A Dot in A Circle: Tsunami and Banda Aceh Today

Pantai Lampuuk - Banda Aceh

Tsunami was not the only thing that happened there

Though hard to discuss, you can’t talk about Banda Aceh city without talking about the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami that took about more than 130.000 Aceh people from their families and loved ones. 

2021: Seventeen years after

The roads repaved, the houses and buildings rebuilt, but you could still feel both the visible and invisible aftermaths.

Even if you’re not asking about the sad topic, most of the locals tell you about it.

Two of my grab car drivers slowed down their speed only to show me the Siron Mass Grave that was built as a memorial to all the Aceh tsunami victims. They skipped our conversation all of sudden, abandoning the topic of recommended restaurants to visit or how to reach Weh Island, only to tell me how many persons that Banda Aceh lost that day on December 2004, or whether I had visited the mass grave before.

We would pass a building, a mosque, a road, and they will tell me how high is the water when the tsunami reach this and that point. How old they are at that time. Where they are. What they do. Who they’ve lost. 

I found a striking resemblance between the Banda Aceh city nowadays and Central Jakarta

I would ask shop owners, inn manager, and food sellers where they come from, how long have they stayed in the city, but then they would include the 2004 tsunami tragedy as their time measure.

I rebuilt the shop 5 years after the tsunami.

I got back to this city 1 year after the tsunami.

I moved to this place not long after the tsunami.

I was at my birth place, the Lhokseumawe City, when it happened. I felt the earthquake. When the news told me about the tsunami that hits Banda Aceh, I didn’t know what that ‘tsunami’ word means.

I lived in the refugee center for years before I went back to my house.

This building didn’t budge when the tsunami hits.

My 1-month old daughter is a survivor. She’s 16 now, she will be working as a chemist one day.

Me and my sister are survivors. The rest of our family aren’t.

They tell you about it. No crying. Just telling you about it.

The local government kept the memories of the tragedy intact. They built the Tsunami Museum in the middle of the city, not far from the Great Mosque of Baiturrahman. They built the mass grave near the bridge to the city. They converted the stranded boat and ship to tourism sites (PLTD Apung and Lampulo boat). They put evacuation route sign posts here and there.

Wherever you direct your gaze and sharpen your ear, the city reminds you of the 2004 tsunami.

Ask the Unasked

After 3 days of my stay, I found myself wondering so much about Banda Aceh before the 2004 tsunami tragedy. What kind of song do they sing, their dances, their literature, the jokes that they bring to the table, how they cook and eat their food, the various ethnicity that declares the place as their home, and what memories that they made during their endless coffee-drinking moment. Do they hate instant coffee and what do they think about Tompi.

When I saw the Krueng River and the stores and houses in each of it sides, I wonder does it always like that?

When I see the Banda Aceh city that reminds me so much of Central Jakarta with its line of shops, I wonder if it’s because the new residents that came to the city after the tsunami?

I also wonder what kind of place was Lampuuk Beach before it became the first area that was hit by the waves in December 26, 2004.

Pantai Lampuuk - Banda Aceh
Lampuuk Beach – Banda Aceh

So one time during my short stay there, I intentionally steered out the conversation from the tsunami topic, and asked an auntie about the daily dishes that she cooked for her family. 

Asam Keueng with rice. Pliek u that is made from fermented coconut meat. Kuah Beulangong during celebration days. She also told me that she’s originally came from Pidie, and Pidie people add more cloves to their food. So if I want to taste food with more gustos, go to Pidie. 

One of my Grab Car drivers told me that he will take his family to Takengon on Tuesday. It’s 7-hour drive from Banda Aceh, but it’s school holiday season and he wants to have a good time there. It’s a breezy place with beautiful lake, just like Medan’s Berastagi. And if I want to see hills with coffee trees, that’s where I should go. 

An uncle that I met at the Peunayong local market in Banda Aceh asked me how my trip to Weh Island went. Did I like it there? Did I visit Rubiah Island? Did I snorkel? Did I see the Zero Kilometer Monument? Did I taste the local fruit salad? Did I have a smooth boat ride to and from the island? 

An uncle that took me and my friends to Rubiah island made me laugh with his jokes about fishes. I still remember his big smile and his sassy answer to my silly question.

A beautiful teenage girl that sells fruit salad (Rujak Buah) at the Weh Island’s Zero Kilometer Monument told me that her home is at the Aceh Besar area and it took her about 6 hours to reach the place. When I expressed my surprise to the fact that she came to the island only to help her family business, she asked me where do I come from and I told her from Jakarta. She replied me with a smile, “isn’t that far too?”. I like that girl.

Every Piece Matters

Seventeen years have passed and although the  buildings, houses, and roads have been rebuilt and repaved, sadly, I found that the cultures and the identities of the Banda Aceh people are still in fragments. 

Because of the 2004 tsunami, land owners passed away, several old residents went away, newcomers are crafting new histories to the place. The 2004 tsunami tragedy, inevitably, have been inseparable part of the city and the people. 

The past is in the past, what has happened cannot be changed. I know that denying the fact would only slow the healing process. I just hope that they tell us their memories of the sad event because that’s what they need and want, not because that’s the topic that the tourist and visitors ask all the time.

If you happen to be an outsider that visits the place, be a great listener to the story that they want to share with you. And after that, you might try to ask them about their cultures, their current life, their coffee, local jokes, anything but tsunami. 

See what kind of expression they show you, and see what you feel about it. 

To me, Banda Aceh is about its smart funny people, coffee stalls, super sweet drinks, not-too-spicy food, religious communities, heroic histories, bright sunshine, and a place where a massive tsunami happened in 2004.

Tsunami was not the only thing that happened there.

Yes, it’s like a big striking dot in a full circle of Banda Aceh. But it’s still a dot among many unique and great aspects of the city and its people.

Nobody should forget that.

One of my great memories there: trying upside-down coffee at a cafe named Kopi Khop

Gonna share you that one song that my trip’s coordinator played all the time in our bus 😀