By HAL DUELL
I think we can all remember the tsunami of December 26, 2004. The northern Indonesian province of Aceh caught the brunt of it. Indonesia estimates between 220,000 and 330,000 people lost their lives.
The capital city of the province, Banda Aceh, was first rocked by the offshore earthquake and then flooded by the resulting tidal wave. The devastation was immense. Generous disaster relief came in from many nations, including Australia.
I had read of a Tsunami Museum built to commemorate the event, of a site showing a fishing boat resting on top of a house, of another site where a floating diesel-powered electricity generating plant was carried some five kilometers inshore and of nearby Weh Island, or Pulau Weh.
This last is a small island off the coast. It’s a declared wildlife protection area offering a coral reef for snorkeling and diving, basic accommodation and fish fresh from the Andaman Sea.
My main worries before coming to Ache centered on reports in our press concerning the imposition of Sharia Law on both locals and visitors. With the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan starting just days before my visit, I’ll admit to being apprehensive.
An overnight bus ride brought me to Banda Aceh, a trip made memorable by the provision of a blanket to counter the extreme air-conditioning and a stop just before daylight for a meal. The reason for the early meal became apparent as the day unfolded.
Arriving, I found a most laid back city with everyone going about their business as they do all over Indonesia, that is cheerfully and with open smiles and welcoming voices.
The strict dress code that I had anticipated proved to be nothing more than the wearing of the hijab by the majority, but by no means all, of the women. This same attractive and modest head covering is worn with style and aplomb by Muslim women all over the world.
For the rest, it was shirts with shorts or trousers for the men and either dresses or jeans with a top for the women. This is not at all dissimilar to what is seen throughout Indonesia.
My worries were proving to be unfounded.
Being my first day, I decided to visit the main market. After wandering past the usual fresh fruit and vegetable stalls and watching from a bridge as sleekly graceful, wooden deep water fishing boats unloaded their latest catch, I came across a new, post-tsunami, three storey building.
Inside I found a flow of shoppers browsing in air-conditioned comfort where at least 90% of the shops offered an assortment of dresses, fabric, the ubiquitous hijab and children’s clothing. Men hardly got a look in. So much for the marginalization of women that I’d heard so much about.
And the biggest inconvenience? Well, I had been forewarned that Sharia Law was the law and that the daylight fasting regime of Ramadan was enforced. What I discovered this meant was that for the first time since discovering SE Asia over 45 years ago, I could find neither restaurants nor street stalls open where I could sit and enjoy a meal with a drink while watching the street go by.
Ruing my pass on the early morning meal, it was back to my hotel with a furtive packet of Oreos and a wait for sundown.
Day two, and after declaring myself to be a non-Muslim, I sat alone to eat breakfast in the empty hotel restaurant. This was so completely at odds with the usual communal atmosphere at the complimentary breakfasts offered in SE Asian hotels, but the day’s fast had begun.
The morning then centered on a visit to the Tsunami Museum. Suffice to say it is well presented, educational and extremely sobering.
Of equal interest to me was a walk around the park across the street from the museum. This park is large enough to hold two playing fields and is used to commemorate the post-tsunami help Indonesia received from around the world. Ringing it are plaques thanking the 53 donating nations.
After an initial shock followed by a careful check, I sadly realized Australia’s is the only plaque showing signs of being defaced. The metal shield has received hammer blows, and the Australian flag had been scraped almost beyond recognition.
All I could think was, thanks, Tony. You are doing some stellar work nurturing our relationship with our nearest and largest neighbor.
The beached power plant has become a suburban park overflowing with families and laughing school children. After what I had seen so far, I offered a quick thanks to all the gods for laughing school children.
Lunchtime again, so it was back to my room, this time with a bowl of instant noodles, to wait for the sundown siren.
I still have a day trip to Pulau Weh to organize, but with neither the fast nor the slow boats adhering strictly to their schedule, I’ll have to take that as I find it.
Then it will be a sighting of the fishing boat in the rafters on my way to the airport, and so will conclude my all too brief first visit to the rebuilt city of Banda Ache.
It will also conclude my first experience of a jurisdiction under Sharia Law.
The visit will be warmly remembered for a number of reasons, while the experience was only noticeable because of the strict public observation of Ramadan.
Live and let live. It’s what we all want.
By HAL DUELL