Taking Liberties: Life & Love in Upper Middle Age

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Bali and the Yogya Earthquake

Letter #1 from Asia

Letter #1 from Asia

May 30, 2006


Dear Sabbatical Penpals,

Even though I have already been in Indonesia for five weeks, I haven't written before now because I have been hot and sweaty, somewhat disappointed and a little grumpy. I waited to write until I had something interesting or exciting to relate. (Another reminder to be careful what you wish for, but more about that later...)

I am now happily situated in the village of Penestanan just outside Central Ubud. I am staying by myself in a gorgeous two-story Balinese-style house for which I pay $15/day. I awakened this morning and began my day with yoga and mediation in the spacious bed/sitting room which comprises the entire upper floor. It is a beautiful room with sliding glass walls on three sides. With the sliders open, the room seems to extend beyond the decks, through the cool morning air and into the rice paddies below. A Balinese farmer is working his field, alternately bending and then standing to gaze at his crop. I imagine him patiently bearing witness to the slow, steady progress of the rice's development.

I feel like I have finally arrived in Bali.

My trip began with the five-day “Quest for Global Healing” conference. In spite of the huge effort and dedication of the conference planners, I found the experience sadly disappointing. The expressed goal of the conference was to inspire us to concrete action in terms of global activism. I had hoped for lots of meaningful networking. The conference organizers arranged Balinese artistic extravaganzas and lined up a heavy hitting list of speakers and presenters. These included Desmond Tutu, two additional Nobel laureats, the former President of Indonesia, the Minister of Labor for Bhutan, Lynne Twist (author of The Soul of Money) and others. However, I experienced it as too much “performance,” too much talk, and not enough structure to support direct action. In addition, the conference pushed a vulnerable hot button of mine. Sandwiched between the inspiring Lynne Twist (who was my roommate and is more gorgeous than anyone our age has a right to be) and Desmond Tutu whose private villa faced our balcony, I felt like the child addressed in the Jewish Haiku that goes, “Would just one Nobel Prize be too much to ask?...” As the conference progressed, my own efforts to make a difference increasingly felt puny and irrelevant.

On a positive note, the Global Healing conference was a transformative experience for Shahla, whom I invited to join me in Bali. Eighty young people from around the world came together for an eight-day, overlapping conference. Their event began three days before ours and by the time the “oldsters” showed up, this group had bonded with an intensity and vitality that was a joy to behold. Shahla got to know youth leaders from around the globe and to recognize that she can hold her own with the best of them.

Following the conference, I made good on a long-time promise to Shahla. We both share a love of Indonesian batiks, and for years I've suggested we someday go on a “shopping trip” to Bali. Well, we finallly did it, and it was sweet.

The day of Shahla's departure, Chuck arrived for a two week visit. I was delighted to be traveling in the company of my adventuresome mate. We toured craft villages on Bali, and we rode bicycle through the countryside. We went to Lombok and enjoyed a few days of diving off the Gilli Islands. Then we headed for Java to see Borobodur Temple and visit the capitol of the batik art industry in Yogykarta.

And that's where we were on the morning of May 27th, when the killer quake hit Yogykarta. WE ARE OKAY! We are also grateful for rebar and a well-constructed hotel. Here is what happened.

I was sleeping in Chuck's arms (we had gotten stuck with twin beds that night, but I had come into his bed about an hour before the earthquake hit at 5:54AM). I awoke sleepily to a strong rocking – quite different from the sharp jolt of California quakes which usually wake me into a terrified alertness. Chuck tightened his arms around me and I squeezed those arms as the rocking escalated. I was still emerging from sleep and struggling to orient myself. “I'm not at home... not in Bali... Java... Yogyakarta... Mt. Merapi about to erupt... often preceded by earthquakes... we're on the bottom floor of a two-story hotel with heavy tile roof!” By now, the quake was increasing steadily in intensity. As it continued on and on and on, I dared to look up at the ceiling. I realized there was a limit to what the building could withstand, and I assessed that we were reaching that limit. I could feel Chuck’s heart pounding against my back. Silently, we clung to each other.

I remember the Buddhist teacher, Jack Kornfield, saying, “We all know we are going to die. We just don’t believe it.” In that interminable minute, I believed it. And along with fear, I felt a cold stunned surprise. “So this is when my life ends. Now.” I wasn't terrified, just caught by surprise. (I suppose if the upper story had collapsed on us, I would have become terrified.) And then the shaking stopped.

“Get in the space between the beds if it starts again,” I told Chuck. “Okay, let’s push them apart now,” he suggested. I reached out a leg from Chuck’s embrace and pushed the other bed away. The next quake was milder and shorter. By now we heard voices outside, so we scrambled into our clothes and went into the hotel courtyard. (I put on the batik dress I'd come to Yogya to shop for, quipping that if this were to be the last day of my life, I wanted to get some wear out of my new dress.) Outside the hotel we discovered that the building across the street was a pile of rubble, and we saw that numerous walls and buildings around us were damaged or destroyed. That was when we realized how very serious this quake had been.

Later on I would tell Chuck, “The way you were holding me when the earthquake hit was just perfect. We took that earthquake like one body. For me that’s as good as it gets.” Chuck looked at me mischievously and responded, “Did the earth move for you too?” If there is anything sexier than a mate who can make you laugh and holds onto you during a crisis, I haven’t heard about it.

Chuck had wisely suggested that we leave immediately for the airport even though our flight back to Bali wasn't for 6 hours. Traffic was jammed to a standstill because people were terrified of another tsunami and were racing to get to higher ground. Entire families squeezed onto motor scooters and pedestrians scrambled onto pick-up trucks. Our taxi driver used skill, ingenuity and determination to get us to the Yogya airport. Seeing the damage along the way, I was reminded that “economic inequity” isn't just about who gets a bicycle and who gets a Mercedes. It's also about who gets a rebar-reinforced house/ hotel and who gets dead!

Once at the Yogya airport, we learned it had been shut down. Chuck needed to be in Bali for his return flight to California the next morning, so we arranged with the taxi man to transport us an additional 1 ½ hours to the Solo airport. It was only in conversing about the demolished village of Bantul, that our driver quietly mentioned this was his village. “Is your family alright?” we asked with alarm. “Yes, my son called on his cell phone. They are okay, but my home was destroyed.” We were amazed by this man's dignity and reserve.

Resuming our lives, Chuck back in California and me in the rice paddies of Penestanan, we both discovered that – not immediately, but two days later – we felt strangely exhausted. For me, I suspect it is the energy required to once again turn the believing in my own personal death back into just knowing. Gradually it is transforming into simply a harrowing and a dramatic story.

I hear Putu Lea laughing and chattering outside my lovely house. I know she is waiting for me to come out and play with her. Putu is the 4 ½ year old child of the neighbor family who take care of this house. Yesterday she shadowed me for most of the morning, playing catch with my inflatable globe, daintily sharing fruit salad off my plate, proudly singing “Happy Birthday” in English, drawing while I wrote this sabbatical letter, and coming along when her dad took me to buy groceries on his motor scooter.

So it's time for me to go out and play!

Much love,

Leah

P.S. Please write; getting your emails is the highlight of my day. There will be photos on my blogsite as soon as I learn how to transfer them. www.leahfisher.blogspot.com




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