If my wife had been there, she would have had a seizure. But luckily she wasn't. I was in Gapang Village on Pulau Weh, a squiggly, volcanic island just north of Banda Aceh. That in itself wouldn't surprise her, but this time I brought the children. I put my three-year old in an innertube and swam far from the shore, with my boy swimming alongside like a playful dolphin.
As Shaela Rahman reported in one of her Aceh Dairy posts, Pulau Weh is unspoiled and beautiful. During Aceh's 30-year conflict, there wasn't much hope for tourism here. But in the post-conflict, post-tsunami era, it is slowly being discovered by diving enthusiasts and adventure tourists. It is also an easy getaway for foreigners living in Aceh, who have created an economic windfall here (or perhaps a bubble economy).
Visibility wasn't very good that day, so I swam much further out than I originally intended, hoping to find clearer water. The risk of incurring maternal wrath paid off – we swam over some coral and spotted some fish.
My boy, who had only just mastered wearing a mask and fins, was ecstatic. His enthusiasm is shared by hundreds of divers and snorklers who come to Pulau Weh every year. Divers have seen whale sharks, sunfish, moray eels, ghost pipefish, sea turtles, Spanish dancers, and many other wonderful creatures.
Serious obstacles remain. It is hard to get here and little tourism infrastructure exists. Accommodation is basic and overpriced compared with diving locations elsewhere in the region. There's also Shariah law, which is widely ignored. A clampdown would nip the fledgling industry in the bud, and tourists would go elsewhere to have a beer or swim in a bikini.
I pondered all this one day when I was 25 meters underwater, near a gigantic sea fan that dwarfed my colleague and diving buddy, Eric. Every weekend, scores of people take the ferry to the island, which costs about $13 round trip from Banda Aceh. We each pay a driver about $5 to drive us along a narrow, winding road to the diving sites. The guest houses make from $5 - $25 per night on accommodation. The two dive centers, Lumba-Lumba and Rubiah Divers, employ many local people, some of whom have become divemasters and instructors. And the local restaurants and cafes do nicely, especially the ones that provide "beverage" to their customers. And all this because of some fish!
I've noticed a steady increase in divers who are real tourists, with no connection to Aceh at all. This is a great thing. Some of them find out about Aceh online, from diving sites or the Aceh-hotels site. As the post-reconstruction period closes and foreigners leave, the economy will slowly normalize and the industry will have to compete with places like Bali, Manado, Penang or Phuket. It will be interesting to watch how the sector develops.
I managed to get my children back to shore without being attacked by sharks, jellyfish, sting-rays, octopi, or anything else. They spent the afternoon looking for hermit crabs and swinging on a gigantic tire hanging from a tree. My wife, taking a break from the kids in a fabulous beach bungalow, knew nothing and remains oblivious. I'll be safe as long as she doesn't read this post!