An open-air mandi with fish in it...
Wow, where to start. Today is Tuesday, June 28th. We finished our work in Nias and we are supposed to be in Aceh today, but we are going back to Jakarta instead.
3 days ago, an aid worker from the International Red Cross was shot and killed by some of the activists in Aceh. It happened except that it was on the road from Banda Aceh to Krueng Raya – the one we were supposed to take. The International Red Cross, the Indonesian Government and GAM (the rebel organization in Aceh) are currently in peace talks in Geneva, Switzerland. It is thought that the shooting/current uprising is to draw media attention to GAM’s position.
The Acehnese are not only wary of foreigners, but also of Indonesians of Chinese decent. I think I mentioned in one of my prior posts that Chinese colonists came to Indonesia 3 – 4 hundred years ago and that there is a lot of tension between the Chinese Indonesians and the Malay Indonesians. Well, this is a very extreme sentiment in Aceh. The Acehnese are worried about anyone who could potentially make them change their lifestyle or try to take over. The point is, the danger is not just for me as a foreigner, but also for Frans and Gina, who are partially Chinese and look it.
Another factor was that the BRR cancelled their meeting with us. The BRR is the government organization with whom we need to register all of our relief activities. If that meeting was still on, we would have flown to Banda Aceh for the meeting and had Nana and Pak Mustafa (the principle of the school we’re trying to help) meet us in Banda Aceh. We would request that they bring with them all of the information we need for the proposals we are working on. But since the BRR meeting is cancelled, we’re not even going to risk that. We’ll go back to Jakarta and maybe fly Pak Mustafa to us sometime in the near future.
So we will not be going to Aceh today. Frans assured me that when things cool down a bit, we will try again. Better to be safe.
While we did not make it to Aceh, our trip to Nias was very productive.
Goals of work in Nias:
- Boat project – this is part of the larger Sirombu village project. We’ve already provided 40 fishing boats and will also be providing a larger vessel to carry the produce to market. We needed to verify that the delivered boats were being used and get pictures of the type of vessel we want to purchase.
- Housing project – another part of the larger Sirombu village project. We’re just beginning construction on 240 houses for villagers. We needed to confirm progress on the houses we constructed and make sure our timeline going forward was still realistic.
- VCO production project – part of the larger Sirombu village project. This project is just in the beginning stages. We needed to locate appropriate land for the production facility and verify that the type of coconut indigenous to Nias was appropriate for the process we intend to use.
- Food Aids – not part of the Sirombu village project, a standalone project for all of Nias. We needed to verify continued need of food aids, assess possible acquisition of the food in Ginung Sitoli, and locate the appropriate distributor.
We arrived on Nias Saturday morning – landing around 8 AM. We were met at the airport by one of the task force members – Meta.
Fona & the Task Force:
Our work on Nias is with 2 major partners. ZTO, whom I’ve already described, is the contractor that is building the houses and Geoff is the head of that. Clive is his foreman on the ground. Our other partner is Fona. Fona is a man of Sirombu who lives in Jakarta now. He is very well respected within the district and has very strong ties to the people. He is our contact for gathering all of the information we need to make the project happen as well as our guide in socializing the project with the people. Fona has a task force of 10 local men supporting him on the ground. I met all of the task force men over the course of the 2 days.
Before we left for Sirombu, we had a few errands to run in Ginung Sitoli. This included stopping at the largest grocery store in town to check on the possibility of purchasing the food for the Food Aids project on Nias Island. You can see from the pictures in my album that the “grocery store” was no bigger than one 20’ x 20’ room with boxes piled in the middle. Ginung Sitoli is not a small town (I asked the population, no one knew), so this kind of surprised me. But it is not part of their culture to shop at large stores – these people go to the local open-air markets with lots of stalls because competitive pricing is easier to get that way. Anyway, after spending about 15 minutes at this store, Gina & I came to the decision that we would have to purchase the Food Aids in Medan and have them shipped to Nias. This small store was not big enough to handle the quantities we need.
Ginung Sitoli, by the way, was hit very hard by the earthquake and the impact is still extremely visible. Reconstruction is taking place – but it is obviously going slow. There is one area (see pics) where everything collapsed completely. Now all that is left is a field of cement rubble. In other areas, you’ll see 2 standing buildings then the next is a roof sitting on the ground. We passed a couple houses that were leaning worse that the Tower of Piza, but still being used as a house.
After the grocery store, a couple more quick stops and a pause at Meta’s parents’ house and then it was on the road to Sirombu. Sirombu is only about 50 miles away from Ginung Sitoli, but it took us over 3 hours to drive there. There is pavement in some places, but it is marred with pot holes like a bad case of chicken pox. In other places, it is completely broken. It was 3 hours of big bumps. Frans & Gina slept although I don’t know how they did it. Included in the album I put up is a picture of one of the bridges we crossed. The vehicles had to be aimed at the 2 logs that would support the left tires. Some of the other parts of the road had been reinforced with sandbags. I thought the sandbags were cemented rocks, but then I looked closer – nope, we were driving on a road supported by sandbags.
By the way, we were driving in a mini-van which we rented in Ginung Sitoli for ~$70 per day. Why so expensive you ask? Isn’t it Indonesia??? The mini-van came with a driver.
There were wooden houses along the road. Sometimes we would go almost as much as a mile, but then another house would appear. 95% of the houses were make-shift construction using bamboo and wood planks. Many of the houses didn’t bother with doors. I guess they didn’t have anything worth stealing. Frans said that the wood houses withstood the quake much better than any of the cement/brick ones because they were more flexible. There was actually surprisingly little apparent damage from the quake along the road – with the exception of the bridges (but those have all been rebuilt).
We also passed a lot of local women carrying things on their head. It looked like something out of the jungle book.
We arrived in Sirombu around 2 PM and went straight to the housing construction area. The houses that are being constructed are nice! I was really surprised that for ~$3,000 USD, you get a fully-functional 2-bedroom duplex. The construction is very efficient and very strong. It clearly can be constructed quickly as well. (again, pictures available in album).
The process for building these houses is simple:
- prep the land & infrastructure
- insert cement columns into the ground
- slide cement wall panels between columns
- cement in between panels to fill in the cracks
- pour floors
- attach roof
- put in windows/doors
While the houses were impressive, it was also clear that we have a long way to go before 240 will be completed. If everything goes on schedule, we could be done as early as mid-October – but that is subject to weather and the rainy season just began. The good news is that we don’t have to wait until all 240 are complete to be able to begin moving people out of tents and into these houses. Hopefully we can move the first families by mid-July, but that depends on whether we can be sure that the families and children will not be endangered by ongoing construction.
We spent about an hour walking around the housing construction and then headed for the pier. The earthquake lifted the western side of Nias Island by about 2 meters. The river that ran through town is now only a stream in a huge bed. But even more than the river, the beach is dramatically changed. There is about 100 meters of coral before the ocean begins. It all used to be covered by the ocean. And the pier is now completely useless – it is way to high up to be reached by the boats.
My pictures show a small vessel that was making a trip from Hinako (a very small outer lying island) to Sirombu, bringing people and goods. The boat was anchored about 100 feet from shore and there was a man using a small fishing boat to ferry people and goods to shore. Even with the ferry, no one made it ashore without getting wet up to their necks because the ferry couldn’t get close enough to the shore due to the coral.
The building of a new pier is included in our total Sirombu Village project – it was a late addition because it was only made useless after the 3/28 earthquake where the project was originally planned after the 5/26 tsunami. It won’t be built until the housing construction is complete though – first things first. Plus the plans are still under revision to make sure the engineering will withstand further earthquakes and tsunamis.
Looking at the yards and yards of coral that are now exposed to the sun was also a shocker for me. I know that coral takes thousands and thousands of years to grow and that we are loosing a lot due to illegal fishing techniques and harvesting, etc. I can only imagine what the snorkeling was like prior to the quake.
Later in the weekend, Fona mentioned to me that the coconut trees are hurting. Some are even dying. Frans said we’ll need to make a report and send it to Conservation International. Maybe they can provide some insight into what could be done for the environment. I think suffering of the trees is also linked to the rise of this side of the island. The depth to reach water must have changed and the trees’ roots probably do not go deep enough. The trees are close to the ocean and are probably used to being able to access water easily. I hope that with the start of the rainy season, the trees will get enough water to survive while their roots grow deeper. This is all speculation on my part though. We’ll put together a report and see if we can get someone out here to look at the trees.
After time at the pier and looking at the houses, we went to the canteen near the construction area. Frans said that the canteen is where UID people always eat when visiting Sirombu and that it’s the closest thing to a restaurant in town. We brought a couple of cases of instant noodles with us from Ginung Sitoli. The nice lady at the canteen would boil water for us and prepare our ramen noodles for us.
The canteen also prepares dinner for the 30-some-odd workers that ZTO brought in to build the houses. Many of the workers are local, but some had to be brought in as well. While we were sitting there, they all showed up and were served rice with something green, I didn’t get a close look.
By the way, all the workers liked me. I got a rare glimpse of what it must be like to be a model or a famous actress or something because they were all staring. I even was given a long hand written note by one of them, in English, saying he wanted to meet me and talk to me, etc. They see western men periodically, but I think a blue-eyed western woman is a real shock for them.
Fona arrived in Sirombu around 6 PM and we had dinner and talked with him until late at night. Around 8:30 or so, we shifted from the canteen to Fona’s Aunt’s house – which is about 2 kilometers from shore in a not-tsunami-affected area. This is where we would spend the night.
The house has one large room, 3 bedrooms, and a kitchen area in the back. The mandi (shower/bathroom area) is outside behind the house. 10 people lived there, with 2 pigs, 1 dog with 5 puppies, and 1 cat with a kitten. The family was considered pretty well-off by Sirombu standards – the pigs and the amount of space they had were the determinants.
In front of the house was a bamboo shelter with a kitchen. Since the earthquake, the family sleeps and cooks here. They are afraid of the house, especially this week. The tsunami happened exactly 6 months ago and the earthquake 3 months ago – they believe that a third could come this week some time. Great. We slept in the bamboo shelter with the family. (see pics)
The discussion with Fona that night was very productive. One of the first things I asked was whether the food aids were still needed. It is now about 3 months after the earthquake and we have a donor who wants to give food. It can no longer really count as emergency food and we see people working. So the natural question is if the food is still needed, or should we direct the funding towards another project.
Fona said that the food was definitely still needed. While the people may be farming and working again, it will be a while before they see the fruit of their labor or can harvest the crops. In the mean time, however, they still need to eat and the food aids will help support them. He continued saying that a man or a woman will starve if they don’t have food. But if their children are starving – without food aids, they might be driven to crime. He has a very good point.
Another topic that came up as we talked is the difference between a large NGO such as the International Red Cross and UID. The IRC has incredible amounts of funding at their disposal and they create reports after project completion to give put up on their website or give to major donors. We, on the other hand, have to create a full, detailed proposal to be reviewed by donors before funding is approved and then we have to answer scrutinous questions throughout the duration of the project. Plus, our donors are mostly successful business people – who are used to high quality reports and information. They don’t really care about the amount of money as much as they are very concerned about providing a high quality project that adds value to the people.
Amongst all this work to keep the donors happy, it is also our role to make sure that the end result is not some labeled relief project complex. Our end product needs to be the Village of Sirombu. We have to keep in mind that anything we build has to fit with the culture of the people it is for. This requires explanations and socialization to both victims and donors. The donors want to provide a high quality house with a bathroom – a step up from what the people had before. The victims are used to mandis located outside of the house. In the case of Sirombu, a compromise was struck by putting the mandi outside of the house (although enclosed in a room) and putting a squat toilet in the floor. Some of the villagers had never seen and/or were not used to a squat toilet (they just used a hole in the corner of their mandi). Explanations had to be made about the benefits of the mandi. Anyway, this whole mandi issue happened during the design phase of the houses and before I came for the summer, but it is still a prime example of having the talk both the donors and the victims into meeting each other halfway.
Side note: the word “mandi” refers to the entire bathroom as well as to the actual tub-like construction that holds water for the bath.
Sleeping in the bamboo shelter resulted in a lot of mosquito bites for me – despite mosquito repellent. In fact by the end of the trip, I was completely covered. And I still itch now (days after leaving). If I didn’t know I was immune, I would think I had accidentally caught the chicken pox.
Life in Sirombu is very simple. Breakfast consisted of ramen noodles with a boiled egg.
In the morning, I used the mandi at Fona’s Aunt’s house, where we spent the night. Oh man, was that an experience. Okay, so it is an open air mandi (pic in album) – a square bamboo enclosed area with a cement floor. The door was an opening in the bamboo with a cloth that slid across, definitely not completely covering the opening. On one side there was a well that you throw a bucket into and haul up water. Then use the scooper to scoop water from the bucket onto yourself to bath.
Frans told me afterwards that there were fish in the well.
That morning, we went back to the beach and to the pier. We were hoping to catch some of the fishermen using the Delasiga boats provided in May. We happened to arrive just as some fishermen were coming back and we got to see them carrying and counting bunches of fish. (Pictures of fish not yet posted, but coming). They carried them in bunches of at least 20, tied together at the tails. Then they were hung over the handle bars of their bikes and carted away.
None of the fishermen that came in were in one of our boats, but we met an owner of one. He offered to go pick up his motor from his house to put in the boat, after which he could take the boat out to sea and we could see it in action. The process took a couple of hours but was very interesting to watch. (again, pictures of this not yet posted, sorry)
While they were doing that, I walked through a few trees and ended up at the
On the way back, we stopped at the elementary school. Frans & Gina had both been there before, but wanted me to see it. School is not in session now – the kids are on holiday. Gina said it best when she stated, “It looks deserted. But it’s not!” The three-room wooden shack had wholes in the walls. Each room had one or two blackboards and wooden tables and chairs. (Pictures of this are up though!). The concrete on the floor was broken and there was trash all around. About 90 students go to school here – 30 in each classroom. Outside there is another small shack with holes in the walls and roof – it’s the administration building. And at the end of the school yard’s field – there was a long narrow, totally pathetic building. Those were housing for the teachers.
Seeing the school was probably the hardest thing I had to swallow during the trip. We didn’t stay long, but it was enough to really take my breath away.
From the school we drove to the middle of where the town is now – really a village of tents next to one government building and a couple of small market stalls. I had asked if we could stop at the tents so that I could take a few pictures of the current living environment – tents after 6 months.
The tents were lined up all around with barely a few feet in between. There was on central area of grass where everyone hung out and the kids played. But the tents were everywhere! I couldn’t believe how many!
Before taking pictures, I always ask permission and, if it’s a child, I kept some little hard candies in my pocket to offer them. Well, I didn’t have too many and once the kids figured out that I had them, they disappeared very quickly. The tent village was packed with women and children. The men must have been out working. Once we made friends initially, the children were all very excited to have their picture taken. They especially liked the fact that I had a digital camera and could show them what they looked like afterwards. Potentially hours of amusement.
Frans brought out a box of ramen noodles we had in our trunk along with a few snacks and gave them out. It went very quickly though. We quickly talked amongst ourselves and decided to leave the tents and go acquire some additional food to give them.
We picked up:
- 5 cases of ramen noodles
- 2 cases of small snack things
- 6 small soccer balls (my idea)
Grand total: ~$15 USD
The distribution of food created almost riot conditions in the tent village with people grabbing and pushing and hands and yelling. I couldn’t believe it. Afterwards I remember thinking about how excited I can get about free food. I guess this is the same thing, except extreme because they get handouts so rarely and because of their low standards of living.
This process of passing out food was also a big reality check for me. Like I mentioned earlier, one of the projects I was working on was figuring out how to distribute food aids. I now had an idea of how difficult this would be. If this is the reaction to a few cases of ramen noodles – making sure ~$200k USD of food packages get dispersed one per family in 18 villages would be quite a task. I’m very glad we have Fona’s task force – who we established would be able to do the distribution for us.
During the distribution process, I was alternating between staring at the chaos in shock to being hounded to take pictures of various kids. Some of them were very funny about it – insisting on a photo, putting on a blank/sad look and then smiling and laughing about the results. At one point, I got kind of annoyed at one little girl who wanted picture after picture. But then I stopped and reminded myself that I had a digital camera and could always delete and, in the mean time, this was making a young girl who lives in a tent happy.
We eventually ripped ourselves away from the tent village after about an hour of this. Lunch consisted of ramen noodles eaten at the canteen.
That afternoon, Frans, Gina & I sat in on a meeting of Fona with his task force. He said it was the first time the entire task force had met since the 3/28 quake. I didn’t understand most of it because it was in bahasa Indonesia. I’m learning, but I’m not that good yet. The meeting was at least 3 hours long and I tried to sit patiently and see if I could learn something. What I did note, however, was that the entire task force really consisted of very intelligent, capable, honest men. We’d spent much of the weekend being escorted around by various members. It was now great to see them in action (or at least discussing it). Having these guys as our crew on the ground is really a godsend.
We packed up and headed out. For dinner, we stopped on the way back to Ginung Sitoli at a little restaurant place (barely a step up from the canteen), where we had ramen noodles.
We were on our way to spend the night at Meta’s father’s house in Ginung Sitoli, and then fly to Medan the next day, followed by Jakarta the following day.
While we stayed in a room in Meta’s father’s house, we were still in for another big shock. While I was getting ready for bed, a teenage girl hauled 4 big buckets of water into the mandi attached to our room and filled the mandi with clean water. We found out in the morning that the family had to go out and buy that water for us. Prior to the quake, they were connected to the government’s water system and paid the government a monthly fee. The community’s water system was destroyed in the quake though. Now, they actually have to buy all of the water they need to use because they don’t have a well. And to dig a well would cost $250 – which they don’t have.
Side note: This fact kind of shocked us. At that point, Gina, Frans & I decided that we are going to make that well happen for the family. We won’t create a project and put it through UID – it’s too small. We will just organize a collection ourselves. (We could just pay for it the three of us, but that could be interpreted as showing off). So, we will be accepting donations of no greater than $20 per person to this small well-digging project. If you would like to pitch in – please drop me an email!
At some point during the 3-hour long turbulence back to Ginung Sitoli, everyone except the driver and I was asleep and I had a sort of surreal moment. I realized that I had been thinking about coming to Indonesia and helping these people for months now. And even before that, I have wanted to explore the undeveloped parts of Asia. And I’m here. I’m in Asia. On the back roads of small, out-of-the-way island, seeing things I’d never even imagined.
As I was thinking about this, the driver popped in a cassette into the van’s tape player. And the song that came on ended up making me cry. It was one I remember vaguely from when I was a little kid. Read the lyrics below and substitute the name of any one of the places we’d been over the past few days for the word “London.” You’ll know why I had to wipe away a few tears…
How can you tell me you’re lonely
And say for you that the sun don’t shine?
Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London.
I’ll show you something that will make you change your mind.