Pulau Weh : A Life Beneath the Waves
Pulau Weh Travel Blog› entry 261 of 268 › view all entries
My punishment for oversleeping and missing my flight to Banda Aceh yesterday, aside from a financial wince of pain, was a purgatorial ten hour night coach from Medan with ice cold droplets of air conditioning condensation running along the roof of the coach and dripping rhythmically onto my head. Water torture. Arrival is followed by a panicky round of Banda Aceh's ATMs in a becak (motorbike-sidecar taxi) only one of which finally accepts my VISA debit card ( BNI bank) as - be warned folks on non-Indonesian origin - no banks/ ATMs in Sabang or anywhere else on Pulau Weh will accept your cards, neither can travellers cheques be encashed and the one Chinaman in town who does money changing is likely to rip ya for every percentage point he can I imagine - assuming you have the currency to exchange in the first place.
Sat in the belly of the Pulorondo Catamaran, not much view to speak of out of the grubby windows so I'm consigned to stare at the loud TV suspended from the ceiling. My first experience of the enforced diet of what I have come to refer to as 'toxic television' that Indonesians, as with so many of their neighbours in the region, are compelled to consume. A depressing multi-channel intellectual vacuum of banality, 'celebrity' programming, soap operas, game shows, chat shows and about 50% of the broadcast output being advertising. The same commercial for the same TV ( 'The world's first 3D LED TV' ) three times in each cycle of ads. Three times!!! 'Get the message?' Don't get me wrong, I'm under no illusions that 'cultural output' is much richer anywhere else in the world (though I love you ever deeper BBC!), however, having spent six weeks in Indonesia at the time of writing, rarely has the Chomskyian theory that I shall summarise briefly as 'keep them dumb, distracted and wanting Stuff' appeared more apparent to me than here.
I make my first attempt at cross referencing TV, music, movies etc with the tiny dictionary section of my language guide to start grabbing snatches of Bahasa vocabulary, something which will become a minor study habit. Some teen-trash soap Angel's Diary teaching me amongst other things 'orang baik' [ 'a good man/person' ], 'hati baik' [ 'a good heart' ], 'masalah' [ 'problem' ] and 'cute guy' [ err?... 'cute guy' ]. Then Halo Selebriti comes on and I consider attempting to gouge my eyes out with my water bottle... 'The world's first 3D LED TV'.
Mercifully we are. A quick local mini-van bus hop across to Sabang (should be IDP15,000/ app. £1 and don't let them bully you into an expensive taxi) and I'm where I wanna be for day one of Pulau Weh. Sabang is the main town and administrative heart of this small island off the far north westerly tip of Sumatra. Indonesia's western most island. There's not much to do in Sabang. But that's fine. It has a harbour where boats bob merrily in the rich blue coloured waters. Fishing trade. Semi-abandoned shipping yards. There's a military base here serviced by a small airport and a couple of coastal bunkers dating from the Second World War Japanese occupation.
A long, well paved promenade, well appointed with lighting and charming little couple-snuggles seating booths runs an impressive length and shows earnest investment in this part of town at some point in recent history. Aceh was the location worst affected by the 2004 Tsunami but this having been the international incident in receipt of the largest foreign aid response/ donations in recorded human history, recovery and reconstruction have been swift and effective here.
Tall King Coconut palms (or 'Kelapa Gading' [ 'Ivory Coconut'] as they sometimes call them in Indonesia) throw slender bar codes of silhouettes upwards, breaking up the blue and green scenes. Impressively overweight Muslim women bobble along in jogging sneakers and shiny silver tracksuits with sweaters on top in the 30 degrees plus heat, sweat pouring down the few available surface areas of skin permitted by their moon-suits, tightly drawn hijabs and the cloth towels drawn across their faces to breathe the cooling air.
I drop myself into one of the more rustic or rather, rusty looking residential clusters down towards the harbour. A little shoulder to shoulder group of a hundred homes or so tucked behind the concrete edifice of a partially completed mosque and sheltering within a small vale of rich green undergrowth at the foot of the town’s largest ‘bukit‘ [ ‘hill‘ ]. Coconut palms again, and tall elderly trees keep neighbourhood watch. The houses here mostly a messy fusion of exposed brickwork, wood planking and the universal roofing of patchwork orange and grey rusted corrugated metal sheeting.
It's walking these lanes with their curious kids, docked-tail cats ( 'born like that' and not cut the locals swear) and scraggy arrow-necked chickens that, often invited to sit and attempt small talk, I do just that, inflicting my first faltering attempts at Bahasa on this poor unsuspecting community.
In many ways I expect Indonesia will represent, as what’s likely to be my final non-’Western’ culture destination, a fusion of much that has gone before on my travels. A strong Islamic tradition, meets South East Asian culture and tradition with a colonial history (as always!) and a strong Chinese demographic influence, all infused with so many other cultural and historical ingredients.
On the point of Islam, Aceh retains a reputation which gets your friends and family in a bit of a tiz when you say you’re going there. Negative media portrayal. Government Home Office travel warnings. An unresolved, sometimes violent struggle for independence, regional autonomy finally granted by the Indonesian state as a half-measure following a probable willingness to wash their hands of final responsibility for the Tsunami cleanup. Also the adoption of Sharia Law is never a great prize winner in the international kudos stakes. Another example of overweening patriarchal prerogatives can also be evidenced in the apparent continuing practice of female circumcision in some of the region’s communities.
The following morning sees me fishing a lift in a family car to Iboih beach the furthest small beach stretch of the island from Sabang.
In fact that boat belongs to the gang at Rubiah Tirta Divers, Pulau Weh’s longest running diving centre and based upon the tiny little slip of sand that stands for Iboih beach. The family business is no longer required to travel to and from Sabang for supplies etc every day, hence no more ferrying grateful tourists across. But never mind.
The very first thing I do after securing a high pole-strut top ’bungalow’ (IDP50,000 / £3.75 per day) though is not to dive right into the blue but to grab an ojek (motorbike taxi) ride off one of the local lads to head on out the remaining kilometres to Indonesia’s ’Kilometer Nol’ or ’Zero Kilometre’ point.
The main thrust of my life in Pulau Weh revolves around two scuba dives a day for the next five days or so. A two hour daily dose of under the sea magic and doing not much else except eating divine potato, tomato and fruit salads and monster sized tacos at Mamas cafe, chewing the fat, playing games of Shithead or watching card tricks that have migrated up the tourist trail from Bukit Lawang in between. Rubiah Tirta Divers offer the cheapest dives that I have yet done. The cost per dive decreases slightly the more you do until you reach ten dives.
The dive sites around Pulau Weh/ Rubiah Island make for most rewarding diving. Aside from the warm temperatures (moving in and out of toasty thermo-climes) rich wealth of marine life that you will share the depths with on every dive the underwater topography and hard coral gardens are the most impressive I have had the pleasure to glide through.
I get to see large populations of moray eels, some of a staggering size gaping from within rock crevices, Honeycombs and Zebras amongst them. Also the tiny frill-nosed forms of Blue Ribbon Eels and their black juveniles sometimes poking out of the sand. The dark-banded Indian Lion Fish and their burgundy striped more common cousins drifting with quiet threat upon invisible currents. A slumbering Porcupine Fish. Lucky sightings of Napoleon Wrasse, the best part of a metre long. Large schools of Banner Fish and a couple of gigantic bait balls of silver-bodied Jack Fish swirling in the blue. Yudi proves very good at spotting the smaller moments of interest, clown-costumed little nudibranchs and skittering anemone shrimp.
Island life on Pulau Weh is slow and easy and charming. Family life in the form of young children scampering around besides the beach. Many the progeny of the multi-national marital unions that back a large number of the businesses here. Indonesian women married to French, German and Dutch former travellers running a lot of the bungalow guesthouse complexes. This is a pattern that repeats itself all the way along the rather obvious tourist trail one gets magnetised to in Northern through to Western Sumatra (Bukit Lawang, Danau Toba, Bukittinggi etc).
I make a good number of good friends here as new sun and dive enthusiasts come and go. Kay, a bubbly American lass seems condemned by addiction to diving and Pulau Weh life to stay forever with over 25 dives on her count by the time I leave. A number of people, British couple Charlie and Adam who I will meet on several further occasions as we move on, magnetised as I said to that Sumatra tourist trail. And there is Rachel who, having to kill time whilst all flights back to Europe remain cancelled and delayed owing to the volcanic ash spewing into the air from Iceland, has come to Pulau Weh, deferring for a little longer, a grand return to the UK after working in New Zealand for a decade.