Friday, 22 August 2014

Bright future for Banda Aceh post tsunami

Banda Aceh Post-Tsunami
ROOM WITH A VIEW: Watching the sunset from our balcony was stunning.
Banda Aceh Post-Tsunami
ACTUAL SIZE: This statue is the same height as the wave was when it hit the area, 5km inland.
Banda Aceh Post-Tsunami
POWER OF THE WAVES: This massive ship crossed the city in the tsunami and now sits as a memorial site inland.

For many people across the globe, the name Banda Aceh would have only been heard for the first time following the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004.
Broadcast around the world as a place of mass destruction with casualties in the tens of thousands, Banda Aceh has probably never crossed the minds of many as a place of paradise, a place of culture or even a place to holiday.
In late 2013, after finishing up my job in Kuala Lumpur working for an NGO providing free education to the poor, I decided to travel back to a country which I once lived in, but to a place even I knew very little about other than the traumatic graphic photos online from the tsunami.
For me, it was only one hour away on a 'cheap as chips' AirAsia flight to the city of Banda Aceh, which is located at the northern point of Sumatra, Indonesia.
Ten years on from the Boxing Day tsunami and it was quite impressive to see how a city could rebuild itself. Although not so sure at first how destroyed the city was, our driver took us to some memorial sites; the first being a gallery of photos from the event, conveniently located in an ex-house which still has a ship beached on the roof.
This gallery of horrific photos was not for the faint-hearted. I got about halfway through before my stomach started to turn, and my eyes began to water.
The images were not shy to show the victims, or parts of the victims as they laid scattered across a flattened city. 
You couldn't help but look around and see the people who lived there and realise that they were here on that day, they ran from the surging water, they themselves lost most of their family that day and you couldn't help but think how haunted their dreams/nightmares must be.
I have experienced my share of horrific experiences in my lifetime, such as the 2008 earthquake in China and the 2010/11 earthquakes in Christchurch, but I couldn't imagine experiencing anything as terrifying as these people did.
Next we moved on to the biggest memorial which was a massive ship. It must have been about 100m long, yet it stood upright on land, about 5km in land from the harbor.
This massive construction of metal had been lifted out of the sea and travelled over top of, or perhaps straight through, people's homes, shopping malls and whatever else stood in its way. It was there that I started to understand that this wave the Japanese call a tsunami is truly powerful.
They have built a statue of the wave in that same location. It is the same height as the wave was when it hit that area, 5km inland!! I stood beside it and looked straight up. No way could I touch the top, even if I jumped, and I'm not a short guy.
Banda Aceh, like many areas of Indonesia, is Muslim and everyone we met had so much faith because the main mosque was not flattened by the wall of water. I couldn't help but question the fact that they, as a community, invested a lot more money into the construction of the mosque(s) therefore it wasn't washed away like the thousands of fragile homes.
People took this as a sign that Allah was present, and that Allah was reminding them of their purpose. It was a bit hard to hear again and again, as the feeling of propaganda was too evident, but this is no place to debate others lifestyles or religions. It is what it is.
If I am to be honest now, my trip there was not so much to visit Banda Aceh but more to go to an island that can simply be described as paradise, the island Pulau Weh - a 40 minute boat ride from Banda Aceh.
Just before boarding our boat, we were met by Freddie, the owner of the hotel/villas we were going to stay at, and I must say this guy was amazing, friendly, helpful and a down to earth great guy.
As we got closer, we could see why Freddie had made the big move to this island in 2006 to start Freddie's Santai Sumurtiga. The clear blue waters were full of tropical fish as we got off the boat and into our van to drive to the other side of the island.
Life on the island was very chilled, people said hello to strangers and smiled just for the sake of smiling. 
The roads were typical of Indonesia, with plenty of potholes and wild animals walking across as if there were no crazy drivers around the next corner. It was clean, green and there were coconut palm trees everywhere.
We arrived at our villa which no words can truly describe. It was completely made from local materials such as wood from the palm trees and leaves from them too. It stood on the steep bank with the most amazing view of the ocean. Just a few metres below us was the long, clean, white sandy beach which was our home for the next few days.
Our villa had the best balcony, which overlooked the ocean and the coconut trees; sunset was spectacular.
Freddie can also cook, and by cook I mean he could easily win Masterchef. Every night, he put on a buffet spread for his guests, with a different theme each night. The thought and the time put into every meal was truly amazing, and he did it all for his guests, bringing them all together for a great meal to talk about their day and give others ideas about what to see on the island.
Did I mention he knew every guest's name, and it didn't matter where or when you saw him, he would address anybody by their name; he made every guest feel like family instantly.
We truly enjoyed our time here. The days were filled with relaxing times on the beach, working on our tans, swimming with millions of fish, socialising with other guests, visiting the natural beauty of the island and best of all, meeting the locals. For once this was a place that had it all, except the invasion of tourists.
Both Banda Aceh and Pulau Weh have rebuilt themselves since the Boxing Day tsunami and now look to a bright future.
This is a place that has a unique charm and a presence that makes you really appreciate your home and your safety, but reminds you that change is inevitable so have faith, enjoy each and every moment and remember there is always light at the end of the tunnel.