Month: March 2012

INTO SUMATRA: PART 4

Landslide!

There we were, packed into yet another tin can of a van which rattled and screamed down the road away from Bukkittingi.  Hell bent, Hell bent for Padang. The driver was up to the usual shenanigans that I’d come to expect from anyone behind the wheel in Indonesia: being a suicidal dick.  He honked and passed on corners and tailgated and tore down the way like a cat set aflame, making us all privately come to terms with the fact that we could die at any moment.  And guess what?  We almost did.  Death pounced upon the road that day, just meters ahead, but luckily for all of us, the Reaper’s scythe narrowly missed its target.

I’ve seen the aftermath of plenty of landslides, both in Southeast Asia and back home in the rain-soaked environs of the Pacific Northwest, but never had one come so close to killing me.  Just twenty seconds later and our seatbelt-free vehicle would have been crushed under a boulder that nothing short of Superman could have moved.  This giant-ass rock was accompanied by a deadly a mass of dirt, brush, and smaller stones that, if they didn’t fall on us directly, would have at least knocked the van off the narrow road and into the roaring river gorge below: Certain death, third-world catastrophe style.

So the road was now blocked, and traffic was quickly stacking up on both sides of the slide.  Minhee and I slipped out of the stuff van for fresh air and a photo op.  At this point a posse gathered around the obstruction and attempted to clear what they could.  I pitched in for a moment, but when it came time to move one of the huge rocks, it was obvious that no amount of pushing or grunting or heave-ho-ing was going to make a lick of difference.  This boulder was a real hernia-maker and there to stay.  The only hope of our van reaching its destination would be to clear a path around the slide, otherwise we’d have to grab our packs and start walking in hopes of flagging down a ride on the other side.  However, the locals were more industrious than I originally thought.  After a lot of clusterfuckery–standing around smoking and arguing with four or five self-appointed people taking charge—the cops came and everyone got down to business, clearing just enough space between the pile and the edge of the road to squeak a vehicle by, albeit slowly and one-at-a-time.

Being one of the closest vehicles to the landslide almost got us crushed, but it also guaranteed that we wouldn’t have to wait hours for our turn to drive around the pile.  Eventually our chance came, and our driver, properly humbled and scared straight by this act of Allah, gingerly skirted the minivan around the dirt and rocks and drove the rest of the way to Padang like a real, responsible cit.

The Mosquito Coast

Padang is both the capital and largest city in West Sumatra, and for us served solely as a point of transport.  It was stuffy, loud, and Satanically hot–a gaping shithole of a town– though probably nominally nicer than Medan, if only for the fact that it was located right on the Indian Ocean.  In fact, we could see it from the road: the sea at last!  After two and a half weeks in the interior highlands, we had stumbled down to the beach, which is why most people come to the tropics anyway, isn’t it?  I like the beach as much as anyone else, but to tell the truth I get a bit restless when I spend too much time on the sand and in the surf; I’m just not one to lie around and bake in the sun.  I’m a traveler, not a fucking reptile, so my beach time is always carefully planned when I’m out on the road.

We took a blue local van about twenty kilometers south of the city to a place called Bungus Beach, which was suggested to us by Don, the proprietor of the Bedudal Café in Bukkittingi, where I spent a few evenings eating, sipping Bintang Beer, playing guitar, and signing multiple renditions of “Redemption Song” with him and his long-haired cohorts.  Bob Marley still rules the acoustic playlist of the tropics: Will he ever be dethroned?  Don suggested a place called Tin Tin Losmen (Losmen means “guesthouse” in Bahasa Indonesia), which, to my immediate disappointment, was located right at the side of the highway, a dangerous and loud route overrun with giant trucks carrying petrol from a local refinery.  Oil is big business in Sumatra, though, like most of the other major enterprises, the local people taste very little of the pie.  I’ve never been to a place so rich in resources yet so wanting.

Tin Tin was a bare bones joint sitting on a rocky scab of a beach, which did little to lift my spirits–beaten down by hard travel and the nagging suspicion that we rolled craps when it came to picking our seaside destination.  I had noticed that we hadn’t gone very far from Padang city, so escaping the inevitable pollution of the one million people living there would be impossible.  This was obvious when I checked out the little beach in front of the guesthouse, which was littered with old soda bottles and other rubbish.  A few plastic bags floated listlessly in the murky water, looking like half-dead jellyfish.  The place wasn’t exactly filthy, but I wasn’t dying for a swim either.  I felt deflated: we had travelled very far to get to the edge of the great and mysterious Indian Ocean–a new destination for both of us–and… it kind of sucked.

Our room at Tin Tin was cheap, but you get what you pay for, no?  The sheet was stained with blood and the bathroom was tiny, containing a spigot, an ancient squatter, and a plastic bucket of water.  The walls were splattered with dried black fecal matter which even managed to get itself caked into the recesses of the water bucket’s ladle. Shit was everywhere.  A previous guest had evidently suffered from an atomic bout of diarrhea and poor Minhee did her best to scrub away the evidence.  It’s amazing to witness the aftermath of a truly explosive shit; doing so in the tropics gives you a real appreciation as to just how much havoc the local food can wreak on a visitor’s digestive system.

The night we attempted sleep, but we were mercilessly attacked by an endless sorties of nasty, black mosquitoes.  The room was thick with them—the worst I’ve endured anywhere in Asia—but the owner still saw no need to erect a net.  Minhee woke up in a beserker rage at several points during the hellish evening, slapping and stalking and killing as many of the dreadful little fuckers as she could, but doing so was like trying to stop the tide: the room’s window didn’t properly seal, so one by one the blood suckers kept storming in.  No amount of clothing or DEET seemed to deter these equatorial skitters, and in the end I just surrendered and allowed myself to get bit. It was only later that I found out that malaria is alive and well in West Sumatra, but neither of us have shown any symptoms as of yet, so it looks like we may have dodged that bullet.

 

Pet civet at Tin Tin

*         *         *

Despite the bad start, Bungus Beach began to grow on me.  The next day we moved to the much better Carlos Losmen down the beach, where, for a few bucks more, we secured a beach front bungalow complete with a real, working, mosquito net and a bathroom that wasn’t shellacked with the remnants of someone’s half digested curry.  We found a little café that was run by Bukkittingi Don’s brother: it was cheap as hell, delicious, and only played Bob Marley’s Legend about forty seven percent of the time.  We also ended up meeting a clutch of other travelers who we could get down with: Olaf and Christian, a gay couple from Europe, along with Denise, an English surfer/travel writer and her travelling companion Giovanni, who came from Tuscany, and like most every Italian I’ve ever met on the road, always brought spirit and laughter to the situation.

Bungus Beach isn’t so much of a destination unto itself.  While it does have certain charms, it mainly acts as a staging area for a series of islands nearby.  On the third day Minhee and I took a day trip to one of these islands with our new travel buddies.  It was an hour journey by boat and after leaving Bungus Beach and getting out among these outcroppings, I understood exactly why people make the trip.  We ended up at Papang Island, with white sand beaches and super clear water.  We spent most of the day in the water snorkeling; it was Minhee’s first time doing anything of the sort, and after a couple of hours of getting used to breathing through a rubber tube, she joined me as we glided over the reef, taking in countless fish and even one monstrous blue moray eel.  Giovanni, the young Italian, was having no part in the snorkeling though, due to his pronounced fear of sharks.

“I try to snorkel but I am too scared!  Every time I look out into the blue water I see the shark head and the shark teeth coming for me!  I cannot do it!  You keep your snorkeling.  I try to catch some fish with pole instead!”

Papang Island

We spent two more days in Bungus, relaxing, reading, eating, and doing some much-needed mid-trip laundry. By the end of our stay the place had earned my begrudging respect: one thing I liked was that there were really very few tourists.  There were only four or five guesthouses along the whole expanse of beach, and perhaps about twenty foreign visitors were staying in all of them at the time.  These were almost exclusively Europeans (I’m sure I was the only American, as I was pretty much everywhere up to that point).  Despite the fact that Bungus wasn’t a pristine place, it was a working beach.  The locals worked nets straight from the shore, right out in front of where we stayed.  Every day I watched them bring in their hauls, took a few photos, and shared smiles, handshakes, and cigarettes.  These were poor fisherman getting anything they could from the sea, and most of their harvests were meager.  But there was no separation between us and them.  There were no walls to keep anyone out, and no locals hawking shit that none of us wanted or needed: no one was in your pocket.  Bungus Beach was a real place where real people went about their business; the visitors came and went and spent some money in the local economy, but folks didn’t change it all just to cater to us.  No one got shut out.  There was something exceedingly honest about the place and, despite its shortcomings, I liked it for that.

           *         *         *

The Other Side of the Smile

Being a man, it’s very easy for me to forget that women often have to deal with a whole extra set of hassles when they’re on the road.  I hear about it and I see a bit of it but, more often than not it’s easy for me to tune out.  I was guilty of such willful ignorance in Indonesia, and the consequences were nearly severe.

Sumatra is not a good place for a woman to travel on her own.  I only met one female the whole month that was rolling solo, but she had actually lived in Sumatra before, had local friends on the ground, and spoke the language.  She was the only one.  Every other woman was travelling with a husband, boyfriend, lover, or within a larger group with at least one male friend. And I can’t say I blame them.

As soon as we set food in Indonesia, Minhee attracted intense amounts of attention.  She did a pretty good job of covering up when we went out in public, so as not to upset Muslim sensibilities, but she also refused to wrap herself up totally, so along with an uncovered head, a bit of flesh was usually exposed.  As a result she was subjected to constant stares, whistles, yells, and amazingly brazen ogles, or “eye-rapes” as she jokingly called them.  I think most foreign women attract such attention, but it seemed even more in her case.  Why is that?  Why did Indonesian men, who, for the most, were sweet, respectful guys, throw basic decency to the wind and unleash their inner molester whenever Minhee was in the vicinity?  Was it just because she’s a hot girl?  Do they have a thing for Northeast Asians?  Do they think that all foreign women are sluts?  Or is it because as Muslims, most of them don’t even get a whiff of pussy until they are married, and just the sight of one beautiful woman who isn’t covered head to toe is enough to send them into some sort of randy conniption?

*         *         *

(The following is Minhee’s story.  She relayed it to me and I’m doing my best to write it as she told it.)

On our last at Bungus Beach I joined an English guy and his Thai girlfriend for some beers at the beach café near our guesthouse.  Sumatra isn’t a party destination and aside from a few beers some nights, I drank much less than I ever would in Korea.  Most of the other travelers I met would have one or two beers at the most before calling it a night, and after two weeks of this, I was dying to throw a few back, so you can imagine my delight when I met Charles and his girlfriend, who also shared a love of boozing.  Thank God.  Finally someone to get my drunk on with.  Minhee, due to a serious alcohol allergy, doesn’t drink at all, so she chose to stay back at the room, eventually wandering out onto the beach to take some photos by moonlight.  At one point she came to the café and said hello.  It was about eleven o’clock and things were pretty quiet along Bungus Beach, as well as the highway.

After meeting me at the café, Minhee decided to go back to our room, which was about a six or seven minute walk down the beach.  She had a headlamp and decided to walk along the side of the highway instead of the beach.  She was a couple minutes down the road when a black sedan drove up.  Three men were inside..  Upon seeing Minhee they stopped the car.

“Hey girl!  You come in!”  A passenger door opened.  “Come in car!”

Minhee ignored their request and quickened her pace.  They continued their lines.

“You China girl?  Japan?  Ni-hao?  Konichiwa?  Come on girl! Get in car!”

At this point she broke into a full sprint with the black sedan keeping pace.  When she came upon the dirt alley leading to our guesthouse, she ducked down it and made a go, quickly reaching our bungalow and locking herself inside.  Just when she thought she was safe, she heard the three men approach outside.

“Hello…  Hello girl…  You come out.”

They walked to the door and jiggled the handle.  Minee could hear them trying to peer in the window.  She crouched on the floor, trying to breathe as little as possible and attempting invisibility.

They stayed outside for fifteen minutes, smoking, lingering, and periodically calling out to her, before they finally gave up and took off.

I got back an hour and a half later—warm, full of crappy pilsner and buzzing.  Minhee had barricaded the door and after opening up for me, sat on the bed, shaken and angry.  I suppose she was lucky in a sense, because the outcome could have been much worse: it was just a big scare.  But I felt like a massive heel.  I invited her on this trip and promised to protect her the whole time, but had utterly failed in my duty, choosing instead to get sloshed.  I had taken her safety for granted.  I had forgotten that, right or not, women have a whole other set of rules that they must play by, especially when travelling.  I forgot that once and hope to never do it again.

*Note: To make matters worse, some asshole grabbed her breast during a trip to a waterfall the next day.  He was helping her to cross a particularly high and treacherous part of the trail, and took the liberty to cop a feel, giving her a couple of hard squeezes.  I didn’t see it at the time, though it happened under my nose.  That’s a story for another time, though, needless to say, Minhee wasn’t unhappy when we boarded a plane the following evening and flew back to Medan.

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INTO SUMATRA: PART 3

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Waiting 

The bus station in Parapet was sad, even by Indonesian standards: empty and neglected, with just the odd minibus lurching in to drop off or pick up a passenger or two. The place was lined with two-storey buildings that boxed in the unused expanse. The ground floors housed a handful of woeful businesses, while the upper sections were home to people, as evidenced by the laundry hanging from the windows and terraces.  The concrete was ancient and cracked, with weeds sprouting up wherever they could. Chickens and emaciated cats roamed freely, along with packs of dirty-faced children who looked more feral than the animals.  I passed some of the time wandering about and playing with these kids, who squealed and shrieked while I pretended to chase them over the rotting ground.

After a short ferry ride from Tuk-Tuk, Minhee and I were met at the dock and driven to the Andilo Nanay Travel Company, which maintained a small office in the dilapidated complex.  The décor of the room looked as if it had not been changed since 1981, with a bare concrete floor and paper peeling from the walls, revealing sickly beige underneath.  Everything was covered in a yellow film, the result of tens of thousands of cigarettes puffed down over the ages.  A handwritten fare chart barely clung to the wall, advertising prices that were at least a decade and a half old.  A giant cross hung next to a late-70’s era illustrated poster for Indonesian Airlines.  A tourism ad for “Canada”—a glacier-topped mountain and pristine lake–hung above the forbidding entrance to the back half of the building.  Could this decaying office actually transport me to the Great White North?

We sat on a hard wooden bench that was as comfortable as an inquisitor’s torture chair.  Minhee smoked and perfected her “Angry Birds” skills while the ponytailed Batak dude next to us sang along with tunes warbling from his cell phone.  Audioslave figured prominently. (Evidently Chris Cornell is huge in Sumatra.  Who knew?)  He and Minhee ended up talking for a while and even compared a few tattoos (his ink was mighty).  He was a tattoo artist and was heading down to the town of Padang in Western Sumatra to work on a commission.  We were also off to Padang but would be stopping off first at the mountain town of Bukkittingi, some three hours closer, which was no consolation really, since any way you shook it the three of us were facing an all night slog.

The bus was four hours late, but we didn’t complain.  What good would it have done?  We were in Indonesia, and shit just doesn’t run on time.  End of.  Whining about it does nothing but piss off the locals and earn you the label of BIG FAT DOUCHE in the process; I’ve seen it too many times to count–usually by some fussy German or Northern Euro-type. I have a big mouth and strong feelings but I’m also a seasoned enough traveler to know when to shut the fuck up.

We rode all night in a crowded coach with barely functioning air conditioning and dead-cushioned seats that dug into our asses.  The bus groaned and crawled down the two-lane “highway”; I managed to nod off for some hours, thanks to the two little blue pills I downed shortly after we pulled out of Parapet’s Apocalypse Now bus terminal.  Minhee chose to abstain, and as a result had to endure every second of the seventeen-hour grind without a shred of sleep; she was positively zombified by the time we reached our destination

Bukkitingi lies in the shadow of both the Mt. Singgalong and Mt. Merapi volcanoes, with a third, Mt. Sago, just another hour down the road.  These people are living on what can only be described as a powerful piece of land.  The large town is over 1,000 meters above sea-level, so, like Lake Toba, things are generally cooler than the lower-lying furnace that makes up other areas in Sumatra.  It’s a pretty enough place with a massive mosque and market smack dab in the middle of the burg, but like any population center in Indonesia, it’s loud, dirty, and overrun with cars.  On the first night we made the mistake of staying in one of the cheapest rooms available, which also happened to be located on the busiest corner in town: a cacophony of car horns, bus engines, and motorbikes.  Add the five times daily call to prayer and you got some serious noise.  To quote the late Seattle poet Steven Jesse Bernstein: “More noise, please.”

Much of our time in Bukkittingi was spent on the back of a motorcycle, making day trips into the heart of the surrounding countryside.  We rode out to Lake Maninjua, which is smaller than Toba but no less magnificent; the next day we took a jaunt out to the Harau Valley–an idyllic and remote corner of West Sumatra famous for its limestone rock faces, waterfalls, and pure jungle solitude.  All the time we took in rice terraces, water buffalo, and mosques: mosques and mosques and mosques.  While it is true that the folks in Indonesia practice a very laid-back and tolerant form of Islam, they’re still very serious about getting their prayer on, and throw up houses of worship like Starbucks in the suburbs.  There’s no shortage of places to throw down your prayer rug.

 Harau Valley

The Kids Are All Right

After a solid week in Indonesia it hit me: The teenagers there are badass. In the cities and towns they all dressed in Converse-style sneakers and skinny jeans and wore “Exploited” T-shirts. Most of them start smoking when they’re like, seven, and seriously dig punk rock and metal. The first sign was in a PC room in Medan, where my screensaver was a “Descendents” logo, and the kid who ran the shop blasted furious punk rock from his computer, while he and his tattooed, pierced friends sang along in English.  My heart soared.

During a solo trip to the market in Bukittingi, I was shadowed by a pesky college kid who peppered me with questions:  “Where are you from?” “Where do you stay?” “How do you find our town?”  At first I was annoyed and assumed he was on the make, I tried to brush him off, but he stuck to me like a mussel to rock, and after a while I realized that he just wanted to practice his English with a foreigner. So I warmed to him and lobbed some back his way. When I asked him about his favorite kind of music, without blinking, he replied:

“Grunge! I love grunge!”

He then went on to say how much he loved Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains.  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.

You could say that I had an inkling of the Indo rock and roll spirit before the trip, but nothing more. I remember reading about an effort by the authorities up in Banda Aceh (Sumatra’s most conservative city) to stamp out the burgeoning punk scene: They rounded up the punks, shaved their heads, stripped them of their clothes, and put them into Islamic re-education camps. While this is indeed a knee-jerk overreaction by a bunch of uptight asshats, the fact that they even felt the need gives me some sort of faint hope for humanity, at least the part in Indonesia.  Punk is not dead: in fact it thrives and grows in one of the places where they need it most.  These Indonesian punks are the real thing, because going punk in such a culture is a serious choice, not just a fashion statement.  To be a punk is to risk being mocked, shunned, unemployed, harassed, and now even imprisoned.  I’m not sure if this phenomenon is spread all throughout the archipelago; I suspect that it’s confined to Sumatra, which, with its clouds, trees, and volcanoes, reminded me of a tropical version of the Pacific Northwest.

Punks!

Mr. Coin and the River of Bags

“You like the monkeys?” the man asked, emerging from his tourist kiosk and smiling.  “There are more than thirty in this group.”

A troupe of macaques scurried and scuffled while Minhee and I tossed them peanuts from a plastic pack. It was our last day in Bukkittingi and we were exploring its outskirts, having huffed up a crumbling staircase to the top of the town’s main hill, which housed an old Dutch-built fort.  After paying a fifty cent entry fee to a wrinkled sack of a man, we took in the view from the heights: Beneath was a crowded cemetery, whose elevated stone graves looked like a jumbled mass of teeth. The rest of the town loomed behind. On the other side, deep below, a river cut through some rice fields, slivers of jungle, and eventually disappeared between two narrow walls of earth and rock.

“They’re beautiful,” Minhee replied, “but the big male is mean.  He wants to steal all of the peanuts.”

“There are more monkeys up in the canyon.  Black ones, a different breed.  Have you been?”

“No,” I said.  “Is it far?”

“Not so far… maybe one hour.”

I looked toward the sky, which was now turning from grey to dark purple.  Rain was in the works.

“There are also fruit bats.”

“Fruit bats?” My curiosity was piqued, as was Minhee’s.

“Yes.  Many many large fruit bats.  This big.” He held out his hands to approximate their huge wingspans.  “I know where they live. Do you want to see?”

“Yes, I definitely want to see fruit bats.”

“I can show you now if you like.”

“What do you think?” I asked Minhee.

She nodded enthusiastically and gave me two thumbs up.

*           *            *

His name was Mr. Coin, and soon we were off, riding down the hill on the back of his little motorbike, and then tromping over the muddy rice fields.  The sky was now black and unleashed a deluge upon us.  Minhee and I donned our rain jackets which I had stashed in the pack.  Mr. Coin didn’t fight the rain, choosing instead to let it pound his skin and soak in deep.

“No problem.  I am used to it,” he grinned.

Mr. Coin grew up in the river valley: this was his home turf.  We were literally trekking through the man’s back yard, and he was familiar with everything growing in it. He was some sort of medicinal plant savant, ripping up leaves and stems for us to sniff, rub on our skin, and chew on. He showed us lemon grass, cardamom, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and many others that I failed to either jot down or remember. The guy truly knew his shit.

“My father teach me about all the plants,” he said, as he demonstrated how a certain flower turned from pink to dark green with the application of heat from a burning cigarette. “But these days the young people don’t want to learn.  But I will show my son the ways.”

After some time in the fringe of jungle at the town’s edge, we walked out of the trees and into the wide expanse of the river, over white stones and driftwood snags.  It’s here where things took a nastier turn, because it was immediately obvious that this river also doubled as Bukkittingi’s trash depository, especially plastic bags.  There were plastic bags everywhere—over and under the rocks, on the sand bars, tied and twisted around the shrubs, logs, and other wood that had been brought down by the river’s high water.  And this wasn’t in just one spot.  As we walked on through the downpour—past a group of semi-wild buffalo, past a family of villagers netting small fish for the tropical fish trade (big business in Indo)—it became obvious that the bags polluted this whole stretch of river, as far as the eye could see.  The place has the look of a trash dump, and my stomach sickened at the sight.

“Twenty years before no problem,” explained Mr. Coin. “People they just use basket, but now at the market (he pointed upstream) they use the plastic bag, and the people just throw on the ground and it comes to the river.”

“Has anyone tried to clean this place up?” asked Minhee, her face obscured under the hood of her pink Hello Kitty raincoat.

“Yes, a few years ago some German visitors they come and try to clean the river… but no good.”

Good God. If the GERMANS can’t organize a cleanup then we’re all fucked, I thought to myself, shaking my head.

The rain eventually eased as we made ourselves into the canyon proper.  Mr. Coin had taken off his shoes and was doing the multiple fords of the shallow river barefoot.  I surrendered mine to the elements and splashed in each time fully shod, with tiny Minhee clutching hard while I carried her piggyback.

“There, there—look,” said Coin, pointing to some trees at the top of the cliff. “They are migrating north to the big park. They stop here.  You are lucky to come at the right time.”

I saw them at once, clusters of fruit bats—or, more accurately, flying foxes—hanging upside down from the limbs of the trees.

Mr. Coin grabbed a large piece of driftwood and hauled it over to another.  He brought it down with all of his strength, banging the wood together repeatedly.  The din echoed off the canyon wall.  Nothing.  He did it again and then, cupping his hands around his mouth, let loose a cry from the bottom of his gut:

“WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!”

With that, one of the flying foxes, now disturbed, took to the air.

“Look!” Minhee cried.

Mr. Coin continued banging the wood, and I joined in with a howl of my own.

Soon the one flying fox was joined by another, and another, and then another, until, within a few seconds the whole narrow strip of canyon sky was filled with these massive, winged creatures flying to the other side in search of a new resting place.  We craned our necks back and looked straight up, the rain stinging our eyes but failing to spoil the strange, magnificent sight.

*         *         *

After the fruit bats we climbed out of the canyon and visited a village, where Mr. Coin harvested a ripe papaya that he sliced up on the spot.  The meat was succulent and firm and explosive with flavor, and remains seared into my memory as the best piece of fruit I’ve eaten in my life.  I doubt that it will ever be topped.  We then stopped at his friends silver shop, of course, where Minhee picked up a couple of handmade earrings for friends.

As we walked back through the village toward the main town, I took in the architecture of the wooden houses which mixed the local Minangkabau style (high peaked roofs that look like buffalo horns, intricate carvings) with that of the traditional Dutch (narrow windows, double doors).  Dogs barked as we passed most every house, an anomaly in Muslim Indo.

“They keep them to hunt wild pigs.  When the pig is killed the dogs get all the meat.”

 “Well call me next time.  I’ll give the dogs a hand.”

It was now twilight and the rain had stopped.  The low light refracted through the remaining clouds, bathing the village in subdued hues.  Minhee lingered behind, snapping close-up photos of the innumerable flowers in bloom.  The evening call to prayer started not from just one, but up to ten different mosques.  The haunting cry of the multiple muezzins blended together into one hallucinatory song.  If it was exotic we were after, we had just found it.

We ended the trip on a cable footbridge, a good thirty meters above the river.  It was now almost dark, and Mr. Coin and I sat on the rickety, swaying structure, smoking, while Minhee looked on from the safety of the other side.  As I sat there, soaked and chilled, I let the smoke warm me inside.

“A few years ago I went to Jakarta to live with my brother,” said Mr. Coin.  “But I hate it.  The city is not for me.  Here is my home.  This valley and this river.  Here I will live and die.”

I nodded and looked to the sky, where a flying fox glided on, making its way north.

*Thanks to Minhee Kim for supplying many of the great photos*

INTO SUMATRA: PART 2

(Note: The following contains some previously posted material, but as I am putting everything together into one uber-travelogue, I’ll ask your indulgence.  Thanks, CT)

From the Sky Ghetto to Medan

We left for Indonesia early the next morning via a mercifully short flight on Air Asia, the continent’s premier discount carrier.  It flies out of its own airport in KL, which Sam later dubbed “The Air Asia Sky Ghetto”.  The place is scrappy and no-frills: it was the old cargo terminal for Kuala Lumpur International Airport, but Air Asia has since moved in like a hermit crab, transforming what was essentially a giant warehouse into its international hub. Travelers from around the world stumble out of taxis and airliners, looking hepatitis-sick under the fluorescent lights, coming and going from all corners of Southeast Asia and beyond.  It was mobbed the morning we left—thick with buzzing human beings—giving the place the feel of a Stones concert or massive sporting event getting underway.

In contrast, Medan’s ramshackle airport was nearly empty when we got there, despite the fact that it serves a city of more than two million people.  Minhee and I arrived twenty minutes before Sam, who booked on Air Indonesia instead.  We filled out our visa forms and paid the twenty five bucks each: ten minutes later, visas in hand, we got into separate lines for immigration. My passport was quickly stamped and I was easily ushered through.  I didn’t look over at Minhee, who waited in a slower-moving line, but rather headed straight toward my bag, which lie beyond the immigration stations, next to the grimy baggage-claim carousel.  As I hefted it over my shoulder and made my way to a money changer (I had yet to buy any Indonesian rupiah), a voice stopped me from behind:

“Mister!  Mister!  Your friend!”

One of the airport attendants pointed back to Minhee, who stood behind the immigration station.  She was waving to me and a frantic look burned across her face.  I hurried back to her at once.

“He won’t let me through.  He says I need a return ticket.  What am I going to do???”

“Don’t worry… you’ll be fine.”

Shit, I thought.  I had yet to purchase our return tickets to KL, since I still wasn’t sure which city we’d be flying out of.  We had no real itinerary: just a few places we knew we wanted to see and a gut feeling that we trusted would get us where we wanted to go.  I was allowed to pass through with nary an eyebrow raised, along with Sam, who was just a few spots behind me.  Minhee, however–a tattooed Korean girl who seemed to be travelling on her own–was getting no such love.  Ah… inter-Asian racism in action.

We were led to a back office where the immigration jefe sat behind a desk.  A haggard British woman was arguing with him; evidently she had overstayed a previous visa and they were in no mood to give her another one.  She was one of these folks that looked like she’d been on the backpackers’ trail for the last thirty years straight – a mess of unwashed black hair, tattered hippy clothes, flip-flops, and crevasse-like wrinkles around her eyes.  She was eventually escorted to a waiting area where she sat down and proceeded to chain-smoke alongside what appeared to be her Indonesian boyfriend.  We were next.

“What seems to be the problem?” the young officer asked in clear English. He was clean cut and sat behind a fastidiously organized desk.  I knew at once that he’d be fair.

“My fiancé lacks a return ticket, as do I.  She’s with me.  They’ve let me through already.  We plan on buying them later in the trip.

”How long do you plan on staying?” he asked Minhee.

“Twenty four days,” I replied.

“Where are you going?”

“Medan, Lake Toba and Banda Aceh,” I shot back.

He leafed through a couple of pages in her green Korean passport, before picking up his stamp and giving it an authoritative: chu-chunk!

“Enjoy your stay,” he said with a smile, handing it back to Minhee.

*         *         *

Medan has a reputation for being a gaping shithole, and this was confirmed within minutes of leaving the airport.  The guide book describes it as “…everything that’s wrong with an Asian city; choked with traffic, pollution and poverty.” This was one of the only things the book got right:  Medan is a dirty, charmless place.  It’s Indonesia’s third-largest city and serves as Sumatra’s transit point and a main center of commerce: many of the transactions of the island’s resource-based economy take place here.  It’s a place to make a buck, pure and simple.  No effort has gone into beautifying it.  As a result, most tourists, like us, choose to spend as little time as possible there.

We ended up getting a cheap room on 4th floor of a dingy hotel next to Mesjid Raya, the city’s main mosque and easily most beautiful structure.  After a cup of sludgy Sumatran coffee (the first of many on this trip), the three of us decided to get our walk on.  We left the small cluster of hotels and guesthouses and set out into the interior of the town, where we became an immediate spectacle.  Strangers waved and shouted to us from moving cars and motorbikes.  Vendors in front of the mosque stared as we walked by, as if their eyes were magnets and we were made of iron.  A wild-eyed woman in filthy rags came staggering at us from behind a bus stop, mumbling with her hand thrust out for cash. Her hair was a frizzy nest of snags and rodent-like teeth jutted straight from her lips.  I think she may have been high on glue.  I’ve seen plenty of beggars in many countries but this woman was so shockingly sad and frightening that I couldn’t even bring myself to give her a note.  I just wanted to get away fast.

It soon became apparent that the act of walking in Medan was a fucking dangerous endeavor.  The sidewalks, when they existed at all, were death traps. They were built a meter or more over runoff channels, and in many spots the concrete was missing altogether, creating an obstacle course of potentially leg-snapping gapes that surely must have taken their toll on the locals. The result was that the populace generally avoided the sidewalks altogether, electing instead to skirt the sides of the roads which were already overrun with cars, buses, motorbikes and trucks.

“This is some dangerous shit,” Sam said, stepping over a broken gap.

“Yeah, I suppose it’s a good thing that booze isn’t readily available.  Can you imagine walking around here at night, drunk off your ass?” I asked.

“You would die!” chimed in Minhee, pointing at me personally.

The lovely streets of Medan

 Mesjid Raya

*         *          *

After a woefully overpriced and badly-cooked lunch at what seemed to be the cleanest place we could find, we made our way back to the hotel for an afternoon lay down.  Lack of sleep, travel, and the deadening heat all joined forces to make sleep an immediate need.  Minhee and I trudged up the endless stairs of our crumbling accommodations; the walls were painted puke green and were cracked in spots, perhaps evidence of the many earthquakes endured over the years.  If a large earthquake were to strike, I doubted that the building would stand.  This was a concern throughout the trip: I generally sought out cheap places to stay, but knew all along that a low-priced room also meant shoddy construction, which could be a death penalty in such a seismically-active region.  In the end it was a gamble we had to take.  The budget just didn’t allow for a room at The Marriott, unless “The Marriott” was the name of a mosquito-infested seven room guesthouse with no running water, bed sheets or towels.

Minhee and I held each other on the tiny bed next to the open window and drifted at once into a deep, hallucinatory sleep.  The ceiling fan spun above our heads while an imperceptible breeze blew on the curtain; we relaxed into a kind of bliss, the perfect nap that can only be achieved while travelling.  After nearly two hours, we were awakened by the sound of the muezzin: it was four o’clock on a Friday afternoon and time for prayers.  His amplified song rang throughout the neighborhood and off the stained walls of our humble room.  We opened our eyes and looked out over the tin roofs of the city, a wash of grey, white, red, and tropical green.  Thunder clouds were amassing nearby, and the air was moist and cooler than before.  The muezzin had called us from our dream only to bring us into what seemed to be another, and for a moment we remembered exactly why we had come.

 The rooftops of the city

 Reclining Minhee

Why Do They Gotta Drive Like Assholes?

We were keen to get out of Medan as quickly as possible, so the next morning we boarded a banged-up minibus that would take us down to Lake Toba, where we hoped to finally relax into the trip and spend a lazy few days. Our happiness on leaving the fume-filled city was short lived, though, for soon it became apparent that our driver was as masochistic as any I’ve encountered on third-word roads; he slammed the gas pedal and drove like a methed-up rabbit on the overcrowded two lane road—known as the Trans-Sumatran highway—that headed south. Traffic was horrendous but shot forward with velocity, and it was soon obvious that our man was a compulsive passer, no matter what was headed our way in the opposite lane. Like so many of these guys he’d rush right up on the ass of whatever vehicle cruised in front of us, jerk into the other lane, shoot forward as menacingly fast as possible and then careen back into relative safety, twice coming within INCHES of clipping the oncoming car. He’d then rush and repeat—even on blind corners—blasting the horn in a feeble attempt to “clear” whatever two-ton piece of metal may be rolling headlong our way. Minhee actually slept on my shoulder for much of the time, closing her eyes in a kind of denial of the situation, while Sam and I left claw marks on the grips and seats in front of us. This guy was so insane that even the couple of Indonesians on board–well-used to such shenanigans–squealed in protest.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve literally put my life in the hands of these dickheads, these guys who drive with some sort of chip on their shoulder, who, despite the obvious dangers and treacherous conditions, feel compelled to go AS FAST AS POSSIBLE and pass every vehicle they come up on as if their very manhood was as stake. But telling them to slow down a waste of breath.  It’s like telling a dog not to shit in the grass

 

Where Are the Unwashed Masses of Travelers? 

“Seven years ago we had many visitors,” Anne said, “but after tsunami and earthquake, very few come.” I was sitting at a table in the empty restaurant on the one road that circles through Tuk-Tuk, a village perched on a peninsula that sticks out into Indonesia’s largest freshwater body, Lake Toba, like a broken thumb. I sipped from a cup of grainy, black, strong-as hell coffee and tried to write in my notebook, but Anne wasn’t having it. In fact, most anywhere I went in Tuk-Tuk it was the same story: restaurants and guesthouses with nary a guest, and owners who are so happy for your business that they sit next to you and sling heaps of friendly questions your way.  Wanna be left alone?  Forget about it.

Lake Toba was created by a volcanic explosion some 50,000 years ago, and is surrounded by green and grey highlands that rim its deep waters like a bowl. In the middle is Samosir Island, a rock escarpment that rises like a gnarly spine, with enough flat land for some farms, villages, and the once-tourist magnet of Tuk-Tuk. The lake is well above sea level, and as a result a welcome bit cooler than the sauna that is the lowlands of Sumatra. The mornings are generally sunny and hot, but by late afternoon grey clouds pour over the mountain ridges and light rain drizzles down. Wind whips the waters of the lake; any thought of the scorching tropical sun is immediately put to rest by the moody environment.

Tuk-tuk looked like a backpackers’ haven. Countless guesthouses offered cheap accommodations with lakefront access. Open air restaurants served up thick curries, pizzas, banana pancakes (of course), and Indo’s omnipresent nasi goreng (fried rice) and mi goreng (fried ramen noodles). The local Batak people were all smiles and welcomes and some of the friendliest I’ve met anywhere on my travels. As Christians, they all drink, sell the hell out of Bintang beer, and are just more relaxed than the rule-burdened Muslims that make up Indonesia’s religious majority. The place was beautiful, and as laid-back as anywhere I’ve been in Laos, which sets the standard for chill. It was easy on the wallet, the eyes, and the soul. The question is: Where were the people?

After talking to a few locals along with some seasoned travelers, three things essentially killed tourism in Tuk-Tuk and Sumatra in general: The first was the Bali bombing of ’02, in which over 200 Aussies died and made Indonesia officially dangerous in the eyes of the Western world.  The next thing was the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 – along with a couple of subsequent deadly quakes – which turned to the word “Sumatra” into a synonym for “tragedy”.  The final straw was an inexplicable government decision to reduce tourist visas from three months down to one.  Most tourists hit Bali, Lombok (The Gilis), and Java first.  Sumatra has always been a bit farther down the list: with only a month to spend in the country, most travelers are now giving Sumatra a pass, whereas before they’d include it on the itinerary.

This dearth of travelers was obviously taxing on the locals.  Many of the larger hotels built in Tuk-Tuk had been shuttered entirely.  Only the smaller places could afford to stay open and I was struck with a sense of eeriness as we strolled around the partially-abandoned tourist enclave, trying to imagine the place booming with guests.  We really didn’t mind, though.  It was nice having the place to ourselves.  Who likes crowds except for the people profiting off them?

We spent five days in Tuk-Tuk, in which we swam, hiked to a waterfall, and explored the surrounding countryside on the back of a motorbike. We also did a lot of eating, mainly at the Juwita Café, owned by a man named Sam and his wife Heddy.  Heddy was a master cook (she gave daily classes, when there are students) and whipped up the best food we had the whole trip, which was always made from local fresh ingredients.  Her beef rending is one of the best curries I’ve ever taken down, and trust me, it’s up against some pretty stiff competition.

Sam (our travel partner, not Heddy’s husband) stayed for just three nights before heading back up north to the town of Berestagi, where he intended to climb to the top of an active volcano.  We bade him adieu over omelets and coffee at the Juwita. I hoped climb a volcano as well—it was one of my reasons for coming to Sumatra–only I planned to do it further south, near the town of Bukkittingi, which was to be our next stop.

Traditional Batak house

There Goes the Neighborhood

Anne, like all Batak people, was Christian. Church spires poked up all over the region, and the restaurants and homes of the locals were often adorned with huge crosses and depictions of Christ in his agonizing glory. These people were seriously Jesus’d up.

“How is it living in a Muslim country?” I asked her directly. “Do you guys get along well around here.”

“Generally no problem,” Anne replied. “But the Muslims now, more are coming. Before not so many (a kind of inverse of tourists, it seems), but now…” She shook her head and raised her eyebrows. “They are not so friendly, you know. Always like this with the Christians,” she stuck her arm away from her body with her palm up, a literal representation of at arm’s length. “You know, for Christmas, we give our neighbors food that we cook. This is our tradition. The Muslims they take the food, but they never eat. They just throw away… if they give us gifts we take and eat, but they throw away. And if Batak woman marries Muslim man, we never can see her again. Muslim family doesn’t even allow her to go see her family, to go to wedding…”

“That is too bad,” I said. I tried to explain how her Muslim neighbors were probably not trying to be rude by throwing out the food they received, but just following the rules of halal, but this did little good to assuage her skepticism.

“Let’s just hope that, despite your differences, you can continue to live peacefully, side by side.”

She nodded her head in agreement.

“And let’s really hope the travelers come back again.”

With that she smiled and laughed.

“Yes, yes. Let us hope. In the meantime, are you hungry? Nasi goreng?

INTO SUMATRA: PART 1

(The following is Part 1 of a travelogue covering my most recent trip to Sumatra. I’ll be posting pieces of this over the next week or two, depending on how quickly they come.)

 

The Civilized World

Hong Kong was cold—much more than I remembered it—which came as a surprise. I was expecting a sub-tropical middle ground between Korea and Malaysia—no jacket required–but was instead greeted by an indifferent city whose skyscrapers were smothered in a Seattle-like misty piss. I wasn’t so far from home after all: Bone-chilling rain and suicidal skies? These were things I knew deep in my flesh, so you could say that I was tempered and wouldn’t let it get me down. We’d be in the equatorial heat soon enough. We just had to pass the afternoon in HK before jumping back on the plane and heading south: Sometimes layovers are blessings from on high. Normally I would have given the day-tour a pass in such shitty weather conditions, but this occasion was auspicious. I was to dine with MM, a man who I only knew from the internet, yet had dealt with deeply over the past few years. After all, it was his press that, just a few months earlier, had put out my book, so this was to be a big milestone in my life. My first publishing lunch. I liked the way it sounded, and so did Minhee, who shivered by my side as we killed the time, walking the wet streets near Hong Kong Station before our noontime rendezvous.

We were poorly equipped to deal with the rain, since our waterproof jackets were packed away in my bag, which languished in the belly of the plane back at the airport. We also lacked umbrellas, and I shuddered to think what one must cost in downtown Hong Kong, where just thinking about the prices shot dread into the heart of this here backpacker on the first day of a month-long jaunt. So our eyes sparked up when we spied a pedestrian tunnel leading under the regular street. Shelter from the storm! But as we scurried through the drizzle, en route, we quickly noticed that we weren’t alone. In fact, we were in the company of hundreds, perhaps thousands of other people. They were nearly all women, and they weren’t even Chinese. I immediately recognized them as Filipinas, and they sat down on cut-out cardboard right there on the sidewalks, under the awnings of the buildings.

“Who are they?” Minhee asked. “Homeless people?” Good guess, I thought. After all, who else sits on cardboard slats?

“I think they’re maids,” I replied, remembering that Hong Kong is a magnet for Filipina domestics. “But I have no idea what they’re doing here… I think maybe they’re hanging out looking for work, like Mexicans do in Home Depot parking lots back home.”

“Are you sure? I don’t know…There are too many.”

And she was right. As we entered the tunnel the mob grew thicker. These ladies were bundled-up against the cold, and sat down in clusters, eating pancit and lumpia from Tupperware containers, laughing, teasing, and talking on cell phones. They drank coffee and were nearly all smiling. Despite the fact that they were sitting on the frigid pavement in a fluorescent-lit pedestrian underpass, this was obviously a joyous occasion and I had no inkling as to the reason why.

*        *       *

“It’s their one day off,” MM remarked an hour later, over a lunch of dim sum, fried pork, greens, noodle soup, and other Cantonese delights. “They’re the domestic workers for all of Hong Kong. They get one day off a month and gather next to the train station and catch-up with each other. It’s the only place they can hang out for free. Real estate is at a premium in this town.”

“Ahhhh…” Minhee nodded, slurping up yellow egg noodles.

“Makes sense”, I chimed in.

Finally meeting MM was great. It was only the second time that I’ve ever actually sat down and talked to someone who I only knew from cyberspace. Such encounters are always strange, since it is possible to get so know someone well online, but you still have no idea about their voice or mannerisms or general aura, (if I may use such a ridiculously new-age-y word). It’s familiar and awkward at the same time and a real phenomenon of this digital age. But despite my almost two days of no sleep and aching guts (I was recovering from a drinking binge which had injured me both physically and psychologically), I managed to keep up with MM; we talked about the state of the press, some of the other books he’s put out, and finally got down to discussing marketing strategies for my own, which left me reassured that he had my interests in mind. After lunch we retired at a Starbucks downstairs, where business talk was set aside and we instead exchanged our worst travelers’ shit stories instead. Anyone who has spent more than a couple of weeks tramping around the developing world has a good shit story. Minhee just shook her head and laughed, choosing to keep hers’ a secret. As ridiculous as talking about pants pooping with my publisher was, it was, in some ways, a good way to end our meeting. We were both just opening up and sharing our humanity with one another, in gory, brown detail.

After lunch and coffee, Minhee and I bade MM adieu, boarded the Hong Kong Airport Express train and sped out of the city, having seen very little. Minhee was underwhelmed by Hong Kong the city, but in all fairness, she never got a chance to give the place a shake. Most of our time was spent in a restaurant on the third floor of the town’s immense train station. I suspect a return trip will change her opinion about the place. But Hong Kong was just a bonus jaunt, a distraction from the real thing. And what thing was that? We were heading deep into it: A four-week journey in Sumatra, Indonesia’s second-biggest island and a place that has always captured my imagination and others’, I’m sure. As we flew south, my mind was afire with images huge lakes, smoking volcanoes, rich coffee, rice terraces, mosques, Technicolor fruit, spices, spiny reef fish, and orang-utans. In short: exoticism concentrate. Almost a month later, when all the grime was cleared from my face, mud wiped from my boots, and we returned back to Korea, I would discover that Sumatra indeed offered all of those things… and more… some of which were decidedly less-exotic, to say the least.

*       *       *

The Kuala Lumpur International Airport is so far from the city center that you almost need to take another plane to get to your hotel. This makes for a nice, jet-engine-scream-free downtown, but creates a real ballache for the traveler. Going to and fro takes time and cash, but luckily KL is a modern, dialed in city, and the journey itself is pretty painless.

Minhee and I forewent the pricey train in favor of the airport bus, a premonition of things to come. Our budget on this outing was tighter Barishnokov’s dance belt, so any chance to save a few bucks was jumped at, especially early in the journey. The bus shot down the highway towards through well-maintained suburbs complete with cul-de-sacs. In the night, underneath the streetlights, the environs reminded me of Southern California: all hills and tidy townhouses. The express way was smooth, wide and pothole-free. Shiny cars accompanied us on our journey into the city and one thing immediately became clear: Malaysia—at least KL—is doing well. Such is the case with all oil-rich countries: there is no shortage of buyers these days. Things were modern and things were nice. We were obviously in the civilized world, where things generally worked. It was amazing to think, even then, that just an hour’s flight away was the mainland of Sumatra, Indonesia, which, while culturally and linguistically similar, couldn’t be any farther away. .

We stayed at the Tiara Guesthouse in the Bukit Bintang area of the city, which is most famous for Jalan Alor, a street dedicated to food, and loads of it. The guesthouse was an overpriced hovel but the bed worked and that was the most important thing; Kuala Lumpur, however, grew on me quickly. It is a modern city, but very southeast Asian – all palm trees, taxis, and curry fumes. It was humid as hell at night, but the streets were active with people walking, talking, eating, and just hanging out. Like Bangkok, it has that mix of rotting tropical old and steel and glass new, yet is quieter and noticeably smaller. Bangkok, without the hookers, I thought, though this was quickly proven wrong as we passed an area with several ladyboys plying their wares; a few other doorways also played host to mini-skirted women whose eyes followed every man who walked by. Whoring is alive and well in KL, just turned down several notches when compared to her Thai big sister. There’s no Patpong; no Soi Cowboy. Debauchery in full is not allowed—just tolerated around the edges.

What struck me as we wandered the streets of central KL was the diversity of food, which I had heard about before but had yet to really grasp: Most of the restaurants were open-aired, featuring Indian, Pakistani (is there really a culinary difference?), Middle Eastern, Chinese, and Malay, all of which pumped their spiced-up aromas onto the street, which mingled together at times, causing my saliva glands to gush forth. It’s no secret I like to get down with some grub (and my photos prove it these days) so I was in a sort of glutton’s nirvana. The people on the street reflected this panorama of cuisine, as well. There were some Westerners, but KL was more a mix of Asians – and I mean the WHOLE of the continent. From light-skinned Iranian tourists to nearly black Southern Indians, Asia was represented mightily, and for once a country lived up to its cheesy slogan sung on the tourism commercials on CNN international. “Malaysia: Truly Asia”. Well fuck me, they’re right.

Jalan Alor is really the ground zero of eating in KL, and that’s where we eventually settled. Chinese influences are the most dominant, and hundreds of plastic tables were set out, with touts clutching menus and nearly pushing us into the flimsy chairs. We eventually settled on a place and ordered some fried squid, garlic beef and greens, while I broke into the first beer of the trip, despite the fact that my insides weren’t really in the mood. But there I was, outdoors, sitting in a plastic chair, at the beginning of a month-long sojourn into a part of the world that I know very little about. Beer was called for, and beer was supped. There is little that scratches my happy itch more than sitting out at night in a tropical country at a plastic table and sipping cold beer. This, for me, is one of life’s pure pleasures and I wasn’t about to say no.

*       *       *

The next day I awoke in a panic. I was in a windowless room and it was ink-black. I was with my girl. Where the fuck am I? Oh yeah oh yeah I’m in KL I’m travelling… it’s okay, really. What time is it, though? I searched for my watch and found it laying on the floor, next to the two useless earplugs I had attempted to stuff into my ears, only to rip them during a feverish sleep. The watch read 2:30 pm but I couldn’t be sure. Was this local time? My watch is a massive Casio traveler’s watch that contains all of the world’s time zones and I may have fucked up when trying to set the thing the day before, so I staggered out of the room and approached the check-in desk, behind which sat a dark-skinned Indian-looking woman counting red Malaysian bank notes.

“Excuse me?” Do you have the time?

Without looking up she just pointed to a clock on the wall. It read 3:10. Holy shit we’ve overslept. So much for exploring the city today…

Still, something inside of me told me that this was not the time. The stationary second hand confirmed this suspicion. So I then went to the guests’ computer in the corner and clicked on the mouse in order to bring up the screen. 2:33 stared back in the lower right hand corner.

“You wanna move?” I asked Minhee when I got back to our pathologically small room.

“Yes please!” she begged. “This place fucking is suck!” The Tiara Guesthosue was located across the street from thumping nightclub and next to a construction zone which evidently worked around the clock, judging from the hammering at 3 in the morning.

“Well pack up. We’re late! We were supposed to check out over two hours ago. We’ll probably have to pay a half day as it is…”

With that we began furiously throwing our things back into our bags. Within two minutes we were ready to head out. I pulled on my giant pack, along with my green day bag, and tromped out toward the front door, with Minhee behind.

“Excuse me,” the woman at the front desk asked. “Will you be having breakfast?”

Beat.

“You’re still serving breakfast?”

“Sure, it’s available until 10.”

“Uh… what time is it?”

“It’s…” she glanced at her watch. “…only just after 8:30.”

“But… the computer… the computer said it was 2:30.”

“Oh, yesterday a man from Spain was using it. He set it to his home time.” She laughed and shrugged. I glanced at my watch, which now read 2:39. Up in the corner it displayed a three letter code: LIS… okay this is some city for world time… LIS… LIS… Lisbon! It’s set to Lisbon time! I pushed a button on the side and the display now changed to 8:39 am. The city code now read SIN for Singapore. Forehead slap.

We turned straight around and headed back to our room. We would move guesthouses later that day, but why turn down breakfast? After all, it was included in the price of the room.

*       *       *

At noon we moved to a better room down the road, and spent the day wandering the sweltering streets of KL. The heat was a bully but Minhee was loving every bit of it, having already suffered several months of a punishing Korean late fall and winter. She’s also… slight of frame (read: not a speck of fat on her body), so the cold chops her up like a cleaver, since she lacks any natural insulation save her skin. Me, being a 200-pound white man (these days, at least), don’t have such a problem. It’s the inverse in my case, where the heat causes me to ooze sweat in embarrassing quantities… but after leaving Korea on a morning where the temperature read -7 C, I wasn’t complaining. So, we ate cheap Indian food, drank iced coffee, ate fried roti and fruit, and took in the splendor that is the Petronas Towers, which not even a cynic can gaze on with disrespect to the architect. They’re really a pair of gorgeous, remarkable buildings. At one point we rode the monorail outside of the main city center, and found ourselves in a 100 percent Muslim area. Minhee was reasonably covered up but still showed bare, tattooed arms, which, in that part of the world, is like a second head. She was stared at with nearly every step they took, and the stares took many forms: the younger women shot jealous daggers her way; the older women were shocked and appalled; but the men, generally, looked at her as if she was a slice of Porterhouse steak and they were famished Pit Bulls.

“I just got eye-raped”, Minhee remarked, as we made our way back to our hotel. Again, a sign of things to come. “Why is everyone staring at me?”

“Now you know how I feel in Korea…”

Minhee gets down with a roti.

The Towers.

That night we met up with Sam, who was also heading Sumatra way. He had flown into Singapore and took a bus into KL that afternoon.

“It was the nicest bus I ever took in my life,” he remarked, while we sipped cold Tiger beers and took down some Thai food outside of a stall on Jalan Alor. “They actually had massage seats. It was insane.”

“Massage seats?” Minhee, wasn’t buying it.

“Yes, with real rollers in back.”

“Well I hope you enjoyed it while you could, because starting tomorrow, things are gonna get a lot rougher.”

“You don’t gotta tell me, dude. This will be my second time visiting Indo.”

Not mine, though. It would be my first, and we were due to leave first thing in the morning on a 7:30 am flight. I’d make damn sure my watch was set to the right time before sleep. But first things first: one more beer.