Banda Aceh and the Tsunami Sites

Before I go any further. For reading purposes. Aceh is pronounced: “AH-chay”

I wanted to see more of Banda Aceh so on my final morning in Aceh I rented a motorcycle and after eating a quick breakfast I made the 17k trip into the city center. I was armed with only a simple tourist map written in only Indonesian. My first stop was the tsunami museum. Many of the exhibits were closed but I got to see a little bit about the post tsunami damage and efforts of restoration. Unfortunately, most of the exhibits were in Indonesian only and only a few had English. The museum opened in 2007 and admission is free.

Aceh Tsunami museum

Aceh Tsunami Museum opened in 2007

After the museum a few local school girls helped me find an internet cafe. They hopped on their bikes in pairs and I followed them down the street. I took care of some website business then crossed the street to a travel agent to book a flight back to Medan for the following day.

My next order of business was to find a power generator vessel that came ashore during the tsunami. Unfortunately, I was unsuccessful as it was tucked away in a residential area. I then headed off in search of the grand mosque.

Since the map was labelled in Indonesian I wasn’t sure what much of it said so on my way to the mosque I accidentally came across the Aceh Thanks the World memorial park. After the December 26, 2004 Indian Ocean (Boxing Day) earthquake and tsunami disaster, Banda Aceh was completely devastated. The maps that showed how far inland the waves damaged was incredible. Indonesia alone suffered anywhere between 170,000-220,000 of the 200,000-300,000 total deaths from this disaster. The province of Aceh alone had a death toll of nearly 100,000. There was a huge response to this tragedy around the world and in order to show its gratitude Aceh built a memorial park with a large wave monument and individual plaques to each country who gave support.

Aceh Thanks the World

Aceh Thanks the World

I spent some time in the park reflecting back on December 27th, the morning after the disaster. I vividly remember sitting by the computer reading articles and following message boards. I had never donated to a disaster prior to the tsunami but I felt compelled to and have done my best to give at least something when a major disaster happens. I remember not even knowing about Banda Aceh prior to the tsunami and here I was 6.5 years later standing in the city center that didn’t exist when I first learned about the place.

Aceh thanks the USA

Aceh thanks the United States of America

After taking a walk through the park and reading all the plaques dedicated to each country, I hopped back on my bike and headed for the mosque. The grand mosques in Sumatra have a Dutch colonial look to them. They are massive and a gathering place for Muslim men and women at almost all hours of the night and day. An afternoon call to prayer was being announced as I parked my bike and walked into the yard. I get looks when I’m in the city but I seemed to get extra attention inside the mosque compound. I wasn’t dressed appropriately to enter so I just hovered around outside and took photos.

Grand mosque Banda Aceh

Mesjid Raya Baiturrahman

I was hungry and since Sharia law in the Aceh province makes it illegal for Muslim and non-Muslims to consume food and drink during fasting hours, I had to be discrete about it. I headed back to the beach and had a quick lunch at the bungalows then returned to Banda Aceh. It was a nice ride so I didn’t mind doing it.

Joel's Bungalow

A nice discrete afternoon lunch to break fasting.

I wanted to try and locate the power generator vessel that was carried through Banda Aceh into its final resting point where it is today. My second attempt was more fruitful and right in the middle of a residential community was this enormous power generator. The museum and the memorial were interesting but the devastation really hit home when I saw this giant ship that was quite a few kilometers inland from the Indian Ocean laying in between a bunch of houses. Then sadness sets in when I realized this vessel rested on top of several homes killing the families that lived there. They’ve put the vessel to good use and it gives power to Banda Aceh.

Power generator vessel

Power generator vessel

The final stop I wanted to make was “kapal atas rumah.” Translated this means, “ship on a house.” It was in a small neighborhood along the riverside. There were several boats that rested on top of homes after the tsunami but this one was left in its place as a memorial. Again, like the power generator vessel, this was in a residential area. I wasn’t sure where to look for it so I asked some locals and they told me the way to go.

Boat on a roof

Boat on a roof.

How the Tsunami Ended Decades of War
I didn’t quite spend the amount of time in Aceh that I originally planned. I wanted to take a slow journey back to Medan by bus stopping along the way in various towns and cities. There is virtually no information about the province in guide books outside of Banda Aceh and Pulau Weh so it would have been an interesting adventure where I could have put my Indonesian to good use.

Aceh has never really been a tourist destination due to the ongoing armed conflicts that the region has suffered for decades after Indonesia became independent. There have been attempts by armed separatist groups to declare Aceh an independent nation as it was prior to Dutch colonialism. There were demonstrations in the late 90’s and conflict leading all the way up to 2004 before the tsunami.

I don’t want to talk too much about the politics and take any sort of a stance on it since I’m living in Indonesia now and free speech does not mean the same thing as it does back home but one could probably be forgiven for sympathizing with the separatist movement. Read more about it or watch the documentary The Black Road if you’re interested.

If just one good thing came out of the tsunami it is the almost immediate impact it had on the war. By December 28th, just 2 days after the tsunami, the GAM separatist movement in Aceh declared a cease fire and less than a year later the Indonesian government and GAM came to a peace agreement that ended decades of civil war. The tsunami itself was stated as the main motivating force for an agreement as the separatists felt the Acehenese people had suffered enough and deserved peace.

Banda Aceh is a pleasant city. Unlike many other Indonesian cities.

The peace agreement still stands to this day and the city of Banda Aceh has at least recovered from the physical scars of the tsunami. The situation in Aceh still remains volatile as the war with Indonesia was not that long ago. Hopefully, things stay as they are now and peace continues because the Aceh is a beautiful place. I do look forward to making that journey through the province at a later time.

Pulau Weh

Photos of Pulau Weh can be found on my facebook fan page. You can view them by pressing “like” on the left hand side of this page and becoming a member of Joey Goes Global on Facebook.

Last week I left Medan for the northern province of Aceh with the intent of spending a few days in Banda Aceh. My birthday was on Friday, the 12th of August and I figured it would be quite a different experience to spend it in the least festive type environment as possible. However, before I left I got in contact with a fellow Long Islander that I met while I was in Bukit Lawang who convinced me to come up to Pulau Weh (Weh Island) for my birthday. She arranged to have a friend of hers who drives a becak to pick me up at the airport and bring me to the ferry for a good price. Pulau Weh is about one hour into the Indian Ocean from Banda Aceh.

I arrived at the harbor on the island and was approached by an young local asking me where I was going. I told him, Iboih (a small diving village) and we negotiated a fair price for the motorcycle taxi. I hopped on the back and met up with my friend. She introduced me to a couple of girls from the UK and Ireland who I would later spend much of the time hanging out with.

Pulau Weh is known as a world class diving location. Indonesia has some of the best diving in the world I’m told. My three friends all had just finished getting their open water diving certificates (PADI) the day prior so they were in a celebratory mood. We chatted into the evening and started making plans for my birthday the following day.

The next morning most of us got up early and rented motorbikes to take out on to the island. The main town on Pulau Weh is Sabang. We made our way to the Friday market and did some shopping. Fasting, or “puasa” as it is called in Bahasa Indonesia, is taken place throughout the month of Ramadan which falls in August this year. In the rest of Indonesia this is usually just a minor observance in the grand scheme of things however, in Aceh and Pulau Weh it is considered mandatory under strict Islamic law. As thirsty as we were once we left the confines of our small tourist village, we couldn’t drink in public. There are restaurants and resorts spotted throughout the island where eating and drinking can be done but it’s at your own risk and clear signs on the wall that consuming any beverage or food during fasting hours is strictly prohibited for all people, including non-Muslims. The island has a Christian and Buddhist population as well so there is no discrimination.

The day was wonderful. We rode around quite a bit and searched for a resort called Freddie’s where we hung out for awhile and ate lunch. The beaches on the island are all quite empty. After we relaxed for a bit we took off Sabang again to wait for sunset so that we could eat at the food courts. Sabang is quite busy in the evenings and myself and the two other girls were quite the novelty walking around. Both them were covered appropriately and it’s good because you could see the Sharia police checking us out to make sure. Women must cover themselves fully and not show any leg or shoulder skin. A full burca and head cover is not necessary. Even for myself I was concerned about my shorts being above my knees so at the first chance I got I changed into a longer pair.

We arrived at the food court at about 6:30pm. With 30 minutes to go before the end of fasting the stalls were already cooking their meals. At about 6:45 people began ordering food and drinks. You can see an entire food court full of people with drinks in front of them that they aren’t touching. At 6:50 the mosque begins a prayer and approximately 5 minutes later an alarm sounds. It is an air raid horn that can be heard from very far away. This is the signal that fasting is over and as soon as it sounds everyone begins drinking on queue.

We spent a few hours having a delicious meal. Everything from roasted duck and chicken to fantastic fruit shakes. We then took a 30 minute night drive back to our village on motorbikes. This was my first time riding a bike at night and I was surprisingly comfortable. I have to get used to it since I’ll be buying one in Medan for work soon.

The following day I went snorkeling with the three girls. I hadn’t snorkeled in tropical waters since I was 8 years old in the Virgin Islands. It was breathtaking going underwater for the first time. There were so many colors and so many different kinds of sea life right under my feet. Unfortunately this meant a lot of sea urchins as well. Iboih sits directly across from Pulau Rubiah and is a decent swim across a channel. The water gets so deep in the middle that even with goggles the bottom is not visible. About three quarters of the way across a strong current started pushing us to the left. One of the girls made it across quickly but the rest of us struggled. I could see how easily one could get swept away if they’re not careful about the currents. We finally managed to get across to Rubiah Island where we sat in on the beach and relaxed.

The girls wanted to show me the sea garden which is on the other side of Rubiah. We made a quick hike through the center and came out on a small beach. I was warned when we got to the rock coral to not put my feet down. This was to avoid sea urchins and more importantly not damage the ecosystem. The sea garden is one of the main attractions on the island and we had it to ourselves. There was beautiful coral reef and tons of sea life. I really didn’t even know what most of it was but that didn’t take away from it. The girls would point out certain things to me as they just got done with their diving course and the names of all the sea life were fresh in their minds.

We headed back to the channel to make our swim back to the island. The girls knew a lot about the ocean currents and before jumping they tried to figure out the best way to go about it. The margin for error is probably smaller than one would expect for a casual day of swimming, If we went in too far to the right there was only a few thousand meters between us and the open Indian Ocean. If we drifted too far to the left the girls would be coming ashore in the village in bikinis which would create problems under Sharia law. The decision was made to get in further to the left of course and if we happened to float too close to the village it would be better than going out to sea. The swim back was tough and towards the end I just had to put my head down and push on. One of the girls had an ankle injury so we had to keep pace with her as to not split up. We made it back safely and enjoyed the rest of our night.

Sumatra continues to get better and better with each new place. Although, I wouldn’t exactly call Pulau Weh better than the rest but it sure adds to the already large variety of things that this part of Indonesia has to offer. It has been interesting being here during Ramadan in the already strict Islamic state of Aceh. I had thought that Pulau Weh would be more relaxed in regards to adherence to it but it turns out it’s not. This was evident when one of my friends on the island went off to have some alone time with a guy she met and was stopped by Sharia police and given a warning. They were in a quiet private area having a chat, sitting several feet from each other and this was still enough to get the attention of a plain clothed officer. He told them they’d have to leave and if they are caught alone again they would be put in jail.

Now I’m back in Banda Aceh on the mainland in a bungalow right on the Indian Ocean. This was ground zero for the 2004 tsunami and tomorrow I plan to rent a motorbike and spend half of the day seeing the many tsunami related sites of the city and then the rest of the day in the countryside along the ocean and up in the mountains. I’ll just be armed with a map and my bahasa Indonesia in order to get me around. This will be a fun test of my ability to navigate Indonesian roads. Banda Aceh is a small city with not a lot of traffic so it will be a good warm up for the bustling havoc of Medan.

In search of one last Adventure

I’m back home in Medan after spending a few nights visiting friends and “family” from the village I spent two month volunteering in. I am 3 days from my 31st birthday and trying to figure out the best way to celebrate it. Aside from my one month TEFL certification and two month teaching in Bukit Lawang, I’ve been on the road since January and unemployed since November of 2010. This means I have exactly one month left of freedom before I’m locked into a contract. I might as well make the best of it. I want one last adventure…

I find that my blog tends to get more readers when I’m doing more interesting things. I picked up quiet a few while traveling in Somaliland and even landed myself an article on ABC News (re: Revolution Chasers Redefine Adventure Travel. South East Asia, compared to Africa offers much fewer challenges. The region has a pretty laid out trail for backpackers to follow with easy to find comforts from home. I hear from word-of-mouth that even secretive Myanmar is not too difficult once you’ve got the documents needed to travel within. So creativity is important if I’m going to seek out a new challenge. However this might just be the perfect time of year. Ramadan.


Aceh, Northern Sumatra

Sumatra, while not exactly a walk in the park, is doable for most travelers if they can get past the initial shock of Medan upon arriving. It’s an island with a history of violence, war and natural disasters. Their is a bit of hassle for the newcomer but a lot of reward for those who veer off from the more popular destinations of South East Asia. Even during Ramadan, Medan, Indonesia’s 4th largest city is still very manageable.

The challenge lies in the northern province of Aceh where strict Islamic law (Sharia) is practiced. Aceh also received worldwide attention from the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami where 62,000 Indonesians died in the most heavily effected area of the disaster. Occasional travel warnings pop up for the semi-autonomous and fundamental Islamic state due to violence but there have been more than enough positive news ranging from the beautiful restoration projects after the tsunami to the friendliness and hospitality of the Acehnese people. The fasting month of Ramadan is typically a turn off for most travelers but I’m looking to experience something a bit more challenging and different so it seems like the perfect time to go.

During Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. This means no eating or drinking anything, even water. There is an early morning wake up call from the mosques to let Muslims know fasting will begin shortly and they must eat before the prayer. In Medan, this is hardly a set back for non-Muslims as there are plenty of opportunities to find food. Although, walking around the streets, smoking cigarettes and consuming liquids is considered quite rude.

In Aceh however, Islamic law requires Muslims to take part in fasting and even earlier this week there were three people arrested for failing to fast. A bill recently passed that extends Sharia law to tourists as well. If I decide to go this week I’ll make sure to get clarification on any law that I might encounter. Punishment under Sharia law ranges anywhere from getting a number of lashes in a public venue to stoning to death. While this may sound scary, and believe me I’m taking it serious, problems are easily avoided if proper preparations are made. Most visitors to Banda Aceh, the regions capital, pass through en route to the ferry to Pulau Wei, an island just off the coast of the northern tip. However, I plan to stay in Banda Aceh for a few days and really get to know the people.

I must wear long pants or at least shorts that cover my knees. No tank tops or singlets. Drinking alcohol is prohibited and even though there are some Chinese restaurants and NGO hot spots where alcohol can be consumed in privacy, I would rather not even test it. Adultery, as defined in the Biblical sense, would mean any relations outside of marriage are strictly prohibited. So, no, I won’t be holding hands or having a romantic walk through Banda Aceh with any women I might meet.

My biggest challenge will come from having to respect the Ramadan fasting period. I plan to do as the locals while I’m there. During the day I’ll lay low, read a book, listen to music and relax as to not require too much water. Fasting, or “puasa” in Bahasa Indonesian, is one of the 5 pillars of Islam and those who truly believe here have told me over and over again that it is not difficult for them because they want to do it. I can imagine that since I’m a non-believer, the fasting will be quite challenging. I look forward to it as I think it will offer a unique insight into the culture.