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.
In north Lombok I travel to Bangsal to catch a boat to Gili Trawangan, one of three little island north of Lombok. Bangsal is the cheapest place to leave from, but it’s also a squalid little port town known for scammers and con artists.
I’m dropped off at the boat terminal, a small shack, and I’m told I need to hurry because the boat to leave for Gili Trawangan is about to leave. This is a con. Boats are never in a hurry to go anywhere in Indonesia. There are departure times certainly, but usually a boat leaves when it’s full or when the guy driving it is done with lunch.
I’m quoted a price. I get up and walk out to the entrance of the terminal and see on the price board that he’s doubled the price for me. So I go back in and ask for the normal price. They tell me it’s more because I’m in a hurry. See the unending scamming that can take place? But I refuse to pay it and they charge the normal price. As I finish getting my ticket other guys run up to me with goods cradled in their arms: mosquito coils, mosquito spray, water bottles, cigarette papers. I push past toward my boat.
30 minutes on choppy waves and we arrive at Gili Trawangan. The island consists of a dirt road going around the island and about a half mile long strip of paved or brick road with dive shops, restaurants, bars, and beach spots. The rest of the island is quiet and secluded, with a few restaurants dotted all the way around, and absolutely no motorized transport, only cidomos (horse-drawn carriages with tinkling bells attached to them) and bicycles. The pace is slow–even though it’s known as the most lively of all three of the tiny islands known as the Gilis (gili means island) and the mood is laid back. I stay there for nine days and don’t feel the need to actually do anything until the 7th day. My place is right on the beach and every night sees spectacular sunsets with the volcano on Lombok towering in the distance.
Originally published August 4, 2007
We celebrate the first birthday of the guesthouse owners’ son and loads of people, both kids and adults, show up. Michael, a Brit who basically lives at Mimpi Manis, tells me birthday parties are virtually unheard of on Lombok (maybe Indonesia too, don’t know) and so the kids don’t ever really eat cake or attend parties like this. While they don’t have birthday parties they do have many ceremonies for other things that don’t seem like a big deal to us, like a first-hair-cutting ceremony or parties for circumcisions where the whole village shows up.
Michael and I are invited to attend one of these hair cutting ceremonies and at the party afterwards the locals gather around and watch all the Westerners eating and talking. It’s not rude–they’re genuinely interested in how these people eat or what mistakes they make to good-naturedly laugh and tease them about. When they bring us food I get some chicken, which looks like just a large piece of meat. I put the entire thing in my mouth and realize it’s just a large bone. The locals see this but don’t burst out laughing until I’ve tried to clandestinely remove it from my mouth. This kind of thing goes on for the duration of our stay here.
I get tired of Made driving me all over town on his motorbike so I get my own. It’s a blast to ride it around the village and to visit the beaches whenever I want, plus it only costs about $3 to fill up a tank–which is actually a very dangerous act. There aren’t gas pumps here, rather there are places with glass bottles filled with gasoline sitting outside. They have little tin roofs over them, but anytime before 11am and after 1pm the sun is directly on them because the roofs are so narrow. They’d be very easy to crash into as they’re right on the side of the road, and the owners of the places smoke cigarettes around them all the time (though they tend put them out when pouring it). I haven’t seen an explosion yet, but I’m waiting.
Originally published August 4, 2007
After a few days on the beaches of Kuta, Bali I leave for the beaches of Kuta, Lombok (same name, different island. Yes this sometimes gets confusing). I have reservations there to stay for a week at Mimpi Manis–the first and only reservations I make in Southeast Asia. I had heard about this place from several travelers, how the owners are fantastic, Kuta itself charming. The owners are an Indonesian, Made (“mah-day”), and his British wife, Gemma.
Kuta, Lombok is a small town where everybody still stares at you if you’re a foreigner, not because they are sizing you up for how much money you have but because they just don’t see many people like you. The kids scream “Hallo!” as you ride by them. The locals break their puzzled look as soon as you smile at them and they return the smile. Everybody loves my pasty white skin and often say they wish they had skin like that.
However it is a surf spot so in parts of the village there are the regular touts and hawkers, but you don’t have to go far to get away from them. But then even the hawkers aren’t as persistent as elsewhere. Made takes me to a beach spot on his motorbike, about a 30 minute ride up into the hills on a tooth-rattling road. The beach is worth it. In the course of the two days that I go there I see a total of 7 other Westerners, two of which are friends staying next door. This beach is called Mawon. The sand is white and has perfectly round grains half the size of a pin head, incredibly deep turquoise water, and is in a little cove with some fishing boats.
There are some locals who sell stuff here, but they’re all very chilled out and not pushy. I set my stuff down where they are hanging out on a beruga–a very cool little platform that you find everywhere on Lombok and Bali, about thigh-high with a thatched roof, all open to the air, and bamboo slats to sit on. Once your butt gets used to sitting on bamboo it’s a great way to sit and watch the ocean. We talk for a while, they practice their English a bit and help my Indonesian pronunciation. They’ve got jewelry, blankets, coconuts, and more all lying around the beruga for purchase. They’re not pushy at all about selling, which is something I love and respect, so I slowly gather gifts for people back home as we sit and watch the foamy water bubble in and fizzle out.