Return to KMO

Jan 15, 2009
*Special to asia!

"It's about time." I'm whispering to myself. No. I'm exclaiming out loud in my head! What took me so long? The last time I was here was on December 23, 2005. Three days before the Indian Ocean tsunami levelled the northern tip of Sumatra.

The whole day was spent with my face in my knees or my face in my palms or in someones shoulder. I was trying to prepare for never hearing from them again. I'd accepted they were dead. I'd call our mutual friends and burst of over the phone, "They're dead! Look at the destruction! That thing went all the way to Africa! They're dead. They're dead." Friends wouldn't know what to say. They didn't know if they were alive so they couldn't say so, and they didn't want to assure me that they were dead either. So they kept quiet, and just listened to me. Held me.

Tuesday morning. I got up to iron my clothes. Though I didn't feel like going to work, I'd already taken half the day off on Monday because I just couldn't put my mind to work. I poured water into the steam iron, laid the shirt on the board and pushed away its creases. Like a movement meditation, it was a tranquil process. Everything was in order. I was in control.

My mobile phone received a message. The screen blinked. Like a Pavlovian dog, I had to run to fetch it from the bedroom. I opened the message. It was from Paul, a friend who was in Medan. The message was short. "Met Akiko in airport. She says every one's safe."

My body couldn't take my weight. I felt weightless. With the iron on I ran downstairs where my parents were having breakfast, "They're alive!" I exclaimed, "Oh my God, they're alive!" I burst into tears again. "Oh lah, no need for the drama." My mom has the amazing capacity to be so indifferent. "Oh my God, they're alive!" my sentences were spliced with sniffs and sobs, my face was completely flushed and tears came down like rain after a heatwave. My dad looked at me, then my mom, and says to her, "Aiyo, look at your daughter. Cry until like that." My dad's attempt at humour solicits from my mom a monotonous, "Good. Now you know what you put us through when you go to all those funny places."

When I arrived in Medan on January 3, 2009, I imagined the tiny airport with just two baggage claim conveyour belts, packed full of people. Survivors from Aceh and others from unaffected regions fleeing not just the disaster area but the resulting chaos in surrounding cities that were suddenly flooded with disaster refugees. I imagine Akiko in the crowd and Paul somehow spotting her small frame amongst the crowd. He walks over to have a chat with her then sends a message to my mobile. I wonder what people now think about that day. Does it strike fear in them? Should I bring it up? Am I allowed to talk about it? Is it taboo?

After refusing to buy some fake Oakley sunglasses and turning down a few boys who offered to shine my Teva sandals, I sat myself in a coffee shop and ordered a cup of tea, no sugar. I'm waiting for my travel agent to hand me my tickets for the domestic flight to Banda Aceh. These domestic flights can't be purchased from international agents so I had to get in town with a local agent to book and purchase the tickets for me in advance.

"The last time you came was before Tsunami!" My agent, Pak Budi, immediately broke the taboo. "That was 2005, so it's been 4 years. Have you been to Aceh since?" I tell him no, that I've been in Sumatra but not to Aceh specifically. "You know, so many people died. 250,000 people." How foolish of me to think that it was taboo to speak of incident. So many people died, and the living weren't about to forget them. "Come more often." Pak Budi says just before I leave to check in for my connecting flight.

Coming down from the plane onto the runway at Bandah Aceh I looked at the sprawling landscape and imagined it flooded with water. I looked at the trees that lined the perimeter of the airport and thought that there were fewer. A part of me felt guilty for not being here to help when the disaster had happened. I know the wave never reached the airport, but in my mind, the entire province was submerged. They weren't submerged in water, but they most certainly were drowned in despair. Whether or not they had their homes intact, even if they hadn't lost any family members, everyone had lost a friend, a livelihood, a coast, time, peace. Since I wasn't here to experience it, I made it up. Despite this knowledge I didn't want to ask about it. Perhaps I thought I shouldn't ask since I didn't offer assistance when I could have. I was in no position to ask, or to feel sorry for them.

"First time here?" the taxi driver asks in Bahasa Indonesia. "Nope, second." "Oh. Welcome back. When was the last time?" "2005" "Oh, tsunami! You were here when the tsunami hit?" "No, I left just three days before." "Wow, you're lucky. So many people died." The second person broke my taboo.

The ferry ride was straight forward enough. I went to the counter, got a ticket, waited outside a coffee shop. A group of young girls in school uniforms sitting in a bench across from me were looking and smiling at me, I smiled back. It's not common for local girls to travel independently. I get on the ferry, propped my feet up on my luggage just in case I were to fall asleep. For three hours, I stared at the fuzzy images on the 15-inch TV in the outdoor cabin of the ferry. I can't read when the boat's rocking. So I just let myself space out.

debby ngDebby Ng forayed into journalism following failed attempts at becoming a world-class equestrian. A wildlife crime investigator, underwater photographer, dive master and founder of a marine conservation organisation, she spends what remains of her time writing about the environment, its wildlife, and its people.

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