x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Fresh start for Aceh

On the edge of the Indian Ocean, I am cold and cannot sleep well. I wake suddenly, hearing noises of indeterminate animals outside my room. When I sleep, I dream of water, of waves rushing over me, sweeping me away, sweeping everything away.

The Grand Raya Baiturrahman Mosque in Banda Aceh survived the 2004 tsunami intact.
The Grand Raya Baiturrahman Mosque in Banda Aceh survived the 2004 tsunami intact.

On the edge of the Indian Ocean, I am cold and cannot sleep well. I wake suddenly, hearing noises of indeterminate animals outside my room. When I sleep, I dream of water, of waves rushing over me, sweeping me away, sweeping everything away.

These dreams really happened, but not to me. I'm in Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh province, on the far north-western tip of Indonesia. It was a few kilometres offshore from here that the earthquake that caused the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami struck. The waves broke ground in Banda Aceh and swept everything before them. My dreams are the stuff of other people's nightmares: more than 150,000 Acehnese were swept away that day.

I leave my room and the hotel and go walking. Near the hotel, the only light comes from a tarpaulin-covered stall selling DVDs. The man is wrapped in a waterproof sheet and peers at me from underneath. "Assalamalaikum," he waves. I ponder asking him who buys from him at this time of the morning, but he is in his own world. It is 4am, 5am, past the hour when people are awake and everything is dark. In the park opposite I can hear voices but see nothing; in the distance around me are the shapes of the hills that surround this city.

I walk for a while, oblivious of direction, ending up in front of the Grand Raya Baiturrahman mosque, the city's main landmark. On one side, there are numerous small stalls selling vegetables but no customers; the stall-holders sit on plastic chairs together, playing cards.

The mosque is architecturally astonishing, especially at night when it is artfully lit up. The contrast of white walls and dark domes is quite beautiful and its mix of Indonesian, Indian and Arab architectural influences is unique. It is later described to me as "a jewel, our most precious jewel".

Standing there in the early hours, I find myself thinking about the sheer passion the Acehnese have for their faith and their historical connection to Islam - other Indonesians often refer to Aceh as Serambi Mekah or Mecca's Terrace, because of its closeness to the holy city of Islam in Saudi Arabia. It was through Aceh that Islam first arrived in Indonesia, brought by Yemeni merchants sometime in the two centuries after the death of the Prophet Mohammed.

And that's the puzzle of the Grand Raya mosque. West of here there is nothing, just the open, dark ocean, hundreds and thousands of kilometres of it, all the way to the African continent. For the rest of Indonesia, Aceh is remote; for the world, especially the world of the 19th century, when the mosque was built, it may as well have been another planet. And yet the people who built and expanded the mosque believed so much in their faith that they created something of this grandeur, in a place almost no one would see.

More people are seeing it now. Aceh is finally shrugging off its long and tragic history. For nearly 30 years, guerrillas in this oil-rich province fought a separatist war against the government, until the 2004 tsunami devastated the region. The guerrillas made peace and the city has been rebuilt with international aid. Now its leaders are determined to put this province on the tourist map. As a sign of this, the tiny airport now issues visas on arrival, making it only the third airport in the country that does this (the others being Jakarta and Bali), catering mainly to Malaysians who come on short-haul budget flights.

This year has been designated "Visit Aceh 2011" by the local government and the city is planning events and festivals over the next few months.

Aceh's hopes rest on three things - the tsunami, Sharia law and the vast, unspoilt natural wonders of the area. From that perspective, the lack of tourist infrastructure is a selling point, a wholesome alternative to some of Indonesia's other resorts.

The Grand Raya mosque escaped the tsunami almost unscathed. The locals say it was divine intervention, pointing to photographs that show the tsunami devastating the buildings all around, on the opposite side of the road, but leaving the mosque untouched.

The rest of the city was not so lucky. It is difficult to conceptualise what a roar of nature on that scale must have been like. There is a museum to help guide visitors through it, but it is not yet finished. A small industry has grown up to help visitors navigate the various sites, with tours organised.

To get a sense of the scale of the tsunami, I go to the "tsunami ship". I keep calling it a boat and people berate me, and when I see it I understand why. It is a power generation ship, a six-storey, 3,000-tonne barge that was several kilometres offshore when the tsunami hit. The force of the waves washed it back to land and carried it across houses to its current resting place, three kilometres inland. It is clearly an attraction, full of Indonesians scrambling up to the viewing platform at the top, taking photographs and family videos.

When the tsunami struck, I was at my desk at The Guardian newspaper offices in London, trying to piece it together. Yet nothing I have seen or read about the tsunami, then or since, has come close to explaining the sheer power of that event as what I saw from the top of the viewing platform. Looking north and west to the sea, it is a fairly unremarkable sight, a collection of small houses to the horizon. It takes a moment to focus on the hazy green outlines of islands, far in the distance. It's only then that the reality of that day hits you, because the tsunami came from beyond those islands, far, far away, dragging the ship all this way. It was a moving wall of water from which there was no escape.

The other "attraction" is Sharia law. Tourist agencies are officially pushing this as an "Islamic" destination: "Come and see how an Islamic community lives and Sharia is applied," says a tourism official. As part of the post-tsunami peace agreement, Aceh became a semi-autonomous state but has made some of its own laws since 2001. The Sharia component is complicated - there are only a handful of Sharia laws in effect (though more are planned), banning gambling and alcohol, mainly to do with morality and standards of modest dress. But they don't apply to foreigners. The tourist authorities seem to be aiming for a balancing act - they are aware that Sharia tourism offers a potential unique selling point for the region, but they are also nervous about putting off western tourists, who might instead head for the more carefree beaches of Bali.

Yet the irony is that, while the few Sharia laws have fallen heavily on some inhabitants of Aceh, particularly rural women who have complained of abuses by the Sharia police, its effect is not immediately obvious to foreigners. Banda Aceh is a relaxed, open city, with men and women interacting in public as in the rest of Indonesia. Acehnese were already fairly devout before the introduction of Sharia a few years ago.

A dozen or so kilometres northwest of Banda Aceh is the island of Pulau Weh, a sort of mini Bali. You get there by ferry, to the main port town of Sabang on a slow boat that takes three hours but feels longer. The lapping waves and the rocking of the boat, combined with the knowledge of how far from everywhere you are, gives an end-of-the-world feel. The attraction of Pulau Weh is that there is almost nothing there. Diving spots are unspoilt and attract only hardcore, in-the-know divers.

The locals keep telling me about Aceh Basar (a province of Aceh, south and west of Banda Aceh) and all the wonderful hiking there. The forests and hills around Banda Aceh are luxuriant, and from the plane they appear remote and unspoilt. Yet I can find nobody who organises hiking; no guides, no maps, no tourist companies. In the end, I meet an Australian couple at the hotel who say they went solo, taking a driver, a packed lunch and their boots.

On an early morning drive out to the foothills that surround the city, its natural beauty is clear. Thick mist swirls around and the few Acehnese walking past are barefoot, oblivious to us. We drive for a few hours, slowly, feeling the rhythm of rural life.

Driving into Banda Aceh after Jakarta, the city feels impossibly small. But a few hours driving around the small villages outside gives me a different perspective. The roads are paved, but dirt paths branch off at regular intervals, opening into labyrinthine streets of small, neat houses. Here, the car seems impossibly clunky and noisy. The Acehnese watch us indifferently from their front porches. When we stop to ask directions, the silence is immense and natural: I realise there are no artifical sounds like motorbikes, or even the hum of wheels on tarmac. Back in Banda Aceh, the city seems ugly with sounds. When I get back to the hotel around midday, I sleep peacefully, with thoughts of trees and grass.