Cyanide Fishing and Tsunamis

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November 1st 2012
Published: November 29th 2012
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Stunning views over Pulau WehStunning views over Pulau WehStunning views over Pulau Weh

A rather nice island. We liked it here
Next we were heading to the state of Aceh, the strictest Islamic area in Indonesia. Did you know that Indonesia is the country with the largest Muslim population in the world? I was surprised by this fact. The Aceh region is interesting because it has a special autonomy which allows it to apply Sharia law, which is not the case in the rest of Indonesia. This includes laws where unmarried couples can receive 100 lashes for committing adultery, and married people can be sentenced to death by stoning for the same offence. The lashings may be administered in public, with large crowds watching. Sometimes they are also broadcast on television, to serve as a lesson to others. Under Sharia law, homosexuality is also illegal and is punishable by long prison sentences.

So why does Aceh have Sharia law while the rest of the country is more relaxed? Well, over the years, Aceh state had battled to become an independent country - an Islamic Republic. Indonesia refused to let it go because of it's huge natural oil reserves. For decades the state was a combat zone, with constant armed conflicts and guerrilla warfare raged over the issue of Aceh's independence. It's
The race is on!The race is on!The race is on!

Motorbike and sidecar races across the island, laden with our backpacks
a familiar story in many parts of the world. Finally, a compromise was reached in 2004. Aceh would remain part of Indonesia, but it would be allowed to pass it's own laws unique to the state.

It was a twelve-hour overnight bus ride to reach the most northern sea port in Aceh. It was a classic Asian overnight journey in that the air-conditioning was turned up so high that my toes went numb. I could practically see my breath when I spoke. A few degrees colder and icicles would be forming on the luggage racks. They provided blankets which everyone was hudding underneath like it was a nuclear winter. Why not just set it at a decent temperature to begin with? You wouldn't deliberately flood the bus with water and then give every passenger a mop and bucket. So why make it like Siberia and then give people blankets?

The other delight of Asian night buses is where the stereo is cranked up really high, blaring out local music through poor quality speakers. No-one enjoys it, not even the hardened locals. I suspect the only reason for the excessive volume is to either keep the driver awake after
Goodbye BeardGoodbye BeardGoodbye Beard

The gingery beard had to be shaved off. It was itching too much and I was starting to look like an orang-utan
ten hours of driving, or to mask the screams of the passengers as he overtakes on blind bends. Luckily we were spared the audio onslaught. Or so we thought. We had all drifted off to sleep, when we were rudely awoken at 3am by the driver suddenly whacking the music up to full volume. At 3am, are you bloody kidding?? Why, oh why? I wish they had given me a baseball bat instead of a blanket. I would have run down the front and battered the stereo into tiny little pieces. I would rather be subjected to a 24 hour marathon of the combined works of Michael Bolton and Boyzone than listen to this thunderous rubbish. If I owned a bus company, I'd have each speaker fitted with a volume control, to allow each passenger to choose their own level of torture.

We arrived in Banda Aceh around 8am to find our bus surrounded by a small mob of taxi drivers. As soon as we stepped off the bus we entered a frantic session of shouting, shoving and bag pulling.

"Where you going Mister?"

"I take you, good price"

Several people had already decided we were
The Secret Stash of BeerThe Secret Stash of BeerThe Secret Stash of Beer

Shhhhh! Don't tell anyone
going with them and started grabbing our bags out of our hands. It became a tug-of-war, and Zena had to have a sharp word to get them to back off. We battled through the crowd of taxi touts and regrouped on a grassy knoll where we planned our departure in peace and quiet. We eventually negotiated a good price with a local who spoke very little English and had a car that was lucky to make the journey.

We were heading to the port, to catch a ferry to the island of Pulau Weh. Between town and port was a barren area, almost like a no-mans land. This was an area which the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 had left devastated. The state of Aceh was one of the areas which was worst hit, with the tsunami leaving a trail of destruction along 800km of coastline, and killing an estimated 170,000 people. Houses, shops and schools were all levelled. Harbours, airports and roads were all destroyed. Farmland and crops were wiped out. Buses, trucks and cars were swept away like toys. The power of the wave was so immense that boats were swept as far as 4km inland, including
The power of a tsunamiThe power of a tsunamiThe power of a tsunami

A boat was left deposited on the top of this house
a vessel weighing 2400 tonnes. Some people had enough warning to reach high ground. Once the waters subsided, they came back down to find their towns and villages destroyed, with dead bodies littered amongst all the rubble and splintered wood that was once their homes. Surviving in the days immediately following the tsunami was tough. No accommodation, no transport, and very little food. Relief help would not be coming to all areas. Survivors had to sort through the rubble and dead bodies trying to identify relatives and find enough food to survive. Burying the dead was an insurmountable task, and the oppressive heat caused a terrible stench of dead bodies and rotting food. Much later, many of the bodies would be gathered up and buried in mass anonymous graves of up to 50,000 people. Some families did not even know where their relatives were buried, and had to mourn without a final resting place. This truly was a tragedy on an epic scale.

We reached the port to find the ferry terminal packed with local families. This weekend was a Muslim public holiday and the queue for tickets was dishearteningly long. Zena and Aliz stood in line while I
Fishy Sights and DelightsFishy Sights and DelightsFishy Sights and Delights

The underwater creatures recently seen off the coast
guarded our backpacks. After 40 minutes of patient queuing, we realised it was the wrong bloody queue! This was the queue for the sloooow ferry which was the cheaper option that the locals went for. We wanted the fast ferry, and guess what? There had been no queue at all for that counter. Bearing in mind that the English invented queuing, and we had much experience in the process, on this occasion we'd failed disgracefully over a schoolboy error. Finally, armed with tickets, we boarded the fast ferry. We had "standard" tickets, which got us a seat. If we'd have bought VIP tickets we would have got life-jackets too.

We spent three days on the island of Pulau Weh, in the small "village" of Gapang which was an isolated cove with a smattering of guest houses and beach shack restaurants. We hung out with a lovely couple from Melbourne called Jai and Lou. With this being a strict Islamic area, alcohol was not permitted. The punishment for violating this was 40 lashes according to Sharia law, although apparently there is some leniency for tourists. Anyway, the local diving school had a secret stash for sale. It was hidden behind
Local BanquetLocal BanquetLocal Banquet

The photo may not do it justice, but this was an utterly delicious spread of local food courtesy of Mama Jungle
a row of soda water in their fridge. We made good use of this supply.

No trip to Gapang is complete without meeting Mama Donut. This lady is a local legend and an inspiration to everyone. She's an elderly lady who walks the beach every day selling homemade delights such as donuts, banana fritters and spring rolls. She has been doing it for 27 years, and her motivation has been to give her children a good education. She's put six out of seven of them through university so far!! It's estimated that she's sold over a million donuts in her 27 years. Truly amazing. We tried her goodies, and they were absolutely delicious.

We were for some serious beach time and snorkelling, and in my case some diving. This area had a reputation for some of the finest diving in Asia. And it did not disappoint! On offer for your viewing pleasure were stingrays, lionfish and all manner of gorgeous creatures. My personal favourite was an underwater beastie that I had never clapped eyes on before. I didn't even know what it was. It wasn't a fish and it wasn't a squid. It was like a little hovercraft
Sunshine and SmilesSunshine and SmilesSunshine and Smiles

Another sunny day in paradise
with a face of tentacles gently rippling away. It was a mottled brown to begin with, but when it saw me it changed colour and it's frilly undercarriage turned neon blue.

I did my first wreck dive, swimming down to a rusty hulk of a vessel that was teeming with fish. I didn't dare swim inside, but when I peered into the murky interior I saw hundreds of fish quietly shimmying away in the darkness together like it was the hot social event of the month. A silent disco maybe.

I also did a "volcanic dive", down to a series of volcanic vents on the ocean bed. There were dozens of fissures violently spewing sulphurous gases which bubbled up to the surface. It was a beautiful sight. As you swam closer to the vents it got deliciously warm, just like being in hot springs. There was also some underwater apparatus on the ocean floor, linked to a solar-powered buoy on the surface. This was an earthquake monitoring system of which there are dozens scattered off the Sumatran coastline. I think it was part of a tsunami early warning system.

Prior to one of my dives, I was
Mama DonutMama DonutMama Donut

The amazing Mama Donut and her box of delicious treats. I defy anyone not to devour one of these and lick their fingers afterwards in unashamed glee
experiencing some "plumbing problems" and kept rushing to the loo armed with a large roll of toilet paper. Thankfully it eased off, but as I boarded the boat for the days dive, I thought "what if I need an emergency toilet visit?" I'd be 20 metres underwater, inside a wetsuit with scuba gear strapped round me. Not an ideal situation to have a squirty bum. What would you do?? I knew all the underwater signals, including "I'm out of air". But I wasn't aware of one to indicate a toilet emergency. My PADI course did not train me for this. Luckily my dive was incident free.

We saw a generous variety of fish whilst snorkelling too. But we got also swam into an unwelcome shoal of jellyfish. They were almost too tiny to see, but left you with dozens of stings that felt like a painful heat rash. Zena and I also got swept out to sea by a riptide. The current was too strong to swim against, so we did the time-honoured technique of swimming sideways to the rip until it eased off.

One evening we went for a walk and saw a huge sign dominating the
The amazing cuttlefishThe amazing cuttlefishThe amazing cuttlefish

Showing off his neon frilly bits (photo from
road with an anti-drugs slogan translated into English. It said "Drugs is a slowly killing. Please careful your life without drugs". If you're going to make a twenty-foot high sign in English, at least get someone who speaks native English to proof-read it first!!

The food in Gapang was fairly uninspiring. Every beach-shack restaurant had practically the same menu, which included some dubious breakfast choices such as tuna & avocado toasties, and the delightful sounding "vegetables-on-toast". For evening meals we saw an item called "Banana and Cheese", which are two items which should never be found on the same plate. The drink choices included Pocari Sweat, Soya Wilk, Pulpy Orange and something mysterious which was just called "The Bottle". One night we ordered a Family Banquet which included a few tasty dishes accompanied by a plate of ropy old tuna that tasted of barbecued leather. The woman seemed so proud when she brought out the tuna that we didn't want to disappoint and offend her. We considered hiding it in the tree above us, or taping it to the underside of the table. In the end we smuggled it home for the hotel dog who apparently would "eat anything".
Deserted BeachDeserted BeachDeserted Beach

After the muslim holiday had finished, we practically had the place to ourselves
By he wouldn't even go near the tuna!

After several days of disappointing food, I headed to a place at the far end of the beach. I say "far end"' but the entire length of Gapang can be walked in five minutes, so it was hardly a major undertaking. The place was called Mama Jungle, and was always empty. But just maybe this could be an undiscovered gem that would provide some culinary excitement. I walked in to find a woman sleeping in the middle of the floor, escaping the midday heat. She woke up, and I enquired if she was serving lunch. She didn't speak any English, so she went to bring another lady out from the back. She didn't speak any either, so I tried the International Sign Language for food. ie, bringing imaginary cutlery to your mouth in an eating motion (Although equally it might have looked like I was playing an imaginary set of tiny drums). This didn't bring any response either, so this second woman went out in search of someone else to help me. Finally she came back with a guy. But he only spoke limited English, so we had a very short
The friendly neighbourhood geckoThe friendly neighbourhood geckoThe friendly neighbourhood gecko

Keeping you safe from mosquitoes while you sleep
and simple conversation which went something like this

Me: Food?

Him: No

Me: Tonight?

Him: Yes

We went back in the evening and the place was shrouded in darkness. We walked in and they turned the lights on for us. We asked to see a menu but apparently there wasn't one! So we went through the torturous process of trying to remember our favourite Indonesian dishes, only to be told each time that they didn't have it. We eventually gave in and just asked them to bring enough food for four people. When it arrived, it was the tastiest food we'd had all week. What a discovery!

Whilst on the island, I heard about the unscrupulous practice of cyanide fishing, and how it has affected Indonesia. Cyanide fishing is where divers use sodium cyanide to capture tropical fish. When the chemical is used in strong concentrations, it will paralyse a fish, allowing it to be caught and brought up to the boat. This was commonly used in the Philippines during the 1980's, and it was estimated that 90% of the world's tropical fish came from the Philippines and were caught in this manner. Eventually the Western World brought economic pressure to the Philippines, and threatened to ban tropical fish imports. This caused the Filipino government to make cyanide fishing illegal.

However, cyanide fishing reared it's ugly head again in Indonesia, due to an insatiable demand for certain tropical fish by the Chinese. The Chinese believethat eating types of fish called Grouper and Wrasse will increase virility. But they must be eaten fresh. Therefore, there is a huge demand for Chinese restaurants to display live fish in a tank, which the discerning punter can then choose a fish himself for his meal. The lips of a Napoleon Wrasse are of special interest as an aphrodisiac, and a dish cooked from just the lips can cost upwards of $400. A single live fish can fetch several thousand dollars on the Chinese market. This makes cyanide fishing a very attractive option throughout the 13,000 islands on Indonesia. A young Indonesian male can make three times as much in a month by cyanide fishing than a university-educated civil servant would make.

So why is cyanide fishing so bad? Well, the grouper and wrasse are huge fish. They require a high dosage of cyanide to paralyse them. A diver will dissolve a number of cyanide tablets in a "squeezy bottle", and the fish will be pursued underwater. Typically, the fish will be chased into a crevice where the diver will squirt the cyanide at the fish and then retrieve it once paralysed. But all the smaller fish and invertebrates in the surrounding area will be affected, and the dosage will be high enough to kill them. Back in the mid 90's, there were huge stretches of coral reefs left desolate and without life, due to cyanide fishing. At one point, the Chinese themselves wanted a piece of the action and sent fleets of boats down to the Indonesian island of Papua. These boats were destroying all the fishing grounds which the local people relied on to survive. So apparently the locals stormed aboard the Chinese fishing vessels and killed everyone aboard!


29th November 2012

I accidentally came across your blog and found it both interesting and educational. Great work.
30th November 2012

well done ;-)
Thanks! I enjoyed reading your blog. It was very informative. Although the criticism seems to outweigh the positive elements, I appreciate your dark humor. We traveled a lot in middle America and I was reminded of our experiences there. Take care and keep up the good writing Sean

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