In August of 2008 I published No Conversation #1, a zine detailing my 20 day trip around Northern Sumatra in Indonesia. It will be published in its entirety here in separate installments. This is the first installment.
As the plane came down to land I could see that most of the buildings in Medan were roofed with corrugated tin, all of it solid red with rust. Others were covered with various materials like tarps, stretched tight and patched where they had become threadbare. More tarps were pitched as tents along the streets. It looked like a shanty town, and the first reaction I had upon seeing it was panic. I thought about getting off the plane and immediately buying an airplane ticket at the counter for Bali or Yogyakarta or Malaysia. I had heard stories about Medan being a huge, poor, dirty, horrible city, and my view from the air seemed to corroborate some of those details. I was often cautioned by other travelers about Sumatra, where Westerners weren’t always appreciated. But I didn’t buy a ticket out. I walked down the steps off the plane and across the hot tarmac to the terminal to collect my baggage.
The terminal – the entire airport – was a single building about a quarter of the size of a Wal-Mart Supercenter if not less. Family and friends waited behind ropes in front of the entrance doors on the opposite side from the tarmac. The only English sign was an ad for the only three-star hotel in Medan. It would blow my budget but I memorized the name anyway, just in case. The conveyor belt squealed as it came on and bags started rolling out on the belt for a few feet until reaching the end of the line where they were dumped on the ground. A passenger from the plane volunteered for the job of moving the bags so they didn’t pile on top of one another. When he got his bag another passenger took his place
I had been told to take a becak (bee-chack), a motorbike with a small covered sidecar bolted on, instead of a taxi. The airport wouldn’t let the becaks into the airport lot so about four or five drivers were gathered at the entrance trying to hail down customers. The one wearing plastic Playboy sunglasses spoke some English and asked me the usual questions as we waited for my ride to arrive: “You are alone? Where you stay? Where you from?” I told him I was from Canada and one of the other drivers said, “Oh, kangaroo!” Playboy Sunglasses made fun of him and kept up with his questions, “You single? Want lady? Make boom-boom? You like smoke-smoke?” My driver arrived with the becak and I was stuffed into the cramped bitch seat and lodged my pack between my legs.