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You can never predict the weather

Indonesia, November 4, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Julisa Tambunan/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Aid workers' tents and the Indonesian warship in Sikakap. Photo: Julisa Tambunan/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Julisa Tambunan/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Our base in Sikakap. Photo: Julisa Tambunan/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Julisa Tambunan/Mercy Corps  </span>
    The sea was calm when we left the land. Photo: Julisa Tambunan/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Julisa Tambunan/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Loading the relief supplies into villagers' boats. Photo: Julisa Tambunan/Mercy Corps

Yesterday, I resolved to write only good news in my next blog post. You see, I’m the kind of person who’d like to believe that there’s always a slight of hope even in the worst disaster. Naïve. Because right now, I don’t really have any good news to write home about.

As I’m writing this now, I’m sending my thoughts and prayers to our team leader in this emergency response — Wawan Budianto — who had to head back to his hometown in Java tonight, because this afternoon he got a phone call from a relative telling him that his father passed away. Strange how the world works. While you’re helping other people to get through their hard times after a disaster, a personal disaster hits you. You can never predict the weather.

And that’s exactly the right expression to describe the last few days in Mentawai. No one can predict the weather. It’s frustrating here.

These days, we were just spending hours of waiting for the weather to get better so we could distribute critical supplies to the survivors of the tsunami, and it never got better. We have been stuck in our base camp in Sikakap — coordinating with other non-governmental organizations, sending emails to the office and to the media from the free Wi-Fi (with limited connectivity) facility set up recently by a telecommunication company — sitting, waiting, sitting, waiting. It’s frustrating.

Being here but not being able to do anything. The storm has been hitting really bad and dangerous, making it impossible to cross the sea. Even air transportation like helicopters needed to stop operating. A few days ago, 25 relief workers were missing because they did not listen to the weatherman and went crossing the sea regardless the warning sign. They were found stranded in some beach in Southern Pagai, and a Blackhawk had to be sent to rescue them. And the last thing we want to do is being like them — making everyone worried and more occupied while we should have just focused on sending aid the survivors.

But yesterday, it was predicted that the storm had finally calmed down. So I hopped in to a ship that was operated by the marines and heading to Southern Pagai to do some assessment in field. But the prediction went wrong and it turned out to be a disastrous 16 hours on the ship. Once again, we were trapped in a dangerous sea storm. We did reach the destination after a three-hour journey; the village of Bulasat with 600 disaster impacted households — but the ship could not dock. The waves were too fierce to send out small boats to the land.

I could not board off the ship; the Captain did not let anyone to step out. So the villagers came to the ship with their own small boats and took out some relief goods, but we could not stay long because the weather had gotten worse and worse.

A few hours later, the ship headed back to Sikakap. But at that time, the storm had hit so bad that it damaged the steering wheel and the machinery altogether. Everyone was panicking. That big ship was out of control. We were in the middle of the angry Indian Ocean, with a messed-up machine, and another unfortunate boat not far from us sending an S.O.S message for having the same problem. We could not help them. We could not even help ourselves.

I didn’t quite know how they fixed the problem, but the machine started to be alive again after a while. “We’re not going to die here,” said the Captain. So we did reach the land of Sikakap, where our base is located, eight hours later. I remember I fell asleep somewhere in the middle of the journey back, trying hard to remember what my purpose there was.

As soon as I got back at the base, being seasick and all, I hurriedly called someone dear at home to vent.

“Please remind me again why I chose this line of work,” I requested.

And he said, “You’ve always been in love with people, regardless of the weather.” Touché.