Monday, October 20, 2014

Sumba Island - PhD, professional hole diggers

Our flight to Waingapu on Sumba Island was preceded by a shipment of four sets of seismic equipment via ferry.  We scrambled to organize the shipment in Kupang, giving us a day to fly to Sumba.  We arrived in Waingapu to meet a local contact that was recommended to us while we were on Savu Island.  Umbu, and his friend and driver Ule have proven to be valuable resources.  They know all relevant details in and around the island, and have connections all over the place. 

Our first day consisted of the common procedure of going to the Bupati office, then police and government affairs/permitting offices.  We had time to travel south to the village of Melolo to scout our first site.  The drive displays remarkable evidence for our purpose of researching the region: beautiful sets of uplifted coral terraces contour along the coastline.  The story is elegantly displayed by these terraces, appearing to be a giant staircase that marches uphill from the shoreline.  As the island has been continuously uplifting in the recent geologic past, coastal coral reefs that were once alive are stranded above sea level - one after another; these reefs are perched and progressively elevated as the next cycle moves on.

Oblique Google Earth view looking SW towards the Sumba coast.  Waingapu on left, the NAPU station on right.  The drive between traverses the most spectacular coastal terraces i've ever seen.  Each dark surface was formerly the shallow coastal shelf, but uplift of the island keeps them on the move upwards like a coral escalator.

A close-up of the coral, these are easy to find when walking around in this terrain.

Enough distraction from the spectacular geology, we are here to dig holes!  The next day while we were still awaiting the arrival of our precious equipment, we traveled north to the far northern point of Sumba (also along the same coral terraces), to Napu village.  We had time to dig, as we needed something useful to do.  Less than 10 cm, there was no more soil, and the coral was hard and ever-present.  Sparks flying, sweat dripping, and hefty swings of the digging bar yielded a beautiful hole.  No problem.  We returned to Waingapu to pick up our equipment from the local BMKG office and prep for the next day. 

We set out for Melolo with hopes that we would install the station and then head back to Napu to install a second station.  It would likely be the only opportunity to install two stations in one day.  This proved to be far from reality.  We began digging and quickly encountered very hard rock.  A few hours later, we had about a half meter deep hole that was laboriously crafted by Cooper, a few local men, and most importantly, the most bad ass grandmother one can imagine.  She deserves a separate entry in this blog, for now I will just mention that when the digging became tough, she pulled out the chisel…

The hole finally was ready, and we began the rest of the install.  We had the sensor in the ground and built a beautiful stone tomb for it to silently record the Earth’s inner secrets.  BUT, we found it had been disturbed upon burial.  We dug it up, re-leveled and re-centered it, and were not satisfied with its stability.  After deciding to mix up some concrete and building a more stable platform for the sensor to rest upon, we had to accept that rather than completing two stations, we completed zero.  Good times, nothing like a good ol’ fashioned slice of humble pie – in scorching sun no less.  We will return the day after next to finish it off.

The next day, we returned to Napu with one extra crew member.  To further foster our relationship with BMKG in Kupang, we flew out one of their staff members.  Now riding with six people and a station’s worth of equipment, we were crammed into the field vehicle.  No problem, good thing I practice some yoga and Nova is petite.  It was a good thing that the hole was dug already; we needed four hours to install the equipment under hot, dry conditions.  Despite the conditions, it always feels good to finish off an install, and so we headed back to Waingapu to get ready for and early departure to go back to Melolo. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Bigger picture

A quick view at the regional context. The image captures most of Indonesia, Borneo, southern Malaysia, Australia, and Papua New Guinea.  In the center of the map is of field area, the islands surrounding the Savu Sea geographically referred to as Nusa Tengarra Timor, a province of Indonesia.  Timor Island, our current location, is composed of West Timor, Indonesia and the independent country of East Timor.

Pay close attention to the ocean bathymetry, especially in the Indian Ocean (bottom left corner) and the transition to the shallow sea that is north of Australia.  This step in ocean depth directly captures a major goal of our research - it represents the presence of dense oceanic lithosphere in the west versus the relatively buoyant continental lithosphere in the east.  The entire swath of lithosphere is moving northward towards Indonesia, then subducts below all of the southern portion of the country.  
In the western part of our study area, the Indian Ocean lithosphere descends into the Earth in a normal manner, producing a fairly typical subduction zone that gives rise to famous volcanoes throughout Java and Flores Islands.  In the west, the continental lithosphere (a northern extension of Australia) is colliding into SE Indonesia, producing what amounts to a spectacular geologic bulldozing.  We seek to analyze this spectacular configuration through combining research in seismology, geochemistry, geomorphology, geodynamics, and structural geology... it will truly be a challenging effort, but rewarding in the end.  
Often, when geologists research old tectonic environments where rocks of different age and origin are juxtaposed, they refer to the complex configuration of eastern Indonesia to illustrate their interpretation.  Even the most open minded of geoscientists may find it hard to accept that this region is composed of such a entangled web of microterranes and plate boundaries.  As such, we much continue to pursue understanding of the region, and so we move onwards...

Big Fish

The Savu Sea is a fertile cradle for fish mongering and, too, fish devouring.  You cannot, in good conscience, visit Kupang and not pay a trip to one of the many fish markets to sample the local stock. The fish are displayed in a sort of fleshy rainbow that boasts everything from smaller specimens, usually sold in groups of several, to single behemoths fit for a hungry family. You'll find red snapper, white snapper, tuna, and dozens of other brightly-colored beasts I can't name. After you've picked your prize you can either take it home raw or, as we'd recommend, pay a few thousand rupiah more (about 1 USD) to have it prepared for you on-site. Ikan bakar (grilled fish) and ikan goreng (fried) are the two main fares. Either can be as pedas (spicy) as you like, depending on how many Thai chilies they use during the cooking process - more is better! When it comes to the eating, hands-on is the best approach, no utensils necessary. These fresh treats are served with all the bones, eyes and skin included (no guts, of course), so digging through them with a fork feels a lot like trying to crochet in boxing gloves.

Nova and Leland getting their hustle on haggling for some red snappers.

Ten points to whomever can name the turquoise one.

High quality installation on Savu Island

Amidst our planning for more lengthy trips to install groups of stations, we made a point to check off one of the journeys to a remote island in the far south of the array – Savu Island.  This location may prove to be especially important as it sits directly above the major transition in tectonic regimes that lie to the east and west.  At the time of planning, the small flight that travels there was out of commission, so we were forced to ride the ferry to get there.  This option was good for the safety of our equipment and only took about four hours in good conditions.  The limitation of traveling by ferry pressed us to try to finish the day we traveled there so we could catch the return ferry to following day rather than wait two more days to catch the next return ferry.   This made for a difficult beginning to our diplomacy efforts.

The dock in Seba city, Savu Island. Five minutes prior, the whole dock was bustling with people.

Our equipment waiting to be picked up by BMKG.  Nothing more enjoyable than sitting in the sun while guarding our precious booty.

The BMKG office in Kupang called ahead to the small field station in Savu to inform them of our arrival and request some help with transportation and other logistics.  We arrived in the Savu office to present our project and seek rapid progress.  This forceful approach was met with great resistance from the local directory, Pak Elliot Robe.  He has a lot of pride as an island local that has made his way into a high-level position at BMKG, and was not impressed with our insistences.  One major issue was that the Bupati office (highest level of regional government akin to county governor) closes at 3pm daily, and we had missed that time.  The Banda team reconvened and agreed to take a different strategy, essentially relaxing from our eagerness and dialing in to island time.  This proved to be the correct approach that set forth the following day and a half of great success.

Pak Daniel arranged for us to stay at his home and adjacent hotel accommodation – he needed to free up some space in the hotel as it was unusually busy due to flight cancellations.  After we talked further at the hotel and shared a few sips of the locally produced whisky (made from palm sugar), sopi, Pak Daniel further warmed up to us and decided to take us out to a potential station site.  We made the trip under his guidance and began to have a look at the interior of the island.  Geologically, this short 5 km inland trip was interesting – we rose from the coastal floodplain into dissected young sedimentary formation.  It is clear that these sediments were recently closer to sea level (the former coastal floodplain and alluvial deposits) and the ongoing rapid uplift of the region has lifted them to form the current topography.

The next morning we met the Bupati, Pak Marten Tome, in his office to acquire permission to move ahead.  He was smart and quick to understand our efforts, and appreciates our goals of research and collaboration with Indonesian institutions.  He pointed out that a dam that is under construction near our previously surveyed location might give us unwanted noise, a clear indication of his insightfulness.  This led to a recommendation to go further inland and higher up in topography to install.  We arrived at the install location under escort from Pak Elliot, the Kelurahan (regional office) staff, and the local village (Ranyale) leader.  The owner of the property greeted us and led us around their land to help us select a good install site. 
Installing went well, Cooper and I stayed to build the site while Nova and others returned to the Bupati office to obtain permission letters and bring back some food for lunch (bungkus, ‘take out’).  The location is quiet, away from any roads – essentially meeting all of our requirements for a good seismic station.  During the install, a young boy climbed high up into a coconut tree to pick us some treats.

Look closely, this kid can climb.

It is worth the effort, these young coconuts are very refreshing on a hot day. Nova agrees.

Wrapping up the install. BMKG Savu staff member Pak Jerry working on fence as locals look on.  The owner's house in background, along with the coconut tree shown in other photo.
By this time, we had been informed that the airplane back to Kupang was back in operation, and Pak Daniel arranged for us to fly back the next morning.  We were back at the hotel before sunset and had a great night of discussion and imbibing.  Other residents at the hotel were professors and students of science from Java that were making their annual rounds of teacher training efforts.  The group leader, Pak Karimoto, is especially charismatic, providing us with excellent anecdotes of Indonesian culture in and around NTT.  We enjoyed more sopi and went to a local restaurant for some spectacular grilled fish and chicken (ikan bakar dan ayam bakar).  Pak Elliot even showed us how to wash our hands when we were done!  He was in full parental mode at this point, by then we had forged a close relationship that will be fun to further explore as the project moves along.

The way back to Kupang was achieved by flying in a small 12 seat prop plane.  These small flights are often piloted by relatively inexperienced pilots who are “earning their wings.”  The flight went smoothly until the approach to Kupang.  Traffic at the airport forced us to buy some time by circling around – this took place is a moderately strong cross wind that provided some turbulence…nothing too far out of the ordinary.  The remainder of the day was spent preparing a shipment of 4 stations to Sumba Island, and some preliminary preparation for a shipment to Flores Island – more on that later.

Receiving the safety lecture before boarding. 

In transit while leaving Savu Island.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

A fortunate blackout

There was a blackout during one of our routine grocery runs and when the power came back on after a minute or two we assumed it was over. These rolling blackouts are common here in NTT and most are pretty brief. What we didn’t consider was that this was actually a much worse and longer blackout since we first learned of it at Hypermart.  The power quickly came back on as the store is equipped with its own generator. When we got back to our apartment building, we discovered that the power had been gone for about 30 minutes and nobody was holding their breath for its return. 

Some of the tenants were hanging out in common areas chatting in the glow of candles and phones. Among these candlelit socialites was our beloved teammate Nova and our neighbor Adi, whom none of us had met previously. Adi, as it turns out, is from the city of Waingapu on the Island of Sumba – our next destination for sensor deployment. His English was more than good enough to give us advice for working (and eating) in Sumba and entertain us with stories about Borneo (Kalimantan) and Sulawesi before he insisted he treat us to dinner at his favorite local Chinese restaurant. Over dinner Adi bonded with us and shared tales of his travels around East Asia and warned us of the irresistible temptresses of Sulawesi as well as the malicious black magic of betrayed lovers in Borneo. He also opened up to us about his family and experiences in business, as well as his enjoyment of discussion with new people.  The food was delicious (as was the hot tea served in mugs) and no plate was left unfinished despite the engaging conversation. By the time we got back to our place the power had come back on and we could doze off to the heavenly drone of our air-conditioners, happy to have made such an interesting and generous new friend.

A happy group at dinner, including our new teammate Adi.

Psuedo western shopping

Shopping in the larger “more Western” stores in Kupang is like trying to find groceries or construction supplies in a wild rave. The two largest stores in town are a sitcom caricature of a Wal-Mart, called Hypermart, and a schizophrenic impression of a Home Depot, called the Sinar Bangunan. The Hypermart is most easily accessed by flagging down ojeks (motorcycles for hire) or scooters who will give you a ride directly to the store for a fee usually under a dollar (about 10,000 rupiah).  The ride there can be terrifying at first but once you’ve got a good grip on the bike and start to relax it can be a lot of fun. Zipping along in a current of mopeds, some of which have up to 4 people on them, and similarly overloaded cars like fish, by the time you get to the store you’re almost sad the ride is over. Be careful about overpaying your driver; many Indonesians are extremely uncomfortable about being tipped or overpaid because the extra money seems more like swindling to them and cheating people out of money here appears to be very taboo. Upon entering the store two things become immediately apparent: the radio (mostly Western pop music) is well beyond uncomfortably loud and there is an employee-to-customer ratio of approximately 2. The platoons of brightly dressed employees wander the aisles and cluster around the register, some desperate for something to do and some apparently lost in what little thought the blaring music can afford. It’s hard to think under any circumstances with Katy Perry throttling your skull but in a store with an organizational scheme that is still largely a mystery to me and in another country with very little local language at my disposal, I find it nearly impossible to concentrate. 


Experience the joy of Sinar Bangunan...

In Hypermart, Past the overflowing shelves of skin whitening products, towels sold by the kilogram (really), and next to the display of salad dressings packaged in Ziploc bags there is a mountain of delicious juices that makes the whole dizzying adventure worthwhile. I’m especially fond of guava (which also happens to be a handy home remedy for fever and warding off malaria) but there’s a type of “Jungle Juice” for everyone. I’ve all but given up on finding nice peanut butter and/or cow milk but the Hypermart boasts an impressive stock of sumptuous candies (Silver Queen cashew and chocolate bars are my favorite thus far), apples, and ramen! As a Westerner, shopping here entails being ogled by the staff and customers alike throughout your hunt and especially at checkout. Weighed down with bags and dreaming of the exotic fruits we just bought, we typically flag down some more motorcycles and hitch a ride back to our apartment building, holding the groceries somewhat at arms length to the sides and drawing many a smile and “Hey, Mister!” from the locals doing exactly the same thing. Whereas the Hypermart is both tolerable and essential, the Sinar Bangunang hardware store is truly excruciating to visit and worse products at higher prices than the local supply shops so we don’t go there anymore.

Pure satisfaction, a perfect contrast to the sweltering heat.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Road Trip in West Timor – Jalan jalan

We took on two of the four installations that we can pursue by driving directly from Kupang.  BMKG provided a vehicle, staff member (Jesse), and a driver (Jacob).  Between the five of us riding along with our equipment and personal bags, we had the truck at full capacity.  Leaving Kupang at 6am, we managed to travel east to the town of Kefamenanu to begin level 3 and 4 of the permitting process.  Our farthest destination was on the far SE of the Indonesian portion of Timor Island, the province of Malaka.  This region is in the process of breaking away to form their own province, yet they remain under authority of the Atambua province – this is what we discover upon arrival to Kefa.  Given this uncertainty, we were not exactly sure how to proceed.  Because Kefa was the targeted location for the second of two stations we planned to install, we sought out a local location to achieve some sort of success for the day.  This ended up being a loss of time, as we were taken to army grounds, then the house of an army officer, and finally the house of the army officer’s sister, all resulting in no progress  

A bit of strategizing and eating a very late lunch led us to decide to push on to the remote SE location to follow up with a connection provided by BMKG Kupang.  The 40km of travel to arrive in the village of Betun ended up being a 4 hour journey! Road conditions are very poor, and the mix of vehicles on the road significantly slow down any hopes of quicker passage.  Fortunately, Jacob is capable and has a high tolerance for this sort of work.  This was truly a trying jalan jalan (i.e., ‘road trip’ as poorly transcribed from bahasa in movie subtitles). We arrived in our hotel, quickly put up mosquito nets and proceeded to sweat out all available water in our bodies overnight. 

The next morning began with a call at 6:45am to meet with our local contact to find a site.  The result was skipped breakfast and rushing out to find a suitable location.  Ultimately, we travelled a little to the north to climb out of the sedimentary basin we stayed in overnight and located a nice site adjacent to an ecological preserve that hosts a large Teak tree forest.  This site is hosted in the back yard of the local leader of a small group of housed in the community.  Once we talked through the possible points of concern about the site over the upcoming two years, we went ahead with the installation.  This location was built out of a colluvial wedge shed off of the overlying topography or uplifted fluvial terrace deposits – the whole soil column is full of large cobbles and boulders that are moderately welded together with precipitated carbonate.  As such, digging the hole for the seismometer and putting fence posts in the ground required herculean efforts.  Cooper took on blisters on nearly every corner of his hands, and at least six locals helped out to move us along.  The sun was especially intense during the entire five hour install, with no wind or shade of any sort to provide relief.  Nova and Jesse has went back to Betun to complete our permitting and bring some food and water.  The water was absolutely necessary by then, and food was difficult to stomach in the heat.  Nonetheless, the station was completed (after a few other minor delays) and we were very happy with the station quality. 

Station in Betun after the install.  BMKG staff driver Jacob on far left along with the local crew.  They helped us build a concrete support for the solar panel stand.

The subsequent discussion and saying of goodbyes was particularly interesting, mostly due to the infrequency of bules visiting the area.  Cooper was particularly good with the crowd that gathered around the installation, working to make progress on his ability to speak Bahasa.  Time will tell if he has committed himself to marrying one of the village girls – they certainly seemed to be putting the pressure on as much as possible despite the language barrier!  It was all a very positive interaction, and it will be great to return to gather data over the coming years. 

We wrapped up around 3pm and headed back to Kefamenanu to stay the night.  We tried a different (supposedly better) route back and found it to be just as treacherous as the previous road.  My back and kidneys decided they had enough of the severe dehydration and provided a formidable symphony of pain to accompany the rhythmic sway of the truck slowly smashing across the rough road.  Good times.  ** side note: any time some sort of heightened discomfort sets in, there is the joyous search for diagnosis.  “Maybe its malaria, or dengue, of typhus, or bad food – crap, shouldn’t of ate all those chili peppers, or dehydration, or …” Might as well be all of the above **

The hotel in Kefa was a savior to arrive at.  By then, Cooper’s stomach was feeling off, but a spectacular lunar eclipse tempered our general malaise.  For 20 minutes we watched Earth’s shadow encroach on the light of the moon until only a smoky dark orange hue barely illuminated our closest celestial body – indeed an awe inspiring experience. 

The next morning, we headed back to the Bupati – the governing body for the province/regency – to obtain letters to install the second station.  They required us to submit the full project proposal that successfully obtain the grant to do this work, which felt like more of an arbitrary hurdle than anything.  I’m sure they are sleeping better at night knowing that Thorsten Becker is going to model global mantle circulation and its contribution to dynamic stress induced on the regional lithospheric system.  We moved on to our targeted location 10 km south of Kefa in the village of Noemuti.  Nova’s wheeling and dealing in Kefa allowed us to change our plan at the last moment to get to Noemuti, and we were led to a good location.  It was hot again, but not nearly as intense as in Betun.  We carried all of the equipment up a small slope to install on a local topographic high point.  As with most location, dozens of locals emerged out of the surrounding area to watch us work and then ultimately help out with some of the labor.  The digging and post pounding was much more accessible this time, and we had the station in in about 3.5 hours.  Towards the end, a little glitch in the data recording required the need to keep the crowd occupied as we did some troubleshooting.  Speaking through Nova, Cooper provided an excellent summary of why we were there and what this type of project can do to help out Indonesia.  They seemed to strongly respond to his point that this region of the country (NTT – Nusa Tengarra Timor) has been somewhat neglected by seismic installation – most instruments are in Java and Sumatra.  This was a strong point of connection, at least three generations of locals were on hand and at least half of the nearly 30 people in attendance were young children.  Much more could be said about this experience, this summary only captures some of the high points.
After the install of the station in Noemuti.
Working maps of the deployment.  Top is the whole Banda array, red symbols are installed stations, 8 in Timor Leste and now 4 in Indonesia (Rote Island SW of Kupang and 2 on Timor, NOMU and MALK).  The blue circles are planned installation sites, the orange and green symbols are stations that are part of the Indonesian and German networks.  Bottom is a zoom in to the Kupang area.