(Excerpted from Chapter 22: Chiang Mai to Lake Toba: The Grateful Unrich…)
The MV Ekspres Bahagia II is at first comfortable and very fast. But when we hit seven foot swells in the middle of the Melacca Strait our stomachs jump into our throats and vertigo sets in. Most passengers end up losing their breakfast in the bathroom at the rear of the ferry. Soon the smell is enough to induce a second trip to the pisser. We sit next to a crazy Saskatchewan redhead named Mike. He talks non-stop.
Belawan is pirate central and feels dangerous right off the bat. We clear immigration and I negotiate a bimo into Medan for a lost-looking gaggle of backpackers and ourselves. Medan is a shit hole supreme. Everyone excels at lying and is trying to sell you something. The air is horrific. It’s like breathing from a smokestack.
Our hotel room is stuffy and mosquito-ridden. We walk down the street past the mosque for dinner then continue on to a shopping mall, which is accessed via overhead crosswalk. When we get to the top a few steps are missing. Rather than risk falling to our death, we descend and take our chances crossing the road filled with insane traffic.
We change money this morning and catch a bimo across town to the bus station. Our bus to Bukit Lawan is sized for midgets and painted like a hippie van. Bukit Lawan is the terminus of a rough patch of pavement (sort of) heading north and west from Medan. We are met by “Jungle Eddy” at the bus station. He and his pals lead us to Indha Guest House on the banks of the Sungai Bohorok – a clear clean river that in 2003 overran its banks severely, killing nearly 400 people.
The town is still rebuilding. Hope, sadness and joy intertwine here. Daniel, one of the many under-worked guides, talks of the animist traditions of his Batak people who inhabit this place next to Gunung Leuser National Park – home to what the World Wildlife Foundation office here calls, “a biological diversity unequaled anywhere in the world”.
Today we walk to Bat Cave. Just a few steps down the trail we see a massive red and black centipede. There are large butterflies of purple, black and lime green color; a troupe of long-tailed macaques and – at the bat cave entrance – another troupe of Thomas’ Leaf Monkeys. Heading back through the musical cacophony of this upland jungle, we meet kids cutting firewood with small machetes. I am recruited for a game of sepak takraw. It’s like volleyball, but the ball is made of rattan and you can only use your head, chest and feet to hit. It is challenging and I miss as many shots as I make, but my team was behind when I arrived and we win. We walk home through rubber plantations.
We’re up at 6:30 this morning. Breakfast consists of excellent Sumatran coffee and a huge vegetable cheese omelet. We cross the tiny footbridge over the river and hike the thirty minute trail to where a boat takes us back across the river to Gunung Leuser National Park. The boat uses a pulley and ropes and can only take three passengers at a time across the narrow, but raging Sungai Bohorok.
We check in with permits at park headquarters, home to a unique orangutan rehabilitation project started by two Swiss women in the 1970s. Already thirty-year-old Abdul is coming to the back door for morning bananas. He has a younger sidekick who enjoys hanging one-handed from a coconut palm. A mother with a baby at her breast scampers by Jill, two middle-aged German tourists and myself. Orangutan means “man of the jungle” in the Bahasa Indonesia language. Looking into the eyes of these beautiful empathetic creatures is eerily like looking into a mirror.
The mother named Jackie grabs the hand of Dharma – a very sincere and intelligent volunteer. She is letting him know it’s time to go to the feeding station, a steep 300-meter climb into the jungle. It’s as though she doesn’t want to eat the bananas here at headquarters, but in the jungle where the majority of rehabilitating orangutans eventually set out on their own. She too wants to learn to be free again.
Bananas and milk whey is what’s offered each day. The idea is that this monotonous diet will push the orangutans to eventually choose to set out on their own into the food-rich lowland jungle of North Sumatra where over 300 kinds of wild fruits await. Just north of the Equator and just south of Banda Aceh – where the December 26, 2004 tsunami claimed over 100,000 lives – Gunung Leuser is home to the endemic Sumatran rhinoceros, though less than fifty remain. There are also elephants, tigers, clouded leopards, resplendent pheasant and seven species of primates including Thomas’ leaf monkey and siamang gibbon – with its extensive oratory skills. There are tapirs, slow loris and green snakes whose bite kills in thirty minutes. North Sumatra is home to the wildest jungle I’ve ever seen, even more intense than the Lake Arenal region of Costa Rica.
Tonight we go to the Batak market near the bus station. We catch a morning bus to Medan’s northern Pinang Baris bus station, cross town and board another bus bound for Berstagi. The driver keeps stopping at different places in Medan, this time for ½ hour. It’s 12:30 and we’re sweating our asses off in a bus made for midgets. Indonesians are tiny. The recent discovery of a miniature human race that lived here long ago is not surprising. Medan is a city of three million people. The air pollution is unreal. Everything on the road here is burning oil. I write so I don’t go insane. Desperation shows in the faces here, men scrambling to put food on the table.
At Bukit Lawan the constant attempts by local guides to bag you as tour bait got annoying, as did their pot-smoking gigolo mentality towards European women. It’s a reverse version of Thailand. But I understand their desperation and keep passing out cigarettes. It seems to me there are two very distinct and well-marked paths you can go down in life – love or fear, empathy or greed, God or Satan. Those on the first more honorable path slip and make mistakes to be sure. But they remain on that path.
The other path is full of Freemason bankers who see Indonesia as a nation of useless eaters, needing to be culled from the earth through their alchemist magic. I am more and more convinced that these arrogant reptilian elites go straight to a hell of their own making and in the very present tense. There is justice in the now.
We begin our ascent of the escarpment that leads to the Sumatran Plateau soon after we finally get out of Medan. The driver careens around switchbacks like a madman, followed closely by a passel of other buses and smoke-belching lorries, all painted in the most psychedelic of colors. This Guatemalan-style bus was built for dwarfs and it’s three to a seat. We reach Berstagi at 2:00 PM. Seven hours on a bus is enough for one day. At 4,600 feet, it’s nice and cool here. Good sleeping weather.
We take the second hotel we look at, unusual for us since we usually gladly drop our packs at the first. But the first place we stop has an attitude. We order nasi goreng – the Indonesian national dish of fried rice, with a fried egg and fried onions on top. I think it’s the best fried rice in the world and eat it often. We chat with two Belgian women – age 29. They travel like us. No guides. No tours. It’s refreshing to meet someone else doing it old-school and figuring stuff out for themselves. So far the Indonesian travelers we’ve met are more like this. There are not many travelers here. We attribute this to fear. The tsunami, the Bali bombings, bird flu. Indonesia has had a string of bad luck. The Belgians tell us of a shortcut to Lake Toba. Tonight we meet another nice traveler from Singapore named Joe. He and his girlfriend Pat are here doing relief work on Nias Island. He invites us to stay at his place when we get to Singapore.
We set out at 8:45 AM to climb the 2,095 meter active Sibayak Volcano. The weather is looking fine. Yesterday over 4,000 people died in an earthquake south of Yogokarta on the island of Java south of here after Merpati Volcano blew its stack. That’s a little unnerving, but it’s sunny and cool after days of rain so we take it as a good sign and set out. After a long steep initial climb of two hours it levels off. We see gibbons and another kind of monkey that we can’t identify. The trail heads straight up again.
We pass a Dutch couple who had passed us earlier. We enter the crater where vents are hissing loudly and spewing yellow sulphur gas. The Dutch catch up and we share some snacks with them, then head down a shorter and much steeper trail. At the bottom we cross through a forest of giant bamboo, then soak in some very hot geothermal springs.
Oh, Sumatra! What a magical place full of friendly people. Laos and Indonesia are now my favorite stops. Indonesia is crazier and less predictable than Laos – but so interesting, so poor, so desperate, so kind.
The internet is down this morning in Berstagi, so we shift gears and decide to move on. Joe and Pat from Singapore come with us. We send out an email update to family from Kanojahe – the provincial capital. We want to let everyone know we’re ok, since the Java earthquake made international news. We hop another bus to Siantar, then a third to Parapat on Lake Toba.
Just as we sit down on the bus, it stops again. Hilda – the friendly 24-year-old woman we’d met at Tony’s Restaurant in Bukit Lawan – climbs aboard. It’s her birthday. I pass out cookies and we talk the whole way.
At the ferry dock in Parapat, the Dutch couple we climbed the volcano with show up. It’s a cool weird sort of reunion. There are scores of touts on the boat and we each choose a different guest house. We go for LaBertad – a small place near the main ferry dock. We score a second-story treetop level bungalow in a traditional Batak house with private bath, mosquito net and huge porch for 15,000 rupiah ($1.65)/night.
Dean Henderson is the author of four books: Big Oil & Their Bankers in the Persian Gulf: Four Horsemen, Eight Families & Their Global Intelligence, Narcotics & Terror Network, The Grateful Unrich: Revolution in 50 Countries, Das Kartell der Federal Reserve & Stickin’ it to the Matrix. You can subscribe free to his weekly Left Hook column @ www.deanhenderson.wordpress.com