Some Sumatra Stories


Getting here in itself was an adventure. Every time you step into a vehicle in Indonesia you greatly decrease your worth in the eyes of life insurance companies. There are two options for every long-haul journey through winding rain forest roads and post-Ramamdan traffic: the massive 'local' bus that costs about $4 dollars for an 8 hour trip, or a 'tourist' bus that costs about $12 dollars for the same trip in 6 hours. After taking a number of local buses for short distances in the city, I decided that $8 dollars is worth avoiding the humid pits of hell for 2 hours. I never really thought about how the drivers shaved those 2 hours off, but I was soon to be educated.

From Pekanbaru to Bukit Tinggi, for instance, my coach was a rickety 8-seater van with a surly driver and a more actively surly assistant who sprawled himself out across the second row of the van, legs draped over the passengers, sucking constantly on a cigarette. I retreated to the right side of the back row and made an attempt to practice some of my Indonesian with the other passengers. Some of the them humoured me, but the surly assistant scoffed, squeaked what I suppose was some derogatory comment which elicited waves of laughter from everyone, and I sank deeper into my isolated foreignness.

We were off, and soon thereafter an indecipherable ritual of stopping and starting the van on the road side ensued. The drivers got in and out of the van to have a smoke and drink at road side stalls, leaving the passengers steaming inside. Every once in awhile at these roadside stops another passenger would hand over a wad of sweaty bills and step into the van, until every available seat was filled. Very cramped. A man kept dredging up the mucous from deep inside his throat and spitting on the floor between his legs.

The driver was insane, blasting full speed at oncoming traffic, he and the drivers of the oncoming traffic leaning on their horns in indignant fury. the G-forces so strong that I secured a death grip on the seat in front of me just to prevent my head from turning into mush. After a few hours of this we stopped in a small dusty town on the outskirts of the city, pulling up next to a dilapidated mosque. The driver got out and started negotiating animatedly with two Muslim woman, an imam (Muslim priest) and a man with a child. "What could they possibly be talking about? Surely not whether they would fit in the van or not." Sure enough they began to pile into the already packed van. I started to get angry, I couldn't understand how everybody else was allowing this to happen. Then, suddenly, a man sitting next to me, with whom I'd developed a good report over a bag of chips, left the van in a rage and started kicking the driver, demanding his money back. The driver willingly let the man go and attempted to squeeze two more people in the back with me (already crowded with the 3 that were there). You have to understand that I was extremely hot and had been in constant fear of my life for the past two hours, so you'll forgive me when I tell you I lost my manners at that point. I started screaming and swearing and made a lunge at the driver. As a result of my spasmodic outbreak, the driver acquiesced to my demands and shoved the new passengers into the middle row and front row instead, leaving the back row relatively spacious for the angry white tourist.

As we rolled down the road I, bemused, started counting and recounting the number of people in the car. Four in the front row designed for two. Six in the middle row designed for three. And in the back row three people and a child. So there were fourteen human beings squeezed into that barely-roadworthy-wheeled-aluminum-can, like seeds into a fig (forgive me the fig analogies, it's fall here in the Czech republic). How could nobody be complaining, I wondered. Perhaps their lives are spent silently enduring hardship, and complaints never achieve anything, so they've stopped trying. Although this is somehow noble, I still prefer screaming and yelling to get what I want. It works in every country. If you're white. And male.

"Good", I thought, reviewing the new situation, "Surely the driver will slow down now that we are packed to the brim, limbs and heads hanging out the windows for lack of space." This truly was the case for awhile: we went at a relatively sane pace... until the drivers changed. The surly assistant, a moron with a red formula one shell shirt on, plastered with the logos of racing sponsors, hopped into the driver's seat. He plugged in an mp3 player and turned up the volume to accommodate the high adrenaline techno music that started blasting through the speakers. He proceeded full speed ahead, taking turns uncontrollably, sitting comfortably in the wrong lane around blind corners, pushing scooters off the sides of the road, flaunting a general disregard for life. After we almost smashed into an oncoming van after our driver intelligently decided to take the non-existent middle lane between traffic flows, our lives saved only by the dexterity of the other drivers on the road, I had another flip out. The fury of Paul was unleashed, as Hades loosens the leash of Cerebrus, so my Superego gave momentary gallop to my Id. The words he didn't understand, but there was no mistaking the message. It seemed the rest of the passengers agreed with me in an uncommitted sort of way. One mumbled "Hati Hati". I found out later that this means 'be careful'. I don't know if she was talking to me or the driver.

It turns out there are no road rules in Indonesia. No speed limits, no fines; none of the things I expended so much energy complaining about in Western countries. There is one rule: do whatever you want as long as you are careful. The words "Hati Hati" adorn billboards before every blind corner or hazardous drop-off, but no one seems to pay much attention.

After renting a scooter for the 10 days in Lake Meninjau I developed many of the same habits as the locals. At distinctly remember one night driving in locust-like mass of scooters out of bukit tinggi to lake Meninjau. (It was still Idul Fitri celebrations, so the crowds were immense).  It was night and the whole herd me included, with that single luminous eye peering through the night, wove between cars and flared past pedestrian crossings without a second thought. I held conversations in broken Indonesian with scooters beside me while travelling at 60 Km/H down pot-holed, lawless highways. I saw a man dead on the side of the road, encircled by a crowd of worried people who were nevertheless completely incapable of helping. His scooter was far behind him, mutilated on the road side. He was surely dead.

Life feeds on Life.


The Dutch colonized Indonesia for 350 years, and while the English left the legacy of railroads, common law and an education system for the Indians, the Dutch left the Indonesians nothing but depleted resources and angry revolutionaries. When Japan conquered in WWII they were on their best Imperialistic form, further building on the one-sided rapeful success of the Dutch. After the Indonesians were sufficiently pissed off they had a revolution, fueled largely by Muslim moralizing and sword-wielding (gun-slinging).

So, in the end, the country became Muslim in name, because the religion was equated with freedom. So there is a mosque every 200 meters, you can marry four wives and are chased down by the government if you officially renounce Islam, but despite that no one is REALLY Muslim, even though they think they are.

For instance, in the region I was in for a week, Maning Kabou, the entire socio-political and ownership structure is matrilineal, and mildly matriarchal. Children get the mother's maiden name, and women inherit all the property. That is why the food from this region is famous around the world - because the men, feeling helpless and disenfranchised with their lack of land, leave Maning Kabou, bringing the cooking with them.

I was invited to a traditional wedding by the chief's son in one of the villages: a musical feast full of pomp far beyond the means of these poor people, where the bride-to-be is showered with gold garments and attention. After much feasting, dancing, and music the woman marches slowly with her 100-strong host down the road to collect her new husband and take him back to her homestead. How this kind of female-centric tradition can coincide with an apparently rigid belief in Islam baffled me, and seemed to be a source of mild amusement for the locals as well.

In the Batak region, where I spent another week, the people are firmly Christian. Or so I was told before i went. When I got there I discovered that although they all attended church regularly they knew very little about the details of Christianity and were more passionate about the local deities that resided in (or actually were, I'm not sure) points of natural splendour - an exceptionally large tree whose roots have grown over an ancient boulder slide; a ultra clear pool at the top of waterfall; a huge inexplicable rock in the center of a grassy hillock. All of these points (I'm sure there were many more) I stumbled on during walks in the hills or through the forests. None of the locals wanted to tell me where they were to keep up the guise of their Christianity. But I found them nonetheless, and at each sacred location there were triangular shrianes holding bowls of water with fresh offerings. And I, of course, having an animistic bent, would deposit various coins from around the world in the bowls, clap my hands twice to invoke the god as they do in Japan, say some silent egotistical wishes and then move on.

I met one crazy Batak guy, trying to convince me that Eve, and Jesus' brother (who had more 'magic' than Jesus himself) were both Batak people from that town in Sumatra and buried together in a tomb at the top of a volcanic island in the lake we were living by. Jesus, however, had to leave Lake Toba because he was the younger brother and inherited no land. I didn't quiz him on the Bethlehem front nor question the chronological accuracy of it all, for there was a fervent religious fury in his eye that compelled me against it.  Over the next few days he related similar pseudo-christian distortions, all of which related to Jesus being some sort of Pagan superhero. More inspiring than a lamb I suppose, but still grossly misinformed.

In North Sumatra, the Aceh people, are ruled by Sharia law and grow copious amounts of Marijuana. Bali is Hindu, New Guinea is animistic to the bones, Sulawesi have week long burial ceremonies, invoking God's left and right, flaunting their polytheism in the face of Allah.

The jilbob (muslim headscarf) has become more a fashion accessory in the big cities than a real adherence to Islamic code. They come in all colors and are adorned with all sorts of jewelry. My friend here was telling me that each color represented something about the girl's personality, and that the way she wore it actually lets men know if she is available or not.

black -- strictly Muslim; family a bit poor

white -- interested, but only for a committed man

green/blue -- relaxed, peaceful, worth a try

purple -- modern, promiscuous

bejewelled -- ready for marriage

tightly wrapped around the neck -- married, not looking; or not worth trying

open around the neck -- "open above, open below" they say


Modern Development/Colonisation

There are no trash cans here; multi-colored plastic wrappers are strewn across the streets, and scattered in the grass. Once in awhile a good Sumatran, or just someone utterly disgusted with the sight, rakes up the trash on a particular stretch of land and sets the pile on fire. Mounds of burning plastic trash on the side of the road is not an uncommon sight.

Europe, Japan, Australia, America: we went through our modernization during an age where objects of any value where hoarded and utilized, and people seemed to find a use for most objects. The countries moving into their post-industrial states now have to deal with a completely different situation. They, like everyone else, lives in a world of disposable and unnecessary consumption fueled by the over-production of cheap packaged food and goods. There is a clear divide between the emerging middle-class, who gorge themselves on such goods and nonchalantly toss them out the window of their SUV's, and the poorer-than-poor who rely on fishing, buffalo rearing, rice farming and the like to survive. I chose to befriend mostly members of the later category, and so most of the food I ate there has negligible food mileage. Rice is the staple and it surrounds you, drying on sheets in the sun, grown in abundance on steeped fields. The buffalo you'll have for dinner you'll more likely than not make eye contact with at some point during a busy day. As a result, the meals are about $1 NZ, and large.

And in these small villages, despite the poverty, unemployment doesn't seem to exist, and people are mostly healthy. (Perhaps because mild sickness is deadly). There is always something to be done, albeit for a couple dollars a day. The situation is different in the cities, from the brief snatches I caught out of the windows on my way from one place to the next. People in the cities, as well, are desperate to do anything to survive, but with the lack of natural resources surrounding them like in the countryside, their prospects are less optimistic.

On Lake Meninjau, in the Maning Kabou region, I made friends with a local named Aris. He worked for the local owner of a place called the Beach Inn. His name was Bingo, and after many a late night conversation with the man I contemplated buying into his business (as his previous foreign investor had recently died) and that is what prompted me to extend my stay. I spent a few days with Aris whizzing on scooters to nearby towns to collect tourism statistics, and found that although foreign tourism remains steady at a pretty small number, local tourism and visitors from the surrounding countries had increased by 400% in the last two years. So the business seemed like a promising one, but after two more days in that lake town, I decided I wouldn't enjoy spending another two years there. So I left.

Aris was particularly disappointed in my decision and later that night, in a very strange miscommunication he thought that I invited him to travel north with me (the implication being of course that I would pay for everything as well, as there is no way he could). He went to sleep with this idea in his head. The next day was gray and rainy so I decided to try to build a raft out of bamboo and venture into the center of the lake. Aris joined me and, with the use of some plastic rope that is used for everything, we were moderately successful, although we capsized a number of times, the algae of the surrounding fish farms suspended in that region of the lake coating our skin, and hair, and the lining of our stomachs. At some point during this childish fun he mentioned the journey north and used the pronoun 'we'. Confused, I reminded him that I was going alone, unless he could afford to pay his own way. It was difficult to decipher his reaction, because all his emotions are suppressed beneath a smile. But I could tell that I had crushed him. That would have been the biggest journey of his life, a chance to see his own country and escape the lake town that I had thought not worthy of my presence. I felt suddenly like Robinson Crusoe. During his lodgement on that deserted island he saved and subsequently was gifted the life-long service of a former cannibal. He civilized the cannibal and was waited on hand and foot by him: the paragon of dedication and loyalty. Now imagine if Crusoe, when the life-saving ship came, told the cannibal "sorry lad, but I can't afford the threepence for your passage. Jolly Ho! hope you have a dashing life". I felt like I was doing that to Aris. The civilized man with an apparent bright future, leaving the cannibal behind.

Speaking of analogies to colonial characters in literature...before this whole debacle Aris took me on a trip through the Jungle (rich in monkey's of all kinds, overgrown with oriental spices: cardamon, tiger balm, cinnamon) to a home-stay in the middle of the jungle. When foreign tourists still came to meninjau this was a common one-night stop. A series of simple wood huts, often with no walls and a roof with a view looking out over the lake from high up on the mountain-side. No electricity, but running water diverted from the forest stream above. Tourists don't really come here anymore, but the business manages to survive through the good will of this German guy, Benjamin. I'd heard a bit about Benjamin before going up there: He was mad; came for four weeks a year and lived up on the hill in those huts; he never went down to the town by the lake down below (he referred to it as hell), but was served hand and foot by the locals who owned the place. In exchange for this private paradise he'd throw a few hundred Euro's at them per year, to build him more personal huts, to expand his empire.

The descriptions were nothing compared to the man himself. His face was wide and beaming, drug induced smile and watering eyes, pores of his face clogged, feet exposed and bitten to a pulp by mosquitoes, sarong wrapped ungracefully around him. He gave me the grand tour through the huts, and we were followed by a local who stays up there for extended periods of time, a total whack-job, muttering to himself in Indonesian, laughing out loud at the fantastical nothings around him. "He has lost his mind," said Benjamin, about the whack-job "but is harmless." I wasn't too sure.

"I'm very religious," said Benjamin. "Have you ever read the Bible?" I told him I'd read bits. "When you come live up here with us, you should read the Bible. It is the best book ever written. But here, in this place, it is magical. Reading Revelations here is life-changing." I said I might try.

 "I will never touch a fucking dollar bill from your country. If someone hands me one hundred dollars I will not take it. Do you know why? It says 'In God we trust'. This FUCKING country has nothing to do with God." I nodded nervously. We were high above the locals now, staring at the scenery from an elevated hut. Down below Aris and a few others were sawing and hammering bits of wood together for a hut.

"For one hundred euros you can build a house here and live happily for ever." I told him I'd think about it. His eyes began to water and his voice quavered as he told me that one day he would come here and never go back to Germany. "I will die here and be buried behind this house," he laughed in his usual, psychotic, manner. The retard who hung like a shadow near us also laughed, but at something totally unrelated. "Why would I go back to Germany? This is Paradise. They've adopted me. I'm their son. Come spend a night here. You will never leave again." I told him I'd be back up in a few days. I of course did not fulfill that promise. But he won't even have noticed. I'm a lost memory no bigger than a speck of dust resting between the valleys of his brain matter somewhere.

From the moment he opened his mouth and I heard those words spill out of that insane face I was reminded instantly of Krantz from Heart of Darkness. I don't know if that is his name, I might be confusing it with Apocalypse Now. Nevertheless, let's call him that. I was the modern immoral Robinson Crusoe, and he was the soft-hearted, but equally crazy Krantz. And we were just two characters in the failing colonization of that lake town.