Sunday, August 31, 2008

Tello to Penang

The easiest way to catch up lost ground feels like it might be to work backwards, so first up is the adventures of Penny, Jamie, Kate (a friend from NZ) and Eban (a new friend from Aussie) as we escape Tello in a flying bus, become movie stars, witness what happened to Noahs ark, find the worlds largest flower, undertake a gruelling journey by motorbike and travel across vast Sumatran mountains in a blur

Excuses for any crazy talk, but the travel is taking its toll. I am sitting now in a backpackers in Bangkok, in the land of thai dying, looking forward to flying across Eurasia tomorrow, where we will seek to harass BJ in the Aussie bar in Helsinki and attempt to bludge a Speights. I am worried that it will pale in comparison with the marvellous Bintang ("stars" in Indonesian, distinct from Speight's "four stars" and definitely the classless "4 star" lager produced over the ditch).

So, there we were in Tello. Now it happens that the dubious character who tickets the planes also owns a boat upon which you have to buy a ticket to travel the 10 minutes to the airport if that is you want to get a ticket on the plane, if you understand what I am saying. Therefore the 10minute boat ride to the airport costs the same as the 6hour ride across open ocean to the nearest neighbouring island group. Indaahnesia.

We had seen the plane from our backyard in Tello, swooping out of the sky... like a brick, twice a week. It didn't look any better up close. A flying bus, a design perhaps inspired from a childs attempt to create a plane out of two pieces of lego. Tello airport had 3 rows of seats like a Doctors waiting room and the check out man sat up front like a teacher behind a big wooden desk. He let us out onto the runway as the plane rolled in herding ahead of it the stray dogs and motorbikes. We waved our good-byes to Tello, as we saw it really for the first time, a little tear drop in the ocean, surrounded on two sides by larger jungly islands. We saw the islands we had threaded through on the way to Baluta, and this same piece of coastline where we had run clinics. We saw the vastness of Tanahmasa that mainland interests will soon clearfell and turn into an oil palm plantation. Indaahnesia.

We didn't really have a plan for Padang, and in the end we didn't need one. Travelling with four meant that it was as cheap to hire a taxi for the two hour trip to Bukitinggi than to visit Padang to find the local bus. So we were off, quickly across the coastal plain and up to the higher altitudes of the central plateau, the heartland of Minangkabau culture. Myth has it that the people here are descended for Alexander the Greats youngest sun, I'll accept this, if enough people believe it then it might as well be true! While archaelogical evidence accepts the rise of their culture from 500BC. The most noticeable feature first up is the incredible buffalo horned shaped roofs. Symmetrical spires of corrugated iron pierce the skylines, often three of four sets integrated on a roof. I have added this (without Pennys permission yet) to my dream home, to go with the Japanese relaxation rooms and Guatemalan cobbled courtyards from earlier travels.

On closer inspection, the next feature is the lack of rubbish. In fact there are even rubbish bins. My theory here is that the Minangkabu's unique matriarchial family structure enables a more cohesive social society of women to be developed, and prevents the men from being quite so lazy. Either way it is great improvement. We zoomed through ordered paddy fields, past gleaming mosques and between the giant twin volcanoes Merapi and Singaling (or something, Singaling has a nice ring to it, rhymes with dingaling). Bukattingi ("high hill town") appeared commercial but as we reached the intricate town centre grew on us quickly. We found pleasant accomodation at Hotel Orchid and set about exploring.

First stop was the Canyon Cafe, a tourist trap for some a blessing for others. After weeks of waiting for the food to come to Tello (or as Otis Redding might have said, "watching the ships roll in and watchem roll away again") we were ready for a feed. There were pancakes and tacos and beef rendang and chay and french fries and a heavenly local creation called "dadia campur", or fruit salad covered with oats, brown sugar and yogurt. 15,000 rupiah for 5 minutes of taste sensation. Our afternoon walk, wound us up to the top of the hill where the Dutch had built a fort (Fort de Kock) to terrorise the locals. We paid to get through the elaborate turnstiles, manned and watched by the usual plethora of useless bastards before discovering the damn place was a zoo. From the fort a giant overbridge spanned a big valley containing the main thoroughfare and linked the fort of Mr Kock to the animal abuse factory. Elephants paced backwards and forward chained by their ankles, beers ate plastic, the tiger growled (as tigers do). It was then I discovered what had in fact happened to Noahs ark. As the flood drained it was stranded on the high hill of Bukitinggi and there it lies today, well preserved, animals in pairs staring out of it blankly, resembling the most stuffed animals one could fit into a small long room if one tried very hard. Are these all the animals from all over the world that the zoo had managed to kill during its existence!

Slightly mollified, and highly amused, I returned to search for the others only to find them watching something equally as ridiculous a heavily costumed woman lip synching to indonesian ballads from the window of the Minangkabu house/museum. The success of the afternoon was guaranteed when Kate was asked to join in the production, feeling fabric and intimating interest as the lady pretended to sing at her, priceless! (We later checked out the museum which seemed to feature 8 legged goats, like siamese style, except all 8 hooves were worn, they must have been awesome little beasts, you can imagine the inspiration behind the freaky hindu gods).

The next day we made the big call to hire motorbikes! $10 a day for the freedom of the roads, yeehah. As a group we made our way to the village of Palupuh and eventually accepted the deal a guide offered us to show us a rafflesia, the worlds largest flower. Its hard to bargain when its obvious you want something, Penny has to learn this a bit, just cause the mango's are in your plastic bag doesn't mean you are going to get to eat them if the poor old lady doesn't drop her price 10cents or so. The flower never the less was pretty cool...

Shorn of a team member (Kate had to leave to go back to Padang) we then began our great motorbike mission to Bukitinggi. The gingerbeard man and his beautiful maiden and super bike man (Eban with his poncho tied around him like a cape when it proved just a little too complicated for our Aussie friend ;-)). Down into the canyon we zoomed and up the otherside, reduced to 1st where the gradient became too steep. Through villages we sashayed, past buffalos we hauled ass, alongside rice fields we growled and down the 44 hairpin corners to the lake we froze and edged. The rain had come down on our party and at the first coffee shop we bought matching batik shirts so we had dry clothes to wear. Searching for a guesthouse, our first plan required biking down a terraced waterfal, previously a path, and the second on a narrow track where error would mean face first in a padi field or floating off down a creek. The second challenge caught us when we were reluctant to return in the dark and we were left with Arlens Paradise for the night.

A mildly expensive paradise, but an extremely beautiful one with lovely food. Pennys birthday began with a swim in the lake and a relaxed breakfast of quality pancakes and teas. The lovely garden reflected the changing mood of the weather, which perked up and soon saw us off again on our bikes, encircling the lake. A lovely ride. A memorable hour was the coffee shop we stopped with great fried banana, that overlooked padis and a mosque, set against the steep wall of the crater and a bushy peninsula floating over the mirror like lake. Later on Penny and Eban tried to go walking and the rain set in as I sketched in a shack on a plateau high above the lake, amusing the locals who wandered by occassionally going about their business. The return to Bukitinggi was cold but uneventful, the bikes were back safely and so were we!!

My memory fails me now, no thats right we ate seafood that night at a street stall. I had prawns big crackly ones that I tore the shells off like they were big clumpy bits of toenail ripe for the picking. Penny had fish and Eban didn't get the clams he craved. We might even have interneted and we probably had a good night coffee. Next morning Penny and I were off early running, exploring the canyon, trying to find the mythical silver village of Koto Gadang. We ran upstream through the eroded canyon to the home of the flying dogs (as the locals know them), flying foxes to us. Hundreds filled the air, thousands filled the trees. They hung thick on branches high above us like the plastic bags that asphixiated any aperation in the canyon. The return was quick, I'm not sure what Penny was thinking about, but I was imagining smashing my mates in a river bed run, charging across the rocks, leaping across the river!

Man it must be getting late, my iced coffee float rush is wearing off, just enough time to complete this mission. It was sad to say goodbye to Eban, our new friend and partner in adventure. He was also off back to Padang, and maybe the mysterious Mentawai islands, while we were bound for the ruthless trans-sumatran highway. A 1300 start and 24hr's passed like a blur, a continuous search for comfort, desperate toileting, food somewhere in the night (and it was tough beef), lake toba at dawn, our only glimpse of North Sumatras prize tourist destination and the smokey plains of Medan. Checking into Medan, we chose upmarket to recover well, but 380,000 at Hotel Antares ($60 NZ) got us a great breakfast and lunch as well as hot showers, comfort and free internet. A bargain for exhausted travellers. Our Sumatran sojourn had one last twist for us, for as we wandered in the evening across the same overbridge that had provided us a path to McDonalds when we first arrived on the desolate shores of the Mesjid Raya, we met none other than Ferida, our kind and generous hostess from Air Dingin near Tapaktuan, friend of Lisa the Australian Danish lady. We accompanied Ferida back to their hotel and spent one more evening with Lisa recounting our travels and listening to her stories. Tigers had visited Air Dingin soon after we had left, slaughtering a baby buffalo, and padding heavily around people houses at night. How crazy would it be to see a tiger?.

And the rest as they say is history. Better knock off, Finland tomorrow.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Penang, a hop,skip and jump from Indonesia

We are now, albeit briefly in Penang, a Malaysian island just across the Straits of Malacca from Medan. The contrast couldn't be more obvious. While Medan is dirty, noisy and slightly threatening, Penang is the opposite. Very metropolitan, a melting pot of cultures. Arriving last night we found our character accomodation on the famous Chulia Street "Crystal Guesthouse and wanderred down into Little India to get an amazing Chilli Chicken and Claypot Beriyani. We have been blessed with great food in the last week.

Bangs on midnight, turned out to be an elaborate fireworks display, to celebrate Malaysia's national day (this was news to us but the fireworks were sure appreciated.

This morning we were up early to check out the sunrise over the Malaysia mainland and explore the centre of town. Stumbling upon a market netted us a delicious breakfast of pineapple, dragonberry and some peanut banana pancakes, mmmmm, waiting for the boat with the fruit and vegetables to visit Tello is becoming a distant memory!

This afternoon we head off to Thailand, for an even shorter stop. Before long I guess we will be in Europe. Take Care out there.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Last Month in Brief

Hey in Bukkitinggi now, Western Sumatra, arrived here two days ago from the Tello Islands and a quick taxi ride from Padang.

Today we are celebrating Penny's 27th birthday (27 on the 27th). We (that being Penny, I and Eban an Aussie friend we have found upon the way) hired motorbikes for a couple of days and used them to good effect checking out the "rafflesia" the Worlds largest flower, named I guess after Stanford Raffles who was involved in the foundation of Singapore, and the lovely lake Maninjau, where we woke this morning at a lovely little Losmen called Arlens Paradise.

Tello was amazing and hopefully tomorrow I will write something up, and maybe even post some photos as this connection seems ok. We worked hard for Troppodoc doing medical clinics and erecting rainwater tanks for schools. Penny got to see many interesting patients, too much TB and a a whole lot of everywhere sick (I've been living in the developing world for 60 year) old ladies. We were lucky to share the experience with a group of other kiwis; a family from Wellington: Bronwyn, Johannes, Rose and Brianna as well as Nick and Penny, previous acquaintances who it was great to spend more time with and become friends.

I'll write in detail about some of our expereinces, but some of the highlights: afternoon village clinics and motorbike shuttling, Nina's restaurant and Bintang, remote island clinic (the Baluta experience), Near island adventures (Sibarano and Sibolo...including the sinking dugout), Fish cakes and eggplant in Hato Saro's backyard, Indonesian Independence Day, Unilateral fried banana eating competition, Baby-sitting our Doctor Dereks sick and lovely Leone and Making many new friends. Tomorrow at lunch we travel for 24hours by bus to Medan. I will try to make some more updates before then, Take Care, J