Thursday, 22 October 2009

First days in Padang

Two days ago Christie and I flew into Padang in Sumatra to see if we could offer any help to the earthquake relief effort. After a night in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) we got to Padang airport around 5pm Tuesday in the middle of a thunderstorm. The plane was only half full with Sumatran locals and a few Malaysian aid workers. After buying our visa on arrival, we passed through customs without incident into the waiting throng of taxi touts. Having not organised accommodation or even knowing if any was available (we'd brought a tent just in case), we took the offer of one guy to drive us in and find us a room.

The drive into town took about an hour, because the roads had flooded in places, and there were buses stranded and motor scooters trying to brave the foot-deep water. Most smaller buildings seemed intact, and there wasn't much sign of the disaster, which was unexpected. However as we got closer to town there was the occasional damaged house or shop. In the city itself, there was repeatedly the bizarre sight of several untouched buildings in a row, with a big government office or something just completely collapsed in the middle of them. West Sumatran roofs have a unique style (see pic below from our last trip), and we would see these sitting on the ground, cracked in half, with the rest of the building pancaked beneath.

It was dark and raining, so we couldn't see too much, and were more immediately interested in finding a room. After trying a few hotels we found one with a single room left, for much more than we'd normally pay but we weren't really in a bargaining position. When it stopped raining later, we headed out for a walk but didn't really see much more damage.

The next morning we met up Wendy, a Sumatran girl that Ben and I had met here in Padang last year. She had been working for Unicef, but was frustrated at the excessive bureaucracy and lack of action from the government, so had decided to help us to do something directly instead.

As we were riding to the bank to convert our donations to rupiah, I saw some of the real destruction in the rest of the city - collapsed schools, a hospital demolished and hotels reduced to rubble. Some still had dozens of bodies under them. These were the images they've been showing on the news, but the contrast to the other buildings somehow still standing was really bizarre. The city doesn't look like a war zone with rubble everywhere - although I'm sure a lot has been cleaned up in the three weeks since the quake - it seems almost normal, just with the odd building decimated.

As Wendy pointed out, the effect is far greater than just what we can see, since each building collapse means dozens or hundreds out of jobs, and with unusually high food prices it is harder for families to survive, even if their houses are still habitable.

Yesterday we took a minivan four hours east to Muara Labuh, with the idea to buy supplies at normal prices, much cheaper than in Padang. We saw many more damaged houses along the way, and in several places the road had been only recently cleared of landslides. The drive was up into the mountains outside of Padang, which were thick with jungle and refreshingly much cooler, sometimes foggy.

We stayed last night at a school that Wendy is setting up to teach English, and today she and a friend have gone to the market for us to purchase a big load of rice, condensed milk and laundry soap. If we'd gone ourselves, we would have been charged the foreigner price.

We're going to buy 250-300kg of rice and take it to an area called Pasaman, a few hours north of Padang. Using her aid agency contacts, Wendy has found that this area has received some aid, but not enough, and it has not been distributed effectively. Another option was to go and start a food kitchen at Lake Maninjau, which is a large lake
ringed by villages inside a volcano crater. However the logistics of a few of us carrying half a ton of food and supplies in by foot, and the dangers of mudslides and flooding was just too much. Apparently many people there have lost their houses completely - washed into the lake - and would really need the food, but we have to accept there are hundreds of villages that need assistance and we can't help everyone.

Thanks again to everyone that chipped with donations, you'll be happy to know that they are going straight into buying food and essentials as I type. We should be distributing them to villagers in the next couple of days, and I'll update when I can on how it's all going.