Friday, 26 June 2009

A trip to Banda Aceh - The Acehnese Psyche

I came to understand a little more of the Acehnese strong sense of identity through reading this in Wiki:

"It is thought to have been in Aceh where
Islam was first established in Southeast Asia. In the early seventeenth century the Sultanate of Aceh was the most wealthy, powerful and cultivated state in the Malacca Straits region. Aceh has a history of political independence and fierce resistance to control by outsiders, including the former Dutch colonists and the Indonesian government. Aceh has substantial natural resources, including oil and gas - some estimates put Aceh gas reserves as being the largest in the world. Relative to most of Indonesia, it is a religiously conservative area."

It was this awareness of their past powerful sovereignty over Northern Sumatra that once also included the territories of Kedah, Penang and Pahang in Peninsular Malaysia, fueled by resource exploitation as well as political and military repression that instigated the formation of a separatist movement, GAM (Free Aceh Movement) by the Acehnese. Due to the incessant conflicts since the fall of the sultanate until the signing of the 2005 agreement on autonomy, the population of Aceh had fallen steadily from 11 million to the 4 million today.

Looking at them stoically going about their day, I just can't help but be amazed at their keen sense of survival. Apparently at the Chow Kit Market in KL, the traders selling fruits in front of the Safuan Plaza are all of Acehnese descent! What a hardy lot. And I'm thinking; here I am, a mere tourist in life's journey, hardly contributing to the world save for a few sen here and there, more often complaining about this, that and the other (but feeling blessed anyway).

Yes there is resilience beneath their polite and smiling exterior, but is it possible to define the Acehnese look? I asked of Pak Hatta, our guide-cum-driver. "We are a mix of the letters A,C,E, and H: Arab, Chinese/Champa, European, and Hindia!", he joked. That could be true - they do look like a cross of all those races, and it is said that it is perfectly possible to come across a blue-eyed Acehnese too. And their complexion! Frankly speaking, I did not see a single acne on any of the faces I came across.

Faces of Aceh

Is it the water, or their diet or could it be their heritage?

Maybe the water! When I first turned on the tap in the bathroom of my hotel room, I was taken aback by a strong sulphurous odour. Rotten eggs! A glitch in the treatment system, I wondered, can I shower with this? But I remembered that the Poring hot-springs near Mount Kinabalu exuded the same smell. This water in Aceh could be sourced from an underground spring and surely there must still be plenty of subterranean activity since the 9 pointer quake. And so I concluded - this water could be rich in sulphur and minerals and must be good for my skin!

True enough, throughout my stay in Banda Aceh my skin felt much softer, and even better still, no itches nor rashes. But only for external use however, because it "felt" weird even when I swished it around in my mouth. But hubby swallowed some and said it tasted OK - and suggested to imagine that it's air zam-zam. That man, I tell you...

It's hard to find an obese Acehnese in Banda Aceh as well. I guess that also goes for the other parts of Indonesia that I have visited. For our first lunch which was at the hotel, we requested a dish khusus Aceh and the staff specially prepared for us Ikan Asam Ke'eng. It is fresh fish simmered in a broth of asam belimbing and chillies fine-tuned to your desired ke'eng which means pedas (hot and spicy), and it tasted absolutely divine.

Asam ke'eng seems to define Aceh as tomyam does Thailand. And with ulam and sambal ijo (hijau), you'd ask for nothing more in a meal. Deep-fried ayam tangkap (free range chicken) is quite popular too, much meatier than our soft fatty ones here in Malaysia. Apart from the sea-food dinner on the first night and the kenduri the next day, asam ke'eng with ulam and sambal ijo became my staple throughout my stay.

Acehnese table spread at the Restoran Asia Utama
Pak Hatta's hand going for the ayam tangkap, hehe

Oh, and hubby recommended nasi gurih for our last breakfast - also a must-try for Malaysian visitors. It is something like our nasi lemak but lighter with a slight herby aroma of probably daun salam. It is served with dots of a variety of sambal - merah, ijo, kelapa, teeny-tiny anchovies - and a selection of lauk fom tempe, ayam tangkap, fish etc. Washed down with a glass of perfectly brewed kopi ulee kareng, for us it was the breakfast worth coming back to Banda Aceh for.

We had nasi gurih here

Good water, good food, good soil, fresh fish, good coffee all make for a simple healthy lifestyle. As pointed out by Pak Hatta their strong Islamic roots coupled with the tsunami experience have made them more determined to live up to their serambi Mekah (the verandah of Mecca) image.

For instance, our hotel provides a copy of the Quran and a prayer mat in every room, men and women observe islamic aurat requirements, at the sea-front a signboard notice forbids berdua-duaan tanpa muhrim (being alone with a marriageable person), and buildings may not be constructed taller than the minarets of mosques.

The streets are clean and litter-free and as my sister finally came to realise, there are no malls in Aceh - except the Baitul Mal!


Naz said...

I really enjoy reading this entry. It makes me feel like taking a trip there too :)

Zendra said...

Naz there's a different feel to BA as compared to other Indonesian places. The kota is clean, and so is the river. The Banda Seafood Restaurant where we had our sea-food dinner is built on water by the sea but no fishy smell about.

Do visit it if you can.

Saya... said...

Wah, very scholarly post. Bakat terpendam ;)

Zendra said...

WHAT??? Janganlah nak perli I... Sekolah-ly ada lah.. Anak2 you pun can do a much better job :)

zafi said...

uh pengen to eat indonesi food now!!!
pengen pecal lele... tempe!! adoi

Zendra said...

Haha zafi,zafi .... pecel lele paling bes kat jogja, saya pun dah kepingin dah ni

Capt's Longhouse said...

try indo lalapan,,,,ada in Miri,,,,best nya tak dapat nak cerita yoooooo!!

Lanun de Kapas

Zendra said...

Lalapan Capt.? Is it something yang melelapkan mata when taken? I sure could do with some at night.