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Trapped in Paradise

A former St Edmund’s Primary School and St Louis’ Middle School pupil has written about his experiences during and after the Indonesian earthquake last Sunday.

Olly Lawson, 23, is travelling following graduating from Exeter University, taking in South America, Australia, New Zealand, India and Sri Lanka before arriving in South East Asia. He was staying on the idyllic Gili Trawangan island when a magnitude seven earthquake struck nearby Lombok.

Olly, who hopes to be a published author when he returns to the UK after visiting Borneo and Nepal, said this week: “Things for me are actually okay now. It feels strange to say but when faced with the omnipotence of a phenomenon like an earthquake, everything else seems strangely, serenely trivial.

“The aftershocks were, for a few days, enough to keep me and my friends on edge but Bali now feels fairly safe, particularly given the distance between it and Lombok, much of which is utterly devastated.”

Here is Olly’s account, along with his pictures of some of the scenes in Gili Trawangan and Lombok.

Olly Lawson experienced an earthquake while travelling in Indonesia (3580169)
Olly Lawson experienced an earthquake while travelling in Indonesia (3580169)

It was 7.46pm and we were trying to play beer pong. That was when the earthquake struck. There was a tough cross-table breeze and we had hard, garish cups, but such details became a little more incidental when the lights went out. And then when, in pitch blackness, the earth suddenly started lurching from side to side, throwing people to the floor like rag dolls, nothing else mattered much at all. Bulbs smashed, bottles crashed and adrenalin surged through bloodstreams, all as the basest instinct of all become our sole preoccupation. This is the story of an eventful few days…

People get gingerly to their feet, ashen faced in the chalky beams of torchlights. Instructions ring out telling people to get to the hill. A tsunami may be on its way. Amongst us in the panicked throng outside are honeymooners and partygoers, wizened elders and teary-eyed children. Natural disasters don’t discriminate. There is dust everywhere, kicked up from shattered buildings and scuffled steps, filling up our choking lungs. Everything that looms above us in the shadows – the trees, the buildings, the pylons – all bristle with murderous intent. It’s a phantasmagorical maze and one that no one seems able to navigate. Whole streets are now impassable. Entire slabs of wall have collapsed. Everything is creaking, ready at any stage to swallow up the fragile flesh and bone beneath it. Chants and prayers to Allah ring out, too. The sound of horses neighing echoes from somewhere in the darkness. More shouts of tsunami. The sight of people hobbling, clutching at each other, being tended to by scrambled doctors plunged back from holiday into their daily routine, keep any burgeoning sense of safety firmly at bay. The trees are still swaying up on the hill. The wind picks up occasionally and sends the skeletal branches into a deathly dance, taunting us with the next life.

I reach for my phone once we’ve ‘settled’ ourselves down in the folds of a sandy creek. It’s the warmest place we can find on the exposed scrubland. I start writing, not really knowing what or why I’m doing it.

I was tempted to edit what I subsequently produced but then it actually speaks far truer than anything retrospect could have granted me:

Crude perspective, early worries of tanning, of levels of drunkenness, even of money, all seem disgustingly trivial when set against the rumbling tremors of a furious Mother Earth. The power of each aftershock is awesome in every sense of the word. Man’s vulnerability in the face of such power remains childlike, reliant on the mercy of nature’s omnipotence. For those who regularly have to cope with this sort of anger, the concerns of deadlines or subjective measures of success must seem laughable. Darkness continues to fuel the fear, the Great Unknown conjuring the worst possibilities in its usual, cheap way. Stories float on the air of those down on the beach dragged to the bloodied sands to be tended to. Blue and red lights flash across the bay. Infectious panic deaf to reason. I feel strangely calm. When faced with such untameable forces, what chance does man really stand? When taken out of my hands, I accept the engulfing dark as the first step towards passing into the realm of the eternal.

I use my wallet as a pillow as I manage to catch snatches of sleep on the hard, rocky ground. The night is long and cold; each aftershock brings further wailing laments. They are chilling in their poignancy. The light plays tricks on the eyes as we shiver, coated in dirt. The glow of cigarettes dot the hill like fireflies. Quiet descends for the first time and, after an endless stretch of time, light eventually begins to leak back into the world from across the bay. Behind petit Gili Meno sunrise flushes out the black with coral pinks and neon reds. A relieving warmth is cast down on the scene. People begin to gather up their belongings and start staggering back down to the town.

Here devastation rules. Crumpled mounds of concrete, crushed bricks and haphazard walls – still frozen mid-tumble – are everywhere. The streets are evidently unsafe, not least because of the skulking presence of those looking to profit from disaster. We decide to stay at the hostel, purely because we know the drill should anything else start shaking and because the owners proved worthy shepherds in the mayhem. We snooze in beanbags and try to exorcise the memories of the night. It’s no mean feat as the aftershocks continue. Half-broken buildings are still hurtling towards the dust. A few passers-by are snared in their cruel, fatal embrace.

Breakfast is served to queasy stomachs. The hostel owners check in with everyone and keep up morale by emptying their Bintang supply. All day, drinks and food flow as the concept of money becomes redundant. The post-apocalyptic beers fuel further explorations of the streets- the same streets that were such a mystery the previous night whilst fleeing in the dark. The damage knows few bounds. Huge, vine-like cracks spread through those that remain standing, and for those that don’t, rubble fills the way. Perhaps most striking is the collapsed mosque. For whatever divine reason this is the worst struck. The minaret has plunged through layers of elegant archways and cavernous halls. For those who sought security and comfort in their place of prayer, it proves their final act. In Lombok the following day we will see a similar pattern from the window of our bus. The majesty of the mosques razed; man’s most celestial ambitions swatted away by the raw power of nature.

Back in Gili Trawangan, looters are running all over dilapidated walls, their arms filled with food and water, crates of alcohol and bricks of cigarettes. The pillaging began the night of the earthquake itself, with panicked souls grabbing essentials and blankets from the boutique hotels by the hill, but there is something altogether more uncomfortable about seeing the act escalate during the daytime. Some relish the ‘hunting’ including – eventually – myself. An infectiously feral world has broken out. In the shops shards of glass litter the floor as their doors hang off hinges. Crazed hands snatch at everything, the bounds of civility temporarily suspended. Whole meals only half-cooked lie abandoned on grills outside. Fat, lazy flies inspect raw kebabs; ants crawl over fungal peppers and slices of lemons and limes that didn’t make it into the beers blacken in the heat. The landscape is utterly surreal. The town itself (once free of the raiders) is ghostly quiet. Everyone tucks into the spoils of natural disaster. Only the beach is populated. Here, the locals crowd by the non-existent harbour. The marina now lies on distant shores, borne away by angry tides. Tourists, too, cry out. They are desperate to jump ahead of those trying to get back to their families on the mainland. Honeymooners weep into each other’s shoulders, though many of the children – from older unions – are curiously calm. An unfolding adventure for them perhaps, a real-life bedtime story. Just like the ones told by the grown men cowering besides them.

The aftershocks continue to puncture any swelling sense of calm. Everywhere different stories are being told. The number of people injured, killed and displaced changes with each retelling; the prospect of a fresh earthquake raises its head as theories of triggered volcanic explosions plague the misinformed. There are whispers of rape-thirsty gangs prowling around the deserted quarters of the island, searching for tourists and the drug supplies left behind by those wealthy enough to afford a helicopter out of here. No one is quite sure of anything anymore.

Once it becomes clear who is remaining for another night though, the atmosphere begins to settle a little. We have made our choice to stay. Whatever is to come will come and we will face it together. With this fresh collective spirit, the beers start flowing once more. By the time darkness comes round again a drunken haze has settled over us. Party games start to evolve into more grotesque distortions of the shattered world outside the hostel walls. Torchlights illuminate faces beginning to relax with booze. The lights kick on for a bit as the host screams that this could be the biggest party the island’s ever seen and that ‘we can make as much noise as we want!’. People rush to charge phones and jump on to the traces of Wi-Fi before hurrying back to the process of dampening their worries and fears. The aspiration for hedonism outweighs the weary reality however. Despite emptying the vodka store, finishing the beers and exhausting the joss, people begin stumbling towards an early, dream-laden sleep. A few shakes during the night stir momentary panic for those not padded by the thick coat of drink. A plan is hatched to leave the island at first light the next morning. A boat will be there. At 5.30am we’re leading a line of people through the broken streets. Those of us who know them well do our best to reassure those that continue to flinch at every creak of wood and every crunching step.

There is no boat. More reassurance is necessary for some. With little else to do, we sit and watch the slow ascent of the sun for the second time in as many days. The blossoming colours are usually the reserve of the island’s shroom brigade, but not today. After welcoming the light we find an abandoned bike and get some supplies. Walking the rusted wheels down the empty streets, with a basket full of beers and nuts, water and sun cream, it’s hard to recognise ourselves. How far things have come in just a few days. We’re slaked in sweat and dust and two-day old clothes, but despite that we drag ourselves to a decent enough spot to play cards. Music makes all the difference too, transcending the tyranny of silence, inducing smiles at favourite lyrics and head bops at favourite drops. We play Hearts until around noon. The time passes quickly. The story of a fresh casualty reaches our ears. The town is becoming increasingly more dangerous still, but with the white sands and the azure waters lapping lazily at our feet, it’s hard not to be hoodwinked into thinking we’re in some fantastical dream.

A boat finally arrives at lunchtime (a rare construct that remains). It’s greeted with a few tired cheers even though no one knows where it’s going and a few people aren’t even sure whether they want to go. A local man hops off the deck and barks at us to get on-board. We obey without question and head back to Lombok: the land of the epicentre. Whilst it’s a relief to finally leave the increasingly lawless ghost island behind, it’s hard to prepare ourselves for the scenes of devastation that greet us on the other side of the strait. We’re put on a bus soon after arriving. Our passage back to safety will take some time. It’s a morbid affair. Chugging haphazardly over winding Tarmac that is breaking up like cracked lips in the sun, we see that almost nothing in the north is still standing. Already people are rummaging in the rubble, looking stoically for friends, family, perhaps even their pets. The hysteria of the media is their bleak reality.

A tourist refugee station has been set up, offering us food and drink. The spirit of those helping us is remarkable. The beaming smiles contrast sharply with the furrowed brows and startled eyes of the past few days. We can only hope that the locals are being tended to with the same degree of care, attention and goodwill.

We catch another bus to the harbour soon after and jump on one of the ferries that are now running 24/7. The journey itself across the open stretch to Bali passes without incident. The cold touch of metal beats shaking, uncertain earth. We play more cards on the upper deck and eat tempeh. Most people sleep the whole way. They wake up gently through bleary lashes, to find they’ve made it to relative safety. They allow themselves a small curl of their lips. It’s getting late. Upon stepping back on to dry land we’re ambushed by taxi drivers, hounding us for a good price. None of us are in the mood to talk much so we shoo them away. We have no plans, no idea about where to go, we just want somewhere to sleep. Outside a corn shop we sit slump-shouldered and find ourselves a place near Canggu. Some digital nomad set up. Soft opening. The taxi ride is quiet, the driver distant. The warmth and the camaraderie of those back in Lombok, all fighting for the same cause, hasn’t seemed to reach these shores yet. We’re greeted like heroes in the hostel though. The tech-guys and girls clamour to hear our story. We settle down for some food and begin to shape our narrative. Processing what’s actually happened proves difficult. Clumsy language stumbles around the emotions of the present, hinting at, but not capturing, the essence of such personal experiences. A wave of Wi-Fi brings a tide of messages. It’s almost overwhelming to see. Again, I consider myself so fortunate to receive them. Again, I can only hope that everyone involved in such times is lucky enough to feel such love and concern.

We from the west are often guilty of making false proclamations after going through difficult times: we invent neat awakenings, preach pseudo-philosophy, look for imagined epiphanies, all to pretend to ourselves that we have, and will continue to, progress. There were plenty back on the beaches of the island. ‘I won’t take that for granted ever again…’; ‘I’m going to do more charity work from now on…’; ‘next time the Tube is crowded I’m really not going to complain…’. For those whose past, present and future is consistently warped by such disasters however, the mind-set is different. They don’t rely on instructive reckonings to live better lives. They don’t need to be trapped in paradise to know where it is. But then, I suppose, what the hell do I know? I’m just another westerner making the same neat awakenings, pseudo-philosophies and imagined epiphanies as everybody else.

We don’t have to live with the realities of those natural disasters; we have a choice. With that choice, we are so lucky and we’re so privileged and if we don’t remember that a little more often, then what the hell is the point?

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