Promise of Paradise

Trip Start Aug 11, 2011
Trip End Sep 08, 2012

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Where I stayed
Fatimah's Guesthouse

Flag of Indonesia  , Aceh,
Thursday, May 3, 2012

The word for island in Indonesian (and Malay) is 'Pulau,' and we will use it a lot in the coming weeks as we travel through Indonesia, a country composed entirely of islands, albeit some of them extremely large. Sumatra is the sixth largest pulau in the world so whether we include it as part of our 'Island Chronicles' blogs is debatable - I say yes, making Sumatra the eleventh island we have visited so far on this trip. Now we are about to visit the twelfth - Pulau Weh, located about an hour by fast ferry from Banda Aceh. Pulau Weh is the northern most part of Indonesia, in fact, the tip of one of its headlands is known as Kilometre Zero. The fast ferry is modern and comfortable and we are the only westerners on board; this is the low season for tourism, though this part of northern Sumatra is still a journey too far for most tourists, other than divers.

Pulau Wey is famous for its diving, there's little else to do here - there are not many beaches, no accessible surf that I know of and the jungle is thick and challenging for all but the hardiest trekkers. But hey, if it's diving your after then it is regarded as one of the great scuba spots in Asia.We aren't divers but we are avid snorkelers, and that's not a bad way to catch a glimpse of Pulau Weh's underwater charms.

The ferry docks at the port for the main town of Sabang. Here we catch a motor Bijak to take us to the main diving centre and tourist resort of Iboih, about 20 kilometres away on the northernmost peninsula of the island. The sidecar isn't big enough for both of us and our gear so I ride pillion and off we go. It's an exhilarating journey through picturesque countryside - jungle clad mountains, small farms and numerous villages. Along the way we dodge cows on the road and sheets of cloves laid out to dry on the verges. In fact, the aroma of clove and other spices waft through the air, along with the perfumes of exotic flowers. The sun is bright and hot but the air is cool from the breeze off the sparkling Andaman Sea which stretches out before us as we climb and descend dozens of hills and ridges along the way. In the villages, local people live in simple wooden houses or bamboo huts and in every town and hamlet there are the shiny domes and tiled minarets of mosques with the star and crescent logo on top.

About an hour later we reach the end of the road - the small hamlet of Iboih. There's a lot less here than I expected, just some haphazard buildings, cafes, souvenir shops and a wharf. We are dropped off under a shady tree and are immediately approached by local men offering us accommodation. We have a quick check of a room in a guesthouse overlooking the little harbour full of small boats but are put off, not only by the scruffy entrance, but also by the sad squat toilet in the bathroom. No, we plan to spend five days here and already have an idea of where we want to stay - the LP recommended Yulia's Guesthouse, wherever that is?

We are directed to walk along a footpath at the end of the road, and in 500 metres we will come to Yulia's. We set off, fully laden, along the paved walkway which hugs the side of a hill overlooking a bay of transparent blue water over coral reef. The path goes up steps and down and soon comes to a pretty little clearing with a lawn, a beach, a dive centre and some shops and cafes. It's bloody hot mate and we are already shattered with another hill to climb and a further 300 metres signposted to the guesthouse, so we stop for a drink in a little place called Momma's.

The jolly Indonesian girl, daughter of Momma and now a Momma herself, makes a mean fruitshake and she tells us that Fatimah's, just up the hill has a waterfront bungalow vacant if we want it.  I run up the hill and find an elderly lady, Fatimah, in the kitchen of a run down weatherboard shack that was obviously once a restaurant. She gives me a key and directs me down a steep flight of dodgy steps made out of concrete and coral. I don't hold out much hope for the bungalow, judging from the state of Fatimah's house and another ramshackle hut on the hillside, but at the bottom of the steps I find a brand new wooden bungalow jutting out over that transparent blue sea. Inside there's a big bed with mozzie net and the smartest little bungalow bathroom that I've seen on our whole trip. I take it, and at $11 per night it is a steal.

Once ensconced in our waterfront home we immediately hit the water having first hired fins from the little shop in the hamlet (we already bought our own masks and snorkels back in Thailand). Water is sublime and once away from the shore the reef has some good coral and stacks of fish, especially around a clump of semi-submerged rocks. There is also a sunken fishing boat out here, a ghostly thing to dive around as the sun filters down and flickers over its timbers.

Back on the surface, we relax on our deck and watch the sun sink behind the hills of Pulau Weh, a place of complete tranquility. For meals we just walk up the coral steps and down the path into the hamlet where Momma does a surprisingly good array of both local and Indo-western food. There is also Dee Dee's Kitchen for regular Indonesian cuisine, Dee Dee being Momma's cousin, and the Dolphin Cafe next door for morning coffee and wifi. Please note, there is no beer on sale here, being as it's a conservative Muslim Island.

One night there is a blackout in the hamlet (a common occurrence we learn) and all the cafes are shut, so we walk to Iboih village with the aid of a torch. Nothing open here either, we can't even get pot noodles. Resigning ourselves to a night without eating, we walk back to the bungalow but decide to keep going along the path towards Yulia's. About 200 metres further on we find a cafe that not only has generator electricity and wifi, but also sells beer, at hugely inflated prices which I decline to pay, sticking to my new, healthy tipple instead - ice cold lime or lemon juice. This place is also the hangout for the divers who seem a bit cliquey for us lesser species, the "common snorkeller".

The divers aren't that bad of course, and it is a divers' paradise after all. The thing is, there are probably fewer than thirty other westerners staying in the whole of Iboih, if not all of Pulau Weh, so there is a sense of shared adventure here as we sit in the flickering, on-off light in this remote and exotic place.

For a change to our usual routine we hire a boat and pilot to take us out to some more challenging dive spots. Our boatman motors us to a rocky outcrop a couple of kilomteres away, a place where the ocean swells roll and the water is indigo with depth. We go over the side next to the rocks and are left breathless by the majesty of the sight. A steeply sloping underwater hill that disappears into an abyss is covered in coral and abounding with colourful fish, some quite large. Despite the looming darkness below us, the water is crystal clear and we are able to swim with the current around the outcrop before clambering back onto the boat. We are then taken to a further three spots where we drift with the current alongside a tiny island just across from Iboih called Pulau Riah. The coral here has been damaged by the 2004 tsunami but we still see a barracuda amongst the millions of parrot fish and others that munch on the coral.

We later drift to a small coral beach on Pulau Riah where we we go ashore and have coffee at a tiny local's cafe. Pulau Riah, about two or three kilometres long by one kilometre wide, was once a port and on a sign post we see some old photos from the 1920s showing a large passenger ship docked here before setting off on the Haaj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Our remaining days on Pulau Weh are spent reading, writing blogs and doing at least one daily snorkel along the reef outside our bungalow - we have quickly adapted to the Pulau pace of life. This slow, languid existence is made all the more pleasurable by the villagers in the hamlet who are extremely friendly and laid back. It is mostly the women we talk to - despite their religion, they rarely wear hijabs and are very talkative and jovial, happy in their simple life on this pleasant island. 

On our last day we are sitting in Momma's having an afternoon drink when a couple of westies walk past and recognise us. Takes me a while to clock who they are but Sheila gets it straight away. Tommy and Lily from Belgium and Holland are a young couple we were introduced to in Georgetown, Malaysia, over a month and a half ago. They are travel friends of Nico, an American guy we met on Koh Phayam way back in March. Their travel story is a cautionary tale. 

After Penang they flew to Sulawesi, Indonesia, where they found the travelling difficult. When they left they took the public ferry to Java where they slept on deck along with 80 Papuan ' warriors ' who befriended them. During the night they were robbed of everything - laptop, camera, money. They reported the theft and the ship was locked down. The Papuans would have rampaged the ship had the gear not been discovered first, having been stolen by an organised, but stupid, gang of thieves who were pilfering the entire ship. Out of all the victims, only Tommy complained. The upshot of it all is that he was detained by the police who wanted to keep his returned belongings as evidence and it took him some fast talking to blag his way out of the drama. Luckily, he had learned to speak some Indonesian while in Sulewesi, out of neccessity, as no one there speaks English.

That night Tommy and I have a jam session on our verandah before saying our farewells. We are leaving the following afternoon, having planned our get-out in advance. We will take a taxi or Bejak to the port, catch the 4.30pm ferry back to Banda Aceh and hang around the bus station until 8pm when we ride the night bus back to Medan. It all sounds so easy now - a few months ago we would be freaking out at the prospect of plunging headlong into the heart of a foreign land on a nightbus. What also keeps us going is the thought of where we are headed after Medan, another Sumatran destination that offers the promise of paradise.
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