But first…more pictures of tropical paradise!
A decision was somehow made on the bus ride from Ampana (the port town for the Togeans) to Palu (the largest city in central Sulawesi and the nearest airport) that our next stop would be the enormous and historically volatile (civil unrest, volcanoes, earthquakes, and, most famously, the epicenter of the tsunami in 2003) island of Sumatra. We spent a night in Palu, a friendly town that is somewhat lacking in sights, but a pleasant enough place as far as transit towns go, then flew to Medan via Jakarta the next day. During our 5-hour layover in Jakarta, M managed to finish her taxes using the free wi-fi hotspot. A lifetime later, we finally landed in Medan and make a beeline for the Blue Angel hostel, the most highly rated hostel in town. Our quick assessment: pushy staff, smelly bathrooms, and the most comfortable sleep we have had in weeks, thanks to the fact that we had to spring for an AC room when we found out that the basic fan rooms were all full.
We got up in Medan, which is a totally fine city, but yet another place where if you can’t speak Indonesian, then you’re pretty much guaranteed to be stuck in your hotel or kept in the very walkable vicinity. Transport around town is almost exclusively done by becak (pronounced Beh-chack), which is a very adorable, and very Indonesian contraption. Basically it’s a motorcycle with a cart grafted onto the side of it, sort of like a version of the side car. It fits two Indonesian children comfortably, and two full-grown Americans sensually.
If you can’t explain exactly where you want to go to your becak driver in Indonesian, then you’re better off just walking, which is pretty much the worst way to get around Medan – a sprawling and unwieldy city.
This morning we were setting off for our first Sumatran destination, Lake Toba (or Danau Toba). Here’s the information we had to go on:
1. Lake Toba is the largest volcanic lake in the world
2. The Batak people who live there are Christian, and therefore able to drink alcohol
3. The Batak people LOVE alcohol and love to party, which is how this became a traveler’s destination in the first place*
4. The party ended several years ago when tourism to Sumatra dried updue to civil unrest, and it’s more of a ghost town now.
The sour Dutch couple we met in the Togean Islands hated Lake Toba, which gave us just enough hope that it was going to be great, seeing as how they were so sour on so many other great things. Long story short, we set off.
First step, though, was trying to leave our hotel without signing on to some package trip. This hotel, which is the budget traveler’s hotel of choice ever since being crowned that by Lonely Planet, has cashed in in a big way. Which means not only do they provide rooms and food, they also welcome you to a world of disinformation that tries to force you to book tour packages to other parts of Sumatra. They tried forcing us to go to Bukit Lawang (the orangutan-loaded jungle region) before Danau Toba by making all sorts of crazy claims about roads, traveler timetables, and other stuff. Horrible. At first it was very convincing, and nearly every other traveler bought into their claims about what they needed to do, and how booking trips there would save them money. Finally, after plenty of our own research, we realized that they were just dishonest and checked out of the hotel.
We then bargained with a becak driver on the street to take us to the bus station (for a ticket that’d cost less than 25% of the hotel’s price). After a long bargaining session, the driver finally agreed, and we wedged ourselves into the cart with all of our bags, water bottles and backpacks cramped under, over and around us. After about 20 minutes, the driver pulled up at a station filled with minibuses, but no regular buses. He announced that we were at the bus station and a man ran forward to help M uncoil herself from her bags. He grabbed her backpack and strode off. M jumped out and ran after him, and it was only once that we were fully disentangled and out of the cart that we looked around and said, “are you sure that this is the bus station?” I asked the becak driver and he said that it was. I asked the baggage handlers, who were busy shouting us to get into the minibuses heading to Lake Toba and they agreed, loudly and vigorously, that this was the bus station. It was only when I went to some people on the street and asked them that we found out that the bus station was several kilometers away. Our driver had tried cheating us, and was expecting some share of the private minibus fare he expected that we’d be paying.
I marched over to him, jumped into the becak and said that he’d be taking us to the real bus station. Which he did, angrily. When he demanded extra money for the “longer” trip, I called him a thief and we stalked off. Then we got the right bus (which is more a matter of talking to people than buying tickets or finding a bus platform…the “bus station” is just a vast, empty parking lot with buses rolling in, loading up and taking off without any rhyme or reason). It was a royal pain in the ass, but it was really gratifying at the same time to realize that someone had tried to cheat us but that we now speak enough Indonesian to be able to avoid the scams that would undoubtedly snare us if we didn’t.
We made our way, slowly and hotly in a sweltering Eisenhower-era bus, to the portside town where we again had to figure out (and ask) that we needed to get off the bus (since the bus doesn’t stop near the port, and no one announced anything). So we got off, found a taxi-van, and got to the port.
Tomorrow I’ll post about Lake Toba, but suffice to say that we got in fine and found a great little hotel. We had a lovely little dinner, some nice cold Bintangs, and headed to bed tired and happy. But when I plopped myself down on the bed, M saw a bunch of full-sized bedbugs crawlng up the mosquito net. We instantly jumped up and got all of our stuff outside the room. Having caught bedbugs in Nicaragua in just the same way (realizing there were bedbugs without even staying the night) we went right to the management and let them know. But the owner of the place didn’t really care, told us that we’d have to pay more for another room, and basically made it sound like bedbugs aren’t a big deal (which is hilariously stupid to anyone who has ever had to deal with bedbugs).
All of the other hotels were closed by then, so I pulled out our tent, we went down by the lakeside, and pitched tent and spent a very nice night listening to the water and about a million roosters (which, contrary to kindergarten opinions everywhere, do not just crow at dawn, they crow continuously throughout the night).
All in all an annoying day, but still a day that left me feeling good, since we had a number of potential setbacks that we were able to overcome because we speak the language, are savvy and alert, and have enough gear that we could pull out tents, sleeping mats, and sheets and make ourselves at home in bad circumstances.
* This is somewhat ironic, since the Batak people were unbelievably not into meeting Westerners when missionaries first started showing up. In fact, they would kill the missionaries, and were into cannibalism and all kinds of dark, animist practices. Then, shortly after a new missionary showed up, a bumper crop was harvested and they welcomed him. The rest is history. No more cannibalism, but heavy drinking, singing and partying.