What do you want to hear first, the good news or the bad news? All right, the good news is that we finally got off our asses and did some stuff that I can tell you all about. The bad news? We finally got off our asses and did some stuff that I will tell you all about.

We spent a couple days seeing the sights around Bukittinggi, most of the really easy ones that don’t involve any strenuous hiking or cost lots of cash. We checked out the Japanese WWII caves; I wouldn’t want to build them by hand like the Indonesians were forced to, but other than that, caves are more or less just dingy, musty tunnels. Man-made ones, anyway, as I would learn later.

Thursday: We did a quick one-hour hike across a rope-ladder bridge through Sianok Canyon  (beautiful) to a little village that is rather optimistically called Kota Gadang, meaning “Great City”. Of course, everything was closed there because it’s Ramadan, so we just sat down, drank some water and hiked back.

Have I mentioned yet that it’s Ramadan? The true test of Muslim faith; for one month no food, drink or cigarettes (probably the toughest of the 3 for most Indonesians) from about 4:30am to 6:15pm. I guess Allah wants to do his part to control overpopulation. Luckily, the tourist-oriented restaurants will still serve us as long as it’s discreet, no sitting on the deck and mmmming and aaaahing over lunch while the locals totter by, weak and dizzy. The food thing I can see, but no water? C’mon Allah, be a sport! Then, as a “reward” for their piousness in fasting, each day they are called to prayer at three a.m. (to be fair, most people are already up anyway, eating while they can), where they, and everyone else within range of the 20,000 watt speakers (us, to name two) are treated to a tape of the horrific wailings of some guy screeching out what is, I assume, the teachings of the Koran. And this is all in Arabic, of course, which so many Indonesians speak.

There are several more seemingly random gatherings and prayers throughout the day, right up until about 11pm, always with plenty of noise pounding out of the concert-quality speakers that were, no doubt, bought with donations from the poor. It’s not enough to pray 5 or 6 times a day, starve yourself and give up water, the best way to impress a deity is by drowning out the rival mosque down the street. Oh yeah, did I mention that all this goes on simultaneously at 4 or 5 different mosques? Call me intolerant, call me a blasphemer, but I do not like Ramadan. I think it’s stupid. How’s that for close-minded? Mind you, there’s always the possibility that my problem is really just that, along with the rest of the country, I’m simply not getting enough sleep.

Friday: Our hotel is about fifty metres from an old Dutch fort (Fort de Kock……no, seriously) and the Bukittinggi Zoo. The equivalent of $0.50 got Laynni and I in to see both “attractions” for as long as we wanted. Based on the “you get what you pay for” theory, my hopes were not high, but how could we pass it up? Well, the fort demonstrated fairly clearly just why Bukittinggi is no longer under Dutch rule. I think that me and about five drunken buddies armed with empty beer bottles could have swarmed it. Four little cannons and a tree fort – there seems to be a good reason you never hear war stories about the Dutch. From there we crossed a neat little footbridge, high above the town’s main street, to the zoo. Considering the entrance fee, it was more impressive than I had expected.  Elephants, lions, crocodiles, camels, the usual assortment of monkeys and birds, and even some of those bears cursed with way too much skin. And, as if all that wasn’t enough, somebody thought we’d also want to see caged pigs and chickens, maybe just so that we could contrast them with the dozens of free-range ones wandering the streets of town. One thing I found particularly interesting was the huge mound of garbage on top of the lion cage. I can see why it would seem logical to assume that throwing an empty Yoo-Hoo bottle at a lion will spur him into all sorts of crazy circus tricks. There was also one sad little monkey cordoned off in solitary confinement. Unfortunately, if he was being punished for eating things found in his own arse then he apparently had not learned his lesson yet. Yeah, I have to admit that this place was not exactly a poster organization for animal rights, but they did appear to be well fed, which is more than I can say about most of the domesticated animals around here. At least they get to eat during Ramadan.

Saturday: We decided it was past time we did something so we set up a rock-climbing trip. Dodi and Hengke took us out to a great, scenic cliff which was probably a little advanced for us, considering that I’ve been climbing just twice, both times at the Kurt Heidel School of Hard Rocks (“Just grab something and climb up”), and this was Laynni’s first time. Well, the first climb went pretty well, we got seven, maybe eight, feet up before being humiliated back to solid ground. Unfortunately, I forgot to bring most of the skin from my hands down with me. We then moved over to the easiest climb (call me crazy, but I kind of thought that’s where we should have started), which turned out to be not so easy, either. We did manage to make it to the top of this one, though, and being difficult always makes it that much more satisfying.  Of course, without the rope we’d have been dead several times over, but that’s neither here nor there.

Sunday: Took a one-hour bus ride to Lake Maninjau, a crater lake that was formed when a volcano collapsed (don’t worry, not while we were there). It might very well be the most beautiful place we’ve seen yet. Everywhere you look it’s simply amazing. Palm trees, mountains, rice fields and a clear, blue lake.

Monday: We took four different vehicles to make it all the way up to the crater rim where we started a pretty challenging hike (by our rather meagre standards) back down to the lake. It was raining when we started and a lot of the steep path was washed out along the way. But we slowly made our way down, through the worst of the washouts, and eventually it even stopped raining. And then, all of a sudden-like, Laynni stopped and jumped and started screaming and shaking her leg, eyes closed in horror. I steeled my nerves and prepared to take on the deadly snake, or to protect my woman from some monstrous monitor lizard. Alas, there would be no chance for heroics, although it did take all my powers of persuasion to get her to stand still long enough for me to pluck the leeches from her feet. Everybody seems to have some irrational fears (at that moment, leeches were the issue, not her less debilitating fears of the dark, and walking down stairs), so I can understand it. After all, it’s not as though I enjoyed having leeches on my own feet. Nonetheless, the next hour was not what you’d call a relaxing walk in the woods. Every few minutes we had to stop and go about the lovely business of leech removal. For a while it seemed as though it would never end, but eventually we made it back. We then tried our hand at canoeing in one of their heavy, wooden dugout canoes. Laynni seemed to think that whole episode was a pretty funny story, but I don’t really think it’s worth sharing.  Like she’s never flipped a canoe. We also got to know the only two other guests: Nicola, an English chick, and Tara, from New York. It was kind of nice to hang out with some other people that only speak one language (the key being that language was English). Being unilingual and traveling makes you feel kind of like the slow kid in class that everyone is so nice to because they feel sorry for you.
Tuesday: Back in Bukittinggi, I went for my first professional shave and came away mostly pleased with the results. He did remove the hair all the way up to, and including, my eyelids, which I generally don’t do. Naturally, I’m a little curious to see how that will look when it grows back.

Wednesday: Took the bus to Pasir Jambak (Cleft of Sand), a nice beach about two hours from Bukittinggi, near Padang. Stayed at Uncle Jack’s. Unfortunately, Uncle Jack doesn’t seem to believe in mosquito nets, but other than that it’s a great place. Miles of beautiful beach (if a bit dark brown) with hardly a soul to be seen. It’s really unbelievable that there isn’t more tourist development along here.

Thursday: Rained all morning and didn’t clear up until late in the afternoon so we mostly just lazed around reading. On and off, I kicked Laynni’s ass at backgammon, rummy, etc.

Friday: Went snorkelling at a nearby island with two other couples staying at Jack’s – Stefan/Paula (Germany), Magnus/Betina (Sweden). Betina burnt her legs horribly while in the water. Compared with some of the snorkelling we’ve been doing it wasn’t spectacular, but pretty good nonetheless. There was one spot where I spent about ten minutes trying to see what on earth (or, rather, in the ocean) was attached to a huge blue and silver tail sticking out of a small cave. I tried nearly everything, stopping just short of poking a stick in there, but to no avail. You’d be surprised at how hard it is to drop a rock accurately through the water. Yet another unsolved mystery. As usual, four or five teenage boys were brought along to share the job of one, and they soon formed a small, but determined, Laynni Fan Club. Funny how they could be so riveted to what she was saying in a language they didn’t understand. Baffling.

Saturday: Beach, beach, and more beach. Laynni finally broke her depressingly long losing streak by beating me in the long distance portion of our body surfing Beach Olympics event. The results of mandatory boob testing are still pending, however.

Sunday: Beach (of course), and then Jack’s daughter took us to “town” to rent video CDs (pirated right off the big screen, they come complete with background noises like laughter and crying babies). They moved their TV, speakers, and VCD player outside for us (trust me, even good ol’ Jack doesn’t want any dirty tourists actually in his house) and we watched Rules of Engagement (pretty good) and The Replacements (really bad). Anyone who’s seen Unnecessary Roughness has already seen The Replacements, with at least a touch of acting. Anyway, mercifully the disk started skipping with about twenty-five minutes left and we had to stop it. I’m pretty sure I can guess what happened.
Monday: Back to Bukittinggi, again – hello, Internet. Found out that Mario is returning to the NHL. Met a pretty nice Aussie guy named Dave who’s 48 and taking Indonesian courses, so decided to come spend a month here. Left his wife at home (“she calls every Sunday, it’s not what you think”) and is on an extremely tight budget. Seems like a pretty odd plan to me, but maybe talk to me when I’m 48.

Tuesday: Killing time/spending money, waiting for our bus tonight at 8 to Lake Toba. Can you believe that Toba will be our second crater lake? Wow. The bus ride is allegedly 14 hours, I’ll be sure to let you know how it goes. Over and out.