SYNOPSIS:  Arrival in Banda Aceh.  The not so pleasant surprises at Hotel 61.

Between lush green fields and palm trees, against the backdrop of a volcano, our plane touched down in the middle of seemingly nowhere.  But we had landed at Banda Aceh, the capital of the Aceh province, a semi-autonomous region of Indonesia, located at the very tip of Sumatra, quite the opposite of nowhere.  As we rolled towards the terminal I thought the pilot had gotten mixed up as two majestic green and yellow domes appeared, more the sign of a major mosque than an airport.  But we were in the right place.  This was the airport, looking like a cutout of 1001 nights.

From above I had noticed an unusual pattern of urbanization.  Instead of villages or towns clustered together, the houses seemed to spread out in single long lanes, some of the “villages” without a cluster or center at all.  On the road the image was confirmed.  Along the 16 km long road between the airport and Banda Aceh, houses, or better huts, were strung up left and right with nothing but open fields behind them.  Quite unusual, I have to say, and in many ways I think, impractical. 

When I walked out the door into the receiving area of the airport where relatives were awaiting their family members, a whole group of men in patterned brown shirts shouted a welcome to me!  I literally jumped back and almost turned around.  Was this a joke they played on foreign visitors?  A welcome committee who mistook me for somebody else?  No, it was the mob of taxi drivers, all realizing a potential customer!  One of them grabbed me — I think they follow a system of seniority since nobody interfered with him — and asked where I was heading. Hotel 61.  And I just know how much that is, he said, whipping out an official looking sheet of paper and pointing to the number: 100 Rupiah.  And I just know that it is 70, I replied.  For a short moment I saw him unsure of what to do next.  Was I bargaining?  In that case he should counter.  Or did I really know?  In that case, he was caught redhanded.  I knew and he knew that I knew.  So instead of countering, he smiled at me and nodded.  Yes, 70.  I had read that in my guide book; that’s why I “knew”.

But I am getting ahead of myself and will briefly back up on how the day started.   

The Pop! Hotel shuttle got a bunch of us to the airport in no time.  I guess that answered my question from last night.  Construction is one thing, turning a 10-minute ride into a 25-minute ride is another.  But if that is the extent to which foreigners are taken advantage of, I will take it.  It hopefully won’t get worse.

Stephanie from Switzerland sat next to me.  At first I took her for another tourist, but it turned out that she was married to an Indonesian and has been living on a cluster of islands north of Sulawesi.  Her husband operates a tour-boat business shuttling tourists from island to island.  She is not permitted to work, so she helps him out.  Every year she has to obtain a new permit to stay in Indonesia.  That was the mission she had just accomplished.  That seems quite strict.  When I got married in the US I got permission to stay for life.  As so many other regulations in the US, things changed, and Resident Aliens a few years after my arrival only got a ten year Green Card that had to be renewed in person.  A one-year permit, especially in her case, living as remotely as she does, seems quite unreasonable.

I promptly got dropped off at the wrong terminal but with ample time before departure, I decided to walk instead of locating another shuttle.  It is about 30 degrees Celsius here and humid.  The short walk made me drip. This will take some adjusting to.

Lush green gardens separated the various waiting areas.  I had never seen that anywhere else; gardens in the middle of an airport.  The plane was small and crowded.  No other foreigners on board as far as I could tell. It is not quite high season and my destination, Banda Aceh, is not exactly on the tourist track unless you are heading onward for some snorkeling islands. 

I had chosen Banda Aceh as my starting point as it seemed a good place to take it easy for a bit, get over the jet-lag and check off one important part of my itinerary — a strict Islamic province.  Even though Indonesia is a predominantly Muslim country, this is the only province in which Sharia is the law.

Hotel 61 was in the center of town and it had been advertised as having strong and reliable wi-fi — one of the things at the top of my “must have” list.  Other than that, I am quite used to Spartan quarters.  But my heart sank as I was led to the room.  It was tiny.  OK.  It had no windows.  Not so OK.  And it was literally shaking from the thumps of low base notes originating from an arcade next door.  Not OK at all!   I went straight back to the reception.  Is there a quiet room?  No. Only loud ones …  You just have to close the door, the busboy said.  No, my friend.  The base notes literally rained down on me through the ventilation system, making my eardrums vibrate.  I was beside myself.   Ear plugs muffled the sound, but there was no escape until around 10:30 PM when the arcade mercifully closed. 

And … no internet!  For about 15 minutes out of nowhere a hot spot appeared which I quickly used to upload yesterday’s post.  And then, back to nothing.

But I’d better go to bed as I am still quite sleep-deprived.   Tomorrow, I will see what to do with this “situation”. 

Good night.