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Published: December 10th 2012
Perfectly crafted, but extremely hard work to farm
As we headed to the town of Bukkittingi, we passed dozens of pickup trucks packed with men and dogs, heading in the opposite direction.. This was curious because it was a Muslim area, and I thought that Islam forbids people to even touch dogs because they are "unclean". (Maybe because they lick their balls. Although that's only to take the taste of the dog food away). I asked our driver about all these dogs, and apparently they are for hunting wild boars. It's not strictly permitted under Islam, but the dogs are kept because the boars damage the farmers crops. Once caught, the boars are not eaten by the men but given to the dogs as a reward. Whereas the hunting of boar was once a necessity, it has now become a national sport. Every Sunday, large groups of men gather together with their hunting dogs to seek out wild boar. Not just the farmers, but everyone from miles around. It's a sunday social activity, and also a chance for the men to feel big and macho with their fierce dogs. The ironic thing is, I don't think the wild boar are a still a problem to the crops. It's the
What? Am I covered in mud again?
Buffaloes love a good splash in the mud
hundreds of men and dogs who trample all over the rice fields every week!
That morning we started a two-day jungle trek to Lake Maninjau. We had met an elderly Dutch couple who had done the same trek recently. They told us that the scenery was beautiful, but warned us they had seen something disturbing on the way. Apparently they had seen a man shackled by a chain around his neck because he was mentally ill. I found this hard to believe, and so I did some research. It seems that this situation is not uncommon. Mental health problems affect millions of people worldwide, but Indonesia is ill-equipped to cope with them. There are very few mental institutions, and fewer than 700 qualified psychiatrists in the whole country. According to the Ministry of Health statistics there are an estimated million Indonesians suffering from severe or psychotic mental health problems. In over 15,000 known cases, the patients are either chained up or locked in cages inside institutions, left in their own filth. . They are known as "Pasung"' which loosely translates to "shackled", and they are considered lost causes. The government doesn't have the facilities, medicine or staff to deal
Everyone wanted to have their photo taken with us
with violent and mentally ill people. Some psychiatrists are using modern medicines and practices, but others are trying "traditional" remedies such as blessing the chains they are shackled with, to remove bad energies. One hospital worker commented that for the worst cases, the real uncontrollable people, the staff bring out a four-foot python: "We show them the big snake. It scares them and they become quiet." Family members have been attacked by relatives having psychotic episodes, and simply could not cope. The family would have to pay to keep the person inside a hospital or institution, and this cost cannot be sustained throughout their life. So some families are forced to chain the person up in their home or garden. To quote one woman: "He ripped off my clothes and tried to strangle me, and he's been shackled ever since. What else could we do?". It's a tragic situation, but change is gradually coming. Psychiatrists are pushing for more government funding to tackle this problem.
Anyway, back to our trek to Lake Maninjau. Our guide was called Mirza, and the trek was a real jungle experience, unlike the watered-down tourist version we had done the week before. We edged
Steep and Slippery
You need your wits about you, otherwise tumbling down you go
along thin paths about 6 inches wide, with steep ravines at the side, where you had to tread carefully because the soil was crumbling away as you walked. We hacked our way through overgrown paths with a machete. I had an army of ants climb up my legs, and Zena was chased by wasps. We crossed rivers on dodgy bridges made of rotting wood and splintered bamboo. We waded across a waist-deep river with our bags and shoes held above our heads. We walked up shallow river beds and scrambled up rock faces. This walk would never be allowed in the UK. The paths would either be closed off entirely, or handrails and proper walkways installed. But we didn't mind the challenging terrain or over-zealous insects because it was gorgeous scenery, miles from civilisation. Our remote jungle fantasy was somewhat spoilt when Mirza whipped out his mobile phone to call someone, but we soon settled back into things. Indonesia is superbly connected, even in the remote areas. It puts the UK's telecommunications to shame.
The people of this area are known the Minangkabau, and they represent the largest ethnic group in Sumatra. They are a matriarchal people, which means
Not a good time to trip over
It might look like I'm wearing an enormous tartan nappy, but it's just my shorts rolled up
that most traditional parts of their culture follow the female lineage. For example, once married, the man will take the woman's name and is expected to move in with the woman's family. It is the women who own the land, and the land is passed down to their female descendants. The decision-making for the family will still be made by the males, but it won't be by the husband. It will be made by the wife's brothers and uncles. Hence, the authority is ultimately on the matriarchal side of the family. Phew, get's complicated, eh?
The name Minangkabau comes from an interesting legend. Minang means "buffalo" and Kabau means "win". Many moons ago, the King of Java wanted to conquer Sumatra, and his troops were massed ready to attack. To prevent huge bloodshed and loss of lives, a challenge was suggested by the Sumatran people. There would be a grand Buffalo Fight to decide the fate of Sumatra. Each land would submit a buffalo to fight to the death. If Java won, then Sumatra would submit to their rule. If Sumatra won, then Java would withdraw their forces gracefully. On the day of the battle, the Javanese brought forward
their buffalo, a giant muscular beast who dominated the arena with his immense bulk. The Sumatrans brought forward a baby buffalo, barely the height of a man's knees. The baby buffalo was still of suckling age, and had been separated from it's mother for days. It's horns had also been sharpened to razor sharp points. Starved of milk for days, it thought the huge Javanese buffalo was it's mother, and swiftly ran underneath to suckle. In doing so, it's horns ripped through the belly of the Javanese buffalo, and it bled to death. The Sumatrans shouted "the Buffalo Wins!", saved their nation, and the name Minangkabau was born. Imagine such a contest in modern times. The Vietnam War hanging in the balance of two enraged geese? World War II decided over a cockfight? Maybe instead of "Operation Desert Storm" we should have trained a killer gerbil to challenge Iraq.
So, back to our jungle walk. We got leeches on our legs at the end of the first day. Instead of flicking them off, Zena and I decided to have a competition of "whose leech can get the fattest". A leech will keep on feeding until it's had enough, and
A pleasant walk along the river bed
then drop off to have a sleep in the bushes. After feasting, a leech can be five times it's normal body mass! (I'm glad it's not the same for humans otherwise I'd never be able to get out of the house and none of my clothes would fit). Here are a few other facts about leeches:
1. Traditionally, leeches were used by doctors and surgeons several centuries ago. But did you know that they are back in use today? Hospitals have stocks of medical leeches, and surgeons are using them! After body parts are reattached surgically, there can be a problem with too much blood flow which causes swelling. So our little bloodsucking friends are called to the rescue.
2. The traditional advertising sign for a barber is a red and white striped pole. This is because some barbers back in the 16th century also performed limited surgical tasks using leeches. They would wrap blood soaked bandages around a pole to indicate they were open and that they did "blood letting" as well as cutting hair.
3. Leeches have three mouths, with up to three hundred teeth in each. This make them very good at biting, but
Zena and our guide, Mirza
Looking over Lake Maninjau
it also costs them a fortune in toothpaste
4. Ever wondered how leeches are so efficient at finding you? They might look like slippery oafs slithering through the forest randomly, but they have chemo-sensory organs that detect oils on the skin, plus thermal sensory organs to detect your body heat. Oh, and they also have six to eight pair of eyes. You don't stand a chance of evading them!
At the end of our first day we reached the top of the volcanic caldera which contained Lake Maninjau. What a spectacular view! The volcanic lake is 72km long and was an impressive sight. We headed down into the caldera and by nightfall we had reached our overnight accommodation. It was called "Anas Homestay" and was extremely basic, a scattering of simple wooden huts lit by kerosine lamps. There was a communal outdoor toilet, but I avoided it in preference to the bushes nearby.The sign on my door said "3C"' which amused me because there were only two huts!! It was in the middle of the jungle, literally an hour's walk away from any civilisation. We were halfway up a hill, looking out through the trees into the darkness.
It's an ant
What more can I say?
and we could see the lights of the town like pinpricks far below us. Our host cooked us a simple but delicious meal, and brought out a few bags of wooden puzzles to amuse and bemuse us. He was a friendly and smiley man with an infectious laugh, and a guitar with only five strings. This homestay must have been the easiest place to run. Only two rooms, no laundry service, no taxis to arrange, and no complaints about water not running (because there wasn't any!) Early the next morning, it was eerily quiet, and with the mist rolling in, it would have made the perfect scene for filming the Evil Dead movie. Especially since the wooden floors of the communal area were stained with blood from leech bites. It looked like someone had been murdered. But our host made us a banana pancake and strong coffee for breakfast, and we were ready to face anything.
We had a one hour walk down to Lake Maninjau, and the slopes were slippy due to rain. I took a spectacular fall at one point and went tumbling down a slope. I grabbed onto a tree but it snapped off and my
The perfect accompaniment to an ice cold beer
tumbling continued until I hit a more stable tree. Eventually we reached the immense Lake Maninjau, a volcanic lake sitting in a vast crater. The lake is 72km long and 400m deep, and there are hundreds of fish farms around it's circumference. Fishing is huge business here, and an estimated 30 tonnes of fish are pulled out each day. We saw the local fish-packing process, which entailed putting live fish into plastic bags filled with water. These bags were about a metre tall, and compressed air was pumped into the bags to allow the fish to survive being transported to other parts of Sumatra. It was like a giant version of winning a goldfish at a fairground. Unfortunately, the volcano is still active, and according to our guide there are occasional underground eruptions which raises sulphur levels and kills most of the fish in that area....
After our fantastic jungle experience, Zena and I headed to the city of Padang to fly out of Indonesia. Padang seemed to have an unusually high density of mosques, and when it was time for the call to prayer, it was like a "Battle of the Mosques", with each one trying to outdo
How many mosques can you count? I see six, but there may be more
the other in terms of volume. We pampered ourselves in a posh hotel for a night, with double glazed Mosque-proof windows, and treated ourselves to a massage. We later found out the massage had the following blurb: "this massage will get up sex desire and bypass frigidness and premature ejaculation"!
For our final Sumatran meal we had a very interesting dining experience. Meals in Padang are served in a certain way. Instead of giving you a menu, they bring out EVERY single dish that the restaurant serves and lay it out in front of you. You simply point at which dishes you would like to keep,and the rest get taken away. It's a very cunning ploy, because all the food looks delicious and you want to keep it ALL! It's so hard to send any of it away when it's right in front of you. Zena and I had eyes bigger than our belly, and I think we over-pointed. The food was utterly delicious and was a fitting end to our time in Sumatra. But tragedy was about to strike. I was trying to cut a large pickled chilli in half when the juice squirted right in my eye.
There's nothing finer than a Bintang to round off your day
Not a small amount either, but a fireman's hose of a blast. It was a mixture of vinegar and chilli juice, and it was one of the most painful moments of my life. I was instantly blinded and felt searing pain. I picked up a glass of water and tried pouring it in my eye whilst stumbling around. God knows what the locals thought, with the mad Englishman running around screaming "my eye, my eye" whilst spilling water everywhere and nearly knocking over the table. A concerned Zena kept the water coming, and stopped me from tipping anything over. It soon became apparently that I would live and wouldn't be blinded for life, and apparently it was quite a comical scene in retrospect! However, Fate had the final laugh. Because of our gluttony, we didn't have enough money for the cab ride back to our hotel, which was a long distance away. Luckily we bargained a cab driver to take us for a hefty discount, and sat in the back of his greasy cab which filled with diesel fumes through a hole in the floor. Still, despite empty pockets, choking lungs and a stinging eye, we'd had a great meal
The host with the most
Our kind host at Anas Homestay
to finish our Sumatran adventures
(More photos at the bottom of the page)
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