Larry LaRue

Larry LaRue: Lessons learned for UPS students on environmental trip to Indonesia

When Gareth Barkin first traveled to Indonesia, he was determined not to be an ugly-American tourist.

“I was on a train and after eating I couldn’t find anywhere to put my trash,” Barkin said. “A food vender took the trash from me – and threw it out the window.”

It was one of many cultural differences he would see at age 21, and awakened him to the realization that the Western idea of environmental protection was not universal.

Now 44 and an associate anthropology professor at the University of Puget Sound, Barkin has been returning to Indonesia regularly.

This summer, funded by a Henry Luce Foundation grant that encourages Asian studies focused on the environment, Barkin took 10 UPS students with him.

“First, we spent a semester studying the language and culture, discussing what each of us planned as a project during the trip,” said Lenny Henderson, a 20-year-old junior.

“I’m a musician, and my project was on music — specifically hip-hop — and whether the Indonesians used it to express their identity.”

The trip was a 21-day visit to the largest Muslim country in the world, but it wasn’t a tour. Barkin’s students spent time at a university near a major city, then a rural national park.

The lessons came quickly.

“I was surprised by the level of materialism and focus on technology — everywhere we went, people had cellphones and tablets,” said Claire Grubb, 22. “We’d pass windowless houses where people had cellphones.”

Logan Day, a 21-year-old senior, wanted to find out whether the perceptions of Muslims held by American Christians was shared by Indonesian Christians.

He was surprised by those he talked with.

“Stereotypes hadn’t taken hold there,” Day said. “The Christians we talked to in the city and university had no stereotypes, and they defended the Muslims. When your mailman, your grocer, your banker are all Muslim, you see them as people. You can’t villainize as a whole.”

Barkin had warned his students they’d be surprised at the lack of effective environmental education they’d see in Indonesia.

“The attempts there to teach environmental protection have been tone deaf,” he said. “People will show up in small villages without electricity to give powerpoint presentations. They won’t speak the language of the children, will deliver half their discussion in English, and the kids won’t understand a word.”

Day saw it when the group visited a coral reef.

“As a Westerner, we’re taught what nature is and why it’s so valuable,” he said. “They have no education like that. They throw trash in the water.

“They're poisoning one of the best coral reefs in the world, they’re going to lose it, and they don’t understand. But how do you enact a policy of change without somehow showing them why change is needed?”

Henderson’s search of the Indonesian music scene was perhaps less surprising.

“Initially, hip-hop wasn’t accepted because it wasn’t Indonesian,” he said. “But young people pushed back, and there is a ‘I’m young, your music doesn’t express my identity’ kind of thing going on.

“It’s a Muslim-majority country, and I found a Muslim hip-hop group that focused on Islamic values. Their music made it more accessible. It’s like Christian rock in the U.S., a means of self-expression.”

While the poverty was appalling, students had eye-opening moments with those living in it.

“We spent the night at a rice-growing village of a few hundred people and went to a town hall-type meeting,” Day said. “They brought in a standup comedian who did a 90-minute show. We couldn’t understand a word.

“But these people who had worked tough jobs all day were laughing and having a great time. It was an epiphany for me. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, everyone laughs. Whatever your state of mind, people want to be happy.”

While conservation is not the priority in Indonesia, efforts are being made. Grubb took part in one of them and will never forget it.

“They have a baby sea turtle release program,” Grubb said. “They take in the babies, feed them and let them grow before release to give them a better chance of survival.

“I carried a plate-sized turtle to the shore, and when we put them down, most of the turtles just lit out for the water. Mine kind of looked around at first, and when he did go in the water he tried to come back once.

“That was a once in lifetime experience.”