With binoculars pressed to his eyes, Sam Schultz stands at the captain's helm of the Sumber Rejeki Baru, a 100-ft. cargo boat bobbing off the coast of Sumatra. For several hours, the vessel has coasted alongside a mist-kissed rainforest - a paradise stained at its base by a 30-foot-highring of barren earth.
Hundreds of miles of shoreline have been denuded; only a brownish brine is left. A coastal road has been scraped away, and palm trees and bridges clog beaches.
"This is unbelievable," says Mr. Schultz, a onetime Californian who has lived in Bali for 20 years. "A month ago, this was a shoreline of thriving communities, boats, villages, and fishermen. Now ... nothing."
Schultz is a regular guy: husband, father of two, businessman, history buff. But the cargo on his boat - buckets filled with hammers and saws, stacks of corrugated roofing, food, and toys - tells the story of how the steely housing contractor, galvanized by the devastation on TV - transformed himself into a kind of archangel of aid. A veteran of aid missions - East Timor, Guatemala, Nepal - he says the current need is "greater than any I have seen in our lifetimes."
Putting his own time and money on the line, intercepting and coordinating other Good Samaritans, Schultz and a handful of others have tackled the improbable and the impossible to provide immediate assistance to Sumatran villages that have lost their traditional sources of food and supplies and are difficult to reach by air.
For the team on the Sumber Rejeki Baru, that meant taking on the role of a marine-based search-and-rescue team - charitable entrepreneurs who can move nimbly while the giant aid groups got into gear.
"This is one of the really amazing stories of how people from all kinds of organizations all over the world have come together to come up with unusual solutions ... to fill immediate needs," says Bettina Luescher, spokeswoman in Banda Aceh for the World Food Program, the largest provider of food relief in the world. "These people are the crucial link at the crucial stage, doing what the larger organizations are just not yet set up to do."
Just minutes after watching pictures of the tsunami, Schultz got on the phone. First he called friends ("What should we do?"), then a local aid organization ("I'm ready if you need me").
Then he bought a plane ticket - along with his best friend, Lee - to Padang, a small town on the East coast of Sumatra.
A "people person" who speaks fluent Indonesian, and self-professed "pushy guy who gets what I want, and I want to help," Schultz, along with his pal, began buying 6-1/2-gallon buckets. With a dozen volunteers from a hotel in Padang, they filled them one by one: tarpaulin, cooking pot, oil, soap, saw, axe. ("I know what people who have lost everything need," he says.)
While looking for a way to transport these kits to devastated areas, Schultz met two representatives from AUSAID, the Australian aid agency, at a local bar. Teaming up, the trio flew a quick reconnaissance mission north to Sibolga, looking for a place to bring in deliveries. No good: bad roads, inaccessible airport, no goods on the ground to buy.
Next, Schultz tried to find local operators with a boat big enough to carry hundreds of tons of cargo but small enough to get into tiny, possibly damaged ports.
On the river in Padang, he spotted his quarry: the Sumber Rejeki Baru, ready with Indonesian captain and a crew of 14. Price: 60 million rupiah (about $6,000 US) per week. Contracting the boat in the name of AUSAID and IDEP, an Indonesian aid group, the foursome spent two days filling it with anything they could buy, requisition, or scrounge: nearly 800 lbs. of medicine, tons of rice, tools. With funding from IDEP, Bali friends, and Schultz's own wallet - about $40,000 total - the group began a series of trips up and down the coast.
On his first voyage, Schultz took five colleagues from Bali, three doctors, three Indonesian nurses and two volunteers.
They visited several small villages, taking a small dinghy ashore to locate and talk to local Indonesian military officials about casualties and to assess needs. The crew settled on the final destination of Calang (pronounced Chalang) - a town of 14,000 that lost all but about 3,500 residents.
On board for Schultz's first voyage was Stefan Zawada, a Polish chef, motorcycle buff, and Rotary Club member from Bali who had done similar work in Yugoslavia. The Rotary Club and his restaurant, Pergola, are supporting his mission. "They need help, man," he says. "We are showing our fellow human beings that we care.... We might need help someday and maybe it will come back. If not, it's worthwhile anyway."
While doctors and nurses ministered to survivors on shore in Calang, Zawada filled a sack with medical supplies and headed inland on foot. He got as far as a bridge that had been lifted 30 feet upriver and turned on its side. Crawling across on his knees, he encountered dozens of survivors, old and young living beneath a canopy of trees filled with scores of bodies.
Zawada doled out medicine, water, protein bars, and chocolate. He helped dress wounds before retracing his steps.
Meanwhile, Schultz met the military commander in charge of Calang. "He told me that if I was another aid organization here to do another assessment of needs, to just get on my boat and get the hell out of here," says Schultz. "He had had it with all these people flying in to do nothing but take up his time and energy ... adding to his security problems ... He didn't like it."
The crew offloaded their buckets of tools and 40 tons of rice in Calang over three days. Then Schultz and company headed to Banda Aceh for more volunteers, aid workers, and cargo.
Jonas Wiahl, a Swede who works with German Agro Action, had also seen the tsunami on TV and made his way to Banda Aceh. Like Schultz, he scoured the region for goods and volunteers. Then he used his own NGO's funds to purchase sugar, salt, cooking oil, and toys. He and his partner ended up spending $13,000 on tarpaulins, cooking pots, stoves, kerosene, and thousands of dolls.
When he met Schultz and Zawada at the dock, he decided to share costs - and the Sumber Rejeki Baru headed out again.
The boat, which hosts the occasional rat and four-inch cockroach, is the kind that inspires jokes, the sort that aren't funny on land but somehow keep a full deck of hot and weary aid workers, journalists, and translators in stitches of laughter. "This is a boat you don't want to board at first glance," says one crew member.
"At the second glance, you really don't want to board," says another. "If you get close enough for a third glance, it's too late - they've set sail," laughs a third.
But compared with some of the rusting - and far smaller - trawlers that pass by, overloaded with refugees, the Sumber Rejeki Baru looks like the Queen Mary.
Over the next several hours, Schultz and Zawada survey the landscape through binoculars, trying to find a landing spot. By about 5 p.m., the ship anchors just south of Lamno, at Lhokruet.
Onshore reconnaissance at dusk reveals that 200 to 300 people show up on these shores every morning. Schultz also comes face to face with a commander of the Indonesian military waiting with about a dozen automatic rifle-toting troops. Schultz talks with them, and offers them boxes of cigarettes. Meanwhile, Zawada heads up a road, returning two hours later with news that about a dozen separatist rebels are staying in the hills. Their presence complicates the operation that will unfold the next morning.
After a night so hot that most people sleep on the deck, Schultz, Wiahl, and others take a single skiff boat ashore at 6 a.m. to prepare to distribute aid. Separately, in a dinghy, the Indonesian crew ferries supplies to the beach. Zawada takes another small skiff up the coast, bailing water as he goes, to hike further inland.
Back at the beach of Lhokruet, no villagers have appeared by 8 a.m. By 9 a.m only a handful of women have shown up. Schultz surmises that it is the presence of separatist guerrillas known as GAM that has kept people away.
GAM is a guerrilla force of about 3,000, backed by another 9,000 who might be prepared to fight for independence, in a conflict that has endured for 30 years. Supporters are sprinkled throughout the province, providing an added tension to the aid process.
Just before the tsunami hit, the Indonesian military had vowed to "exterminate" the rebels, and was undertaking an offensive. The tsunami has brought a formal cease-fire, but several skirmishes have been reported around Banda Aceh.
"This area has been under martial law for the past two years, so it is understandable that the men [in the villages] are afraid. They don't know what's going to happen," Schultz says.
But by about 9.30, a string of women and children appear, walking down a road out of the forest. They say they have come from a village 3-1/2 miles away.
Schultz, Wiahl, and others begin to organize the gathering crowd into a long line and then distribute the waiting goods individually, to each person in line. "Entre, entre, entre (line up, line up, line up!)" yells Schultz, telling the women how to proceed. "Mundur, mundur (step back)," he tells the few younger boys.
Schultz is clear about who should get the aid. "I want to get these goods into the hands of women because I know they will not hoard it for themselves," he says. "With the males, I can't be sure."
The women place 40-lb. bags of rice on their heads, gather tubes of toothpaste, hand soap, bottles of oil, apple juice and disappear down the road.
Some of the women carry the goods out of sight, and then return for more. One displays her 18-day-old baby whom she named Rahmat ("blessed") Tsunami.
The villagers reveal that they have plenty of rice, which has been dropped off by US helicopters and is sitting in a wood-covered compound on the adjacent hill. What they haven't had - until now - are other essentials: soap, soap powder, antiseptic, tarps, stoves.
One 16-year-old girl named Kaida, wearing a green scarf, smiles as she fills her arms with Lifebuoy soap and Pepsodent.
A 16-year-old boy, Rafid, emerges to explain that no one in his village was killed by the tsunami, but that the villagers have no food. Beside him, an older woman tears open a plastic bag filled with six soccer balls that have gone unnoticed by the gathering crowd. "This ball is for me," she giggles.
Then, because the beach at Lhokruet is too small to offload 1,700 sheets of corrugated roof iron - and Schultz knows the need is greater at Calang - Schultz decides to disembark.
Two hours later, at dusk, the ship pulls into harbor at Calang. Schultz sees progress from his earlier visit. There are more tents and more people on land, and more boats offshore.
But there is still frustration and confusion, nearly one month after the tsunami. Only four German doctors are there, along with a French medical team and a couple of Irish medics. There is an Indonesian tanker carrying 300 tons of supplies - which it can't offload because they don't have the right equipment and there's no dock. A group of Indonesians in a wooden skiff is ferrying stacks of clothes onshore. Suddenly they become frustrated and begin throwing them in the water.
"This is more evidence that no one knows what is going on in Calang," says Schultz. "Otherwise they wouldn't have sent a ship that big, with cargo that can't [easily] be taken ashore."
Onshore, he surveys the situation and is remembered by the Indonesian commander, who orders two marine amphibious transports to help offload his cargo.
One of the German doctors, a man called "Fish," curses the inefficiency of large aid groups that still have no presence in Calang.
"Everything is going to Meulaboh and Banda Aceh, and we have nothing," he says. A package with 3,500 units of measles vaccine was left unopened in a tent 50 yards away from where doctors and nurses were waiting to vaccinate waiting children. In the confusion, no one opened it until its expiration date had passed.
Back on the boat, Schultz, Zawada, Wiahl, and others say that things have gotten much better ashore but remain at an emergency level.
Stefan Templeton, an American member of a French dive-and-rescue unit, says the frustration there is compounded because teams of medics are waiting nearby to get into Calang, but "the helicopters remain full of journalists who come to take pictures and leave, and assessors who just continue to fill out assessment forms."
"You can see that what is happening to help people here is only a tiny drop in the bucket of what has to happen," says Schultz. "And we must remember that patchwork aid is only a temporary measure. What these people need most is tools, fishhooks, nets ... things to set them back to a life of working for themselves.
"A person who is sitting on the beach or in a displaced-persons camp waiting for handouts is lost," he observes. "A person rebuilding his own life is found."
As he leaves Calang, Schultz is bone-tired. But he's already planning another mission. If he can put together a team, he'll head back to Banda Aceh, get more supplies, and travel again down the coast.
His motivation for a month of flat-out, 20-hour days is simple, he says. He is inspired by his family's Quaker roots and his father's example of doing right by others.
"The Quakers' real name is Society of Friends," he says, "and we treat everyone we deal with as if they are our friend. My friends are in trouble. That's it."