Lost Girl of the Week: Alexis Thomas

Cambodia, Indonesia, Lost Girl of the Week, Volunteering & Giving Back — By on August 15, 2007 at 4:39 pm

When the Tsunami devestated the Pacific Rim on December 26th, 2004, it seemed as if the entire planet turned out to donate their money, or their time, to help. In all, the worldwide community gave more than $7 billion (2004 US dollars) in humanitarian aid to those affected by the earthquake. This kind of comprehensive global response was clearly incredible, but as with any disaster (even one with a death toll total of over 200,000 people), the cash flow and volunteer efforts waned in the months that followed. By 2005, most Americans were focused on the nautral disasters that rocked our own coastline, most notably, Hurricane Katrina.

People who volunteer in the wake of such catastrophies should certainly be commended, but those who lend a hand long after the media furor fades can truly be considered heroes. Alexis Thomas, our Lost Girl of the Week, did just that, returning to the earthquake and tsunami rocked Banda Aceh to work with the International Rescue Committee. We love her adventurous spirit, her story as a “blang” in Indonesia and her positive take on travel. Here’s Alexis’s story:

“When I found out I had been chosen as an intern for the International Rescue Committee to work with tsunami refugees in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, my stomach did a happy summersault followed closely by a huge back flip. The selection process had been pretty competitive through my graduate program, and only three spots were awarded – and they had chosen me!

But a few seconds after my inner voice shouting “YES! YES! YES!” had died down, the reality of the news hit me. I had a pretty decent job as an entertainment publicist, which I liked…most days. I worked with television channels, independent filmmakers and documentary directors — with a celebrity thrown in every now and again to keep things interesting (or endlessly demanding, whichever the case may be).

And if nothing else, it was a steady paycheck into the good old bank account every two weeks. Quitting a decent job mid-career that you are actually getting paid to do to take a non-paid summer internship in a country most people associate with the words “devastating tsunami,” “catastrophic earthquake,” “fiery plane crash” and “nightmare ferry disaster” isn’t something that helps a girl sleep at night. Or her boyfriend!

I was traveling in Southeast Asia about three years ago when I volunteered for a bit at an NGO in Cambodia that provided education to street kids as well as children who worked on a trash dump outside of Phnom Penh. When I got back to my home in New York City, I decided to get my master’s degree to figure out what the whole humanitarian thing was all about. After two years of working full-time during the day and then rushing off to classes at night, I took a chance and applied for the internship — and here it was. Of course, I decided to go for it.

And I’m so glad I did. I’m a backpacker and romantic at heart and have always been in love with throwing everything in a bag, hitting the road and letting things happen as they may. As much as I’m drawn to the spontaneity of these trips, this one is a little bit different in that I’m visiting, but I’m not just passing through. Living in Banda Aceh has been really interesting, and working here has added another layer to the experience.

Arriving at a new place, staying a while, getting to know the people and trying to help has been a different way for me to travel. Banda Aceh is definitely a study in contrasts and it has been interesting to be able to land, gather first impressions, and then go back and reflect on these first impressions and make second — and even third — impressions. It feels like such a luxury. So often things aren’t what they appear to be, but we are moving so fast that we don’t take the time to learn how things are different than what we have perceived.

One of the most challenging things about visiting here was the lack of information about the area. Until recently, the “bible” – the Lonely Planet – didn’t even cover the region because it was unsafe to travel here due to the 30-year civil war which preceded the tsunami. When I googled Banda Aceh, reports of the tsunami appeared but little else. I really didn’t know what to expect or how to pack and was pretty much at a loss when trying to reassure my friends and family that this was a great idea and I was definitely going to be safe. Inspired by the Lost Girls, I decided to create an extensive blog about my trip and my time here so others planning to visit have a little bit more information.

Ninety-nine percent of people who live in Banda Aceh are Muslim and the two are interlinked – to be Acehnese is to be Muslim, and vice versa. As part of the peace process after the tsunami, Sharia Law is strictly enforced here. Again, before I arrived, I didn’t even really know what that meant. To explain it doesn’t even really do it justice – religion, and Sharia Law, are all encompassing in the province of Aceh. For example, there are the regular police as well as the religious (Sharia) police and they work hand in hand. Contact between men and women who aren’t married is strictly regulated – in fact, two people of the opposite sex can’t ride on the same motorbike together! The police can, and do, pull people over and demand to see a couple’s marriage certificate and couples carry theirs around just for this purpose. Coming from New York City where anything and everything goes, it definitely took me some time to wrap my head around this.

I’ve also never been to a place less geared towards the travel industry than Banda Aceh. After the tsunami hit, NGOs and relief agencies quickly descended upon the area to bring aid. I think that it was the largest outpouring of funds ever for a natural disaster. With these agencies came westerners – they have a slang word here for us, which is “blang” (pronounce boo-lay). If I see another “blang” on the street or in the market, it is pretty much a given that they are a fellow NGO worker because tourists just don’t come here. Alcohol is forbidden, all women must dress modestly (no tank tops) and this extends to the beach, where t-shirts and surf shorts are a must, even in the water. All visitors to the providence must register with the police.

Although I’ve traveled fairly extensively, I’ve never been so completely and utterly different. I could live here for the rest of my life and still be considered an outsider. Under Sharia Law, women are required to wear jilbabs (veils) covering their hair and neck. As curious as it has been for me to adapt to this – seeing women wearing head-coverings in extreme heat and doing it so gracefully – you can only imagine the stares that I receive in turn because I am one of a very small minority of women who don’t wear a veil. Today, I was out in the field and spent eight hours driving back home to Banda Aceh. We drove through numerous small villages along the way and I consistently drew stares and shouts of “Hey, Mister!” in every town. Inexplicably, Acehnese get “Mr.” and “Mrs.” transposed, which still makes me laugh every time it happens.

As cliché as it sounds, the work I have been doing here has been completely rewarding. I have been focusing on the educational system here as it struggles to bounce back from the disaster as well as the civil war. During the civil war, government employees (including teachers) were threatened on their way to work and 600 schools were burned to the ground. Teachers would hide their teacher’s uniforms in their bags for their morning commute because it was dangerous to be spotted as a civil servant.

To make matters worse, the tsunami destroyed many of the remaining schools and killed many teachers as well as students. Women and children were disproportionately killed by the tsunami, because they were at home when it struck. I guess if you weren’t in your home when the wave came, you had a better chance of survival. My work here has been centered on a program that revitalizes the teacher training process to help teachers be better at their job, and in turn positively affect the lives of children here.

As a Loyal “Lost Girls” reader, I am so honored to be a “Lost Girl of the Week.” I often hear, “I wish I could do what you’re doing!” and I’m here to say – if I can do it, anyone can. NGO’s and other non-profits are always looking for volunteers and it is a rich and unforgettable experience. I’m excited that there are more resources out there now — like this blog – to help give people the extra little push they need. Now throw that toothbrush in your bag and get going!


To read more, check out Alexis’ blog at: www.lexthomas.typepad.com

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  • superainbow says:

    wow! you know so much about banda acheh. i’m just their next door neighbour (malaysia) and yet i know little about them. thanks to you anyway, i know more now. btw, have you been to malaysia?

  • Scribetrotter says:

    Alexis, well done for taking up the challenge!

    I was in my 40s when I uprooted myself from a cushy job to travel around the world for a few years – I reached Banda Aceh sometime in the late 1990s. I was a freelance journalist then and Aceh was in full pro-independence ferment – I wasn’t very welcome, and was shadowed wherever I went.

    I remember getting there on a wild overnight bus ride from Medan – the drivers raced one another to a mosque just outside Banda Aceh to be the first to perform their morning prayers… You haven’t lived until you’ve ridden the midnight express at high speed passing on every blind curve! Sometimes the speed was so jarring we were catapulted right out of our seats!

    Things were very different in Banda Aceh then – it was certainly Muslim but not as strict. I was with an Australian friend (NGO worker) and we went everywhere with local activists. Rather than religion, at the time authorities were perhaps more concerned with independence extremists… This was a special military area and tensions were high.

    I wrote a few stories after I left and spent several months criss-crossing the island of Sumatra. At the time, the rupiah had crashed, riots were spreading across Indonesia and every place was nearly empty.

    I don’t know how things are now and whether the Acehnese are getting a fairer share of their natural resources from the Indonesian government but I was very taken with the region and its incredibly friendliness. The fact that you gave up a far easier life to help is commendable!

  • Dellie says:

    Alexis, you are a brave,kind and giving young woman. The adversities that you witnessed and endured were eye opening to the rest of us. You have become a teacher showing us just how diversified our world is and how anyone can lend a hand anywhere when they want to. Great job, LG…