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Monday, October 5, 2009

Volcano Climbing and Karonese Culture...

In my last entry, I wrote about Tangkahan.  It was great, especially the elephant part of course, but I was a bit lazy and missed the hot springs and butterfly area, so may put it on my list of places to go back to ...

My next plan was to get from there to Berestagi.  Because of the crappy roads in Sumatra, the best way is not direct -- one must go back to Medan and then from there to Berestagi.  I was told there were only 3 busses a day so I'd best be on the 0730 am bus.  Mega made sure I got a motorcycle ride to the bus.  I boarded it ... and quickly realized it was just me and about 30 schoolchildren, average age 8.   They were in hysterics, they were so excited to see a bizarre-looking foreigner in their small home village! 


(Did I mention the approximate population of Tangkahan is 100 people and 7 elephants?)  The kids surrounded me on the bus and just about forced me to take photos of them and show them their photos.  Not an area that has made it to the digital age ... given the presence of electricity only 5 hrs a day in the evening and such.  Anyway they were delighted, and kept me company on the bus for the first half hour after which point they got off to attend school and some adults got on.  The bus next made two lengthy stops in the middle of nowhere, the first time for no apparent reason, and the second because the bus drive had some friends he wanted to chat with.   Then the third lengthy stop was due to getting trapped behind a palm oil truck on the roads from hell.  Big business reigns, so the bus had to drive backward to make way for the palm oil truck.

A short 5.5 hrs later, we arrived back in Medan.  The total distance covered was probably less than 100 miles, who the hell knows.  The good news, however, is that the bus people took me directly to the bus leaving for Berestagi and even transferred my backpack.  Full service.  The minivan going to Berestagi was tiny and cramped and of course had the typical 90% of adults smoking in it, but we arrived there in just 2 hours and I checked into the Wisma Sibayak Guesthouse.  I decided I could tolerate the room with the bathroom next to it instead of inside of it, for $5 USD a night.  The air was markedly, markedly cooler in Berestagi -- it's at an elevation of 1400 meters and very very green and agricultural.  Oh, did I forget to mention -- Smiley met me at the bus and took me everywhere on his motorbike.  Smiley was referred to me by Andrea from Bukit Lawang.  When I asked her how I'd recognize him, she said "Oh, you'll know" --

he is well distinguished by his huge smile and his extremely lengthy Rasta dreadlocks and his English pronunciation which seems to have been learned in Jamaica though he's never left Indonesia.  A super friendly warm guy.  He took me around in search of an ATM that would give me more than $120 or so in cash.  It was not to be found but after checking 8 different ATMs (hey!  at least there ARE ATMs here!) I decided to take the $120 in Rupiah and shut up.

I was exhausted and cold and wet and decided to turn in early, so instead of enjoying the culinary delights of Berestagi I ended up eating a chicken curry at the guesthouse.  Actually, I had ordered an eggplant curry, which they didn't have, and french fries with avocado, which they didn't have.  (Asia is notorious for huge lengthy menus filled with dishes they "just ran out of" ;-)  Why do I remember this chicken curry so well?  Because, for the first time this trip, I was up all night ill with diarrhea.  It started about 2 hours after I ate dinner (and I'd missed breakfast and lunch so I know it was the dinner!) and ensued every half hour to an hour.  Of course this was the one night I had opted to not have a bathroom inside my room!  And it was cold and raining.  Just grand.  After the 4th time I woke up by 3 am, I started to think "Damn.  I am supposed to be touring around on a motorbike all day tomorrow where there might not even be squat toilets available..." and then I calculated the 20 minute life cycle turnover of E. coli and decided to just abort it then and there with a single dose of Levaquin and Imodium.

Miraculous.  Better living through chemistry.

By 7 am when I had arranged to meet Smiley, I was fine.  We started out for Gunung Sibayak, one of the two local volcanos.  We went by motor bike most of the way up and then there was about an hour's hike over various crumbly bits as well as parts that resembled the Garden of Eden.  And finally we arrived at the steaming parts of the volcano, which stank like rotten eggs.  The ground was mostly a yellowish green from the sulfur.  And there was a big crater just beyond.  Pretty amazing and though I just barely made it up there due to my laziness/ankle combo, I have Smiley to thank for pushing me.  Just strange, looked like a landscape from another planet!  Luckily my camera was still functional then.  Check out


After that we happened to drive past some people working in the fields,


a Christian cemetery where people are buried above ground which reminded me of the style in New Orleans, 
and then a Karonese wedding ceremony which apparently takes 2 or 3 days, has huge amounts of people and fabulous clothes, and Smiley assured me I would be welcome and that my presence would be considered so lucky, so gate-crashing we went!  I got to take a few photos and wish the people well, despite my being such a big fan of weddings I have to say the costuming was excellent.

The next place we went by motorbike was all the way to the edge of Lake Toba (a huge, huge lake probably bigger than Lake Tahoe, in the middle of north Sumatra, with a huge island in the middle of it called Samosir Island and a town there called Tuk Tuk which I did not make it to).  On the way to the northern edge of Lake Toba, we passed Sipiso-piso waterfall, which was pretty spectacular, and then we drove down to a town on the lake called Tongging, where we ate the most amazingly delicious fish called "nila bakar".  We watched the whole process from selection to vicious killing to cleaning to frying.   Total yum.  Maybe my best meal yet, served with sambal and red rice.



We bumped into some schoolchildren who ran across the road when they saw me.  Then their English teacher came over and wanted them to talk to me but they were way too shy.  Mostly they wanted me to sign an autograph in their notebooks.  Then the teacher convinced us to watch some practice exercises they were doing for some sort of flag-day celebration.  He was so excited to have a visitor!

From there we drove through some more agricultural areas, including one of Smiley's friends who gave us some fruit from his garden.  I did see some coffee beans -- and then I was on a quest to buy Sumatran coffee.  No beans were available, so the recipients of my gift will have to put up with the powder stuff and the knowledge that it was grown in Sedikalang (that and Aceh are the two best coffee growing regions in Sumatra).  The store owner, on finding out what I do for a living and that I am from "Amerika", wanted to know if I was married yet, and then offered to marry me.

We next went to visit a small traditional Karo village called Dokan where people live in shared longhouses with 8 families to a longhouse.  The roofs are very stylistic and the houses are supposed to resemble some sort of cubist impression of the body and face of a woman. 


There are always buffalo horns on top and gecko tails as decor in the midsection to give protection.  Those of you who remember my visit to the Iban longhouse in Borneo (and who could forget that nightmare) -- here's the difference: these people were actually FRIENDLY!  Very much so.  I talked with them in my limited Bahasa and Smiley translated the rest.  There was a lovely old lady whose teeth were stained red from betelnut chewing, and an old man who was 90+ (so I decided not to tell him he really should quit smoking -- he's more likely at this point to get killed by a motorbike, or, come to think of it, an *earthquake*).  When they heard I was a doctor they asked if I would take care of them if they got sick.  They quickly added that if they were not sick, no need for me to operate on them, thank you very much ... Anyway after a lot of chatting and some collateral breast-feeding, I was on my way.


Smiley got me back to town by 6 pm as he had promised so that I could get on a bus back to Medan.  He had become quite a friend in just a day or so, I really enjoyed every moment I spent with him except the point 2/3 of the way through where he mentioned that he didn't have a license (or of course own a helmet) but that the police couldn't really demand fines from him as the tourism business was not good enough.  I suggested that perhaps he should have told me instead when the trip was *finished* that he didn't have a license ;-)  In any case we only fell off just once and again it was minor while going slow and uphill like that ride to Tangkahan.

Thanks Smiley, you totally rock!

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