Friday, January 27, 2012

Northern Sumatra: Around Medan

Northern Sumatra: Around Medan

Z has been sick the whole trip and though her illness wanes and morphs, isn’t any better. Today (Wednesday) is probably her at her worst, now she has an earache. We spent our whole first day at TukTuk, Lake Toba at our room/deck at Carolina’s. I finished my book.
It started on the plane to Singapore, she puked. Actually she had a slight fever on the night bus from Tainan, she slept, but our ride was brief. I didn’t sleep a wink on that night bus. It left Tainan round 11pm and arrived at JongLi at 3am. We took a bus to Taoyuan airport and slept an hour on comfy leather sofas in the arrival waiting area. We were too early to check in. she slept a little on the plane to Singapore and puked. It was her 6th birthday and the plane was showing the film “Puss in Boots” which was she has been pining to see lately.

Butterfly Garden, Chani Airport, Singapore

We were too tired to indulge in Changi airport’s free city tours, so we checked out the butterfly garden at terminal 3 and then checked into the nearby transit hotel. Z was fascinated by the prehistoric, carnivorous flower the Monkey Cup. We were too wound up and tired so watched TV and showered for the first 3 hours and slept the next 3. She woke, her fever worse 100F, so with the last of my Singapore dollars bought some Children’s Panadol. She wasn’t drinking enough water and I had to beg, plead and threaten to her to even drink (theme for the trip thus far).

We were tired when we arrived in Medan. We had to pay for our visas, go through immigration, and pay blood money to the taxi driver to take us to the Blue Angel. I was kind of nervous about the whole airport taxi situation. I knew I would be ripped off, and I knew if I just walked down to the street, which was not even a 2 minute walk I could get a Becak (3 wheeled motorcycle rickshaw/tuktuk) for super cheap. Recently, like October 2011, an American traveler did just that and instigated a fight between the airport taxi drivers who surrounded him and his cheaper street taxi,  eventually he got knifed for it--not worth it to me.  The “Angel” was nothing to write home about, maybe indicative of Medan generally. Our room was 120,000 rupiah a night, a cold shower, AC (supposedly), noisy street traffic, crowing roosters  and spotty sleep (another theme of our trip.)

Our cottage, Indra's Bukit Lawang


The next morning we were up early. I was keen to make a move. The Angel arranged a ride to Bukit Lawang, the both of us for 100,000. I see in retrospect it was a good deal. I have been paying 100,000 each on the tourist bus from Berastagi to Parapet and back again. Also we took a becak from Blue Angel to Pinang Baris,  the bus station north of Medan a 40,000 trip+ 40,000 chicken bus to Bukit awang ( a savings of only 20,000, not worth a beer, if we took the new silver, tourist van, with AC from the Angel) It would have been worth to wait till 1030 and take it. Oh well Z was all smiles on the becak.
On all these long distance chicken bus rides Z totally withers. She sleeps and sweats. I see her vitality waning w/each hour she sweats and she stubbornly refuses to take in liquids but for angry sips.
Buckit Lawang
The bus stopped outside of Bukit Lawang and we took a tuktuk to the main street, a muddy, pot holed path surrounded by wood shacks that sold water, trinkets, tours. We had to cross a makeshift “bridge” which just was some pieces of wood no wider than a foot, with some rope on one side to act as handrails. It was a little unnerving w/ Z, I had to hold her hand and her bag and it wasn’t wide enough for us to walk side by side I had to hold her hand while she walked in front of me, the roaring white water river swollen from recent rains, racing under us. We walked along the river past some guesthouses, white bearded monkeys playing in the trees, and stopped at the cute bungalows at Indra’s. It was cheap enough 50 rupiah a night, our room had a queen and a single and was poorly lit. That night, Saturday was party night. Indra’s was full of jungle boys (trek guides) and travelers, several guitars and shouting songs on the tops of their lungs well into the night (their cover of Floyd’s Wish You were Here, was immensely good and nostalgic). The river parties moved to some discotheque in a cave blaring mediocre electronic music as loud as possible, echoing its bass into the whole town, needled to say I got little sleep, a pattern to set the night tone this trip.
At Bukit Lawang I had hoped we could do some kind of jungle trek and have a close encounter with a group of wild orangutans. All the travelers there, and later on our trip had incredible stories. Z was just too weak and tired. She could hardly go across the bridge for some shopping and food. We tried to walk to the feeding area the next morning, but it wasn’t an easy walk for a kid on a healthy day so we turned back. I heard we didn’t miss anything as orangutans aren’t showing for the feeding lately and it isn’t an organized event like in Borneo. We turned around to the main path into the stalls and bought some much needed flipflops.
I was so looking forward to our orangutan trek, it was so cheap, a 2 day overnight camp trip, with the guides carrying all the camping equipment and cooking all the meals was only 60 Euros. I was confronted with my own entitled travelers ego, “I came here for my damn orangutan experience and I aint leaving until I get it.” But my mothering instinct is fortunately much stronger and I couldn’t risk Z’s fever getting worse in the jungle, far away from any medical clinic. She had this on and off fever for 3 days. The only thing she would eat was papaya, loads of it and the next night some soup and pizza.


Jeep to Tangkahan
Since we weren’t going to do any trekking I thought we might as well head to Tangkahan and the elephant treks. I already knew the price before hand and scheduled an early next day 4x4 jeep to the out of the way town of Tangkahan. It was a supposed 2 hour journey, but was longer. I wish I could of taken photos of the road, potholes were the size of the road, we got stuck once. My driver was excellent, he was 25 years old, spoke no English and looked like he was 16. Z just collapsed in the backseat and slept. I was amazed that there were homes, little villages (5 houses together) sprinkled here and there along this road, cattle chewing cud in between jungle trees replaced by palm. There were a few churches, it was Sunday morning and I had the driver stop at one and joined the service. Of course it was in Indonesian and no one spoke English, it was still amazing. The men and women sat apart and the women covered their laps with a thick weaved cloth. Z and I were sweating so bad that’s the only reason we left early.

Church in the jungle
  Just when I thought the road couldn’t get any worse it did and it ended at Tangkahan, the kampong (village) was 7 km of nearly impassable road to the river where the elephants reside. We had to pay a small fee for entering the park and crossed the river on a wood raft, climbed the stairs up and checked in at Mega Inn. Our cottage was amazing, little details of carved wood a large bed, our bathroom was mostly outdoors with a small garden, so I had the luscious feeling of bathing outside in the jungle (it was enclosed and private). After checking in and lunch we with our driver and his friend (who spoke English) walked down to the river for a swim. Women in Sumatra like all good Muslim women swim fully clothed. I had these balloon pants that were the worst for swimming, it was unnerving as the river was swift. I somehow made it to the other side where a small hot springs was in a clef of a rock. It could fit 4 people, there were some laughing teenage boys there (laughing at me trying to speak English w/ them and laughing when one of them tried to speak English back). I was scared to swim back, the river was fast, but made it ok. Z and I hung around to watch the monkeys jumping back and forth from a tree. It was a quiet night. I was surprised when they told us the elephants wouldn’t be available the next day Monday, so that would mean us staying a few extra nights there (lovely place but nothing else to do). On top of that they raised the price for the elephants trek. Before a 3 hour trek was 360,000 IDR, which I had budgeted for. Now they wanted 650,000 for one hour, completely ridiculous.

Our outdoor bathroom

Our cottage, Mega Inn
Basically Tangkahan is one big tourist trap. Supposedly the bus to Medan leaves 2x a day, once at 7am and the other at 2. I had to make a bit of a fuss for them get me to take me back across the river, so I could make a bus that wound up not existing. Well if we were going to make it to Berastagi our next location we must get the am bus. But because of the road conditions there was no bus. We had no choice but to pay 50,000 IDR to a guy on an Ojek (dirt bik taxi) to carry me, Z and our 2 bags  to the bridge outside of the kampong  7 km away.

Our driver carrying Z who was too sick to walk down to the river

Teens at the hot springs

Z, Tommy and our driver
 It was a hard road. I had one bag on my left shoulder and was because of the way I was sitting on the back (Z was between me and the driver) doing one giant abs crunch, my core was getting some much needed exercise. Just when I couldn’t take it any longer, we crossed the bridge where the make shift bus station was, a bus left 10 minutes later. He dropped us off outside Medan and we caught a blue local opelet to Berastagi.

On the way to Berastagi it became cooler as we headed up the highlands. The guy I paid was asking me for more, he knew I was going to Berastagi and when we got there didn’t tell me this was my stop (how was I to know?) So when I was getting a bad feeling that we passed it I told him “ Berastagi?!” and he wouldn’t tell the driver to stop so I could get a ride back the other way. I was getting mad and the lady next to me told him (for some reason I understood her Indonesian perfectly) that he has to tell the driver to stop so I can catch a ride back to Berastagi, so everyone was waiting for him to do something and he wasn’t , a world class simpleton, so I started yelling at the driver to stop and then those around me chimed in. I got my bags off the roof and crossed the dangerous road to the other side. We caught a local yellow Bemo (minivan) that got a flat tire after 10 seconds and waited 10 more seconds for another local minivan to drop us off right at our guesthouse, the Wistma Sibayak Guesthouse, where I got eaten alive by bedbugs (Z was spared we had separate blankets).  It happens.

Hot Springs at the foot of Sabayak

Z was too sick to make plans to hike the volcano. We checked in, I did some laundry and we walked to the Gundaling hill to catch a view of the sunset. It was an easy walk but Z was tired and complaining. We walked up the road in between terraces farms, lush and verdant from the rich volcanic soil. We caught a local minivan up the top of Gundaling Hill, admired the green valley surrounding the nearby volcanoes and walked to a small market. The top of that hill has some restaurants where locals go and some tourist trinket shackss to hike the volcano. We checked in, I did some laundry and we walked to the Gundaling hill to catch a view of the sunset. It was an easy walk but Z was tired and complaining. We walked up the road in between terraces farms, lush and verdant from the rich volcanic soil. We caught a local minivan up the top of Gundaling Hill, admired the green valley surrounding the nearby volcanoes and walked to a small market. The top of that hill has some restaurants where locals go and some tourist trinket shacks. I bought Z and I a sweater (it was surprisingly cool) and we took a horse and buggy ride (Doken), not exactly an elephant, but Z was happy. She was playing with a crazy little goat. This goat kept on rearing up, trying to head butt her and making us all laugh.

The next day we were catching an afternoon tourist van to Parapat, Lake Toba. So for  the morning we went to the local hot springs at the base of the volcano Sibayak. The spring’s facility had 6 or more pools of different temperatures. The only patron there was a German American (German passport, 30 + years in Florida) who was there. He married a local and retired in Berastagi. They had money, a house on Langkawi, a house here or there. He made me feel guilty for how much I paid my driver, “and you work for your money?” I tried to explain it wasn’t worth the hassle sometimes, saving 10,000 rupia (1 dollar). Anyway, he like the Italien I met at my guesthouse, both advised me to stay at Carolina’s when I went to Lake Toba, so that’s just what I did.

First views of Toba
Ferry from Parapat, Z's pink

The ride to Parapet was shared by 2 Dutch girls, a couple (a German man w/ a Dutch woman), me and Z, and an American from PA living on Shanghai. The Dutch were the predominant traveler in Sumatra, naturally as it was until recently a Dutch colony. I paid 200,000 for the both of us in an AC, clean minivan, it took about 4 hours, most of the road was bad, but not as nuts as the road in and out of Tangkahan. From Parapat we had an hour wait for the last ferry to Tuktuk , our backpacker town on the island.

Z recovering on our deck, Carolina's
Lake Toba is the result of an exploding super-volcano, creating an island (sorta) the size of Singapore in the middle. It is the largest lake in SE Asia and reminded me of the vastness of Lake Nicaragua and the beauty of Lago Atitlan in Guatemala. We had the ferry drop us off right at Carolinas and I paid 130 rupia for the deluxe room with hot water showers ( I figured Z couldn’t handle the cold water w/ her cold). It was amazing. The staff was like a big family bent on making my stay absolutely carefree. The first day I did nothing but stay at my room my front porch overlooking the lake as Z coughed herself in between sleeps.

 The next day we rented the scooter for half a day and rode around admiring the Batak people’s monoliths, traditional homes and last king’s grave. We stayed at Carolina’s for 4 days, 3 nights and left on a tourist bus back to the Wisma Sabayak, Berastagi. Z coughed the whole time and after we checked in, I took her to the local recommended Dr.

Batak council circle seats, 500 year old  traditional Batak homes
The clinic was basic, the floor was dirty. I approached , carrying Z on my back and there were several people waiting at the door. I didn’t know one of them was the Dr, he looked like a sick patient. He was old, bald and had a tube coming out of his nose, wrapped around his head, disappearing somewhere looking like something out of Star Trek. He listened to her lungs and said she had an upper respitory infection and if she had this before, which she did. He gave me some meds, which turned out not to be so effective. To see him plus the meds, cost about 30  bucks US, which quite a bit in rupiah but cheap for the US.  At the Wisma Sibayak we stayed at the cheap rooms this time, the 50 rupiah a night room and Z hacked all night. I paid the 10,000 for a hot water shower which was worth it.
Early the next day we left on a 30,000 taxi to Medan airport to catch our flight to Banda Ache and ferry to Pulau Weh. We left Berastagi at 7am and didn’t make it to Pulah Weh until til 6pm. My belly was a mess and I had our taxi driver stop at an Apotik in Medan for some meds. We killed some time in an airport café with wifi and watched some Simpsons and boarded our delayed Sirwajaya flight. Here we are 10 minutes before our flight time at our gate and there is no Sirwajaya staff. I started to panic that they had bussed the passangers already, but no. Right at the time of our delayed, new flight time, we walked to our plane, Z under the shade of her camisole and boarded.  I had to pay 35,000 rupiah each, as an extra tax on our tickets for some barcode on our tickets. It was 75,000 each when we left the country a week later.


Blue Angel Guesthouse Pondok Wisata Angel, Jl S.M.Raja No 70, Medan North Sumatra
Indonesia             Ph:   (061) 732 0702        Fax: (061) 732 6050

Mega Inn, 8 rooms w. bath: Rp. 75-100.000. Discounts for longer stays. Ph: 081 370 211 009, 081 370 454 572. 

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