Saturday, August 12, 2006

Finally, some news

I am sitting in my room in Lhokseumawe, listening to "Moj je zivot Svicarska" (My life is Switzerland), one of my favorite Bosnian songs. It always gives me goose bumps, makes me homesick but smile at the same time. Funny how one song can bring out so many emotions at one time.

Am I homesick? Not in the sense of the word that one would imagine. I have gotten used to my life here and I like the work so much that it makes up for all the difficulties. But I miss my life in Switzerland, most of all of course Sasa. If he were here with me, life would be absolutely perfect. But although I have travelled quite a bit in my life and have been exposed to different cultures, I still deal with some severe culture shock here from time to time. It's just really different and as a Western woman living in a Sharia-law environment, there are limitations which are not always evident.

You get used to always wearing long pants and a long sleeved shirt. You get used to never seeing other women with their hair down, as it is always covered with the customary jilbab. You even learn to accept that when you go swimming (which is frequent here in Lhokseumawe because I live on the beach), you have to wear full clothing. What I haven't gotten used to and probably never will, is being the focus of so much attention wherever I go. Here in Lhokseumawe, there aren't as many international organizations as in Banda Aceh (tsunami did not affect this city), and the people are less used to the bule (foreigners).

As a consequence, our habits and customs are closely scrutinized and the locals are fascinated, even at times annoyed, by us. Case in point: when I go swimming with my colleagues on the beach just across the street from our house, all the local children gather and just watch amazed. All these "ghosts" carelessly frolicking in the water – although we are living on an island, the locals don't really go swimming much at the beach and the beach never has people on it. Of course it used to be a place where young lovers would come for a stroll or to find some privacy, but since Sharia, this is no longer an option. Those who try frequently get stopped by the Sharia police and get duly warned, if not even fined. But that's life here, I guess people have accepted it even if not all agree with it.

But there are also good moments. Yesterday my colleague and I (both female) went to play badminton with some of our local colleagues from the office (my colleagues here had paid to rehabilitate the badminton court behind our office, out of private funds). Within 30 minutes, there were at least 30 spectators, both men and women. I think for them it is somewhat of a novelty seeing women and men playing sports together, I have not really ever seen it here. I think even some of our local colleagues, men, have had to get used to the bule women and how freely we behave. Still, the atmosphere was fantastic. All were cheering and yelling and clapping. I felt self-conscious at first but in the end it was really fun. Of course it was again one of those moments where I could have kicked myself for not learning more Indonesian, because those are the best times to meet with locals and to get to know the culture. But I just haven't been successful and given that I am trying to memorize Serbian vocabulary, this just isn't going to happen.

I have been in Indonesia now for almost 6 months, hard to believe. Contrary to my initial thoughts, time has flown by. I am already forced to think about what it is I want to do next, I think the human resource department will expect some kind of answer from me in about 3 months. And then the last 3 months will be filled with trying to make sure everything is in order for the next one to take over.

At the same time, 6 months is a long time, especially when looking at it from the angle of being separated from your loved ones. Their lives go on, with or without you. So much happens which we miss. And I think for me one of the hardest things is having these experiences and not being able to properly share them, despite writing about them and sending photos. I would love it more than anything to have Sasa come here for a week or two to just show him what it is all about and what my reality is on a daily basis. Alas, it's not possible and that's the reality, so I try to write about my good and bad moments, to take many photos (as far as it's allowed, we have strict rules regarding this) and to tell those I talk to on the phone what I am living on a daily basis.

I have been in Lhokseumawe now for 2 weeks, trying to find a new structure for our office. At the same time, the sub-delegation in Banda Aceh is decreasing on a daily basis, as some have their last day and others leave at the spur of the moment because they have found a new job. I don't think I realized that when I go back in a week to 10 days, many of my colleagues from my last 6 months will have moved on to another job. It's starting to sink in and that's really sad. I have grown fond of so many of them and now it somehow feels like I am starting a new mission, despite the fact that I have been working here for a week at a time once every 5-6 weeks. But here I still have to learn some names, in Banda Aceh I had finally learned all the names of the 69 local colleagues, from cook and maid to guards and field officers. I am glad that 13 of our colleagues from Banda Aceh will be transferring to Lhokseumawe.

Other than that, I really like being in Lhokseumawe. It's of course a much smaller city, there are not expat restaurants here like in Banda (unless you count Kentucky Fried Chicken), no expat shops either. But at the same time, that means there aren't that many annoying expats either. Some really think they own the world and I get really irritated at those that completely disregard any respect to the local custom, either by dressing inappropriately or behaving rudely toward the locals. It's one of the reasons I love the ICRC – respect for the local customs and traditions is stressed for us, disregard of local laws and regulations can be cause for dismissal from the mission or even the job.

Anyway, to get back to Lhokseumawe: there aren't really any big earthquakes here which of course makes me sleep better. And I am living in a small house with 2 other expats, right on the beach. It actually feels like a home, unlike the residences I lived in previously. I admit that I get nervous sometimes when there is a big storm or hear a funny loud noise – after all we are right on the beach and even though the tsunami hit on the southern coast, you always wonder "what if". But despite that, I am very comfortable here. The expat team here is growing now that Lhokseumawe is becoming the sub-delegation (from 4 to 7, 9 in the region), which makes it all a bit different but I like it nonetheless. We are 4 Swiss, 1 Belgian, 1 Serbian, 1 Central African, 1 French, 1 New Zealander and 1 from the Ivory Coast on the way. It makes for interesting discussions, especially since many of us have been in the places the others come from, either on missions, plain travelling or some other connections (such as my connection to Serbia). My poor Serbian colleague is suffering from my constant requests to talk in Serbian to me or to teach me some new words, I am quite a pest!

That brings me back to the ICRC – once again I am impressed by how it works. Given the new crisis in Lebanon, of course there is a growing need for organizations to provide aid to the suffering people there and the ICRC is up to the task. Impressive how fast it moves – my Serbian colleague, who has just arrived 6 weeks ago, has been temporarily removed from this mission and within 3 days notice, took off for Beirut for 6-8 weeks. It makes me a little envious, thinking how he will be in the midst of all this action while I am in Indonesia where nothing much happens. Of course that I also a good thing, I am not in any real danger (except dying of boredom) and can move about freely. Still, I guess it would be nice once to experience the ICRC in real action (be careful what you wish for, isn't that the saying?)

Anyway, in 2 weeks I am leaving for Colombo, Sri Lanka for a course. And then, and this is the best part of it all, I am continuing on to Switzerland for 2 weeks vacation. I am counting days if not the hours. I am so excited, I can't believe I will be with Sasa again and see my family and friends. And then the quick trip to the States, to Bernie's wedding. It's like the icing on the cake because I see everyone one there also, something I did not expect when I left 6 months ago. So in 14 days, I will get to see everyone that I care about, even if only for a short time. I will be exhausted from the travelling but it will be worth it.

So that's all from me for now, Lima Hotel Oscar (LHO – radio code for Lhokseumawe) is signing off, over and out.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Tremors of the Earth

May 19, 2006

I think I felt another one. I am sure I did. Or was is just because I moved my foot? Damn, I am alone in the house, where will I go? Where is my phone, I refuse to go anywhere without it! I quickly throw myself to the other side of the bed to see if the glass of water on my night table is moving. No, it's still flat, thank God. I lie back down, heart beating at a rapid pace and try to convince myself that I have nothing to worry about. I wish someone else were home, it's somewhat less threatening when I am not alone.

These are the thoughts that go through my head every time there is an earthquake or I imagine an earthquake. My imagination about earthquakes these days is very vivid. I imagine them occurring all the time. The problem is also that our beds here are incredibly springy, meaning that even if you move your little toe while in bed, the whole bed shakes.

I have been here almost 3 months now and have experienced a fair share of earthquakes, the strongest one a 6.8 on the Richter scale. But what I didn't know before I came here, is that the number on the Richter scale is insufficient to tell you anything about the actual earthquake. Important is the depth, the distance of your location to the epicentre and also very important, the length of the earthquake. There are different types, some causing almost a hopping motion, others leave you swaying and weak on your two legs. Some cause a loud bang while others are just a gentle, quiet ripple, giving you the sensation of having a massage machine built into your bed.

They terrify me. Unlike hurricanes, which I am used to, earthquakes give you no advance warning. They occur at anytime and completely unannounced. Moreover, I am still not sure what the correct reaction to one is. Most earthquake literature says that the safest thing is to stay in the house, next to a strong pillar and foundation of the house, or in worst case, under a strong table or something similar. But trust me, your innate reaction is anything but that – you want to get the hell out of the house for fear of it collapsing.

Added to this fact is that of course I live in a town that was decimated by the tsunami, which was triggered by a earthquake with a 9.0 on the Richter scale. Experts say that given the location of Banda Aceh, they cannot rule out that this will happen again, maybe even soon. I don't even let myself think about that possibility, it freaks me out. Supposedly our residences and our office are out of the tsunami range, but that's only if the next tsunami is not bigger than the last one. It's an absolutely terrifying thought, it keeps me up many a night. When I am alone, I sleep very badly and cannot find the rest I so desperately need.

I admire the locals. Many, many of them have suffered immense losses of not only loved ones, but also of their possessions, their homes and livelihood. Yet they go on and smile – many getting ready still now to finally move back to their rebuilt houses. I don't know how they do it – how can they move back to a house on the beach knowing this could happen again? They laugh at the earthquakes, but I know from personal conversations that many of them are still traumatized and earthquakes terrify them. I realize they can't just pack up and leave, that is reserved for those of us that they call the Humanitarian Lords. Nor do they want to leave, after all, it is their home and where they belong. To me, they are the real heroes of this tragedy – having rebuilt their lives and finding a way to smile again. I am sure it wasn't easy.

For me, earthquakes have become a fact of life. I am also sure that I won't spend one good night here for the rest of the time I am here. I can't imagine what would happen if I were to be sleeping during the time a big earthquake hits. That thought alone makes me sit up in the middle of the night. Maybe I am exaggerating and I don't know what I am talking about. But regardless of what people say, I will never get used to it. I am not in control, I can do nothing about when and how the next one will hit. I am defenceless...

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Humanitarian Lords of Aceh

This was an article that passed through my desk from Kompas (National - Indonesian Daily) 28 April. It's fairly accurate but I definitely do not agree with the statement about aid workers not having abandoned their families or given up personal lives.

Unofficial Translation
The Humanitarian Lords of Aceh
Kompas, 28 April 2006.

Don’t equate the lives of humanitarian workers to that of Erin Brocovich – aid workers haven’t abandoned their families or given up personal lives in the pursuit of helping others. Neither do aid workers follow the example of Mother Teresa and live a life of poverty – uncertain and economic difficulties is something aid workers aren’t a factor in their lives. At this is the case in Aceh where humanitarian workers lead lives that aren’t so different from people working in the private sector. In fact, they may be living even better lives.

Aid workers are flashy. They have private drivers to take them anywhere they want to go. It’s a common to see luxury cars – four-wheel drives – visiting tents and barracks. Aid workers live in very expensive rented houses. They frequent expensive restaurants like Pizza Hut and Imperial Kitchen in Teuku Umar Street, Caswells in Kampung Laksana, Turca Restaurant in Jambotape and Melodia Café in Setui.

In Aceh, social activists/humanitarian workers have become a new class of society, carry the title, “Lords of Help”. Their salaries, higher than the minimum regional salary standard, have also given them greater spending power.

The salary of NGO local staff is around 5 – 10 million rupiah a month. Expatriates receive higher salaries ranging from 25 – 65 million rupiah a month, depending on their positions.

Working in Aceh has given these expatriates a much better life in comparison to the lives they’d lead in their own countries or other parts of Indonesia, particularly with regards to income. Mr. John (pseudonym) for example used to be a driver for a bakery in France. He is now a project manager for an NGO, handling the construction of 150 houses for IDPs with a salary of around 65 million rupiah a month.

UN humanitarian workers in Aceh receive even better pay. The salary scale of professional national staff is around 15 – 40 million rupiah a month. Expatriates get paid between US$4,000 (around 40 million rupiah) to US$15,000 a month, excluding hazard pay, rest & relaxation leave and living allowances.

A senior UN staff member, Roni (pseudonym), doesn’t even want to be referred to as a humanitarian/aid worker because of his huge salary and work structure. “I’m ashamed of being called a social/humanitarian worker or activist. It’s purely about daily needs,” said the man who used to work for an NGO.

Yet another UN staffer, who doesn’t want to be named, has contacted Kompas several times, says that national and international staff get treated differently. “Local and national staff are treated just like step-children. International staff are entitled to leave every six weeks with airfares paid by the office, while we do not get it. They also receive hazard pay of around US$500 – US$1,000 a month, while we do not get it,” he explained.

However, when asked how much his salary is, he said he receives 16 million rupiah a month. Of course, the concerns of this UN humanitarian worker cannot be compared with the concerns of IDPs who are asking the government to pay up living allowances of 3,000 rupiah a day as promised.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Bule in a Fishbowl

May 13, 2006

I am a bule. My ICRC colleagues are bule. Chances are that you reading this are also a bule here in Indonesia. A bule is simply a foreigner, a term used to describe anyone not from Indonesia. Although I still don't understand much Indonesian, I am always aware when they are talking about us bule, somehow the word has come to stick out.

Being a bule in this part of Indonesia can still be a novelty, although Banda Aceh is crawling with international organizations. In the town itself, it's nothing special anymore and the term bule, when heard, is often used to point out something negative about us or to just note that another one is crossing their path. "Hi Mister" the kids and even adults greet me everywhere I go, regardless of the fact that I am a woman. The more advanced ones refer to me as Miss, that already implies some English in school. Being a bule in Banda Aceh has almost become normal, the number of new expat restaurants popping up even in the 3 months that I have been here are proof of that. I heard that just a last week an Italian restaurant opened up, although it is said the food is not great. Who cares! Now we Italian to add to the Steak House, Imperial Kitchen (Indonesian), Pizza House and Caswells – the last two quite popular with me because they have real salad bars.

Anyway, I am getting away from the actual purpose of writing this blog, the identity of a bule. I am sitting in the car right now driving from Lhokseumawe to Banda Aceh, a drive that takes approximately 6 hours. The first two, three times, I found the drive interesting, now it's just another long drive. The views can be beautiful, the rice paddies, the green hills surrounding the road or the ocean view from the road. But what fascinates me most are the people. They are all along the road, whether they are walking with their children, repairing the road, selling papaya and mango or just sitting on the side of the road for a reason completely incomprehensible to me. But it is here that I feel like a fish in a fishbowl. Every single person that looks up and looks into the car, locks eyes with me. Some smile in return, others get shy and still others stare me down. I wonder if they are wondering what world I come from like I am wondering what their lives are like? It's not uncommon either for a person to nudge their colleague and point out the bule. I am obviously something interesting to look at, like I said, a fish in a fishbowl.

These people live a completely different reality than I even have or ever will. The poverty, although obvious at times, doesn't keep them from smiling or enjoying life. As in Bosnia, I am reminded again that those that have less are much m ore likely to share what they actually have. Those that have nothing give you even the last spoon of salt. Our consumer society in Switzerland could learn a lot from these people. Yet I wonder how they spend their days – some are busy working in the fields or a shop, but the majority seems to sit in the shade and wait for the worst heat of the day to pass. Kids in school uniforms are everywhere and if not too shy, most all of them will reward me with a big smile when I wave at them. At the very least, given the misunderstandings between different cultures, a smile is worth a thousand words!

Takengon

May 10, 2006

Takengon is a village about 3 hours towards the center of the island of Sumatra from Lhokseumawe. We have a team that is active here about once a week and this time I was able to join the field trip because some hotel research was in order. Besides, I have been dying to go into the field and see how my colleagues spend their time. Next time I plan to go with the Water & Sanitation team or the Economic Security team and witness the work first hand. Because, although I love being the administrator, it's nice to get out and see the work we do firsthand, it makes my work much easier because I know what is going on on all fronts.

Anyway, I digress. I was talking about Takengon. Six of us drove up together, along narrow and winding roads through the mountains. I had to close my eyes more than once, especially when the driver decided that we were late and flew through the curves. Takengon is beautiful, I actually had to play tourist and take some photos. There is a big lake and the town is surrounded by green hills, absolutely breathtaking. And what makes it even more enjoyable is that it's cooler because we are above 800m above sea level (compared to Banda Aceh at 6m).

Anyway, I didn't spend much time in Takengon but it was worth mentioning it in a blog. I spent the day talking to hotels, house owners and other international organizations to do my research. In the end, it was quite productive and I got what I came for, so unfortunately it was time to return to Lhokseumawe, where I also like to spend my time, especially when the delegates are not in the field.

Then 2 intensive work days in Lhokseumawe, it was quite stressful. Of course this was made worse by the fact that I was staying at the beach residence this time, where an early night is a foreign concept. Not that I am complaining, I had a great time. Oh, it seems that I have picked up a new nickname – Tante Pia (aunt Pia). I join the rest of the Lhokso Team who are Sister Mary Therese, Frou Chiener (must be said in a perfect Bernese accent), il principe and the Badmeister. Quite an illustrious crowd and I am now part of the family. J

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Another month passed

April 30, 2006

It's Sunday afternoon, I am at home watching "Desperate Housewives". I don't really like the series but I bought seasons one and two so now I am determined to finish watching it. I haven't written for quite some time, life has been really busy and I haven't felt like coming home and attaching myself to the computer again.

I had gone to Jakarta for two days, for a briefing with my boss and some other departments that were out of town the first time I was there in March. As much as I hate Jakarta because of its size, traffic and pollution, it was nice to get out of Banda Aceh for a bit. I stayed in a nice hotel and enjoyed a quiet night actually sleeping through the night. The second night I was there the local Swiss Club held their monthly get together at a hotel and some of us from the delegation went there for dinner. It took us almost 2 hours to get there by taxi because the traffic was so bad. It was funny eating raclette in 35-degree weather, even with aircondition. They had Bünderfleisch, Aelplermaggaronen and many other delicious Swiss specialties. And wine!!!! That was the best part of the night. Unfortunately I was getting sick during dinner so I ended up going home fairly early.

The next morning I took a flight for Bali, where I met an old colleague from Swisscom days. He was there for 4 weeks at a surf camp and I thought it was a perfect opportunity for me to get away with someone else outside of work and to enjoy the quality of life in Bali. But as I had just gotten sick, the weekend didn't quite turn out the way I had planned. I ended up spending most of the weekend wanting to stay in bed, taking medication and not being able to drink. We did manage to spend a day in Ubud, which was beautiful. Kuta Beach is a nightmare – you can't move anywhere without someone wanting to sell you something, you have absolutely no peace and privacy. Since the Bali bombings tourism to Bali hasn't completely recovered so there are many less tourists there. Which means there is less tourist meat to go around. Misery, that's all I have to say. But it was really nice to see Marius and talk about some things other than work and Banda Aceh.

The best part about Bali was that I was actually excited to come back to Banda Aceh. I was sick of travelling (I actually took 6 flights in the span of 6 days) and just wanted some peace and quiet, of which I have more than enough here in Banda Aceh. In a sense, the long weekend was good therapy for me.

I have been here again for almost two weeks and work has been going hay-wire. My to-do list keeps growing daily, when I check of two items I add four. But it's ok, I like the work, I like the people and I am starting to feel integrated within the delegation. So what have I done in my abundant free time?

I went to a new type of massage, a reflexology massage. A totally different experience from the first time, but just as unique. First of all, it was in a private house near the delegation and the whole family was home. So the children kept going in and out – I am lying on the bed naked, being massaged by 6 hands and trying to communicate with little children. I must admit, I felt a bit awkward. Then all of sudden, as I am lying on my stomach, they light this special lighter and bring out drinking glasses. They put the fire under the glass and suction cupped the glass to my back – a total of 8 of them. It felt very, very strange but in the end, when they removed them, it felt good. Little did I know that I would have 8 large circle hickeys (bruises) on my back, I look like I have some terrible disease, especially now that they have turned yellow.

Not much else has happened here lately. My life is better since having a car, I passed the driving past about 3 weeks ago. So now I have a vehicle at my disposal and feel much more free to roam around the city. I even went to get my hair cut for 1 Euro yesterday – it only took 5 minutes. I wanted to get my hair colored too but they only had light black, medium black or dark black. I decided to pass.

So that's it for today. Back to Desperate Housewives.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Daily Life

March 26, 2006

It's Sunday, 11am. I have been awake since 8am, since somehow I can never seem to sleep past that time, no matter what time I go to bed. The power went out about an hour ago, I was in the midst of watching a movie. I have been reading since then, but am getting to tired to read the words. There is nothing to do, nowhere to go. I was hoping to watch a dvd on my computer but it doesn't seem to work. Probably because it's a copy of a dvd, who knows.

Yesterday I went with my housemate for another massage and a pedicure. That was nice, really relaxing. Then we did a little shoe shopping, I bought flip flops and a pair of plastic shoes, both for 5 dollars. I have also started packing my things again, as I will be moving to a new house in the middle of the week. We have a short week this week, only 3 days and then a 4-day weekend. I have been asked to go to Sabang, an island about 45 minutes by speedboat from Banda Aceh. There are supposedly beautiful beaches there, and more importantly, a "Western" beach where we can swim in our bathing suits. That will be a nice change I hope, maybe it will even feel like a little vacation.

Then I will go to the other office in Lhokseumawe for a week, in order to deal with all the issues that have come up during my absence. Then back to Aceh for another three day weekend and then I will fly to Jakarta for 2 days. I have picked the dates so that it coincides with yet another long weekend, which I plan to spend in Jakarta. I should have planned ahead better and maybe planned to meet my friend Nadia in Bali – she is working in Bangkok at the moment and has a long weekend at the same time. But alas, I thought about it too late and will now instead spend the weekend in Jakarta. I think it will be rather boring as I don't know anyone and am hesitant to explore the city by myself. But at the same time, I will enjoy the luxury of the hotel and shopping malls.

Time really stands still here sometimes. I am a master at planning ahead, planning my vacations and even my eventual return to Switzerland. But I am not good at figuring out what I will do in the meantime. Sure, I will be working but that is somehow now filling up my days. Of course once I can drive I will be working longer hours, no need to catch rides from others. But even then, I am looking for that one thing that will get me going at the start of each day. Maybe some type of sport, I have never been a big jogger. Or a language class, learning Indonesian? I am hesitant on that because I am sure it will make me forget my Serbo-Croatian, which really remains a priority for me.

At the same time, I am attempting to make some plans regarding our wedding. It's difficult to plan from a distance, especially considering neither Sasa or I are currently in Serbia to make any of these plans. But we will do it as best as we can. Sasa has already scouted out possible locations and we will now decide where and how to hold the wedding, as we have decided, most likely, not to get married in the Orthodox church. They are being very difficult about the inter-religious marriage and I have no desire anymore to marry in one of their churches. So Sasa has found a Protestant priest who is more than willing to perform the marriage ceremony. We'll see how this develops…

Other than that, I have no news. My recurring attempts to meet a friend of a friend have not resulted in anything and my social life consists of my housemate and my phonecalls to the rest of the world. I have heard other expats say that this is their most boring place of assignment ever – I agree. I know that a lot of it depends on me, but to be honest, it's rather difficult without knowing the language. In addition, there are no movie theatres, no shopping centers, no bars and about 3-4 restaurants that I know of. So what do you do? I end up eating a lot during my free time, which is strange considering I have lost weight since arriving. Maybe it's the heat, I am sweating it all out. Who knows, but I am not complaining that while eating Pringle chips and much white bread, I am still losing weight. I am sure this won't continue, once my body adjusts to this diet of rice, noodles and much seafood (shrimp are eaten whole here, not peeled).

That brings me to the local food, which I love. In a way it's similar to Thai, although less curries. It's very, very spicy, especially Acehnese food. But I love it. We are served lunch at the office and it's always very good. Sometimes I don't know what I am eating but it tastes good. My new favourite is avocado juice – it looks absolutely disgusting because of the color but it's very, very good.

That's all for now. It's enough I think.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Becak

Becak

A becak is the local version of the taxi, comparable to a Tuktuk of Thailand. Basically it's a motorcycle with a type of side car where two people almost fit. I say almost because two small Indonesian women will fit, two European built individuals have to find a way to make it work.

Anyway, one of my housemates is currently back from mission and with him I went to explore the city a bit. With explore I mean we went to the expat shop to buy familiar goodies which don't resemble white rice in any way or form (the rice here is very good but it comes with every meal and after only two weeks I have already had my fair share). Since I haven't done my driving test yet and neither has he, our only means of transportation was a becak.

What an experience! First of all, none of the drivers speak any English so explaining to them where you are going is quite a challenge. Then comes the fact that neither my housemate nor I know any addresses or even the name of the mosque next to our house. So it was a lot of pointing and asking the driver to turn at the very last minute.

How can I describe the experience to make it come alive for you: First of all, imagine the two of us trying to fit in this little sidecar, one leaning all the way to the front and the other sitting as far as possible in the back. Off we go, from the side of the road immediately into the heavy flow of traffic. The honking starts, I can't determine where it is all coming from. Cars are whizzing past us on the right, motorcycles on both sides and we are passing bicycles on the left. Once in a while we have to swerve to the right or left to avoid a stopping vehicle. And turning right (remember, they drive on the left here) is a nightmare. The becak just keeps going, and to be honest, you have to do that otherwise we would still be at that intersection. I can't give you much more details because I closed my eyes. My favourite part was when our driver ran the red light and cars literally started coming towards us from both sides. We managed to slip just by.

Despite the rather harrowing driving conditions, riding in a becak is a must. First of all, you have no other option if you don't have a car and second of all, it really lets you see your surroundings and feel a part of it. Ok, so we didn't fit in and people were staring at us, but at least I got a close-up glimpse of Banda Aceh.