Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Dining Aceh Style - Banda Aceh, Indonesia

I find it difficult to eat when everything in the restaurant menu is on my table!

Small shrimps fried with garlic, shallots and green chilies taste delicious
Indonesian cuisine is full of diversity, largely influenced by its geographical and ethnics factors. Although some of the dishes resemble Malaysian food but the uniqueness of the Indonesian food differs in terms of its ingredients and blend of spices. But hot and spicy is still the key element of Indonesian food.

We were invited for iftar at a local Aceh restaurant in Banda Aceh. While waiting for iftar, I stared at all the dishes on the dinner table. I'm hungry but there is no way that I could eat all these food! "Do you cook like this at home" I asked Ika. "Oh..no" she replied "but during gathering or any festive occasion, we do cook as many dishes as possible" she continued. I counted the dishes and there were about 20 of them and I was told, there will no charges for the untouched dishes. I wondered, "How would they know that the food is not tempered?" Misbah told us that the restaurant workers would somehow know!

"Ayam Tangkap" (Catch the chicken)  - taste real good
The call to break fasting in Banda Aceh is the siren, loud enough to tell everyone that it is time to eat.  Among all the dishes served, "Ayam Tangkap" (English translation: Catch the Chicken) is the "star" of the night. One actually has to rummage the pieces of chicken in the piles of curry leaves and pandan leaves...interesting! Simple but tasty, and within minutes the chicken is gone. With very short dinner time and the Magrib prayers to catch we end up eating just a few dishes.  It was a good experience with Aceh food and as a result, we were in search of "Ayam Tangkap" everyday and everywhere in Banda Aceh for the next few days!

Crab in thick spicy sauce
Among the dishes served

I counted them - about 15 dishes
Almost everything on the menu was laid on our table - Banda Aceh
Patiently waiting for the iftar time
This is our iftar in Takengon
From bottom right - Prawn, Chicken and Beef and the potato cutlets

Friday, August 9, 2013

Takengon Morning Market - Takengon, Aceh, Indonesia

It was a busy Monday morning in Ramadhan - Takengon
At about 7 am and everybody is rushing to the market
It was the nicest morning I ever felt...the air is fresh and crisp in Takengon. You can really feel the difference...in the mountains with no pollution. It was about 6.30 am and we decided to check-out early.  Takengon begins its day as busy as every other days but it's Ramadhan and everyone is rushing to the morning market to get their daily supplies. It's a rule of thumb - if you get to shop early, you'll get better quality of groceries. Along with the locals we walked through the market to shop for some interesting food that we have never come across our lives. 
Fresh matured coconuts for sale

Morning market in Indonesia is such an interesting place to include in your itinerary. Not only it gives you a fascinating opportunity to experience local environment, colorful surrounding, noisy atmosphere but it's also a photography heaven. The petty vendors shout and call for their customers, friendliness is the key to their business success...it's the way they compete to lure their customers. Hence, they are also camera friendly. The moment you point your camera at them, they're ready to give your a pose and a smile. Even taking pictures of their merchandise is not a problem. 

           Depik are small fish from Lake Lut Tawar. They taste very delicious.

Deepik vendor selling her fish according to its sizes
Last night, at the restaurant, we ate Depik, small fish from the lake and it tastes superbly delicious. The availability of the fish is very seasonal and in fact it is the season now.  So we intended to take home some Depik. By the local standards, Depik is expensive, about 120,000 Rupiah (about $11 USD) per kilogram and the price varies with size.  The price is actually equivalent to the price of meat in Aceh! 

Then we moved on to the vegetable sections and our eyes were glued on the colorful fruits and vegetables neatly lined in rows on the streets.  We walked all over tempting to buy a lot of things but since our journey would be a long way before we fly home, it's not a good idea to buy anything perishable. Then, from a distance we watched the fish section...I can't stand the stinky smell...the fishmongers and vendors were happily calling for their customers.  The local fish come from the lake while salt water fish come from the neighboring fishing town in Aceh.  

At about half past eight, we left Takengon leaving joyful memory of such a short stay. The friendliness of the Gayo inhabitants and the tasteful Gayo Coffee  will last long in our memory. As soon as we left Takengon, we were back on the rocky road of Kabupaten Aceh Tengah. Our next destination is Tritit, another site of the recent earthquake. 

We thought we were early at 7 am but there were already many people
Vegetables vendors and their goods
Colorful vegetables neatly lined on the street
The locals shopping for their daily supplies
Fish is the popular protein
Depik are small fish from Lake Lut Tawar. They tastes very delicious. 
The fishmongers asked their picture to be taken
Tuna fish which must have come from other parts of Aceh
The Beca is more elaborate with front cover and operates with a motor engine 
Beca (Trishaw) is a common transportation in the town
The basket at the sides of the bike are loaded with fresh fish
Posing for the camera - they are happy and ready to begin their day
Bandang fish is the favorite of many
The fishmonger's motorcycle is loaded with fish for sale around the villages
Noodles is so popular among the locals

Sunday, August 4, 2013

A night in the mysteriously beautiful Takengon - Central Aceh, Indonesia

As we drove along an elevated road we saw this amazingly gorgeous, mysterious landscape surrounding us!
Buffaloes grazing grassland by the lakeside
A village on the shore of Lake Lut Tawar
No way we could returned to Banda Aceh after visiting the earthquake sites in Ketol and Blang Mancung. It was getting late and the rough road to Banda Aceh would take another 7 to 8 hours and we had an exhausting day. Although, most of the landslides after the quakes and its aftermath have been cleared, still, it is extremely dangerous on a rainy day and at night. We had to put up a night in Takengon in Central Aceh, a town on the edge of Danau Lut Tawar (tectonic lake) and tomorrow we will be visiting another earthquake site in Tritit on our way back to Banda Aceh.

Though not severely hit by the quake, few houses and a hospital in Takengon are affected. The villagers are afraid that the quake might trigger Tsunami on the lake but their fears are unfounded and lives get on pretty normal in this area dotted with picturesque fishing villages.

We relied on the advice of Misbah, the Aceh girl who has volunteered to guide us and the driver, Salahudin who has been to this part of Aceh umpteen times. It was about 3 pm and we hurriedly left the earthquake sites and after slightly more than an hour drive we arrived in Takengon safely. The weather was cold and though we first thought of staying in a hotel in Renggali, a resort at the edge of the lake, we changed our mind looking at the eerie and spooky environment. We got back to Takengon and decided to stay in town, closer to the restaurants for iftar and the central mosque for terawih.

Basic hotel in the town of Takengon
We opted for Hotel Mahara, a basic "starless" hotel but conveniently located in the middle of the town. No hot water, no fan, no heater and the weather was about 15 degrees at night, the water was freezing cold! To fully occupy our time, Salahudin drove us around the 30 km periphery of this beautiful Danau Lut Tawar sitting at about 3,000 feet above sea level. Two active volcanic mountains in the north and south of Takengon remain another threat to this area. 

We had iftar at one of the local restaurant and then performed terawih in the central mosque.  Unlike Malaysia, having iftar in the mosque is not the culture here and even in Banda Aceh....everybody only flocked to the mosques for isyaq and terawih. After terawih, we decided to have the famous Gayo Coffee at one of the cafe in town. The menu caught our attention and with the name "Shake and Rock Iced Coffee" it tempted us...ahaaa what a drink after the earthquake! Everybody in the cafe was in their sweaters sipping steaming coffee. Salahudin and Misbah smiled when we ordered two tall glasses of Shake and Rock Iced Coffee and later one more.  Indeed, the cold coffee tasted rockingly excellent! We took home 5 bags (1.25 kilogram) of this famous Gayo coffee. I wished I had more time here.  
The curves and the volcanic rocks formed the natural shape of the lake
Horses at the backyard of the villagers
A Gayo lady harvesting her field
The golden paddy fields are ready for harvesting
Diligently working on the field
A young Gayo lad looking after a heard of buffaloes'
The boys are watching closely their buffaloes
The area is full of baffaloes
A mosque at the far edge of the lake
Not only Riau but also Aceh is experiencing open burning
Paddy field stretches across the flatland
The plump buffaloes busy grazing

The Road to Bener Meriah II - Aceh, North Sumatera, Indonesia

The road to Bener Meriah
One of the temporary tents built by the government at Bener Meriah
In the early morning of 22nd July, our driver, Salahudin, a young graduate from one of the Aceh universities appeared at the hotel lobby. After introducing ourselves, soon the journey begins. Our first destination is to Sigli district, to pick Misbah who lives in the village of Meurdu. The 2 hours journey to Meurdu was full of stories about the 2004 earthquake and tsunami. "Where were you on the 26th December, 2004?" I asked him. Cheerfully, he told me "I was at home lazying around that Sunday morning." He was 17 years old then and he told me how he ran for his life to higher grounds but got himself entangled into the congested murky water. "Alhamdullilah, I am destined to live, though at that time I thought I'll take death as I have less sin at that age" he chuckled and continued "but now if there is another tsunami I would beg for mercy to live as I've grown up and become sinful!" Instantaneously, we broke into laughter, Astaghfirullah!

Salahudin is a friend of Misbah's brother but he has never known her. The road to Sigli is excellent and after slightly more than 2 hours we arrived in Meurdu. Misbah and her family cheerfully waited for us at the entrance of their house. It's Ramadhan, so we are not delayed by the traditional culture of entertaining guests with food and drinks..that's very much Asian culture. We bade farewell to everyone and continued our journey. Sumatera and Aceh in particular is not densely populated like Java island, and moreover the 2004 Tsunami had killed more than 200,000 people of Aceh. Along the way, our conversation touches on several issues from Tsunami, politics, economics, social and the current earthquakes in Kabupaten Bener Meriah and Kabupaten Central Aceh.

Narrow unpaved roads after the earthquake and several landslides
Until Bireuen, the road is very good but beyond that, we have to go real slow as the winding road up the mountain are very narrow, some unpaved and extremely dangerous. Some parts of the roads have crumbled in the recent 6.2 magnitude and 10 km deep earthquake with several landslides and at least more than 20 aftermath quakes. It could be 5 to 7 hours and it all depends on the road. My stomach was rumbling and my head spinning as our vehicle rocked on the gravel stones on the tortuous  routes up the mountain. After the twisty road, then I realized we were just at the edge of the cliff as I sneaked through the windows.

At Simpang Balek, we stop at this shop to look for some locals who could
help us to locate the affected villages 
It was a great relief when we arrived at Simpang Balek, a little town before we get to Ketol. Worst hit areas are Timang Gajah, Blang Mancung in Central Aceh and Serempah in Ketol. The total death toll from the three affected districts (Central Aceh, Bener Meriah and Ketol) are 42, 6 still missing, about 4,600 are treated for several injuries and more than 50,000 people are displaced. More than 22,000 people lost their homes completely and live in temporary tents and without aids it could be indefinite. With the highest number of death, the village, Serempah, in Ketol district is completely buried under the soil. Some roads in Bener Meriah are buried by landslides, making accessibility to small settlements very difficult but we will keep our directions to those which are accessible.

The teacher on the left has been teaching in this school for 24 years
As we approached the affected sites, we saw countless tents built around Ketol, tents for district offices, households and temporary schools. We stopped at a primary school compound which has gone literally flat and the teachers who happened to be clearing the debris cordially invited us for a sit under the tree. They told us how their homes were vigorously rocked, initially up and down and then side to side.   This area had gone through a lot since the 30 years conflict between GAM (Free Aceh Movement) and the anti separatists; they were killed, their houses burnt even in late 2001 and now they are tested with multiple natural disasters. The 2004 Tsunami was the turning point and the 2005 Helsinki MoU has somewhat provided sufficient peace and stability in the area.

Their faces tell the deep suffering they have undergone but their perseverance are beyond imagination.  With about $1,500 USD from the government, the male teacher and some villagers were busy building the temporary school for the kids but he kindly took time to explain to us the current situation. Everyone at the site gathered under the tree, they have so much to tell as they described their nightmares. Speechless, we took a deep breath! We had to move on to other areas and several houses along our way were empty and abandoned by the owners as it was not safe to stay there.

We accomplished what we intended to do in Bener Meriah, to deliver some aids and school supplies for the children. Misbah and Salahudin reminded us that we need to get out of the area before it gets foggy and dark. We bade goodbye and left the area with sadness and prayers for the victims. We pray that they are able to rebuild their lives again and the kids can get to school as soon as possible.  This is a memorable Ramadhan for me.

Houses in the villages at Ketol
Many houses, mosques and schools went all flat
Although some houses structures are visible, the damages have made it unsafe to live in
The remains of the school administrative building aren't safe anymore
Regardless of the calamity - the kids happily played on the piles of table and chairs 
They managed to picked some books from the debris
The dangerous side to side movement of the earthquake brought down the main school building
Most houses are not safe to live in
In Ketol, these tents are their new homes, schools and offices
They are determined to rebuild their lives - our prayers are always with them