Thursday, September 30, 2010

The day the earth trembled...

"We're used to earthquakes, two, three times every year. But this time it was different. Usually the ground moves sideways, causing no damage, or minimal damage. This time the ground moved up and down. The houses were lifted and then simply crumbled to the ground. It was like as if someone pulled the carpet from below our feet..."


We were on the 17th floor and we felt the building tremble. And this was in Kuala Lumpur.

Exactly a year ago today, the devastating earthquake struck Padang in West Sumatera, Indonesia.

Two weeks later, I found myself in Padang, on a relief mission.

I was there for nearly a week, doing what we were sent there to do.

I would send a report back to headquarters every night. This would be followed by my daily... err... musings. Which included these:

Day 1
- Teh telor* oh my goodness it's like milkshake. A night drink they say it is before laughing...
- Satay Padang is delicious! Altho they don't call it Satay Padang here... that would be weird.
- We sleep 16 men in one house. 5 are on their way back from Pekan Baru, and some sleep in the garden. So house is relatively quiet now.
- We all share 1 bathroom. For this reason and the point preceding, this place not suitable for my ladies.
- I'm still wide awake. Teh telor memang power.

*teh telor means egg tea :-)

Day 2
Without the benefit of teh telor...
- Our house has no fan.
- To those who wondered why my haircut was as important as getting my vaccinations: with two strokes of my 80 cents plastic hair brush, I'm ready to face the world.
- We had a meeting tonight to plot the distribution of aid tomorrow. They were doin mental calculations on total weight and total litres and total items... I kept very quiet.

Day 3
- I was awakened at 3am last night, by a cat at my feet. No privacy I tell you.
- And the resident cockerel woke me up at the crack of dawn. Nothing romantic at all about that.
- School is back in session. They hold classes in tents. It feels like a sauna tho. When I reached there, they were on a break. In the teachers room, where the wall had collapsed, the kids were playing with a mannequin. They wrapped it in a batik cloth, and then carried the mannequin while chanting religious chants, as if it were a dead body.
- We had lunch today at a restaurant that had major cracks on its walls, had its windows shattered and floors cracked as well.
- For the first time in ages, I eat for energy. I can feel each morsel of food burn during the day. And we reach meal times famished. And we whack the meal like there's no tomorrow.
- The names of the places here will give lawyers like some of us nightmares. One place is called 2 x 11 Enam Lingkung. You actually call it that!
- I nearly fainted today. At dinner. The cendol in a glass. It was so sweet I nearly belched it out.

Day 4
- The cat woke me up at 2.58am
- The most bizzare incident so far - the cook cooking his Indo-mee with ... coffee.


In his defence, it was dark.


Day 5
No musings on Day 5 as things got a little complicated. We were about half-an-hour from our base late that night, after a long day out, when we were stopped by police. We were told that a few hundred metres down the road, a landslide had occured a few minutes prior, burying some passing cars. We had to take a 4 hour detour.

A couple of weeks later, when everyone involved in the mission got together, one of my team members 'credited' me with saving all our lifes.

"Thank god he insisted on eating good Padang fish head curry that night. It took us a while to locate one that had fish head curry, but we finally did. The time it took us all to finish the meal probably delayed us long enough."



I haven't been back to Padang since, but having seen the devastation caused by that one afternoon of terror, the people of Padang have a long way to go, years perhaps, before life returns to some semblence of normalcy.

One elderly gentleman I met there said that he welcomed all aid, but he knew that the aid would eventually stop and that he needed to start rebuilding his life with his own hands, brick by brick.

And he meant it literally.

God bless the people of Padang.

Monday, September 20, 2010

About Young, The Restless...

I've been with a particular four-letter acronymed NGO since its formation 10 years ago. I've been through a lot with it.

And I have garnered an incredible amount of lessons from it.

Today, as I was doing some work related to this NGO, I recalled some of those lessons... :-)


The first one involves a close friend, someone who has been with me in the NGO from early on.

At a meeting, we disagreed on how to proceed with a project. The disagreement got quite uncomfortable. We exchanged views, each time with the tone raising a few decibles. The rest of the meeting was watching in stunned silence. One pleaded for us to stop arguing. The verbal sparring got ugly.

As we were getting nowhere, we decided to stop and simply disagreed.

After which we had coffee and cakes prepared by his wife.

It's not easy, these things, as professional discourse that gets nasty may be construed or unavoidably degenerate into a personal attack.

I've seen it numerous times: people saying 'don't take things personally' before going on a personal rampage; or after going on a personal rampage, they say 'don't take it personally'. You've got to be careful, as not all relationships can take it, what more if the personal and professional nature of the relationship is intertwined.

But if your intentions are right, and you are fighting for what you truly believe in, and you have others who fight for things with a similar conviction, than those could survive such violent clashes.

Yep, and you can help plaster each other's verbal wounds over a hot drink, glad that the relationship is still solid despite.


It was at our annual meeting, seven years into our formation. We're a small NGO, still slowly finding our way, doing little things, and sometimes we get delirously happy with the little successes that come our way.

At the meeting, a member gets up and demands change in the leadership. Demands that the younger members be given the opportunity to lead. Feels that it is time for fresh ideas to be injected into the society. That the leadership has been at the helm for too long.

Up to that point, I've only read about these moments in the papers, or hear them over the news. Here, it was happening real time!

He had a point. Leaders must not overstay their welcome. And yes, fresh ideas are needed, as someone who's been running the show for too long may hold the organisation back from progressing.

Change is good, sometimes change is needed, but change for the sake of change because it feels like it's time for change - may not always work!


This one is a little convoluted, but is one of my favourite lessons, which I have shared at numerous occasions with different people.

A small debt was incurred by one of two new members in one of our programmes.

The first one denied it, saying it was probably the second one. The second one also denied it, and was in tears as the other had said it could be her.

Some investigate work later... and we found out that it was the first one.

My big boss, a retired police officer, was furious. He called the first one, and over her continued denials (possibly she was too embarrassed to retract her denial), ripped into her.

He then turned to me and said that she must be expelled from our NGO and never be allowed to return. I was taken aback, as the amount of money in question was not that much at all (not enough to even buy a small meal at your favourite fast food joint).

He says when someone lies, they will be a liar for life. Because to cover your lies, you must continue lying. So the mind is tuned to lying over and over again. And it becomes a habit. She may only be 17, and it may only have been a small amount, but because of what she chose to do, she will forever have to propagate this lie with us. Being expelled from the NGO after having been welcomed into it just a few hours before is a harsh, harsh lesson. If she stops her lying habit, then it would have been worth the harsh action. It she doesn't, then it would have been good riddance.

Some may disagree, but the principle here I still adhere to.


At the end of the day, it's the people that matter.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Over the oceans...

The past couple of days had been quite hectic, and stand out for my deprivation of sleep.

So getting onto the flight this morning was something I was looking forward to, as it meant I could get a few hours of very welcome sleep.

As I was settling in my seat, someone says. “Hey bro, how’re you doing?”

I look up and it’s the elder brother of a friend of mine (yep, the same guy who emceed that friend’s wedding that I wrote about in my previous posting).

“I’m ok! Where’re you heading to?”

“Err… to the same place you’re heading to … I guess…”

Well of course, we’re in a plane.

“I’ll catch you later yea…” he says as he moves down the aisle.

I must get out more often.


This reminded me of something I said a few years ago.

Guest: Hi, I don't think we've met.

Me: I don't think I've met you before either...