Spineless in Sumatra

by Ant Stone on May 23, 2008

in Indonesia

The first time I simply traced my finger over the words on the screen, the second time I read the words aloud to myself. ‘We believe that terrorists continue to plan attacks, which could be indiscriminate, including in places frequented by expatriates and foreign travellers.’ I scratched the crown of my head and read on, ‘All airlines from Indonesia have been refused permission to operate services to the EU because Indonesia is unable to ensure that its airlines meet international safety standards.’ My left eyebrow sank while the right one arched into the furrows of my brow. ‘Indonesia sits along a volatile seismic strip called the ‘Ring of Fire’ and volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis are possible.’ ‘Ring of Fire?’ And it burns, burns, BURNS… the burning… ring… of fire. I decided to skip the FCO’s warnings about Bird Flu; in fact I passed over the remainder of their heartwarming advice. I took a brief look at the LP Guide to Indonesia, and discovered that independent travel is interpreted as “Solo is Loco”, while their online forum is permanently headlined, “Indonesia: Is it Safe?” I read all of this, with a dog-eared e-ticket to Padang (one of the “top ten rainiest inhabited locations in the world”) poking out of my back pocket and forty-eight hours later I stunned myself, and landed.

In total honesty, if you’d handed me a pin and a map two weeks ago, I’d have jabbed it with an air of deceptive confidence in eastern Africa, boldly locking it in with land-borders on all sides. I repentantly scribe this post from real-life Sumatra, the sixth largest island in the world and the largest fully loyal to the nation of Indonesia. The inward flight was worth the ticket price alone; 10,000ft below the belly of the budget jet rippled a warm welcome mat of deep green Sumatran jungle, intestinal rivers scribbled their way where the tangle of trees were refused and as the plane began its descent, a vast danau (lake) lit up its gentle surface with seedlings of brilliant sunshine. At the airport I grabbed my bags, a handsome Lithuanian couple and a taxi into town. I soon discovered Padang to be docile, a far cry from the hectic port I’d conjured up in my mind and thankfully free of the promised liquid sunshine. My gaze was passed between the peaking horns of the local Minangkabau (an indigenous people of West Sumatra) architecture. We lunched on the regionally renowned cuisine, the system is to fill your table with twenty or so dishes and you pay for what you eat. Roast chicken, rendang (buffalo curry), vegetables of every persuasion, inescapable rice and my once favorite yellow coloured, coconut milk curry with a soft tofu-like ingredient that tastes similar to a mythical banana-cucumber hybrid. ‘What is it?’ Sumsum. ‘It’s really nice, what’s in it?’ The inside of a cow’s spine. ‘WHAT! Ah, umm, ok. No dessert, thanks.’

The Minangkabau people are inherently proud. The name derives from Minang (meaning winner) and Kabau (buffalo). In a daring ruse they defended their land from their nosey Javanese neighbours by utilising the nation’s former love of buffalo fighting. The Minangkabau latched knives to the horns of a thirsty buffalo calf, entering it into the ring against a fierce, yet motherly looking enemy representing the Javanese tyrants. A moo-moo here and a squelch-yelp there and the land was once again their own. Subsequently, the spectacular horned roofs of the area are a tribute to their bovine warrior.

As nighttime wiped the gloaming orange cast from the sky of my first day I discovered one of the more familiar tribes of Indonesia. One grabbed me unexpectedly by the arm and furnished me with a wooden stick, he slurred something to his kith and kin about a ‘six-one, a six-six or a six-eight, may’t (mate)’ before spilling Bintang (local beer) on his askew buttoned shirt and warning me that if I made the ball vanish, he’d ‘cave my fackin’ face in’. A wink and a smile preceded my test of nerves, I stooped low and adjusted my shiny new specs to the tip of my snout and drew a lung full of stale air. A light thunder rolled in on a wave of ‘are you drinking my fackin’ bourbon may’t’ followed by the bladdered, stitched and suitably scarred chief of the tribe who clattered through the door and attempted to breaststroke his way across the pool table. Surfers, such as these, are in heaven on the islands of Indonesia. They come to surf swells tagged The Wave, Supersuck and Dreamland amongst countless others, and the local people of Padang appeared to be no strangers to their tribal pirouettes. You could see beneath the binge that the surfarii Skipper who made such a memorable entrance had respect for the Minangkabau and their compatriots, he spoke charismatic Indonesian and I found him and his crew to be something of a vice. But that could have been the Jack (sorry, their Jack).

A short bus ride dropped my league of Lithuanians, Martynas and Juste and me in Bukittinggi, a cool retreat surrounded by flooded rice paddies, rainforest, more horny architecture and a horizon of hungry volcanoes nudging and winking boastfully above the townspeople. Remarkably, within hours of our arrival we were welcome guests at a local wedding, proudly placed ringside while an orchestra of Minangkabau musicians filled the plumes of cigarette smoke with possibly improvised melodies. Sure, we paid a local 16,000 rupiah (90p) for the privilege (I presume the newlyweds get a cut) but this is Asia, and sometimes you have to appease your instincts, and we were right to. The next morning we took a swift trek into the jungle; the mud and roots soon rid me of my flip-flops and forced me onwards barefooted, wading through streams and up steep paths of fertile land before I stretched my arms and smiled for a photo with the world’s biggest flower, the unwieldy red and white Rafflesia Arnoldi. The rest of the day took us via quaint local coffee plantations, local architecture and midday found us swimming childishly in a cool fresh water lake. Eventide was brought in on the wings of a massive colony of flying foxes, sublimely backlit by a dazzling full moon that softened the destructive volcanoes into apparently harmless silhouettes. I also grabbed my first taste of Asia’s notoriously fetid fruit, the durian. The size of a large melon and wrapped in a warning layer of thorn-like spines, its smell was sweet, fuzzy and foreign while its lingering taste was milky, on one side like a cheap fruit shake, on the other like the secretion in your mouth the morning-after-the-night-before; a mixture of cigarettes, alcohol and the juices of the kebab you couldn’t leave without, seared by the regrettable ‘I get up in five hours’ excuse to shun the minty two-in-one.

Two days before the pilot slung me over the Strait of Malacca, I was relaying the island’s underlying moniker, ‘Ring of Fire’ in my safe-in-Singapore mind, two days after landing I was discussing with my Lithuanian allies, while their burly Baltic accent’s pierced me like anger-tipped arrows of love, how long it would take us to clamber through the jungle and up the side of an active volcano to its crater, in the middle of the night! First impressions are sky high for Indonesia, the islands that had me agonising with stage fright now find me rehearsing for some potentially sensational choruses.

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