An earthquake survived and a week in a Tsunami hit town

Meulaboh Travel Blog

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Joe was nearly an hour late picking us up as she was buying fruit to bribe the army officials. As a result the taxi driver was tearing through the morning twilight of Medan at near the speed of light; mounting pavements and cutting up buses and tuc tucs as if the apocalypse was chasing him. We eventually got to the Red Cross (who stay in the only 5 star hotel in Medan) to immediately be torn again through the city (but this time at least with seat belts) to our horrific little plane.

With only the three of us and a Bulgarian doctor on board we flew over the most rugged jungle landscape imaginable; sheer cliffs ripping up through impenetrable green life like open fractures and jolting the scenery at random while thick rivers boiled white between them. At one point we flew up the side of a strangely regular sided mountain to suddenly crest over into a caldera. The evidence that it was a volcano came with the sudden blindness caused by three columns of smoke belching out of magma wounds in the crater.

Aside from the plane wheel clipping a palm tree as it landed and nearly killing us all, and an army of giant ants trying to eat me as I sat in the waiting tent the transfer to jumpy old jeep was fairly smooth. We drove up the coast to Meulaboh and were witness to the most horrific devastation I have ever seen.
Iraqi torture victim hospital wings and terrifying road accidents were nothing compared to what these people must have gone through. Imagine hearing an earth-shattering roar moments before your walls explode inwards and everything you know, love and associate with comfort and safety disappears into a raging, violent tempest of mud thick salt water, tumbling you helpless as a matchstick against rock and debris, and all the while away from your family and friends, possibly forever. On boxing day 2004 one in five of the 100,000 population of Meulaboh were seen for the last time.

Arriving at the Medan Peduli (Medan cares) NGO office we met Damie, the slight powerhouse behind this Medan Christian mission to council Tsunami victims, build houses, fix water supplies, supply teachers to primary schools, and just generally do everything possible to help (eventually with the intention of building a few churches in this thoroughly Muslim area).

Our translators were the 10 or so giggling university girls, here to help with counselling and Elias, the giant Papua New Guinean convert. Our jobs, after much discussion, will be to act as drivers (both of us), land surveyors (me), vehicle repairers (Chris), children's entertainer (me) and computer expert (Chris).

While drifting off to sleep in our nice little room, recently reclaimed from a colony of ants, I felt a shake on my mattress. I asked Chris what he wanted and got no answer. My mattress was shaken again, violently, and I turned to find Chris fast asleep. The fan falling and smashing on the floor helped my very quick process of elimination and while yelling "EARTHQUAKE" and some choice swear words, I half shook and half dragged Chris out the door into the terrifyingly swaying corridor just as all the lights blurred out.
It felt like a cheap fairground ride as we tried to run through the darkness, the ground and walls lurching around us. We had to delay our escape to literally pick up the idiots whose first reaction was to pray while staying in their rooms under 2 floors of shaking concrete. Physically hurling these guys out we chased after them and out into the torrential midnight downpour. We moved what people we could away from under the power lines and into the middle of the road and tried to get our bearings.

Being in an earthquake is like standing on a giant jelly that is being wobbled, and aside from keeping a very keen eye in the direction of the coast and trying to tune in radios to discover if there was a Tsunami threat, I was amazed to find out just how terrifying it is to know there is nowhere to run to when the very earth beneath you turns into a ship rocking sickeningly on an unknown sea.
We couldn't help the crying girls, huddled into small groups to pray, as there was nothing we could possibly say, either in Bahasa or English, to make the situation seem better. We tried to lure them away from the sparking pylon that some still nestled under, but that seemed to make them pray all the harder, the reason being they had not seen many white men before, and suddenly there were two of them wearing nothing but George cross underpants that were going see-through with the rain and beckoning them away from god. All we could do was stand there in the heavy rain in the middle of the road as Sumatra rolled from side to side underneath us. Chris turned to me in the screaming silence and in a depressed northern drawl said “You bring me to the nicest places you bastard”.
What a strange life we lead right now, and what a strange moment to suddenly find yourself laughing uncontrollably. The unavoidable gospel singing that followed kept going until the sun came up. There was no Tsunami tonight.

29 Mar

This place is like no other I have ever known. A coastal city that has only rubble within 500 meters of the coast.

Elias and the excitable Bobby directed us to our first project, an area of land they intend to build a house for 10 people on. They told me they wanted me to have a look and give them an Engineer's point of view as there was some water on the site. Too bloody right there was some water on the site, it was a lake. Two water buffaloes were actually wading through it as Elias asked me what I thought. Trying to give him a comforting expression I donned the wellies, grabbed a spade and jumped in.
Neither one of them, nor the 10 or so captivated passers-by had expected me to do that, and all of them watched in wonder and horror as I hacked away at the mud to try and drain the water away, expecting me at any point to open up a laptop, make a few notes and call someone like all the other westerners do. I admit I may have milked it a bit as I disappeared down the drainage channel, spade-fulls of debris, mud and wood flying in all directions.

After they convinced me to stop we went on a tour of the entire area of devastation. The saddest of sites were the prison with only the sentry towers still standing and the solitary confinement cells (These cells never broke, they just filled with water, three times), and the military base which consisted primarily of army families' homes and was on a peninsular. This meant that people were washed out of their homes and straight into the sea on the other side. None survived.

We made a big detour with Pita, Frita and Rina, three girls who seem to have adopted us, to the UN headquarters. This turned out to be little more than a series of 20 or so tents filled with big, hairy Swedish men; but the Swedish meatballs, the wonderful toilets (with hand towels and even hot and cold water - heaven) and the communications tent were a god-sent. While trying to dial the 30 digits needed to call my Mum on the satellite phone I couldn't help but listen in to the American guy's conversation next to me. He seemed to be speaking overly clearly and using overly descriptive words when suddenly there was a power cut and everything went dead. I asked him why he was talking so oddly and he shrugged and said "I was going out live". I asked him what on, to which he grinned and said "CNN".

We had to leave early to get people back to pray for the victims of the earthquake. We just managed to avoid being dragged in ourselves, a fact I was thoroughly grateful for 3 hours later when they got the guitar out to sing hymns again.

30 Mar

Damie had business to do today. We drove her and half the entourage around the town for 3 or 4 hours, eventually arriving back at the UN headquarters. I sat enjoying the argument Chris had with the resident computer kid, a goat bearded 18 year old American that none of the Swedes ever talked to, about whether or not Chris's computer had viruses on and could be plugged in. It was like watching Saruman and Gandalf having it out, no-one else understanding a single word they were saying, but all being very impressed. Eventually Chris, indignant stance with fists on hips growled something out ISPNDR wave plug in firewall facilitator nipples. This was the equivalent of a fatal burst of magic, and sent Billy cowering into a corner. I felt like clapping.

On our way back we got involved in a debate with Damie about praying for the survivors of the Tsunami and how useful it was to them. A family of five people on a scooter (Dad driving, Mum behind him sandwiching a 5 year old between them and holding a baby while a 2 year old stood on the Dad's lap and dangled on the handlebars) jumped a red light and cut up our rather large and fast moving Landrover. This appeared to close the argument.

31 Mar

With Damie gone to Medan for an ear operation and us not really understanding what was required of us we told Elias that we wanted to dig more trenches on the building site to drain the water. Him and Billy were recalcitrant but came with us to watch. Chris armed with a hoe, me with a shovel, both in shorts and wellies and singing while we worked immediately produced a spontaneous crowd of around 30 onlookers with very blank stares. When we removed the last of the soil it was like breaking a dam, and a flood of water, mud and surprised frogs came pouring out of the site.

In an attempt to then get rid of us Elias took us back to the UN camp, said he would be back in 2 hours and skidded off with the vehicle and all the minions. The following 6 hours of chatting to Swedish people and finally updating the site was very therapeutic. They now have antiseptic wipes in the toilets, luxury. It appears we can only get a UN flight out of here on Saturday, as the Red Cross flight we were supposed to be on Monday will apparently be busy on Pulau Nias. Understandable really.

Our last 2 hours in the UN camp were spent with Joe questioning us angrily about the girls in the house, especially Pitta, Frita and Rina. She didn't like us spending so much time with them, and she huffed quite a bit.

1 Apr

With it becoming increasingly clear that the organisation part of the Non-Government Organisation title is total rubbish, I found it hard to resist the urge to grab a megaphone and start shouting at people. If you can understand that 1000 British soldiers in Iraq with specific mission objectives, an unquestionable command structure and with absolute martial power over the area of operation was a little like a circus; imagine 5 times that number, all volunteers who can leave if they get upset, with the mission of 'helping', a total lack of command and co-coordinated direction and in an area with no infrastructure that is politely as possible trying to have a war. Tears before bedtime, I tell you.

Chris attended a UN meeting to see if he could fly out to Nias to act as an electronics advisor. He came back with a stunned look on his face. Apparently they didn't know how to get there, who to take, what to do when they got there, or to be honest, exactly where 'there' was. I advise any charitable donation you make in the future to be to 'Peace Winds', a Japanese aid firm that was the only group who was prepared, willing and organised enough to do anything for the earthquake victims. By the time the UN was trying to decide where they could borrow a helicopter from, Peace Winds had already sent 3 boats full of aid to exactly the right places and prepared a status report to Tokyo.

The only other guy who made an impression was the huge UN 'security adviser'. He wore a many pocketed pair of trousers, spoke in an Oxford accent, referred to terrorists as 'little buggers' and may as well have had SAS tattooed on his forehead. Nice guy, if maybe a little too happy in his job.

We spent the rest of the day in the school where the girls worked, where I stupidly told the kids my name was David Beckham. Lovely kids, but they wouldn't leave me alone after that. 5 hours later and 5 miles away a kid nearly went off the road and into a ditch as he saw me drive past, took both hands off his bicycle handlebars, waved madly and squealed "Daveed beeckhaaa..WhahhALLAH".

When we got back home after yet another stint at UNHQ we were questioned by Pitta, Frita and Rina about how long we had spent with Joe. All three of them huffed in sync when we told them. When they had calmed down again, however, the guitar came out and god knows how but I ended up playing 'We are the world' while about a dozen Indonesian Christians sat around me swaying from side to side and belting out the chorus and the one verse they knew again and again for nearly an hour. After that they wrote a song for me and I have to say that some of them had voices so beautiful they could make an Angel blush. With over half of Sumatra able to play guitar and voices like that I'm amazed there are not more music company scouts out here.

2 Apr

Saturday, and the frantic pace of operations slowed just enough for us to spend the day doing practically nothing again. Since Damie left there has been a depressed looking little guy driving the Landrover. His lack of conversation skills, smiling and helpfulness are made up for with his terrible driving. Every day we find a fresh scrape, hole or dint in the car. The only one that was not caused by him was caused by one of the girls panicking during the earthquake, stealing the keys, jumping into the car, revving the engine and reversing at speed into a concrete column. She had sat wide eyed for a full minute and then quietly gotten out, returned the keys and rejoined the prayers under the pylons, probably whistling innocently.

Trapped in the vehicle with Smiler when the others went into an army base I tried to find out his angle. I asked if he was a Christian, he was; I asked if he was local, he was not, and lived in Medan; I asked if he was a volunteer, he was not; I asked "You get PAID for your driving?", he said "of course"; I asked how he got the job and he told me his brother was in charge of the charity. Everything became very clear and I stopped talking to him.

We went to a foundation laying by the Salvation army that was to be the start of the rebuilding of 500 homes. Everyone turned up, and the head of the Salvation Army, who looked just like Colonel Sanders, made what seemed to be a good speech if the cheering was anything to go by. A chubby woman with cream around her mouth and a bit of doughnut in her caftan then got up and screamed a Muslim chant in the style of a cat being beaten and strangled. Despite my eardrums wanting to pop, 500 people around me spontaneously looked to the ground and threw their arms to the heavens. Another two men in suits and an army General (even fatter than the screamer) then gave very long winded, self-important speeches while everyone sat baking in the mid-day sun. The only thing that kept Chris and I amused was that one of the ushers had spotted our white skins at the back, assumed we must be very important and tried for nearly an hour to sit us at the front with the Minister and the General, even bribing us with cold water and doughnuts.

It turned out the UN flight we were on was cancelled and we were not surprised. After trying the Red Cross again and the local air courier 'SMAC', we asked a bunch of nurses across the road if we could join them in their minibus back to Medan tomorrow. Since 11 people had been kidnapped on that road in the last 24 hours they assumed we must be very brave and invited us to the beach that afternoon. Joe and the other three went ballistic.

We spent a very nice afternoon on a deserted palm lined beach (the palms were the only things that survived the Tsunami) eating and drinking from coconuts while Smiler the driver wandered off to torture crabs.

Medan - 3 Apr

This was certainly a day to remember. After saying our sad goodbyes to Joe and the staff at Medan Peduli, we climbed into a surprisingly spacious bus with 5 nurses and a 4 foot tall doctor. Off we went down one of the most beautiful and untouched coasts on earth, salivating at the perfect beaches that no-one has been allowed to build so much as a guesthouse on. The government banned foreigners on the claim that the Acehans were terrorists and it was dangerous. In reality they didn't want the world to see how poorly these people live, especially as they are sitting on top of one of the worlds largest oil reserves. It is interesting to note that the Indonesian army (the third largest on earth) made not the slightest amount of effort to send aid to Nias, quietly sitting back and allowing the NGOs to deal with it.

Aside from that, the girls were terrified that the rebels (who controlled the jungle road we had to take) would want white faces to kidnap. Every time we went down a dodgy looking section they would close the tinted windows and get us to put our seats back so our faces didn't show, sometimes even trying to throw blankets over us. The only thing that comforted me was that I had not had the same Indonesian media as them, and knew the Acehans would be more likely to give us presents than kidnap us; but it was still a long and hard 12 hours until we arrived at our dinner stop.

Rather than go to a restaurant, one of the nurses had called ahead to her family home in the mountains and organised a huge meal for us. While the younger brother played on the electric organ in the large, religious painting adorned front room, and everyone sang along we were treated as royalty. When you consider that not one of them could speak English, and neither Chris nor I had done a GCSE in Batakese, it was an amazingly pleasant and friendly experience. I nearly ruined it when the older sister asked me what I thought about Paulus Johannes Papi dying that day. When I asked who Paulus Johannes Papi was not only did the organ stop, but the conversation stopped and the mother dropped her plate. Rapid thinking took place under 20 people's horrified and silent gazes as I rearranged the words boggle style into Paul Johannes Popeye, Papa Paul John , Pope John Paul, ....ohhhh. Luckily they thought it was funny that I couldn't speak properly and sent us off to Medan with a smile and a big hug.

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photo by: byrneharris