4 days in Indonesia
30.01.2013 - 04.02.2013
I feel that a large part my visit to Aceh Indonesia is how much I learned about Acehenese history and culture, so I want to tell everyone about what I found out. If you want to skip to my specific experiences, you can go to the next paragraph.
Arriving in Indonesia, I did not know what to expect. I was, in fact, staying in Banda Aceh a city on the island of Sumatra. The majority of Acehnese people are Muslim. In addition to the distinct Islamic culture, there is a blend of Indian, Malaysian, Chinese and other influences. Java, the Indonesia that foreigners first think of, is on a completely different island and, I learned, has a very different culture. In Aceh, almost every woman covers her head, arms, and legs. At various times throughout the day prayers from the Quran, sounding from mosque loud speakers can be heard all through the city. I think the laidback attitude I found most locals to have was, in part, a result of the slower lifestyle needed for people to be able to stop and pray (at 5 times a day). Another factor is that it is so hot there that people tend to just lie on their mattresses and avoid going outside during midday. The Acehnese have a history of rebelliousness. They are proud to have continually thwarted the Dutch, who colonized the rest of Indonesia. After Indonesia was united, they fought for independence, and the situation was dangerous up until the tsunami in 2004. In many ways, the tsunami shaped current day Aceh. The rebels have pretty much seized to operate since then (though people were mad at the lack of support the Indonesian government gave during the tsunami). The coast of Sumatra was decimated and much of Aceh needed to be rebuilt. I visited the tsunami museum and heard people’s stories about the tsunami. There were pictures of mass burials in the museum. So many had died that they had to throw thousands of unidentified bodies wrapped in garbage bags into ditches. One of my friend’s cousin said she never knew what happened to her uncle and I rode past houses near the beach where there were once bigger houses where whole families were wiped out. My friend’s father heard someone yelling about water coming and ran upstairs (so many died because they did not know what a tsunami was and so chose to stay low to the ground after the earthquake). The father later painted the downstairs wall to mark where the water had been and it was above my head. One more thing that I found important about my trip was my discussions with Fithri, usually about culture and religion. She explained that Islam has rules that are meant to be followed by everyone, but different people and cultures adapt them and alter them in their own way. She said this is why it doesn't make sense for Americans to label all Muslims as terrorists. Arab Muslims have some very different rules and customs from Indonesian Muslims, for example, and, obviously, not every Arab Muslim is an extremist. I explained to Fithri that maybe part of the reason these people are so ignorant, is that it's really confusing to tell from the outside, what behaviors can be attributed to local custom and what is a result of Islamic law. It is also quite convoluted as the separation between the two is obviously not always black and white. It reminded me of Judaism and how I consider myself to be ethnically and culturally Jewish, but am not really connected to the religion. For me, it is easy to tell the difference between the two, but I can see how separating them could be confusing for someone who is not Jewish. And then you add on the different types of Judaism, plus local influences and, eventually, putting people under one label really just doesn't make since. Anyway, thats just my thinking, now for my activities.
Aceh Day 1: On the United flight to Hong Kong, I discovered there were many movie options, but the touch screen was not very sensitive. To select a movie, people ended up having to fiercely poke at the screen over and over, essentially punching the seat of the person in front of them. The frustration of the unresponsive screen combined with being punched in the back of the head put everyone on edge. It was amusing to watch, but not so amusing to experience. After being picked up from the airport in Aceh, many hours later, I was promptly brought to a strange house and was plopped on a couch while my friend Fithri, who was a lecturer at a university and had spent a semester as a fellow at Oberlin, went to finish up work in her office. Immediately, an energetic little boy, Fithri’s nephew, Ramadan, trotted up to me and proceeded to show me his action figures. I found out he spoke hardly a word of English: His repertoire included “game over” (he loved video games), “not cool, man”, and “it’s awesome” (the second two he learned from me). He also didn’t really get the concept that I couldn’t speak Indonesian. I don't think anything else happened that day, except I was introduced to the weird Indonesian bathroom where you dump water on yourself with a bucket to shower and in the toilet to manually provide a flush. The floor is always wet and I wiped out hard the first time I showered.
Day 2: Fithri had to work all day because she was going to take Friday and the weekend off to go with me to Sabang to visit another of the Oberlin fellows from last year, Linda. I’ll describe that later, that’s day three. I went to the tsunami museum with Fina, who is Fithri’s cousin, one of Fina’s friends, and Rama. The museum was eerie, but was a worthwhile visit. We went out to lunch were Rama and I found our food to be too spicy, (I guess Indonesian children don’t appreciate spice yet?). Then I rode around with Fithri and Rama in the evening and tried durian. I had never tried it before because it’s gross, but Fithri insisted because it is Indonesian…it tasted like sweet B.O.
Day 3: Off to Sabang with Fithri and her friend and colleague Safrina! Sabang is on Wei Island at the very tip of Indonesia. The ferry over had a cheap pirated copy of the new Karate Kid playing where everything was fuzzy and red. At the port we met up with Linda, her husband, and her adorable baby (who cried every time he looked at my, but I’m pretending it’s nothing personal). They drove us to lunch and then to the beach where we reserved a night at a bungalow over the water…about $25 dollars for all three of us. I put on my bathing suit and went for a swim with Fithri, who since taking four lessons at Oberlin, was in the process of learning how (hardly anyone seemed to know how to swim despite the tsunami).
Day 4: Snorkeling! Emily will be jealous, but I got to snorkel, and right under my bungalow too. I saw some weird fish, some huge starfish, and lots of coral. We then headed back to the harbor to catch the ferry home. This time the crappy pirated movie was Rush Hour 2 and I decided to fight off my boredom by brushing up on my Indonesian. I asked Fithri what the word “Apa” mean’t. She said it meant “what”. I then learned “Ada apa abang?”, meaning “what’s up, bro?”. Finally, I loudly recited the words of Chris Tucker, proud that I recognized them all, but in a typical fashion, before I really knew what I was saying. “Hey Fithri, apa itu ganja?”, or “is that marijuana?”….oops. Amazingly, despite Indonesia’s strict drug trafficking laws, nothing happened except Fithri was kind of pissed. After arriving back in Banda Aceh, Fithri and I headed to the spa to have milk baths. I don’t know if that’s a think in America, but they treat your hear with oily stuff that smells good and has vitamins and also massage your head and arms. At the end, I watched as Fithri got her hair blow dried and combed, and made the decision I would too, because why not. I watched the person doing my hair, trying to see if she would be upset, perhaps horrified, with the frizzy mess that would inevitably result. I wondered what she thought after combing the first bit of hair and realizing that the rest of my head would look like that too. She showed no emotion and I left with Fithri and my new fro.
Day 5: We went to a park where we walked and I played volleyball, and then went to a rebuilt traditional Achenese house, which had belonged to two hero’s who led revolts against the Dutch. The next morning I left Aceh, pretty carefree, until the end of my connection flight to Kuala Lumpur, where, as we landed, I begged the flight attendant to use the bathroom, raced inside and vomited twice. Sorry if that’s TMI.
Anyway, still recovering from my annual dose of travelers bug, and I’ll update on my two days in Beijing as soon as I can.