Four rounds of tomato sandwiches, one bottle of lemon tea, ten pairs of undies (you can never have enough undies on the road), a paperback copy of Norwegian Wood by Murakami, and I was set for a pilgrimage down the Aceh west coast to Tapaktuan.
Why Tapaktuan? Because it sounds nice! Try it … Ta-pak-tu-an … see?
Kueen too, looked resplendent and ready to go; a change of oil even if she didn’t need one, but I like to spoil her. We look after each other, and since we’ve been going steady for the last 6000 Kms we’ve never had any problems between us, we get on well, and I must say, when I catch our reflection on a window pane or shopfront, I think we look good together. I’m almost tempted to pop the question, but her papers show she’s legally tied up to someone else. I don’t mind that, I don’t ask questions and we never talk about that sort of thing.
Why the pilgrimage? Aside from a longish break coinciding with the end of Ramadhan and the Idul Fitri celebrations, I’m still on my continuous quest to explore the length of the Acehnese west coast—the strip of land that wore the brunt of the Indian Ocean fury in 2004—curious to see how folks are fairing six years on.
The roads are now mostly good but one can’t escape the legacy of the rebuild—every bridge dons a plaque bearing the name of the organisation or nation that contributed to the reconstruction—USAID, Japan and so on.
All along the coastal road there are villages of tsunami houses, neatly lined up a distance away from the shore line. Most houses are occupied and display the usual vital signs, but some are empty, their surroundings overgrown and unkempt—unlikely shrines to a past too much to bear but too unforgettably etched on everyone’s mind to ever escape the clasps of memory.
The first stop was in Calang for a quick ‘hello’ to my friends from FH. Much to my dismay the compound looked dishevelled and abandoned. The neatly kept veggie patches, once part of a recovery and livelihood program, now were overgrown and bore no resemblance of the vociferous and hopeful mood I happened upon on my first visit. Clueless to what might have changed, I committed to finding out at the first opportunity. For now though, a solitary refreshment break on the jetty to give my backside a break and give Kueen a break from my backside.
The road to Meulaboh was quite uneventful aside from a few specks of rain and a call from a former travelling companion who belongs to the pillion seat like no one else on earth, and one of the few people who truly understands my affinity with two-wheelers and the open road. At present my friend is facing some challenging times and from the first kick-start I wanted to dedicate this adventure to her, with the hope that some of the vibes of the nowhere-I-must-be and no-time-I-need-to-be-there-by will reach her in solidarity.
In Meulaboh I found a room not much bigger than a guitar case, but it was affordable and had a bucket for washing for me not to forget the pleasures of simplicity. The room was furnished with a dresser, a table, a TV set and a tiny strip sagging in the middle for a bed. I wondered if the furniture was placed in before the walls were built, or it was assembled inside, for there is no way it could have fitted through the door and the space between the walls if it came whole. In the room there was also a pray mat, but I really couldn’t fathom where it was supposed to be laid unless it could levitate.
The hotel staff were friendly and relaxed, knowledgeable that during the fasting hours they were not going to be troubled by too many room service requests. No hopes for breakfast either, as during Ramadhan the only meal of the day, before buka puasa, is taken at an hour when my eye lids are firmly pressed together and I had no wish to change that.
Meulaboh is a busy little place. Walking through the markets I got the usual ‘Hello Mister!’ greetings, but this time also two very loud ‘I love you!’ Say what? Smile and keep walking, mister. Wisdom for wisdom’s sake said that this was no Hollywood script or fairy tale where the lone rider saunters into town and the pretty lasses fall at his feet, swept by spells of uncontrollable passion and romance.
Further up by the fishing village I noticed a bit of commotion and a crowd cheering and jeering. A closer inspection revealed a turbulent altercation between two women. I couldn’t really figure out what was going on but it occurred to me that this was the first time I saw a public brawl in all the time I’ve been in Indonesia. I don’t suspect people don’t have public stoushes because tempers don’t fray here, more so it’s because the display of emotions in public is seen as some sort of weakness of character—great place for a sanguine person like me who wears his emotions between his lapel and wrist bands.
Two more things I saw in Meulaboh that I hadn’t seen before: a woman juru parkir—the semi-authorised walking parking meters that relieve you of IDR 1000 every time you leave the motorbike idle for longer than you can say ‘parking fee?’ and a woman becak driver—the Acehnese version of a motorised paddy-cab.
A friend offered to show me around town, and while she was about to turn up six hours later than the time we had agreed, I had a good chuckle with myself thinking about cross-cultural communications and norms, realising that sometimes we are worlds apart and bridging those gaps is no mean feat, and one that perhaps doesn’t need bridging anyway.
She is a tsunami and conflict survivor, explaining matter-of-factly some of the details of those events. The cool and collected style of her narrative confirmed that moving on is a game played with many rules and styles, with each human being finding solace and relief in our own peculiar way. She showed me her old hang out spots by the beach that now are no more and places where there were entire neighbourhoods, which the tsunami has reshaped into a new shore line, changing the physiognomy of the place, but hopefully living it to slow erosion to constantly modify the contours and not another sudden display of nature’s force.
The rain started to come down heavily. The heavens in Meulaboh seemed to want to give the yearly quota of rain in 24 hours, so waiting in the guitar case was not only advisable but the only option. All was well until page 389 of Norwegian Wood, but even after a re-read of the first few chapters, boredom began to show its tentacles. With no respite in sight I thought of reminding the weather that August is too early for the wet season, but arguing with it is an unambiguous losing hand. The only break in the monotony a call from another former travelling companion with similar affinities for the two-wheelers and open roads, but a habit of following too close.
So, wrapped up in plastic like a cut of fine meat in a supermarket freezer I hit the road reciting softly Ta-pak-tu-an – just in case the motivation would fade. I hoped Kueen would not become too resentful as she is quite particular about not getting her sensitive bits wet, but both the weather and her patience were on my side, and just as well. One of the problems with constant rain in these parts of the world is that big chunks of mountains dislodge themselves tumbling down to the asphalt with frightening regularity. The big boulders are are eventually broken down and put to good use to build the retaining walls that hopefully will hold the rest of the mountain in place, but when mud comes down though, it just becomes a soggy and slippery mess.
We made Tapaktuan in good time, and as described by people in the know, the last 50 Kms were scenically beautiful. Tapaktuan is a pretty place, with the streets lined with two-storey wooden houses that don’t seem to have been damaged by the tsunami. I discovered later that the tsunami didn’t get this far south, although the islands in front of the Aceh Selatan district felt the full force of it. I couldn’t tell how far south the tsunami got as the road veered inland at about Nagan Raya, rejoining the coast on the other side of ABDYA.
Looking out at the sunset on the Indian Ocean I was reminded of its beauty, sacredness and the special soothing effect this body of water has on me. I still find it hard to understand how this generous sea could unleash such fury to leave so much death and misery in its wake, but our history is full of mysteries, many we may never solve, we are only asked to reconcile with them to prevent anger and resentment being channelled in the wrong direction.
I wasn’t able to make out the demographics of Tapaktuan, but it struck me that at the edge of town, on a prominent hill, there was a very well maintained Chinese cemetery, in fact, it struck me that in Tapaktuan there were many well maintained cemeteries, more than I had seen anywhere else further up the coast. I don’t suspect that people die in greater numbers in these areas, maybe in other places that have been affected by the tsunami burial grounds have been washed away (?).
The end of Ramadhan and Idul Fitri meant that everyone was busy with their religious and social obligations. Most people were engaged with their mosque activities and visiting family and friends. Shops were closed aside for a small supermarket, the streets were deserted and there was hardly anyone about to fill in the vessels of my curiosity and answer my many questions.
Even the people at the hotel I stayed seemed to vanish into thin air in an act of unreserved trust towards me. After checking in I never saw anyone again of the hotel staff, and when I checked out, two days later, I never had the chance to say ‘thank you, I’ll see you again’ to anyone.
Back on the road, and with a few pairs of undies to spare, I decided to gulp the 550 km journey to Banda Aceh in one hit, with Kueen’s permission, of course. As I rightly predicted the ghostly atmosphere I encountered in Tapaktuan would be the recurring theme in each town and village. Rightly so, the mosques were filled to the brim, but everything else, including service stations was closed, and the only people out and about were the little people.
Little girls walked around in their fine clothes, playing with handbags and soft toys; most boys, right along the length of the journey, were in small ‘armed’ gangs—the toys of choice guns and rifles. One group was even sporting balaclavas and toy explosives, mimicking war games. The few boys without guns were sitting on the verge of the road with their arms folded and lips pursed in dejection.
This particular struck me as odd—the journey took me 10 hours and six districts and in all this time the only toy I saw in boys’ hands was a weapon.
This, and the many more unanswered questions, will surely be the motivating factor to drive me back to Tapaktuan at a more congenial time. For now, back at base, to give my feet, my backside and Kueen a well-deserved rest.
Fotos: Aceh; ’11