23 May 2000

Where's b?

Where's b?


Indonesia's Flag

6 May 2000, Saturday - Penang to Medan, Sumatra, Indonesia

I took Nautica Ferries from Penang to Belawan. Includedint he fair was the bus from Belawan to Medan. The boat was small and the ride was fast and suprisingly smooth. The journey took about 4 and a half hours. We were confined to the lower cabins, I think the boat was moving too quickly to go up on deck.

There was an immediate military presence in Indonesia that has been missing elsewhere. Plenty of men in blue uniforms where loitering and working around the port. I noticed only later that my passport was stamed with 06 Mar rather than 06 May. I'm hoping that it doesn't cause any major problems. I'm sure it won't be anything a bribe can't fix.

I took a private bus from Medan to Bukit Lawang we arrived around 8pm. It was a 4.5 hr bus ride. Left Penang around 9am. So about 12 hours of travel.I met a retired New York school teacher named Bob. we traveled together from Medan to Bukit Lawang.

7 May - Bukit Lawang Orangutans

Bukit Lawang's claim to fame is the Orangutan Rehabilitiation Center. A small village catering to tourists has sprung up along the river that runs by the rehab center. The river is large and swift and crossed by several bridges that vary in degrees of ricketyness. The setting on the edge of the jungle by the river is very nice.

More than adequate rooms are available with private bath for about 75 cents (5000 rupiah). Food is likewise cheap. Street food like fried bananas and roast corn can be had for pennies. Restaurant fair runs about 50 cents a plate. As for other traveler's fair like dope and women they appear to be a good price and value as well about $7. Such things as this combine to make Indonesia the destination of choice among a growing number of travelers. In many ways Thailand is expensive and spoiled by comparison. At leat that is my expectation/ first impression.

Today I went with Bob to the orangutan feeding. We walked a short ways into the jungle and watched the orangutans come swinging in from various corners of the jungle. We warned to steer clear of a particulaly blood-thirsty mother and her baby. They were fun to watch with their orange fur, human-like expressions, and lanky movements. I had considered taking a jungle trek, but the expense involved (about $35 plus) plus my being short on time has eliminated that possibility. Tomorrow I take a bus to Brastagi. Another locale that is supposed to be pleasantly cool for this hot latitude.

8-9May - Brastagi, North Sumatra - Sibayak volcano

As a reference for other travelers I'll try to begin entries with basic information about accomodation. Prices in parentheses given in rupiah at a current exchange rate of 8,000 Indonesian rupiah to $1. Which means about $.75 to $3.25 for a bed from basic to semi-luxurious.
Elshadia Guesthouse(10,000) This place run by an Italian fella and his Indonesian wife is clean and comfortable. The first hot shower I've had in awhile as well as the first CNN I've seen in a long while. Rooms on the "highway" side are horribly noisy. I know, I had one the first night and it sounded like I was sleeping on the highway. I changed rooms for the second night.

The Ascent of Sibayak
A guide was recommended for climbing Mt. Sibayak so I had a guide take me up the volcano and down to the hotsprings below. A cheerful sign at the base of the mountain listed the particulars of several Western people who had perished while climbing the mountain over the past few years.

We got a late start and got caught in a fairly steady drizzle on the top. As thunder roared in the distance and we were exposed on a barren and rocky crater I became a little concerned about the prospect of being struck by lightening. I tried to recall the correct posture for becoming a happy lightening rod but was less than reassured when the hairs on my forearms began to stand up (the tell-tale sign that sparks above are wishing to complete a circuit with your body, or that you're scared shtless.)The drama of the rocky landscape of sulphuric jets was no less than the drama of the electrical storm. The trail was very well defined and well trodd except for two spots where the trail vanished in rocky oblivion. The second of these spots is where you find the trail going down to the hot springs. This is no doubt where people have had problems and have fallen to their deaths or were eaten by cannibals. Here a guide was a sure help.

The trail down was steep and harsh. The jungle near the base made a pleasant contrast with the barren and craggy summit. After a small and sandy bamboo groove we arrived at the small village supporting a restaurant and two hot spring bathing operations.The hotsprings at the base of the volcano where a perfect conclusion to the exacting descent. My legs were sore for at least 4 days. More of a reflection of my city-life sloth than the mountain's rigor.

The Hot Springs
The hotsprings were very popular with the locals who were not required to pay the 1,500? entrance fee. The only other tourists I met were two Japanese guys. I think I was more scandalized by lax sanitation than they were. Japan has rigorous etiquette when it comes to hotsprings (onsen). Their etiquette carries over to or from the public bath now home bath (ofuro). Before getting in the bath or hot spring one must thoroughly bathe and rinse. This way the water stays clean for all the other bathers to follow. Families share the same bath water at home. (If I'm not mistaken the hierarchy of use runs from guests to oldest male to youngest female). (Similarly you remove your shoes before entering a dwelling so that the floor stays clean.)

No such ettiquette was followed here. We were dirty and sweaty from the climb but we just dipped right into the concrete pools with everyone else.

10-11 May - Tongging, North Lake Toba, North Sumatra - Sipisopiso Falls

Wisma Sibayak(25,000) Idlyllic setting on a Northern cove of Lake Toba. A garden crossed by a small creek, crossed by a wooden bridge. Cheaper rooms were available but I took the new luxury room a good value. The hotel was around the bend from the small village of Tongging. It was surrounded by valleys planted with rice. The only other guest was an Australian guy who had searched Lake Toba for the best spot to spend 2 months and this was it. One of the dogs from the hotel accompanied me whenever I took a walk. When I left Tongging the dog followed me into town to the minibus and watched me board.

Sipisopiso Waterfall
The main attraction of this valley on Lake Toba is the dramatic waterfall that pours over a high mountain pass and plunges straight down to the bottom of the valley that irrigates the farms of Tongging before going to the huge fresh water volcanic Lake Toba.The mountains all around have been logged, so their is a scarred look to the otherwise fantastic setting.

12-14 May - Tuk-Tuk, Samosir, Lake Toba

Abadi (10,000) basic, cheap, small porch on the water. Nice restaurant with a view of the lake. When I arrived at Abadi and was shown to my room a 21 year old Indonesia girl was washing clothes in the lake just in front of my door. She was wearing a long white dress that got progressively wet as proceeded to wash her clothes. Her young full body was bare beneath her dress. I turned to my Japanese neighbor who was sitting up in his lawn chair smoking a cigarette and enjoying the view. I asked him if he got the same good view everyday. He understood enough English to smile. I was feeling like a swim after my long, hot, dusty series of minibuses from Tongging. I jumped in the lake. The washergirl swam a little as well until a young Englishman came calling saying her boyfriend was looking for her.

Lake Toba was formed a long time ago with the eruption of a huge volcano. Some people think the ash from the volcano blocked the sun, cooled down the Earth and triggered the last ice age. Check a map and you'll see how big the lake is. It's 400 to 800 meters deep.

"Tuk-Tuk" means peninsula in Indonesian and Tuk-Tuk is a small peninsula on the "island" of Samosir that sits in the middle of Lake Toba. It's the home of the Christian Toba-Batak people thought to be part of the dispersed tribe of Karen whom I met on the Thai/ Burma border. When I first walked around the farms in Tongging I was reminded of the farmland of the Karen people in Thailand. I then recalled that I'd read that these Karo-Batak were from the same Karen stock. (Unfortunately I have yet to write about my trekking along the Thai-Burma border with my Karen rebel guide. He had bullet wounds from his battles for a Karen homeland in Myanmar. I suspect opium poppies helped feul the rebel movement but Big Brother Police USA built roads into the mountainous bush and destroyed the large swaths of the lovely flowers.)

Tuk Tuk is the tourist hub for Lake Toba. Like all of Indonesia I've seen so far it was running at less than 5% capacity. That means lots of restaurants and hotels/ guesthouses and very few travelers/ tourists. I've met many of the same people. Because of this situation I've expected the locals who depend on the tourist trade for their livelihood to be agressive in their attempts to win the few tourist pesos available. This, however, has not been the case. The people have been fantastic. I can't praise Indonesians enough in this regard. Other's may have a different experience here, but I've had no hassles at all in my two plus weeks in Indonesia.

Pre-Christian Bataks
I took a motorbike around Samosir. There were plenty of fine views of the lake and the mountians around this huge crater. In Ambarita I had a look at the remains of a traditional Batak village. There was a set of stone chairs where village affairs were discussed. Further along was a set of three stones. I found out why the Batak have a fierce reputation amongst other Indonesians.

The guide explained that this was the place where criminals were punished. A final meal was prepared on the large round stone. The criminal (thief, adulterer etc.) ate his last meal while the chief, his family and the village looked on. The criminal was then taken to another stone where he was beat with sticks or stones or what not. Lime juice was poured on the open wounds. He was then taken to the third stone where he was ceremoniously decapitated.The affair was not quite over however. His blood was collected in cups and consumed by the chief as well as the criminal's family (If I got the info correct). His headless body was brought back to the second rock where his heart was removed. The heart was taken to the first rock where it was prepared with salt and chili peppers and served to the chief and the criminal's family. I was thinking that this was one tribe I wouldn't want to be the chief of.

These colorful practices ended in 1813 (according to the guide) after German Christian missionaries came spreading the "Good Word." The Toba-Batak are now Christian with Catholics and Protestants represented. I caught the tail end of a church service on Sunday. They hymnal was in Batak. The church was full of hymn-singing Bataks in their Sunday best.The Western Christians were meanwhile sleeping off hangovers or else suntanning along the lake.

This just scratches the surface of Lake Toba, more will have to wait for the book.
15-16 Bukittinggi, West Sumatra

D'enam Guesthouse(15,000). Travelled here with a Swiss couple from Lake Toba. We took a day tour of sights around Bukittingin and met an articulate civil engineer from Oxford. He'd quit his job to travel. The biggest leg to be overland from S. Africa to London.

We saw and or tasted products "from the vine:" Cinamon, cloves, coffee, beetlenut. We enjoyed views of the volcanoes and valleys around Bukittingi. We watched a monkey collected coconuts, an old water driven coffee mill, a motorized rice mill, weaving and wood carving. I took a dip in a crater lake. I lost 5,000 rupiah to our guide at the Bull Fights. Not a bloody bull fight. Just a brief joust until one bull runs off. This was a very popular and excited bi-weekly event for the local men.

The name of the people in Bukittingi and Pandag is Minangkabau. Minang means "winning" kabau means "bull." They derive their name from a legendary bull fight in which they defeated the Javanese. They are Muslim, matrileneal and proud. Property is inherited through the female line and work tends to be divided more equally amongst the sexes.

17-19 May - Lake Maninjau, West Sumatra

Rizla Beach(6,000), my band of merry makers arrived late and the place was full. We were sent to the bat cave. A room with four beds and enough open spaces to allow visa free entry to mosquitos and bats. The bats were a boon but their dropping were unwelcome.

There was full moon party and I became the guitar player. My repetoir of Bob Marley songs went over well with travelers and locals alike. Bob is the de facto patron saint of Indonesia. Many of his songs read like prophesies for the archipelago. One could get used to playing on the beach amidst clouds of ganga. Margaritaville, the soft life of The tropical Beach, makes a good vacation, but it's no life for me. The full moon turned out to be too much for some. They ran for cover under the shade of the palm trees.
20 May - Padang, West Sumatra

SriWijaya Hotel(15,000). Wasn't in Padang long enough to get a fair impression. The bus ride from Maninjau was terrible, however. Over three hours to travel a steamy distance that would take about one in a private car.

21 May - Pelni Line Ferry, Staits of Mentawai en route to Jakarta

Economy class passenger huddle together along stretches of plastic matresses like refugees. I joked with my Swiss travelling companions that refugees in their country had it better. They agreed. There is actually a good deal of resentment directed at ethnic minorities throughout parts of Europe. Let that be another note to my American readers, American is far from having a monopoly on racial bigotry. Racism is absolutely and powerfully pandemic. And as I suggested in an earlier page it should be exposed and confronted as the demon it is.

"You've been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald's books, You're very well read, it's well known." (Ballad of a Thin Man)
An English fella named Andy was next to us in our cabin. He finished reading the Great Gatsby and offered it to me. I said I'd read it before and took it. I didn't say it was written by a relative. I started reading a finished it the next day. I had been reading a small book by an Indian-British woman. I had been reading it for about 2 months and hadn't finished it. I was relieved to find out that I hadn't gotten soft teaching basic English. I'd only failed to be grabbed by the prose. The plot was just as interesting in the Indian-Brit book, but the writing was weak and lifeless. I evidently needed a "classic."

I relearned something about literature. The best is ambitious without being technical or sophmoric. The use of language is of utmost importance all other devices of narrative are secondary. Perhaps my readings in Indian philosophy had prepared me for this. (The exaltation of the word.) The same considerations hold true for music and art in general.

This book worked and reminded me how books should or could work. The prose was creative, but never over-shot itself. It even dipped into mysticism where necessary but never went over the edge. I recalled the resent movie, "American Beauty." In some ways, it is a similar success. Slowly a grammar of film is being elaborated.

22-24 May - Jakarta

Yusran Hostel(20,000). This place is on an alley off Jalan Jaksa, Jakarta's answer to Bangkok's Khao San Rd or Kathmandu's Thamel. And it's a whimper of an answer but this is a country which tries to be Muslim. There are more mosquitos at Yusran than tourists but it's quiet as long as the mosquitos are near your ears.

"Asian style" toilets
The only drawback at this place are the bathrooms. The toilets are a dysfunctional hybrid of East and West that often pops up in traveler areas. For the uninitiated I'll elaborate.

"Asian style toilets" begin somwhere in Southern Europe and stretch all the way to the furthest corners of Asia. To the uninitiated, the essence of this toilet is a hole in the ground. But just as essential as a hole in the ground is a water source to be used for cleaning and flushing. It is common knowledge that "Indians" eat and shake hands with their right hands because they "wipe" themselves with their left and it's considered unclean. What is less common knowledge is that's the way it is all over Asia and it's a very clean and efficient practice.

When I moved into my temporary apartment in Singapore, the occupant explained that I'd have to buy toilet paper if I needed it. This Westerner explained that he didn't use toilet paper. Obviously he went Asian style. I thought this was somewhat eccentric and bought a large package of toilet paper.
I used the toilet paper as toilet paper, tissue paper and paper towels and before long I was out of paper.I discovered this fact at an inoportune moment and went native. I had experience in using an Asian style toilet in the Asian manner and it was no big deal. In fact it was such no big deal that I stopped buying toilet paper myself and perhaps joined the ranks of eccentric semi-ex-pats.

Even using the toilet can be a new adventure for the traveler.
I was actually not new to this. When I landed in Bangkok a couple of years ago I went to a guesthouse and inevitably went to the toilet. I closed the door and was faced with a minor dilema and a friendly and informative poster on the bathroom door. In cheerful and tasteful language it explained to the novice how to use an Asian toilet. The poster encouraged "Give it a try. It's clean and fun." This is all a part of travel so I bit the bullet and like a child I read step by step and performed step by step and Eureka, it worked.

It was much later that I learned how to eat with my right hand. I'd tried a time or two in Malaysia and Singapore, but it was under the tutelege of my Krishna buddy Brian that I mastered the art of eating my Indian chow with one hand.

Many people are impressed that I can handle chopsticks, but few are very impressed that I can use my right hand to get my food to my mouth. I'm personelly more impressed with the latter.

To return to the toilets at Yusran, they are a dysfunctional hybrid. They are western sytle toilets with or without a seat. No paper is provided, but water and a small bucket are provided. If there is a seat it gets wet. If there isn't a seat do you squat or sit? If you... It's just doesn't work.

This might be difficult to grasp for the inexperienced, but my English roommate agreed with me. The toilets don't work.

I've spent far too much time discussing the toilets already, but the toilets are fine illustration of the rather fundamental differences that make us multi-hued home sapiens into different animals. Asians and Africans can quickly and comfortably assume a squating posture and remain in it comfortably for perhaps hours. I have yet to meet a white person with the same ability. This position is the same one assumed in the "Asian" toilet. It makes a dramatic contrast with the throne quality of the Western toilet.

As Asians develop in ways parallel with the West they become self-conscious of this posture and assume it less. A dramatic anthropological revolution is underway in Asia and Asians are scrambling to make sense of it. Who are we? They ask and ask. A few years back "Asian values" debate opened in Singapore and South-East Asians began to debate and attempt to forge an identity. One of the more oustanding points of the debate centers around freedom of the press. A free press, many Asians argue is not an Asian value. I will end this tangent here.

I ran into a small snag this morning. I stopped in at Mell's Drive-In Diner in Central Jakarta. There was no drive in, but there were booths, a juke box of rock 'n roll and r&b, posters of Elvis, Marilyn, and a menu of burgers, fries, shakes, and breakfast. I listend to Stevie Wonder, Sam Cook, and Soloman Burke play over the juke box and read of yesterday's anarchy in the Jakarta post while I had some black coffee in Java. When my scrambled eggs, grilled potatoes, and toast arrived I instinctively looked at the condiments and found a setup that I hadn't seen in many months: ketchup, tabasco, salt % pepper. Tabasco! A brief moment of delight passed as I looked at the small bottle. I salt and peppered the eggs and potatoes and generously doused my eggs with Avery Island vinegar, peppers and salt. And then I hit a snag. I began to reach for my toast with my left hand! I looked over my shoulder and at the Indonesian employees. I briefly debated the etiquette in Jakarta at an American Diner. I drew back my left hand and picked up my toast with my right hand. I couldn't use it as a pusher/scoop for my eggs.

Inside the Jakarta Post a small story described how police had rounded up a mob of highschoolers wielding machettes, sickles, and knives. The students had been rounded up around the very I had planned to take a stroll (jalan jalan) this morning. That was curious. Another small article described how "another student" had been killed in a similar mob scene. The 17 year old had his stomach opened with a machette.

On the day of my arrival in Jakarta students in front of the Presidential Palce burned an effigy of former president Soeharto. They are demanding he and his family and cronies be tried for corruption, nepotism, and all such abuses which are part and parcel of the poltical machinery in nations around our wonderful planet. Soeharto's neighbors are wishing the students would pick another venue for their protests.78 year old Soeharto is being removed to a secure location. A location discretely lined with barbed wire, I imagine.

I'm leaving Jakarta. I sort of like it. It's a 24 hour place and the people are friendly enough, particularly with what they've had to put up with. The National Museum houses a fine collection. One of the best in Asia. This country is without a doubt one of the most culturally and naturally rich places on the planet. The nature is being destroyed by legal and illegal logging. The rainforests here house an incalcuable amount of species that are disappearing with the years.

While we're on unsavory topics, I'll reassure the American readers that America is far from holding a monopoly on aggravated murders. Almost everytime I picked up a paper in Singapore I found a story of some local barbarism. I still cringe to consider the more henious stories. Dare I repeat them. NO. Just rest assured that East and West waltz together in savagry. The active savages are a small minority in the human family but the potential savages lie inactive in the dark recesses of most.

Previous -- Next

Where's b?

Index - New Orleans Music - Where's b? - Travels - Festivals - Links