Tharp: Into Sumatra Part IV

A 4-part series by writer Chris Tharp about his adventures in Sumatra.


There we were, packed into yet another tin can of a van which rattled and screamed down the road away from Bukkittingi.  Hell bent, Hell bent for Padang. The driver was up to the usual shenanigans that I’d come to expect from anyone behind the wheel in Indonesia: being a suicidal dick.  He honked and passed on corners and tailgated and tore down the way like a cat set aflame, making us all privately come to terms with the fact that we could die at any moment.  And guess what?  We almost did.  Death pounced upon the road that day, just meters ahead, but luckily for all of us, the Reaper’s scythe narrowly missed its target.

I’ve seen the aftermath of plenty of landslides, both in Southeast Asia and back home in the rain-soaked environs of the Pacific Northwest, but never had one come so close to killing me.  Just twenty seconds later and our seatbelt-free vehicle would have been crushed under a boulder that nothing short of Superman could have moved.  This giant-ass rock was accompanied by a deadly a mass of dirt, brush, and smaller stones that, if they didn’t fall on us directly, would have at least knocked the van off the narrow road and into the roaring river gorge below: Certain death, third-world catastrophe style.

So the road was now blocked, and traffic was quickly stacking up on both sides of the slide.  Minhee and I slipped out of the stuff van for fresh air and a photo op.  At this point a posse gathered around the obstruction and attempted to clear what they could.  I pitched in for a moment, but when it came time to move one of the huge rocks, it was obvious that no amount of pushing or grunting or heave-ho-ing was going to make a lick of difference.  This boulder was a real hernia-maker and there to stay.  The only hope of our van reaching its destination would be to clear a path around the slide, otherwise we’d have to grab our packs and start walking in hopes of flagging down a ride on the other side.  However, the locals were more industrious than I originally thought.  After a lot of clusterfuckery–standing around smoking and arguing with four or five self-appointed people taking charge—the cops came and everyone got down to business, clearing just enough space between the pile and the edge of the road to squeak a vehicle by, albeit slowly and one-at-a-time.

Being one of the closest vehicles to the landslide almost got us crushed, but it also guaranteed that we wouldn’t have to wait hours for our turn to drive around the pile.  Eventually our chance came, and our driver, properly humbled and scared straight by this act of Allah, gingerly skirted the minivan around the dirt and rocks and drove the rest of the way to Padang like a real, responsible cit.

The Mosquito Coast

Padang is both the capital and largest city in West Sumatra, and for us served solely as a point of transport.  It was stuffy, loud, and Satanically hot–a gaping shithole of a town– though probably nominally nicer than Medan, if only for the fact that it was located right on the Indian Ocean.  In fact, we could see it from the road: the sea at last!  After two and a half weeks in the interior highlands, we had stumbled down to the beach, which is why most people come to the tropics anyway, isn’t it?  I like the beach as much as anyone else, but to tell the truth I get a bit restless when I spend too much time on the sand and in the surf; I’m just not one to lie around and bake in the sun.  I’m a traveler, not a fucking reptile, so my beach time is always carefully planned when I’m out on the road.

We took a blue local van about twenty kilometers south of the city to a place called Bungus Beach, which was suggested to us by Don, the proprietor of the Bedudal Café in Bukkittingi, where I spent a few evenings eating, sipping Bintang Beer, playing guitar, and signing multiple renditions of Redemption Song with him and his long-haired cohorts.  Bob Marley still rules the acoustic playlist of the tropics: Will he ever be dethroned?  Don suggested a place calledTin Tin Losmen (Losmen means guesthouse in Bahasa Indonesia), which, to my immediate disappointment, was located right at the side of the highway, a dangerous and loud route overrun with giant trucks carrying petrol from a local refinery.  Oil is big business in Sumatra, though, like most of the other major enterprises, the local people taste very little of the pie.  I’ve never been to a place so rich in resources yet so wanting.

Tin Tin was a bare bones joint sitting on a rocky scab of a beach, which did little to lift my spirits–beaten down by hard travel and the nagging suspicion that we rolled craps when it came to picking our seaside destination.  I had noticed that we hadn’t gone very far from Padang city, so escaping the inevitable pollution of the one million people living there would be impossible.  This was obvious when I checked out the little beach in front of the guesthouse, which was littered with old soda bottles and other rubbish.  A few plastic bags floated listlessly in the murky water, looking like half-dead jellyfish.  The place wasn’t exactly filthy, but I wasn’t dying for a swim either.  I felt deflated: we had travelled very far to get to the edge of the great and mysterious Indian Ocean–a new destination for both of us–and… it kind of sucked.

Our room at Tin Tin was cheap, but you get what you pay for, no?  The sheet was stained with blood and the bathroom was tiny, containing a spigot, an ancient squatter, and a plastic bucket of water.  The walls were splattered with dried black fecal matter which even managed to get itself caked into the recesses of the water bucket’s ladle. Shit was everywhere.  A previous guest had evidently suffered from an atomic bout of diarrhea and poor Minhee did her best to scrub away the evidence.  It’s amazing to witness the aftermath of a truly explosive shit; doing so in the tropics gives you a real appreciation as to just how much havoc the local food can wreak on a visitor’s digestive system.

The night we attempted sleep, but we were mercilessly attacked by an endless sorties of nasty, black mosquitoes.  The room was thick with them—the worst I’ve endured anywhere in Asia—but the owner still saw no need to erect a net.  Minhee woke up in a beserker rage at several points during the hellish evening, slapping and stalking and killing as many of the dreadful little fuckers as she could, but doing so was like trying to stop the tide: the room’s window didn’t properly seal, so one by one the blood suckers kept storming in.  No amount of clothing or DEET seemed to deter these equatorial skitters, and in the end I just surrendered and allowed myself to get bit. It was only later that I found out that malaria is alive and well in West Sumatra, but neither of us have shown any symptoms as of yet, so it looks like we may have dodged that bullet.

*         *         *

Despite the bad start, Bungus Beach began to grow on me.  The next day we moved to the much better Carlos Losmen down the beach, where, for a few bucks more, we secured a beach front bungalow complete with a real, working, mosquito net and a bathroom that wasn’t shellacked with the remnants of someone’s half digested curry.  We found a little café that was run by Bukkittingi Don’s brother: it was cheap as hell, delicious, and only played Bob Marley’s Legend about forty seven percent of the time.  We also ended up meeting a clutch of other travelers who we could get down with: Olaf and Christian, a gay couple from Europe, along with Denise, an English surfer/travel writer and her travelling companion Giovanni, who came from Tuscany, and like most every Italian I’ve ever met on the road, always brought spirit and laughter to the situation.

Bungus Beach isn’t so much of a destination unto itself.  While it does have certain charms, it mainly acts as a staging area for a series of islands nearby.  On the third day Minhee and I took a day trip to one of these islands with our new travel buddies.  It was an hour journey by boat and after leaving Bungus Beach and getting out among these outcroppings, I understood exactly why people make the trip.  We ended up at Papang Island, with white sand beaches and super clear water.  We spent most of the day in the water snorkeling; it was Minhee’s first time doing anything of the sort, and after a couple of hours of getting used to breathing through a rubber tube, she joined me as we glided over the reef, taking in countless fish and even one monstrous blue moray eel.  Giovanni, the young Italian, was having no part in the snorkeling though, due to his pronounced fear of sharks.

I try to snorkel but I am too scared!  Every time I look out into the blue water I see the shark head and the shark teeth coming for me!  I cannot do it!  You keep your snorkeling.  I try to catch some fish with pole instead!

We spent two more days in Bungus, relaxing, reading, eating, and doing some much-needed mid-trip laundry. By the end of our stay the place had earned my begrudging respect: one thing I liked was that there were really very few tourists.  There were only four or five guesthouses along the whole expanse of beach, and perhaps about twenty foreign visitors were staying in all of them at the time.  These were almost exclusively Europeans (I’m sure I was the only American, as I was pretty much everywhere up to that point).  Despite the fact that Bungus wasn’t a pristine place, it was a working beach.

The locals worked nets straight from the shore, right out in front of where we stayed.  Every day I watched them bring in their hauls, took a few photos, and shared smiles, handshakes, and cigarettes.  These were poor fisherman getting anything they could from the sea, and most of their harvests were meager.  But there was no separation between us and them.  There were no walls to keep anyone out, and no locals hawking shit that none of us wanted or needed: no one was in your pocket.  Bungus Beach was a real place where real people went about their business; the visitors came and went and spent some money in the local economy, but folks didn’t change it all just to cater to us.  No one got shut out.  There was something exceedingly honest about the place and, despite its shortcomings, I liked it for that.

           *         *         *

The Other Side of the Smile

Being a man, it’s very easy for me to forget that women often have to deal with a whole extra set of hassles when they’re on the road.  I hear about it and I see a bit of it but, more often than not it’s easy for me to tune out.  I was guilty of such willful ignorance in Indonesia, and the consequences were nearly severe.

Sumatra is not a good place for a woman to travel on her own.  I only met one female the whole month that was rolling solo, but she had actually lived in Sumatra before, had local friends on the ground, and spoke the language.  She was the only one.  Every other woman was travelling with a husband, boyfriend, lover, or within a larger group with at least one male friend. And I can’t say I blame them.

As soon as we set food in Indonesia, Minhee attracted intense amounts of attention.  She did a pretty good job of covering up when we went out in public, so as not to upset Muslim sensibilities, but she also refused to wrap herself up totally, so along with an uncovered head, a bit of flesh was usually exposed.  As a result she was subjected to constant stares, whistles, yells, and amazingly brazen ogles, or eye-rapes as she jokingly called them.  I think most foreign women attract such attention, but it seemed even more in her case.  Why is that?  Why did Indonesian men, who, for the most, were sweet, respectful guys, throw basic decency to the wind and unleash their inner molester whenever Minhee was in the vicinity?  Was it just because she’s a hot girl?  Do they have a thing for Northeast Asians?  Do they think that all foreign women are sluts?  Or is it because as Muslims, most of them don’t even get a whiff of pussy until they are married, and just the sight of one beautiful woman who isn’t covered head to toe is enough to send them into some sort of randy conniption?

*         *         *

Minhee’s Story

The following is my fiance, Minhee’s story.  She relayed it to me and I’m doing my best to write it as she told it.

On our last at Bungus Beach I joined an English guy and his Thai girlfriend for some beers at the beach café near our guesthouse.  Sumatra isn’t a party destination and aside from a few beers some nights, I drank much less than I ever would in Korea.  Most of the other travelers I met would have one or two beers at the most before calling it a night, and after two weeks of this, I was dying to throw a few back, so you can imagine my delight when I met Charles and his girlfriend, who also shared a love of boozing.  Thank God.  Finally someone to get my drunk on with.  Minhee, due to a serious alcohol allergy, doesn’t drink at all, so she chose to stay back at the room, eventually wandering out onto the beach to take some photos by moonlight.  At one point she came to the café and said hello.  It was about eleven o’clock and things were pretty quiet along Bungus Beach, as well as the highway.

After meeting me at the café, Minhee decided to go back to our room, which was about a six or seven minute walk down the beach.  She had a headlamp and decided to walk along the side of the highway instead of the beach.  She was a couple minutes down the road when a black sedan drove up.  Three men were inside..  Upon seeing Minhee they stopped the car.

Hey girl!  You come in!  A passenger door opened.  Come in car!

Minhee ignored their request and quickened her pace.  They continued their lines.

You China girl?  Japan?  Ni-hao?  Konichiwa?  Come on girl! Get in car!

At this point she broke into a full sprint with the black sedan keeping pace.  When she came upon the dirt alley leading to our guesthouse, she ducked down it and made a go, quickly reaching our bungalow and locking herself inside.  Just when she thought she was safe, she heard the three men approach outside.

Hello…  Hello girl…  You come out.

They walked to the door and jiggled the handle.  Minee could hear them trying to peer in the window.  She crouched on the floor, trying to breathe as little as possible and attempting invisibility.

They stayed outside for fifteen minutes, smoking, lingering, and periodically calling out to her, before they finally gave up and took off.

I got back an hour and a half later—warm, full of crappy pilsner and buzzing.  Minhee had barricaded the door and after opening up for me, sat on the bed, shaken and angry.  I suppose she was lucky in a sense, because the outcome could have been much worse: it was just a big scare.  But I felt like a massive heel.  I invited her on this trip and promised to protect her the whole time, but had utterly failed in my duty, choosing instead to get sloshed.  I had taken her safety for granted.  I had forgotten that, right or not, women have a whole other set of rules that they must play by, especially when travelling.  I forgot that once and hope to never do it again.

*Note: To make matters worse, some asshole grabbed her breast during a trip to a waterfall the next day.  He was helping her to cross a particularly high and treacherous part of the trail, and took the liberty to cop a feel, giving her a couple of hard squeezes.  I didn’t see it at the time, though it happened under my nose.  That’s a story for another time, though, needless to say, Minhee wasn’t unhappy when we boarded a plane the following evening and flew back to Medan.

You can get Chris Tharp’s book ‘Dispatches from the Peninsula: Six Years in South Korea’ on Amazon

Steve Feldman’s review of the book is here and more of Tharp’s Haps stuff here.

Tharp’s Blog: Homely Planet

Read the Entire “Into Sumatra” Series


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