Pimps, prostitutes,orangutans and volcanoes
After the surreal Kuala Lumpur experience, we discovered our original plan was somewhat bereft of reality. As in, it wasn’t going to happen. We had decided to head further south to hop across to Sumatra at Melaka. We hadn’t, however, taken into account that there was in fact no way of getting the bike there.
This meant we were in for a longish trek north again, back the way we’d come, to cross from Penang to Medan, northern Sumatra.
An uneventful motorway day saw us rock up in Georgetown, Penang, and hoof it to the ferry office to ask about tickets the next day. They gaped at us when they saw the bike, and once again, we wished we had planned ahead slightly. There is no car ferry. There are smelly little passenger ferries, and for transportation, there are ‘onion boats’.
We scarpered, and, once ensconced in a rip-off hotel room that smelt of sewers, wandered around the backstreets, peeking into the ancient Chinese shop houses.
Old Chinese grandmothers sat in front of huge Tao shrines in front rooms that lead straight onto the streets. The occasional mad woman milled about, talking to the stray cats. A makeshift shack was being used as a bar for a rowdy-looking bunch of Indian men. There were excellent 50s style American neon signs lighting up the old streets with Chinese characters. An African prostitute stood under them smiling at us (well, probably Adam, unless she was that way inclined).
We found the onion boat organiser (a very friendly Mr Lim of Cakra Shipping), and two days later got the bike hoisted onto a big old wooden trawler by crane. The bike was held mid-air by three ropes, and dangled into the correct position. It was travelling with 22 enormous sacks of reeking, salted cow-skin, which were quietly leaking juices onto the floor.
We swapped hotels in a bid to save money, and ended up in a ramshackle room with cardboard walls, next door to the same African prostitute and her pimp. She screamed at him at 4am that she would find someone else to work for. He softly declared back that he would beat her.
We listened to his phone calls as he organized the delivery of a new girl from abroad, and watched the furtive sneakings of his drug-buying customers as they left counting their money.
The next morning the African girl stood sniffing glue from a plastic bag outside the Indian restaurant. We moved hotels again.
We bumped into a fellow bike-traveling Brit and his girlfriend, who we have been bumping into in bizarre places since the Cameron Highlands, and swapped updates.
We had booked ourselves onto the smelly passenger ferry to leave the same day as the bike. We packed up, checked out (the third hotel in the space of four days), and legged it to the ferry terminal. We arrived just in time for a harassed police woman to tell us it wasn’t running. The propeller had fallen off.
We would have to wait for three days until the next one, while our bike sat at the port in Indonesia, incurring who-knew-what charges.
Upset but unfazed we raced back across town to our hotel room, to discover that in the twenty minutes our trip had taken us, someone else had checked into our room. The manager just stared at us.
Upset and fazed as well, we searched for a fourth hotel. There wasn’t a whole lot to be done about it though, so we sat and waited.
While we waited we visited the Botanical Gardens, and found a Chinese temple which I think was Taoist, where hordes of Chinese worshippers lit 4 ft high incense sticks as thick as small trees, and worshipped at altars with plaster deities of someone I didn’t recognise.
Three days later the smelly ferry rocked its way creakily over to Medan, and we were discharged into a horrendous throng of touts. One particularly annoying guy wouldn’t leave us alone, and eventually we gave in and let him take us, for a probably extortionate fee, to the shipping agents office to relocate our trusty steed.
The office was down a tiny side-street, in a tiny town full of tiny side-streets. It was also shut. Our guy peered at us to see what we would make of this information, so we peered back, and no one said much for a while. Having realized he wasn’t going to get a whole lot of money from us unless he tried a bit harder than that, he took us elsewhere.
A talkative group of neighbours sat about outside a shack shop, playing dominoes and generally not doing much. We joined them for an hour, and wondered why. We smiled a lot, and tried to look unconcerned. Eventually he drove us back to the office, which had miraculously opened again, and I was unceremoniously deposited there while Adam whisked off on the back of a bike to sort out customs.
A friendly family who lived there kept me entertained. We chatted happily. Then they asked me for money.
We were in Belawan. It looked to be a very interesting little place, and far more ramshackle than anywhere we had seen since India.
Little becaks (scooters with two-seater sidecars attached) whizzed over potholes and round chickens. Small children tumbled about. Ducks with deformed turkey heads got kicked by passing strangers. The houses were uniformly small, uniformly wooden, and utterly un-uniformly painted. Tiny shacks sold shampoo in single-use sachets, and tea leaves in paper bags.
I decided Indonesia was going to be good.
After a night in the traffic-ridden, smoggy town of Medan, we set off for Berastagi to find our very first volcanoes. The road was a little bit, well, mental. It was potholed and chaotic. This is normally Adam’s forte, having learned to ride in India. However, our mirror had fallen off. And we were very lost. We didn’t die or crash though, and eventually we found our way out of Medan. It took a few hours.
The road wound upwards in a pleasing manner. The atrocious heat gave way to milder climes, and the road- no, the road was still detrimental to our mental states. Trucks trundled, 4x4s hurtled, scooters scut, and it all seemed to happen around our ears. Then halfway up the hill a tailback started. We crept past gingerly. And past, and past, and past. It took us over an hour and a half to get through the tangle. An articulated truck had tumbled its container of concrete slabs across most of the little thing masquerading as the road. We later learnt the tailback grew to be 24 hours long.
Berastagi‘s actual town was perhaps most notable for the strange concrete cabbage monument on the roundabout. But the surrounding villages were stunning.
There were hundreds of little farms, with cabbage patches and sweetcorn, and huge piles of ridiculously orange carrots.
There were traditional Batak buildings with strange roofs and buffalo horns on top to ward off evil ghosts. The churches looked tribal and oddly American-Indian, except for the cross. The people looked Bolivian, with flat wide faces and shawls with babies in. The women wore checked tea towels folded onto their heads.
In the background the two volcanoes majestically belched out sulphur, and the farmland continued halfway up them.
Everyone was friendly, and there seemed to be no cultural barriers to conversation- it was all very easy and relaxed. No one asked us how much we earned or what our occupations were. The similarities with India had seemingly ceased.
We read the hotel comments books, and scared ourselves silly with tales of robbery and scams. On our way up to Mt Sibayak we worried each other with mugger stories, and carried handy rocks, just in case.
I was a bit awed by the volcano. It was very, very big. The noise was deafening. We peeked over into it, half-expecting to see vicious lava swirling below. Probably quite luckily, there wasn’t any. The crater was the size of 4 football pitches, and filled with sticky clay. There were fluorescent yellow vents whistling out a high-pressure hot sulphurous gas, and a whole lot of relatively unsettling rumbling kettle-noises happening somewhere far beneath us. There were little pools of water bubbling with heat. It stank of rotten eggs. After half an hour, so did we. Adam walked straight up to the most vicious of vents and stood in the gas. I wasn’t so sure it was a good idea.
No one robbed us. No one stole the bike. No one did anything at all, except say Hello.
We wombled around the little villages by bike, getting lost and watching everyone get on with it. It all looked stupidly idyllic.
There was a little traditional Batak village nearby, with the proper old houses dotted about. We paid our donation, and got a handmade wooden flute in return. The Batak houses were made without nails. Instead, they sew the wooden slats together with patterned designs. We were invited to clamber about, and peered inside one, where 7 families lived together. It was very dark- there were no real windows. Snotty-faced kids milled about, playing with dirt and matches. Teenage boys wove baskets. It was all very, very good, but very, very voyeuristic. No one seemed bothered, but we were.
We visited a giant lake, and had a pleasant chat with an Indonesian nurse working on Papua. We found the hot springs, and simultaneously lost the wallet again. Luckily there wasn’t a whole lot in it for a change.
Someone told us we’d have to go back the way we’d come to get to the orangutan rehabilitation centre in Bukit Lawang. But we’d seen a road on the map, and decided we knew best.
The route was pretty, and relaxed. The road was potholed but fairly empty, and we bounced along merrily.
Then it turned into a dirt track, and we still bounced along, albeit slightly more cautiously.
Then it turned into a waterfall, minus the water. There was no track, just boulder-sized rocks strewn haphazardly over other rock. It went steeply downhill. Then steeply uphill. For miles.
It proved to be very nearly impossible. Small scooters occasionally crept past us with their engines shut off, the riders walking themselves down it and looking peeved.
I got off and walked.
After every bend it got worse.
Incredibly, Adam didn’t fall off.
Incredibly, I didn’t pass out from all the miles of uphill clambering.
Incredibly, a scooter went past with a man holding a guitar perched on the back.
Finally we reached Pamah, a tiny nowhere village with one shack-shop. We congratulated ourselves - in front of us there was some rough attempt at tarmac, and inside the shack there was hot tea. Then the rain started.
Cheerfully we sat, dry and fed on biscuits, and watched the torrential downpour soak the track we had just come down. It didn’t matter, we had made it. Small shirtless boys ran down the hill in the rain to get a better look at us. A toddler hid behind the table legs. We asked the friendly shack-man about the road ahead. He said it was better. We rejoiced.
The rain slowed to a dull drizzle, and we crept up the hill on the tarmac. Then we looked down. The tarmac vanished just past the village. The track was worse than ever, and now covered in murky water. We slipped and slid our way down, until a nasty rock took the front tyre by surprise, and we fell off.
I got off and walked again, as villagers wandered past grinning at us.
A few miles further the road turned into more of a road again, and the amazing little villages started up again. Everyone smiled. The merry bouncing recommenced, and we eventually arrived into tiny Bukit Lawang happy, tired, and covered in filth.
a petrol station
The next day we found ourselves up a steep hill, in a rainforest, a metre away from a large but docile fuzzy orange critter with a cup of milk in its enormous paw. Another one with a baby on its back appeared, just in time to clamber off with twelve bananas in its mouth.
The rehabilitation centre isn’t one anymore. It succeeded in rehabilitating the maximum number of orangutans into the Gudung Leuser forest, and there isn’t room for any more. Now they take bananas and milk to the feeding platforms twice a day, to top up the nutrition of any orangutan that needs more at that moment in time. Basically that means they take a big bucket of milk and a rucksack of bananas up a hill, and bang a rock against a tree to let the orangutans know they are there if they want it. Then enormous orange creatures swing their way through the trees, hurtling towards your head at an alarming rate, and you have to move out their way, pronto. Usually it’s the mothers with babies who appear for extra food, or young males who might be having a harder time from the other males. Sometimes none do. They don’t hang around though, they grab the grub and go- I was worried there would be queues of lazy, overfed orangutans waiting for lunch.
We went twice it was so good, and saw ten, including some one year old babies who clamber off on their own vines.
(Bukit Lawang is completely set up for tourists, but flash floods in 2003 killed a third of the locals, and wrecked most of the town. Now there are lots of guest houses and cafes set up again, but the tourists have vanished. We saw maybe eight in the whole place. The area is beautiful too, opposite the rainforest and the river, with the locals relaxing and enjoying occasional spliffage. If anyone is thinking of going, do it! They could do with the money.)
We said goodbye to our lovely hosts and their amazing food, and wombled back to Berastagi, taking the main road this time.
The next morning we got up bright and early to head to Lake Toba. Then the bike started leaking oil.
Three hours, one oil and one gasket change later we were ready to leave.
A lovely family from Medan arrived and disarmed us sneakily into posing for several hundred photos, including some excellent ones with their mum on the bike, and the youngest member sporting my somewhat oversized sunglasses.
The road to Lake Toba was fantastic- this country was made for motorbike riding:
More villages, more farms, more happy kids and old granddads grinning at us, more stunning volcano scenery. More potholes. A small but healthy amount of getting lost, some light drizzle, and an uphill chill to the air. Some sparser higher altitude towns, with unpainted houses and old women in thick shawls. A bus roof loaded with potato sacks, with a scooter being secured on the top.
And then we came down the hill to Lake Toba: a HUGE volcanic crater with crazy hills and windy, curvy track roads, and an enormous lake with a big island in the middle. Lake Toba is where I want to live forever. There are peaceful villages full of old wooden and tin Batak houses on stilts, like ships out of water, and courtyards full of corn off the husk, with chickens running about thieving it, and little wooden Christian churches with animist features.
We have already discussed living here. We had both already thought it independently. It’s definitely an idea if our house-boat plan turns into nothing. But maybe we should stay for a week first. Just to make sure…