Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Sunday: My City of Ruin

By Sunday evening Yuli had finally broken down. It had to come. Amid sobs of “Why did this happen to my city?” and “I don’t want my city be like Aceh! The people have nothing now, and they are so poor!”, we digested our day, and the previous day, while we watched the death toll rise on TV.

We’d spent the day mostly apart. This weekend she was due to be supervising the packing of a shipment of fountains and lights, and their “stuffing” into a cargo container, but had been unable to get a response from her stoneworker, Roni, who lives in the South, all day Saturday. I’d had similar bad luck contacting Cahya, the Head Librarian responsible for my workshop Monday AM. The operator continued to return a “the number dialed is currently out of range.” Memories of riderless cellphones 9-11 and the Tsunami began to nag.

Over breakfast at the hotel I urged her to get on her bike and drive to him, and we stuffed a lot of fried chicken and bread from the buffet into a bag for her to drop with her family on the way. I got to work on my presentations, feeling naggingly cutoff from life like the journalists in the Hotel Saigon so long ago. My British Embassy friends were of like mind so we arranged a taxi to drive us into the trouble around 2:00. Meanwhile Julia text-messaged me the following: “I am at Roni house now. Poor Roni…” Left me wondering who was dead, what was standing.

She arrived back at the hotel just before Nick, Alex, Emma and I climbed into our taxi to go where she had just been. Yuli showed me pictures she had taken. Roni’s house was dust, the fountains that would have been safe if shipped a day earlier, destroyed, but his family intact. But she didn’t talk about it. Her face and body were still, very Javanese.

So Yuli stayed behind while the four of us headed by my University en route to the south. The campus is undergoing a thorough reconstruction, and several buildings had just been completed, but it was difficult to tell the new from the old, except for the fact that the older buildings were generally in better shape than the brand new ones. Mine, the Language Center, didn’t look too bad, and I looked forward to heading back and inside on Monday morning. Further south, the devastation began to get more prevalent. A new mall not open three months (and disgracefully misconceived anyway) would have to be leveled and rebuilt. An abandoned private Economics University leveled. Numerous one-room structures built between sturdier shops now spilled into the road.

We passed the café where Yuli and I met 7 months ago. Roni’s fountain lay collapsed in front of it, and then we hit the intersection marking the gateway to the sea, some ten km on. One lane each way, vehicles were at a standstill. One or two relief convoys and several ambulances sat stalled, lights flashing and sirens going, amid the flow of private cars and motorcycles carrying mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, and children loaded with boxes of noodles, powdered milk, water, and blankets to their kin. My embassy friends grew a little angry that the authorities themselves were doing little more than blowing whistles and chatting with voyeurs, rather than blocking all non-essentials from this road, one of only two connecting the stable north with the desperate south.

Not wanting to add our taxi to the blockage, we pulled over and walked a bit further. Soon it was impossible to make any more progress. Our imaginations filled in the blanks for what we couldn’t get to up ahead. My friends had enough info to update their office in Jakarta. On the way home we did see ONE store open for business, and undoubtedly doing very well. Guesses? Photo below.

Back at the hotel, Yuli and I reconnected for the meltdown. She’d been devastated by what she saw at Roni’s, and felt guilty that she hadn’t brought any food or drink with her when she went to find him. She looked at my photos, which stopped short of the total devastation she’d reached in less traffic on her motorbike earlier in the day. She saw the rain coming out the window, and told me that her family had moved to a leaky tarp on an adjacent football field for the night, because they were still afraid to sleep under their roof because the tremors, though weak, were still coming (My stack of books was now a heap in the hotel room). Yuli’s Jakarta-based kin had established contact, but had not yet offered shelter (as if anyone in her Jogja clan could get to J-town anyway).

As she sobbed, shivered, and shuddered in my arms, I began to realize that my spacious three-bedroom house, paid up through October, would inevitably become an oasis for a bundle of people we haven’t identified yet; the street outside the house is already clogged with the cars of similar refugees.

Later we went out to the poolside café and rendezvoused with the Brit-pack. Surreally, most of the cafe had been taken over by a 30-strong tour group of elderly Dutch tourists freshly arrived by plane and tour bus from Sumatra, on a two-week cruise through Indo. They’d been out to Borobodur Temple that morning! They drank, ate, smoked and talked loudly utterly disinterested in the disaster the rest of us were processing! It was truly offensive, especially because by the end of the evening, around 11 or so, the hotel had run out of beer and most of the appetizers and entrees on the menu. Thus, we began to remember reading about how the worst phase of a disaster tended to make itself apparent a few days after the disaster itself. Restaurants and nearly all stores had yet to reopen… and the supplies of the lucky were running very low.

Meanwhile I was still getting the same automatic response when I called Cahya, and I’d seen and heard enough to know that my normal work week, this one the busiest of my year here, would not go ahead as scheduled. So I used the last minutes of the hotel’s last wireless email voucher to cancel the morning’s workshop, even though I knew there was no need to make it official. Yuli and Emma, one of the Brit Embassy folk, made arrangements to head south in the morning for a survey with relief boxes on Yuli’s motorcycle.

Back in the room, Yuli was asleep in less than 2 minutes, and me very shortly after


At 23:57, Anonymous Thomas Chen said...

It is really a saddening event. The minute I saw on CNN that an earthquate struck, I was thinking what Tom was faring there. Now I read the first-hand description.
Good luck and hope things resume normal soon.
Thomas Chen travelling in France


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