West Sumatra, Feb. 2010

Hi y’all

Greetings from West Sumatra. It’s pouring outside, the kind of rain that hits the roof so hard it’s almost deafening, and little torrents are running off the eaves. About half the Hands On crew is gathered around the little table in the main room, figuring out how to set up betting for the Beng-beng eating contest they’re planning for this Sunday. (Beng-bengs are ten cent candy bars that most people eat several rations of daily). Alcohol was banned about a week before I arrived due to some incidents with the conservative Muslim community we’re situated in, so volunteers are getting creative in their forms of entertainment. Not that they weren’t creative before; I’ve heard stories about Fireball, which, as it was described to me, seemed to have been barefoot tackle football played with a poi ball soaked in kerosene and set on fire. I think maybe I’m glad I arrived after alcohol was nixed. Last night we had the most fascinating game of Two Truths and a Lie I’ve ever played. It’s an interesting group of people that lands in the jungle of West Sumatra to volunteer hard labor 6 days a week, rain or shine, 6 months after most of the world forgot an earthquake ever happened here. They come up with a lot of incredible Truths.

My days start at 5:30 a.m., an hour or so before sunrise, when I’m usually the first one up. Yes, it’s true. I am really the early riser of our crew. I only do it because I’m afraid the physically trying days will reinjure my neck if I don’t keep up with the yoga and physical therapy exercises, and we start work at 7:30 a.m. So I wake up before dawn, and I like it. I like the quiet of the early morning, and it’s nice to see the dawn well-rested, without staying up all night. And my neck is fine. My shoulder actually feels better than it has in a year. Maybe a lot of heavy lifting, repetitive motions with subpar hand tools, and sweltering heat is what I needed to finish healing. Go figure.

My first two days I was on the salvage team, which entailed moving piles of rubble, then chinking the concrete off the crumbling bricks with a chisel so they can be reused by the homeowner. The stack of bricks we salvage would cost a month’s wages for the average Indonesian, and they can’t rebuild until the foundation is clear. I gave myself a mild case of heat exhaustion on the first day, despite all precautions, and by the end of the second my whole body hurt, especially that left shoulder. Honestly, by the time I had to drag myself out of bed at sunrise on the third day, I was wondering what the hell I was doing here.

The nice thing about starting on the salvage team was that when I moved to construction, it seemed easy in comparison. So I spent the next week framing a house, from start to finish, mostly with only hand tools. We built it for an 87-year-old man named Japar, who worked along side us all day, every day, with skill that usually far surpassed ours, while smoking clove cigarettes. He has 8 kids, most of whom are in Jakarta. But it was a holiday when the earthquake hit, and the whole family was there to visit. Looking at the collapsed walls and shattered sections of roof, I wonder how it happened that no one was seriously injured. Lacking other options, he still lives in the teetering remains of the building, and will continue to do so until we finish his new 2-room temporary home. We completed the frame on Tuesday, so soon the rendering team will begin plastering the walls with a concrete/sand mixture, and then it will get a coat of paint. He chose pink, the most popular color by far around here. Every day around mid-morning, a frail little grandma brought us homemade snacks and hot water for tea, with a smile that I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

It’s amazing how quickly the body and mind can adjust. I don’t even notice now when my clothes are soaked through in sweat. I wake up in the morning without an alarm, and I fall asleep easily despite the heat. I don’t miss flush toilets and faucets, and the one bucket of cool water we get for our outdoor showers is always plenty. I’m used to the electricity going out for varying periods of time every day. Nobody flinches when we uncover a scorpion or a snake. I’m remembering never to wave at anyone or touch any food with my left hand (and yes, I’m left-handed). My muscles aren’t particularly sore any more, I’ve gotten much better with a hand saw, and I feel stronger than I have in a long time. When I had to take a half-day off after a head injury (I smacked myself with a pair of pliers, hard, when they slipped off a chain-link fence I was yanking at), by the end of the afternoon I actually found myself looking forward to going back to work the next day. Sitting around is not nearly as fun as building houses, despite the heat and fatigue and mosquitoes.

While the difficulty of the environment has faded into normalcy, I haven’t stopped appreciating the things I love about this place. We are in the jungle, and it is beautiful. Palms, ferns, bananas and cacao trees grow huge and lush all around us. Butterflies hover in the air, and a symphony of birds call out all around us. Community members smile at us, and all the children run to us waving and screaming “Hallo!!!” every time they see our truck drive by. We’ve been taking Indonesian lessons every other evening, and I can remember a few basic phrases now when I talk to people. Weily, the young woman next door, will make us any kind of smoothie for 50 cents. We have a little dog named Bruce, and we’re nursing an adorable orphaned musang (asian palm civet) that someone brought us. The most fabulous bats flutter right above our heads on the porch every evening, eating the mosquitoes.

But, as always, my favorite thing is the people. I had a hard day Monday when some of the folks I was closest to left. But there are still 26 amazing people here, and I’m really going to miss them when it’s my day to go. This past weekend a bunch of us took an excursion on our day off to Lake Meninjau, where we could finally have a beer together, and eat something other than the three different meals we get served on a rotating basis on workdays. We spent the night in little bungalows right on the edge of the water, and in the morning hiked up to a beautiful waterfall, which was refreshing and lovely despite the leeches.

So that’s a glimpse of my life here as a Hands On Disaster Response volunteer. I probably won’t write again until I leave, or put photos up, because the internet here is slow and spotty. But I do read emails, and they’re a great remedy for homesickness, so don’t hesitate to write.

And if anyone wants to donate, read more about Hands On, or see photos of this place, you can find us at hodr.org.

Love and steamy thunderstorms,