Chapter 2, Part 5
We were at Ulee Lheue, a mid-sized port on Mainland Aceh at the northern part of Sumatra where we would catch the boat to take us to Pulau Weh (Weh Island), one of the outer islands in the sprawling Indonesian archipelago as well as home to Sabang, the country’s westernmost city. India’s Nicobar Islands were just a little over 200 km away from Weh, much closer than the distance from the small island to Jakarta – Indonesia’s capital – some 1,800 km away to the southeast.
Aboard the boat were some government officials, tourists and locals. Once Balohan – the main port on Weh – was in sight, some women took off their headscarves, required by Aceh’s Sharia Law but less-strictly imposed on Weh. We would soon learn that Sabang not only colloquially stood for ‘santai banget’ – very relaxed – but it was also a very different place compared to Banda Aceh, capital of the province.
Weh’s white sand beaches and excellent snorkeling sites, which according to an Italian we met in Java weeks earlier were rich in colorful fish, are the main reasons for tourists to come to this relatively remote corner of Indonesia, despite the implementation of strict Islamic Law in most parts of the province – the only province in Indonesia allowed to do so. Some people even described the fish they saw at diving sites around the island as big as a car and the coral reefs an underwater jungle. The atmosphere of some beaches reminded me of Bali and Lombok where foreigners are free to wear bikinis and beers are sold at shops. The residents of Weh, however, were not allowed to buy any alcoholic beverages, at least not under the watchful eyes of the Sharia police.
During the decades-long armed conflict between the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the Indonesian government, Sabang was one of the few places in the province spared from violence. People came to the island with only one thing in mind: to chill. Following a peace agreement signed by GAM and the Indonesian government in 2005, former GAM leaders were allowed to run for office in local elections with some successful results, including Sabang’s current mayor.
However, Weh was not always peaceful and tranquil. In 2004 when deadly waves hit the Indian Ocean following one of the most powerful earthquakes recorded in history, Weh was not spared. Danny, a cousin of the owner of our guesthouse who worked at the local municipality, recounted his experience to us.
On Christmas Day 2004, one day before the 9.1-magnitude earthquake sent deadly waves across the Indian Ocean, Danny’s wife who was in Banda Aceh at that time had to return to Weh to work at night shift in a public health clinic on the island. On the Boxing Day when the earthquake wreaked havoc, Danny was in his car and only after he had turned off the engine did he feel the sheer intensity of the quake. At Balohan the water receded and many fish floundered, and 15 minutes later the first of four waves of tsunami struck the port. Danny recalled the second and third waves as the deadliest for their crushing force ripped buildings off their foundations.
The people on Weh were desperate to communicate with their relatives and friends on Mainland Sumatra as telecommunication line was completely cut off, leaving television their only source of information. Therefore only after a few days since the tsunami hit did they find out about the utter devastation of Banda Aceh, continuously broadcast on national channels. In total less than 10 people died on Weh, compared to more than 100,000 lives lost across the strait. Danny’s wife unexpected commute to Weh on Christmas Day proved to have saved her life.
Eleven years later we came to Sabang and I was particularly impressed with how smooth the roads were on the island and with the fact that most street reflectors were still in place in spite of its location in the far corner of Indonesia. There were also branches of five national banks on the island, each equipped with at least one ATM, definitely not what I expected to see in such a far-flung place in the country. However centuries ago Sabang was in fact far more important and busy than it is today.
Its strategic location at the entrance of the Strait of Malacca – the main sea route connecting China to India and beyond – and its deep, sheltered harbor made Weh a favorable port of call for traders and explorers sailing to and from the Indian Ocean in the past. Ma Huan, one of the people who accompanied Zheng He on some of his expeditions, described Weh’s underwater corals as ‘marine trees’ which grew in the shallow water, reaching the size of 62 cm, and having a soft sheen like jade.
Weh was not only attractive for its beaches and underwater beauty, though. With the help of Suwito, an old caretaker of our guesthouse who migrated from Java decades ago, we discovered one of the best Mie Aceh (local-style noodles) we had ever tried. The restaurant’s unassuming appearance disguised the superb taste of the dishes and drinks served, including a small cup of Kopi Aceh expertly prepared by a young man using only a sieve and several metal containers to pour and ‘pull’ the coffee.
“If it doesn’t taste right, please let me know,” the cook told us once our dinner was served. Nothing tasted wrong. On our second night having dinner there they gave us free desserts made of glutinous rice flour filled with palm sugar that melted in my mouth.
More than 1,600 km to the west of Sabang, a small beach town on the southwestern coast of Sri Lanka was fringed by golden sand beaches, separating the town from the relentless waves of the Indian Ocean. Hikkaduwa has become one of the most popular beach destinations in the country, and like Sabang in Aceh, Hikkaduwa was a tranquil corner of Sri Lanka, spared from the long civil war that engulfed the country for decades.
The ancient people of Sri Lanka and Indonesia had forged strong cultural and economic ties, as proven by the Ratu Boko inscription which mentions about Abhayagiri vihara, built on a hill where Candi Ratu Boko now stands. It was most likely inspired by a monastery with the same name in the ancient city of Anuradhapura on the island of Lanka. However centuries later those relations seem to have faded away from most people’s memory, until recently.
Sri Lanka was the second hardest-hit country in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. During my three-night stay in Hikkaduwa almost everyone I met was startled when they found out that I was from Indonesia. “Many people died in Indonesia,” was the usual comment I heard. The unprecedented catastrophe not only did send deadly ripples across the Indian Ocean, but in the aftermath it did bring people closer than ever.
Kamani da Silva was one of the tsunami survivors from Hikkaduwa, and now she is the owner of the town’s Tsunami Photo Museum. Her heavily damaged house today houses a collection of photos and items retrieved from the surrounding areas as a somber reminder of what nature can do to humans. She recalled how people flocked to the shores as the water receded and exposed what had never been seen before. When the tsunami hit it was already too late for many, but fortunately Kamani had just enough time to run inland to save her life.
Not far from her house was a railway line on which Matara Express was plying the usual route for its routine journey from Colombo to Matara, some 70 km away from Hikkaduwa. At 9:30 in the morning, a massive tsunami, estimated to be up to 9 meters high, crushed the train in a high speed. In total more than 1,700 people died, about 5% of all casualties in Sri Lanka following the earthquake off the coast of northern Sumatra.
“We didn’t know what tsunami was,” Kamani told us. “We have never even heard of the word before.”
Vestiges of the day when the ferocious ocean claimed more than 35,000 lives in Sri Lanka alone were barely noticeable in Hikkaduwa. Kamani’s house was one of the very few palpable reminders of that day. At the time of our visit a big hotel was under construction, and tourism-related businesses were booming. However, a brief look to the past would reveal Hikkaduwa’s symbolism as a place of resilience and hope, and as a reminder that whatever ordeal one might face in life, there is always an opportunity to bounce back.
Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.