Malaysia (the return)

Thursday, March 20. 2008
So it was I went back to Malaysia. Good thing it has two coastlines, or I’d have been on a serious backtracking binge, the kind I’d rather avoid. The only repeat that stood in the way was KL, and I had things to do there anyway. Crossing from Singapore could not have been easier, you get off the bus and up an escalator, line up for a few minutes, show your passport, go down some steps and onto another bus (in theory the same one as the first time, but that doesn’t always happen) and then onto another building where you all get off and deal with the Malaysian side of the deal and then once again, onto a bus and from there to the bus station in Johor Bharu. Given the state of things, it seemed a trifle unnecessary to go to all that effort, all the getting on and off, but the two countries do need to keep each other at some kind of arm’s length in the great pissing contest that neighbouring nations like to stir up.

At the bus station in JB there was zero downtime getting onto a bus to Melaka, minutes if any, such was the fortune of my timing. I had steeled myself for the harsh reality of the non-Singapore world again, but Malaysia is not Indonesia. It feels like it, quite often actually, but everything works and is quite clean, people don’t hassle you; nor do they want your life story at every corner, which is both relieving and somehow saddening. Days would pass without real interaction from strangers, and it turns out that I actually miss it a little. Seems Indonesia got under my skin more than just a little bit, seems it got right under there. The bus ride to Melaka saw me sleeping most of the way. I woke up just in time to see that we were there already, sooner than I had thought. A Hungarian dude I met in Singapore told me about a new hostel in town, and how to get there, so cutting a path through the taxi-drivers gauntlet I made for local bus 17 and paid 80 sen, getting off next the Equatorial Hotel. The place, called Emily’s, is only about a minute form there, but I went slightly the wrong way and ended up spending a lot longer looking. Having found it, I rang the doorbell and the guy running the place stuck his head out and looked slightly surprised to see someone coming in. They had room, and I told them who told me about it (it had only been open about a year so it wasn’t in any of the guidebooks yet) and I settled in. The place was magnificent, they had gone to a lot of trouble to decorate it very nicely indeed, all with recycled materials.

There were fish ponds, plants and gardens, everything was painted nice and a lot of it had been done by guests of the place. The showers were especially nice, all flowers and murals, the shower head coming out the brickwork. It was a nice place just to hang out, a quiet and friendly place to be, a million miles away from the busy streets outside. That night there were some friendly folk in the house too, so it was I didn’t get out and see any of the town. It was kinda late, mind you, so I hadn’t planned on doing anything like that – but rarely is the accommodation so accommodating. In fact, it might well be a top-five hostel, just for the ambience and décor alone. Be sure to drop by if you’re ever in town. The dorm room was a two-bed dorm, so it was more of a shared-twin, and the first night I shared it with an Irishman named Wesley, after that it was all mine.

Wesley and I had a drink and a talk that night, the ‘adventure’ I had in Singapore came out and he told me he’d achieved the same high score in the bed I was now sleeping in. Thanks, you Mickey bastard, if you weren’t so nice I’d defame you right here for that. But as it was, he was off to Singapore the next morning, leaving me free to explore the city.

My first impressions were so bad that I went right back to the hostel to breathe in the atmosphere (it really was that nice in there) and sulk. I got the laptop out and wrote of other times, taking the opportunity to get it down while no-one else was around. Looking back on the history of the place, I felt there should have been so much more. All I’d seen were some painted red buildings right next to the main road, so the traffic was out of control, and some of the most annoying rickshaw drivers in all Malaysia. A walk into the fabled Chinatown yielded little charm. It turned out that I’d missed the best bits, quite unluckily, so it was a good thing I didn’t give up right there and jump a bus to elsewhere.

I had the garden all to myself most of the day and the space turned into a talk-fest of the evening. That second night was quieter, it was just the guys running the place, myself and an elderly Swedish lady who was taking her retirement and doing it longer and harder than most kids do these days. Much respect to Christina, one of the originals. She had nothing bad to say about anything and nothing was happy stories to share around. If she had travelled in her youth, or been to Asia before she didn’t say, but there was none of that ‘if only you’d been here twenty years ago’ crap people of that age group love to dribble onto people like me. Yeah, like when I was five? Sure thing, Grandpa.

The next day I gave it all another shot and the long and meandering history of Melaka came out of those painted red walls. Colonised by Portuguese, Dutch and English powers over the centuries, it had always been an important trading point and strategic position. Even today more trade flows through the Straights of Melaka than either Suez or Panama canals, and so it has been for hundreds of years. Before the Europeans came the Melaka Sultanate controlled major sections of the Malay peninsula, Sumatra and Java, and sending the Europeans on their way were the Japanese, during the brief occupation during World War II. The remaining historical buildings are mostly Portuguese in origin, the church on the hill, the town hall, and the buildings around there. Now, they all hold museums of differing subject and quality, and to my mind they mock the shabby nature of the modern building around. There’s absolutely nothing to stop people now building fine looking pieces of real estate, but instead we get the same concrete and aluminium garbage that infects too many otherwise good cities.

So that was exploring Melaka. The Chinatown area looks like any commercial district in a second-rate city most anywhere in Asia, with the exception of Jonker Street, a nice clean thoroughfare with footpaths and some really interesting shops. I bought a t-shirt. I stayed on there a bit longer, because interesting people showed up that night, and we all went out and bought charcoal and things to cook on the barbeque. It was a ravishing good time. I was planning to leave in the morning but stayed around to hang out with the people who had appeared, and didn’t get to the bus station until almost five. KL is close, so it was no big deal, but it did mean that once I was in KL my hostel of choice was full and I had to settle for slightly more expensive option. The same place, in fact, where I’d stayed that first night back in January. Things has come full circle indeed, but this time there was no Egon, no Yanti and no friendly faces in the crowds. Nothing to do, lean on or even go and see. I called my friends from my uni days and we arranged a meet-up, but I was at the mercy of their timing and schedules.

Lucky for me, William had about as much free time as someone could hope to have while also having a decent life otherwise, so he became my main man. The next day, having moved across the street to slightly-cheaper-digs, we went to a hot spring. It turned out to be an oversized puddle with hot water in it, no problems there, you just roll up, jump in and no worries. Not a changing room in sight, or a ticket booth. It was kind of beat, but you know it’s in that good way. The next few days I stayed in crappy hostel and William took me around to see stuff. Batu caves, where the local Indian community have big festivities every year, Genting, where there’s a casino and some huge hotels and overpriced crapola (locals love the place, tourists either don’t know or don’t care) and always William had the good info on where to get the best food. We ate like kings, we did, all night long, it was one place after another. It was incredible. Food in Malaysia is always good to start out with, but with insider info it can’t be beat.

Monday rolled around, after an expensive and went-nowhere attempt at going out on Saturday (out of my league, out of my budget and the local girls can obviously smell a lack of money, damn man) I had lunch with two people I lived with in my uni days and split. By this point I’d had more than enough of KL, having had some empty days there to deal with, and was in need of something fresh. The three o’clock bus to Jerantut did not deliver.

Jerantut is the place to be if you want to get to Taman Negara, a prime old slice of rainforest. But having had a pretty big serving of that flavour in Indonesia, and having paid for it, I elected to skip this one – especially since it had been raining and nothing does more for the local leech community. The other thing you can do is get your connection onto the Jungle Railway, as the tourist industry calls it. The locals just call it the train, but I like to think we’re more poetic. It is part of the train line that runs from Singapore, up through the peninsula, into Hat Yai in Thailand and continues on to Bangkok. It branches off south of KL and goes up the west coast to Butterworth, and after Bangkok there are some five lines radiating away into the rest of Thailand. None of these cross the Thai border anymore – once upon a time, I hear, it crossed into Cambodia and into Vietnam and from there crawled up the coast into China, joining the vast network of trains there, which also link up with the trans-Siberian and eventually Europe. Once upon a time, therefore, you could travel by train all the way from Lisbon, Portugal, across Europe and Russia, down through China and Indochina, all the way to Singapore. War in Southeast Asia ended the existence of the trains in Vietnam and apathy has lead to Cambodia’s network falling apart. The French, God bless them, build one whole rail line in Laos, and it’s mere kilometres long.

The point is, if you want a train journey of any measure in Southeast Asia, you have really the one choice. And it’s the Jungle Railway. If only it passed through KL, if only there were clearer schedules about using it, if only there were more trains. I was pretty confused by it all to begin with, as my fact-finding mission to KL Central had yielded a bunch of confused looks. The night express trains were straightforward enough, but during the day? Local trains? Huh? Oh well, and consulted the guide book map. The closest point to KL where it looks convenient to get on is Jerantut, and hey, they have plenty of backpackers going that way. Cheap digs are to be found, I knew, but also I would have to endure the hard sell from the local guides. This I could handle, then leave in the morning. Jerantut is a real hang-dog town, a real nowhere. Small and unexceptional, I got some good food at the night market, had a chat to the locals working at the hotel, got the low down on what things were like there. The tourist industry was about the limits for most of them, and even then it was kind of a contact high situation, because Taman Negara was actually quite a ways off, they just happened to be the transport hub people had to negotiate.

And so I did, getting my gear together and setting off in the morning for the train station. The ticket to Wakaf Bharu cost all of 12 ringgit, and I would get there about ten that night. There would be a three hour wait in some pissant town. Not pleased about that, I still got to take the train. The first one that pulled up was really quite a nasty piece of work, bad seats and grimy. But hey, for the price? Could not complain. And I was moving by train again! Rejoice! Plus, the views really were all that, as the line rumbles over rivers and streams, through valleys and cuttings. It must have been a hell of an engineering feat to put this all together. Sadly, though, the evidence that it’s not really surviving is all too clear. 12 ringgit for a twelve hour trip? Doesn’t happen mate, not unless there’s a hardcore subsidy propping it all up. And there most surely is, and quite a healthy culture of overstaffing too. Every station had three to four workers who were doing very little, and on the train itself there were a handful of idle staff. This is where your tax dollars go, Malaysians, right here.

The time came to alight in the middle of nowhere, inexplicably. Why here? What the hell? Ah well, may as well make the most of it. I sniffed out an internet connection and sat glued to a keyboard for a few hours. I emerged, ate, got some chendol, and went back to the station. It was half an hour before my train was supposed to resume, but there was a train on the platform. I grabbed my bag and a fat foreigner leaned out the window and told me to hurry up, the train was leaving. Still confused about this, as I’d been told the train I was to get in half an hour was the only train during the day, I jumped on just as it pulled away. The ticket guy looked at my ticket and looked confused, and told me I had the wrong train. Oops. I could stay but I had to pay an extra two ringgits – horrors. This was the express, he explained. Where the fuck was this information that morning? Overstaffed and incompetent. Times like that I really get nostalgic for Japanese trains. Don’t we all?

So the show went on, the scenery was epic and the fat guy turned out to be Dutch. He had quite a right-wing lean to him, but since I could barely understand him it was kind of ok. He was entertaining enough, I guess. There were a few other tourists on the train, but I was content to stare out the window. Night fell and the station of our alighting drew closer, and as this happened the until-now idle train staff sprang into action. Where were we all going, they wanted to know. Oh no, don’t get off there, there’s a station closer to where you want. Sure, I said, confident that they were full of shit. Wakaf Bharu is nowhere special, but it is the closest stop to Kota Bharu. Not the station before, or even the one before that. Many people passing this way are going to the Perhentian Islands, and they are a boat and a bus from Kota Bharu, but I saw one couple get shanghai-d by a train dude into getting off two stops and a half-hour (at least) taxi ride from the dock. At that time of night the boat surely wouldn’t be running, so I figured he had it wired. Get them off at Tanah Merah, where his friend the taxi driver has them by the balls, and from there to their friend’s hotel near the docks where they get taken to a travel agent to buy tickets. All with commissions, of course, all flowing back to train guy.

I ignored them all, pretending not to understand when they told me to get off at the wrong place. Wakaf Bharu came and I jumped out. The taxi mafia were waiting, all in place for the daily orgy. They know when the train passes by and they wait for travellers to overcharge. My love of taxi drivers is famously non-existent, and this is the kind of shit I deal with that only makes it worse. Malaysia, for what it’s worth, has precious little of this business, and the tricky business on the train is especially rare. Getting scammed is almost unheard of, so I was taken aback to see it going on. After negotiating with the taxi guys – it was too late for the real bus, and this was always going to happen – we got a decent price and there were three of us, so it worked out. The guy did try and take us to the wrong place, but we sorted him out. He didn’t speak any English, so there wasn’t even that ‘that place is full / closed / dirty’ rap they usually spew out. He just tried to make us get out at the wrong place.

The right place was indeed right. A very nice option indeed. Friendly people, good crowd, a few too many mozzies, but workable. Kota Bharu by night is nothing remarkable, but neither is it by day. However, the night market is exceptional by any standards and we ate like kings of old, grabbing huge chunks of meat by the bone and smearing it all over our faces, all with our hands. Raucous good fun. I had a piece of chicken that was at least half the bird, plus curry, rice and some vegetable matter, all for five-fifty. Mind blowing stuff.

For various reasons I had to spend the next day in Kota Bharu, even though I really didn’t want to, but it turned out that I could have been stuck in worse places. This was all because I had done the dreaded pre-planning, a happening that only rolls around when there’s an even I need to be in a certain place at a certain time for. I was aiming to be on Ko Pha-Ngan for the full moon, apparently they have some kind of party, and I had plane tickets to Burma, but I would also need to get to Bangkok in enough time to get a visa sorted out. I did some figuring and it looked good enough on paper, good enough I supposed, and to pull it off without having to pay for a three month Thai visa or get the free one-month job extended would mean spending that one extra day in KB. So I had time to look around, the market there is big and busy and colourful, and I happened to be there on a day when they had a big culture demonstration. So that was good, and there’s hardly any tourists around. It’s a transit point into and out of Malaysia and a jumping off point to the Perhentians, but still not many of them were wandering around. The market was interesting enough, but smelled really strongly of fish, and the demonstration was a little put on. The MC guy was annoying as hell, he had the stereotype one-liner ready for every nationality, the same one you always hear, and to hear them reeled off with such practice was almost impressive. But not really. It was a cringe fest. The cultural bits were pretty cool, KB is the centre of Malay culture in Malaysia, and they’re also incredibly Muslim down there – I hadn’t seen so many headscarfs since Aceh.

The city was also where the Japanese invaded Malaya in the war, so there’s a museum dedicated to those times and the following occupation. It was fun to see the mis-translated Japanese in the English captions. I wondered if the Malay ones were as bad, or if the mistakes had crept in from translating the Malay into English. Either way, I didn’t point out the mistakes to the guy working there. He looked well bored with it all, and I didn’t expect much.

It was fun for the day, but I’m glad I didn’t have any more time to kill. For one, the mozzie problem in the dorm room was nothing short of epic, and sleep was a strange foreigner. In the morning I gleefully got up, packed, ate, and beat the rain to the bus station. Rain had been an issue and people had been stuck on the islands, the boats not up to travelling in such conditions, and even if I’d wanted to go I wouldn’t have made it. So nuts to that, the Thailand plan is in action. The local bus ran to the border town and I got off and made the crossing on foot, the first time I’d ever had to do such a thing.

Indonesia (part two)

Thursday, March 20. 2008
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.

Indonesia (part one)

Thursday, March 20. 2008
Like getting beaten up in a parking lot, or slipping off a diving board and landing in the water belly-first, Indonesia is an intense assault on your person, values, outlook and health. Not to mention your finances. Like an old van running on duct tape, rust and petrol vapours, it keeps ploughing forward against all common sense and logic, spewing exhaust into a greying twilight. Night is falling on the archipelago but the people either don’t know, don’t notice or don’t care. Quite possibly all three, but again, against probability herself, they appear entirely unconcerned.

From the silver and black dome of the mosque of Banda Aceh to the untameable tangle of deep, dark forests in West Papua, Indonesia stretches across thousands of islands; the heavily populated heartland of Java, the frontier outposts of Flores and Timor, the unlikely twisted volcanic sprawl of Sulawesi, the necklace of tiny islands of Maluku and the Banda Islands, the immense mass of Kalimantan and the huge looming figure of Sumatra. From one end to the other you’ll find no less than 300 ethnic groups and even more languages, but they all live under one flag, speak one language and live in one country. Of all the nations built by the colonising Europeans, Indonesia is the most disparate, the most unlikely of them all, but one of the most enduring. For one reason or another, it has all hung together and found a path (but more often than people might like to admit, the round hole has been hammered out to fit the square peg). Indonesia presents a picture so varied and disparate, it leads me to despair and excitement all at the same time trying to figure it out in my head, let alone write it down with any clarity. Because clarity is one thing that Indonesia lacks, in too many ways it lacks the easily navigable paths in society that many take for granted, offering either a spider’s web to untangle, if you have the patience and fortitude, or a maze of trees with plenty of roots waiting to trip you up if you lose either virtue.

After it was all over, the thing I found myself saying to most people about Indonesia was about the people. Ninety-nine percent of them were amazing, friendly, open, curious and genuine. The remaining one percent just wanted to attach themselves like parasites to my wallet. And it’s that one percent that come at you every turn of the way, the taxi drivers, the wannabe tour guides, the unscrupulous guest house staff, the ticket sellers, the self-styled parking attendants, the oppurtunising bus conductor. But more on all these scumbags later; they are the moon of shit that obscure the sunny smiles of everyone else who would brighten your day, everyone else who smiles at you and actually means it, everyone else who made the trip entirely worthwhile. Not many places will I tell you something like this, but Indonesia is not like other places in so many ways, it surprises me not one little bit – it might just be that the people outrank the places as the highlight of the experience.

The scope of this chapter is partly the reason for all this. Tourism in Indonesia is perhaps eighty percent focused on the tiny island of Bali. You might have heard of it, and you might well have been there too. You might be a writer on this very site, and have been there, and still not posted anything about it; I know we can’t all be prodigious writers, but I digress – the point is, most visitors don’t get too far from Bali, and even then neighbouring Lombok is the secondary choice. A comparative trickle make their way up through Java toward Jakarta, and those who would go out and see anything further afield are a true rarity. In Malaysia I met many folks who were heading north to Thailand who all dismissed Indonesia, and those heading south were going no further than KL or Singapore before flying elsewhere, or home. There was precious little love for Indo, and the reasons were simple enough to grasp. A tourist scene to intensely focussed on one area leaves little knowledge or development elsewhere, combined with a bad image and ongoing security concerns help would-be visitors consider safer options. Give a middle aged family man a choice between Thailand and Indonesia for his family holiday and even the smallest risk will likely steer him to the safer option. Understandable for Mr. Family Guy and his two week’s holiday in the sun, not so easily forgivable for would-be adventurous backpacking types, yet time and time again I heard people dismiss Indonesia for these reasons. While my opinion of these cowards is restricted to grievances in this forum, I know that the great God of Backpacking is watching and shaking his head, saying, I thought you were cool.

It wasn’t always this way. The combined body blows of nightclub bombings in Kuta and the horrors of the tsunami drove visitor numbers even lower, leaving a long established tourist infrastructure to service declining numbers, and while one might think this could lead to the cream floating to the top in the form of lower prices and survival of the fittest style remaining guides and whatnot, we aren’t so lucky. Those who survived are those who wanted it the most, and you better believe they did so not by being the best, but my whatever means necessary. Lean times breed tough people and tough types know the game better than you. Adding insult to injury, Indonesia hasn’t bounced back nearly half as well as some of the neighbouring economies have in the long wake of the 1997 currency crisis. This leads to further tightening of belts and a lowering of standards of public services. Your average traveller will notice this in certain places more than others and is best exemplified by the crater sized potholes that conspire to reduce sanity and increase arse-pain nationwide. Further compounding the mess is the ongoing search for political identity in a post Soeharto reality. While the old goat was mostly unloved by the people at the end, a good section of the public still say things were better under his iron hands and not just because his tourist visa policy was to give most nationalities a free, two month visa on entry. These days you must pay 25 US for a thirty day visa, or get a sixty day visa before you land. All in all, it’s not the prettiest picture presented to would be visitors and while I can see the point of view of those who shun Indo for easier pastures, I also stick my finger up at them as I fly away and shout, your fucking loss, wankers! So long!

With such hubris did I venture onward into the vastness of Sumatra. The background now painted, here’s the why of what I was doing out that way. My good friend Veronika, from such adventures as Last Time I Was In Indonesia and Fast Times At Takushoku High, got herself a job working for an NGO in Aceh, where post tsunami mopping up continues. She had long been wanting me to up and visit and somehow managed to be surprised when I told her I was coming. So from Medan I would arrange transport to Meulaboh, a onetime headline maker, but now relegated to footnote to a disaster. Meulaboh hit headlines on Boxing Day 2004 as ‘ground zero’ in the disaster and was near wiped off the map, along with Calang further up the coast. Much of the rebuilding effort was focused on this area, second to Banda Aceh. But I get ahead of myself, because the getting there was more adventure than adventure ought to really be.

All the posters make the same claim, so do the people selling the tickets. Four and a half hours to Medan, they say. They manage to fit two lies into that one grand statement, since the ferry takes at least six hours (six and a half for me) and actually goes to Belawan, a forty five minute and ten thousand Rupiah bus ride from the middle of Medan. So there’s that, and then the immigration facility that not only screams “you’re in Indonesia now, bitch, so bend over and take it like a man” but takes 25 of your dollars for a visa. Such nice people. At least it’s easy and the line as long as the ferry’s passenger list, so it’s over quickly. And unlike the airports in Jakarta and Denpasar, they couldn’t give a rat’s arse if you have a ticket out of the country – stick, stamp, tear, here you are, have a nice day. Next!

Then you run the gauntlet for the first time. Belawan has a unique mix of immigration officials, making sure you go the right way, ferry company people, directing you to their company bus, and the usual array of alternative transport providers attempting to get as much cash as possible from uninformed white folk. Who knows who to trust? I didn’t, and I’m a supposed veteran of the Indo hustle. Luckily I ended up on the bus, which was the right move – another group of foreigners wasn’t so lucky and I saw the vultures had moved in. Good luck guys.

And back in Indonesia. The senses are the first victim, the smells and humidity, the heat and noise are all amplified somehow, it all could be Malaysia still, only it’s like the grime and reality knobs have been pushed up a few notches. And the closer you get to Medan, the higher they go, and in the city they hit eleven. Medan is not a highlight on any itinerary, it’s a place to arrive in, then get the hell out of. It is unique, in that it’s the only place I’ve been where no-one has a single good word to say about it, the silver lining is only visible when you get to leave. It’s an especially soulless Indonesian city (which are like snowflakes and Sting albums, no two are exactly alike but they all follow the same sort of pattern) that goes on and on. The third biggest city in the country, behind Jakarta and Surabaya, it boasts little in the way of history or heritage, but I was later informed her shopping centres were second to none. Again, big deal. Attempts to describe Indonesian cities of any size stretches the vocabulary and explanatory abilities of most people, and going into the realm of simile produces such lines as ‘slapped in the face with a warm, rancid trout’ and ‘whirlwind of pollution, rust and concrete’, all designed to get across somehow the sheer assault on the senses being in these places produces.

They never stop moving, traffic is at dangerous levels, public transport is everywhere but it’s restricted to battered old busses of various sizes (known variously as angkot, oplet and a variety of regional variations, and the omnipresent becak, a motorbike with a two wheeled sidecar welded on the side. There’s seemingly no state-run public transport, from what I could tell in the chaos and dust is that the routes are agreed upon by consensus and which bus runs to where is knowledge acquired by either osmosis or telepathy. Becak are like taxis and he who would get in without agreeing on a price first values not the contents of his wallet very much. The bigger the city, the more these guys try to fleece the white man. And while it’s true that a few thousand Rupiah might not really mean anything to the average visitor, it all adds up to the locals who are living lean – but on the other hand, it becomes a constant growing pain as the nickel-and-dime-ing gets irritating, annoying and, at the end of it all, quite a lot of money. Especially in local terms, because while that five or ten thousand Rupiah means about a dollar or so, that’s half your bed for the night covered, or dinner, or most of a beer. Keeping it relative and the frustration grows all the more.

So the streets constantly rumble with these barely running vehicles and a staggering number of private cars, in varying states of disrepair. It really feels like nothing is new, or clean, or conditioned, or up kept past the absolute minimum requirements. After a few days, then a few weeks in country, it all becomes commonplace and routine, and it takes a really bad ride to shock you. But the initial blow is simply staggering, especially having come from Malaysia, which scores less points than more expensive countries, but in context, ain’t all that bad. In fact, it’s downright classy in comparison. All this begets a truly depressing level of pollution, smog that hangs in the humid air and clings in the heat. There’s nowhere to walk, you have to share the road and watch your back; rare pedestrian areas are badly paved and missing blocks lie in painful wait. It brings a new level of caution and danger to the simple task of urban trekking, as going outside for a walk becomes a chore to dread. This, compared with the total lack of interesting things to see, is why people come to hate Medan. As their entry city, they recall it with the same horror as the initial shockwave and the fact they had to spend any amount of time there.

The accommodation options are all equally horrifying. Cheap, yes, but in Medan you gets what you pays for. A bed, little more, and quite possibly an introduction to the Indonesian mandi. The places targeted by passing backpackers are run by friendly but oppurtunising locals. They’ll arrange anything for you but their commissions are truly greedy; they will happily get food and drinks and quote you a good price, only to show up with your hot meal or cold drink and show you, then tell you, “price go up”. What are you to do? Don’t worry, you think, it’s only five thousand Rupiah. That’s nothing.

So that’s Medan. I got on the phone to Veronika, she told me to get the bus the following night, leaving me with a tick over twenty four hours to fill in town. I used the chance to get some writing done. The transport came at about eight, it was what they call a kijiang, an eight seat Toyota people mover style vehicle. They are probably the same as a Tarago, or similar make, but they are badged as ‘Kijiang’, so that’s what they are called. I also heard them referred to as ‘travel’. Transport to the west coast of Aceh is almost all by kijiang and my lucky arse was in the middle seat, middle row. There was no seatbelt or leg room. I could go into staggering detail about that night, but to relive it seems somehow sadistic. It was dark almost the entire way and the road twisted and turned like a cut snake. The driver was putting in a good tilt at qualifying for the Dakar Rally, speeding as fast as he could and overtaking without caution, then slowing to a crawl in a second to creep around a pothole, then flooring it. I was thrown around like a ping pong ball at the Chinese nationals. Sleep was a distant fantasy, an illusion, a cruel idea fed by my brain, tangled in delusions.

We rolled into Meulaboh about eleven the following day. The guy next to me had found out where I was supposed to be going and told the driver to drop me there. I thanked all sundry and took a second to take stock. What the fuck had I done? Where was I again? Oh man, time to go see if I got all the details right. I approached the security guy with a hearty greeting and he knew my name. I was expected. He took me inside where I was met by a young lady wearing a headscarf. All I saw was the headscarf, an item that instils an aura of distance – not out of aggression or attitude, but more out of respect and lack of insight into the world it comes from. I made the politeness thing happen in my daze and missed her name, all I got that she was a friend of Veronika’s and she gave me water – or offered it and I was being Mr. Polite Guy. I wasn’t allowed to stay inside an office on my own, so I was temporarily placed out the front porch with the security guy. This was fine, since I had a comfy plastic chair to sit in and read, and later to sleep in, and headscarf kept coming to make sure I had water and snacks. So I sat and marvelled at the sensation of sitting in a chair that wasn’t bucking me around like the most pissed off bull at the rodeo and everyone passing through came to meet me. I had a good chat with the drivers, all locals, and all doing their utmost to improve their English, since every second assignment involved moving one of the foreign staff. It was here I heard my first tsunami stories, just bits and pieces, since I wasn’t exactly in a position to go digging too deep. Lost almost my whole family, lost my house, but I’m still here – now that is a positive outlook.

Eventually Veronika showed up. I’d been forewarned that hugging was off the agenda, but unsure as to why I settled with the handshake. She looked exactly the same as I remembered. I was told that I still had to remain where I was for a little while and afterwards I would be escorted to my new temporary residence. This was fine by me – by that point, everything was fine by me. Headscarf was hanging around, making sure I was ok, and the drivers came and went with various staff members. Staff members I also met and whose names I forgot almost instantly, something I take no responsibility for. Eventually this all ended and I was taken to a building not two minutes walk around the corner and I got to take my pick of shitty rooms. It was a beat up building all right, they called it the Barrack House, and it was a tsunami survivor. I figured decent buildings were hard to come by, and there’s also that line about beggars and choosers. I took the cleanest looking room and got given a mattress. With my bags, the mattress was the only other thing in the room. It looked a little on the empty side, but it wasn’t without some kinds of simple charm. Lord knows, I’ve paid to sleep in worse than this.

The content of the days there in Meulaboh were simple, charmed and yet somehow totalled a week before I eventually left. Looking back, the combination of the distance from the beaten backpacker circuit and recent tragic history make it possibly the nicest place to be, at least in terms of all the things that make Indonesia a tough place to be. There’s no gauntlet of people harassing you at any point, the becak drivers only wave or honk once. I didn’t see a single taxi driver and the two visits I made to the bus station were almost sane experiences that resulted in me paying exactly what anyone else might. Traffic around town is noisy, fair enough, but at a level you’d associate with sanity rather than the usual story of bruising craziness. It is a small place, with a big reputation. I heard of only one other backpacker being sighted in town, and by all accounts he looked lost and confused, as he made his way down the west coast on some crusade to avoid the mainstream. It also became clear in hindsight that in terms of South East Asia as a whole, Indonesia is an appendix in most people’s books and in that Sumatra is a footnote. Aceh is but a sentence of that, and Meulaboh a single word.

And to pretend that word isn’t ‘tsunami’ is to be looking the wrong way. Even if you had no idea as to what happened, it’s impossible to miss the rows of identical concrete houses, like they came on a freighter from IKEA in a big box marked ‘HOUSE’. Then there’s the foundations and rubble, the half-trashed houses still to be cleaned up. You can almost use these as a guide to get to the beach, because they get more and more frequent the closer the waves come. Then there’s the beach itself, the sands polished by the pounding, and a line behind it of what once was a building lined highway. The stumps of a bridge are all that’s left to remind you that there was even a road there in the first place. Land that’s no longer usable has little but the foundations of the old houses, derelicts stand in some places, left that way because while the building might have stayed upright, the entire family that once lived there didn’t make it back. The beach is lined with palm trees, easily thirty metres high, all which survived that day. The locals told me the wave was higher than the trees.

Into this the world’s better off peoples donated millions of dollars. The 220,000 people who come under the dead or missing columns in Aceh alone actually saw most of this help them, but a natural disaster is a lot like a wedding. It brings out the best and worst in people, and anyone with an eye on the media at the time probably remembers beat-up stories about donated money going missing or misused or finding its way into corrupt official’s pockets. This happened in the post-Soeharto days, and every president since has made it part of their addenda to at least look tough on corruption. Following the poor showing after the Bohorok floods in North Sumatra in 2003, the government, fully aware of just how many eyes would be on them this time, were extra tough on making sure the cash got where it was supposed to go. But perceived slow progress lead to questions being asked, and in too many cases, answers being made up. The west coast of Aceh was a hard place to get to in any case, what infrastructure had been there pre-tsunami had been extremely compromised by thirty years of civil war and upkeep was little more than a cruel joke in such time. Even with the construction of a new highway, it takes about 15 hours from Medan, and 9 hours from Banda Aceh. Things were always going to be slow, and the other striking thing about Meulaboh is the sheer number of international NGOs and relief agencies who still have headquarters in town. That’s a lot of chefs in the pot and while I hear co-operation was the order of the day, things were always bound to his some speed bumps.

In the most recent peace deal, Aceh was granted special autonomous status within Indonesia, rather than full-on independence. This lead to two things. First, Sharia law became law of the province. This lead to the entrenchment of an already hardcore Islamic mentality, which in this post War On Terror society is always going to have a few eyebrows raised at it, especially by xenophobic Americans. Not that I want to stereotype or over-simplify, but when the foreign invasion happened, when the charity of the west was unleashed, with it came the dogs of war on both sides. The other thing was the Sultanate of Brunei built giant mosques in nearly every little town, as a congratulations present for putting the war behind them and embracing a similar level of religious fanaticism.

Best exemplified by simple incidents and at worst, incited full on racism, one story from Veronika’s NGO was from the first Ramadan after they came to town. The Sharia police showed up and told them they couldn’t operate the in-house kitchen or employ locals to work there, because the smells were upsetting the fasting neighbours, and by extension the staff must be uncomfortable too. They were asked to stop cooking for the month. How to handle this? It could be taken as a cheap shot from the locals, wanting any excuse to take the foreigners down a peg, or a slightly messy grasp of how to do business in Aceh. In the end a compromise was reached and the kitchen stayed open (a good thing, since getting food was otherwise near impossible during Ramadan) and both parties walked away having scored points, but it was far from worth it. Feet were stepped on all the way. To their credit, the foreign workers adapted pretty well to the local customs and laws – things that even other Indonesian workers sometimes had to pause and consider, even the Muslim ones – but let’s not pretend that they were out rapping with the people every night, or going to the mosque, or learning Achinese. The public relations issue was perhaps the core problem, outside the one everyone had to face up to.

For me, walking out of the Barrack House to get some lunch turned into a parade. Every child playing in the yard, every schoolkid outside and within shouting distance, every local man sitting around waiting for some business to come his way – they all shouted to me, the chorus of ‘hello mister’ and ‘where you from’, and a litany of others, ranging from the overly welcoming ‘I love you’ to the polar opposite ‘fuck you’. No doubt there was no true malice (or, unfortunately, passion) in these sentiments, it was just a snippet of English they had picked up. But after the first day of this, it gets so very old, and I could easily imagine the life of the NGO worker, having uprooted and moved to the arse end of Indonesia to help out these unfortunate locals, dealing with the daily parade his life has become. So I can’t blame him for spending his days moving from air-conditioned office to air-conditioned brand new clean NGO branded four wheel drive to air-conditioned house, all without having to see or deal with the locals. The Indonesians he sees are his workmates and they all speak English and the novelty of working with a white man has long worn off. He makes a salary that would be enviable in his homeland, which equates to a king’s ransom in local currency. He is seen by the impoverished, disaster struck locals riding around in his charity-money bought 4WD chariot, with his nice clean clothes, and living and working in houses that they could never afford. They see this, and look at the concrete building that was given to them and the lack of options for their life, and where the sense of disenchantment comes from is not hard to fathom. Both sides need to take a better look at things and possibly adjust their behaviour, but if it were somehow up to me to suggest an alternative – well, I’d be fucked.

So it goes on. By now most of the rebuilding is done, most homeless have been re-homed and only a handful live in shanty towns (but there’s still enough). Education is now the biggest priority, as most of the children don’t have teachers or even parents. This part of the operation, the end game, is at a crossroads, as the NGOs weigh up the value of spending money this way. My god, I’d hate to be the person having to make that call. The vestiges of all this generosity on the locals became clear when I got to be photographer for the day and followed Veronika to work for the day. We went to a school about an hour from town, where they do classes about simple things like hygiene and the importance of not shitting in the drinking water, stuff like that. I was not officially there and so took full advantage of my position of novelty. They’ll be talking about this for years. All I did was hang around and play stupid games with the kids and I was the centre of attention. And the first thing a lot of these kids did to me? Stuck their hands out and asked for money. Already they knew to associate white man with free money, and so the origins of their attitude and behaviours become clearer. I was told the Achinese were far from poor, and while not exactly able to finance the rebuilding of their shattered lives by themselves, didn’t really need all that money that had been donated. It wasn’t a lack of funding that was slowing things, far from it, and neither was there any problems getting it where it needed to be, it was the bureaucracy and bottom-line reading NGOs and the unrealistic expectations of their home offices, far away on the other side of the world.

It’s a messy place, a messy picture, and it’s so very Indonesian. Let me tell you about the beach instead. It stretches as far as you can see in both directions and the small waves pound right on the shoreline. The yellow sand is hot and warm and clean, and huts provide shelter and food. And coconuts from the palm trees get served up with a spoon so you can get all the flesh out. You could spend days just sitting down there and staring, and since the Sharia cops don’t come by until sundown to make sure no-one has any fun after dark, you can get your shirt off and swim all you like. Possibly the best part is that almost no-one else is there, so you more or less have the whole thing to yourself. The locals, never much of a beach loving folk to begin with, are still understandably spooked by the events of that Boxing Day.

That’s the portrait I saw of the town. Every night, Veronika was busy with her boyfriend, someone I met and liked, but he felt very clearly threatened by my presence. So it was up to her friends to show me around and take me to get food, and the chances I had to actually talk to her were limited and far between. Quite an odd thing, really, given how far I had come to be there, but she’s still Indonesian and some things you can’t break into. Good thing her friends were so nice. The first night was with Iwi, who was from Jakarta, and we took a becak tour of the sights, as much as they were, and then to get food. She knew quite a lot about the town and what had happened where, who built what and where to get some good food. The second night, and almost every night after that, I was carted around on the back of a motorbike driven by none other than Headscarf, who turned out to have a real name. Astuti, known as Tutie to her friends and workmates, and she became the first Muslim friend I ever made. To her credit she took my not-so-subtle take on atheism (when religion came up) and didn’t get offended at my jibes. Addressing remarks to the ceiling, and so forth. And more than that, she gave me an inside peek at the real life of a Muslim, an small insight into real-world Islam. I think we were equally as curious of each other, me having never really spoken to a genuine headscarf wearing Muslim past what it took to buy something, and her, with a deep curiosity about the west and English slang expressions. I take credit for teaching her to say ‘king oath’ at the appropriate time, which is of course, whenever possible. And the obedient little girl she is, she went right on and used it – to be fair, she already knew quite a few blue expressions, having dated an Aussie guy for more than a year. I say dated, but in the details she breezily and happily imparted to me, it became clear that she would not yield to him against Allah – they never so much as held hands, let alone threw down in the bedroom. She told me how he would try and talk her into it, and by the sounds of it there was some serious blue-balling going on. She said she would have married him without question and then given herself to him, but he was adamant about ‘trying before buying’ and thus it ended. I personally can’t bring myself to think too much of whoever this guy was, but I sure as hell could see what he saw in her.

She was a special person, no doubting it, and it’s one of the happier accidents so far that she got to look after me almost every day and night I was in town. So much better than being left to my own devices in a place like that, where the beach comprises 100% of the interesting things to do – and fellow travellers are non-existent. At least I had someone, and if it had to be anyone, how good that it be her. When it came time to leave, I was genuinely sad and knew that I would miss her a great deal, but not even my hopelessly romantic mind could concoct a scenario whereby anything could be made of it all. At very least I wouldn’t be able to wander around any further, and almost certainly being an atheist would be a little bit of a problem. Not to overstate it. But when she explained the headscarf and why she chose to wear it, I know it was the personal nature of the explanation that had me entrapped, but I then and only then fully realised why anyone wears it. And the benefits of a clean life, without vice, including all my favourite ones, seemed not a far away delusion but almost the inevitable path worthy of following. Yes, dear readers, I was enamoured. Was she really all that? Or was my brain finding a new way to torture me? Either way, amongst the separation anxiety I was somehow glad to be away from her and her positive influence, free to cock things up as I saw fit, but all not without taking a few lessons and a new perspective on things.

Also, I must add that she lived in the same company house as Veronika and I was invited over there to eat several times and at home, in the company of her housemates, she dispensed with the headscarf, letting me see what would in a stricter time and place, be reserved fully for her own family and husband. I’d gotten to know her with it on all the time, and had grown to know and respect her as a person that way. When she took it off, you could see just how beautiful she was underneath. Her natural beauty would have made her a heartbreaker back home, and that was when I truly realised the reasons for covering it all up outside. Maybe we men really do just see a pretty face and a hairstyle. Maybe. It could have just been she was really pretty and it blinded me all the same. Either way. I can’t say too much for sure, but yeah – probably for the best I was on my way.

The last night I was in town there was a going-away party for someone, so there was a large gathering, and it was good to have all the people I’d met in one place to say goodbye to, even if it wasn’t really for my benefit. The weekend I had stayed for had been a bit strange, with rumours floating around all week about a giant crocodile leading everyone to go looking for it. We indeed went out on a search for information and eventually saw in a newspaper t hat it had been caught and taken to Medan, ending any adventure we might have.

It was all a lot to take in and think about, and I could have stayed longer if I’d wanted, but it was odd enough already that I was there, and another week would have been outright strange. So I got a bus ticket and headed down the coast to Tapaktuan, where more beaches awaited. And a waterfall, so I heard, and it meant that I wouldn’t have to go all the way back to Medan in one go – after the first such trip, I was in no hurry to do anything of the sort. Tapaktuan it was, so I said goodbye to everyone and packed the mozzie net up and took to the road again.

It struck me as I walked around the small town that it was the first time I’d been on the road in Indonesia by myself – Veronika, or someone appointed by her had always been there with me. It was without apprehension, indeed, with a spring in my step I left the hotel in Tapaktuan to find the treasures it held, all without asking directions or anything, and joy as I felt that undeniable rush of being on the road. The road is life, and somewhere unexplored is undeniable.

I was walking, it transpired, the wrong way. A couple of times I attempted communications but to no avail. Eventually, on the edge of town, a guy on a motorbike stopped to talk and he took me on his bike, and we went to where I thought the beach was. I was wrong, but it was still ok, because he took me to the waterfall. I was more than a little paranoid, not just because he looked a bit strange and there were two teenagers follow with machetes – in hindsight, I should have bolted like a rabbit – but it was all cool, and he took me to the waterfall. There was a pool to swim in and it was a pleasant little place indeed. Later I would find out this was not the famous waterfall, but a nice place is a nice place. I could sleep easy even knowing I hadn’t found the right place because surely I’d made it somewhere few backpackers stumble over. So there.

I got a ride back to my hotel and left with an unclear message. Would he come back to show me somewhere else? Did he expect something? Did he really have my name totally wrong? These things and more would have to wait as I walked the other way down the road in hope of some sand and waves. I did indeed find some, and a nice plate of noodles, and another sunset. I didn’t swim there and the sand was pretty rocky. A reef just off the coast meant the breakers were a way off, so it all about the pretty scenery. And noodles. It later turned out that this wasn’t the famous beach, but I cared not a lot, because I still found a beach and a waterfall in Tapaktuan, and that’s why I went there.

The next day was me back at the crazy races. One bus to Subusalam, where I caused a scene by being the only white guy to hang out in probably forever, and another to Berastagi, where the girl sitting next to me crept closer and closer and eventually used me like a blanket – slash – pillow. After the no-hugging rules of Aceh, I was happy to have someone to hold onto like that, although it was a little weird given I didn’t know even her name or what she was trying to do. I asked people about it later and they all said the same thing, that it was really odd and I had just happened to meet an overly-friendly local who took her chance to cuddle up to a good-looking white boy. Spluttering in embarrassment at the ‘good-looking’ part, all I could do was marvel. And curse my inability to not speak more than a handful of Indonesian, least of all I see if she wanted to hang out some more. She was cute, after all. Somehow innocent and yet somehow a little lascivious, that bus ride was. On top of that I got to see the scenery of the Sumatran interior from pretty much coast-to-coast in a day, the same scene I had missed out on on the way over. It was incredible, so wide and green, every hill crest bringing with it a panorama of jungle, or plantation, and rolling hills as far as the horizon. Green, life, green like I’d never seen before. The wet season was just wrapping up, so this was possibly as colourful as it was going to get. Good thing, because any greener and my eyes would have been hurting. Hurting, I tell you. The hills roll on and on into mountains, volcanoes in fact, as Aceh and North Sumatra share in the same area no less than four of the biggest in Indonesia, and this is a country with a lot of volcanoes. It was volcanoes I was heading for next, because Berastagi, where I disembarked is a painfully dirty, painfully typical Indonesian town on the road, and if it weren’t for the two giants sitting either side of said road, no-one would bother getting off the bus. Sibayak is the easier to get to of the pair, and easy is right. There’s a paved road most of the way up, a point from where all you need to do is scramble about half an hour to get to the top.

But I get ahead of myself. The bus disengorged me into the darkness, so finding my target was a little tricky. I say bus, but for the record it had been all Kijiang since Meulaboh, and the guest house I was aiming for should have been right close by. My wandering took me to some even darker streets and then I went back the way I’d come, only to find I’d almost exactly been dropped right at the gate. Duh. Inside I found a very friendly family-run establishment and a big, cheap room that could have been better sealed from the elements. Not to complain about it, for the price? Such is the tale oft-repeated in these parts. There was one other foreign couple staying there, and the guy was a nice Dutchman, with curly red hair that made him look a little like a hamburger selling clown of repute. He was up for tackling the volcano in the morning, but his girlfriend was apparently not so hot on the idea. I elected to give it a swing on my own, and got some food then headed to bed.

I didn’t get going as early as I might have liked but I still made it to the entrance and onto the road heading up, then down, then up again in good time. I ran into quite a few Indonesians coming down as I headed up, making me think I might have left my run too late, but I was OK. The sight of me coming the other way, bouncing around and singing over my headphones, must have been one to remember.

The top had a genuine caldera and lots of genuine gas vents. It all smelled like rotten egg farts. It was more than allegedly active, it was downright grumpy. All the water on the ground was green from the sulphur and the rocks around the vents were all fluorescent yellow. It looked like it had been spray painted deliberately, until you realise that no-one could possibly get there to do something so menial. I scrambled around the crater-shaped crater, totally happy it looked and smelled like a real volcano ought to, and found a nice high point to sit and eat lunch. The clouds had rolled in and obscured the view somewhat, but there was just enough room as they floated around to get a good glimpse of the valley below. It was almost disgustingly picturesque. All that was left to do was walk back down the way I’d come. A turn off at the bottom took me past a pack of stray dogs, who had colonised part of the road, and the under-construction geothermal power plant, to the hot springs. There I had a nice long soak in the hot water and made friends with the local family also taking advantage of the hot waters. Not for the first time I made some people genuinely shocked that I was still unmarried and without children at the ripe old age of twenty five. Then, all I had left to do was get the oplet back to town and lie about for a few hours, and then feed myself.

Berastagi behind me, and with no desire to hire a local guide to take me up the other volcano (dare I say, seen one active, gas spewing volcano, seen them all?) I jumped a bus heading to Medan and stayed there long enough to get a bus out of there . Bukit Lawang (“Lawang Hill” for the sticklers out there) would be the arse end of nowhere if there wasn’t an Oran Utang rehabilitation centre there. A small town on the edge of a massive national park, it won a kind of lottery when it got the nod for the primate palace, and has been a high point on the Sumatra stumble since way back. Watching the Orang Utangs, sadly endangered, is an activity both locals and visitors can enjoy with equal joy, but during the week it seems to be mostly tourists who show up to the daily feeding sessions to see the giant orange furred creatures show up to swing around and cop a free feed. The town is perched on either bank of the Bohorok River, which in 2003 flooded and wiped out 95% percent of the buildings. Caused by illegal flooding making the area unstable, it was big enough and in a notable enough area to attract international attention in the form of aid money. Locals talk about the flood without hesitation but are all equally mystified as to where all the cash went, seeing as they all had to rebuild their homes and businesses with their own hands, time and money. I later heard that locals were even charged 36 million Rupiah (almost four thousand American) for reconstructed homes that cost no more than half that to build; deaths were compensated to the tune of three million Rupiah – a slap in the face to the bereaved. But this is Indonesia, and life goes on.

Thoughts and Typos

Thursday, March 20. 2008
I noticed that the first attempt to post this got cut off; who knew Serendipity had a word limit? Let this be a lesson to us all. I've arbritrarily cut the article in half and will re-post in a matter of minutes. I'm at an internet cafe in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, and this is the worst connection in the land. Also, it'e the cheapest. Who would have thought?

Also, IE seven in on these machines. It only took Microsoft eight years to get around to implementing tabbed browsing. That speaks all for itself. There's nothing I can add to that fact to make it any funnier. Except, it doesn't really work, I haven't used a browser this buggy since Netscape was still a relevant name in software. Or early versions of Mozilla. But hey, who's counting? I've had three crashes in half an hour so far, so pray with me pilgrims, can I get a Hallelujah from the back?

Now the ladies!

Now everyone up the front!

On a more serious note, aplogies for the typos, I'm typing right into the browser here, and I'm only human. Also, the J might be dead, so someone please go and check his apartment for a bloated corpse, filled with maggots and vermin. It might have happened, really. Either way, he owes me an e-mail or something. Lots of people do, come to think of it, but I digress.

Hallelujah!

Dispatches from a South-East Asian Hellhole, part three

Monday, March 10. 2008
There I was, stoned on the beach. The music was booming, but the punters were outnumbered by ladies trying to sell body-painting and massages, and guys trying to shift fake ecstasy pills. Every turn, instead of offering a scene of unbridled decadence, was the everyday scene of someone trying to sell you something that was either temporary or fake, and usually both, for way more than it was worth.

Then there she was, sitting next me, grabbing my arm. I turned, somewhat awakened from my stupor, to see a local girl. Everything was spinning, but I didn’t recall her even then, and I’d come to the beach party alone. Who was she? What did she want? Soon enough it was clear, since it took less than two minutes from first encounter to a hand on my balls. Tiring of the party scene and the fact I had sand in my asscrack, I took this as a good a sign as any that it was time enough to be leaving. I stumbled off into the crowd, fighting off three would-be drug dealers and a face-painting, to find my shoes. They were where I’d left them earlier in the night, in such high hopes of a good time, but like everything here, the hype machine and native skill for hollowing out the middle of all things good and profitable has turned it into a husk of former glory, all while appearing completely intact.

The girl was still attached to my arm. Suspicious enough of her intentions, but out of my mind to the point where it didn’t register, I made her hold my shoes while I tried to remember where my bag was. Another loop of the beach and I remembered it was right near where my shoes had been. Back we went and then it was time to leave.

Stumbling off into the dark, she said some things to me, question like things, and it didn’t cross my mind as to why she would care where I was staying. A dirt-hole down the other end of the island, I told her. And my bike? Yes, I have a bike. How did you know? This last question was met with a confused smile. Bless her, she doesn’t understand. I groped around in the dark for a few minutes, trying the key in the ignition of every bike that looked like the same colour as mine. Eventually I was sure I had the right one, but the key didn’t work. Mystified, I looked around and she was still there. I half wondered why she was still following me, there were surely plenty of other dudes still partying down. She came over and put the key in.

Why the fuck do you have that? How the fuck did she get it? When? Jesus, I probably should have clicked then and there. We got on the bike and I drove drunkenly out onto the main road, over the dirt and sand track, swerving around palm trees. I wobbled about a kilometre down the road and she told me to stop, we’d better go to her place. Better invitations don’t come often.

Her place was a hundred metres away. In the door and she already had her clothes off, fast followed by an attempt to get mine on the floor too. Unobjecting and still with a mind full of clouds, I lay back and let her get to the heart of the matter. Drunken fumbling and necking turned into the more hardcore equivalent, and then onto even more penetrating variants on the theme; I’d go into detail but you know, I am a gentleman.

Intoxication can have a negative effect on activities of this kind and before I was ready to call it a night and leave, she was dry. There would be no fixing this, so I took the task to hand and furiously so, pulling her head and body into a more receiving position. The violence of this action no doubt took her by surprise and she accepted it with a startled yet welcoming grace, and encouraged my efforts. I re-doubled them, and soon enough the explosion came.

All over her. I won’t ever forget the surprised shock of her squeal, much like when someone cutting a citrus fruit get juice squirting into their eye. And into her eyes I came, and her nose and mouth. All down her chest, it just kept coming. She tried to push away from me but I held her with my free arm until I was down unloading. I caught a glimpse of her as I fell to the side and before my momentary unconsciousness overcame me, I saw she had her mouth tightly shut and both her eyes closed.

Into the bathroom she stumbled, blinded by my seed. I roused to the sound of the shower as she hosed it all off. I took my chance now to wipe my dick clean on her pillow and get dressed. I was halfway out the door when she comes flying, naked and wet, out of the bathroom and squealing, you give me money now! Two thousand! And to this I laughed, and gave her a plaintive, ‘no’. I saw her eyes were still half closed, and she hit the corner of the bed and nearly tripped over. One thousand, she cried as she regained her balance. No, I already paid enough, catch you later.

I slammed the door and was on my bike and up the road before I realised the sun was already up. I laughed to myself as I drove, wobbled, down the road to my hovel, finally, I win for once. I never saw her around the island again, nor would I recall her face if I did, and I didn’t even get her name.

Dispatches from a South-East Asian Hellhole, part two

Monday, March 10. 2008
The pickpocket got nothing and the bag-razor artist got more than he bargained for. Behind every set of eyes I see I know what lurks there, a crocodile’s teeth filled monster, with eyes like a demon. I keep my money and credit cards in a plastic bag, stuffed in a condom and shoved as far up my anus as I can get it. This is the only truly safe place to keep your cash and plastic, and even then I catch at least two sly-fingered bastards creeping up there each and every day. The guy who razored my backpack got an electric shock he’ll not soon forget, as he cut through one layer of fabric only to hit the fine electric mesh underneath. He squealed and ran, the damage quickly repaired with duct tape.

Before you think about buying your ticket here, with dreams in your head of dirt cheap digs, learn to sleep in the foetal position with your bags held close to your chest, wrapped around you with chains and padlocks. Even in the apparent safety of your hotel room, every hotel manager has a master key and a hidden peephole to see when you’re asleep and will not hesitate on breaking in to rifle through your things. Practice doing this on moving trains and busses too, practice doing it instinctively as you will find yourself falling asleep on moving vehicles more often than you think. Between the sleep-inducing combination of forty-degree heat, windows and no air-con, you will most likely be targeted by sleeping gas, poison needles and spiked drinks at every turn. The friendly face selling bottles of water has a special supply and an accomplice on the bus, the conductor knows which seat has the spring ready to stab you through the seat cover and every friendly stranger sitting next to you has roofies in the trail mix they will offer you en gratis. The ability to roll into a protective ball with your valuables in the middle at the first feeling of oncoming sleep is invaluable, so learn well. Credit cards that go missing will be maxed out within the hour, long before you can report it missing, and the local cops won’t speak a language you understand, and are mysteriously illiterate when it comes to your phrase book.

The upside to all this is the 200,000,000 whatevers in local currency that you have wedged into your wallet (the largest bill is a five-thousand), is equivalent to ten US dollars, and is your budget for the entire month, after the bribe to the border patrol guy is paid. This is more money than any of these locals will see in their entire life, so don’t blame them for trying to take it. Blame the system, and remember, bring lots of condoms. That fat wad makes quite an intense shape when rolled into a bundle (try spiking it into a funnel at one end, and don’t forget the lube) but an added benefit is it will help you hang on until you can find a clean enough toilet. Almost every toilet will have some variety of hepatitis or herpes on it, so hunt for the cleanest looking ones and bring plenty of chemical disinfectant.

The locals take particular pleasure in making you ill; this is because they are pissed off at the size of your bankroll. While the sage advice to not eat anything at all is practical only for stopovers, your digestive system will soon adapt to the diet of rancid meat and chillies that you will be served on a daily basis. No matter what you order, the smiling face will shout to the cook, “time to clean out the rat traps!” and you must steel yourself for the coming ordeal. The amount of chilli powder in your food will be enough to knock off a horse, so eat only what you need to stay alive. You will then have just enough time to throw a million this-or-that’s at the owner (expect no change, ever) and get to a toilet as fast as you can. The food-to-toilet time gradually increases, to the point where you have such control over your sphincter that it’s like a tap. After the liquid has finished rushing from your colon, use more of the local currency to wipe (it’s cheaper than toilet paper, so don’t worry) but try not to let the locals see this part. The royal face on the note is particularly important to their native religion and you can be executed on the spot for even looking at it without a look of reverence on your face. So be careful about that.

Dispatches from a South-East Asian Hellhole, part one

Monday, March 10. 2008
You can’t trust these people. Every turn you are met with smiling people, trusting greetings and genuine faces; they genuinely want all your money, they all trust that you are stupid and they smile like Satan himself, knives hidden behind their backs.

Natural beauty and crippling social problems, a unique mix of heaven and hell awaits the hardy soul who would venture this way. It’s not at all like they will tell you back home, survivors either convince themselves that it was meant to be like that and they had a great time or they lie to protect their ego, before vowing never to go there again and heading back into their straight life without ever wanting to emerge again. I alone have the fortitude to let you know how it really is out here, I alone have the courage, the strength, the testicles to tell you the unadulterated truth. Anonymously in the internet I shall let it all hang out with no shame whatsoever.

The only souls in this wasteland of human horrors you can really trust are your fellow travellers – and even then you need a vetting process to weed out the morally crippled and socially corrupt ones. Not that either of these traits is all that negative, in fact I recommend growing a few calluses on your soul to get you looking a little like that, just so it all doesn’t hurt as much at the end of the day. No, those types often thrive all too well here, it’s just that they are equally as likely to steal the contents of your wallet as the natives.

So when you meet one in a bar or train station, in a guest house or on a bus, you need to check him out. The simple one is to get out your mouse-trap loaded fake wallet (carried in your pocket most times to foil and punish would be pickpockets) and “accidentally” leave it on your seat as you go to the toilet, or to the bar, or to get some water – if it is returned to you intact, then ok, the guy might be the type. Kerouac Cat was just this type. I got off the bus on the pretext of getting a bottle of water and slyly left it there on my seat and he had it in his hands when I got back. He returned it with a jaunty warning about less-than-trustworthy folk being around. Later on he confessed he noticed I hadn’t returned with any water, and even later on I noticed he’d disarmed the mousetrap and removed the Monopoly money I had in there. Crafty little bastard.

KC is kindly allowing me to publish these dispatches to the world on the “internet”. I thank him here for this chance, and hope that I encourage others to follow in my, and his, footsteps. Keep an eye out for more soon.