Last week, I visited the Western most part of Indonesia—Aceh province. My friend, Josh, is the Fellow who was placed in Banda Aceh (the capital of Aceh), and another Fellow, Jen, and I went up to do a two-day seminar/workshop series on teaching reading.
Aceh is a fascinating place. It was the one part of Indonesia the Dutch colonizers could not control; and once Indonesia became an independent country, the Acehnese separatist movement fought for independence from the rest of Indonesia. There was still a civil war going on when the deadly 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami struck. Over 170,000 Indonesians were killed or lost—Aceh was pummeled. Following the devastating tsunami, a peace agreement was made between the Free Aceh Movement and the Indonesian government. Part of that was that Aceh has been granted status as a special territory, not a province run through the Indonesian central government. This allows them a certain amount of autonomy. Aceh is the only region in Indonesia under Sharia law—Islamic law. There is a religious police force, to enforce the Islamic laws.
Of course this is a seriously simplified version of what Aceh is, from someone who is clearly not an expert. Knowing what I thought I knew before going to Aceh, I would say that I was a little bit apprehensive. The idea of Sharia Law, the strict religious conservatism that exists in Aceh, made me wary of standing out. I was told by Josh that Jen and I didn’t need to cover our heads; although if we had gone to a pesantren (an Islamic boarding school) where Josh has done a lot of outreach, we would have needed to.
I didn’t know what to expect, really, but I was very pleasantly surprised. Flying into Aceh rivaled flying into the island of Flores. It has a beautiful coastline, with mountains nearby, and it was an overcast day (my favorite). Our drive from the airport to our hotel was really beautiful. At one point, we passed a huge cemetery, and Josh told us that it was one of the Tsunami cemeteries. It was bizarre to be somewhere where such a tragic event had taken place not so long ago.
We had dinner that night at one of Josh’s favorite places—with typical Acehnese food—kind of a fried chicken with sautéed leaves (yes, leaves) around it. The leaves were crispy and pretty tasty too! You kind of felt like you were foraging for food….not that foraging usually leads to fried chicken. (Unfortunately).
We also got to meet one of Josh’s friends, Rina, who was one of the coolest women I’ve met in Indonesia. She works for the World Bank, and spent 5 years in Washington D.C., as well as a year in East Timor.
One thing I noticed that night, and then for the rest of our time there, was how everything shuts down at the call to prayer. In Palembang, around 5pm you do hear the evening call to prayer—called the Maghrib, but people generally carry on with their business. Yes, many do pray, but it isn’t necessarily an immediate, ‘must be in the mosque at this moment’ thing. In Aceh, we were sitting in a restaurant, and the restaurant began shutting its door on us, while we were inside, in preparation for maghrib. Apparently everyone had to be inside, praying, at that time. Now, I understand that in Islam, maghrib is the time for the evening prayer, but I just wasn’t used to such a strict enforcement of it. I was told that sometimes there are religious police who drive around to make sure people are in the mosque at this time. I don’t want to seem like I am judging here; I am only observing a different atmosphere from the other parts of Indonesia I have traveled through. Aceh is known for being much more religious, and it is actually where Islam entered Indonesia. You have to schedule your day around the prayer times, instead of scheduling prayer times around your day.
Another thing I learned (although I think I had heard this before…) is that if a girl is on her period, she doesn’t have to pray, because she is “dirty”. Hmmm, seems like an excuse I would have used a lot growing up. “Sorry, mom, I can’t go to mass today… ya know…”
We arrived Saturday night, and had all day Sunday to hang out before doing some work on Monday and Tuesday. So Sunday, Josh rented two motorcycles for him and Jen to drive (I rode), and we drove out to the beach. It was a beautiful drive, and Josh pointed out some of the sights. As we got closer to the beach, there were more tsunami-related sites. We drove through a village that had Turkish flag symbols on the front of each house; the Turkish government had donated money and had an entire village rebuilt after it had been wiped out by the tsunami. The mosque is still being built now.
The beach itself was beautiful. The waves were the strongest, most intense waves I’ve ever seen. Even if I had worn my bathing suit, I don’t think I would have gotten in the water. (Also, you don’t see too many people in bathing suits….I was surprised to see guys just running straight in fully clothed, jeans, t-shirts and all.) It was an overcast day, but there were still a number of people out. A lot of younger people were there, boys and girls, who of course came by to have their photo taken with us. Some asked, while others preferred the sneaky way of standing near us and posing without actually asking. We decided to pose for our own photos while we were there.
Monday and Tuesday we led workshops about teaching reading. We led parallel sessions on Monday, and then on Tuesday we gave some short presentations. The participants were really wonderful—they were really engaged and interested. I met a few who had studied in the United States. After the tsunami, there were more programs set up to benefit the Acehnese, so I met some Indonesian teachers who had studied in the US as well as an American guy who was the 4th or 5th on a program to come teach in Aceh. Some of the participants came from villages hours away, and at least one even came from a remote island off the coast.
One night, Jen and I experienced a motorized becak! I love taking becaks in Palembang (pedi-cab). But in Aceh they were like big sidecars–attached to motorcycles. It really is the only way to travel.
On our last night, we hung out with Rina again, and she took us shopping for oleh-oleh. (souvenirs). Another thing about Aceh–best oleh oleh! Afterwards, we chased down the sunset. We tried to get to the beach, but one of the roads was closed (possibly due to prayer time), but Rina found an amazing spot we could watch it set.
One thing that struck me as we met more people around Banda Aceh is that it was hard to meet anyone who hadn’t been affected. There were so many stories of, “Oh yeah, his wife’s entire family was killed,” or “We thought we were going to die, so we all ran to the mosque…” I can’t imagine what such an event must do to a community—or even larger, a whole region.
Aceh is such a distinct, unique part of Indonesia. I’m really glad I was able to see it. It’s a beautiful region. After hearing stories and learning more about their history, it is clear that the Acehnese are nothing if not resilient.