After The Crisis: Indonesia in 1998, Part 4 – Sumatra, Indonesia

After The Crisis: Indonesia in 1998, Part 4
Sumatra, Indonesia

On the island of Sumatra, the official rate forms at the post offices listed 8,000 rupiah as the new cost of sending a postcard to the United States. “Because of The Crisis,” the clerks said wearily.

Dunkin’ Donuts rules Java. Or so I thought while stuck in the Jakarta airport waiting to hear when my delayed flight to Padang, on Sumatra, would leave. Nearly a third of the Indonesians stuck in the departure lounge with me clutched Dunkin’ Donuts boxes, presumably gifts for Dunkin’ Donuts-less friends and relatives on Sumatra. And I recalled that every Dunkin’ Donuts I’d seen so far had been packed, so whoever owns the Java franchise has to be making a pile of money.

That insight ran its course. Still no word on the departure time. I meandered toward the only other foreigner marooned in the doughnut-filled waiting room and struck up a conversation. He was a Canadian who’d been traveling on and off for two years and was sick of life on the road. His attitude had grown grimmer, he confessed, after he’d been robbed while sleeping on a bus on Java. I suggested that he go home, but he felt duty-bound to see a few more countries before returning to Canada.

We eventually flew to Sumatra. While it’s a huge island, much of Sumatra is undeveloped and unvisited, and its best-known sights are sprinkled along a stretch of land extending from Padang in the central part of the island to Medan in the north. The sad Canadian and I shared a cab from Padang for the hour-and-a-half ride up to the cooler climes of Bukittinggi, a mellow hill town.

The other travelers I met in Bukittinggi were more companionable than the Canadian. Like Java, Sumatra had few tourists, but since the island had been spared Java’s bad press and was still viewed as a safe haven, the Dutch didn’t outnumber all other nationalities. In addition to the Dutch, I met Brits, Aussies, New Zealanders and Canadians. Also, a Japanese kimono salesman and even two Americans. And, from Switzerland, one of the visually oddest couples I’ve ever encountered: a tall, muscular black chimney sweep (he’d been born in Rwanda but was adopted by a Swiss couple as an infant) and his very short, very mousy governess wife. I felt a bit sorry for them because two things happened whenever they walked down Bukittinggi’s streets: Indonesians stopped and stared, and Indonesian men would point at him and say “Ronaldo!” (Ronaldo’s a black Brazilian soccer player famous everywhere except the U.S.)

These folks – in various groupings – were my companions for jaunts around Bukittinggi. We traveled through an emerald landscape of tidy rice paddies and down a road with 44 numbered hairpin turns toward Lake Maninjau, one of Sumatra’s many crater lakes, and then hiked for two sweaty hours through the jungle, where yellow monkeys gamboled from tree to tree above us and leeches crawled up from the ground to suck blood out of any improperly shod feet they found, to the lake, where we jumped in and washed off mud and blood. We visited a village in the middle of a forest with cinnamon, clove and banana trees; cinnamon-bark strips dried in the sun next to a thatched house and a Vespa. And we stopped at a primitive coffee mill, where a water wheel powered wooden pistons pounding the beans into powder.

The people who live in this picturesque area are the Minangkabau, whose culture is based on an odd trinity: It’s matriarchal, matrilineal, and Muslim. While women make all family decisions – the eldest female wielding the most power – men aren’t completely out of the loop. When children want advice on education, money or marriage, they turn not to their fathers but to their mother’s eldest brother, who is the most important male in a household.

Their strange-bedfellows culture isn’t the only distinctive thing about the Minangkabau. Their spicy cuisine, known as Padang food, is popular in Indonesia beyond Sumatra. Padang restaurants have no menus. Customers simply enter, and waiters spread an array of curries – chicken, beef, water buffalo, mutton, fish – and side dishes of eggs, potatoes, salad, rice, green beans in front of them. They pay only for what they eat. The signature Minangkabau dance, the Tari Piring (Plate Dance), is a crowd-pleaser. In the performance I saw, a bunch a young Minangkabau dancers pranced on shards of broken crockery without shedding any blood; one tough-backed guy even stretched out on the shards while two women danced on his stomach. And their architecture boasts a quirky hallmark: peaked roofs shaped like buffalo horns. Many of these funky buildings also have ornately carved exteriors, and the result is sometimes a Black-Forest-gingerbread-house-meets-Thai-Buddhist-temple look.

But bullfights are the region’s most infamous attraction. Minangkabau bullfighting differs from the Spanish version in that no humans are involved. Instead, two male water buffaloes are shown a female and then left to lock horns over who gets her. I met some tourists who told me they’d seen an exciting 20-minute tussle between bulls, so I bought a ticket to a fight and looked forward to the show. I arrived to find that the rickety bleachers on one side of the field were mostly empty because most spectators crowded closely around the animals, an up-close but dangerous vantage point. I stood away from the mob, atop a fence so I could see what was going on without worrying about being gored. The afternoon’s first fight was nearly over as soon as it began. One bull gave up almost immediately and let the other bull chase him right out of the field; there were no fences, so the bulls disappeared into an adjoining forest, the mob following them. Waiting for the second fight to begin, I watched the locals huddle around a bookie, who’d set up shop on the field and was paying off bets on the first fight and taking bets on the next. The second fight, alas, was as brief as the first, so either the hype wasn’t justified, or I’d had the misfortune to attend on a day when the bulls were unevenly matched.

Since hiring a car and driver was beyond my budget, I had two transportation choices in Sumatra: slow, crowded tourist minibuses or slower, more crowded public buses. I opted for the former and left Bukittinggi with the Japanese kimono salesman, a New Zealand couple and two Dutch Amazons. I was stuck in the middle seat next to the wide-hipped Amazons, who annoyed the rest of us by carrying on a conversation in Dutch for nearly the entire 13-hour journey. By the time we reached Lake Toba, I was fantasizing about shoving wooden shoes in their mouths to shut them up.

The largest lake in Southeast Asia, Lake Toba’s the caldera of an ancient monster volcano. Plopped in the middle is Samosir, a Singapore-sized island. Flat, tiny Tuk Tuk peninsula sticks out of Samosir’s eastern side like a wart, and hotels, guesthouses and restaurants catering to foreigners dot its perimeter.

Tuk Tuk offers few diversions. Once, some fellow travelers and I ventured out to see a song-and-dance performance by the Bataks, the area’s natives, who once were cannibals but now are Protestants. Their dancing bored us – no broken crockery involved, which was a bit disappointing since smashed dishes would seem a logical component of cannibal-heritage entertainment – but a male singing group wowed us with their Indonesian doo-wop. Most of the time, however, Tuk Tuk’s languor lulls travelers into blissed-out idleness: sleeping, eating, relaxing on the stamp-sized beach, swimming in the warm blue water.

And, since the peninsula is so small and the travelers so few, I quickly developed casual acquaintances with most of the other tourists. The majority were nice, normal people: Two Dutch families, one with four tiny children who followed their father around like blonde ducklings, and one with three blonde teenaged girls who looked like triplets. The intense French woman who rarely spoke to anyone. The old British guy who spoke to everyone. The friendly young British guy who kept talking about climbing a hill on Samosir but was too addicted to Tuk Tuk laziness to actually do it. The Australian couple who never stopped commenting on how cheap everything was.

Then there were the people I learned to avoid.

One was Stewart, a hyperactive medical student from Malta, who’d corner everyone and blather on about how he was looking for discos and chicks and excitement and complain about Tuk Tuk and what was he supposed to do without discos and chicks and excitement because, after all, he was young and needed discos and chicks and excitement. After a few encounters with Stewart, I understood why even his three Maltese friends kept him at a distance.

Everyone on Tuk Tuk learned to keep Marvin, an American who had been on the peninsula for two months, at a distance. Like Stewart, Marvin overwhelmed with words, but, unlike Stewart, whose attention span was so short he frequently jumped up and moved on to another victim, Marvin would fixate on people for as long as they’d let him and just about knock them out with his rancid breath, except when his tourette’s syndrome kicked in. Then, because he’d apparently learned to control it, he’d turn and cough instead of swear. Some days Marvin coughed a lot. Fortunately, Marvin never focused on me for long, but Deborah, another American, wasn’t so lucky. Marvin liked her, so the poor woman spent a good deal of her time on Tuk Tuk hiding from him. Though Marvin seemed lonely, he wasn’t on Tuk Tuk alone; he was with his Thai “girlfriend,” a bored-looking woman who told everyone Marvin paid her $250 a month to be his “girlfriend.” While she followed him everywhere, whenever Marvin verbally pounced on someone, the Thai woman would sit nearby and leaf through one of the magazines she was always carrying until Marvin moved on, when she’d jump up, gather her magazines and move on, too. They had separate rooms, so there was a great deal of whispering about what Marvin was getting for $250 a month.

Another couple’s sex life also inspired gossip. The porn-star couple – or so they seemed. The male was from England, called himself Blaze and dashed around wearing only short shorts or a short sarong. His bottle-blonde female companion, from Vancouver, sported huge hair, a huge smile and huge breasts, which were always on the verge of escaping from whatever loose blouse she was wearing. Blaze and Blondie rushed around Tuk Tuk pawing each other while dispensing greetings and hugs and air kisses like poster children for insincerity, leaving whiffs of Coppertone and Obsession in their wake.

Indonesia’s crisis seemed a world away from this calm peninsula and this assortment of oddballs, but it wasn’t. Occasionally, I’d bike around Tuk Tuk, and I’d ride by what was by now an all-too-familiar Indonesian landscape: empty shops, empty restaurants and empty guesthouses and hotels, the proprietors sitting in the doorways looking bored and, sometimes, desperate.

I headed for Bukit Lawang, my last stop in Sumatra, on another tourist minibus, this ride more pleasant than the first because there were no wide-hipped, chattering Dutch Amazons aboard and the scenery along the way was gorgeous. The journey began on a bluff-top road skirting Lake Toba, a bird-like view that made the enormous blue expanse look like a small ocean. After passing the roaring Sipiso-Piso waterfall, the minibus plunged into thick green jungles on a roller-coaster road before emerging onto a flatter landscape of rice paddies and clusters of villages. In one, we came upon a wedding procession in full swing on the right side of the road, the bride and groom both shyly looking at the white faces in the minibus as we whizzed by on the left.

We climbed to Berastagi, a gray, chilly town sandwiched between two cloud-shrouded volcanoes. It was downhill from there, the road twisting through the jungle like an asphalt snake, the weather growing sultrier as we descended, passing myriad stands piled high with durian, the spiky green fruit that’s popular in Southeast Asia despite its outhouse odor, to steamy, crowded Medan, Sumatra’s largest city. After slogging through Medan’s heavy traffic, we picked up speed again and zoomed past stands of bamboo, scruffy villages and miles and miles of palm-oil plantations, man-made forests lined up in perfect rows, and reached Bukit Lawang just before dusk.

At first glance, Bukit Lawang is more shantytown than town, a collection of shabby plywood shacks perched in the middle of the jungle next to the rushing Bohorok River and on the edge of a national park. Its exotic locale, beautiful and solitary and mostly undeveloped, lures visitors, but the biggest draw, and the reason I’d come, is the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, which helps nudge primates out of captivity and back into the wild. After fending off the settlement’s pushy touts, I headed away from the center to the $5-a-night hotel that was the town’s most expensive and settled into a room with the whooshing river just steps away from my front door.

Visitors can see the orangutans only twice a day – at the morning and afternoon feedings. I woke early, bought a permit in town and set out for the park entrance, hiking along a path next to the river lined with empty guesthouses and restaurants, stopping along the way to watch gray monkeys frolic in the tree canopy above me. After 15 minutes, I reached the end of the path, where I waited for a man to take me across the river in a wooden canoe, which he maneuvered by pulling a rope strung from bank to bank above our heads. After entering the park, two “rangers” – young Indonesian men who looked 17 or 18 – led me and a handful of other tourists up a steep, muddy path. Though it was just after 8, the early morning coolness had already succumbed to spongy humidity, and sweat dripped from our faces by the time we reached the feeding site. The rangers climbed onto a wooden platform, opened their bags of bananas and started emitting orangutan-calling screeches.

At first, only one orangutan showed up, a small guy who hung around for the entire hour staring at us with remarkably human expressions. Because baby orangutans look as cute and cuddly as stuffed animals, some upper-class Indonesians keep them as pets. But the little bundles of fluff quickly grow into big bundles of fluff, which get dumped at the centre by the no-longer-enthusiastic pet owners. A little later, a mother, with her tot clinging to her, shimmied down a tree and clambered up to the platform to snatch some bananas. Then a huge orangutan swooped by and stole a couple of bunches. Others weren’t as greedy; they simply breezed in, got their handouts and dived back into the jungle. High in the trees, more orangutans lurched from vine to vine. Some just dangled from branches, bright ginger patches decorating the deep green forest like furry Christmas ornaments, and watched the activity below without making a bid for bananas.

After an hour, the rangers closed up shop, and we walked back down to the river. Their official work over, they began to chat up all the female tourists with lines like “Women like big bananas, too” and “Maybe we can meet later and you can learn how to do it Indonesian style.” This repelled all of the women but one chunky British girl, who seemed taken in by their lewd patter.

That afternoon, I packed up, and, for $4, hired a cab for the two-hour drive through the palm-oil plantations to Medan’s airport, where I flew away from Sumatra.

Read Part 5

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