Friday, January 8, 2010

Banda Aceh, Indonesia

It took a lot longer than expected to reach Bireuen from Takengon. It’s safe to say that however long the guide book says it will take to reach your destination, add a few hours. This applies in Indonesia , at least. Once Ian and I got off the bus we were instantly surrounded by men trying to get us to take the minivan-bus to Banda Aceh, which was expensive. We both thought that there had to be large buses that could take us to Banda Aceh which would be less expensive. Everyone was telling us that no such bus existed. We decided to regroup and think things out over some fried noodles at a local market—and I’m glad we did. It was probably the best fried noodles I had had up to that point in Indonesia . Afterwards, we decided, despite what everyone had been telling us, that we would search for a legit bus station. Needless to say, we found one. Our bus would take us to Banda Aceh for half the price, too. Nice.

After a long, long bus ride we finally made it to Banda Aceh; however, we made it to Aceh in the middle of the night and the bus station was located a few miles outside town. I’m beginning to believe that bus stations are purposely built miles outside of towns in order to create local jobs for taxi services. Instead of paying for a taxi ride to a hotel, then paying for a hotel room, then paying for another taxi ride to the ferry terminal, we opted to sleep at the bus station. We both felt that it was safe enough. Plus, it would save us a lot of money. So after searching around, we found a spot that would suffice for the night. I didn’t have a sleeping bag so Ian gave me his to sleep on, as he had a comfy mat that he would use.

The following morning, we decided that we would take the 9 a.m. ferry to Pulau Weh. I would take a taxi and Ian would ride his bicycle to the terminal. It’s a really a nice way for Ian to get around town and save money.

At the ferry terminal I began to see something that I hadn’t seen for many days—westerners. I hadn’t seen this many westerners since volunteering at the project in Padang. Upon arriving, however, I found out that due to the weather, there wouldn’t be any ferries leaving for Pulau Weh. I was told to try again the following morning. After waiting for Ian for over an hour I decided to head back to town and snatch a hotel, as other tourists would undoubtedly be doing the same. I found a relatively inexpensive hotel, Hotel Prapat, before searching for an internet café to email Ian my whereabouts. Luckily, Ian received my email and met up with me at the hotel.

We got up early the next morning and left for the ferry terminal. When we arrived people were being allowed to board the ferry. This was a good sign. However, about 30 minutes after boarding the ferry they announced that, again, due to the weather, the ferry wouldn’t be departing. Ugh!

Ian, who was quite annoyed with the situation, didn’t want to stay another night in Aceh and expressed to me his wishes to travel, possibly, down the west coast or to Medan. However, after some persuasion, I talked him into staying one more night. Once we were back in town we spent the day watching and playing chess, and, as I’ve mentioned in one of my earlier blogs, Indonesians are superb at chess. There were loads of people near our hotel who would play chess all day long. Ian attempted to play against one of the better chess players there. The guy he challenged was quite the character. He was a large, jolly Indonesian with a contagious laugh. He would play mind games with his opponents by talking trash and laughing loudly. He really could attract a crowd. Ian decided to challenge the man after watching him systematically break down his last opponent. Ian allowed his opponent's mind games to affect him, as he lost rather quickly. When Ian's opponent was winning, he'd sure let you know. It was a spectacle to watch, that's for sure. (Watch him below)

Ian and I would also went to see the new Tsunami Museum. In 2004 the Aceh province was devastated by the Boxing Day tsunami, which killed 174,000 people. And where we were, in the city of Banda Aceh, 61,000 people were killed. It’s hard to fathom the amount of lives lost on that tragic day. Some good did result from the 2004 tsunami, however. After years of regional armed conflict between the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM) and the Indonesian government a peace accord was signed in Helsinki on August 15, 2005. As a result many NGOs were also given access to the closed province of Aceh, thus, allowing many of the relief organizations to aid thousands of Aceh victims.

Later I had an interesting conversation with an Indonesian man who spoke, quite surprisingly, good English. I was buying some snacks from his store when he inquired where I was from. Once I told him I was from America he gave the same response that ever Indonesian gives, “Ah, yes, America,” he said. “Barack Obama!”

“Yes, Barack Obama,” I responded.

“Obama,” he said, while pointing to his head, “is very intelligent, yes.”

It never fails, every time I tell someone I’m from America they yell, very enthusiastically, President Barack Obama’s name. It’s great to have a president in office that isn’t despised by the rest of the planet. Everyone reacts so positively when I tell them I’m an American. It’s nice not having to pose as a Canadian.

“I have to ask you,” he said, with a deep sense of curiosity written all over his face, “why do you come to Indonesia?”

“Why did I decide to visit Indonesia?” I said, buying time, thinking of an appropriate response.

“Yes, yes. Why did you come here? Not many Americans travel to Indonesia, you know.”

“Well...” I said, about to answer, just before he cut me off. “I find it funny that Americans are so afraid of me and my country.”

“Uh, huh,” I said, “Go on.” And he did.

“I watch all these American movies and everyone is so big and strong, fighting people. But then Americans are so afraid of me and the people of Indonesia.” I allowed him to speak freely, not interrupting.

“We are not Osama Bin Laden. He is one man; he does not represent the Muslim people. So, again, I ask you, why are Americans so afraid all the time?”

“You have made many valid points,” I said, “And I will try to give you the best explanation that I can, okay?”

“Yes, yes. Please, I want to know,” he said, anxiously awaiting a response.

So I told him, "Overall, Americans are pretty ignorant when it comes to geography. People are afraid of the unknown, no? And I’ll be honest; there are many countries that Americans are unfamiliar with. Is this entirely Americans fault? Not necessarily. I would argue that our media bares some of the blame, too. This brings me to my point. The American people don’t hear about Indonesia often. But when they do hear about your country, what do they see? They see terrorist attacks that have taken place in Bali and Jakarta, and they see natural disasters that have devastated your country, such as earthquakes and tsunamis. Furthermore, we also see tragic incidents where your ferries sink with many people drowning. So if this is only what the American people see or hear from our media about your country—terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and an archaic, malfunctioning transportation system—why would Americans want to visit a country like that? Are you following me?"

“Uh, huh. Uh, huh,” he mumbled softly, nodding his head.

“But that’s why I’m here,” I continued, “I want to see the country and decide for myself. And do you know what? I think the people are great here; I think the food is pretty good; and I think your country is beautiful.”

“Okay,” he responded, “I just like Americans. All Americans that I’ve met are nice, good people. Maybe if you tell them about our country they will come here and won’t be afraid.”

“I’ll spread the word,” I told him.

Earlier in the day, Ian and I opted again not to get a hotel and to sleep at the ferry terminal. And since I had been wasting so much money on rides to and from the ferry terminal, I decided I’d walk there. After I bought some snacks from a grocery store I ventured off for a long walk in the night. You would think it was illegal to walk in the streets of Banda Aceh. You are constantly harassed to get a ride with some form of taxi service.

After a few miles of walking, a nice man with his son pulled up beside me on a motorbike and offered me the cheapest ride anyone had offered. My backpack was getting pretty heavy at this point, as well. I couldn’t say no. I ended up really enjoying the man’s company for the short ride to the terminal. He even offered for me to stay at his house once I told him where I would be sleeping. But because the ferry hadn’t left in a few days there would be many, many people wanting to take the ferry; and I had to make sure I was there early enough to get a ticket.

When we made it to the terminal the gates were shut. My driver let out a sigh and said the terminal was closed. However, after he honked his horn, a few guards came out of the darkness behind the closed gates and onto the pavement under the streetlight, making themselves visible. The guards and my driver began laughing and conversing in Indonesian. The guards said ‘hello’ and gave me a thumbs up.

“No problem,” my driver said, as the guards began to open the gates, “These are my friends, they let you in.”

“Ah, thank you! Terima Kasih!” I said to the guards, returning the thumbs up.

Once inside, Ian was standing in front of the terminal next to his bike. For once, he made it to a destination before me. He told me that we would be able to sleep inside the boat. We boarded the ferry and found it empty of any westerners, with only a few Indonesians. Ian would roll out his mat and sleep outside on the deck. I would sleep on top of a row of chairs inside. And before I went to sleep, I literally climbed on top of the ferry, laid back, turned on my ipod, and enjoyed the nice breeze coming off the sea under the clear skies of Banda Aceh.

Next stop: Pulau Weh


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