Night Bus to Banda

Trip Start Jun 02, 2007
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Trip End Ongoing


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Flag of Indonesia  ,
Saturday, August 2, 2008

If you persevere long enough and brave the frightening Mr. Toad wild rides, the endless waiting for buses and ferries, and the potholed roads, Indonesia will reward you with a glimpse of heaven. You have to work hard to find it, but it's definitely worth it in the end.
 
I am on the island of Pulau Weh, off the coast of Banda Aceh, in the Andaman Sea. The sun is rising up over a small ridge of palm trees, and the coral reefs are creating a pattern of currents on the surface of the shallow, turquoise sea. A little goat has been eating breakfast on the hill near my hut and bleating every once in a while to the other goats dotting the landscape.
 
The journey to get here was pretty rough, but not by Tangkahan standards. I had opted for an air con non-stop overnight bus from one of the several ticket sellers on Jalan Gajah Mada in Medan. It was 200,000 rupiah, saving me about 130,000 Rp if I had taken Lion Air that afternoon, plus 70,0000 airport tax and  a hotel overnight in Banda Aceh. I saved money, but my butt paid for it.
 
I started out from the station at 7:30 at night and had to wait for a shuttle bus, so I spent the time talking to a man named Irawan and his wife Lisa and daughter Sapphira, who were going to Banda to visit family. We ended up on different buses, so he took my phone number and offered to call me in Aceh and show me around.
 
(As I write of my night journey, the light of the sun grows stronger over the ridge, illuminating a thin band of clouds in peach and gold.)
 
The bus itself was brand new, a Mercedes no less, like many in an impressive fleet destined for Aceh, the richest and most exploited province in Indonesia. I had comfortable reclining seats and a blanket, even a welcome box containing two neat slices of striped cake and a cup of Aqua.
 
The driver, however, was a maniac, overtaking all the trucks on the narrow road that wound through the tidily kept, freshly painted Acehnese houses tucked into dense foliage, small kerosene lamps and candles burning warmly in the darkness. The marketplaces were neat and cleanly swept, with rows of soft drinks stacked neatly and bags of snacks organized with care. Aceh is a place with great natural resources--oil, gold, copper, palm oil, spices, coffee, to name just a few--and it shows in the gleam of new gates and the ornate new mosques gleaming in the moonlight. It shows in the pride people have in their homes, clean and washed and neatly kept, unlike in Medan where everything is covered in a layer of grime and filth.  
 
The road wound like a python through the mountainous countryside, and the driver kept overtaking on hairpin bends, honking his way through, playing tag with the other driver doing the same route. I didn't get a wink of sleep, and my stomach was queasy the entire time, though the road was freshly paved and in the best condition I have seen so far in Indonesia.
 
By the time the bus deposited me at the station at 6:30 am in Banda Aceh, the sun was just rising, blossoming a rosy pink in the sky. I was exhausted, but completely absorbed by the water gleaming in the canals, the peacefulness of the harbour city in the early dawn.
 
A sea of becak drivers immediately crowded the entrance to the bus. "Where you go? Where you go? Pulau Weh? I take you to ferry."
 
It seemed like the going rate was 30,000, though I strongly suspected I was being taken for a ride. The ocean air was fresh and bracing, clearing the morning fog in my head as the crowd of becak drivers, along with a motley assortment of other men promptly surrounded me, firing the usual questions (Are you married, where is your husband, where are you from, you want Sabang?" Their eyes pierced me lustily, violating my comfort zone. I stood my ground and remained cool, strongly aware of the tense raging of testosterone pulsing in their eyes, trying to find the least shifty looking one to take me to the ferry terminal. I finally settled on one who called himself Johnny (they all call themselves Johnny, for bules who don't know how to pronounce Indonesian names). He was just as good as any because all of them looked seedy anyway.  
 
Johnny, like other people from Banda I found later, had a story to tell about the tsunami. He was safely out of the way at his house, but his partner had the becak. "Harus lari!" he exclaimed, demonstrating on his bike, hunching forward and going, "Vrroom, vroom!" showing his friend had to gun it on the becak to outrun the wave. He had another friend on it as well, in the sidecar, and together they fled down the road just a small distance from the pursuing wave.
 
He showed me the Mesjid Raya Baiturrahman, old and magnificent and stately with its three velvety black domes and white walls glowing in the morning haze. While the tsunami destroyed all the buildings around it, the mosque was left mysteriously undamaged. A miracle of God, Johnny said, that it remained unharmed, and everyone in Banda thought so too. Nearby, three-storey residential and commercial blocks were still in ruins, their bare concrete walls cracked and scoured of colour, sprouting tufts of vegetation, their crumbled bricks looking like ancient castle ruins.
 
On the way to Uleh Leh ferry terminal, newly constructed and closer to town than the previous port, Kreung Raya,  we drove by a neat manicured lawn dotted with white stones and encircled by some posts on which something was written in Arabic. The kuburan massal, Johnny explained. Forty thousand victims of the tsunami are buried here.
 
The grounds of the mass grave were immaculate, rimmed by the gravel road we were travelling, still being constructed by one of the numerous NGOs working to restore the city. Above the gentle slopes, unmarked but for a few large stones and freshly planted trees, stood tall blackened colonial buildings, empty and devoid of life.
 
Johnny was an opportunist of the seediest order. He tried to charge me extra for driving past to look at the mosque and the kuburan massal, which were on the way anyway, then told me my fly was open and made a pervy grab for my crotch. I squirmed away, disgusted, and made for the terminal, checking my fly. It was up.
 
I waited for the 9:30 fast ferry (70,000 for an economy ticket) at a warung next to the ferry terminal. One of the ferry men, a man with startling milky blue eyes, perhaps from Dutch blood or cataracts, was talking to me brightly over coffee (Aceh  is famous for its smooth Arabica coffee, one of the main exports from its fertile volcanic soil). We talked about the usual things until he asked me if I had seen the kuburan, the cemetery. I had, I said.
 
"Empat puluh orang, hilang." He swept his arm toward where the water met the coastline, cigarette smoldering in his hand. Forty thousand people disappeared. Just like that. His eyes, startlingly blue against his dark skin, softened on the distance, unfocused, dreamy. He gazed out over the land were a few black chickens were pecking, seeing something entirely different than the peace and calm that lay around us. The corners of his eyes were very red. "Adik dan istri. Ah. Adik dan istri." I immediately sensed his deep depression. He lost his younger brother and his wife in the tsunami.
 
"Ma'af," I offered, at a loss for anything better to say. "I'm sorry."
 
"Is okay," he said. But after that he was quiet, and we sipped our coffee in silence. I watched the sea, so flat and unassuming, sparkling in the sun, imagining how it must have risen up out of nothing that day. It seemed at this moment so harmless. The islands in the distance looked much like the Gulf Islands at home, friendly and innocuous, bearing no hidden malice to kill so many people, wipe them off the face of the planet.
 
The ferry, filled with families, was like an Indonesian version of the old BC ferries, but the trip was shorter, about 50 minutes compared to an hour and a half. The drive to Iboih beach on Pulau Weh was bumpy, uncomfortable and hot, but the troop of monkeys lining the road waiting for banana handouts was pretty entertaining. By this time, with no sleep, I was exhausted and hoping there would be a room as I hadn't made a reservation and was winging it as usual.
 
About an hour later we made it. Brightly coloured fishing boats lined the beach, and a tiled walkway led past the rows of mom-and-pop owned bungalows tucked in the trees. There's a bright green shed that arches over the path and a sign on the side of it:
 
                                                                   TSUNAMI
                                                                  Des. 26 2004
                                                         DONATED BY FRIENDS:
                                                       VICTORIA, B.C . CANADA
 
Some fellow Candians in my old home town where I lived and went to university, had donated a new water pump to supply water to the local village and the bungalows tucked into the trees along the path, between the forested hills and the turquoise water. My heart did a little leap of recognition and pride. I continued under the archway and up the stone steps, past a group of goats nibbling grass on the hillsides, bleating, "Nyeh nyeh. Nyeh nyeh."
 
I chose a hut with a thatched roof, propped up on stilts over the water, and a hammock woven of fish net so I could lie and gaze down at the fish for hours. It is here I lie now, caught in my net, swinging softly in the sun. I've slept for ten solid hours and am up with a new dawn. The arms of the calligraphic trees scroll across the water, flourishes of green over pure turquoise.
 
My young snorkeling friends the next bungalow over have awoken; a group of teenagers on holiday from school in Banda Aceh. They're chatting as they make their way down to the water's edge, only a few feet beneath my hut, where neon purple fish and spiky urchins feed on the floor of the coral garden. They are speaking in Indonesian, wondering if I am awake. Bright-striped fishing and tourist boats are out on the water. I think I am ready to don my snorkel and flippers on and go exploring.
 
 
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