Banda Aceh and Jakarta
It was the 26th of December 2006 I was leaving for Japan and seeing on the news just before leaving that there had been a large earthquake followed by a massive tsunami. At that stage it was announced that there were a handful of deaths and I now that the loss of any life is tragic.
But I remember not considering it a major event. Only when I arrived in Japan did I learn about the scale of the disaster.
Of all these places Banda Aceh was the worst hit with 167,000 deaths.
If there is a silver lining to the story, then the tsunami marked the end of a long running conflict between rebels and the Indonesian state.
A peace of sorts has survived since then. To appease the rebels, Islamic law (or Shariah law) has been in force since then one of just a few places in Indonesia with it.
Muslim women are expected to wear head covering (in fact there are billboards to remind them) and there are religious place to enforce this.
Before the peace treaty Aceh was pretty much officially off-limits and in fact one of the most dangerous places for foreigners.
After the tsunami a number of foreign NGOs were allowed in but after accusations of proselytising some were forced to leave.
However Aceh was as safe as it has been when I went however since the time I went there have been at least two reports of foreigners shot at. Aceh is perhaps still volatile.
It was 2007 (if my memory is correct) when I decided to visit Aceh, Indonesia to meet my friend Ida I had met (in my protestant days) at All Souls.
It was the only reason why I decided to visit there.
Although I may have met just twice and briefly (and not long before she was returning to Indonesia) had kept in touch with her.
After the tsunami she had gone to Aceh to help rebuild it.
Before flying to Aceh I flew to Singapore, stayed for several days and then went to Jakarta. My friend Dita who was in the UK at the time kindly asked her sister to meet me the few days I was in Jakarta.
And so I met Heppei and her friend Eva.
Jakarta pretty much has the worst traffic of any where I have been. It makes Bangkok traffic seem like bliss.
Atheism isn’t an option!
One of the differences that set Indonesia apart from most countries around the world is simply Atheism isn’t an option. According to the Indonesian institution everyone must have a religion!
Not only this, it must be one of the six officially recognised religions
Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism.
(I guess an atheist presumably would be registered as one of these groups).
Of course this requirement is absurd as it seems that Orthodoxy is labelled as Protestantism although it predates such churches by 1,500 years at least I do now the actual official position but the Syriac Oriental Orthodox have curiously been referred to a protestant group in some writings. So I presume those making the rules had no understanding of Christianity at all.
Despite the freedom prescribed in the constitution it became clear that actual freedom in practice for example in building churches was rather more restricted.
Jakarta has an awful reputation for crime. An Indonesian I once knew said her family (brother if I remember) had been robbed at gunpoint.
An obviously foreign tourist may be a target and so it pays to take precautions. I never experienced any difficulty although my adventure around Jakarta was limited.
I don’t remember much of my trip in terms of places visited.I got a little ill from some food I ate from a restuarnt where perhaps hygene was not the best. I observed later that dishes were left on the table in advice and there were flies around.
Jakarta has many museums some that I will have to see next time. I did see the national monument, often dubbed sarcastically as Suharto’s final erection!
Wordplay in English exists here too.
Suharto being the authoritarian dictator billionaire who ruled Indonesia for many years before his resignation.
Several other of his elaborate constructions still exist.
Heppei, Eva and Heppei’s driver drove us around to the tea plantation in Puchak. With beautiful views and a nice…tea house of course. It is well worth visiting there. We also visited a nice garden of some sort. As well as taking a tour of a rich area with cartoon style houses. Popular as a get away for rich families from Jakarta.
On the way back the driver stopped off at a mosque to pray and we walked in the vicinity of the mosque itself which was packed with worshippers.
It was great to make new friends Heppei and Ida and from Jakarta I flew on to Aceh.
At the time no airline in Indonesia was deemed air worthy to fly to EU airspace and the safety record was terrible. Despite wanting to fly with Air Garuda (which at that time has lost its status just recently) and telling my taxi driver such. He had tried to take me to a cheaper airline. I insisted I only wanted to fly with Garuda.
As my flight flew into Banda Aceh the land appeared swampy. I guess as the result of the tsunami years ago. I went to Hermes Palace one of the only options at that time (Aceh was still being rebuilt). The friendly hotel receptionist and all women wore head covering which perhaps a reminder that I was now in Aceh.
I arranged for a tour of the Baiturrahman Grand Mosque the only standing building in Aceh after the tsunami. Believed by some Indonesians to be a sign the mosque is of sturdy construction and architecturally impressive. However it is not open to non-Muslims as one man upset made clear as I walked in the vicinity of the mosque. Well in his broken English he tried to ask if I was Muslim. I did not give any indication I understood him or his clear intention that I should go. I had already seen what I wanted to see in any case.
I also visited the museum of Aceh, dubbed ‘the only museum in Aceh!’ by one of Ida’s friends.
I met Ida who introduced me to her friends. One kind of friend of hers Ruth, who I keep in touch with to this day.
When Ida was working she arranged for a trusted Becak driver to guide me and unlike in Jakarta I did not get sick as she was also very careful about the places the driver was permitted to take me to eat. The driver could not speak any English but was a really cheerful person.
Tsunami related places
My Becak driver showed me several places in Aceh that were reminders of the tragic tsunami.
The now obligatory visit to a ship swept on top of a house. I also saw a 2600 ton vessel that was swept 2 km inland. Sites of mass graves (many bodies of the dead were never seen by family again, rather they mourn or pray at the closest mass grave to where the family lived).
I also visited Lampuuk where 4 out of 5 people perished in the tsunami.
Turkey was playing a major role in rebuilding the town.
In the morning of my departure there was a fairly large tremor as my hotel room visually shook. The most noticeable tremor I have experience so far. Thankfully it was not the stage for any more gloom and my flight left on time.
Banda Aceh seemed a relatively safe place even at night, my caveat though is that events that have happened since I left. It was great to meet Ida again and also Ruth.