Tharp: Into Sumatra Part III

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



The bus station in Parapet was sad, even by Indonesian standards: empty and neglected, with just the odd minibus lurching in to drop off or pick up a passenger or two. The place was lined with two-story buildings that boxed in the unused expanse. The ground floors housed a handful of woeful businesses, while the upper sections were home to people, as evidenced by the laundry hanging from the windows and terraces.  The concrete was ancient and cracked, with weeds sprouting up wherever they could. Chickens and emaciated cats roamed freely, along with packs of dirty-faced children who looked more feral than the animals.  I passed some of the time wandering about and playing with these kids, who squealed and shrieked while I pretended to chase them over the rotting ground.

After a short ferry ride from Tuk-Tuk, Minhee and I were met at the dock and driven to the Andilo Nanay Travel Company, which maintained a small office in the dilapidated complex.  The décor of the room looked as if it had not been changed since 1981, with a bare concrete floor and paper peeling from the walls, revealing sickly beige underneath.  Everything was covered in a yellow film, the result of tens of thousands of cigarettes puffed down over the ages.  A handwritten fare chart barely clung to the wall, advertising prices that were at least a decade and a half old.  A giant cross hung next to a late-70’s era illustrated poster for Indonesian Airlines.  A tourism ad for Canada—a glacier-topped mountain and pristine lake–hung above the forbidding entrance to the back half of the building.  Could this decaying office actually transport me to the Great White North?

We sat on a hard wooden bench that was as comfortable as an inquisitor’s torture chair.  Minhee smoked and perfected her Angry Birds skills while the ponytailed Batak dude next to us sang along with tunes warbling from his cell phone.  Audioslave figured prominently. (Evidently Chris Cornell is huge in Sumatra.  Who knew?)  He and Minhee ended up talking for a while and even compared a few tattoos (his ink was mighty).  He was a tattoo artist and was heading down to the town of Padang in Western Sumatra to work on a commission.  We were also off to Padang but would be stopping off first at the mountain town of Bukkittingi, some three hours closer, which was no consolation really, since any way you shook it the three of us were facing an all night slog.

The bus was four hours late, but we didn’t complain.  What good would it have done?  We were in Indonesia, and shit just doesn’t run on time.  End of.  Whining about it does nothing but piss off the locals and earn you the label of BIG FAT DOUCHE in the process; I’ve seen it too many times to count–usually by some fussy German or Northern Euro-type. I have a big mouth and strong feelings but I’m also a seasoned enough traveler to know when to shut the fuck up.

We rode all night in a crowded coach with barely functioning air conditioning and dead-cushioned seats that dug into our asses.  The bus groaned and crawled down the two-lane highway; I managed to nod off for some hours, thanks to the two little blue pills I downed shortly after we pulled out of Parapet’s Apocalypse Now bus terminal.  Minhee chose to abstain, and as a result had to endure every second of the seventeen-hour grind without a shred of sleep; she was positively zombified by the time we reached our destination

Bukkitingi lies in the shadow of both the Mt. Singgalong and Mt. Merapi volcanoes, with a third, Mt. Sago, just another hour down the road.  These people are living on what can only be described as a powerful piece of land.  The large town is over 1,000 meters above sea-level, so, like Lake Toba, things are generally cooler than the lower-lying furnace that makes up other areas in Sumatra.  It’s a pretty enough place with a massive mosque and market smack dab in the middle of the burg, but like any population center in Indonesia, it’s loud, dirty, and overrun with cars.  On the first night we made the mistake of staying in one of the cheapest rooms available, which also happened to be located on the busiest corner in town: a cacophony of car horns, bus engines, and motorbikes.  Add the five times daily call to prayer and you got some serious noise.  To quote the late Seattle poet Steven Jesse Bernstein: More noise, please.

Much of our time in Bukkittingi was spent on the back of a motorcycle, making day trips into the heart of the surrounding countryside.  We rode out to Lake Maninjua, which is smaller than Toba but no less magnificent; the next day we took a jaunt out to the Harau Valley–an idyllic and remote corner of West Sumatra famous for its limestone rock faces, waterfalls, and pure jungle solitude.  All the time we took in rice terraces, water buffalo, and mosques: mosques and mosques and mosques.  While it is true that the folks in Indonesia practice a very laid-back and tolerant form of Islam, they’re still very serious about getting their prayer on, and throw up houses of worship like Starbucks in the suburbs.  There’s no shortage of places to throw down your prayer rug.

The Kids Are All Right

After a solid week in Indonesia it hit me: The teenagers there are badass. In the cities and towns they all dressed in Converse-style sneakers and skinny jeans and wore Exploited T-shirts. Most of them start smoking when they’re like, seven, and seriously dig punk rock and metal. The first sign was in a PC room in Medan, where my screensaver was a Descendents logo, and the kid who ran the shop blasted furious punk rock from his computer, while he and his tattooed, pierced friends sang along in English.  My heart soared.

During a solo trip to the market in Bukittingi, I was shadowed by a pesky college kid who peppered me with questions:  Where are you from? Where do you stay? How do you find our town?  At first I was annoyed and assumed he was on the make, I tried to brush him off, but he stuck to me like a mussel to rock, and after a while I realized that he just wanted to practice his English with a foreigner. So I warmed to him and lobbed some back his way. When I asked him about his favorite kind of music, without blinking, he replied:
Grunge! I love grunge!

He then went on to say how much he loved Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains.  When I told him that I was from Seattle and had actually seen a number of these bands that he worshiped, I could visibly make out the wet spot forming on his jeans.

You could say that I had an inkling of the Indo rock and roll spirit before the trip, but nothing more. I remember reading about an effort by the authorities up in Banda Aceh (Sumatra’s most conservative city) to stamp out the burgeoning punk scene: They rounded up the punks, shaved their heads, stripped them of their clothes, and put them into Islamic re-education camps. While this is indeed a knee-jerk overreaction by a bunch of uptight asshats, the fact that they even felt the need gives me some sort of faint hope for humanity, at least the part in Indonesia.  Punk is not dead: in fact it thrives and grows in one of the places where they need it most.  These Indonesian punks are the real thing, because going punk in such a culture is a serious choice, not just a fashion statement.  To be a punk is to risk being mocked, shunned, unemployed, harassed, and now even imprisoned.  I’m not sure if this phenomenon is spread all throughout the archipelago; I suspect that it’s confined to Sumatra, which, with its clouds, trees, and volcanoes, reminded me of a tropical version of the Pacific Northwest.

Mr. Coin and the River of Bags

You like the monkeys? the man asked, emerging from his tourist kiosk and smiling.  There are more than thirty in this group.

A troupe of macaques scurried and scuffled while Minhee and I tossed them peanuts from a plastic pack. It was our last day in Bukkittingi and we were exploring its outskirts, having huffed up a crumbling staircase to the top of the town’s main hill, which housed an old Dutch-built fort.  After paying a fifty cent entry fee to a wrinkled sack of a man, we took in the view from the heights: Beneath was a crowded cemetery, whose elevated stone graves looked like a jumbled mass of teeth. The rest of the town loomed behind. On the other side, deep below, a river cut through some rice fields, slivers of jungle, and eventually disappeared between two narrow walls of earth and rock.

They’re beautiful, Minhee replied, but the big male is mean.  He wants to steal all of the peanuts.

There are more monkeys up in the canyon.  Black ones, a different breed.  Have you been?

No, I said.  Is it far?

Not so far… maybe one hour.

I looked toward the sky, which was now turning from grey to dark purple.  Rain was in the works.

There are also fruit bats.

Fruit bats? My curiosity was piqued, as was Minhee’s.

Yes.  Many many large fruit bats.  This big. He held out his hands to approximate their huge wingspans.  I know where they live. Do you want to see?

Yes, I definitely want to see fruit bats.

I can show you now if you like.

What do you think? I asked Minhee.

She nodded enthusiastically and gave me two thumbs up.

*           *            *

His name was Mr. Coin, and soon we were off, riding down the hill on the back of his little motorbike, and then tromping over the muddy rice fields.  The sky was now black and unleashed a deluge upon us.  Minhee and I donned our rain jackets which I had stashed in the pack.  Mr. Coin didn’t fight the rain, choosing instead to let it pound his skin and soak in deep.

No problem.  I am used to it, he grinned.

Mr. Coin grew up in the river valley: this was his home turf.  We were literally trekking through the man’s back yard, and he was familiar with everything growing in it. He was some sort of medicinal plant savant, ripping up leaves and stems for us to sniff, rub on our skin, and chew on. He showed us lemon grass, cardamom, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and many others that I failed to either jot down or remember. The guy truly knew his shit.

My father teach me about all the plants, he said, as he demonstrated how a certain flower turned from pink to dark green with the application of heat from a burning cigarette. But these days the young people don’t want to learn.  But I will show my son the ways.

After some time in the fringe of jungle at the town’s edge, we walked out of the trees and into the wide expanse of the river, over white stones and driftwood snags.  It’s here where things took a nastier turn, because it was immediately obvious that this river also doubled as Bukkittingi’s trash depository, especially plastic bags.  There were plastic bags everywhere—over and under the rocks, on the sand bars, tied and twisted around the shrubs, logs, and other wood that had been brought down by the river’s high water.  And this wasn’t in just one spot.  As we walked on through the downpour—past a group of semi-wild buffalo, past a family of villagers netting small fish for the tropical fish trade (big business in Indo)—it became obvious that the bags polluted this whole stretch of river, as far as the eye could see.

The place has the look of a trash dump, and my stomach sickened at the sight.

Twenty years before no problem, explained Mr. Coin. People they just use basket, but now at the market (he pointed upstream) they use the plastic bag, and the people just throw on the ground and it comes to the river.

Has anyone tried to clean this place up? asked Minhee, her face obscured under the hood of her pink Hello Kitty raincoat.

Yes, a few years ago some German visitors they come and try to clean the river… but no good.

Good God. If the GERMANS can’t organize a cleanup then we’re all fucked, I thought to myself, shaking my head.

The rain eventually eased as we made ourselves into the canyon proper.  Mr. Coin had taken off his shoes and was doing the multiple fords of the shallow river barefoot.  I surrendered mine to the elements and splashed in each time fully shod, with tiny Minhee clutching hard while I carried her piggyback.

There, there—look, said Coin, pointing to some trees at the top of the cliff. They are migrating north to the big park. They stop here.  You are lucky to come at the right time.

I saw them at once, clusters of fruit bats—or, more accurately, flying foxes—hanging upside down from the limbs of the trees.

Mr. Coin grabbed a large piece of driftwood and hauled it over to another.  He brought it down with all of his strength, banging the wood together repeatedly.  The din echoed off the canyon wall.  Nothing.  He did it again and then, cupping his hands around his mouth, let loose a cry from the bottom of his gut:


With that, one of the flying foxes, now disturbed, took to the air.

Look! Minhee cried.

Mr. Coin continued banging the wood, and I joined in with a howl of my own.
Soon the one flying fox was joined by another, and another, and then another, until, within a few seconds the whole narrow strip of canyon sky was filled with these massive, winged creatures flying to the other side in search of a new resting place.  We craned our necks back and looked straight up, the rain stinging our eyes but failing to spoil the strange, magnificent sight.

*      *      *

After the fruit bats we climbed out of the canyon and visited a village, where Mr. Coin harvested a ripe papaya that he sliced up on the spot.  The meat was succulent and firm and explosive with flavor, and remains seared into my memory as the best piece of fruit I’ve eaten in my life.  I doubt that it will ever be topped.  We then stopped at his friends silver shop, of course, where Minhee picked up a couple of handmade earrings for friends.

As we walked back through the village toward the main town, I took in the architecture of the wooden houses which mixed the local Minangkabau style (high peaked roofs that look like buffalo horns, intricate carvings) with that of the traditional Dutch (narrow windows, double doors).  Dogs barked as we passed most every house, an anomaly in Muslim Indo.
They keep them to hunt wild pigs.  When the pig is killed the dogs get all the meat.
Well call me next time.  I’ll give the dogs a hand.

It was now twilight and the rain had stopped.  The low light refracted through the remaining clouds, bathing the village in subdued hues.  Minhee lingered behind, snapping close-up photos of the innumerable flowers in bloom.  The evening call to prayer started not from just one, but up to ten different mosques.  The haunting cry of the multiple muezzins blended together into one hallucinatory song.  If it was exotic we were after, we had just found it.
We ended the trip on a cable footbridge, a good thirty meters above the river.  It was now almost dark, and Mr. Coin and I sat on the rickety, swaying structure, smoking, while Minhee looked on from the safety of the other side.  As I sat there, soaked and chilled, I let the smoke warm me inside.

A few years ago I went to Jakarta to live with my brother, said Mr. Coin.  But I hate it.  The city is not for me.  Here is my home.  This valley and this river.  Here I will live and die.

I nodded and looked to the sky, where a flying fox glided on, making its way north.

Thanks to Minhee Kim for supplying many of the great photos

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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