Pulau Weh; Cat pee and shacks on stilts; The attack of the Jellyfish of Doom

In (uncharacteristic, I was later to realize) contrast to KL’s chaotic, confusing Low-Cost Carrier Terminal, the Indonesian airport at Banda Aceh was calm, clean and quiet. An unexpected inversion, but the only such we were to experience in Sumatra. It helped that ours was the only plane arriving or departing - it’s a small airport. We’d originally planned to go to Banda Aceh before heading to Weh Island, but we changed our minds at the last moment - the beauty of not travelling to an itinerary. We hooked up with a cranky Spanish couple to share an unlicensed taxi to the port, where the driver told us we’d be in time to catch the 2pm ferry to the island.

When we arrived at the ferry terminal, though, we discovered that there wasn’t a two o’clock ferry. The Spaniards had misread their guidebook and I’d been swayed by their misplaced confidence. The 2pm ferry didn’t run that day and the next wasn’t until 3:30 - two hours from then. We had the choice of a slow government ferry or a fast private ferry for half the time and twice the price. Not fancying the idea of getting there in the dark, we opted for the fast ferry. It didn’t leave any sooner though, and so we all sat on our packs outside at the terminal and waited out the time.

By the time we’d disembarked on the island and unsuccessfully butted heads with Pulau Weh’s resident taxi cabal to get us to Iboih on the far side it was getting toward the end of the day. At least the island’s transport mafia isn’t as bad as on Koh Tao in Thailand - here we paid about $6 each to take us 20km as opposed to $4 each to go 4km - but then, Pulau Weh is a much bigger island. It was a good thing that we did take the quick boat. Those few hours would have made a lot of difference - even as it was there were only a few empty rooms in all of Iboih. I say rooms, but everything in Iboih is ramshackle driftwood “bungalows” strung out along the shoreline. Only the most expensive of them have cold-water showers and toilets.

Sheryl and one-half of the Spanish couple went in search of shacks, but by the time we arrived there were only two bungalows left. As darkness was falling and clouds of mosquitoes were rising we faced the choice. The Spaniards took the overpriced bungalow for about $18 and we took the other overpriced one - at $4. That got us a teetering shack on stilts with a filthy foam mattress on the floor beside a pile of old blankets reeking of cat piss (pay attention, those of you who think that my life is a perpetual glamorous vacation). What the hell, we have infamously low standards. It was good enough for a night, after Sheryl badgered the owner’s (possibly) son into handing over a mosquito net. We moved the next day to a more or less identical shack sans the cat pee.

There’s a chronic fresh water shortage on Pulau Weh, and one thing we hadn’t realized about the low-end accommodations in Iboih was that when they say “no bathroom” they don’t mean the room doesn’t have an attached bathroom, they mean that there are no bathing or toilet facilities provided whatsoever. If we asked nicely we could traipse through the owner’s house and use their dipper-and-barrel, but otherwise we had to make our own arrangements. There was a vile public washroom block in the village that we declined to use. Our landlady the first night told us to use one that seemed to be owned by a sort of dive-shop, and so we did that once or twice. It almost didn’t matter because there was never any water to be had. I mostly resorted to trees and filling old plastic bottles from the village well (when it had water) so that I could wash on our shack’s porch.

All of that was worth putting up with for just one reason: the coral reefs just offshore. Before this trip I’d never had the opportunity for scuba diving - and during it I haven’t had the money - but I do like snorkelling a lot. I’m not a veteran by any means, but we’ve been to a lot of good locations during the trip. Pulau Weh blew them all away. A great reef with lots of corals was just out the front porch of our shack, and on the other side of the island across the channel was the Sea Garden - an incredible profusion of brightly-coloured corals and anemones cascading down the sides of great round boulders. There were hundreds of different fish species - wrasse, parrotfish, angelfish, the whole host of them.

Gangs of curious clownfish rose up from every anemone to peer through our masks. I love the way they all turn to face you at once, making a half-dozen little orange ovals with eyes and fins sticking out, and the way there’s always a whole family of them in assorted sizes from palm-sized to smaller than my little fingernail. We saw a moray eel swaying in and out of its tunnel with gaping jaw, and a brightly-coloured rare cousin whose name escapes me. There were hundreds of sea-cucumbers - big ones - with waving petals around whatever passes for mouths in sea-cucumbers. Lots of starfish including huge, striking purple and midnight-blue ones with spines - some with 18 arms.

We saw a black-and-white banded sea snake winding quietly above the bottom, nosing around in the muck. Vivid Technicolor lobsters with big antennae waved at us from their caves, blue- and yellow-spotted stingrays and all kinds of strangely-shaped fish and nearly-fish that I can’t begin to find names for. Some of the strangest were pale yellow-white creatures like stretched out seahorse-worms - small and nearly invisible against rocks or sand, but after we knew they were there we saw them everywhere.

Since talking with Andy and Doby, our diving-instructor friends on Koh Tao, I’ve been practising my free-diving, and I’m pleased with my progress. I couldn’t put real numbers to it, but I’d guess I can get down to twelve or fifteen meters - deep enough to need to equalize three or four time - and stay down for more than a minute, sometimes. I’ve found that too much of that in one day wreaks havoc on the sinuses, though.

I always hope to see turtles, and I wasn’t disappointed. Our first day out we saw two swimming down the channel. One let us trail him for awhile before vanishing. Our third and last day I came across another resting on the reef just south of the Sea Garden, looking just like a nature documentary. He let me get very close and follow him into deeper water. I love looking into their deep black eyes, so seemingly wise and ancient that you might learn secrets from them if you looked long enough. And I love the way their beaks curve in a smile as if those secrets were quietly amusing.

The stars of the show, unfortunately for us, were the jellyfish. There were uncountable millions of them in massive drifts hundreds of meters long. The channel between the islands was choked with them, but it was the only way to get to the good reefs. They came on us by surprise every time. I’d see one or two drift across my mask and angle to avoid them, and then there would be ten, and then there would be thousands of them in a solid wall in every direction, stinging and burning, and all we could do was cover our faces and necks and swim as fast as we could, trying to push our way through the drift. There were so many of them that the water didn’t feel like water anymore, but like a thick and slippery soup, hard to swim through. Easy to panic in a situation like that, and each time we felt that blackness eat away at our nerves, when the stinging pains from their tentacles were unrelenting and our limbs started to spasm and twitch, making it that much harder to swim.

The north end of the small island was the worst. Trying to swim around to the reefs on the other side we ran into a drift that took us twenty minutes to swim out of. We had to make for the wave-battered rocks at the very tip and haul ourselves out. I got sliced up quite nicely by the sharp volcanic rocks - I’ll carry a few scars from that experience. Covered in bright red, angry jellyfish stings (and blood, in my case) we hopped across the searingly hot black rocks to the other side of the point, burning the bottoms of our feet and startling a big monitor lizard into a high-stepping, slapping run off into the jungle.

Between all that and the terrible sunburns that come from spending six hours a day in the water for three days, we were shambling wrecks by the time we left Pulau Weh. Either I’m more sensitive to jellyfish stings than Sheryl is, or I got a nastier dose - I’m not sure, but the burning pain in all the skin south of my nose and north of my waist took days to subside. It was all worth it, though, for the most amazing underwater life I’ve ever seen. I’m told there’s even better to come as we make our way east through Indonesia.

Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
This travelogue comprises 16,426 photographs and 402,515 words in 307 dispatches written from 335 places in 52 countries on 6 continents around the world.
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