The Jewel of Banda Aceh

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Sari is a Muslim feminist, university professor, and peace activist, not to mention PhD.  The first time I saw her she was running toward me through a light rain in central Banda Aceh, Indonesia.  I stood in front of the main Mosque, with all skin duly covered; I wore long pants, long sleeved shirt and scarf to cover my hair.  As if anyone could be wooed by my stringy thin hair.  But this was a mosque and I’d been instructed to dress appropriately.

Her toothy smile grew with every stride toward me.  We made quick introductions and then she found us a becak driver and hurriedly gave him directions to her home.  Max, my son, and I piled into the tiny motorcycle side car, luggage and all.  We crouched under the plastic tarp while Dirk, my husband, climbed on the seat behind the driver.  Sari disappeared.

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The view from inside the becak en-route to Sari's house from downtown Banda Aceh.
The view from inside the becak en-route to Sari’s house from downtown Banda Aceh.

We motored off into traffic and what now was heavy rain.  Max told me about apes who crush leaves to make medicines, wondered whether black holes could swallow two suns whole at once, and brainstormed ways to design jet-packs.  Such are the daily conversations when living with an eight year old boy.  I watched the streets of Banda Aceh go by.  While similar to Malaysia, the feel is more like Cambodia, but with more hijabs.  I didn’t see a single woman with uncovered hair.

Fifteen minutes later we were at Sari’s house.

I first discovered Sari on couchsurfing.org, just two days prior.  With Max having a week off of school, we decided to go somewhere.  Dirk had heard good things about Sabang Island, so we booked a few nights at a budget beach-side resort there, and set to find a place to stay in Banda Aceh for one night in transit.  I sent a few requests to people on the couchsurfing.org website and Sari was the first to accept.  “Meet me at the main mosque, Baiturahman,” were her instructions, adding, “please wear a proper clothes when you are around mosque because people will see you strangely if you wear not a proper one. I am sorry I have to say this.  I will be there around 3.30-3.45. I will keep watching a husband and wife with one kid :-)”  Later she emailed to recommend we bring a mosquito net.  “Uh oh.” I thought.

Just arrived at our couchsurfing.com host's house
Just arrived at our couchsurfing.com host’s house

Now here we were, three expat Americans in Indonesia for the very first time.  Sari brought out a tray of coffee and pastries.  She lives with her mother in a relatively large house, and works at the local university teaching gender studies and English.  She studied in Australia and Virginia.  She disclosed some personal thoughts on religions but I’m not at liberty to tell them here. Sorry.  Let’s just say she loves meeting people and learning about their experiences.  I could tell I was going to love her as a host.  She was warm and welcoming and well, she served us coffee and pastries – Sari’s a grade A host.

Then she showed us to our room.

Now that we’re living off of our savings, and frugally embracing free travel on couchsurfing.org, I’m not fussy with accommodations.  But walking into our bedroom I felt reticent.  Watermarks on the wall indicated an old and still at-it leak.  Dust dunes filled in the screens of the half moon cut-outs above the interior windows.  Immediately, I dug out a loratadine and a monolukast sodium from my ziplock travel dispensary.  

Readying myself for any kind of allergic attack triggered by dust mites or mold, I took the pills andI hastily inhaled a squirt of Qnase in each nostril.  I then verified we had the prednisone… just in case. We did.  Phew.

Now to be clear – this hyper sensitivity is something I have to deal with everywhere we go. Sari’s house was great!  Aside from some issues that were squarely my problem, I was thrilled to be there and liked Sari immensely.  She had welcomed us with engaged hospitality.

When we emerged from our sleeping quarters, Sari offered to walk us to the corner and point out the good places to shop and eat.  We accepted.

We passed a coffee shop that was popular with the aid workers in the years after the 2004 tsunami.  I asked why it didn’t look like a devastated city.  It seemed old and in tact.

Sari explained.  “The water stopped 8km from the shore, but this area is 9km away.  People moved here and further inland after the tsunami.  Our house was just one km from where the damage ended.  So this area still is of the old roads and houses.  But we didn’t go unscathed; our house shook in the earthquake.  It cracked quite a bit.”

We walked to a local food cart, ordered a spicy noodle dish and sat down.  Similar to how we’re treated in rural areas of Malaysia, people stared at us, especially at Max.  His blue eyes and strawberry hair are novelties to in areas of southeast asia where the locals are unaccustomed to ginger foreigners.

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Over an early dinner Sari explained that she works to encourage more women to run for elected office so that women and children can make their voices heard.  She explained the history of the Aceh struggle against Jakarta from the seventies to 2004, when the tsunami hit.  As usual, it came down to resources.  The Acenese wanted a greater cut of the profits from this province.  They were getting 25%.  They wanted 75%.  So for 30 years they fought.  Ironically, it wasn’t war that brought compromise, but another devastation: the tsunami. In 2005, the Acenese gained what they had fought for for so long.  Among other compromises, Jakarta gave them their 75%.

I asked about a picture I’d seen in Sari’s house.   It was of her family decades ago: mother, father, Sari and Sari’s brother.  In it, they all wore western clothes. Sari and her mother wore stylish hair, uncovered. I asked why her mother and she wore hijab now.

“We have to.  It’s the law.”  she explained.  “In 1999 in Aceh province, the leaders made a law saying all women have to cover up in public. We could be arrested if we didn’t wear it.  The strong leaders were from the rural areas, where people are very conservative and very religious.  We were fighting the government and the rural leaders held the most power among the rebels.  It was then that they made the law requiring all women to cover themselves.  Of course, at that time, only men were in power.  Women and children had no voice.”

“So that’s why you wear the hijab…” I thought aloud, “because it’s the law.  Would you not wear it if it wasn’t the law?”

“No! I wouldn’t wear it!”  Then she shared her true and colorful feelings about the law.  But I won’t share them here.  I wouldn’t want to get her in trouble.

Later in the conversation the topic of ISIS came up.  Recently, they published a declaration that Islam dictated they should take women and children into slavery wherever they conquered infidels.  Sari shook her head.  “I know, it’s awful.  Nobody thinks like that.”

On the walk home, we found ourselves snaking between cars and scooters in high density barely-moving traffic.  The intersection was chaotic and noisy.  People inched forward here and there trying to gain position so that if and when traffic started flowing, they’d be first to go… all of a few inches more.

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Sari noted the traffic was heavy because so many people had moved into this section of town since the tsunami.  The infrastructure was inadequate for such a high population.  This traffic jam had all the chaos of Saigon, and the vehicle density of the 405 in LA.  Poor bastards.

Later that night, after the traffic cleared, Sari’s brother drove us to a part of town where the tsunami had deposited a fishing boat atop a house.  Sari explained that she had lost her sister-in-law’s family in the tsunami as well as a dear childhood friend.  Everyone lost loved ones.

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We returned home and thanked Sari for the day.  After preparing for bed and placing my go-to allergy armory on the bed stand, we rigged up the mosquito netting and Max and I climbed in.  I remained as fully clothed as an orthodox muslim.  I wasn’t going to take any chances with those skeeters.

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Dirk slept in his tighty whities. Guess who got bit all along the portion of his leg that touched the netting during the night? That’s right.  This guy:

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The next morning, Sari joined us on the front porch.  She served us coffee that her brother had brought from a village in the Inodesian hills.  It’s where her family is from, and they still have extended family who live there.   Then she called to confirm our cab ride to the ferry.  It was time to leave for Sabang Island.

Sari arranging for a car to take us to the ferry en-route to Sabang Island.
Sari arranging for a car to take us to the ferry en-route to Sabang Island.

Over 160,000 people died in the 2004 tsunami.  Sari said everyone lost loved ones.  She lost her sister in law and a dear child hood friend. As we drove to the ferry, we passed the Tsunami museum.

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I was relieved not to have time to visit.  It would make me very sad. And I wanted to stay happy, because I was so thrilled to have met Sari. Indonesia is a rich country indeed, with jewels like the one we found in Banda Aceh.

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