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Saturday, December 29, 2007

Pulau Weh

See for yourself the lush tropical vegetation covering hills and mountains. Turquoise waters teeming with corals and multicolored marine life. A bay, dotted with tiny verdant islands, reducing the surf to almost nothing. For sheer topographical beauty, I am hard-pressed to come up with something that surpasses Pulau Weh. The weather is nothing short of splendid. It only rained the first night, and then never again. The air temperature was a most comfortable 27 Celsius, while the water was 26. While other beaches may come close, there is a unique magnificence here that will stay with me forever.

Following the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004, NGOs poured into the province of Aceh, and a peace agreement with GAM rebels made the place secure. On Pulau Weh, there was more damage to property than loss of life, although the extent of the former can’t be overstated. This however provided a unique opportunity for the fledgling tourist industry to find its bearings and share the loveliness of this island only two hours by ferry from Banda Aceh.

Iboih beach is said to be the more social venue on the island. NGO staffers, both foreign and Indonesian, tend to spend weekends here. Being the Christmas season, there has been somewhat more activity. There are even intrepid travelers who, like me, came for the scenery and also reckoned that it was an exotic enough locale to make for interesting conversation long after travels have concluded. There is also a smattering of resident expats, married to locals, who have set up shop here doing one thing or another. Acehnese children are an inordinately cute lot, and the Euro-Indonesian children are even more so.

Around the world, it must be said that all the beaches I tend to be drawn to feature scuba diving as a recreational sport, and strange as it may seem, I had never actually taken the course. Until now, that is. There was an Indonesian NGO staffer, Rheinhardt, from Banda staying at the same guest house (the one with the shared bathroom), along with Frank, the German dive master. A course was about to begin, and it would be much better with two students. It seemed that events had conspired to make me, quite literally, take the plunge.

I was presented with a rather thick tome that was surprisingly well written, going on about water pressure and diving equipment, and safety precautions and procedures. We watched an amusing video. And on the second day, Frank put us in wetsuits, fitted us with inflatable vests, a scuba tanks, masks, snorkels and fins, to take us to the beach (only 5 meters away) to breathe with scuba equipment for the first time. It was pretty cool.

The next day, after more theory lessons, we actually went for a swim around the beach, and of course did more exercises. This time I saw some real marine life. On the third day, we actually went diving to a depth of 12 meters. I had equalizing trouble with my ears, and suffered a nosebleed. Learning to dive is like learning to drive for the first time. You are constantly multitasking, concentrating on so many things at once, that the underwater scenery is secondary to all the things you’re trying to keep tabs on. Maintaining neutral buoyancy is quite a challenge. I found myself either sinking to the bottom or floating to the surface, and was invariably struggling with that.

However, on the last day of the course, we went out in the boat to an underwater mountain, that we circumvented, going to a depth of 25 meters. It was on this dive that I really took a good look at my surroundings, and had a true National Geographic hour. We saw a barracuda swim by in the distance. It’s an incredible experience to swim right into a school of luminescent tropical fish. Back on the boat, someone from the more advanced group asked us if we had seen the sharks. I am told that if you do get to spot them, it’s only at a distance and they pass very quickly. Although white boys are a favorite treat the world over, sharks are actually more interested in bona fide marine life. Having seen Jaws, and other PBS programming, I knew that sharks could smell blood from many miles away, and my constant underwater nosebleeds had placed a bee in my bonnet, so to speak. No, we hadn’t seen any sharks. But I can tell you that if I had, I would have shit my wetsuit, to be sure.

I never got to see cool stuff like this when I lived in Jakarta. Most of my tourism consisted of weekend jaunts, and the “bigger” trips I took with my English flatmate, so I had never been able to experience village life in action. By this time on Pulau Weh, my Bahasa was fully functional, and I could both observe and participate in all manner of interactions. It was a strange and exhilarating feeling to be in such an exotic and different place, and yet understand everything.

The music situation at the guest house was spotty. There were lots of CDs. Some were actually OK. But the old Sony Discman used to play them wasn’t so reliable. When the diving course was over, on Christmas day, I decided to deploy Uncle AndrĂ©’s Great Box of Wonders to rectify the situation. Bachtiar, the guest house custodian, former seafarer, former GAM fighter, purveyor of bong contents, sat with me and we enjoyed the exquisite view from the balcony and some more than decent tunes. Just as the munchies set in, Akbar and Maxi, two adorable Euro-Indonesian children who reside permanently on the grounds, brought us cakes and chocolates. It was a Holy Moment. Later, I treated them to the Fantastic Four on VCD.

Alas, being Indonesia, the food situation was not good. Bali seems to have been an anomaly. The grub in Banda and on Pulau Weh conform more closely to the national norm I was subjected to during my sojourn in Jakarta. As a result, I was constantly hungry. The dives had turned my innards to mush, and three days after the course my ears were still blocked. This was the most unpleasant aspect of my stay. As was boredom. Iboih is a friendly and social place, but I have been on the road for a long time now, and I find my thoughts wandering to Big City Saigon at times, but more often to my San Francisco job prospects. I want to do something. It’s time to get back into a routine. I’m actually glad that I’ve arrived at this point, even though there are two months left in my trip. When it is finally over, I want to be glad of it. So I continue whittle away the time.

I rented a motorbike to see more of the island. I almost didn’t take the helmet, but at the last moment, being the klutz I am, it seemed wisest to don it. Of course I took a spill and scraped my knee. I also managed to damage to foot brake. Later that evening, the bike shop owner came to claim the helmet and keys. I knew he would mention the damage. Let me say something really positive about Indonesians, and let it be known that the following encounter is emblematic. He waited until everyone had left the restaurant before talking to me. He mentioned the damage. I mentioned my fall. He told me the cost to repair it. I realized that it was a fair and real amount, and immediately handed it over. He then inquired about my knee scrape, offering to bring bandages (unnecessary). The point is, people here go to extraordinary lengths to help you save face. I’ve never seen such consideration of this type before, although that may be because I have the language here.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that every single resident expat in Aceh I’ve met has had either dengue or malaria, or both. The Lonely Planet health section clearly states that this region is a risk. I have been taking anti-malarial medication since India, as a preventive measure. Such a tropical paradise is bound to be filled with mosquitoes; the two go hand in hand. And yet, in this particular paradise, even the mosquitoes seem to be cooperating. With my precautions, and their surprisingly sparse numbers, I am almost bite-free. Let’s just hold our collective breath until after the requisite incubation period.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Please be careful and don't get sick. Otherwise you will have to return to your "motherland."