DAEL'S BLOG: First Week in Nias

Hello from
Nias! Rick and I are both fine, a little sunburnt but that was self inflicted a
couple of days ago on a day long boat trip. My flight over was excellent; the first
half I stood at the back window and watched the western plains then the desert passing
below in pleated dunes, interspersed with Pride and Prejudice on the TV monitor. We
flew right over Alice Springs then the sky clouded. The rest of the trip I spent
talking to a couple of Slovenian guys who had been in Oz for a holiday.

Rick was at Changi airport in Singapore looking tanned, fit
and gorgeous. We stayed two nights in a B&B on the 26th floor
of an apartment building – the two young women who run it have bought the entire
floor and have about 10 rooms to let. Very spacious, airy, with great views over
the old Malay Railway terminus (now a brick/container yard) to parklands and the
city beyond, so no sense of being hemmed in.

   On Friday we caught
trains to Orchard Rd then walked to the salubrious end and the foyer of one of the
posh hotels to meet an agent who took
our passports away to have the visas extended at the Indonesian embassy. We were
to return at 4pm to the hotel bar and wait for him, which we did. It DID cross
our minds that he might take the passports and the fee we paid and run, but he
had been recommended, and sure enough he eventually arrived after two hours,
brandishing a couple of dozen passports (numerous other hopefuls were also waiting
with bated breath), including ours with 60 day visas intact. This means we can now
apply for a multi-entry visa from Nias and won’t have to leave Indonesia again this
posting to renew.

    Did a bit of shopping in Singapore
but it’s not my cup of tea –  all very clean, quiet and attractive,
but bland! Could be any city. Fortunately some of the old terrace districts, which looked
like being bulldozed when we were there last in ’83, have been kept as heritage areas, and
we overlooked one section – lovely rooflines. The best of Singapore was eating
at the street restaurants, top food. We caught a taxi to the bus depot the next
morning and managed to get on a half full bus that was leaving straight away; a
six hour trip, slowed by flooding and a couple of accidents, but good roads.

    We stayed three nights with our friend Rashid
and his Russian fiancé Olga, in his roomy 24th floor apartment overlooking
KL’s CBD and the twin towers. We seemed to spend all our time eating – but did early
morning walks and some shopping around. Olga is young, and a little unyielding on the
local food issue, but we ate in the street with Radish, but most of the places we ate
in were pretty up-market.

    On the last
night we were picked up by Shamini, the wife of Rick’s Nias co-worker Vinod,
and she and her friend Jasmine drove us through more rain and a totally chaotic
peakhour to an IT shopping complex to buy computer hardware, then to have a
look at the twin towers – spectacular inside and out, 102 floors, the bottom
half dozen or so taken up with posh shops. The forecourt had a large lake with
rows of water jets which curved sinuously for a hundred metres or so, a
stunning, changing water ballet. Shamani and Jasmine decided to take us out for
steamboat – to Klang, about half an hour of freeway from the city. It was the
last night of Chinese New Year which meant the whole city was decorated and the
lights fabulous (and we managed to pull up and watch a Lion Dance), but also
plenty of traffic congestion, despite it being Sunday night. It was worth the trip
– even though we already felt as stuffed as pillows when we were presented with
a massive seafood steamboat, crabs with claws the size of teacups, somehow we
managed to make our way through most of it.

    Home after midnight, up at five the next day and Rashid drove
us to the station for the airport. The flight to Medan was an hour. We arrived
mid-morning, went to the UNHCR office for Rick to report in and me to meet the crew,
then it was out with them to lunch at a Chinese restaurant, more shopping, back to
the hotel for a swim and out again for dinner – Indian this time. Fat as ticks we
rolled back to Medan airport the next morning to be loaded on to a full 13 seater
plane, waiting to take off opposite the pulverized remains of the Mandala plane
which failed to take off a few months previously (and ploughed into Medan with
considerable loss of life due to an illegal load of durian). We hoped our extra
heavy luggage and full stomachs wouldn’t lead to the same result. It didn’t –
we had a superb trip over – the sky clear most of the way (unusual) and
wonderful views over mountain ranges, deep, deep valleys, then the sea, islands
and finally Nias and Gunungsitoli.

    Can’t remember much of the first day – meeting the team,
settling into the space Rick has established for us (ensuite bucket flush toilet,
hot water available – also by bucket, balcony) checking out the port and town.
There was a HELP (German NGO) party that night by the beach; I met a lot of
people in darkness.

    Day two was a walk at dawn, breakfast then down to the port
at 9am where Rick and Vinod helped Mike from AMDA (Japanese NGO - Non Government
Organization) load a fishing boat with timber then we had a three hour trip down
the coast to two of the three drowned villages – both earthquake damaged, including
houses settling into quicksand. The second village has no road access, and the
coastal houses have been cut off from the inland houses by a swamp that has appeared
since the earthquake. Now that all the village has to be rebuilt inland there is no
practical way to get the timber across the swamp (about half a kilometer) except
carrying each piece by hand along a rickety coconut palm boardwalk. This village,
Tagaule 1, lost four people in the earthquake – and most of the beach village houses
sank a metre or more, or fell over, with more than 20 disappearing into the sea. Most
of their coconut palms were lost too and those which remain, plus sections of
forest, are dying because of the raised salt levels in the groundwater.

    When it came to unloading the boat the village
men started carrying the timber piece by piece, wading through the waist deep
water, so Rick organized us all into a chain – much more efficient, much more
fun. And a classic moment just as we were about to leave; the water was chest
deep so Rick gallantly presented his knee and he and Vinod hoisted me aboard
(elegance was not in the picture), then Vinod walloped on to the deck like a
baby hippopotamus, Rick followed, quite athletically I thought, and Mike-san
crawled on somehow. But Suwato, one of the interpreters, was having trouble
getting up, so Mike leant over to haul him in and ended up doing a perfect
somersault into the drink. Then kacking himself laughing, tried to hoist himself
aboard again and lost his daks. Beautiful! (And a nice creamy bum!) The day was
also distinguished by seeing skipping fish, two flying fish which glided about
50 metres, a monkey on the beach, buffalo (much smaller than Oz) and dolphins
(a rare sighting if the jealousy over this back at base was any indication.)

    Yesterday was mainly organizing, washing, domestic,
but interrupted by a dash to the Gunungsitoli Hospital (mortality rate 50%) where
the wife of Stephan, one of the drivers (national) had just lost her baby (ectopic)
and was hemorrhaging badly. I went along to help with interpreting – more backup
really as Martha one of the national staff did all the work. Unbelievable conditions
– chooks and cats all through the hospital, and the rest of it a long story.
Compatible blood was eventually found (we hope) and fingers are crossed that she will
be ok. Stephan looked devastated.

    This started as a brief blog – ha! But there it is.   17/2/2006