Saturday, 5 August 2017

Exploring Sumatra

And so then there was Indonesia. On every trip I’ve been on thus far there has proved to be one place that has captured my heart. Sometimes it’s a town, other times an entire country. This time we saved the best until last. Indonesia, a place we had never particularly intended to visit, proved to be the place that we loved the most.

It wasn’t love at first sight though. Arriving in Medan late in the evening after taking three back-to-back flights from Kota Kinabalu to Kuching in Borneo, then on to KL and finally to Medan, we were tired and ready to crash. After the obligatory rigmarole that comes with calling an Uber in a country where you don’t have a local phone number yet, we gave up and paid for an airport taxi to take us to a budget guesthouse we’d looked up in advance knowing we wouldn’t have the energy to find a place after such a long journey. An hour later we arrived in a pleasant enough place, nothing fancy, but run by a friendly local family. I think we were asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillow.

The following day we had time to explore Medan a little. The first thing that hit us was the heat. It was unbearably hot and this made us slothful, but we had a few things we needed to do so we started to walk down the road towards the city centre. Medan immediately reminded us somewhat of Myanmar; it is a hot, dusty and dirty city with very poor infrastructure, virtually no pavements and insane traffic. We had barely walked a block and in that time had had to fend off a dozen desperate, pleading becak drivers, the Sumatran version of tuk-tuks, so reminiscent of Cambodia.

There was a bustle to the place and an undeniable edginess. I liked it straight away, but Evan wasn’t so keen. Our first mission – to find SIM cards. This proved much harder than we’d expected. Unlike everywhere else we’d been, it seems that adding credit to your pay-as-you-go phone in Indonesia is much more complicated. Credit can be for local use only or nationwide, and it costs whatever the vendor wants to charge you. It’s also unclear most of the time exactly how much data you’re really getting. You ask, write down figures and they always nod and smile regardless. I seemed to strike lucky when I bought a SIM card with 1GB of data for about 50,000 rupiahs (about £3). I bought it in a dingy little side street tobacco store from a man I was sure would scam me and I didn’t expect it to last long. For the next month, it continued to work without ever the need for another top up. Evan, on the other hand, didn’t have such luck. He paid nearly ten times this amount over the month we spent in the country and half the time his phone wouldn’t connect at all!

Not really sure where we wanted to go next, for reasons I can’t recall, we ended up sitting around in Medan for a couple of days before finally deciding that we might as well head north first. Destination – Banda Aceh and a ferry across to the beautiful island of Pulau Weh. A gruelling twelve hour overnight bus ride later (including an obligatory stop at a mosque for morning prayers) we arrived in Banda Aceh, the capital city of the strictly Islamic state of Aceh, infamous as the place where the Boxing Day tsunami hit in 2004, wiping out everything but the central mosque and leaving utter devastation and killing over a quarter of a million people.

There were two ferry options to reach Pulau Weh – the ambiguously named ‘fast’ or ‘slow’ ferries. Naturally, the slower one was much cheaper at about £1 each way as opposed to £5 for its big brother, so we opted to take the slow option. We ignored the touts trying to herd us toward the plush ‘fast ferry’ ticket counter and instead joined the queue at a rickety table behind a metal grill in the corner of the car park behind a long line of locals. Several looked confused and did their best to push us back towards the main ferry terminal building before realising that we were there intentionally, at which point their expression turned to bemusement. The crossing itself was calm and largely uneventful, save for a brief discussion we had with a guy collecting fees for sitting on his mats that he had laid on the deck. We opted to save ourselves a few cents on principle and perched instead on bags of grain and old tyres which were surprisingly comfortable. Once safely on the island, we joined others on a minibus headed to Iboih.

Upon arrival, we wandered along the edge of the water until we found a stilt bungalow we liked the look of for £5 a night. Basic, but with a bed, mosquito net and cold shower and a balcony with a hammock, it seemed despite my earlier protestations about spending some time sitting around doing very little, we were to end up doing just that. A walk later that evening along the shore brought us to a shack belonging to a local snorkel boat skipper and before we knew it we’d agreed to get up at 5 am the following morning to spend the day snorkelling and searching for dolphins. Tired, we returned to join a wonderful family dinner at our accommodation before retiring for the night to the sound of the waves lapping the rocks below us. 

Early next morning we arose just before sunrise and joined half a dozen other people to head out into the bay in search of dolphins. For an hour we alternately motored and drifted around, hoping to catch a glimpse of these magical creatures when suddenly, out of nowhere, a pod of maybe twenty dolphins streaked past us, jumping and skipping through the water and flicking spray as they landed. For a long time we sat in awe, watching them jump and flip in the water. Occasionally we’d see them re-surface in the distance before they spun around and headed back towards us. There were several large pods in the area and it was mesmerising watching them play in the early morning sunlight, feeding on the tuna that glinted in the water beneath us as they swam by. We spent the rest of the day snorkelling at various spots along the coast. After our sad experiences in the Perhentians in Malaysia, we were pleasantly surprised to find that the reef around Pulau Weh is in a much better state. We saw turtles, barracuda, starfish, a multitude of sea urchins and countless other brightly coloured fish. At one site we swam through an underwater volcano, its sulphurous bubbles stinging our throats when we surfaced for air. It was a unique and surreal experience and floating on the surface watching the bubbles rise below us gave the same feeling as watching the classic ‘warp speed’ windows screensaver. At another site, we swam with nurse sharks, silently circling us, curious about their underwater visitors.

Later that evening we decided to accept an invitation from new friends we had made that day to visit a maritime fair in Sabang, a town on the other side of the island. One thing we quickly learned about Indonesia is that, like in Borneo, everyone expects you to employ the services of a guide for every trip you wish to take. This was no exception. At the request of our new friends, a guy from a local hostel, who had organised us a not-very-cheap taxi ride to the fair, decided that he’d come along too. I mean, why would he pass up the chance of a free night out including dinner; the cost of which was conveniently split four ways between everyone other than him and our driver when the bill arrived. We decided to call time at the suggestion of the second round of drinks. Non-alcoholic of course, being that this was Aceh province, but still, it was the principle. The fair itself provided us with a unique insight into local life on this little island. Difficult to get to and infrequently visited by tourists, we were clearly a novelty to most of the other people there, most notably for the fact that myself and the German girl I was with were the only two females over the age of about ten amongst the many hundreds present who were not wearing anything covering our heads. That said, we were made to feel exceptionally welcome and never at any point did I feel uncomfortable or unwelcome.

This proved to be a theme wherever we went in Indonesia. Aceh is infamous for its strict Islamic rule and practice of Sharia law. Until the Tsunami hit, foreign visitors were not allowed to visit the region without special permission and it was only after this time, when foreign aid workers were allowed to enter to help to clear the aftermath of this horrific event, that these rules were relaxed. Much is written in the western media about Islam and sadly much of it is negative in the extreme with comments often suggesting that Islamic countries are hostile towards westerners, in particular, women who do not follow strict dress codes. Maybe this is true in some places and I cannot speak for places I have not been, but in Sumatra and Java, which we would later visit too, I never found this to be the case. The people we met were polite, friendly and beamed ear to ear when we took the time to stop and talk with them. Time and time again they took photos with us, asked to add us on Facebook and tried to teach us a few words of Indonesian in exchange for practising their English.

In fact taking selfies it seems is Indonesia’s national pastime. Later when we left the island, again on the slow ferry where I spent a pleasant journey chatting with a local teacher and her daughter whilst eating small packets of rice and eggs wrapped in paper, we decided to make a stop at the Tsunami Museum and Memorial in Banda Aceh. Before we went inside we decided a large cold drink from a roadside vendor was in order. We perched on a wall outside to finish our drinks and before we knew it we had a queue of about 30 people waiting to take their photo with us. I’m not exaggerating - groups of young men, giggling teenage girls, whole families complete with small children and grandparents in tow all politely asked us if we would please be so kind as to allow them to take a photo with us. Not just one photo either, a whole portfolio. Twenty minutes later the queue showed no signs of ending so we awkwardly smiled and beat a hasty retreat into the safety of the museum. It didn’t stop there though. In the entrance hall which contains a memorial to those who died in the tragedy, we continued to be cajoled into photo opportunities, something that felt decidedly wrong in a place intended for quiet reflection. In the queue waiting to watch a short film about the disaster, we were subjected to perhaps 50 more photos. This continued for the entirety of our visit. Eventually, it got too much and we escaped back into the bustle of the city. We now know what it must feel like to be a celebrity, constantly hounded by the press. 

Finding ourselves again unsure of where to go next, we decided that as there was only really one direction in which to head from the far northern coast of an island, we’d head for a place called Bukit Lawang on the edge of Gunung Leuser National Park, home to one of the largest remaining populations of Sumatran Orangutans. To get there we needed to head back towards Medan so we made our way to the bus station where we were immediately jumped upon by a particularly aggressive tout, the first of many, who was determined to make us buy tickets for his bus. After a fairly heated exchange, we declined his services and instead found another company whose bus left two hours later. At half the price it was comfortable enough, but its downfall was that it would deposit us in Medan at 4 am – too late to justify finding a room for the night but much too early for the first shuttle bus to Bukit Lawang. With few other options, we boarded the bus and 14 hours later alighted at a grubby bus station back in Medan.

Unsurprisingly, there’s not a great deal to do around the bus station in Medan at 4 am, so after a rather uncomfortable exchange with a very aggressive tout who tried everything in his power short of physically kidnapping us to get us to accept his offer of an extortionately priced ride to Bukit Lawang, whilst repeatedly snapping at us ‘you can afford it, you tourist on holiday!’, we set up camp in a little café where the owner provided us with something that vaguely resembled coffee and a continuous stream of various fried snacks (which we were later charged for, of course) until we were able to begin negotiations with the first bus out of town at around 7.30am. There was very little I detested about our time spent in Indonesia, but transport providers and guides were top of my list. Food and accommodation prices were reasonable enough without much negotiation, but transport was consistently frustrating to arrange and extremely expensive in most cases due to the various mafia’s controlling them.

Bukit Lawang is only 90km from Medan but takes an unsurprisingly tedious 3 hours to reach. The road to reach the little tourist enclave alongside the Bohorok river is horrendous, barely worthy of the title ‘road’ at all. To make matters worse, we found ourselves at the mercy of a bus driver intent on completing as many return journeys as possible in a day even if it meant killing us all in the process. I am not exaggerating here, on several occasions I honestly thought our time was up. Trapped in a real-life version of Wacky Races, we tore along with no regard at all for other road users, playing the ultimate game of chicken. If the traffic was preventing our driver from overtaking on the outside he’d simply take a run at the inside instead. I lost track of the number of near-misses, each terrifying and somehow worse than the last. At one point a short cut took us up to a low, locked barrier but still he didn’t stop until he’d tried to force his way under, leaving a large scrape mark down the roof of the bus. I’d love to have been able to say that the experience was worth it, but unfortunately, it wasn’t. Welcome to Bukit Lawang, aka Orangutan Disneyland Jungle.

Tired and irritable, we arrived in tourist hell. From the second we stepped off the bus we were hounded mercilessly by guides desperate to secure our business. From the tuk tuk driver who ferried us the last couple of kilometres into the village, to each and every shopkeeper trying to sell us flip flops and sarongs, the pressure to spend money was intense and unwavering. All we really wanted to do was eat some breakfast and go to bed, but we were prevented from doing this by a guide who insisted on showing us his portfolio of photos, mostly of him with other tourists feeding mother orangutans bananas whilst grinning and hugging their babies and taking selfies. When I questioned him on this practice and the harm being caused to these animals from this human interaction, he quickly shut his book and assured me he never fed them, that it was bad! He’d already told me all I needed to know about the place and we knew at this point we wouldn’t be parting with any money in return for a guided trek into the national park.

Bukit Lawang has over 200 registered guides. In the time we spent there, three days in total, we were harassed by maybe a dozen of them. Very few tourists arrived, maybe a couple of dozen in the time we were there. It doesn’t take a maths whizz to deduce that this ratio just doesn’t work. The reason BL is so popular with tourists is that it used to be the site of an Orangutan ‘rehabilitation’ centre. After the people running it admitted that rehabilitation just doesn’t work, the centre closed and the animals that had been released nearby continued to be fed at a feeding platform, not unlike the place I visited in Borneo. The difference here though is that this supplementary feeding has now been discontinued as it was no longer deemed necessary, but seeing a money making opportunity, guides have set up in the nearby village and now take visitors on guided ‘treks’ to see the animals. Never wanting to miss the opportunity to provide their demanding clients with the perfect holiday snaps, they take food for the animals to bribe them to pose, which they happily do. Don’t offer any food though and it’s a different story, with many accounts of animals being aggressive and becoming a danger to both tourists and ultimately themselves. There are a handful of ‘good guides’ in BL, but sadly they form such a small minority that their pleas for these practices to stop fall on deaf ears. Money rules here and after a tragic flood in 2003 that killed a large percentage of the village’s population and wiped out much of its infrastructure, many are desperate to earn a living and this is how they do it.

What made our time spent in BL even more frustrating was that it was here that we discovered that all but one of the bank cards and credit cards we had between us, four cards with four different banks, had been blocked in the few days since we had arrived in Indonesia. To make matters worse there was no ATM in Bukit Lawang and the wifi was awful enough that it was impossible to get online or use skype to call our banks to sort out the problem. Charging electrical items was also near impossible as for some reason, despite having several adapters, our phones charged only at a trickle. We were fed up, in a place we both despised and we couldn’t wait to get away from it. It was with a huge sigh of relief that we stepped off the minibus back in Medan the following day, headed back the same guesthouse at which the Indonesian part of our adventure we had begun and could finally get on to things such as unblocking cards and, as our time away was coming to an end, booking flights home, something we had been trying to do for several days. Several calls later, whilst being fed fried tofu by the owner of our accommodation, we were ready to go again. 

Unfortunately, we’d missed the cheapest seats on the flights we wanted to catch to Palembang the following day, meaning we ended up having to stay another day. This wasn’t a bad thing though, we took the time to catch up with writing blog posts, sorting out photos and chatting with the owner’s family members about all sorts of things from driving licences to why travellers wear elephant pants. At one point we were invaded by a group of about 15 school kids who wanted to interview us for their English homework. What ensued was an enjoyable hour of questions in both directions, giggles and a million selfies. We discovered that they were all around 14 or 15 years old and ethnic Batak people. They were also Seventh Day Adventists, something that surprised us in such a strongly Islamic region. When Evan generously offered to buy them all a drink you’d have thought all their Christmases had come. Even now, several months later I get sweet little messages via Facebook and Whatsapp from these guys; ‘Hello Mrs, how are you?’

Next, we would head south east, our aim to reach Java mostly overland, although this would prove to be much harder than we anticipated.

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