Monday, July 18, 2005

In London after the bombings

Ok, so seeing as my sister has yet to ban me from posting despite no longer being anywhere exotic I’m taking that as indication that she so deeply enjoys my writing that she wants me to keep posting.

Hello from London!…where the bombings continue to dominate the news and the plucky Londoners continue to get on board bues and the tube without batting an eye. It really is something the way they’ve rolled over the incident as though it were common occurrence. However, it is in keeping with their national character that displays no public emotion under stressful circumstances until some seemingly random tragedy sets the country off and then displays public emotion wholly out of all proportion to the actual event - ie. the death of Princess Diana.

Last night I went to dinner with friends who live between the Liverpool Street and Altgate East stops and they were completely preoccupied with the latest questions on the investigation and not at all concerned that the trains being picked out of the tunnels were ones on which they normally travel to work.

The thing that has been most interesting is the desperate attempts on the part of the BBC to not label it ‘terrorist’ attack. In fact, the words ‘terrorist’ have been retroactively removed from BBC articles and the incident is generally referred to as the ‘London Bombings’ - the explanations that I’ve heard about this is that the British have become so accustomed to finding fault with themselves and saying mea culpas for colonialism that they have a hard time believing that anyone would attack them without valid reason and that somehow it actually is their own fault.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

From Ukraine on the Orange Revolution

Apparently, my sister has forgotten to change the password settings which still allows me to post! (Lucky, lucky YOU!)

Am no longer in Indonesia - PRAISE THE LORD! - but am in Ukraine and thought I would send an update on the scene here from the U.S.’s new best friend - sorry UK.

I was last here in November, immediately prior to the second election of orange revolution fame, and was curious if upon return I would find the country different…well, at all. I have to admit that I was skeptical. The U.S. is notorious for getting behind the revolution du jour and then forgetting about it while the new government slides into the same corrupt pit into which the last one lived. Then, six or so years later, we rise indignant shaking our head and wagging our finger and help a new government ascend the throne. It’s a beautiful system, actually, we feel good about ourselves and isn’t that what’s important? I digress…

The question remains how is the orange revolution doing six months on? And, in my opinion the answer is, surprisingly well. The first noticeable change was at the airport where passport/customs control operated like a civilized group of human beings rather than a thuggish group of hoodlums. EU citizens don’t even need visas in the summer months. Orange is still everywhere, on buildings, on scarfs, in kiosks, on flags, on clothes. Investigations are being carried out into shady business deals from the previous government. The currency has stabilized and is strong against the dollar. Yushenko (the funny looking guy who was poisoned and then elected) has cleaned house - even the social services people with whom we deal are new. The last thing - and the hardest to quantify but the easiest to notice - is that people are less afraid. A sort of apathetic gloom that has pervaded the atmosphere for at least 10 years has lifted. Things just ’seem’ more open, happier. Obviously, none of the things I’ve mentioned are significant policy changes or promising hard data on improvement but as a barometer for how the country is doing I’ll say it’s on the better side of good.

So what does it all mean? Well, it means that Ukraine is going somewhere. And, most importantly, that somewhere is not Russia. A friend of mine referred to a recent article she’d read that said Kyiv is the new Prague. I think that sums up quite a lot. Ukraine, at the moment, sees it’s future with Europe rather than Russia. Hopefully, it will get all the help it needs to carry on down that path.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Back from Indonesia

I arrived back in DC late Monday night - having left in a blizzard and returning to summer – which made me feel as though the weather had decided that spring just wasn’t worth the effort. Apart from someone kindly declaring a federal holiday there wasn’t much fanfare for my return. A Chinese woman on the plane next to me puked on my feet when we landed, which robbed me of that thrilling moment of touching down on American soil.

It was strange to leave Indonesia just when things in the relief effort were getting started and my three months there seemed both very long and very short. The past months have blurred together in a whirl of helicopter flights, stories, articles, earthquakes, snorkeling, and housing and fishing projects. At the end of it, I find that most of the work I did was on a computer in an office - mundane and removed from people’s lives. It never quite seemed to live up to the romantic moniker, ‘humanitarian aid’ it had been given.

I’m still trying to come to terms with the time I spent there. It is almost impossible for the mind to grasp a disaster on the scale of what took place on December 26th. I have yet to read any articles, or see any pictures, that illustrate the sheer enormity of death and destruction. Perhaps that is why my mind draws inward and clings to small things – tokens, really – that have become symbols of what happened. On the desk, as I write, sits a small, white, plastic chess piece. It is still partly covered with mud and dirt. I found it, half-buried, at the beach near Ulee Lheue where we used go on Sunday afternoons for a swim. You couldn’t help but find things at Ulee Lheue. Sometimes we found toys, or clothes, or parts of houses. Sometimes we found human bones, which made me feel as if we were part of some morbid treasure hunt. But I kept the piece because it reminds me of a person, an individual, who used to play with it. It takes the catastrophe down to a scale I can understand. I like chess and so did this anonymous person who was perhaps playing with it the day the wave swept in and washed everything away. Without these sorts of symbols I find that I can so easily forget that the tsunami was something, which happened to people – to individuals. People like us, with families and friends and chess sets. People who quickly become numbers when anything appalling happens.

It was at Ulee Lheue that one afternoon we met Arief who had sat on the shore watching us for some time before chopping up a wild watermelon and bringing it over to share. He used to live near the beach with the rest of his family, who were now all dead, in a large house with a job. Now he had nothing. He spent his days fishing with another survivor and lived in a makeshift tent made out of tarpaulin and driftwood. Yet, he grinned and joked with the children and shared his watermelon with us. He embodied the sad resignation that you met everywhere and also the notable lack of trauma. People were grief-stricken and heartbroken but they weren’t traumatized. Most NGO’s that dealt with trauma had packed up and left by the time I went home. (Along with many medical NGO’s - people had either been killed or had minor injuries, there was no need for long-term care.) Why weren’t people traumatized? I don’t know. It is one of the questions in my mind that remains unanswered. All I know is that they weren’t.

Of course there are other astounding things. Like the staggering amount of money given to rebuild – amounting to thousands of dollars for every tsunami-affected person. Take Aceh, by way of example, a forgotten little province on the far side of the globe, engaged in a war about which no one really cared. Then, an earthquake, a wave, and overnight the government have no control and the place is flooded with money and crawling with foreigners. (In my more cynical moments I thought, “if only Darfur or Burma could be so lucky…”) I often wondered what the children in Banda Aceh must have thought. On Christmas Day last year most had never seen a foreigner and now we were everywhere. (Human beings, though, are nothing if not resilient and most of the kids took quickly to shouting, ‘ehhh, Mista!’ at us as we drove by whether we were Mr.’s or not.)

There are parts of Indonesia that I will miss. I worked with some great people under tremendous pressure to pull off impossible things chasing ludicrous deadlines. And, there are parts that I won’t – rice three times a day, the oppressive heat, the constant feeling that something alive was crawling on you – only to discover that it was.

I am getting used to being back, the changes in weather and driving on the right (read: correct) side of the road. It’s almost as if nothing has changed. Almost. I still feel earthquakes and tremors most of the time and instinctively look up at anything hanging to see if it’s swaying. I still find myself thinking about the view from the plane window flying into Banda Aceh where the coast is wiped clean and about what it might have looked like before. I have discovered, after three months without CNN or BBC that life goes one perfectly well without it…in fact, I’m happier knowing less.

I wish the people of Aceh well. They have suffered a lot. Not only from the tsunami but also because of a war that most wished was over. I hope that one of the outcomes of this tragedy will be that they get to live in peace. I hope another outcome is that this international focus and investment will change their lives for the better. I wish that so many other countries and places in our world that will never have a tsunami.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

How you know it's time to leave Indonesia

1. You see a chicken crossing the road and you spend a good ten minutes seriously considering why the chicken was crossing the road.

2. You’re so tired that you can sleep in any sort of contorted position in any sort of vehicle driving on any condition of road.

3. You’ve reached that special state of zen so that even when your driver decides to play chicken with a TNI army semi it doesn’t phase you.

4. The malaria medication runs out.

5. It drops to the low 90’s and seems cold.

6. You forget what warm water feels like…or why anyone would want warm water for anything.

7. You walk into a western-style toilet and have to stop and think how to use it.

8. Batting mosquitos with an electrified/glorified badminton racquet has become your idea of a ‘well-spent evening’.

9. The thought of eating another kernel of rice makes you physically ill.

10. You can no longer tell if you’re actually in an earthquake or imagining it…and you don’t really care.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Awash in Cash

Apart from the maddening heat the thing that is the most annoying here is the feeling that something is always, always crawling on you. And then to realize that's because something IS crawling on you. Ants, mosquitoes, flies, spiders - there's always something crawling around/on you. There are these particularly large kind of ants here that can't be killed by stepping on them. After you lift your foot there the ant is looking kind of dazed, perhaps with a broken leg or two, dragging itself off to mount a new attack with all its little friends. So in an attempt to get away from things crawling on me and the constant chatter of living with a gazillion people with whom you spend every waking hour, I headed for the roof. It was there, three stories up, waiting for the next big earthquake melt the place into a pile of rubble, I realized how absolutely absurd this disaster is. No kidding. I just spent most of the day writing a proposal for $700,000 of a $2.5 million grant that we're already guaranteed. Now, I don't know about you but in the sane part of the universe you write the proposal and then ask for the money...and you usually don't get it. Here, we're getting the money and then coming up with proposals because we've got to spend it on something. People can't get rid of their cash fast enough. One NGO has several hundred million to spend and are building schools - no lie - without using any nails. Just for the sheer craftsmanship of it, and the fact that they can afford it. Contractors come back with bids and we have to tell them that it's too cheap. How are we supposed to spend all this money? The UN has addressed this problem with even bigger, better outfitted cars. All their cars have snorkels so they can fjord deep rivers, or survive the next tsunami, I guess. There aren't a lot of deep rivers around here. I suggested more staff retreats on Bali.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Jesus loves the goldfish too...

So, don't tell him but we're killing them by the bucketload. Our logistician just walked through carrying the latest victim. I think the main problem is that we cleaned the fish pond (never clean ANYTHING is my general rule! Nothing good ever comes of it!) and refilled it with water from the well that was made brackish by the tsunami. Ooops! Oh, and there's also no aeration so the poor little things are up on the surface gulping oxygen like, well, like goldfish. This is all very interesting to me mostly because I have a head injury. This weekend a bunch of us went to Sabang (get a map and look it up) to snorkel and lay around on beautiful beaches. On Saturday we rented a boat to take us to a waterfall up in the dense jungle. It was pristine and beautiful and all the things that waterfalls hidden in the jungle are supposed to be but on the way back down I slipped and - to use the phrase of our Alabaman friend here - 'cacked' my head on a rock. Gash across my chin, concussion, lucky to be alive and all that. Everything would have been fine but it got all infected and with no hospital nearby I had to visit the International Red Cross with refugees. I'm telling you that you don't know how good you have it until you have to sit in a hot Red Cross trauma tent surrounded by all sorts of unmentionable injuries and Norwegian doctors trying to attend a screaming child who is dying of malaria. The child goes off to the ICU tent and the Norwegian doctors dope me up with all sorts of meds you can't get anywhere else in the world without a prescription (I knew I loved the Nords for some reason.) And I hope all of this explains why I'm sitting by the fish pond totally fascinated by the slow and untimely deaths of our little friends.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Pigeon English

Today, I’m standing in the Medan airport checking in for a flight to Banda Aceh. Of course, they don’t have my reservation so I explain in pigeon English to the clerk the reason God invented ticketing. It must have been the concept with which he was struggling because my pigeon English was perfect. The conversation went a little something like this:

Me: We pay you money so I fly.

Him: No reservation.

Me: Understand. We pay you money so I fly. We no pay you money so I sit in airport. No standby. Standby no good.

Him: You name no on list.

Me: I understand. Why we pay you money?

Him: You buy ticket?

Me: No, I no buy ticket. Administrator buy ticket.

Him: Name no on list.

Me: You fix.

Him: Wait 30 minutes before flight.

Me: We call that standby.

Him: Yes. Standby.

At which point - and the real point of this story: a guy walks up and tries to get onto our flight with—I’m not making this up—an AK47 and handgun that he sets on the counter when he hands his ticket over to the clerk. I dared to hope that this might pose a security problem but then remembered where I was. I don’t know the exact definition of “lax” but the security in Medan’s airport comes pretty close. Sure, they don’t check ID, sure you can carry knives on board, but we’re talking guns here. I mean, c’mon, we’re not in Iraq or Afghanistan, surely you can't just get on to flights with automatic weapons here - oh wait, yes apparently you can. The compromise that seemed to have been agreed upon was that he could carry the weapons but not the ammunition. (Yes, there were actually bullets IN the guns) and I watched the security guys take the bullets out of the gun and—wait for it—hand them back to him. Apparently, security here are of the “guns don’t kill people, bullets kill people” school of thought. More later—if I’m not gunned down mid-flight.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

What I did today

Good morning boys and girls. I’m writing in to say that I’ve already lived the day you’re just beginning and it’s not a good one so take my advice, and go back to bed.

Woke up this morning under my mosquito net with only the prospect of a dirty well shower. There was nothing edible for breakfast. USAID has pulled PACTEC’s funding which means we’re losing high-speed internet in Meulaboh (WAY TO GO US GOVT!!). Wrote a touching piece about a woman having a baby on a rooftop in the midst of the tsunami. Had some water buffalo for lunch. Had a brief walk between the house and office where I got yelled at by every passing vehicle “HEY MISTA!! WHAT YOUR NAME?” It’s worse than Italy here. Found out a crucial flight out of here tomorrow was canceled and spent the better half of the afternoon at the Red Cross, Samaritan’s Purse, misc. airline offices, trying to chase down/schmooze my way on to a flight. Chartered a plane in the end. Canceled the charter. Will spend all of tomorrow at the airport trying to get on a flight and am now sitting in about 110 degree heat being eaten by malaria-carrying mosquitos at 9 at night imploring you to just skip today and head straight into Wednesday.

Thursday, March 31, 2005

From Meulaboh

Felt like I reached a turning point in my trip here today when I poured a bowl of cereal this morning that was crawling with ants. I thought to myself, do I throw it out and eat hard white bread and jam, or do I ignore the ants, pour the milk on and get on with my day. I went for the latter.

My sister kindly pointed out that I had failed in my last posting to talk about our most recent quake. So, here it is. We had a brutal earthquake! It was like nothing I'd been in before and we actually had to run for the doors. I have become the resident seismologist because I called it closest at a 7.8 while everyone else was insistent that it was around a 6.4. The title means that I get to speak with authority and overrule everyone else who's spouting off about upcoming quakes or seismic activity.

Apart from that I'm now in Meulaboh sitting outside the UN tech tent listening to the mullah's wailing the prayer call. Kind of relaxing, actually. Flew in today with the South African helicopters. Pictures below.

Devastated coastline...

In the helicopter...

Our ride...


Took a UN helicopter to Meulaboh. Here’s what waiting for 3 hours in the blistering sun looks like.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Ferries are finished

"Ferries are finished." The phrase kept coming to mind as I bobbed along for three hours on a fishing trawler somewhere in the 'Sea of Bastard Currents' between Sabang and Banda Aceh. ("Remember," Arief, our logistician had laughed the day before when dropping us off, "If the boat sinks then just try to float and you will wash up in Thailand or India eventually. Don't swim. The currents are bad.")

The Indonesians use the phrase 'finished' to describe whatever you want that they aren't going to provide. "Chicken tonight?" "No. Chicken is finished." In our case the ferry back from the island where we'd gone snorkeling was 'finished.' Well, not finished exactly, just not coming back. It had decided - ferries have a mind of their own here apparently - not to come back for the rest of the day and to go to Meulaboh instead. Pequito problemo...our boss and the VP of the NGO was flying in from Jakarta to meet with us that afternoon. We were already pushing it by going on the trip at all. Now we were stuck until the following morning.

But wait! The local fisherman standing around were curiously well-informed of our predicament and volunteered to ferry us across in one hour for a mere $50. We trooped off in the blazing heat to look at the boat. It was beached, lurching precariously to one side and without engine. We looked at each other and tried not to laugh. "So, who's going to be rowing?" someone asked.

The next fisherman insisted that his boat was in better condition so we trooped back to the beach where he and one of our group sped off on a motorbike to see it. The crossing home was supposed to be a 45 minute journey, or 10, if you had a helicopter - which is when I remembered the Russians. The Russians had a helicopter and they spoke very little English. All of which bodes well for our group who have no helicopter but can speak Russian. They were based at the airport and ferrying in relief supplies for the UN. So, off I go to the airport.

"No Russians," the Indonesian army guy tells me after I wave my badge around and pretend to be someone with some semblance of authority. "Russians are finished."

"Do you mean they aren't coming back or that they're all dead?" I asked and the driver thankfully didn't translate.

"Russians come back tonight. Fly to Banda tomorrow."

"So basically there's no way we're getting off this island tonight?" I asked.

I stare at the army guys. They stare at me. The driver makes motions to indicate that our only way off would be by swimming.

Back to the beach where the rest of our group has consulted with the head of program who has forbidden us to get on a small fishing boat and cross the sea. (I suspect he was more worried about having to explain why and how we were drowned when the fishing boat went down than about our safety, but I digress.) We resigned ourselves to being stuck in paradise for another day and potentially being fired. An hours drive later we're back where we began at the dive shop where three Germans sit smoking. I tell them our story and they stare at me in the matter-of-fact, slightly patronizing way that only Germans can.

"We have a boat," they say. "It's leaving in 15 minutes. Right there." They wave to the pier where a large fishing trawler is docked.

And that, my friends, began my three-hour tour.

The Beach on Sabang

Hanging out in a head scarf

Monday, March 21, 2005

Some pictures...


Some pictures...

Some houses destroyed by the tsunami.

Friday, March 18, 2005

To summarize...

Humidity. Mosquitoes. Earthquakes. Yep, that pretty much sums up my week. Oh, and one massive - albeit beautiful - report. I just returned from the PACTEC office (where there's high-speed internet) and I sent off this thing of beauty to the powers that be. I'm sure that it will bring me, and my teammates, all the fame and fortune, acclaim and accolades that we so richly deserve. Barring that, I'm hoping for a simple acknowledgement from HQ.

Anyway, on to the fun stuff. Earthquakes. This week we've had some dooseys - all from 4-6.1 on the Richter scale. Having grown up in California I consider myself something of an earthquake veteran - meaning that I have a very well developed plan of action when an earthquake rolls in. Mostly it goes a little something like this:
1) Wake up.
2) Think to myself, 'hmmm, earthquake.'
3) Wait for it to stop.
4) Go back to sleep.
See how well that works? None of this running and screaming for me, thank you very much. You might wonder why this hasn't been adopted by most NGOs as their official plan. Well, I'll tell you why.

One of my colleagues was doing some research on fault lines and, according to some very smart people, the earthquake that caused the tsunami (8.9) put so much pressure on different places along the fault that we're in for another massive one. According to these brainiacs there might be another quake that will cause another tsunami off the coast of Western Sumatra or directly under Banda Aceh. Yes, you heard it here first.

But did that convince me to run for the door at the first sign of shaking? No, maybe if you grew up in Idaho, or Arizona, or one of those other misc. boring states you might bolt for the door. No, what it took to convince me was after yesterdays quake - while we all sat staring at each other - there was a loud pop from the second floor of the house which turned out to be a crack running across the house. My room is on the first floor. I quickly became a convert to running and screaming. I'll report back in on how this new plan is working.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

the latest from Banda Aceh

Sundays are the worst. There's no church and so we spend the entire day trying not to work. However, since it's a Muslim country, everyone else is out and about their business and nothing is closed. So, today we (me and the two other expats here - two Brits and a Canadian) decided to get out - just drive and see what we could find. Since I'm the only one with an international driving license the driving fell to me. We headed out in our blue Kijang and found a restaurant in the part of town still standing. It wasn't a particularly good restaurant, according to the locals, it just happened to be one of the only ones still standing. Another good example of location being everything. Indonesian food is quite good; a lot of seafood and fried noodles and rice. After lunch we found a couple of MSF and UN vehicles across the street at the other restaurant in town so we're hoping that there's a place better than where we ate. Next, we decided to try to find the 'tanker' and headed toward the beach.

The destruction wreaked by the waves is vast and terrible. The series of events on December 26th went something like this: the earthquake struck and loads of buildings just crumbled then. The largest supermarket in Banda - four stories - collapsed on itself and that collapse was repeated all over town. Next, came the wave which hit these weakened buildings with such height and force that it was like being hit by a 6 story high car going 35mph. This rolled inland over the island and also bent around the tip and hit the eastern side. So those who lived at the tip got hit from both directions. The wave carried on inland at such height and filled with debris from the coast into the 'flood' zone and if you couldn't get high enough or were trapped in buildings then you drowned. This wave receded to be followed by two more waves.

The neighborhoods closest to the beach have been completely leveled. Nothing remains but debris. A bit further in is more debris and some standing structures that looked like they've had the bits bombed out of them. Further in, more buildings are standing but are covered in mud and debris. When you walk around the remains of these neighborhoods you notice first the personal affects - the broken tennis racket half buried in mud, the little green bottle, the child's marble, the blue hanger tangled in rebar with a yellow dress still hanging on it. All the things that made up thousands of peoples' lives.

We eventually found the 'tanker' which has become something of a novelty destination. It's an immense offshore generator on a tanker that mysteriously washed up about two miles inland and plopped down on top of about three houses - crushing them completely. How it did this without wiping out all the houses between it and the beach is a marvel and speaks to exactly how high the water was. People were on it when the tsunami struck and are still living on it now. It sits there, placidly, in between some remaining houses, looking like it had every right to be there.

Wanting to see the southernmost beach we could get to we wound our way through the destruction - passed from time to time by the Indonesian army who were still out collecting bodies and found it uproariously funny that a woman would be driving a car. GAM guerrillas control the mountains to the east of the road and so the army patrols are heavily armed and have checkpoints along the way. We drove south along the coast with much of the area already having been bulldozed into piles that have spontaneously begun burning in the heat. Mass graves are dotted along the roads. We got as far south as a concrete factory before having to turn back. The coast is gorgeous. The sea the bright blue green for which it's famous and the surf looked stunning. If it weren't for the tsunami and that little civil conflict this could be one of the most beautiful spots on earth.

Friday, March 04, 2005


Indonesia is humid. I know that comes as no surprise to those of you who own a map but the reality of it is quite a different thing than the knowledge of it. And the strange thing is that there’s no other season. It’s hot and humid year round. No need for a change in wardrobe with the season the weather just stays the same and, at times, it rains more. In Medan now.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

The Terminal

So, if you were going to choose any airport in the world in which to spend a quantity of time (read: 9 hours) then Singapore Changi is definitely the one! Free internet access, free movie theater, gardens, fish ponds, helpful staff who hang around at two in the morning to offer advice and direction, plenty of places to sit and sleep. As long as one doesn’t spit chewing gum on the carpet you’re sure to have a wonderful time.

Monday, February 28, 2005

For the record...

It is a bad idea to try to go to Indonesia without an Indonesian visa. Correction: More accurately, it is a bad idea to trust that the Northwest Airline flight agents will know anything about Indonesian visas and let you board your flight without one…despite the fact that you have to be IN INDONESIA to get one and they do know that. I won’t classify this as an international incident but it was close. Still in DC. It’s snowing here and I’m dressed for 85 degree weather.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Greetings, Earthlings!

This is not Kristin and I am not writing from Idaho. (Praise the Lord!) However, I am Kristin’s sister and am writing from Washington, DC where I am about to leave for Banda Aceh, Indonesia. I’ll be three months there doing tsunami relief with an undisclosed organization - lest I get fired for my postings. For your reading pleasure, I will be posting from time to time about the wild and wacky time I’m having in refugee camps, or with the government, or with the GAM guerillas. Stay tuned…