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Published: August 21st 2008
Saya Mau Sewa Sepeda
Reports arrive of a washed out bridge along the Trans-Sumatran forcing a circuitous detour connecting Lake Toba to regions south. Kay who speaks for her partner on all matters, cringes at the though of a twenty-four hour busride. The Scotsman explains that he made the journey from Bukittingi in six hours, first by road to Padang, thence flying Air Asia to Medan where he caught a direct bus, but last minute bookings are implausible for the shoestring traveller. Kay will return to Wales in a few weeks time for her sister’s wedding and ought to have a proper tan. Patty and her will journey up the Central Highlands to Aceh and Pulau Weh, an island paradise for divers inundated each weekend with NGO staff. I opt for the overnight bus, what doesn’t kill me will make me stronger. David, Anne Sophie and I fetch a serving of nasi goreng wrapped in a take away banana leaf before boarding the 4pm departing Executive. As sun sets a flat tire halts our progress, an hour later we pull off the road for a twenty minute prayer and shortly after ten pull into an isolated gravel car park next to
an overpriced canteen. The young square faced Frenchman in the seat next to me leads us to a cheap snack stand where we fill on instant noodles and sugary peanuts. I sleep a few hours, a string of broken dreams, tossing. My neighbour the next morning tries to explain where we must be, deep in the jungle passing smurf-like villages on panoramic switchbacks, a mountain range separating us from the Trans-Sumatran. Tucked in a lush narrow valley one village is entirely dedicated to a madrassa surrounded by countless clapboard chicken huts from which emerge half dressed students queuing for the mandi. Somewhere before daybreak the aisle’s congestion of cardboard boxes has been removed so I am left without a footrest, searching for a new position and dreaming of zipping along these windy backroads on motorbike. The scenery is breathtaking but the journey after eighteen hours grows disagreeable. And the Sumatran Plague has once again infiltrated my intestines. After twenty-four hours and thirty minutes we pull into Bukittingi. Further frustrated by a sudden heavy downpour we agree to a taxi driver who after haggling still overcharges us a ride to a no longer existing guesthouse. Several hotels line the main strip,
Meningkabau architecture in chocolate fudge brown
Jalan Ahmad Yani and Jl Teuku Umar, relatively crowded with blond couples and trekking guides. Our frugal means lead us uphill above the city centre where we discover the last of the budget options, losmen d’Etam next to a tasty little shop selling chocolate brownies. We sit on the deck under the eaves overlooking Pusat Kota veiled in dreary rainclouds. The rain drops’ whisper lulls me to sleep woken several hours later by the call to prayer. During a lull in the downpour I dash to an internet café for a fruitless half hour followed by an aggravating session with an incompetent travel agent. The evening ends on a high note, however, savouring a most delicious sweet and sour barbecued fish, eaten by hand and served with plain rice.
Saturday is market day. Pasar Atlas
is a crowded maze of tight walkways, wee shops bursting with goods, mammoth banana bunches, stacks of vegetables, dried snacks, a rank fish and meat market spilling with intestines, sacks of spices, nuts, dried fruits, an alley of fruit stalls and tin cooking ware/ mosque pinnacles, countless warungs serving fried rice or noodles, coconut and rice cakes, a few old women scooping fragrant ground
coffee and nearby a couple old men serving the thick brew to a handful of customers engaged in quick combative games of dominoes. One gentleman drinks a frothy brown cup of the telur, tea with egg and a crushed nut-like fruit of sorts. Delicious coffee though.
Today’s itinerary: a trip to Belimbing
, a small village of traditional Minangkabau
architecture amid tranquil farmland, terraced rice paddies and neighbourhoods seemingly oblivious to the modern world. The sky shines, clouds float, lifting from the perfect peaks of Gunung Merapi to the east and Gunung Singgaling to the west. The enchanting views are lost to most of the passengers in a stuffed tight mini-bus, windows tinted dark blue. I cover the 50km journey, on opolet, two mini-busses, a stopover in Padangpanjang, and a motorbike, or ocek the last few clicks down from Batu Sangkar, in two and a half hours. The motorbike screams downhill on a serpentine strip of asphalt, glimpses of villagers shin deep in muck planting rice stalks and rusting domes of mosques glisten burrowed in palm thickets alternating with glowing green stretches of rice quilted with teetering footpaths. A narrow shaded backroad leaps into a hidden centuries old hamlet where
baby on board
a very well behaved infant, 24 1/2 hrs bus journey
I’m let off across from a teashop of curious old faces. I have a good look around the village, snap pics and follow a path into the fields to sit and sketch an old hut, a dream home. “David, Anne-Sophie,” I announce to my friends that evening, “demain, on loue des motos, fair une tour du paysage et tu vas voire sans doute des meilleurs scenes pastorals. Mais ca vaut pas la peine d’aller qu’ en moto.”
65,000Rp rental + 18,000Rp petrol + 20,000Rp food brings the day’s adventure to just over 10$.
A warm morning eased into over coffee and brownies, watching anxiously the grey shadows looming in the distance. The open road weaves into the hills among terraced rice paddies, through low hilltop villages scattered with dwellings of thatched bamboo or rusted tin in fantastic bullhorn shapes, wood walls painted in shiny meticulous detail. I soon get the hang of the clutch and gears, the tune of the gas and the behaviour of other drivers and can relax and enjoy the freedom of my little Honda. Anne-Sophie sits straddled behind David snapping pics. Taman Panorama reads a sign atop the highest crest in the road, where
we pull off to admire the views. A carpet of long cinnamon sticks and a smaller tarpaulin of coffee beans lie sunbathing on the roadside. In the park, in the cool shade of palms and flowering shrubs, in gazebos and on benches reached by a network of foot paths overgrown with weeds and creepers, young couples hold hands and talk in hushed voices. Below a steep wooded slope a cluster of homes wade among rhomboid patches of rice, a scene that repeats rolling into the distance below dormant volcano peaks.
Up the road lies Raorao
quaint and fortunately forgotten in guide book summaries. We park our bikes on the roadside leaving the vinyl seats to cook in the sun while we follow a trail tucked between the shadows of old homes to a sloped avenue of Meningkabau architecture painted ice cream tints of pink and brown, blue and white, some trimmed. The odd pup or chicken scrambles into the road and scurries off again. Locals lie still in the shade of teashops and sundry shops, hands and faces peak hello into the sunshine. A group of older men, shovels strewn about, sit smoking in the corner of a cemetery.
The chubbiest dressed in a military shirt persists with a series of questions in Indonesian. David and Anne Sophie’s clueless answers seem acceptable enough and the old guy launches into what can only be his life story. Equal in length to most life stories, the group of men tries to reach a consensus with correct directions on the road ahead. There is a shortcut to Pagaruyung but it’s washed out. In a popular little shop we rest with a cup of kopi susu and are introduced to an engaging young woman, Nora, her innocent eyes watching from beneath a white jilbab, her conversation consistently returning to the blasphemies of free sex already corrupting the youths of Medan and Padang and no doubt a hot topic around the mosque’s libation pool. Naturally, Nora is on her way to the mosque and we must take a look, a fine tall building, a crisp white and blue with a pair of ornate minarets better suiting a lighthouse on Canada’s East Coast.
From Batu Sangkar a short ride twisting north leads to the old Rumah Gadang Pagaruyung
, the King’s Palace, whose kingdom is now a sleepy borough and whose palace is a scaled
down version of its former opulence burnt to the ground not so many years ago. Descendants of the royals occupy two other homes on the property and greet the odd visitor. “My Uncle is out of town today,” says a shy young woman, “and he has the keys.” After peering through dusty windows inside the dark palatial rooms turned popular photo studio for newlyweds complete with royal costumes, we sit in the shade and watch the young woman’s cherub faced sons giggling amongst themselves. Plaster moulds of deer frozen mid stride tilt awkwardly in the garden. Two painted figures, a King and Queen, stand guard carved in relief on either gatepost, where curiously someone has left a cigarette butt hanging from the Queen’s mouth.
Travelling south on a freshly painted stretch of highway towards Belimbing, I lead my friends down a village road quickly degenerating to a dirt path studded with potato sized stones. Beyond the last house a trail sweeps into an expanse of rice paddies, a dike skirts the large pools, bounces along the base of a steep cliff and meanders into a forest before climbing a steep gradient littered with fallen rocks. We veer off the
paved road down several sleepy neighbourhood lanes passing amused expressions. A narrow picturesque dirt path hugs a lush meadow of sparkling rice paddies, dips into a thicket of trees and enters a teetering path along the edge of a broad cascading quilt of rice shoots where figures in conical hats hunch in the muck. At a sudden fork in the road I turn right to save myself from falling off the dike and squeezing through a curtain of tree branches enter a small patch of grass surrounding a tall stilt dwelling of thin thatched walls and a shaggy roof in traditional Meningkabau design crowded with villagers dressed - some of them - in otherworldly aspect. Blocking the path and milling about is a most original looking wedding party much to the astonishment of a wide-eyed David, a beaming Anne-Sophie and myself unable to blink. Half a dozen women stand in the centre of the gathering dressed in sequins and gold threadwork, three young women, the bride included, exhibit dark horns of cloth wrapped around their hair. The older women stand tall and proud balancing elongated baskets tied in fabrics to match their dresses. David theorises that these must contain gifts
for the newlyweds. I catch a glimpse of the groom, thick wavy hair, healthy shining skin, seated among a crowd of men in the back of a pick-up turning down the lane. A tall middle-aged woman with a calm expression and a wandering eye greets the three of us and invites us up the ladder.
We cross the threshold and witness a crowd of women and children crosslegged in a circle on a large mat the other end of the dwelling, more women crouch next to stacks of dishes and tubs of soapy water, still more women are collecting wall sarongs in bright floral patterns and rolling up mats, setting down the festivities, returning the space to its former anonymous glow. The woman with the wandering eye sets before my friends and I several dishes, a bowl of fluffy white rice, raja bananas, pounded sticky rice cakes not unlike Japanese mochi but hidden inside tightly wrapped banana leaves, some white with coconut filling, others brown and chewy, slow to swallow, a bowl of rainbow coloured gelatine sliced like watermelon.
A hundred metres up the dirt road a sharp turn leads onto the main backroad through the village of
Belimbing where I’d been exploring the day before. It’s late afternoon, we zip and roar up and down a few more farmroads before following the main route down to Omblin, a zigzag series of cutbacks along a river emptying into Danau Srenekar. Predictably with only a few minutes of daylight remaining, a torrential downpour envelops the valley, a dark luminous grey fills the empty streets, people rushing for cover under teashop awnings. David, Anne-Sophie and I sit with glum faces watching across the street a sombre group of men crowding a small shop their leashed hounds chins in their paws waiting out the rain. It’s useless to sit out the storm. We hop on our wet seats and skitter down the highway. I can hardly see a thing, my vizor is tinted but without it the rain attacks my vision. I concentrate pacing a pair of break lights ahead of me as far as Padang Panjang, our halfway point where a brief pause in the deluge is broken by the heaviest rain I’ve experienced in years, forcing us off the road at brightly light petrol station outside Kota Baru. A dozen motorists stand shivering by the pumps. I’m literally jumping
with the shivers. David and I wring out our shirts. His flip-flop snaps. We plod on in a slow file of breaklights down the hill to Bukittingi.
David and Anne Sophie and I share our last breakfast together, a strong cup of coffee and a fudge brownie. I’ve grown accustomed, addicted to the local way of serving coffee, a hot glass of water poured over finely ground, dark powdered beans, often with a few teaspoons of condensed milk. I bid my friends a safe journey and hop an opolet to nearby Pantai Sikei
, remarkable for its woodcarving and textile handicrafts, the latter illustrated on the 5000 rupiah note. A gentle rain hangs over the terraced rice paddies and spreads a peaceful hush down the country roads. Most of the weavings glimmer in boutique windows in the form of women’s frilly garments with gilded patterns on bright red and blue fabric. Only a couple sheds show evidence of a wood carving industry, elaborate floral patterned arched doorways and window frames. The sheds lie quiet except for one where a single man pretends he works there for the benefit of a Japanese tourist and her guide. I return up the road
peering from under a borrowed umbrella’s dripping eaves at the dance of ripples cast in the paddies, cone hats trudge in the mud tending to their livelihood.
Public transit in Sumatra exhausts the patience of even the most tenacious traveller. A dozen forms of wheeled beasts each ply their own geography. The relatively free wheeling ocek roars through town, any motorbike rider with the time to spare and want of money will offer a middle-aged mother a lift up the road to the market. In the villages a becak can hold upto three adult passengers in a wood sidecar. In the city a becak squeezes in two passengers in a covered trailer peering over the driver’s shoulders. Ocek and becak fares are the least certain and open to fierce haggling. Through a sidedoor like a minivan an opolet microlet or bimo, depending on the regional dialect, can squeeze in ten souls and their bundled purchases along two low benches either length of a cramped truck bed. The journeys are typically short, each numbered opolet plies the same route there and back between bus terminals, markets major cross roads or haphazard junctions. The next class of transport is the minivan,
usually a bright colour with tinted windows, an abundance of decals or spray-painted images and a catchname emblazoned across the canopy or windshield. The driver leaves the engine idling for hours waiting for enough passengers to warrant a 20km trip, misleading the uninitiated that the journey will start any minute. The minibus is typically of a bygone era, the rust painted over, the benches tatty, in contrast to the phantom colours of the brand new larger breed of van void of decals and covering slightly longer journeys. Finally we arrive at the bus, whose motor drowns out the rest, a burst of colour and individuality, a road hog and extremely slow on inclines.
I’m let out at a three way intersection in front of a snack shop where I indicate to a few enquiring expressions, ‘Paya Kumbu?’ The youngest man, tall, dark, cheeks and jawbone as angular as a woodcarving directs me onto a van. The journey is relatively fast. I’m the last to alight thanks to the kind instructions of my fellow passengers that the driver let me off by the gates to Harau where a handful of becak drivers size me up like hyenas circling
Meningkabau architecture in lemon sorbet
a wildebeest separated from the pack, keen on overcharging the boulet. I’m not a penny pincher but I feel it’s important to know the price of things. If one tourist pays double or triple the going rate, the new price becomes expected of all subsequent travellers. A young man accepts my 3000Rp fare and I climb aboard. The sky is growing darker, another day coming to pass. A tree-lined road leads into a valley edged by hundred metre tall red-grey rock cliffs strung with lush green flora. “Give me 5000Rp, I’ll pay your entry ticket,” says the young man. “It’s okay, I’ll get it myself.” The ticket booth is empty. “I have to stop here,” he says,”can’t go past the park gate.” “How far is Echo Homestay?” “two hundred metres,” he says as I alight the bike and an identical becak zips past under the gate and into the park. I continue on foot under a lowering sky, the road reaching a village where sleepy yellow bulbs reveal dark figures gathered inside homes and quiet voices pour from small teashops. I can hardly make out the homestay, a cluster of bungalows and smart cottages in a hilly garden reached by
footbridge across a narrow stream and a well laid cement path through rice paddies and up an embankment. It’s quiet, no lights, “hello?” I call. Two lights flash on. Two figures stir from far ends of the grounds, a boy of roughly eighteen years, with a slim feminine nature and a woman in a white shirt, perhaps his older sister. The former shows me around the back beyond a couple ponds to a bungalow. The power is out. He returns with a couple candles, a glass lantern and a mosquito coil. The darkness is enveloping, full of strange noises, the rhythmic vibration of frogs and crickets, gibbons rustling in the trees. Tucked into bed the night’s every pitter-patter creeps between the chinks in the bamboo wall, geckos, mice, a gibbon, thump! On the roof and sliding down the wall next to my bed, shaking me awake. The heavy drum of rain pelts the leaves and ponds and closes my eyelids.
Saya mau sewa sepeda. Midday, brought to life by tai chi and strong coffee I enquire back in the village about hiring a bicycle. I say to a woman seated among a straggle of men and children, her posture
old kids on the block
expresses authority, Saya mau sewa sepeda. She thinks for a moment and gestures to a motorbike parked in the lane. “No, sepeda.” I lift my hands, gesturing, “Anyone in the village, dedas.” She talks to the men. Down the road approaches an emaciated old man sitting bolt upright on a pedal bike. The woman calls to him, he pulls in front and dismounts passing the bike to me. I note the seat, without padding, a series of spring coils sure to circumcise any negligent rider. 20,000Rp I agree to pay and pedal off. The derailer is warped, the chain rusty, the tires half filled and reaching a fast curving descent on a gravel road I discover there are no breaks. Echo homestay lies in the narrowest stretch of Harau Valley, a chasm really, where the wind lifts last night’s raindrops off the cliff’s looming canopy. The road winds further into the valley where it widens and another village lies scattered along the fringes of large fields growing vegetables. A dirt path cuts through the farmyards and hugs the far cliff face leading to other homes painted in binary coloured patterns. A pair of water buffalo drinks from the river. A
reconstruction funded by Canadian organisation
young boy and his pup watch me from their front porch.
The asphalt reaches an abrupt end. I pedal awkwardly up a slope over stones and sand, puddles of mud. A few villagers eye my progress. The road descends and I drag my flip flops hopping and stomping to break while another group of women on the roadside fall into hysterics. A calm grey hush of rain falls over the valley. I huddle under my 2$ umbrella already broken, caught swinging in the front tire fork and listen to the distant chatter of families brought inside simple shed homes perched among fish ponds and rice paddies. In the yard, a chicken squawks repetitively like an old car motor that won’t start. The clouds pass. I turn back and venture down another arm of the valley bathing in a hot blue sky. Along the road cling small wood homes in vibrant gardens concealing potato plots in backyards skirting a vast jungle of dense brush. The road or perhaps the pain in my seat seems endless. An ice cream vendor trundles through the neighbourhood aboard a scooter with a glass cabinet straddled over the rear. His chimes bring to the curb
a couple of women, one embracing an infant on her hip. The old vendor uses a regular old spoon to scoop from a cold deep bin thin sheets of an off white ice flecked with pink and green and layers them generously on a half slice of bread soaked in a green dye. Delicious. I pause before a home set back from the road by a small dry rice paddy tucked inside a quiet jungly garden. I retrieve my sketch pad and perch for an hour in the shade of a telephone pole, my mind leaves behind all thoughts and distractions to absorb the framed image of tin roof, window screen, palm leaves, potted plants, shade and light. Locals gather but do not persist in disturbing my gaze. They speak and joke and laugh with each other in a foreign language and when I finish and close my book they scatter like pigeons and make way for the strange foreigner mounting the village idiot’s pedal bike.
In a darkness defining a void, swallowed in a sleeping bag folded under two blankets in a thatched bungalow on the edge of a garden cowering below a ferocious chasm my body begins
to burn, sweat clinging skin to nylon. A splitting headache and dull ache throughout greets me at dawn. Neither a cold shower, nor some tai chi nor a strong cup of coffee on the shaded deck overlooking the rice paddies inspires cure. I pay the young effeminate boy my bill. He shakes my hand and says thank-you. Only just after ten in the morning, I note, plenty of time to reach Bukittingi, stop at the pharmacist, burn a CD of my pics, email KL, see if Tobias knows a trustworthy clinic - I’ve been falling ill too much of this trip - and then catch an opolet to Lake Maninjau. At the valley entrance there are no minivans or busses bound for Bukittingi,or for Payakumbu. I pay the becak driver and climb aboard an empty opolet, never a good sign, and return the young driver’s curious smile, a rainbow in a grey sky that transforms his otherwise odd features. We roll a progressive 10km/h through one village and the next, reversing, double-checking side roads for potential passengers, rolling on. I’m passed like a baton to a second opolet and reach a bus terminal a few minutes later. “Sepulluh minit,” assures
the driver lifting my rucksack into the boot of a large empty bus engine running, exhaust billowing. “Sepulluh minit,” I mirror his knowing smile and shake his hand. Ten minutes on the equator lasts about an hour. It’s somehow related to other equatorial phenomenon like confused or reversed whirlpools created when draining or flushing water. I fetch a cup of tea, prop my chin on my hands and contemplate the dogs and chickens running wild in the car park. An hour later I’m woken from a snooze stretched out on the rear seats in the bus, “hello mister” says a friendly young passenger and takes a seat near mine. The beast is put in gear. I remain stretched out on the back bench ignoring the increasing number of passengers aboard until my conscience stirred me to sit upright legs spread to occupy two seats. The bus comes to rest in a village high street where an eternity manages to fill the stifling air. My bladder is full and whining for relief. “Is there a toilet?” I question two middle-aged women presiding over a wee restaurant next to the bus. “No, no toilet,” barks the older woman. I want to slap
her across her uncompromising face. I have so little patience for someone who cannot put themselves in the shoes of a foreigner struggling at times to accomplish the simplest tasks. Four and a half hours later I’ve covered the 50km back to the main bus terminal in Bukittingi, a loud, crowded file of public transport edges its way through a circus of grime and windshields. A guard helps me find an opolet into town, the last few kms take another half hour. Maninjau will have to wait.
I book into the same second floor single, an austere corner view of the town centre’s uncoordinated array of rooftops and fall into a deep sleep before tackling my errands. An Antique shop fronts the main intersection of town but I’m unable to enter. The wood masks and primitive anamorphic creatures, the puppets, the dark fringe of their shaggy hair, the blank stares, the cacophony of angry spirits seizes me like a passage in Heart Of Darkness
. When the evening call to prayer wakes me from another nap, I make for the old clock tower and enter a small diner where for once the pots of curried fish, chicken and
beef are bubbling and steaming. Too often I must make do with fried rice, fried noodles, fried chicken, fried fry for fear of day old dishes seething with bacteria. Properly groomed young waiters, half of a dozen of them milling about an eatery the size of a bedroom, smile and direct me to a table. The chef in a big floppy hat points out the colourfully cooked bits of animal bobbing in broth doing his best to have me understand their contents. Padang cuisine is reportedly the most famous regional cuisine of Indonesia domestically and internationally. In Padang style every dish prepared that day is brought to the table, a little sample of each in its own little bowl, most of them hardly discernible to westerners. I order chicken, buffalo, pickled cucumber and a meaty vegetable, perhaps my first ever cassava. The latter I’d known only in adolescence as to describe certain female appendages but apparently they’re a phallic shaped potato.
Late breakfast in the café, a guide explaining various tours in the region chats up an attractive young Polish woman. Today she will be ridden around on his motorbike. She wants more time to consider the ten-day trip
to Pulau Siberut, an undeveloped island of ‘primitives’ in the Indian Ocean reached by overnight ferry. I’ve read the rave reviews in the café’s logbook but I’ve neither the time nor the money. An older woman perhaps a Kiwi downloads music onto her laptop and chats in broken Bahasa to the proprietor and his young daughters. After close to an hour standing at a random street corner where the opolet has left me off, from where I am told to catch my connection, after witnessing hundreds of colourful, noisy, polluting beasts pass in either direction, after witnessing dozens of other passengers alight from opolets and board busses or vans, after noting the same opolet driver return to the street corner at least three times in his routine loop, I overhear a group of old women mention Lake Meninjau, pointing to a tinted minivan parked across the street and slowly making their way in its direction. It’s a quick trip, relatively painless, the last few miles a joy as the minivan weaves through lush little villages, reaches the viewpoint caldera overlooking the crater lake and begins its steep descent speeding down a series of forty-four whiplashing switchbacks, passing slower traffic, narrowly
missing oncoming vehicles, and surprising a few overconfident gibbons who perch at the curb snarling and waiting their next handful of feed tossed from passing windows. Through the rain and tinted window I spy a sign, “Lilly’s Homestay”, “Stop, stop, please.” The driver and his wrinkled passengers seem pleased, a little anxious that I was still aboard, having passed nearly all the lake’s accommodation. A footpath lined with palms weaves among rice terraces towards the lakeshore and a thicket of trees, shrubs and ‘Lilly’s Pad’. Four local guys chilling in the reception area look up from their joint to welcome me. “No thanks, I just need a room, I’m very tired.” The muscled one in a pony tail takes me around back where half a dozen bungalows lie camped in a colourful and well tended garden criss-crossed with pebble paths. I feel the infection and medicine battling, miserable, exhausted, suffering a muffled grey vision. On the veranda I stare out across the lake veiled in low grey clouds.
Lilly returns in the evening, a tall, slimmer than slim, mid fifties or younger but aged in the tropics with short faded blond hair. “Hello,” I answer back, “I saw you
this morning in Bukittingi with your laptop.” She gives me an earful of her travels and life lessons while her staff jams around a corner table, bass guitar, acoustic, and drums. I don’t make out half her monologue mumbled in South Kiwi, a lone soul who’s travelled Africa and swept ashore in Sumatra. She has disowned her family and country and found peace contributing to the local community, employing a few locals, providing them a home, a family, a reason. And with a few of them she writes music and records the odd album.
A second cup of kopi susu on the veranda distracting myself with a page turner, an American family drama, Kim Edward's The Memory Keeper’s Daughter
, a sort of Oprah book of the month, the clouds thin and hang neatly to the edges of the crater. I feel strong enough for a walk, and explore barefoot along the muddy dikes enclosing rice plots and schools of skittish fish a stone’s throw from the lakeshore littered with shellfish, food wrappers and dugouts each carved by hand from a single piece of wood. The distant figures of farmers, young men in baseball caps isolated on their teetering docks,
watch over their netted schools. A dugout skims along the lake propelled by a single spade shaped oar carved from the same wood. A path lingers quietly in the bush along the village’s periphery cutting close the odd yard where an exchange of smiles, “Salamat Siang,” with a father mending his nets or by the window sipping his kopi permits my passage. Quaint, shiny wood cabins painted whatever colour was on hand glare the late morning light, laundry lies flung across low tree branches, scattered over shrubs breathing a sigh of relief. Children’s voices call from dark doorways, “Hello bule! Hello! Hello Mister!” I turn back at a green tiled Masjeed looming on the waterfront and following the road discover a market of blue and orange and yellow tarpaulins flapping, tinting sunlight in primary shades across matts laid with garden variety vegetables, fruits, spices. In the back beyond the unused meat and fish market a couple shops leaning on each other serve up curios local dishes. A woman places a chilli, some other herbs and spices, pours a tablespoon water on a concave shaped stone and with a fist size rock grounds the ingredients for a sumptuous sauce to which
she adds noodles and tops with a handful of fried crackers. One of the most flavourful noodle dishes I’ve enjoyed and after five years around East Asia I know what I’m talking about.
A block from the market in front her house, a mother sits with her young son and sells tasty fish snacks wrapped in banana leaves and grilled over a low flame. The half centimetre long fish are often caught after dark. Beachcombers wander the shore with a hand torch and small hand held net. I’d mistaken a couple one evening for the annoying types back home that forage the length and breadth of the beach with metal detecters. Back at Lilly’s a handsome French couple has arrived, natives of Montpelier, both dark skinned, she displays an easy smile and long dark hair richly scented with a foreign shampoo, his hair is mahogany brown, thick and wavy. I’m caught off guard, a coup de souffle, passing him on the footpath, topless, a wrestler’s build, a broad hairy chest groomed like an eighties Chippendale dancer. I sleep the rest of the afternoon, dreaming of my sister’s old Chippendale calendars, feel my body grow weary and exhausted, and resolve
to discontinue the meds fearful how they induce such incapacitating light-headedness. The next few days I cannot move far from the cabin, either sleeping, reading, sweating, shivering, rehydrating, watching, or in a fit of wellness sketching the view. Hermens who drops by from time to time to visit Lilly suggests I drink papaya leaf juice, bitter as dirt but a couple hours later I feel the damp grey clouds lift.
It feels so good to have back my energy and to feel the strength return to my muscles and my body temperature under control. Standing on the shoulder I hail an opolet, unfazed to squish inside the back seat, six of us like so many clowns in a circus where two westerners would trouble themselves to have to share, I’m lifted a couple miles to the main town to a guesthouse/ bicycle rental shop. The day basks in sunshine. I’m in my element. I am returned to my childhood joy. I am alone, cycling a new road, my gaze giving existence to rolling paddies of deep deep green, to silver backed buffalo, to farmers and haystacks, palm trees and young boys flying kites, to strange hills that stop me
in my tracks to ponder their creation. I ride slowly and venture up or down every passing side street swallowing every view of the lake, shrugging off the less than pleasant comments of youths, ignorant of a wider world and gripped by peer pressure. A string of villages encompasses the lake, each adorned with gleaming mosques and wood homes full of character, wealthy communities (for Sumatra’s standard) of rice or fish farmers, opolet drivers, sundry shop owners and kopi warungs.
A fire red sunset reflects on the lake lapping at the shore, a punctual wind. Lilly jams with her boys in the dining room. She has a beautiful voice and her songs tell wise tales learned from sad episodes. She and I exchange email addresses and talk of meeting up at next summer’s music festival in Sarawak. My holiday is coming to an end. I spend a last half-day and night on the beach outside Padang from where it’s a quick early morning taxi to the airport. Since Harau Valley, ten days back, I’ve travelled alone and seen few other foreigners, further isolated by my cold. My journey is so short on dialogue and cut short on imagery. Sumatra
is a feast for the senses and a cleansing for the digestive and excretory tracts.
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