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Published: September 8th 2012
The immigration officer leaves through my passport, gives me a long, hard look, checks the arrival card, looks at me again. Why are you here? where do you stay? Travelling alone? How long will you be in Palembang? Where are you going afterwards? And then? And after that? Where's your return ticket? Where do you know all those places in Sumatra from? I just stay polite and try to answer his questions patiently, same with the security officer who afterwards digs through my bag and asks what I need each item for. Through the glass door, I see a line of men looking at me, so I already know what I'm in for once I pass through that door. Thanks for taking out all my belongings in front of a crowd of local touts. "Taxi?" says the guy who's been waiting right in front, a fat smiling Indonesian. I say no, he says ok and follows me. I shake my head emphatically, but he just talks to me in Indonesian and keeps following. Barely a minute in Indonesia, and I already have a chubby little sidekick.
I go to a taxi stall inside the arrivals hall, with the fatty in
tow, and ask them how much a taxi to the city would be. 100,000, they say. I ask if there's a bus, the lady actually says yes, there is one, and points me to the direction. The bus driver and the conductor, both very young blokes, look at me in astonishment as I enter the bus. I pay the fare, 4000 rupiah, and wait until the bus departs. On the way to town, Guns 'n' Roses' 'Sweet Child of Mine' and Europe's 'Final Countdown' follow each other, and the driver keeps the beat playing air-bass drum with his right foot. I tell the conductor I want to go to Keryajaya, the bus station outside of the city. He tells me I have to transit, and drops me off at a bus stop, where I hop on a different bus shortly afterwards. I have to repeat the procedure three times, not sure why there's no direct bus from the city to the bus station. I'm starting to worry I won't make the bus to Pagaralam, which is supposed to take about 7 hours, my guidebook informs me.
Then one of the most embarrassing situations of my travel career unfolds: somehow
the strap of my camera bag gets caught in the seat, and no matter what I do, I can't get it out. I struggle for at least 10-15 minutes, knowing I better do it quickly so as to not miss my stop. I just concentrate on trying to get the strap out, ignoring the stares of the people on the full bus, which are more and more palpable, piercing the back of my head. Finally, a lady calls the conductor and tells him of my predicament, then another lady says "Maybe you can get up first", which I hadn't even considered, having forgot that my seat has to be pulled down first before one can sit on it. I get up, the lady helps me untangle the strap, and I thank her profusely, red head and all.
The huts on the outskirts of Palembang are getting increasingly poor and dilapidated as we leave the centre and go further towards the bus station. Most of them are wooden shacks, built on stilts right next to the river, with a leave/straw/thatched or rusty corrugated iron-roof. Still, every hut has more character than the faceless concrete
buildings in the city centre. Some of them have been converted into shops, with a little stall in front selling drinks, chips, two-minute noodles and keropok (prawn crackers). Many have laundry hanging on their makeshift verandahs.
A chubby young lady wearing a violet headscarf wants to know where I'm going. When I tell her, she says I shouldn't go to the bus station, it's very dangerous there. Exactly what a scammer would say. Same with the next thing: she tells me her brother and uncle are going to Pagaralam, and they can take me. What a coincidence. I'm still not convinced. She accompanies me to the bus station, where the ticket seller tells us we're late, and the next bus will be the following day. I sit down in frustration, for now I'll have to stay in Palembang and lose a day. The chick says she can call somebody, and I can go in a private car. I look at her, and she looks back, then says "Don't worry, it's safe. You can trust me." I ask how much the car ride would be, she says "120.000". I reply "I'm not rich". They talk amongst each other, with her
probably explaining them that I think she wants to rip me off. She then tells me I can stay in a hotel that's not far away. I still sit there, frustrated and unresponsive, and unsure whether or not they're all trying to scam me. All of a sudden, a young guy says "You can sleep in my bus. Then tomorrow you can take first bus to Palembang." I ponder that possibility for a moment. It sounds kind of enticing, like one of those things that you could proudly tell your friends and family about. But then I've had a very long day, I'm in desperate need of a shower and a warm meal, and a bed would probably be better to sleep on than a couple of bus seats. "Do you sleep in the bus?" I ask the guy. "Yes, I'm the driver!" he says, as though it's the most normal thing for a bus driver to sleep in his bus every night. I politely refuse and go with the hotel option.
The chick accompanies me back on the bus and towards the city. Just on the outskirts of the centre, we hop off. The hotel has a price
list with two prices only, 150,000 and 200,000, which are both way too much for me. I ask them if they can get me a discount, but the owner doesn't budge. Suddenly, the lady offers to pay for my room, saying "You really need to rest", but I refuse adamantly, telling her she's already helped me enough. I ask the owner one last time if he doesn't have any cheaper rooms, and he says yes, for 100,000, but then it's without a bathroom. Fucking hell, you could have told me that earlier, mate. I take the room and bid the lady farewell, thanking her many times for her help, a bit ashamed at myself for being so paranoid and thinking of her as a scammer.
The room is probably the hottest room I've ever been in. At least there's a fan. I am shocked to see two big bloodstains on the linen, but then I realize they are holes, and the red is the colour of the mattress underneath. I kill a cockroach, then go find an ATM at a supermarket closeby. On the way back, I pass some kids playing football. They get all excited when they see
me, waving and saying "Hello Mister!" and "My name is?", which takes me a moment to figure is supposed to mean 'What's your name?' One of them comes up and wants his picture taken with me. When some of the smaller kids jump into the picture, he shoves them away, telling them off like 'No! It's my foreigner!'.
I don't think the people in this part of town see a lot of white people. Literally everybody looks at me with open mouths, then breaks out in a smile, saying "Hello" and "How are you?" Some guys ask "Ojek, mister?", which means 'motorbike'. One guy in a filthy Manchester United-jersey starts following me, asking me for money. I say no and walk off, but he is quite persistent. I try and ignore him, but when he says he needs the money for nasi, I point at the nasi he has in a plastic bag in his hand. He still keeps following me, laughing and saying nasty things in Indonesian. When I cross the street and walk towards a police checkpoint, he finally gets the message.
The following morning I get up at 4:45am,
just in time for the 5am-bus. I ask different people if it's the right bus, but they say yes in a very hesitant way. A guy talks to me in Indonesian, saying something like him and his brother can take me to Pagaralam, which doesn't sound right. I decide to skip that bus and make my way back to the bus station. Once arrived, I get ripped off by the minivan driver who took me there, followed by a man who wants to know where I go and where I'm from. I'm not sure how it matters where I come from, but he sits me down and writes me a ticket. While he's busy doing that, I ask him when the bus leaves, but he doesn't react. I ask how much it costs, still no reaction. Finally he writes down the price, 95,000, puts a stamp on it, tears out the ticket, and hands it to me. I just look at the price in shock. "95,000? No!" I give him back his ticket and walk off. I hear him say "Wait, how much?", but too late, he's been too much of an arrogant prick for me to use his services.
I go over to the ticket booth of the guy I'd talked to the day before. He's just arrived, and I ask the keropok lady next to his booth how much the ticket costs. She says '45,000', but it actually turns out to be only 40,000. I buy the ticket, and soon enough, I'm finally off towards Pagaralam.
The eight-hour bus ride is reminiscent of the worst ones I've had, just not quite as atrocious. Yes, the leg room is very limited, people next to me are smoking, the music is loud enough to make your ears bleed, the driver overtakes trucks even when there's oncoming traffic, but at least the road is reasonable enough for it not to become a complete disaster. That said, it's the Trans-Sumatran Highway, apparently, but you wouldn't think it's a highway if you didn't know. It's a pretty standard road with one lane in each direction. We take a break for lunch, but I've lost my appetite, and just walk around listlessly in the sun. In the end, I decide it's better I eat something, so I buy some banana chips, papaya, melon and fried tofu from the nice ladies walking around with
their wares in big rattan baskets.
In Pagaralam, I find a hotel that seems reasonable. I get my own 'bathroom', or rather squat toilet with adjacent trough filled with water and a plastic pan to scoop the water either into the toilet or onto yourself. It's beyond me how to just wash your hands in that.
I go play badminton with some friendly kids in front of the hotel. They are only about eight years old, but their technique is already very sound, nothing compared to the German kids that age who are all awkward swinging their rackets about. The father of the kids arrives and introduces himself. His name is Enges, and his English is the best I've come across in Indonesia. He says he used to be a guide for 20 years, and now he's the boss of all the professional guides in Pagaralam. He invites me to come to his place across the street later for coffee.
I sit down on a bench in front of an internet cafe to eat the icy pole I've just bought. It doesn't take long for a crowd of kids and teens
to form around me. The guy who sits down next to me speaks the best English, and starts asking many questions, e.g. if I'm married, how I like Indonesia and Indonesian food, what music I'm into, if I like badminton, football, basketball, volleyball, some weird first-person shooter and other stuff. When they hear I'm from Germany (it takes a while until they get it, I repeat different pronunciations from 'Germany' to 'Jarman'😉, they start ooohing and aaahing.
Two guys in particular keep saying 'Mesudosil! Mesudosil!', but I don't get it, until somebody says 'Madrid', when I finally understand they mean German football player Mesut Özil (believe it or not, the umlaut makes a huge difference, pronounciation-wise). Kind of funny they mention this guy, who was virtually unknown outside Germany before the World Cup 2010. He excelled in the tournament and got traded to Real Madrid after, where he became the international superstar he is today. They ask if I have Facebook and Twitter, I reply I don't. When they look disappointed, I have a lucid moment and say "Facebook makan jam sayu", which means 'Facebook eats my time', and is a good collaboration of some of the few words
I know in Bahasa Indonesia. Before I leave, a few pictures are taken again, then they finally let me go.
As I'm about to enter my hotel, I hear somebody calling 'Friend!', and see Enges vis-a-vis waving at me to join him and his mates. He offers me coffee, which turns out to be pretty damn good. His wife, father, brother, sister with husband and kids are all there as well. They ask me the questions that have become usual for me by now, then he goes on to elaborate how things are in Pagaralam:
"We don't have many tourists here. It's because it's very hard to get here. Most people go to Java and Bali, it's easier to get around. Here, you have to take the bus, it takes very long. But next year, an airport will open only about 20km from Pagaralam. Maybe we will get more tourists then. Until then, I want to make sure that the tourists who come are fine and have a good experience. I think it's important, otherwise Pagaralam will get a bad name."
See, people of Laos, Morocco and Peru (amongst others), it's not fucking rocket science. Maybe you
should try this approach, instead of treating every foreigner like a walking ATM.
"If you want, I can take you around tomorrow on ojek. There are many megalith sites around Pagaralam, they are very interesting. Or you can climb Gunung Dempo and see the tea plantations there. We also have lots of waterfalls. I can take you around in the afternoon, in the morning I have to work. I'll take you for free, you can just pay for petrol. To me, it's a hobby, I'm happy to take visitors around. I started being a guide when I was in high school, 20 years ago, but now I don't have the time and there are not enough tourists anyway. So I try my best to please the ones that come here. When I was young, a Dutch man used to look after me and my family. He supported us when we needed it. Now I want to give something back to foreigners and show them what we have here in Pagaralam. I don't want their money, and I don't need it."
I arranged for Enges' brother Wisata to pick me up in the
morning and be my guide. We hop on his ojek and drive to the nearby village of Tanjung Aro to see the first of the Pasemah megaliths. These prehistoric stone sculptures date from about 3000 years ago, and are considered some of the best in Indonesia. We walk into a rice paddie, where a rather crudely carved rock is sitting, fenced in to protect it from who-knows-what. In my glossy tourist brochure, it says about this megalith: "Megalith in the picture is known as Snake Twisting Couple Stone due to the carving on it shows the carving of a big snake twisting a making-sex couple." Alright then. When I look closely, I can kind of detect the snake, but the sexy-time couple I can't say I've seen.
In the village itself are two dolmen-style tombs, which me and Wisata slide into on our bums. Inside, there is another, smaller opening that we can't possibly squeeze ourselves into. My guide says it leads to the grave itself, but who exactly was buried there, I don't get a precise answer to. Nobody knows, most likely.
A 20-minute ojek ride later, we are in a different village. I rather enjoy the
experience so far. The houses in the villages are mostly colourful, some of them even traditional Padang-style with angular roof gables. I don't get the hostile stares that a foreigner usually gets in traditional villages in Southeast Asia. People are friendly and respectful, and they actually look quite content.
A tiny old man welcomes us at his rice paddies, where the Batu Beghibu stones are located. He says he's from Medan, and he still looks fit enough to do most of the daily work in the fields. When he sees my tats, he shows me a slightly faded old tattoo on his left forearm of a stylized dagger. The megaliths are more interesting than the first one. They consist of four stone statues with 'rice baskets' on their backs. It looks like all of them have massively stretched earlobes with ornate jewellery in them, but when I point this out to Wisata, he just kind of laughs it off.
We move on to Batu Gajah, or Elephant Stone, the last of the megaliths we are to visit that morning. To see that one, we have to walk through rice paddies for at least 15 minutes, which I don't
mind the least, as it's pretty damn scenic and picturesque. We pass the hut of an old man who offers us a yellow-greenish fruit the size of a lime. It's called terong, and Wisata skins one with a machete for me. The taste is mildly sweet and custardy, nothing special, I'd say. I find out that the elephant stone is rather a buffalo stone. This time I can clearly see a man clinging on to the animal, with the head of the buffalo intricately carved into the stone.
We return to Pagaralam for lunch. Wisata finds us a little eatery that specializes in lotek, a type of salad made of rice cake cubes, some greens and bean sprouts, all mashed together with a spicy peanut sauce. The waiter puts a plate of gorengan on the table, which are mixed deep-fried vegetables, bananas and tofu. In between chewing and slurping, Wisata asks me:
"So your wife, is she also vegetarian?"
-"Yes, but she eats fish."
"OK. Is it because of church?"
"Yes, church." He makes the sign of the cross and laughs.
-"What do you
mean, because of church? Why church?"
"Oh, I just thought you're vegetarian because of religion."
-"You mean we're Christians? Fuck no!! Got nothing to do with church!" I wave my hands emphatically.
"Yes, but some religions, they're vegetarians, right?"
-"Yeah, some Taoists in China."
-"Yes, Tao. They're vegetarian, and so are many Hindus in India."
"So you're not vegetarian because of religion."
-"No way! It's something personal. Animals are my friends, and I don't eat my friends. You understand?"
"Yes, I think I know what you mean. Well, I'm Muslim. But I'm a bad Muslim."
-"That's good!" I reply.
"Yeah, I wear these clothes and this hat (Muslim type of beanie), but not so much else."
-"So you're a part-time Muslim."
"Yes", he laughs, "part-time!"
We both laugh.
"You see, in Indonesia it's different. There's no border between Muslim and not Muslim. We're all human."
Take that, world.
"So what do you think about Muslims?" he goes on to ask.
-"They're alright, I guess. I don't really care about the religion of other people. To me it's a private thing. But
in some countries, in Malaysia, for example, they look at me weird. You know, because of the tattoos, piercings, not very well-dressed, always a bit dirty and sweaty because it's so hot and dusty there all the time. So they go 'Look at this bum', because most Muslims are always quite well-dressed, and they look down on me. You get that feeling."
"Oh, ok. So in Jarman, what is your tradition? Can you give me an example?"
-"Hm, I don't know..." I really have to ponder this for a while. "We drink a lot of beer." It's telling and kind of embarrassing that I can't think of a better example.
"Ah, like at beer fests, in Munchen."
-"Yes, exactly. Munchen is in Bavaria, and they have traditional clothes as well, like you have here in Pagaralam. But to me Bavaria is as far as Papua is to you, so where I come from, we have different traditions. Except that we drink a lot of beer as well."
I pay for the food, and we go on towards the tea plantations on Mount Dempo, as Enges has called and said he won't be able
to make it that day. It's a bit of a ride outside of town, and as we keep going uphill, I can feel my thighs and back hurting from holding on to the ojek. The higher we go, the more rocky and uneven the road gets. The beautiful tea plantations make more than up for it, and naturally, I'm reminded of Malaysia's Cameron Highlands. Wisata says most of the plantation workers were brought in from Java, as they already had the required skillset from the Javanese tea plantations. Gunung Dempo's peak is not visible that day, unfortunately, it is covered in dense mist.
Before calling it a day, we go to a waterfall next to the road to Lahat. As the bridge across the river is broken, we wade through the water to the other side, which is more tricky than it sounds, for the currents are quite strong. I slip on the smooth rocks and almost fall down a couple of times, but just manage to catch myself. Wisata proposes I take a swim under the waterfall, but I have to refuse, as I've already developed a hacking cough, and I didn't bring a towel, which would surely
make it worse. Maybe I'm a bit too sensitive for a hardcore traveller.
That night, I run the gauntlet again: first I pass a group of kids, one of which plays Adele's 'Someone Like You' for me on his Blackberry, for whatever reason. Another reacts to my Jarmanity uttering the epitaph-quality verdict "Michael Ballack uber alles". I go eat some decent nasi goreng at the stall next to the internet cafe. Behind my hotel, there's a billard area, where some local men hang out. Wisata's there, and he invites me to join them when he sees me. Coffee and padang cake make an appearance, and so does the local mayorial candidate. One older guy explains to me that the men present are his 'success team' for the January 2013 election. I find out that he's the owner of my hotel as well as the transport company that brought me to this town. He also owns a nice, expensive villa and a bunch of other businesses in Palembang. The poor mofos run around doing the dirty work for him while he sits there giving monologues. I tell Wisata he should become a candidate, but
he just laughs. "I'm not a rich man!" he tells me.
I get a lot of questions like "Where are your friends?", "Do you have friends?" and "Are you lonely?" what they mean is "Do I travel alone?", and when I say yes, they look like they can't comprehend why somebody would put himself through such an ordeal. One guy in particular keeps on taking the piss out of me and everything I say, but it's all in a good-natured way. I finish my coffee and excuse myself to pass out.
The following day, I take it easy, as my cough has gone worse. I go eat lunch with the guy from reception. While we're eating, a guy in a blue uniform, different from the beige police uniforms, asks me where I'm from and sits down on my table with a policeman.
"Bisa Bahasa?" he asks. Do I speak Indonesian?
-"Tidak", I reply. No.
"Passport", he demands.
-"It's in the hotel. Hotel Telaga Biru, just around the corner."
-"Should I go get it?"
"No. Why are you in Indonesia."
here's a copy of my passport." I hand the sheet over.
"Where's your visa?"
-"In my passport. In the hotel."
"How long you stay here?"
-"My visa is 30 days. It's my third day in Indonesia."
"30 days?" He talks to his colleague.
"Have you registered at the police station in Pagaralam?"
"Oh, so you're illegal here!" He gets more unpleasant.
-"No, I don't think so. I got my visa on arrival, paid for it, answered all the questions, nobody ever said I have to register anywhere."
He talks to his colleague, then to the reception guy. The latter just looks at me like 'Man, those are some stupid motherfuckers.' Mr. Blue gives me back my passport copy.
"Thank you", he and his mate say. I nod. Finally they piss off. My acquaintance from the hotel says "Sorry about that." I tell him it's ok, and finish my fried tofu.
I've been trying to get a hold on a ticket to Padang. Turns out there's no bus, only minivans. The information on the length of the trip I get
is conflicting: 20 hours. No, no, no, 12 hours. Two days! I find the official ticket seller, and he tells me 16-17 hours. His ticket office is a clothes shop called Bio-Bio Rock Store. When I rock up, they are a bit at a loss what to do, despite the fact I tell them I want to buy a ticket for the car to Padang. They just let me stand there for a while, then they offer me tea. I finish my tea, then ask again about the ticket. They talk to each other, call somebody, then talk some more. Then nothing. After five minutes, I repeat my question. No idea what's going on. I have a look around the shop. I'm surprised to see they sell band t-shirts of Avenged Sevenfold, Autopsy, Hatebreed, As I lay Dying, even of good ones like Most Precious Blood, Pennywise, Sick of it All. Not sure if they know that these are all bands or if some guy just downloaded the designs off the internet and printed it on a shirt because it looks bad-ass.The ticket seller has disappeared to somewhere. Why? I wanted to buy a ticket, I told him so. Finally
they send a shopboy to go get the ticket for me, I pay and off I go.
Probably the loveliest people I've met is a family who lives in a dodgy-looking alley I frequently use as a shortcut. Every time they see me, they wave and smile and go "Good morning, mister! How are you?" or "Good afternoon, mister! Very Handsome!" On day three, they finally ask me to take a picture with them, and after a billion shots with their mobile phones, I whip out my camera to get a photo as well. When I later buy a murtabak kacang, a gigantic, fatty peanut pancake, which I can't finish, I wonder what to do with the rest. Nobody in the hotel wants it, so I think of the family. They do look quite poor, so maybe they would appreciate it as a treat. Or maybe they would be offended to get my scraps. I decide on the first option, and drop by to give them the box containing half a murtabak. They are actually in the middle of eating dinner and invite me in, but I refuse politely, pointing to my stomach, saying I've already eaten. I'm a
bit embarrassed, so I quickly piss off and wave them goodbye. I really do hope they regarded it as an act of kindness rather than pity.
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