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Aceh, Part 4: Sigli and the Surrounding Lands

overcast 27 °C

Sigli is situated on the Eastern coast of Aceh, just under three hours drive from Banda Aceh. It is a small town with a small population, and it is surrounded by beautiful country, inhabited by people living in kampungs (villages). The region was wracked by armed conflict for many years, and many of the villages were destroyed by the 2004 tsunami. Like in Banda Aceh, however, today the survivors of the tsunami have managed to rebuild their homes and lives.

By the time we arrived in Sigli night was falling. I was tired, so we found a room and I took a nap. In the evening, I ate the greatest noodles I've ever tasted (and one of the greatest meals I've ever had the pleasure of consuming). It was Mie Aceh, which is everything good food should be: spicy, with a little bit of this and that (lime and stuff, y'know). The noodles were served on top of a whole soft-shelled crab, which was the crab of queens. In fact, the shell was so soft that it was edible, and every last bit of the crab - all of the shell, the pincers, legs, the lot included - was easily devoured. Man never tasted such a treat. The thought of it makes me want to go back!

After this, my companion drove me to his local mosque,

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Here, I spoke with the Imam and asked him various questions about Islam in Aceh. He explained that he teaches scriptural Islam, which is based on a literal reading of the text of the al' Quran. This is very different from the Islams taught, understood, believed, and followed in many other parts of Indonesia, where local cultural traditions and customs are mixed with the faith, inevitably transforming the faith itself. On another note, the words of the Imam do not necessarily reflect reality in Aceh: here, too, certain tribes and people live according to local customs and mores, which sometimes take precedent over the "pure" faith. Since the tsunami, however, more and people have found solace and comfort in Islam and the Acehnese government has taken greater measures to enforce Sharia law.

I met these fellows at the mosque. They were delighted to meet me and even more delighted to hear that I came from Manchester.

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I met also met my companions (his name was Jimmy) family. Here is a picture of his mother (his name was Jimmy), his sisters, and his sisters baby, and I was offered tea and biscuits and treated with usual Indonesian hospitality.

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The village he lived in was a beautiful place, with small, functional houses and a wonderful community, the kind of place where family and other people come before the individual. People were incredibly hospitable, everybody said hello, and everybody was interested in discoursing with me. Here is a farmer working the field.

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A mother with her child and a family. In these photos, notice that the women are not wearing the hijab, or as it is called in Indonesia, the jilbab. I suppose this reflects the difficulties the state faces in imposing Aceh law in the province and the ambivalence felt towards it by the everyday villager.

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A river ran beside the village, where many of the villagers bathed, swam, and fished. The river was home to large monitor lizards which could be seen basking in the shallows as well as much larger water buffalo, many of which were owned by the villagers themselves (a water buffalo fetches a high price in North Sumatra).

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After this, we left the village walked north so that we might see the beach. After passing through another village (pictured below) the land opened up and it was flat, completely at sea-level, with numerous villages dotting green planes used for farming rice and other foods.

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Whether in the hills surrounding Jogjakarta or the beaches of the Westernmost province in Indonesia, Aceh, everybody seems to play football. These kids are no different.

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Eventually, we passed through some small woods and came to the beach. This beach would have been completely engulfed by the 2004 tsunami, which had destroyed all of the villages I had passed through.

The Acehnese flag blowing in the wind: regional pride is strong here.

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Before long, I found a number of fellows taking part in the beautiful game. Upon approaching them, they were most pleased at my presence and implored me to join them. We spoke about football and eventually I asked them about the 2004 tsunami, and more specifically, whether they were afraid of another potential tsunami happening in the near future. They simply laughed and told me that they don't worry about such things. Many of these fellows would have lost people close to them in the tsunami and so I found their smiles and general attitude amazing.

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Shortly after this meeting night began to fall (see below). We made our back through the woods and back to house of my companion as the sound of the mosque blared from a distance. It's moments like these that you feel like you're in some kind of film or, at the very least, dreaming.

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The next couple of days were spent travelling through the lands surrounding Sigli, where I visited a number of villages. Here are some photographs.

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This is a small village hospital. I went inside and met the doctor working and I also got chatting to a mother there who was with her three jovial, mischievous little sprogs. She somehow managed to fit herself and her children on a single motorcycle!
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This is a game which resembles pool (or billiards). The game is played with thick wooden tokens instead of balls and a board, or table, which is very smooth. I found these guys playing the game at a waroong which was located high above the nearest village.

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I caught this picture whilst driving on motorcyle. The villagers are rice farmers.

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Just as in Banda Aceh, Islam is strong in the countryside and helps glue society together here. Pesantren (Islamic boarding schools) are very common. The picture below shows a few students walking home from school - a long, hot, and difficult walk, at least for me!

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As I mentioned in a previous post, Aceh has suffered from innumerable problems in the past, one of them being armed conflict. The college pictured below was destroyed by a fire and today it is a derelict, abandoned, burnt-out building, with no use or function.

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All is not lost, however, and since the destruction, life has begun to bloom.

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Finally, I visited a memorial for the Acehnese people, which paid tribute to the innocent victims of the tsunami. As one might expect, numerous memorials, museums, and shrines dedicated to the victims of the tsunami have been built around Aceh since the horrors of 2004.

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The victim is mentioned alongside the specific village they originated from.

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I also visited the GAM office in Sigli. If you've read my other posts, you will know that GAM was the organization which fought for independence against the Indonesian state. After the tsunami, however, they agreed a ceasefire with the state and today they work with in conjunction with the Acehnese and Indonesian governments respectively. There, I had the opportunity to drink coffee and have a chat with a few of the receptionists.

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And so, my journey in Aceh came to an end. Overall, I had a great time and thoroughly enjoyed experiencing, with my own senses, the folly of a stereotype which labels the Acehnese people and the region itself as dangerous. I also experienced the ambivalence of Islam in the region, witnessed the limits of state-control, and strengthened my ultimate conviction bar none that human beings are human beings, regardless of skin colour, religion, or ethnic background. In a word: bagus.

Posted by dabey 22:00 Archived in Indonesia

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