Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Escape from Merapi

In mid-October I moved into a new cubicle at ICRS. The new office space has tons of advantages: it's much bigger than my previous cramped quarters; it's centrally located in the hub of all ICRS activity so I don't feel like I'm all alone in the building when five o'clock rolls around; it's right next to Ingrid and Ipung's desks so I can easily chat, ask questions and steal some warm pisang goreng from Ingrid; it's close to the coffee and tea supply; and perhaps most impressively, it boasts a great view of Mount Merapi on a clear day. I thought it was pretty darn cool to have an office with a view of a volcano but on Oct 22 I noticed that the volcano seemed to be smoking. I pointed this alarming fact out to Ingrid, who told me that it's normal to see smoke coming from Merapi since it's an active volcano but also reassured me that we had nothing to worry about.

When I came home from work on Oct 25, I learned from my housemate Anastasia, who's always on top of the news, that experts were predicting an imminent eruption of Mount Merapi and had already started evacuating nearby villages. We sat glued to the TV that night, wondering what might happen next. The very next day, Oct 26, Merapi started to erupt, spewing ash and rocks into the air. That night found all of us once again glued to the TV in the common room as we watched the ash-covered evacuees talk to local reporters. A light ash rain fell in the background as people wearing face masks huddled together. I couldn't help but wonder why the shelters were so close to the volcano. Why weren't these people being taken farther away? Like to Yogya, a city about 25 km away and out of the danger zone where we were just comfortably sitting around watching the events unfold on TV?

I got the answer to my question the next day at work when Ipung explained to me that the villagers were reluctant to move far away from their cattle and livestock on the slopes. These animals represented their sole means of earning a living; if the animals died, so would their livelihoods. The men felt a strong need to stay close to their homes so they could run back and check on their cows during periods of low volcanic activity. If the authorities had insisted on evacuating these people farther away, they probably would have refused to evacuate at all.

I also learned that day that the eruption had already claimed a number of lives, including that of an elderly man known as Mbah Maridjan who was regarded as the spiritual guardian of the volcano. For many years, Mbah Maridjan's responsibility was to appease the gods of the 'Fire Mountain' with offerings of rice or flowers. Locals believed that if a serious eruption was imminent, Maridjan would be warned in a vision. On Oct 26 he stubbornly chose to ignore official orders to evacuate. His ash-covered body was later found in a praying position. Tragically, 13 other bodies of people who had either followed his example of staying despite evacuation orders or who had tried to persuade him to leave were found as well, including those of a journalist and a Red Cross volunteer. News of his death spread quickly through ICRS and saddened many.

Mount Merapi as seen on Oct 27 from my office window

On Oct 28 I flew to Jakarta. No one had ordered me to evacuate; I just happened to have a doctor's appointment. I also had plans to stay out of town for the next two weeks because of a conference in Bandung, the Marine Ball in Jakarta and another workshop in Banda Aceh. My timing couldn't have been better. The day after I arrived in Jakarta I started to get frightening reports from friends back in Yogya: Merapi had erupted two more times, the airport was shut down, and the volcanic ash had reached Yogya - it even dusted our guesthouse. Merapi was nowhere near being done erupting. In fact, she was just gathering energy. I was glad to be out of harm's way, but I worried for those still in Yogya.

On Nov 5 I woke up to the following text message from my counterpart, "Julianne, don't get back to Jogja first, Mt Merapi is getting worst. Ipung." A text from RELO followed shortly thereafter asking all ELFs to confirm our locations and to warn us to stay away from Mt Merapi, Yogya and Solo. It turns out that in the early morning hours of Nov 5 there had been what the media was calling the "worst eruption of the century". This eruption would eventually push the death toll up from 44 to over 250 and counting and triggered a series of emergency actions: my host university canceled all its classes for the week and many of UGM's buildings were converted into shelters for displaced people; the Indonesian government promised they would reimburse farmers for the loss of their cattle in an effort to convince them to stay away from Merapi's deadly slopes; and AMINEF pulled the ETAs out of the region and temporarily relocated them to Jakarta. In the days immediately following the eruption, I heard tales of intense rain, lightening and even a 5.6 earthquake in Yogya (said to be unrelated to Merapi, but still).

There have been no major eruptions since Nov 5, the danger zone has decreased in some areas and classes have resumed at UGM and ICRS. However, Merapi continues to cough and rumble. How long this will go on is anyone's guess. Ingrid and Ipung report that Yogya is feeling normal again but on Nov 10 the U.S. State Department issued a travel alert for the area until Dec 31. The ETAs have been moved from Jakarta to work indefinitely at other schools on Java; Demi is now in Bandung and Brett is in East Java.

As for me, I'm stuck in Jakarta for the time being. My original flight back to Yogya was scheduled for Nov 14 but the Yogya airport is closed until Nov 20. But even then, is it safe to go back? Demi tells me that AMINEF is keeping the ETAs out of the region until the Indonesian government officially lowers Merapi's alert status. Consequently, RELO is checking with the Embassy Regional Security Office about when it will be safe for me to return. In the meantime, I'm being put up in nice hotels in Jakarta and RELO is giving me various little projects to work on. Yesterday I was a guest visitor in an Access Microscholarship Program English class. I'll return tomorrow to lead the class through some speaking and writing activities. On Friday and Saturday I'm volunteering to help interview Indonesian high school students for a year-long exchange program in the U.S. These are interesting tasks, but I hope it will be safe enough for me to return to Yogya soon to resume my life and regular classes there. It's not easy being in this state of limbo and uncertainty and I miss my friends and housemates in Yogya.

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