Sumatra - Indonesia - Sumatra to Bali Part 1 - South East Asian Filler 3

Author: Sue Rogers
Date: 29th August 2011

Medan, Sumatra

Joined my group in Medan, Sumatra, flying in from Shanghai. The tour leader is an Indonesian called Eddy. He’s not very steady and certainly is never ready and he’s not really a leader either. There are four staff on the bus. Eddy, a driver, a backup driver, who holds the microphone cable for Eddy and a boy to keep the bus clean (though I haven’t seen him do anything yet). He stands up the whole way.

Who wants to be a millionaire?  Move to Indonesia - Eddy lent me some cash as the ATM wouldn’t work and I now owe him a million rupiah. We go to see a small and pretty boring mosque and a more interesting, but very small sultan’s palace, with one room that was open, in Medan.

Orang Utans

Then we set off in awful traffic to see the orang-utans. At this point one of the party announced that she had left her luggage in her hotel room as she thought we were staying in the same place again tonight.  So we had to go back and get it amidst ever increasing traffic. Well at last the bar is set pretty high for any acts of doziness that I might commit in future.

The orang-utans came and performed for us at Bukit Lawang, which was fulfilling. Then we found a bar on the riverside that served up a whole variety of different cocktails. That was also fulfilling.

This is more the Asia that I know. Endless little booths, contents spilling out onto dirty pavements that have open sewer manholes all down the middle; roads jam-packed with a fascinating melange of strange vehicles, people and animals. We’ve already been pestered by half of Sumatra wanting tips for helping us up steps when we didn’t need help ...

More familiar Asia. Still hot, but not absolutely roasting. Palm clad volcanoes, paddy fields and masses of exotic fruit, both growing and being sold from the stalls. Eddy has made us eat rambutans and mangosteens today. Both delicious, but lethal to clothing.

The journey takes forever, partly because the Sumatra traffic is so awful and partly because the road is so awful. Miles of palm oil plantations and the accompanying mills. One article in a conservation centre says that the production and burning of this bio-oil actually consumes three times as much carbon dioxide as diesel. This is because they clear the old established forest to plant the palm oil.

Berastagi

We stop for a swim in some hot springs. Then to Berasatgi or Brastagi, depending on which sign you believe. It’s a thousand meters up aBerastagi nd a little chilly for Indonesia. We scramble into Karo Batak houses with thatched trapezium shaped roofs veering awkwardly into the sky and then join a village celebration. As one does. Lots of swaying dancers, elaborate costumes and wonderfully contrived hats. A dressed-to-the-nines couple sitting on thrones and piles of presents. A while afterwards when we are discussing the nuptials one of the group suddenly says, “O was that a wedding?” We are obviously a bunch of intellectuals. We are spared the wedding feast. Two local delicacies are fried fruit bat and the partially digested grass from the stomach of a cow,

Back at our hotel I find that my expensive six week supply of shampoo has leaked all over my doomed sponge bag. I wash my hair with what I can scoop out. This wash is going to have to last a long time.

Dinner is a medley of Indonesian fare in a little local cafe. Most of the group opt out and go to the Chinese down the road, on the grounds that the food is too spicy.

Samosir

Through more of market garden Sumatra to Samosir, a volcanic island in the centre of gigantic crater Lake Toba. On the way we visit a Batak king’s house. This one has a long room for all the wives and their children and a small boxy room for him. He gets the guard to summon the lucky wife and the guard then takes up position in a horizontal cubicle underneath. If the sultan has taken some potion the guard might get to summon another wife later on.

There is always some entertainment being played out on the roadside. The Karo peoples who inhabit these areas are mostly Christian, so the children are in school on Friday. There are plenty of churches, but they play safe by incorporating various animalistic deities into the ornate church steeples.

A suckling pig banquet tonight. Not so long ago in these parts it could have been long pig.

A Boat Trip on Lake Toba

A boat trip round the pretty island and a swim in the lake. We are accompanied by four musicians who don’t let up for the whole day, except to try and plug their CD. I am up the back of the boat where I can’t hear too much of what sounds like cats’ wailing. More Batak houses, but this time complete with a meeting place to try offenders and a stone block to decapitate those who are judged to have  transgressed. After they were executed (the head was thrown into the sea), they were eaten. The last reported punishment of this type was in 1819. A ‘cultural show’ is laid on for us, with dancing round a buffalo - I try and behave myself in case they reintroduce the old laws.

Marilyn, a scatty, retired New Yorker has spent the whole trip losing things or wandering around looking bemused. She bought an Indonesian sunhat today (which she lost three times). Whenever you try and take a picture there she is in the background. It'll be like playing 'Where’s Wally?' when I get back.

Lunch is getting depressingly familiar. The anglicized Indonesian sateh is elusive. You can choose either fried noodles, or noodle soup or fried rice. I abstained from all three today. The inevitable stomach upset is threatening. And the excitement generated by the extensive drinks menu at our first stop has dwindled. Not a cocktail in sight, although avocado juice with chocolate is going down well with the group. They are less keen on Pocari Sweat, an electrolyte drink that seems popular amongst the locals. However, everything is incredibly cheap in Sumatra and the silly money is going a very long way. I’ve been here nearly a week and I’ve only spent about £70. (And that’s eating in ‘upmarket’ restaurants.) It makes my Shanghai banquet appear to be the height of extravagance.

Sumatra - The Road to Bukit Tinggi Part 1

Woken much too early by a huge row in the next room. Two women in the group don’t seem to be getting on terribly well. Some very unladylike words are exchanged. Then a long day on the road, with just brief stops. Well, they were intended to be brief, but we are competing with a Belgian tour bus that seems to get to every place just before us. The road is so bad (partly because of landslides and partly because of disrepair) that we even have to walk at times. It’s almost impossible to overtake and the journey is excruciatingly slow.

Fortunately, there is plenty to look at when I am not dozing. The mountains and paddy fields are becoming increasingly beautiful. It is Sunday today so the Christians are out walking out in their church finery. The Muslims are gathered in their hundreds in the rivers, washing in preparation for Ramadan tomorrow. The houses along the way vary in both decoration and opulence. There are numerous tin shacks, but even the majority of these have incongruous great satellite dishes. The buses are colourful and the vehicle of choice for families and taxis, appears to be a motor bike with some sort of sidecar attached. These also vary in decoration and opulence, but many are elaborately painted. The poorer families make do without a sidecar. We count mother, father and four children on one bike.

We are clearly moving into a more strongly Moslem area. I have been provided with a prayer mat in my hotel room.

Sumatra - The Road to Bukit Tinggi Part 2

Woken up at 5.30 a.m. by Eddy - an unasked for early morning call. A scheduled even longer journey day that is extended by another four hours because of a lorry accident. It’s quite good fun watching all the traffic trying to squeeze through the small gap left between the two injured lorries. One has a broken axle and the other is overturned, hanging half over a ravine. It seems easier just to push it over, but no, the police blow whistles to absolutely no end. The passengers and drivers mill around, many just squat on the road and the little coffee shops do a roaring trade. Eddy eventually commandeers a local bus to take us the rest of the way, with the luggage to follow in our own bus - when it can. This seems a good idea except that three of our party have misunderstood his instruction to walk up the hill and wait for the bus. They are eventually found three kilometres up the road and still walking.

The local bus is amusing. The owners instruct me to sit in the front with them and they giggle all the time as we hurtle along. The driver is texting with one hand and trying to put on a pornographic DVD for the delectation of the rest of the group in the back. I manage to persuade him that this is not appropriate.  We eventually receive the news that our bus has made it through the gap and we have to disembark and wait another 20 minutes for it to catch up, as Eddy won’t fork out any more for the extra bus than he has to. We arrive in Bukit Tinggi (wonderful name) at ten o’clock, shattered. It was too dark to see the Equator signs properly, as we crossed over, and the Islamic Heroes’ Museum was certainly closed. We did manage to get to the Islamic boarding school earlier, but that was also empty, because of Ramadan. Hundreds of teeny beach huts for the students’ accommodation-most of them pretty decrepit and empty inside, other than the insects and the remnants of their last lunch.

Despite all this time travelling we are still not even half way down Sumatra.

Bukit Tinggi

Yet another early awakening. This time it’s the muezzin at 4.30 signalling the Ramadan prayers. As they also woke me at 10.30 last night when I was trying to get an early night I am extremely sleep deprived now and grumpy. My room is next to the mosque and we are here for three nights.

I have also discovered why they have covers over the drains in the bathrooms. If you don’t put them back the cockroaches creep out during the night. The hotels all have western style toilets with flush cisterns. However, most of the other toilets are squat style with mandi tanks adjacent. You just dip in the plastic ladle and wash it all down after you. Even the western toilets in the towns of Sumatra have mandis, which makes for a pretty wet seat. The locals tend to squat, even on the western toilets. You can tell by the footprints.

Back on the bus for a tour of the Minangkabau homelands. The seats on the bus are incredibly small. The spacing makes Ryanair look generous. Fortunately, I quite often get one to myself. We stop in a little craft village and I spend more than I have laid out on food this week buying the lovely filigree work. We take a guided walk through the rainforest that seems more like a route march down a steep slippery track, and through rice farms, to a lake that we can’t see because it is too hazy. Another admirer in the fields tells me that he thinks I am nice. Because I look like an Indian in a Bollywood movie.

What have I seen today? There are lots of cats in Sumatra. Some of them are in reasonable condition but many have been born with short, fat tails. And the architecture has changed. The roofs are more ornate. Many are multi gabled, like Thai temples, with concave sides, and are very pretty. They are supposed to represent buffalo horns, symbolising fertility. So great attention is often paid to the roof of even the meanest shops and houses. Though many of the mosques have tin roofs.   I have even seen a minaret shop or two. Much is closed because of Ramadan and most of the locals are not eating, drinking, smoking or having sex between dawn and dusk.

Then an exploration of Bukit Tinggi itself. It sits on the edge of a pretty canyon, which we view from the Panorama Park. Then we venture into town itself. East meets west meets Spanish colonial. A square, complete with clock tower, horses and carts, KFC, giant tiger statues and a Muslim market. This area is shown on the map as ‘Up market’. Further south is ‘Down market’.

Mount Merapi

The highlight of the day is the eruption of Mount Merapi, one of two volcanoes which sit either side of the town. It poursout ash for several hours, darkening the sky and covering the streets and cars with a grey flaky layer. I’m getting quite blasé about volcanic eruptions after last year in Costa Rica and now this.

More touring in the bus. Eddy is hot on his schedule. Even more stunning rice terraces, the local king’s palace (still being rebuilt after it got struck by lightning) and a monkey on a chain that had been trained to climb up palms and throw down the ripe coconuts. He looked very unhappy and we feel very sorry for some of the animals here. We have seen birds in tiny cages, a beautiful owl with its wings clipped severely so it cannot fly at all and fruit bats, also in cages, as they are fried and eaten as a cure for asthma.

Now I'm flying - to Yogyakarta in Java

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