After our boat trip from Malaysia, our first port of call in Indonesia was Medan – a city that gets not one iota of a positive comment from any guidebook we’ve read or any tourist we’ve met. It wasn’t all that bad though. So, there are big holes in the middle of the footpaths with murky, sludgy water below, rubbish littering the streets and lots smelly, noisy traffic, but we ate yummy food, went bowling, the people were really friendly and we managed to meet up with Pete’s good friend Don, who came over for a short holiday from Brisbane.
I was interested in trying to find Medan’s Chinatown. I’d heard that there was quite a big ethnic Chinese population in Medan and in the past I’ve done some research on the ethnic Chinese in Jakarta. We found the streets that were supposed to be Chinatown, but it didn’t look like Chinatowns you’d find in other cities in the world. There were a few tattered Chinese lanterns hanging outside the odd building and I saw one tiny alter with incense burning in it – otherwise the streets looked like any other street in the city.
Chinese culture has been repressed – pretty much destroyed – in Indonesia. It’s still written on the customs declaration forms that you’re not allowed to bring Chinese language materials into the country, even though that law was softened years ago. Indonesia sadly lacks the bustling, interesting Chinatowns of Malaka, Georgetown or Bangkok and a lot of the history of the Chinese here has been lost.
From Medan we headed to Lake Toba, a crystal clear volcanic lake with the island of Samosir sitting in the middle. This is an absolutely beautiful place, well set up for tourism, but unfortunately for the people who live there, hardly any tourists. We had a resort to ourselves, with rooms right on the lake front and we paid only 6 US dollars a night for the privilege. Every restaurant we went into had no customers, but the food was always amazing. The people of Samosir were friendly and grateful for the business. Apparently, before the economic collapse in the late nineties, tourist numbers were high. Now, with government warnings not to visit Indonesia, among other reasons I’m sure, tourist numbers are down and the people are suffering.
Our third destination in North Sumatra was Nias island. A place which has also suffered catastrophe. The 2004 tsunami hit here and in 2005 an earthquake destroyed the main city of Gunung Sitoli. Nias had a harsher atmosphere than lake Toba: the people were pushier, smiled less. Maybe they’ve suffered too much or maybe it’s the surfers that give it the tougher edge.
Me and Pete sat in hammocks or on the beach while Don surfed and in the evening we ate our fill – including one night when we ate a barbecued tuna fish almost the size of me – well the size of Pete’s forearm at least.
I had an interesting chat with a customs officer when I arrived at the port town of Belawan (just outside of Medan). He noted that I hadn’t been to Indonesia before even though I’m from a neighbouring country. He also asked me if I was worried on account of the Australian government warnings about travel in Indonesia. He was fine – friendly even – but I got the impression that he wasn’t particularly happy about the situation. Fair enough too – it seems crazy that a whole country the size of Indonesia suffers because of the actions of only some of the people in some areas. I reckon the country has already suffered enough without having to lose a good part of its tourism as well.
Meeting up with Don was fantastic. Apart from anything else, it’s really encouraging to meet up with a friend that you haven’t seen for a long time and not feel at all awkward about it. Meeting up in a strange place like Medan was particularly good. And after all, who else could make wandering down an alley full of cogs and gears such a memorable and interesting experience? Topping it all off with a bit of bowling meant that grimy old Medan worked out pretty well for us in the end.
I’ve decided that I really like lakes. Lake Baikal left a big impression on me and so has Lake Toba here in Sumatra. Lake Toba is big enough to have an island the size of Singapore in the middle of it. I find it amazing to think that it’s basically a big water-filled volcano crater. That must have been quite a volcano.
Nias Island wasn’t without its challenges. We arrived after spending 14 hours on a ferry preceded by 6 hours in a mini van. This didn’t leave me in the best of form – I certainly wasn’t in any mood to deal with haggling for a price for the final 3 hour journey to the beach. But we got there in the end – mostly due to the impressive patience of my traveling companions – and spent a mostly relaxed few days hanging around the beach. I don’t think I’ll forget the antics of people like Titus – the pushy owner of our guesthouse who laughed like a small child when he threw his first frisbee. And then there was Allan who helped us a lot even though he was probably as confused by us as we were by him. I’m also going to remember swimming in the keyhole as the sun was going down, eating fresh delicious tuna until I was ready to burst, drinking a can of Pocari Sweat (not as bad as it sounds), trading books with a scoundrel, traveling by local ‘bus’ (a truck with a few planks of wood for seats and a stereo playing ludicrous songs about sticking a certain body part in the air) to a village on the hill, and sleeping in a hammock in the early hours of the morning as lightning was flaring off in the distance.