A few weeks back, I received a text message at 12:30 a.m. from Dedi, a warung (casual outdoor restaurant) owner from a small village on the western coast of Aceh.
“Good evening, Gordy. I have a big problem and I don’t know what to do.”
“What’s the problem, Dedi?” I responded.
“My wife caught me smoking ganja again and she’s really mad. Please, can you tell me what the solution is?”
“Can you just tell her you won’t do it again?”
“No, it’s too late. She’s already left with the baby. I don’t know what to do.”
I met Dedi months ago on a dark night when two friends and I were heading down Aceh’s west coast road and torrential rain forced us to pull over at his father’s warung. Only 28 years old, his face is well worn, with deep occular wrinkles and decay spotting his crooked teeth. He stays up all night keeping the warung open for truckers, and sleeps only four hours each afternoon. Still, he is indefatigable in his work and good cheer – sustained either by sheer spirit or steady intake of unfiltered clove cigarettes and black coffee.
After a few hours of talking not so much with me as at me, he offered us free lodging and took us to a new, unopened warung down the road – his warung. He laid out a rug on the store room floor, and then talked and smoked until we told him we had to go to sleep. In the morning he woke us up with a breakfast of fried noodles with freshly caught crab and coffee.
In his early twenties Dedi was an illegal logger. It was hard and dangerous work, and it stopped being worth the risk when the local police began demanding a larger share of the profits. So he found a wife, moved back to his village, and began working for his father so he could save up enough money to open his own place.
Like most Acehnese, Dedi is very religious. He’s convinced that the judgment day (al-Qiyamah) is coming. Minor signs are becoming increasingly visible: more people are moving to the cities to become hawkers, men and women are starting to kiss in public, and a disproportionately high number of females are being born.
He began to see it after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami pummeled Aceh’s northwest coast. Of 24 villages in the district, 20 were wiped entirely off the map, Dedi’s included. He survived only because he was visiting a friend in one of the four villages above the high water mark.
It was not the devastation itself that worried Dedi, however, but rather the mental illness and manic greed that seized his community in its aftermath. He watched people hold up friends and tear off their fingernails scouring rubble for their neighbors’ possessions.
He said use of sabu-sabu (locally made methamphetamine) has increased exponentially since the tsunami. According to him there are now more people smoking it than ganja, the traditional drug of choice in Aceh. One of Dedi’s friends earned enough money to own two cars, but then he sold them both to buy sabu-sabu.
As we ate breakfast on the porch, Dedi talked cheerfully and puffed on a joint disguised as a cigarette. The clear morning had revealed the majesty of our surroundings. Angled sunlight suspended the spray curling off the crashing waves in a vague cloud above the sea and beach. Behind us towered a wall of jagged limestone draped in lush vegetation.
Later we were joined by his wife, cradling their nine-month old daughter – healthy, with plump cheeks and a wisp of curly chestnut hair. Dedi’s wife was born in Lhouksemawe, a town on the east coast of Sumatra where they met during his logging days. Strong-willed and devoted to her family, she had refused his entreaties to marry him and move out west. Finally, after lots of talk, he won her over.
We discussed Islam and somehow our conversation veered to ganja. Dedi’s wife insisted smoking weed was haram (forbidden), but he maintained it was only makruh (strongly discouraged). It was clear they’d had the conversation before. As we drove away in the morning sunlight, they smiled and waved farewell from the porch.
Three weeks later, Dedi wrote me the aforementioned 12:30 a.m. text message saying his wife had left. I didn’t hear from him again until a few days after the Mayan calendar expired. The Al-Qiyamah still loomed, but for now his own personal judgment day had been postponed: after promising his wife he was done with ganja, she had returned with their daughter. Now, he informed me, he simply climbs the cliff when he wants to smoke.
About the author: Gordon LaForge is a second-year Fulbright English Teaching Assistant based in Banda Aceh. He served his first Fulbright year in Bontang, East Kalimantan. Before coming to Indonesia, LaForge lived in Prague where he taught kindergarten and wrote for The Prague Post. LaForge graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder with a bachelor’s degree in English literature.