Saturday, March 8, 2008

A helmet, mosque, wedding, and pool ... bye, Banda Aceh!

Folks, this is my final blog from Banda Aceh. Thank your for your support and words of encouragement over the past year!

The previous blog was supposed to be the last one, but that changed when my staff gave me a beautiful going-away present. They gave me a replica of the helmet reputed to be worn by Teuku Umar of Aceh, an Indonesian national hero of resistance against the Dutch. They had it specially sized so that it would fit my fat head!

Nice hat, eh? Teuku Umar's exploits in the long war against the Dutch are legendary. Check out his story by clicking here on Melayu Online.

Receiving that hat reminded me that I hadn't photographed the very unusual mosque that I pass by every day on the way to work. It's on Jalan (Street) Teuku Umar in Banda Aceh. Instead of the usual silver or otherwise standard dome, this mosque has Teuku Umar's helmet as the dome!

I forgot to record the mosque's name, but everybody just calls it Mesjid Teuku Umar. It's on the street of that name, and the dome comprises Teuku Umar's helmet! Here's a close-up of the dome. Compare that with the first photo above, the replica I received.

The gates to the mosque grounds are also crowned with a small replica of the helmet. This being close to our office, our staff come here on Fridays for their prayers.

There's a pair of stairways that lead to the upper level of the mosque.

The stairs are covered by a roof adorned with Acehnese wood carvings.

A close-up shows the flower motif that's common in Acehnese woodcarvings, paintings, and batik. (Click on photo for enlargement.)

Here's a close-up of the men's shirt from the previous blog. You can see the flower motif as well:

Similar motifs are apparent in our office on Jalan Sudirman. Our office is a large house belonging to a formed high provincial official that used a lot of Acehnese woodcarvings in his house.

This is another carving from the office. Click on photo to view details.

Back to the hat ... I had a chance last weekend to attend yet another wedding in Aceh. Here's the groom at his house getting ready to suit up. This fella's Sadaruddin, one of the engineers in my section.

He tries it on for size before embarking on the motorcade to the bride's house...

The groom's party arrives at the bride's house. Is he having second thoughts about taking this big step?

But soon the bride arrives and all doubts are dispelled!

And another perfectly good bachelor bites the dust!

My Aceh blog isn't complete without a shot of what kept me sane during the long work days... the prospect of swimming laps at the pool at the Hermes Palace Hotel in Banda Aceh! It's a boomerang-shaped pool --- we estimate about 35 m long!

We are a respectable Shariah law province. Rules for pool attire and behavior are clearly spelled out!

Another frequent swimmer is little Micah, who's training to be in the US Olympics team in, oh, about fifteen years. His mom Laura is teaching at the local university here, and his dad Jeff is an engineer working for an NGO that is building reconstruction housing.

The friendly hotel staff keep an eye on us while we are in the pool, and assist us in every way.

And it's time to go --- I leave in about three days. My landlord holds his grand-daughter, Sahira Avida Oemar, while she bids me farewell and Godspeed.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Housing and Batik ... Two Reconstruction Activities in Banda Aceh

Today I have some photos I took some time ago, when Brad Philips was still with the project as our Director.

One Sunday afternoon, Brad and I went out for a walk from our Guest House to the "Rumoh Batik," where an industry is trying to recover from the devastation of the tsunami of December 26, 2004. Here's what we saw!

(For a change, the commentary will FOLLOW the picture instead of preceding it, as in previous blogs.)

On the way to the "Rumoh Batik," we see one of the many reconstruction projects, this one an urban drainage project. We stop and inspect the drain. We can't help ourselves --- we're hydraulic engineers!

A young mother shows off her baby along the way. Her features reflect the centuries of interaction that the Aceh sultanate has had with traders, missionaries, and settlers from Arab, Turkish, African, and European countries.

We pass a newly re-constructed mosque on the way. The gleaming silver dome is typical of many mosques in Aceh.

A close-up shot of the dome reveals the houses of its parish reflected on its shiny surface. Kinda neat!

We come to a fork in the road and take one that takes us to a resettlement area for people whose houses were destroyed by the tsunami. Along the way there, we pass permanent housing being constructed to house these folks.

In the meantime, many folks are still housed in temporary barracks erected in the months following the tsunami. It's three years after the tsunami, and the housing reconstruction program is behind schedule somewhat. (Our project doesn't do housing --- we do water supplies, landfills, roads, ports, and drainage.) Note the satellite dish on the roof above the lady doing her laundry.

The folks seem to be in pretty good spirits, though. Here they wave and pose for me.

But communal housing is still a hassle for the families in the barracks. They have to go to a communal water tank to draw water. The replacement housing for these folks will have running water and all basic infrastructure. Nearly 105,000 houses have been constructed by the government and NGO's, but over 2,200 households still need housing. See the BRR website for more information.

We resume our trek to our destination for the morning, and pass by a construction program administered by the Swiss Red Cross using Swiss foreign aid funds: a boarding school for tsunami orphans. We note the fine quality of reinforcing steel --- deformed bars, highly unusual for here. (Sorry, we can't help noticing!)

We finally reach the un-maintained park in which the "Rumoh Batik" --- batik house --- is located. The park celebrates traditional housing in the various districts of Aceh, but the houses on display are not labeled! We first go into the rather sparse showroom and see various batik items on display.

A man's shirt is on display. The patterns are traditional Acehnese motifs, we are told.

A close-up (click on photo for 1024 pixel version) reveals a pattern change in the middle of the shirt. Again, these are traditional batik patterns. See this website to view some "modern" (non-traditional) batik patterns.

A further close-up reveals that the material is a relatively coarse material (could it be silk? not sure...) that is made locally. The folks in the showroom offer to take us to the workshop where the batik material is being made.

First stop is the stamping operation. Our guide tells us that the tsunami killed most of the experienced batik craftsmen. Today the surviving craftsmen are training a new generation of workers in the hope of reviving the industry.

The stamp ("cap" in Malaysia) is dipped in hot wax and applied to the cloth.

This leaves a wax mask that, taken together, forms part of a pattern. The process is repeated as needed. In this case, I believe, a border is being created.

This is a pattern created completely by stamps. See this website for more photos and text on the stamping batik practice in Malaysia. (The Wiki article, on the other hand, mostly talks about Indonesian batik.)

This woman is applying wax to fine patterns that are drawn by pencil on the fabric. The fabric itself has been dyed purple. The wax is applied by a fine applicator that lets her apply fine dots and lines. She re-fills the applicator from the bowl of molten wax on the stove next to her.

Here you can see the applicator. (The Wikipedia article calls it a canting needle. Whatever!) The hot wax is poured into the hole at the top.

Another craftsman uses the applicator to create a larger-scale pattern in wax.

You can see how the stamped borders and the hand-applied fine patterns go together in the photo above.

We were then shown the loom which is used to create the material on which the batik is created. The weavers were not in residence that day, but the showroom staff showed us the equipment.

The loom sits in a large, mostly empty room next to the wax room. There is a battery of spools that feed the loom. The hope is that the industry will rehabilitate itself to the extent that the room (and others like it) will be full of weavers and wax craftsmen.

I rather liked the rack of spools... it makes a neat photo!

Being a Sunday, there was no dye-ing activity going on in the "Rumoh Batik" either. Dyeing is done in these racks located under the traditional houses, which are typically built on stilts. Also stored here were big blocks of wax that are melted and used to create the batik patterns.

We continued outside to see the traditional houses on display. The only one with a label or sign was this building from the "Aceh Besar" district (kabupaten) of Aceh province. It's awfully big to be a house; it's probably what a district official would have lived in.

Another magnificent house...

And another. If they'd only label the houses with some explanations! The whole park was rather overgrown when we went there. Maybe in a few years, there'll be enough funds to re-do the exhibits! In the meantime, efforts are going into housing and basic infrastructure... first things first!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Ikan Bakar and Kopi Aceh --- Two Sumatran Culinary Treats!

Food in Banda Aceh runs the gamut of what's typically available in this part of the world. There are lots of Indonesian food --- Acehnese favorites, Javanese delicacies, and Padang (Minangkabau) dishes that represent everything that's wonderful about SE Asian Malay-style food. There also many restaurants serving halal Chinese food. Then there are other places that serve Western food, with varying degrees of success.

I thought I'd introduce you to a couple of places in Aceh that have become treats to which we look forward. One is a plain-roasted (BBQ'd) seafood (ikan bakar) restaurant --- most Indonesian coastal cities have them in abundance. The other is an Acehnese institution with a proud history --- the coffee shop!

A few months ago, I happened to take a camera along on a Friday dinner in the Lampuuk section of Banda Aceh. Juan and Pam Gonzalez, Margaret Stoffel, Siti Agustini (Titin), Tatum, and I went out for an evening of fine dining at the Awak Away restaurant.

As we go into the seating area, we pass by a counter piled with fish caught that afternoon by the Banda Aceh fishing fleet. The fish are on the table, and the squid and giant shrimps (prawns) are in their baskets.

As we tell the staff how much of what we want (we order prawns and squid by the kilo), they weigh and set aside the goodies.

The guys wisely keep quiet and let the women choose the fish.

The main dishes being ordered, we proceed to the seating area. It's an outdoor seating area, plastic seats and tables situated under tents set up against that ever-present danger of a tropical storm drenching us while we're eating! Tatum, our logistics expert, fills in the drinks order. Most of us order coconut water.

The beverage department receives the order and obliges by hacking the tops off young coconuts. They expose the inner reservoir filled with sweet coconut water, and stick a straw into it. The reservoir is lined with soft coconut meat that can be scraped off and eaten with a spoon.

The coconuts arrive, and we enjoy our pre-dinner drinks. Conversation flourishes (except for the poor photographer). If the coconut water isn't enough, there's always bottled water!

In the meantime, the chef is busy preparing our fish for roasting over coals. He cuts slits into the side for marinating with butter (... OK, margarine, most likely):

The fish is then split into two and roasted over coals. There's a separate fire pit in the back where scrap wood, coconut husks (from the drinks you saw earlier), and charcoal are converted to red-hot coals that cook the seafood:

The pot of margarine (or whatever) sits on the grill, waiting for the cook to slather it onto the fish and prawns on the grill:

Margarine is added to the fish, and they're on the way to getting done perfectly for our table! Note the fan to the left; not the highest-tech kitchen, but it works fine!

The prawns (giant shrimp) and fish arrive first. White rice, various condiments, lime slices, and dipping sauces also appear at the table. (That's not ketchup in the foreground, by the way.)

We get started while we wait for the squid. We use our hands for the meal. It's so much easier to peel the prawns this way. We just tear chunks of fish from the common dishes and place them on our rice plates.

The squid arrives, and we're busy stuffing ourselves with fresh seafood! I'd better put the camera down before all the goodies disappear. (It doesn't look like we'll ever run out, but we did a pretty good job of it!)

See? Toldja! There's only some debris left, all for Margaret to take home for her grateful cats:

We usually go from the ikan bakar restaurant to our favorite coffee shop for a dose of good, flavorful, and rich Acehnese coffee. For some reason, we didn't go that night. However, we did go to the coffee shop last night. Luckily, Margaret had a small camera with her. I borrowed it for most of the pictures below. Sorry about the graininess --- I was experimenting with flash-less photography a bit... Our coffee shop is the Solong coffee shop:

As you undoubtedly know, coffee from various parts of Indonesia is renowned throughout the world. Coffee from the island of Sumatra is known for its mild yet rich flavor. Aceh is one of the provinces in Sumatra blessed with the right climate for the crop, especially in the Gayo Lues district. Last night, Paul Woods, Margaret Stoffel, and I, along with a couple of our drivers, went to Solong after dinner:

The Aceh sultanate, because of its position at the tip of Sumatra, was long center of commerce between SE Asia and the middle east. I have been told that it was the Turks that brought the institution of the Coffee Shop to Aceh. Acehnese coffee (kopi aceh) is brewed very strongly in these coffee shops (though not anywhere near what the Turks like). I'd say it would be the equivalent of Peet's Coffee shops in the US, if you know what I mean. First and foremost, it's a place to come with friends, relax, chat, and drink coffee.

The coffee shop is crowded with patrons, especially in the evenings after work every day. The clientele tends to be male, but there is also a table full of women in the upper right. It's noisy as conversations ranging from gossip to politics take place and tremendous amounts of community information are exchanged:

Most of the coffee shops in Banda Aceh are concentrated in the Ulee Kareng district. It's where working stiffs come and relax after a long day. Our drivers A-an (center) and Mumum (right) come to join us for a cup of coffee. Here they sit with a buddy of theirs that works at the coffee shop.

Back in the production area, the coffee guy (the original barista, not one of the fancy-schmancy western ones) uses a "tarik" technique to create a uniquely SE Asian beverage. (Please read the Wikipedia link for Teh/kopi tarik!) Our barista is using a coffee filter comprising a fine cloth shaped like a miniature windsock (closed on one end). He pours hot water through the filter, and aims the filtrate into the coffee cups.

When the tarik technique is used with tea or coffee mixed with milk, you get a frothy drink like you see below. ("Milk" in the SE Asian coffee/tea context is usually sweetened condensed milk.) If you order black coffee, it comes loaded with sugar unless you specify otherwise. When I brew Aceh coffee in my room, I use a Melita-style paper filter for best results. The coffee powder is usually ground very fine. I once made the mistake ordering a second cup at Solong. I ended up staying up all night! This order was going out as I was taking pictures of the barista:

Solong also sells freshly ground coffee. I've distributed Solong coffee to friends in the US and Japan, and have received very good reviews. The fine grounds of coffee, available in 1-, 0.5-, and 0.25-kg plastic bags, are piled high behind the cashier:

Here's a close-up of the half-kilo bags of coffee. On request, the Solong shop will grind the coffee a little bit coarser to accomodate press-pots. My experience thus far has been best using the fine grind with a Melita filter.

But enough of picture-taking. It's time to sit down and enjoy my coffee!

(Note: Paul, whom you saw earlier, is leaving for another project in Ethiopia in a few weeks. Over there, I suspect he'll be sitting in a coffee shop very similar to this one! Ethiopia's another one of the great coffee-growing nations of the world!)