Wednesday, July 18, 2007

An Aceh Walk and a "Seventh-month Celebration"

Again, folks, apologies for the month-long silence. Work has been claiming a growing share of what used to be free time and on-line course time on weekends. Anyway, take some time enjoy some photos of sights along the town, and share in an interesting ceremony that took place in my guest house.

A few weeks ago, I decided the only way to learn the roads here in Aceh is to walk them (since I don't drive here). So early one Saturday morning, carrying my big laptop and cameras in my backpack (along with a towel and a change of shirt), I started the trek to my office. The street sweepers were out and the breakfast stall folks were busy, but otherwise the street and river were deserted. This is Kreung Aceh (Aceh River) that runs through town:

I stop at a roadside coffee shop to enjoy a packet of rice (nasi guri --- or, nasi lemak in Malaysia) and sundry veggies and a piece of chicken that food vendors sell outside the coffee shop. I rouse the curiosity of the coffee shop owner when I order black coffee without sugar. We get to talking, and pretty soon he decides to sit down with me and have his breakfast (with his shy little son):

I continue the walk after a nice conversation (eventually his wife and daughter joined us --- they hovered out of camera range). I pass this sign showing a couple in traditional Acehnese dress. I am in front of the provincial Culture Department:

Curious, I go into the grounds and see an auditorium:

Interesting... I was told later that during August, when the Indonesian independence day is celebrated, many cultural performances are held around town. I expect to be back at this auditorium and at other venues around town with my camera! I also came across this market building, whose sign says, "Art and Handicraft Market - City of Banda Aceh." I resolve to go there one day:

(A couple of weekends ago, I went there with friend Juan Gonzalez and his wife Pam. Turned out that the market was empty... another victim of the tsunami, perhaps? Many craftspeople perished in the disaster --- more on the crafts in a subsequent blog!)

I walk past many buildings that house offices of foreign aid organizations and their projects. This is the office of the German aid organization (German Development Organization). They are active in Aceh helping to rebuild and train local governments:

Other NGO's (Non-government Organizations) and international agencies (like the one below, a part of the United Nations) have their main offices in Aceh, with their field people scattered all over the province:

I see vehicles in town and out of town from the Canadian, Belgian, French, Turkish, and various other Red Cross organizations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross. And here's the well-hidden office of the American Red Cross, near our office:

I walk past many grocery stalls. This one sells veggies (in the background) and fruits like watermelons, pineapples, and bananas in the foreground:

I come across a sight I haven't seen in a while: a street vendor and his family are cooking pulut, or lumps of sweet glutinous rice (it's a snack/dessert item) wrapped in banana leaf and broiled over a flame. There's a different Indonesian word for the sweet, but the Acehnese use the same word as the Malaysians do ("pulut"). The man is cutting the cooked envelopes of rice to size and piling them up for sale along the road on the sidewalk:

This is what his wife and daughter are cooking behind him. Over a 45-gallon drum, the lady is roasting the lumps of rice in the banana leaf envlopes secured on both ends by little bamboo toothpicks. I buy a few pieces to eat at the office when I finally get there. I'm getting sweaty and tired by now!

As I approach the office, a nice house (brick exterior, unfinished) catches my eye. I particularly like the fact that the house has a couple of coconut trees in the back yard (those tall trees) and a big papaya tree in the front (the left front). I snap a photo ...:

... and am immediately hailed by the landlord, who's enjoying a cup of coffee and snacks that Saturday morning at a coffee stall that just happens to be right next to his house! He invites me join him, and I'm tempted. But I've been walking for over 90 minutes now, and am fairly close the office. Ten more minutes and I'll be there! The Aceh coffee looks really good, but I regretfully decline. His wife smiles from the kitchen door, but declines to have her photo taken ... she's not wearing her muslim headgear, and is too modest to be photographed by a stranger without it.

And thus ended my walk. A total of two hours, if I include the time spent at the coffee shop having breakfast with the proprietor. Now I know why I'm picked up by one of our project cars every morning! (I staggered into the office, ran to the bath room, poured on lots of buckets of cold water, dried off, changed my clothes, and was as good as new --- well, not really.)

On a Saturday morning, poking around the guest house grounds, I spot the landlady's elderly mother ("Shi Niah," a local title that describes her dowager status) drying something:

She tells me that it's called "blimbing." When sun-dried for three full days, and salted, the dried fruit takes on a sour taste and is used to cook fish in curries and non-curry dishes. "Blimbing" also means "starfruit" in Indonesian, which is a completely different fruit altogether. She gets a big kick out of my being interested in something so pedestrian!

Speaking of food, here's what I typically get when I tell the guest house that I'll be having dinner at home (Rp 25,000, or about US$3). It has very small portions of several types of Acehnese curries and kormas (mutton, fish, chicken), a big dish of vegetables (I always insist on it, and they always get me one --- sometimes the veggies are grown in the guest house garden), maybe dessert but not always (papaya slice here), and all the rice I want to eat. OK, remember what this looks like. Use this to compare with what is about to follow:

One Sunday, the landlady tells me to hang around for a mid-day meal. The house has been bustling since Friday with friends and relatives that start to arrive from the villages of the landlord and landlady. The folks tell me that it's an Acara tujuh bulanan, or the "seventh month ceremony," celebrating the seventh month of pregnancy of Ida, the landlady's daughter. Here's the landlord's dad who just came in from the home village:

Apparently, there was a similar big event at the fourth month of Ida's pregnancy. One of my office co-workers told me that muslims believe that the baby's body receives its soul sometime in the fourth month. Brad, who was also in the guest house that week, was also here during the fourth month ceremony. (I hadn't arrived yet.) When the landlady tells him about this one, he tells me, "I'm getting outta here!" The preparations start very early on Sunday morning. The kids working at the guest house take time to pose for my camera. That's Ayasih on the left and Nasrul on the right:

When I made my way out of my room that morning, folks had been at work for some time. In the main dining area, cups of mineral water are stacked neatly into a sphere:

I gasp when I look down onto the main living room area. I knew the kids had been busy carting the furniture and rugs away the evening before, but I wasn't quite prepared for this:

At the head of the table is the "throne" where the young couple will sit:

Lots of noises are coming out the kitchen areas, so I bring my camera and invade the cooking spaces. I pass the dessert workstation (what else can I call it?), where friends and relatives are busy preparing dessert plates to add to the table of food:

I go into the inner "dry" kitchen of the house. There's a big dining table in there, but it's been converted to a prep table for the occasion. You can count at least five large-capacity rice cookers in this dry kitchen, with more along the counters outside of camera range. Friends, relatives, neighbors all chip in with their cheerful labor:

More prep work on the floor (on mats) next to the dry kitchen dining table. The girls are chopping up un-ripe papayas, turnips, and red and green chilis:

In the outer ("wet") kitchen, where most of the heavy-duty cooking occurs, a couple of ladies are hard at work adding to and stirring up huge woks full of different curry dishes:

So what are in the pots? The stirring lady obligingly shows me. The first one is a jackfruit curry, with unripe jackfruit (which is good eating by itself as a fruit when ripe) and a meat (mutton) cooked together in a curry:

The next one is interesting. Beef and unripe bananas are cooked together in a sweet (!) curry, a uniquely Acehnese concoction, they told me. I had some of this later. The unripe bananas cook to a consistency that closely resembles potatoes! (I expected something mushier!) The beef turned out very tender. Very interesting:

In the main hall, the guests start arriving. This event is definitely a ladies' event, as you'll see. To the right of the little girl that's standing up (top left), dressed in the light blue outfit is Ida, the lady who's being honored. The lady in orange is her mother, my landlady. She's referred to in Acehnese as "cot niah," (pronounced "chot neah"), indicating her status as the main lady of the household.

"Shi Niah," the landlady's mother, entertains some old friends that came for her granddaughter's ceremony:

Because of the number of guests expected (turned out to be in the hundreds!), the guests, relatives, and friends bring cooked food and dessert to help out --- like a potluck! These dishes are stacked in the temporary holding area (it's actually one of our dining rooms), awaiting processing by the kitchen crew or the dessert workstation crew:

The dessert workstation crew is working now mostly on cakes and sweets the guests brought with them:

The newly-processed or cooked dishes are put into smaller serving plates and stacked high in the main dining table:

At long last, the ceremony starts with a lady sprinkling water (oil?) onto the young couple. The couple is wrapped together with a piece of batik material. Ida's husband runs two Honda motorcycle dealerships in Banda Aceh. I'm not sure what's going on, but it's pretty interesting:

The few male guests allowed to sit in the main ceremony are at the far end of the room. The guy in the white shirt is Ida's dad (my landlord). As I noted before, this is a ladies' event.

After the ceremony with the sprinkling of the water, well-wishers converge to congratulate the couple:

Then some senior relatives and friends say a few words and lead the group in a series of prayers asking God to look after the couple and their unborn baby (well, I assume that's what's going on!). Our landlady (Ida's mother, in orange) is crying:

The young couple during the prayers. They're both decked out today in religiously appropriate attire. When they're hanging out and relaxing at our guest house, they normally dress like young people everywhere: he in a T-shirt and jeans, she in a sarong (she's pregnant!) and T-shirt, no headgear (I guess I'm considered "family" because I live here!).

Our young guest sneaks a peek at the photographer during the prayers:

And the mid-day meal begins! First, the couple and the ladies who were part of the ceremony go to the table and eat their meal. As they finish, they leave one by one, and other ladies who have been watching the ceremony from outside come in and take their meal.

The men have their own buffet line. After filling their plates, they go to the men's dining area (one dining room off the main hall and also on chairs and tables arranged outside). After I took these pictures, I also went through this buffet line, went outside, ate my food, then went back to my room and collapsed. Rough work, taking pictures!

Our friend and co-worker Margaret Stoffel, who stayed in our guest house before she moved into a rented house, was also invited. She came (while I was fast asleep) with her house-mate Henny, and they both ate at the table. Later, she told me that she had never seen so much food in one place!

(The other day, the landlady told me that Ida liked my pictures [which I'd put on their PC for them]. So the landlady told me that she'd like me to take pictures when they have a ceremony for the newly-born baby. Uh-oh ...)