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Published: February 9th 2009
You’ll have to excuse a slightly more subdued tone to this entry, but I seem to have come down with a dose of Bukittinggi-belly and am thus feeling slightly dodgy at the moment. Ron and a few others struck off before dawn this morning to climb a volcano, but as I’m having eruptions of volcanic proportions myself, I wisely decided to strategically place myself near the loo and do very little else…
Anyway, after heading off from Tangkahan on a bus that had already seen better days during WWII, we rolled into Berstagi late in the afternoon, having deposited Tim on the side of the road as he was keen to head back to Bukit Lawang for another trek. Berastagi is the agricultural centre of Sumatra and thus they are fairly non-plussed by the pittance of tourist dollars that make it their way. None-the-less, it’s a lovely town, perched high in the mountains, where the temperature hovers in the low twenties and the morning mists blanket absolutely everything.
The main reason we’d come to Berastagi was to climb the volcano of Gunung Sibayak and the three of us headed off early on our first morning in town. The climb
wasn’t too bad and we scampered up and over the rocks to reach the summit by the early afternoon. The rotten egg stench of sulphur was thick in the air and clusters of neon yellow rocks continuously emitted plumes of boiling steam into the air, which mingled with the swirling mists that swept up over the peak and then disappeared again within minutes. After taking in the views and chatting with a few locals, we slowly descended the other side of the crater, gradually moving from barren rocky outcrops to lush jungle and then bamboo forests.
We then bid a fond farewell to Mats the Viking who was heading back to Medan (the lucky bugger) for a flight on to Jakarta and Ron and I spent the next day on a myriad of local buses as we slowly made our way back to Danau Toba. Tuk Tuk was much as I’d left it and Ron and I hired a couple of bikes to cruise around the island, thankfully avoiding the treacherous mountain pass this time. We also managed to take in the graves of some of the Samosir kings as well as the stone chairs, where the clan elders
used to meet and would periodically behead the odd criminal, prior to serving them up as the main course.
We also hooked up with Mike, a Canadian I’d met on my last visit here and he brought an English guy called Guyan along to dinner that night. It was midway through the first beer when he mentioned that he was the LP author of the Sumatra chapter and we all had a chuckle at the fact that three of the four of us seated around the table were either current or recent LPers. We also experienced a moment of bizarre realisation later that night as we sat there munching bacon pizzas, watching the football and getting fleeced by the local Bataks. Here we were, smack bang in the most populated Islamic country in the world - drinking beer, eating pig and gambling...
After a few days of well needed R&R, again swimming, eating and doing very little else, we rolled into the sleepy village of Balige and were met by a cousin of Ron’s Mum and the bloke who looked after the family home. After settling in to the family mansion, and I’m not joking here, it came
equipped with its very own conference hall for meetings of the Pardede family, we headed back into the village proper. It was an amazing experience, stopping every hundred metres or so, as it was meticulously explained that this particular person was Ron’s Mum’s niece’s daughter, or his long-lost third cousin twice removed. Of course, it wasn’t long before we were coaxed into one of the local tuak houses where the local Batak men meet every night to share drinks, discuss life and sing songs. Tuak is the Sumatran version of palm wine and is best described as a hideous, sour brew that tastes like shit and gets you incredibly pissed. I’d previously drunk it in both Burma and Cambodia, in the case of the latter, it was while sitting in a recently scorched field and sipping it through a straw out of a plastic bag. Unfortunately, my brain had repressed such memories of how awful it really was and I reckon the look on Ron’s face as he took his first sip belied his true Batak roots. However, after the first glass it did go down a little easier and soon the singing began and we sat there with silly
grins on our faces as the local men serenaded us with traditional Batak songs.
We set off the next morning to visit the grave of Ron’s grandfather, where he payed his respects, pulled out the weeds, swept the area and generally tidied up the site, before heading into the throbbing heart of Balige and the buzzing markets. The markets are housed in five massive Batak-style sheds, adorned with amazing designs which had only recently begun to fade. Apparently, the only reason that they hadn’t been touched up is that they were traditionally painted with human blood, a commodity that isn’t so readily available these days. (Anyone who thinks they know Ron should really reassess this notion - over the last few weeks, I’ve come to believe that there’s got to be a nasty streak in there somewhere.)
Ron also had an amazing opportunity to sit down with an elderly relative and work through a bit of their family tree. As someone who has been working on my own one lately, and was pretty chuffed to be able to go back six generations on one branch, I was stunned when she pulled out a comprehensive book which went back
no less than fourteen generations, right back to one of the kings of the Batak people. (So although he may have this slightly mean streak, it appears it’s no less than a royal one…)
All in all, it was a truly amazing experience in Balige, particularly so for Ron, and the locals were all so chuffed that he’d made an effort to come back and visit his mother’s birthplace. They were all so incredibly friendly and welcoming, yet despite my best efforts, and a multitude of offers to the both of us, we did unfortunately depart without a betrothed wife for Ron. (My sincerest apologies Mrs Tjoeka, I really did try…)
The trip to Bukittinggi consisted of a horrendous fourteen hour journey. The three of us (we were joined in the jeep by Rich, an Englishman hailing from Watford who we’d first met on the summit of Sibayak) wedged into a narrow row of seats and thumping Indonesian house music all the way. I believe I may have nodded off for an hour or so, but Ron’s Indo blood shone through yet again and like the other locals, he happily dozed for much of the journey.
is a lovely town perched at almost a kilometre above sea level and ringed by three massive volcanoes. As mentioned in the opening paragraph, I seemed to have picked up a dose of something or other, so haven’t ventured too far, but yesterday morning was spent wandering around an amazingly vibrant market, chatting with the local traders (ah, the joys of having your own personal translator) and taking heaps of photos. Unlike many places, the locals here are all too keen to have their photos taken, even to the extent of berating you if you take a shot of their neighbour, but not of them. In the afternoon, we hired a couple of bikes and headed a dozen kilometres north of town where we hooked up with a local guide and trekked for a couple of hours through rice paddies and jungle to spot a rafflesia flower, the largest flower in the world - which looks quite amazing but actually reeks of rotting flesh. Nice.
We have also had the joy of being surrounded by a number of mosques and besides the five calls to prayer a day (again the morning one starts at 4:30 and continues for well
over an hour), they have also decided to broadcast multiple chastising sermons everyday. So while sitting here writing this, I’m being subjected to a tinny lecture on Allah-knows what, although he certainly seems to be getting worked up about something…
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