Thursday 31 October – The flight from Penang to Medan was on a tiny little jet and included lunch, even though the flight was barely 45 minutes. As soon as we were up, we were coming down again. We flew right over George Town and I managed to snap an aerial view of the bridge and the coast, it looked stunning. We didn’t take the onion boat as they don’t accept passengers, but also the flights are really cheap so it’s the better option too.
Touchdown at Medan and time for a new country, we didn’t really know what to expect so were excited to be going into the unknown again. It was busy, chaotic and lots of people were approaching us in normal clothing inside the airport – guides, taxi drivers etc. As we made our way out, a mass of taxi drivers were huddled directly outside the doors all shouting 150,000 ruppiah without knowing where we going. We went over to the taxi rank which looked a little more official and numerous drivers approached saying ‘yes we know wisma hari kota’ but then someone else would come over, I don’t get the system of who gets the customer but we went on our way in a metered taxi with the third man who confirmed he knew where we wanted to go.
Just outside the airport more taxi drivers awaited strewn over the grass just hanging around, far too many taxi drivers – official and unofficial.
Immediately outside the manicured airport grounds is the first glimpse of what is to come. It’s sort of a flash back to Nepal mixed with a bit of Vietnam mixed with India. The bare feet kids of Nepal, the shanty houses in rice fields of Vietnam and the rule less roads complete with constant honking of India.
It’s not as underdeveloped as expected though. I have made this conclusion based on the number of McDonalds and KFC’s I saw during the taxi ride to the hotel, plus the plush cinema and mall complex down the road. That said, in comparison to Malaysia it’s definitely a much poorer place. Shanty houses line the railway tracks and scruffy looking kids are numerous at the edge of the roadside.
Not many people walk here, for good reason we discovered. We ventured out and the pavements which do exist are usually covered sewer drains, some of which disappear making a night walk a bit dicey. Plus crossing the road can take ten minutes, especially if you’re not partial to dodging scooters at full speed. When the roads are full, the pavements become the second road. We must look odd, firstly because we’re foreign and secondly because we’re walking. Lots of people shout things out of passing vehicles and endless offers for rickshaw rides come as you walk plus incessant ‘Hello Misters’ bellow from everywhere.
One thing that I have found odd is the lack of women wearing a headscarf. As a population made up of 97% Muslims I definitely expected to see it more than in Malaysia – maybe it’s just here in Medan.
We’re now stuck in Medan for 4 days waiting for the bike to arrive into the sea port at Belawan. It gets here on Monday. Still not moving…yet.
Monday 4 November – Being stuck in the chaotic city of Medan for 3 days there was not that much to see or do, so we used the time to plan, watch more knock off DVDs and Paul managed to get past level 70 on Candy Crush Saga, after rushing to the power mains before his battery died while he had a “good set of special candies”. I’m not sure how long we will still be together….
A little uncertain of the time it would take to get to Belawan Port from Medan we left the hotel at 8am. The taxi driver didn’t know where we wanted to go so had to ask a few locals once we reached the town. It took us just under an hour to get there. When we got out of the taxi the driver looked around and said ‘be careful, yeah’ looked genuinely scared and then left. The agent’s office we were at was again inconspicuous like Mr.Lim’s in Penang and not exactly where we expected – in the middle of a suburban street. Belawan is a pretty dirty and shambolic looking port village. The road that weaves though the corrugated iron houses is dusty and makes everything look even dirtier. There were a million eyes on us, all curious as to what two westerners were doing here. Whilst the aesthetics of the place were unnerving and the glares made us feel a little on edge, we soon come to realise its just plain curiosity and they mean no harm. There were jaunts from the cheeky little kids on their way to school; the chubbier one’s usually being the cocky ones showing off to their friends who all fall about in a fit of giggles when he plucks up the courage to say something. Usually ‘Where you from Mister?’ – always directed at Paul.
We waited outside the office for over an hour when the office caretaker turned up to let us in and do some feather dusting at 10am. Mr Lim originally told us 10am, the Belawan agent turned up 50 minutes later. So nearly 11am. Not worrying too much at this point, we still thought our plan of driving as far as we could after we had the Bike to get near Lake Toba would work.
The agent said I’d have to wait behind as only one person on a scooter. Fine I said i’ll wait here with the luggage. For what seemed an eternity I waited in the hot little office being annihilated by mosquitoes and ignored by the two women working. I dozed in the hope it would pass quicker. Paul was glad once again of the help of an agent for this customs process. They zipped around for 4 hours going from office to office. Not all located in the same place. If we’d attempted this process without the agent, I fear Paul would have lost it totally. 4 hours later Paul and the agent were back and we could finally go once we’d packed up. By this time it was nearly 4pm. It goes dark at 6.30pm. We didn’t have much chance of getting anywhere but thought we’d push on.
That soon came to a halt when we reached the toll road and we got stopped by the vigilant guard. ‘No Motorcycles’ ‘no motorcycles’ he repeated. Then a police officer came over said the same thing, we had no idea how to get out of Belawan without using this road. He said wait over the other side as he had negotiate the traffic to let him through. Immediately we thinking ‘great, a fine’ Paul was saying let’s go, just drive off. I was a little uneasy with that. .A que quickly formed behind and the inevitable honking started as we began to push back to get out of the toll station. Over on the reverse side of the toll some workers were indicating for us to pass through a gate that looked like it only led to offices. Offices, we assumed the policeman was about to sit us down in and write a fine out. Instead they showed us a back road which would take us on the right road out of Belawan. We left before the officer made it over. If he wanted to fine us, then we escaped before he had chance. From that point it was decided we were never going to make it anyway near Lake Toba, so headed instead back to the hotel we’d stayed at the previous nights. Whilst we’d taken a taxi journey from the airport and walked the streets of Medan, they didn’t really prepare us fully for the crazy that would ensue on the drive into the city. The roads pass over railway tracks but there are no level crossings here. I doubt the train service is too frequent or fast but its still a risky business guessing if there’s something coming. There’s no waiting around in a que on any road. Young groups of lads form near junctions and then walk out in the middle of the road to halt the traffic so cars can pull out. I should add these lads act like mini adults. Smoking and generally larking around like male adults. The mini buses and motorickshaws eagerly patrol the streets coming to a quick, un-notified stop right in front of you causing a tailback whilst they await the boarding of their passengers.
The day took its toll on both of us, neither of us ate a thing or drank water so we literally flopped onto the bed and welcomed the fact we decided to call it a day and stay in Medan one more night.
Tuesday 5 December – Finally we got back on the road and headed for Lake Toba. A massive volcanic eruption created the lake and the semi-island in the middle. It’s not technically an island as it was joined by small piece of land connecting it to the mainland, though this has been cut through now to make a channel for the boats.
Anyway, it felt good to be back on the bike and the day flew by. The roads are frenzied and little rules apply. Some people stop at traffic lights others don’t, some signal then manoeuvre with a indicator or honk of the horn others do neither and so it goes. Basically Paul is back on high alert. The road conditions are pretty poor, nothing like the pristine asphalt experienced in Malaysia. There are loads of ‘Tambal Ban’ stalls which I’ve assumed translates to ‘Puncture Repair’ or something along those lines to repair all the poorly tyres as a result of not dodging the pot holes quick enough.
For the most part we passed through busy towns set in-between the occasional padi field. Endless trucks were on the same road puffing out intoxicating fumes which makes dodging them a little urgent to avoid blackening our lungs waiting for the overtake opportunity. Most, of course, don’t wait for the ‘opportunity’ they just go for it and don’t hang around if you were actually poised to go, no courtesy there on the most part. The traffic didn’t halt for most of the journey until we took turn of the main road and started to see signs for Parapat – the ferry terminal town.
The one thing I love about Indonesia having passed through Malaysia and Thailand before, is the amount of people everywhere. There haven’t been people just lingering or walking by the side of the road since we left India. Sure, there’s the occasional few in both Thailand and Malaysia but not like there is here. As the passenger, it makes it much more interesting. It seems Indonesians live their life by the roadside. Everything you can imagine is going on as we pass. Kids going to school, clothes being washed, food being brought, prepared, cooked and served, nits being searched for, toilet breaks – literally everything. I love it. It makes it far more interesting than a pristine highway.
As we pass places a million eyes are on us, and as soon as we stop a whisper quickly passes around everyone comes to take a look at the whiteys looking strange.
The road to ferry offered relief of less traffic and more green scenery, but it was snaked and took quite a while to cover a fairly short distance. We got to Parapat and had to ask a few times the directions to the car ferry to tuk-tuk [the place we were staying on Samosir Island]. This was the first time we’d seen a few westerners in Indonesia. Whenever we do stop to ask, it’s only really a few words of the like ‘Parapat, moto, ferry, tuk-tuk’ and we’re sent on our way with a smile. Everyone has been really friendly. We occasionally get a few people who can speak good English but generally it’s just questions they learnt at school.
By a stroke of luck we pulled up to the car ferry loaded and ready to depart. Paul drove straight on, no messing around. I ran to get some tickets, a bargain at 17,000 rupees for us and the bike and we were departing a few minutes later. A dream, no waiting around, no stupid park here mister, no move here mister, no actually move back here mister. Just on and we were off. It took a about 30 minutes to do 8km so pretty slow ferry, gave us time to take in the beautiful and serene lake. And also time for a group of giggling girls to come over to try and take sneaky photos until one plucked up the courage to speak to us. Of course, they were polite and pretended they didn’t mind me in the picture but the delight on their faces when I offered to take one of them and Paul gave their true motive away. They chatted away to us for a bit and told of how they wanted to study in England. Then scuttled off when the boat was ready to dock.
Once off the ferry the appearance of churches and the holy cross is vast. The island is completely Christian and whilst we’ve not seen many anyway, the headscarf is invisible here. The main road on the island is in good condition but as soon we pulled off for Tuk-Tuk it went a bit to pot. It was actually mainly due to road works so they were actively tearing it up. Annoyingly the traffic from the car ferry all heads in a convoy to the same place and we got stuck behind a slow moving, nervous 4×4 driver for the most part, making the narrow, wet, torn up roads hard.
After the sludgy mud road I was getting a bit worried as I knew the place we’d earmarked was at the end of all the places. Especially as we were driving past quite nice places all along the lake, it would have been crap if we got to it and we had to go back. Everything was quite spread out.
Luckily the place was nice, the parking was nice, the guy was nice and price was nice so it was a winner. Even better was the hot shower. I hadn’t realised what a luxury warm water is. We didn’t really deserve this after only one day riding, we’ve not been through any slogs in a while and this comfort came a little quick, all the same we enjoyed it.
At the beginning of the trip we seemed to go from Lake to Lake now being on a Lake again reminded us how much we enjoy it. There’s something tranquil about it and the people who live nearby usually quite happy. As we were walking everyone, even the men slogging their guts manually breaking rocks stopped to say hello. Tuk tuk is a pretty little place not only because of the lake and the surrounding hills but also because of the unique style to the roofs of the buildings.
We stayed two nights but only spent one full day. We definitely could have stayed longer but our 60-day visa and the sheer size of Sumatra – the 4th largest island in the world – and the road conditions, means we have to keep moving. Renewing is possible but we’d have to show proof of intention to leave the country which would mean booking more flights we wouldn’t take again – wasting more money. Plus, the last Indonesian island ferry we plan to take only sails every two weeks meaning timing is an issue.
Our one day in tuk-tuk was spent floating on the lake in a hired truck inner tube, eating amazing and cheap food, then getting a soaking in the endless afternoon downpour. It rained constantly from 3pm until midnight. We worried a little about the road the next day.