Banda Aceh

14 August 2011

The minibus glided into Banda Aceh at the miserably early hour of 5am, and the driver kindly asked us where we wanted to be dropped off. I told him the Hotel Palembang, on Jalan Khairil Anwar, because it was the cheapest in the book, obviously.

The hotel Palembang was full, but only 100m or so away, on the other side of the road, was another budget hotel called Hotel Banda Aceh. Luckily for me, there were single rooms available for R65000 (about £3.80). The man at the hotel reception was very camp (even at that hour of the day) and very friendly, and I enjoyed trying out my newly acquired Indonesian on him. He directed another man to carry my bag and I was shown into a tiny, fanless, room with a single bed, which at least had the merit of a bathroom and some natural light. It wasn’t so hot that a fan was necessary anyway, and I lay down and straightaway fell  into a heavy slumber.

Stranded power generator vessel in Banda Aceh

I woke up about 9.30am and ate some biscuits, but hunger soon drove me out onto the streets. I was sorely disappointed to discover that NO restaurants were open anywhere, not even Pizza Hut – they told me 4pm – and I couldn’t find an ATM machine. I walked to the tourist information office but it was shut until the next morning. So far so frustrating. It was hot by now, and distances felt long on the unshaded streets. Everyone seemed to be driving, rather than walking, but I ignored the becak (motorbike taxi) drivers ( they weren’t too pressing, compared with many places) and eventually came to a large supermarket called Pante Pirak, which was open, and had a BNI bank outside that took visa cards. Finding an Atm that accepted visa could be difficult in Sumatra. I took out a load of money and queued for twenty minutes to buy a carton of juice and a couple of bread rolls, behind women in head-scarves with trolley loads of food. It was the biggest supermarket in central Banda Aceh, but the vibe was much more Lidl than Waitrose, even down to the Muslim clientele. The only women not in head-scarves were a few Chinese, and me.

Once I’d bought, finally, these meagre provisions, I found a shady spot not far from the supermarket to eat them, near the side of the road, just before it crossed the Sungai Krueng Aceh. I knew everyone else was fasting but I didn’t see why I couldn’t eat something, since I was ‘a Christian.’ Nobody bothered me and I forgot about it, reading the guide to Aceh, until suddenly I was roused by someone grunting at me. An angry little man on a motorbike had stopped nearby and was trying to attract my attention. He jabbed a finger at my bun, then jabbed his finger down, as if to say ‘put it down, put it away’. He was, I perceived, just an ordinary citizen – not a policeman – and this officious telling me what to do immediately pissed me off.

‘I’m a Christian,’ I said to him. ‘I’m not fasting,’ but he just repeated his gesture, so I scowled at him and put the bun in my bag. He immediately drove off and I immediately took it out again and ate the rest of it in angry gulps. I was fuming – stupid little man! But I later learnt that nobody is allowed to be seen eating, or even drinking, in Banda Aceh during Ramadan, whether they’re Muslim or not. It’s not a case of voluntarily showing respect by not eating in front of those fasting, it’s apparently some kind of local decree. I disliked this ‘lack of religious tolerance’ towards those who weren’t of the same faith, recalling how it is in London, where there’s freedom of religion, so long as it doesn’t adversely affect others. If you believe your God tells you to eat only blue cheese every Thursday then go ahead, but don’t try to make everyone else do the same! Things are slightly different in Banda Aceh, however, due to their history. The fierce fight for an independent Islamic State of Aceh, which has now been largely abandoned, has left a legacy of zealousness not present in Britain, where Christianity has gradually died a death over the course of many centuries.

In a worse mood, but with a little more energy, I walked over the bridge to the Mesjid Raya Baiturrahman – the main mosque – stopping en route to buy a bar of cashew nut chocolate, which I quickly stuffed into my mouth, in large chunks, as I walked along. Soon after I ate the chocolate I began to feel pretty sick, and decided I was being punished by the Lord. I wanted to visit the mosque, but according to the LP it wasn’t open in the afternoon until 1.30pm, so I went for a wander in the nearby Central Market first. I was the only foreigner in the market and it was very crowded, mostly with extremely slow moving women, and hot. Within about five minutes I was experiencing high levels of frustration as I shuffled along, trying not to bang people with my daysack, not interested in buying anything, attracting the attention of every person there – some giggling, others exhorting me to look at their stalls. I drifted further into the market but it was just as crowded and claustrophobic as at the edge, and I soon found myself simply trying to get out again. When I found an exit through a side door, I walked through some less busy streets towards the mosque. I felt sick, hot and very weak, no doubt thanks to a night of being thrown around vomit-inducing hairpin bends in the back of a minibus, with hardly any sleep.

I saw a place to sit down – a small wooden bench outside a shop selling blocks of jelly – and I sank onto it gratefully, like an OAP. I stayed here at least 20 minutes, without the strength to move on. The people nearby all took immediate notice of me, of course, but they smiled at me and there was no overt calling out in my direction. A man on the other side of the narrow lane handed out toy plastic rifles to a group of boys to play with, and they roared off excitedly.There was a girl with them too, but she had to be content to amuse herself with a small plastic helicopter. Various customers came and went at the jelly shop, buying large blocks of the stuff, which was kept inside the metal drawers of what looked like an enormous filing cabinet.

‘Saya chapek,’ I explained to a girl behind the counter, after looking up the word for ‘tired’ in my dictionary. ‘Much too panas.’ In spite of the heat, I gradually began to feel stronger, and less sick, and presently I was able to continue, wending back to the main gate of the mosque along a quiet street.

I asked at the gate if I could come in and was told I needed to be in Muslim dress. I had a green scarf in my bag so I wound it around my head, fairly sloppily, although not purposely so, and asked if that would do – I was already wearing long trousers and a T-shirt that covered my shoulders. The man nodded and I entered the compound. I left my shoes at the side of the building, near the back, where there seemed to be more women, walked inside and sat down cross-legged. People looked at me, surprised to see a foreigner. It was quiet inside and not many people were actively praying. There are five set times for prayer and people generally follow the lead of the Muezzin, who calls them in. Now the faithful were mostly just sitting around resting, some in small groups, others alone. Several men were stretched out on the floor with their eyes shut, in sleep, not meditation. It was a relaxed, friendly scene and it was obvious that the mosque served as the local social club. There was nothing much to see for the casual tourist, however – minimal decoration, plain carpeted floors. A plump girl sitting near me, wearing a white head-dress framing a serious face that was further obscured by thick, square-rimmed glasses, turned to ask me my name, but I had barely answered her when three more girls crouched down beside me. They were friendly, and gently asked if I was a Muslim. When I said ‘no,’ they regretfully told me the mosque was only for Muslims, so I would have to leave. I could sit at the door if I wished. They were all so nice it took me a moment  to realise they were throwing me out (!) but when they didn’t move I saw there was nothing for it but to get up and walk to the nearest door, watched by many pairs of eyes. I wasn’t allowed to sit down on the porch either. It was full of people lounging in the shade, but one man looked at me angrily as I appeared and told me to leave, pointing right outside the mosque. I felt a flash of annoyance, since I had apologised profusely for my presence, as much for the benefit of all the observers as for him, and he still continued to act in an unnecessarily aggressive and pompous manner. I had assumed all mosques (except those in Saudi Arabia) were open to non-Muslim visitors outside of prayer times, but that is not the case. Certainly, Banda Aceh during Ramadan has not the most laissez-faire environment.

I made my way, barefoot on hot stone, around the very edge of the building to the place where I’d left my shoes, and on the way I was overtaken by the studious, plump girl who’d spoken to me inside. She said her name was Uni and she was trying to learn English. Would I come and speak with her and her friends in a nearby park, and in return she’d show me around her city? I agreed immediately, very glad of this sudden diversion, and followed her out of the mosque compound to her moped. I was only the tiniest bit wary about getting on the back, but after a minute I trusted her driving completely. The park wasn’t very far away and her friends hadn’t arrived yet, so she asked what else I wanted to see in Banda Aceh.

‘Well, there’s the tsunami museum,’ I said, and this turned out to be just across the road. It’s a beautifully designed building, paid for with donations from all over the world – the flags of the countries that contributed are hung in the central hall. Outside the front entrance is a poignant, ocean- battered police helicopter, and you enter through a dark, narrow tunnel with high, steep sides down which water was runs continually, and very noisily. It’s very effective – claustrophobic and unnerving. The tunnel leads to a gloomily lit, narrow tower, on the walls of which are written the names of known victims, spiralling right up to the top of the building. So far so impressive, but unfortunately the exhibits are generally not as strong as the building that houses them. The main room contains a sea-rusted bicycle, some incredible pictures and a few 3D geographic maps. The most affecting is a model of Banda Aceh before and after the tsunami, showing how much of the city has been lost to the sea: a great many houses have disappeared. Also standing looking at this model was a man who said he’d been here during the tsunami and only just escaped from the waves. He pointed out where he used to live, only visible on the first model. His account suddenly made the disaster real, and almost had me in tears but, strange to say, there are no first hand accounts in the museum: no personal stories and photographs. It could be a fascinating, moving museum, but without the human element of the story it doesn’t really work. Maybe it isn’t finished, and testimonies are still being collected, but I fear that the foreign money has all been spent on the building (minus the usual kickbacks), rather than on researching the devastating effects on people’s lives. Perhaps there’s some misguided wish not to dwell on what happened, for fear of projecting a negative image: rewriting the past is common in Asia.

A second room was all about the causes of tsunamis – earthquakes, tectonic plates, a brief geology lesson; some models of house frames, which could be made to shake about violently by pressing different buttons. There was also a clever ‘magic book,’ out of which popped up electronic images. All usefully educational, but the rest of the museum was mostly empty. Some rooms contained hastily constructed boards of photos, others were locked. When we were still in the first room, Uni’s two friends arrived, since she’d called to tell them where we were. I’d imagined studious girls like herself, and was thus a little surprised to meet two boys, one of whom was rather sulky and protesting. Uni told me they met in the park every afternoon, to learn English, and this was the first time the boys had been into the tsunami museum, which is free to local residents. All three of my new companions had been living in different towns, safe on high ground, when the disaster struck in 2004, and they didn’t seem that interested in it. I got the impression that only people who had been directly affected by the tsunami had any lasting concerns about the event.

We returned to the park and I was glad to sink down against a wall and talk to them in lively English. I could converse well enough but I still felt pretty weak and ill. The sulky boy was the worst at English, and kept looking at his phone. Uni was by far the most fluent and told me she normally taught the boys. She was older than them and they jokingly called her their mama and their guru, although she protested that they were all equal. Her dream was to study abroad in an English speaking country, but first she had to pass some TEFL exams, and last time she had failed them, by only a few points. She took from her bag an enormous, heavy, English-Malay dictionary, and an equally large English grammar book, and said she carried them around at all times. After less than an hour of chat, we said goodbye to the boys and set off on Uni’s motorbike again, me wearing the sulky boy’s helmet. He had lent it to me reluctantly, at Uni’s insistence, because you could be stopped and fined for not wearing a helmet. We stopped to fill up with petrol first and I offered her some money, at least just to cover the fuel cost, but she refused.

Stranded power generator vessel, Banda Aceh

Stranded power generator vessel, Banda Aceh

The boat in the suburbs blew me away – I hadn’t expected to see anything like it. An enormous metal ship – some kind of power- generator vessel – sat incongruously surrounded by houses,  four km from the sea. We arrived just before prayer time (the third or fourth that day) and Uni went off to a nearby mosque while I circled the massive, lumbering hulk, trying to get a decent photo of it, and munching surreptitiously (I had learnt my lesson) on chocolate biscuits. When she returned, so did the man in charge of the boat, and he took down a rope barrier from in front of some stairs up the side of the ship. We walked up to the top deck and from there had a good view of Banda Aceh. It looked like a quiet, relaxing place, more like a large provincial town than a city. There was abundant greenery between the buildings, and no high rise buildings. The line of blue sea was clearly visible in the near distance.

After we’d climbed down Uni decided to take me all the way to Uleih Leh, the port from which the boats to Pulau Weh depart. It was kind of her, and the view was pleasant enough, but I was still feeling tired and beginning to have enough of travelling pillion. She said that when it wasn’t Ramadan, the area was full of people at this time of day, strolling along next to the sea and eating snacks, but now it was empty.

From here she drove me to Lampulo, to see a boat that was stranded on a house. I’d seen photos of it so knew what to expect, but it was still an arresting sight, the more so because life has returned to normal in the surrounding houses. You have to go down narrow back streets in the suburbs to reach the place and then suddenly you reach a large wooden fishing boat, securely wedged on top of the ground floor of a now deserted concrete house – the second storey was destroyed by the impact. A viewing platform has been constructed next to the site and, like the metal ship and the tsunami museum, there was no charge. This must have been a local policy – to remind people of the catastrophe without taking money from them – and I applauded it. On the way back we stopped to have a look at the grave of a former Sultan of Aceh, returning to my hotel through a bustling, ramshackle part of town.

Boat on house, Lampulo, Banda Aceh

I told her I’d like to at least buy her a cup of coffee in return for her generosity, but she said, somewhat impatiently, that she was fasting. ‘ I know, I know,’ I said, ‘but perhaps later?’ It was about 6.30pm then and she said she would call me, or I could call her, at 9pm, and we could go out then. We exchanged numbers, she trundled off and I returned to my room and lay down for a short time, waiting for the daylight to be over. I emerged just as the sun was just setting and – Oh – what a transformation in the street! Stalls had been set up all along Jalan Khairil Anwar, continuing along Jalan SM Raja. I wandered a short way then sat down at one and asked for ikan, nasi goreng and apocat, tidak chocolate (fish, fried rice and an avocado juice without chocolate sauce). It was brought to me within a few minutes and I fell on the food, along with all the other people guzzling on the pavement. Everyone was stuffing themselves and then lighting up cigarettes with a clear conscience, having done their duty to Allah.

To pass the time until I met Uni I walked to an internet cafe I’d passed on Jalan Panglima Polem, while looking for an ATM earlier. The internet was cheap and my mood was greatly lifted when I found lots of messages waiting for me. I hadn’t checked email/fb for ages. Everyone was talking about riots that had just happened in London, Manchester and other cities in the UK.

At 9pm I called Uni, but her phone just beeped and went off. I left the internet cafe and tried calling her a couple more times, but there was no reply. I was a little upset, thinking she didn’t want to see me – although this wasn’t that likely since she’d told me earlier how happy she was that we’d met.

‘Today I feel like I’ve been in England all day,’ she’d said, joyfully. I didn’t even have her email address. I should have checked at the hotel, but I walked right past it and went for a coffee on my own, reading my book and feeling a bit let down.  I wandered around all the stalls and bought three buns to keep me going next day –  later I wished I’d bought more because they were excellent, especially the banana- chocolate roll.

Back at the hotel at about 10pm I learnt that Uni had come to look for me there twice – oh dear. Her phone had run out of batteries and she’d even borrowed batteries from a man at the hotel to try and get it to work. I think her phone must have broken completely, because I never heard from her again! I sent her several text messages, but there was no response. This news saddened me, but I had a good long conversation, in my broken, simple Indonesian, with the friendly group of men – about six of them – lounging around on easy chairs at reception. They either worked for the hotel or knew those who did. One of them had been here, in this very room, when the tsunami hit, and he became suddenly grave and serious when he talked about it. He had helped to stack up the bodies. Later, he’d been one of the people coordinating the work of NGOs and had become good friends with an English girl called Anna, who had now gone home.

‘Anna, Anna,’ his friends teased him. He clearly talked about her often and it seemed to me he was still half in love with her. He laughed along with the others but the sadness remained in his eyes.

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