Friday, April 27, 2012

EARTHQUAKES, LANDSLIDES AND RAIN- Welcome to Aceh!


Huge Sumatra With Aceh in the far north

On our second trip together in 1999, we had big plans to travel through the Indian sub-continent, to South-east Asia, through Indonesia to Australia. We had a great trip, but ran out of money before the Indonesian part, flew to a new life in Oz, and never got around to going back to Sumatra........until now- 13 years later!

Was it worth the wait? Absolutely!

The old days of boat travel to Sumatra from Malaysia are pretty much over, thanks to new, budget airlines. We had booked a flight many months ago from KL to Banda Aceh in the far north of Sumatra for $25 (inclusive of taxes, luggage etc.)- cheaper than the boat used to be, and only an hour and a half flight.
We had an idea Banda Aceh would be a stuffy place, police roaming around, and people piously religious. This was far from the truth. Although Sharia law is officially enforced (strict rules regarding the conduct of Muslims, including a conservative dress code, capital punishment, homosexuality being illegal) , as tourists, we felt only that it had an easy-going feeling, with people as friendly as any other Indonesian city. The population seemed prosperous and well-educated, with many going to foreign countries for study- probably the result of the huge amount of aid and support pumped into the region post-2004 tsunami.
Colorful fishing boats, Banda Aceh

Fish baskets, Banda Aceh

Gazing at the gorgeous Raya Baiturrahman Mosque in town, and wandering around the market area and river, we enjoyed our few days stay. Banda Aceh was, of course, very close to the epicenter of the 2004 tsunami, and the town, along with many others were decimated, and many thousands of people died. Most of the town has been rebuilt, but there are a number of “tsunami sights” around as a reminder, including a boat that was washed 4 kms inland, landing on top of a house.

Raya Baiturrahman Mosque, Banda Aceh

Raya Baiturrahman Mosque, Banda Aceh

Same mosque after 2004 tsunami



Raya Baiturrahman Mosque, Banda Aceh

Market, Banda Aceh

"Boat on the house", Banda Aceh


Same scene just after 2004 tsunami


Names of some tsunami victims, Tsunami Museum, Banda Aceh


We took the slow boat across to Pulau Weh, a destination that had taken on almost mythical proportions in our minds, from the descriptions and conversations we’d had with many a traveler over the past couple of years. It’s the old problem with expectations again, but I’m afraid we have to be a disappointment to backpackers throughout Asia, who rave about this place, and admit that we just didn’t really get it. It was nice enough, and as a diver or serious snorkeler it’s sure to be paradise (we are certainly not- we love mucking about with a snorkel close to shore, and are happy to see loads of fish and colorful coral is a bonus, but it does not make or break a destination for us). As an island/rustic/chill-out type location, it really doesn’t compare to the islands in the Andaman Sea in Thailand on which we’ve been hanging out on for the past 4 months. We enjoyed our week here, but were keen to get back to the mainland and visit some more remote locations.


Vehicles on the Pulau Weh ferry

Pulau Weh

Pulau Weh

The day after we arrived back in Banda Aceh, we were having a nap in the afternoon, and were awakened by what we later discovered to be an 8.6 earthquake. Richard would like to contribute to the blog at this stage:

We were snoozing, with me naked on the bed, when we were woken by the hotel room shaking and swaying vigorously. It was immediately obvious what was happening, although we haven’t been in an earthquake before, and we grabbed our clothes and valuables, which were, luckily, close at hand, and ran down the hallway, and three flights of stairs, me pulling on my shorts. Out on the street in front of the hotel other guests were already evacuated, some in distress. The ground was shaking, and we watched a street light swaying for the less than 10 minutes it lasted. It was like trying to stand in a canoe. Having later read various media reports reporting “mass hysteria” or people running around shouting ”God is great”, we saw nothing but calmness, although there was obviously some nervousness, as a result of the locals having being through this before, but much worse, in 2004. There were people moving around on the streets, probably trying to get home, but mostly in an orderly fashion. After about 2 hours, we returned to our third floor room to communicate with friends and family that we were OK, when a huge aftershock occurred, and we had to run outside again. We did hurry at one stage, when someone ran into the foyer shouting “tsunami”, and everyone ran upstairs to the roof. We all stayed up here for an hour or so, before hearing on the local news that the tsunami warning had been cancelled. Interestingly, we never heard the tsunami warning sirens put in place after the 2004 tsunami, and it transpires that, although they were visually tested regularly, no-one had thought to switch them on to see if the sound was working.

Incredibly, despite the magnitude, there was little building damage or loss of life. The experts say it was the 10th worst earthquake in the world in 100 years, and the only one not to cause a tsunami. Banda Aceh must surely be the best place to be in Sumatra for an earthquake, as all the building built post-2004 tsunami are very solid. We, and no doubt every Aceh resident, felt very lucky.

We were quite exhausted by the previous day’s excitement, and had a lot of communication to catch up with, and so decided another day to recover in Banda Aceh would be a good idea. We visited the cute little Aceh museum (at 8 cents each, it is the cheapest museum entry of our travels!), and ended up at a school party on the same grounds that had something to do with the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday. It was fantastic to see the little kids singing, dancing and playing drums to traditional Acehnese music, and sit and chat with the proud parents. After the show, we were seated with the VIPs, and fed delicious Acehnese food and drinks until we burst! Many people in this town work with, or have in the past worked with foreign NGO’s and can speak quite good English, so we were spoiled with decent conversation, and being able to ask questions.

Museum picture, Banda Aceh

School celebrations, Banda Aceh

School celebrations, Banda Aceh
School celebrations, Banda Aceh

School celebrations, Banda Aceh

The lovely women who work at the hotel we were staying in had very limited English, so we were surprised when we asked in our bad Indonesian about the bus to our next destination, Takengon, they simply called a number for us, told us the price, and said we would be picked up the next morning at 9 am! So easy- got to love Indonesia for that!

We didn’t fancy the overnight bus back to Medan, and slow road to Lake Toba looked enticing and more adventurous. We were a bit apprehensive about the trip to Takengon, as we had heard it was very long, and on very winding and bad roads, but after we were picked up (early!) and the small bus half filled with a friendly family, we alternately slept and enjoyed the scenery of mountains and ramshackle villages. The roads were fine, we had plenty of room, and although it was raining the second half of the trip, the driver was very steady and careful. Even the two smokers sat in the front, away from us. The other end we were dropped at our losmen (small guesthouse) and fell into a heavenly sleep.

Losmen, Takengon

Takengon is the capital of the Gayo Highlands in central Aceh province. The Gayo people here are very religious, like the Acehnese, but see much fewer tourists, and are therefore much more curious and friendly. 

Takengon

Takengon

Takengon

Takengon

Takengon



We fell in love with the mountains around Laut Tawar Lake and the breathtaking views, and experienced some of the rain and cold climate that’s makes the area so beautiful and green. It was a bit of a shock to have to get out our long sleeves and socks again, after so long!

Takengon Lake

Takengon Lake


Takengon Lake

Takengon Lake

Whisking the eggs for local meringue-like coffee specialty, kopi telur kocok 

Weird stuff, Takengon

Takengon

Takengon

Takengon

Same, same, but different, Takengon

Takengon street

On our first day out walking, we came across a local wedding, and sticking our head around the door, we were welcomed in, once again enjoying fabulous Acehnese food and hospitality, but drawing the line at singing Indonesian karaoke. We felt especially awkward this time, as we had on our oldest, smelliest clothes, and the wedding party was done up to the nines. But no-one seemed to care in the slightest, and we enjoyed the spectacle for an hour or so, before saying our goodbyes. 

Wedding, Takengon

Wedding, Takengon

Wedding, Takengon


The dorky wedding guests, Takengon

After a few days of enjoying Takengon, with its fish farms, coffee plantations and smiley residents, we left for Blangjekeran, another, smaller Gayo Highland town about 5 hours away. Again we had a pick up/drop off bus service at our guesthouses, this time we enjoyed a two hour “scenic tour” around the outskirts of Takengon looking for missing passengers. “Don’t worry, Mister” the driver grinned at us in the review mirror, as we pulled into the bus station where we had begun two hours before. “Tidak masalah” we wearily replied- “no problem” being a phrase we use a lot in Indonesia! The trip was on steep and twisty, but beautiful roads, with scenery contrasting between pine forest, jungle, and tiny villages with rice fields and woolly goats. What we hadn’t realized was as a result of the recent torrential rain, the road had virtually disappeared down the cliffs in parts, and other areas were just being cleared of mud and debris so traffic could pass again. Sal was blissfully unaware of this, thanks to her “zonk-out” pill, whereas Richard took the opportunity to take photos of the damage, and hope we made it through before the next landslide!

Road Takengon to Blangkejeran


Road Takengon to Blangkejeran

Road Takengon to Blangkejeran

Road Takengon to Blangkejeran

We found one of the few losmen (guesthouses) in Blangkejeran town, and eventually enjoyed a lovely day exploring a scenic village area outside of town. That is, after we had had a chat with the daughter of our landlady, a chat with the owner of the warung (small food and drink stall) next door, chat with a friendly resident who gave us tea at his house..........you get the picture! We had an extreme experience in one tiny village, with what seemed like every single resident come out to the street to stare at us in wonder, and kids screaming with delight and terror at the sight of us. Our final evening was a real treat, with Aceh noodles and Gayo coffee at the next door warung with some of the local “old boys”, who were so kind, and even paid for our food and drinks before they left, without us knowing.

Rice country, Blangkejeran


Bee in action, Blangkejeran

The duck man, Blangkejeran


New friend, warung, Blangkejeran


From the highlands into the jungle, and so to our next stop, three hours down the (twisty, muddy and scenic, again!) road following the raging Alas River to Ketambe. Arriving into the tiny village we saw a tourist walking down the road- what a shock after 2 weeks without any, although it turns out he was the only other foreigner in town! We were lucky enough to find an oasis guesthouse in the jungle, with bungalows surrounded by a lush flower and fruit garden, and a path up the hill to a waterfall, and plenty of monkeys feeding. The peace and quiet after the towns we’ve visited was welcome, and a deep night’s sleep was had - that is, until the morning, when our newly arrived Indonesian tourist neighbor stuck her grinning head in our bungalow window to have a look at us! We recharged the batteries here for a few days, and prepared for a trip to Danau (Lake) Toba, via an overnight stop in Kutacane.

Short video of Rich on a bus:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jcbqzzvNGK8&list=UUtLzLjhEbKtTXtrnQfhtTQw&index=1&feature=plcp

Our hut, Ketambe

Ketambe, looking remarkably similar to our old property in Australia!







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