Minangkabau museum in West Sumatra
We take off as usually at noon. Today hitchhiking goes very well, as usual. We couldn’t understand what was it yesterday and why no one stopped for whole six hours. A middle aged man with a lustful look in his eyes takes us to Panyabungan 3 kilometers down the road and then he decides to help us even more and take us after the town. Then we start hitchhiking small trucks and jeeps without waiting much.
Boys from a religious school help us hitchhike
We enter the next province – West Sumatra. We see jungles like we haven’t seen in the region up to now. Villages become nice and clean. The pot-holes on the road disappear and the scenery becomes very picturesque.
On the road
West Sumatra is inhabited mainly by the ethnic group Minangkabau – religious Muslims famous for their high education rates and business flair. Their traditional houses Rumah Gadang with their double-spired roof houses resembling buffalo horns – quite different than those of the Batak people. One notices immediately that people here have more money and live in big clean houses – very often with Dutch architecture. As usually everyone greet us and is very friendly.
Traditional Minangkabau house
Interesting to know:
The Minangkabau ethnicity is notable for its matriarchal culture. It is one of the few matriarchies in the world today. Each clan is considered to originate from a common woman, the oldest one. Everything is inherited by the women in the family. Women also manage the business and everything else. Traditionally the brothers and the sons do not leave their homes even after they get married. They have to help their sisters raising their children. The biggest paradox here is that this matriarchal society follows strictly Islam.
We fly with a hitchhiked truck to our next destination – Bukit Tingi, which is a tourist town, center of the Minangkabau culture. We have to stop to unload some bananas in a village 15 km away from the main road so we are pretty late. I sleep inside the truck for an hour meanwhile Mr. Shushtari is witnessing the unloading of the truck, managed by a strict Minangkabau woman.
Later we stop to have dinner and the truck driver refuses us furiously to pay for the dinner. Since we are in Indonesia 90% of the people who take us treat us meal. People here are so hospitable!
Late ate night we arrive at Bukit Tingi. We traveled two days to pass the 300 km from Padang Sidempuan to here. We head to the Panoramic Park we read about in Internet. It turns out it is just a narrow alley with lots of shops where one has to pay entrance fee. We manage to enter and we find a glade out of the park, next to a cemetery. We are on the ridge of the volcano rising up close to the city. There are almost no houses in the vicinity so all is calm and silent.
Our bivouac in the park
We leave our rucksacks at a an old lady’s house nearby then take a shower and go for a walk. The city is filled with Indonesian tourists and very few western ones. Most of the administrative buildings have the typical double curved roof.
A bank in Bukit Tingi
Buildings on the road
We visit a local market too.
Dried fish and bags with shrimp chips
The only landmark here is the zoo. Inside it there is a museum of the Minangkabau ethnicity and a Dutch fort that is not very interesting. We pay 10 000 rupees (0,65 euro) to enter.
The museum in Bukit Tingi
The museum is not very informative but there are several interesting artifacts. The most shocking ones are the stuffed animals born with five legs or two heads.
Traditional costumes of the Minangkabau ethnic group
At the museum we find out we have crossed the Equator and we are in the Southern Hemisphere for the first time in our lives. This must be celebrated. We buy various delicious stuff and drink absurd quantities of our favorite avocado shake we are addicted to since we first tried it in Morocco. In the evening we go back to the glade where our bivouac is.
The park of the Dutch fort
We go out of town by bus and reach the fork to Maninjau Lake (the ticket is 3000 rupees or 0,15 euro). Here transportation is so cheap that one doesn’t need to bother to walk for hours to the outskirts. Then a truck takes us directly to the lake that is 30 km. away.
It is a crater lake and is very beautiful – the views from the edge of the crater are awesome. Long serpentine road with 44 bends takes you to the lake itself. We get off on the other side of it where by magic we find a small park with restaurants, perfect for the tent. Here Indonesian style there are many houses by road, rice fields and mosques. There is not even one free spot. Anyway the region is very picturesque. Here and there one can see curved roofs of old houses, modern Dutch style houses and old women wearing white headscarves.
Women in praying clothes
It is very interesting that inside the mosques there are a lot of women (well its matriarchy) dressed in special white body-head-scarves and praying inside the same areas where men do. In all other Islamic countries we have been in men and women are praying separately. Women in addition go to mosques seldom.
We spend all the morning and noon on the lake shore – I am writing the next blog article and Mr. Shushtari is diving. A truck takes us back to Bukit Tingi. Without noticing we take a shortcut and suddenly find ourselves in the center.
The clock tower in Bukit Tingi
We then catch a bus to exit the town and reach the village Kota Baru. From here we plan to climb the volcano Gunung (Mount) Merapi. Again we see that travelling the conventional way is much more unnerving and difficult. We ask which one is the bus we need to get on and we are put in one. Then it turns out its final stop is 4 km. before the village we want to go to. The driver lies about the prices and we pay double.
The village they leave us in has heavy traffic – mainly taxis and mini-buses. It is getting dark so we take another bus for 4 km. The same scenario repeats itself as they charge us double again. In the end the voyage costs us more than double.
Our friends the macaques
It is already dark as we head on a narrow road to the wooden barracks where one registers before climbing. There are many young people and pupils who prepare to climb the mountain. Many people do the climb by night so they can reach the peak by sunrise. The guy at the entrance tries to lie us about the price but we had it checked in Internet beforehand – it was 10 000 rupees (0,65 euro) and we payed this much. We leave our rucksacks here and start climbing.
Youngsters with tents
We get up at 4 o’clock in he morning and continue climbing. It is still dark and we meet many sleepy teenagers on the path. Everyone is on the crater little before sunrise. Beautiful views await us there. There is no vegetation, just black volcanic pebble dust.
Some of the tourists gather garbage
The not so good thing is that there is lots of litter and almost nobody cares and people continue to throw their garbage everywhere. We haven’t seen so littered paths nowhere in Asia up to now.
Soon we reach the crater – a giant black hole with no end. It smells of sulfur and the scenery is alien-like. This is out first visit of a still active volcano after climbing Mount Teide at the Canary Islands.
Gunung Merapi is 2890 meters high (9500 feet) erupted just 20-30 years ago and is considered particularly active. 200 meters (650 feet) before we reach the highest point we are engulfed by clouds and can’t see the other side of the volcano. It is freezing here. The wind is chilling and we pitch our tent behind a stone wall.
Into the fog
We eat breakfast, sleep a couple of hours, but there is still no sign of the clouds to get cleared. So we start descending. Going down the path seems endless. On the road we meet with a strange looking, little bit shabby, Russian couple, who besides their look seem nice. When we get down we feel so tired that we sleep again for a while.
Views from the top
We go back on the road. We eat at a wooden warung (eatery): fried rice and the popular here gorengan – fried batters. There are also fried bananas, tofu, sweet roots and fried vegetable balls. We hitchhike for no more than 10 minutes and a car stops by going directly to the neighboring province Jambi. We give up our initial plans to visit the king palace in Batusangar and head south. We have a very limited time to stay on Sumatra, traveling is slow, so we have to compromise. We don’t feel we managed to immerse in Batak’s culture – the ex-cannibals, or in those of Minangkabau – the Islamic matriarchy society.
We travel through the beautiful region of Danau Singkarak and pass by the town of Solok where there is a high concentration of traditional old Minangkabau houses. The way they look, combined with the green rice fields and the banana plantations invoke a feeling of being in a fairy-tale.
An old house
The drver Lilik and his partner-driver invite us to lunch in a luxury restaurant. Usually in restaurants here a bucket of rice is served with several small plates with fish, meat and vegetables. You eat what you eat and then the plates you haven’t eaten are taken out of the bill. This is the so called Padang cuisine (named after the capital of West Sumatra). It is different than the other cuisines. All meals in Padang style cooking are prepared with coconut milk and chili. This makes the meals a little bit heavy, but very delicious.
Another old house
We travel for hours and Lilik invites us to sleep at his house and continue traveling on the next day. We readily agree as it seems we will not arrive before 10 in the evening. Sumatra seems to us like a giant endless continent. In the evening we enter Jambi Province. The beautiful mountain scenery of North and West Sumatra are behind us. It seems we are back in the horrible Riau. The province is flat, with seemingly only palm plantations and rubber trees. The air smells badly from the many factories. There is a lot of dust and many shabby houses. At least it is not as polluted as Riau. All the plains here are overpopulated.
Lilik lives in a village 30 km. away from Bangko. We drive on a dirt road and after a good jolt we arrive at his house. Lilik himself is a leader in an Islamic party and works in the province council. His wife and he are very religious and even his little girls wear hijab (head-cloths). He immigrated from Java, as many others, seeking for prosperity in South Sumatra. He speaks very good English and is eager to always learn new things. We speak for hours on end.
At the local market
Before we go to bed we eat nasi goreng – fried rice. People in the village haven’t seen any foreigners up to now and our visit is a real sensation.
At Lilik’s house with his wife’s friends
In the morning Lilik offers us to visit the aboriginal people in the jungle.
Breakfast with Lilik and his family
20 km away from his home is the National Park Dua Belas where the tribe Orang Kubu a.k.a. Orang Rimba lives. Orang Rimba means “people from the jungle” and is the preferred term as Kubu has negative implications. People from this tribe are nomads just like the Bateks in Malaysia and the Penans from Borneo. They gather roots and fruits from the jungle and hunt and fish. They don’t grow rice or any other crops. Their beliefs are animistic and quite elaborated. The tribe builds temporary straw dwellings and wear bands.
As many other tribes they too are threatened by the cutting out of the jungle. At the outskirts of the jungle the government builds houses for them, but people can’t change their lives and send their children to school as this is very far from their way of life. Some of them work in the palm plantations.
Nowadays Orang Rimba live as they have lived for millennia and are no more than 3000 people inhabiting the jungles of Jambi and South Sumatra. Lilik gives us a cross-motorbike and his girls and he hop on another. He wants to teach them the adventurous way of life.
Refueling before the adventure
The pot-holes on the road are huge and we jolt for two hours till we reach the park’s headquarters. A former student of Lilik works as a local guide and teacher or Rimba children. He joins our expedition together with another female student who came here to do field work.
Ready for the expedition
The expedition to the sacred tree
Our group heads to the government dwellings of Orang Rimba. We park our motorbikes and go to greet the local leader. Women and children squat on the ground dressed only in sarongs. They look at us with distrust, no smiles, just looking wildly at us. The leader, who accepted Islam, let us take photos but when we take our camera out everyone runs away. We feel weird – we have never met so different from us people up to now. We don’t have a single idea what the think or how they perceive the world.
At the village with Orang Rimba
An elder person from the village comes and starts guiding us through a narrow path inside the jungle. He speaks very little Indonesian, but the second guide who is a teacher here translates. The man shows us some medical herbs. We reach a place where according to the tribe’s beliefs is inhabited by a god who helps women give birth. Pregnant women come to give life to their children here in a hut. If someone comes here while a woman is giving birth and cuts a tree in the surroundings he is fined to pay sixty pieces of cloth or dresses. Then the guide shows us another tree where women bury their placenta.
The jungle is mystical – everyone here has their own tree with a god who helps them. Behind every corner there are gods and ghosts. Lilik tells us about a lost town that can be seen from a plane, but no one could find it. Even Orang Rimba fear this place.
We pass through another place where there is a god who takes baths and we must not take photos. In an hour, after walking on shaky bridges and crossing several rivers, we arrive at the sacred tree. Here lives the most powerful god – the god of the bees. On the top of the giant tree there is a bee hive from where Orang Rimba gather honey. We are not allowed to take photos as the tree is flowering now and the god will get mad and this will ruin the honey. Women in menstruation are not allowed to come either.
The tree is really huge, 50 meters tall. On its smooth trunk there are wedges that form a stair. Rimba climb on it without and security ropes. You can see the tree in the Indonesian movie “Sokolah rimba” from 2013. The movie is based on a true story telling about the life of a teacher who lived here for 20 years.
Centipede in the jungle
We ask thousands of questions and learn amazing things. For example if a woman spits on the ground it is believed that someone could take her spit, enchant her and turn here into a slave. Orang Rimba also have eight rules that regulate marriage – for incest there is a death penalty.
Another thing the people from the tribe do is to leave sick people with a dog-guide under a remote tree. If the person dies the dog comes back. Then the corpse is left on the tree till it decomposes.
We ask the guide what he thinks about people coming from the outside civilization. He says that people here are really afraid of them and when they see a shoe imprint in the forest they run far away. They are sure, he tells us, that people in shoes will make bad things to them. Even now women are afraid of the “shoed people” – something we witnessed ourselves already. They believe they have to keep a distance of at least 50 meters from us or they will catch some disease. There are many tribe members that are not afraid anymore but we still see a fundamental difference in their look and they way they perceive the world.
We head back and guides decide to take another path. Suddenly the Rimba stops and tells us he doesn’t know where we are. This is shocking as this is the forest he grew up in. The Indonesian guide starts leading and we take a side-path. We enter a swamp with stinky sticky mud. Walking is very hard. Thorns pinch us constantly. We go out the swamp and are attacked by fire ants – every time they sting one feels like being stung by a wasp. Going back turns out to be a real adventure. We don’t know how the two little girls kept their pace without complaining one single time.
The Rimba’s look when we got lost 🙂
Back in the village Lilik tips the man and he is delighted. People are called for a group picture but when they see the camera most run away. Somebody mentions that women have special spirit guardians and if you photograph them it is not good for the spirits. Reluctantly the guide’s wife joins us for the picture.
Weird thing is that ALL the photos we made there are out of focus
A car awaits us in the headquarters to take us home. Thanks God because otherwise the 2-hour trip back would kill us if we rode the motorbikes again.
Orang Rimba believe that everything – be it a tree, an animal or a place – all have spirits, that they respect. We westerners see this as something funny but maybe they have a reason to believe this and they are right to do it. We want to “civilize” them by making them forget their connection to Earth and Nature and to make them believe in our gods: money, work, living in the virtual world of western social structures, instead of helping them and protecting their environment: the pristine wild nature that they are in total harmony with. Is there a point in all of us being the same, “civilized”? These are the thoughts crossing our minds while we travel on the dirt road, totally exhausted by the several hours we spent into the jungle, trying to clean our feet from the dirt, looking if there are any leeches on our skin. At the same time Rimba continue living silently and in harmony with the life of the jungle.
On the next day Lilik and his family take us to Banko to have lunch with their relatives. We eat stinky local “chestnuts” – jenkol with egg-plant and white rice. At parting they buy us traditional jam gelamai from a boutique shop.
At Lilik’s relatives
Then his friend take us out of town to continue hitchhiking. Meeting Lilik was a truly unique experience to us. We had the rare chance to get in contact with people from the jungle and live at his home. All this leaves nothing but unforgettable memories to us.
Cooking the jam gelamai
We changed our plan to climb the highest Indonesian peak outside of West Papua, the Kerinci Volcano because of our limited time to stay in the country, anyway instead of this we met Orang Rimba – the indigenous tribes. We head south hoping to manage to reach Java Island for 5-6 days. We hitchhike at a police check-point where trucks stop to pay some road tax. One of the policemen tells us to sit down and that he will stop a truck for us. Then he stops the first one with enough room for the two of us. The driver has a crazy look in his eyes and is not very happy to take us. He hurries to tell us to get down at the first bigger city 80 km further – Surulangun. We barely manage to convince him to stop not 4 km. before the outskirts, but after the city. Well all this may be a blessing in disguise…
Time for a snack
We stop two vehicles more and manage to pass 30 km. before sunrise. The last car to take us is a taxi but the driver is OK with us hitchhiking so doesn’t ask for money. When we arrive to the city the only passenger inside the taxi runs off and comes back with a bag of croissants and a bottle of mineral water he bought for us. Then the taxi driver is helpful too and takes us to the outskirts – really wonderful people 🙂 Behind a gas station we find a secluded glade and pitch our tent next to a tapioca plant. The last five days were so exhausting that us being alone is magical. At night prayers resound from the tens of mosques and mushollahs (small mosques). People prepare for the Ramadan that begins tomorrow.
Today is the beginning of the sacred Muslim month of Ramadan. In the next thirty days we will have different eating habits and still don’t have a clear strategy how we will survive. .
Interesting to know:
During Ramadan Muslims around the world don’t eat or drink anything (even water) till sunset. People are also not allowed to smoke cigarettes or have sex. These rules apply to girls above 10-12 and boys older than 15-16. Only sick people and pregnant women are allowed to eat and drink. After sunset the ban is removed, families gather to feast and everywhere the atmosphere is festive.
We have an early breakfast though we don’t manage to eat before 6 a.m. as it is required and are ready to go on. Outside is empty – all restaurants and eateries are closed as well as many of the shops. In more traditional areas eating or drinking outside during the day is considered very, very inappropriate so we too start to fast. And indeed it is not good to drink water in front of someone who hasn’t drunk any liquid for hours.
We take a quick shower in the gas-station and go beside the road. There are almost no cars passing by. Anyway two hitchhikes later we reach Lubok Lingau which is 80 km away. From there a huge truck takes us to Bengkulu – the big port on the west coast. There are 130 km to there and traveling is painful. We drive on a winding mountain road with 20 km/h. On the road we see villages with wooden old houses with Dutch architecture. Everyone here grows coffee plants. In front of every house many kilos of coffee beans are being dried in the sun. The scenery is marvelous.
When we reach the other side of the mountain our brakes catch fire and stop working, the motor brake is broken too. We prepare to jump of the truck when we manage to somehow stop. Then we wait for an hour for the brakes to cool down. We are very thirsty but we get used to this with time. Anyway we can’t drink in front of the driver. The fast is over at 6 p.m. and I am already very anxious for the time to come. I feel I can drink an entire bottle of water by myself. Around 5 p.m. local vendors and shops open and people queue in front of them willing to buy water and juices. Tension is growing as the time nears. After 12 hours of nothing everyone will eat and drink. We hear religious songs coming from the mosques and finally the sun sets down. The driver buys juices. We drink a 1,5 liter of water in less than 5 min.
Around 7 we arrive at Bengkulu. The driver points us to a beach with a camp site.While we walk we see crowds of people – men and women. Women wear white official clothes, men are with fesses and sarongs. They all are headed to the mosques. Prayers go on for hours on end. The mosques are filled with people. Here men and women pray in the same room. The atmosphere is festive and special.
The fruit of the coffee beans
We reach the beach and pitch our tent under a shelter that belongs to a restaurant that is closed. Finally we will eat too! Well at least we are used to such kind of fasting. Our only problem during Ramadan will be water.
We stay at Bengkulu all day long. We cook and drink tea in the bivouac, far from anyone, till 2 p.m. We are too tired from yesterday’s heavy traveling combined with the fasting.
Hiding on the beach
The Indian ocean is raving
Other “sinners” 🙂 appear in the forest behind the beach to eat, smoke and drink coffee secretly. In the afternoon we leave our rucksacks at a restaurant, take a shower there and head to look for an Internet cafe. We see that in many restaurant there are people eating secretly behind closed doors. Obviously not everyone follows Ramadan rules strictly. We pass by the house-museum of the wife of the first Indonesian president Sukarno.
The house of the wife of the president Sukarno
The central mosque in Bengkulu
The endless journey towards Sumatra’s most southern point continues. It seems it will take an eternity to get there. We try to go out of town by public transport but samr as before we don’t manage to get the hold of it. Everyone tries to sell us ten fold more expensive tickets. Finally we get on a mini-bus and we tell the driver to take us as further possible as he can for 10 000 ruppes (0,65 euro). The cunning driver takes us just 3 km. further and regardless of our protests tell us to get off. At least we are not in the center anymore. In 5 minutes a pick-up stops by, we hop on in the body at the back and ride it for 20 km. Then a nice family traveling to Mana stops. The distance is around 100 km. which we take for the typical Asian travel time – 3 hours.
The sweet fruit sawu
In the evening we reach Bintuhan. The road is terrible. The driver leaves us ten kilometers before the town at something that is supposed to be a beach but it is just a concrete dam wall against the high waves of the Indian Ocean. We pitch our tent under some trees behind the dam hoping that the waves won’t reach us. Sometimes drops and foam get over the 15 meter high wall.
Bivouac behind the dam
We continue to Krui, visited by surfers. It is 150 km away but we still have illusions we will get there by noon. The road though turns out to be in a really bad condition and we arrive at 3 p.m.
Man climbs a palm tree
We decide to fast today because of the festive mood that takes over one the minutes before 6 p.m. We want to taste the experience fully as everyone else here. The truck drivers don’t follow the fasting and we stop to secretly eat lunch. But we are keeping the promise we made to ourselves.
Typical kitchen of a road eatery
Dozens of Australian surfers walk around Krui with a surf board under armpit. They look like real giants compared to the short Indonesians. We search for an Internet cafe but till we find it it is 6 p.m. (we admit we drank a coco-nut each at 5 p.m.) and everything closes. We pitch our tent in a coco-nut plantation next to the beach. We are yet again so tired and hungry that we eat a fried batter each and go to sleep.
Our bivouac in the coconut garden
We continue at full pressure. After changing various trucks, pick-ups and even a taxi that insisted to take us for free, though the other passengers have paid, we reach the capital of the province Bandar Lampung. We are lucky with the last hitchhike and the truck that takes us drives us after the city and its industrial zones. The truck stops next to some motor-bike storehouse and the driver starts unloading. Next to the storehouse there is a glade and a mango garden that seem both really attractive. The guards agree for us to stay there for the night. Everyone are eager to show us the bathrooms, the drinking water and everything. The other truck drivers are so excited that one gives us a bunch of bananas.
We cross the stinky industrial zones of Tarahan and in short we reach the coast town Kalianda. It is really hot so we sit for a few hours in an Internet cafe. Till we notice it is already dark outside. We go out of the town by foot and look for a place to sleep. We are very hungry. A truck takes us 7-8 km further down the coastal road circumventing the volcano Rajabasa. At the end we don’t manage to reach the picturesque beaches we wanted to visit. We have to sleep again near some peoples’ houses. Anyway there are houses alongside every road in Indonesia so we begin to get accustomed to this levels of overpopulation.
The morning view is incredible. In front of us we see the cones of two volcanoes. In the distance is the silhouette of Krakatoa.
View towards the volcanoes, local children rest around us
Interesting to know:
Krakatoa erupted in 1883 with one of the most powerful explosions in human history killing almost 40 thousand people. The sound of it has been heard in Australia and Africa at 4800 km distance. Everyone in 30 km radius lost their hearing instantly and all barometers in the world registered the eruption – now this is known as the loudest sound ever in modern history. Erupting, the volcano collapsed and a smallest one formed, now known as the “Child of Krakatoa” (Anak Krakatau).
People of one of the houses invite us to take shower at their place and the we continue to the town where we are supposed to hop on a ferry to Java if there is any. There are no cars passing by. Hitchhiking is in a pause. We wait for two hours – only buses and trucks pass by going to some nearby building site. We start to get a little desperate when a small truck stops by. It takes us a few kilometers further, then another one takes us again for a short distance and we find ourselves at a very interesting fish market. There bunches of fish are being sold at an auction. Colorful crowd stands in a circle around a man with a bamboo stick that uses it to show the bunch for which everyone will bid and is shouting the price at the same time. Buyers are not eager to buy though so the bunches go to a corpulent lady sitting on a small chair. When they see our camera everyone starts laughing and making funny postures.
The fish market
While I am at the market Magy goes to wait on the road and good she does so because a nice couple, an Indonesian lady and a Korean man, stops by. It is awesome they go directly to Jakarta, which is on Java Island. In addition they are not Muslims and don’t fast. We couldn’t have breakfast and this combined with the last two days of fasting is too much for us, especially the way we travel 🙂 So we eat some fried rice in a restaurant, wash the car and head to the port where the ferries to Java leave. We say goodbye to the enormous Sumatra. We feel we haven’t seen almost anything for the three weeks we spent here. At least we visited the biggest crater lake in the world, got to know the Batak Tribe, climbed an active volcano and were enamored in the hospitable and joyful Indonesian people – so we got a taste of the island. We are certain we must come back some day.
Rice fields in South Sumatra