Published: March 7th 2011September 28th 2010
A predatory mob of taxi drivers hunts wide-eyed passengers who have landed in Banda Aceh. Once separated from the mob, the drivers cruise safely (compared to other parts of Indonesia), but their cars rattle from loose screws, malfunctioning parts, and subwoofers that dent trunks and eardrums.
Six Years After the Tsunami
I’m dropped off at Hotel Medan and wait for the concierge. The large photo behind the desk captures the violent force that displaced a ship miles from the ocean smashing the hull at the hotel’s entrance. Smaller photographs next to the elevator show the city leveled to the ground, shredded remains include half the city’s population (National Geographic Photo 1
, Photo 2
—different from the hotel lobby photo—note: the ship was removed from the entrance).
Wrecks serve as memorials, but also whet the human appetite for calamity, which is why tourists can take the “Tsunami Tour.” What is the ethical time-line where tragedy and death become memorials? A few years? A generation? A century? Is it unethical for locals who suffered to make money off the disaster? How long should a filmmaker wait before turning such an event into an award-winning film or disastrous thriller?
Volunteers and divers compose the majority of foreigners. Wikitravel notes that NGOs have dropped from 850 to 65 because the Indonesian government refused to renew permits for those with religious agendas (Banda Aceh
I wish the South Korean government would outlaw similar religious proselytizers who offer “Free English Tutoring” to children on the term that students will learn in church from bibles. It’s like infomercials. You know it’s a lie if it’s “free.”
There are religious folk with noble intentions of saving souls. My sacrilegious opinion is that many religious organizations take advantage of people who are suffering or in need, so any
god package combined with food, roof, or “x
need" equals misleading conversions. I guess even God needs to dress up his message these days. Rant over.
The hotel is super clean, spacious, with hot water and disposable Styrofoam slippers. Be wary of the fish and chips. Mine comes with a baby grasshopper fried onto one fillet. A month ago, I would’ve pushed the plate aside. Now, I think, Gross, but the fries are okay . . .
I meet my dive buddy at the airport before the ambitious mob can carry
him off, and we head to Ulee Lheu Harbour. We wait for the 16:00 ferry with plenty time for conversation covering plots-that-should-be-made-into-movies and the horrible fig snacks bought from the harbour store.
What’s Ugly with Spines and Litters the Ocean’s Floor?
Hint: Japanese Delicacy
We float from the shore on our backs, looking forward to a night dive. It’s the same path we took earlier in the day, but our tanks get hitched on rocks.
My buddy says, “The tide’s too low. Pull off the rock and come closer to the line.”
I rock back-and-forth like a turtle on its back. Instinct kicks in and I push off the rock and it BURNS! My god, my hand’s sizzling with pain.
I feel nauseous, but stand solid. My buddy helps me out of the BCD, and I head back to the dive center. I don’t want to be melodramatic, so I calmly ask the first Dive Master, “Could you help me out?”
Reactions: “Holy Christ!” “That’s the worst I’ve ever seen!” They start yelling out to one another. “Hey, you gotta come see this!” “Oh, that’s bad.” “She was so polite about the
whole thing. I’ve seen a grown man run in crying and screaming from injuries half as bad.” Note: The first photo is after half the spines are broken off.
After DM Dave clips the long spines, he gives me a stern look. “Next is the hard part, and you’re not going to like it.”
I look at the inky intrusions and wonder what could possibly come next.
“If you want it to heal, you’ll have to grind lime juice on it. Or, you can do what the locals do,” and he demonstrates by slamming his hand on the wall. It’s the only way to break the spines that are under the skin.
In the end, I hold my hand in hot water, pour vinegar on the wounds, and rub away with a sour lime to prevent the biggest danger which would be an infection. The Chicken Rendang at the end of the beach is a welcome distraction. Thanks to the lime, the black specks disappear from my hand. A couple days later, I’m handed a wooden spatula to grind away at the remaining spines. It takes about 2-3 weeks for my hand to fully heal.
From the fried grasshopper to the sea urchin’s brilliant defense system of sharp spines, my adventure to the Northern part of Sumatra is jinxed. Bad karma follows in many forms from sea sickness to alcohol sickness and the list goes on.
Still, I marvel at the other end of the karma pole. I recall Paulo Coelho’s beautiful maxim in The Alchemist
that “when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
In traveling, I’ve found a liberty that a part of me always yearned for, but the skeptic in me didn’t believe existed.
The blue visibility of the ocean unveils the Napoleon Wrasses, big species with their strange humped heads. Through strong currents, we push and pull our way to a stunning octopus. Its purple body contracts while its tentacles move with surprising speed and grace. We float mesmerized by its fluid geometry.
We do another shore dive, spotting the whiskers of catfish, a well-camouflaged scorpion fish, and new nudibranchs in the muck. Unable to spot the celebrated seahorses before our no deco time kicks in, we return to the surface. After the otherworldly peace below, the
rain comes as surprise. We float on our backs and kick to shore, allowing the rain to stream down our grinning faces.
Back on dry land, we play chess while carnivorous mosquitoes feast on our toes. We devour Mama Donuts’ forbidden pastries stuffed with bananas and sprinkled with crystalline sugar. We laugh to tears with hilarious episodes of “The IT Crowd.”
We head to dinner down the black beach, lighting patches of sand and scampering crabs with a head torch. One evening, and never again, phosphorescent creatures wash ashore with the waves. The bright specks disappear within seconds, but leave indelible impressions on the mind. All photos are courtesy of my dive buddy. Thank you!
Next Stop: Kota Kinabalu (Mt Kinabalu: Mud in the Washing Machine, Ice in the Shower
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