Tom and Laure in “LAKE TOBA “Thank you for your visit to Asia from roy_sianipar

Tom and Laure in Asia

Sultry Sumatra

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Chapter 39 – Aceh

Once settled in Medan we dined in an old restaurant called Tip Top where we ate a gorgeous salad (goda-goda with peanut sauce). We were both surprised about the more-developed-than we-expected nature of Medan. We thought it would be more dilapidated than Calcutta, but that isn’t the case; and being a city of 2 million it also has a middle class! That shows how much preconceptions of a country or place can be shattered when we visit them.

On our second day in Indonesia, while waiting for an 8pm bus to take us on an overnight ride to Banda Aceh; we paid visits to the decrepit (and inhabited by locals) Maimoon Palace, the Raya Grand Mosque and the Museum of North Sumatra (as we arrived at closing time the curator kindly switched on the lights and waited until we had had a quick tour- where else in the world would people do that for you?!!).

We were delivered to Banda Aceh in Aceh Province, which forms the northern tip of Sumatra, by a surprisingly comfortable and spacious coach at about 6am. Bleary eyed, we pushed our way through the becak (motorbike rickshaw) drivers to reach a café where we had sweet tea before even contemplating the next step.

Aceh, unfortunately, is known for all of the wrong reasons. In 2006 GAM (Free Aceh Movement) signed a ceasefire with the government to end a 30 year independence struggle. Before 2004 Aceh was mostly closed to foreigners. The incredibly catastrophic 2004 Boxing Day Tsunamis that hit Sumatra and particularly Aceh the worst (Banda Aceh suffered the double whammy of being hit by the earthquake that triggered the Tsunamis and then being struck by the waves that followed), opening the door to international aid agencies and the event pushed the Indonesian government and GAM to the negotiating table, a kind of silver lining if you like.

While we waited for a ferry to take us to Pulau Weh, the tropical horseshoe-shaped island north of Banda Aceh, we visited the mosque that had taken the brunt of the Tsunami waves and a mass grave of 15-20,000 corpses. I spoke in pidgeon English with a father who had lost a son while his wife wept before the mass grave. His son had been swimming in a coastal lagoon when the first wave came. 170, 000 died in Indonesia, most of them in Aceh and 90,000 of them died in and around the city of Banda Aceh. A lot of rebuilding has already taken place but much more still needs top be done. Everyone we spoke to had lost a close relative. Once again we were astounded to witness the sheer force of human will, determination and perseverance in the face of a natural calamity that surpasses all imagination. People have picked up their shattered lives, started their businesses again and are getting on with their lives, hearts broken yet finding enjoyment where and whenever they can.

On the island of Pulau Weh we were driven first to Iboih where we checked out a couple of coastal cabins. The sea was crystal clear and Laure spotted a stripey water snake weaving its way through the water close to the rocks. Mr. Goteng described his home grown techniques of coral reef conservation. They basically include taking pieces of coral from areas where they would be otherwise be destroyed (harbours for example) and transplanting them elsewhere tied to a small concrete pole, over which the coral can grow and flourish. Mr. Goteng finances this project himself using his diving and guesthouse business.  

Laure and I ended up staying on Gapeng Beach, a quiet bay with plenty of coral to explore. On that afternoon we went snorkelling and to our amazement swam directly above a Hawksbill turtle!

We were in for a bit of an adventure the next day. We hired a motorbike (my first time with gears). I drove and Laure sat at the back. This doesn’t sound too exciting but add that to the world’s steepest roads with more than their fair share of potholes, petrol siphoning locals and dodgy brakes and with these ingredients we had one heck of a (perilous) day!

Down many a steep incline Laure would shout for me to use the brakes, not knowing I was already pressing them as hard as possible while using my flip flop clad feet as well! At the village of Pria Laot we left the bike to go traipsing in the direction of a waterfall. This turned out to be a minor mission through the rainforest. I had a quick dip in the plunge pool at the foot of the cascade then we made our way back to the bike. It had evidently been tampered with and a suspiciously large pool of petrol was underneath it. Half an hour later the motorbike conked out. We remembered a particularly sly looking fellow had followed us to the place where we had left our bike but had thought nothing of it at the time. He had almost certainly siphoned the petrol from the tank for there weren’t any leaks to be found when we eventually filled it up. Nonetheless, a kind young man took me on the back of his motorbike to get more petrol (carried in a black plastic bag). Within 15 minutes we were back on our own bike again. On the way to a mini-volcano just outside of Jaboi village the motorbike stopped halfway up a steep hill. Laure dismounted while I attempted to push it uphill. I turned the engine on and put the bike into first gear and immediately the engine roared and the bike (with me on it) sped off out of control until it skidded off the road. Laure ran to pull the bike off me and fortunately I wasn’t too badly hurt- a scraped arm and bruised leg. In Jaboi some islanders saw my arm bleeding and insisted on presenting a wise old healer who massaged my arm and helped Laure patch me up with our first aid kit.

We found the mini-volcano but didn’t stay too long as Laure found a snake slithering past us and we were in the middle of nowhere (not good in the event of a poisonous snakebite!). It was on the way to Uj Bau, the so called km0 (as this is officially where the Indonesian archipelago begins) when the second accident occurred (several others were narrowly avoided as we negotiated near vertical roads with sharp turns and gaping potholes). Again, halfway up a steep slope, the overly powerful first gear caused the bike to surge upwards and forwards. Laure hopped off the back and after trying to stay on for a few seconds I jumped off as well and left the bike to crash into the bushes, but not before it ripped a few layers of skin off my foot (thus ensuring a painful couple of weeks and it wasn’t until Malaysia a month later that it fully healed). Laure patched me up again in the middle of the forest and it wasn’t long before an Indonesian couple passed on their bike and helped us retrieve our motorbike from the bushes and to get it running again. Onwards to Km0! There was nothing really of interest there, and for the scenery (not the injuries sustained en route) the journey was worth it. Back in Gopeng I received a little medical attention and advice from an Irish nurse and divemaster and we booked a dive for the next morning. What a day!

Jeremy, our diving instructor, took us both for a morning beachdive. He taught Laure the basics and refreshed my memory in the process. After being initially freaked out by the sensation of breathing underwater, Laure got used to it and the three of us explored the bay. We saw many different species of marine life including the Many Toothed Garden Eel, Giant Moray, Trumpet Fish, Blue Dash Fusilier, Butterfly Fish, Clark’s Anemonefish, Parrot Fish and Moorish Idol (to name but a few!).

I decided to follow this up with an afternoon dive off the small island of Pulau Seulako (Laure had had enough for one day!). In the first minute I spotted a Hawksbill turtle and throughout the dive we came across Zebra Moray, Lizardfish, Coral Shrimpfish, Lionfish, Oriental Sweetlips, Golden Sergeant, Blue Spotted Ribbon Tail Ray, Titan Triggerfish, Porcupine Fish and Elegant Flatworm. The coral here was an explosion of colours and weird shapes. We searched for reef sharks but couldn’t find any. At the northern tip of the island strong currents dragged us away from the coast towards the deep sea. The coral covered slope of the island disappeared into the depths beneath. We were running out of air so we resurfaced and got picked up by the motor launch, which took us back to Gapeng.

The rest of our time there was spent in chilled out convalescence (for me) with Laure taking on the role of nurse. To avoid infection we got into the routine of cleaning my wounds and changing the dressings twice a day. We spoke to people who had been around at the time of the tsunamis and to locals, and it appears that between 7 and 20 people died on the island. Because the land rises sharply from the coast, many people were able to reach high ground- this accounts for the small death toll, but houses, belongings and business properties could not escape and therefore many had to start again from scratch with little or no help from the Indonesian government or international community.

We were back in Banda Aceh for the afternoon of 24th April. On the ferry trip we had met some interesting people: one Austrailian woman working for an NGO that trains teachers and a Frenchman (and his Indonesian wife) who works for an NGO teaching locals to make tiles from local clay for home roofs.

In Banda Aceh our becak driver took us to see the power station barge – a huge vessel of great tonnage that had been uplifted by the Tsunami, taken on a path of destruction before landing further inland on three houses killing their inhabitants in the process. It’s hard to comprehend the power of Tsunamis until one sees a sight like this. Too heavy to move (therefore relatives still cannot retrieve the bodies of their loved ones), it now sits in a residential area because people have rebuilt their old neighbourhoods around it.

The following day we visited the elegant Grand Mosque (that survived the Tsunamis), ate Acehnese specialities including amongst other UFOs (Unidentified Food Objects) brain curry- of cow, sheep, goat, monkey, extra terrestrial, who knows?!! We also did a whirlwind tour of the Museum of Aceh. We had another night bus to catch because we wanted to go to Bukit Lewan via Medan to see the orang-utans and before we left we hired a becak to take us to another mass grave at Lambaro (46, 000 bodies buried here). This site doesn’t have any monuments to signify what lies beneath the soil; it looks like an uneven field with wild flowers growing here and there. It was hard to imagine so many people buried in this small area.

The people of Aceh were all incredibly nice to us. They left us with a lasting impression of kindness and hospitality. We had had an adventurous, enjoyable and profound experience here in this largely unvisited province.


Chapter 40 – North Sumatra

Most people are aware that Indonesia is no stranger to natural disasters. In 2003 a flash flood consisting of a 10m high wall of water caused by heavy rains and a landslide, demolished the village of Bukit Lawang and swept 280 people to their deaths. Since then the village has been built higher up the slope and new flood defences have been installed. Bukit Lawang is the launch pad for visitng the Gunung Leuser National Park which has the world’s highest concentration of orangutans, those orange haired cousins of ours.

On the bus to Bukit Lawang, a smooth talking guide called Tambrin tried to get our custom by sitting as close as possible to us and telling us about the region. Tourism dropped after the flash flood and there is a lot of competition between guides therefore they go looking for the tourists, starting with the bus trip there. His tactics paid off because we ended up staying in his friend’s guesthouse and hired him as a guide. That afternoon we took a becak to another village to witness a Karo wedding, and were lucky enough to catch the end of the festivities.

Later we went to a small café adorned with funky wooden furniture and a nice view over the river and surrounding forest. We had planned to return to this café for a sundowner and evening meal but unfortunately for the owner, his emotionally intense barman arrived; a bigger customer repellant could not have been found and we quickly changed our minds!

We explored further upriver then turned back to find a local bat cave. This short expedition took us through some organic vegetable allotments, a small spice garden and a rubber plantation before passing a wheat field, palm trees and eventually we reached a small cave complex. It was a spooky place and we were spied on by monkeys lounging in the canopy. We made our way back to Bukit Lawang and ate delicious pizzas while listening to Sundanese music.

On the day of the jungle trek Tambrin and his mate Bob took us across the Sungai Bohorok River in a precarious canoe tied to a suspended overhead line. On the opposite bank we found ourselves in Gunung Leuser National Park. We soon passed a small feeding centre with several orangutans in cages. ‘Orang Utan’ is a Malay word that means forest man. They live generally for 30-40 years and females have a baby on average every 6 years (with a 9 month pregnancy like humans!). They eat fruit, shoots, leaves, nuts and tree bark as well as insects, eggs and small mammals. They need a large area of forest to find the variety of fruits they normally eat and are solitary in nature. Every night they build a new nest out of leaves high in the forest canopy so as to avoid roving predators.

A noisy group of Dutch trekkers scared away every animal within 100m of the feeding platform so Tambrin led us further into the rainforest. After half an hour of trekking through the undergrowth and along forest trails we came across a juvenile, a mother and baby orangutan. These were the first of 8 we were to see in the wild. We observed some intimate behaviour and the guides fed them some bananas (which they shouldn’t really do because this makes them dependent on humans) and the mother shared hers with the baby.

We shortly came across another female and Laure and I took turns to hand her bananas (naughty, we know), enjoying the contact as the orangutan’s fingers touched ours. Lunch was wolfed down in a jungle clearing at the top of a hill amongst mosquitoes, 2cm long ants and many other beasties. We spotted the same female we had fed earlier in the trees above then in the early afternoon we saw another female in the nearby branches. This one soon made a hasty exit when a huge adult male approached us. He came within 5m of us (the distance considered safe, after which, one has to retreat) and Bob plunged into the undergrowth with a bunch of bananas to draw him away. As the male left the trail we bounded past. Bob eventually ran out of bananas and rapidly joined us again. Seemingly this wide headed, big bellied ape was still hungry and began to follow us. A Polish couple with their guides joined us and also had to make a hasty retreat as the ginger king kong bounded gracefully after us hoping for more grub. I told Laure she should be used to dealing with hairy hungry primates (i.e. me!). He followed us for a good 20 minutes through the jungle before cutting his losses and foraging in a bamboo thicket. During our retreat we were observed by another (juvenile) female perched in the branches above our heads.

It had been another eventful day that we would never forget. By the evening we were in Medan where we spent the night and the following morning. From there we caught a bus to Berestagi, which is 70km from Medan and at 1300m above sea level. As the bus rolled into town we saw the smoking volcano called Gunung Sibayak (2094m). The clouds and rain did not wait long, so after getting a room in a hillside guesthouse we paid a visit to the local café to sip cappuccinos and eat garlic bread and salads. We stayed for 4 hours while it rained outside!

That evening the gauze dressing on my foot wound was stuck as if superglue had been applied. I had an excruciating time taking it off and decided to delay the hike up Gunung Sibayak that we had planned for the next day. Instead we lazed all morning and had lunch in our favourite local then finally set off for an afternoon excursion to the Karo village of Lingga. After a multi-opelet (opelets are basically minibus taxis that follow certain routs) journey we were dropped off at the Lingga Karo Museum where the curator kindly offered us lunch. We chatted with the curator and her son and daughters. Lingga itself was further down the road. Some old Karo houses are left intact here and a few are still lived in. We had a look around then headed back to Berestagi.

A lubricated synthetcic gauze patch allowed me to consider the trek up Mt. Sibayak. Most of the way up was on tarmac then after backtracking when we took a wrong turn; we found the path to the crater. A group of Indonesian students were hot on our heels when we reached a false crater (it looked like one but in fact wasn’t!). We heard what sounded like an aircraft taking off but was actually the sound of sulfur spewing out of the crust. The sharp tangy smell confirmed this. When we found it we felt awestruck by the turquoise crater lake surrounded by numerous other sulfurous geysers and decorated by stone names in the shallows. Laure had to wait for the right moment to take pictures as heavy clouds kept drifting past the view.

We chose an alternative route down the volcano that turned out to have an extremely steep gradient. The way was slippery and perilous on occasions and it was a difficult 2 ½ hour climb down through rainforest and bamboo thickets. Our reward was waiting at the bottom: Nasi Goreng (fried rice, vegetables and egg, spicy of course- the Indonesian national dish) and hot springs. We dipped in thermal springs for one hour with the volcano still in sight. We both became so relaxed that we felt drowsy afterwards.

On May Day we set off for Lake Toba. Danau Toba is the largest volcanic lake in Southeast Asia and has an island called Samosir in the middle of it. It was created between 30, 000 and 75, 000 years ago by a series of eruptions. The lake itself lies above a large caldera.

The bus dropped us off in Parapat, a lakeside town and jumping off point for the ferry to Tuk Tuk (that lies on a peninsula protruding into Lake Toba), our destination on Samosir Island. Here we stayed in a fantastically clean, spacious and cheap hotel. The staff were great, so were the views, it had the best swimming area and good quality chill out facilities complemented by delicious food and drink! What a bargain. It was difficult to tear ourselves away from this comfort zone. Most of the next 5 days were spent bathing in the lake, reading, card playing and watching the odd DVD. This time was not spent without an adventure or two though!

On our second day next to Lake Toba we went to a local market in Pangururan on the other side of Samosir. We browsed through a market and had an amusing chat with some cheerful schoolgirls who were happy to practice their English.

Our third day was spent strolling around Tuk Tuk, playing pool and searching for tribal crafts made by the local Bataks. They have their own architecture, language, art and system of writing and are mainly Christians. Many still have traditional animist beliefs. They used to practise ritual cannibalism by eating the flesh of enemies killed in battle and criminals condemned to death.

We judged the lakeside road to be safe enough to attempt another motorbike tour. We therefore sped off to Simanindo to visit the Batak museum and watch the cultural dances. They reflected various aspects of Batak traditional life such as omens from water buffalo, finding a wife, virtuous and harmful deeds.

In Lumban Suhi Suhi Laure drove a hard bargain to buy two hand woven Batik blankets that Bataks adorn themselves with. We then passed back along the lakeside road and stopped at Ambarita to see some Batak stone carvings that are about 300 years old. To finish off our day on the bike we drove to Soosortolong to see the views of the island’s escarpment from a height.

The fifth day was a bit more adventurous. I took the ferry to Parapet on mainland to withdraw money and book bus tickets (not too eventful). On my return we decided to cross the island by motorbike. The road up the escarpment became more and more rugged and potholed. We persevered and once on the plateau the road became even worse and more isolated, crossing through a remote forest. Luckily my driving skills had improved since Pulau Weh and we managed to get through unscathed although the going got tough at times! That night two Belgian women took the same route in the dark and damaged one bike in the forest and had to abandon it in the bushes. To attempt that trail in the dark when it was getting dark was stupid! They slipped away from the hotel early the next morning without paying for the damage and leaving a poor waiter (owner of the bike) to cop the cost.

On 6th May we took a night bus from Parapat to Bukkitinggi – yet another perilous journey that left us exhausted but thankful to be alive! Never before have I seen a bus perform such feats of gravity!




Lake Toba – Kids staring at the pig’s trotters on a market day



Pangururan – The day’s catch



Our gorgeous hotel in Lake Toba



Lake Toba – Traditional Batak houses



Lake Toba – Tuk Tuk



Lake Toba – Horse and buffalo



Leaving Danau Toba we met this nice family, all fans of West Life and keen on speaking English


Chapter 41 – West Sumatra

Our bags dumped in a hotel room and with a hearty breakfast in our bellies we crashed on our bed for an early siesta. On waking up we discussed our options for visiting the Mentawai Islands and went to see the Taman Panorama, which overlooks Sianok Canyon. The summit of Mount Merapi was cloaked in thick cloud. I remembered this volcano from its televised eruptions last year. In fact the last significant earthquake it produced was in March!

That evening we met up with Marion (French), Francesco and Alice (Italians). We had met them on the bus and shared a night’s anguish with them. Larry (American Vietnam veteran) also joined us for a few Bintang beers. We tried to persuade them to come with us to the Mentawai Islands because the trip journey there sounded daunting and trips work out cheaper when there are several of you. We didn’t succeed; Francesco was worried about not having trousers thick enough to resist snakebites and Marion would only have gone if the Italians agreed. Regardless, we all had a great evening drinking and eating nice Padang cuisine in a street side eatery. 

During breakfast the next morning we spontaneously decided to go on a motorbike tour with three French speaking Swiss: Christophe, Christian and Natalie, led by Fikar our Minangkabau guide. The Minangkabau minority from West Sumatra is unique in being a matrilineal society. Everyone belongs to his or her mother’s clan and wealth and property are passed to the eldest daughter.

It was good to cruise around as a group in convoy. Again, Laure and I were given the dodgy motorbike with bad brakes and a gradually deflating tire. Catastrophe was avoided simply because we were on a mild slope travelling slowly, rather than a steep one travelling at speed! I stopped just before the bike lost control. The others eventually realised we weren’t following and returned to help us out. Fortunately a repair shed wasn’t too far away. A bit more driving and the brakes were fixed too!

Fikar was a good guide who showed and explained the local plants and about farming methods. We passed Lake Singkarak where we stopped for a Coca-Cola and a dip in the water. The rains started soon afterwards so we sat it out in a roadside shack and drank sweet teas and coffees. It was fun watching the landscape and weaving in and out of the traffic on the way back to Bukittinggi. Night had fallen by the time we arrived. That evening we all drank and ate together, discussing the days events and Swiss politics!

The bus ride to Padang (the provincial capital) the next day stretched from the expected two hours to a five hour journey. We were the first on the bus and it waited until it was full before leaving; and to top it off the conductor cheated us with the bus fare. Once in Padang we bought our ferry tickets and laid eyes on the rickety wooden vessel that was to take us to the island of Siberut. Not fully convinced we’d get there alive in the event of a storm, we emailed our parents to let them know our exact plans and consoled ourselves with the fact that it had probably plied the same route for 50 years.

The boat was due to leave at 4pm on 10th May. Our cabin was a four berth and before getting too comfortable we brushed the rat droppings off the thin mattresses and settled in. The boat slipped out of its sheltered creek at 4pm, then unexpectedly for us, anchored just off the coast for five more hours- for tidal reasons. We passed our time by chatting in the communal area at the stern of the ferry with foreigners and Indonesians. The Mentawai Islands have some of the world’s most renowned surfing spots and therefore most of the other foreigners (the few that were there) were surfers, although a group of French working for UNESCO also stepped on board.

By 10pm the lights of Padang disappeared and after discussing open water survival skills and having the ‘all-in-it-together’ feeling with the other passengers, Laure and I felt a lot better. The weather stayed fine and the sea was calm but we both still kept waking every 10 minutes due to slight lurches of the vessel. We were relieved to see the palm fringed coastline in the light of dawn from our cabin window. I brushed fresh rat droppings off the mattress. It was 7pm by the time we docked at Sikabaluan at the northern end of Siberut. This stop turned out to be another unexpectedly long one (6 hours). We went on shore to drink tea and play cards and chat to other passengers. Yaden, our cabin mate and a professional surfer who was coming to the Mentawai Islands for a photo shoot, saved us from perpetual boredom by allowing us to watch two films on his laptop: ‘Salton Sea’ and ‘300’. After a stint in the Mentawai Islands Yaden was going for other photo shoots in Bali, South Africa and California- a charmed life if you ask me!

The ferry chugged out of Sikabaluan at 1pm and headed out of the mangrove channels then south to Muarausiberut, arriving there at 5pm. Sun, a Muslim son of Minangkabau immigrants, met us on the peer and with his friend and deposited us by moped in a small town called Maileppet where we were to stay the night. Sun had been reluctantly recommended to us as a guide by the French who didn’t have an agreeable time with him on their previous tour. Siberut is an island without many English speaking guides so we decided to give him a chance. Sun offered to charge us US$500 for a 3 day, 3 night jungle trek- the negotiations for a reasonable price ended soon afterwards. We spent the rest of the night playing cards with a couple of American surfers and some Mentawaians who were celebrating a local marriage (they do this by playing cards and dominoes and drinking copious amounts of tea).

The next morning a chance meeting with Carolina, the niece of another well known guide, raised our hopes of having a mutli day jungle trek for a good price. Tuppah Hendrikus had already been hired by the French and also charged horrendously inflated prices anyway. He did give us some vital information though and before we knew it Carolina was escorting us to the village of Muntei 6km away. There we met Goak, a young Mentawai who could speak pigeon English and had the necessary contacts to act as our guide. He was very humble and pleased when we accepted him as a guide. We could only arrange a longboat to leave upriver to the rainforest where hunter-gathers live for the next morning; so we chatted and played cards and ate with Goak’s family. Little three years old Mira and one year old Marco were two characters in the family.

Johan, an Australian (with Dutch origins) researching the change from barter to monetary economy in the Mentawai Islands; and Delfie, an Indonesian anthropologist from Medan; were staying in a house opposite Goak’s. We spent a pleasant evening gleaning some knowledge about the Mentawaians and their culture. I’m glad we met them because they gave us a big insight to what was happening in the islands.

The following day Robert the boatman met us early in the morning. By 9am we were in his longboat and cruising up the river and going deeper into the island’s interior. We passed several riverside dwellings on the way to our destination. This was the uma (communal house) of Amangeressi. He is the chief of a small Mentawai clan called Siboclo. He lives in the forest with his family and takes everything he needs from it (except sugar and cigarettes of course!). The boat eventually took us down a small tributary through the dense foliage that crowded the banks on both sides. Robert and Goak scouted ahead to see if the uma was occupied. A Mentawai opportunist had followed us in his canoe in the hope of cigarettes. Together we went forward through a jungle clearing and thick mud. The uma was unoccupied but Robert managed to find Amangeressi and told him where we were. While we waited we explored a bit further in the jungle with Goak.

Amangeressi finally arrived with his wife, granddaughter and foster son. Both Amangeressi, his wife and the guy who had followed us had the distinctive tribal tattoos on their faces, necks, chests, arms, buttocks and legs. The two men also wore bark loincloths. Amangeressi could fortunately speak some English due to some exposure to other tourists over the past two decades. We presented him with gifts of school exercise books, pencils and cigarettes. The weather was a bit unpredictable so we didn’t do much more except chat, read and play cards.

That evening Laure and I bought a chicken from Amangeressi and another man from a neighbouring village wrung its neck and burnt its feathers off ready for cooking. We enjoyed a delicious home cooked chicken curry, which went down well after our refreshing wash in the local stream.

It felt great to wake up the next day knowing we were surrounded by jungle and far from civilisation. After a breakfast of egg noodles Amangeressi took us through the forest in search of a buiko tree, which is the most suitable one for making a loincloth. He chopped a small buiko tree down then cut out a long rectangular portion of its bark and peeled it. What remained was a small thin piece of cloth. We walked even further into the forest to the place where Amangeressi normally bashes the bark with a block of wood to loosen up the material. After a thorough bashing the bark is suitable for being tied into a loincloth.

Later in the day we went fishing with Amangeressi’s wife, daughter, granddaughter and foster son. Laure caught one small fish and five small prawns and I didn’t catch a thing! The style of fishing was actually dredging with a net. We made it back to the uma just before a tropical storm broke. Half an hour later the stream was in flood and an already muddy jungle was made even muddier.

To pass the time Amangeressi showed us how to make poison, which he applied to arrow tips before going hunting. He used a concoction of plant leaves (ragi), plant roots (balau) and chilies! Once the storm had abated Amangeressi took us through the jungle and we waded through a swampy area to find a sago tree that had been felled, was rotting and full of juicy tamra- fat squishy worms! He hacked the tree apart with a machete and collected these nutritious fatty things. The tamra were later to make a delicious kebab, although Goak disgusted us at first by eating them raw!

We had many other subtle experiences with the Mentawai family. Amangeressi’s wife pierced her leg with a branch while out collecting fruit. Laure and I helped to patch her up then donated those medicines and bandages that we could spare. It was fun watching the children play and the animals foraging around the uma.

We had planned to go hunting the next morning but the incessant rain prevented that from happening. Before leaving that morning for Muntei with Goak it was understood that we had to offer some money to Amangeressi for the experience. Baring in mind we’d only spent a short time there we offered a very generous sum but Amangeressi wanted even more. After getting used to Indonesian rupiahs we knew that the sum was more than enough for what we had experienced and Amangeressi’s greed left us feeling like nothing but walking wallets- but then again, that’s the tourist industry for you!

Robert the boatman took us back to Muntei that morning. Once there we dried our clothes in the local river (on the way down a muddy river bank I slipped spectacularly, landing flat on my back in the squishy mud!). We stayed with Goak and his family and bought lunch for everyone including his neighbours. Carolina arrived with our return ferry tickets; the departure was to be at 9pm that evening. We ate dinner with Goak and his family then went to the ferry terminal. Once there we met a longtime American surfer and a French trainee doctor called Flo. The latter was a specialist in clay healing methods and a proponent of urine drinking (our own of course!) as a cure for many illnesses. She also had alternative views of education- avoid schools at all costs. Why? School makes you more stupid. Her own daughter didn’t go to school until she was 15 years old.

Our cabin was a six berth but the mattresses were more comfortable. This time the journey was 12 hours long and we arrived back to Padang the next morning. We booked into a hotel room for the day in order to refresh ourselves before taking a night bus. It turned out to be a mini bus and we had a two man team of suicidal drivers who overtook cars on blind corners at insane speeds that rendered any chances of survival in the event of an impact impossible.

As you have guessed (otherwise this chapter would not have been written) we made it alive to Dumai, a port town on the eastern coast of Sumatra in the province of Riau. From here we took a ferry across the Strait of Melaka to… Melaka.



Preparing Sagu with Amangeressi’s wife



Fishing trip with the family



Tom admiring the hunting gear!



Amangeressi’s grand-daughter and nephew playing the guitare



Mentawai Islands – Our last meal with Goak’s family



Aceh – Zero Point Tsunami



Aceh – Muslim mass grave where more than 17,000 people are buried



Pulau Weh – Concrete poles used for coral reef conservation



Pulau Weh – Replacing the petrol that got siphoned from our tank



Pulau Weh, Jaboi village – Tom’s rescue mission



Pulau Weh – Diving trip!



The Great Mosque in Banda Aceh



Acehnese food!



Banda Aceh – Power station barge brought inland by the tsunami



Mass grave at Lambaro – 46,000 bodies are buried here



Banda Aceh – Bahasa Indonesian teaching lesson conducted by 3 little girls!



Village near Bukit Lawang – Karo wedding: the bride and groom



Bukit Lawang – Happy chatter at the Karo wedding



Bukit Lawang – The father of the bride



Bukit Lawang



Bukit Lawang – Mother and baby orang-utans



Bukit Lawang – Young female orang-utan



Bukit Lawang – Feeding the orang-utan



Daughter of the curator at the Karo museum, village of Lingga



Berestagi – Students asking questions to Tom for an English assignment



Berestagi – Gunung Sibayak



Berestagi – Walking down from Gunung Sibayak



Danau Toba – On the way to Pulau Samosir



Pulau Samosir



Lake Toba – Market day in Pangururan



Lake Toba – Tofu style food in the Pangururan market



Lake Toba – Batak style house



Batak ceremony



Batak tombs



Lake Toba – Batak people eat dogs… but they might spare this lovely puppy



Swimmimg in Lake Toba: refreshing!






The Queen’s palace near Bukkittinggi, a beautiful exemple of Minangkabau architecture



An old Minangkabau house in the countryside






Our small wooden boat, a 12 hours+ crossing to the Mentawai Islands



Arrival on the Mentawai Islands



Our 1st sunset on the Mentawai Islands



Making Sagu 1 – Grating the Sago palm



Making Sagu 2 – Squeezing the juice out of the Sago pulp



Young Mentawai collecting bananas



Mentawai Islands – Goak’s house



Mentawai girl protecting herself from the sun on her way back home



Mentawai Islands – Our hosts, Marco and his mother



Going up the river and into the jungle of Siberut



On the longboat, going deeper into Siberut’s interior



Old people from the Mentawai tribe



Mentawai man with traditional tattoos hidden underneath his T-Shirt



Amangeressi making poison…



Goak preparing the worms for our improvised BBQ!



Leaving Siberut we had to say goodbye to Mira, a lovely little girl


As for Batak girls – they really DO talk too much. As in never stop for anything. It would be distasteful to get into a long enumeration of specific examples…. but suffice it to say that I finally drew the line with Bataks after knowing one who wouldn’t shut up even when she was sleeping.

I am javanese, but in hole my life. People always said that I am batak – in negative ways. Because I am rebellion and keras kepala. That time, I feel ashamed that many people said that I looks like batak. It is not help with the situation that many bataks work as “SUpir angkot” and drunks and really rude.

And then I met many friends in the college from Batak and having a really good friendship with them and then I works in Medan for 3 months. I met many honest people in there, and very kind and warm-hearted. I don’t have to wondering if I walk with them because they will said the truth about almost everything.

I must said that you are just having bad luck to have a relationship with a girl like that, hehehe …. Or you must be a jerk so that girl make a revenge for you. Great thanks for her


And then I met many friends in the college from Batak and having a really good friendship with them and then I works in Medan for 3 months. I met many honest people in there, and very kind and warm-hearted. I don’t have to wondering if I walk with them because they will said the truth about almost everything.

Good uwie, you the only less people that understand that in indonesia being honest translated as being rude. Yes sumatra girls tend to say the truth no matter how bad it was. Have the freedom to speak their minds. Better than to be a liar.

Those rude batak guys, they might have big voice and sound sarcastic, but when they talk to their wife or children, they lower their voice and indeed nice.

I have batak teachers and friends that have big voice and very honest. When they talk to their wive and children, its very sweet. At least they say the truth when we wear something thats not looks good on us D rather than pretending not see it and say it looks good.


I think at some certain point you are right. Batak people tend to talk too much. Do you know that in the marriage and death (as they are the biggest) ritual ceremony we take hours (some wedding starts around midday till 5 to 9 pm, and for the death it can reach up to several days) of ritual oracy – errr… whats the word?? That’s alot of talk. Just trust me, I’ve been being a Batak (not by choice) for the whole 32 years of my life time. The Bataks also love making speech. Even in small (regular) family gatherings, you have to be able to say something in front of everyone. After that, we always have time to talk/discuss/argue about everything under the sun (the small gathering isn’t that small, since you take the whole family to it. Then naturally you’ll make smaller group of age/sex/interests). So we got lotsa time and events to practise our language skill. Hehehe. Now you understand why many good lawyer are Batak eh ;)

@ Farah and uwie

Batak people are no more special than any other people. Some are nice, some are not so nice, there are good and bad Batak out there. But thank you, I’m touched that there are people (outside the ethnic group) like you who try to get rid of negatives stereotypes bout Batak people. I’m used to people think of me like kinch, asked if I eat dog, or why we become pickpocket etc. Or there are people who doubt that I’m Batak because I’m quiet (sometimes, well… rarely hehe), or I’m not dark enough, or having strong jaw bones, or talking loudly, and having no heavy accent. They will ask things like this, “Really??? Are you really Batak? Maybe you have mixed blood? Could be your great great great grandparents that you don’t know of?” They don’t seem satisfied that I’m Batak, since they think I don’t meet their common knowledge bout Batak people. That’s ok. Can’t ignore the history that my ancestors are known as fierce warrior hehehe.


Farah: you break my heart (

Jen: ritual oratory. i don’t mind being the star of a batak funeral because i won’t have to listen… but the thought of a 9 hour wedding is enough to make me go back to sniffing hopelessly after Farah. I’m very keen on 10 minute wedding.

btw, i never mentioned pickpockets…. just metro mini drivers, lawyers, and bbq doggie…. pickpockets were someone else. i’d regard calling a people ‘a race of lawyers’ as a far greater ‘insult’ than ‘a race of pickpockets’ anyway )

actually making jokes and holding stereotypes about ethnic groups is not the worst thing in the world. politically correct speech codes and laws against saying mean things and making jokes about other races/cultures removes a valuable societal safety valve. not that i deserve a nobel prize for being mean to bataks, of course :).





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