Notes from Sumatra

DSC_0382-People are pretty friendly, as is generally the case in SE Asia, but here they have a love for taking selfies with any westerner they see – basically, we’re like rock stars to them. We travellers have made a bit of a game out of this, seeing who has the highest selfie count. In Medan, one guy was shaking my hand for his photo, as though I was Barack Obama.

-Indonesian coffee is gorgeous, having been grown in the fertile volcanic soils, and is always powdery – yet, Indonesians prepare it like an instant coffee, so that you get “mud” at the bottom of your cup.

-English is actually more widely spoken than one would think, and some people shared some really interesting facts about the country. First of all, when Indonesia became independent, there was no nation-wide language. Since Malay was used widely for trade purposes, they made a few minor changes and called it Indonesian. Palm oil is a pretty big problem in Sumatra, but more locals are now supporting eco-tourism and conservation of the jungles. Reason being, palm oil is one of those industries where most of the reward goes to those at the top. The former president (dictator) had fudged up in two ways, the first being spreading oil palm plantations like jam on toast in a short-sighted money making scheme, the second his country becoming poorer anyway by taking on huge levels of debt. To this day, the level of debt per citizen is $15 million.

-There were posters all over Banda Aceh promoting an upcoming police expo, and all of them showed officers carrying assault rifles – not exactly a “talk to us if you’ve lost your Mum” look. Still, Banda Aceh must be the first place to openly admit to its police force becoming militarised.

-I took a chicken bus to Berastagi, a town south of Medan. Because all the seats were full, the conductor suggested that I sit up on the roof. Since I fancied not arriving in a bucket, I passed but had to stand in the doorway with two other guys, in a space of one meter squared, while the conductor hanged on to the open door, yelling out onto the street. This wasn’t a sliding door, so if we hit an obstacle then at best his fingers would be gaffed off. Eventually, I was able to stand in the aisle, and then someone got off and I got a seat.

-Given my passion for nature, it may surprise you that I didn’t go on any jungle treks to see orang utans. The reason was, with my limited time I wanted to see a volcano and some traditional villages, which I got in Berastagi, rather than do what I had already done in Borneo. But I still met a lot of travellers who had been, and one told some very weird stories; her guide spoke about how many locals smoked meth, would often stop without announcement and take a twenty minute nap, would equally often go off into the bush with other guides and come back visibly stoned and went into great detail about Western women marrying locals around there – even though she was with her boyfriend. He would stop to chat up any women he saw, and sometimes completely delayed trekking purely for the purposes of following ones who were alone. About the orang-utans, another traveller told me that one had grabbed his arm and not let go until a guide gave it some bananas. I expressed how much I found that sad, but they defended it, saying “it will never be wild anyway, so it’s reliant on humans”. Really guys? Maybe you might have a point, but let’s not get into that way of thinking too much. It would be such a shame if orang-utans became aggressive like macaques in… everywhere, especially considering one of the humans they grab could be a poacher with a machete…

-How’s this for a language misinterpretation? Imagine the scene; you’re outside the mosque, another day of selling bowls of rice from your stand, when a farang comes round the corner and approaches you. He then proceeds to ask where he can catch a bus to a Taliban infested province in Afghanistan. Through a series of brain farts, I had confused the word “bandara” (airport) with Kandahar.

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