When I returned to Bali in October I reunited with some good friends and started kicking travel ideas around. One thing I’d missed (and I felt it was a BIG miss) was Sumatra – particularly Lake Toba.
Many of my Indonesian friends are from North Sumatra. For this and so many other reasons, I had researched while in Bali during summer how to get there without spending a fortune.
During Ramadan, a time of high travel in all of Indonesia, July and August prices to travel were prohibitive. Then in the weeks post-Ramadan, when people tend to travel home to be with family, prices were even higher. And then it was time for me to leave. Bummer.
This time, first on the docket was to get up to Sumatra. I left Bali within two days – a friend in tow who would take me around Sumatra for the price of a trip home for him. There is no possible way this could have been less expensive and a more “authentic” Indonesian experience.
En route we spent a couple of days in Jakarta. I’ve been researching Asian teaching jobs for a while now, and Jakarta keeps coming up as basically “the” place to work. I wanted to get a feel for the city and whether I could live there for even a short commitment.
This side trip was an overwhelming experience in and of itself. People of Jakarta are typical of those living in other large, frenetic cities throughout the world and Southeast Asia in many ways. If they’re not born into a family with money, status, a government job, or privilege, they scrap hard for a little bit of money and barely make ends meet. This fact, coupled with the traffic, heat, pollution, and just general crowded nature of the city make for a powder keg of, shall we say, assertiveness.
If you get in the way of a Jakartan – watch out! They will plow you over, push you out of the way, cut in line – you name it. Just like in any other big city, you snooze, you lose. The pace is fast and furious. It made me dizzy and a little cranky.
My guide wanted to meet a friend he hadn’t seen in a while and needed to do some shopping – much cheaper than in Bali. We met this friend in a mall where I basically shadowed them around, absorbing the culture and scenery as they caught up and shopped.
It was Sunday – family day in so many corners of the world – and the mall was PACKED. I think I was the only American – maybe the only tourist – there. At times I was gawked at like an animal in the zoo; at times I was pushed into and nearly knocked over; and I even got to stand in an endless line at a Wal-Mart-esque store for what felt like an eternity.
Note: those little wire things our grocery and other larger stores use to hold the bags open – well imagine if they were all gone. Instead, every time the cashier needed to bag an item, she had to take a plastic bag out of a drawer in front of her, open it, and then attempt to organize a Wal-Mart sized order in said manner. This line did NOT move. It gave me a new-found appreciation for our assembly-line mentality.
I won’t even go into the food court experience because words cannot describe the way we were approached by competing vendors. I could not even take a seat before I had ten menus thrust in my face. My friends just laughed at my bewilderment. Thank goodness they could order my food for me.
The mall experience left me headachey and dazed – probably as much from fatigue as from dehydration. The heat in Jakarta is stifling, and in parts of the mall there might as well be heat pumped into the building rather than AC.
On day two we did nothing. There were options, and all of them were expensive, involved taxis and waiting in lines, and just didn’t seem pleasant.
We did walk around a little bit early in the morning, but for the most part my guide slept all day and I read a great book. It was a perfect escape from a challenging city. I can’t say I’m excited to return to Jakarta.
The next morning, at the bright hour of 4:15, our taxi picked us up for our 9:00 flight. This early departure ensured that we would miss morning traffic jams. I felt it was major over-kill, but my guide assured me that it was necessary; rush hour traffic in Jakarta is legendary.
This early departure gave us time to organize some return travel plans at the airport, so the timing was right. The flight to Medan was smooth and remarkably short. We were going to take a bus that takes – get this – four days and four nights – to get to Lake Toba. Thank GOD we flew.
The Medan airport was a frenzy of taxi drivers grabbing people’s bags from the conveyor and holding them hostage until the owner used his taxi service. That in itself was a trip – one of the times I was happy to be traveling with a hot pink snowboard duffel that no local would dare claim.
Medan was not the crappy city Lonely Planet describes it to be. Granted, I didn’t see a lot of it, and what I did see was from mini-van, I thought it had charm and character that Jakarta definitely lacked.
The driver of the shared car was, I found out later, typical of Sumatran drivers – a little crazy, fast, and a major risk taker. After tailing an ambulance, lights blaring, for miles, he finally passed it.
We had several near misses with oncoming traffic while passing. My guide laughed heartily at my terrified reaction. It was so hot in the car to begin with that I had to stifle my fear in order to not have heatstroke. it was a crazy drive.
The scenery from Meedan to Pemantang Siantar was stunning; the last few kilometers consisted entirely of rubber plantations advertising various overseas manufacturers. Finally we arrived in Pematang Siantar – the city closest to my guide’s “village” – and got into a 14-person van of sorts for a ride that was to be about two hours.
During that time, the population of the van fluctuated between 14 and 25. When the inside filled up people simply piled onto the roof with the cargo – my pink bag, many bags of rice, large bottles of “jungle juice” (local wine) and other items to be delivered along the way – and the drivers’ helpers.
Actually, the driver’s helpers more often hung out of the OPEN left hand side doors of the van smoking cigarettes; directing stops and starts; entries and exits; and loading and unloading cargo. These young men looked small, but they showed super-human multi-tasking and people, money, and cargo managing abilities. I was impressed.
Thankfully, I didn’t get a good look at the outside of the van before we got in. It was diesel powered, old, but definitely a work horse. The inside, however, was fabulously decorated with fringes, dangles, and ornaments of various types and sizes. It was a feast for the eyes. “True Indonesian style,” my guide said.
Music of all sorts blared from the speakers. I even got to listen to Justin Beiber.
The passengers ranged from six or seven years old to a woman I swear was in her eighties:
- children taking this contraption to and from school (one to two hours each way every day)
- women returning from work in the fields
- men returning from work in the city
- and every other sort of person who needed a lift – short or long – along the route.
Sometimes the bus barely stopped for a teenage boy to climb down from the roof and jump onto the broken street below. If I could have taken photos I would have – but being the ONLY tourist within miles, I thought better of it.
Meanwhile, as we traveled closer and closer to my guide’s village on Lake Toba, more and more of the passengers on the bus were his relatives. Right off the bat he sat down next to his cousin; a few minutes later four women who were relations of his parents’ piled into the back seat. As he had told no one of his return, all were shocked and happy to see each other.
By the time we arrived at my hotel, an uncle was waiting for him, and another sister/ aunt was quick to show up to say hello. Apparently cell phones buzzed with news of his unannounced return while we were en route from Siantar.
We stayed in Tigaras for two days, mainly for my guide to spend some time with his family. I met lots of people, and they all seemed to be his cousin, aunt, uncle, or some other relation.
The people in Tigaras were as friendly and welcoming as I could ever hope. Time and time again we had to explain that I was my guide’s CUSTOMER, not his GIRLFRIEND (No, she’s married! And besides, she’s old!)
They joked lightheartedly about my nose, hair, and teeth (a theme in Indonesia). As we said our “good-byes” one of my guide’s aunts turned to a sister and said something like, “I’m going to be so lazy to look at you when she leaves.”
And then we embarked on a ferry to Tuk Tuk for another chapter of this grand adventure.