The pedestrian bridge that straddles Jalan Amad Yani connecting Fort de kock and Bukit Tinggi zoo.
[I wrote this entry 2 weeks ago. Tried to publish it a week or so ago but ongoing problems in uploading my photos delayed this. Given its sudden topicality following the most recent earthquake in Sumatra - on Monday and causing a tsunami that has killed over 100 people in Mentawai off the west coast of Sumatra - I have decided to publish the writing now (no single word changed) with photos to follow when my computer learns to speak to the internet properly again. My thoughts are with Sumatra and its neighbour islands, an amazing place full of amazing people. ]
A lady screams. I'm shocked and shaken awake. The glass panes rattle in their loose housings.
The woman cries again, now joined by the raised voice of a child and the distant cries of a baby. Disorientation. I try to get my bearings. Pull myself together. But everything around me, my vision, my whole world is trembling. A violent jolt throws me against the glass pane, jarring my shoulder. The woman's raised voice continues to howl away behind me. I try to focus upon the juddering face of my digital watch. It's about 5.00am.
Though I don't know it at the time, this means that the 7.4 magnitude earthquake that occurred off the west coast of Aceh last night happened four hours ago, whilst I slept (or at least tried to) and crossed back south over the Equator.
Example of batak roof architecture near Kampung Sihanok
I won't find out about the quake until picking up e-mails from concerned family members later in the day. This is the second quake, following a previous 7.8 mag quake to hit Northern Sumatra in the last month. Mother Earth must've eaten a dodgy clam or somethin' for she's a right old rumble-guts right now. But then Indonesia does sit along part of the 40,000 kilometre inverted horse-shoe sweep of the Pacific Ring of Fire, the tectonic, volcanic scar that encircles the Pacific basin and accounts for 75% of the world's active and dormant volcanoes.
But when asked by fellow travellers in the days to come 'So did you feel the earthquake the other night?!!' I have to respond 'Nope. Not a thing 'cos I was on a night bus from Parapat [Lake Toba] to Bukit Tinggi when Sumatra got its latest shakedown, rocking and rolling along the dodgy roads, and so didn't notice a thing.
' Any tremors I felt were purely pothole induced. Oh boy, the Trans Sumatran Highway run from Lake Toba to Bukit Tinggi! A right rollicking, twisting, turning, squirming, bone-rattle and skull-juggling vintage ride for the masachisto-travel school of journey connoisseurs amongst us! A 500 kilometre, 13 - 15 hour (though I hear the record's 41!), 9.4 Richter Scale ride to numb your soul and bum. I thought I had developed a highly trained survival capacity to sleep in, on and through anything during this journey, but quakes or no quakes, last night was a challenge...
Verdant green rice plants reach their final 'pregnant'phase ahead of drying and harvesting
... and it's 5.00am. And I've not been asleep long. And the world, the glass panes and seats and all the teeth upon this coach are rattling in their respective fixtures and the woman, a grandmother, is still screaming with amusement into her mobile phone.
Rice paddies and hills surrounding Kampung Sihanok
That's right, amusement not fear. She's oblivious to the real quake too. Passing the phone back and forth between herself and the young girl travelling with her.
In fact I'll take a moment out here to illustrate one of the more peculiar (and annoying) national traits I observe during my time in Indonesia. As if not fully comprehending the semi-private functionality of mobile phones (which Indonesians, as with the world entire, are addicted to) it is not uncommon that some Indonesians will put the phone on loud speaker and hold it out level with and in front of their faces to hold their conversations. Almost as if the phone, as an object, becomes a literal surrogate for the talking head of the person on the other end of the line. As you can imagine, this leads to some very loud and very public discourses as each party struggles to hear and understand one another and everyone within a half kilometre radius cannot help but have to endure their efforts.
Little Grinning Rice Monkey
The only sounds emitting from this mornings offending phone are a series of peeling baby squeals. Clearly a 'conversation' with the family's newest addition. 'Blah blah blah blah blah' says grandmother loudly, 'WAAAAGH! WA-WA-WA-WAAAAGH!' says baby, 'Hee hee hee blah blah blah' says girl loudly, 'WAH-WAAAAAGH, EEEIIIIOUWAAAAAGH!!!' responds baby - you get the idea? You hear the picture? Now normally I'd let this pass; live and let live, mind my own business, 'not my place to say' etc etc. After all I'm a stranger in a 'strange land', a foreigner, the only 'bule' [ Indonesian slang for all foreigners] or 'orang barat' [ westerner] on the bus, and above all, a guest.
Traditional regional dish with spicy coconut milk base - 'Tolong' I think it's called?
.. but I figure that a 5.00am screaming baby loudspeaker phone conversation is more than enough grounds to suspend foreign diplomacy and invade this lady's cultural sovereignty. So I turn around in my seat and lean over to face the grandmother and chattering child and snap 'IBU!'
, being the respectful term of 'mother' that you must use to address all women older than you and of family when in Indonesia, 'Ibu, tolong diam!'
[ 'Mother, please be quiet' or 'shut up!'
]. Yes, a little less respectful. Her eyes widen in surprise. She takes the phone from the girl and closes the call. I turn back around and we all settle down as the sun rises up to throw light upon our pot-hole perforated progress to Bukit Tinggi and chase any remaining chance of sleep away.
Jam Gadang clock tower
Becalmed and hotel-installed but still unawares of last nights quake I sit in the foyer of the Rajawali guesthouse as my German ex-patriot host Ulirich (Uli) continues his narrative - one of so many tales with which he regales and is so enthusiastic to sail all day long into the waiting docks of willing ears.
On 29th September last year a 7.6 magnitude quake had decimated the province capital of Padang, raising a third of the city's central structures to rubble piles, destroying nearby villages and killing around a thousand people. At this time his wife's daughter had been heavily pregnant and the quake with its series of serious aftershocks that rolled through the night (even to Bukit Tinggi a further 90 kilometres from the epicentre) induced her and tens upon tens of other pregnant mothers in the region to go into premature labour.
'Snake skin' or Salak fruits
Uli had battled through the power cut blackout city chaos and managed to grab a cab (one of the few brave enough to still be away from family and out on the streets) and whisk his step-daughter to Bukit Tinggi hospital where the electricity generators hummed to the breaking point and exasperated doctors and nurses muddled on through the clamour up and down crowded corridors thronged with gurneys bearing the deluge of shocked, breaching, wailing mothers-to-be. Uli's 'grandson' Raja Sunnia Octoreno Pratama ( succinctly meaning 'King Sunshine October First Born Child of the Family') was born of his mother and Mother Nature's birthing pangs the night of the morning of the 1st October 2009. However, Uli explains, his name is quite unique ( "I'll say!"
) given that the majority of the generation born to West Sumatra that night were named 'Gempa' or 'Earthquake' after the grand event that had mid-wifed them into the world.
But that was then, and this is now as the saying goes. Raja grins and burbles from where he's being dandled on his proud grandfather's knee and I head out into the daylight to take in Bukittinggi. Bukit Tinggi literally translates as 'high hill' and sitting 90 kilmetres north and inland from the province capital Padang is an ideal locus for an 'if-you're-in-a-rush' appreciation of West Sumatra. Besides the charms to be sifted from its core it is well placed for a number of satisfying scenic escapades in the region such as Danau [Lake] Maninjau or a trek to see the dawn from the oft smoke-billowing caldera peak of active Mount Marapi volcano. I didn't undertake either of these trips for lack of time, energy and therefore will.
Besides I'm self-diagnosing a case of 'travel indigestion'. A feeling of psychological over-bloatedness and heaviness of spirit brought on by prolonged over ingestion of the world's treasures and activities. So right now it's time to take things easy and keep things simple.
My favourite activity in Bukit Tinggi was a walk into Ngarai Sihanok ( Sihanok Canyon) along and across its stream-laced base, past the snack, grocery and soap-sachet selling warungs (small shack or kiosk eateries) and up through the jungle growth to stroll amidst the hilltop rice field community villages of Kampung Sihanok and Koto Gadang. At barely a stones throw remove from the city this pocket of beautiful rural tranquility offers great opportunities to peaceably interact with the friendly locals in one of their super-cheap tea and snack rest-stops and to observe probably the best preserved examples of the colourful, timber-framed architecture still standing from the era of Dutch colonialism.
"Do you have any guitars?" :D
Still looking good after a century and more of quakes.
Up here a large incomplete mosque sits with its grey concrete bones vulnerable to the jungle's attendance and its several floors propped with wooden beams. The progress of the visitor along the dusty paths kicks up a flurry of feather, fur, activity and noise. Chickens skidaddle and 'cluck' ahead of you in blind panic, goats bleat and retreat, and - a recurrent experience whilst travelling Indonesia - wary, unwelcoming dogs growl at you in imitation of the chain saw that buzzes a body of wood somewhere in the distance. The cloth rag clouds and silky blue skies tussle quietly overhead for supremacy of the afternoon the former trying not to rip their bellies on the high thrown, pointed roofs of those buildings built in the fabulous traditional Batak style.
Mosque dome in Bukit Tinggi
Large carefully irrigated fields of rice paddy stretch away across the plains until they reach the far hills and mountains that frame the scene from afar. Some paddies livid green with promise, some turning toward yellow and proudly displaying strings of small rice husks having reached their most prized and 'pregnant' pre-harvest state. Stubby papaya trees stand heavily burdened with their large, pendulous green fruits and a hazy shimmer of a thousand dragonflies plays within the air as a boy cycles past with a makeshift, long shafted bike welded together from pipes exclaiming 'hello hello goodbye mister!'.
An amiable mother and son kindly invite me to sit upon their threshold and cut me a sweet dripping slice of fresh, bright orange-fleshed papaya whilst Ibu (Mother) weaves a linguistic patchwork picture of her poverty for my head-nodding edification.
They warn me the intended way of my circuit home has been made challenging and possibly dangerous by earthquake and landslide damage but Uli said it would be alright. I tell them I'll take things 'pelan pelan'
[ 'slowly slowly' ] and be 'hati hati'
[ 'be careful' ] but they turn out to be right. Small collapsed ravine traps to be traversed with improvised single bamboo pole balance bars prompt caution and cowardice and force me to have to retrace every step of the last two hours, frowning to get home by sundown. But still, it's such a charming place to be strolling.
Great views of Sihanok Canyon can be had from on high in town in close proximity to a militaria museum and an accessible (though I'm told quite uninteresting) complex of caves and tunnels built by the Japanese occupation forces who headquartered here during their brief Second World War presence on the island.
Scene from Pasar Atas, Bukit Tinggi's 'Upper Market'
Also in town is the barely discernable remnants of the Dutch era Fort de Kock which is appended via the grandiloquent wooden pedestrian bridge (the Limpapeh) that straddles Jalan Ahmad Yani (where I stayed) to reach the Bukittinggi Zoo.
Entry to this living mausoleum of nature's finest but worst kept creatures is covered by the same ticket as Fort de Kock so one feels a certain compulsion to 'get your money's worth' but please do bear the following warning words in mind : though I suspect this is the biggest, best funded and attended zoo in Sumatra, standards of care here by 'Western' or indeed any reasonably humane assessment can appear poor to shockingly low. I won't list the litany of woes on show, framed with brick, chain and bar here but one need only stare for a few seconds into the mournfully depressed eyes of the giant orang utan as he clings to the green bars of his enclosure, pressing his face to the same whilst kids without shame unchecked by parents with equal disdain hurl peanuts at his indifferent defeated head.
Bridled ponies take people around Bukit Tinggi
A head itself swamped by the massed, matted and knotted tresses of untended orange hair that signify the lack of care he receives and that he has given up caring himself. Very sad indeed. Memories of recent visions of these incredible (and endangered) 'cousins' hanging free in the tree tops of Bukit Lawang
rise up like embers rekindled to hues of shame and anger in my mind.
I kinda ended up here by accident actually ( "Honest!") as it had been on my list of things to avoid. Avoidance is what I would strongly advise for any of you with any sensitivities to neglectful mistreatment of animals. Bukittinggi Zoo reveals little of the beauty of the natural world and much of the unnatural lack of respect for its sanctity that humans so sadly and so often exhibit - particularly, it must be said, in Asia.
[ The caged minor bird that screeches the Muslim greeting 'Assalaamu 'alaykum' as you enter has to be heard to be believed though! ;) ]
I take a day trip to the recently quake-ravaged province capital Padang and this, though a long roundtrip day, is feasible and I would argue preferable to staying in what, under first impressions anyway, feels like a rather uneventful destination. Quake or not, aside from glutting myself with the exploration of Pasar Raya [ 'King's Market' ] - without doubt the largest market complex I've ever yet experienced - and admiring the idiosyncratic sticker-graffitied, suped-up Pimp My Minivan taxi buses whose appearance seem a point of civic pride and competition here, the long, wide, tired streets, youth retail shops and rather unattractive beaches reverberate little in the memory of the transient tourist.
The Coconut Seller
The weather was grey and sombre and perhaps I must allow for the way that this too can sometimes disproportionately taint a person's gut reaction to a place.
[Note : Whether true or not I cannot confirm, but I was told hotel rates in Padang following quake devastation to the hotel competition are currently exorbitantly high. If you're due to catch a flight from Padang airport a daily shared taxi-minivan can pick you up from your hotel in Bukit Tinggi and drop you there ahead of first flights for a very reasonable price - 50-60,000 IDR (approx £4) per head if memory serves. So don't feel you have to stay in Padang. ]
Mostly when in Bukit Tinggi I reserve my energies for propelling myself from one kopi manis [ sweet coffee] or snack-meal to the next.
Strolling streets. Plodding paths. Rambling roads in the town centre. It's hot as usual and I'm tired as usual these days. I finish an impromptu chat and coffee with a chap and fold my notebook shut on the statement : 'Still taking relatively few & all crappy & uninspired photos. So far in word & image I am doing this beautiful country no favours whatsoever.'
My Travbuddy blog is lagging many weeks and miles behind me. Creative impotency symptomatic of a greater growing malaise?
As usual I spend most of my time centred around the city markets which, as with Padang, are of an impressive scale and composition here. With rare access to the homes, hearths and hearts of the people you meet on a rolling journey like this, markets are often the quickest, most colourful and enriching environs within which to see, hear, inhale and even touch and taste the way people live.
Stimulating the cardinal five of your many travel senses. The chaotic, aromatic churn of daily life and necessity. A social melee. An exciting, if a little over-spiced, centuries simmering gumbo, jambalaya or bouillabaisse of rich unique cultural flavours. The beauty of regional and national identities being part revealed through the habits and tiny differences and details of how the people produce, prepare and present Mother Nature's bounty. The ingredients of market life, in part the raw ingredients of the great ongoing, complex recipe of your adventure.
Bukit Tinggi's Pasar Atas and Bawah (Upper and Lower Markets) snake 'n' ladder in charmingly functional disarray up and down the hill peak sloped sides of the city's summit atop which also sits the Jam Gadang clock tower.
Beautifully ornate exterior carved facade of a traditional Batak style building (detail)
These markets bear fruit for repeated visits if you have time to kill. Mountain ranges of vegetables with rotund grinning Muslim matriarchs stood behind them, their 'sisters' presiding over avalanches of fruit or concealed within rainbow forests of suspended t-shirts, dresses and populated by distinctly 'western' looking mannequins with colourful brow-peaked hijabs pinned tightly about their moulded faces. Tubs sit on the floor filled with the odd sour-sweet tasting snake-skinned salak fruits, a national favourite. Oversize white enamel basins are filled artfully and to near overflowing; molten lava calderas of seductive red chilli pastes, wooden spoons sticking out of their epicentres. These call to mind for the umpteenth time a favourite refrain of Indonesian men, proud of their cebai
(chillies) and women, the two akin to one another in being, I am assuredly told, 'kecil tapi pedas'
[ 'small but spicy'
View of Sihanok Canyon
All I need do is deploy this little epithet either in compliment to Indonesia's lady folk or as a comeback to the many enquiries, whispered asides and references to my own small stature and the audience is mine and my friend.
Fish is always, always, always on the menu in any part of Indonesia you care to take your tummy. Usually fried to a crisp and mummified with hot chilly pastes. C'mon, it is a 17,000 island volcanic nation after all! What did you expect the speciality to be? Here in the market lie racks of shimmering salted silver fish or their larger split, splayed and filleted, smoked friends. Amber-coloured waves of dried out squid and slit, salted eels too. Live and writhing buckets of the latter also stand upon the floor. The surreal totemic or bullet-like heads of decapitated fish project skywards from their final resting place upon wooden chopping boards, eyes wide with surprise at their sudden predicament.
View down over Sihanok Canyon
I stare into the terraced cascades of large plastic tubs with hoses running fresh water through them and take in the ugly, whiskered, slightly sagacious faces of cat fish circling the final laps that fate has permitted them. 'Ikan kuching!'
I say pointing down at them. The fishmongers and their young male assistants laugh but are mystified. 'Ikan di sana, ikan kuching?
' [ 'Fish there, cat fish?'] I enquire with a literal translation from the English name, ikan (fish) kuching (cat). 'Tidak, lele!'
the fishmonger explains. They are 'lele
' apparently. 'Oh, Bahasa Ingriss mereka nama ikan kuching'
I explain [ 'Oh, in English they're called cat fish.']
Though a month into my time in Indonesia, the world's most populace Muslim majority nation and despite having dipped my travel toes into Aceh province (supposedly subject to Sharia Law under semi-autonomous regional jurisdiction) it is the long ride along the Trans Sumatran Highway with its recurrent visions of jungle-shrouded agrarian villages each with their own small makeshift rusty tin-onion topped mosques and with my time in Bukittinggi that I first really sense a feeling for a prominent Islamic cultural identity.
Two short-chained and unhappy elephants at the saddening Bukit Tinggi zoo
(This can mostly be put down to my laziness of perception and enquiry at this time). Several grand domed mosques number some of the cities largest buildings and offer architectural punctuation amidst those buildings of regionally more historical and traditional Batak forms with their sweeping arc roofs and high pointed eaves (somewhat akin to the roofs of Siamese Buddhist temples) and the sad cultural anonymity born of necessity's concrete, glass and sheet metal structures. Idling with idle owners slumped over torn red leather transom seats, proud looking deep-chestnut horses stand outside these mosques to scoop up the faithful or canter along the city streets with red pom-poms and plumes and decorative black leather and metal patterned bridles for show.
Giggling swarms of boys, but especially girl students pour out of the schools and colleges not long after midday.
'The Loneliest Bear' - killing time, forever, in Bukit Tinggi zoo.
Crowds of smiling, curious and coy young ladies, their tanned cherub faces encircled by uniform white hijab auras point many a distanced finger at me as I sit and slurp through my 5,000 IDR (30p) bowl of mie baso
(noodle meatball broth) with (too much) chilli sauce. The calls to prayer are belted out the statutory five times a day with a vehemence, vigour and volume I've not experienced anywhere else in those parts of the wide Islamic world that I have thus far trodden. The very enthusiastic imam of one of the city's main mosques wakes me at around 4.00am every morning, louder than the nextdoor karaoke disco that challenged the other end of my 'sleep' but four hours ago. He talks long and loud and though I can't claim to understand a word (apart from 'Allah' of course), I would say rather angrily too.
'Mournful resignation' - an elderly orangutan presses his face to the bars of his cage at Bukit Tinggi zoo :(
Fellow sleep-deprived travellers agree with me that whatever he's preachin' from on high it doesn't sound like 'Good morning Indonesia, love everyone the world over, peace be with you, and have a nice day!' A missed opportunity perhaps ;)
A couple of happy coincidences define my latter moments in Bukittinggi. Firstly I am reunited with friends Charlie and Adam whom I've plumbed the dive depths of Pulau Weh with and scaled the volcanoes of Berastagi amongst other things. Secondly Uli excitedly informs me that 'You are in great luck ja!' He's received a text from a contact of his, a local village trek guide, to inform him that 'the flower is blooming!' The flower in question being the rare and most bizarre looking Rafflesia Arnoldii which (quibbling of genus definitions aside) proclaims itself 'The World's Largest Flower'.
My extremely friendly and knowledgeable host in Bukit Tinggi, Uli (of the Rajawali guesthouse) with his grandson Raja Sunnia Octoreno Pratama :D
Found in rare pockets of Southeast Asian tropic jungles the Rafflesia sends out only a single bloom at a time, this on most infrequent occasions (sometimes months between openings) and only lasts for a matter of days once it has done so. The so-called 'Corpse Flower'
- a name born of its vile odour and the way it entraps hordes of insects to their death - then rots away again. We are in luck in seems.
So the next morning, trek-legs at the ready (well, not really), it's Charlie, Ad, other friends and I on board the next mini-van bus over to Desa Batang Palupuh (Palupuh Village) to be guided through a small serene rice field and terrace scene and up a partially defined path into the humid jungle. We slip, slide and stagger our way over and through mud, stream, leaf and vine behind jungle-toes 'Joe'.
Chilli paste at the 'king's market' in Padang
To my great relief I manage to avoid the fate of some of my colleagues who are pulled up short by the discovery of blood-sucking leeches upon improbable parts of their body. Leeches definitely a travel first I can do without! Eventually we reach the fierce looking scarlet bloom of the Rafflesia, this one having sprouted at an inconveniently high point of a precarious soil and vine slope. Photography made most challenging indeed. The Rafflesia can bloom up to a metre in diameter but this one appears to be a bit of a baby. Mild communal disappointment. Still, it's an interesting botanical first and we next descend to return and quench our thirst back in the village of Palupuh.
Here we are passing guests in the home of an entrepreneurial young local mother who's making a success of sustainably producing and marketing 'kopi luwak' - the regional name for their own strain of the world's most costly coffee bean.
Just one of the infinitely varied and colourful modes of public conveyance in Padang.
Kopi luwak or 'civet cat coffee' is produced only here in certain elevated pockets of Sumatra, Bali and a few other points of the globe and famously is the connoisseurs' coffee produced by roasting and grinding the beans that have gone been ingested and pooped out by the wild civet cat. The civet cat's Latin or 'scientific' name is paradoxorus though one is left feeling that the only paradox here is that which dictates that one of the most esteemed commodities to consume on planet Earth be one that's passed out of a cat's bottom! We're invited to try a cup each (15,000 IDR/ £1) and consider buying the packs she produces. A number of my pals do ( ‘Christmas sorted!’). These packs sell in her home at 150,000 IDR (£11) for 100grams, the same £11 will only get you half as much, 50grams from the Bali Coffee House company and the cost of that same 50 grams rises to £25 at Harrods of London ( 'Your online luxury destination'
Padang Pengamen :)
Tomorrow I will also spy out that 100,000 IDR (£7) will only get you a single small cup from the JJ Royal Coffee Bar at Jakarta's Soekarno-Hatta International Airport! Who said you couldn't make gold from shit.
So there you have it. It's about 11.00am and we're back in Bukittinggi having already fetched mud splatters up to my knees, had battles with jungle and leeches on route to seeing the world's 'largest' flower and tasting the world's most expensive coffee - be it of proctological provenance or any other. It's all in a day's work! What next? Umm?... "Yikes!" My Indonesian visa runs out tomorrow, I'd better get me bum outta here!