Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The Refreshing Feel of Dripping Sweat

Tuesday, 18 May, 2005: 21:35 Banda Aceh

I’m in the hotel restaurant writing this. They call it a family restaurant… and in Tsunami devastated Banda Aceh, it seems surreal. It reminds me of one of those Italian pizzerias in a New York basement. Exposed brick, checkered table clothes, candles. They have a semi-western style menu. I ordered what was called a “Local Beef Filet.” Probably should have been called regional shoe… because that’s what it’s texture was like. That’s OK, they have beer, even though it’s four times the Jakarta price. Our managment gave us a security briefing and we are allowed to consume alcohol… as long it is in a private hotel or a private residence… we must not be seen from the outside. To add to the surreality, there is this Indonesian lounge singer. He’s heavy set, has a big belly, and about four golden chains around his neck. He actually has a decent voice but the mike is so loud that you have to shout to your neighbor to be heard. His repertoire is Indonesian and Sinatra-style songs. Again, there are things you can only appreciate when you’ve been abroad… for example he sang a stirring rendition of “I am your lady and you are my man,” oblivious to the gender-specific lyrics. I sat with Murphy who has helped us renting a car and is also one of our four locals scouting out possible houses for our team.

Today was a great introduction to Indonesian bureaucracy. A bit of background, Aceh was closed to foreigners the last few years due to the separatist civil war that has been going on for the last 25 years. Only ICRC (International Committee of Red Cross/Red Crescent) was allowed to operate here. We must register with the department of foreign affairs and obtain a security badge from the police. According to others at our offices, the police had been trying to get bribes from us to process the badges but we have flatly refused and reported it to the BRR, the special governmental organization responsible for overseeing the rebuilding of Tsunami-stricken Indonesia. We got to the Foreign Affairs office and promptly had to wait for an hour and a half for the signatory official to return from his break. After that we went to the Police (on the other side of town) for our badges. They have a truck that processes the IDs. Unfortunately, they also had decided to take a three hour break and would return at 2:30. We came back at 2:30 and then they said that my paperwork was insufficient and I will have to return again tomorrow to process it.

Back at the ranch, at our office, the air conditioners blew our power and busted our water pump. We’ve been without running water for the toilets for two days and also without AC… not that I mind being drenched in sweat. For some reason, our base power and Wireless were working… then that died as well. My computer lasted for about an hour and a half and then shut down. Since I couldn’t work, I decided to orient myself with Aceh. I’ve seen some of the damage but not really the main coastal area where most of the Tsunami damage was.

Taxis are in short supply so most people take the tricycle taxis. Imagine a rickshaw-style sidecar attached to a scooter. They belch diesel and gasoline like there is no tomorrow but can actually go a nice little speed. Of course, they have no seatbelt and you are not offered a helmet. I went to the Baiturahman mosque which was shown in so much of the post-Tsunami TV footage. The mosque sustained minimal damage but a sizeable minaret in front of it is teetering on the verge of collapse due to the earthquake. I went through the open market… Right next to the mosque there is a lot of energy and you can tell that the stores have re-opened. As you walk about two blocks away from the mosque towards the sea, the scene changes drastically… here you start to get a feel for the devastation. This was a bustling open air market, but the two story buildings lie crumbling, some teetering precariously waiting to collapse. They are uninhabitable… you see these empty storefronts with the apartments above and think… a family used to live here. That family is no dead. All of them. As you get closer to the coast the devastation is absolute. Most buildings collapsed either from the earthquake or from the force of the Tsunami. Here, the few who survived have erected tents and short-term shelters. The logistical nightmare of resettlement has yet to happen. Most homes never had an official deed or title. And if there was a title, it was destroyed with the home or the bank/government office that had it. How do you prove that you used to live somewhere?

I walked back through the market… sweating in the 100 degree temperature. I was looking for a handkerchief… a necessity in this dirty and sweaty area… didn’t score a handkerchief but was able to buy a disk towel… which essentially does the same trick. I wandered a little farther down and then took a tricycle taxi to the only supermarket in town… of course supermarket is a misnomer… it’s a two-story dry goods store. I bought some laundry detergent and toilet paper (there never seems to be any here). I then wandered a bit away. My white faces sticks out in the crowd and shouts of “Hey Mister where you from” and “Welcome Mister” surround me. Some men ask if I’d like some coffee… Acehense coffee is supposed to be legendary… why not, I have time. I sit down and get to know Mohammed. He’s ethnic Arab, but his family has been in Aceh for five hundred years. He’s a character and his English is quite good. He translates for his five friends and we sit down and talk about Aceh and its history. He tells me that ACEH should really stand for: Arab Chinese European Hindu. This coastal province is extremely heterogeneous due to its strategic location of the straits leading to Malaysia. He also wants to help us find a house. I’m meeting with him tomorrow and he hopes to show us a few places.
I made my way back to the hotel and called Teh. His diarrhea has taken a turn for the worse and he went back to the hotel early to try to get better. He was running a fever and took some rehydration tables. I picked up a big bottle of water for him. As I get towards the hotel I hear my cell phone ringing. It’s Simone, she finally got through but the connection was so bad, we lost each other… after her trying three more times to reach me, I called her on the cell phone. We talked for about five minutes, promptly draining my prepaid card, but again, it was worth it. She has a job interview today so I wanted to wish her luck. She’s going to do awesome… I know. I just wish I was there in person to cheer her on. Even though this is an awesome experience and I’m learning so much, it’s frustrating to be here and not there, back in MI where she is.

Well, it’s 10:30 PM. I told Simone she better call me to tell me how the interview went. That means a call about 3 in the morning. I can’t wait.

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