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Call of the Orangutan: Permits and Sightseeing

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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JAKARTA, INDONESIA—As an international researcher, one of the most important aspects, and indeed one of the biggest challenges, of the job is obtaining permits from the government of the country in which you’re working and residing. As a result, I’ve spent the last three weeks in this city being shunted from office to office, suffering through maddening delays, until today, when I finally collected my last national level permit! I’ll have to come back next month for sampling permits, which is a whole different story, and it looks likely that one of the permits I have to collect in Sumatra, my SIMAKSI, will cost an eye-watering $1,500 per year. This is a huge price hike (up from around $100 per year), and might discourage researchers wanting to work in Indonesia.

Despite the expense, stress and my frequent complaints, I actually quite enjoy the permitting process! Everyone is really nice at the different government ministries and it’s a really great opportunity to practice my Bahasa Indonesia.

Basically, the process consists of me dressing up very nicely in a collared shirt, trousers and shoes—a lesson learned the hard way after being thrown out of a government office for wearing flip-flops a few years ago—handing out copies of my proposal and photos of me on a red background (no one has ever explained why red specifically) and signing whatever is put in front of me in at least quintuplet before finally being told to come back in a day or week to collect whatever I’m asking for. When I return, I will inevitably be told of some sort of delay, usually because the only person who can stamp my permit is out of the office, and will be asked to return at a later date. Eventually, I will be given a number of letters (for the next office) or a permit card (research, travel, immigration, etc.) and can move along the chain!

The author's paperwork from just one ministry, in this case, Research and Technology)! (Credit: James Askew)

In order (and they MUST be done in order), I’ve obtained three (non-standard sized) folders of paperwork from: the over-worked, always-delightful and absolutely vital Ministry of Science and Technology, the police, the Ministry of Home Affairs and the gargantuan Ministry of Forestry. In each new location in Sumatra or Borneo, I will also have to complete more paperwork with my counterpart institutions, immigration, the local police and national park offices. It is an absolutely dizzying process, but one that provides important checks on my research, and allows for integration with the Indonesian ministries responsible for maintaining and administering science, technology and the environment within Indonesia. As you can probably imagine, in addition to being a little frustrating, the occasionally epic wait times have left me at something of a loose end, so I’ve been very excited to explore a city in which I’d only spent a few days previously.

Jakarta is insanely hot. The second you walk out of the airport a layer of humidity assaults you and it takes at least a week before you can take anything over a few steps without being completely drenched in sweat. It is also huge, a seemingly endless concrete sprawl, punctuated by clusters of skyscrapers while static traffic idles on the major arteries. I appreciate this probably sounds all too familiar to many of my colleagues at USC. And, yes, the similarities to Los Angeles are numerous! Aside from the size, many people would suggest that neither metropolis has a discernable city center (although as a former resident of downtown LA, I strongly disagree!).

Traffic in downtown Jakarta. (Credit: Joel Wiramu Pauling via Flickr)

Then there’s the traffic. Travelling anywhere in Jakarta takes a long time and is inherently flawed no matter what mode of transport you utilize. TransJakarta bus routes are cheapest and sometimes quicker than driving. However, commuters are packed in like sardines and unless you’re jostling technique is finely honed, you can forget about getting on during rush hour! Taxis are (relatively) expensive and prone to getting stuck in snarl-ups (far worse than anything the 101 can produce) caused by a frightening lack of lane etiquette and an aggressive driving style that creates a vehicular free-for-all on every road. But you’ll make it to your meeting in perfect shape thanks to the wonders of air-conditioning! My favorite option is to take an Ojek (motorbike taxi). These cost the same as taxis and you’ll arrive at your destination sweaty, but they’re usually much quicker and there’s something exciting about weaving through dense traffic, utilizing any available space including the sidewalk and wrong side of the road, and sometimes even veering down heavily populated alleyways between market stalls and cafes.

Indonesian National Monument. (Credit: Gunawan Kartapranata via Wikimedia Commons)

Besides these commutes, I’ve also filled my time practicing my Indonesian (it’s getting much better), seeing Jakarta’s sites, eating out with friends (new and old), experiencing the nightlife and, as is the life of a scientist, writing manuscripts and grant proposals. Tourist attractions are fairly thin on the ground here, but definite highlights have been the National Museum and Indonesian National Monument (MONAS), which towers impressively from a park near my hostel, and offers fantastic views of the city.

Eating out has been a great distraction, taking in a weird and wonderful collection of venues including awful Irish pub grub in the expat haven of Kemang, food courts in the incredibly opulent and wonderfully air-conditioned malls, and of course, the most amazing street food. My favorite meal so far has to be Nasi Goreng Kamping, a local institution featuring simply two giant woks of steaming goat fried rice, a grill and a never-ending stream of customers who sit and eat together on long benches.

Nasi Goreng Kuning, the author's favorite warung in Jakarta. (Credit: James Askew)

As for nightlife, I don’t want to give the impression of having too much fun, but Jakarta is renowned as a clubbing mecca in South East Asia, featuring some of the craziest nightlife imaginable for all budgets and tastes. Currently, I’m staying above Memories, an extremely rowdy bar on Jalan Jaksa, which provides constant entertainment through the intrigue, infighting and even black magic of a rotating cast of backpackers, Bintang-sozzled expats and local hustlers. Venturing further afield, I’ve also been introduced to the swanky nightclubs of South Jakarta, and the seedy underworld of the Kota rave scene, both of which impressed and terrified in equal measure. However, my favorite night has been more down-market. A USC alumnus (Fight On Ben!) was kind enough to take me to 7-Eleven for some beers with his friends. We sat at the tables and got passing street performers to play a few Indonesian hits for us; it was a lovely evening.

It hasn’t all been fun and games though, and as I hinted at earlier, this down time has allowed me to work on a manuscript (it’s coming, I promise!), and to put together some grant applications. Without funding from these different sources, I absolutely couldn’t complete my research project, so the best news of these past three weeks is that I’ve been awarded a USC Dornsife Research Enhancement Fellowship that will allow me to take some intensive Indonesian lessons, extend the scope of my project and to stay here for a full two years! I’m incredibly grateful, as I am to my other funding sources, and cannot wait to get started in Sumatra next week!

James Askew About the Author: James Askew is a PhD candidate in Integrative and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Southern California Jane Goodall Research Center. His research is focused on orangutan behavior, specifically the “long call” and its role in social and reproductive relationships. Over the next 18 months he will be running a comparative study of three different populations at sites in Borneo and Sumatra. Follow on Twitter @jinborneo.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Postman1 9:14 pm 05/2/2014

    ‘Siteseeing’ is not in my Webster’s, nor my spellcheck. Perhaps you meant to say ‘Sightseeing’?
    Yes, I’m being picky, but it takes away from an otherwise interesting article.

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  2. 2. Jerzy v. 3.0. 7:19 am 05/3/2014

    And that is why I am not always supporting conservation. Too many places became ecotourist traps with expensive permits and nonsense restrictions, but the local habitat destruction, hunting and development continues.

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  3. 3. Cereza 3:06 pm 05/4/2014

    As interesting as usual. Bureaucracy is the same everywhere, but it is good to see that it has not dampened your zest for life. Glad to hear that you are using this time well.
    We look forward to future blogs xx

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