Okay, I’ve officially been here for more than two weeks now, which is more than enough time for me to develop well-formed and snarky opinions about a place. Let me preface everything by saying that we are having a true gas here. Sumatra is gorgeous, exotic, and intriguing, yet at the same time, a festering, overpopulated hell mouth. So here are some brief thoughts.
YOU AIN’T IN THAILAND ANYMORE
Thailand is a beautiful country with delicious food, emerald mountains, pristine beaches and smiling people. This is why tens of millions of tourists descend on the place each year, as if Thailand were the only country worth visiting in SE Asia. And in some ways, it is. The place is lovely, traveler-friendly, and most importantly, has serious tourist infrastructure. Indonesia is not (at least Sumatra). We’ve been the only foreigners an nearly all the transportation we’ve taken in this country. Sure, we arrive in small pockets where smattering of non-Indo faces can be seen, but travelers are few and far between. This country is rough and inconvenient. Shit is often done half-assed and filth is everywhere. It’s a poor place on steroids with the energy of a ADD addled five year old. We just got to a lovely stretch of beach on the Indian Ocean and yes, a lot of trash littered the beach and bobbed in the water. Yay.
THE FOOD IS AWFUL
I love curry and yes, the Indos do some great fucking curries, but good luck getting any that hasn’t been sitting out in front of a restaurant window for sixteen hours. Outside of fried noodles and fried rice, which are literally EVERYWHERE, it’s nearly impossible to get a meal prepared to order, with the exception of the handful of cafes that cater to the slow trickle of visitors in the “tourist” areas. What we get instead is the same they have in the Philippines. A load chewy meats, fish fried beyond recognition (“Are those mushrooms?” Minhee asked), and bits of greens shoots all slathered in atomic chili sauces designed to wage war against both e coli and single-celled micro-organisms. The unfortunate contents of these dishes are heaped upon rice and then sloppily scooped up with the right hand. Come on folks, have a bit of pride in your cuisine. The Vietnamese are poor too, but that doesn’t stop those motherfuckers from DIALING THEIR SHIT IN.
THE MONEY CHANGERS ALL SUFFER FROM SEVER OCD
I arrived in this country with 900 US dollars, as in 9 crisp 100-dollar bills. I decided to change the whole lot into rupiah (the local play money) while in Medan, and went to several banks to get a good rate, but moreover, in a vain attempt to get the assholes to accept two of the hundred dollar notes, both of which had NEARLY IMPERCEPTIBLE creases in the upper right and lower left corners, respectively. No bank would take these two almost perfect 100 dollar bills. I finally found another money changer who reluctantly accepted the notes, albeit at an inferior rate. What gives with the anal-retentiveness when it comes to cash? It’s not like their nasty, grime-covered, crumpled-ass worthless currency is easy on the eyes.
THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT
Indonesian teenagers are badass. In the cities and towns they all dress in converse and skinny jeans and wear Exploited T-shirts. They all start smoking when they’re like, seven, and seriously dig punk rock and metal. A college kid shadowed me during a trip to the market in Bukittingi, and peppered me with questions. Eventually I warmed to the kid and lobbed some back his way. When I asked him about his favorite kind of music, without blinking, he replied, “Grunge! I love grunge!” When I told him that I was from Seattle and had actually seen a number of these bands that he worshiped, I could visibly make out the wet spot forming on his jeans. It’s gotten so bad in Aceh province that they’ve started putting the local punks into Islamic re-education camp. I’m not sure if this phenomenon is spread all throughout the archipeligo or not, though. I suspect that it’s confined to Sumatra, which, with its clouds, trees, and volcanoes, reminds me of a tropical version of the Pacific Northwest.
PLASTIC BAGS ARE TRULY RUINING THE PLANET. NO, REALLY. I’VE SEEN IT.
Yesterday MH and I hired a guide in Bukittingi to take us into a jungle canyon right on the outskirts of the town. They guy was some kind of medicinal plant savant, ripping up leaves and stems for us to sniff, rub on our skin, and chew on. The guy truly knew his shit. He showed us several troupes of monkeys, and a massive colony of fruit bats (locally referred to as ‘flying dogs’), which he made take to the air after banging on some wood and screaming. There were hundreds of them and they were awesome and HUGE. He took us up and down trails and then to the river itself. The day trip was amazing, but there was one teensy catch. The whole of the river bank – and this includes all of the sand bars and islands and driftwood – were covered with trash, most notably, plastic bags. The place looked like a fucking garbage dump – and I’m not talking about one little section that we walked through – but rather the whole thing. It was depressing as fuck and deflated what was otherwise a truly amazing little trek/nature tour. Something’s gotta be done, since things as they stand are well outta hand.
Okay, there are my initial thoughts. I apologize to any Indonesians reading this here post, but your beautiful country is also one giant ballache, which is exactly what I expected.
We’re probably going to disappear to an island for a couple days, so no more interneting for me, which has been the mantra of the trip, actually.