Thursday, February 14, 2008

Ten Days in Sumatra

I returned to Taiwan yesterday with Jenna after ten days exploring Sumatra. We did not by any means see much of the huge island - we never went beyond West Sumatra and Jambi provinces. But we could have spent a month exploring that area. It was an experience for me. It was my first visit to a developing country (five days I spent in Beijing in 2003 doesn't count as being in a "developing country"). It was my first visit to a Muslim country. It was also my first trip south of the equator, for what it's worth.

We flew into Padang on Saturday the 2nd. Padang is a noisy city of almost a million people. We didn't do much sightseeing in the city; in fact, we used it exclusively as a travel hub and as a place to get essential services. I did not take many pictures of Padang, which is described by Lonely Planet thusly:
Padang is typical of Sumatra's modern landscape: a sprawling noisy place circumnavigated by tripped-out opelet blasting squeaks-and-beeps techno music. Padang might have once been a showpiece, but the economic depression that has followed the 1997 currency crash means that the city's infrastructure gets used but never renewed. Capital, more so than capability, feeds the modern machine.
Opelets are the most common form of urban mass transit in Sumatra: minivans outfitted to cram in the passengers, blasting loud music and with routes that we had a hard time figuring out.
On our bedside table in the hotel in Padang there was a Koran - the local equivalent of a Gideon Bible in the United States, I suppose. Entirely in Arabic, not Indonesian. None of the other hotels we stayed at in Sumatra had one.

The day after we flew into Padang, we boarded a van to the city of Bukittinggi. Intercity transportation in Indonesia is an experience. Sumatra does not have a good train system (I'm still not clear on whether or not passenger train service exists between Padang and Bukittinggi; if it does exist it's neither reliable nor recommended), so most intercity transport is by van or bus. After boarding the Bukittinggi-bound van, we waited for some time as the driver tried to get more passengers aboard. We eventually departed Padang with more passengers on the van than I would have thought possible. As with all intercity transport in Sumatra, we picked up and dropped off passengers continually en route.

The road to Bukittinggi went through farmland before climbing upwards into the mountains. With the exception of central Padang and Bukittinggi, we did not see any populated places in Sumatra where people did not live in close contact with farm animals. Chickens have the free run of rural (and suburban) Sumatra, and we often saw goats tied up (or walking free), grazing by the roadside. Buffalo are a very common sight. Once the van entered the mountains surrounding Bukittinggi, we saw many monkeys sitting by the road. They seemed unafraid of humans, and may have expected to be fed.

All of the Indonesian flags we passed on the road appeared to be flying at half-staff; I can only suspect this was due to Suharto's passing the week before. Before our trip, as updates on Suharto's deteriorating condition made the world press every day, I wondered what reaction we would see in Indonesia if he died while we were there. As it happened, the flags at half-staff were the only acknowledgments of the death we noticed.
Bukittinggi is an attractive small city. We saw several other Western tourists during our two night stay there, although Western tourism in West Sumatra used to be far more than it is now. Bukittinggi appeared much more prosperous than I expected; at least when it came to external appearances, the area seemed as developed as rural Taiwan. Satellite dishes were extremely common (although the TV in our hotel room only got three channels) and there were many attractive-looking single-family homes (although there also seemed to be many families living in shacks, especially outside of the city).

That last picture shows a modern building with a traditional-style roof - a common sight in West Sumatra.
This is all that's left of an old Dutch fort on a hilltop - but the area is ideal for good views of the city.

On another hilltop (connected by footbridge to the hilltop with the fort) there is a museum and a zoo. Our Lonely Planet (our chief source of information throughout the trip) describes the zoo as "just depressing". There was a bear pacing back and forth unhappily in a bare concrete enclosure, and two elephants in a space that seemed two small for them. There was also a tiger inhabiting a fairly big space, and a couple of orangutans.
Gibbons are said to be fairly common in Sumatra, but these two in the zoo are the only two that we saw.
We're no experts on peacock behavior, but it looked like this male peacock was putting on a big feathery display to try and impress the female peacock, who completely ignored him as she ate her meal. We both found it amusing.
This museum, built in the traditional style, had the expected displays of traditional arts and crafts. It also had a display of stuffed calves with two heads or six legs, each one with a description of exactly when and where it was born. There was also a large display of paper currency from around the world.

On Monday we traveled by bus and ojek to the Harau Valley, a popular place for hiking, although we didn't stay there long. When I say we traveled by "ojek", I mean we were driven there on the back of motorcycles, which is just about the most basic form of taxi service I've ever taken, or can imagine. I was terrified when I first rode on the back of someone's motorbike in Taiwan; I was nervous about it at first in Sumatra, but eventually I just found it fun.

Bus travel in Sumatra is an experience. I'm not a huge person by Western standards, but I found buses to be cramped. There's not much legroom, and the seats are just plain designed for a smaller body frame. Bus drivers are reluctant to leave the terminal until the buses are crammed with passengers. Before the bus leaves, vendors stop by selling fruit and snacks. Then a musician comes on board and sings a song. Once it was a guy with a guitar who serenaded us; another time it was a little girl who sang something that sounded like devotional music, shaking a tambourine. Tips are expected, but just 1,000 rupiah (about ten cents in US currency) is sufficient.

There are no "official" ticket sellers, but rather while the bus is on the road someone will ask for money from the passengers. (At one point it was a boy who appeared to be about nine years old; afterwards he hung out in the back of the bus smoking a cigarette.) People are constantly getting on and off, and often carry considerable baggage. On one ride there was a terrified chicken crouching by my feet. On another ride a woman with a bag of live ducks sat near us.

Needless to say, there are no non-smoking buses.

Our destination after Bukittinggi was the Kerinci Valley to the south; in particular we wanted to get to Kersik Tua, a small town ideally located for hiking and sightseeing. First, we traveled by bus to the city of Solok. (The bus terminal at Solok contains what is officially the filthiest public restroom I have ever been in.) Our intention at Solok was to catch a bus to Sungaipenuh, the biggest city in the Kerinci Valley; the bus would go through Kersik Tua and we would be let off there. A man put us on a bus that (he assured us) would get us in the direction of Sungaipenuh, although we would have to transfer at a town along the way. After Jenna boarded, the man charged me 60,000 rupiah for each of us. Jenna, who has much more experience than me in haggling, is convinced he ripped me off. She's probably right, especially as the bus the man put us on turned out not to be the best one for our situation.

We took the bus to a small town were we were advised to transfer to another bus - one that was not bound for Sungaipenuh but rather a town called Padangaro. (I don't remember if we noticed this discrepancy; if we did we thought nothing of it, given the general chaos of Sumatran transportation and our failure to understand it. For all we knew Padangaro might be the terminus the bus would stop in after passing through Sungaipenuh.)

As it happened, the bus did not go to Sungaipenuh at all, and when we reached Padangaro the driver tried to put us on a van to Kersik Tua that would have cost us 300,000 rupiah. At this point Jenna and I both strongly suspected we'd fallen into a scam designed for clueless Western tourists. (With later reflection we decided that the guy who put us on the wrong bus at Solok was probably the only real jerk involved; everyone else just assumed we knew what we were doing.)

When it became apparent we didn't want to take the pricey van to Kersik Tua, they put us up in a hotel in Padangaro for the night. The hotel initially made me worry about a scam again. It was improbably large, new and impeccably clean, considering it was a hotel in a small village far away from any large city. But we figured it was probably intended for domestic tourists and for locals to hold special events, and we did not get badly overcharged. And they were friendly.

The following morning we got on a travel van to Kersik Tua.
Mt. Kerinci, the highest peak in Sumatra, towers over the area. Climbing it would have meant camping out overnight, and neither of us particularly felt up to it.
The town is on the edge of a vast tea plantation.

It's a lovely town to just wander around. Kids greet foreigners with "Hello Tourist!!", and want to have their picture taken. I wasn't sure if Kersik Tua is another place that used to have a great deal of foreign tourism, but the only Westerners we saw there a trio of Czechs we ran into twice, a Westerner who lived in the homestay down the street, and a German guy intent on climbing Mt. Kerinci who arrived at our homestay the night before we left.

Every night we stayed in Kersik Tua, we were serenaded by the sound of motorbikes roaring by without mufflers on the road directly outside. And I'm happy to say I got used to it very quickly.
One of the best parts of traveling to a new country is trying the food. The most common local food in West Sumatra is Padang-style, which consists of a variety of curries and other dishes eaten with rice. I liked everything, but it consisted of nothing that was wholly unfamiliar to me (except that I was supposed to eat everything with my right hand, which I adapted to quickly). In a cafe in Kersik Tua, however, I was intrigued by "roti bakar", which with my limited linguistic knowledge I interpreted as "roast bread" or "fried bread". It turned out to be buttered toast, with sweetened condensed milk and chocolate sprinkles poured over it.

Here's the menu of the cafe in Kersik Tua:That's right - the top half has a picture of Mt. Kerinci as a background, while the bottom half is dominated by Tigger, Winnie the Pooh, and Piglet.

Another bit of fascinating local cuisine - one that I knew about beforehand due to Lonely Planet - is the avocado smoothie. Locals consider the avocado to be just another fruit, and juice stands sell avocado smoothies as one of their most popular flavors. They usually include chocolate syrup. They are - and I'm being serious here - quite good.

Our first big excursion in Kersik Tua was to a local waterfall, which we traveled to by ojek. (By this time I had lost all fear of ojek travel.) While there we met a local guide (I've forgotten his name at the moment - must consult with Jenna) who offered his help and the use of his van. Travel by local guide is common in Sumatra, and he spoke good English and seemed pretty honest.

The next day we went hiking around Danau Gunung Tujuh. The Indonesian name means "Seven Mountain Lake", which is a pretty apt description - we had to hike up and down one of those mountains to reach the lake.There were a couple of monkeys, but we didn't see much else in the way of wildlife. Whatever is living in the forest probably knows to steer clear of humans. Sumatra still has wild elephants, tigers, and rhinos - but only a very few of each.
Jenna with our guide at the top of the mountain.

One reminder that we were in a developing country was that the infrastructure was not quite up to Taiwanese standards. Every place we spent the night outside of Padang and Bukittinggi experienced repeated power outages in the evening. And when we tried to call a hotel on an offshore island where we wanted to stay for the final few days, we found that apparently phone service in Kersik Tua was down. (Theoretically we could have asked a local if we could borrow their cell phone, but we weren't sure about the local etiquette.)

So on our second full day in Kerinci, our guide took us to Sungaipenuh so we could try to call this hotel, as well as make use of other urban amenities such as a post office. We tried several calls to this possibly mythical hotel from a Sungaipenuh wartel (full-service telecommunications provider), but no luck. Nobody answered the ringing phone. We even did an Internet search at the same wartel, only to confirm that we had the correct phone number.
On the same day, our guide took us to Lake Kerinci.

The countryside.
Farmland outside Kersik Tua.

Finally we left Kersik Tua to take a direct bus back to Padang. We stayed in the same hotel we'd checked into for our first night in Sumatra, and the front desk unsuccessfully tried to find our supposedly upscale coastal hotel for us. It turned out that they did not have a registered number. Since they're in Lonely Planet and a Google search turns up a bunch of hits, our best guess is that at some point they simply went out of business.

So instead the next day we went to a beach-front hotel on Bungus Beach, south of the city. It was written up in Lonely Planet (except for our unplanned night in Padangaro, every place we stayed at was written up in Lonely Planet) and once again we were the only foreigners there, until a Dutch couple and an Australian couple showed up the day we left. Echoing much of what we had heard about Western tourism in Sumatra, the guy who ran the place said business had been quite good in the 1990s, before drying up about ten years ago.
Bungus Beach is lined with fishermen's houses - and cheap hotels for tourists. The waters are not great for snorkeling - they're too murky for much to be visible, and all the human activity has frightened away most sea life - but on our last full day in the country we got taken on a boat ride to two island beaches where the snorkeling is fantastic.

My only previous snorkeling trip had been in Penghu in Taiwan, and I'd seen a great deal of interesting fish, and also non-fish animals such as squid, cuttlefish, and sea cucumbers. No cuttlefish this time, but there was tons of brightly colored living coral just off the beaches. All sorts of fish were numerous, and there were huge colonies of very large sea urchins on the floor beneath us.

On our last day in Sumatra we explored Bungus Beach some more.
That last day there was a group of kids on the beach playing - a bit too roughly, we thought - with a little monkey on a leash. We felt bad for the monkey, but noted that: a) he had ample opportunities to bite the kids in self-defense, but didn't, b) he had many chances to escape, but didn't, and c) it seemed like whenever he felt threatened he'd jump onto the leg of the kid holding the leash, where he seemed to feel protected. So we think he enjoyed the whole experience.

The hotel owner's sister drove us directly back to the airport for 200,000 rupiah - thus insuring we wouldn't have to transfer in central Padang with our luggage, something we had not been looking forward to. We got to the airport quite early - and Minangkabau International Airport is not exactly the most exciting place to wait for a departure.

We were greeted with massive amounts of culture shock on our arrival in Singapore's Changi Airport. We entered a world where everything is clean and looks brand-new, where everything is well-marked and makes sense, and where, in the taxi ride to our hotel, we drove on well-maintained roads and even the paint job looked newly done. It was a massive shock to our systems.

But I certainly wouldn't mind returning to Indonesia when I get the chance.


Matthew Stanford said...

Good read, outstanding write up

Anonymous said...

Thank you very interesting! and good info for my upcoming trip.