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More happiness and laughter

Indonesia, August 10, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    A single piece of bohorombrom, served gracefully on a banana leaf. Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps

I feel a bit odd talking so much about happiness — especially after my last blog journal from the field, written amidst eastern Congo's violence and mass displacement — but, honestly, happiness is what I'm feeling here in Banda Aceh. So, if you're looking for something besides happiness, you'd best stop reading.

I've rarely met anyone as hospitable and generous as the Acehnese people: their friendliness is genuine, their laughter contagious. It's truly joyful to spend time in their homes. This afternoon, we experienced this once again in the small beachside village of Lam Teungoh.

Lam Teungoh, just outside of the city limits of Banda Aceh, is situated just a few hundred yards from the Indian Ocean. The sea is visible from most villagers' yards or porches, which is a bit unsettling because of what happened here when the tsunami struck. On that horrific December day, more than 80 percent of Lam Teungoh's residents lost their lives. Most of the village's survivors were scattered in displacement camps around the city for at least seven months, after which they returned here and lived in tents and shacks while as they began to rebuild their homes and lives.

Four and a half years later, it seems like much of the heavy lifting and hard work is behind them. Mercy Corps has helped them reorganize a women's group that was dispersed by the tsunami, as well as providing them with the equipment they needed to resume the small business they shared: candymaking.

This women's group — called Seroja, after a kind of Indonesian lotus flower — is making enough money from candy sales to provide for their food needs and childrens' school fees, as well as investing money back into their small business.

We were lucky enough to try two of their confections: timpan, a tiny cake coated in shredded coconut and bohorombrom, a sticky coconut jelly roll filled with palm sugar. Both were amazing, but one was much more fun than the other.

The women kept egging me on to try and pronounce bohorombrom, a cute word which mimics the sound of a bouncing ball in the local language. I tried, rolling my "r"s as much as I possibly could. They burst into laughter, the kind that doesn't make you self-conscious but instead just makes you want to keep it going as long as possible. So I changed bohorombrom to "vroom-vroom," exaggerating a motorcycle's engine. More laughter.

If I didn't have a translator, I couldn't understand much of what they were saying, but laughter is universal. It is immediate, endearing and powerful. I will always remember bohorombrom and how we shared in the joy of that word.

When it was time to leave, the group presented us with an elaborate bouquet of paper flowers — another one of their creations — and we made several pictures together. It felt like a silly, yet significant, moment.

Bohorombrom sums up how I feel about Banda Aceh and its people. When I leave this place for Jakarta tomorrow evening, I will be wearing a smile.