Bukittinggi: "On the Road in Sumatra"

West Sumatra
Republic of Indonesia

July 5, 2008

Dear Family and Friends,

It would have been a long, bumpy ride so I opted for the short, uneventful flight from Medan, my base in North Sumatra, to Padang in West Sumatra.

Padang is the coastal gateway to the Mentawai Islands, an archipelago that draws a younger crowd for jungle trekking and surfing in the Indian Ocean. My own less vigorous route, however, was inland from the coast and into the mountains to Bukittinggi and the surrounding lakes and villages.

The taxi dispatch at Padang Airport was efficient and the listed prices were non-negotiable. So, I loaded up my bags and headed for the hills. (Utami had flown back to Java.)

The countryside of Sumatra, like the countryside of Java and Bali, is nothing like the countryside of The Catskills. Small towns and villages are strung together into an endless chain of shops, homes and schools. Motorbikes, cars, trucks and buses clog the one lane roads. People are everywhere. Children are everywhere. With a somewhat apologetic smile one Sumatran man admitted, "The most important product of Indonesia is children."

Beyond the narrow strip of villages and shops lie the farms and rice fields that spread out along the valley and climb up onto the hillsides. The mountains lie beyond the farms. Thin, fragile clouds cover the green mountain tops. I am optimistic. Bukittinggi is somewhere up there in those cloudy mountains. I anticipate a lovely, restful few days exploring small lakes and traditional villages.

WRONG! I checked into the Royal Denai Hotel in Bukittinggi, found the nearest travel agency, booked a flight from Padang to Jakarta for the very next day and made a connection from Jakarta home to Bangkok. I had had enough.

Indonesia like almost all of the Southeast Asia countries is a "developing nation" ... some say a poor country. But in my opinion, like the other places I have visited - Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam - Indonesia is a rich country. A very rich country. They are all rich. There's oil, natural gas, forests, gold, gemstones, minerals, abundant agricultural production, an energetic population, and natural and man-made attractions on which to build a thriving tourist industry. There's something for everyone in this region. So why are these wonderful, welcoming nations poor? Well, that's a political discussion and normally, in my writing, I avoid politics.

In West Sumatra, what I cannot avoid is the smoke.

Poor means little or no garbage collection. Poor means traditional farming methods. Poor means a misinformed, uninformed, docile populace.

What I cannot avoid is the smoke.

In front of every home and business a small garbage fire is burning. Out in the fields, large refuse fires are burning. Those misty clouds I saw from the taxi, the picturesque clouds decorating the mountains? They are, indeed, clouds. Clouds of Smoke!

In my unscientific estimate, more than ninety percent of Indonesian men smoke cigarettes, from the time they are teenagers until the time...they stop smoking. In a restaurant, a man lights up even as his wife and children continue with their meal. In one corner of the Medan Airport waiting room is a small smoking room but the walls are half-walls, with no special ventilation system. Smoke wafts through the public space where young mothers, grandmothers and children seem not to notice. At the entrance to the Padang Airport there is a sign that says, "You are entering a smoke-free environment." Yet, up in the restaurants, men smoke freely and the smoke drifts into the "smoke-free" terminal.

In West Sumatra, up in the mountains and in Bukittinggi, my nostrils are coated and irritated and my eyes are burning. My respiratory system is under siege. I have had enough.

I know that you might be thinking, "Jan, one part of your travel philosophy includes the proposition 'Be happy where you are.'" Yes, I was happy. Despite the pollution I was very happy in Sumatra, certainly in North Sumatra where I visited the orangutans in the jungle, the Batak villages and Lake Toba. And since I had hired a car and driver, I was able to stop when I pleased to visit and photograph several unusual sights.

It's not uncommon in this part of the world to see rows and rows of tall, very thin trees. Each tree has a small cup attached to the trunk where thick white sap is collected. The sap is called rubber. What was unusual for me was to wander around a local rubber market that we found north of Medan.

Rubber is formed into small round rubbery bricks. The farmers bring piles of bricks to the market to be weighed and then sold to the wholesaler. Business is business so nobody paid any attention to me. I did manage one pose with the big boss who carried a notebook and calculator.

I do like markets, especially the ones where I can buy stuff. So I was very happy to stroll through the day/tourist market in Berastagi where I photographed some cute tourists. Utami bought gifts for her family and I treated myself to a multi-colored wool shawl. (For my next trip to India?) We paused for grilled sweet corn.

In the evening we wandered around town and found the local night market. All sorts of fresh vegetables and fresh fish are on offer, cleaned and filleted while you wait.

Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world. On Bali there is a huge Hindu population. In cities with ethnic Chinese, Buddhism is practiced. I was aware that Christianity is present here but what was surprising is that on Sumatra, Christianity is big.

The Dutch and British missionaries were successful. Protestant and Catholic churches and Christian cemeteries are in many cities and towns. And Sumatra is no different from other parts of the world; traditional iconography applies, while religious buildings are constructed according to local shapes and design. And like most places, if the deceased was rich he gets one sort of burial structure. If not, then another.

On Sunday, with black Bibles in hand and wearing their finest outfits, Sumatran church-ladies march along the roadside and congregate at their favorite house of worship.

The ancient Anasazi civilization of the American Southwest buried their dead inside the walls of their homes. Here on Sumatra, the dead are buried beside the family home or in the middle of the family's cultivated field or on a hillside overlooking the fields and the homes and the lake. Goats graze near the graves. Farmers plow their fields and walk past the monuments. Children play beside their home beside the family plot. And on washday, clothing is hung out to dry on the railings that enclose the burial site. "What? How can this be?" you say. What happened to decorum? Respect. Reverence.

You know what? I think it's a good idea. Instead of our practice of a huge remote cemetery with hundreds, thousands of graves that we visit once a year or once every two years, or maybe never, Sumatrans keep their departed nearby. As the family goes about their daily chores and activities, absent loved ones remain in contact with the family. Doesn't that sound like proper respect and reverence? Even better, the old folks know, everybody knows that when their time comes, they will forever be close to home.

I am happy on the road. There's so much to see: a high, circular, powerful waterfall that is the source of Lake Toba, the Sultan's elegant compound, weaving villages (another scarf), and a conference of stone chairs where the village bosses sat in judgment - you could lose your head here. And children, cheerful joyful gangs of children who insist that I take their picture. Finally, beyond the tourist spots (that I avoid sometimes), quiet paths lead up into the saturated-with-green tropical hills with tall banyan trees and broad-leafed banana trees. High up on a branch, workers gather the fruit that is used to prepare the Indonesian version of arak.

Finally, Sumatra is a mixture. An enormous island with big challenges; an ancient island, yet alive and heaving; an exotic island with delightful sights; an entertaining island with generous, warm families. When shall I return?

Let me tell you about a small miracle:

In Berastagi, Utami complained about a sore throat. She lost her voice. Then Anto, our driver developed the same symptoms. I reckoned it was only a matter of time for me too. Sure enough, the night before my departure from Medan I could feel something brewing. I know myself. I figured on two to three days for illness and recovery. I self-medicated with the traditional family remedy; I leaned against the hotel bar and nursed a double brandy. It couldn't hurt.

The tent card in my hotel room says "Herb Shop." Somehow, with my non-existent local language and the shop clerk's almost non-existent English, we manage to communicate. I spot a packet of lozenges and keep on browsing.

The clerk recommends a foil sachet that has a picture of a bee hive and assorted mysterious herbs. I open the packet, place it between my lips, squeeze out the thick sweet syrup and let it ooze down my throat. Within seconds, my throat feels soothed. I buy a box of the stuff. An hour later I take another dose and all my symptoms disappear. Immediately. A small Sumatra miracle?

Is there an "Herb Shop" for yet another miracle? Is there a Big Miracle in my future? Will I meet my soul mate, Miss Right? Pui Ying Jai Dee? If I do, will I return to Sumatra and will we relax together on the shores of Lake Toba? And miracle of miracles, will we celebrate our magic mushroom honeymoon??

For the second time in two weeks, "Don't hold your breath."

Suvarnabhumi Airport
Bangkok, Thailand
6 July 2008

Jakarta to Bangkok, and now it's past midnight. I stroll down the broad arrival lanes of this striking new international terminal. I take a breath. Then another. Whoa Nellie. Have I entered a pure oxygenated surgery theater? Holy Cow. The air is nothing but air, cold and absolutely clear. Sacré Bleu. What a relief. Thank you Buddha. I breathe again, and again. I am cleansed.

The Taxi-Meter queue is orderly. "Bangkok, Sukhumvit Soi 1, please."

Bangkok does have an unsavory reputation, largely undeserved. A little pollution here? Sure. Yet, for many of my friends and other international travelers, Bangkok is their favorite city in Southeast Asia. For me, it's home.

I take another deep breath. Smells pretty good. Feels good.

I'm home.



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