— Written by Kelly Fitzgerald, Photography and Conclusion by Caitlin Jordan —
News of Indonesia rarely reaches the U.S. unless something sensational like executions or elections happen. For this reason, I doubt that the disaster that afflicted our home here earlier this month made the news overseas. Bangka Island and Pangkal Pinang — the provincial capital and our home here in Indonesia — experienced the worst flood in living memory. The closest comparison was in 1986, before any of our students were even a twinkle in their parents’ eyes.
Most of Indonesia only experiences two seasons: hot-n-dry and hot-n-wet. When we first arrived last August, Pangkal Pinang was in the peak of musim kemarau [dry season]. The reservoir under the bridge on my way to school was completely dry; nothing but a bed of cracked mud with pools of sludgy brown water that grew smaller by the day. Wells ran dry at school, which meant that teachers and students alike were on a strict BYOW (Bring Your Own Water… for drinking and bathroom needs) policy. Those were hot and smoky times.
Starting in mid-October, musim hujan [rainy season] brought relief from the relentless heat and smog. I was at school in the teachers’ lounge when the first droplets pattered on the window panes. All of the Ibus and Bapaks cheered as the dusty walkways were washed clean for the first time in months. The rain is a blessing to farmers, fishermen, and sweaty teachers alike.
Four months later, Bangka’s rainy season continues in the form of occasional thunderstorms and a heavy cloudburst at midday. Earlier in February, however, the rain started as its usual downpour on a Friday afternoon… and didn’t stop for days. Sometimes it was a light sprinkle, barely a mist. Other times it was a furious torrent that lashed at our roof and reached through the open front door to spread across the tile floor. I stayed in all weekend.
The following Monday was a national holiday for Chinese New Year. The rain put a damper on some of the celebrations, though I was told that people believe a wet start to the year means that fortunes lie in the year ahead. I left the house for the first time on Monday with Caitlin Jordan, my house/sitemate, to go to a New Year’s celebration at a friend’s uncle’s house. On the way to the party, we saw the first victims of the flood. Some houses we passed were already knee-deep in water. Everyone was out in the streets. Some were sitting in chairs, watching the water lap around their worldly possessions. The drizzle continued.
At the end of the party, mati lampu [blackout] plunged us into darkness. Using the glow of cell phone screens, we found candles and finished cleaning up by candlelight. On the way home, it became apparent that the mati lampu affected the entire city. Those who are lucky/wealthy enough to have generators were islands of light as waters continued to rise. The darkened streets were crowded. Passing vehicles lit up the faces of the bedraggled, umbrella-less people — backpacks and children in tow — who were wading among the traffic in search of a dry place to spend the night.
Tuesday morning the deluge continued. I asked my friend to drive me to school in his car. On the way, we saw that the reservoir under the bridge had already burst its banks and flooded the homes in the immediate vicinity. When we got to SMAN3, the grounds were deserted save for two teachers standing by the front gate in ponchos. Class was cancelled due to the relentless rain.
Class was also cancelled at SMKN2, Caitlin’s school. On our unexpected day off, we decided to run a few practical errands during a pause in the rain. We set off on my motorbike with a specific route in mind. However that plan was quickly brushed aside because we found that the flooding was worse than we had imagined. The main street and the commercial center of our beloved city was underwater. We parked and joined the throng of people lingering at the edge of the floodwater. After a little deliberation, we decided to forge ahead and see the extent of the damage of the flood for ourselves. What follows are photographs of downtown Pangkal Pinang on Tuesday, February 9, 2016. All photos are credit to Caitlin Jordan.
Our walk through the water on Tuesday revealed some of the extent of the damage from the flood, but many areas outside of the main city experienced even more destruction. Disruptions from the flood continued the rest of the week and some areas have still not fully recovered. For example, Caitlin saw roads that had literally been washed away when she went out to a desa [village] with some teachers from her school later in the week.
The water started to recede on Wednesday. School was still cancelled. On Thursday class resumed as usual, though fewer than half of my students came. Those who did come brought donations (money, food, clothes) for the victims of the flood. On Friday all of the schools were mandated to help clean up the city. I walked with my students to Pintu Air [the dam] to help clean up trash. To get there, we walked along a sleepy-looking canal that had overflowed just days before. Flood lines marked the nearby houses, showing that the water had reached shoulder height in this neighborhood. In a manner that reminded me of garage sales in the U.S., people’s belongings were strewn about in the grass. Everyone who had prayed for rain just months before was now hoping for a few days of sunshine to dry all of their worldly possessions.
Meanwhile, Caitlin and her students went to Alun-Alun, the main park in the city, where emergency relief shelters had been erected just days before. Trash piled up everywhere as people discarded things that were destroyed by the floodwater. Students helped collect trash and then toss it into waiting trucks. Caitlin rolled up her sleeves and dove in. She even joined some of her students in riding on one of the garbage trucks, surveying the damage from a higher vantage point in the city and beyond.
Even now, two weeks later, there are still trash piles in the streets, still members of the community sitting on their porches cleaning the muck out of their clothes and household items, and still students in schools without proper uniforms, pens, or notebooks. Many here hope that the promised funds from the Wali Kota [mayor] will arrive soon to help them make up for their loses. But for the most part, life has returned to normal. The kue [cake] sellers of early morning continue to make their way around town on their bikes, the warungs and restaurants are back to serving customers, and students have returned to school and are working hard on their mid-semester exams — even if they have to borrow a pen or wear clothes that don’t quite fit.
Kelly Fitzgerald is currently a Fulbright ETA in Pangkal Pinang, the capital city of the beautiful but lesser-known island of Bangka. She was born and raised in Chicago and is a recent graduate of the University of Tampa. When she is not teaching she enjoys making lists, laughing way too much, and exploring Pangkal Pinang. You can follow her blog at http://mskellyfitzfulbright.wordpress.com/.
Caitlin Jordan is currently an English Teaching Assistant at SMKN 2 Pangkal Pinang on Bangka Island (aka best small island in the archipelago). She is a 2013 graduate of Smith College where she majored in East Asian Studies and Government, and when not in Indonesia she also calls Massachusetts ‘home.’ She spends her free time biking, hiking, jalan/jalan-ing and eating her way through said island with all the amazing people she’s met.