Population: 258 million, the forth most populous country in the world following China, India and USA
Official religion: Islam
State system: Presidential republic
Monetary unit: Indonesian rupiah
Indonesia is an island country. We arrive on a big one on the west, one of the 17 thousand islands of the country. If we decide to visit every single island of Indonesia we will not be able to do it in a whole lifetime. We have just three weeks for Sumatra, which is very little time for seeing all on the sixth biggest island on earth with a territory as big as Sweden.
The shock we experience here after being in developed countries such as Thailand and Malaysia is palpable. We have prepared mentally for poverty, bad infrastructure and high levels of madness, but Sumatra beats us hollow.
We are walking on the broken streets of Dumai. Wooden eateries, the so called warung, which are dark, old and dirty and offer chicken and vegetable curries for 50 eurocents per meal. There are few cars but thousands of motorbikes purr around. Not many tourists come here so our presence provokes tremendous friendly reactions in most of the people. All the time we hear someone shouting at us: “Hello, mister”, “Welcome to Dumai”.
We sit at a shabby warung to drink coffee. The owners of the venue and the customers inside become ecstatic, laugh crazily and wave their hands. Contrary to Malaysia people here rarely know English so we have to start learning Indonesian promptly. It is almost identical to Malaysian, the writing is in Latin letters and luckily we already know a few basic words.
While I am heading to the toilet the owner of the eatery, who is a woman joyously slaps my butt and starts laughing. I start laughing too and imagine if someone starts doing this in a European coffee how all the customers will run away in panic and in USA they could even sue you. The toilet doesn’t have a door and they wash the dishes here in the typical shocking to us Asian style. The rooms for accommodation are at the back. While leaving the owner looks at my braid and starts laughing again. Alas, not everyone has black, thick, Asian hair 🙂
While we are walking at least dozen people talk to us, all are friendly and smiling. An old woman invites us at her home but we have to refuse her because we need to continue travelling. What looked as a small town turned out to be quite big and overpopulated city and we walked for hours on end to get out of it. In two hours there is still no hope that we will exit Dumai and reach the highway. Around us we see garbage piles, shabby houses, poor dirty people with broad smiles and joyous attitude. We continue talking to different people who speak some English.
In the meantime we withdraw rupiahs from the ATM machine and buy some vegetables. At least we will eat a lot of fruits, as here many vendors sell them, something we really missed in Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia. These countries, though tropical prefer to cultivate more lucrative crops and fruits are not sold everywhere and are quite expensive. Good that in Indonesia things are different.
Suddenly two motorbikes stop by us and an overexcited man with good English tells us: “Mister, we are English teachers from the Lake Toba. If you don’t believe us you can see our ID cards. Tell us where you go and we will take you there.” We say that we can’t pay for the ride and the man is insulted that we even bring this forward. They offer to take us to the bus station that is out of the city. We are delighted by the idea and they go to bring another motorbike.
Soon we purr on the busy street and see that in two hours we have passed just one third of the distance to the outskirts. James, the English teacher, decides to first take us to the private school where he teaches in order to present us to the other teachers. The school consists of a small office and three or four classrooms. Students come after school to learn languages here. James teaches French, German and Dutch, languages he learned while studying at his birthplace Lake Toba, one of Sumatra’s biggest tourist attractions. He is from the Batak ethnic group and a Catholic, as most Bataks in fact.
With James at a local warung
All of a sudden James offers us to sleep at the school this night as it is already late. He says that we can continue tomorrow after we meet his students. We like very much the idea especially after spending so many hours in the dusty streets. We leave our rucksacks in a small bedroom which is used by the guard, take a shower and go to have dinner together. Our conversations with James are really interesting and we talk all the time. He shares with us that he like westerners in general, but doesn’t like the fact that they are not modest and don’t believe in God 🙂 Before dinner he prays passionately to God, asking the Lord to bless our food and to thank God that we have nice food and beverages and to ask for those who don’t have to receive them. After dinner we go back to the school and fall asleep exhausted by the thousands of new impressions.
James has a crazy schedule prepared for the day. Our group hops on two motorbikes and we head to his house in order to present us to other Batak people who immigrated here. He also wants to introduce us to his students whom he teaches for free every Sunday at a small church.
We travel for forty minutes on small village roads. On the side we see chimneys pumping stinky gases, thousands of shabby houses and barracks, crops of coconut oil palms and mosques. The overpopulation is obvious and we start worrying where will we be able to set our bivouac while travelling. Every inch of land is occupied. Everywhere there is an endless flow of motorbikes. It is still hard for us to get used to the poverty. People are normal but to us they look somehow shabby and suspicious. Everywhere there are garbage piles, smell of industrial gases, black stinky rivers with God knows what inside them.
We finally reach a wooden barrack with almost no furniture and a cross hanging on the wall. James lives with a poor family whom he decided to help. They have seven kids. Nobody is working except from time to time at the plantations but all look joyous. They laugh all the time. The house is very clean as are the children. They look healthy and hygienic. James tells us that if someday we come back we should visit his house at the Lake Toba. He adds that when we see how much better it is than this one we will be flabbergasted by his decision to come and live here. He says that Mather Teresa was his inspiration to do this and that he wanted to just help poor people from his ethnic group. He said that he even slept with the beggars on the streets sometimes. He moved to Dumai from Jakarta and said he planned to stay at least one more year.
At the house of the Batak people
Later we visit a house of some richer Bataks who invite us to stay at their home. We also enter the local church.
Interesting to know:
Muslims are the majority in Indonesia – around 86% of the population. There are also Christians, Batak (around 3 million), animist tribes in the jungle, Hindus (mainly at Bali)…
In the afternoon we go back to the school and me and Mr. Shushtari teach the children one class each. The students are overexcited. James insists that we go back to the village and sleep there. He tells us that in the morning we will be taken directly to the highway. So we drive one hour to the house of the rich Bataks. Our butts hurt already after the three hours we spent today on the motorbike. We arrive late at night. Our beds have been already prepared.
They accommodate us in a separate room with a big double bed and give us sarongs for pajamas (sarong is a traditional piece of cloth that is worn as a skirt). We take a bath with water from the stone wash-tub in the bathroom. It is shocking that people here don’t even have running water. The one we used smelled like a swamp and looked like one. We don’t dare to brush our teeth with this water.
The family in whose house we slept
Together with James we go to a close-by warung. They sell some bad smelling fish probably caught inside the black toxic river and rice. All this is though for us after living a luxurious life in Malaysia but we endure it silently, though shocks come one after the other.
Relations to God, murder and repentance
We are eating and suddenly the good teacher states: “I killed a man when I was young.” We stop chewing our food and stare at him in amazement. He said that it was for food. When he was young he was selling newspapers. A gangster used to take all his money everyday and James had nothing to eat. One day he couldn’t bear this anymore and stabbed the bandit with a knife.
We ask him if he felt sorry after this. He said that on the contrary he was very satisfied that the bandit got what he deserved. He said he thought back then: “You wanted money, well you received it, hope that now you are happy…” In prison he came across a Catholic priest and this turned his views to 180 degrees. He felt real repentance for what he did.
After being there for five years he came out completely changed. We are dumbfounded. First by the sharp turn the conversation took, second by the stereotypical reaction of our brains. We haven’t met many killers so we started feeling anxiety and fear. Strange how we people fail to acknowledge that life is a dynamic thing and one could be a totally different person from who he had been once. This said here is the place to mention that some laws in various countries are very unfair by denying the fact that someone could change and feel genuine repentance by sentencing them to death penalty. Like this the society itself turns into a murderer legally. We are shocked by the honesty of our new friend and continue listening his story. We look him in the eyes and wesee a sparkle of goodness in them. Slowly our fears dissolve.
Everyone one can live like a robot and fulfill one’s everyday duties. However if one is put in a critical situation they could act in and extreme way and do things they have never imagined. At the same time inside each and every one of us there is a priceless gift (let’s call it the God spark). So everyone is capable of huge spiritual transformations. Everyone can choose whether to carry on oneself the labels the others give him or the labels one gives to oneself. The way of the internal transformation depends only on you!
The way to the highway is two hours with a motor bike. Mr. Shushtari carries his 20 kg (45 lb) rucksack and can barely manages to balance on the motorbike. We tire so much that we have to stop two times to rest. James as always doesn’t allow us to pay for food or drinks on the road though his salary is not big at all, around 300 euro per month.
We start hitchhiking and to our surprise things don’t happen as fast as we expected. Cars are not much and travel at short distances. Trucks are many but don’t stop. In 30-40 minutes we get lucky. A very slow truck full of young people stops and take us to some town next to the border with the Riau province.
The driver is around 20 years old, with his girlfriend, and his companion is barely 16 years old. We travel for several hours but don’t cross a big distance. The so called highway turns out to be a narrow two lane road with potholes. Along the road there is an endless row of houses and agricultural lands. The long cowboy-like towns, most of them not even appearing on Google maps, and the barracks on piles in toxic ponds make us worry where will we be able to pitch the tent.
We get off in the beginning of a quite big city. We drink a mango-avocado fresh for 30 Eurocents the glass and start hitchhiking in the city. Tens of children and teenagers gather around us – they have never seen a foreigner. They take photos with us and “help” us hitchhike shouting our next destination at the passing-by drivers. Good that they left at the end and we manage to stop a truck going directly to Medan, Sumatra’s capital, 500 km away.
Hitchhiking with the youngsters
The driver called Ery is alone. He speaks some English and is a real wise-cracker so our journey is pleasant. Ery drives madly on the narrow road and when it gets dark we feel like we are in a roller-coaster. He shares with us that he crashed with another truck some time ago and his leg and arm were broken badly. Even now his bones protrude in a strange way because he said he did’t go to the doctor. In his opinion Indonesian doctor as slaughters and would have cut off his limbs. That’s why he chose to go to a local medicine man who cured him with witchcraft. The result we see is shocking. Later we notice that other drivers have similar ailments too.
We enter North Sumatra which looks cleaner and with fewer, better looking houses. The swamps are gone. Along the road now there are only palm oil trees. It seems that it will be easier with finding a place for the tent. We don’t get it how Riau is said to be the most prosperous province with all the misery we saw. Probably because it has developed industry.
In the evening we stop at a truck eatery. All drivers become euphoric when they see us. One even treats us to food and asks: “Do you like drugs?” We look at him with amazement. Then the conversation goes like this: meet my friend from the prison, we were there for gambling (in Indonesia gambling is prohibited by law) and continues in the same fashion. Now I remember that the first Indonesian we met on Borneo, a rich businessman, shared with us he used to be a drug dealer and an addict.
Here people state whatever and when they want. We try to change the topic to some more mundane things and make the conversation normal, trying at the same time to turn off the red lights blinking in our heads 🙂
Dinner with Ery and the other truck drivers
After dinner we continue with the truck. Ery refuses to sleep. His route is from Java, Jakarta to Sumatra, Medan. A distance he crosses for five days, driving 18-20 hours every day, alone without a companion. He justifies this saying he does this for his children. Here people really hold all the records for number of children they have, compared to all other countries we have been to. Around 2 a.m. Ery is totally exhausted and we manage to convince him to sleep for several hours at a gas-station. He goes to bed in his truck and we find a nice green lawn with trees and pavilions, far from the noise coming from the highway.
Ery’s truck and the gas station where we slept
We take off at 8 in the morning and in 3-4 hours reach the fork to Lake Toba where Ery leaves us. First we wanted to visit Medan and to go to the most northern part of the island – Banda Aceh, but we shook our opinion after we saw how slow one moved here, how big distances really were and how overpopulated the island was. Regarding Medan, the idea to go to a 5 million Indonesian megalopolis just to visit some palace and the central mosque doesn’t seem sensible and we give up the plan.
We eat fried potato balls and tea in a local eatery and then catch a truck to the lake. We travel for four hours before reaching the town Parapat. Lake Toba is tourist attraction for Indonesian people too. On the road we pass by many buses coming from Medan. The region is beautiful. Finally we see a forest and even pine trees. Villages seem clean and nice. We are amazed by the graves of the Batak people, who are the biggest group in the region of Toba. Most are Christians and some are Muslims (like our driver for instance). On every grave there is a miniature skillfully decorated traditional house, replica of the big houses in the region.
The Lake Toba itself is 100 km long which makes it the biggest lake in a volcano crater in the world with an astounding depth of 450 meters.
Interesting to know:
The volcano Toba erupted 70-80 thousand years ago. It has been the biggest eruption in the history of earth for the last 25 million years. A theory called “The Toba Catastrophe” states that most of the people died and human population was reduced to mere several thousand people – evidences for this could be found in the human DNA (during that time the DNA is in the so called “bottle neck” period). Climate changes were drastic. A mini ice-age started. Malaysia was covered with 9 meter layer of ash. Ash from Toba could be found in Africa, Australia and other thousand kilometers far away places even today.
It is exciting to be on the most powerful volcano in the world that even today shows slight signs of activity. Lake Toba formed exactly during the said eruption because the caldera collapsed. The truck leaves us at the outskirts of the town. On the sidewalk opposite of us we see an Internet cafe and when we hear what the prices are (3000 rupiah or 20 Eurocents per hour) we decide to work the next two days on the blog. In addition the Internet speed is good.
In the evening the boy who works at the club tells us that we could find a place for the tent on a near-by hill and adds that if we don’t we could come and sleep at his place 🙂 People here are really nice though from time to time some of the vendors lie about the prices. We find a flat fruit tree garden on the hill and settle there. The next evening we don’t want to climb it again and sleep at the village on a glade near some water pump station. To our surprise no one comes to bother us.
In order to submerge in Batak’s culture we decide to go to Samosir Island inside the lake. We hop on a boat sailing from the port Tiga Raja to the town Tomok. The price is 10 000 rupiah (65 Eurocents).
The port Tiga Raja
Our attention is caught by the traditional houses of the Batak people that have surreal curved roofs and wooden body resembling a ship. How could anyone come with the idea to build such a sophisticated building structure?
A house near the port in Tomok
in contrast to the villages we passed by on our way to here on the island there were many such houses with the specific tombs with mini houses on top of them. Interesting that people don’t have cemeteries, the family tomb is in their yards or close to their houses. Churches too have the typical arc-like roofs. Most Bataks are Protestants, converted by the Dutch. Indonesia once used to be a Dutch colony known by the name East Indies.
Tradtinal houses in Tomok
There are almost no tourists in Tomok and the atmosphere is calm. We visit the tomb of a local king and a small museum with some very interesting artifacts: magic scepters, two-string mandolins, traditional beds, ancient calendars and lots of other things. The Batak’s culture is extremely interesting and is not primitive at all. In ancient times Bataks used to be agriculturers with elaborated way of life, beliefs and customs.
Graves of kings from the past
The museum in Tomok
Every house has a statue of women breasts and a geko on the door symbolising bounty
Bone for fortunetelling
The mystic calendar of the Bataks
We continue on some village road up the island. The atmosphere is mysterious and it feels like something strange is in the air. Along the road there are houses, graves and gardens. It feels as if we are in some novel written by Tolkin, in the lands of the crater people, isolated for hundreds of years from the other world, with fairy-tale-like houses and incredible atmosphere.
Big doll for the traditional theater of the Bataks
Detail from a house
We pass by a road bar inside some rice fields. In front of it there are a dozen of motorbikes. Locals drink rice arak (alcohol) and watch the sunset. We find an isolated place next to a garden and set our bivouac. All night long we hear eerie choral singing coming from the house.
Tomb inside the house’s yard
The village where we slept
Bivouac in the garden
Going back to the main road we pass by a party where people perform traditional dances and listen to some very nice music. People already know us and they say: “Here are the guys with the lemon grass”. We have bought a bunch of lemon grass, thinking that it is a vegetable for cooking, not a spice, and now we will have enough for a very long time. We hear “sanghi, sanghi” all the time, which means lemon grass in Batak. People point at my rucksack and laugh loudly. At the end it becomes unbearable so I have to wrap it in a piece of paper.
Flabbergasting houses everywhere
We continue hitchhiking to Ambarita, which is 8-10 km away where we want to visit some 300 years old stone tables. Here and there we see western tourists. Ten years ago the tourist business was on the rise here but it was on decline now and only people from Medan came for the holidays.
Interesting signs on the trees…
The structures in Ambarita are quite interesting.
What really happened at this stone tables and chairs?
Here the fate of prisoners and captives was decided. The local raja consulted his magical scepter if the prisoner was guilty. If the scepter whispered he was the raja invited other neighbor rajas at the execution and the feast afterwards. The beating, beheading and cutting of the body were performed in the second complex. Then follows the most insane part. The meat of the guilty was cooked with veal and spices and the raja ate the “best parts” – palms, feet, ears, heart and other parts where the vital energy of the person was according to the Bataks.
Cannibalism was forbidden when the Dutch came in the 1900s and is considered non-existent now. It was practiced only as a ritual and a form of punishment, but nonetheless the meat was considered to be very delicious.
In Ambarita Village
Stone table for cannibal feasts
Stone where people were beheaded
A doll of convicted prisoner at the theater
After we leave this place of bloody perversions we head on foot to the rice fields outside of the town and soon find a nice place for the tent, a desolated place far from people and houses. All the night we hear again the strange choral singing.
Storage place for rice with two totems
House on the road
A house in a rice field
We visit the museum in Simalindo town before we leave Samosir Island. It is nothing special, the entrance fee is 10 000 rupiah and the artifacts are the same as in the free museum in Tomok.
Graves of royalties in Simalindo
The rice storage places have the same roofs as the other houses
Inside a house
Detail of a house
Local rich people take us and even ask for money for the ride, but when we say we won’t pay they are OK. A truck takes us to Pangururan, the main town on the island. Here a narrow strip of land connects Samosir with the land.
We fancied a house 🙂
Two short hitchhikes later and we are on the edge of the giant crater next to the so called Tele fork. It is time to leave the magical island Samosir and Lake Toba. Because of the high altitude the temperature is low and we are shivering from the cold though we have wrapped ourselves in shawls. Even on the crater’s edge there are many houses and vegetable gardens. There is no isolated place where one can hide from the world. Few cars pass by. We start wondering whether to start searching for a place to stay when a shabby jeep stops. The driver is going down to some village and the prospect to sleep at a warmer place makes us joyful.
Standing out in the cold while hitchhiking
We take off. Night starts falling down as we drive on the curves inside a pine forest. Then we pass on a pot hole and the wheels’ axle breaks. There are no houses in the vicinity and after an hour of fixing it with the available instruments Mr. Shushtari and the driver manage to set not so firmly the axle.
We take off, pass 100 meters and then bang, the axle breaks again. We fix it again with nails, a clamp, one of my hairpins and a dose of magic. We take off again praying that the wheel doesn’t break and we stay on the road and not fall down the volcano’s pit. Mr. Shushtari constantly tells the driver to drive at maximum speed of 20 km/h. In an hour or two we are down the valley. The driver is worried where we will stay and without us noticing leaves us at the police station of a small village on the road, close-by to his house.
Policemen are excited with the late unexpected guests. They tell us that one of them will travel to the fork on the main road to the town Siborong Borong. He offers us to take us with him and while we are waiting for him to arrive with his car the policemen treat us to coffee in the close-by warung.
Around 12 a.m. we arrive at the town exhausted. They leave us in front of another police station and continue to Medan. We are already experienced with the overcrowded cities of Sumatra and know that there is no point of looking for some isolated hidden place with nature. So we go to a policeman and ask him to sleep at the station’s yard.
He takes this to heart and offers us some wooden benches in an office. Luckily we take a glimpse at a small piece of land with grass on it behind the building. He is dumbfounded by our choice and tells us that when his boss arrives in the morning we have to tell him that sleeping there was our idea.
Bivouac behind the police station at Siborong Borong
In the morning our friend the policeman comes to ask us how we slept. The station teems with day-shift policemen who are not surprised at all by our presence. We take a shower and say goodbye to the nice policeman called Metro Boy Sugara (His parents gave him this name because he was born in Jakarta, meaning the metropolis and Sugara comes from sugar). We also met sergeant Turnip. Unique names that we will probably never forget 🙂
Together with Metro Boy Sugara and other policeman in front of the station
We eat the traditional for the region breakfast longtong in an eatery on the street. This eateries are only for the strong of heart: dishes are washed on the sidewalk in buckets full of water, with no soap, the dish is just dipped into the bucket 🙂
We start hitchhiking inside the town and two smiling guys take us to Tarutung. They even leave us in the outskirts in order for us to hitchhike more easily. We visit a landmark dedicated to some local king that consists of a totem and several rice storage houses.
Rice storage houses in Tarutung
While we are walking an English teacher stops by with his motorbike and says he insists to treat us to coffee. We sit in a restaurant. Coffees are just served when a men from the neighboring table offers to take us to Padang Sidempuan town. It is all very fast and we don’t even have time to drink our coffees. Soon we are jolting on the broken narrow road travelling with a group of businessmen going on a business trip. Traveling is slow and in addition it includes stopping for lunch and praying in the mosque.
We pass the next 150-200 km for several hours. They leave us 15 km before the town, we lift our hands and a man with a brand new car stops. He tells us he took some Spanish hitchhikers some months ago and he knew we were foreigners when he saw us. He invite us to drink coffee in the town and time goes by while we are talking. Then he offers us to stay at his place if we want. We are happy to accept the invitation as we are dead tired.
Typical Sumatran taxi
His wife Marilyn has prepared awesome dinner. We even manage to wash out our clothes. We will spend this night in a room. Out hosts are extremely nice. They are Batak Christians. Though we are still in the lands of the Batak people, the regions south of the Lake Toba are inhabited by Muslim Bataks, speak different dialect than those living around Toba and have different culture. Christians are the minority here. Long gone are the tombs with the houses. It turns out the old traditional houses are preserved only around Samosir. We didn’t see a single one while travelling to Padang Sidempuan. Dwellings here are wooden barracks and brick houses.
Having dinner with our new friends
People here are very traditional and follow strictly their religious practices. They read a prayer before every meal. Going to church on Sunday is obligatory. It is Friday today but Marilyn prepares to go to an evening meeting of the Catholic community at the church. We speak with her husband till late at night.
Typical church on Samosir Island
Our trip in Riau and North Sumatra
In the morning the man drives us 10 km out of the city so that we could hitchhike with ease. They give us a box with fish and rice for the road. Around us there are still only houses, but we start hitchhiking. What we still don’t know is that we will have the longest and heaviest hitchhike for the whole journey so far.
The first ten days in Indonesia have been easy regarding the hitchhiking, though the first day we often waited around an hour before someone took us. Today nobody stops. Mini-buses, taxis, trucks pass by and it feels like we are transparent. We change places several times and walk for 3-4 km in total with no success. Passers by talk to us and take pictures with us all the time.
Students taking pictures with us
After a while we are so tired that we stop to prepare some tea and sleep for half an hour at an abandoned wooden shelter where they used to sell water-melons. For the first time we are out of hitchhiker’s luck. Six hours pass by and not even a taxi stops to offer us paid ride. We are desperate. If all this continues from now on how will we be able to cross the 5000 km to Papua New Guinea?!
Padang Sidempuan region where nobody stopped for hours on end
Finally a family going to a near-by village 4-5 km away stop and offer to take us. That is what we have been waiting for, to leave this wicked place. Then hitchhiking continued easily as if nothing had happened. We forget promptly the long hours of waiting. Soon a truck takes us back at the bodywork, then another one. It is dusk now (sun sets around 7 p.m. here) and we have crossed 70 km. We reach the outskirts of Panyabungan and just before it gets dark we notice a wooden shelter on piles next to some fields.
Bivouac inside the shelter