Saturday, October 13, 2007

Babies, Pulo' Weh, and Ramadan ...

Some blog, eh, folks? It's been three long months, more or less, since my last entry! My apologies! All I can say is that it's been pretty busy at work, and a lot of changes have taken place in our project. We've also gone through the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan (<-- click on link) here in Banda Aceh, and it's finally over!

I've been taking pictures to share in the meantime, so sit back and enjoy! This chronicle starts out with a happy occasion. One of our drivers, Mumun (remember the young fella that drove us out to that trip along the coast?), and his wife welcomed a new member of the family.

Margaret and her roomie Henny organized a visit to Mumun's house in Banda Aceh. I tagged along with them (and Bagus, his wife Mutiara, and their wonderful son Ageh) to see the baby.

Speaking of babies, remember at our Guest House we had the "7th Month Ceremony" where the landlord's daughter was celebrating her seventh month of pregnancy? Well that baby also showed up last month. Here she is:

We had a long weekend off in mid-August for Indonesia's Independence Day, celebrating a declaration that led to a long war of independence with the Dutch colonizers in the late 1940's after World War II. Henny organized a trip to Pulo' (Pulau) Weh, where she's from. Pulo' Weh lies offshore from Banda Aceh, and has some beautiful coral reefs around it.

Juan Gonzalez, his wife Pam, and I met Margaret and Henny at the ferry terminal. I was poking around the ferry terminal and stumbled onto a sad reminder of why I have this job. The photos below are of one of the mass graves in the area for the victims of the tsunami of December 26, 2004.

This area is right next to the ferry terminal, and the plaque inside says that over 14,000 souls are interred here. The site was formerly occupied by a hospital that was completely destroyed by the wave that came in. The two buildings you see behind the grassed area (the grave) are all that's left of the hospital complex.

The saddest sight of all is the children's area (below) of the mass grave. I could not get from the plaque the number of children that might be buried in this area (the plaque is written in the Acehnese dialect). I heard from a colleague that on the morning of the tsunami, a large number of schoolchildren were in one of the parks participating in a ceremony of some kind with the mayor and his staff. The mayor and most of the children did not survive.

With those somber thoughts, we walked over to the ferry terminal where our hi-speed ferry was ready for boarding:

In a short while, lots of folks seeking to get away for the long weekend started showing up at the pier. Lots of foreigners, most of whom, like us, are reconstruction-related workers making the most of their time off.

Henny and Margaret got themselves a seat near the entryway. Standing with them is Dedy, one of our computer operators in my staff. Dedy is from Pulo' Weh (like Henny), and is going back home for the weekend.

Juan, Pam, and I find a seat in the lower deck. The weather was cloudy outside, and this particular ferry had no deck where the passengers could sit outside.

After a relatively short trip (an hour, maybe?), we pull into the ferry pier at Pulo' Weh. On our way to the pier, we pass by an old ferry that's somewhat past its prime:

Henny has arranged for a car to meet us at the ferry terminal. We take the car to the middle of Pulo' Weh to pick up Bagus, his wife Mutiara, and their son Ageh. Bagus is one of our IT guys, and he and his family also share Margaret's house. The car then takes us to the village of Iboih (below), which is on the north side of the island facing our destination --- the island of Rubiah.

Across the water is Pulau (island) Rubiah, where we'll be spending the next couple of nights.

At the far end of the beach are some small boats, one of which will take us to Rubiah to the chalets where we will be sleeping.

But first things first: it's lunchtime! Ageh (his name is probably a lot longer and more complicated, but that's what we call him) digs into his meal:

One of the yummy local goodies that Henny's mother made for us for lunch is this crunchy concoction. What looks like shoestring potatoes is actually tiny, tiny fish deep-fried till crunchy. There are also peanuts and deep-fried tempeh (an Indonesian soybean product) in the mixture. The mixture is very spicy --- some of the reddish color is from the red chilis in the mix. We ate it (along with a curry that Henny's mom also made for us) with rice.

Soon lunch is over and we board the motorboat. Some of us stopped at a dive shop and rented snorkels and masks for a nominal fee to take to the island.

After a quick head count and check of equipment, we head out!

Henny seems apprehensive as we approach Pulau Rubiah...

Our boat glides past the chalet that I will share with Juan and Pam.

The rocks that make up much of the island are basaltic (volcanic origin --- lava!), and they're weathered and eroded to interesting shapes:

After unloading us passengers at the beach on Pulau Rubiah, the motorboat pushes off with a promise to come by first thing in the morning two days hence to pick us up:

The beaches on the island are covered with coral pieces and fragments. You need to wear sandals to avoid hurting your feet in the surf:

The water around the island is crystal clear, and full of corals and fish of various colors and hues! Too bad I didn't have an underwater camera! There are many beautiful coves:

... and mysterious ruins:

Bagus, Mutiara, and Henny smile from their chalet as I snap photos of the campfire they built in front of their building. The previous evening and that morning, Henny's family (who came to Rubiah after we arrived) fished around the rocks, caught gobs of fish, and cooked them. We had a great meal of fresh ikan bakar (roast fish), thanks to Henny's folks!

And young Mr. Ageh also peeks out from his hammock to see what I'm up to...

I poke around the one and only coffee shop on the island early the next morning, and catch the kitchen crew doing prep work for the vegetable curry they're going to cook for lunch:

We mustn't forget the obligatory tropical sunrise/sunset photo. In this case, it's a sunrise photo:

Finally it's time to go back to Banda Aceh (and work!)... the ferry that takes us back has an upper deck, and the weather's nice, so we decide to sit upstairs:

Juan and Pam settle themselves down as the ferry prepares to push off:

We slip past the newly-rebuilt piers of Sabang port:

And we have one last look at Pulo' Weh as we head toward Banda Aceh:

And so August became September. We were really busy in September, but we had our fun moments. Our clients challenged the consulting firms working on our reconstruction project to a soccer game. Our firm (yellow jerseys) rose to the challenge:

... and got creamed!

Later in the month I had a chance to go on a R&R visit to Malaysia. I visited with Ana and her daughters Ayenaa and Ayesyah, and son Ayezat in Kuala Lumpur (KL). Ana's husband is our old friend prof. Mohammed Anis Nor from the University of Malaya in KL. Anis had just left for a sabbatical at Smith College in the US --- I missed him by a week. I went out for a Saturday lunch and movie with his family:

In KL, I also had a chance to go and see another couple, old friends Patrick and Phil Augustin and their kids. No pictures, unfortunately... I had a couple of great dinners with them. One "business" reason for this trip was to check up on the progress of a condo complex Pat and I have bought into. Our unit is in the building that's under construction at the right. When completed in early 2009, it will look like the tower on the left:

And then it was mid-September: Ramadan! The fasting month is strictly observed in Aceh. During the day, all the eating shops (with very few exceptions) are boarded up, and Muslims do not eat or drink between morning prayers (around 5 am) and the evening prayers (between 6:30 and 7:00 pm, depending on the day). It's a low-energy time of the year, and a lot of work winds down to accommodate the people's fasting.

So what do those of us who are not fasting do for lunch? One of the establishments that is legally open is the canteen at the United Nations (UN) Food Programme office (where else?), fortunately located close to our office:

You see non-Muslim Indonesians, Europeans, Asians, Africans, Americans, and Australasians all queuing up around lunchtime to share food and drinks. The other "officially" open restaurant is the canteen at the Asian Development Bank office. The UN canteen has a bunch of pictures drawn by local schoolchildren depicting the tsunami that they remember (on the wall above the kitchen counter):

Because of the shared ordeal of fasting, many "buka puasa bersama" (breaking fast together) dinners take place during Ramadan. At the designated time, folks break their fast with drinks and sweets before evening prayers, then have dinner together with friends. Our consulting firm has two projects in town, so one evening we had a "buka puasa" dinner with staff from both projects participating:

Our landlord and landlady also held a couple of large "buka puasa bersama" events at our Guest House. After breaking the fast, the guests do their evening prayers and then enjoy the dinner spread:

The guests sit and relax and talk, the tension of the daytime fasting dispelled by the fast-breaking and prayers:

The ladies form their own circle and enjoy the evening:

During the fasting month, the trip home from the office slows down somewhat as an army of food vendors and their carts take the to streets and position themselves to sell snacks, food, and drinks that busy commuters can pick up on their way home to break the fast. Folks in cars and motorcycles stop along the sidewalk to pick up the goodies for sale, and end up causing traffic jams. It's a very lively time of the day. After the fast-breaking time, the town livens up to an extent that is not seen during the "normal," non-fasting months:

The Lebaran holidays (the holidays celebrating the end of the fasting month) is traditionally the major holiday of the year, as folks journey back to their home villages and cities for family reunions. In the US, it would be akin to Xmas or Thanksgiving in terms of travel and family get-togethers. Folks start disappearing from work during the middle of the week preceding the last day of the Ramadan, and often take one week off after Hari Raya (the day marking the beginning of the month after Ramadan). This is what our office looked like on the last day of Ramadan:

The evening of the last day of the fasting month (or, by the Muslim calendar reckoning, the evening that starts the first day after the fasting month) was something else in town. Folks were out in force, cruising the streets, kids shooting off firecrackers and fireworks, floats with of groups singing spirituals going around town... very lively, very noisy! Like a carnival!

And today is Hari Raya !!! (<-- Click on link!) (Indonesians are more apt to call it "Lebaran." See this Wikipedia article that talks about how Hari Raya is celebrated in Malaysia, Indonesia, and elsewhere. The fasting month is over, and family reunions are in full swing.

Also, every household has an "open house," and everybody visits everybody else after the morning prayers. TV stations are full of "Lebaran" specials today. In the Malay/Indonesian tradition, people here greet each other with, among other things, "Mohon Maaf Zahir dan Batin," or "I ask for your forgiveness for having wronged you physically and spiritually" (something like that, anyway).

In our Guest House, there have been a steady stream of visitors to our landlord all day today:

Friends and relatives come and visit, and also to admire the new baby:

And, of course, to eat and talk and be merry! (I will not go hungry in the guest house for the next few days!)

While the adults talk, our guest house staff (manager Saiful) takes care of the kids:

Decked out in new outfits, house staff "kids" (anak rumah) Basri and Nazrul pose for a Hari Raya portait:

I close this Hari Raya blog entry with sincere greetings to my Muslim friends everywhere: