From Yogyakarta, I flew to Balikpapan, a city in East Kalimantan on 19 July 2019. Before I knew it, I already stepped my feet on the land of Borneo, only less than two hours after taking off from Adi Sucipto Airport. Borneo indeed is not far from Java but it seems quite far, somehow. There is something funny about distance and perception in this country. The distance from Java to Balikpapan may seem close but the distance from Balikpapan to Java, for many people residing in Balikpapan, might be a lot farther.
From the Airport of Sepinggan in Balikpapan, I headed to a relatively small harbor or port. With a simple speed boat, I crossed the bay to reach the other part of the land. From that point, I then continued my journey to Paser, a place in Tanah Grogot, East Kalimantan. The sail using the small boat was adrenaline-pumping. The boat was jumping all the time to adapt to the roughness of the sea, while the speed was kept relatively constant. I could feel the breeze and the noise, from the engine, prevented us, the passengers, from having a good conversation. It was loud.
I enjoyed the sail until something happened in the middle of the open sea. The engine stopped working and the boat made no movement. I saw the faces of other passengers and they looked nervous. I was by no means an exception. I started to develop my own scenario in my head. My imagination went wild. What if this, what if that. Too many what-ifs in my mind. Before I even realized what happened, the driver of the boat stood up and walked calmly towards the back of the boat. He checked the machine and showed no worries at all. “Plastic debris”, he said lightly and, in a few seconds, he cleaned up his machine and it functioned again as if there was nothing happened. No drama, no worries. I was impressed!
After around 15-20 minutes of sail, we touched the land on the other side of the island. From that point, we continued the journey to Paser. It was a 4-hour drive. What a long journey after flight and boat sailing. Paser is certainly far.
Paser is still the same place I visited five years ago. A lot of public buildings are colored in purple. They say, purple is or was a political color. Who knows. The hotel we stayed in, Kyriad Sadurengas, also has that color. Seeing the color, we can straight away tell that we are in Paser. Other than that, vegetations are not as green as I’d expect. Good and relatively well-designed buildings, I think, are missing the greens around them. That is how Paser looks like. The same place I remember vividly in the last five years.
With my two colleagues, I was in Paser for a scholarship selection process. PT. Kideco Jaya Agung, through its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), is generous enough to provide scholarship for young people from Paser to study an undergraduate and postgraduate degree in selected universities all over Indonesia. It was such an honor to be part of the selection team. Five years ago, I was there with my two good friends, Tony and Katrin, both of which are Australian alumni. This year I was accompanied by Israr, a British Alumni, and Zaki, a certified interviewer with a psychology degree from UGM. I have no doubt, the three of us made a solid team.
Interviewing young people in Paser was a contemplative and humbling moment. Each candidate has their own story worth listening to. Economic hardship is not the only issue they have. Conversation with each and every one of them took me to different places, situations, and time settings. It was too easy to fly to my childhood every time a candidate talked about his or her difficulties in life. Problems with family addressed by some candidates were also undoubtedly relatable to me. It was to me not an interview process but instead, an enriching learning experience. I did learn a lot from those young people.
A lady was willing to sell her motorbike to continue her study for she believes that education is much more important. When we asked whether or not she will continue her study even if she does not get the scholarship, she answered “yes” without hesitation. What a fighter. The lady was born in a family with illiterate father and mother. She is a strong believer in education and she is willing to do anything it takes to continue her education up to Ph.D. It is not every day that we find such a big spirit from a lady born in a remote place like Paser.
Another candidate, a young man, has his own story. He just graduated from a small local university in Paser, which he thinks is declining in quality due to lack of regeneration. “Most of our lecturers are getting old but no one would like to continue their duties. Being a lecturer is not an attractive profession to young people here” he noted. The young man was crying when he emotionally told stories about his university. That is the reason why he wanted to be a lecturer despite the fact that he has established his small company producing fertilizer out of his own research. To me, the young man has demonstrated a genuine intention to contribute to his society.
I also met a lady who was very enthusiastic during the interview. She projected positive energy and equipped herself with smiles almost all the time. When I gave her an opportunity to comment and ask questions, she made a confession, how she has been bullied by her friends. The fact that she is chubby has been the subject of a bully. I was impressed by how calm and confident she was when telling the story. She did not let it become a burden to her and she has been facing it with smiles. What a positive personality. I was in awe.
Another young man came to me with hesitation. In the beginning, I did not see his strength for he talked slowly and was lack of substantial points. Until one point during the interview, he could not stand and cried for no reason. It turned out that he was feeling guilty to his parents. “I am now 22 years old, Sir,” he said, “but I have not yet made my parents proud of me. Not even once!” he added. I could sense a complicated mysterious relationship between the young man and his parents. I suddenly could see a typically uneasy relationship between a son and his father. It flew me to visit my childhood and teenage years. I had a mixed feeling.
I interviewed around 50 people and each had his/her own story. I imagined that I would need to spend my time asking questions and evaluating people’s quality. In short, I imagined at the beginning, that I would have to teach them this and that. It turned out that I was the one who learned a lot from those young men and women. I looked back, I realized that everything is worth the trouble. The fact that I needed to fly from Jogja to Balikpapan, sail in a boat and ride in a car for four hours, was not a sacrifice. I regret nothing. Instead, I am grateful for what I have witnessed in Paser. I could feel the energy of hopes and dreams of those young people in Paser.