Sunday, October 31, 2010

Comfort to the evacuated?

One of my co-teachers text-messaged me yesterday afternoon and asked if I'd like to join her and her family as they drove out to some of the temporary camps for residents displaced by the Merapi eruptions. My friend knew I'd gone looking at the mountain earlier in the week and thought I might be interested in a return to just outside the six-mile exclusion zone established by authorities around the volcano. Sure. What time? Maybe six o'clock.

During my earlier visit to toward the mountain, I'd stopped at an outdoor camp in a village called Sawangan. My counterpart teacher was along for the ride and he told me he'd camped in the same field during his scouting days as a boy. The place definitely had a scout-camp feel—long, walled tents set up in a huge rectangle inside a vast grass field that could use a cut. One difference from my own Boy Scout experience was the group of about 30 men and women gathered on blankets in the middle of that slightly overgrown field for evening prayers. All facing east, men in a forward line, the women lined up about five feet behind. They prayed the entire time I was at the camp.

At Sawangan camp.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Sawangan camp was pretty low-key when I visited and was filled mostly with women, both young and old; kids; and a few elderly men. The rest of the male population, I was told, was off working their fields or tending their animals. The Army and Red Cross were well-represented and the place was orderly and clean. I didn't know if we'd be returning to Sawangan yesterday. In fact, I had no idea where we were going or really what we were going to do once we arrived wherever we were headed. Help? Watch? Shake hands?

At six o'clock, my friend texted me to say maybe six-thirty. Then later, maybe seven. Or not. She called me after seven and asked if I needed a ride or could I drive myself. Do you need me to drive myself? We can talk about that later. Did I have face mask for filtering any volcanic ash? I don't. Do I need one? We can talk about that later. Then another text: Are you prepared? We will pick you up in ten minutes. We had not discussed the bike or the mask again, and when the group arrived after eight my friend was not among them. It was her aunt and uncle, her nephew, and a guy whose relation to her, if any, I could not tell you. The aunt knocked on the door and when I answered asked me, “Where is your motorcycle?” Then she asked, “Where is your mask?” Thus we began our outing. I fired up the bike; they dug up a mask for me and off we went. Where are we going? To Sumber village.

We rode first to a shelter in a high school building. A couple dozen people were sleeping on carpets and blankets inside an auditorium, while others milld around or just sat smoking. My friend's uncle disappeared for about 30 minutes. He came back and said nobody really needed any supplies here—boxes of bottled water and dried food were stacked to the ceiling in a kind of commissary/food relief staging area—but the camp at Sawangan needed some blankets and pillows. We would drive there next. Sounds good, I said.

Inside the high school shelter in Sumber village.

Back on the bikes, we drove down a narrow and broken-down road, through terraced rice and corn fields. I followed the taillights of the bike in front of me, large bats swooping out of the trees, flood water coursing through roadside ditches. The rain had stopped but the ground and road were still very wet, and the night was cool, maybe 70 degrees. My friend's aunt shivered on the back of the motorcycle driven by her husband.

We eventually pulled into a house compound where two men greeted us in a parking lot filled with maybe 20 motorcycles. This wasn't the Sawangan camp. Maybe this was a stop before we got there? Everyone off the bikes and handshakes all around. Selamat malam. Good evening. We walked into house and found several men, including a wild-haired older guy, gathered around a computer. They were following real-time seismic updates at Merapi on an Indonesian geologic website. The older guy eventually broke away from the computer and smilingly shook my hand. American? he asked. Welcome. We were standing in what amounted to his study and the walls were covered with photos, awards, and press clippings. Father Vincentius Kirjito, or Romo Kir, is a Catholic priest and environmental activist who started organizing his neighbors against area sand mines several decades ago. He has an easy and slightly spacey bearing and he smokes a lot, holding the cigarette in a peculiarly perpendicular way, straight upright between thumb and forefinger. As though he were holding a small flag. Framed pictures of Jesus and Pope Benedict looked in from the other room. Nearby, bags of uncooked rice, boxes of bottled water, and, curiously, powdered chocolate. All for distribution to evacuees, none of whom were apparently staying at the priest's compound.

We sat with Kirjito and several others, including a younger man who animatedly described witnessing the Saturday morning eruptions, and then … that's it. I listened as the men exchanged stories in Indonesian, occasionally gleaning a new word that I looked up on my electronic dictionary, and I thumbed through a copy of Kompas. After more than an hour, my friend's aunt turned and asked in Indonesian if I was ready to go home. Oh, OK. We were not going back to Sawangan.

We shook hands again, hopped on the bikes, and drove back to Magelang. I have no idea what we were actually doing, except paying a visit to the priest. We delivered nothing to anyone. Still, it was a nice night to be out and in the cool Central Java air, on the bike, out in the dark fields. Through a cloud haze, you could see the moon, dull and high overhead.

When I got home, my friend texted me: Did u enjoy your trip or not? I said I did. OK. Have a nice dream.

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