Padang Earthquake - 2009
Oct 29, 2009
|Most would say home is where the heart is. But for those living in natural disaster prone areas, like Indonesia's Ring of Fire, sometimes the heart is all that's left of a home.
With my trip to Indonesia already booked, a visit to West Sumatra's largest city, Padang, was not on the initial itinerary. That was, until a 7.6 earthquake rumbled through, devastating not only Padang, but much of the Central West coast of Sumatra.
Unsure of who to contact or what to expect, I decided to just go and see if I could help. After all, what good are we as travelers, if we can't do good in the places we travel?
I arrived almost exactly one month after the quake. What I found could be more accurately described as, what was left.
Retracing its path of destruction, a wild, seemingly unending crack snaked its way through town. It slithered from street to street, offering charity to some blocks, destroying only two or three buildings, but reeking havoc on others, leveling entire apartment complexes and reducing hundreds of multi-leveled homes, hotels and office buildings to one stories.
Collections of partial concrete walls and mangled rebar were often the only reminders of the buildings that once stood, now serving as headstones for their graveyards of brick, concrete and rubble.
Human labor was used in the initial clean up process to clear the streets of debris along with extracting and separating reusable building materials from the rubble. But this effort had come to a halt. The next phase - rebuilding - could not begin until heavy machinery and construction workers arrived.
Injuries sustained and unfortunately, casualties suffered, had also been dealt with. Allocated accordingly to the local hospitals and Red Cross camps.
As it turned out, what the big volunteer organizations needed now, were volunteer nurses, doctors and construction workers. All services, I could not provide. The other key element needed was money. Another effort, I could only provide so much of.
So, although my trip to Sumatra began with honest intentions, I eventually gave up the futile effort to volunteer. Besides, the real stories, the real emotions, the real heart of the matter lied with the people. With the families and with the victims.
Lucky to escape major structural damage themselves, my Padang hosts escorted me around their neighborhood to meet some of the families who were not so lucky.
Already a very poor neighborhood, I assumed the giant blue tarps spread over top dried pieces of wood and rusted tin were real residences. I was surprised to learn that these makeshift tents were the new dwellings of locals who lost their homes in the quake. Forced to reside there until enough money could be saved to reinforce and rebuild their homes.
There in lies the biggest problem of all. Money. Something most locals do not have a surplus of.
In a country where home-owner's insurance is only for the rich, losing even a part of someone's home could easily take a life-times salary to rebuild. Just like that, an entire families simple lifestyle must become painfully plainer.
Coping with the destruction of a home would be difficult enough, but nothing could compare to the loss of a loved one.
I was introduced to Rhi Rien at a small outdoor cafe. My hosts, Linda and Lina, wanted us to meet so she too could practice her English. After the preliminary girls gossip, I unknowingly asked Rhi Rien the most painful question I could have. "How many brothers and sisters do you have?"
The smile suddenly faded and she grew quiet. After a brief pause (as if in solitary reflection) she answered my question. "I had two sisters."
Rhi Rien lost her "uni" (older sister) in the earthquake. Her sister was working at a local hotel when the quake struck. The hotel was leveled almost beyond recognition. 9 days later her sister's body was found.
Rhi Rien gave me these basic details as if reading the morning newspaper. Facts were facts and it seemed she had accepted the tragedy and moved on. How this young girl of 22, could lose her dearest friend, her sister, only 1 month prior yet remain so composed, left me speechless. I probably looked more distraught then she did.
Not wanting to push or prod, I left the conversation where it was, but as comfort levels set in, so did Rhi Rien's real emotions.
Rhi Riens late sister, Tarita, had married the previous year but as is customary in Minakabau culture (one of the few matriarchal societies left in the world), she and her husband moved into the wife's family home. This meant Rhi Rien's entire family still lived under one big, happy roof. Every night they shared in the same family meal and partook in the same family gossip. They were close beyond words. Rhi Rien said her sister’s happiness once greeted everyone at the door but now, only loneliness and sadness.
I was especially moved when Rhi Rien shared her sisters love story. Sweethearts for most of their youth, marrying Tarita was the happiest day of her husband’s life. Exactly one year later, he had to endure the saddest day.
All of these words and stories were spoken without a tear. For Rhi Rien, the time for tears was over and now she must put faith in Allah that everything is where it should be.
Rhi Rien would not be the only person I met that suffered a huge loss. The next meeting occurred in a completely nonchalant manner, at a road-side food stand.
Diagnosing the far from appealing plate of food set before me, the woman next to me, noticing my apprehension, offered me a sample of her dish. We struck up a brief conversation in which I mentioned my time in Padang. She pursued my statement with one of her own, "I lost my entire family there."
Stated in such a bizarre, unsympathetic manner, I again found myself flabbergasted. "Her entire family was killed when their home collapsed from the quake, yet she is still smiling?"
Sensing the uneasiness in my demeanor, the woman simply replied, "Life is too short for sadness. We should be thankful for all Allah has given us and continue to pray for things that jeopardize the balance." And after that, she resumed her light-hearted conversation with friends and bid me a great day.
Faith. In tragedies like this, faith is sometimes all people are left with. But for them, faith is all they need.
I may have failed in my initial "relief" efforts, but I succeeded in other forms. By just offering a listening ear and a few words of hope and encouragement, I provided a different form of relief. A relief I received in turn.
In memory of all the victims and families of the 2009 Earthquake – Padang, Sumatra