Pulau Weh : A Life Beneath the Waves

Pulau Weh Travel Blog

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'Rust & Cotton'

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.

Boat in Sabang Bay
  Stock up on cash before you catch that ferry from Banda!

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.

A barcode of palm trees

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'.

Unfinished mosque in the heart of Sabang
.. 'Are we there yet?!'

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.

Sucking toxic television from the skies.
  Sabang has coastline on either side.  No beaches of any beauty to speak of - I'll be hunting out those tomorrow - but pleasing views of stretches of this tropical isle.  Today a stroll around popping from pit stop to pit stop to have another glass of the amazing 'kopi' [ 'coffee' ] to be found across Sumatra.  Particularly its northern regions.  Going by various names and varieties.  Kopi Aceh, Kopi Gaiyo or Kopi Luwak to name three. 

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.

  In fact it has long been silently acknowledged that way more funds reached the region than were ever required on a per-capita basis for said recovery and so many Aceh families have fattened themselves, materially speaking, on the supposed surplus funds.  Second and third homes, hotel businesses and - more obvious to the casual observer - a conspicuously high level of flash-car ownership.  SUVs and other 4X4s, BMWs, Mercedes etc. 

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.

Radars and Houses
  Not so much a sign of extreme cultural modesty as trying to protect their skin from tanning and keeping it as Indonesian-eye-pleasing pale as possible.  It's alright, their mopeds are on hand to get them the half a kilometre back to town.  Don't wanna overdo that exercise regime ladies.

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.

Washing Day
  Some of these abodes have been built with the large trees incorporated into the body of their structure.  The most prominent and recurrent architectural feature of this community as with almost any I observe over the next three weeks in Sumatra are the sea of super-sized mesh-panel satellite dishes that sit tall, shiny (or rusty) and proud, sucking toxic television out of the ether, before or on top of almost every home in town.  These are often of far newer and sturdier construction than the homes that must support them, both physically and financially and are often larger than the shiny dome tops of the compact little mosques that serve these small pockets of the faithful.  

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.

"Oh c'mon, I know my Bahasa's bad but there's no need to laugh at me ladies!" ;D
  Equal amounts of laughter and confusion ensue and I’m happy enough that this balance be struck in my early adventures in language acquisition.  ’Where are you from?’, ’What is your name?’, ’How old are you?’ and ’Are you married?’ tend to be the standard quartet of questions most asked of this 'orang barat' [ 'west person' ].  Particular significance is always put on the latter and the statement that ’tidak, saya lajan’ [ ’No, I’m single’ ] often leads to yet more guffawing and undoubtedly, if I could understand them, blushing innuendoes being passed like hot potatoes between the sisters, friends and mothers.
"Take me home daddy!"
  Being so close to their homes most of the young girls are not in their hijabs, just t-shirts and jeans, though many will wear them when further a field and are often keen to show me self-portrait photos so clothed, used as their cell phone wallpaper pictures.  I find this openness quite surprising, and refreshing.  The rules of modesty present but part-time and with smiles and good humour and room for manoeuvre. 

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.

A glimpse of small but perfectly formed Iboih Beach.
  My responses to such a circumstance are still barely formed so not worth the words yet to tell them. 

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.

(Little Peace) Muju [www.mujuworld.co.uk]
  Many inhabitants you ask deny the fact of Sharia or play it down, sensitive to the negative connotations most outsiders associate with such a state of affairs.  I have to say, at this late stage of my journey I’m not of a mind to pursue such socially sensitive issues and so must leave it all behind as subject-matter untraversed.   In Pulau Weh never do I get a sense of people living their lives under an oppressive shadow of enforced religious doctrine, but then as a traveller you are always far away from ‘all that‘ and rarely if ever behind closed doors.  And anyway, people are always so much more chilled out on islands aren’t they...

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.

Indonesia's Kilmeter Nol or 'Zero Point' - the furthest westerly point of the nation.
  Please note fellow travellers that despite the fact the service is still advertised on maps at the ferry terminal in Banda Aceh the old daily morning boat service from Sabang to Iboih is no longer running so you will require an ojek or becak ride to your next destination of choice.  At least IDR100,000 ( £7.50).  Mini-buses apparently happen at some points in the day, but don't count your scraggy, arrow-necked chickens.

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.

  I’m here now.  Ready to chillax to the max and do not much more than diving and eating until... ? ... well, until I feel it’s time to do something else.  Rubiah is the name of the small islet just across the crystal clear waterway between it and Iboih and it is this name that Dodet took for his diving operation nearly three decades ago.  Dodet still runs the show from dry land but it is his sons Yudi, Isfan, Andy Coco and friends who run the diving gigs these days. 

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.

Rubiah island and blue.
  In geo-positioning terms, Indonesia’s most westerly point (latitude 05°  54’ 21.42” and longitude 95° 13’ 00.50” for those of you, unlike I, who understand about such things).  The point is marked by a large monument structure.  A rather odd walk-around entity that’s seen slightly better days (graffiti enthusiastically spreading across it) and resembles something between a ceramic space rocket, a disused college shower block and a giant wedding cake with all its white tile and pastel blue and pink trim.  Unusual.  Worth a quick look for a laugh.  I wanted to come here first as after having made a bunch of gaffs in my first week in Indonesia (chiefly getting p*ssed and missing my flight) I felt it appropriate to reset the travel clock to ‘zero’ in a somewhat literal sense.
Ginge, the resident cat of my bungalow :)) red heads together!
  It apparently has its companion point in the east, in Papua, but I shan’t be heading there this time.

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.

Andy Coco(nuts) struts his diving stuff
  Ten dives or however many more after that costing 15 Euros a time, so it was a 150 Euro package of ten dives that I opted to indulge in.  (By comparison I did four dives for 100 Euro in Sri Lanka and two shitty dives for 90 Euro in Italy!  Thailand was about $30 a dive I think and I was doing a course in Egypt so can‘t really offer you a per dive costing in those instances)  Either way, when it's so cheap and in underwater paradise why do things by halves!

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.

Stevie and dive pals
  Fabulous spidering green coral bushes (a resident Frog Fish camouflaged in one) and super sized fan and table corals.  Careful with those fins!  

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.

Stevie & Yudi on route to another days diving.
  I get to see my first sea turtle at a little distance and the back end of an Eagle Ray flying elegantly away.  Blue-spotted rays hovercraft across the seabed sometimes.  The sound of Parrot and Trigger Fish cracking away at the coral with their beaky mouths a constant background noise.  I also undertake my first night dive.  Spooky!  Fourteen metres down and it'll be pitch black if my torch fails.  Luckily it doesn't.  Still, quite an eerie experience.  What might float into the torch beam, out of the darkness next?  A few Scorpion Fish lie upon the rocks.  The Parrot fish too are all asleep, tucked headfirst into the crevices of rocks forming comedic gardens of their blue-green fork tails poking out.  Brightly coloured crabs move about.
  A rare sighting of a large bright orange-red nudibranch called a Spanish Dancer so-named because of its flamboyant frilly red fleshy-flamenco skirts that twirl and undulate if they are disturbed from their perches.

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).

Stevie and fellow Brit southerner Rachel.
  A pattern of probable attraction and love and certain practical and economic necessity and good sense.  Foreigners are not allowed to solely own businesses in Indonesia and the Indonesian women/ families rarely have the means to do so.

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.

Diving Gang :)
  It turns out her family live just a little way away from the small village where I hail from on the south coast of England and she will soon be starting an art course as a mature student at the college just five minutes drive up the road from my home.  We wax nostalgic about southern shores and the South Downs hills.  Specifically a pleasant stretch of grassy coastline called the Green Sward where she looks forward to walking her doggy and we make a date to share coffee and cake at the Blue Bird Cafe and watch British waves, far from those of Pulau Weh, upon my eventual return home. 

phieraditya says:
'keep them dumb, distracted and wanting Stuff' --> sadly...true :(
Posted on: Jun 15, 2011
sylviandavid says:
You write such wonderful things! Sylvia
Posted on: Jun 16, 2010
dothoin says:
great suntan steve :-)
Posted on: Jun 15, 2010
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Rust & Cotton
'Rust & Cotton'
Boat in Sabang Bay
Boat in Sabang Bay
A barcode of palm trees
A barcode of palm trees
Unfinished mosque in the heart of …
Unfinished mosque in the heart of…
Sucking toxic television from the …
Sucking toxic television from the…
Radars and Houses
Radars and Houses
Washing Day
Washing Day
Oh cmon, I know my Bahasas bad …
"Oh c'mon, I know my Bahasa's bad…
Take me home daddy!
"Take me home daddy!"
A glimpse of small but perfectly f…
A glimpse of small but perfectly …
(Little Peace) Muju [www.mujuworld…
(Little Peace) Muju [www.mujuworl…
Indonesias Kilmeter Nol or Zero …
Indonesia's Kilmeter Nol or 'Zero…
Rubiah island and blue.
Rubiah island and blue.
Ginge, the resident cat of my bung…
Ginge, the resident cat of my bun…
Andy Coco(nuts) struts his diving …
Andy Coco(nuts) struts his diving…
Stevie and dive pals
Stevie and dive pals
Stevie & Yudi on route to another …
Stevie & Yudi on route to another…
Stevie and fellow Brit southerner …
Stevie and fellow Brit southerner…
Diving Gang :)
Diving Gang :)
Aceh 39
'Aceh 39'
Again as I have parted company wit…
Again as I have parted company wi…
Pulau Weh
photo by: Stevie_Wes