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.