I collapsed on my backpack, dishevelled, dirty, and exhausted, hoping for a few snatched moments of shade before the 8 hour bus ahead. Having just flown from Penang (Malaysia) to Medan (Sumatra) I decided to head straight to Lake Toba for my first three days in Indonesia in an effort to make the most of my short visit. While waiting for the bus I was surrounded by between ten and fifteen Indonesian taxi men, bus drivers and ticket inspectors of various ages. Conversation proceeded roughly as follows:
“Mister, mister, where you go?” they cried. “Lake Toba” I answered. “Where you from?” they enquired. “Ireland” I replied. I then spent upwards of ten minutes trying to explain that Ireland was the country BESIDE England. I was getting nowhere. Eventually employing a mixture of wild gesticulation and shouting “France, hand, goal, no world cup!” one of the more worldly taxi men exclaimed “IRLANDIA, Robbie Keane, Roy Keane, Alex Ferguson!” RESULT!
Needless to say I didn’t feel the need to defend the latter’s Scottish roots...
Now that the question of my nationality had been settled, they moved onto different topics. “Mister what age you?” - “21” I answered. Then a
devilish smile spread across some of their faces:
“Do you know make love to woman?”
“Emm, ok” I started, but got no further.
The group erupted. Backslapping, handshaking, and lone demonstrations of hip thrusting abilities ensued. I thought these people were meant to be Muslims? But with the level of alcohol consumption taking place at one in the afternoon, along with the fairly “handsy” approach to the local females, l think Sumatrans must be at the more liberal end of the Islamic spectrum.
Once calm returned to the group, I noticed a few of the men had left and returned with some Indonesian women. “You like, you like, you marry mister?” “Eh, no thanks, they seem really nice though”. None of my refusals, however forceful or explicit, had the desired effect. Clearly the benefits of an Irish passport were well known (as well as its strong resale value as the identification of choice for the world’s more active intelligence agencies). Mercifully the bus arrived, and I darted onboard, escaping the indefatigable matchmaking locals.
The bus journey itself wasn’t too bad. The leg room was ok, the ticket cost €1.80, and there was air-conditioning. I arrived
at Lake Toba just over 8 hours later. The lake itself is set in the crater of a super-volcano. My destination, Samosir, is the Singapore-sized island at its centre. At just over 1,100 sq km, Danau Toba is the largest lake in Asia, and volcanic lake in the world. According to Lonely Planet the island used to be the
Asia backpacker party spot in the 1990s until the Thai islands pushed it firmly off the tourist radar. The result is that there is extremely cheap, relatively modern accommodation, and virtually no tourists. My hotel twin room was only €3 per night!
My time at the lake was spent reading, swimming and hiking. On my second day I decided to climb the 800 metre high mountain at the centre of Samosir. Lonely Planet described the three hour ascent as “hard” and “steep”. Translating from Lonelyplanetese, I took this to mean “Wheelchair and disabled friendly, suitable for the elderly and young children, journey time approximately 20-30 mintues”. Even though LP had “cried wolf” many times before, sadly this time the guidebook spoke the truth. While the physical aspect of the climb was tough, it wasn’t gruelling. It was the fact that
the track had become completely overgrown with thick vegetation that caused me difficulty. Also, the decision to climb in shorts and a t-shirt, with no map, half a bottle of water, and starting at 3 p.m. didn’t help matters. By the time I got back to the hotel it was pitch dark, I was covered in cuts, bruises, leeches and mud, and was gasping for water in addition to feeling sorry for myself. Still the views at the summit were spectacular and were well worth the pain.
On my fourth day, I set off back to the mainland. My goal was to get the 8 hour bus to Medan, and get another bus to Bukit Lawang (home to a world famous Orang-utan reserve). In the end I barely achieved the first objective. On leaving the island my stomach felt a bit unsettled. After the ferry I felt worse, but still nothing debilitating. I got on the bus and sat in my seat. This bus was not the same quality as the previous one. My knees were firmly wedged in my face, there was no air-con, the windows were nailed shut and there were caged chickens in the aisles. At
this point I was pretty sure I had food poisoning. Both my stomach and the journey got progressively worse as the temperature inside rose and every Indonesian proceeded to chain smoke for the remainder of the trip. By the 8th hour I was delirious from nausea and barely holding back from projectile vomiting on the neighbouring poultry.
Finally, journey complete I stumbled out of the bus greeted by the usual horde of taxi men forcefully bidding for my custom. Even as I kneeled vomiting into a small porous plastic bin, puke seeping and splattering in all directions, the mob did not dissipate. It was at that moment I basked in the horrific beauty that is raw capitalism propelled by poverty. While my hands limply gripped the bucket, Adam Smith’s invisible hand held the men in their places. A viral display of the power of the market!
I spent the remainder of my time in Sumatra in Medan in a guesthouse recuperating. Interestingly the owner saved the wife of the Soviet Foreign Minister in the 1980s and as a reward was made the Soviet then Russian consular general in Sumatra. Stanley was extremely nice and offered me a free
Russian visa, which unfortunately due to time restraints was of no use to me.
In the end I left Sumatra with mixed feelings. On the one hand I really enjoyed Lake Toba, and being treated like a celebrity wherever I went. On the other hand I got fairly horrendous food poisoning and grew sick of being viewed as a walking ATM and stared at ALL the time.
At the airport a cleaning girl ran up to me and said “Mister, mister, I like you, you like me?” Resisting the urge to hit her and to tell her to fuck off, I got my boarding pass and left Sumatra, contemplating the week, looking forward to Malaysian modernity, wondering if I would ever return.
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