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April 7, 2010

Rising from the Dead

Tom McLaughlin

Banda Aceh, Indonesia – The first wave was about three meters high, more like a tidal surge. Survivors remember it being boiling hot. The second wave climbed 100 meters pushing over five kilometers inland, carrying a 2,600-metric-ton ship on its back. The third was just as high but with cold water, very cold, traveling almost as far the second. It shifted the ship to another location.


Five years later, the charities, relief workers and other foreigners have packed up and gone home. A new modern town has replaced the destruction wrought by the sea. People have buried their dead, somewhere between 20,000-40,000 people, and continued their lives. Few will talk about that Boxing Day (December 26) but most won’t.


I looked seaward trying to figure out why the waves were so huge at Banda Aceh and comparatively smaller on other parts of Sumatra Island. There are a line of small islands with large dead volcanoes with breaks between, lining about two kilometers off the mainland. A channel between them squeezed the oncoming tsunami much like putting a kink in a garden hose and then suddenly releasing the water.


Standing on the shore and looking seaward, a new breakwater has been constructed. The boulders march toward the Indian Ocean forming a barrier at the opening between the two islands. Pivoting landward, a new harbor house, which can seat maybe 35 people hugs the docks awaiting the two passenger and two vehicle ferries plying their way to the resort island of Pulau Weh. Most of the time the waiting room is empty, save for a small kiosk selling drinks and another peddling silver jewelry.


Riding in a car toward town, a blank land of sand, where thousands of people once lived in shacks and small homes, adds further protection for the next storm that may come in from the sea. Then new homes, shop houses, parks and government buildings, all low rise because of the frequent earthquakes, populate the next section followed by the old town where the sea finally stopped. All are connected by ribbons of new roads that would rival any in the western world.


With the sudden influx of westerners throwing money about like drunken sailors, the people have changed. They learned about capitalism. Taxi drivers charge by the number of persons in the car, unheard of anywhere else I have traveled. Restaurant prices are expensive compared to the rest of Indonesia. Collectible items are almost triple or quadruple the prices elsewhere with very little bargaining.


On another front, the town’s main mosque, in the center of the destruction, was spared. This has led to the resurgence of very conservative Islam. The thinking that God has sent a message has resulted in laws that have closed movie theaters, pubs, discos, brothels and other forms of entertainment so popular in pre tsunami times. All have been enforced by new powers granted to the religious police.


But, I saw many young women in their teens and twenties dressed in tight jeans. Boot legged movies in the thousands were available with both R and X ratings. Some women did not wear the tudung, the scarf that covered the head but not the face. Marijuana, a part of this culture for hundreds of years, was readily available when asked and will probably be again sold in the open once all the westerners leave.


Many told me of two major benefits of the tsunami. The first was the ending of the decades old civil war which demanded freedom from Indonesia. This is akin, geographically, to Florida leaving the Union. The second was the modernization of the town, which all conceded probably would never have happened.


Banda Ache has survived the greatest destruction in modern times and has arisen with a new town and society. The people will also survive the current Islamic order; but, like all radical religious movements, it will shift back to the center and emulate the rest of Indonesia.


…life is good


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