I have never been to Aceh. We came mainly to learn about the December 26, 2004 tsunami and how it is memorialized (dark tourism). It was a sobering visit. It was also an eye opening visit to be in a province that I have long known to be the beginning point of Islam in Indonesia (thus called the Veranda of Mecca) and the one province that has special autonomy and therefore has adopted Islamic based law. I was surprised to discover that while yes indeed Islam is a major player in daily life, the Acehnese are still very much like other Indonesians in terms of their culture, friendliness and acceptance.
We had a morning flight from Jakarta to Banda Aceh. Joining us for this portion of the trip was my former student and mentoree Dallin Hutchinson who now lives in Australia. He was an urban planning major at BYU when the tsunami hit. His mission president set up an NGO with several other LDS men with the intent to help rebuild homes in Aceh. Dallin was recruited to help out. When the opportunity came to go to Aceh, Dallin approached me to see about doing some sort of internship for credit. BYU had already imposed travel restrictions to Indonesia after the Bali and Jakarta bombings so Dallin was told he could not use any BYU funding or backing for his proposed field study (now more likely to be called service learning). He went ahead and went without any funding from BYU and I set up credit for him that was labeled as a readings course about urban design and planning related to rebuilding after a natural disaster. Where that research took place was of no concern to me. ;) When Dallin heard I was coming he reached out to see if he could meet our group in Aceh. I was happy to have someone who had been there join in and I thought it would be good for students to see a fellow BYU geographer who put his geography skills to work in Aceh soon after the tsunami. At Dallin's recommendation we spent our first afternoon visiting two beaches (Lho Nga and Lampuk to its north) on the northwest coast of Sumatra that were hit first and hardest by the tsunami. From these hard hit areas the water was funneled between mountains eastward to Band Aceh to meet the waves inundating that large city from the north.
Greg Baker, File/AP Photo January 2005.
This iconic photo shows the Lampuuk area two weeks after the tsunami. Notice the mountain on the north end of the beach--the same as in my photos. The land was wiped clean of homes and vegetation. All that remained was this miracle mosque (which Acehnesse see as being divinely protected). Its open first floor allowed the waves to rush through.
Our final stop at the end of the day was the Grand Mosque. The above photo shows the debris deposited at its door.