Thursday, May 03, 2007

When Shrapnel Takes You Down Memory Lane

Ah yes,.. grenades. Or any kind of bomb, for that matter, is something to be concerned about when you live in an area that has been under civil war for three decades. Much like the land mine problems in many Eastern European countries, here too, you must be aware of explosives that are left over from the strife.

There was a tragically sad story yesterday about a group of teenagers who found a bomb encased in concrete. Not knowing what it was, thinking it was a ball because it was round, they brought it home and then used a hammer to extract the ‘ball.’ One of the boys died at the scene. There have been several incidences of villagers finding unexploded mortars and home made IEDs around the area. I’ve taken some time to explain to the boys what grenades and other explosives look like and hopefully teach them to be cautious when playing in the fields around the house. I tend to think we are okay since we live in such a heavily populated area, but you can never be too safe.

What a childhood, eh? But, honestly, I had quite the exciting teenage years while living in Monrovia, Liberia. I’m the only person I know who had an excuse note explaining I missed school due to a coup attempt and couldn’t get back in town.

I remember being up in the mountains with friends – my father’s boss and his wife and daughter who was my age (my dad was an Army Major and the Military Attache for Liberia when we were there for two years.) After a fun day hanging out with a family that boasted a leopard and a chimp as pets, we woke up early the next morning to the news that six Liberians had been executed in the town and the insurgents were headed into Monrovia. Our families were dispatched from the town in a little plane. An airport security guard had been shot earlier that morning and the pool of blood was still on the tarmac. I remember my friend and I keeping my little brother busy singing songs and saying nursery rhymes after he asked ‘what that red stuff was over there.’

The most fearful part of the whole episode was leaving our fathers behind – being US Military, they had a job to do, and while we were safely flown out of town, our fathers had to stay behind and drive, take care of business and drive the vehicles back. My mom, at least on the outside, was a tower of strength and self assurance. I was terrified and don’t know to this day if I can be that brave ever in front of my children. (there are a lot of brave things my mother has done that I can never live up to, like having a baby in Saudi Arabia. I always fly back to the good ol’ US of A to birth my babies! I always think of a work friend of mine who had a baby in a dirt hut in Nigeria for God’s sake. What faith. I’m such a wimp.)

I think back to September 11 and how terrifying that was. I was in the states with a toddler, a preschooler and a month old baby and my husband was in Luxor, Egypt. I had no idea when I’d see him again, nor what country we would live in after we reconnected.

What affected me the most about that event and still makes me weep is that before that, no matter where in the world I lived, I felt I could always go back to the US and feel safe. To have that awful event happen is kind of like being in an earthquake – there is no where to go. You feel there is no place safe.

So, after living my formative years knowing about the existence of bullet proof car windows and brief cases, safe rooms and evacuation plans, that assassins are real and people do horrible, horrible things to one another, maybe that’s why I continue to live the life I do. Although honestly, if I’d wanted to live a peaceful life in a country like Switzerland I should have married a banker or become one myself.

So, living in these interesting areas we have chosen to live (Rob and I have lived in Egypt, the Philippines and now Indonesia) means listening to various Department of Defense security briefings. Always interesting, but it is stressful to live your life on orange alert.

I knew I needed a break one day in the Philippines. We lived on a camp five hours out of Manila, again in the middle of the Godforsaken jungle. The camp was set up at the site of the earth fill dam Rob’s company was building. The nearest town was 20 minutes away. We attended church there, one of two families who were not Filipino in this huge building that had to seat at least 1000. The priest was very generous, because he would type his homily in English and dispatch an Altar boy to come find us every Sunday (the Mass was in Tagalog, but we could follow along with the good ‘ol Catholic Sunday missal).

We came out of church one morning finding the car without a driver and unlocked. I threw my arms up in front of the family and told them to stop. Then, I circled the car slowly, looking under, on and around for anything unusual or out of place. Rob asked me what I was doing. I told him I was checking for explosives. He rolled his eyes and told me to get in the car. Thank goodness home leave was coming up soon.

Maybe I’m a drama queen, but I’m used to varying my route, noticing who is in the neighborhood, and always knowing where the family is.

Watching Hotel Rwanda last year was one of the hardest things I’ve done. It brought up a lot of feelings of sadness and although I certainly never witnessed anything as tragic as that genocide, living in that continent is sure to make you aware of peoples' suffering at a visceral level.

Liberia was a hard place to live, even if I was a coddled Westerner and a teenager thankfully unaware of everything going on. But I had one friend gang raped on the beach we swam on near my house (group of drugged out Nigerians); one friend knifed at another beach and medovaced out of the country (her father I was to learn later was the head of CIA operations in the country); one Lebanese friend who was married in an arranged marriage at the tender age of 16; (she was happy, but what an eye opening education for me!). I remember the countless beggars in the main city, many missing limbs, scooting around on skateboards. I remember our ‘houseboy’ Isaac taking his very sick little baby to the ‘witchdoctor’ to get cured (I think again my mom intervened and brought him to an actual hospital). Just the fact that we employed this man so he could feed his family is sad. Whatever happened to him after we left?

I remember friends I went to school with who had lost their fathers and uncles on ‘Redemption Beach’ in 1980 during that horrible, horrible coup. I still wonder what happened to those people after we left and the country was once again through into civil war. I remember Nigerian friends who had fled the civil war in their home country to find a new life in Liberia, only to be caught in yet another war. And the same for all the Lebanese merchants who fled Lebanon and opened shops in Liberia just to loose them again when crazed militants torched them and stole everything they had earned.

Anyway, I’d mentioned grenades before I started this trip down memory lane. Here in Banda, besides uncovering old explosives left behind after all the fighting, they are starting to have more and more political activity that is involving grenades. (And thanks again to USAID for the information and recommendations.) There is no need for us to be alarmed at this point, since the targets seem to be carefully chosen ‘political’ targets and not the reconstruction community.

So here again, taken from USAID, possibly a very good entry in the next “What To Do in The Worst Possible Scenario” Book, or whatever it’s called:

Grenades come in many unpleasant varieties. White phosphorus grenades are at one end of the spectrum and at the other is the more common fragmentation grenade. The reality of fragmentation grenade explosions is very different from the movies. Bodies do not fly through the air, buildings do not sag and collapse, there is no ‘fiery’ explosion. Just a ‘crump’ sound and a large swirl of hot air and surface debris. Unless you are within close range they are not especially ‘dramatic’. A fragmentation grenade thrown at the outside of a building will only cause superficial damage. They are not designed to be used against ‘hard targets’ i.e. buildings, but ‘soft targets’ i.e. human beings.

The two parts of a fragmentation grenade explosion are:

The Blast – this will disorient and incapacitate you. Clothes and eardrums are likely to be shredded.
Shrapnel – This will would and kill you. The two types of shrapnel associated with most fragmentation grenade explosions are:
Big bits. The most dangerous bits of a grenade explosion are the pieces of outer casing. These are designed to be split open and propelled outwards by the initial blast. As they are large and jagged pieces of metal hurtling at high speed they will pit buildings and maim or kill people.
Small Bits. In addition, fragmentation grenades may e ‘packed with filler’ shrapnel. These smaller pieces of shrapnel may kill but are primarily designed to wound. In addition, small pieces of ‘collateral shrapnel’ from the explosion surface may cause injury.

Clearly, if you are unfortunately enough to be I the immediate blast or shrapnel area of an exploding grenade, you may suffer major damage. Variables that will affect your chances of surviving a grenade explosion are whether or not you are in an enclosed space, whether it was a hard or soft surface explosion or air burst, and the type and explosive charge of the grenade. In addition, all these variables will change the ‘kill’ zone of the explosion. For most grenades, the ‘kill’ zone is 3 meters and many people survive within a meter of an explosion if they are on the ground. So, if a grenade lands at your feet, do a John Wayne and try to pick it up and throw it or kick it away.

If you have time to even consider that, you also have time to throw yourself on the ground on your belly away from the grenade with the soles of your feet at the grenade, feet together.

So, while I don’t tend to panic too much when my husband calls me from hiding under the desk in a colleague’s office because there are angry villages storming his office, or a written death threat against him is delivered, or the police are requesting him to report and testify in a contractor case, I’m also a realist that although the majority of the people on this earth are good, there are a few who are not.

Before I get everyone in a panic, that’s why we don’t live in Egypt at the moment and why we left the Philippines when we did. While we have a little bit of craziness in our souls, we aren’t completely crazy and are sure to protect our family.

At the same time, I’m proud of my family and the work that we’ve been able to do, whether it be creating sewer systems for villages that didn’t have any, electricity to those who didn’t have it before (okay, I’m a republican and this is my take on it, everyone I’m sure has a different viewpoint) and houses to those who have lost absolutely everything in a terrible natural disaster.

That said, I can’t wait to get the Beemer out of mini storage, go through the Starbucks drive through and find out who wins American Idol.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Tolerance Is Not Acceptance

Banda Aceh, Indonesia is a strict Muslim area. While it has a police force, it is also ruled by Sharia law, which is a body of Islamic law. It is based on the Koran, the Islamic holy book. For lots of info check out Wikipedia.

Being an outsider to this area that has been closed off from most of the rest of the world for 30 years due to civil war, there are certain rules we must abide by in order to live here peacefully.

Sharia law can be interpreted differently depending on the country, it's mores and muslim sect.

Here are the main points for us to live our lives by day to day in Banda: (Thanks to USAID and CRS for their excellent presentation of materials to us lowly Internationals)

  • Sharia law includes both written and unwritten laws. While Muslims are subject to the law, non-Muslims must at least respect the law.
  • It is important that we as visitors to the area respect the law since community acceptance is the key to avoiding problems - Sharia police are not the only ones patrolling - 95% of the cases are initiated by the community, since the communities have been empowered to take enforcement of sharia into their own hands.
  • Muslims are prohibited from drinking, buying, selling, or even being around alcohol. While the written law does not apply to non-Mulslims, we have to be careful not to drink it, get drnk or flaunt it in public. Being discreet means right down to the way in which it is disposed of. If a Muslim friend is with you while you are drinking, it is possible you can put them into jeopardy.
  • Interaction between genders is tricky since it isn't written as clearly, and depending on the situation can be applied to both Muslims and non-Muslims. It is important to be aware of creating misperceptions. Office hours should be considered, such as how smart is it to allow male and female workers to be in the office after hours, and where staff stay when travelling. Hotels are regularly raided by Sharia police and it's usually the hotel staff who tip them off. Sometimes it's smarter to request different floors for different genders. Many NGOs have 'guest houses' for their workers where everyone has their own bedroom, but share living quarters. Recently in Melaboh, a guest house was raided and a Javanese woman an Acehnese man were 'arrested' and given a month to get married.
  • Dressing properly is very important. Even men have been arrested for wearing 'too short of shorts' and two female NGO workers were removed from a conference due to their 'inappropriate dress.' (If I go out to fulfill my ESRI work obligations out and about the town you better believe the only thing exposed are my toes. I'm a tunic wearing maniac. I don't even feel comfortable wearing tank tops anymore. What has become of my southern California wear my bathing suit all summer and a pair of flip flops self????)

Well, hope this gives you a nice picture of life here in Banda. Cheers. Next,.. a lesson on grenades!

Monday, April 30, 2007

Rest and Relaxation in Bali, or "When You're Not Getting Mugged By a Monkey, Get Drowned By a Dolphin!"

So, I’m buying a skirt and a beach cover up at this little store in Kuta, Bali when one of the female clerks pats me on the butt and says in Indonesian, “you have a nice butt – it’s big!”

Argh! So, I explain, no, it’s not a nice butt, I want a small butt. Both the clerks helping me disagree saying that big butts are better here in Indonesia; men like big butts.

I tell them that in America, small butts are better. They laugh and tell me how crazy we Americans are. I tell them I have a Beyonce butt. They look confused.

“Do you know Beyonce?” I ask. Both shake their heads.

“J Lo?” I ask again. They both nod in affirmation.

“I have a J Lo butt,” I say. They laugh and agree.

But enough about me. Bali was fabulous, big butts and all. We spent our second R&R on that amazing island, and we have come to the conclusion that with all these kids and our living conditions at the moment, we are resort junkies.

We stayed at the Hard Rock Hotel in Kuta, and loved every single minute of its sterile, coddling, over the top luxurious environment. From the moment we stepped into the main lobby at 8pm on Saturday hearing a live rock band playing in the bar, to the buffet breakfasts complete with pork(!) bacon, to the ridiculously large pool equipped with two kids’ slides, kiddie pool, fountains galore and sand pool, and just across the street from the best surf beach I have EVER seen, we were in heaven.

Rob’s mantra of the week was ‘these kids have no idea how lucky they are’ as we spent entire days at the pool, taking turns on the sand island playing volleyball, napping with the baby and eating all sorts of American comfort food in the private cabana, and swimming every inch of that enormous pool. Even though we have our own pool back in So Cal, and all the kids have basically grown up in water, this was the first time witnessing the green hair syndrome because we spent soooo much time frolicking in chlorine.

When not at the pool, we schlepped across the street to the beach with four kids, three surfboards, diaper bag, drinks, snacks, and straw mats to sit on. Rob went into the ocean to monitor near drowning incidents and help maneuver boys and boards. I hung out on the beach with the baby and about a million people hawking their wares.

I’ve learned the best way to disarm all the hawkers is to speak bahasa Indonesian back at them. The hawkers are so surprised they forget they are trying to sell you a surf board/body board/ice cream/soda/water/ice/hair plaiting/massage/manicure/pedicure/fake tattoo/fresh cut fruit and ask you if you are Australian, where you live and exclaim that you have a large family, ‘just like the Balinese!’

One afternoon as I was hanging with the ‘B’ (for baby) as we call her, I had one old man hawker and a young tattooed surfboard hawker sitting with me. We were conversing in my pigeon Indonesian. The young hip dude with the earring, long hair and tats on every exposed limb commented that I had four boys. The old man corrected him saying B was a girl. I laughed and pointed out that the kid was covered in pink, thus she was a girl. To that the old man asked why her ears weren’t pierced. I explained in America many people wait until the girl is older before piercing. (Unlike Sabrina’s Godmother who I had to have sign a contract that she would not go running out with my daughter the minute she had her 3 month shots to get her ears pierced.) He said that he could solve that RIGHT NOW and started to get up. I grabbed his arm and said gently, no not today, not tomorrow, not the day after tomorrow,.. Yikes. All I need is an impromptu ear piercing on the beach in Kuta. Very hygienic, I’m sure.

The rest of the vacation was an animal adventure. We took off part way through the week to go to Lovina, on the north of the island. On the way we stopped at the Sacred Monkey Forest, aka, Get Mugged By a Monkey Forest. Because, as I’m sure you are aware, there is nothing more meditative than walking down a concrete path in the jungle dodging pesky wild monkeys.

As the boys begged to buy bananas from the vendor to feed to the monkeys, I watched a couple do that very thing.. They bought a bunch of bananas, walked a few feet to the start of the path and offered one banana to a large male monkey. The monkey subsequently swiped the one banana and then attacked the man, pulling on the rest of the bananas. The man finally realized he was not going to win that fight, and let go, the monkey loping off with a stolen bunch of bananas. I decided then not to buy any bananas and then put the fear of God into the boys that they should not run, scream, make any sudden movements, try and pet monkeys or have any other sort of fun time while in the forest.

I was glad I left everything in the car as next I witnessed a man carrying a water bottle get attacked by another monkey. He raised the bottle above his head, but the monkey just climbed him to get to the bottle. I had to yell at one of the sarong clad ‘monkey keepers’ to help get the obviously rabid monkey off the poor tourist. The monkey keeper just laughed.

Next, I turn around to find Kyle holding a banana leaf at another big male monkey who grabs it and they start playing tug-of-war. We yell at Kyle to drop the banana leaf. Kyle is instantly embarrassed we caught him disobeying and puts his hands in his pockets. The monkey tries to put his paws in Kyle’s pocket, too. Yell at Kyle to remove hands from pocket as monkey thinks he is hiding food there. Kyle removed his hand, disengaging the monkey and it saunters on to the next unsuspecting tourist.

Just as we started to walk down the path a bit more, Jared asked if he could let a monkey climb on him. I see woman out of the corner of my eye do this to have her picture taken. As she is getting up, the monkey bites her on the back. Tell him no and quickly get away from monkeys, deciding to take refuge in a temple.

We do visit a very cool temple before attempting to escape the enchanted monkey forest, getting caught in a fight between different gangs of monkeys. See life flash before my eyes as they fight in the middle of our family and wonder where in Bali you can get rabies shots. Make it out safely in order to eat lunch in full view of island’s active volcano. Boys very impressed that it blew up as recently as 1996.

Get to our final destination, a nice hotel in Lovina on the north of the island. Zach labels this hotel most accurately as he exclaims it a ‘zootel.’ The only way to describe this hotel is what would happen if a little boy had a lot of money and made his dream vacation spot come true; a wild little hotel in a tropical jungle with cages of animals hidden around every corner. Going to the pool meant walking past a pasture of some sort of small dear and wallabies. Turn to go over little foot bridge, but watch out! Glass enclosure with 6 foot python to your left! Choice of seating arrangements at the pool included either sitting with the baby shark in a tank, or near a fairly good sized crocodile in a pit. Lonely when you are in the bathroom? Fear not, as each bathroom seemed to be equipped with its own - I kid you not - turtle in simulated natural environment. Nothing like lathering up under a hot shower with a turtle staring you down as he/she floats among the plastic plants in its own little pool.

The boys, of course, thought there was absolutely nothing better than this jungle environment and they spent countless hours visiting their new animal friends. Of course, this requires naming their friends, so we had ‘Rang Rang the Orangutan, Black Ninja, the crazy little black monkey, Chisel Wisel the ‘moosa’ as they are called here in Indonesia (I think it’s an Ocelot), Walter the Wallaby, and the deer family of Three-legged Joe (lost a foot somehow), Junior and Horns. An animal handler corrected them letting them know Three-legged Joe was a girl, so they change her name to Three-legged Jill.

Perhaps I wasn’t as excited as the boys to share my accommodations with so many wily jungle creatures, but I can play Dr. Doolittle for a couple of nights because this hotel also boasts a saltwater pool with its very own dolphins. I was afraid of the condition of these animals before arriving at the hotel, but they were very well taken care of, and the staff very knowledgeable.

The same night we arrived, the boys suited up and jumped into the dolphin pool along with the trainer. Not two minutes later Kyle is crying bloody murder and Jared is screaming for help. Seems these are boy dolphins and like human boys, are quite frisky. So, we take the boys out of the pool and go visit the two girl dolphins. Of course, by this time, Kyle is absolutely terrified of Flipper and all his cousins and I am afraid now he’ll grow up to fish for tuna with a net, or be arrested for not cutting his soda six-pack rings and tossing them into the ocean.

This time it takes Rob getting into the pool with each boy individually and coaxing the female dolphins. By the time we are done, the boys have each had a much tamer time with the creatures and no one has nightmares after going to bed.

Next night we try it again; I want to swim with a dolphin! So, I get into the girl dolphin pool and take each kid with me to pet the dolphins. Excellent experience! But as gentle and intelligent as these creatures are, they are still creatures and they are BIG and STRONG and they have sharp little teeth.

I have to hang on to the side of the pool with Kyle and Zach as they are attempting to climb on my head to get away from the dolphins they want so desperately to touch. Jared gives me the opportunity to drag him out to the middle of the pool with the dolphins. Not so much because he isn’t afraid, but he has on a life jacket that is too big and subsequently can’t move his arms to fend me off. We go and pet one of the dolphins and it falls asleep! Just like petting a cat! Then we turn around and start petting the other dolphin.

Well, just like a cat, that first dolphin decided to reciprocate by swimming over and rubbing against me. Unlike a cat, a dolphin is BIG and the whole experience is a little unsettling, especially since I didn’t see it coming. None the less, we survive our experience and swim to the side to talk about how cool it was we got to swim with dolphins.

As we are doing this, I’m dangling my feet into the pool and one of the dolphins swims over slowly, mouth agape, flashing two rows of little razor sharp dolphin teeth. I pull out my feet quickly making the trainer laugh again. He tells me the dolphin won’t bite. But I’ve seen this very same behavior in my big stupid dog Max, and while he doesn’t mean any harm either, he has sharp teeth, and they can be a bit uncomfortable.

We are sad to leave Bali on Saturday, but a promise of lunch at the Jakarta airport McDonald’s gets kids on and off planes. We actually experience one landing that is comfortable. Most Garuda airlines experiences we’ve had, the plane descends so quickly it slams into the ground and you experience negative g-forces as the pilot attempts to brake, making it feel like the tail of the plane is going to flip over the front in a big somersault.

We enquired as to why we get to stay on the plane in Medan on the way back to Banda from Jakarta, because going the other way, coming from Banda, we have to disembark. The flight attendant explains that all planes coming out of Banda have to be swept clean, and you know what that means.

The boys are happy to be home and see that big, stupid dog Max. The nanny is happy to have the B back, and the first thing she does is size her up, pinch an arm between her fingers and announce that she is ‘kecil’ – small. I am always accused of starving the baby and returning her in some sort of wasted state.

I know I am truly back home as I open my last bag of sealed flour to make bread and out pop a bunch of weevils. I complain to my nanny that I need more flour. She looks at the bag, shrugs her shoulders and offers me the strainer. Ah, it’s good to be back home!