Sumatra Days 6, 7, and 8
The adventure continues with a new destination today – Banda Aceh. We left the hotel early as we were not sure about the traffic to the airport. Got there in 15 minutes, checked in and then went through the airport tax place. The airport had a Starbucks. We looked for a mug that said Medan, but they didn’t have any. We had seen a Starbucks in town when we were driving around so will need to check that one when we return to Medan.
The weather was overcast and raining, hopefully the weather further north would be better.
We arrived at the new airport at Banda Aceh, that made the one in Medan look quite outdated. However, this one was new since the tsunami destroyed the old one. We were met by Said, his wife and three children at the airport. There was also a vendor selling some pretty good looking mangoes at the airport, but we were told we could get better ones in town for less money.
Banda Aceh had been destroyed by the tsunami seven years ago. There has been a good deal of rebuilding with a lot of new infrastructure and buildings. In some ways the city is more modern than before the tsunami. Of course the human tragedy will never be overcome, but time heals all wounds eventually.
We saw a lot of the new roads and buildings as we drove in from the airport. We also went on a bit of a disaster tour, where we could see a fishing boat and a power barge that had been carried miles from their original position and lodged on top of buildings. These have been preserved as a reminder about the past event.
We did some more sightseeing of the nearby areas and then went to Said’s house. He gave us a 10 minute description of the tsunami and the loss of his wife and three children, getting quite emotional telling us the story after these many years. In my opinion he still has not completely healed from the trauma. His daughter, Birkis, who is now in university was swept by the waters and found away from the neighborhood by some people and taken to a shelter, where she was reunited with Said. She went to Jakarta for two years in order to continue her schooling and to heal from the trauma. He searched in vain for his other family members, but in the end, his father and mother, one brother and his wife, three of his four children and two other relatives were killed in the tsunami. His is a common experience in Banda Aceh, and the wound runs deep in the community. There are reminders of the disaster everywhere with either plaques mentioning who donated the buildings etc., or memorials.
The main memorial to the disaster is the Tsunami Museum, which has the names of some of those that died, as well as photographs, videos and other documentation of the disaster. There is another roadside memorial at one of the mass graves that we stopped at on the way in from the airport. Said used the occasion to stop and say a prayer for his family.
Aceh province is known to be the most Islamic area in Indonesia, and the only province in which Sharia law is practiced. On the surface it didn’t appear any different than the other places we had been to in Sumatra. Indeed it was quieter in the morning, as we must have been far enough away from a Mosque to not hear the 5am wake up call.
We visited the Grand Mosque in the center of Banda Aceh just before sunset. Marg was told by one of the local bystanders to cover her head, even though we were only on the grounds outside the Mosque, despite being told by Raida that this was not necessary unless she was entering the Mosque itself. The area outside the grounds had many fried chicken vendors, who took the opportunity to label themselves KFC, trademarks notwithstanding.
The nearby markets offered a wide variety of fresh fruit, but the mangoes were below expectations and we bought some salak, papaya and pineapple.
Said is an Imam at a local Mosque, and had to attend to the evening prayers. His father was a teacher of Islam and was to be given the Mosque by a Jakarta based philanthropist. However, due to his death in tsunami, Said was asked to lead the Mosque and be the Imam. He had to learn more about Islam in order to fulfill this request, but took it on, and now is Imam until for the rest of his life.
The food has been much simpler in Banda Aceh, much to our relief as the relentless offering of copious amounts of food the previous few days was starting to show. While Said was leading prayers at the Mosque, the three of us joined Raida’s friend who lives in Aceh, at a corn bake near the beach. The roast corn washed down with coconut water was a great appetizer for the evening. When we returned to Said’s house, we dined on mie rezalli, a local type of fried noodle dish that was sufficient for the late night meal.
We had looked at going to Pulau Weh, noted for its snorkeling and diving, but decided it would take up too much of the day, and in the end would need a few days to do it justice, which was what we had thought when we planned the trip initially.
As a result we had a leisurely breakfast eating a lot of fruit, which ironically we had not been doing despite the abundance around us. Seems the Indonesians make juices, and eat a small amount for a dessert, but do not eat fruit as a main dish at breakfast. No matter what is served at a meal, the Indonesians will also include rice with every meal.
After breakfast we went out sightseeing – the first stop being the museum, which featured a traditional Achenese wooden house built on stilts and a gallery with artifacts and old photographs. Our guide, Annie, from Medan, was a wealth of information, explaining the layout and function of the rooms in the traditional house, as well as the information in the gallery. We also saw a dance troupe practicing for a traditional dance show later that evening.
The next stop was the Gunongan, This is a miniature mountain like structure built in the 17th century by a sultan for his wife as she was homesick for the mountains in Malaysia. There is accompanying kandang which is the final resting place of the Sultan. Various versions of this story and others can be found at:
We went for a drive along the coast to longha. This was also destroyed by the tsunami, but now there was a new road built by the Americans that went down the coast for about 200km. We had lunch at a local restaurant which served us some requested dishes as well as some others that are not on a menu but just show up. We continued driving further down the road until it e=left the coast to go inland, at which point we turned around and headed back to town, but not after stopping for some local snacks. We also detoured to see some of the new housing developments that had been made for the people that were displaced by the tsunami. Once back in town we saw some of the new shelters and houses that had been destroyed by the tsunami.
We stopped by Said’s friend, Hussman’s house. He is an English lecturer in the local university. Turned out he had studied at Leeds University and had also been at some short programs in the US.
That night we went to the mosque and sat outside while Said and Raida prayed. We then went to a Sate restaurant owned by Said’s friend and ate local sate.
This was our last day in Banda Aceh. We took it slow, not leaving the house until about 10am. It was the local election for the governor and the mayor in the province. Said, his wife Sari, and daughter Birkis voted in the election, and then returned to their home within 30 minutes. We then drove around the town to do some final sightseeing, and coffee shopping.
Said and his family went to the mosque and we went to a coffee shop, where I had the avocado chocolate shake – quite good. They also had free WiFi, so I was able to catch up on my email and Facebook from there. We stayed there about an hour, and then went to local place for Ayam Tempang. It was a very good meal and cost us a lot for Indonesia, nearly $35 for 6 of us. However, it was well worth it.
We also visited a park with some trees donated by mayors from every province, and then headed to the airport for our flight back to Medan.
Got back to Medan, and was met at the airport by the hotel driver. We went back to the same hotel we had stayed at before, which was a steal at $28 per night including breakfast, free Internet and A/C.
We headed to Merdeka Walk for dinner. A bit of a let down as it was very touristy, catering to foreigners and offering slightly inflated prices for average tasting food. We walked back to the hotel, and grabbed a chocolate murtabak for dessert. Zulham showed up at the hotel and we talked about the schedule for Tuesday.