Getting to Melbourne

The only way I can coherently get down briefly the last part of this journey without sidetracking. I’ve been writing only about the sidetrack on and off for a month and its done no good to my state of mind so I’m ignoring it like a coward until it makes sense. Until then, here’s an infantile run down my most of my 2014.

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ON THE ISLAND
Bit late hey… Should I mention it? Working as a dive instructor, living in the sunshine, showing people what evolution got up to under water, and eating the best food in the world. Green Cafe’s nasi campur. YUM. It was an incredible time and the most rewarding job I’ve ever had. I grew to know who I was again. I can tell this is the case when I stop worrying about what people think about me because I am confident in my daily contribution in the world, meeting people who inspire, and am completely comfortable being an arsehole to the idiots in between. It wasn’t supposed to last forever. I am not a lifer; high season rinser of good times until I die.

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LEAVING GILI TRAWANGAN
That was a hot day. And quietly emotional. More for the unknown of beyond, the civilisation that awaited. And the unanswerable question of why I was moving on from a place I love so dearly. I knew instinctively it was time to leave, but I sadly never make a decision lightly, or ever remove doubt of whether it was the best bet. Nevertheless I trotted, and was met in Bali by one of my favourite people and her little monkey (not actual monkey but small human with teeth of a trigger fish) to spend a day walking around a pool observing harsh, nasal Australian accents and said farewell to my flightless project.

THE FLIGHT FORWARD
The plane was full of big, bad tattoos; shiny and red and recent and humming of future regret. A wave of xenophobic snobbery washed over me and I panicked that I had chosen to live amongst “these people” for a year. There’s no place like Gili, there’s no place like Gili click click click. Then I fell asleep.
I bundled off the plane at ten past four in the morning to actual coldness. Novel. And as expectant as I was for Australian border police abuse and questioning, I was met only with warmth by everyone I encountered. How disappointing. Where was the bag search, some goateed man asking me why I am in Australia, explaining the 100 packets of Extra Joss in the pockets of my SCUBA gear. It was sadly nothing like those TV programmes that fill up channel 5. I started to feel a little less out of my depth. Then I start to remember all the Aussies I adore and remember that not all of them have ridiculous tattoos. But quite a few do…
You see that second word of this story. Yep. Its the word plane. Short for aeroplane, derived from the Latin, big metal box that somehow gets itself way above the ground, baffling me each time and meaning that my flightless trip is over. Well, it was very over in the fact I had flown to Singapore for a visa, home to renew my passport at Christmas, and in September had gone to meet my niece in Turkey, something I can hardly regret, I mean the girl’s a thumb sucker; she must surely be one of the coolest chicks to (not yet) walk the earth.
So I should rename the blog but as it is coming to an end I will just leave it as this, call myself a fraud and think of a new name if I continue across the Pacific next year or do my drive home from Cape Town (anyone keen?). But that was my first flight forward. Can you give me that?

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PERTH
Great tour guides for epic brunches, stories of the white sharks on the beaches and the local ales. Lucky am I to have met some amazing people in my adult life. Better yet that they send me a message saying I am welcome to stay with them, and more overwhelming too that they sorted a weekend in Margaret River for us all to consume more ales and wine. Lovely Australia quality wine. Amazing west coast sunsets, and chocolate and roadtrips where I jackknifed my neck as I dozed to get the maxim drool from my open gob.

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INDIAN PACIFIC RAILWAY
The train from Perth to Adelaide apparently was an odd choice. A lot of people just asked why? With a accompanying face that subtitled “for the love of god.. [why]?”
But why not experience exactly how vast this country is, how full of nothing most of it is; I had the privilege of time so I should take it while I can. Why the rush to get somewhere? If I had flown I would have missed 30 hours of flatness. The flattest flat I’ve seen. A place more uninhabited from the train window than Siberia ever was. I would have missed 48 hours worth of books and Dead Poets Society and a new game that is destroying my conversation, called 2048. I would have missed zoning out, a favourite pastime. I would also have missed a town called Cook, population: 4, and in doing so would not have been on the receiving end of the most desperate “hello” my ears have heard. Apart from the boy I found down a well that time, but that’s another story.

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ADELAIDE
Adelaide was about learning to love a place with personal stigma. And for this I owe two very special loopers. As with the guys in Perth, I try not to write about people I care about, because I always sound like a cheese stuffed, brown-nosed ballbag, and this is not a thank you letter. It was about local wine, and diving in 17 degree water with shark shields (alas: not actual shield. If I was listening to Daz correctly some sort of sonar waves supposed to put off a shark. Or irritate it highly. Can’t we all just get along?! Though to be fair those five metre long yellow fin tuna must’ve been chased by something and I didn’t mind not seeing what it was). It was also about cows and local produce and talking ideas, and alcohol tackling me unawares and making me talk drivel very, very quickly to make it sound more worldly.

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GREAT OCEAN ROAD
Delayed due to a longer than intended stop at Rockford Winery in the Barosa Valley, Kev and I left Adelaide at 4pm and hit a very straight road without any music. We stopped for the night in Kingston SE in a local pub where our mission was cider based to dilute the oddness of the place. Turned out to be a hilarious evening being tormented by a mother on her monthly night off from the kids forgetting what questions she’d asked us 10 seconds earlier. We never got quite past where we were from.
Crossing from South Australia into Victoria the roads got a bit more fun, more things on the edges of them and novelty corners. After lunch with one of my favourite gingers in Warnambool we actually got to the start of the Great Ocean Road. Having previously thought that the Great Ocean Road was the entire length of the southern coast of Australia, the real thing, hugging the south coast of Victoria for 243km seems pretty minor. (NB I was not driving so perhaps felt disproportionally relaxed about the whole thing. Thanks Kev!) 2 days on a train across the Nullarboor will teach you relativity. As will Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, but more on that another time. (I have much to ask now that those tears of fear and confusion have salted themselves to my squirrel cheeks. General conclusion: I am very, very scared of time right now.)

MELBOURNE
We made it to Torquay after breaking down an hour away and having to backtrack in a tow truck with a man called [feck I can’t remember] telling us about the Victorian hoidays and the fact his garage would not be able to repair the car until 5 days later due to the Melbourne Cup (which at the time was five days away) “The Race that stops the Nation” and allows Apollo Bay mechanics to decide that Tuesday is an inconvenient day for a holiday so I’ll take Friday and Monday instead thanks. We bussed to Torquay the next day, drank rum and ginger ales and I played bowls for the first time. Awesome weekend. Said goodbye to Kev and arrived in Melbourne. End of the line.

This was over 2 weeks ago and I have been job hunting and writing something entirely different for you that in the end said nothing whatsoever about the journey (hence the playschool structure of the tosh above) and basically getting myself in a tiz about life and the fact that I have got so far geographically and not very far intellectually or in my decision making for my future. And as above after watching Interstellar, I now view time as the ever-present shadow that is waiting to strangle you. Morbid hey! But it keeps ticking by and I fear so much that I am wasting time- in the wrong places, jobs, frames of mind, and backing away from the right people, opportunities. I need to chill out. And maybe pretend to myself that I believe in fate. To move made me comfortable and in control, and now I am at the end of 5 years of daydreaming, planning and avoidance, and trying to acclimatise to the idea of being in one place has overwhelmed me. More on this when I can turn the rambling thoughts into a succinct, comprehensible bit of future memory. Ah let’s be honest, that’s never going to happen!

Checking in (still in Indonesia)

 

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Hello! Hello? …. Well, yes I suppose it’s been a while since we’ve spoken but no, I’m not getting in touch because I need money. I just wanted to say I’m not dead.”

 

So I’ve been back on Gili Trawangan for three months and have yet to fill this in. My silence comes due to various reasons. One; that I have been busy and working hard, another that I have been trying to get to grips with an island I once knew that has changed. Like an old friend you shared a great experience with and you meet after a few years and they have a hideous tattoo which you can’t stop staring at and you find yourself taking the time to realise if you can still really get on with a person who has “never regret you’re dicisions” on their forearm. A third reason is that for as much as has gone on here for me, to write about it would bore. I wrote often about differing places because I needed to get the memories logged too. Here the days repeat (blissfully) but it leaves a dull story to be told for the outsider and a blog post would be riddled with self deprecation padding my conquered goals. 

 

After 5 years of thinking about it I am now an Open Water Scuba Instructor with both PADI and SSI. And proud of getting there. I have committed to something and invested my time, energy and a fair few funds and after a nearly a year of being away I am finally inputting into the world in whatever capacity.

 

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However, in between diving to stare at mantis shrimps and blue fin trevally, I have also lately been doing a fair bit of procrastinating. A lot of which has been directed at showing people Wait But Why and giggling at 7 Ways to be Insufferable on Facebook. (An amazing read for anyone with a social media addiction) And I realise that the reason I haven’t written a blog in a while is that it would tick too many of those irritating boxes that make you go through your newsfeed with a face as if you’re smelling off milk. To write about my lifestyle on a desert island would be trying to induce jealousy, praise, attention… when in fact its pretty mundane and I still am trying to figure out how Meg and I used to go out every night for 4 months.

The old triangle of dive shop, Irish bar, home is now a distinct straight line and even then I cant avoid the scary Irish bill from my 4 nights out a month. 27 year old me, whilst still young and fabulous, looks at 22 year old with a mix of frowning disdain and admiration for the consistency of blood alcohol levels.

 

I am diving and I am sleeping and I am looking at this island, slowly coordinating the memories of some of the best times in my life in line with how the island has grown. Its like trying to fit tracing paper over a drawing but you realise the trace you did was when you were 5 years old and the picture has been trampled by the muddy neighbours. However, you can see the pattern and it begins to feel familiar. Like a few other places in the world, this is place has a home in my heart, and whilst it is now nosier, dirty, more crowded, more concreted, with less sharks and more siltation, it still has its charm and its great people in amongst the eejits. Its taken me a while to realise, but this place is still a winner. Overpopulated and fragile, but beautiful and charming and fun. It’s good to be back.

 

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Sumatra to Java to Bali

So when I last wrote I was in Bukittinggi in West Sumatra. I am now on Nusa Lembongan, an island just east of Bali. A fair few miles have been covered so let me just try and write this chronologically before I make my move back to Gili Trawangan after a 5 year hiatus and try my best to get back into dive work and prep for my instructor course which I hope to take in the coming months. From experience there are only so many worthy updates about some knobber touching coral, juvenile angel fish, turtles and who fell off the Irish bar so I suppose you can all breathe a sigh of relief that there will be fewer posts. That is until I start my campaign to reach Australia and will be asking for any ideas and contacts before I inevitably book a Jetstar flight to Darwin and change the name of the blog. Fraud.

So my Bukittinggi ekonomi bus to Jakarta, on the recommendation that no one travels such a distance and I will have so many seats to lie across so get an eksecutif… was due to take 32 hours later. However 32 hours later packed like sweaty sardines with a food stop every 2 hours means you only reach Palembeng and lose the very will to keep chilled. At 4am around the 45 hour mark you are wondering what silly reason you decided to to this overland trip just because you got it in your head 7 years ago and have a hard time letting go of certain things. Stubbornness is a boring character trait. At hour 49 when you get off the bus in the pissing rain in Jakarta, you go to your hotel sleep in front of HBO and get MacDonalds just to aggravate a shitty mood. Then you try very hard to snap out of descended foulness exacerbated by the guilt that you are so lucky to be travelling and WHY ARE YOU NOT ENJOYING THIS?!

Well, that’s kind of what happened to me anyway. And as pathetic as it sounds I did not have the energy to get to grips with Jakarta so the next morning I was on a train to Yogyakarta through beautiful Javanese countryside and listening to music for the first time in ages to escape the appalling company of myself. Spoilt and taking things for granted? Sure. Agreed. But that’s me sadly and I had to let it wash out.

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In Jogja I cycled. I ate. I said hello to everyone that said hello to me. I read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. I swapped it for The Talented Mr Ripley and a book on the Japanese. I watched sunrises and sunsets. And a whole series of Dexter. I got a massage. I got a body scrub. Then I decided to get my legs waxed. Reminded me of the advice of taking a camera to a massage. Take one to a wax as well. The gorgeous lady so eager to please said she could of course wax my manly legs if I didn’t mind her holding her feverish son. Of course not! Multitasking women of the world unite! (I’m not one of them, I think like a bloke but hats off to them) Two and a half hours later I’ve learnt some lessons. Don’t ask silly questions to pass the time, such as “What’s the wax made of?” (Are you expecting enlightenment here, scholarly advice on how to be more self sufficient when it comes to grooming?) because the answer is going to be “glue and honey” and you’ll have to gulp as she tears lengthways strips of paper from the printer and settle in. “We don’t really have the wax like you have in Europe.” Noted.

No hairs come out at strip one but then comes the news that maybe four or five times will be good. Riiiight. Not sure I signed up for this. But hey, the baby needs to sleep so I’ll catch the angelic 4 year old daughter as she jumps off the sideboard and fly her around like an aeroplane for half an hour with paper stuck to my beast legs with adhesive. After a few hours I had to give in, and say that the legs were grand (look of “no they aren’t love”) and I really have to head on home now because its very dark and I’m on my bike. It was oddly a fantastically fun afternoon despite the intermittent bursts of pain, and was gorgeous to be in someone’s home talking about Java and family. I bought another razor.

Two days later I headed to Mt Bromo volcano to get a whiff of sulphur and watch a sunrise I’m not sure I’ll be able to beat. Something I recommend anyone visiting Bali to hop over and experience. Can be done in a 2 day tour. Silly beaut. From pick up in Jogja, 10 hour bus, night up the mountain, Jeep to sunrise, morning at Bromo and 10 hour bus ride to Ubud was 500,000Rp (£25 at the time of writing). Why not? Just as straight forward the other direction.

So arriving in Ubud, a place I had somehow never made it to on two seasons on Gili, I settled in for 5 days of eating, and walking and swimming in a pool that lapped at the paddy fields filled with ducks,and had a day cooking course, frying up and eating copious amounts of chilli tempe.

From Ubud I travelled down to Lembongan and have been enjoying pristine coral and manta ray diving, and growing to love this island very quickly. So that’s trans-Sumatra and trans-Java through to Bali quite quickly to be honest. Perhaps 2000km and three differing islands of the same country. But though I have missed some things, namely Pagang island off western Sumatra and Igen Crater in east Java I don’t regret having quickened the pace because I am in need of focus and progress and work. To be doing something and not just covering miles and consuming cultures. Am excited for the next stage and nervous and overwhlemed both by returning to a place I love which has changed and by entering the Instructor Development Course with confidence. One step at a time…. First one being paddys day and drinking more than a beer for the first time in 6 weeks. Trialled this in Ubud with mojitos: felt it quickly. Lightweight.

 

[lack of photos = lack of patience for internet connections lately]

Bukittinggi, West Sumatra

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I left Toba on a day similar to when I arrived; not of haze but blanketed in a atmospheric mosquito net. It is not cloud, it doesn’t stop the heat, and it is not haze which distorts distances. Instead it meshes mountains, sea and sky into toneless unification and, whilst never captured properly on camera, when seen from glass-like water is a sight that makes silence a visual phenomenon.

A 15 hour bus ride later and I arrive in Bukittinggi. I once went to a travel writing masterclass day, and was told never to write about the journey to the destination. You can see how I really took those words and rolled them in a tight tight ball before throwing them in to sanitary bin of the nearest MacDonalds toilet. This trip and therefore, sadly for you dear reader, this blog is about the journey, the aching bus rides, the copious amounts of time I have to think about petty things while staring out of a window believing I am making progress. As you can tell, the masterclass did no good and I will never be a travel writer. Research is a wasted time away from my book and at the end of the day, I find it extremely hard to write anything but what my fingers are typing out as they erratically tap dance around the key board. Dancing and typing; never conform people! Do your thang.

I was slept on by the Dutch Colonel Saunders for the majority of the journey. Not his fault that the seats took only 75% of him and it was quite useful to be pinned to the seat by fleshy expanding foam because the corners were pretty tight.  Thanks Holland: you brought to Indonesia colonies and cushions.

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I had been expecting a pretty hairy bus ride from Parapat to Bukittinggi, zigzagging across North and West Sumatra like a broken zip but with my Dutch friend, the painfully loud Indonesian music that played until 4am, the indecision of leaning forward over my bag or back onto the seat failing to find anchor for my feet, I was blind to the fear through sheer tiredness. I always prepare for the worst in the secret hope (which I must completely deny myself consciously) that it won’t be that bad. Exams, interviews, the dentist… leading to this irritating self deprecating anxiety that looms before any particular event. A really bad habit. .

So having made the journey into a trauma before it happened, I was only pleasantly surprised. The bus ride didn’t injure me and I think I still have my passport. Plus met two lovely German girls who came to my hotel with me and have been great company. Went to the Harau Valley yesterday on the back of a bike around gorgeous roads and swam in a waterfall. Sure.

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But that’s all much of a muchness really. What I want to talk to you about is KOPI LUWAK. Poo coffee. 

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I’m not a big coffee drinker. In the UK I drink cheap “English” tea; Tetleys, PG Tips, anything that comes in 100 bag jumbo boxes. When away this Liptons shite never fixes a real craving so I tend to drink more coffee. And I drink it ignorantly. I know there is as much to learn about this product as wine but its something I’ve ignored along with calorie counting and high heels.

But I love an interesting process (hence the German friend who owns a beergarten who has told me about almond wine and I am writing it down so that one day I will remember to try making a batch) and hunting for coffee beans through civet cat shit is a pretty interesting system of work. And god the coffee is RILLY NAYCE.

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So in short, the civet cat only eats fruits, so the stomach acids break cut away at the coffee bean and take away the bitterness. Also because the civet cats diet, its poop really doesn’t smell. Congrats to the civet cat for finally doing it: shit that smells of roses.

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Anywho, this particular place is one of the few places in the world (along with Aceh) that sources its beans from wild civet cat plop using a few farmers in 20 villages around Bukittinggi. Other farms in Bali keep the cats in cages, thus stressing the animal and in turn disrupting its all important bowel movements. Ah, to have lucrative faeces eh? Washed, dried, then roasted using cinnamon bark. At £10 for 100g from the modest home in which it is made, it is one of the most expensive coffees in the world. But I am a sucker for a good sales pitch, I likable business and an honest product. Sending it home for some coffee lovers to appreciate.

But more exciting than this is after you have finished the cup, use the coffee residue on your skin. The natural oils in the coffee and granulated exfoiliant are the most gorgeous thing on the skin and those who know me well can vouch for my boredom at the mention of beauty products and disinterest in make up, hence the disinterest in me… always get the mandatory Christmas hint but it takes up space in the backpack. I leave it for when I grow up, and spend savings on a GoPro.

Anyway, back to the coffee and my silky smooth skin. Imagine walking in to a quaint London cafe and finding yummy mummies with empty coffee cups and what looks like a cross between camouflage paint and hamster droppings smeared over their faces whilst they talk about Timmy’s little nighttime problem and Arabella’s inability to master the recorder. All come out with radiating skin. Should I copyright this now or can we all just agree to let me have this one?

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Found out from our guides Roni, Putra and Paman that the tracing paper view, or lack there of, is actually due to Riau Province burning its rainforests for palm oil plantations. Though completely illegal, the government is actually onside due to the economics, and the trees big enough to sell would not be worth the manpower to get them so the smoke keeps rising and leaving everyone a bit sad at the lack of bigger picture thinking.

I have this all to see tomorrow as I start my Trans-Sumatran 32 hours roadtrip to Jakarta in the morning.

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Lake Toba

So after I boarded the bus in Banda Aceh (THE bus fyi, with the comfiest seats I have ever sat on that reclined. with wifi, and water, and all the hits of Bruno Mars) I slept my way to Medan and sought my ride to Parapat and Toba. I found a minibus by 6.30am equipped with a driver with a death wish and off we went. then stopped, then started too fast, then stopped by the road for an hour then went again but this time mostly on the wrong side of the road for shits and giggles.

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I shouldn’t be making jokes about this, a) because it was terrifying and b) because I have the worst leg to come later today from Parapat to Bukittinggi. Whilst the websites of lonely planet and wikitravel etc say ‘expect sickness, fear and the worst night of your trip’, I don’t trust websites all that much. They said Medan to Banda Aceh wasn’t great but it was the best travel EVER. Instead I am going on the word of my friend Adam, who I trust first hand, who says along the lines of “It was the scariest road trip of my life…  actually thought I was gong to die.” Greeeet. And I can only make light of it because I am genuinely loose in the bowels at the thought of it and not sure a consistent 16 hours of eye-piercing fear is good for the health. So I am defensively trying to laugh. Preemptively.

Anyway. Lake Toba. From Pulau Weh travel went as follows: Taxi – Ferry – Becak – executif bus – becak – minibus – local minbus- ferry. Dropped to the lakeside shore of my hotel in Tuk Tuk on Samosir Island. Lake Como of Sumatra. I have never been to Lake Como but in my head it is this. Exactly. But more “papadeepoopeee” and ice cream.

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So I wanted to get some writing done and dusted and just relax and sort some stuff. Onward travel to Java, that ever looming decision about Instructor Development Courses and how, where and when. Had happily ignored it for the more immediate challenge of overlanding but now I really have to make some decisions. And I have never been very good at that.

Anyway, due to a lightning strike to the bungalows I saw staying in on Pulau Weh, that surged through the generator and as I had just started to watch the TV show Dexter and wanted a fix before bed, my computer charger was plugged in and along with a hefty electric shock, came the death of my charger and/or my computer… but hoping just charger. Will find out in Jakarta.

Add to this the important news that my lovely o’neill flip flops died on me and you can see how much of a mess I could have been. The ones I bought for 13,000IDR (65p) are doing ok but the bloster between my toes is a constant reminder of happier times. Have bought duct tape and plan to make everything better even if I have to strap the broken bastards to my feet (a la Lego circa 1990 when my parents cruelly didn’t buy me rollerskates for Christmas and I had to think improvise aged 4 so I could join in with two older, gloating, rainbow-wheel-wearing siblings… Later leading to an obsession with Starlight Express to the point of scene by scene adaptations in the barn charging my parents friends to watch to a Lloyd Webber classic. That’ll learn ’em).

So my plan to plan in Toba and chill and get head straight and write, I could not. Because my head is so full of fluff these days that I forgot about the internet cafe. you know, the ones we used to use from 2002 – 2009 before the introduction of a laptop that was actually small enough to be portable or the smart phone (still ignoring that technology phase). So here I am in an internet cafe, having had a light bulb moment to just write something down and tick something off the list, and also to get you ten readers up to speed with where I am at at this very moment.

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The genuine fear of he bus ride ahead has prompted me to get up to date, in case of the loss of hands and/or use of legs.

Where I am: Lake Toba, Sumatra

Where I should be tomorrow morning: Bukittinggi, Sumatra

Where I hope to be within the week: Jakarta, Java

To be fair this is the first potentially hairy overland venture I have hit since leaving Suffolk (apart from that bus leaving the Vietnam typhoon, but that turned out to be grand) which is quite remarkable really. And I could have avoided this by ferry straight from Singapore to Batam to Jakarta but then I would have missed this epic island. So much to see!! Purposely only seen a small bit so that I have an excuse to come back.

RELATED NEWS: within 18hours I will have crossed into the Southern Hemisphere!! Equator runs just north of bukittinggi. Only taken 9 months eh!

Time to psyche myself up. Love to all.

 

Aceh

Meet Heri.

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Heri Becak is a becak driver (read: motorbike with wee side car pronounced “bechak”. Very social transport) and a complete legend. He used to dive on Pulau Weh but after 2004 he took a 6 year contract with United Nations in Aceh and when that finished in 2011, he became a becak driver and first point of call for anyone coming or going from Ibioh Beach on Weh.

I met Heri waiting at the ferry port after a peachy nightbus trip up from Medan as he pointed out that my ferry was leaving at 9 (ie 5 minutes) as opposed to 10, hence my slumped pose trying to find that perfect point on benches where your arse sits at the edge, your neck rests on the back on your legs splay out as anchor taking away lower back pain and giving the brief and longed-for feeling that you are comfortably horizontal.

 

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I decided to take Heri up on his proposal to see Aceh for the day on my return to the mainland. The epicentre of the 2004 tsunami was just off the west coast of Aceh and sitting like a lily pad in the Andaman sea, it was flattened. Tourism came in the form of surfers and divers – and still very much does, but Banda Aceh has now kept sights depicting the force of mother nature, which I felt I needed to see. A morbid attraction for tourists, but I wanted to take the time to remember. To realise how distant I was from what happened, how little I understood of the scale and the human story of what happened.

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Heri dropped me at the “closed on a Monday” Aceh Tsunami Museum to take some fellow Ibioh beach ladies to the airport and so I walked around the memorial park and outside of the museum, stopping for photographs with families… and then started asking for pictures myself. In China some of the Westerners I met would get a bit narky about the hissing and anger of local Chinese when they tried to take a snap. The beautiful ethnic tribes in Yunnan for example. “They take photos of us, so why can’ we take photos of them?” But the grouping of 1 billion people into “they” misses the point that are two very different individuals in a big big country. Just because one person might want a photo of you, does not give you a token to take a potentially intrusive picture of someone else. I believe always ask and unless there is a smile at the camera, leave it alone. It probably wont be a framer anyway. But I found it funny that queues for photos started so I handed over my camera if someone asked for a photo and got some pictures for the family album. I particularly like my double denim friends. There were actually five double, or even triple denim compadres but I only managed to get photos with three of them. Ah, the giggles we had…

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Later on our becak we were to meet Heri’s friend who tried to woo me through Heri’s translations on his bike as he invited Heri to his wedding next weekend. And I will take a compliment of having a beautiful prominent nose, because I am sure it will probably be the only time… (Dad, they like oversized nostrils here. Winning!)

 

When Heri picked me up from the museum we went to the boat on the roof.

It sits there now as a monument of remembrance. On top of what was someone’s house. Someone’s living room and toilet and kitchen. I wanted to ask if the family in the house survived, like the 56 people who rode the wave to safety in the boat itself, but felt out of sorts to push for questions.

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After this we went to 2 boats that the government had refused to remove because of the hassle of it. Lying 3 metres from the front door of a row of houses, I wondered how psychologically damaging it must be to start every day opening the door to a reminder of a time of loss, of loneliness, of suffering and watching people suffer.

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Next to the “big boat”. I had heard of this and expected a big boat. Some 40 metre beast that really showed me what power had hit this province. I didn’t expect this:

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2km inland this freighter rolled in (I forget the stats on its tonnage but its bigger than I could ever preempt.) I couldn’t quite believe it. Now another park of memorial, with a photo gallery I stared at with hand over mouth and a loss of any sense of time.

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I don’t want to betray Heri’s trust at having spoken to me so candidly about his experience of that day, but some of the things he said are completely stuck in my head and I feel should be known. He said he couldn’t go into that park. “Because to be here I remember the smell. To look at those photos of the bodies. The smell is so strong.” 15 minutes was all it took. A ten metre wall of water that kept coming and retreated to back taking so much. Heri came to this spot as soon as he could to look for people. He lost 15 family.
“Thailand had lots of help. It is a tourist place… people visited, people cared. Aceh is so flat… It was very bad here… But no one knows Aceh. ” 167,000 people dead or missing.

Around the memorial park stands hundred of placards placed on small boat-shaped statues, each one offering thanks and peace to the countries who donated their time and money to help after the tragedy. I spoke to a girl who says she believed it opened Aceh up to the world, and this is easy to see from the kindness, laughter and smiles I was greeted with from everyone I encountered. Whether true or if this was always the case, there is positivity and open arms here, and this is astonishing.

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We motored out to Lampuuk for the afternoon. A surf beach on the west coast out from Banda Aceh. I wandered the beach, head a million miles away thinking of family and friends and my good fortune to have them. Heri snoozed, played guitar, I got stuck into the ice coffee.

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It was perfect laziness with a new friend. I had been reading bits of a pamphlet I picked up at the boat on the roof about people’s stories of 26th December 2004, many of them ending like prayers. …we don’t know why You have done this but God has a plan… It had been sitting under my skin like an itch and I could not get it out of my head.

“Heri, Can I ask you a personal question?”

“Of course, Emile… we are friends”

“Do you believe in God?

An assertive “yes”.

“How?” before I could stop the word. “I mean, why… did it happen here.?”

“Because for our sin.”

“That’s…. just crazy. Why not in the west? Where people can turn away from something like this….”

I felt, and still feel, unable to communicate the confusion in seeing such strong faith. “Before, Aceh was a relaxed place. People drank beer, went to bed together before marriage, it was very relaxed. After tsunami, it changed, we had sinned. We are now very strict.”

As someone who equally struggles and is in awe with strong faith like this, I could only nod slowly and be silent. There was nothing particularly to say.

This mosque was the only thing left standing around Lampuuk. A sign perhaps...

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If ever any of you are heading to Aceh for the surf, or the food or the diving, please get in touch so I can give you Heri’s number. He is a hero. And he can take you to an amazing duck curry place (thanks Lucy for the tip! YUM)

Pulau Weh

What do you do when you find a slice of your subjective paradise? When you find a place plodding beautifully along at half pace without much interest from the world…? Do you keep quiet and keep it to yourself like finding that packet of TimTams at the back of the cupboard that you bought when Tesco still imported them to the UK and deciding on a TimTam and tea 10 minute marathon in a locked room…. Well seeing as we are not actually talking about heavenly biscuits and the readers of this blog extend to about 40 of my extended family – I am going to share the northern most part of Indonesia with you: Pulau Weh.

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A great friend has asked me what it is about the place that appealed so much. after all, it’s a rumless island with not much going on and though I can’t quite put my affinity with it into words, it centred around a dive shop.

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Not that I’ll ever poo poo it (in fact I think it an honest must for anyone with a few life questions) travelling on one’s tod can get a little weary. Those conversations to find common ground, to bypass the inevitable travel chat and get to something of substance beyond niceties.. I have been extremely fortunate with the people I have met, but its the fear of those numbing conversations that can put me of entering into to social interactions in the first place. Yes, a bit silly.

So enter “the dive shop”. When travelling, finding a dive shop that immediately puts a common ground at the door, and a conversation that, if you are like me and a bit giddy about diving, gets everyone excitable and dancing in their seats a bit. However, the pitfall of this is “solely diving chat”. An isolating conversation route for a group as a whole, and so often in dive shops, the only apparent way people can converse is through the medium of hand signals and fish trumps.

So, to find a shop like Rubiah Tirta on Ibioh Beach, full of interesting people that, yes, are completely nutty about the sea, but also are interesting individuals. In small communities where there is not much to do, egos, judgement and peacocking can become the norm, yet this place was too laid back to bother. Above all this, the place invites its customers in as family, no questions asked… well this, this is something to come back for.

Plus its extremely cheap to dive there… 🙂

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Add to this some great food, and evening in great company in Freddie’s soaking in gin & tonic as the only place on the island that serves alcohol, a full moon party on Secret Beach and a room with a view… well that’s a few days turned into a few weeks and a want to go back there to share it with you guys.

It felt good to be there. Much needed, it got me out of my head for a while and focused me on the present without worrying about next steps and that  ache weighing on my shoulders of “What the fuck are you doing? Who is ever going to employ you? Are you ever going to be done with this? Can you commit to anything? Are you going to be of use?”  I will be thankful to the place and the people for that. I miss it already because of that.