Debugging our way around Sumatra

I last wrote from Padang, where we were looking into the state of the technology and looking to see if NGOs responding to the earthquake there needed help with it. What we found is that the technology needs were well in hand, either because the needs were not dire or because people had what they needed already. We met the operator of a small wireless ISP who educated us on where he buys equipment, how much locally purchased things like towers cost, and so on. It was a really excellent visit.

We also talked to the field coordinator for the MSF Beglium emergency team working in West Sumatra. She told us she was getting along just fine with her laptop, her cell phone, and a cable that let her access the Internet with GPRS. In fact that night at the airport we saw another young woman doing the same thing. There is also the much faster 3G over CDMA Internet service here. Getting info about the price was difficult and confusing, but it is clearly the right tool for disaster relief workers. If you have CDMA service in your area, then it is hard to beat it for ease of setup and take down. This is the same lesson that we learned in New Orleans, where Verizon’s 3G wireless service kept an Internet cafe online at the Common Ground Collective for many weeks.

Here’s where we went in Sumatra: we hired a driver in Padang and went the long way to Bukit Tinggi via Solok. We witnessed quite a lot of destroyed buildings, but the earthquake response was in full gear and both the government and the International NGOs had what they needed to get the job done without us sticking our nose in the way. From Bukit Tinggi, we drove back down to Padang. In addition to being educational, the drive was extremely beautiful.

Next we flew to Medan, which is a quite modern city with a western-style mall. It was interesting to see what things were available in the Ace Hardware store, and in the Acer and Nokia company stores. We moved on from Medan to Banda Aceh. After just a short 2 hour plane flight, I felt like I was in a different world, kind of like being back in Liberia. Aceh was under-served by government for 30 years during the struggle for independence, and it shows… but only on the surface. The economy and the local government structures are all working fine. The other thing that is evident about Aceh is that the economy is still fueled by the NGOs. About 80% of the cars at the airport had NGO logos on them, and I even got to see one of my beloved HZJ78 Land Cruisers, which I haven’t seen since I left Liberia.

Our hosts are International Medical Corps. They let us stay in their guest house in exchange for doing some IT work for them. We worked a few days, cleaning up computers and adding a DHCP server to the network. Their VSAT connection, at about 128 kbit/sec is fast enough to be comfortable. I proposed to speed it up some by adding a ClarkConnect server, but the site manager was unwilling to add something new to the network before he leaves in a few weeks. Fair enough.

We spent a nice weekend at Pulah Weh, where we got to see where the expats go for weekend breaks. The food was ok, and the snorkling was pretty good. The bathrooms were typical Indonesian ones, which don’t take much getting used to once you have mastered Moroccan toilets. There is a diving center there that looks very nice, and I am considering going back there for a bit of a vacation to take my PADI Open Water certification, if the work slows down. Though I think I will take a van instead of a motorcycle next time: I was chased by a really mean monkey, and I don’t want to face him again from the back of a motorcycle!

We caught the regular IMC shuttle down the coast to Lamno. The site manager there had recently sent a request to his boss to have an IT guy come from Banda. Since Jon and I were in the neighborhood, it made sense for us to come on down.

Lamno is a village on the western coast of Aceh, about a 2 hour drive away from Banda. It has a relaxed atmosphere, and because the main street was set far back from the ocean, it survived the tsunami relatively untouched. Of course, like everywhere along the coast, many people died, but the infrastructure survived and that has made it a good base of operations for NGOs, which in turn is good for the local people.

Here the VSAT is only 64 kbit/sec, and you can feel it. They were already using Windows Internet Connection Sharing, so we were able to simply replace that not-very-good NAT and DHCP server with a much better ClarkConnect server. The result is better NAT and DHCP, a transparent web proxy, and a file server which people can use to share documents. The web proxy was the biggest improvement. We can see in the logs that we are getting lots of hits to the cache, especially on the graphics used in Yahoo Mail, which is the primary mail provider for the staff. Every time something is served out of cache, it feels faster to the user and reduces the demand on the satellite link. The other thing we have done is convert most people to using Firefox with Adblock Plus, further reducing the bandwidth by stripping out many ads.

While we were here, another NGO asked if they could put wifi gear up to share the Internet connection. I did a little feasibility study to make sure their equipment would be professionally installed and not conflict with what was already here, etc. I was pleased to recommend that they set up the link as soon as possible.

We have cleaned up lots of viruses and trojan horses, and confirmed that all the computers are using DHCP and getting the benefit of the ClarkConnect server. We will move on soon, perhaps along the coast to Calang, or back to Banda where we have a meeting with a potential client on Saturday.

One really pleasant thing about working in Indonesia is that people constantly drink dark, rich Acehense coffee (kopi aceh), and contantly offer it to you. So we enjoy a cup of coffee now and then during the day. This morning, Jon and I discovered a great breakfast place where you can have a donut or a little pastry with custard in it. The man brewing the coffee does a theatrical job of filtering it and pouring it into the cup. You really have to just come here and see it, I can’t describe it.

The weather here in Lamno is better than in Banda. There is a nearly constant breeze, and the temperature seems to be a bit lower breeze or none. The sunsets are great, and up above the orange horizon you can spot gigantic fruit bats with wingspans of at least 3 feet making their nightly trip from the caves at the ocean up to the mountains to feed. Being fruit bats, we can’t count on them to eat the mosquitos. But something must be eating them, because there are not many bugs here at all.

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