Thursday, April 1, 2010

Hands On Disaster Response

Since I’m not actually certified to teach in Indonesia, that means I’m exempt from giving grades or proctoring any tests. So when my students had their national exams last week, that meant I had a week of vacation.

Christine and I threw around a few ideas. Maybe we’d go to Lombok and soak up the sun on the beach there. Maybe we’d do the Bali/Flores/Komodo/Rinca circuit and drop in on the Komodo Dragons. That option ended up being pretty far out of our budget.

When Paul, another ETA, emailed us all about a volunteer opportunity his girlfriend found in Padang, we scoured the organization’s web site (, made plenty of phone calls back and forth, and decided it would be nearly impossible to find a better use of our time.

Two devastating earthquakes hit Padang right after my arrival in Palembang. Actually, an ETA was placed there, but AMINEF had to move him after the disaster. The first earthquake (magnitude 7.6) struck just off the coast at around 10:30pm on September 30. Four hours later, a second earthquake (magnitude 6.6) struck. The government estimates that more than 250,000 families have lost a family member, a job, or their homes because of the earthquakes.

And so began our journey to Padang, where we spent a week with the crew of Hands On Disaster Response. The organization is an American-run non-profit. What’s especially unique about HODR is that as long as volunteers can find their own way to and from the sites, HODR provides the rest: namely, lodging and meals. Surprisingly, this is not how most other organizations are run. It can cost thousands of dollars to volunteer on large service projects. Of course, even for HODR, the money still has to come from somewhere… so they’re either spending it on the project itself or spending some of it supporting the volunteers. But it was the perfect fit for me and for a handful of other Fulbrights who came, too. We don’t have much money, but boy do we have spare time.

Fulbright love (minus Erica and Paul's gf Siobhan)
Kalada, Paul, Carrie, Christine, Nicole, me

While my intentions for the week were good, my physical strength is less than desirable. Therefore, most of us were given the most tedious sort of jobs: Christine and I spent eight hours chinking the mortar off of salvageable bricks. Apparently, it’s not something we’d do in the US, because the cost of labor to chink far outweighs the price of new bricks. But since our labor was free, we chinked away. Chank away? Chunked?

Finish one brick. Set it down.
Pick up another brick. Repeat.

We spent other days hanging chain link for frame support and nailing nailing nailing away at it. One day we installed signboards at a few local schools. HODR will put posters on them instructing the students and teachers about earthquake safety precautions.

Most of HODR’s efforts focus on deconstruction and salvage (knocking down destroyed homes, pulling away the debris, and saving what they can) and building temporary shelters for the families. The shelters are supposed to be used for 2-3 years, long enough to give the families time to save up the resources to build a stronger, larger home. Not surprisingly, though, most families will live in the shelters for 10-15 years or until they aren’t habitable anymore.

The shelter's frame.
Isn't that some impressive chain linkage?

When the name of the organization starts with “Hands On,” I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised when all of the activities are just that. I know cool girls love camping and big dogs and stuff, but I like cats and hotels next to beaches. We slept on the floor on sleeping bags we brought with us (and an air mattress someone donated to our cause!), ate mostly rice for meals, shared two squat toilets between 30 people, and showered with just one bucket of water each day.

Home sweet home

That was an experience in and of itself. You filled up one large (a relative term, I assure you) with water from a big basin of rainwater. Then you carry that to one of three shower stalls and use a smaller bucket to pour the water on yourself. My personal method was to tackle my hair first, dunking my whole head into the big bucket, shampooing and rinsing at my leisure. Then I’d use the rest of bucket’s semi-dirty water to wash my body. Until someone caught me. This place had more rules than my local mosque.

The big blue ones are the rainwater basins.
Pink bucket is the big bucket.
Blue bucket on the basic is the small bucket.

“Are you putting your hands into the larger bucket?” someone asked.

“Uh, kinda. I’m putting my head into it,” I answered.

“You’re not allowed to put your hands into the large bucket, only the small one.”

“What’s the difference? It’s not safe to drink or cook with anyway, right?”

“Yes, but that’s the rule. Only put your hands into the small bucket.”

It happened again at dinner.

I spooned some rice onto my place, took some tofu, and grabbed an egg.

“Oh, are you a vegetarian?” someone asked.

“No, I’m not.”

“Then you shouldn’t eat the eggs.”

“Oh, I can eat eggs. Don’t worry.”

“No, not for you. The eggs are for vegetarians. The meat is for you.”

“But the meat is fish in curry, and I don’t like fish.”

No dice. Apparently while it’s not ok to put your hands in the big bucket of dirty rainwater, it is ok to touch an egg and then put it back on the community serving plate.

Fed up with my meat options,
I took matters into my own hands.

The house supports up to 30 volunteers at one time; some came for a few days, and others stayed for months. At one point during my week, there were 31 volunteers representing 7 countries.

We left that house for one of four projects each morning at 7:30am, had a lunch break during the hottest part of the day from 11:30am - 1:30pm, and we came back to the house at around 4:30pm, literally right before it started getting dark. Lights out was at 10:00pm each night.

We worked hard, we really did. And each night we’d go to sleep feeling worn out, and we’d wake up feeling even more worn out, somehow. But it felt good, too. I believe that education is the key to economic and political change in Indonesia, but it can be so frustrating to be in a classroom every day, where you can never see anything change.

Each of us is here, I truly believe, because we care about these people and we want to make a difference. But our students often forget our lessons – even the fun ones!—after only a few weeks. Daily life can be so draining when you’re facing the same issues and the same challenges over and over again. But being in Padang was different: it was physical. It was real. We wanted to help, and so we did—right there, with our hands. To steal the words from Paul’s girlfriend Siobhan, “Being this kind of tired feels good.”

Visiting the school was an especially challenging experience. You can see from my pictures what the grounds were like. The earthquakes destroyed the classrooms, and all classes are taught in temporary shelters for now. It almost felt like we were mocking them to put up a sign telling them about earthquake safety. “Oh hey—I see that the recent natural disaster has rendered your building useless, and I can’t offer you any actual help in terms of rebuilding since we work on homes, but here’s a sign telling you how to protect your building in an earthquake.” But at least it’s something.

The temporary classrooms

Earthquake damage to the original school

The HODR project in Indonesia is actually just a few weeks away from closing. They already have a much larger relief effort in place in Haiti, and they’re going to put more of their resources there. They’ve already been in Padang for nearly five months.

I’m probably naïve and definitely ignorant in terms of disaster relief, but I don’t understand how more change hasn’t happened in Padang yet. It’s been six months since the earthquakes. Why are the doors to the school still wide open when any can walk in and risk serious injury from a collapsing ceiling or broken glass? Why is there still broken glass on the floor six months later? The houses were the same way.

The response from Indonesians was frustrating at times. Many of the families we helped were supportive and friendly; they brought us coffee and snacks throughout the day. But hardly any of them actually helped. They just sat outside and watched us. We visited with them during breaks and found out that most of them had no jobs. We invited them to help, but they politely declined and just kept watching. One of the Americans in charge of the project kept asking one of the Indonesian men whose home we were building to bring him a few long logs so he could support a wall; the house the family was living in was in serious danger of collapsing, and he wanted to make sure no one would be hurt before we were finished with the new shelter. Every day, the Indonesian man would smile and say, “Yes, tomorrow. Or later today. I’ll get them sometime.” And the American became so frustrated because he was trying to help but getting hardly any response, so the options were to let it go or to push it to the point of being rude or too demanding.

The saddest part of the whole experience was knowing that most of the damages might have been avoided. If the same earthquake were to happen in a more developed part of the world, the homes wouldn’t crumble like they did in Padang. So how can we communicate that idea—that cheaper isn’t always better, that structure is more than four walls and a roof, that when you live in this part of the world you have to be aware of these risks or you endanger lives?

What’s that quotation? Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat forever? Is that? You get the point.

You communicate those ideas teaching, I suppose. Explaining. Showing. Educating. Because even though my students cannot grasp even the concept of the past perfect tense, at least maybe they’re learning that there’s more world than they thought before. I certainly am. Oh, goodness, I came full circle, didn’t I? You know what feels even better than building a house? The feeling that what you’re doing—even if it’s often frustrating and confusing and can seem endless—is most definitely a solid step in the direction of what is right.


  1. "Here we have to wear very modest shirts. Although all of my friends have the same shirt as you on, yours is a really good example of what not to wear."

    "You cannot brush your teeth there, although everyone else does. There is a spot out back with the snakes for you."

    "You cannot sleep there. If there is an earthquake, you might trip over each other and die."


  2. Ahhhh... I've missed your blog. So glad to get a refresher of what you were up to. You know...I've never been a part of a major volunteer effort. I did a 30-hour fast but that was it - no raising money or anything. I once walked two miles to help runaways, and I raised $79 for the Special Olympics and then pulled a Boeing 747 with 19 other people, but that's it. Your post makes me feel a little guilty.

    I'm proud of what you did, chinking away a bricks, chasing chickens and using one bucket of water to clean yourself. I'm glad you see it as a huge step in helping others. But just like, "Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat forever?" "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink." You can lead by example and help as much as you can, but if they are unwilling to learn from you, then there's only so much you can do.

    Keep fighting the good fight!

    Love you!!!

  3. amen, amen to a very, very good post, Katie.

  4. Katie--I want to see the next frame of the picture where you are about to kill that hen, or is it a rooster?..........Dad