Are You Sure That’s a Bus?

I mentioned last time that we were “about to” embark on a fourteen hour bus ride. A more accurate phrase might have been “hoped to”. We had already become a bit skeptical because of the incredulous looks we got from people supposedly “in the know” that we told about our nice express, A/C public bus that we had already booked our seats on. Then we found out that a tourist mini-bus (fancy name for a minivan, but still usually quite a bit faster and more comfortable than a bus) was leaving the morning after our alleged ride. Oh well. We made our way through the pouring rain to the bus terminal an hour early, just as we were told to, where we found five Indonesians smoking in a booth next to a really crappy-looking old bus, completely empty.

“To Prapat, right? Yeah, that your bus. Here, here, go right here.” We balked at the back door of the bus, doubt and confusion etched on our faces. I used the sides of the door to hold myself back as he tried to push me in. It was like trying to force a cat into a box.

“Um, I don’t think this is the bus we’re supposed to be on.”

“Prapat, ya? This is bus.”

” Yeah, Prapat, but, no, we paid to have A/C and a toilet and seats with the padding on the inside.”

Eventually we managed to convince them that we weren’t going fourteen hours (some said as much as eighteen) in that heap, even though he did make the very tempting offer of refunding us 20,000 rupiah (about $3) back from what we had paid. Ooh, sweet deal, but no thanks. So then we were instructed to sit with them in the booth (for lack of a better description) to wait for our bus that would  be arriving at eight, nine……..or maybe ten, we were informed with a shrug. Hmmm, strange. Five minutes later, one of the guys returned  (I hadn’t actually noticed him leave) in a taxi and told us to get in, said we had to go to the Makmar (bus company) office. Before we got in I belaboured the point that we were not paying for the taxi. They seemed shocked that we would even think such a thing. So we got in. The Makmar “office” turned out to be a little shack (with a Makmar sign, of course) containing one lady and several kids playing with an abacus, of all things. We were instructed to wait, which we did obediently, mainly due to a distinct lack of any other ideas. About ten minutes later a Toyota Kijang pulled up and three different Indonesian men got out. None of them spoke any English so we attempted a brief conversation in Indonesian from which I determined that the bus would be coming soon. Close. In fact, what they had been trying to tell me was that this was our “bus” and that we should get in. Now, as you might expect, we were a bit skeptical (yet again). To our credit (I think) it took quite a while to convince us, but eventually we hopped into the little SUV (which was nice and new, incidentally) and drove off into the night with three strange men. Hey, it seemed like the right idea at the time. Then we noticed that the seats were covered with plastic. Hmmm, that’s strange. I briefly thought about how the plastic would neatly protect the upholstery from bloodstains, but shrugged it off, mainly because by now it was too late to change our minds. Laynni told me later that she was trying to be optimistic by thinking of what the worst scenario could possibly be, but quickly dropped that line of thought on the basis that imagining herself being robbed and murdered probably wasn’t going to cheer her up. Well, not long after we got going I got embroiled in a very long and very difficult Indonesian conversation (I’m improving, but far from fluent) through which we eventually learned that these guys were being paid to drive the vehicle from Jakarta to Medan where it would be delivered to a purchaser. Hence the plastic on the seats (not that it stopped them from chain-smoking in it). I decided that the guys at the bus terminal had probably sold us a ticket (one week in advance) merely on the speculation that a bus might come through that night and, when there wasn’t, they were good enough to try to protect their reputations (seems unlikely, but I can’t think of any other reason) by making other arrangements for us. Laynni thinks we just got really lucky. I think that it’s pretty safe to assume that our new drivers didn’t get all the money we paid, but it’s more than they would have got without us, I guess. As for our side of things, the trip ending up taking only 11 1/2 very comfortable hours and, for the first time on any of our long trips, nobody tried to wheedle any extra money out of us. All’s well that ends well.

Enter: Samosir Island on Lake Toba. Another beautiful place. Although geared entirely toward tourism, the more than fifty guesthouses/hotels on the main peninsula come across as reasonably discreet and it somehow doesn’t really seem overdone, although it very well might if they were all full of tourists. As it is, the lack of business is really kicking the shit out of the area and, in truly capitalistic fashion, we were able to take full advantage by staying in our nicest room to date for virtually the lowest price (about $3 a night). Unfortunate for the owners but, hey, that’s supply and demand right? So, naturally, after one long night of traveling we needed to do practically nothing for at least three or four days to recuperate. Our list of excuses for doing nothing gets longer all the time, as does our recuperation period. We did make one excursion to a town on the other side of the island. The bus ride took us past mile after mile of elaborate funeral sarcophagi (the first dozen or so were pretty interesting, the next couple hundred less so).

From there we hiked up to some hot springs that had been quite creatively named “air panas”, which literally translates to “hot water”. The hike was very scenic and relaxing, but the springs themselves were a little anti-climactic as they usually tend to be. In a nutshell: the water’s really hot, and it stinks.

After spending a few days relaxing in Toba we packed a small bag and headed for Gunung Leuser National Park for some authentic jungle trekking. We figured we’d hit the bush for three or four days before returning to Toba for the holidays (it’s one of the only Christian areas in all of Indonesia, hence, the people actually celebrate Christmas). Well, it took about eleven hours of travel in three different vehicles with an overnight in Brastagi sandwiched in between but we finally arrive in Ketambe. On the last leg we (with a little help from some friends) set a new personal record for “tiny-truck-capacity”. In a little piece of crap with a covered box (the truck, I mean) Laynni counted twenty-seven, plus the driver, and plus the people on the roof, which seemed to vary anywhere from two to eight at any given time. That partially explains why I didn’t even notice, until it was unceremoniously removed, that there was a live chicken wedged between me and the lady next to me. Granted, his legs were tied, but still, you could have flattened a penny in there.

In Ketambe, several guesthouses offer jungle and/or mountain treks ranging from a couple-hour saunter to a three-week marathon (the main goal of those being to spot endangered tigers and/or rhinoceroses). We fell in near the bottom end of the scale and chose the “we’re-really-pussies-but-we’ve-got-to-spend-at-least-one-night-in-the-jungle” trip. Good choice, I think. It turned out to be some serious jungle, machete mandatory, no forestry farm shit. Somehow we managed to have good weather until about four in the afternoon. At that point, not surprisingly, the fickle Indonesian clouds kicked off a burst of sixteen consecutive hours of rain which conspired to make our night in the tent long, cold, flooded……and a hell of a lot like every other damned time we’ve gone camping. On the bright side, our guide, Johnny (“Oh my god! <insert story here>”), was a great guy. Also, part of the guide’s job was to set up the tent, cook all the meals (which he could do far better over an open fire than I could ever do in a kitchen……I know, high praise, right?), not to mention carry all the heavy stuff. I’m thinking about getting one to take home, they really come in handy. The hike itself, besides being a little muddy, was fascinating. We spotted (I suppose I should say Johnny spotted and aimed our heads at -) four adult orang-utans and one baby, as well as two rare black gibbons (they look like small gorillas) and tons of other, apparently less noteworthy, monkeys. The Thomas Leaf monkeys all have crazy white mohawks, who’d have thunk it? Unfortunately, we weren’t lucky enough to experience a very rare sighting of one of the few tigers or rhinoceroses that live in the park. I am, however, going to claim to have felt their presence.

By the end of day two we made it back to town, more or less in one piece. I was a little freaked when the final leech-check revealed one last bad boy who had set up camp disturbingly far up my thigh, we’re talking well above the gotch-line. I’m not ashamed to say that I enjoyed watching every minute of his slow, painful, salty death. Laynni also had a scary leech encounter of her own when one almost went unnoticed long enough to make it into her belly button. I think it would be safe to assume that a belly button like Laynni’s (the kind that nearly reaches her spine) is pretty much the promised land for a leech. He’d be free to feast for days. It just goes to show, “outies” may be ugly, but they sure are practical.

Bing, bang, boom, we’re in Medan, the largest city in Sumatra with about 2 million people. It’s also the gateway to Malaysia (and from there, Thailand) as it’s directly across the Straits of Melaka from Penang. After our jungle stint we met Chris from Missouri, who was also on his way from Ketambe, and he joined us for a trip to Pizza Hut as soon as we got to Medan. The three of us teamed up to devour three huge pizzas, a salad, two baskets of garlic bread, and two pitchers of coke. Now that’s what you call a craving. We blamed ours on our time in the bush but I can’t say for certain what his excuse was. It might have had something to do with the fact that he’s about 6’6, 250 pounds and spent the last four days lying on his bed smoking pot. As soon as he arrived in Ketambe he gave some guy 15,000 rupiah (about $2.50) to hook him up. Apparently the guy brought him a brick of bud the size of a shoebox. He ended up smoking nearly half of it, leaving the rest behind, and barely leaving his room the entire time. That’s the great thing about traveling, everyone is free to do their own thing.

The Internet here is one up on everywhere else we’ve been lately in that A) it exists, and B) is dirt-cheap. Good thing because in a couple hours we are heading back to Lake Toba to ride out the holidays and won’t be back on-line until January.

As I mentioned, Lake Toba is a Christian area so they do, in fact, celebrate Christmas, although, as you might expect, it’s not exactly the same. The karaoke Christmas carols are put to summer time videos featuring Korean university students in the park, playing Frisbee or just lounging, and some of the translations of the lyrics tend to be a little off. For example: “We which you the merry kreesmas” and “Jingle on our way”. As it turns out, not surprisingly, at least one holiday tradition is universal. Yup, those gold, tinselly streamer things that say Merry Christmas and Happy New Year appear to be everywhere.

Anyway, Happy Holidays to everyone out there, assuming you’re all still celebrating even with us not around. See ya.

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