The ‘Bule’ Are Back in Town

According to the latest FIFA World Rankings Indonesia is placed at number 159 of 211 footballing countries. Given what we saw recently on the island of Sulawesi, that situation is unlikely to change soon, as every football pitch and any other piece of unoccupied land is being used for camps and temporary housing following the disastrous tsunami and earthquake which devastated the provincial coastal city of Palu.


Around 1800 hours on Friday 28 September 2018, an earthquake out at sea 80km north of Palu in Central Sulawesi created a tsunami which struck the city with little or no warning. As the tsunami flattened the coastal areas, the earthquake caused havoc further inland, damaging and destroying buildings and infrastructure. The earthquake also caused the little known and unusual effect of liquefaction which causes uncompacted soil, saturated as a result of water forced up by the earthquake, to turn fluid resulting in dramatic subsidence and horrific damage.

Over 2000 people were killed, over 1300 are still missing and 212,000 people have been displaced from their homes.

Indonesia is the 4th most populous country in the world with over 225 million people living in an archipelago of 17,000 islands. The islands straddle the equator and the Ring of Fire which circles the Pacific Ocean and causes frequent volcanic activity, earthquakes and tsunamis. Despite all this Indonesia is a relatively modern and prosperous country. An Islamic country, religious tolerance is very noticeable and there are many Christians and other faiths.

As worldwide help flowed to Palu, Disaster Aid Australia, a project of Endeavour HIlls Rotary Club, deployed Team Leader Di to Palu to assess the situation and ascertain what help was required. Disaster Aid Malaysia, a project of the Rotary Club of Bandar Utama, also sent tents and Family Support Kits. Following Di’s assessment, two Disaster Aid Response Team Members (DARTs) from Disaster Aid Australia; Andrew and Phil attended and began to survey potential sites to install Skyhydrant water filters. These large filters can turn contaminated and bacteria ridden water into safe clean drinking water and can produce 12,000 litres per day and with a ten year lifespan that should outlive the disaster situation.


Skyhydrant receiving water from a well and potable water is fed to a holding tank 

It was also decided to send two DARTs from Disaster Aid UK & Ireland a project of Denton and Audenshaw Rotary Club and Craig and I made the 9000 mile journey arriving on 6th December 2018 after for me; two trains, four flights and a car journey. I had joined Craig at Manchester and we flew together from there to Palu. In our hold luggage we also carried fifty Sawyer water filters. These are hand sized units, much smaller than the Skyhydrants but essentially the same technology and consisting of hollow membrane fibres which trap sediment and bacteria and giving safe clean water which can be consumed with no further treatment. Skyhydrants would be typically used by a small community and Sawyers would be issued to individual families.

Skyhydrant with header and storage tanks.JPG

A typical set up. Gravity fed from a header tank, through the Skyhydrant to a holding tank


After arriving and dumping our bags in our guest house we decided to go for a stroll and get our bearings. We found ourselves in a totally alien environment. The streets were dusty, with no real pavements and lined with small shacks and stalls selling fried chicken and glass bottles with brightly coloured liquid, which turned out to be petrol for the armada of mopeds and motor cycles competing for space with cars and vans. It was virtually impossible to cross the road, certainly until acclimatised after a few days exposure. There were even cows and chickens wandering about in the melee.


As we wandered along, slightly apprehensive and also realising that we were the only white Western faces, we began to notice that people in mopeds were tooting their horns and waving at us. We were still digesting this when two young women and a young boy approached us and asked for them to have a photograph taken with us. “Hey Mister … selfie selfie” was the cry and one that we would hear repeatedly for the next three weeks.

Very 1st selfie request

Everywhere we went people wanted photographs with us. Babies were pressed into our arms and we were literally grabbed and pulled into position for the ubiquitous selfie. When we entered a restaurant, everyone stopped and stared but as soon as we looked back and smiled, they smiled back and invariably shouted “ Hey Mister” and “selfie selfie” and came over. I began to wonder if they thought I was David Beckham.


In those first few minutes of our deployment, the trepidation and apprehension evaporated and it was no longer alien, just different and certainly exotic. All of the sights and smells were overlaid by the sound of the call to prayer from the proliferation of mosques or ‘masjid’ in Indonesian Bahasa, the official language. There seemed to be a masjid almost within touching distance everywhere and the amplified prayer calls were entrancing and very evocative and I was smitten. Often you could hear the call coming from masjids from several directions and distances at once and somehow blending harmoniously. Even now, some two months later and nine thousand miles away, I can hear the singsong chant in my head.

The Indonesians have a word ‘bule’ which means ‘white foreigner’. It doesn’t seem to be derogatory and I often heard children shouting it in pure bravado and when I waved they would come over and become my shadows whilst I was in their village.

my shadows.JPG

My shadows.

We met Andrew and Phil from Disaster Aid Australia and quickly bonded. We also inherited their guide, translator and general fixer Ronal, a quite remarkable twenty one year old student. Our driver was Ronal’s best friend Gilbert. It would be fair to say that without Ronal, nothing could have been achieved on the deployment. Literally no one spoke English and somehow or other Ronal got us into meetings with important stakeholders co-ordinating the disaster response for a variety of agencies and got their assistance.

Ronal and Gilbert with Skyhydrant.JPG

Ronal and Gilbert

Unfortunately, we only had one full day with Andrew and Phil before they departed back to Australia but we made full use of that time and installed a Skyhydrant filter with them at a displaced persons camp in Palu. This was invaluable, particularly for me as, unlike Craig, I had only seen Skyhydrants in training.

Andrew Craig Matt Phil 2.jpg

Andrew Craig Matt and Phil

One of the things that is very important in work of this nature is to involve the local population in all aspects of the venture, both in planning and implementation. We are not giving people handouts or charity. We are giving them a hand to help themselves. This particular installation was memorable in that regard, when we needed a large water tank to be re-purposed and turned into the holding tank for the filtered clean water. The tank was very dirty with sediment inside but two young boys got inside with the tank on it’s side and an adult sprayed a hose and the boys scrubbed the interior of the tank till it was sparklingly clean.


They had the time of their lives and really enjoyed themselves and more importantly felt useful helping their community, help itself. This involvement extends to offering our services and allowing the affected population to be fully involved in the planning and implementation of the aid. On a number of installations, the residents actually did the hands on installation under our watchful eyes and this is crucial for their self-esteem, knowing that they helped in their own recovery. This principle underpins everything that we and other responsible organisations do.

F locals installing SH themselves

Locals start assembling Skyhydrant

As we finished the installation, we were treated to our first of many, instances of hospitality and were given coffee and snacks. People who had lost everything, including in some cases, loved ones, were giving us food and drink. Very humbling and although our first instinct is to refuse, to allow the people to keep their limited supplies, this is unthinkable and the hospitality freely given must be accepted. Hospitality is a feature of the Muslim world and Indonesia is no exception. My guidebook had prepared me for this including the fact that often as the honoured guest, you would be given food and drink but your hosts would not partake. We were given such hospitality on a number of occasions from rich and poor and the banana fritters given at a number of camps tasted just as good as the food at a lavish banquet we were invited to, because of the circumstances in which it was given. I have rarely felt so humbled yet privileged.


Hospitality after installations.

All too soon Andrew and Phil departed for home and we were left to continue the deployment on our own. Using Ronal’s indispensable services, we had numerous meetings with stakeholders usually involving hospitality of at least water and always involving photographs, smiles and handshakes at the conclusion.


During these meetings we would be provided with leads of locations for our filters and we attended a number of camps to assess their suitability for installations. At this point in the timeline of the response to the disaster, many people were still living in camps, some makeshift and fairly basic, whilst other camps were more organised but essentially still under canvas. A number of organisations and NGOs including Rotary Clubs from all over Indonesia were constructing temporary housing camps and these were springing up at an incredible speed. Constructed of a skeleton of light aluminium bars, not unlike Meccano and then cladded and divided into basic rooms, these ‘Huntara’ are intended to house families until proper housing can be constructed, perhaps up to a year.


Huntara skeleton then completed with tents in front under Indonesian flag.

Our strategy was to try and install our Skyhydrant filters in the areas of greatest need to have the maximum impact of the health of the people. As well as health, clean water impacts on wealth, as boiling is no longer required, saving fuel and there is no longer the need to buy expensive and wasteful bottled water. Again, given the temporary nature of the camps, we felt comfortable installing filters in tented camps, knowing that they would be transferred to more semi-permanent Huntara camps when required.

There is clearly a strong entrepreneurial spirit in the people of Sulawesi and as the camps and temporary villages sprang up, so too did ad hoc facilities and we saw numerous stalls selling fried chicken and small glass bottles of petrol. Some of the food stalls had even enlarged enough to be titled ‘warungs’ which is more of a restaurant and seating was being provided. Often self-help is the best help.

It is important when deploying that we do not become ‘disaster tourists’ but equally for a small charity relying on donations, it is important to document the horror and be able to use this to solicit funds for the current and future activity in a crowded market and the immediacy of modern communications whereby people can become inured to tragedy. According both Craig and I took many photographs, some of which were circulated immediately on social media and in time will support articles and presentations.



The damage was horrific and each image represents at least one human tragedy. The damage was most notable on the coastal areas. Palu is essentially at the southern end of what at home I would call a sea loch and the tsunami devastated this area and flattened everything. Ships were thrown ashore, hotels, houses and shopping malls completely destroyed. An important road bridge on the coastal road was severed and a beautiful masjid or mosque actually built above the water with a walkway from the shore wrecked. The very limited tourist infrastructure, such as it was, disappeared.

Masjid Terapang.JPG


In the town the earthquake damage was sometimes less obvious and to my untrained eye it sometimes appeared as if the damage was caused by narrow waves of seismic activity. One street could have most buildings destroyed or badly damaged, while a parallel street nearby had little or no obvious damage.


The most horrific and upsetting damage that we saw however, was from the liquefaction as we stumbled accidently into a small village to the south of Palu and the road ended in a twenty foot drop. The road was buckled and twisted and the houses on either side grotesquely distorted with huge deep holes and craters in the ground. One can only imagine the horror of trying to protect and keep your family together during this … and many lives were lost in the area. As we left, we saw gravestones being prepared and all were dated 28 September 2018, a truly poignant and haunting sight.


Gravestones liquefaction.JPG

Rotarians from all over Indonesia had gathered to construct the Rotary Camp, south of Palu, where they had organised the construction of several Huntara and we worked closely with them and erected the tents that Disaster Aid Malaysia had sent. As we were leaving, the accommodation was virtually ready and families were beginning to move in and we demonstrated and issued our Sawyer water filters on a family basis.

Rotarians celebrate Huntara complete.JPG


Demonstrating and teaching how to use Sawyer water filters.

In total, along with Disaster Aid Australia we installed eight Skyhydrant water filters to camps and communities in the Palu area. We made a point of doing follow up visits on a number of occasions and it was obvious and very gratifying to see that the people were using the filters and enjoying the benefit of drawing clean fresh bacteria free water and no longer having to boil their drinking water.

On a personal note, I felt that our greatest individual success was when we visited a camp for the second time to talk about installing a Skyhydrant water filter. The camp manager was fairly despondent because the trucked water supply was falling short and like other camps they were short of water, never mind safe drinking water. A well had been dug but there was no electricity or piping to take it where needed and he didn’t know when they would be installed.

Well awaiting electricity and plumbing.JPG

I was appalled that, for the lack of an electrician and a plumber, people were needlessly suffering and we managed to persuade important people to get power and piping in and we would install a Skyhydrant as soon as possible. We had a bit of luck in finding the right man of action with enough authority but two days later power and piping were in place and we installed our filter. The camp manager was delighted, there was immediate acceptance and use of the water and for once I didn’t feel just as guilty when we were presented with banana fritters and fruit.

filter handover best success


The Australian DARTs Phil and Andrew discovered a children’s orphanage in Palu that was badly damaged in the earthquake and the conditions the 60 children live in are simply appalling. Despite this the children are all well fed and dressed and healthy and happy.

The Australians helped by providing a well for water and we made a number of visits and gave out food, sweets, cakes, small toys and footballs. We also gave them coloured pens and paper so that they could reply to messages of support from children at Ashgrove Academy in Macclesfield. We collected their reply pictures and later delivered them. Some of the pictures are quite detailed and graphic and hopefully will stimulate further conversations between the children 9000 miles apart. I have arranged for a friends son to become pen pals with the children.


Before leaving, having been offered a donation from home, we bought enough mattresses for the children to sleep on but roll away during the day and their reaction is a moment to be treasured forever. The conditions are heartbreaking but the children are astonishingly happy and loving. We had met another visiting Rotarian from the UK, John and we introduced him to the orphanage and he is working to try and establish a project to help.


kids at orphange.JPG

On the morning of our departure 23 December 2018 we awoke to the news that Anak Krakatua had erupted with more tragic loss of life. As the results unfolded on local TV, I had to make some hurried messages home to panicking friends and family, particularly my wife. Having re-assured them that we were fine and 2000 miles away, but not enlightening them that were about to fly much closer on our first flight to Jakarta, we checked out of our hotel. What I still hadn’t mentioned to anyone back home (for obvious reasons) was that there had been a number of minor earthquakes whilst we had been in Palu which we had been oblivious too and to the point that I was vaguely disappointed that I had missed them. Be careful what you wish for ! We asked Ronal and Gilbert to take us to a market to fill in some time before going to the airport and we ended up in a modern three storey supermarket.

I was on the first floor with Craig nowhere to be seen, when suddenly the whole building shook and there was a massive rumbling noise. It felt as if the floor rippled under my feet and things fell off shelves, adding to the cacophony and people started screaming.

“Ah .. so this is what an earthquake feels like” I thought, realising that a multi storey building was not the best place to be at that time !

Interestingly there was no feeling of panic and everyone walked down and out of the building. I walked down the ‘up’ escalator which was stopped and went outside. As people milled around they began to smile and giggle with nervous relief as did I and I was even more relieved when Craig came out and it became apparent that it was just a minor tremor.

closeup after our mini earthquake

The aftermath of our mini quake.

So, I got my earthquake but you have to feel for people who live with this all the time. They personally had a bad one in September, then woke up that morning to another disaster in their country and then had another of their (no doubt to them) routine ones. Traumatised but resilient and stoic all at the same time, the price of living in the Ring of Fire. Gilbert said it was simply Palu saying goodbye to us. Goodbye indeed !

Another hugely satisfying deployment with Disaster Aid UK and Ireland working with our colleagues from Australia, Malaysia and Indonesia. People often talk to me of ‘giving’ when engaged on activities such as this but such giving results in a form of ‘receiving’ that others can rarely have the privilege of obtaining.

Indonesia seem very unlikely to win the FIFA World Cup in the near future but as the loveliest, friendliest people, that can still smile despite everything, they are very nearly top of the league.



Author: Matt Gemmell

I'm retired and active in Ultra Running and many other outdoor activities. I do voluntary work with a Childrens' Hospice, Ultra Running Races and as a Disaster Aid Response Team member. I'm just me but some folk seem to find my stuff interesting for some bizzarre reason.

2 thoughts on “The ‘Bule’ Are Back in Town”

  1. Hi Matt

    Glad to hear you’re well and loved reading about your latest adventures.

    It’s really heartwarming to learn about how you give so selflessly to others in need.

    All best wishes

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s