The volcanic mountains of Aceh rise up like jagged, verdant teeth; we lay within the mouth of the ‘Ring of Fire’. Rice paddies glisten like jewels, and the sweet aroma of clove cigarettes wafts through the streets, hangs in the air like a quaint reminder that even smoke can be candied.
The air is pregnant with moisture, it clings to your skin, glazes everything in a clammy film. Dragonflies swarm the air, a constant droning as the soundtrack to their predation. The hotel pool is blessed by this army of mercenaries, as they keep the ravening mosquitoes at bay.
Our hotel provided the softest of landings, and rather unexpectedly so. I could not have imagined this sort of luxury in the midst of this very undeveloped country, site of the most significant natural disaster in the modern record.
The roads are an exercise in perfect order emerging from chaos. Like gnats or starlings, the myriad of motorbikes, buses, tuk-tuks, and everything in between- all somehow manage to coexist, darting here and there, yielding and charging, and yet somehow never touching one another.
The people here are incredibly kind and helpful, welcoming and curious: like the people in every underdeveloped place I have ever been. The influx of NGOs has not corrupted the culture...yet. The KFC and Pizza Hut in the center of town serve as brutal reminders that with development comes the spectre of consumer culture.
We’ve met many, many tsunami survivors, and the stories are both shocking and incredible. There is much involved, the compensation, rebuilding, and in many cases the complete losses suffered by some.
The tsunami created an incredible opportunity to end the separatist strife that divided Aceh and Indonesia for the past 30 years. In the wake of utter devastation, there was a great residue of hope deposited on the ravaged land. The people have a spirit and an interest in their own well being that has come as an absolute delight after the spectacle of New Orleans.
The Aceh People’s Forum, an umbrella organization that organizes all of the relief efforts, arranged a roundtable discussion for our group yesterday. We presented our aggregated observations and recommendations to the group of locals, NGO coordinators, press, and others, and spent an incredibly successful time discussing the merits and flaws in our work.
Ultimately, it got us all fired up, put us on Indonesian television, and is being incorporated into a document that will be published and presented to the Indonesian government in an effort to help shape the debate around redevelopment efforts.
In other news, the muezzin’s song wakes me shortly after 5 a.m. each day. I lay in bed listening to the call to prayer, luxuriating in its exotic, haunting melody. No one else wakes to it, a testament to what a light sleeper I am. I’ve been to the gym each morning at 6, swimming laps in the outrageous pool as the sun ascends.
In short, it is a strange sort of paradise, the luxury hotel juxtaposed with the redolent down-market grime of the streets. I wish we could spend a month here.
Next stop, Sri Lanka by way of Singapore. Over and out.