Scuba, Sights and Sounds in Banda Aceh, Indonesia

I was heading to Banda Aceh, Indonesia, for a scuba trip with a group of friends. We were going mainly for fun and relaxation, but one of my goals was also to find out what made the remote city of Banda Aceh special. 

"What makes it so great?" I had asked friends who raved about having been there before. 

"You'll see," was the typical answer. 

Indonesia, with a population of more than 250 million, is the fourth most populous nation in the world. The country is made up of thousands of islands that are spread out between Australia and Asia. Its many ethnic groups speak hundreds of languages, and although considered the largest Muslim country in the world, Indonesia has six official religions, many of which are blended with local cults to form a sometimes mystifying collection of colors and curiosities. 

Banda Aceh is a port city located at the northwest tip of Sumatra, the largest island that is entirely Indonesia with the two other large islands, Borneo and New Guinea, shared with other countries. The area has a long history of colonization by the British and then the Dutch, but in 1945 the indigenous people declared independence, and by the early 1960s Banda Aceh became the provincial capital and largest city in the province of Aceh. 

The name Banda Aceh comes from a Persian word for port, and the area made headlines in 2004, when a tsunami killed nearly 170,000 people. The world responded to the tragedy by sending help and supplies, most of which went directly through the ports of Banda Aceh.

But this solemn memory of devastation is in direct conflict with the joy and lively smells and sounds of this place that I discovered. Stepping off the plane I was struck by near 100 percent humidity and the scent of flowers and damp earth. The moisture made my skin feel soft and smooth, a huge contrast to my normally dry and cracked hands from the parched California air at home.

My driver from the airport to my hotel swerved and honked at the throngs of motorcycles and motorized becaks (called cycle rickshaws in other places) that poured toward the city. It was 7 p.m., and the fast of Ramadan was over for the day. Inside the cab the radio played U.S. top-40 hits recorded by such artists as Taylor Swift and Eminem. We raced past rice paddies and clusters of palm trees and small shanty towns of double-storied stucco buildings, each seemingly with some sort of business on its lower level — selling clothing, coffee and food that ranged from banana-leaf-wrapped fish to countless different fruits. 

The air was damp and smoky from wood-burning fires, bus fumes and the strange odor of sweet-smelling garbage that turned out to be football-size durian fruit being sold out of the back of trucks along the roadside. This spiky-skinned fruit has such a potent scent that it is banned from hotels and buses. Amazingly, like stinky cheese, the flesh inside has an oddly attractive flavor that reminded me of fermented custard spiked with apricots. 

I was staying at the Hermes Palace, one of the more expensive hotels at just $55 per night. I'd picked it because of its central location and access to the Internet. I ate and went to sleep quickly after my 36 hours of travel.

The next morning the air was warm and thick with moisture as I walked toward the city center. Along the road young men talked and laughed in small groups, while both men and women buzzed past on small motorcycles, the women in colorful scarves and often riding sidesaddle. 

The Baiturrahman Grand Mosque is located in the heart of Banda Aceh and is one of the most famous landmarks in the city. The original mosque was built during the 12th century. The large white structure with almost black tiled roof is notable for having seven domes and four smaller towers along with a main tower. After the tsunami it was one of the only structures that remained standing, and for that and its long history it is revered by the local population. Men who go need to wear long pants and women need headscarves. A little shop rents burkalike attire if the guards deem a visitor's clothing as inadequate. 

Just behind the mosque is the marketplace, but anyone who is squeamish should stay on a more beaten path. Freshly killed chickens lie next to huge bags of beans and rice. Piles of small reef fish and shrimp are arranged on wooden boards next to towers of chilies and vegetables. 

Heading south from the marketplace to the Tsunami Museum, I walked along a street that was bordered by a small waterway. Large monitor lizards swam snakelike in the green muddy water, and one nearly 7-foot specimen bolted up the other side of the shore. I quickly hurried on.

Entering into the museum I descended down a narrow curved path lined with sheer walls that had water pouring down them. The light dimmed to near blackness as I went deeper, the walls eventually rising to the height of the wall of water that struck the island, causing me to feel what must only have been a hint of the horror of that day.

I was happy to be back outside in the light. A watermelon salesman stood by a truck that overflowed with odd-shaped melons. For about 50 cents I enjoyed the sweet red flesh. Then tired and hot, I hired one of the motorized becak drivers for about $4 to take me back to the hotel. There I slept and readied myself for another full day of exploring this beautiful city.

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Originally published in Creators Syndicate, 2015