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Published: March 14th 2016
Traditional Batak house, Lake Toba
After a few days in Penang, Malaysia, it was time to scuttle off to the huge Indonesian island of Sumatra which lies parallel to peninsular Malaysia, just over the straits of Malacca. I didn't know too much about Indonesia, let alone Sumatra. Most people only go to Bali and Lombok, so I knew I wouldn't see too many fellow travellers here. I had conjured visions of volcanoes, thick jungles, orang-utans and tigers. My visions weren't too far wide of the mark.
Sumatra is beautiful and relatively untouched by backpackers. I spent a couple of days in Medan, which is easily the worst city I have ever visited - and I've visited Guatemala City. It's baking hot, vast, crowded, dirty, polluted, dangerous, and there isn't a bar in sight. Plenty of mosques though. I then spent a couple of days in a dilapidated little town in the mountains called Berestagi to hike a volcano. It was a four hour return journey that ticked all volcanic boxes - great views, sulphuric smells and steam, and a huge crater filled with pea-green, undoubtedly toxic, water. Unbeknownst to me, I had set off on a Hindu school holiday, so instead of a day of
These were supposedly for tribal execution deliberations mongst the elders.
quiet contemplation I was hiking up the volcano with the entire adolescent population of Sumatra, who all wanted to talk to the only foreigner on the mountain and take endless photos with me. I then went to an island in the middle of the picturesque Lake Toba, where I spent a good few days relaxing by the pool, swimming in the lake, and getting some much needed exercise in the form of biking and trekking. I'm not going to write too much about Sumatra save for one memorable day which really summed up the highs and lows of travelling in a place where there isn't much tourist infrastructure and there are plenty of bumpy rides and surprises.
It was my third day in Indonesia, and a classic example of how travelling in a place like this can switch from bewildering and frustrating to fantastic in a heartbeat. I left the pandemonium of Medan in a cramped and airless minibus full of locals (one of which was surreptitiously taking photos of me). The old woman next to me fell asleep on my shoulder minutes after the driver was in second gear, where she remained for the entire three-hour journey. It
took an age to leave the urban sprawl of Medan, to be replaced by high, windy mountain roads that I have been so used to for so long. However, inexplicably, despite years living in the Andes, my body chose this day to get carsick. I felt very dizzy and expected to be sick on the old woman's head at any moment. We finally got to Berestagi, my destination, and the driver called out the name of the village to me while looking at me in the rear-view mirror. "Berestagi?" he asked. Everyone turned to wait for my response as I was sitting at the back (probably why I felt carsick). "Berestagi," I replied, with a thumbs up, wondering where he would drop me off and how far it was to a hotel. But he didn't stop. I reminded myself that bus stations are often in far-flung corners of towns and cities, and sat back and waited. Soon, however, things started to look very rural again. Why didn't he drop me off?
I asked the old woman who had now woken up, without a glimmer of embarrassment that she had been using me as a pillow. "Berestagi?" I asked her,
pointing ahead of us. "Yes," she smiled. "Or... Berestagi?" I asked, pointing behind us. "Yes," she smiled. She obviously wasn't going to be much help. I caught the driver's eye and said "Berestagi?" again, this time with more of a "Have we driven past Berestagi and you didn't drop me off?" tone. He, and everyone else on the bus, turned to look at me quizzically. He finally stopped the bus to let me out, everyone appraising me with keen interest now. Even though I had told the driver before we left that I was going to Berestagi, and seveal times while driving through Berestagi itself, he looked at me like I was an enormous hindrance for not making my mind up what I wanted to do. The other passengers where whispering to themselves in Batak and stealing glances at me, clearly debating how much of a mentalist they doubtlessly thought I was. The driver unceremoniously packed me off the bus and drove off, leaving me on a desolate road a good half an hour walk from the town with a heavy backpack. At that precise moment, the heavens opened and I was drenched in seconds, as was the cigarette that
I had just lit only seconds ago.
After about ten minutes looking more bedraggled by the second, I caught another bus going back to the town. A large woman with a deafeningly loud voice got on the tiny bus after me. She immediately pointed at me and made a comment about me to the other passengers in her booming voice. The other passengers were almost weeping with laughter at whatever she said, and I had no choice but to sit there and take it. I finally got dropped off outside a hostel while the driver and the other passengers were still snickering at me for god knows what reason (everyone else was soaking wet too). By this point I am drenched, frustrated, confused and downright sullen. I sit down after checking in, shivering and soaking in my shorts and flip-flops. I didn't expect to shake my bad mood for several hours by now... but this is when my day changed for the better.
Some local teenagers were sitting in the hostel learning English, and the sweetly asked me if I could help them. Surprising myself, I found myself agreeing. I then spend the most fun two hours I
had had thus far in Indonesia, playing silly games and making them laugh and actually experiencing that favorite moment of any teacher, the 'lightbulb' moment when you know you have just helped someone understand something that had long eluded them. It reminded me why I loved teaching, but more than that, it reminded me why I love travelling. Travelling blues and travelling joys really do come and go just like the tropical storms here. If you are having a hard time, you only need to ride it out because right around the corner something magical might happen. It make me feel that after the Dante-esque ordeal of Medan I might actually be starting to warm to Indonesia.
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