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Lessons from Pulau Pengujan

Updated on December 21, 2012
Pulau Pengujan, Riau Islands, Indonesia
Pulau Pengujan, Riau Islands, Indonesia | Source

On December 2012, I went with a group from Nusantara Development Initiatives to some rural islands near Tanjung Pinang, Riau Islands, Indonesia. It took 2 hours by ferry from Singapore to Tj. Pinang and another hour from Tj. Pinang to Pulau Pengujan by pompong boat (pompong is the local term for a type of small and long motorized boat). If you search for it in Google Map, it won't come out (as of 21 December 2012), since the island is largely undeveloped. What are we doing there? Holiday? Not exactly. We are empowering the local women to become solar lamp entrepreneurs and we hope to establish a sustainable social business through innovation and best practices of business. As a background, the area is outside the national electricity grid and they have a very limited access to electrical energy. They use generator set as power supply, which renders them about 4-6 hours of electricity a day, usually after 6 p.m. By training the local women to sell the solar lamps, we created jobs, broadening their horizon, and we encourage them to reach out to other islands that are still clad in darkness.

The scenery across the strait going to mainland Tanjung Pinang. Photo courtesy of Novia Afdhila.
The scenery across the strait going to mainland Tanjung Pinang. Photo courtesy of Novia Afdhila.

We based our operation in Pulau Pengujan, which is inhabited by about 100 households, and we had the privilege of staying in one of the local's house, whom accepted us as we are doing social work in the vicinity. Coming from urbanized cities of Jakarta and Singapore, at first it requires some efforts for me to adapt to the village lifestyle. No more internet access, limited electricity, limited amount of water, and living together with cats, chickens, etc. For me, experience speaks the loudest, he's the best teacher, and he taught me few thoughts that comes to my reflection:

  1. The village people leads a simple yet happy life. What caused them to be happy? They don't earn as much as the city dwellers, though not lacking so much either. They just receive the fortune that they can get and be content with it, without worrying as much as the people in the cities. Wait, did you just call them lazy and laid back? I would say they have the disposition not to over trade happiness for money. People will smile and greet you even though you are strangers, which is in contrast from the indifferent attitude in some cities. Earning much in the city to afford the latest gadgets, cars, condominiums will not gratify human's insatiable needs; it's a path that leads to no end. Be content, choose to be joyful, and smile. Smile is free, viral, and it can make you happier.
  2. Interact with people near you. Being stripped out of internet and electricity, without bringing my smartphone, and hence Whatsapp, Google Talk, Facebook, and other social media, I am constrained to interact with people in my surroundings. To some of us, that seems to be obvious and undemanding. Nevertheless, my daily sight in Singapore is different: the majority of the people in the public transportation and public area are busy with their smartphone or tablet; their eyes are nailed to the gadgets and their eyes are plugged with earphone, oblivious to their surroundings. Sometimes you can capture a moment where few people get together and they are engaged with their smartphone. I assume it's used for messaging, chatting, Facebook, etc. Come on, you have the chance to meet someone you know head on, and you waste the chance just to interact with others through social network which can be done later? Near becomes far, and far becomes near, technology defies distance. Hope that technology does not separate us with our close friends and families when they are nearby.
  3. I sleep better there. Normally, I don't really sleep well in new places, especially in a sleeping bag, without my beloved bolster pillow at home. Sometimes in the city, though not so often, I can't sleep well because I have many things revolving around my mind. But here on the village it's so different. I surmise it's because I have nothing to worry about. No laptop/tablet/smartphone and internet to check my email, no research work to worry about, no exams to worry for, and of course no worries that I will spend my time "unproductively" since I have nothing to work productively anyway. Nothing, life is simple, period. In addition, should I have my smartphone, I would've still play around with it even after I turn off the light. Therefore, throw away your worries and have a nice sleep!
  4. People in the village knows each other quite well. Ask them where is the house of Mr. X and chances are high that they will know him. Here, living in Singapore, I don't even know the name of any of my neighbours, not a single one. Again, distance in the city becomes no barrier for communication, yet we don't really communicate with the one next door.
  5. Take a deep breath and marvel at the beauty of nature. There, you can see the astoundingly beautiful night with countless number of stars, the lovely meandering river flanked by mangroves forests, not forgetting the smiles on people's face, and many others. They are luxury for the people in the city, but free treats in the villages.
  6. They are warm-hearted and willing to help. Don't be startled when they say they are willing to lend you their motorcycle. Yes, no rental fee, no receipts, no strings attached, you just have to pay for the petrol. What? No written agreements and no collateral? Yes, they have a culture of sharing their things should others need it. They don't have much, but they do share. People in the city have much, but they don't really share. It's a paradox. I believe the deal is based on trust; it's an endangered species that has been replaced by written contracts and collaterals in the city.
  7. Surprises are the spice to life. Some people may not like uncertainties that will surprise you, especially when it gets troublesome. There, I learn that all the arrangement for transportation and meetings are far more surprising than those in the city. No buses that will come to the bus stop every 5 minutes or you can check the schedule with your smartphone. In fact, no bus and no bus stop. We had to charter pickups for ground transportation and pompong for going to other islands. Even so, the promised arrival time is also uncertain. If you allow me to speak mathematics, the standard deviation is high and the distribution is positively skewed. Add to that some possibilities of pickup or pompong breakdown, leaving you stranded in the sea, or better still, in the land of nowhere (yes, it does happen). Life without surprises is bland, surprises will spice it up.

Lifestyles in the city and village are dissimilar especially due to the level of development and technology. I don't think one is superior than the other, it's just that one can learn some aspects of life from the other. Technology changes people, for the better and for the worse, and that is our choice.

The starry night sky at Pulau Pengujan. Photo courtesy of Ramda Yanurzha
The starry night sky at Pulau Pengujan. Photo courtesy of Ramda Yanurzha

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