Thursday, December 01, 2005

Turbulence and coming down to earth

Greetings from Medan - Indonesia's third city and, courtesy of Lion "We Make People Fly" Air, a two hour flight from Jakarta. As our Boeing MD90, laden with passengers and a vast amount of luggage, struggled into a thick band of cloud above the city, we hit a disturbing pocket of turbulence which reminded me of the classic Mr Bean sketch of the boy retching into an airline paper bag. I thought that flights in and out of Wellington could be bad at times, but I have never experienced anything quite like this.

We spent the best part of the morning at the New Zealand Embassy being briefed of the situation in Aceh and of what we are likely to see and find. Athol Soper (New Zealand Police) provided a very helpful summary of security issues in the province that has for many years been the subject of civil unrest. Mandy Whyte (NZAID Indonesia Manager) then briefed us on NZAID's Indonesia's aid and development programme - the extent and depth of which took us all by surprise. In relation to the tsunami support, for example, we all knew of the generous dollar-for-dollar funding mechanism for agencies and community organisations and of the lump-sum payments to a range of UN agencies, but I have to confess that I had forgotten just how many other projects NZAID has been supporting in the region. While largely focusing on governance and education, NZAID's programmes are many and varied. More on that in a later blog.

Fred van der Vloodt, NZAID's Programme Manager for South Asia, joined us to talk of the situation in Sri Lanka, which we will be visiting next week, and to outline a few of the projects that NZAID has been supporting.

Leonard joined us and it is truly wonderful to have him on board. For many years Leonard has worked in the NGO sector advocating for the environment and human rights and, prior to joining NZAID in September, was helping to organise a collective agency response to the tsunami. As well as doing some project monitoring work, Leonard will be our guide, translator, advisor and logistician for the next few days.

We emerged from our briefing and left for the airport. Our 'Bluebird' taxi sliced through the heavy downtown traffic and rocketed through a series of slip roads and onto the expressway. It was slightly unnerving being wedged in the middle of the backseat and hurtling along a triple carriage-highway with a sixteen-wheeled truck on one side and a bus full of lunch-time commuters on the other. But the driver could do this sort of thing in his sleep, so I sat back and forced myself to relax and caught glimpses, through what seemed to be an almost impervious barrier of enormous billboards featuring familiar products (Milo, Samsung, ANZ Bank) of Jakarta's new and impressive skyline.

And so, via Lion Air, to Medan - a city of contrasts. Trees and well-tended public gardens rubbing alongside exhaust choked highways that make your eyes wince; an eight storey air-conditioned shopping mall full of all the usual international fashion brands hard up against a traditional retail strip of small, single-storied shops selling everything from elaborately embroidered carpets to plastic cigarette lighters and fried noodles.

But tomorrow is an early start - we fly at 6.00am to join SurfAid which means a 5.30am departure from our hotel. So its off to bed for me.

Thank you Catrina - everything has run according to plan, although I have to say Leonard, Phil and I were slightly miffed when Chalpat was upgraded to Business Class on this afternoon's flight and while we all put up with a small plastic cup of water and a danish pastry, Chalpat tucked into a three-course meal with all the trimmings. But your organisational skills Catrina are legendary. Thank you. I owe you a banana milkshake.

So good night from me and will catch up tomorrow - assuming we can find internet access in Nias.


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