Saturday, October 19, 2013

The long crossing of Sumatra


 Several people had told me that Sumatra was "the best of Indonesia", but honestly, after more than three months of cycling through this country, where over and over we had been dazzled and left speechless at what we experienced, it was impossible for me to even imagine that what would lie ahead could be any better than what we had already seen. 

If there was something that we confirmed immediately while pedaling the 148 km road that links Jakarta with the port of Merak, is that having hopped on a bus to avoid wasting time in western Java had been a truly wise decision. Leaving Jakarta was as infernal as it was entering it. During the 10 hours we cycled to the port on that endless day, heavy traffic and overcrowding were such all along the way that it felt like not having left the city at all. Jakarta's hell perpetuated itself throughout the whole day. We arrived in Merak after 9pm exhausted, not so much by the 150 km that we had cycled, but by the chaos of trucks, vans, buses, cars, motorcycles, pollution, noise, people, asphyxiating traffic jams, heat and other tortures that accompanied us during the whole day. That very night, we crossed by ferry the strait that separates Java from Sumatra in less than three hours and spent our first night in the place that would soon become our accommodation of choice during the days to come: the police station.


Wounds that never heal

Starting to cycle in Sumatra wasn't easy. To begin with, we only had 18 days left to reach, Medan, the final destination, lying about 2200 km ahead. We knew from that very beginning that we couldn't ride so many kilometers in such a mountainous island in such a short time. We also knew in which areas we were not going to regret putting our bikes into a truck to avoid wasting time. Having more or less a plan in mind, we started to ride our bikes on a steep slope as soon as we left the police station. In less than 10 minutes and not even being 08:00 am, we were already soaked in sweat. At that time, a sudden pain made me remember something I was carrying in my ankle from Jogja. As I already explained in a previous post, in the tropics three things happen: the first is that there are many critters, some can be identified, others can't. The second is that they seep through every small gap in the mosquito net during the night and the next day you wake up without having any clue what stung you, and the third is that the wounds take forever to heal. I didn't know what the hell had stung me, but what I had coming out of my ankle resembled the topography of the volcanoes of Java in 3D: the Ijen, the Semeru, the Bromo and the Merapi. The four bites, or the two pairs of bites, I don't know, hurt more and more as the days passed, and the more I cycled the pain became stronger, to the point that it was even hard to walk and push the pedal. In Jakarta, I had had the brilliant idea of forcing the"eruption of the four volcanoes" with a pin. That was a relief, but then came the infection, four craters became one just as big as the Krakatoa, and it felt as if my foot would've been separated from the rest of my leg. To make things worse, 6 weeks had to pass for the wound to finally begin to heal. Disadvantages of the tropics as you can see...  




Sumatra is not big, it is immense! As one crosses it, one becomes more aware of its size. We started the long road from Lampung to Muko-Muko, hitchhiking in the uglier parts, and riding our bikes in the parts that were worth it. The roads of the island are neither straight nor flat, the exact opposite. A fast vehicle needs around 7 to 8 hours to ride 250 km. The endless coastal road along the southern/western edge of the island brought the best and also the worst of Indonesia. The good thing is that for about 150 km one rides perhaps along one of the less developed and yet one of the most wonderful coastal roads of the world. The road rises and falls steeply, surrounded by lush mountains that lead to an electric blue ocean of raging waves and idyllic bays of small fishing villages where people live in deep communion with the ocean. Here, the sea is no longer boring and sterile as is usually portrayed as the epitome of paradise. Here, over hundreds of kilometres, the ocean breaks with violence on the coast, bathing the island with effervescent white foam . At the same time, it terrorizes people when the time of storms come and earthquakes hit the region. The 2004 tsunami killed in the northern coast of Sumatra 167,000 of the 240,000 total victims who died in all affected areas. However, local people live in these bays in the stillness and quietness of those who never expect a backlash of nature and life goes on slowly in fusion with the environment.
Men go into the ocean sailing on very simple wooden boats....

they catch fish in the traditional way as it has been done thousands of years, swimming with self-made harpoons, holding their breath under water without sophisticated equipment or protections of any kind.


But these moments of connection with thousand year-old customs and simpler ways of life would not last long. leaving these idyllic of sparsely inhabited bays and ancestral practices we faced once again a feeling of profound demoralization. For decades, Sumatra, like Kalimantan, has being the target of environmental devastation led by those who commit the genocide of our planet, in search of quick cash in the short term. The transition from paradise to hell happens so fast that it's hardly believable.  In the blink of an eye you are surrounded once again by the horrifying and destructive monocultures of the palm oil. The entire environment turns from nature in its most vivid expression to dead nature, artificial nature stratified by men guided by greed and selfishness. Having experienced life in nature, it is impossible not to be sad when passing through these vast palm groves planted in what was once, one of the world's most precious rainforests, result of endless geological eras. The saddest thing is that not only the tragedy is still far from being over, but that there is no intention to stop spreading it. Every year thousands and thousands of hectares of virgin forests are burned. One of the strategies that palm oil multinationals and corrupt politicians follow is to send illegal groups of poachers to kill the few oranghutans remaining in the wild, so the wildlife protection institutions have no case and there are no reasons or excuses not to keep wiping out the jungle. Fires are usually so brutal and excessive that smoke clouds move to the other side of the ocean, blocking the skies of Malaysia and Singapore. Politicians of those countries travel each year outraged to Jakarta to ask Indonesia to stop contaminating the precious oxygen from their skies. And Indonesians, even the common people, which are not stupid, laugh at this cynical theatre, since they know very well that the companies that destroy their land are mostly from Malaysia and Singapore. The power in the hands of a few and the power they have to make critical people look away from this makes this problem more alive than ever, causing irreversible damage, permanent wounds that will never heal, extending the metastasis of our planet. In the their fast run to increase their wealth to unimaginable levels, they do not only kill our planet but they also poison us. A recent scientific report indicates that palm oil has a total of 49% of saturated acid. It's indeed from vegetable origin, but it's as harmful to health as is animal fat or trans fat. Unfortunately today, it is the most consumed oil in the world.
Where Sumatra puts its signature
We had to suffer almost 650 km of continuous palm monoculture until we reached Muko-Muko. It took us 3 days of hitchhiking, from truck to truck, and the truth is that that was one of the few times as a bicycle traveler, that I did not regret the least having not cycled them. I also left this part with an unexpected blow. In a moment of distraction, my camera got hit badly. It had been having focusing problems after I dropped it in Kalimantan, almost 4 months ago. This time was the final knockout for several critical functions, leaving the photographer without his most fundamental tool for the remaining days our time in Indonesia. The following photos posted here were taken completely demoralized and since the LCD was broken and the focusing system didn't work, I was pretty much blind, so many of them have several focusing issues. It was a bitter pill to swallow. As photographer. As a photographer, having to adapt o travel being unable to document the world around me is unbearable. It was of course not the end of the world, but I would lie if I said that it did not leave me quite demoralized. In this condition, we began the last stage of our crossing of island. Muko-Muko was the turning point from the palm oil plantations to the protected areas of Sumatra. From there, we finally went back to cycling again and ascended 40 steep kilometers through a bad road without traffic to Sungai Penuh, a small town in a huge valley in the middle of the island. It took us much of the day pedaling uphill to 1500 meters, but once we reached the summit of the pass and saw lake Kerinci on the right and the volcano of the same name on the left and a corridor running along isolated villages between the two, it brought some truly memorable views. The feeling was similar to the arrival to the Bada valley, in Sulawesi, some months ago. 



Sungai Penuh set the beginning of a 1000 km corridor towards Lake Toba. It went through forested mountains, tea plantations, alpine lakes and fertile valleys, valley after valley, and contrary to what one imagines of traveling through a valley, that fact did not make things easier. On the first day out of Sungai Penuh, we had to climb a steady and gradual rise of no less than 85 km, being the longest climb we had done in all Indonesia. The Kerinci volcano with its 3805 meters of height and its smoking crater is surrounded by vast hills of tea plantations. The climate is exceptional and helped  temporarily to forget the torrid heat of the tropics. 


Indonesia is famous for its coffee and not so much for its tea. Indonesian tea plantations are not as spectacular as those I cycled through in Nuwara Ellya in Sri Lanka, however they do also have their own charm.


In contrast to Sri Lanka, where I remember that leave collectors were all women, here also men carry out that task. You can see them carrying 50 kg bags of tea leaves on their heads. Trying to lift one of these with my own hands gave an immediate idea of what must be carrying one of them on the head. Whether it's feathers, leaves, or cement, 50 kilos are 50 kilos. Once again, you can see the resilient and stoic spirit of some of the men in this country.


 After the tea plantations came a long and intricate road going up and down constantly for at least 100 km. Through it, we had magnificent distant views of the Kerinci volcano over the valleys that drove us to Bukittinggi. These valleys had fertile lands of rice plantations, as well as blue lakes between mountains. Offering views that reminded more of the ones one could find in Patagonia rather than the tropics where they are. 


After Buktittingi, we crossed the Equator once again. This time, unlike the previous time we crossed it in Kalimantan, where the strong heat reminded us to one of those shows of a circus in which a person or an animal jumps through a hoop of fire, here, the relatively fresh climate made of it a much more pleasant experience.


Entering North Sumatra, one can notice the significant increase in poverty, perhaps the most notorious throughout Indonesia until now. The towns and villages are more precarious and the houses more deteriorated, but none of these factors seem to turn people any sadder. If anything it is quite the opposite. In the valleys that lead to Lake Toba, people became friendlier and friendlier. Throughout Sumatra and even more in the northern part of it, we experienced the greatest amount of "Hello Mister"s per kilometer. It was quite impressive to go through the villages and that virtually every single man, every woman and every child that was in our way, told us warmly "Hello Mister", with joy, with affection, often in unison, often overlapping those of the one side of the road with the ones of the opposite side. People continued inviting us coffee (Sumatra, I think, has the most delicious coffee in Indonesia) and police continued letting us sleep every night at their stations. In several occasions, we were also invited to eat. Sumatra with this quality of people and landscapes was getting deeper inside our hearts. The animals also did their thing. At times, the forest became a symphony of monkeys, emitting the most exotic sounds I've ever heard, communicating  with each other. You could hear their call vibrating like in a Tarzan movie and not always you could see them, but their sounds were heard rumbling in the mountains like an amphitheatre, it was worth stopping and listening to them for a long time.


It took us exhaustive journeys to cycle towards the north, in which we rode from dawn til dusk and many times even after twilight and well into the night, on roads in which we felt safe enough to do so. On two occasions cycling at night, there were vehicles that offered us to go very slowly behind, following our pace, illuminating us with their strong lights from behind, another sign of hospitality that left me stunned. Imagine a truck driver, for driving at least 10 or 15 km at an average of 15 km/h only to illuminate the path of two cyclists when he could drive at 90 km/h. 
We were just a day away from lake Toba when, at the beginning of a 5 km long descent, Julia's rear tyre literally exploded when she was going down quite fast, making her lose total control and quickly falling to the bare asphalt. That time was the worst fall of the journey so far. Unlike the previous ones, this time Julia barely bled, but her left wrist was left practically paralyzed. Fortunately it did not break, but surely suffered a severe sprain that prevented her from flexing the wrist more than a few degrees. However, she is also a tough nut to crack, and instead of taking the trouble to go to a hospital or jump onto a pickup truck and end the journey of Sumatra there, she stood up from the floor shook her head, rested while I repaired her bike, tested if she could at least place her hand on the handlebar to guide, and decided to go ahead despite the enormous pain that involved guiding the bike with a hand that looked pretty much like a bloated egg. I wish that would have been everything, however the next day, the same happened to her other tyre (talking about bad luck!) this time leaving both hubs loose, making it impossible for the wheels to spin properly, But even so, she did not surrender, and we decided to go a little slower but keep on cycling. With Julia's wrist causing her pain all day long, her bike barely able to roll and I, with my camera broken, we arrived at lake Toba, where in a dusty village, I got a splinter in my eye and got embedded in my retina, making me go completely crazy. It was only discomfort first but later it became painful. I was still two days away from the nearest eye doctor so I didn't have any other choice than bear it and move on.
It would be a demerit to say that lake Toba is spectacular. It is 100 km long, 30 km wide and 500 metres deep. It's surrounded by forested mountains that fall into it in the shape of cliffs, its crystal water is blue, green and grey. As if all that wasn't enough, right at the heart of the lake, there's an island with a volcano in the middle that rises like a wall from the very center of the lake. At 900 meters of altitude, the microclimate of the region is very comfortable. From every angle it is simply impressive, and there is not a single spot that is equal or similar to the previous or next. The bad weather, my limitation to take proper photos and an injured eye, made it impossible to take photos that show the true beauty and the grandeur of this great spectacle of nature. I hope that the words will rid your imagination and motivate you to get there one day. I am sorry for the low quality of the pictures below.


The Lake is mostly inhabited by the Batik people, and the whole region was conquered by the Dutch in the past, bringing the Protestant Church with them. Except for this area, the rest of Sumatra is mostly Muslim and notably conservative. Extensive rice plantations can be found along the shores of the lake. Both women and men carry bags of rice of up to 50 kg on their heads, taking them by foot from the field to the side of the road, struggling with the swampy ground and trying not to fall.


As one goes along the lake, it goes through different bays. Any thing from sleepy fishing villages to upscale hotels can be found in them.


  Leaving the Lake, came  a long and gradual descent through an amazing forest, followed by the return to a jungle full of monkey colonies. However, just after that, began the end of our tour through Indonesia. It took us two days to reach Medan, the third largest city in Indonesia and one that seems to try to dispute the first place to Jakarta in terms of the worst traffic in the world. Having descended from the lake,  we went once again into the hell of an unbearable traffic, sticky heat, pollution, palm and rubber tree plantations among other annoyances. Sumatra is without a doubt the best that Indonesia has to offer. Its colossal size and its natural beauties have enough to keep anyone hanging around on the island for several months. But it also has the worst that Indonesia has to offer : endless palm oil plantations and one of the worst contemporary devastation of our planet.

Sumatra, is somehow a full summary of the rest of Indonesia, it has almost every bit of what can be found in the rest of the country . Also, to our delight, it has the best Martabaks Manis that we ate in 4 months. I waited to talk about them until the very end because the martabak manis or terang bulan (depending on the island) is without a doubt, one of the things that will be more difficult to leave behind. It consists of a very thick and spongy pancake freshly made in very hot iron pans. While the dough is cooking, a layer of sugar is poured first, then comes another thick layer of chocolate sprinkles, which melts while cooking. While still on the fire, a handful of chopped peanuts is poured. Then, it's put away from the fire and generous condensed milk squirts are poured, then it is bent in the middle in the form of an envelope, and its outer sides lubricated with butter. Finally cut in eight small squares and served hot. The result is a caloric bomb, overdose of sugar, with a final thickness of about 5 to 6 cm (3"). They are also made with other things as cheese or banana slices, but for now, that I already wrote about my favorite one, I will leave it here. With an average cost of $1, it was the perfect price to justify an intolerable dependence. It was imperative the need to reach a town or a city every night that had a little martabak stall. Sumatra had many places where martabak manis was made and it was always invariably delicious. As such, it was the farewell dessert on our last night in Indonesia, before heading back to China.

3 comments:

  1. HI Nicolas.
    Eventually found your incredible video from Gobi on Youtube, and it leads me to your blog. Nice videos and pictures. Simatra is a place of dream for me. I alrady had a practice to cycle with my wife only by south coast of Java. From Pacitan to Malang. Short distance for honeymoon.
    Good luck on your way.
    Alexey

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  2. Hi Nicolas,
    I am planning to tour Sumatra, more specifically Medan and Lake Toba due to my time constraints (about 20days).. Would appreciate if you could share any map routes you had taken for my planning..
    I will be taking the ferry from Malaysia to cross to Tanjung Balai and start the journey there.
    Many thanks in advance :)

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    Replies
    1. Hi!
      to be honest I never use any maps. What we did was to basically cycle all the way from Muko Muko, along Kerinci, Padang, Bukittingi and then to the southern shore of lake Toba and from there around it until Medan. It's quite easy and straight forward to find your way, you won't have any problems. I do recommend doing this route, it is spectacular. 20 days is indeed very few days for an island that in the northern half you can spend at least 2 months and only rub the surface. You can easily skip the south, it is mostly horrendous and depressing palm oil plantation monoculture. You might be able to circle the whole lake, but bear in mind, you are not 100% of the time around the shore. We only did the part I wrote about, our visa was running out so we couldn't keep going.
      Don't worry too much, it's very easy to cycle around Indonesia-orientation-wise, and most routes you can find them in google Maps.

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