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.