As the sun sets on Simeuleu, figuratively and literally for Kelly and me, I have a few thoughts about our on the island.
The devastating Tsunami hit this region in 2004.
It killed nearly 1/4 of a million people in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia, India and nine other countries in the Indian Ocean rim. In Sumatra alone, victims were 170,000.
Tiny Simeulue island somehow survived almost entirely. The island of 75k inhabitants was located 60 kilometers from the epicenter of the earthquake. The people had 15 minutes to react. Only 7 people died.
How did the people of Simeulue know how to survive a tsunami of this proportion and react so quickly?
In one word: SMONG. Smong (which means “tsunami” in a local dialect) has nothing to do with modern technology or advanced government programs to avoid risk. It is part of Simeulue indigenous culture handed down over centuries, a knowledge handed down through songs, short poems, and stories where smong is associated with a plain message: when the sea is acting weird, when nature launches warning signals, you need to escape uphill. Do not ask questions, do not look back.
It is 2018, and there is a new Tsunami facing Simeulue, one that I am not sure even "Smong" can stop: The feverish land grab and investment going on by foreign governments and individuals. This is a surfing paradise, where waves are amazing and competition for them is almost nil. Passionate surfers come here from all over the world to experience the untarnished "breaks." They get million dollar sunsets as an added draw.
But this is about to change. An island that feels like it has missed the technological boom of the 21st century is about to be overrun by it. The Saudi Arabian government is buying up tracks of land. Investors from neighboring Malaysia and the U.S. are building resorts. An island that still operates under Sharia law is about to see an influx of female tourists that may not be so keen on covering themselves up at the beach and in public.
Who will win? If history is any indicator, it won't be the indigenous people of Simeulue. They will advance their lives and will reap some of the benefits of a booming tourism business, but the question is always: At what cost?
Maybe their tradition of passing down folklore and stories will protect them from this different kind of Smong. I hope so.