Thursday, November 4, 2010

Don't call it an evacuation

Word this morning from the Fulbright folks and embassy: The two of us nearest Merapi are being recalled to Jakarta for a indeterminate period of time, beginning as soon as I get my bags packed. Will update the trip out of Magelang and to Semarang--about a two-and-a-half hours drive north--for a flight tonight to Jakarta. Word is the roads are bad and busy, people heading hither and yon as they flee an expanded exclusion zone that's now at 20 kilometers.

UPDATE: Last night things went from manageably bad to near enough getting out of hand for Indonesian authorities managing the official response to Merapi's many eruptions this week. According to published reports, 58 people, including seven children, were killed last night when a pyroclastic flow hit their village about 17 kilometers from the volcano's summit. Until yesterday, that distance put Argomulyo village outside the government-imposed exclusion zone, beyond which residents were supposed to be safe. Last night's eruption was Merapi's largest yet and volcanologists quoted in the papers are predicting two months of steady activity.

Merapi has now killed more than 100 people; officials widened the exclusion zone to 20 meters earlier today. (Magelang's about 25 kilometers from the mountain.) Already more than 100,000 people have been relocated from inside the exclusion zone and an expanded safety perimeter promises to begin seriously taxing Central Java's humanitarian resources. The TV news is running stories about potential food shortages, and a disaster relief worker told the Jakarta Globe today that area shelters have reached capacity (

Against this sufficiently alarming set of developments, the American Indonesian Exchange Foundation, the group that administers the Fulbright program here, decided to pull me and my friend Demi out of Magelang and Yogyakarta. I'm writing this from inside the airport in Semarang, a port city on Java's north coast about two-and-a-half hours from Magelang, and I'm booked on a 7:20 p.m. flight to Jakarta. I'll be there indeterminately. In a kind of cinematic retreat, Demi and a group of Fulbrighters who were visiting Yogya for the weekend are on the proverbial last train out of that city tonight.

Abido, Heru and Song.

All of this happened very fast, of course. Until speaking with the AMINEF folks this morning, I hadn't once discussed Merapi with anyone overseeing the Fulbright program. We went from radio silence to DEFCON One in a phone call. Classes had already been canceled at SMKN1--again, no one mentioned this to me; I just kind of figured it out when all the students got back on their motorcycles and drove off--and apparently all the other schools in Magelang were also ordered shut. The word came down from the regional education office to send everyone home. (Although, why let everyone, students and teachers alike, arrive at school only to turn immediately around?) With marching orders to pack my stuff and get out, I bought a plane ticket, packed up what seemed necessary (yes, the French Press is with me), and hopped in one of the school's Toyota Kijangs for what turned out to be about a three-hour ride to the airport in Semarang. My roommate Song was ordered to evacuate by his Korean volunteer group and he'll be in Jakarta tomorrow. He's staying with friends tonight here in Semarang.

Heru says, So long.

The power went out yesterday about 4 p.m., and with the sky already an off and odd magenta-gray, the late afternoon sat in a suspended gloaming for two hours. Torpor. The campus was empty and splattered. Rain threatened constantly but never really delivered. It was a dirty, drizzly wait. As dark fell, I played guitar in my room until I couldn't see. Then we went and found some candles, and had a beer.

In the dark.

Song and I eventually decided to meet a friend for satay--staying in was a bummer--and so hopped on the bike and braved the streets slick with wetted ash mud. We drove for about 10 minutes--very slooowwwwly--before we saw any lights on and we killed a good two hours at dinner. We returned to a dark part of town and a still-pitch-dark guest house. The power came back up about 9 p.m. By then, the rain had picked up and a pulsing thunderstorm started up behind the ash haze. A muted, far-off lightning flash and low rumbling that rattled the windows in the house.

Maybe some of that rumbling came from Merapi; I don't know. The Globe claims people could hear the explosions last night as far off as 20 kilometers. I'd be in that ballpark. What I heard sounded like rolling thunder, but this was the first time in many, many thunderstorms here that I've heard the windows rattle. This was beefier, more low-end stuff. It made me think seriously, for the first time, about earthquakes. The volcano seemed pretty far off but Magelang's also in a quake zone, and with this much geologic rumbling in the area an earthquake didn't seem far-fetched. I left the front door unlocked just in case I needed to get out in a hurry.

Of course I didn't, and instead woke to the sounds of motorcycles and more motorcycles, the kids coming and revving and revving and going. The parking lot was loud and crowded and full of shouts and shrieks from about 6:15 to well past 8:30. Just cacophonous. I had plans to visit Jogja for the weekend and called Demi to confirm a visit. No dice, she wrote back. Headed to Jakarta. I called AMINEF and they said, Get ready. And that was that.

We got some new ash rain last night--the campus was coated with gray grit--but the bulk of Merapi's latest eruption went elsewhere. It rained in one form or another all morning, which held down the dust and left soft little craters in the sediment where rainwater fell from the roofs and onto the sidewalks and parking lot. My headmaster, Pak Heru, and his assistant, Abido, came to see us off. He'd ordered the school's driver to take Song and I north, avoiding the traffic that choked the main Magelang-Jogja road, and he told us both to get back soon. Sir!, he said. Don't be long. And you be safe, I said.

Heru and his family live about 40 minutes northwest of Magelang, and they're well out of harm's way. Abido lives out toward Heru but about 15 minutes closer. She's fine, too. The school, of course, is coming close to the exclusion zone--or, rather, the exclusion zone is coming close to it--and it's unclear whether classes will be back in session anytime soon. Some of our students had already been displaced by Merapi before the exclusion zone was widened today; many others will now be directly affected. A friend remains at her downtown motorcycle shop. She'll just wait out the eruptions for now and keep her shop doors open, hoping for customers. I called to tell her that Song and I had been ordered out. It's OK, she said. You can come back?

Leaving town in the air-conditioned comfort of a private SUV, I was driven to safety by a guy who lives right on the edge of the exclusion zone, down the street from Borobudur. He'll be back home tonight. We stopped for lunch and before we hit the road again, the driver bought a couple boxes of snack cakes for me to give the AMINEF folks when I see them. Heru had given him some money to do it. This is an Indonesian custom--bringing small gifts, usually food, to present when traveling--and Heru wanted Song and I traveling properly. We both got boxes of oleh-oleh. We'll both deliver them to our bosses when we see them. And when we return, we'll bring something back for Heru and the others. That's the idea, I think. If we leave with presents, we have to return. Right?



    Seriously, though, keep your head down and stay safe.

  2. Getting a little scary now -- take care!

  3. Very nice, if awfully delayed, flight from Semarang to Jakarta last night. Put up for now in decent downtown hotel, and we'll discuss what happens next soon. Obama coming here this week so the news doesn't stop.

    Thanks for the notes.

  4. Whoa. Keep safe. Will keep the rest of your school colleagues in my thoughts, too.

    And, just think of the stories we'll tell on the swimming platform of Nelson Lake...

  5. Yikes! Glad to hear you're safely set up in Jakarta. Ditto on keeping colleagues and kids back "home" in my thoughts. Any chance you guys will get to meet the Pres when he comes?

  6. God, Nelson Lake. Please book my stay for the entire month of July 2011. SMKN1 now a shelter for displaced people, so safe enough for them but not for me.