Adventures on the Island of Sumatra: Part 1

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December 15th 2013
Published: December 15th 2013
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Route: Day 1

October 8th: Medan, or the city Lonely Planet introduces through the question “What’s the worst place you’ve ever visited?”

It is a 45-minute flight across the Straits of Malacca from Penang to Medan, North Sumatra. The turquoise waters glisten in the sun as my plane gently circles upwards. I close the shutter to keep from being blinded. As I thumb through the minimalist guidebook on my lap, the girl sitting next to me peers over the book. Without pause, she strikes up a conversation. Little do I know, this is how I am going to spend most of the day: my first day in Indonesia. She appears to be at the end of her high school years, but it’s hard for me to say for sure. An Indonesian resident of Penang, she is on her way home to visit her family and renew her VISA, a bi-yearly exercise in South East Asian bureaucracy. “Where are you going in Medan?” she asks me. “In and out,” I respond.

I am in the Penang airport an hour earlier, checking an old Facebook inbox message from a Princeton in Asia friend who I am planning to meet in
From Amplas to the City CenterFrom Amplas to the City CenterFrom Amplas to the City Center

A seemingly deserted section of road taken from an Angkot. I haven't seen cars that look like the green one behind since the 1990s.
a few days. “It would be great to meet up in Lake Toba, too!” the message reads. “I get there next Saturday and stay until the 15th.” My jaw drops as I realize my miscalculation. I need to gain a day, which means blitzing or outright skipping Medan on my way to Bukhit Lawang, one of the last places in the world to see wild orangutan. Skipping such a large city seems morally indefensible for reasons I’ll explain in the next paragraph. I channel my adrenaline and down an espresso.

The airplane descends over a land covered in off-green fields punctuated with pockets of trees and rows of wooden shacks. The ill-drained fields are more fit for mosquito habitation than human. The plane touches down smoothly on newly laid cement, and I emerge into a sterling, modern terminal. This is the new Medan Kuala Namu Airport, constructed to replace the over-capacity Polonia Airport. While Polonia is just south of Medan’s city center, Kuala Namu, 90 minutes east, is connected to the city by a chaotic two-lane highway.

The move means tourists are now able to by-pass Medan entirely. I can hear the applause from
Rush Hour the GameRush Hour the GameRush Hour the Game

the goal: Get the red car out by moving the other cars and trucks around. Unfortunately, it doesn't model real world traffic scenarios. In the real world, not everyone is working to get the red car out.
the Lonely Planet crowd reverberating in the cavernous air-conditioned terminal. Most of Medan is an eyesore, and it lacks developed tourist infrastructure – there are no hop-on hop-off buses, natural wonders, or a raging bar scene where you can take photos with sedated Gibbons or sea hawks – yet Medan is Indonesia’s fourth largest city. With two million people, it is the largest city on the island of Sumatra, which is famous for its Joe and natural disasters. Eyesore or not, cities like Medan are an important piece of humanity’s future, a world where most people live in urban areas. These landscapes have no rhyme or reason. They are a patchwork of old and new. In short, they are the ghosts of Asia present. They have a sensory rawness that eludes traditional tourism.


In the terminal, I am walking to an ATM, when a balding man with a protruding belly steps between. “Hey mister, I’ve got two Californians here who are taking my bus to Bukit Lawang.” There are two surfboards in black, plush cases lying next to a coffee shop. Stereotype reinforced. “For 150.000 Indonesian Rupiah, you can join them.” A mere
Inside the Raya MosqueInside the Raya MosqueInside the Raya Mosque

The minbar (the steps where the Imam gives the sermon) and the man in the green and black striped t-shirt.
$14 US, his service is actually quite a deal for time and security minded travelers. But on my first day in Indonesia, I am neither of these. I am bent on sensory overload, which his bus would dampen. The man thinks I am crazy.


Evading an obstacle course of taxi and private van drivers, I hop the airport bus to Amplas, one of the city’s three bus terminals. The bus swerves back and forth between a set of newly paved two-lane roads divided by a berm. It seems like they have finished half of each road and forgotten about the rest of the job. When the bus arrives, I step out and am mobbed by sweaty men wearing half-unbuttoned flannel shirts. They are all between 5’4” and 5’10”. “Hey mister. Where you go? I take you.” My acquaintance from the plane steps off the bus behind me, and she motions me over to a petticab driver. This interaction proves fruitless. I have to tell them both, “No, not interested.” The guidebook says there is a cheaper, more efficient route into the city that doesn’t involve riding a jumbo-size baby stroller attached to a
Corridors surrounding the Prayer HallCorridors surrounding the Prayer HallCorridors surrounding the Prayer Hall

One of the truly peaceful places in Medan.
motorbike. It is their doggedness versus the books. Despite the book not trying to fast-talk me, I side with it.

Across the stinking, simmering asphalt of the bus station, three men sit at a park bench smoking cigarettes and muttering slowly to one another behind sets of missing teeth. The bench is under a canvas awning that serves as the roof for a makeshift restaurant. The watery red, yellow, and green liquids under the plexi-glass counter look less than palatable, but it could just be the heat getting to me. The salty, smell of sweat hangs to the plexi. They look up as I approach. “Excuse me, bus to Raya Mosque?” I ask. “Here, here,” they reply.

“Sit,” says one of the men with straight, salt and pepper hair. An arm gestures to a bench pushed up against the restaurant’s glass counter. While seated, a crowd of all age’s forms around me, as if to say, look at this curiosity… a white guy… alone… on this side of the bus station fence. I try not to focus on the smell of sweat and cheap tobacco mixed with cinnamon, an Indonesian specialty. A curious child
My German InterviewMy German InterviewMy German Interview

Photographic evidence
comes and sits on the other side of my bag. He is wearing croc rip-offs to big for his feet, which I stare at to forget the heat.

After an interminable twenty minutes baking on the asphalt with the inquisitive crowd, a squat red and yellow bus about the size of a pickup truck pulls up. I climb inside, ducking so that my bag does not brush against the roof. Inside, there is a narrow aisle between two upholstered benches that are situated about a foot off the ground. This is the Indonesian angkot, one of the basic units of local, ground transport. I sit down and wedge my bag between my feet. Despite my short legs, my knees bump my chest as the angkot begins moving.

It turns right at the traffic light and takes me along a two-lane street bursting with vehicles of all shapes, colors, and sizes. There are yellow and white angkots, bicycles, motorbikes carrying anywhere between one and four riders, petticabs with their jumbo strollers, models of cars I haven’t seen since my childhood, and buses. They are all grappling for their share of the road. I imagine what
Maimoon PalaceMaimoon PalaceMaimoon Palace

An heirloom of Dutch colonial times
an Indonesian version of the puzzle game Rush Hour would look like, but then I realize the game has already accounted for the shapes, colors, and conflicting directional interests of all the drivers. I discover that the game is missing one element of gridlock: the noise. Screeching tires, loud honks, short, swift honks, AHWOOOGAs and BEEPBEEPs. The road is the sonic sister of a flock of geese.

One and two story shops line the road, compressing movement options and further pushing people on or near the street. Where the shops are farther back from the road, hobbled together market stalls with blue tarps tops take their place. The angkot whirs along, stopping every few hundred meters. Most of its riders are women in headscarves and children in faded t-shirts and baggy gym shorts. A child with a cleft lip watches me for an uncomfortably long time. I smile back. It’s hard for even me to decipher exactly what the smile means.

The angkot pulls over in front of the Raya Mosque. I maneuver out with my pack, thank the kindly driver, and hand him a 5.000 Rupiah bill. The Raya Mosque with its simple
Throne RoomThrone RoomThrone Room

With a distinctly Middle or South Asian flair. I'm honestly not sure which
elegance contrasts the muddle of sounds and objects around it. The mosque is a consistent blue and white. Four jet-black domes form a diamond around a central dome that is taller than the rest. Corridors lined by arched shaped bay windows connect the four domes and separate the inner sanctuary from the hot sun. With distance from the road, it is appreciably more tranquil.

I don a sari to cover my legs and enter the temple. Inside the prayer hall, a retrofitted divider wall separates the men and women’s prayer space. Because of the divider, the women of the mosque do not see the imam as he gives the Friday sermon from the steps of the minbar. His is a disembodied voice of authority. I sit on the scratchy carpeted floor and look at the floral stained glass windows filtering light into the room. In a matter of minutes, two men inquire about my life story. One is wearing a white prayer-cap; the other is wearing jeans and a green and black-stripped t-shirt. I take a photo with the second. I wonder to myself if Medan’s inhabitants speak stellar English or if I’m just attracting the few
Street-side MedanStreet-side MedanStreet-side Medan

Miles and miles of it
who can?

As I step off the mosque complex, my interactions with the locals take on a new element. “Entschuldigung,” I hear. I pause and turn around. Three girls are standing behind me with a camera and reporters notebook. They’re so innocent looking the thoughts “I haven’t done anything!” or “No comment!” don’t even flash through my head. “Können wir Ihnen ein paar Fragen stellen? Können sie Deutsch sprechen?” (Can we ask you a few questions? Can you speak German?) Astonished am I – I’ve done a million of these in English, but never German – and my grammar is instantly Teutonized. “Yes can I. I guess I a minute have.”

The girl with the reporter’s notebook looks down at a sentence labeled number one written on the page’s top line. “About how many hours a week do you work? What do you do in your free time?” The girls are local college students who have to interview tourists about their work-free time balance for their German class. Who knew German would be useful in Indonesian? We muddle through the interview together. The whole conversation is recorded on an old flip phone, and I
Traffic at a big intersectionTraffic at a big intersectionTraffic at a big intersection

Now imagine being disabled and trying to cross this. You don't get a light.
secretly hope that the traffic might drown out my voice. After the interview, the girls ask to take a photo with me. I get one on my camera, too, for posterity and all.

Amused, I make my way 200 meters to the nearby Maimoon Palace, narrowly avoiding loaming conversations with locals by walking faster. I’m running short on time after all of these interactions. I need to catch a bus to Bukit Lawang by around 3 PM or I might have to stay in Medan after all.

The Palace has the same color scheme as the mosque: white walls, gold stripes, and black domes. It is home to the Sultan of Deli, a man with a fabulous title but negligible political power. The throne room and reception room on display are hardly larger than the house I grew up in, though are far more ornate and less cluttered with reading materials. I’m reminded of Istanbul’s modern Ottoman Palaces. On the balconies surrounding the throne room, a group of braces-wearing Indonesian teenagers accost me with verb-less requests, and we take a series of photos.

I am now walking up the street parallel to the one I came into town on. I buy some wafer cookies and cut up pineapple from a local vendor. The pineapple is watery and flavorless. How can pineapples grown so geographically close to Thailand be so bad, I wonder? I catch an angkot street-side. I am on my way to the western bus station, where I will get a ride to Bukhit Lawang.


I couldn’t avoid the scammers forever, and a sunny day absorbing Medan’s sensory overload is enough to cloud anyone’s reason. As I disembark from my angkot onto a street churning with yellow angkots, I am rushed by a group of men yelling excitedly, “Bukit Lawang. Bukit Lawang, this way.”

“How much?” I ask with considerably less energy.

“100.000!” he says.

“ExPENseeve,” I tell the man, echoing his excitement with skepticism. I’m not really following, but he leads me towards what seems to be his bus. Crossing the street, we’re nearly run over a few times. With all the congestion, it’s hard to escape. “No thanks,” I say, after he points to a door. I buy a bottle of water and one of the boys with him tags along. I shouldn’t have responded in the first place. I’m annoyed, but I pose 70k hypothetically.

“Okay!” the man who has rejoined us assents quickly and somehow the money changes hands. He leads me to an angkot and puts me in the front seat. He doesn’t hand me a ticket. At this point, I am very confused and know something is wrong. I try to put the pieces together. The man accepted a lower price without thinking twice, I’m in the front seat of an angkot, I don’t have a ticket stub. But some kind of paralysis keeps me from opening the door, stepping off, and getting my money back. The dark, plastic upholstering of the seat cause me to sweat profusely. The angkot begins driving westward, and I am contented for just a little too long.

Moments later, I’m almost positive I’ve been had, and everything around me seems to contribute to my indignation. The angkot driver is manic. He lists and heels in his seat, while his head jerks independently from side to side. His head movements are made in time to the cheesy techno beat blaring from the car stereo, a 180bpm high pitched Do da doodoo do da doodoo on repeat the whole forty minutes I spend in his vehicle. As we drift westward, he honks at clusters of people walking on the sidewalk, delaying us from reaching our destination and putting my worries to rest. Some of the groups filter onto the bus.

Around this time, a woman with a handbag gets on. She is short, has amber hair down to her shoulders, and a pleasant smile. Her complexion is more Chinese than Indonesian. We make eye contact one two many times not to say anything without it being awkward. She makes two circles around her ear with her pointer finger and signals at the driver. Apparently, this is the sign for crazy in Indonesia as well… We start talking. Her name is Fara. She has spotless English that she learned from her ex-boyfriend, a Colorado native. She is heading home to Binjai after her day job as a secretary. She confirms that I’ve been had.

Black clouds sweep in from the distance, and it rains harder than I’ve ever seen it rain before. Our angkot is on a log flume. Plumes of wetness gush through the side door, which remains jammed despite the other passengers’ best efforts. A baby sits on a hooded woman’s lap and looks horrified. The woman is drenched from her belly down with a baby shaped dry patch on her chest. I can’t see out the front windshield, and I’m pretty sure Sir Jerks-a-lot can’t either, even though he has slowed down and has his head against the windshield. Somehow we make it to the next junction. The rain settles.

Fara gets off with me, and she waits half an hour to make sure that I get on a vehicle going to Bukhit Lawang. A pick-up truck arrives with a driver and his wife. Before I get on, Fara warns me that people in Bukit Lawang are probably out to scam me. “I haven’t been there though,” she adds hastily. “Let me know if it is interesting.” On the truck, I sit between two Germans and entertain the possibility that I have a crush on Fara. When I accept her Facebook friend request later that night, I get a sinking feeling. She is married and has a child.


Cities like Medan are the future, and it’s not a future that is easily chronicled into plot driven stories. It’s a messy collection of perceptions that will take patience to unravel. In all, I got two hours on my feet in Medan (and another four on wheels), but it was like snorting/touching/tasting a sensory powder keg. I got a messier, more complex picture of the country than I could have imagined from one day, and for some reason, I wished that I could spend a little longer in the city. The next two weeks would only present more paradoxes, pictures, and stories. Stay tuned!


16th December 2013

Child with Cleft Lip
Hi Stephen, Through Google Alerts I came across your blog as it mentions a child with a cleft lip. Smile Train is an international children's charity that provides free cleft lip and palate surgeries to children who need them. We have many Smile Train partner hospitals in the area of Indonesia where you are that can provide surgery to this child at absolutely no cost to the patient's family. Check out our site: If you do happen upon this child again, or any other children with cleft lip and/or palate, please contact Deasy Larasati,, who is our Program Manager based in Indonesia. Best of luck with the rest of your travels, Amber
18th December 2013

Great News!
This is great news! It's good to know that services like this are available for those who need it. Unfortunately, I was just traveling through for a day, so I cannot be of much help.

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