Friday, January 27, 2012

Planomania in Pulau Weh

I came across an obscure word that resonated with me, planomania meaning the urge to roam. Which was what I needed to do my two weeks in Sumatra. Pulah Weh is the island off  Banda Ache, the very northern tip  of Sumutra and also the very western frontier of Indonesia. Pulah Weh has all the qualities of a first class, SE Asian island, a divers paradise, cheap, easy to get to, beach hut accomodation, nice beaches, even friendlier locals, but has not been spoiled or even overdeveloped like say Bali, Ko Phi Phi, or Boracay. I hope it stays like this!

Beginning our second week, we returned to Medan sick (now me with a sour belly which didnt last long) and took a taxi from Berastagi to the domestic airport where we took a delayed afternoon flights, via Sriwijaya Air to Banda Ache.
Z walking to our plane to Banda Ache

Banda Ache has earned a bad reputation lately, the horrific tsnumani Christmas 2004 which they are still recovering from and also the Christian Muslim political instability (actually Christian minorities and their churches are attacked.) About a week before our flight to Medan, Banda Acha had a major earthquake of 7.3 and issued another Tsunami warning. The people are still so traumatized by the 2004 Tsumanai, the people ran into the streets, no major damage or injuries  thankfully. I even met some travelers who were avoiding Banda Ache entirely. Glad to say I influenced at least one Italian gentleman to take his chances.

It was Chinese New Year weekend the Sat we flew to Banda Ache on Sriwijaya Air. My immediate impression of BA was wow I could live here. Everything was new, bustling, ordered, dissimilar from the thug like vibe of Medan. I suppose it was because of the tsunami’s aftermath, the pouring in of donor money, the presence of NGO’s and an expat community that drove up the prices and standard of living. Still, it has this energy and freshness to it, a hopeful vitality in spite of the trauma. We got a mini tour as I had my driver chauffeur around to all the banks so I could change some dollars, none were open.  (I still had some rupiah). There were new mosques, churches, new shiny banks. It was a holiday, banks closed, but street markets bursting, spilling over into traffic.

There are only 2 ferries, twice daily to Pulau Weh and we made the afternoon ferry. There is a “fast” ferry that takes an hour and a slower ferry that carries cars and takes only 30 minutes longer. We took the fast ferry and paid for no AC seats and were melting. Sitting outside meant convening with the smokers (everyone smokes in Indonesia). The plan I had on my itinerary was to stay at backpacker diver beach called Iboih, at Erick’s, 50,000 rupiah a night with Wi-Fi.

We arrived at Pulah Weh around 5 and took a motorcycle taxi. I ran into my Italian friend who said the whole island was booked. He just came from Iboih and he had to get an overpriced room in Sabang. He recommended his place in Sabang (Holiday Hotel), which I checked out and decided against. I came to the island for a beach abode, not an eyesore in a town. Anyway, I went back to the main road and got a becak who took me to Sumur Tiga. That beach just outside Sabang had 2 beautiful accommodations with first rate beach cabins built into the cliff with stone steps winding downward to the beach, with absurdly turquoise views of the warm, tropical waters. These places were slightly more expensive than Iboih or Gapang, but still cheap if you are thinking in US dollars or in my case NT. Both places were booked so I had to stay at the place above Casa Nemos, 200,000 rupiah a night with AC and TV, which Z was thankful for. Blasting the AC (not too cold as she was sick) helped hide her nocturnal coughing fits, unlike some of the places we stayed before. Strangely, when she watched cartoons it took her mind off her cough.

Waiting for our fast ferry at Balohan

Sumur Tiga beach
Casa Nemo's Sumur Tiga
Sumur Tiga

 Our first night at Sumur Tiga we ate at one of these bungalows and met a wonderful couple at the table behind us. The woman was American with a down to earth accent that makes one immediately feel comfortable. She was with her Kiwi consort, Sydney and Alistair. They were a gem. I couldn’t even finish our ‘expensive’ dinner as Z was passing out and coughing at the same time, I carried her on my back up the vertical stone steps to the road and one of the guys working at the bungalow, gave me a ride on his motorcycle up the street (a long walks with a 6 year old on my back) back to my room. 
Suffice to say Z and I didn’t sleep, well she seemed to think she did, if coughing with eyes closed is sleep. We ate breakfast and recovered on the beach in the shade of the palms trees. Still sick and losing weight, Z’s energy was for the first time this trip, up enough to play on the beach with me. We made a mermaid with the coral, I swam, I was feeling encouraged that she might actually be well enough to play, participate, enjoy this trip. This day was my birthday. Sydney and Alistair appeared on the beach later and kindly invited us to dinner at Nemos. I told them how grateful I was as today was my 37th birthday. They also told me how that first night, Erick’s on Iboih had a major party, everyone (backpacker) went. When I found out, I was so grateful I had missed going there and found the romantic cliff cabanas on the Sumur Tiga side. Once upon a midnight, that was my scene (ahh Dahab, Ko Phen Gan, Utilla what memories…) but with a sick kid and sleep deprived, soothing quiet, the resonance of the waves was the voice of Providence.

Z w/ a new friend, Sumur Tiga, my morning coffee view
 I rented a scooter the afternoon of my birthday for 50,000 from Casa Nemos, which was like FREEDOM for me.  A good price for 6 hours of the island wind blowing in my hair. The scooter was new and fast, and the roads of Pulah Weh were all recently paved and so the best I’ve seen in Sumatra. The jungle roads had teams of gray, combative monkeys and the views from the jungle mountain clearings, of the water and islands were phenomenal. I intended to go to Iboih and check it out, but never made it. We went to Gapang and it was bustling with families from Medan and Ache and it seemed more of a child friendly vibe than the assumed backpacker, party vibe of Iboih. I thought Z should play with kids and found a cheap bungalow on Gapang beach for the next 2 nights.
Here are some photos of  our stay at Gapang beach:  Bringeen Guesthouse, with the owner and her baby. The last one is also our view from our front deck.
 a vereaye
Wto pl

On my way back to Sabang I stopped for gas (huts full of empty plastic water bottles filled with gas) and bought a liter. I asked where the waterfall was and happened to be right at the intersection where the road led up to the waterfall. I took the road along the river, kids splashing and frolicking, mothers washing clothes, until the road became a walkway no wider than a foot, barely wide enough for me to control the scooter. The one side falling down to the river. It took some control and care and I had to stop and park the scooter and finish the rest on foot. The trail was much harder than I anticipated. The trail started ok, a normal jungle trail, slippery, wet, roots poking out ready to trip, and then we had to jump stones across the other side. Soon we were stuck. I thought about quitting and turning back because I could barely scramble up the slippery rocks with my flip-flops, let alone assist Z. Fortunately there was this helpful local. Z was not kind to him and kept on saying he was a bad guy, which he understood. I am teaching her to respect her gut instinct people, especially traveling, entrusting one’s safety to strangers in strange lands, but I knew he was a godsend. He def worked for her trust and he held her most of the time as we river traced, back and forth from one side of the river to the other, sometimes setting her  down to come and get me. At one point my flip flop broke and he tucked my pair of sandals under a rock and gave me his own. He continued on barefoot, holding Z, climbing the wet boulders like a pro and helping me, until finally we made it. The waterfalls,   gray mineral water, a gray pool. We rested; he went off for a well-deserved smoke. Then a bunch of local school girls appeared, climbing the wet boulders as if they were the tiniest stones. I was impressed with their skill. Z went into the water and our new friend/guide encouraged me to swim. I didn’t find the gray water appealing enough. When we were ready to leave, our new friend helped us just as sufficiently and selflessly as before.
Being an island, I ran into him two days later as he was selling his morning catch. I bought a good looking tuna for 20,000 rupiah and had one of the local places I went to cook it up for lunch (which we couldn’t finish and had to make fried rice with for dinner.)
Pria Laout River waterfall, Serung Keris Mountains, in the middle of the jungle
Z makes new friends

Local who helped me and Z

That night we were 10 minutes late for dinner and Sydney and Alistair were waiting with some Vodka and Tonic which we were drinking freely, exchanging extraordinary stories of close encounters, spirits and ghosts and having a great time. Z was playing with some local girls, so I was able to really enjoy adult conversation, with probably the most fascinating expats I have met in a long time. Sydney was teaching jewelry making at a University in Kuala Lumpor and her journey of starting from scratch in a male orientated, Muslim Academia made me just sit at her feet soaking in my own admiration of her independence and her carefree, self-sufficient, American boldness. And on top of it she was an artist, practicing and teaching her art. She spoke of her love for her students, how she found new amity with Alistair. Not much older than me, maybe 10 years (she seems so young), this was a woman I could be awed at. She seemed to think well of me and I admit it was nice to have someone, a stranger, appreciate my life journey with respect and marvel. It’s not like I get to hear that kind of approval or admiration from people I interact with on a daily basis. Alistair was a cool enough guy, had a college age kid, living in Melbourne and just well-traveled, knowledgeable, witty and generous. Then they both presented me with a gift, a T-shirt of Sabang, which was just the icing on the cake of an amazing day. I felt the waterfall experience meeting this kind local who just went out of his way for and Z to have this adventure, and Sydney and Alistair who went out of their way to have this wonderful meal and companionship and the gift I was just brimming with happiness and gratitude at such grace.

Z goes to the hospital for new meds

That’s what I love about travel, and travel time, the rallying of strangers, locating kindred spirits, compelling a connection; later to follow up on that bond of geography and moment, eventually. How many times have I done that? Been able to continue and deepen decade’s long friendships in other countries, homelands, new adventures. Sydney is one of those and her place in KL is always open for me and Z. I hope to visit her sometime this year. Travel is like condensed life, I meet one of these incredible people after a few days or weeks or months of hard, lonely, and voyaging.

Lunch! fresh Tuna, bought from the waterfall guy who is also a fisherman

We moved to Gapang Beach and all the families had left, their Chinese New Year holiday over. That was kind of a bummer because I wanted Z some kid social time, but on the upside I had the whole beach to myself. On the other side of the beach, as you first enter, there is Lumba Lumba, a more “upscale” backpacker bungalow (AC) that had diving and most if not all of the foreign travelers were getting their PADI certification. I didn’t even consider diving, Z was sick or recovering and I didn’t meet anyone I could leave her with, that I trusted long enough for a dive. Z liked me to push her on the tree swings, or look for tiny crabs which were everywhere. We rented a scooter once, but mostly just hung out, dividing time between meals, playing some Uno.

The morning we left, I had arranged a driver, an ojek to take me to the 7am ferry back to Ache, that driver never came and I was kind of panicking. No one on Dapang was awake at 6am, I saw at the end of the beach 2 tourist vans pulling out, full of their divers, my last hope to make the morning ferry. If I missed this ferry Id miss the plane to Medan and thus my plane to Singapore and Taipei. I ran as fast as I could, trying to get the attention of the van that didn’t see me. One of the Lumba Lumba owners, pitied me and took me and Z in his car (for 150,000 no less) and we made the ferry with 10 minutes to spare in a seat in front of Sydney and Alistair. They had a late day flight back to KL and were going to take a tour of Banda Ache, go see the Tsunami Museum.
Sydney and Aalistair on the ferry back to Banda Ache

We said our goodbyes at the ferry terminal as the taxi drivers overtook anyone with a foreign face. It wasn’t worth the haggle, I agreed to the 90,000 back to the airport a good 40 minute ride. Suddenly two foreign men asked if they could share my taxi to the airport, sure, why not a spit 30,000 each and they stopped at the bank so I could change my dollars (there is an exit tax leaving Indonesia that must be paid in rupiah, although the entering visa must be paid in US dollars.) Anyway, it was a long drive and I got to chat with these two guys, Alan a Dutch DM (Dive Master) and Cris, a Basque travel guide. These two must be the other most interesting expats on the island. Seriously, Cris has been everywhere, speaks German, Dutch, French, Catalan, Castilian and was speaking Indonesian with the taxi driver. Alan was making funny jokes the whole time and filling me in on what underwater delights he saw on his stint as a DM.
We arrived at the airport with time to spare. We spent several hours surfing on the wifi, and drinking cups of coffee, and of course chatting. Cris needed to get out of Indonesia because his visa expired and was busy trying to buy a ticket (or waiting for one of the airline offices to open). Alan was an oil man, made his money, and decided for a sabbatical as a DM. He sold his house and was just living the dream life of being more wet than dry. At this time he was flying back to Europe to connect with his college age daughter and return to Asia, being a DM in Eastern Borneo at a  3 star resort, then going back to Gapang. Very cool people. I hope to run into them again someday. With Alan it’s a total possibility, my dear friend Sandra (Guatemala, S Korea) is also in Eastern Borneo.
Came to find out I could of dived with Alan at Lumba Lumba and that the local women who worked at LL could of watched Z, but oh well I guess. Made me question if I have some weird mother martyrdom going on, and so the next time I am in diver’s paradise I will at least check out the possibility because my diving merriment has been too long at the back burner. 

Last Indnesian meal Medan
Banda Ache airport with Alan

LINKS and info:
Bus to Banda Aceh A bus trip from Medan to Aceh takes around 11 hours. Most buses travel overnight and cost 150,000Rp (500NT).

Flights to Banda AcehThe airport at Banda Aceh is called Sultan Iskandarmuda Airport. A taxi will cost 70,000Rp from the airport to the centre of Banda Aceh. Lion Air has direct flights from Banda Aceh to Medan and Jakarta. Sriwijaya Air has direct flights from Banda Aceh to Medan and Jakarta.


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