Banda Aceh; In which I begin to think that Sumatra may be a slightly frustrating place

Banda Aceh was more or less destroyed during the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, along with much of the northern coastline of Sumatra. Either they rebuilt it with all the shabbiness and dirt of the original or it’s seen a lot of very hard use since. It was our first experience of an Indonesian town, and my immediate thought was: It’s the nastier parts of India, except with cars instead of cows. Open sewers, constant din and grimy, choking, impossible air. It was never really part of the plan to stop there for long. We thought we’d just get a room for a night, have a look around and arrange bus tickets south to Ketambe. There isn’t much to see in Banda Aceh except tsunami memorials, like ships washed kilometres onto the shore. While it would have been interesting to see, I swore off things that would make me depressed back in Cambodia six months ago. Not admirable, no. But sometimes you do need to draw a line - to metaphorically put your fingers in your ears and go lalalala, I can’t hear you. There’s a lot of terrible, bloody history under every patch of ground in the world and if I open myself to all of it I’ll end up despising the human race. More so than I already do, I mean.

Digressions aside, two things stopped us from leaving as quickly as we wanted to. The first was that Sheryl got sick and didn’t think she could handle the brutal 20-hour bus ride to Ketambe. The second was a stroke of misfortune from an unexpected quarter. Without boring my long-suffering readers with technical details, we were running out of space on the computer to put all our photos. Some time ago I had to resort to storing the older ones, and some non-critical files like my music library, on a portable hard drive. A week before in KL I realized both that we were again running out of storage space and that it had been too long since I’d mailed a safe backup of all our photos to someone back home - not since Beijing back in August. So I bit the bullet and bought a new, bigger drive to store the music, the older photos, and a backup of the whole computer, and sent the old one home airmail with copies of all our photos from the trip. All, from the beginning, because I’m paranoid and you can never have too many backups of important stuff. Well, imagine my horror when, just after we arrived in Banda Aceh, I plugged in the brand-new drive to find it dead. That meant that everything I had stored on it was gone - all the music and all the photos from the first five months of the trip. I wasted many hours trying various data-recovery programs to no avail, and finally had to admit that the data was really gone. Not permanently gone, I hope - there are four separate backups of it in various places - but definitely inaccessible to us until I ever make it back to Toronto. Jittery and nervous in case something happened to the computer itself before I could back up its contents again, I had to waste more time finding the only store in Banda Aceh that sold computer parts and buy yet another new drive. At least the price was only a little higher than it had been in KL, which surprised me. They say misfortune comes in threes, don’t they? If so, clearly the first was the death of my camera last week. I await the third with trepidation.

Since we were stuck in Banda Aceh anyway, we decided to try and get ahead a little by buying our bus tickets before we actually needed them. The original plan was to go to Ketambe on the western edge of Gunung Leuser National Park to see the orangutans and do some jungle-trekking, but with Sheryl feeling poorly we decided on the much shorter 10-hour overnight bus to Medan, from where we’d go to Bukit Lawang on the east side of the park. It would make things more awkward later but easier now. Our cursed guidebook claimed that buses to Medan left from a street not that far from our hotel. It’s a sign of how scattered I’ve been lately that I trusted it (there’s an old joke that says the Lonely Planet is the traveller’s Bible: wildly inaccurate, not meant to be taken literally and updated once every few centuries).

We spent almost half a day tramping around in the heat and the caustic air, trying to find the bus station. A simple thing, you’d think, but everyone we asked had a different opinion about where it was, or didn’t know either. Factor in the need to hide from Banda Aceh’s unpredictable downpours and the constant maddening hassle from motorcycle-taxi drivers and it’s no wonder our tempers were strained to the breaking point and we were ready to murder each other and every other person on the planet by the time we finally called it quits. It wasn’t worth it to try and get tickets beforehand, we decided. We’d just give in and sometime the next evening we’d hire a motorcycle taxi to take us there, and if we somehow couldn’t get a bus then we’d goddamn well figure it out at the time. In hindsight, this was the only real workable plan anyway - the bus station, it turned out, was easily ten kilometres out of town. No problem finding a bus - they left in a constant stream headed for Medan. Having been a week in the country, it surprised me not at all that an Indonesian bus station resembled a traffic accident in an asylum. Hundreds of touts were screaming at us from the moment we arrived, brandishing tickets and pointing at buses. We weren’t born yesterday, and we’re savvy to the way things are done in Asia - we know that buying from a tout means that you’re being scammed. Maybe the ticket price is just inflated, maybe the bus has no seats left, maybe the bus has no seats, maybe you’re the only ones on board and it doesn’t leave for two hours, maybe it doesn’t go where they said or maybe it takes twice as long or maybe the bus doesn’t even exist. You don’t buy tickets from touts, you buy them ten steps farther inside the terminal at the bus company offices. This is standard operating procedure for us, we don’t even need to discuss it anymore.

It was strange here though. Normally the touts melt away as you approach the counter but here, if anything, they got thicker. There were office-stalls, one for each company. And there was one man in each stall, staring out blankly over the counter. But that’s all there was. No tickets, no schedules, no telephone, just bare walls and zombies. The line between tout and sanctioned ticket agent is a very blurry one here, it seems. We checked a few, and in every case a hyperactive man waving tickets and shouting hijacked us right in front of the stall while its occupant gazed out serenely. Askance and unbalanced, we made our choice and got tickets for our money on a bus that had the same name as the on the tickets and above the stall. Did we get taken? I have no idea. Did I care, at that point? Not a rat’s ass. We were leaving Aceh at last. Indonesia makes me very tired.

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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