Magazine article The New Yorker

OUR MAN IN MEDAN; SUMATRA POSTCARD Series: 5/5

Magazine article The New Yorker

OUR MAN IN MEDAN; SUMATRA POSTCARD Series: 5/5

Article excerpt

Jalan Wali Kota is a fashionable street in what had been until the past couple of months a rather unfashionable city: Medan, Indonesia. It may be the biggest city on Sumatra and home to two and a half million people, but, aside from the Palace of the Sultan of Deli and a first-rate orangutan preserve three hours away, Medan has never been much of a draw, and the American diplomatic office on Jalan Wali Kota has been the quintessence of a sleepy outpost. Until, that is, the biggest natural disaster in living memory struck Sumatra's western coast and Medan became the headquarters of the international relief effort. Suddenly, Paul Berg, the rather startled American representative, finds himself one of the world's premier go-to guys.

Berg had a visitor to dinner the other night in the Dutch Colonial house that is all that remains of the once grand American Consulate here. He is fifty-one and quite literally red, white, and blue: ruddy skin, bright-white hair and mustache, blue eyes. He emerged in a Hawaiian-print shirt, and with a heavy silver chain around his neck, and apologized for the meanness of the surroundings. "The United States had a consulate here from independence, in 1949, until the nineteen-nineties, when suddenly it had to open embassies all over the former Soviet Union," he said. "The consulate was closed, and all the beautiful buildings were sold off except this one, the consul-general's house, which was kept as a warehouse to store all the furniture in. Then somebody realized that there are forty-five million people in Sumatra, that three U.S. oil companies operate here, that there's the conflict in Aceh--that there ought to be a consulate here." He sat at one end of a long table as Tony Bennett began singing from the stereo and a lithe young man served a rich broth seasoned with scallions and Parmesan cheese. "This is officially the Medan office of the U.S. Embassy, Jakarta, and I am, officially, here two weeks each month and two weeks in Jakarta." He paused, tasted his soup, and breezed through stories of what sounded like a fun career: Bombay, Brussels, Washington, Rome, Mexico City, Hanoi, Bogota, and now Medan. He'd earned an entire career's pay in the past few weeks, coordinating aid, greeting visiting congressmen, and being the face of the United States in Sumatra.

On December 26th, the only clues Berg had that an earthquake had occurred were the key clattering in the lock to his bedroom door and what he described as "a mini-tsunami" in the murky, disused swimming pool out back. Later that morning, a call came from the embassy in Jakarta that "something had happened" on the coast. …

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