I’d arrived in Banda Aceh, right at the Western tip on Sumatra, Indonesia, a couple of days before. Iain had suggested we head there for a bit of diving, as the Malaysian reefs are shot at, what with the rising temperatures. I couldn’t finish my trip on that depressing note. So we’d arranged visas at the embassy in KL (only to find you could get a visa on arrival at the new airport for half the price…the office opened the day we landed). Incidentally, I’d turned up like a right plum at the office to collect the visa, in my shorts; I mean, come on…it was absolutely roasting in Kuala Lumpur. And these bastards expect you to turn up in a fucking tuxedo to collect an overpriced stamp in your passport? Luckily a Russian I was chatting to outside the embassy had a bright orange sarong he lent me to cover my offensive legs (I’m seeing a pattern emerging here). I couldn’t help but grin as one of the guards nodded appreciatively and smiled as I minced past him.
Flying in to Banda Aceh is sobering. As the plane banks over the Andaman Sea and drops into the city, the contrast between rusty old tin rooves and the newer, green-tinted ones paints a stark picture of how the 2004 tsunami tore through this community, killing 167,000 people. The city sits in a horseshoe of hills, and the people of this lowland did not stand a chance. A fishing boat ended up on top of a house two miles inland, such was the irresistable force of nature. Everyone I met lost someone. Every single one. It really makes you wonder what it must be like to suffer so much loss; I can't begin to imagine. Yet they are a resilient people, and have recovered as swiftly as they can; and they are still quick to smile. Of all the peoples I’ve encountered in Asia, I like the Indonesians the best.
We arrived at the ferry port, and had to run for the slow boat about to leave. Old Grumpy complained he wanted to take the faster boat, which left a little later, but myself and a stray traveller we’d picked up at the airport, Little Ian, were happy to take the big boat and just enjoy the ride. We smiled apologetically at the hundreds of locals waiting for the four sweating white men to board the boat and let them get home. Sharing a bit of banter with the locals, as well as the hardest doughnuts on the planet, made the journey pleasurable.
The usual palava awaited us on Pulau Weh, the small island ninety minutes from Aceh: the minivan drivers eager for your custom. Ours was so eager, he actually drove off without Little Ian’s rucksack, but luckily it was still there when we returned five minutes later. Always, always make sure you see the bag go into the van or onto the roof yourself.
Another diver joined us, and we immediately hit it off. I’d taken him to be Scandinavian, and his name was Roman. “I’m French” he told me “but I fucking hate the French.” I laughed. He lives in Paris, so I can see his point. And despite my French-baiting, I don't mind them, really...in fact, I even quite like some of them (especially you, Coralie) So myself and Roman were going to get on, alright. After a scenic hour in the van, we arrived at what felt like the end of the line. Rubiah Beach is a quiet little place. A dirt car park by the beach and a small row of local food joints gives way to an up-and-down ramshackle pathway through another private cove and some of the most rundown accomodation I have ever come across. Luckily we found a place with a good restaurant and some new huts run by a cheeky, and rather sexy diminutive woman called Ley. She had three impossibly cute kids, and was divorced from an Austrian man. I liked her straight away, she was straight and talked no nonsense.
So, gear dumped in our mosquito-riddle abodes, it was time to arrange some diving. I picked my way down the 40° slope between the huts, the turquoise sea visible in the gaps between the trees below me. I was going to like it here. And from what I’d heard of this place from other divers, it should have been magnificent. It was.