Friday, January 25, 2008

I met a monkey, and a few other moments...

From Banda Aceh with love

The volcanic mountains of Aceh rise up like jagged, verdant teeth; we lay within the mouth of the ‘Ring of Fire’. Rice paddies glisten like jewels, and the sweet aroma of clove cigarettes wafts through the streets, hangs in the air like a quaint reminder that even smoke can be candied.
The air is pregnant with moisture, it clings to your skin, glazes everything in a clammy film. Dragonflies swarm the air, a constant droning as the soundtrack to their predation. The hotel pool is blessed by this army of mercenaries, as they keep the ravening mosquitoes at bay.

Our hotel provided the softest of landings, and rather unexpectedly so. I could not have imagined this sort of luxury in the midst of this very undeveloped country, site of the most significant natural disaster in the modern record.

The roads are an exercise in perfect order emerging from chaos. Like gnats or starlings, the myriad of motorbikes, buses, tuk-tuks, and everything in between- all somehow manage to coexist, darting here and there, yielding and charging, and yet somehow never touching one another.

The people here are incredibly kind and helpful, welcoming and curious: like the people in every underdeveloped place I have ever been. The influx of NGOs has not corrupted the culture...yet. The KFC and Pizza Hut in the center of town serve as brutal reminders that with development comes the spectre of consumer culture.

We’ve met many, many tsunami survivors, and the stories are both shocking and incredible. There is much involved, the compensation, rebuilding, and in many cases the complete losses suffered by some.

The tsunami created an incredible opportunity to end the separatist strife that divided Aceh and Indonesia for the past 30 years. In the wake of utter devastation, there was a great residue of hope deposited on the ravaged land. The people have a spirit and an interest in their own well being that has come as an absolute delight after the spectacle of New Orleans.

The Aceh People’s Forum, an umbrella organization that organizes all of the relief efforts, arranged a roundtable discussion for our group yesterday. We presented our aggregated observations and recommendations to the group of locals, NGO coordinators, press, and others, and spent an incredibly successful time discussing the merits and flaws in our work.

Ultimately, it got us all fired up, put us on Indonesian television, and is being incorporated into a document that will be published and presented to the Indonesian government in an effort to help shape the debate around redevelopment efforts.

In other news, the muezzin’s song wakes me shortly after 5 a.m. each day. I lay in bed listening to the call to prayer, luxuriating in its exotic, haunting melody. No one else wakes to it, a testament to what a light sleeper I am. I’ve been to the gym each morning at 6, swimming laps in the outrageous pool as the sun ascends.

In short, it is a strange sort of paradise, the luxury hotel juxtaposed with the redolent down-market grime of the streets. I wish we could spend a month here.

Next stop, Sri Lanka by way of Singapore. Over and out.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Bon Voyage

Well, today is Wednesday, and I'm no fool. I leave Sunday, and harbor no kindly delusions of having "all the time in the world." No, before I know it, I will be on an airplane, surveying the curve of the edge of the Earth, experiencing my usual "Icarus, eat your heart out" moment, and tingling with anticipation of our first destination.

My dear friends and family, for those of you who don't know exactly what is going on: we will be visiting India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Indonesia to observe the long term effects of the huge tsunami as well as relief efforts. I will be completing my thesis while there.

We will kick off this Southeast Asian adventure with a trip to Banda Aceh. It's pretty crazy, to start at the disaster's epicenter and radiate outward from there.

I have no idea what to expect, really. Just know that I will be posting pictures and journal entries whenever I get the chance.

The good news is that they probably won't be as long-winded as the past few entries, so you will be spared my sprawling prose.

Please be well, and expect post cards!


p.s. In case you find checking this thing annoying, you can subscribe (see upper right) so that you get an email when I post.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Scars We Bear

Somewhere, there is a breach. And the breach must let. Water, blood, trust, security, it is let by the breach, and when the letting has been done, there will be a reminder marking its passage. The breach is a violence, and the memory of violence in some form or fashion is indelible. There is no way to avoid this truth of being. It stubbornly sticks to our skin, embeds itself in the soul, or gashes itself across the landscape.

Perhaps this is the truth of why we celebrate scars: they tell a story of violence, and better yet, of survival.

I do not like to be exposed. My own vulnerability makes me feel a little sick, and violently uneasy. This may be the reason why I have choosen to fight the battles of the vulnerable who lack the means to fight their own alone.

I heal myself by healing others. Perhaps I always have.

An endless vertical flickering of slender, pale trunks forms a pattern of the passing landscape. It is repeated on the insides of my eyelids, when they droop shut from exhaustion. We are on our way to the gulf coast. And I am afraid of what we will find.

The scars on the coast are brazen, ugly, and unhidden. Concrete pads that once held homes. People existed here. Bedclothes strung high in the branches of trees, forgotten and unretrievable. Ghosts of a community. Inflatable churches. The few oceanside buildings that remain look as though they have complied with the new codes: 12 foot pilings like slender legs, supporting a mass of building above. But it is an illusion, a scar left by subtraction rather than addition: the first floor swept away, support beams left doing what they were designed to do.

And that was the hopeful part.

New Orleans is a shadow. Oh, the French Quarter is fine, and so is the Garden District. But anyone who thinks that these slices of iconography are New Orleans never really knew her.

It has been well over 2 years, and little has taken place besides a mass exodus. Trailers litter the land like apologies. As I walk the Lower Ninth Ward, trying to hold back tears, I strike up a conversation with an older black man.

God did this to us,” says Albert Johnson, boozy breath reaching my nostrils. “For treating each other so bad, it’s our punishment.”

I look into his eyes, imploringly, “Will the community come back?” He chuckles the sort of chuckle that is a substitute for sobbing, and asks

“What community?”

The stench of decay rises from every direction, and the few homes left standing are spray-painted with pitiful pleas: “DO NOT DEMOLISH, TRYING TO REPAIR” or

The scars of poor governance rise up in unison, a siren song for reform...and no one heeds the call. Those left behind are wary, resilient, and marked with the indelible expressions of disappointment and despair. They have been abandoned, lied to, brutalized.

Some lost, little girl inside of me cringes, remembering all of the times she was felt she was left on her own, to fend for herself. It is, in an instant, fresh and raw and all-too-real. And it is happening now on a scale that is difficult to comprehend.

The horizon is a levy, holding back the potential of the Mississippi. The land, scraped bare, wears the mark of her ire. The wrath of nature, coupled with a human lack of compassion, leaves a legacy deeper than the skin of this rotting neighborhood reveals. Lives unraveled here. People died here.

But I am supposed to be clinical about this, jotting notes, snapping photos. And so I stray from my peers, pretending to think when all I want to do is feel. I do a little soft dying on my own, before collecting myself up. Feelings must let, before thoughts bridge the breach.

And then I begin taking notes, sketching furiously, making a million little promises to serve these people, and people like them, through my work. I have ideas.

But the breaches are so varied, so multiple, so vast. And I am only one.

The injuries are deep, and the causes many and difficult to name. But the scars are reminders of having survived. They are a celebration in and of themselves.

These indelible marks lay scattered across the land, worming their way into the spirit of a people, turning some terrified, some hopeless, others angry, and yet others ambivalent. It is easy to close your eyes, easy to become an island.

Every action that closes a piece of the breach is a bridge. The marks remaining are a testament to our will to survive. I survive on the hope of the survival of human kind. Of human kindness.

And every stain, every scar left behind is a promise to remember what we are capable of doing, of feeling, and of recovering from.

Every memory of violence promises its prevention in the future. Through our scars, we remember.

Monday, January 7, 2008

New Years 2008

It's neither superstition nor ritual that forces me to acknowledge and celebrate New Years each year. It is a blind optimism concerning the mechanics of the universe that washes over me in warm, rolling waves.

I consider New Years Day, much like a birthday, a station point in life. It’s a dog-eared page in a journal that we thumb back to annually, re-read certain lines, and discover a new & different meaning each time. It is an opportunity to recognize that we have completed yet another revolution around the Sun, and that one more revolution has begun anew.

2007 came to an end beneath a tapestry of stars so glittering and expansive that it brought to mind the night skies of childhood, the imaginings of an immense swathe of black paper pricked with holes, filtering in some light from beyond.

The campfire glowed, and we huddled around it, laughing and pouring champagne, toasting the sky and each other again and again. Shooting stars leave strands of wishes in their wake. I walk a short distance from camp, into the Texas night, and a chill creeps into my bones as I squat to pee. I pour myself onto the cracked earth under cover of night, exhale a wisp of warm breath, and wonder at the vital exchanges taking place at both ends of my body.

It is no wonder why the transcendentalists were all moved by nature. In this place, we are all vulnerable to the elements, life is unpredictable, and more visceral than indoors. I am infinitely more alive out here.

Around the fire, or within the enormous yurt, there are embraces, confessions, laughter. And it dawns on me, “These people love and respect me.” No matter how many times I fail myself, or refuse to believe I have succeeded, I have earned the respect of the people I love. 2008 is the year I will earn my own respect.

I will earn my degree this year, 5 long, stressful years in the making. In a couple of weeks I will be in Asia, examining the sites of disasters on the shores of several nations. And then, on some distant shore, I will carve my name into my profession...

2008 is full of promises. In spite of personal uncertainty, some things are certain:
There will be more deaths, as there always are. Some will govern well, and others poorly. Scandals and environmental catastrophes will rock the airwaves. Small kindnesses will go unreported, and people will continue to be people everywhere, screwing and fighting, hoping and waiting, loving and hating.

More noteworthy, our little planet will continue to make its way around the sun, celestial bodies will wink conspiratorially at one another, and cycles will continue to unfold, wreaking havoc on humanity simply by doing as their nature compels.

Like the transcendentalists before me, I will reach out to the world in 2008, lay myself bare like an exposed nerve, and let myself be guided by the precious vulnerability I find in discomfort and danger. That, and wait to see what is written when we return to this station on the eve of 2009.