You could read a lot of things into the fact that my hat went missing in the island village of Melinggue, off Banda Aceh. Maybe it was retribution for the unfinished aid work promised to the remote settlement. Or maybe it was a sense that I could simply get another one, wherever Iâ€™d come from. But Iâ€™d have foregone any good explanation for the actual hat. Melinggue, stripped of its trees by the tsunami, was scorching hot. And my khaki ball cap, with a smiling kayaker on the front, had traveled almost every mile with me in Aceh and the rest of Asia.
Iâ€™d come to Melinggue because Iâ€™d heard that the village had yet to receive any aid from tsunami donors. I rallied two friends looking for a weekend adventure, Ente, a Dutch ecologist, and Zamzam, an Acehnese aid worker. We filled up on instant noodle packets and cigarette to ply various boat captains and village hosts, and left Bandaâ€™s harbor Saturday morning on a 13-meter cargo boat that was missing a few boards along the rails and belched black smoke out the back but held up fine in the swells. By 3 pm, after some steady negotiation by Zam throughout the trip, we bobbed just outside the surf zone at Rinon, a village about an hourâ€™s walk from Melinggue. The crew shot down a drop on village dock â€” too rough. But Zam, feeling ready to toss his noodles in the swells, convinced the aloof captain to deposit us on a rock on the sheltered, if farther, side of the bay. We exited at the top of one swell, grabbed our gear from the crew on the next crest and were on our way. In another hour or so weâ€™d reached Rinon, and ate cookies with a villagers who were filling in massive potholes in their lone dirt road with loose coral from the beach. They told us to follow the road to the saddle behind the village, and turn right.
And climb. The afternoon heat added all kinds of weight to our little packs. We kept seeing giant black squirrels the size of beavers in the trees. For an hour, we didnâ€™t see a human soul on the path, once a road but now grown over with grass. At the top of the hill, thoroughly drenched with sweat, we spied a bay. It was heading toward perfect. The twilight sun cast a mesmerizing shimmer over the water. On nearly all sides, save a narrow mouth, bright, coral sand beaches and steep forested ridges surrounded the water. We picked up our pace and dropped down through a coconut grove. On the other side of the grove, we could see clearly the red and blue synthetic roof tiles of aid houses: Melinggue, rebuilt after all.
Just short of the village, we fell into the bay for a nourishing swim. A thick guy in swim trunks plopped down on the beach to say hello. He worked with a Red Cross mental health program in the village. He said four or five aid groups had helped the village with everything from well cleaning to new water buffalo. But there was a dispute with the contractors of new houses, which is why 50 or so cement homes sat empty all over town with no doors or windows, some without roofs.
We found the local keuchik to ask him if we could spend the night down by the beach, and we located the local coffee shop, a newly built wooden shack that two kids unshuttered after sunset prayers. Eventually, they brought some fried fish, curried eggplant and rice made at someone’s house; in a place so isolated from trading routes, clearly a gracious offering to a couple of travelers. As we ate, the warung and its front yard filled up with people seeking a little TV: a teenage soap opera beamed by satellite from Java. Near us, a few toddlers squirmed happily while their mothers caught a few moments of the soap. The little ones, including one 5-year-old who couldnâ€™t turn off his laugh, tried to sit still while Ente took a picture. We were a novelty but not harangued as much as youâ€™d expect being this far from the city; the town had a good vibe that way. Even Zam felt it â€” â€œI like this place.â€ Farthest from the TV, he noticed five teenagers packed onto a bench also squinting at the TV. â€œThey look young, those are workers are think. Not from here.â€
Itâ€™s here in the warung, as we snapped up our bags to go, that my hat escaped me. I didnâ€™t realize it until the next morning, after a firm night in the community meeting house next to the beach. By 9:30, the sun started to beat down on us. The dinner spot was shuttered, so I walked next door, between two empty concrete shells of houses to a lean-to in the back where a woman was washing dishes. She hadnâ€™t seen any hat. Ente and Zam asked around on the main lane, where a bunch of older men gathered in the townâ€™s alternative coffee stand. No hat.
A man found us at the stand and took us back to his house for breakfast. As we ate square omelets, some rice and salty eggs, the mustachioed, sarong-clad village head, 50-year-old Dahlen, showed up. With Zam and Ente both translating, I asked him how the character of the village had changed since the tsunami, which killed about a sixth of the 600-person village and heâ€™d only escaped by running up the ridge behind us. A group called the Jesuit Refugee Services had put up up temporary homes and supplied food to the village, â€œright down to the smallest chili if we wanted it,â€ he said. Nine months ago that stopped and the more industrious citizens had gotten back to growing their own food and fishing. But the â€œlazierâ€ folks, as he put it, were having trouble finding food. Maimun, the Red Cross worker, also said he’d noticed some lack of intiative around town. Dahlen had also discovered that when he tried to gather villagers for community clean-ups and building projects â€” gotong royong â€” they now asked to be paid, because the NGOs paid for similar work.
The wife in this house made a sambal as we talked, grinding chilies, garlic, white pepper corns and coriander seed with a pestle against a flat mortar. I asked her if she was happy. But sheâ€™d been listening to the conversation about aid and wanted to throw her two cents in. â€œIf you want to give me tools, Iâ€™ll take them â€” itâ€™s nice!â€
I told Dahlen that coming over the hill yesterday into the bay, it looked like the most beautiful thing weâ€™d seen in a while. He lit a cigarette and nodded and looked at us like, What am I supposed to do with that? â€œI think heâ€™s a little embarrassed,â€ Ente said.
We mulled hiking over to a lighthouse built by the Dutch on the opposite side of this peninsula. (The lighthouse had survived the tsunami despite an enveloping wave that Melinggue residents said had almost swept over the 30-to-40 meter high neck of peninsula.) But we decided to stick around (and not expose my noggin to the sun) so we could tender offers for a trip to the main harbor to the south, and a connecting boat to Banda. The first offer came from a young guy with scraggly long hair who appeared in our new friendâ€™s kitchen: $50. Steep. He came down five. Zam said, â€œIâ€™m not sure I like this village anymore.â€ We went to the Dahlenâ€™s house. He could take us for about $40, adding that he was using more expensive gasoline instead of diesel in his new outboard engines.
â€œThey have us here. They know we need to get off the island today,â€ Ente said. By this point we were drawing close to the hour we needed to catch the boat to Banda. And so we decided to pay the village chief 400,000 Indonesian rupiah or close to half of a basic monthâ€™s wages in Banda Aceh to take us one hour on his fishing boat.
I would have stewed a little bit longer about being gouged if we hadnâ€™t spied, on the way down to the beach, a certain khaki hat with a little orange kayak on the front. It rested on the head of a skinny construction worker who was working in the searing sun to finish the roof of an aid house. Heâ€™d been sitting near us while we ate dinner the night before. He knew right away what we wanted because we were cackling, and he passed it down quickly. I took it and turned to go in one motion, to keep from asking why heâ€™d chosen not to return it. Also, to fight off the urge to leave it with him.
The boat trip around to the main harbor was a scenic feast â€” secluded beaches around every corner, headlands covered with windswept shrubs that looked like Scotland, islets with strange dwarf trees. â€œSpecies found nowhere else!â€ Ente dreamed. Meanwhile, the spray at the back of the boat soaked Dahlen right through his cotton jacket and pants. He shook it off, grinning. Our end of the bargain didnâ€™t look so bad.