A New Blank Page. Reflections on yet a new direction.

A new blank page

December 2005

After a month of wondering not, what if I go, but when will I go, and a few false starts, (UNOCHA in Banda Aceh, WFP in Palau Simuelue, CRS in Meulabo) word finally came from RedR for a posting in Palau Nias with the UNHCR (High Commission for Refugees) Shelter Housing Programme.

Even though I had been talking of leaving for some time, when I finally agreed to go, time ran out. Suddenly there was no time to organise anything. So I guess I just left Dael carrying the can, poor bugger, sick as a dog and trying to finish off 13 years of full time teaching. I still don’t know how she ploughed through it all but maybe it was the thought of escaping to a tropical paradise has spurred her on.

And that is what Palau Nias is close to.

Finally packed, I went with Dael to Coffs Harbour for the TAFE Awards night. Lots of fun, and great to see Dael and her Taree colleagues scooping the pool for awards. Next day we flew to Canberra for a RedR briefing and back to Sydney for a last night in the Sydney Airport Holiday Inn. Pippa, Ned and Ange managed to sneak down on Saturday morning for a surprise send off for me at the Airport at midday.

An eight hour flight to Singapore, then 1hr to Medan with Silk Air where I was met by a smiling local UN driver wearing the ubiquitous blue peaked cap. A welcome sight indeed as last time, arriving in Dili, East Timor, there was no-one to meet me, no support. Once in the UNHCR vehicle the driver rang Karsten to report in. He welcomed me over the phone and I was dropped at the hotel Tiarra Medan. Absolute luxury for US$50 a night, glad it was only for two nights. Next morning I was picked up at 10am along with my assistant Vinod, from Malaysia, to go to the UNHCR HQ in Medan where we met Karsten and Cameron. After a couple of hours briefing we adjourned to Sun Plaza for lunch. Six stories of retail therapy; heaven or hell, depending on your bent. We were dropped off at the hotel after lunch and shopping for various perceived needs, and had a sleep for a few hours. In the evening we went out to a small Indian restaurant with the rest of the Medan staff. Too much good food. Warning bells are ringing already.

Monday 12th December. Up early, leaving for the airport at 6am. After the usual chaos of an Indonesian Airport we find ourselves on a bus wandering around the tarmac playing spot the Mapati plane. Very enervating. Oh! That one? At least it was sort of clean. In fact the flight was quite good despite the horror stories. Probably not a good idea to look up www.crash.com when using these carriers.
Flying south west from Medan we looked down over the Volcano Dana (Lake) Toba, the lake in the mouth of the dormant caldera in the centre of Sumatra. “Due to blow anytime” they say. Who ‘they’ are has escaped me so far.
Across the Mentawai Strait between Sumatra and Nias and down low over the coastal palm forests to a perfect landing. Who said anything bad about Mapati? First time lucky I guess. The weather was warm and humid, even the lightest T-shirt starting to stick. Walking off the plane we were met by a milling crowd, probably drivers and pickup people including a UNHCR driver. One man approached Vinod and then me demanding to know if I was Christian or Moslem. Sorry to disappoint you mate but I’m a fence sitter! Qantas! Vinod said ‘Hindu’, which earned another quizzical but brief glance. No matter, I guess he was looking for his flock. Baggage collected, we went out to one of the UNHCR fleet of Mitsubishi twin-cabs. Some UNHCR deal I guess. They are quite comfortable but not as versatile as the Hilux, though I have no need to drive one as we have up to five drivers at our disposal at anytime. Even on weekends.
The 20km trip into Gunungsitoli from the airport takes 45 minutes. I was surprised to see how crowded the place was. Although the area is palm forest, the road is lined with houses all the way to the city, in varying stages of dereliction and reconstruction. For the most part they have cleaned up the worst of the damage, but there is still striking evidence of the magnitude of the earthquake. Most of the major damage was to the concrete structures. Houses built using 150mm square concrete columns, at about 3m intervals, with a few thin steel rods for reinforcement. Some of these structures supported solid concrete roofs, or even two and three stories, with only soft-fired brickwork infill for bracing. Quite storm or even cyclone proof, but when the earth moves darling…! In Pakistan the problems were far worse as most of the housing and schools were built using heavy concrete slab roofs supported on unbraced rubble or mud brick walls. At the start of the earthquake the walls turned to jelly and tonnes of concrete slabs fell instantly flattening all beneath. Thousands of school children didn’t have time to get out of their desks and women and old people at home suffered the same fate.
Fortunately for Niasians, most housing is light-weight with palm frond or sheet steel roofing. Although sustaining considerable damage most stayed up at least long enough for the occupants to escape. Many showed no signs of damage at all and these included quite large traditional timber housing built with considerable cross bracing. How is it we all ignore history even when it is staring us in the face? Before April there was no living memory of earthquakes in Nias. Some say the last heard of was more than seven generations ago. Yet the traditional housing bears witness that predecessors knew how to build earthquake proof houses.
The main transport on the island is motorbike, thousands of them, with anything from one to six passengers. Nias’ equivalent of the family car; dad driving, two kids on the petrol tank, mum sitting side saddle on the carry rack often with a baby strapped to her chest with a sarong and another child squashed between parents. Public transport ranges from pedicabs to small buses built on a truck chassis carrying up to 20 people, a smattering of chickens and the odd pig, often tied to the roof or the side, while other passengers sit on the roof or hang off the side or back to keep the pigs company. Closer in to the city the traffic slows, the herd of pedicabs barely making walking pace. There is no centre line, the road isn’t wide enough so people just walk or ride where ever there is room. Apparently most pedestrians are deaf or just oblivious to other traffic and just walk along the road, often in the middle, with a parcel or basket on their head and maybe a pig on a lead. Don’t be in a hurry here!
Gunungsitoli is the main centre and port for Nias, so all goods arrive on trucks of various sizes, ferried from Sibolga on the west coast of Sumatra. Some of the trucks are almost as wide as the road and will often travel through the town at walking speed waiting for the pedicabs to find a place wide enough to pull over and let them pass. This chaos is enhanced by the constant use of turn indicators and flashing lights which are not used to indicate intentions but as some kind of obscure greeting procedure. Add to this an equally constant use of truck horns and motorbike beeping (which would appear to be another form of acknowledgement or to thank you for giving way). If you want to turn right you simply veer into the oncoming traffic till the stream is flowing around your left side and there is no longer room on your right. When the last motorbike squeezes past your right side it is safe to complete the turn. Don’t be in a hurry here!!
Air conditioned cars are a luxury generally reserved for the rich or international aid staff. It is difficult to acclimatise to the tropical humidity if one constantly moves between air conditioning and open air so I try to leave the car windows down as much as possible. When one tires of the barrage of “Hello Misters”, mostly from kids, and from the crowing of roosters, yapping of dogs and squealing of pigs, it is nice to hide behind the tinted windows for a break from the noise and the smell. Ah yes the smell! Nothing quite like it. There is no garbage collection in Nias so the closer you get to denser populations the thicker the layer of rotting refuse. They haven’t bred pigs that eat plastic bags yet, so after the pigs and dogs have riffled the roadside refuse piles the remainder is set alight. Imagine the stench of rotting refuse with pig and dog shit in a hot steamy climate enhanced by the acrid fumes of burning plastic.
Ah, Indonesia. I remember!
Entering the CBD the damage is extreme. The main street of two, three and four story concrete and brick buildings has been razed and now bulldozed away, a couple of bare town blocks paved with brick rubble the only evidence of a once bustling area. Fortunately the earthquake struck at 11:15pm so most of the shops were closed but there were still many people living above. In places the streets have moved up, down or sideways. The bitumen has been bulldozed away and roads ramped to their new level. Approaches to the two bridges over the river running through the centre of Gunungsitoli have been hastily ramped with rubble and now the pedicab drivers and their passengers get out and push the colorful three wheelers up onto the bridges, remount and pedal on. During the wet the whole scene turns to mud slime. The pedicab passengers are sheltered under folding hoods with plastic sheets over the top. The peddler just gets drenched. The motorcyclists don large plastic ponchos with just their heads sticking out. The passengers all hide under the ponchos. What faith! The fish vendors ride bicycles with the fish, usually fresh from the boats, tied by the tail to sticks across the parcel rack. One poor motorcyclist misjudged his maneuvering room and ended up in the 1metre deep road gutter. His passenger, a trussed pig in a wooden box, went sprawling on the road, the box broken, but the pigs feet still tied. We drove on, our driver just laughing. It was obviously a common occurrence around these parts.
Through the main town and we turned left up some steep narrow streets to the UNHCR office compound at Puri Lastari, on a high ridge overlooking the north end of town and the harbour. UNHCR staff has been told to live at least 10 meters above sea level, and this is where the team is moving to live in a few days. It has a light fresh breeze off the sea most of the day. Only in the evenings when the breeze drops do the mosquitoes become noticeable. Vinod tells me the mosquitoes in Banda Aceh fly in formation.
After meeting Reiko, the UNHCR head of office for Nias, Janine and Andrew (Australian – RedR) and the national staff we were whisked off for lunch at Laverna convent on the next ridge north also overlooking the harbour. This is where Vinod and I slept until the compound was ready. We met Daryl and Terry, the two RedR logisticians we were to replace. After a nice lunch Indonesian style with rice, fried chicken, some green vegetable and fruit we were taken to the port to meet the national staff.
The new timber yard was set up by Terry and Daryl with a large open area for stacking thousands of cubic meters of timber to be imported from Kalimantan. Behind the Wikhall (an enormous tent 12m x 40m for warehouse storage) is the AMDA (a Japanese NGO – Non Government Organisation) demonstration house, just being finished off. This house is to become the UNHCR office for the port. As UNHCR Logistics Officer for Nias I am in charge of operations at the port. When the timber arrives most of my time will be spent there supervising the unloading of ships (how did I end up in Stevedoring?) and distributing the timber to more than 20 NGOs involved in shelter reconstruction throughout the island.
Vinod instantly made himself unpopular with the outgoing ‘bosses’ by getting into one of the brand new Manitu’s (4x4 telescopic arm forklift) and driving it round the yard in circles, ploughing up the storage area. Sensing a fast growing antagonism I suggested Vinod continue his ‘driving practice’ by replacing the fork with a bucket and smoothing out the damage. Delighted to have an excuse to keep driving he changed over to the bucket and repaired the damage. Unfortunately his reputation remained un-repaired in the exiting bosses eyes, but they were leaving soon anyway.