Tsunami Memories

Trip Start Aug 06, 2011
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Trip End Oct 06, 2013


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Flag of Indonesia  , Sumatra,
Monday, July 2, 2012

So where were you on December 26th, 2004? It should be one of those dates that lives on in infamy- an earthquake of magnitude 9.3 struck off the western coast of Sumatra (a 1,200km section of the earth’s crust shifted beneath the Indian ocean and the earthquake released stored energy equivalent to over more than 23,000 Hiroshima bombs). Banda Aceh was the closest major city to the earthquake's epicenter, and suffered catastrophic damage and death when a tsunami struck shortly after the quake. At it's peak the tsunami reached speeds of 500 km/hr and heights of over 60 feet, and it traveled over 5 miles inland. Over 167,000 people died in the Aceh area (out of a total of 270,000 in 14 different countries) and many more were injured and an entire community was wiped out.

Perhaps because of the holiday timing, the outpouring of genuine concern and help was immediate and heartfelt, unlike any relief effort before or since. About US $14 billion was raised internationally which was unprecedented, not only in the amount of money raised but also in the proportion of funding from the general public, and the speed with which money was pledged or donated.

The only positive to come out of this tragedy was that it also wiped out a low level independence movement that had seen a violent conflict between the Indonesian government and a Free Aceh Movement that had killed thousands of people over 20 years. Not only was world attention now focused on this previously unheard of area but many of the combatants were among the tsunami casualties. This forced a peace process that has resulted in a special autonomy for the region of Aceh- a more conservative brand of Islam is practiced in this area so that has meant the imposition of the controversial sharia law as well as stricter dress codes for women in particular.

With this as a backdrop, we debated whether or not it was somewhat ghoulish to engage in 'tragedy tourism' but given that it has been almost 8 years since the tsunami struck, we thought it would be more of an exploration of the worldwide generosity and human spirit that helped rebuild a completely decimated city. There are very few reminders of that fateful event but we did visit one that is revered as a Noah’s Ark, a 100-foot wooden boat that crashed down on top of a house, providing refuge for 59 people who insist they would have died without its shelter.

There was also PLTD Apung I, a floating diesel power plant, that had been docked at the Ulee Lheue Harbor when the tsunami pushed it five kilometers inland, like Dorothy’s Kansas farmhouse crash-landing in Oz. The vessel, 63 meters long, was owned by state power company, and was generating electricity for Banda Aceh. Ominously neighbors suggest that a dozen bodies may still languish beneath the ship.

Another object deemed miraculous from the tsunami is the Rahmatullah Mosque in Aceh Besar district, which survived the disaster mostly in tact despite being near the oceanfront. Local residents are convinced that divine intervention saved the mosque. This was also the one stop where we encountered an overt hostility from many of the locals in and around the mosque. Banda Aceh, in totality, was noticeably less friendly when compared to our other stops in Indonesia and, indeed, much of Asia, but we still weren't prepared for the nasty looks and physical abuse we got here (it was probably a minority but it made for a very uncomfortable visit despite adhering to the required dress code). I'm not sure we expected any sort of group-applied gratitude but given the number of well funded NGO's and aid agencies that poured into the area in the years following the disaster, I would have thought a much more tolerant (if not engaging) attitude toward Westerners would have developed. We also dropped in on the 'Aceh Thanks The World Park' and found the marker for Canada, and we visited the neighbouring Tsunami Museum which offered up poignant reminders of the tragedy. The town itself didn't seem to have many visual scars from that fateful day and, in fact, looked like any other town in Indonesia (outside of the roads which will have to deteriorate greatly before matching the chaotic mess in the rest of the country)- we were left wondering how a town that was largely rebuilt just 8 years ago managed to age so rapidly?? 

And while waiting for a boat ride to Pulau Weh we conducted a video taped 10 minute interview with a couple of University girls who were studying English and planned to become teachers. Apparently this was a course assignment they had to complete so they were hanging around the ferry terminal waiting for willing English-speaking victims. It was good fun although disconcerting when we turned the conversation around and asked them about their future plans including travel- they thought they were going to be "terrible" teachers and didn't see any travel in their future because their fathers wouldn't allow it- standing next to each other, but world's apart!

The island of Pulau Weh is known for it's diving but it's well off the beaten path so we knew we weren't in for any type of 5 star treatment. A couple of days in a 'lodge' with no power (hot humid nights without even a working fan!!), no water (to wash off those hot humid nights!!), and a rodent roommate that DH estimated to be the size of a Saint Bernard combined with a nearby dive shop that made a Boxing Day Sale look quiet and orderly (and when does a wetsuit get so old that even a third world rental shop should throw it out?) did take a bit of the magic out of what had to be some of the best coral reefs I have ever seen. DH is still in diving retirement but decided to go along on the boat ride- small boat and big swells make DH a very sick girl- now she really hates diving!!

Back in Banda Aceh we caught an early morning ride to the airport in a car that had Cowboy music on full volume (presumably for our benefit) at the same time the 5am calls to prayer were blasting over the mosque speakers. Sometimes the journey is about the little wows like this. 
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