Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Saturday: I feel the Earth Move

Mom and Claude aren't even back in Maine yet, and boy have they missed some interesting times. Of course, it's easy to say that now, but I think I'm glad they weren't here to deal with the morning Yuli and I have just had.

We woke up in the same instant at about 6 AM, and even before our senses got the message through, we knew what was happening. Sort of. Aside from the feeling that heavy trucks were rumbling underneath us, outside the bedroom door we heard a hundred bells softly ringing, as if a troupe of collared cats were performing a ballet.

And it didn't stop. A scream outside our window. A few voices. It didn't feel like going anywhere (like outside) would do much good. I waited there, holding Julia, figuring if the ground was going to open up and take us, it would do it there, outside, or wherever it darned well chose, and so far the walls were fine and the ceiling wasn't crumbling. Later I would identify this thought process with the one I had as my car was spinning out of control in my one and only accident back in 1998, and with my attitude to terrorist attacks. Later still I would realize that we didn’t leap out of bed because I was identifying this terra indigestia as a less dangerous tremor associated with our pet volcano, Merapi. Of course, that’s what I was thinking. Yuli claims that I was comforting her with repeated “It’s gonna be okay”s, she was thinking, “I’m not dressed decently!”, and so we remained in bed.

Eventually, it did stop, but this was no small short thing. I don't know how long it lasted, or how strong it was, yet, but it was plenty strong enough. When it stopped we became aware that the electricity was off. We opened the bedroom door and found the pictures still on the walls, the chandelier now still and silent, but speakers on the floor and other pictures knocked over. Outside, there was no damage to be seen, and the neighbors were gathered nervously about. Upstairs from the balcony we could see a few broken windows across the street, and beyond them a much larger burst of gas and smoke cascading down Merapi... the Earth had burped.

I became conscious of running water, and wondered whose pipe had burst... it was mine. Miraculously, security came round on a bike at about the same time, and had a guy there to put a new spiggot on within fifteen minutes. Best service I've ever had here. He also told us of a house in the development with serious damage. We took a walk around, and I remembered coming up from the basement after tornadoes in Oklahoma City in 1969 or so. We found the house, and judging by the intactness of the houses and windows on either side of it, my guess is the owner will have some serious complaints to file with the building commission.

And then the fun really started. Got back to the house, hungry, and with the sweat just beginning to rise. No electricity, and the water break cost me the full tank of water above the house. No cell phone access, no way to know what was really happening. On top of that, there was gas for one pot of tea, and there would be no gas deliveries today, I was sure. But the phone lines were up, so we called the hotel, booked a room, and put a few things in some bags. I could go back later and collect the work for the weekend in a taxi. For now it was Yuli and me on her motorbike... which had very little gas.

Just before we left for the quick trip to the hotel, her sister called the home phone saying the beach area 20 km south of town had been hit by the quake and a Tsunami, and her family in that area was heading to town. A little panic in their voices, but a cousin in her house reminded them we are 300m above sea level here, so nothing too bad related to water can really happen. However, people here remember Aceh in their bones.

We pointed the bike towards the hotel and headed out of the development... Just before the gate, the family that runs the convenience shop ran out in a panic screaming "Air!" -- that's the word for "water". And you know what that means. We paused, but continued for the hotel, only to meet a mass evacuation heading the other way... and that was enough for Yuli, and she was driving. So there we were... caught up in the panic on a motorcycle with virtually no gas, and there was none to be found in the mass exodus. My laptop, scanner, music, camera, and phones were between my legs behind Yuli, and two of her bags were on her knees. We began twisting through a maze of thousands of twisting vehicles on narrow streets, heading for the hills... AND WHAT? … the active volcano spewing massive noxious 500 degree gas clouds and heavy lava floes. Nothing much made sense about that movement, and I felt pretty sure, despite the rumors of where the water was already, that this was just a panic... but nobody knew anything, and we couldn't go--

Ok -- I had to interrupt that sentence ... a big aftershock ran through us ... Everybody (but me) just fled the hotel, and Julia ran after them with a camera, but the tremor has passed. I'm not panicking, not even close, but I can tell you that I don't think you'll find me living in California anytime soon.

So I was saying, we couldn't move well against the flow of traffic, which was even going the wrong way on one-way streets with the encouragement of police, who also knew nothing about what was going on. (More than two hours later government spokespeople managed to tell everyone to turn around…)

Eventually, we didn't want to go any further without more gas, and we began to see one or two people coming the other direction saying the situation was safe, so we pulled over and watched the show. A couple of nice people came out of the house where we'd stopped and talked to us, and a couple of other motorcyclists pulled over and joined us. Soon just the cars were left pointing out of town, stuck and unable to turn around. The motorcycles had all poured back down the street. We realized we could coast most of the way down the street with the bike in neutral, and we did, and soon found a tiny gas station had opened and was doling out rations to bikes in need. We then braved the mess of traffic and police (and probably thieves), and finally gained the hotel at 9:30, 90 minutes of weirdness after leaving the house.

And that's been just the first 4 hours of this Saturday. Mom and Claude should be landing in Portland right about now... how wild the world.

Tried to send the above a couple of hours ago. Internet down, of course. Maybe it’s back up now. Waiting for our room to be cleaned before check-in, met a nice British Embassy couple who’d had a similar morning. Not taking the Tsunami thing seriously, but they hopped in someone else’s car and allowed themselves to be driven north to the nearest traffic jam as well.. you know the water was moving a lot faster than the jammed traffic… but you still had to be doing something while all around you beautiful barefoot people were panicking.

Now it’s far later, but most of you are still sleeping anyway. No taxis anywhere (those that weren’t digesting their personal damage had all gone to the nearest functioning airport, 30 km away in Solo, for the lucrative relief convoy runs), I found a becak (the bicycle coach) to run me home and back with the books and equipment I needed to prepare Monday’s workshop. 6.2… 1500 dead … two of Yuli’s family’s houses are gone (pictures sure to follow), processions to cemeteries. My house is in Northern Jogja. The earthquake epicenter was 15 miles south of where mom just bought all her batik. We were sooooo friggin’ lucky it ain’t funny.


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