Archive for May, 2006


May 31, 2006

There is what remains of a becak in the middle of this photo. A bicycle-carriage, this vehicle was undoubtedly the only means of transport for the family that lived in this house, by their ricefield, some 20 KM from Jogjakarta. The man in the family must have powered it into town nearly everyday, to the tourist centers or near the better restaurants or hotels, where he waited most of the day for the one, two, or three transport jobs he would get. The he would power it back home to his wife, and/or children, and/or grandchildren with the $1, $2, or $3 dollars his calves and hamstrings had earned him. Meanwhile his wife did what was necessary at home and in the fields, of which they were certainly tenant farmers, getting 25% of the harvest every three or six months. They wee not in evidence when Yuli caught this sight — The question is only which bit of sky are they sheltering under nearby, and how many others are with them, in the same plight?



May 31, 2006

Elsewhere, it was complete and utter devestation, with countless people on their sleeping mats, if they were lucky, or the wet ground or road, if they were not, awaiting tents, tarps, blankets, towels for baby blankets, any kind of nourishment, in ad-hoc homemade shelterless community “shelters”. And this, on Day 4.


May 31, 2006

Their house is rubble. Somehow their makeshift barnyard stands. Now, they live with their buffaloes. No motorcycles, strong children, food, or money.


May 31, 2006

I find this the most harrowing of Yuli’s pics. The reason you can barely make out the dwellings on the other side of this paddy is because they are not there. Yuli found this scene repeated throughout her drive yesterday. There are no dwellings, and the farmers here, tenant farmers, have no transport, and will be able to retain only 25% of this baby rice crop when it is harvested… in two months. The quake hit at the end of the month, which means they have no money. And no aid has found them thus far.

Pictures from Sat through Monday are below the narrative of the last few days, which is next.

Saturday: I feel the Earth Move

May 31, 2006

Mom and Claude aren’t even back in Maine yet, and boy have they missed some interesting times. Of course, it’s easy to say that now, but I think I’m glad they weren’t here to deal with the morning Yuli and I have just had.

We woke up in the same instant at about 6 AM, and even before our senses got the message through, we knew what was happening. Sort of. Aside from the feeling that heavy trucks were rumbling underneath us, outside the bedroom door we heard a hundred bells softly ringing, as if a troupe of collared cats were performing a ballet.

And it didn’t stop. A scream outside our window. A few voices. It didn’t feel like going anywhere (like outside) would do much good. I waited there, holding Julia, figuring if the ground was going to open up and take us, it would do it there, outside, or wherever it darned well chose, and so far the walls were fine and the ceiling wasn’t crumbling. Later I would identify this thought process with the one I had as my car was spinning out of control in my one and only accident back in 1998, and with my attitude to terrorist attacks. Later still I would realize that we didn’t leap out of bed because I was identifying this terra indigestia as a less dangerous tremor associated with our pet volcano, Merapi. Of course, that’s what I was thinking. Yuli claims that I was comforting her with repeated “It’s gonna be okay”s, she was thinking, “I’m not dressed decently!”, and so we remained in bed.

Eventually, it did stop, but this was no small short thing. I don’t know how long it lasted, or how strong it was, yet, but it was plenty strong enough. When it stopped we became aware that the electricity was off. We opened the bedroom door and found the pictures still on the walls, the chandelier now still and silent, but speakers on the floor and other pictures knocked over. Outside, there was no damage to be seen, and the neighbors were gathered nervously about. Upstairs from the balcony we could see a few broken windows across the street, and beyond them a much larger burst of gas and smoke cascading down Merapi… the Earth had burped.

I became conscious of running water, and wondered whose pipe had burst… it was mine. Miraculously, security came round on a bike at about the same time, and had a guy there to put a new spiggot on within fifteen minutes. Best service I’ve ever had here. He also told us of a house in the development with serious damage. We took a walk around, and I remembered coming up from the basement after tornadoes in Oklahoma City in 1969 or so. We found the house, and judging by the intactness of the houses and windows on either side of it, my guess is the owner will have some serious complaints to file with the building commission.

And then the fun really started. Got back to the house, hungry, and with the sweat just beginning to rise. No electricity, and the water break cost me the full tank of water above the house. No cell phone access, no way to know what was really happening. On top of that, there was gas for one pot of tea, and there would be no gas deliveries today, I was sure. But the phone lines were up, so we called the hotel, booked a room, and put a few things in some bags. I could go back later and collect the work for the weekend in a taxi. For now it was Yuli and me on her motorbike… which had very little gas.

Just before we left for the quick trip to the hotel, her sister called the home phone saying the beach area 20 km south of town had been hit by the quake and a Tsunami, and her family in that area was heading to town. A little panic in their voices, but a cousin in her house reminded them we are 300m above sea level here, so nothing too bad related to water can really happen. However, people here remember Aceh in their bones.

We pointed the bike towards the hotel and headed out of the development… Just before the gate, the family that runs the convenience shop ran out in a panic screaming “Air!” — that’s the word for “water”. And you know what that means. We paused, but continued for the hotel, only to meet a mass evacuation heading the other way… and that was enough for Yuli, and she was driving. So there we were… caught up in the panic on a motorcycle with virtually no gas, and there was none to be found in the mass exodus. My laptop, scanner, music, camera, and phones were between my legs behind Yuli, and two of her bags were on her knees. We began twisting through a maze of thousands of twisting vehicles on narrow streets, heading for the hills… AND WHAT? … the active volcano spewing massive noxious 500 degree gas clouds and heavy lava floes. Nothing much made sense about that movement, and I felt pretty sure, despite the rumors of where the water was already, that this was just a panic… but nobody knew anything, and we couldn’t go–

Ok — I had to interrupt that sentence … a big aftershock ran through us … Everybody (but me) just fled the hotel, and Julia ran after them with a camera, but the tremor has passed. I’m not panicking, not even close, but I can tell you that I don’t think you’ll find me living in California anytime soon.

So I was saying, we couldn’t move well against the flow of traffic, which was even going the wrong way on one-way streets with the encouragement of police, who also knew nothing about what was going on. (More than two hours later government spokespeople managed to tell everyone to turn around…)

Eventually, we didn’t want to go any further without more gas, and we began to see one or two people coming the other direction saying the situation was safe, so we pulled over and watched the show. A couple of nice people came out of the house where we’d stopped and talked to us, and a couple of other motorcyclists pulled over and joined us. Soon just the cars were left pointing out of town, stuck and unable to turn around. The motorcycles had all poured back down the street. We realized we could coast most of the way down the street with the bike in neutral, and we did, and soon found a tiny gas station had opened and was doling out rations to bikes in need. We then braved the mess of traffic and police (and probably thieves), and finally gained the hotel at 9:30, 90 minutes of weirdness after leaving the house.

And that’s been just the first 4 hours of this Saturday. Mom and Claude should be landing in Portland right about now… how wild the world.

Tried to send the above a couple of hours ago. Internet down, of course. Maybe it’s back up now. Waiting for our room to be cleaned before check-in, met a nice British Embassy couple who’d had a similar morning. Not taking the Tsunami thing seriously, but they hopped in someone else’s car and allowed themselves to be driven north to the nearest traffic jam as well.. you know the water was moving a lot faster than the jammed traffic… but you still had to be doing something while all around you beautiful barefoot people were panicking.

Now it’s far later, but most of you are still sleeping anyway. No taxis anywhere (those that weren’t digesting their personal damage had all gone to the nearest functioning airport, 30 km away in Solo, for the lucrative relief convoy runs), I found a becak (the bicycle coach) to run me home and back with the books and equipment I needed to prepare Monday’s workshop. 6.2… 1500 dead … two of Yuli’s family’s houses are gone (pictures sure to follow), processions to cemeteries. My house is in Northern Jogja. The earthquake epicenter was 15 miles south of where mom just bought all her batik. We were sooooo friggin’ lucky it ain’t funny.

Sunday: My City of Ruin

May 31, 2006

By Sunday evening Yuli had finally broken down. It had to come. Amid sobs of “Why did this happen to my city?” and “I don’t want my city be like Aceh! The people have nothing now, and they are so poor!”, we digested our day, and the previous day, while we watched the death toll rise on TV.

We’d spent the day mostly apart. This weekend she was due to be supervising the packing of a shipment of fountains and lights, and their “stuffing” into a cargo container, but had been unable to get a response from her stoneworker, Roni, who lives in the South, all day Saturday. I’d had similar bad luck contacting Cahya, the Head Librarian responsible for my workshop Monday AM. The operator continued to return a “the number dialed is currently out of range.” Memories of riderless cellphones 9-11 and the Tsunami began to nag.

Over breakfast at the hotel I urged her to get on her bike and drive to him, and we stuffed a lot of fried chicken and bread from the buffet into a bag for her to drop with her family on the way. I got to work on my presentations, feeling naggingly cutoff from life like the journalists in the Hotel Saigon so long ago. My British Embassy friends were of like mind so we arranged a taxi to drive us into the trouble around 2:00. Meanwhile Julia text-messaged me the following: “I am at Roni house now. Poor Roni…” Left me wondering who was dead, what was standing.

She arrived back at the hotel just before Nick, Alex, Emma and I climbed into our taxi to go where she had just been. Yuli showed me pictures she had taken. Roni’s house was dust, the fountains that would have been safe if shipped a day earlier, destroyed, but his family intact. But she didn’t talk about it. Her face and body were still, very Javanese.

So Yuli stayed behind while the four of us headed by my University en route to the south. The campus is undergoing a thorough reconstruction, and several buildings had just been completed, but it was difficult to tell the new from the old, except for the fact that the older buildings were generally in better shape than the brand new ones. Mine, the Language Center, didn’t look too bad, and I looked forward to heading back and inside on Monday morning. Further south, the devastation began to get more prevalent. A new mall not open three months (and disgracefully misconceived anyway) would have to be leveled and rebuilt. An abandoned private Economics University leveled. Numerous one-room structures built between sturdier shops now spilled into the road.

We passed the café where Yuli and I met 7 months ago. Roni’s fountain lay collapsed in front of it, and then we hit the intersection marking the gateway to the sea, some ten km on. One lane each way, vehicles were at a standstill. One or two relief convoys and several ambulances sat stalled, lights flashing and sirens going, amid the flow of private cars and motorcycles carrying mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, and children loaded with boxes of noodles, powdered milk, water, and blankets to their kin. My embassy friends grew a little angry that the authorities themselves were doing little more than blowing whistles and chatting with voyeurs, rather than blocking all non-essentials from this road, one of only two connecting the stable north with the desperate south.

Not wanting to add our taxi to the blockage, we pulled over and walked a bit further. Soon it was impossible to make any more progress. Our imaginations filled in the blanks for what we couldn’t get to up ahead. My friends had enough info to update their office in Jakarta. On the way home we did see ONE store open for business, and undoubtedly doing very well. Guesses? Photo below.

Back at the hotel, Yuli and I reconnected for the meltdown. She’d been devastated by what she saw at Roni’s, and felt guilty that she hadn’t brought any food or drink with her when she went to find him. She looked at my photos, which stopped short of the total devastation she’d reached in less traffic on her motorbike earlier in the day. She saw the rain coming out the window, and told me that her family had moved to a leaky tarp on an adjacent football field for the night, because they were still afraid to sleep under their roof because the tremors, though weak, were still coming (My stack of books was now a heap in the hotel room). Yuli’s Jakarta-based kin had established contact, but had not yet offered shelter (as if anyone in her Jogja clan could get to J-town anyway).

As she sobbed, shivered, and shuddered in my arms, I began to realize that my spacious three-bedroom house, paid up through October, would inevitably become an oasis for a bundle of people we haven’t identified yet; the street outside the house is already clogged with the cars of similar refugees.

Later we went out to the poolside café and rendezvoused with the Brit-pack. Surreally, most of the cafe had been taken over by a 30-strong tour group of elderly Dutch tourists freshly arrived by plane and tour bus from Sumatra, on a two-week cruise through Indo. They’d been out to Borobodur Temple that morning! They drank, ate, smoked and talked loudly utterly disinterested in the disaster the rest of us were processing! It was truly offensive, especially because by the end of the evening, around 11 or so, the hotel had run out of beer and most of the appetizers and entrees on the menu. Thus, we began to remember reading about how the worst phase of a disaster tended to make itself apparent a few days after the disaster itself. Restaurants and nearly all stores had yet to reopen… and the supplies of the lucky were running very low.

Meanwhile I was still getting the same automatic response when I called Cahya, and I’d seen and heard enough to know that my normal work week, this one the busiest of my year here, would not go ahead as scheduled. So I used the last minutes of the hotel’s last wireless email voucher to cancel the morning’s workshop, even though I knew there was no need to make it official. Yuli and Emma, one of the Brit Embassy folk, made arrangements to head south in the morning for a survey with relief boxes on Yuli’s motorcycle.

Back in the room, Yuli was asleep in less than 2 minutes, and me very shortly after

Monday: Reason To Believe

May 31, 2006

I called Cahyati again and got the same response. Yuli and Emma stuffed lunch sandwiches made from the buffet into Yuli’s bag, ate breakfast and headed south. I packed up the room, checked out of the hotel, and began the wait for a taxi, present now, but rare. I ran our stuff home, then went to the site of my workshop, intent on finding Cahyati (whose name means “the light”). At the seminar site, the American Corner of Gadja Made University (UGM), Indonesia’s largest and most famous, I met the Director of Libraries as he came out of the building. We had talked several times, and he and Cahya took me out to lunch recently as thanks for a year-long teacher training seminar series I’d volunteered to do for them at their library.

He glanced up at me and did not recognize me. When I offered a salutation to his hunched back, recognition dawned. He’d returned from Singapore on Saturday via Solo (it was a holiday weekend) and found his entire family on the street. His house was badly damaged, but still there with water wells functional and safe. Cahya was far less lucky. Her phone was destroyed by the roof and walls she dodged when she and her family fled their compound in the morning. But she and her family are alive, at least! He told me there was nothing left of the house, and she had been by his two hours before looking for food. Another of the library staff had still not been located, most of the Univerisity staff lived in the same area and were in similar straits, and he was extremely concerned. I left my number and a note for Cahya, and headed to my University, not far away.

There I found my office building in far worse shape than I’d expected, and learned that the jewels of the University, the mosque and Rectorate, had been condemned. However, only one of my colleagues had experienced significant damage to self or property. My office looks like it’s been searched by the ATF, and there are ominous cracks all over the place, but other than that… I’m only guessing now that all the planning we’ve been doing and locking into place will be postponed indefinitely…

Back in the taxi, I headed home with nagging concerns about Cahya and my lack of action on the relief front. Impulsively, I told the driver to head back to the UGM library. The librarian drew me a map that would lead to Cahya’s Kampung, adjacent to the nationally famous Jogja Silver Market. He said “next to the silver market look down a narrow alley where there are no houses left. She lives there.”

I found a few kilos of rice, a carton of cookies and drinking water, and headed to the Silver Market, past a couple of empty army personnel jeeps, and on to the most depressing sites I’ve yet witnessed with my own eyes. Dust clouds everywhere. Most everything devastated and nothing completely intact. We turned right at the market and, as per the map, looked for near-total destruction across the street. Sure enough, there it was…

I stopped the taxi, got out, and began looking for people at the scene. I passed a group of soldiers focused on clearing the debris in front of one and only one relatively undamaged home. “Hello, boss,” one of them said as I worked past them. How much had the homeowner paid them to do this? Not finding anyone, I turned down an alley showing nothing but rubble, and began making my way. Eventually I came into what was now a courtyard, but what two days ago had been the entryway to two homes on opposite sides of the street. The front walls and ceilings had crumbled and been somewhat cleared. Now there were sleeping mats laid out in the sun, and bits of brick everywhere. Up a little further, in a bit of house with a roof that still offered piecemeal shelter from sun and rain, an elderly couple and two grandchildren waited out the heat.

When they saw me they smiled and rose. Using body and Bahasa Indonesia, I apologized for my intrusion and their situation, and told them who I was looking for. By there response, I knew that this was they way everybody found each other here. They ran a few similar names by me, but they didn’t match. I told them where she worked and what she did there ( I HAVE learned a bit of the language after all!). By this time several other members of their Kampung had appeared, and a younger man told me he knew some UGM people lived closer to the Market.

There were so many smiles there. How quickly these people adapt to their condition. Like Yuli said yesterday, they have so little, and are so poor! They lose their homes, which they’ve been building piece by piece for generations. They lack secure access to water and food. And yet they smile because things aren’t worse than they are. Let that be a lesson to all of us.

I headed back down towards the market, and stumbled up two more alleys, reenacting the same encounters. Eventually someone I talked to knew exactly where to find Cahya’s dwelling. I looked where he was pointing and saw nothing. I stumbled on and made a right where he’d pointed, bowing to an old, gap-toothed couple on a makeshift swing swaying in the midst of debris piles, saw a door jammed shut on two-thirds of a wall, when a voice called from behind me.

“Tom?” And there she was. She led me back a ways and I realized I’d missed her and her sister and mom in their garden, such as it was. When there houses collapsed, Cahya’s family expanded instantly to include her walled-off neighbors on three sides. Now there were 75 of them, sharing tarpaulins, one or two intact toilets (without direct water supply), and a large, brand new courtyard where there had been rooms. The working cell phone belonged to her father. I stayed a few minutes, surveyed the damage, delivered the food, got a list of what they really needed (powdered milk for the children, rice, batteries, flashlights, candles, and sugar), took some pictures. Sure would be easier to be a child. They ran around, shouted, flirted with my camera (and my buleness). Cahya smiled, though she and her family were obviously exhausted, and said, quite sincerely, “at least we are alive.” Her father waved at the truly impressive bamboo and tarpaulin shelter they had lashed together and said “we will have to live like this for one or two months.” I looked around me and was thankful that, despite the occasional rain, the dry season had only just begun. They will need most of it to re-shelter themselves indoors.

Then I headed back north, much closer to the active volcano, to where it looks like nothing has happened. To my house, which I will soon figure out to whom to offer its shelter, where the burst water pipe has been repaired, where I have just finished off a second beer while writing this entry, where I have re-filled the water tank and used my washing machine to catch up on the laundry backlog (the housekeeper, understandably, has vanished), stopping off at the KFC for victuals for Yuli and me, and at the supermarket, where I located powdered milk, rice, and sugar to go with the flashlights I’ll donate to Cahya with Yuli later today.

I’m thinking about how fortunate I am. The biggest reason Yuli and I are better off than most here is that I’m American and earn nearly 30 times the average salary here. I can take one look at a townhouse in the suburbs, cough up $2500 for the year without blinking, and know not from what I am saving myself. I too, am grateful that things are not worse than they are. And I smile. And I understand that it’s gonna be a waste of time to be angry at the forces that prevent this government from reaching Cahya with rice and milk, which aren’t very different from the ones that prevented my government from reaching all the Cahyas in New Orleans.

Yuli’s Day 3

Meanwhile, Yuli took Brit Embassy rep Emma, to the epicenter, and located most of the remaining members of Yuli’s local family, and saw still more. Among the anecdotes I’ve heard…

Her family gave her and Emma bamboo bracelets to protect them from future earthquakes. Yuli delivered our stolen hotel towels to her family, and they immediately recognized them as baby blankets for this cold wet (it is raining heavily now) night.

One of her family members is a renowned shadow-puppeteer, and he has still not been heard from by anyone. One of the pictures she took today is of a destroyed family home, flattening its gamelan orchestra and shadow puppet stage.

Saturday morning, her cousin’s baby was saved by a chest of drawers that fell across her bed, stopping propped above her, and absorbing the wall that fell next. With some struggle, they could pull the baby free, unhurt.

Family at another destroyed home fed Yuli and Emma with the best of what they had: some turnip-like roots and tea; it would not have been proper to decline the offer.

Roni’s people set Emma straight on what his community had received, what they still needed, and what neighboring communities had yet to get; his neighbors had, I suppose understandably, made their own situation out to be far worse than it currently was, dire as it may have been. Unlike their own area, nearby, doctors and tents have yet to arrive.

Looking in her eyes, I see that she is relieved to have done as much good as she could today.

Settled Down Like Rain

May 31, 2006

The situation is settling. My former radio show host, Orly, who lost a lot of her SMSed me that she was happy her family were alive, and that now they “just have to live without roofs”, as it would be impossible to rebuild it. How’s that for optimism?

My routine is to eat breakfast in the hotel and eavesdrop on the relief agencies’ talk of spreadsheets, written job descriptions, logistics needs, and introduce myself here and there where someone might decide I can offer something they understand that they need. I’ve met 5 big orgs thus far. Save the Children, finally, asked me to help them find some local sharp English speakers to help them set up their office and provide advice, translation, and logistics. I felt good to have them sorted out within the hour. Orly (above) and Sas (who helped me find my house way back when) were two of the three. It looks like Yuli’s cousin is the third.

Meanwhile, Yuli’s stories from last night include the following:

One village of rice farmers (most of the worst hit are rice farmers), had just finished a harvest, so they have rice. But their buildings fell down Saturday, and the pounding rains soaked their rice crop. They dried it in the hot baking sun today, cooked it, and ate it, and made themselves sick.

She saw a Kampung of wrecked homes backing on to a police station, and learned that no one from the station had offered any help. She passed a nearly empty tent provided by the government for a small village, and entered the next town nearby. When she told the homeless people in the fields of the next village to go to the tent, they said they were not allowed.

Two days before, Yuli’s brother Joko went south and eventually found a very young girl in a torn sleeveless top tugging at his pant leg. “Please I want my arms to be covered because I am cold.” And undoubtedly hungry. “Where is your mother,” he asked. “She is dead.” “Where is your father?” ” I don’t know. Somewhere in Saudi Arabia.” Later in the evening, listening to the rain, he decided to go back to her village. The family convinced him to form a family motorcade with food and supplies today. Ten motorcycles circled the southern half of the worst hit area, dropping off noodles, rice, water, milk, blankets, and clothing, all stimulated by that one little girl, whom they never found. They found the local victims becoming desperate, aggressive, and threatening in the presence of food on motorcycles. But today they will cook all morning, and head out again in the afternoon.

It’s warming to know that they cannot be the only family making this kind of effort under these conditions.


May 31, 2006

This is the shelter Roni’s community built beside the fetid irrigation canal by one of the area rice fields. Both unable and unwilling to sleep under a roof, these people, four days and two torrential downpours later, are still waiting for a tent…


May 31, 2006

because this is his home. Nothing to the left or right of it is up either.