Saturday, May 07, 2005

Earthquakes and volcano eruptions threaten businesses!

The way Ibu Wati told it, had I arrived at her little seaside seafood restaurant to watch the sunset on a normal Saturday, I would have been battling a crowd and a beach that although it appeared to be busy was only at "50 per cent" of its normal capacity by her reckoning.

"The problem is the earthquakes. And the volcanoes," she offered. "They're dealing with trauma," she said, waving stubby fingers at her head to illustrate the demons dancing inside her missing customers' brains. "They don't want to come here because of that."

In Ibu Wati's own lucid mind that undoubtedly made me a little fresh for only ordering a bottle of iced tea and then spilling half of it on one of her prize tables the moment I sat down. Twitching her lips impatiently, she had made one effort at drawing more money out of me.
"The grilled fish is good," she said soon after I sat down. "Try it."

But I'd demurred. So she had gone back to fussing with the styrofoam containers filled with melted ice, banana-sized shrimp, and cloudy-eyed fish laid out on the bench before her. And I'd returned to watching a red sun descend over the Sunda Strait while fending off the underemployed massage ladies who wandered the beach.

One of those ladies eventually lost patience with my line about neither liking massages nor wanting one with a barked "So what do you want?!?! What do you like?!?!" and that drew Ibu Wati out again with a quip meant for both of us: "He doesn't know what he wants."

What I wanted was peace and quiet, and an end to the jet skis buzzing randomly around the bay in front of me and the families strolling cheerfully along the beach that wrapped around it.
I'd come to Anyer, a west Java port town that is home to towering chemical plants and holiday resorts that cater to weekend refugees from grubby Jakarta, because of a misguided idea.
I thought I was headed for an Indonesian beach town abandoned by tourists too fearful of tsunamis and other recent seismic rumblings off nearby Sumatra to go anywhere near the beach.

I'd stay in a horrible and empty pink hotel I'd driven past once. I'd finally read Simon Winchester's epic Krakatoa about the famous volcano that had blown its top 122 years before within pumice-lobbing distance. And I'd ponder the fear gnawing at an Indonesian psyche battered in the four months before by Biblical-scale tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and aftershocks, one of which had ranked eighth among the 10 strongest quakes on record in the past century and left almost 1,000 dead.

I'd at least chosen the right place for my pondering. Or so Winchester indicated.

The first message to the outside world in May 1883 about the initial eruption of Krakatau (the proper Malay spelling of its name) had been penned by the Lloyd's agent in Anyer, a Dutchman named Schuit who ran the seafront Anyer Hotel at the time. "Krakatan [sic] casting forth fire, smoke, and ash, accompanied by explosions and distant rumblings," his telegraphic message went.

My present-day problems had begun to appear quickly. First came the fact that, despite a memory grabbed on a drive past on a previous trip, the Sol Elite Marbella wasn't pink at all. It also wasn't empty - an Indonesian bank had chosen that weekend to send 100-plus middle managers its way for "personal effectiveness" training. And wherever I wandered it turned out that, despite Ibu Wati's appraisal, the place was hopping as a result.

That morning I'd risen late, rushed through breakfast, and wandered to the pool only to discover there was nowhere quiet for me to sit and ponder my seismic history.

The skirt of the auxiliary pool was home to groups of Indonesian bankers milling and gossiping loudly and the lounge chairs were all occupied by dour-looking families.

The main pool was grimmer still. A stage was set up at one end and more bankers rotated through every 15 minutes or so in teams racing each other raucously to be the first to use a tangle of ropes to move bottles filled with coloured water. Worse, the whole team-building exercise was accompanied by a grating MC who jabbered commentary into a PA system that was turned up too loud - and put on bursts of blaring dance music between groups.

I settled in for a time, considered the mayhem from first the pool and then a lounge chair vacated by other frustrated guests. I even spent an hour or so reading. But by midday the hubbub was too much and, still battling the after-effects of a stomach bug, I ate a dispiriting lunch and wandered up to my room for a nap.

There, at least, I pondered.

According to Winchester, Krakatau's 1883 eruption "began with a sudden trembling" that caught people unawares thanks to a "calm" year that had seen only 14 earthquakes logged by the Batavia observatory in the five months before.

"Western Java was in any case a quietish corner of the archipelago, seismically speaking," Winchester writes. "Everyone had heard the stories about ancient eruptions, true; and there were those who looked at maps and thought they had heard tell of when Java and Sumatra were one island that had broken apart during some terrific volcanic event, ages ago. But most believed that Krakatoa was long since extinct, inactive, peaceful and, most likely, dead."

The description made me uneasy. The months before my trip had been anything but a quiet period seismically for Indonesia. There were the Boxing Day tsunamis that had left up to 200,000 dead in Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra, and then there had been all the aftershocks since, including the one just weeks before that had devastated the surfing haven of Nias off western Sumatra.
And then there was the unawares bit.

Like other journalists who covered the tsunami disaster's aftermath in Aceh, I'd come back carrying my own brand of trauma, a hypersensitivity to any earthly movements that had developed after two weeks of weathering aftershocks.

But I also lived in a country - Indonesia - where the earth hadn't stopped rumbling since and fear of "the big one" was a regular topic of dinner conversation with friends.

It all risked seeming so logical in hindsight should the earth shake furiously again. We should know better this time, surely. So then why were my "personal effectiveness" hotel mates and I gathered in a mouldy inn on the edge of a plate tectonics playground?

Irresponsible insouciance, I supposed then, and wandered down to the beach for my encounter with Ibu Wati. But 18 hours later, and before I really had to, I bundled myself into a taxi for the three-hour drive back to Jakarta, eager to get away. So eager in fact that when I discovered I'd left my sunglasses perched on the Sol Elite Marbella's front desk, I refused to turn around.

When we got to the usually crowded toll road to Jakarta it was largely empty.
"Why?" I asked.

"Because people are afraid of the tsunamis," my driver answered. "People," he said, "are traumatised."

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