Faraway places with strange sounding names

July 06, 2006 by barbara

by rebecca with a wee assist from barbara

I toyed with the idea of excerpting Rebecca's email, but all of it is interesting--particularly to someone (me) who has never been to Indonesia. Rebecca's work takes her there with some frequency, and this is her most recent missive about time spent there. Printed here with her permission. B

There aren't many times in my life that I've been called "madam," as I was earlier this morning, but that's one of the surprises of being in a two-thirds world country. At least it's better than being called mister, which happens to me on a much more regular basis.

There are other, more pleasant surprises '" like the meal I just had, at a small restaurant very near where I stay in Medan. It was a beautiful array of colors: freshly sauted vegetables, bright red chilies in a deep orange coconut milk sauce, dark brown tempeh, the ubiquitous plate of white rice and a lovely glass of purple fruit juice. Indonesians have had smoothies from long ago '" way before they were fashionable in the States, and my favorite is made from avocado, but they are also available with papaya, mango, sirsak, melon, orange or lime. The meal including smoothie cost all of about $1.20.

I don't know how they manage to do it so cheaply, but I do know that the way they serve it would send a health inspector into fits. All of the dishes are pre-prepared then set out in giant bowls in an open-sided glass cabinet. When you sit at the table, they bring you smaller bowls of each dish, and you help yourself to them. After finishing, one of the wait staff comes and looks over the table and instantly knows what you have eaten and charges you accordingly. The uneaten portions go back into the big bowls. Yes, it sounds crazy but I've eaten at these types places a hundred times and never suffered ill effects.

The sanitation in this country often leaves much to be desired. There's no organized trash collection except in the really big cities and even that is very iffy '" in most places it is thrown on the side of streets, into streams and rivers, or burned. The bathrooms are usually horrible places, where I hold my breath the entire time and try not to let my body or clothes touch anything.

Yet in the midst of it, the people themselves are amazingly clean. They bathe twice a day and I can honestly say that I have never ever smelled sweat on a single person in spite of the fact that this is a tropical country and air conditioning is a rare treat. On the contrary, they make fun of Europeans for not bathing and complain about their smell. They've never said anything to me, probably out of politeness, but I like to think it's because Euro-Americans renounced our European once-a-week bathing habits after learning to bathe more often from the people who our ancestors met when we got to the New World.

I have just spent a few weeks traveling across this incredible archipelago and visiting its well-bathed people in a variety of places where, sadly, they have met with tragedy. I began in Bali '" but before you jump to conclusions, let me assure you, it was a working trip. Although I stayed for five days, I only saw the beach once for about five minutes at 10:30 at night.

Among the many meetings I attended, there was a report from the Balinese Protestant church about their work with the local people after the bombings in 2003 and 2005. Besides being devastating and traumatic experiences in themselves, especially the second one which killed many more locals than it did the foreigners that one would assume were the terrorists' targets, the bombings brought tourism to a standstill. The Balinese economy gets 80% of its revenue from tourism, and after the second set of bombings, tourism dropped to 30% of the pre-bombing level. It has yet to bounce back.

I certainly don't want to diminish the danger of terrorist acts, but I am not scared to come to Indonesia, in spite of these threats. Statistically I am more likely to get struck by lightning at home, so I justify traveling this far by telling myself I'm actually safer here (not to mention the fact that handguns are outlawed, also greatly increasing my safety).

Just before I left, my boss forwarded me the latest US State Department warning for Indonesia. It sternly stated that in light of terrorist activities and the recent volcanic activity and earthquakes, it was not safe to travel here. They warned particularly of travel to the city of Yogyakarta, which is bordered on the north by the active volcano and on the south by the devastation of the most recent earthquake that killed over 6,000 people. I read the statement and thought, well, this is the same State Department that assured me there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so I chose to disregard the warning.

After I finished the meetings in Bali, I flew to the ill-fated city, Yogyakarta. As the plane came in for a landing, I was greeted by a spectacular view of the smoking volcano with the sunrise reflecting off it. The volcano has been spewing steam and debris since mid-May and most of the surrounding villages have been evacuated. While I was there, the threat level was reduced and the people were allowed to return to their homes one day, only to be coated with ash after a huge expulsion of steam and debris the next day. They scurried back to the temporary camps.

Late one night I joined many other Indonesians in going as close to the mountain as it is safe to go and seeing the lava flow. It was like a fireworks show, the red lava spewing out and tumbling down the mountainside in brilliant displays. The next day was an unusually clear day and the volcano was in full view for the first time in weeks, so I rushed back and could see its many slopes and contours now blanketed in gray ash. It erupted slightly while I was there, and I was able to take a series of photos that show the progress of the steam and debris up and out from the cone. Only after I came back down the mountain did I find out that the local Sultan has forbidden foreigners from going so close, but the police and soldiers who stood next to me and watched the eruption had not seemed particularly interested in taking me into custody.

The earthquake, which occurred only a few weeks after the volcano began its rumblings, had its epicenter about 30 miles south of the volcano. It happened at 5:55 am. By a fortuitous practice of culture, the Javanese are early risers, and so most were already out of their beds and into their rice paddies by that time, or else the death toll would have been much higher. I saw one bed that was completely buried by rubble, and couldn't help but think what would have happened had the bed been inhabited.

I toured the area on June 14, nearly three weeks after the earthquake, with a group of Indonesian Rotarians. They were handing out tents in areas that had not yet been reached by other organizations. We were all stunned by the degree of destruction and amazed to see how many people were still sleeping outside in makeshift shelters. Most villages had 80 to 90 per cent of their houses reduced to rubble. The houses, made of brick, had nothing left but rubble. It was as if the bricks and mortar crumbled like sand '" or perhaps not just as if, for it's likely they were made mostly of sand and not enough cement, rendering them worthless in the face of a 5.9 Richter scale earthquake.

While there, I also met with two Indonesian disaster agencies that are doing a remarkable job dealing with both the volcano evacuees and the earthquake survivors. They have had a good deal of support both from inside and outside the country. Everywhere I've been in Indonesia, I've seen signs or contribution boxes for earthquake survivors that proclaim, "Show your care for our sisters and brothers in Java." I was especially impressed to see in the news that the people of Aceh, who have just gone through the tsunami, have donated a large amount of money to the cause. The Acehnese daily newspaper reports the progress of the contributions and notes their sources, including the students of public schools and university campuses, saying, "Our country gave us much after the tsunami '" let's give back to those in need now." Many Indonesian people have gone to the area to offer their services, much like the people of the US have gone to the Katrina-devastated areas. It is satisfying to see that the Indonesians don't just expect foreign agencies to step in but are willingly taking the initiative themselves.

My next journey was to a very remote place in western Sumatra, to the coastal town of Singkil. It meant an eight-hour trip across the massive island, and this was not eight hours in air-conditioned comfort on an interstate highway, but a hair-raising experience with a reckless driver who seemed oblivious to the goats, chickens and children regularly crossing the road, merely honking at them to get out of the way while increasing his speed. The only thing that made him slow down '" or, more aptly, come to an abrupt halt, slamming me into the dashboard '" was the never-ending series of potholes in the road. The only thing that distracted me from his maniac driving was the depressing sight of acre after acre of palm oil plantations, which I have read are now the leading cause of environmental destruction in Indonesia, and are only due to expand with America's insatiable appetite for processed foods that use palm oil and the recent interest in bio-diesel fuel.

Don't get me wrong '" I'm not against bio-diesel fuel and certainly hope that it can be explored more seriously in the US as a fuel alternative. I just wish we would try reducing our use of fuel over-all rather than looking for ways to continue to use similar amounts of alternatives, partly because I know how bad the palm oil plantations are. I also find it extremely painful to see the palm plantations ringed by the huts of poor people who make a minimal living working these plantations and face an increased number floods, earthquakes and other life-threatening "natural" disasters as a direct result of the deforestation and environmental disturbance wrought by these very plantations. It's as if the local people are unwittingly taking part in their own destruction.

After passing the plantations, we reached the coastline of the Indian Ocean and once again toured a devastated area '" this time a place hit by the March 28, 2005, aftershock of the December 2004 earthquake that caused the tsunami. This was a type of destruction I hadn't seen before. All of the trees lining the coast were dead. It's hard to describe the power of seeing mile after mile of leaf-less trees, ghosts of gray death in a usually greenwashed landscape. Apparently the earthquake lifted the land by more than three feet, literally pulling the trees up by their roots and more than likely allowing salt water to invade the groundwater. The mangrove trees were particularly affected. There are many results from this '" the trees no longer hold the soil in place, so seawater has less resistance when it hits the shore, and all of the houses along the coast are now under two to three feet of water, particularly at high tide. The birdlife has been vanquished. Also, the ocean life that likes to live under mangrove trees '" crabs, shrimp, and many types of fish '" lost their home with the death of the trees and have abandoned the shoreline, crippling the fishing industry and the basis of the local food supply.

The Protestant church in this region has the unique name of "The Dairi Pak-Pak Protestant Church," Dairi (dah-ee'-ree) being the name of the region, and Pak-Pak (pahk-pahk) the name of the ethnic group that constitutes most of the church's membership. The Executive Presbytery of the denomination is committed to interreligious dialogue, and explained to me how he had just prior to the earthquake arranged a meeting of the area Christian and Muslim leaders to discuss cooperation. When the earthquake occurred, he therefore already had an existing group to call on in order to discuss a joint response to the disaster. They are now working on a project to replant the mangrove trees. The church provides the seeds, soil and fertilizer for growing the seedlings in a protected area, then a group of Muslim youth do the actual planting and tending of the seedlings along the shoreline. There is a Muslim advisor who helps the church with public relations in this predominately Muslim area.

I traveled out in a tiny wooden boat that had to be constantly bailed out as the waves washed over the bow, just to see the areas where the planting was being done. In a boat with four other men, I was the only one besides the boat driver who wasn't terrified '" it turns out that, in spite of being a country of islands and spectacular beaches, very few of the local population can swim. The frightened men were silent while we were in the boat and it was only after we arrived safely back on shore that they expressed their fears.

The trees were planted about three months ago and are now two to three feet high. Although small and placed at intervals of three to four feet apart, it is refreshing to see their bright green leaves of promise in the midst of the otherwise lifeless coast.

After the tour, we met with the women who had done the original potting and tending to grow the seedlings. They were a group of middle-aged women from one of the many areas that has had to relocate because of their houses have been flooded by the incoming seawater. They received a small salary for their work in addition to gaining a new skill in horticulture, and it's hoped that they can turn the new skill into future employment as the demand for mangroves in other areas increases.

From Singkil, I went to Banda Aceh, which was the most devastated part of Indonesia, the city that took the brunt of the tsunami and lost 89,000 people in those ten minutes of three consecutive waves. Although I have been making regular visits to Banda ever since the tsunami, even I was surprised at the progress in housing in the last three months. Areas that were still completely washed out in February had suddenly sprouted houses. One village that I have monitored quite closely is almost finished building houses for all 125 of its inhabitants. It is quite a remarkable and satisfying site to see.

While in Banda I also was privileged to attend two events, one a marriage and one the customary celebration when a woman reaches her seventh month of pregnancy. Both celebrations were lively indications of the renewal of life in the area.

As I write this I am flying through the clouds in a small 6-seat plane flown by Mission Aviation Fellowship, a service related to Moody Bible Institute that allows other mission agencies to come aboard. I am going to another western Sumatra coastal town, the second worst hit by the tsunami, called Meulaboh. There I plan to meet with a group of woman who are doing embroidery work as an income-generating project, to bring back some samples to the USA to let people see what their donations have made possible.

So I am glad to be able to end this epistle on somewhat of a positive note after seeing so much that was disheartening. Indonesia is a remarkable country, its people resilient and resourceful, its landscape breathtaking even if scarred by disasters both natural and human-made. I have never understood how so many of us as Americans insist that the US is the greatest country in the world. For although the US can boast of many wonderful things '" the Grand Canyon, the Chrysler Building, my friend Gloria Kidd Brown, it's abundantly evident that we share the planet with many other glorious places and people.

Posted in