Two Months In Nias

May 2006

In the tradition of the best serials the outcome of the fingernail-biter of the last posting was the wife of our driver Stephan became one of the 50% who have survived Gunungsitoli hospital. We metthe two of them with their small daughter Stephanie down at Fodo Beach yesterday afternoon, all in the pink.

            And our existence in Nias has finally been validated by the first timber shipment arriving from Surabaya in the J. Spring, a giant Chinese ship which dwarfed the wharf and threatened to demolish it with every sideways nudge.  2100 cubic metres were unloaded by the fabulous (and impeccably trained) timber yard staff in just over 3.5 days, working around the clock. Exhausting for all involved but suddenly the Nias building project is galvanized. The timber yard was almost filled to capacity and since then most of the bundles have been trucked over the island by various NGOs. Today the second, smaller ship with 600cu m from Kalimantan is in the port waiting for docking clearance, and the yard will be full again.

            Life is pleasant here. The UNHCR team mainly comprises people who are thirty-ish; Reiko, our Japanese head of mission, Vinod, a UNV logistician from Malaysia, Janine and Andrew, both subcontracted by RedR – reporting officer and engineer respectively. Plus Rick (RedR logistician), and Elena the project administrator who recently arrived from Uzbekistan but was called home after a fortnight to close her office (and her UNHCR job) in Tashkent. Not the best start to her Nias posting, but she will return.

The compound we live in was once a ridge-top restaurant and accommodation called Puri Lestari (Immortal Temple). In
one incarnation it was a backpackers. There is general concurrence that before the lease was signed the site was in fact in an advanced state of mortality, fundamentally rundown and falling apart (although it suffered minimal earthquake damage) with the kitchen hosting five dogs and multiple rats. Before UNHCR moved in there was a process of defouling, building, painting, tiling, electrifying, carting rubbish away and reclaiming the garden. There are eight rooms for accommodation, the restaurant area (our living/TV/ table tennis, dining and bar - a vast roof on poles, no walls), with a kitchen and laundry at the other end of the terrace, and down the hill are the offices, guardhouse and carpark. The national staff all live off-site, and include several office workers including admin, translator/IT and radio operators, plus half a dozen
security guys (three guards on day and night took some getting used to) and four drivers, for the four 4x4s, Emmy the house keeper, and our cook Santi (the ex-pats put in for our meals and her wages.) There are also around 20 national employees running the Timberyard at the port – which we can see from our ridge. The view, and the space, make us the envy of most of the other NGOs

The compound may have once been a quarry, judging from the way it has been excavated. On the south we front onto a street
of predominantly small houses which are backed by jungle. To the north and about 100m below is a tide line of palm trees and rusting iron roofs in Gunungsitoli, and beyond that the expanse of sea covering the unstable Sunda trench, lying between Nias and Sumatra. Immediately below our ridge is wild ground which different families own and crop. There are various fruiting trees
including bananas, papaya, coconut palms mangoes (out of season unfortunately)and kapas trees (kapok). The ground is covered in pigfeed vine (I’m sure there is something more botanical but I have no way of finding it) and graves. There is a city cemetery but many of the families bury their dead in the garden if they have one. Many houses have a couples of graves, sometimes several in their small front yard. The headstones are elaborate, tiled edifices – they can take
up space that could be used for other room extensions, and their construction must certainly use up potential funds for same.

The island (French, then German missionaries, then Dutch colonising) is 60% Protestant, 20% Catholic and 20% Muslim with a strong dose of under-the table traditional black magic. We live in a mainly Christian area and the hymns start around 6am in many local houses (sound-surround)- and continue at irregular times day and evening; haven't worked out a pattern yet. We’ve even heard a truckload passing in full voice.  Every now and then I'll recognise something from my childhood (like Onward Christian Soldiers) or parts thereof - often just enough similarity to evoke something half remembered. There is no harmony, just a simple slow climbing scale; dah dah dah dah,
regular rhythms like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star – plain song, neither inspired nor joyful. The European colonists have also damped down the indigenous dancing, now an approximation of line dancing, the men and women in the same dance but demurely occupying separate ends of one long line. At NGO parties the male national staff dance this way together, ignoring all the
girls, even wives. The young women might get up and dance separately (disco) western styles, or they sit and watch.

I love the sound of the Mullahs singing at regular times of day (starting at 5am) in some of the local mosques below us. Sometimes several from different locations singing discordantly over each other – the clocks must be set differently, they never start at the same time.  Occasionally, whether by
coincidence or design, a sort of fugue develops, the voices weaving in and out.

I've only seen half a dozen tourists since arriving here, although before the earthquake there was apparently considerable tourist business. Most Westerners  bypass Gunungsitoli and head straight down to the southern tip of the island and Teluk Dalam – where the world’s best wave hangs out. It is also rare to see any of
the NGO aid workers out in the streets, I go to the main street and the traditional markets several times a week and haven’t seen one bule there yet. But the stall holders have become used to seeing me there, and Rick, and give us good deals. We’ve also moved beyond the shock-and-staring stage on the streets when we walk for half an hour or more at sunrise – it takes two or three appearances to progress from stares to smiles, after another half dozen
or so the volume of 'Hello mista's’ from the endless stream of  school children (on their way to school at 6.45am) diminishes. Occasionally they are cheeky but mostly they're pretty gorgeous.

There seems to be little crime, although I say this advisedly as the Timberyard foreman had his UNHCR issue work boots stolen recently from his doorstep at home. The fact that everyone was surprised speaks volumes. I’ve asked the drivers what happens if a car driver hurts another car or pedestrian (driving around can be edge-of-the-seat sometimes). He replied that the crowd would sort it out. I’m not sure if that’s the official line …

Gunungsitoli was spruced up for the March 28 earthquake commemoration – the main roads had their shattered segments steamrolled and 100cm of bitumen put down, one side of the road at a time– so a truck could just pass through on the other. The two main bridges were painted egg yolk yellow, and double lines and pedestrian crossings (three, and assuredly the most logical place in town to suicide) painted on March 26/27. Rumour has it that the road accident rate has doubled since the roads were fixed – previously everyone slowed down for the potholes, goats, chickens,bicycles and becuks (pedicabs).

Whenever a ferry comes in a stream of over-laden trucks eventually disgorges from the port. Many loads defy logic,some don’t and the trucks tip over. In the five days that the J Spring took up the wharf delivering our timber, the ferries couldn’t offload supplies and the city ran low on essentials bottled water, gas and beer. When the bottleneck reopened a truck filled with these essentials fell over as it turned out of the port – holding up supply yet again. Fortunately it fell slowly and most of the
beer survived. Fortunately it fell slowly and most of the beer was salvaged. The drivers of the small truck s and minibuses often have trouble steering with the front wheels barely touching  – the half dozen passengers hanging on like grim death on the back bumper don’t help with weight distribution (although passengers on the roof are better

There are still IDPs (internally displaced persons) living in terns throughout the city and in country areas. The plan was to have them in temporary housing by the commemoration. The date has come and gone, some have been moved, but the scarcity of timber has lead to a chain of delays,and the IDPs remain in tents. I went out to the ceremony at Gunung cemetery where the 232 victims from this small area are buried. As the quake happened at 11.15 at night whole families were killed when their masonry houses collapsed. It was moving to see banks of graves and headstones inscribed with
the same date, up to seven family members in a row, one such including a two month old baby. Rick and Janine and I also attended the 10pm main commemoration event in the main street; endless speeches in Indonesian but it was very peaceful sitting in the darkness with 2-3000 local people and, after the earthquake sound simulation, in being one of the small candlepoints of light.

There was no sign of the terrorist attacks predicted by Howard on the anniversary of the Sea King helicopter downing a few days later- and absolutely none anticipated. What a load of codswallop is fed to Australia!!!

The earth has moved a few times but only tiny tremors. There is some sort of seismological rumour that the next significant quake will occur toward the end of this month – or in thirty years time. I’m not sure if that is a choice. We’ll be out of Nias in the end of April anyway – we are heading off to visit the wonderful Maggs in Phnom Penh for Rick’s R&R.

That will be in the next report!