Indonesia (part two)

Bukit Lawang, for the negatives, is a surprising place. Tucked away not only from the mainstream of the rest of the nation but largely from the corruption that plagues it, it remains 100% locally owned and operated, not a single store is owned by absentee landlords in Jakarta, not a single guesthouse either. I heard that the community helps itself out and keeps things this way, effectively keeping the army and gangster types out of the picture. This is one of the reasons such little help came their way after the flood, and the sole reason the road to Medan is one of the worst in the country, despite it running to one of the more popular destinations. What could be a smooth 45-minute ride becomes nearly three hours at the wacky races. This is Indonesia, indeed.

The sense of community, the pride in what they have, the love of the jungle and the knowledge that keeping it safe and pristine is what brings people and long-term development – it’s all there and the locals are more than happy to espouse what their community is all about. The other side of the coin is that they have been through a lot. The flood, combined with the overall downturn in tourism, hits a place like this hard. The local economy is almost entirely dependent on tourism. Such a tight knit place hold together through anything and the last thing they want is to have someone go under and let the goons get a foothold, so their deal is all-reaching. That is to say, they’re all in on it, you aren’t getting paranoid.

When you get there, it’s an immensely friendly place and the road suspicions come rushing in – what’s in it for them? Am I being taken for an elaborate ride? Or have I found a corner of the country where they are genuine and real? Or maybe they have the best marketing guru ever, and it’s all part of the experience they’re selling? Give the tourists a good time and they’ll stay and spend up, just keep feeding them that jungle boy image and sharing the beers. In the end, it’s probably part of both. The friendly part is indeed genuine, sure, but they aren’t just turning it on because they’re nice. They need that fat wad of Rupiah to shed as many notes as possible while you are there, and it just so happens they’re pretty good at making it happen by being genuine. Or something.

The underhandedness is there too – the principal activity is to go trekking in the jungle, an activity for which a guide is mandatory, and the price is set by the national park rangers, and people in Jakarta tell them what to do. The price is supposedly set in dollars, but upon getting there everything is in Euros. The exchange rate yields a few thousand Rupiah more per dollar, and multiplied over 45 or 55, makes a real difference. Especially if you want to pay in Rupiah and they set the rate, and sneak in a few extra points on their side. This turns 55 dollars into somewhere in the region of 800,000 Rupiah and more than a few hurting budgets. Then you call them on their calculations and they relent, all while not even looking ashamed. The truth is, the majority of that money goes right to Jakarta where they couldn’t give a crap about some jungle they can’t cut down without getting caught, and the rest goes to not only your guide but to the entire network of guys who haul equipment for cooking, camping and rafting. It’s still a pretty generous rate for them, but it equates to the difference between this all ending and it hanging on a bit longer. I think. It’s quite a confusing place, and I’m glad I did my trek and got out the next morning.

I did a one night jaunt into the green inferno, camping out beside a stream, with a guide named Darwin and an American couple. It was hot, sweaty work, but we went at a slow pace and even saw some stuff. It was truly incredible, and especially given the number of people who go in and out every year, and a credit to the guides. They told me they pretty much grew up wandering in and out of the place, learning about the ins and outs, the plants and animals, how to treat it right. They learned it from their parents and grandparents, who made a living off the jungle by knowing the rare roots and plants and selling them to Chinese herbalists. That’s how they got to know the place so well, and now can make a living showing people like me around.

The path was not even enough to be called a path, and without Darwin it would have been thoroughly impossible to get anywhere at all. We would have been truly lost and in way big trouble. It all looked the same and somehow Darwin picked his way through it all. Over tree roots as big as fallen trees, around vines you could build a suspension bridge with. Trees big enough to practically live in. Trails of ants and termites that were more like rivers, so many of them were passing by, in a stream ten wide. Single giant ants as big as centipedes, and centipedes as big as people’s hands. Everything was familiar but on a scale almost unbelievable, like we had been seeing nature in miniature our whole lives. Every corner turned up giant life like I’d never seen before, and jungle views that outstripped anything I’d seen before. This was truly wild and primeval, nature at its most immense.

After about six hours walking, we got to the camp site and it was perched on the edge of a stream. The joy of getting our sweat soaked clothes off and into the river was unparalleled, all the while marvelling at how Darwin stayed totally dry. Jungle boys, indeed. Down the stream a way was a waterfall and a pool below just waiting for us to jump in. All around there wasn’t a single sign of humanity about, nothing but us people. Not in the sky, not lying around, nothing. We were out in nature, an experience you never reflect on because in this modern life, we seldom get even close to it. Later, the guides cooked a truly memorable five-star meal, out in all that. It was our group and one other guy, a German guy doing an eight-day trek, truly full on. He would see it all, no doubt, and have an experience to remember. He was cool, and we sat around playing cards all night until we went to sleep.

Sleep out there was the only negative part. A thin camping mat that did nothing to shelter my soft body from feeling every single rock beneath, a rough experience on my stomach that, combined with the anti-malarials I had started taking, gave me cramps all night. Not a wink did I sleep that night, all I could do was lie awake in pain and listen to the jungle and the river. It was almost deafening, all that noise.

The next day we packed up and walked out, another four hours, and rafted down the river in a raft made of inner-tubes lashed together. I don’t need to tell you it was some killer fun.

Getting back I ran into all the local guys I’d met the days before, and their deal changed from getting me into a trek (not that they had to try hard) but to get me to leave not in the local bus but with one of them driving a Kijiang I would pay for. Pay another 900,000 Rupiah for. The memorable line was, “it’s less than 100 Euros, that’s fine, right?” It was then I realised they were hybrid creatures, part really cool guys and part parasite, trying to attach themselves to my wallet. I can’t blame them fully for their situation, it’s like this everywhere in South East Asia, they are just better at it in those parts. I took that as my cue to get the heck out – not that I had any reason to stay anyway. So it was a mixed experience, and while I couldn’t get around saying to people to avoid the place, because it really is wonderful, it comes with a real caveat. You’ve been warned.

I hit the bus station really early and got right on a Kijiang headed to Medan. I was slightly peeved that someone had claimed my favoured seat of shotgun (the only solution to having longer legs in a ride built, seemingly, for midgets) and had to squeeze into the back. The seat right on the left hand side is best in this case, because the seat in front doesn’t go all the way to the edge and it gave me a little room to stretch. The other passengers were accommodating in this, they just climbed over me to get in and out. The Kijiang in this case only really gets going when full, so we hauled on outta there packed, with the conductor sitting on the roof. Got to love that. Shotgun was occupied by a big lady who probably needed it more than me, and upon arrival in Medan she told me she was going the same way and assisted me in getting across town to the other bus station (one city, two stations) and she told me she did it quite often, the Bukit Lawang to Parapat run, because she ran guest houses in both places, and she was taking me under her wing. And big wings at that, she was a large lady! I was kinda worried it would translate into me having to stay at her place at the other end, when I really wanted my freedom to choose, but her place was going to be full and the pressure was off. The bus we got onto she took all the time, so I figured it was a good option. And true to form, she paid for two seats as to have room to sit in comfort, leaving me with a bit more wriggle room.

She told me the truth about what happened in the flood, and the donations, and the compensation after the flood. Her husband, Tony, died that day, and now she was left with two operations and three kids under twelve to raise. I was really touched by her story, another side of all that. She all but held my hand off the bus and onto the ferry in Parapat, for the next destination was over the other side of the lake.

The lake, what a place. What a place. I’d still be there, likely, if I could. I don’t spend too long in places all that often, neither am I likely to de-camp like that. But Lake Toba is different. Right in the middle of Sumatra, it’s a lake with an island in the middle, an island bigger than Bali even, created by what must have been the absolute mother of volcanic explosions. The blast that made Toba must have been truly unbelievable, making events like Krakatau look like a nasty fart, and the tsunami look like a ripple. Unimaginable, especially as you sit by the lake looking over at the cliffs that form the other side, covered in green, with nothing to disturb you except, well, nothing. Quiet, still, peaceful, interruptions only happen when you want them. And it’s a beautiful setting, away from the traffic noise, the cars and the honking, the shouting, nothing. The air is clean, and all is calm. It was perfect.

On the ferry I met Antony, from Argentina. He’s a backpacker soul from way back, he’s been everywhere, really everywhere, and he’d just been to Sri Lanka and was doing Indonesia in two parts. Laid back, funny, keen sense of humour. We camped at the guest house and agreed it was world class, everything, and the prices puts the value of it all at ‘excruciatingly good’. For 25,000 Rupiah I got my little slice of calm and quiet with a view to kill for. The restaurant had a menu as long as my legs and while the costs were slightly inflated, it was still cheap. And so good too! What quality fare. Even the basics of fried rice and fried noodles were exemplary. Everything else was magnificent and the array of milkshakes and fruit juices was staggering. Combined with a lack of anything else to do, we would get up and eat breakfast and then ask each other, oh, what will we do now? Is it lunchtime yet?

It’s that kind of place. So in lieu of anything else to really do, here’s some history and stuff. This part of Sumatra is inhabited by the Batak people, whose reputation extends far beyond their modest ambitions in life. First coming to light to western eyes when Portuguese missionaries discovered a cannibalistic tribe who tried to kill them, sparking a fever back home to convert the natives in the heart of darkness, like the good old days when Africa was calling them. The Portuguese did indeed convert them to Christianity, so in the middle of Sumatra today you’ll find a Protestant community. This has the added benefit of no mosques to wake you up at all hours of the morning. Churches abound amongst the traditional architecture and the other Batak traditions held on, mostly because of the isolation, leaving cannibalism to the dustbin of history. The geography is especially fascinating, the island of Samosir floating in the middle of the crater lake that is Toba, joined onto the mainland by a narrow strip of land on the west side and with a small peanut of land, called Tuk Tuk, jutting out of the east side, narrowly avoiding becoming an island of its own. The trans-Sumatra highway runs down the east side, so the town of Parapat is a lot closer to Tuk Tuk than the main town, on the west side, Panguguran. Tuk Tuk is ringed by a single road and has all the views, and so also the guesthouses and restaurants. It’s a highlight of the Sumatra trail and is still isolated enough to keep things low-key. Especially when I was there, the very end of the rainy season, which is the low season. Apart from Antony and myself, there would have only been a few more people there. This left us plenty of attention from the staff, which was not so cool when they were trying to sell us less-than-legal stuff or, in one case, scary looking – but more than welcome when they were the cute, friendly and downright flirtatious waitresses. Waitresses who have plenty of time to hang around and chat and make jokes with us, because there’s only four people to serve.

And I can’t tell you enough about how amazing this place is, because it’s just that good. Trust me.

We arrived on Sunday and left on Friday. Friday was the beginning of the Chinese New Year weekend and the whole place was booked out. Had been for months. Every place on the island was booked out and had been for months. We had no choice but to leave. Antony and I agreed we were two days short of having spent just the right amount of time there, but we could do nothing against the Chinese onslaught. At least the locals knew to fleece them – all the room prices magically gain an extra zero for the weekend. Friday morning we were already disenchanted – gone were the only sounds we heard, the occasional footstep, and replacing it were voices. Loud voices. Fireworks. Annoying people. Paradise was lost. The Chinese came, and took it all away.

But before all that, all that, the people who filtered on in were good types. A pair of Canadian boys, one of whom you would swear was Stifler, of American Pie fame. The other was the straight guy to his full-on approach to life, and they were great to hang with. I swear, Stifler even sounded like Stifler. His real name was Casey, but fuck that, I’ll call him Stifler. I know he doesn’t like it, but screw him, this is my site. His friend was Andrew and he was known as Pud, cause he’s a little pudgy. They’d drank their way around South East Asia and had come out to Toba for one reason or another, and while it wasn’t the rolling party of further north, they were having a good time. They’d hooked up a gig teaching English for a week at schools around Bukittingi and had some really out-there tales. Also joining us for the last few days were some boys who were studying in Singapore, who had a week or so to have break and had come out to Sumatra after Bintan got rained out. They were good fun too, and so the picture was complete.

One bad thing happened, and for the purposes of completeness, it shall be entered in here. I’m not happy about it, but one day I might look back and laugh. Laugh and laugh, because damn, there’s nothing else for it, really.

We rented bikes, Antony, me, and an American girl. Around the top of the island, no problems. Saw lots of cool things, it was beautiful. Up the middle of the island, over the mountain, no problems. Past there, the road got bad. Asking directions, everyone said we could get through to Tuk Tuk that way – but we could not. It ended up we ran out of petrol, in the middle of nowhere. We got a stunning view of Tuk Tuk, but get there we could not. We hitched back to Tuk Tuk and faced the music. And angry rental place and having to pay a lot of cash to get people to retrieve the bikes – the only black spot, but it’s a big one. What a fuck up. It was bad, but a testament to the power of the place that it was only a temporary setback.

So the days there were easy, and Antony agreed it was almost too easy. But it was also an opportunity to reflect on just how hard getting around Indonesia was, from the absolutely pitiful roads and beat-up transport, to the constant attention from curious locals, to the paranoia growths from having to watch every note leaving your pockets, each with the little question attached: is this too much? There’s few places in Asia, nay, the world, that quite reach the lows that you can see in Indonesia, but the highs are equally worthwhile, if further between. The people were almost unfailingly friendly, even in the most urban of places, even when they were shooting for your wallet, even when they couldn’t actually give a crap about you, there was never any signs of malice or direct confrontation. Maybe they don’t know just how bad their lot is? To be true, very few of the people I spoke to had ever travelled very far, let alone to a foreign land. Veronika might be alone in that respect, and she seemed to view the world the same as the rest of them. A sense of patriotism, that yes, Indonesia is not the nicest place to look at, but it’s our Indonesia and we are still happy with our lives. To which I can only say, right on! And it’s this that endears me to them, despite the pain involved in getting around, despite it all, the people make a country and there’s a lot of dour Englishmen, angry Scotsmen, jaded Aussies, pissed-off Americans, depressed Kiwis, sour Frenchmen, unimpressed Dutchmen and so on and so forth who could take a lesson or two, who could look around at how nice their homeland are and think, yeah, it’s not so bad – if only we could be as nice to each other as these natives seem to be to each other. How about that.

But I digress; a fun side note on the days in Toba is that the waitresses were genuinely friendly people, and their names weren’t “business names” as we had thought they might be, but their actual names – the Protestants had left a legacy of more than just religion, but a penchant for European names. While in town I met Dylan, Desy (‘Daisy’), Fike (‘Vicky’), Emma and Marta (‘Martha’), to name a handful. We jibed them at the start to tell us their real names, not believing them, but only right at the end did we find out that indeed they were not taking the piss. It was of these that the waitress Daisy took a liking to me, and me to her, assisted by the fact that neither of us really had anything much to do and she could speak pretty damn fine English. We’d take ten whole minutes to order, going over the menu and asking dumb questions, just to make her laugh. Coming so soon after the days and nights hanging out with Tutie in Meulaboh, I wondered just how much of what I felt was genuine, but these things happen on the road, and they happen all the more in Asia. On the road in Asia, well, I wasn’t to look to hard at it all. I did have plenty of time to sit around and ponder at just how different the two girls were, with their different dialects and religions, dress sense, outlook and life prospects, and yet how convergent they were to my eyes. In the crudest terms, I also reflected when I was alone in bed that I would have to marry both of them before so much as getting close to their panties. A realisation I didn’t linger too much on, but there you have it.

Antony and I jumped on down to the little dock at two thirty and waved down the ferry back to Parapat, where we were collected by the bus company guy and deposited at the bus station for an hour or so to wait for the bus coming from Medan to swing by and gather us up. We had a stimulating conversation on the topic of surfing and Indonesian snack foods and then the bus appeared and took us into its bosom, where we would be ensconced for the duration of the rest of the day, the entire evening and into the following morning, whereupon Bukittingi would be waiting. Getting off the ferry into Parapat was like leaving paradise and arriving back in the utter mediocrity of the world as Indonesia had made it. Oh, this place. Yeah, I said to Antony, I remember this place. Fuck, what are we doing back here again? We could only daydream about quiet evenings by the lakeside and afternoons kidding around with Daisy as we sat in the dusty concrete hellhole of a bus station, and these memories twisted into instruments of torture as we fought the road twisting and turning all the night. I had the seat right at the front, sitting next to a lady with a baby on her knee. It kept kicking me, which wouldn’t have been an issue except it was wearing leather shoes and kept hitting the same spot. Antony had the seat that had been welded next to the driver, his testicles perilously close to the gearstick. It was a rude awakening after the blessed days by the lake.

Bukittingi bus station was even worse than Parapat. A swirling mess of busses constantly swinging through, full of people trying to get us on their vehicles, the rest shouting above the noise. Before the bus had even finished getting into the station there were guys on board asking where we were going, thinking we might have endured the overnight ride just to get a connection to Jakarta. That’s another 40 hours away on roads that outdo even the ones we had just come from. Antony, he’s so calm and relaxed, even in the face of such absurdity, he stopped me from cracking and taking a swing. The guy was just optimistic. We stumbled around the station for a while and then got a minibus to the other side of town and found, at length, somewhere to sleep. Which we did for the rest of the morning and into the afternoon, when the mosque woke us up, rude as ever.

That fucking mosque. It’s hardly going to enamour anyone to their religion when they insist on making the call to prayer five times a day at mind-shearing volume, surely there’s something in the Quran about not doing that. That the room’s balcony was right in the firing line for not one but two mosques did not help. I swear, one loud speaker was aimed right at the window. The thing about Bukittingi is that there’s not a great deal to see, but the surrounding villages and such had plenty to keep a healthy mind occupied. There was a healthy backpacker oriented scene – minus, of course, the numbers of backpackers that they used to get in those parts, meaning plenty of traveller-aimed cafes all advertising tours ranging from day trips to the countryside to ten day expeditions to the Mentawai Islands to visit the natives, or alternatively, to go surfing. Wandering into one of these places doubles as a silent invitation to become a captive audience to the sales pitch, which becomes all the stronger the longer you show disinterest. This is unfortunate, because they are otherwise fine institutions going through a hard time because of shit they didn’t do, but it gets rapidly annoying. This one place, the guy gave us the spiel almost every chance he could, and then actually asked us if he had been annoying us, like he didn’t quite get it. Still, we weren’t interested in any of that, so we weren’t shopping around for a guide, so we could just let it pass without too much consternation. That afternoon, after wandering around the local market, we were sitting in one such café and Antony noticed someone walking past – it was his friends Sebastien, who he’d met in Lombok. He was French and almost as well travelled as Antony, and as such was over the whole ‘cheap as possible’ angle, and splashed a good amount of extra funds on things like flights and nice hotels. He still retained the hatred of being nickel and dimed at every turn, to the point of being even tighter in some ways than me, grumbling over a few thousand Rupiah for a ticket to somewhere, or the ubiquitous ‘parking attendants’ who expect payment for looking at vehicles. I am with him on a lot of these things, especially when someone tries to take money off you when there’s not even an attempt at a sign pointing out there was a cost, but he took it to a new level. Then would go out and not think twice about spending 100,000 Rupiah on a room when 30,000 would be more than adequate. Each to his own, and truth be told, we got on just fine at the beginning, then started to grate on each other, then finally made some kind of peace and left with mutual respect.

The next day we rented motorbikes, after quite a lot of hassle, and set off on an ambitious day trip around the area. I say ambitious because we didn’t quite get through half of what we aimed to, partly because we set out so late, and partly because it was slower going than we figured, so no lowering of flags here. First stop was the Harau Valley, a slice of greenery cut between two massive cliffs, waterfalls cascading down the sides into rice paddies all the way along each side. It was well worth the distance to get there, a distance made easy by the fact I had an automatic bike this time and it was like riding a dodgem car. Sit down, feet on the sides and go – no effort, no troubles, nothing. No even as hard as riding a bike, it was almost dangerously easy, I felt like I could lose control via getting too comfortable and complacent on the road. In the end such premonitions were proved true, but the undoing of me was not a lack of concentration but a pothole the shape and size of a bathtub. I didn’t see it in time coming under the car in front, and seeing just how deep it was I swerved around it too late, spilling the bike and narrowly missing getting taken out by the oplet next to me and Sebastien following me. I scraped my knee and landed half on my shoulder, half headfirst – thank Christ for the helmet I had on, or I would not be here writing this now.

It all happened next to a little shop, where a cop happened to be at the time. He stepped out and pulled me up and sat me down, while someone tended to the bike. The cop bought me water and bandages, helped patch me up and made sure I was ok. Apart from the injuries described, I was just fine, and ready to head off again as soon as we could get away. But the crowd that had gathered all wanted to check me out and make sure it was all ok, so it took a few minutes. It might have been plenty worse, but we sorted it out and kept rolling.

The valley was indeed a beautiful place, the waterfalls were numerous and the locals friendly. The fields were green and we stopped to go wander about and take photos. Between the paddies trailed paths that meandered rather than corralled the green, and in the distance were the far cliffs and the occasional farmer tending to the crops. It was quiet and still, but for the breeze and the insects.

The next stop was a village that would have had a building supposed to be a local tribe’s king’s place, the exact details I’m sketchy on. We got there after it closed, mainly because we took a long time getting lunch, so while we could hang out in front of this thing we couldn’t find out anything much about it. It was a building in the Minangkabau style, which looked suspiciously like the Batak style. The Minangkabau earn a mention here, because even if the name doesn’t ring any bells, you know about these people. Originally from West Sumatra, with Padang being the centre of their heartlands, the Minangkabau had already spread through most of what is now Indonesia and Malaysia by the time Europeans arrived to make something of them. Taking with them their language and cooking, their culture and their lifestyle, they had spread so far and stayed the same to the point that their influence is found all through the area, while they remained as ever. Padang food, their cuisine, forms the basis of what most people think of as Indonesian food, and their biggest claim to fame is their language went on to be known though so much of the archipelago that when the time for independence came and Bahasa Indonesia was standardised, the Minangkabau dialect formed the basis for the new official language. It also makes up the base for Bahasa Melayu in Malaysia, adding yet another notch to their belts.

So the king’s house was closed and the sun was on its way down. We were so close to the equator that drawn out sunsets were purely the realm of cinema and fanciful artwork – the sun just falls below t he horizon and like a light being turned off, it gets dark. Driving in the dark is not so bad, but when the constant vigilance needed to keep the bike out of potholes, it becomes a lot less fun. We got most of the way before the dark came, and the rain came too that night, turning what had been a fun day out into a case of, get me home right now or else. Food tasted good that night.

Our days in Bukittingi at their end, we had another place in our sights, just down the road, at another lake. Maninjau, this time, a smaller crater lake than at Toba, but still just as impressive. It sounded just the right place to make up for lost days resting and lounging at Toba, and we couldn’t get out of Bukittingi fast enough, couldn’t get away from the incessant calls from the mosque fast enough. The road to Maninjau took the bus down a road that switch backed down the hill into the crater no less than forty-four times – each turn is marked and numbered, just to keep track. Accommodation is pretty basic, but more than enough, and would have been easily sorted out if Sebastien hadn’t been adamant about going around and checking each place out. I’ve never spent so long searching for a room in my life. We eventually settled at the original place we looked at and were then in the more than capable hands of a bald guy named Bingo. His hospitality was right up there and his beds were clean; if only the same could be said for the lake and the views. The lake was where all the water drained from the rice paddies and villages without plumbing, so the potential for swimming was somewhat dampened. Still, in the late afternoon the water was nice and warm from being in the sun all day and I didn’t hold back. A lake is for swimming so I took a dip. The view, which has magnificent potential, looked disappointingly cloudy the afternoon we arrived and had not improved by the following afternoon. We asked some locals about this and they told us it wasn’t cloud, but haze from forest fires further south in Jambi. I’d heard about this happening, but so soon already into the dry season I hadn’t expected to hear it happening already. This was bad news and we never got to see clear across the lake, even the next day when we took a bus up to the top of the forty-four turns and walked along the road to a point overlooking the lake from above. We came, we looked and were annoyed at the world in general. By this point we’d picked up another soul, from Algeria, so the French connection was alive and well. We hiked down through the jungle back to the lake, and after Bukit Lawang I had my fair share of jungle walks. This one was only a couple of hours and along a pretty easy to follow trail. We saw a few small monkeys and way too many leeches, way too many. We didn’t want to stop and smell the proverbial roses because of them, but I say, seen one jungle, seen them all. Leaving the jungle we were greeted with a postcard view over the lake, farms and rice paddies filling in the bits in-between. That made our day’s exertion worth it all. Later, Sebastien and I played volleyball with some local kids. I say we won.

That was to be it, the foray into West Sumatra was pretty well over. It hadn’t reached the highs of the North, or the emotion of Aceh, but I couldn’t say it wasn’t worth my time. Plus, I had to get there in order to get out of there, and that’s a pretty good incentive to go anywhere, and if there’s shit worth doing it’s an outright bonus. Still, the saddest thing about the next day was saying farewell to Antony and getting the bus back to Bukittingi with Sebastien, where we had connections going in different directions. This is where it all turned into a survival game, where the object of the exercise was to get me the hell out of Indonesia, into the warm and welcoming cradle of Singapore, where hot showers and hawker food awaited. It should have been easy; it could have been as easy as getting my act together two weeks earlier and buying a flight from Padang direct to Singapore for less than I ended up paying (not even kidding, people) and instead ended up in a sport of clashing wills and dried up patience.

Once upon a time, not even a few years ago, discount air travel was but a cruel joke, the domain of travel agents misrepresenting fares by leaving out taxes and fees to make them look sane. Then the dawn of low-cost, low-service aviation happened across Europe, turning Prague and Barcelona into unrecognisable haunts dominated by drunk Englishmen and Italians fighting over soccer games. The concept spread and now South East Asia is well served by budget carriers, who still continue the trick of not including taxes and fees in the advertised fares (surely this is less than legal?) leading to seeming dirt cheap fares, when the reality isn’t so sweet. But it does mean that comparable distances can now, in some cases, be traversed by air rather than road or sea at almost the same price, for a fraction of the hassle. Hidden land mines to be aware of include to and from discount airline airports, but that’s beside the point – the extra cost more than makes up for it, if it’s getting from Padang to Jakarta in two hours instead of the 40 punishing hours the bus needs. Or, in my case, the extended days at the wacky races that took me to Singapore.

From Bukittingi to Pekanbaru should have been about five hours, and this time was thought up by a retard midget son of a syphilitic whore, because it takes much longer. The two hours waiting at the bus station was no picnic and then the bus that I had bought a ticket on looked like a relic that belonged in a museum, or more fittingly, in a fucking junkyard. Welcome to seven hours on the worst bus in Indo – but at least it’s taking me away, away from the identical probing questions and pointing, away from the schoolkid interviewers, away from yet another plate of nasi goreng, away from concrete ghetto hellholes and exhaust fumes enough to kill Godzilla. I love the place and the people, I love them to death, but the day to day reality was starting to set in and it was time, time to leave. The people on the bus were some of the worst breed, the questioners who speak not a work of English but don’t even get the message that earphones equals leave me the fuck alone, I don’t want to tell you yet again I can’t understand your goddamn question. Fuck off, fuck off. There are usually two guys staffing any one given bus, the driver and the conductor. On longer rides they will swap several times. This bus had a third, a fat guy I shall herein refer to as ‘Fucknuts’. Fucknuts seemed to have no job except to fall asleep using my pack as a pillow, poking me in the arm and trying to wheedle cash out of me whenever he felt he might get away with it. This last thing was particularly annoying, as his technique was so very bad – I wanted to send him to Bukit Lawang for some lessons. After a few hours of poking me in the arm to ask inane questions, the conductor came by and joined in, then took money and checked tickets. He saw my bit of paper, acquired at an office in the bus station for 55,000 Rupiah, and nodded. Fucknuts took this chance to try and convince me I had to then buy a second ticket from him, a message I got eventually, but outright refused to acknowledge. I had a ticket, and happily showed him, but this stopped him not. He borrowed a pencil and wrote on the back, 15,000. I was incensed, and there was no way I would give it to him. I had a ticket, and likely paid too much anyway, so no. He would not get anything from me. This crap continued for a good ten minutes, with more than enough poking to justify me popping him in the teeth. He gave up, but it wouldn’t be the end.

We came to Pekanbaru and it was already dark. There hadn’t been many people on the bus all the way, and the few who were left got off at the edge of the city. This left me, driver and Fucknuts. I saw a sign pointing out the bus station six kilometres away, and they pulled up and told me to get off there. I wasn’t happy but couldn’t argue. The bus was stopped and Fucknuts had my bag off the bus already. I naturally followed him off with my shit and the bus pulled away. Fucknuts took me to a taxi driver, who I tried to talk to, and I told him where I was going. I had a map, see, one that most people failed to read (had I hit a pocket of illiteracy?) and I knew exactly where I had to go. The guy said five thousand, a reasonable sounding number, and I pulled out a five thousand note to confirm that I had the understanding right. He took it from me and gave it to Fucknuts! I was angry about this, as a deal had obviously been done selling my ass to the taxi man. Drop the foreigner at the edge of town and sell him out the taxi man, what a pile of shit. The five grand was probably commission, and they could have been more subtle about it. Had I been a less rational and calm man I would have chased down the fat bastard and started something, but they had my pants around my ankles for sure.

Fucknuts left and I was there negotiating with taxi man. Turns out he wanted 40,000 for the fare and all I was willing to pay was 20,000. This turned into a disagreement and he wasn’t going to haggle, so I took my bags and walked off. No-one followed me. I would have walked all the way into town, another eleven kilometres away. I would have done it too, had salvation not driven out of the night.

Salvation drives a motorbike and pulled over, and asked my name and where I was going. He offered me a ride and didn’t need to ask twice. I showed him the map and we were off, into the night, bags and all. The place I was going was right in the middle of the city, where the two main roads intersect, and should have been easy to find. Except I didn’t have a helmet and the cops were out in force, and my driver didn’t want a fine. So we skirted around the side streets and it was no surprise we didn’t find it. My driver suggested that it would just be easier to stay at his place, an offer I jumped at. Giving up on the intended destination, we arrived sweaty and hungry at his place at around eleven. Getting to Singapore shouldn’t be this hard, I mused, as I was shown to his domicile friends. He was a student at the local uni and lived in student housing (grim at best, let me tell you) with a bunch of other students. And they were all the friendliest, kindest people I could have hoped to be saved by that night, all keeping their distance and politely asking questions. They bought me food and one of them gave up his room so I could have somewhere to sleep. The kicker? They weren’t locals, but Bataks from Medan. Once again, Bataks to the rescue. What can’t they do?

In the morning I was given food and taken to my transport, all without asking for anything in return. Such humble and friendly people, hospitality is alive and well. I couldn’t be more thankful to all of them, not at all. Saying goodbye, I almost wished I could hang out another day with them, but good sense prevailed and I got in the ‘travel’ and off we went. Four hours on some truly diabolical roads to Tanjung Baton, where an hours passed until we squeezed onto the boat. The back seat of the travel was especially heinous, cramped with no room for my legs. I was in pain most of the way, but the boat was roomy and only smelled a little strange. No-one bothered me all day, not people sitting next to me, not strangers at the transport terminals. No-one. Getting out of Indonesia should be so easy.

The view for most of the day was plantations, palm oil plantations. The rainforests in Riau have long been destroyed and oil discovered underneath. All this oil travels in pipes to the port of Dumai and goes off somewhere else. The port also carts off the last of the timber, all under the haze of refineries in the distance. Picturesque it ain’t, riding calmly down a river is a million miles away. The boat speeds along at Indonesian speeds, without traffic to hinder it. There are worse ways to get where you need to go. At Batam, on the other end of this epic, were taxi drivers. I must have been asked by about thirty drivers where I was going. The domestic terminal is right around the corner from the international one, and I knew it would be close, yet all the offers to drive me there – the never ending gall of these people! Honestly. As I walked from one to the other, things were already looking nicer, the road sealed nicely, the drains uncovered, but not crumbling, and the building was shiny and happy, all glass and aluminium, and it was clean, no-one hanging around, no touts, beggars, hangers on or other assorted scumbags. I could feel Singapore was just over the way, just over there… And then I asked about tickets and somehow, the price had jumped from 17 Singapore dollars just over a year ago to 28 dollars now, and come to think of it, this wasn’t the same place. This is totally different, actually, am I in the right place? I can get to Singapore, right? Yes, they said, last ferry for the day. Twenty eight dollars. What the fuck had happened? Where was I? Unable to unravel the mystery, I took this last sucker punch on the chin and paid up. I had just enough to cover my arse, and a few small notes to get a last taste of Indonesian snack food into me. I waited around for the security guy to appear and turn on the machine and then waited some more. It was almost over, almost there. I almost expected some cataclysmic even to erupt and keep me there longer, indefinitely, yet delaying my long flight from their land to the chosen paradise over the waters – but nothing happened, and the five people waiting got on the boat and we left.

I had intended to call Veronika and Tutie before I left, but there just hadn’t been time. It had been almost two days straight of cars, busses and boats to get me to that point, with the only downtime used for the novelty of sleeping. Looking over a map now, I covered Sumatra from one coast clear to the other, and then some, and over to Singapore all in one go (more or less) making two epic days on par with my jaunt, close to two years before, up the east coast of China. It left me in almost the same state, too, except now I had Singapore in front of me, not goddamned Shanghai.

So not everything got done. Seeing how much ground I had covered in nearly a month, and excluding my chosen exit strategy, I had barely seen a third of Sumatra. This realisation was a little disheartening, but all the same – I’d done things few people had, seen some truly amazing things and some truly terrible sights. I’d broken hearts and brightened others. I’d had my arse reduced to rubble and been thrown about like a basketball in the space shuttle on re-entry. Is that what adventure is? I’m not sure, but I would like to think so.


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