For thousands of Indonesians traumatized by the earthquake and tsunami that struck the Sulawesi island city of Palu, there are signs of recovery. International aid has begun arriving, power has been restored, and banks are re-opening. Long lines at gas stations have thinned.
But more than a week after the Sept. 28 dual disasters, the death toll continues to steadily rise. Indonesia's disaster management officials put the number of dead at 1,763, and their excavation has been slow, especially in areas where the quake buried whole blocks of houses.
"The pungent scent of dead bodies"
Large chunks of the neighborhood Petobo have been laid waste. A walk through the reclaimed marshland on the southern edge of the city is literally a sinking feeling.
The ground has a wobbly consistency — not quite jello — that is anything but solid. In the air, is the pungent scent of dead bodies.
Resident Afit Badrudin, 28, describes standing at the cigarette stall when suddenly the earth began shaking horizontally, then vertically, and then gyrating as if "in a blender." He says he was carried along as the earth moved beneath his feet, and as an area of land began to collapse, he would jump to the next more solid strip.
Survivor Muhlis Ipul's story of survival is no less harrowing. He recounts his experience perched on a plastic chair stuck in the soft, porous earth, looking forlornly out at the ruins.
Ipul describes the earthquake churning the ground so violently it created a sea of mud that swept houses away. It's a phenomenon known as liquefaction — soil mixing with water to create a quicksand effect.
Ipul says, "You can no longer see the houses," and concludes that "there are thousands of victims" buried beneath where we are standing.
Residents estimate that some 7, 000 people lived in this affected area of Petobo, and believe many could be entombed there.
Ipul's wife and two young daughters, ages 7 and 5, had just showered and were changing their clothes when shaking engulfed their small house. They all ran out the front door together.
"The asphalt broke up under my feet. I fell, got trapped in the cracks, and lost hold of my 5-year old girl. The last time I saw my wife and children, they were covered in earth," Ipul says. He points to a coconut grove several hundred yards from his house, and says that's where he thinks they were carried.
During the temblor, Ipul heard people screaming for help.
As he lay in the darkness, his eyes and face burning, mud suddenly exploded beneath him, dislodging him from where the asphalt had him pinned down.
"God gave me a miracle," he says. "The rushing mud opened a way out. I saw a cable, tucked it under my arm, and the mud flow pulled me along."
Ipul was deposited on a small rise where he sat and listened for the cries of his wife and daughters. They never came.
A search for answers
Ipul guides us to the remains of his house where a small window framed in green paint peaks out from mounds of mud and debris. Ipul, a construction worker, stacks metal sheeting ripped loose from his home, and says he's collecting it to rebuild somewhere else. It is a life-affirming idea.
But at 32, Ipul looks 52. Such is the strain of the disaster on this slight man whose feet are encrusted with mud. Flip-flops are all the shoes he has to negotiate the treacherous terrain. He says he'd like to pray at the mosque, but "You must be clean to enter," and he has no clean clothes.
Christians dressed in their Sunday best flocked to sermons in Palu, a city with some 25 churches, seeking answers for what happened here. In the world's most populous Muslim country, Christians make up some 10 percent in Palu where neighborhoods and miles of coastline were obliterated 10 days ago.
Badrudin says a widely known legend has it that an old tree with magical powers made the waters vanish from this one-time swamp. He says people also know that if they dug just 1 meter down, they will likely strike water, so porous is the soil.
Speaking through an interpreter, Ipul says he knew nothing about the land's vulnerability, and that his most painful memory is his youngest child, daughter Windy, age 5, slipping from his grasp. He says with resignation, "There is no use in getting angry." It was an act of God.
"I feel really sad, remembering my wife and children. All of us here — the people of Petobo — not just me. We have not been able to find our loved ones. And we all feel great loss."
Ipul waits day after day for someone to retrieve the bodies of his family. He might wait in vain. The corpses that have been found to date have been dug up by hand. But heavy digging equipment is needed to approach the magnitude of the task that Petobo presents. And the precarious terrain makes it risky to excavate.
The government says it is considering instead turning this one-time swampland into a mass grave, a proposal that can be expected to aggravate the grief of many families.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now to our series on China's growing influence in the world. That influence is felt particularly strongly in Latin America, where Chinese investments are growing rapidly. It's often said that Brazil provides the food on China's dinner tables, from soybeans to beef and chicken. Those exports helped make China Brazil's biggest trading partner. As NPR's Philip Reeves reports, Brazil also has something else the Chinese want.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: You see this everywhere here.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).
REEVES: Young men are playing soccer under a warm afternoon sun. Look again, though, and you'll notice there's something different about this game. We're in Brazil, yet all the players are Chinese.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Foreign language spoken).
REEVES: They're teenagers who've come here - 11,000 miles from home - to pursue a dream.
PAIERMAN KUERBANTAYI: My dream is difficult. I want to go to my country team in China, play World Cup. This is my big dream.
REEVES: Paierman Kuerbantayi is 17. He's here to learn how to make it to the top in professional soccer - or football, as everyone here calls it. He's glad he came.
KUERBANTAYI: I think I like the Brazil football. I want to play in here because step-by-step here for me is good. I want to make a professional player, so everything's important.
REEVES: We're at a soccer training academy near a town called Porto Feliz in southeast Brazil. It's part of a minor league Brazilian club called Desportivo Brasil. A few years ago, Desportivo was bought by one of China's most successful clubs, Shandong Luneng. Shandong sends teenage recruits here to learn from Brazil, a soccer-mad nation that's won more World Cups than any other.
LEONARDO GALBES: It's a good - really, really good experience, difficult experience because the language is totally different. The culture is totally different.
REEVES: Leonardo Galbes is coach of the under-16 team who've come from China. Becoming a top-class professional soccer player is hard, says Galbes, who's Brazilian. Of the 38 Chinese players here, Galbes thinks a couple might make it.
GALBES: Yes, I think that we have three guys that - of course, their way is a big way. It's a big way. But I think that we have three guys with a good potential to play in higher level.
REEVES: Back in China, Shandong already has several Brazilians in its first team. They're among 23 Brazilians playing in the China Super League for big bucks, including a couple of stars who've played in Brazil's national side. They help raise standards, yet Leonardo Meireles, sports editor of Correio Braziliense, thinks long-term youth training is the key to success.
LEONARDO MEIRELES: That's a correct way to do - to improve football. That's a correct way.
REEVES: Meireles thinks Brazil is the right place for Chinese youngsters to come to learn the game.
MEIRELES: Because we're the best (laughter). Because we're the best.
REEVES: You see, says Meireles, in Brazil, the first gift you give a child is not a fluffy toy...
MEIRELES: It's a ball. It's a ball for every boy and now a girl, too.
REEVES: According to FIFA, soccer's governing body, China is ranked No. 76 in the world, two places behind Syria. China's only ever qualified once for the World Cup. It didn't win a single game or score a goal. The Chinese are trying to turn this around. President Xi Jinping is a big fan of the sport. He's behind a grand plan to make China a soccer superpower. That includes setting up tens of thousands of soccer schools in China. Under-16 coach Leonardo Galbes, again.
GALBES: China have all things that's necessary to develop great soccer. They have people. They have space, and they have money.
REEVES: This isn't just about soccer. It's also about China trying to project soft power across the map. In Brazil, it's already doing that on multiple fronts.
LUIZ AUGUSTO DE CASTRO NEVES: The Chinese presence is increasingly expanding everywhere - with football, with services, with banks, with industry, high-tech sectors.
REEVES: That's Luiz Augusto de Castro Neves, chair of the China-Brazil Business Council. China is Brazil's No. 1 trading partner. Last year, the Brazilians earned some $48 billion from the Chinese, mostly by selling them soybeans, oil and iron ore. Trade has been growing rapidly in recent years and so has Chinese investment in Brazil.
QU YUHUI: Its business, business, business. And it's especially market-orientated, decided by the demand and supply of both sides.
REEVES: Qu Yuhui is political counselor at China's embassy in Brazil. China's putting money into a wide range of projects, he says.
QU: Like electricity, like equipment, like petroleum, the banks, also. And it's also in urban development. We have, also, some infrastructure programs. Ports - we have, already, three or four projects. And I think we are also following closely one or two railway projects here.
REEVES: As for soccer, Qu Yuhui's clear about what China wants from Brazil.
QU: So we should learn from the Brazilian soccer style in terms of ball possession, shot, one touch, two touch, et cetera. So maybe that's totally a soccer fan's personal view, not...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Goal.
REEVES: I can tell you like soccer from the way you're talking about it...
QU: Yeah. Yes, quite.
REEVES: China wants to win the World Cup one day, right?
QU: We want, but I know it will be very difficult.
REEVES: Back at the training academy in the Brazilian countryside, the Chinese teenage soccer players are working on a key game-winning skill...
REEVES: ...Penalty kicks. These young players spend 10 months here before heading back to Shandong. Every day, they train for a couple of hours. They also have academic lessons. Lin Ran is sure his trip to Brazil is paying dividends.
RAN: I think I change a lot from my body. Every day, I go to gym to do some exercise to make my body strong.
REEVES: Lin Ran is 16 and an attacking midfielder. He knows exactly what his goal is.
RAN: I want to play World Cup and the Champions League.
REEVES: And to win the World Cup?
RAN: Yeah. Just a dream, right?
REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Porto Feliz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.