I am now writing from a spectacular white-sand beach on the island of Gili Air, drinking a fresh carrot and ginger juice and eating spring rolls while staring at beautiful turquoise waters. I already went swimming and had a massage before writing, the perfect day! This is Indonesia for you!
So now let me tell you about my experience on the island of Sumatra…
My adventure in Sumatra begins by meeting two very nice ladies at the airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. We were all in line to check in for our flight to Medan; which is Sumatra’s largest city (and third largest in Indonesia). This is the starting point for many tourist activities in Northern Sumatra. One of these ladies named Fitrianti Subagyo (Fitri) was kind enough to invite me to stay in her house in Medan until I was able to connect with my new friend Alejandro. He is a Colombian guy that I had previously met while in Java. He also wanted to see the jungle so we made plans to meet in Sumatra. We were traveling in different parts of the island so I had no idea where we would meet. Fitri, her husband Ahmad, and her family were extremely kind to open up their home to me. I was very fortunate to spend a day and a half with these lovely people. They not only invited me to stay in their beautiful home (where I had my own room and bathroom) but also took me on a tour of the city and to try some of their amazing local food. We began with a traditional Indonesian breakfast of Soto (soup) and Nasi (rice) and fresh fruit juice of course! Afterwards we visited the Istana Maimoon or the Sultan’s Palace where their daughter and I put on traditional dresses to pose for some pictures. We also visited the Mesjid Raya or Grand Mosque; which I could only see from the outside as non-muslims are not invited to enter. I have heard of tourists entering it but I don’t believe the family wanted me to enter and I wanted to be respectful. My friend Alejandro had actually arrived to Medan the night before so I asked the family if we could meet him and have lunch together. After getting him at his hostel, we went to another one of their favorite restaurants to try a few traditional dishes made with mussels, fried chicken, fish, eggplant, cow skin and nasi. It was my first time eating the Indonesian way, in other words using no utensils; which was a very cool experience. Good fun!
After lunch Alejandro and I took a 4-hour ride on a public minibus to Bukit Lawang. This is a nice little town from where you can access the Gunung Leuser National Park in the Sumatran jungle. The drivers always fill up these minibuses to the max, it was a very bumpy ride and in the rain but we were very happy to finally be on our way to the jungle. In Bukit Lawang we found a really nice guest house named Rainforest right on the banks of the Bahorok river. They had a nice open restaurant where all of the guests would hang out at night. The staff were super nice and fun, after dinner they would have a small gathering with guitars and singing where the guests could join in. They offered the lyrics to all the songs they played so guests could make requests and join in the singing. This has been my favorite guesthouse in Indonesia so far. We met Roel from the Netherlands on the first day and invited him to explore the nearby bat-caves with us. Later we enjoyed a nice dip in the river at sunset, in the rain, with a Bintang (local beer) in our hand; best happy hour ever! The next day we were joined by Marta from Hungary, Becky from the UK and Anna from Germany to do a 2-day trek in the jungle. The hiking actually turned out to be better than I expected; a fairly challenging hike in a beautiful rainforest where we saw tons of wildlife. We saw seven orangutans, one peacock, one turtle, some gibbon monkeys, Thomas leaf monkeys (two mating), macaque monkeys and tons of giant ants. Some of the orangutans were wild, hanging on the trees and curiously watching us from the high branches above us. In Bukit Lawang they have the largest animal sanctuary for the Sumatran Orangutan so in the jungle we saw a couple of the ones that came from the rehab center that had been released back into the wild. We had been warned about these orangutans; which would tend to be aggressive if not fed, Mina and Jackie. They knew that seeing humans meant getting food and they certainly expected it. If they didn’t get it they could chase us and even try to bite! Mina was the most aggressive one and we ran into her as soon as we reached the top of the ridge. She showed up with her baby and seemed very calm but our guide kept telling us to be ready to run if he gave us the command. We would stop and watch and then be asked to walk quickly (away from her), then we would stop again and see if she was nearby and then when she got close, we would be asked to keep moving again. It was thrilling and a bit scary at the same time. None of us wanted to get bitten and have to be taken to a hospital to get treated for rabies. But it actually wasn’t that bad, the guide said that we caught Mina on one of her good days as she was being very nice and patient. Alejandro actually has some video footage of us moving quickly through the jungle as Mina follows, will try to get a copy. We later ran into Jackie who is known for grabbing a person by the arm and holding them hostage. Sometimes not letting go for up to 2 hours. I thought it might be very cool to be taken by an orangutan and be shown the ways of the jungle but I was not lucky enough to be chosen, or anyone else for that matter. The guide probably wouldn’t let it happen anyway… hey! as long as she doesn’t bite, I will go… ha ha! We had an amazing lunch in the middle of the jungle, the traditional nasi goreng (fried rice) with a fried egg wrapped in a banana leaf. simple and yummy! When we reached camp, we quickly changed and went for a swim in the river. It was a perfect day in a beautiful place and in great company. We had a great night playing games and we slept on an open platform by the river. On our second day, we hung out in the river all morning and saw a big monitor lizard coming out of the water where we were laying out. Welcome to the jungle! We later went on a hike to some nearby waterfall. We returned to our homestay in Bukit Lawang via the river. The guide and the camp manager/cook linked 5 gigantic tires together where we all sat and rode through the rapids for about an hour. It was a different and fun way to experience the jungle. We were greeted back to our homestay by the friendly staff of our hotel where we had another fantastic night of eating, drinking and singing by the river. It was definitely hard to leave this place… the jungle, the river, the great company, the nice guitar soirees and amazing hosts at the Rainforest Bungalows, all, made this part of my journey truly unforgettable. One of my favorite places so far in Indonesia.
Marta, Roel, Alejandro and I were having so much fun together and getting along so well that we decided to continue traveling together to the North part of Sumatra. We wanted to see the city of Banda Aceh and the island of Pulau Weh. We tried to stay in Aceh one night but we were denied accomodations in two places and even food in one of the local warung (cafe). We are not sure of the reasons why; the Lonely Planet mentioned this may happen. We finally found a place that would give us a room but quoted us too much for the night for not much, so we decided to get out of town and catch an afternoon boat to Pulau Weh.
Some of you might remember Banda Aceh from the news of the boxing day tsunami on December 27, 2004. This was the epicenter of the earthquake. The tsunami waves took the lives of thousands of people in Northern Sumatra; around 70,000 in Aceh alone. Sadly a lot of the tourist attractions in town are around this theme. We decided to leave the tsunami landmarks for when we returned from the island as what we wanted to see was closed on Fridays, the day we were there. We did have the opportunity to visit the Mesjid Raya Baiturrahman, the most important and biggest Mosque in the city. It was built by the Dutch in 1879 after the original one was burned down. A couple of the Domes were added by the Indonesian government later. The mosque actually survived the 2004 earthquake and tsunami and served as a refuge and crisis center to a lot of stranded people after the tragedy. When we tried to get close to the entrance, we were quickly stopped by the local police who asked us to come to the tourist office to register our names. Unfortunately we were not allowed to enter the mosque. On the way back from the island (4 days later), Roel and I visited the tsunami museum; which took $5.6 million to build. We saw a video and images of the aftermath of the waves, and stories of how Unicef helped rehabilitate the children that were orphaned by the tsunami. We also visited another important tsunami landmark; which was a 2600-tonne power-generator ship that was carried inland 5 km (2.9 miles) by one of the waves. We learned that the crew had evacuated the ship right before the wave, except for one guy that was asleep. He was carried inside with the ship by the wave and was one of the only two survivors. This tsunami actually helped bring peace and better quality of life to the people of Aceh. The rebuilding led to improved infrastructures and the tragedy opened up the city to foreign relief organizations plus peace talks between the government in Jakarta and the Aceh rebels. As you may remember from past news, this area had been a conflict zone for many years as rebel groups fought for independence and the management of its natural gas reserves. So off to Pulau Weh with my new and awesome group of friends- Marta, Roel and Alejandro. We had a lot of fun on the public ferry meeting a group of Indonesian students that wanted to practice English with us. Pulau Weh was a great little island where we found a really nice place right on the ocean in a tranquil bay. We hung out with other travelers, Raul from Romania and a couple of girls from the Netherlands Esme and Lonneke. We also met a really cool couple from a near-by homestay, Stephen from Jamaica, who lived in the US and Susanna from Italy. They met in Australia two years ago and are now traveling and living around the world. They decided to NOT choose a permanent residence anywhere, they just travel and work as teachers, as needed, pretty much. How awesome is that?! at least I think so… 🙂 The snorkeling in Pulau Weh was amazing, we saw a small sting ray, a moray eel and tons of colorful fish. Unfortunately I managed to touch a sea urchin’s spikes with my foot that was on the side of the dock steps while trying to get out of the water. It pricked four of my toes and it was very painful. I always wondered what it would feel like to touch one of those things and now I know… The last pieces of the urchin spine finally came out of my toes last week (two weeks later). We spent four fantastic days on the island mostly relaxing, eating and snorkeling around the bay and a small island across from our place. On our last day we rode scooters up the coast to find the 0-kilometer point, where Indonesia begins. Here are a couple of videos made by my friend Raul of our snorkeling in the bay. This guy can free-dive pretty deep and hold his breath forever!
Snorkeling in the pouring rain:
I continued to travel with my friend Roel to Danau (Lake) Toba. Alejandro and Marta had already been there so they made other travel plans. I really hope to see them again. They were fun, smart, down-to-earth, awesome people and great travel companions (just like Roel)! Roel and I caught the ferry back to Aceh where we did some of the touristy tsunami stuff previously mentioned and then took the overnight bus back to Medan. We traveled from Medan to the town of Parapat on Lake Toba and then caught the ferry out to the island of Samosir right at sunset. This is the largest volcanic lake in the world with a large island (the size of Singapore) formed by a massive explosion. On this island you find the Batak tribe people; which are descendants of mountain tribes from Northern Thailand and Myanmar. These people practice Christianity. I must admit that it was very nice to take a break from the Muslim strict world of Aceh. We could finally buy beer, even try some of the local palm wine and wear whatever we wanted (with uncovered shoulders, ha ha!). We stayed in the town of TukTuk; which houses most of the tourist accomodations on the island. The ferry dropped us off right at our Guesthouse on the Lake managed by a very friendly guy who seemed to smoke weed and drink all day and night. Very nice and courteous man who made us laugh a lot but we often wondered how he got anything done around the place. At our guesthouse I met some great people (yet again), Hannah from the UK, Eva from the Netherlands and a nice couple from Germany. We had an amazing four days of relaxing by the lake, biking around the island to near-by towns, trekking to a nice view point where we could see all of Tuk Tuk and the rice paddies in the middle of the island, trying the local mushroom-omelette specialty, seeing traditional Batak houses (with pointy roofs and small entrances), the Batak traditional dancing/singing, trying wonderful dishes and home-made ginger tea and visiting the King Sidabutar’s grave, the man that adopted Christianity for the island. A lot of tourists come to this place for a few days and end up staying months or even years, met two of them… This place was fantastic and very hard to leave. I was very tempted to stay a while longer but I had to move on to see more of Indonesia before my 2nd visa expired. Next stop, the islands of Lombok, Gili Air and Flores…