Friday, April 22, 2011

Sumedang: A Cube of Paradise

So, recently, I went on a vacation with one of my student's families to Sumedang, an area near the mountain of ... (forgot the name, will add it in later).  Sumedang is one of the main centres for the Sunda ethnic group and also famous for its tofu, which is deep fried and served in small 2-3 inch cubes.  The family was in the process of building a gorgeous villa that had its own little mosque, fish pond (full of koi), swimming pool, and even an area for fish (for eating) and some animals, like chickens, ducks, geese, and pigeons.  And all fed directly by pure mountain run off water!  The place was still under construction when I went there so I had to sleep on a lawn chair, which had an angle to it.  Indonesians are not as picky as westerners about beds, so I'm sure in their eyes it was just another place to sleep, but truth be told, it was a little uncomfortable.  I had to squeeze down below the slope and let my feet hang off the bottom a bit.  Oh well, small price to pay for fresh air and beautiful mountain views right out the window.  I also got to go to a hot spring.  It was very crowded, and surprisingly, nobody paid me any mind at all!  Usually, foreigners get a lot of attention (almost exclusively positive) but in Sumedang, the heart of Sundaland so I heard, the locals were too busy enjoying the hot water, chatting, laughing and splashing.  The water wasn't that hot to me, but considering most Indonesian houses (especially in the rural areas) don't have hot water, I saw many cute sights as kids and adults struggled to stay under the pipe which was dispensing the hot water.   I watched first and from the reactions, I just assumed the water would really be piping hot, but then I tried it, it was a little warmer than your average shower but not by much.  Us winter weather folk are not only immune to hot water but positively soak it up!  I also visited a tofu "factory".  Not sure about you, but to me when I hear the word "factory" an Eastern Bloc concrete monstrosity with enormous smoke stacks jumps to mind.   The definition of "factory" in this case was a small bungalow on the edge of a rice padi field.  It was very interesting to see the traditional method of making tofu.  They had one modern machine for grinding the soy beans, but other than that it seemed like the old ways of production were alive and well.  You had to wear boots before entering the house as there was a lot of boiling water sloshing around on the floor.  As they didn't fry the tofu there, I wasn't able to taste the end product.  We also played dominoes at night, and in the beginning, I was getting smoked by everyone, but then I clued into the strategy, and with a little luck, I was winning most hands by the end of the night!  On the last day, as we were driving out of town, the family picked up a few bags of the famous tofu Sumedang.  Ironically, after loving everything else about Sumedang, wasn't really my thing.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Danau Toba Pt. 3: Getting There

To get to Danau Toba, you need to go to Medan first, and then take a bus or car.  On the way there I took a mini-bus.  I took a becak (motorcycle taxi with a side car for the passangers) to the terminal.  The driver ripped me off, but on the upside, he told me the real price for the bus to Danau Toba.  I think I broke even in the end.  When I got to the bus and asked the driver for a ticket, he held up his hands indicating 6, meaning Rp. 60,000.  I explained to him in Indonesian that I had been told by friends that the normal price was only 30,000. He smiled and dropped three of his fingers, not ashamed in the least that I had just caught him totally red-handed.  That's typical of Medan though, they'll try to take you for everything you've got and have no shame when you catch them in the act.  
The journey to Danau Toba from Medan involved a mini-bus.  This bus was packed but I had the honour of riding up front between the driver and the conductor.  In Indonesia, there are two jobs on the mini-bus.  One guy is the driver, in my case a chain smoking youth who was a chariot racer in another life.  The other guy takes the ticket money, leans out the window to yell the destination to all passers by, and acts as a radar for the driver, peering ahead to let the driver know when its safe to attempt to pass the vehicle ahead.  Oddly, the driver doesn't have a uniform while the conductor does.  Painfully, I was forced to carry my giant knapsack on my lap the whole way due to space, but getting to sit up front was worth it.  The open windows provided a nice breeze and ventilation from the constant smoke being puffed out of the frail lungs of the driver and conductor.  We stopped for a couple of breaks and I was invited to eat with the driver and conductor, they were pretty decent guys and as the restaurant we stopped at was clearly a family operation, the food was on them!  I'm pretty sure I ate goldfish by the way.  I got to sit beside an old man for awhile once the bus filled up and he remembered some English from his youth.  He started rhyming off grammar tables for me which was cute.  His next question was whether I liked to drink and if I had any firewater on me.  Guess he was looking for a buzz to kill the boredom on the road.  
By the time we got to our destination, Parapat, on the shores of Lake Toba, dark had fallen and it was a little off putting getting off in what initially seemed like the middle of nowhere.  I popped into a Padang restaurant and asked them where Parapat was and they explained it was just down the road.  Turned out I was just a stone's throw away from the town itself.  I met a guy named Jojo and he spoke decent English.  He invited me to hang out so I went to... Sukarno's former house!  While Sukarno was under house arrest, the Dutch shuffled him all over Indonesia so he wouldn't be able to maintain his organization.  Parapat is home to one of those places.  The compound is beautiful, the house is basically a mansion with a great view of the lake and Samosir Island.  Sukarno, well known to have been a womanizer, must have really enjoyed and likely taken advantage of the romantic views.  After that, I met up with some of Jojo's family, who were the custodians of the historic house.  They were all Javanese transmigrants.  Transmigrasi was a policy undertaken during Suharto's reign in an attempt to populate some of the under utilized agricultural areas and de-populate overcrowded Java.  An additional motive was likely political, the objectives being a dilation of local ethnic identity and a loyal cadre of Javanese to keep an eye on possible secessionist aspirations.  It was interesting that while they didn't hide or deny being Javanese, their admiration for and interest in Batak culture was surprising to me.  Part of this love affair probably had to do with the Tuak or palm wine they were liberally partaking in.  I had a sip out of politeness and believe me, its pretty horrible stuff.
After that interesting encounter, I headed back to my hotel room, finally able to stretch my body out after the long, cramped bus ride.  The next morning, I had a plan to meet up with a family member of a co-worker in Ajibata, the next town over.  My co-worker in Jkt said that her relative would be happy to show me around the area, as he was from Samosir.  His happiness would be difficult to detect as I was to find out, but it was nice to be out of the wretched pit of Medan, and into a fairly clean room with a comfy bed!

The Ghaddafi Dream

One of the elevator shafts in my apartment is actually a missile silo.  It belongs to Ghaddafi, who secretly happens to be hiding out in Indonesia, right in my apartment complex, but of course in French Walk, the fancier units.  Me and some friends decided to put a bee in his bonnet by sneaking into the missile silo and disabling the firing mechanism.  Elevators are from transportation, not raining death and destruction on people, got it Muammar!  After the successful completion of this James Bond like mission, me and my team were discussing our coup at a cafe.  Across from us, there were a suspicious looking group of Arab guys.  When I left, I tried to look nonchalant as I passed them, by casually maintaining my head at a 90 degree angle in the opposite direction, but through a window, I made out their reflection and noticed all their eyes riveted on me!  The next day, I was heading to work when I noticed some special Indonesian guards, they had real high falutin' uniforms, but both were speaking English and looked more like grad students than elite guards.  I was pretty sure that if worst came to worst, they wouldn't be able to protect me from Ghaddafi's men.  One morning I was staring out my window when I saw, sitting atop a patio in lux leather chairs, a dark curly haired guy making out with a mediterranean looking woman.  I had my suspicions that it was Ghaddafi's son.  The odd thing was, the guy was sitting right beside another guy who seemed to be totally ignoring the show going on immediately to his right.  Suddenly, the woman noticed me watching.  The woman said something to the man, and nodded her head in my direction.  The two men conferred in whispers for a moment.  I decided that was a good time to stop staring and ducked out of sight.  When I looked up again, the make out guy was gone!  A few minutes later, Ghaddafi son started smashing through my door!  I put a bunch of furniture in the way to block it, but to no avail, he smashed a hole where the door knob was, reached in and unlatched the door.  Luckily, neither of us had realized it was a pull door, not a push door and so he still couldn't get through.  I was safe for the moment, but would he be back with guns?  Would he be waiting outside for me?  If Ghaddafi can inspire this much fear in me, half a world away, just think what it must be like to live under his regime.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Danau Toba Pt. 2: (H)ot(ELL)

So as I mentioned in the previous article, grubby would be a compliment when applied to the hotels/hostels in Medan.  I checked about 5 places in Medan.  The hostels were putrid, gray and brown splotched beds, bugs, and the bathrooms are squatters which don't flush.  For those of you who haven't had the joy of using a squatter, the real shock is how many scoops of water it takes to flush a number 2 away.  The hotel I finally settled on was in a nicer building but the room was bad.  The mattress was roughly a U shape due to what must have been the fattest person ever being the previous occupant.  The washroom didn't have a squatter, but had a western-style toilet with no seat and that wasn't flushable.  You had to scoop water from a big basin called a mandi, which you needed to fill on arrival, until the waste was gone.  The only amenity in the room was a desultory prayer mat in the cupboard.  I used my own pillow case.  The price was around $14, which sounds cheap, but by Indonesian standards should've got you a little more than that.  On my way back out of Medan, I stayed at a different hotel.  This one charged quite a lot more, so I thought I was safe.  NOPE!  The room looked decent at a glance, and the bed was ok, but the bathroom!  When I went in to wash my feet, the floor suddenly came to life!  I realized that the cracks between the off white floor tiles were crawling with tiny worms.  To top it off, the running water (not hot, as in water in your room period) was limited to certain hours of the day, a fact I discovered early the next morning when I wanted to shower before flying back to JKT.  Apologies to whoever was sitting next to me on that flight, blame the Ibunda Hotel!  Price, a substantial worm infested, dry $22.
On Samosir, the big island in the middle of Lake Toba, by contrast I had a large delightful room, spotlessly clean, with a double bed, a single bed and a huge bathroom with hot water located under a traditional Batak cottage.  That ran me a grand total of $7.50/night!  Swimming right on the lake just steps from my door, too.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Sumba: Horses, lances, and satellite dishes

The red light blinks “max” again. Hoping desperately for it to be just a blink, I’m disappointed when it persists in staying on, defiantly glowingly on. I’m staring at the dashboard of the motorcycle, glaring over the shoulder of my driver. When I tried to rent it, bluffing that I knew how to drive a motorcycle, the owner insisted that I take him on too as my driver, the whole family laughing at my clumsy attempts to navigate a bike for the second time in my life. The road speeds under us like a fast gray current. The scenery of Sumba passing by is my only distraction from immanent death, which looms up at me with every dog or pothole. Other vehicles, the rare 4x4 from the resort, the mini-buses, other bikes- they are no danger. Neither are people, children or buffalo. Cats and chickens aren’t very brave and dart off the road as soon as the hear the ubiquitous squawk of the deadly “ninjas” and other two-wheeled assassins zipping up and down the roads of Sumba. The danger, the ever-present adversary of the motorbikes, is dogs. Dogs are brave, and they are stupid. Rather than dart off the road, they seem to be attracted by the prospect of death. This wouldn’t bother me too much, I believe in free will, libertarianism, taking responsibility for your actions, even when it comes to dogs. Except for the fact that the dog’s death will also likely lead to me flying over the handlebars and possibly leapfrogging over my driver too. Every canine potentially being fatal, I try to block out the thought, but instead, my eye alights on that red light. The red light is on due to the fact that our motorcycle, in relatively good condition compared to some of the dilapidated clunkers I’ve seen, has hit its highest possible speed.

Some people might read this and think to themselves “What a wuss! I once…” and recall something foolhardy they did. But, I had the added pleasure of also paying a visit to the medical facilities provided in Sumba. When a travel companion had the misfortune of wiping out on some sand, which sadly cohabited a rather sharp curve in the road, I was his bridge, speaking French and Bahasa Indonesia. My French was abysmal to say the least, a relic of 5 weeks spent in Quebec, where I went from a 9% on the placement test to 21%, a victory of sorts, and a few years in the school. After he wiped out, we first took him to the nearest clinic, where they disinfected his wound and suggested he go to the nearest hospital for an x-ray. Of course, in keeping with local custom, we couldn’t just go directly to the hospital, we had to stop and share a courtesy coffee at the homestead in front of which the Frenchman crashed. Now, the family had rendered a service, providing a young man to drive the injured party to the clinic (and as it would turn out, the hospital too). The head of the family was wearing a bright batik shirt, and I was just able to catch a glimpse inside his house of a large picture of the Virgin Mary, bestowing her blessing on the occupants. Despite his pain, profuse bleeding from knee and elbow and slight panic, there was no rushing the Sumbanese custom of a shared coffee. My driver, eyes red from betel, was somewhat panicked and I presumed needed some time to gather himself. So, we sat sipping our thick, black gritty coffee as Joel made eyes at me to hurry up the proceedings. I tried earnestly, but knew that there was no hurrying ancient tradition here on Sumba.