As you can imagine, by the time I made my way to Sumatra, the last island on my Indonesian odyssey, there was little left to experienced. However, after hours of reading up on places to visit, I managed to find areas slightly off the usual tourist trail. This meant passing on Lake Toba (overly touristic), choosing instead the more laid back, and much prettier Lake Maninjau and passing on Bukit Lawang (famed for its orangutang which I had got up close and personal with in Borneo), choosing instead the most northerly province of Aceh.
My flight from Jakarta took me to the once sleepy fishing village of Padang on the west coast. Like most of the west coast of Sumatra it was badly damaged in the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami and subsequent 2009 earthquake but it has picked itself up and is now Sumatra’s third largest city. Padang is the home of one of the islands most famous dishes, Rendang – chunks of beef or buffalo slowly simmered in coconut milk until the sauce is reduced to a thick black paste and the meat is dry. Served cold with rice and water spinach it’s delicious.
The town is also the jumping off point for the Mentawai Islands, which according to the surfers I met, has some of the most challenging waves in the world. I’m up for trying most things but draw the line at surfing humungous waves on a fragile piece of fibreglass. I would have liked to meet the Mentawaians (one of Sumatra’s oldest and most authentic indigenous tribes) but being two days before the end of Ramadan, getting to and from the islands was complicated and fiendishly expensive added to which solo female travellers are a rarity.
Instead I got to know the Minangkabau people who live in Padang province. Though the society is Islamic, it’s matrilineal. According to Minangkabau adat (traditional laws and regulations), property and wealth are passed down through the female line, therefore every Minangkabau belongs to his or her mother’s clan, and women rule the roost.
Music, dance and rituals are important to these cultured people whose houses are easily identifiable by their distinctive sweeping roofs with sharp points on top and by their patriotic black, red and yellow flag.
Idul Fitir (the celebrations marking the end of Ramadan) is a very, very big deal in Indonesia, and in Sumatra in particular, it being the most muslim of all the islands. Everyone gets at least 3 days holiday, though most take a full 10 days, and everyone returns to their home village. This means mass exoduses from every major city in Java, Sumatra, Sulawesi etc, grid locked roads, inflated air, bus and train fares (if you can book a seat), as everywhere grinds to a halt.
My plan therefore, was to find a quiet spot and lay low for 3-4 days. I chose Danau (lake) Maninjau, a three hour bus ride from Padang, which actually took 5 hours as we acted as a courier service delivering Idul Fitir parcels all along the way!
I’d heard that the villages round the lake celebrated Idul Fitri by constructing and then floating huge rafts of the main Mosque, a Minangkabau house, the clocktower and various other structures, on the lake. They cover the structures in lights, musicians play traditional music and every few minutes they let off deafening ‘bamboo bombs’. This I had to see.
I found a picturesque guesthouse directly overlooking the water, owned and run by a lovely couple called Jake and Fifi (everyone adopts a western name), who made me feel very welcome, as did their cats. I canoed round the stunning lake in a traditional wooden dug out, swam in the cool water with little fish for company, strolled up into the forest where nutmeg, cinnamon, clove and cocoa trees abounded (first time I’ve sliced the bark of a cinnamon tree and rubbed it on my neck to keep mosquitoes at bay) and I ate yummy lake fish. I got on well with my fellow guests, 2 French couples around my age and a rather eccentric older lady, half French half Italian which made evening meals enjoyable. It’s interesting how the French and also the Germans and Dutch travel so extensively but not so the English. Why is that?
The eve of Idul Fitri didn’t disappoint. The celebrations started at 10pm and went on until about 2am. Families lined the streets and the quayside to enjoy the floating barges. I bought sparklers which I shared with amused local lads and there was lots of eating, but of course no drinking and SO MANY BAMBOO BOMBS!
The following day started with 7am prayers in the main Mosque, except not everyone could fit in, so the ring-road round the lake was closed to traffic to accommodate people praying in the street. Everyone was wearing smart new clothes and the children were being made a great fuss of. After prayers everyone went visiting relatives and friends. I strolled round the village and was invited into several homes to drink coffee and eat cake. I was touched at how welcoming everyone was, and how much fun we had trying to communicate. Of course some of the older children now live and work in the big cities so their English is good but their parents speak about as good English as I speak Bahasa Indonesian i.e. we can hold a very basic conversation which typically revolves around our families and my travels, which fascinate them.
The young children wear little bags and if they shake your hand you are allowed to give them money. If they just come up to you and ask for money, as some of the cheeky older boys did, that’s an automatic ‘get lost’!
Celebrations, including traditional music and dancing continued into the wee small hours again and the following day. Jake took me and one of the French couples on a tour of the area which is very beautiful. We visited the Rumah Gadang Pagaruyung Royal Palace, outside the town of Bukittinggi, which was overrun with locals (hardly a foreign tourist in sight) enjoying a day out. The Palace was struck not once, but twice by lightening and is therefore a reconstruction, but it gives a good idea of how the royals in a matriarchal society lived and I believe, continue to live. The King of the Minangkabau now lives a few km away. We decided to swing by, and whilst we didn’t meet him, we did meet his brother and about 50 of the family celebrating Idul Fitri together.
There is much, much more I could write about Danau Maninjau, its villagers and their way of life and the delightful surrounding areas but I need to move on……. and you need to go there.
Celebrations calming down, it was finally possible to get a flight out of Padang to Bandar Aceh and thence a ferry to the island of Pulau Weh in the Andaman Sea. I was going their principally to dive. I clocked up 5 dives, one of which was into a live volcano with hot bubbles, sulphur deposits and a strong smell of rotten eggs. Big puffer fish (my favourite) were alone in enjoying the strange environment, swimming slowly in and out of the bubble beside me – a surreal, memorable experience.
My other new underwater experience was vomiting! Rough seas and a strong underwater swirl resulted in me, and the thankfully meagre contents of my stomach, parting company. I managed to stay calm and made a measured ascent, holding my dive master’s hand whilst retching into my regulatir all the way…….
I planned to stay 3 days on Pulau Weh but I loved the island, the people (barring the he fact that 85% of men over 12 years old chain smoke) and the vibe so much that I ended up staying more than a week. It helped that I had a lovely wooden cabin in the trees, with glimpses of the crystal clear waters and monkeys and geckos for company. The cabin was owned by 3 dynamic sisters (Eka, Emile and Sabine) who every night attracted a crowd of music-making and card-playing locals to Olala’s restaurant. They seem to be the Corleone’s of Iboih owning most of the guesthouses and restaurants and the oldest established dive shop.
Zipping around the island on a motor bike I stood on a promontory, my back to a disused Japanese bunker, staring in awe at the confluence of the Andaman Sea and the Straights of Malacca where mammoth tankers inched across the horizon like metal icebergs. I also stood at ‘Kilometre 0’, the most westerly point of the Indonesian Archipelago. One day I’ll make it to Kilometre 5,200 in Papua.
Every day I would think about leaving and every day I asked myself why, when there was nowhere else in Sumatra (other than the city of Bandar Aceh) I had a burning desire to get to. Then my French friends from Lake Maninjau turned up so it was nice to hang out with them. I was also aware that after leaving Indonesia I would be hopping from Malaysia to Singapore to Sydney and that battery recharging was probably a good idea.
Eventually I took the ferry back to the mainland where I was met by the three sisters’ (there’s a play in there somewhere) friend Anton, who was to be my charmingly romantic companion for my last few days.
Bandar Aceh in the province of Aceh, is very strict muslim, practises Sharia law and is one of only two dry states in Indonesia, the other being Surabaya in Java. Bandar Aceh was the epicentre of the 2004 earthquake and subsequent three tidal waves which surged with such ferocity that the destruction reached 5km inland sweeping away everything and everyone in its path. The official death toll from the disaster was 140,000 people but locals say it was more like 200,000 – almost 2/3 of the total number if people killed.
Anton, like everyone else I talked to had lost loved ones. He vividly described the harrowing events that changed his life for ever. First came the tremors from the earthquake deep under the sea, then shortly before 8am the first 18 metre high wave struck. He grabbed his 11 month old baby and, with his wife clinging round his neck, swam for what seemed an eternity. He said he felt guilty that he wasn’t a strong swimmer and many times he went under. His wife couldn’t hold on and she was lost. He made it to dry land still clutching his daughter but away from the maelstrom he realised she was dead. As if this weren’t enough pain to bear, a huge tanker had ridden the top of the wave for 5km and come crashing down on top of his village burying everything and everyone beneath it. He took me to see the tanker and you only have to look at the photo I took to see the pain is still there.
As I said, everyone has a story to tell. It’s impossible to comprehend the horror of that fateful day and the scars it has left. And yet the people of Bandar Aceh have proved remarkably resilient. Sure international aid poured in, rebuilding vital infrastructure and amenities, developing a new city and outlying villages, but once they left, the people needed to find their own way through, and they have. Their strong faith has clearly been the most significant contributor to recovery, and the central mosque, which mysteriously stood firm whilst all around was destroyed, was then, and remains today the focal point for healing. But besides their faith, or maybe because of it, the people appear to be enjoying life again.
The coastal village of Lampuuk, where I rented a beachside cabin (rebuilt with Turkish aid, each new house sporting the Turkish crest above the door) was perfect. The beach was rugged, windswept and deserted – not dissimilar to the Cornish coast, which is probably why I felt at home!
We whiled away the days walking along the beach, fishing (unsuccessfully), biking into the mountains to swim in waterfalls, cooking, playing the guitar and reading. I finished Donna Tratt’s Goldfinch (brilliant for 750 pages then mediocre for the last 200).
My last night in Indonesia I sat on a tree stump on the beach watching the dark rumbling clouds blot out the sun (no picture postcard sunset) while the waves from he Indian Ocean crashed out on the reef and Anton chanted verses from the Koran which he used to do in the mosque as a young boy. Sounds idyllic? It was.
Reflecting back on the last 6 months I was feeling blessed to have had so many incredible experiences. When I embarked on my travels I had no idea how they were going to pan out. I was confident I’d enjoy myself but I never imagined I’d be exposed to as varied, thought-provoking, mind-expanding and joyous events, places and peoples as South East Asia and Indonesia had gifted me.
One piece of advice I will long remember: ‘it’s too hot to stop at traffic lights.’
So where to next? I need to make one last trip to the Malaysian peninsular to visit the one time influential port of city of Melaka before 48 hours in Singapore and then it’s G’day Australia.