Tuesday, August 09, 2005

My Heart is Full


Team Banda: Adam, Dedy, Adi, Ruby, and myself with the women of Bandar Baru.

Saying Goodbye: One last look at Aceh from the air... but I'm not worried, I'm coming back.

Saying Goodbye: All our local staff (including all four drivers) Ibu Murne's family, and our landlord, Pa Ibrahim, came to the airport to see me off... really, this is not a coke/cigarette add!

Saying Goodbye: "Have sarong, will travel." One last pic with the guys (drivers and local staff). I will truly miss them.

Saying Goodbye: My surrogate mom and housekeeper, Ibu Murne, was and is an amazing woman. She gave us all the love of a mother and are team was so much better because of her.

Saying Goodbye: Ruby and I have a final hug and cry. She gave me a stunning Acehenese embroidered shirt. I received the traditional wedding hat from Sujata and the sarong from Adam. I gave her a picture of our "Cash for Work" team in Bandar Baru (see first pic). It was the day before she came down with typhoid. I will definitely miss this girl.

The Circle is Complete

Tuesday, 9 August, 2005: Jakarta

I write these last lines from Jakarta. The proverbial “Leaving on a Jet Plane” plays in my head. And after all the shopping and gifts for Simone and others back at home, my bags are as heavy as my heart.

Banda Aceh has been a life-changing experience for this delegate. Yes, this was my summer internship, but it didn’t feel anything like that. While I have served in Germany, Kosovo, Kuwait, and Iraq, this experience has been unique. I was usually locked down on a military installation serving our troops, but here, I was out in the field, walking among the people and making friends. I found it extremely gratifying to watch a concept paper become a proposal and then become a vibrant program. It’s one thing to sit in a dusty warehouse and negotiate pick-ax prices with a vendor, but quite another thing to place two thousand of those in grateful workers’s hands. To look at village “before and after” pics and say… I had something to do with that! I also loved watching others grow as individuals. When villagers first came to us, they had a "what's in it for me" approach. Many were here because we had money. As we talked with them and worked with them, their attitudes changed greatly. They saw that we were not a "fly-by-night" NGO and that we are here to empower the community. They also realized that our projects are not about "giving them something," but about instilling community resilience and community action planning.

Aceh is also a place like no other, this goes for the people as well. If you ask a Javanese, what is the stereotypical Achenese person, they would say they are arrogant, proud, and someone who refuses to follow directions. Nothing could be further from the truth. The people's smiles and laughter in the face of tragedy has humbled me and shown me a positively resilient attitude that I never would have expected. They opened their homes to me, they opened their hearts. In many ways, they have given me much more than I could ever give them. The last few days have been very tearful. My housekeeper and surrogate mom, Ibu Murne, has not stopped crying for five days. We had a small farewell on Saturday… and it was my chance for the tears to flow… and they flowed in a stop-go fashion for several hours. The house that night was heavy, heavy with love. Not love for me, but love for each other and the mission and dream we share together for rebuilding Aceh. These people have taken a foot-hold on my heart and will never let go and I don’t want them to let go either! I can’t say good-bye, I refuse… Aceh and its people are too wonderful to never NOT return.


Mulia: Roads were destroyed by the tsunami. The villagers actually preferred large gravel over cement. When we first started this project, I saw a truck get stuck on this road. Now a sedan can pass without a problem.

Mulia: The first time I visited this site, I fell into the water due to the precarious stones that had been placed across the pond to make a kind of dyke. What an amazing experience to see this "cess pool" become clean again.

Mulia: Believe it or not, these people wer having fun! There were literally a dozen houses blown into this pond.

Mulia: What a feeling to run across this road without the fear of falling into the water.

Mulia: Cleaning drainage ditches filled with tsunami mud is no easy task. Many of these drains were level with the road! I was on site visiting them and they pulled out the remains of a small boy.

Mulia: This area is prone to flooding and these ditches provide vital run-off.

Lampaya: It's amazing what six hundred people working together can do!

Lampaya: The amount of downed treese was sometimes overwhelming.

Desa Lampaya: Not yet a golf course, but getting there!

Village of Lamdingin: Hard workers need good food. We established this field kitchen. The women organized and ran it.

Village of Lamdingin: Clearing drainage ditches was essental to prevent the spread of diseases like malaria and cholera.

Rukoh: Fishponds are a mass of twisted trees and destroyed houses.

Rukoh: I actually gasped when I saw the amazing work that had been done to this fish pond. Now with a few mangrove trees, it will be ready for fish.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

The Circle is Closing

Wednesday 3 August, 2005: Banda Aceh

One Week… That’s all I have left in Indonesia. In some ways I can’t believe it. These three months have flown. Now comes the worse part, the slow, drawn out good-byes. But it’s not for a week and I refuse to dwell on it. And anyway, I’m so busy getting everything ready for my replacement that I have barely time to spit! I just got back from Medan where I attended technical working groups. These are meetings where various NGOs get together and work out development strategies. I presented on our Cash for Work program. It was nice to have a change from Aceh. Medan is the largest city on the island of Sumatra and the hub for many logistics operations. Yes, they had shops and modern restaurants (I had my first Starbucks in three months!), but the city really doesn’t have any character. It is big, noisy, and industrial. It’s also majority Christian. I saw very few women wearing jilbabs (head coverings) and churches were ubiquitous. Did go out for some GREAT Indian. I can’t wait to get back to Ann Arbor and attack a few restaurants with gusto! One more week.


Sabang: A portrait of "Coolness." Drivers, Adi, Rivan, Vani, my finance man, Dedy, driver Indra, and Eddie our Admin Man.

Sabang: Teh, our wat-san engineer, always prepared. Yes, we had bungalows but he was determined to camp on the beach.

Sabang: Our Housekeeper, Ibu Murne... and gear

Sabang: Sujata, testing out her snorkeling gear

Sabang: Adam, doing a talented balancing act.

Sabang: Adi working hard to make sure we have dinner... That's a trigger fish that he caught. Check out http://www.the-deep-blue.co.uk/images/RedSea-09-02/Trigger%20Fish/P9040124.JPG and you can see that this is a fish that should definitely stay underwater!

Sabang: A sad catch if I ever saw one. (Two blue trigger fish)

Sabang: Josh and Kerry coming back from a great dive.

Sabang: Our Crew at sunset at Kilometer Zero, the most north-westerly point in Indonesia.

Sabang: Ibu Murne at the grill... fresh grouper and snapper wrapped in banana leaves.

Sabang: Josh and Harem: (R-L Dwindra, Ibu Murne, Ruby, Ayu)

Sabang: "To Catch a Squid." Ruby, gone midnight fishing, catches a sizeable calamari... too bad it was too late for our bbq!

Sabang: Going Home, a time well had by all.

A Farewell to Sabang

Monday, 1 August, 2005: Banda Aceh

One week until I leave Aceh. As I right this a lump is forming in my throat. Yes, I want to be home, but it’s also bittersweet because I know many of the people I meet here I will never see again. But we’re not trying to think about it. Heck, I’m busier than I’ve been all summer and still have so much to do!

But our team took a break this weekend. We took all of our local staff to Sabang, a sleepy little island four hours by ferry off the coast of Banda Aceh. I was in Sabang for a day back in June… actually, on a dive boat off the coast, but this time we actually stayed in bungalows on the island… very much a camp feel. The bungalows are small houses on stilts. They have VERY BASIC accommodations, but you don’t need a lot of AC when you have the breeze coming off the ocean. Teh, our wat-san engineer has been on Sabang several times doing assessments. The island was also affected by the tsunami. They lost about 150 people and also have internally displaced person camps.

But… we were trying hard not to think about work. It really was about bonding as a team. Our local staff is very near and dear to my heart. After all, I hired everyone of them! They really are part of our team and we would fail miserably if it wasn’t for them. We also brought our housekeeper, Ibu Murne, and her husband and son. It truly was a great weekend. It was also Ruby’s first week back. She had been knocked out for almost a month with typhoid fever and it felt great to hear her squeals of laughter.

There is something laidback about beach culture, regardless of where you are. Aceh is a strictly Muslim province and the only women not wearing headscarves are Chinese and westerners. But as soon as the ferry docked in the port, you saw women undoing their headscarves and tossing their now-free hair in the island breeze. It had an effect on all of us. I felt like one of the characters in the Twilight Zone "Kick the Can" episode where we all revert to children. It was a refreshing that I have not experienced in years.

We drove to the bungalows over a coastal road lined with rocky cliffs on one side and jungle on the other. We passed many a monkey and ran over a two meter long snake. After we checked in, we had a late dinner of freshly caught grilled grouper and after an amazing moonlit walk on the beach, the team retired by eleven. We were up at seven to catch a dive/snorkeling boat. It dropped a group off at a natural coral garden and then took Kerry (a dive-friend of mine from Australia) and I to a great dive site. While we were diving, our drivers stayed on the boat and unsuccessfully tried to catch our dinner. They did catch two blue trigger fish… but I must say, these fish are stunning underwater… and very sad and small when their lying dead on the floor of your boat. Interestingly though, they have a very thick skin and can stay on a boat without ice for up to twenty-four hours without going bad.

After a day of diving and snorkeling, we returned back to bungalows and took naps. Teh, our grillmaster, actually insisted on bringing our charcoal grill from Banda Aceh… Unfortunately, we didn’t have anything to throw on it. We had to send a crew into the village to pick up fish. At five-thirty, right before sunset, we herded the group in our cars and drove up the north west coast of the island to “Kilometer Zero” which is the most northerly and westerly point of Indonesia. It started raining… and once we got the required photo to prove we were there, we headed back to the bungalows. Despite the sprinking, we still had a great bbq and were up till two in the morning talking… we also discovered the local hooch, a banana-chocolate liqueur… yes, it tastes as bad as it sounds! I signed off at two but several people went fishing until four in the morning. Ruby (see pic) caught a sizeable squid!

The next day was spent lazily having breakfast and talking. A few people went snorkeling from the beach… I just enjoyed not thinking of work. We sent the drivers in the morning on the car ferry and took a fast ferry in the afternoon. While the car ferry docks outside of Banda Aceh (the port is still destroyed from the tsunami), the faster passenger ferry is smaller and can dock in Ulelee, the old Banda Aceh port. It’s also in the heart of tsunami country. I cannot describe the feeling you have. You’ve just had an amazing weekend on a proverbial island paradise, taken a modern fast ferry, and you dock in place that looks like an atom bomb struck. As we got off the ferry, there was a broken down mosque in front of us… it was the only standing building in a 10 or fifteen acre radius. Utter devastation, sobering like nothing I can put into words. The tsunami actually struck while the ferry was on the way from Sabang to Banda Aceh. In the water they didn’t feel a thing… it was only when they arrived to Banda Aceh and couldn’t find the port that they realized something had gone terribly wrong. The friends who were waiting to pick them up were dead and the homes that they were coming back to were gone. Life in color, going to black and white.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005


Hard at Work: Workers in Lampaya burn debris in a rice paddy. The mosque in the background towers over tent shelters. It was the only Lampayan building to survive the tsunami.

Stuck: Workers in Lampaya clear rice paddies of debris (and try to get our truck out of the mud)

Team Chainsaw: Breaking a tsunami boat apart.

Chainsaws in Lampulo: Our chainsaw team breaks apart a tsunami boat. The people in the pink house would like their front yard back!

Work of Fruition: The first task (three weeks ago) of the villagers of Mulia was to clear this field which used to contain several houses. Job Well Done. The grass is even growing back.

Works In Progress: Our villagers clear a fish pond of debris in Mulia

Monday, July 18, 2005


"Team Circumcision" -- Taking a well deserved break. They were truly a "CUT" above the rest!

A "Slice" of Life

Sunday 17 July, 2005-07-18: Desa Kadju

What can I say? I just came back from a “cutting-edge” experience. I was invited to a ritual circumcision… and hey, how often do you get an invitation like that… especially when they tell me a hundred kids are all simultaneously going under the knife!?! Unlike in the US, Indonesians do not circumcise babies, but wait until the boy is twelve years old. This is a sort of “coming-of-age” event. The Indonesian Red Cross (PMI) is a local NGO which has always performed circumcisions as a service. I have worked with several of their staff over the course of the summer and they invited me to come along when they did some circumcisions at one of the displaced people camps.

We traveled to the village of Kadju. I had been there before doing assessments for our Cash-for-Work program and recognized the village elders. The camp was waiting for us. All their homes were destroyed and they live in wooden long-houses that are up on stilts. The have a public building which can also double as a mosque called a Meunassah. It was there where the fun begins. The village had told PMI that approximately 100 boys would “go under the knife.” When we showed up, there were only thirty. In the middle of the Meunassah, they had erected a makeshift operating room (a few old sheets hung on clothesline) and set up tables in the room. There were six teams that set up.

In some parts of Indonesia, this is quite a ceremony. The entire family dresses in traditional clothing and the boy wears a sarong and special hat that will also be worn on his wedding day. Rich families actually distribute professionally printed invitation cards very reminiscent of wedding invites. Here in the camps, most people have lost everything, but the village leaders tried to instill as much pomp as possible. This is the most important religious event in a boy’s life… quite similar to a Catholic First Communion or a protestant confirmation. There were leaders from Banda Aceh and the District Mayor as well as the subdistrict mayor. They each took turns extolling the virtues of Islam and how this was a stepping stone towards manhood. Five boys were then selected to go before the leaders. They were then symbolically blessed by various village leaders (including women). They had rice thrown on them, then they were fed a saffron rice for strength and were anointed with water for purity. One of the boys recited verses from the Koran and then the imam lead the group in joint-prayer… then the fun begin.

The five boys who participated in the ceremony also got to go first (along with another boy). They all went without fear into the enclosure. Each got undressed and lay on the tables (head to head). Tears didn’t come until they saw the needles of lidocaine. Some boys tried to get up (but were held down) while others stoically accepted their fate. One boy (boy in pink shirt in pic) never uttered a word. He clenched his teeth and tears welled in his eyes, but not one peep ever emerged from his mouth.

The surgeries went quite fast, but they were more invasive than I thought they would be. US circumcisions are usually performed without benefit of anesthesia but here they inject the base and head of the penis with several lidocaine shots. In the US our baby circumcisions are also almost bloodless. That was not the case here. I don’t know if it was because the foreskin was larger or if they did not clamp as long, but several kids had to be sewed up because of heavy bleeding.

All in all, the day was a success… but we did have one problem. The children disappeared. As I mentioned before, when we came to the village we had been told there would be one hundred boys. Seventy didn’t show up… that gave us thirty. These thirty sat through the ceremony, but when the first cries were heard from behind the sheets… several boys SHOT out of the meunassah and literally hid from their parents. Fifteen boys hid so effectively so that we had to leave before they ever showed up. We were closing up shop and just as we were getting ready to leave, three sets of parents arrived with boys in tow. After some quick preparations, these boys also underwent the knife.

I must say, the PMI did a great job. The circumcisions were performed by either doctors or paramedics. There was one paramedic, (The Circumcision-Meister) who could complete the operation with less blood in half the time of all the doctors. They asked me if I wanted to perform a circumcision myself or just take a snip… I declined. Definitely a good day… but I’m never going to look at fried calamari the same way again!

Kadju Kuttings: The Meunassah where the circumcision ceremonies were performed. We set up a make-shift operating room with a few sheets in the middle of the building.

Kadju Kuttings: The boys waiting for the ceremony to begin try to sneak a peek at the make-shift operating room where "boys become men."

Kadju Kuttings: Setting up the operating room. The boys will lie head to head, sharing one pillow. Six teams of three will perform the circumcisions.

Kadju Kuttings: One of the boys (a future Mu'azzin) recites verses from the Koran extolling the importance of leaving boyhood and becoming men.

Kadju Kuttings: Sacraments: The food symbolizes the boys' path towards manhood.

Kadju Kuttings: The chief blesses each of the boys and feeds them a bit of saffron rice (very much like communion)

Kadju Kuttings: A woman village elder sprinkles each of the boys with water before surgery begins.

Kadju Kuttings: This boy was impressive. He put all others to shame. While he may have grimaced, narry a cry escaped from his lips.

Kadju Kuttings: Wissam undergoes his rite into manhood.

Thursday, July 14, 2005


Faces of Aceh: Syarhial, my local counterpart, took me to see the remains of his home and his life. After taking a six month break to volunteer, he is back teaching chemistry at the university. The university desparately needs staff as forty percent of their professors perished in the tsunami.