Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Pulau Weh: A Drive Around the lsland

The morning was rain-sodden and the tides and currents had changed dramatically, giving the sea an unwelcoming mien.  We donned our swimsuits, prepared a daypack complete with rain jackets, and walked back along the path leading to the tiny, seaside village in Iboih to rent a motorbike for the day.  We were given large helmets and the man offering them up chuckled and mentioned that the aggressive troops of monkeys lining parts of the road should be deterred from attacking us thanks to this bulbous plastic headgear.  He turned out to be a false prophet...

Up and down slick, winding roadways, littered with blankets of leaves and branches knocked to the ground by last night's monsoon from their comfortable arboreal existence.  Garguantuan boulders pushed into the roadway here, a toppled tree-trunk playfully uprooted there... just another day on a motorbike in SE Asia.

 Past a sunken mangrove swamp, destroyed years ago by the tsunami.

We stopped to admire silver-domed mosques. This part of the world has been Islamic since Arab traders arrived in the Middle Ages, trading for cloves and coconuts while simultaneously proselytizing.  These metallic onion-tops blended into and refracted the gray skies above, creating a surreal effect that was difficult to capture on film.

The look-out point to Pulau Klah.  The weather is quite variable on the island as you can see from these two contrasting shots.

The Aceh Province has a fascinating and bloody history.  In a nutshell, the Acehnese had a working relationship with Dutch colonists (see: resource extractors) that became violent and tenuous at times, but generally rolled along somewhat peacefully for centuries.  Briefly, towards the tail-end of WWII, the Japanese occupied the lands and their brief, yet rapacious sojourn was noteworthy only for the punch-drunk amounts of brutality leveled against the inhabitants. 

Until (a largely successful) ceasefire in 2005, the Indonesian government fought a decades long soft-war against the "insurgents" in the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) who were ostensibly battling for an independent state governed by their own dictates (ultra-conservative Sharia Law!), rather than those emerging from Jakarta.  After the 2004 tsunami, with a large influx of foreign aid workers present, the Indonesian army found it more difficult to massacre villagers and the aforementioned laying down of arms was initiated. 

Presently, Aceh is an indolent, lush land where almost all of the women wear head-scarves and almost all of the outside work is done by men, with women relegated to the domestic sphere.  The former GAM now has a legitimate political party, Partai Aceh, and has been making severe gains in local elections, with their gubernatorial candidate, Zaini Abdullah, easily winning the 2012 election. With reactionaries gaining ground across the globe, it appears that Aceh is following suit and giving progressive values a hearty thumbs down.

Bill Hicks would be proud...

Pantai Sumur Tiga.  The longest and most enchanting spit of fine, white sand on the island.  Located on the north-eastern coast.

A house for prayer.

A house for pigeons.

The sleepy port of Kota Sabang.  With around 10,000 inhabitants it is the largest town on the island, a center of commerce and cosmopolitan living.

A mid-way stop on our return home for some Acehnese Coffee (Kopi Aceh).  Starbucks and their Sumatran blend has nothing on the real thing.  A potent jolt is delivered by this muscular brew.

Stale, fish-shaped angle food cake for dipping.

Despite the fact that the majority of marijuana grown for sale in tourist centers in Indonesia (i.e. Bali, Lombok, the Gilli Islands) is produced in the mountainous rainforests of Aceh, sale and consumption of the herb is punishable by death in the region.

This piece of wood is clearly stoned.

The rain had altogether ceased by the afternoon and our drive home appeared to be much quicker.

 After passing through the last crop of buildings and entering the mountainous region heading back to Iboih Beach, we noticed that the roads had awoken in our absence and with the ending of the rains came the incessant droning of insect life in the forest and the presence of a troop of long-tailed macaques (in the local patois = cheeky monkeys) patrolling a particularly steep, uphill slope.

As our engine-clatter neared and we dropped into second gear, a grizzled, pink-faced patriarch leveled his vicious, beady eyes directly at us and roared into a full sprint.  We had been warned of their aggression towards the orang bule (white people, foreigners, tourists,etc) and their propensity for muggings, but were not quite prepared for this brazen act, especially with our fancy, Robo-Cop helmets supposedly providing protection against all beasts of land and air.  Big enough to topple our bike in the event of a collision, with jaws strong enough to pry a sizable chunk of flesh from our exposed thighs, the angry beast hurtled towards us and lunged.  Nellie kicked wildly and screamed at the top of her lungs and, with my heart galloping out of my chest, I swerved to the left, narrowly avoiding his greedy, outstretched paws.

Unscathed, but rattled, we continued onwards to only encounter another troop of macaques around the next razor-sharp curve.  Panic set in again as I gunned the engine, preparing for the worst.  This time however, the brigands were listless, probably sated from their last violent act of theft, and barely noted our passing as we roared by.

Nearly a half-hour later we arrived at Land's End.  "Point Zero".  The northernmost tip of Indonesia. Reached through a remote strip of protected, dense forest where we encountered some strange birds and a giant, black, swarthy wild boar, this could easily be the setting for a cataclysmic reckoning of humanity.

Yet, instead of the Apocalypse occurring or being able to romantically rattle off some lines from Matthew Arnold's fine body of work, we were just harassed by a bevy of Sumatran men that at first appeared innocuous and playful, but turned slightly menacing after we denied their one-thousandth request for a photograph. 

Time to leave the end of the Earth and head home.

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