In summer of 2012, I took a leap of faith and flew across the world with a one-way plane ticket to Southeast Asia. I always knew I wanted to work in the developing world, though I was not sure where or how to specialize. The life work in which I was seeking always felt just out of my grasp –like I had the key and all I had to do was find the lock, which was hidden somewhere in this vast world and it was my duty to locate it. What was it? Where was it? And for whom was it for? These questions led me around the globe for several years in search of a polar and essential truth – water.
In December of 2012, I was sitting with Swami Shuklasharia at his ashram high in the Himalayas. Where we sat was 50km from Tibet and 50km from Nepal. We were looking at Mount Kailash in the distance, where many Indians believe to be the place Jesus went to study during the unaccounted years of his twenties. The region felt powerful, and though I am not religious, I liked the idea of that particular place being influential. What I was looking for was monumental. I told Swami I had a question and I was looking for an answer and it was what brought me to him. I recall telling him I had this pulling to do something with my life, something meaningful. He asked what that meant and I told him I believed I had the potential to help people who were less fortunate than myself. I told him maybe I could work for the United Nations or something to that effect. He looked at me, with his wise, still eyes, and thoughtfully said, “If you are able to do that, then you must.” “But how?” I eagerly asked, believing I may have found the answers to which I had been seeking. “Only you will know,” he said, turning the question back to me. “Wait”, I thought; that response got me no closer to the truth I sought and instead left me feeling incomplete and unsatisfied. I was looking for answers. That is why I traveled to the top of India, why I was sitting on the peaks of the greatest mountain chain in the world, by myself, with a fifth generation swami. Answers, dang it, I was seeking answers! Yet, I felt as if I were right where I started.
Years went on and I found myself visiting over 30 more countries in search of this relentless yearning for my path. What was it?
At the end of 2014, four friends and I made the epic journey to the most southeastern island on the Indonesian archipelagic chain. The island which we were going to was Pulau Rote.
A little back story.
The Dutch colonized Indonesia, and during the silk trade Hindu Indians influenced the development of Bali. However, the rest of the country was later shaped by Islam. Indonesia has the fouth largest population in the world and has the largest Muslim population It is one of the most underdeveloped countries in the world, ranked 113th by the United Nations Human Development Index, in large part due to its geography and the remoteness of many inhabitants. In a predominantly Muslim country, the little island of Rote is Christian, which I always found interesting. The story, as I understand it, is there was a Portuguese ship that was lost. When a sailor went ashore to ask where they were the farmer he encountered pointed to himself and said ‘Rote’. The sailor mistakenly took it for the name of the island, though it was really the name of the farmer. But the name stuck. The Portuguese continued to visit Rote and made it a frequent stop during passages to the East and consequently shaped its development, thus creating a Christian state. I find it so fascinating how religions in regions come to be; throughout my travels I have realized it is single-handedly the most influential part of a country, especially in the developing world.
Back to Rote; my friends and I were headed there from Thailand to meet another friend from New Zealand. I hadn’t met this Kiwi bloke yet, but our mutual friend informed me he had started a grassroots organization there by the name of Friends of East Indonesia. As soon as I heard that my ears perked. I asked a hundred questions off the bat, which my friend Rhys hadn’t the answers. He just said he’d put me in contact with Ed.
Ed Elliot, who quickly became my Kiwi counterpart, started Friends of East Indonesia to help address the lack of resources for schools and clinics in the southern part of the island. I told him I wanted to get involved while I was out there and asked how I could. At first, I started raising some funds from my friends in Thailand. They were to be used to purchase school and clinic supplies. However, the more I learned about Rote the more my priorities shifted. I learned that the largest celebration a Rotanese will have in their life is their first birthday as they made it past that threshold, as many do not. You see, Rote has an extremely high rate of child mortality and morbidity. The more I learned of the issues at hand the more it pointed to poor water quality. I figured what good are school supplies if most children aren’t making it to school age and clinic supplies seemed more like a bandage than a solution. I, for one, like dealing in solutions.
The anecdotal evidence I gathered from the locals led me to believe the region was dealing with naturally occurring heavy metal contamination. This compelled me to spearhead a crowdsourcing campaign to purchase a reverse osmosis and UV light water treatment plant. Through friends’ and family members’ generous donations, we fully funded and purchased the facility in early 2015. I worked with the locals to design a sustainable business model around it. We sell the treated water to surf-tourist who frequent the island and any locals who can afford it. That revenue goes into maintenance and providing free drinking water to over 10 school and 3 churches every week. That equates to over 6,000 children whom now receive free drinking water weekly. I went into this project hoping to reach maybe a few hundred kids, not in my wildest dreams did I think we would reach so many!
This endeavor is what led me to graduate school at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, where I am pursuing a Master’s degree in Environmental Management with an emphasis in water resource management. I am focusing on water science, mainly chemistry, and am doing my assistantship with Dr. Avner Vengosh in the Vengosh Geochemsitry Lab. My partners and I are looking to scale-up our efforts in Rote and other islands in East Indo, but how we do that will depend heavily on what the actual constituents in the water are – chemical or biological? It may very likely be both. My hypothesis, however, is that due to Rote’s geology, wastewater is infiltrating into groundwater/drinking water and is thus the culprit of child illness. This summer I will be out in Rote collecting samples to check for both inorganic contaminates as well as biological, and will be sharing my experiences here.
I hope you enjoy the ride!
Looking back, I see now that Guru Shuklasharia was right, I did know the answer, it just took me a while to fully understand it, and that answer to which I travelled the world seeking to understand was water. Water science and management is how I will give back to this world, and I will start with lovely Pulau Rote.