Clearing the Bad Air in Berastagi

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March 11th 2014
Published: March 12th 2014
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October 10th

Tags: Zero Fever, Zombies, Volcanoes, Candy Crush, Indonesian Amusement Parks, Cabbage

At breakfast, I order “French toast.” I am given two pieces of toasted white bread, no butter. There are piles of a black and a white powdery substance next to the bread. I assume them to be cinnamon and sugar and apply liberally. Gag. Nope. They were salt and pepper. I drown out the flavor with another order of greasy nasi goring.

In a gravel lot at the end of the street of sucking mud, there are three mini-buses raring to go. The driver escorts me onto a mini-bus. His face is so gnarled with wrinkles that it seems to be made from tree bark. A sad expression is chiseled onto his face.

Dedi’s aunt rides in the front, and a Dutch couple occupies the middle seat. That makes five of us total. I get the back to myself and take the opportunity to stretch out. The driver bends slightly over the wheel, but his movements are surprisingly quick – when he moves at all. At Bintang interchange, only two hours away this time, we pull over at an ATM so that everyone can settle bills with the trekking outfits.

I walk into the tiny air-conditioned room that encloses the ATM machine and withdraw 1,000,000 Rupiah. I’m gripped with zero fever. “I’m an Indonesian millionaire!” I yell into the wall of the tiny room. Then, I step outside, hand Dedi’s aunt 275,000, and mutter to myself about fortune’s cruel swings.

While we are waiting for everyone to use the single ATM machine, I strike up a conversation with Dedi’s aunt. “Why do you have to make the trip?” I ask her. After all, the driver could just bring her the money. They’re probably related.

She tells me that she likes to go to the grocery store and get fresh milk, which isn’t available in Bukhit Lawang. While the buses go on to Toba and Berastagi, she takes another shuttle home. I shed all journalistic decorum and put on my capitalist hat. “Why don’t you set up a service? You know, bringing these goods to the other families in Bukhit Lawang.” She looks at me like my hair is on fire.

Monument to the Karo War with the DutchMonument to the Karo War with the DutchMonument to the Karo War with the Dutch

For some reason, I didn't take a shot of the cabbage monument though...

Back on the bus, I’ve assumed the front seat now vacated by Dedi’s aunt. It’s sweltering, even sitting next to the open window. The air-conditioner is on, but it’s on low. The Dutch couple in the middle looks worse for the wear. I want to help my fellow travelers, so I turn the A/C up. The bus driver contorts his tree bark face into a cross look and turns the knob back to low. I’m frightened but at the same time intrigued by the ferocity of his face and the fact that he can even move it at all. My fear is quickly forgotten as the Dutch couple eggs me on. I reach for the knob.

SMACK!!! I’m in disbelief. My hand has been batted away. The driver didn’t even look away from the road. I’m not sure whether I’m offended or amused. I can’t decide with this guy.

Meanwhile, the ancient driver has been yakking on his cell phone. He hangs up. I don’t know Bahasa, but I have a bad feeling. He gets off the phone and pulls over to the side of the road. The other two vans traveling in
Sibayak behind cloudsSibayak behind cloudsSibayak behind clouds

and a strangely empty lane for Indonesia. It seems like there are people everywhere I turn.
a caravan with us pull over and sandwich our van.

I really don’t like this!

The driver gets out of the car, pops open the truck, and takes out my bag. Using exaggerated hand motions and his formidable brow, I get the idea. Go to the van behind. The Dutch couple gets sent to the front van.

I am now sitting in the back row, middle seat, with my pack wedged between my knees. Most of the pack’s weight is on my groin, and the frequent bumps in the road make me feel like I’m squeezing together the pads of a wobbly thigh-master. We have at least three hours until we arrive.

Oh, so the moral of this interlude is to pack light, because if your pack isn’t resting on your groin, your overstuffed rolley-bag or two 65-liter backpacks are the reason someone else will walk like a hermit crab for the next two days.

Nevertheless, this whole ordeal turns out to be a blessing in disguise, chance, God’s will, Allah’s will, karma, or whatever you believe in depending on your religious orientation. I need something to distract me from my thigh-master ordeal and getting lost in conversation seems like a great way to do it. I look around. I am seated between a man and a woman. The man, who is on my right, is playing Candy Crush on his iPad. He seems like he’d be a stunning conversationalist. NOT! The woman, on the other hand, is staring off into space. I ask a general question to both: where are you going? She is going to Berastagi, and he is going to Toba.

Ahah! As luck would have it, I was no longer on the bus straight to Toba. I can assess the dubious “air quality” created by the eruption myself.

The woman is German, and the conversation has shifted to German. When the couple sitting in front of us hears German, especially spoken with a slightly American accent, they chime in. An American who speaks German? In Indonesia?

“What are the chances?” she asks. To which I want to reply, “Computational error: incorrect inputs.”

The woman, Jill (all names from here changed), is a flight attendant for Air Berlin. She, like
PETA might have some problems with thisPETA might have some problems with thisPETA might have some problems with this

Then again, most SE Asian cultures would have trouble understanding PETA.
me, is traveling alone, something that the Indonesians just can’t understand. Indonesians don’t like doing anything alone. The German couple is from Aachen.

We are about halfway to Berastagi when the road narrows to a single lane in each direction at best. It swerves through intermittent villages and towns. We pass fields littered with trash. I see some bags that are charred to the point where I can barely tell what brand of chips they once held. Indonesians often dispose of their trash themselves, but it doesn’t seem to be doing much good for the plastics.

We’re clearly gaining elevation now. On the left, we pass by an amusement park that can’t cover more than an acre. A roller coaster that’s at most 40 or 50 feet tall is visible behind the park’s walls. I wonder to myself, why would you need a roller coaster on Sumatra, when one day on the roads releases all the adrenaline one needs for a month? Maybe Sumatrans go to the amusement park to feel secure?

We are climbing some serious foothills. Switchback after switchback, there are no guardrails to keep the van from falling into the lane of traffic below. We reach a curve where the road disappears behind a hillside. In driver’s parlance, these are called blind curves. So before we go around the blind curve, the driver toots the horn, which is how the guy coming the other way knows you are there. Good idea!

The view of the green countryside below is spectacular, but there is a conspicuous absence of trees. I see smoke in the valley below.

We stop for twenty minutes at a rest station. At a local convenience store, I prepare a meal of instant noodles and Oreos. I’m still wary of what fresh food will do to my stomach. Some of the oil from the insta-noodles ends up on my shirt, and it doesn’t come out when I work at it with a dampened napkin. The stain is helping my backpacker look, I tell myself.

It is midafternoon when we arrive in Karo country. On either side, there are small fields full of peculiar vegetables that don’t look tropical at all. Later, wikipedia research would prove that these vegetables aren’t indigenous at all. They were brought there when the Dutch conquered the area in the early 1900s. Besides the fields, there are occasional wooden buildings that look like three-story tall witch’s hats. The straw roofs have a very steep pitch and subsume much of the horizontal wood at the base, which is itself elevated four or five feet off the ground. These are the traditional longhouse buildings of the Karo people. The Karo people of Northern Sumatra have a distinct culture and language that is a piece of the larger Batak culture of Sumatra – I’ll spare the details.

We drive around a sharp bend above a valley full of simple stone and wood houses with rusted metal roofs. In the distance, there are mountain peaks. I might be climbing one of these tomorrow.

Berastagi is a one street town. We drive down most of the one street and are dropped off inside a walled off parking lot. The driver tells us that information is inside the building at the end of the parking lot. The building turns out to be a cheap hotel, and not the one the Germans want to stay in. I haven’t done any research, so I follow them.

I take a ragged sniff of the thin air and decide to stay in the town. The air is clearly not good, but I’m not sure whether it’s volcano smoke, the lingering smell of burnt trash, or the town’s 1330-meter elevation getting to me. The temperature is really pleasant though. I follow the Germans to the hotel their guidebook suggests.

We make our way up Berastagi’s one street and pass a monument that I kid-you-not is a head of cabbage. All sorts of shops straddle the street. It feels a little like an Indonesian Phang-nga. The sidewalks are crammed with giggling school children in uniforms that make them look like sailors. Excited to be out of school, they shout, “Hello!” and “What’s your name?” I smile and answer their hellos and questions. It’s more than they reckoned for, and they back off. The Germans respond stolidly. I find this funny. They are more out of place than I am.

We reach the traffic circle in town, where a smaller road converges with “the one road”. Here there is a monument to the heroes of the war with the Dutch. This

The billboards in the middle of the street are to announce weddings. It must be the high season to get married in Berastagi.
makes more sense to me than the cabbage. But maybe it shouldn’t? Maybe if the world had more monuments to vegetables and less to wars, we’d be slimmer and less belligerent. Chris, the male element of the German couple, spots the town’s tourist information booth, and we enter.

We intend to climb Mount Sibayak, the less challenging of two nearby volcanoes, and watch the sunrise. Sinabung, despite sounding like a cinnamon pastry, is Sibayak’s fiercer neighbor. I am tempted to climb it, but it’s a 2-3 hour trek into the jungle up a still-smoking hunk of rock. No guarantees on air quality during the climb.

Unfortunately, it erupted in February, killed 16 people, and created a lot of refugees.

I don’t trust the guide fully, after all that’s been pulled on me in the last few days. I ask if I can pay after the tour, and he agrees. I rescind my suspicion.

Because we have to get up early and are touring together, the couple suggests all four of us stay in the same place to further reduce costs. We stay at a small English cottage-cum-guesthouse that is run
Protestant Church?!Protestant Church?!Protestant Church?!

Look closely at the decorations.
by an elderly couple. The husband is Dutch. The wife is Indonesian. The experience is pleasant, and there is only one thing I take issue with. The next-door neighbors are burning something plastic. Between this and the thin air, I have trouble breathing.

To kill time, we take a trip to the local market. Blocks of tofu are drying on racks and leaking juices onto the muddy ground. In the next stall over, there are stacks of dried fish and stingrays, followed by buckets of live fish. As I pass, they kick water at me. A lady is chopping up chickens on top of a pen of live ones. If the chickens aren’t distressed, the Germans are for them. The flight attendant comments that she feels like she has just experienced the Middle Ages.

Back on the street, a man in a pickup truck offers to drive us to his church. He is a local minister, and the building he brings us to doesn’t strike me as a church at first. It looks like a traditional Karo building. But on closer inspection, one can see a cross atop the spire and Christian icons on the walls. Inside, the church looks like any American protestant church. The majority in Karo country is Christian, not Muslim like most of Indonesia. What a patchwork country!

When we exit, three female congregants greet us with mouths blood-red from chewing betel nuts. The sight is disturbing to me. I’ve seen far too many zombie movies… (The volcanic gases unleashed a parasite that… No…. The betel nuts are full of microorganisms that need a host…) The ladies are actually quite pleasant.

It's nearing sunset and the wide-sidewalks are now full of makeshift street restaurants covered by tents.

Early to bed, early to rise. After dinner, we hit the hay. We have to be up at 3:30 am to catch the sunrise atop Sibayak.


14th March 2014

Wow. You are going to very remote areas!

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