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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Aceh Comes Alive

Getting to Pulau Weh from Banda Aceh was more of a challenge than I had anticipated. Nevertheless, my previous hunch about more interesting travelers in these parts was confirmed in spades.

Not realizing that the day I chose to travel was Idul Adha, there were glitches in the ferry service. I got up early and checked out of my motel and found a motorcycle rickshaw. This isn’t the Bajaj vehicle that they drive around cities in India, Thailand, Indonesia, but rather a converted bicycle rickshaw attached to an actual motorcycle. Pretty cool.

My driver took me for a bite to eat and over my morning fried rice, he pointed to a building that had not yet been repaired for tsunami damage. He told me then that he had lost his wife and two sons, and his house was destroyed. I asked him if he was still sad. He said that he was over it, and smiled. I admired his fortitude. I said, God has tested you, and you passed. I was beginning to really appreciate having the language, which I was putting to full use by this point.

On the drive to the wharf, there were more obvious signs that a terrible disaster had occurred. The road was still pockmarked. Earthmoving equipment could be spotted at various points. There were memorials in front of buildings that had remained in their destroyed state. At one point, there was even a mass grave. I was later told that there were 22,000 people buried there, one of several such sites around Banda Aceh.

We got to the wharf, and there was a young Dutch couple. Apparently, the fast ferry was cancelled, but there would be a slow ferry at noon. It was 9 AM. No matter. Took another motorcycle rickshaw to the other wharf and waited. The Dutch couple, Lisa and Guido, arrived by and by, and we struck up a conversation. She was working for a disaster relief NGO, and he had set up a company to provide water filtering plants.

After some time, an Australian woman friend of theirs came by, and we went for lunch. Linda had been living for eight years in Indonesia, and had the exact same date of birth as my sister. She had come to Aceh just a few days after the tsunami, and had been taken on by the UNDP as a coordinator of sorts. Her most recent contract was with Oxfam. On the ferry, which in the event only left at 4 PM, she explained a bit about Acehnese history and society. GAM is not a fundamentalist organization. It is an Acehnese nationalist party. Yet, you cannot separate Islam from Aceh. And the imposition of Sharia law actually came from Jakarta, for its own incomprehensible reasons, a few years before the actual peace agreement. So Sharia governs family law, outlaws alcohol, gambling and drugs, and, of course has a few things to restrict in terms of morality. It does not apply to non Muslims. Public morality, you ask…? Yes, just what you’re thinking. Improper relations between unmarried couples, and indeed there have been public floggings, although they stop as soon as they draw blood. Gruesome as this may sound, it stands in ironic contrast to secular Singapore, where when you are caned, the goal is to leave scars, and a doctor is present to revive you if you pass out.

We did arrive on Pulau Weh eventually, although it was already dark. Linda got picked up by her boyfriend. Lisa and Guido took their bikes to pedal the 40 km to their pre-arranged bungalow. I took a taxi with Linda’s boss, Elizabeth from the Netherlands, as well as two women who were friends from Jakarta: one Finnish, attached to her Embassy, and a Frenchwoman, bona fide expat sent from an engineering firm in Paris to work for a year abroad. They were going diving.

I decided to head to Iboih with them, as the Lonely Planet had described that particular beach as more “social”. As it was raining, I picked a place that was early on in our walking, and seemed nice enough. Although it didn’t have an attached bathroom, which is proving to be something of an inconvenience, it was spitting distance from the beach, and there were two very friendly German blokes, who greeted me with a spliff. I was already starting to like this place. Later came the local staff of the beach’s restaurant, a boisterous crowd who were drinking and rolling, too. The conversation was informal and was a trilingual mix of Bahasa, German and English. None failed me.

When one wakes the following morning in a beach location to survey the surrounding in the morning daylight, it is always a pleasant and eye-opening experience. Let’s find out what’s in store for the next ten days.


yusufyusuf said...

Happy holidays...

JPR said...

Amazing experience!!
Happy New Year!! What a place to celebrate.