, they are hungry now!

Before lunch when the stomachs of underfed participants rattle, Marie and I go to the next restaurant to double-check if we will get what we were asking for. The ibu had met the requirements beautifully and wrapped everything in banana leaves, but once I try, it seems strangely light. “We didn’t have time to make enough, we gave half a portion for everyone,” she looks at me with such an innocent face that I even feel ashamed to be overloaded by anger. We try to imitate her guiltless face when handing over the food to 150 hungry people.

And on top of all we receive a phone call from a restaurant just before dinner saying they cannot provide us what they have promised. The boy suggests us to call the boss, but as no one has the bosses number we could instead try to send him a stamped letter.

Being totally browned-off we organize some emergency food to the participants and then do like Indonesians would do in that case. We ask our volunteers to apologize politely and if someone has a problem, to lead them down the path where no one has responsibility. Send a stamped letter, maybe. Maaf ya?

* For those non-indonesians who don’t know, at all Indonesian events they give out food boxes where each piece is wrapped in plastic and it’s all accompanied by a plastic glass with a plastic cover and a plastic straw. For those Indonesians who don’t know, at least in Estonia food at events is served on tables on reusable dishes.

** Read how it really works: http://www.letsdoitworld.org and do not get discouraged by my subjective blog posts about leading the project. The stories are intended to be entertaining, therefore I will mostly describe the conflicts instead of successful moments, which there were plenty as well. How ever it all sounds to you, I still believe this one one truly amazing project and should be carried out in all parts of the world. Hopefully, with your help.

Serial: Kafka-like Days in Indonesian Bureaucracy

Pretty soon we figured out that bureaucracy in Indonesia is not only a party of the everyday life, but the only way to do things, because without bureaucracy a huge punch of mess is created.

When building our environmental project, our first goal was to reduce bureaucracy to its minimum. Everything had to be as simple as possible. There were two leaders, a few advisors to guide us and the rest of the work was done in teams of different topics, where the team leader was the link between us and the team. So that if anyone had a question, he just needed to ask the team leader and if he didn’t know the answer, he would ask us.

We even thought it would be making a favour to Indonesians – the communication would be fast and direct, without any paperwork or twiddles, and the locals suffering in the bondage of bureaucracy could finally be set free. Of course, a naive Westerners view as always.

When we introduced our innovative plan to our volunteers, a loud confusion rose.

But if we want to ask something, where shall we go then?”

You will get the answers from the team leader who, in case doesn’t know the answer, asks us.”

But usually (biasanya – and if something is biasanya it has to be like that forever) in these cases we would go to the headquarter to the secretary, who sends the question to the secretariat, then they will send it to the secretary-general, who in turn communicates with the director who is advised by the initiator of the project. Then the process of answering starts and depending on the severity of the question it will be sent either via letter or a meeting will be held.”

You see, it’s pretty complicated, isn’t it? Now we do it the easy way. You have a question – call my number.”

A long silence followed my insane idea and a row of confused eyes investigated my each movement.

We don’t understand this system. It would be easier if we did like usually.”

I felt like we had just done the world’s greatest outrage trying to favour easy collaboration instead of running between offices, like we had to do each month eight times between immigration bureaus. 

The Holy Trinity

We finally reached the stage where 30 crucial letters were to be sent out. So important they were that it took us a week to reach our goal. Because in Indonesia a procedure is like a ceremony – only when you have served the God well, he will treat you generously in return.

The more time and effort the procedure takes, the more authoritative it seems. Therefore each letter must be accompanied by a set of ritualistic decorations, the Holy Trinity: letterhead, stamp and permission (izin).

Somehow Indonesians think that the letterhead and stamp are the ultimate proof of reliability. Therefore the letterhead as well as the stamp are always owned by a small circle of bosses and even if the secretary has it, she will answer you,

Sorry, I have no permission to use it”.

Instead, she proposed me to drive all the way to Merapi, where a conference was held, to meet the boss who could then add the stamp. Much easier would be to go around the corner and copy the stamp for some pennies, as the fakes are done by the same people as originals and no ethics is ever followed. Also to get the letterhead nothing more than some basic knowledge of Photoshop is needed.

So, to add some extra extra reliability to the letters, you will need to write at least two of them. One is the letter you want to send and the other one is to prove that you really have the right to send it. An izin from the almighty. To get this mystical izin, it could take you days, weeks, months, as nobody really knows who should give out this permission.

It also turned out to be important w h o sends out the letter. It cannot be done via e-mail as no one reads emails more often than twice a month and local post is pretty much a hazard. Therefore we needed at least two volunteers to go together to all 30 places because likewise with letters, one carries the message and the other one is like a proof that it is indeed an authorized deed. To make them reliable, each of them needed a neckline. The neckline, of course, had to be covered with the Holy Trinity. 

Once this was also done and the letters sent out, we received a response.

We don’t have the izin to accept your letter, because the envelope you sent didn’t have the letterhead nor stamp.”

So the procedure started again.

Now you wonder what did these highly authorized letters consist of? It was just a letter to highschool teachers that they would tell their students about the possibility to take part in our debating competition. That’s what all the fuss was about. 

** Read how it really works: http://www.letsdoitworld.org and do not get discouraged by my subjective blog posts about leading the project. The stories are intended to be entertaining, therefore I will mostly describe the conflicts instead of successful moments, which there were plenty as well. How ever it all sounds to you, I still believe this one one truly amazing project and should be carried out in all parts of the world. Hopefully, with your help.