Thursday, October 27, 2005

Bukittinggi, Sumatra, Indonesia

The goose has landed and I am now somewhere that can be called exotic. Bukittinggi is a quiet town a few miles inland from the West Coast of Central Sumatra. I am taking it easy acclimatising before heading onwards to lake Toba.

I will try and be chronological about the blog from now on mainly for my own sake. I departed a week ago, leaving a nice house with kittens and Mum’s cooking to arrive in Jakarta, which triggered a “what the fuck where you thinking of?” in the back of my mind. The flight was surprisingly pleasant though. Like many I have become accustomed to flying on low costs airline where everyone will accept for the pilot to spit in their face if it knocked off a few quid. It felt strange to be able to sit properly and have someone attend to you. This elation died the second I got into the vast grimy sprawl that is Jakarta,

Jakarta was always a low point on my itinerary. I didn't like it 5 years ago and I don't like it now. Some say that it can be an interesting place if you put some effort in it. I’m sure that’s true but them again I’m sure if you put some effort into it you could find out Pol Pot was a great teller of Jokes. So what?

Jakarta seems to be the place that is only truly fun for people with homemade tattoos. What was fun was watching the local lads dressing up as per the latest MTV youth fad and looking slightly uncomfortable as baggy jeans and hoodies do not mix well with the tropics. Very sweaty Tupacs all over the place. Anyway, I crashed and got out. Doing so I had a fast reminder of the joys of transport in South East Asia.

I stupidly eschewed the tour places around the backpackers quarter and headed off to a commuter station to catch a train to Merak, the ferry port to Sumatra. I stuck out a tad amidst the bustle of Indonesian commuters climbing down from train (this is meant literally, I’m sure I saw more people getting off the roof or through the windows than actually use the gap where doors presumably once where). The train station did not cater for places on touristic interest in Java so I was the only westerner about and I happened to be a foot above the tallest of them. Cue staring. Strangely enough I was selected by a group of ladyboys ( not a very accurate term as these were seriously butch chaps, more reminiscent of soldiers in drag at a stag night than anything else) to help them get off the tracks onto a platform. Weird.

On the train I was immediately invited to sit down by some chaps who then told me that I had to be careful in the trains as there were many pickpockets about. This of course made me suspicious of them. It turns out they were nice chaps and helped me cadge a ride on a bus to Bukittinggi at the ferry port. The train was called Bisnis which meant that there were seats and roofriders are not allowed but it should not be mistaken for business class.

The bus is the great form of Southeast Asian transportation and requires a serious adjustment of attitude and expectations to be able to see it as anything else than a nightmare. This was an upmarket bus which meant that it had aircon (pleasant during the day nut at night they still insist on using it despite the cool air. Cold weather kit deployed much sooner than expected) and a toilet ( the squat kind, on a jolting bus with the light working sporadically. Great fun). I was quickly accosted by the 2 people on the bus with some knowledge of English and with my few words of Indonesian we had conversations of sorts.

We established that Jakarta was crap, that English girls are nice, that Indonesian girls are nice, that I was 29 years old, that I looked younger, that I wasn't married, that I should be married at my age regardless of how young I look and that Brian Adams is a singer. True cultural exchanges. Despite these obvious limits I seemed to become interesting to my companions in misery. The kids started peeping up from behind their seats, wave and dive for cover. Soon they were told that I was “Mr John” and the calls began. One wit said “Mr Bean” and I responded a bit too quickly. Thankfully their English had not extended to swearing so I convinced them that “Piss Off” just meant “No I am not”.

We stopped often for food, prayers at the mosque and repairs. One of the tires blew and a few miles later so did the spare. They stopped at some sort of repair-it-yourself place where they patched up the tubes in a strange way. At one point the cutting and melting of a flip flop was involved. I wondered if this was going to demonstrate the savvy people in developing countries. It didn't. A few miles later the tire blew again. They eventually found a “professional” who solved the problem for good. On we went and since I had lent them my headtorch to peer into the engine to repair a fan belt they decided I should ride up front in a comfier seat. This could be gratitude but I suspect they wanted me close at hand.

The bus was supposed to take 30 hours to destination so of course it took 40. I arrived at Bukittinggi at 4 in the morning in the pouring rain. The bus station is 2 klicks away from the town. I’m pretty sure I got overcharged for the ride in a oplet (sort of taxi minibus) but I recognize that despair is visible and it seems fair they exploited it. Got a room and slept fr the next 12 hours until woken up by the great backpacker feeling of stomach cramps. My acclimatisation was now in Delhi belly stage.

Recovered from that today and went for a stroll around the town. As Indonesian towns go it’s pretty quiet and semi clean thanks to all the slopes and daily heavy showers. Weirdly enough there is a clock tower in the middle of the town, put there by the Dutch for some reason. Upon Independence the Indonesians left it but stashed a Batak type hut on the top of it. Even more perplexing are the Japanese caves built during the occupation during World War 2. At the entrance there is a statue of 2 Japanese soldiers looking martial and noble. I would have thought that they would have had some negative traits as the Japs didn't behave any better in Indonesia than in any other of their wartime colonies. And there is a monument to their victims a few yards away to prove it. My stroll was short in distance but long in time as I often had to shelter from the rain. This was quite fun as you get to meet lots of people and chat about any number of subjects including, at some point, the decline of the Ottoman Empire (this was discussed with a group of girls from the nearby Islamic school).

As it’s Ramadan I have joined the rest of the population in not eating during daylight hours. I do drink water though but sneakily by sucking on the feed hose of my waterpack inside my daysack, As a result I got strange looks as it looks like I’m sucking on the zipper of my bag. I also have to hide to smoke but I’m not the only one. Indonesians put cloves in their cigarettes and the smell is unmistakable. I have also seen a few cupped hands with smoke coming through the fingers. A country transformed into a schoolyard by teh will of Allah. These probably aren't muslims though as there are many religions in Indonesia but it's considered rude to smoke or eat in public during the Ramada

I will soon depart for Lake Toba for beach time. Will update soon

Selamat Malam


Sunday, October 02, 2005


I have received the odd email about the wisdom of heading off to Indonesia mainly due to the Bali bombings of Saturday. All other news from Indonesia that has filtered to western news outlet in the past weeks has also been grim. To the threat of terrorism I can add the political unrest due to a doubling of the price of fuel and Avian flu. Bombers and rioters and chickens, Oh My.

Basically, I still think that going to Indonesia is a good idea for the following reasons:

Avian flu: People who have been infected are those with lots of proximity to poultry. Though I like the idea of seeing things that other tourists might not and pompously believe I will, visiting chicken farms is not my idea of going “off the beaten track” (if such a thing exists). When the virus mixes with human flu to start the pandemic, I will only be at risk slightly earlier than the rest of the world population. And if this thing is going to wipe out most of the world population, why would I want to be around to see that?

Political unrest: The Indonesian government has announced that it will end its domestic subsidy of fuel. This will lead to many people having difficulties in making a living, subsequent unrest and possibly the odd riots. Likely only in Jakarta and the provincial capitals. However, the situation is not as bad as when I went there in the late 90's and I was fine then. As with chicken farms, I tend to avoid angry crowds and twitchy cops or at least find a safe place to watch (always from the sidelines with a visible escape route).

Terrorism: Once again Bali has been hit by murderous nutcases. Once again the tourists that the Balinese need to make a living will desert the place, compounding the suffering of these people. I had never intended to go to Bali as I only have so much time in the country, for visa reasons, and I have to prioritise what I get to see. Australian surfers being low on the list, I had decided to forgo Bali. However, the whole of Indonesia will be affected by the loss of tourist revenue.

Terrorist strikes are unlikely to happen in the same place twice in short succession. When these vicious little bastards have attempted to do a repeat of whatever atrocity they have inflicted (as they tried in Madrid and London) they have failed. Also, they try to maximise damage by hitting places with high concentration of people. Bali was one of the few places in Indonesia where there is a very high ratio of westerners. I have a natural predisposition against crowds so I will rarely be in these high risk areas.

That's as far as the basic safety goes and I hope it reassures friends and family who might worry. More importantly there is a certain moral consideration.

First of all I believe the concept of safety is one that is fundamentally flawed. It consists of taking steps to avoid what is inevitable; death. The only thing to consider is the level of risk you are willing to accept and the rewards of taking said risk. The specific risk of the kind of attack that hit Bali is shared by Londoners, Parisians and the residents of Strasbourg (after 9/11 there had been rumours of a plot to attack the Christmas market). I am in a country that itself has been hit by a horrendous attack. If I was to get really paranoid I could worry about the fact that ETA have been known to let off the odd bomb in the neighbourhood to hit tourist revenues.

This is the moral bit. I have this notion that the best reaction to a bombing is the one Londoners had after they were attacked. They got on with it. This is a far better way of dealing with terrorism than pissing away civil liberties or attacking random Arab countries. Tony Blair and George Bush have shown us what not to do as they merrily dance to Al-Quaeda's tune like the jesters they truly are. Their ineptitude and delusions of grandeur boldly assist the primitivist lunatics ,that make up the ranks of the jihadis, edge us towards some “clash of civilisations” that both the bomb-belt crowd and the yank neo-cons so ardently believe in.

Gandhi defeated the might of the British Empire by ignoring any thing they could do to him and pursuing his objectives of Indian self improvement regardless. He knew that by letting the Brits set the agenda he would fail and hence removed them from the equation. The average office monkey who went to work on the Monday after the London bombing showed more determination and wisdom than most of the world's leaders, regardless how much they were aware of it.

In that vein I will not alter my travel plans. Not because I am some plucky Brit bravely sticking up two fingers to the heinous Saracen but because I cannot see any other course of action. Whoever planned this latest bit of utter fuckery will get his rocks off at the forthcoming speeches, resolutions and actions of governments. What will really piss him off is seeing Aussie surfboys downing Bintangs in Kuta. They probably see themselves as the fearsome warriors of the new Caliphate who freeze the hearts of infidels with mighty blows. Statistically, however, they are less dangerous to a backpacker than malaria or traffic accidents. Therefore, they should be entered under “things to consider” after mosquitoes and teenagers on scooters. Triumph through apathy.

Take care,