BANDA ACEH, INDONESIA — At one table, four boys are sitting silently, munching on spicy burgers, and staring at the rush-hour traffic out on Daud Beureuen Street, Banda Aceh's main drag. Just next to them, four girls in headscarves are sipping sodas, studiously ignoring the boys, except when they cast occasional glances - and giggle.
Ask these young people why they come here and a few will mention the food, the friends, and the cool breezes. But a few say, candidly, they come here for pacaran (pronounced pah cha rahn), the Indonesian word for flirtation.
For those looking for signs that Banda Aceh is slowly returning to normal, look no further than the revival of pacaran, something of an unofficial sport here in Indonesia's most Islamic state. From 4 p.m. until sundown, the entire city comes alive as youths ride slowly on motor scooters, going no place in particular.
"This is the place where young people, especially high school kids, come to meet, find friends, and flirt with each other," says Rara, a young store clerk who comes to Daud Beureuen Street often.
Flirtation in the age of the tsunami seems to have taken on a kind of urgency, a willful attempt to set aside, for a while at least, memories of the devastating earthquake and wave that killed more than a quarter of the population of this city. Just a few months after streets were cleared of bodies, mud, and debris, the first burger kiosks started popping up, becoming once again the center of entertainment for a town where the only cinema has been ruined. And the thing that keeps it all together is the fact that most young people, whatever their urges, know how to behave like proper Muslims.
Pacaran, of course, is older than the hills in Banda Aceh and has lost none of its fervor despite the region's embrace of Islam 700 years ago. Yet technology and prosperity has given young Acehnese more freedom than their parents enjoyed, including the ability to call or text message members of the opposite sex at any hour, and the mobility to meet each other on scooters at a burger joint, or even in traffic.
At one large table outside a burger joint named Gondrong, or Longhair, after the pony-tailed owner Malki, a group of bank clerks takes a break, as the afternoon sun sinks.
"In bigger cities like Medan, they have big malls and lots of choices, but here we just have burgers and coffee shops," says one clerk named Iskander. "So we do what we can to try to relax."
"And get girls' phone numbers," says his friend Doni.
"That's the main reason, actually," admits Iskander, and all the bank clerks - men and women - laugh.
Daud Beureuen Street - a broad boulevard with dozens of burger joints with plastic chairs and tables - is just one place where pacaran happens. Over toward the main market at Peunayong, within the so-called death zone of the tsunami, there is a town square called the Rex, where a few dozen kiosks sell spicy beef satey, omelettes, and plenty of strong coffee.
There is even a morning pacaran session on the bridge close to Iskandermuda University, where young college students and teens in jogging suits gather under the pretext of exercise. But the slow pace of exercise indicates that these young people are more interested in coquetry than spoiling a perfectly good sweat-suit with sweat.
Young Acehnese say that even if they wanted to misbehave, there aren't any places to do so.
"Maybe kids think about it, having a more physical relationship, but they won't come to public places like this," says Rara, the young store clerk, wearing a headscarf.
"Maybe before the tsunami there were places like that, private places, but not after," says her friend Waddah, also indicating that she has no intention of finding such a place herself.
Outside Gondrong Café, a massive speaker blasts American rock and hiphop. Out on the street, a scooter carrying two young men putt-putts slowly beside a scooter carrying two young women in jeans who have, perhaps temporarily, neglected to don their headscarves.
"My parents say it's okay for me to come here, as long as I can take care of myself, and as long as I know the difference between right and wrong," says a vivacious ninth-grader named Diah, sitting with three friends near the Gondrong burger kiosk.
"It's fun," says her friend Sali. "Some of the boys are here looking for pretty girls, some of the girls are looking for handsome boys."
Diah looks at her watch and becomes somewhat alarmed. "I'm sorry," she says, rising from her seat, "it's rude of me, but it's getting dark and my parents are expecting me."