Aceh Diary: On the weekend, work or…?

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Pict0397_1So what do most expats working in Banda Aceh do in their free time? Well, for the most part, they work – late every evening, after which they go to their agency’s dedicated guesthouses and talk about work with the colleagues they saw all day in the office, and it’s usually the same routine every weekend. It’s not only because we’re all passionately dedicated to ‘rebuilding Aceh back better’ as the favorite reconstruction slogan goes, but the circumstances are such that there isn’t really much else to do in Aceh.

Pict0400_1That is, it’s not like there are any movie theatres, malls, bars, clubs, or a variety of great restaurants/café’s. (Within a month or so you can generally list the menus from the half dozen restaurants backwards in your sleep which is enough to send you into your own kitchen first, whether the product is halfway edible or not.) So the burnout rate can be quite high given the intensity of the environment and the tremendous challenges to getting things done you face each day, if you’re not able to get out to cosmopolitan cities in the region like Jakarta, Singapore, or Kuala Lumpur every few weeks. But traveling to some of these destinations entails changing carriers, long transit times, getting a re-entry visa to Indonesia etc, so sometimes weekend travel isn’t an option, in which case some of the typical escapist activities to engage in include:

The top choice, if you have the time, is going to Sabang or Pulau Weh as it is also known—a small island to the west of Aceh with coral reef beaches which is about an hour’s ferry ride away. Once there you pile in with a dozen other passengers into ancient minivans for another hour’s drive through winding mountain roads to the other side of the island where the beaches are. On the way, if it isn’t raining—and like me you’re not in a minivan with faulty brakes sliding down narrow and wet mountain roads reciting every prayer you ever learned—you’re treated to spectacular views, and can see lots of monkeys that hang out by the side of the road. The accommodations are very basic, mostly wooden cottages on stilts. Aside from the beautiful beach, diving, and snorkeling, Sabang is also well known for its mosquitos which are highly malarial, so fumigating the room upon arrival is usually the first order of business. Then it’s on to the beach!

The beach in Sabang is much lovelier than any other I’ve seen in Indonesia—velvet soft white sand and crystal clear aquamarine water deepening to a brilliant blue. For the sake of comparison, for those who haven’t been to Bali, it’s not the beaches (which are pretty average) but the culture, man-made tropical luxury, food, spas, and shopping that makes the place so unique. But in the case of Sabang, the sheer unspoilt natural beauty of this gem of an island is probably the only plus of Aceh having been closed off to tourists over the last few decades. Now, I’ve talked in previous posts about the dangers of swimming off the beaches of Banda Aceh, but Sabang is a different story as the reef breaks the dangerous tides, and so swimming is quite safe. Or at least drowning isn’t a worry, but the shallow waters that are great for snorkeling are also home to lionfish, stonefish, and banded sea snakes, close encounters with which can certainly cut your weekend pleasures short. One of the main attractions in Sabang is that it is a diver’s dream, an experience I can’t comment on firsthand largely due to my fear of deep water and becoming fish feed between the moray eels and sharks (which I am told are harmless but am irrationally prone to disbelieve having never gotten over the Jaws movies), but my friends and colleagues certainly swear by it. The other big lure of Sabang is the complete seeming disregard by both locals and expats for Aceh’s shariah law—unmarried couples sharing cottages and women in bikinis sunning themselves is a familiar sight, as is the open consumption of beer and spirits, and the most popular restaurant is the Bob Marley café, where the reggae idol’s greatest hits blare all day and night, and the laidback owner and staff all sporting dreadlocks are happy to provide joints as an off-the-menu specialty. Not that the marijuana part is that shocking given the stuff is used widely in Acehnese food as a flavoring.

Aside from Sabang, other typical weekend activities include pirated DVD marathons. The DVD store in the center of town is usually the place to see and be seen on a Friday night, with everyone feverishly stocking up on the latest Hollywood offerings at 70 cents a pop. What amuses me is when the store staff warns you off a particular movie or two due to bad print or sound quality—so it’s not as if ethics is totally dead when it comes to dealing in pirated goods!

Lastly, some weekends feature parties hosted by particularly brave NGOs, or expats living in their own rented housing, who are not afraid of a little noise pollution late in the evenings to risk the ire of the Acehnese who tend to retire early in order to be up for prayer at sunrise. Word of these gatherings usually spread faster than wildfire and if you get lost in the maze of meandering alleyways which make up the majority of residential neighborhoods in Banda, just follow the line of big SUVs with donor agency logos emblazoned on every surface, and you can’t miss it. The partygoers tend to be a sea of familiar faces, many of whom you’ve never met but have seen countless times in the same restaurants or sector coordination meetings. The biggest attraction again is the chance to be around people who are not your immediate colleagues, and of course the free-flowing booze bought in a shady deal at the back of a Chinese-owned grocery store or smuggled in on a carryon from your last trip to Medan, Jakarta, or Singapore. Parties aren’t held as frequently as everyone would like, so the problem when you have one is that no one wants to go home. So revelers returning to their beds in the wee hours of the morning typically find themselves in serious violation of their curfews—at midnight if you’re with a UN agency or even earlier for some Christian NGOs—which if you’re a young short-term consultant working with either group is very nearly a must. In fact, bribing drivers to pick you up at obscene hours, sneaking into guesthouses like rebel teens, and getting away with it is rather all a part of the fun.

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