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.