Tharp: Into Sumatra Part II

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

From the Sky Ghetto to Medan

We left for Indonesia early the next morning via a mercifully short flight on Air Asia, the continent’s premier discount carrier.  It flies out of its own airport in KL, which Sam later dubbed The Air Asia Sky Ghetto.  The place is scrappy and no-frills: it was the old cargo terminal for Kuala Lumpur International Airport, but Air Asia has since moved in like a hermit crab, transforming what was essentially a giant warehouse into its international hub. Travelers from around the world stumble out of taxis and airliners, looking hepatitis-sick under the fluorescent lights, coming and going from all corners of Southeast Asia and beyond.  It was mobbed the morning we left—thick with buzzing human beings—giving the place the feel of a Stones concert or massive sporting event getting underway.

In contrast, Medan’s ramshackle airport was nearly empty when we got there, despite the fact that it serves a city of more than two million people.  Minhee and I arrived twenty minutes before Sam, who booked on Air Indonesia instead.  We filled out our visa forms and paid the twenty five bucks each: ten minutes later, visas in hand, we got into separate lines for immigration. My passport was quickly stamped and I was easily ushered through.  I didn’t look over at Minhee, who waited in a slower-moving line, but rather headed straight toward my bag, which lie beyond the immigration stations, next to the grimy baggage-claim carousel.  As I hefted it over my shoulder and made my way to a money changer (I had yet to buy any Indonesian rupiah), a voice stopped me from behind:

Mister!  Mister!  Your friend!

One of the airport attendants pointed back to Minhee, who stood behind the immigration station.  She was waving to me and a frantic look burned across her face.  I hurried back to her at once.

He won’t let me through.  He says I need a return ticket.  What am I going to do???

Don’t worry… you’ll be fine.

Shit, I thought.  I had yet to purchase our return tickets to KL, since I still wasn’t sure which city we’d be flying out of.  We had no real itinerary: just a few places we knew we wanted to see and a gut feeling that we trusted would get us where we wanted to go.  I was allowed to pass through with nary an eyebrow raised, along with Sam, who was just a few spots behind me.  Minhee, however–a tattooed Korean girl who seemed to be travelling on her own–was getting no such love.  Ah… inter-Asian racism in action.
We were led to a back office where the immigration jefe sat behind a desk.  A haggard British woman was arguing with him; evidently she had overstayed a previous visa and they were in no mood to give her another one.  She was one of these folks that looked like she’d been on the backpackers’ trail for the last thirty years straight – a mess of unwashed black hair, tattered hippy clothes, flip-flops, and crevasse-like wrinkles around her eyes.  She was eventually escorted to a waiting area where she sat down and proceeded to chain-smoke alongside what appeared to be her Indonesian boyfriend.  We were next.

What seems to be the problem? the young officer asked in clear English. He was clean cut and sat behind a fastidiously organized desk.  I knew at once that he’d be fair.My fiancé lacks a return ticket, as do I.  She’s with me.  They’ve let me through already.  We plan on buying them later in the trip.How long do you plan on staying? he asked Minhee.Twenty four days, I replied.

Where are you going?

Medan, Lake Toba and Banda Aceh, I shot back.

He leafed through a couple of pages in her green Korean passport, before picking up his stamp and giving it an authoritative: chu-chunk!

Enjoy your stay, he said with a smile, handing it back to Minhee.

*      *      *

Medan has a reputation for being a gaping shithole, and this was confirmed within minutes of leaving the airport.  The guide book describes it as …everything that’s wrong with an Asian city; choked with traffic, pollution and poverty. This was one of the only things the book got right:  Medan is a dirty, charmless place.  It’s Indonesia’s third-largest city and serves as Sumatra’s transit point and a main center of commerce: many of the transactions of the island’s resource-based economy take place here.  It’s a place to make a buck, pure and simple.  No effort has gone into beautifying it.  As a result, most tourists, like us, choose to spend as little time as possible there.

We ended up getting a cheap room on 4th floor of a dingy hotel next to Mesjid Raya, the city’s main mosque and easily most beautiful structure.  After a cup of sludgy Sumatran coffee (the first of many on this trip), the three of us decided to get our walk on.  We left the small cluster of hotels and guesthouses and set out into the interior of the town, where we became an immediate spectacle.  Strangers waved and shouted to us from moving cars and motorbikes.  Vendors in front of the mosque stared as we walked by, as if their eyes were magnets and we were made of iron.  A wild-eyed woman in filthy rags came staggering at us from behind a bus stop, mumbling with her hand thrust out for cash. Her hair was a frizzy nest of snags and rodent-like teeth jutted straight from her lips.  I think she may have been high on glue.  I’ve seen plenty of beggars in many countries but this woman was so shockingly sad and frightening that I couldn’t even bring myself to give her a note.  I just wanted to get away fast.

It soon became apparent that the act of walking in Medan was a fucking dangerous endeavor.  The sidewalks, when they existed at all, were death traps. They were built a meter or more over runoff channels, and in many spots the concrete was missing altogether, creating an obstacle course of potentially leg-snapping gapes that surely must have taken their toll on the locals. The result was that the populace generally avoided the sidewalks altogether, electing instead to skirt the sides of the roads which were already overrun with cars, buses, motorbikes and trucks.

This is some dangerous shit, Sam said, stepping over a broken gap.

Yeah, I suppose it’s a good thing that booze isn’t readily available.  Can you imagine walking around here at night, drunk off your ass? I asked.

You would die! chimed in Minhee, pointing at me personally.

*      *      *

After a woefully overpriced and badly-cooked lunch at what seemed to be the cleanest place we could find, we made our way back to the hotel for an afternoon lay down.  Lack of sleep, travel, and the deadening heat all joined forces to make sleep an immediate need.  Minhee and I trudged up the endless stairs of our crumbling accommodations; the walls were painted puke green and were cracked in spots, perhaps evidence of the many earthquakes endured over the years.  If a large earthquake were to strike, I doubted that the building would stand.  This was a concern throughout the trip: I generally sought out cheap places to stay, but knew all along that a low-priced room also meant shoddy construction, which could be a death penalty in such a seismically-active region.

In the end it was a gamble we had to take.  The budget just didn’t allow for a room at The Marriott, unless The Marriott was the name of a mosquito-infested seven room guesthouse with no running water, bed sheets or towels.

Minhee and I held each other on the tiny bed next to the open window and drifted at once into a deep, hallucinatory sleep.  The ceiling fan spun above our heads while an imperceptible breeze blew on the curtain; we relaxed into a kind of bliss, the perfect nap that can only be achieved while travelling.  After nearly two hours, we were awakened by the sound of the muezzin: it was four o’clock on a Friday afternoon and time for prayers.  His amplified song rang throughout the neighborhood and off the stained walls of our humble room.  We opened our eyes and looked out over the tin roofs of the city, a wash of grey, white, red, and tropical green.  Thunder clouds were amassing nearby, and the air was moist and cooler than before.  The muezzin had called us from our dream only to bring us into what seemed to be another, and for a moment we remembered exactly why we had come.

Why Do They Gotta Drive Like Assholes?

We were keen to get out of Medan as quickly as possible, so the next morning we boarded a banged-up minibus that would take us down to Lake Toba, where we hoped to finally relax into the trip and spend a lazy few days. Our happiness on leaving the fume-filled city was short lived, though, for soon it became apparent that our driver was as masochistic as any I’ve encountered on third-word roads; he slammed the gas pedal and drove like a methed-up rabbit on the overcrowded two lane road—known as the Trans-Sumatran highway—that headed south. Traffic was horrendous but shot forward with velocity, and it was soon obvious that our man was a compulsive passer, no matter what was headed our way in the opposite lane.

Like so many of these guys he’d rush right up on the ass of whatever vehicle cruised in front of us, jerk into the other lane, shoot forward as menacingly fast as possible and then careen back into relative safety, twice coming within INCHES of clipping the oncoming car. He’d then rush and repeat—even on blind corners—blasting the horn in a feeble attempt to clear whatever two-ton piece of metal may be rolling headlong our way. Minhee actually slept on my shoulder for much of the time, closing her eyes in a kind of denial of the situation, while Sam and I left claw marks on the grips and seats in front of us. This guy was so insane that even the couple of Indonesians on board–well-used to such shenanigans–squealed in protest.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve literally put my life in the hands of these dickheads, these guys who drive with some sort of chip on their shoulder, who, despite the obvious dangers and treacherous conditions, feel compelled to go AS FAST AS POSSIBLE and pass every vehicle they come up on as if their very manhood was as stake. But telling them to slow down a waste of breath.  It’s like telling a dog not to shit in the grass

Where Are the Unwashed Masses of Travelers?

Seven years ago we had many visitors, Anne said, but after tsunami and earthquake, very few come. I was sitting at a table in the empty restaurant on the one road that circles through Tuk-Tuk, a village perched on a peninsula that sticks out into Indonesia’s largest freshwater body, Lake Toba, like a broken thumb. I sipped from a cup of grainy, black, strong-as hell coffee and tried to write in my notebook, but Anne wasn’t having it. In fact, most anywhere I went in Tuk-Tuk it was the same story: restaurants and guesthouses with nary a guest, and owners who are so happy for your business that they sit next to you and sling heaps of friendly questions your way.  Wanna be left alone?  Forget about it.

Lake Toba was created by a volcanic explosion some 50,000 years ago, and is surrounded by green and grey highlands that rim its deep waters like a bowl. In the middle is Samosir Island, a rock escarpment that rises like a gnarly spine, with enough flat land for some farms, villages, and the once-tourist magnet of Tuk-Tuk. The lake is well above sea level, and as a result a welcome bit cooler than the sauna that is the lowlands of Sumatra. The mornings are generally sunny and hot, but by late afternoon grey clouds pour over the mountain ridges and light rain drizzles down. Wind whips the waters of the lake; any thought of the scorching tropical sun is immediately put to rest by the moody environment.

Tuk-tuk looked like a backpackers’ haven. Countless guesthouses offered cheap accommodations with lakefront access. Open air restaurants served up thick curries, pizzas, banana pancakes (of course), and Indo’s omnipresent nasi goreng (fried rice) and mi goreng (fried ramen noodles). The local Batak people were all smiles and welcomes and some of the friendliest I’ve met anywhere on my travels. As Christians, they all drink, sell the hell out of Bintang beer, and are just more relaxed than the rule-burdened Muslims that make up Indonesia’s religious majority. The place was beautiful, and as laid-back as anywhere I’ve been in Laos, which sets the standard for chill. It was easy on the wallet, the eyes, and the soul. The question is: Where were the people?

After talking to a few locals along with some seasoned travelers, three things essentially killed tourism in Tuk-Tuk and Sumatra in general: The first was the Bali bombing of ’02, in which over 200 Aussies died and made Indonesia officially dangerous in the eyes of the Western world.  The next thing was the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 – along with a couple of subsequent deadly quakes – which turned to the word Sumatra into a synonym for tragedy.  The final straw was an inexplicable government decision to reduce tourist visas from three months down to one.  Most tourists hit Bali, Lombok (The Gilis), and Java first.  Sumatra has always been a bit farther down the list: with only a month to spend in the country, most travelers are now giving Sumatra a pass, whereas before they’d include it on the itinerary.

This dearth of travelers was obviously taxing on the locals.  Many of the larger hotels built in Tuk-Tuk had been shuttered entirely.  Only the smaller places could afford to stay open and I was struck with a sense of eeriness as we strolled around the partially-abandoned tourist enclave, trying to imagine the place booming with guests.  We really didn’t mind, though.  It was nice having the place to ourselves.  Who likes crowds except for the people profiting off them?

We spent five days in Tuk-Tuk, in which we swam, hiked to a waterfall, and explored the surrounding countryside on the back of a motorbike. We also did a lot of eating, mainly at the Juwita Café, owned by a man named Sam and his wife Heddy.  Heddy was a master cook (she gave daily classes, when there are students) and whipped up the best food we had the whole trip, which was always made from local fresh ingredients.  Her beef rendingis one of the best curries I’ve ever taken down, and trust me, it’s up against some pretty stiff competition.

Sam (our travel partner, not Heddy’s husband) stayed for just three nights before heading back up north to the town of Berestagi, where he intended to climb to the top of an active volcano.  We bade him adieu over omelets and coffee at the Juwita. I hoped climb a volcano as well—it was one of my reasons for coming to Sumatra–only I planned to do it further south, near the town of Bukkittingi, which was to be our next stop

There Goes the Neighborhood

Anne, like all Batak people, was Christian. Church spires poked up all over the region, and the restaurants and homes of the locals were often adorned with huge crosses and depictions of Christ in his agonizing glory. These people were seriously Jesus’d up.

How is it living in a Muslim country? I asked her directly. Do you guys get along well around here.

Generally no problem, Anne replied. But the Muslims now, more are coming. Before not so many (a kind of inverse of tourists, it seems), but now… She shook her head and raised her eyebrows. They are not so friendly, you know. Always like this with the Christians, she stuck her arm away from her body with her palm up, a literal representation of at arm’s length.

You know, for Christmas, we give our neighbors food that we cook. This is our tradition. The Muslims they take the food, but they never eat. They just throw away… if they give us gifts we take and eat, but they throw away. And if Batak woman marries Muslim man, we never can see her again. Muslim family doesn’t even allow her to go see her family, to go to wedding…

That is too bad, I said. I tried to explain how her Muslim neighbors were probably not trying to be rude by throwing out the food they received, but just following the rules of halal, but this did little good to assuage her skepticism.

Let’s just hope that, despite your differences, you can continue to live peacefully, side by side.

She nodded her head in agreement.

And let’s really hope the travelers come back again.
With that she smiled and laughed.

Yes, yes. Let us hope. In the meantime, are you hungry? Nasi goreng?

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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