Indonesia is a land where the things that can kill you are nearly too numerous to mention. Volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, bombs, spiders small enough not to see, but poisonous enough to end your life, snakes, monitor lizards that can detach their jaws to swallow you whole and actual, real life dragons. So with this in mind I thought I’d head below the waters for a holiday.
Most of the other teachers at EF were heading for Bali or the Gili Islands for the Idul Fitri break (The end of Ramadan has a public holiday to celebrate the end of fasting) but I wasn’t really interested in going somewhere so touristy. What I wanted after 5 months teaching was a completely relaxing holiday away from the masses and the thought for this came from a conversation with two of the teachers, Jeff and Chloe.
Jeff and Chloe along with two departed teachers had been to an island called Pulau Weh off the North coast of Sumatra at Christmas and done their PADI Open Water Scuba Diver course. This to me seemed like a perfect idea. I’d seen the pictures and the island is pretty remote with the only people really going there to dive, so about 8 weeks ago I booked the ticket.
As it’s a national holiday and I’d left it until relatively the last minute, the air tickets were quite expensive at 2 million rupeah (£125) for the return. I reckon if I’d booked a few weeks earlier I’d have got it for half that. Anyway, three weeks before departure a new teacher arrived at EF. Lucy Hiscocks is from Bristol and is already qualified to Advanced Open Water level and once she knew I was diving asked if she could join me.
So it was that on the 19th September we had a taxi arrive to pick us up at the house for the journey to the airport. We were booked on the 9.05 flight from Jakarta on Java to Banda Aceh on Sumatra with a short stop in the Sumatran capital of Medan to pick up/drop off passengers before catching a connecting ferry to Pulau Weh island.
Arriving at the airport around 7.20 we discovered on entering the departure lounge that the flight was delayed for 2 hours and this quickly progressed to 7 hours! The culmination of this was that instead of arriving in Banda Aceh with sufficient time to catch the 4pm ferry to the island of Pulau Weh, we were now going to have to find a hotel in Banda and leave the following day. This was to prove relatively easy but the first 3 hotels we tried were full and you get that little “Mary and Joseph” feeling that you’re going to be spending the night in the open air. (I should point out that the Mary and Joseph analogy is used for effect, Lucy and I are neither a couple or pregnant with the next Messiah). Checking into the 100 rupeah a night twin bedded fourth hotel, we dumped the bags and headed out to grab some food and were delighted with the chicken sate with lontong and sauce.
The taxi that brought us the 45 minutes from the airport had charged us 70,000 (£4.50) and seemed pretty reasonable so we agreed to a pick up to the ferry terminal for 100,000 the following morning. This was immediately cancelled when we found the chancer was overcharging us by 60,000! And again so it was that a great guy called Evan picked us up and gave us his card for the return when we got back to Banda Aceh a week later. I must mention his business card which had a picture of a beautifully sleek Mercedes SLK on it. I can only assume this was his other car because the one he arrived to pick us up in was a battered old Toyota with ill fitting doors.
It took no more than 10 minutes to get to the ferryport and we’d left early due to differing reports on ferry sailing times. These ranged from the typically British sharp intake of breath followed by lots of head scratching and consultation of similarly perplexed people to the extremely knowing look with a firm “yes, 2, o’clock” reply.
I never really know what to make of responses to questions in foreign languages. All of the phrase books give you excellent language points for asking questions but the analysis of the response if you don’t truly understand the language is entirely open to interpretation. Let’s take the two scenarios above, firm response coupled with a positive facial response equals definite whereas perplexed, shrugging and checking with confederates equals not sure? I’m starting to think that both actually mean “what is he going on about?” And the firm reply and look means you just go away faster.
This thought process was encouraged when at 12 noon on arrival at the ferry terminal having been assured by Evan there was a 2pm sailing, the first chap we met assured us the ferry wasn’t sailing today and would we like to go back into Banda Aceh and stay at his friend’s hotel for the night and get the following morning crossing. This was starting to get annoying. There were maybe 20 or so other people in the terminal who showed no sign of wishing to stay at this chaps friend’s hotel but neither was there any real sign of positive commercialism either. No food stalls catering to the captive market. No ticket office selling ferry crossing tickets etc. So we did what most Brits do in a situation like this, we sat down and refused to accept the potential inevitability.
As we sat there we were joined by 4 Indonesian guys. Encouraged by the opportunity to practice their English and accepting free cigarettes we soon found out that there was indeed a sailing but not until 4pm so armed with an English – Indonesian dictionary, Lucy’s practical Bahasa notebook and a copy of the Lonely Planet guide to Indonesia we spent the next hour and a half trying to discuss everything from the state of play in world economics to comical Indonesian swear words.
We were joined later by a modern day Robinson Crusoe and his girl Friday. Will and Mel were twenty-something dive instructors from Scarborough who worked 6 months of the year on Pulau Weh and 6 months at Perentian in Malaysia. They were a fantastic source of information and great company on the wait for the ferry, in fact on the ferry crossing too and if it hadn’t been for the fact that I’d already booked with Rubiah Tirta Dive School I’d probably have gone to Lumba Lumba Dive School with them. I do hope our paths cross again.
Finally arriving on Pulau Weh 33 hours after setting off we got a taxi with a family of 3 obnoxious Scots from Aberdeen. The saving grace of having them in the cab was that it saved us money. Sometimes I meet people I just don’t like and the bloke was a bore, the older of the two women was a complete space cadet and her younger sister was possibly a sandwich short of a picnic too. When it turned out the bloke and the older woman had worked for EF as teachers in China I nearly cried.
Jeff Eide, who had left EF at the end of his contract 2 weeks previously, had extended his tourist visa and headed straight for Pulau Weh. He met us off the taxi and helped us to get some accommodation straight away. I’d planned on accommodation costing us around 100,000 (£6) a night following advice from the Lonely Planet so to be told that the rusticly attractive bungalow overhanging the sea with it’s extremely comfortable–looking veranda hammock was going to be 40,000 (£2.50) between us was perfect. Jeff was trying to barter it down to 30,000 but I just didn’t have the heart.
To call it basic may be a bit of an understatement, the only interior furniture was a double bed shrouded in mosquito netting and a stand fan plus some strategically placed nails for hanging clothes on. The bungalow was attached to another next door occupied by a French guy and his son and both units shared a squat toilet and a bucket shower. I hope the description of squat toilet needs no further explanation but a bucket shower is just that, a big container of water and a bucket to tip the (cold) water over you. This would no doubt not be to everyone’s taste, but to me it was as close to ideal as I could have hoped for. Lucy sleeps in a sleeping bag liner (like a little cocoon) so the double bed posed no problems plus I have a girlfriend in Jakarta and Lucy’s tastes run normally to Aussies for some bewildering reason.
It’s also worth stating again that this is an island nearly totally dedicated to diving and with a little sightseeing thrown in. The beaches aren’t the long stretch of golden sands you find in Bali and Lombok, rather they’re small patches of sand and broken coral ideal for a walking entry to dive the area and according to Michael my dive instructor the island has hardly changed in 10 years. You won’t find posh villas and 5 star hotels and instead of Starbucks you get freshly made Aceh coffee and homemade doughnuts for 4,000 (25p) for one of each made by one of the village women. Personally I find it a double edged sword in that I hope it remains this way for many years to come.
Having dumped our bags in the bungalow we followed Jeff to the Rubiah Inn, the only place open in Rubiah due to the recent end of Ramadan, and met some of the Islands other tourists, Manuello and Guillermo from Spain, Christof and Wolfgang from Austria and a Swiss couple whose names unfortunately have escaped me. I had some Nasi Goreng with a huge piece of chicken and a can of beer and a can of coke and called it a night. The food was more expensive than in Jakarta but only just more and the beer at 20,000 represented the fact that we were in a strongly Muslim area where alcohol is actually illegal. Many more people would arrive over the next 24 hours both foreign and local tourists but these were the guys who greeted us.
I couldn’t believe how quickly I was relaxing, so much so that I woke at 6.30 the following morning and just lay in the hammock. There is something fundamentally right about being on this type of island and relaxing on this type of furniture. At 8 I headed to the dive site with Lucy to find out the scores on the doors with the dive course. Yudi the owner’s son and the man I’d been liasing with was nothing like I expected. A skinny bespectacled Indonesian bloke in his mid 20’s, he was reassuringly warm and friendly. I would start my course that very same day with Guillermo as my partner and dive buddy. Filling in the time before 1pm we had free use of the fins and snorkels so Jeff, Lucy and I snorkelled over to the nearby Rubiah Island marvelling at the clarity of the water and the fish. The coral in this area was devastated by the 2004 tsunami and Rubiah Tirta dive school have made it a mission to help rebuild the coral in this conservation area.
Michael the dive instructor is a 40 year old German guy who’s been coming to Pulau Weh for nearly 10 years and whilst I had no reference point for dive instructors found him to be funny, positive, informative, patient and encouraging, not exactly traits I associate with Germans I’ve met to this point. Both Guillermo and I had previously done introduction dives so had a rudimentary knowledge of the principles involved but the course was to be extremely thorough and day one saw us doing basic skills and any thoughts of staying close to the surface saw us doing a 35 minute Open water dive to 12 metres.
Every dive finishes back at the Dive Shop which is the communal centre of the area. All the divers gather around to drink tea and eat sugar puff biscuits courtesy of the shop whilst cleaning your gear of the accumulated salt water and setting up for the next days dive. This really is a great opportunity to flick through the reference books and identify the fish you see as well as share stories of your personal adventure and experiences. This particular day we saw giant clams, star fish, lion fish, sea slugs called nudibranches, pipefish, clown fish (the ones in Finding Nemo), featherstars and long spined sea urchins.
I can only relate learning to dive with learning to drive a car. The equipment is varied and some of the techniques are complicated. You need to get your head around basic physics, chemistry and biology as well as mathematical equations to know what’s happening to you. We would have to complete the course and 6 dives within 4 days as Guillermo was leaving on Friday and had to have time to rest before flying. Each day was a mixture of theory and practical concluding with the final exam on Friday that we both passed with flying colours. The feeling of both satisfaction and relief was tangible.
Days 3 and 4 saw us doing 2 dives each day and the two dives that we did on the morning of day 4, the Friday, were amazing. The last one in particular was at a dive site called Arus Paleh. This translates as The Bastard Current and it was easy to see why. As we approached the surface following our dive we had to have a safety stop at 6 metres to get rid of excess nitrogen. This entailed holding on for all we were worth to a rock in a current so strong it was not only dragging us away from our hand hold, it was even loosening the breathing regulator in our mouths! At one point the rock Guillermo was holding broke away in his hand and I think the poor guy was hyperventilating in his effort to get back.
Having completed the course I was a little disappointed not to have seen a reef shark. They are getting rarer due to being hunted for their fins which sell for excessive amounts on the black market, but I’d seen plenty of other things including turtles, rays and moray eels. I was given a good price for a tutor-less fun dive of 15 euros so signed up for one more dive which allowed me to go out with some of the more experienced people. Diving with and Indonesian dive buddy I’d been at around 22 metres, a little over my allowed depth when my buddy gave the signal for shark and there about 3 or 4 metres away was the receding body of a reef shark. The experience was both dramatic and rewarding and when I also saw a turtle pass within a couple of metres of me ensured I would return and immediately arrange a week in February or March to return for more.
The week has been one of the single most relaxing weeks I’ve ever had. Thoughts of days sat in a car on the M25 and arguing the toss with belligerent pub managers and even more sycophantic business managers seem so far away that I have to remind myself that I have only been doing this a few short months. Playing volleyball with a group of Germans, eating basic food in basic surroundings, learning new skills have all been great and even revising for tests didn’t detract in the slightest from the experience. I think a good indicator of any trip is the people you meet and the friendships you make and by that account this has been special.
I’m looking forward to getting back to the teaching but Pulau Weh has quickly found a place in my heart and I am already looking forward to coming back.