Monday, May 15, 2006

Mountain and villages surrounding Merapi

I spend a great deal of my reporting time here sitting in front of a computer waiting to here back from editors. Filing a spot takes several steps. First, an email to ask if the network is interested. Then the answer. Then one writes the script, sends it, and waits for a reply. Since phone calls cost about a dollar a minute from here, I also have to plead a little bit for the editor to their editing without a phone call. Radio editors like to hear the story read over the phone before you file it, and they want to do edits with you live. But hopefully they just send an answer back with some changes to the script. Then you have to record the thing.

Recording in a quiet place can be an epic problem. Here I’ve been recording in a storage closet full of Styrofoam computer packaging. I put a shirt over my head and close the door to protect against unwanted echo. My mic cord is not very good at the moment, so it sizzles if I don’t stand very still. It’s hot in the closet with the door closed. Then I have to import the recording into my laptop, delete the screw-ups, and cut it into smallish WAV files to be emailed to the network. Emailing a 1 megabite file can take up to an hour, though I was able to reach breakneck speeds of 20 minutes per megabite Sunday night. Last night it took me more than 2 hours to file 4 megabites.

For a 45 second story, the whole round trip can take nearly 6 hours. Most of that time is spent watching for a response. I’m often afraid to leave the room because I want to keep my response time to a minimum. I’d rather be out reporting. I’d rather go to the volcanology center and ask for an update. There are people I can see from here sitting on the peaks of their houses, looking toward Merapi. That’s where I want to be most of all.

Hey everybody.
It's Jason from daydreamthief.
I'm doing some guest blogging while my friend gets some rest.
I had encouraged him to try this experiment when he told me about the frustrations and difficulties of being a freelance reporter.
I can't/won't speak for his personal experiences.
He'll do an excellent job of that soon enough.
But I would like to open up some sort of forum for discussion on this topic of alternate resources for the dissemination of information.
I can't imagine what it must be like to be on the other side of the world, trying to make a living hustling information to the rest of us while dealing with earth shaking natural phenomena, language/cultural barriers, politics, money, technology, corporate media, etc.
There has to be a better way to do things.
I think a few brave pioneers are starting to lead the way.
People like Josh Ellis, Christopher Albritton, Kevin Sites and others are pushing the boundaries of who can report the news and how to deliver the stories that mainstream media is missing.
I'd like to think that Chad is among that group.

So what do you guys think?
Is this nuts?
Can some guy go to opposite side of the globe and count on ordinary people to help him discover new ways of telling a story?
Are we all high on web 2.0 fumes?
Can an ordinary person make a difference with the enough talent, the right tech, and boundless curiosity?
And if we netizens can make a difference, then what?
What are you guys curious about?
You have someone sitting in one of the most amazing places in the world during the most amazing times in human history. Your eyes and ears.
How many have been near an erupting volcano?
Who would you talk to?
What sounds would you record?
What real human stories would you want to read about?
How much would that be worth to you?
A buck? Two?
-How much did you spend on that newspaper so you could play sudoku?
5 minutes to post a reply or copy down a link and put it on your blog? You do have a blog, right?
I'm just a poor college student with a wife and two kids, but I can do something. I can help him with code and tech hassles. I can shop his blog around and try to generate some traffic for him. I can hunt down those other pioneers and ask them for advice and encouragement. I can hijack his blog and write long rambling posts.
I'm going to break down my revival tent now.
Everybody take 5.
Then come back and do something!

(image via voyager @ under creative commons license)
As I mentioned earlier, yesterday I went to an evacuation camp to talk with people who’ve sought shelter outside the risk area. When we pulled up to the converted elementary school, a circle of TNI soldiers greeted us with smiles. They’re all used to the media attention, but seemed a little surprised to hear that we were reporting for America. I’ve had several discussions here that go like this. Reporter from America? Really? Aren’t you afraid? Don’t the Americans think we’re all terrorists? Not me, I say. I know most people in Indonesia are good people. Just a few mean ones, I say. But why don’t you tell all the tourists to come back? They say. Okay, I say; I’ll try. At the evacuation camp, surrounded by soldiers in jungle camouflage, I ended the conversation by saying: but can you take me to the terrorists, please?

The camp was small and cramped, with two thousand people living elbow to elbow on the floor of the classrooms. There were 30 people in the one we visited, and there were children running around everywhere. People staying there are from the mountain villages, and most of them haven’t seen a lot of white faces up close. We were certainly the focus of amusement during out few minutes there. We talked to Ibu Lis, whose husband was still up on the mountain as of Sunday afternoon. She told us that she’d been staying in the shelter, on the crowded floor of the classroom, for 10 days. She said she hasn’t had any income at all since the evacuation. Only government help, she said. I asked her if she was worried for her husband. Of course, she said. Farming can be dangerous work.

Outside in the courtyard, we crouched next to a circle of women who were packing food in plastic bags for the evacuees. A huge metal pot of something called sayor. Green beans, potatoes, in a very spicy red sauce. They insisted we try some. It was fantastic. They wanted to give us more. We tried to refuse. Something very weird about taking food made for emergency evacuees. Our translator from Jogja refused to try it, and was obviously concerned about the sanitation there. I recorded our conversation with the volunteers, who were obviously found my Bhasa and my recording of the sayor pot very amusing. I’m interviewing the sayor, I told them. You can make up your own mind about their reaction by listening to the audio link below.

A group of women preparing a traditional dish in an evacuation camp near Mount Merapi

I could see glowing lava and a huge plume of volcanic ash spewing from the mouth of the beast this morning as dawn broke in Jogjakarta. It’s not yet clear if this constitutes an official eruption, but the awe and worry I feel this morning is as palpable as the growing plume on the horizon. I know people up there. People I like. People in Kaliurang who have refused to leave their animals and homes behind. Yesterday, I talked with the wives and children of some of those people staying in the evacuation camp. I find myself wishing it’d all be a false alarm.

The good news is that it seems to be reaching its eruption stage slowly. The ash and heat clouds have seeped out, the goats have started coming down the slopes, and with them many of those who stayed behind. If it erupts slowly, most will be safe. I certainly want that more than the story I came here to tell.