Friday, October 9, 2009

Rented bicycles to ride to Tomok a little south on the island, but it's basically a cluster of souvenir shops. The ride north to Simanindo was much more interesting. The road at first ran between the lakeshore and the mountains, through incredibly green fields and tiny villages, and grazing oxen led by ropes. Later the terrain turns hilly. There are lots of churches and little Christian cemetaries - the Batak people who live on the island are mostly Christian - and older people whiling away their time in bars that scenically overlook the lake below. Everyone here is friendly, laid back, and not at all pushy.

At Simanindo they have a Batak museum with over a dozen well-preserved historical Batak houses with the characteristic curved and pointed roofs that keep the walls in shadow, thatched with straw. Elsewhere the straw has often been replaced with corrugated metal streaked with rust, and modern houses no longer sit on wooden stilts but on concrete foundations.

Overall we rode about 50km. Our Carolina hotel is certainly the nicest resort on the island we have seen, with the best lake access for swimming (photo), but their WLAN access is incredibly unreliable.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Didn't do very much at all. There isn't really a town on Tuk Tuk, just a long circular road around the peninsula we are on. It takes about 90 minutes to walk the loop. There are lots of small children playing, and they all want their picture taken, posing for the camera, jumping into the river for show, looking at the display and laughing. I gave the camera to one group and they started taking pictures of one another, and getting the hang of it pretty quickly.

The water of the lake is warm, so we spent a while swimming as well. The lake is very deep but visibility is only a few meters.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Danau Toba is a volcanic lake four hours southwest from Medan and 900 meters up, with an island called Tuk Tuk where all the good hotels are. It's cool up there, and our hotel is a tranquil resort at the lakeshore with small huts built in the traditional style with steep swept gables, in a large tropical garden. The only thing to be heard here are birds singing, there is no traffic at all. Such a relief after the maelstrom called Medan. We'll stay three nights here, rather than rushing from one attraction to the next.

Met a photo journalist on the bus who had just returned from Danang, where a strong earthquake struck last week. Apparently mostly the downtown highrises were affected, but the smaller houses where most people live were relatively undamaged. A lot of villages on the hillside have become victims of slides though. Also talked to Eric from Sydney who showed great pictures from northeast Borneo, maybe I'll go there when my Indonesian visa runs out.

Right now I am not doing very much at all, other than writing my diary on a terrace overlooking the garden and the lake.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Medan in Sumatra is not a major tourist hub and boasts exactly two important sights. The Mesjid Raya mosque has impressive black domes, and a simple and elegant, although slightly worn, interior. People were sleeping on the carpets. To get in, we had to hide our shorts with sarongs available for tourists at the entrance. A very tenacious guide kept following us, and after deflecting all our attempts to send him away actually got angry when we refused to tip. Not a promising business model.

According to the Lonely Planet, the Istana Maimoon palace is crumbling, but in 2009 it was in good repair. Only two halls were open to the public though. A group of people were being costumed as princes for photos, and a small boy perched on the nose of the seat was proudly circling the palace on a big motorcycle.

Medan not only has the traffic-choked modern district with our hotel, but also a traffic-choked but otherwise pleasant upscale residential district called Polonia, with lots of trees, big mansions, and black SUVs; and a traffic-choked downtown with (possibly deliberately) neglected colonial architecture. The historical Tip Top restaurant had fantastic Sirsak juice, white but with a kind of strawberry taste. Like other cities before, Medan is considerably nicer when darkness cloaks the neglect. The picture shows a slum next to Polonia.

Haggled a becak (motorcycle taxi) to the hotel down from 50 to 15 kilorupees. Walked across the street to buy some water, and got pinned down at a juice stall by a thunderstorm with torrential rain. (Is rain always torrential in Indonesia?) Chatting with the boys running the booth and learned a lot of Indonesian phrases, but not what they mean, which limits the utility of my new skill.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The boat from Penang to Medan, crossing the Strait of Malacca, takes six hours. It's fairly small, old but in good repair, and rather loud. The passenger deck is dark and crowded with seats, but only 10% full. It's refrigerated and drafty. We got invited upstairs to the pilot cabin ("kaptan") and could watch them navigate, and sit outside under a plastic tarp. The sea was choppy and the boat was rolling; some passengers were vomiting into plastic bags. I caught some sleep.

USD 25 got us a 30-day visa to Indonesia. The visa officer was smiling brightly, good start. This is a Muslim country and Muezzins can be heard calling to prayers in the city, but she wore no veil. The bus ride from the harbor to downtown takes very long; the roads are better than their reputation but packed with nhonking cars. We passed a slum, and there is garbage in the water and at the roadside. Goodbye Malaysia.

The weight of the mighty euro got us checked into Garuda Plaza Hotel, a top-end western hotel with all the amenities. One euro buys 15,000 Indonesian rupees, and one million rupees (about 67 euro) is the most one can get from an ATM; the double room cost 16 euro.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Penang National Park is at the northwest corner of the island. It's a primeval jungle, overgrown, full of animals calling (why do most wild animals sound like ringtones?), with a few paths leading to the main attractions. The Canopy Walk consists of 250 meters of 30cm wide walkways strung between trees some 10 m above the ground. The bridges are suspended from cables, and shake and twist when walking on them.

Another trail leads to a couple of beaches. Most of it is a muddy, rocky trail covered with roots leading up and down the edge of the water, quite difficult to walk without hiking boots. Saw a few monkeys in the trees; we watched them and they watched us, but we had cameras and they didn't. At the USM Cemac beach, young veiled women in shorts were playing and laughing. We also went to the Butterfly Garden two km away; they not only have lots of large tropical butterflies in a large greenhouse full of tropical plants, but also spiders with hairy legs, scorpions, an iguana, turtles, and assorted other local animals.

Chewing gum is legal in Malaysia but it's still very clean. I saw people sweeping the jungle today with brooms. There are no floating plastic bags and bottles like in so many other Asian countries. Most people speak broken English.