Return to KMO

Jan 15, 2009
*Special to asia!

"It's about time." I'm whispering to myself. No. I'm exclaiming out loud in my head! What took me so long? The last time I was here was on December 23, 2005. Three days before the Indian Ocean tsunami levelled the northern tip of Sumatra.

When I arrived in Sabang, the port town of Weh Island, familiarities began to return. Walking across the gang plank into the jetty, refusing local boys who were offering to carry my bags for me for a tip, telling every taxi driver I wasn't going to where ever it was that they were calling out for. Then there would be the persistent one that followed you out of the crowd and into the quiet space behind the people. He'd ask where I was going, I'd say Gapang. He'd say a price. I'd ask for a discount. I'd say I'd been here before and that wasn't the price. He'd say the price of fuel had gone up and it was the same rate with all the drivers. I pick a random driver leaning against the railings and ask them for the rate, they say the same rate. I look at the driver who was talking to me and say that it's not good, things getting so expensive. He says he agrees.

I get into the passenger seat in the front of the taxi and for a moment I am disoriented and confused. I look around and look out of the taxi. Then I smile to myself and take out my compact camera and take a photograph of the dash board. The driver sees this and asks, "Are you from Singapore?" I say yes. "Ah! This taxi is from Singapore! I got it in 1993. Do you still have taxis like that in Singapore?" I laugh and say no. On the dashboard were the words C.O.M.F.O.R.T. Comfort Taxis is Singapore's largest taxi company. Now I know where some of their used and abused cars go. Cars in Singapore have a lifespan of only 10 years. Any time longer than that and the owner would have to pay severely high taxes to keep their "old car" on the road. "This is a very good car." The driver says, "Never breaks down." It's a Toyota Crown, and yes, it's a good car. I think about how any traffic jams this car has probably been through during its short term in Singapore, and now how it climbs the coastal hills of Weh island, avoiding monkeys that sit along the road, hardly a person in sight.

"Your first time here?" The driver asks the inevitable question. I tell him I was last here in 2005. "Oh! Tsunami! You were here? Are you with NGO?" I tell him I had come to dive. That I'd left 3 days before the tsunami. "Oh you were lucky. I think on Weh only three people died. But so, so many people died in Banda Aceh." The third person had broke my taboo. Still, I felt I wouldn't be the one to bring it up. Let someone else raise the topic.

The taxi turned off the asphalt road and roll down a little slope and onto the sandy beach. I tried to look for something familiar. I recall there was a house here. Wasn't there a restaurant here before? What happened to all the stray cats that used to lie in the sun? I don't recall a stream here. There used to be a stone bench by the tree over there. Some things had changed in this landscape. The beach used to be farther out. Just a little bit. There used to be more trees. Some buildings were different. Others only had the foundations left. "Welcome back girl!" My friend Debbie from Canada came out from the dive shop to greet me as my cab pulled up infront of it. "How was the journey?" "Good, good. I'm really sleepy, but it was good. Great now that you don't have to get that Blue passport."

Before the tsunami, it was just a little bit more tideous to get into Banda Aceh. When I arrived at Medan airport in 2005, I had to wait several hours for a Blue passport to be issued for my entry into Aceh. Then when I arrived in Aceh, I had to be escorted by the police to the ferry terminal. I remember seeing a local with a pistol wedged into the back of his jeans as he rode his motorcycle around town. I remember police cars everywhere. Then when I got to Weh I had to take a taxi to the district police station to register myself. Get a slip of paper. Finally after several hours of waiting they would find the paper that I needed to fill in, they would get a black sheet of paper and write my name on it and tuck in into a drawer within their barren desks, and I'd be sent on my way to Gapang Beach. By the time I got there, it'd be nightfall. But these administrative processes were cut when the tsunami hit, and it became not just a hassle for aid workers but also a chore for the administrators who had to process the permits and passports of the thousands of aid workers that suddenly descended onto the long forgotten province.

debby ngDebby Ng forayed into journalism following failed attempts at becoming a world-class equestrian. A wildlife crime investigator, underwater photographer, dive master and founder of a marine conservation organisation, she spends what remains of her time writing about the environment, its wildlife, and its people.

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