“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” Ernest Hemingway


5 March 2015

Suicidal travel in Sumatra

21st - 22nd February

     The ferry from Malacca was smooth and the passport checks were as efficient as they were when we entered from Singapore, however this was where the comforts ceased. It turns out that travel on the high seas in Asia bears many similarities to transporting a flock of sheep to an abattoir. Around two hundred or so passengers had boarded the small craft in a scene that resembled artistic impressions of galleons trafficking slaves from Africa. They sure took the weight limit to the max and it showed. This is the first journey we've taken where the armrests turned out to be the legs of the person sat in the seat behind.

    It took around four hours to reach the harbor town of Dumai and our greeting at border control was particularly memorable as we were both searched for prohibited items. We had heard the stories regarding the death penalty for drug trafficking but the Indonesian officers seemed incredibly picky when conducting searches. Favouring to search westerners with small rucksacks but opting not to search the Indonesian nationals with marijuana leaf shirts, dreadlocks and a 1 ton industrial bag of hastily wrapped items. Maybe there profile is so obvious there's no chance they could be carrying anything dodgy or maybe he just wanted to cop a feel, who knows?

Our lunch stop at the chicken shack
     Normally we arrive in a country with a lonely planet guide in hand sure of where we are likely to stay and what activities are nearby. Sumatra was different, we arrived with no idea where the local bus station would be or what facilities lay in town. It turned out that Dumai is basically an industrial harbour town full of lorries transporting aggregate, fuel and produce to be exported around the globe. It was the Indonesian equivalent of Felixstowe and therefore not a typical tourist destination. There were no hotels, no tourist information, no fast food outlets, no Hard Rock CafĂ© (thankfully) and the only way to get around town was with pestering motorbike taxis.

Pass the Pigs never fails
You don't need to be rich to be happy
     Our plan was clear grab a rickshaw and find a bus out of town ASAP. Our driver was a middle aged guy with a couple of teeth missing from probably gingivitis that conveniently allowed him to wedge two cigarettes in his mouth at any given time. He crudely informed us that he knew a nearby coach office that would take us to Bukittinggi on the western side of the island. We soon discovered that this office was run by his son and the bus would leave in 5 hours time, taking 14 hours to reach its destination. Not ideal but we had no choice. So we grabbed some cheap street food to recharge the batteries.
      Feeling revitalised it was now just a case of waiting at the office alongside the taxi drivers sons kids. In fact the kids knew more English than their parents and after losing to a nine year old kid at chess we set about teaching a new game "Pass the Pigs". For those that haven't read our past posts Pigs is an old game we played as kids that is perfect for travel as it just involves rolling pigs on a table like dice. It doesn't require a grasp of English to play so its great for breaking down language barriers. Once again the pigs did the trick and made the kids day. As we left for the bus I noticed the eldest kid was attempting to complete a drawing for homework but had a few worn out pencils to utilise. It just turned out I had bought some coloured pencils in Malaysia on the off chance we should meet a local family and they seemed like a fitting gift. The kids here a definitely easier to cheer up out here.
     Actually as a little experiment if your reading this whilst attempting to track down the latest mobile phone, tablet or games console for your eight year old, just give them a pad of paper and some pencils instead and see how they react. Will they look at you with joy and surprise as they think of all the wonderful artistic possibilities that can be achieved with such tools or will they cry their heads of and call child support. I know what my moneys on.

The main road improved near Bukittinggi

     Our journey to Bukittinggi was possibly the most terrifying experience of our trip to date. For a start the bus looked like it had participated in every season of robot wars and lost. The windscreen alone had more lines on it than Pete Doherty's coffee table and more parts than a 500 piece jigsaw puzzle. Added to this it felt like the chassis had been salvaged from a Ford model T and the wheels looked like they had been loaned from Fred Flintstone. This would have been fine if it was during the day but on an overnight journey along mountain roads with a stoned fifth teen year old driver it was hard to catch some sleep. To be honest we were lucky to have only three breakdowns along the way but thankfully we survived this ordeal and arrived at our destination 19 hours later.

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