Wednesday, 30 October 2013

3 - Sumatra Sideways

I don’t remember a lot of the top of Sumatra, the things I do remember come in patches, so I’ll relate them where relevant.
I think the reason for this is that something I learned later in life during a Permaculture gardening course of all things.
To wit: we remember things better if we are in pain when we learn them.
Strange, but I believe, true.
The example given by my teacher was that of the Maori body and face tattoos.
These tattoos were traditionally carved into them while telling them things they really needed to know, when the salmon run, how to catch a moa etc.
And I think this is why my memory was kind of in and out for the next period.
The previous two chapters related to one nightmare trip, and I was able to put it all down on paper twenty years later with hardly a pause, largely I think because I was in some kind of pain for the whole of it.
So our arrival in Padang did signal a change in pressure, and therefore mental state, for me and Neil.
We relaxed by the beach and did the “we-are-now-off-the-road” things that backpackers have to do, washing clothes, finding the bar, things like that.
While there we met some other travellers, an Irish woman called Win, and two Americans, Gunther and John, both doctors who had studied at UCLA.
Win was a lovely person and filled a stereotype as she wasn’t the most attractive woman.
However, I immediately liked her and looking back, am pleased that I didn’t demonstrate the shallowness, which I saw on that Asia trail a lot, of only talking to attractive women.
Gunther was always being asked if he was German, and this was because he was the archetypal Teutonic look, blonde hair cut in a crew, a handlebar moustache and pale blue eyes.
However, he spoke with a classic California accent where he had lived since the age of two, when his Austrian parents had emigrated there.
John was likewise from California, but looked like an Englishman, for no reason I can lay down in words, but be assured that if he had pulled a grey suit and bowler hat out of his backpack he would have fitted in on the Bakerloo line as if he was born in Surrey.
I think the main reason I remember Win so well was that she was the first person I met, possibly ever, who listened during an argument and admitted when she was wrong.
Neil and I, certainly me, with our degrees fresh about our shoulders, thought we knew it all, and so this behaviour from Win was a revelation.
My inability to admit I was wrong stems largely from my childhood, were I would be beaten and screamed at if I made a mistake, and so this was part of my persona, to always be right, and if wrong, make sure that no one damn well knew it.
The five of us were discussing Asia in general and thus, almost inevitably, the topic of overpopulation came up.
Win was an Irish catholic and though not overly devout, still had the spurs of that religion’s barbarous mind control jabbing her consciousness.
Gunther contended that the problems of overpopulation would never really be tackled till the catholic church was removed from influencing the world’s politics.
Win countered that you can’t just blame the catholic church, and Gunther agreed , but then added that, “not only overpopulation, but HIV could be tackled effectively if condoms were widely distributed without stigma throughout Asia and Africa”.
Win said “Aren’t they?”
And Gunther, said “not really, because the catholic church has told everyone they can’t use a condom.”
Win said “surely that can’t be true?”
Whereas Gunther went on to say, in a somewhat exasperated tone, “well the first bloody thing the pope said when he got off the plane in Ghana was ‘Don’t use condoms’”.
To which Win said, “Oh, well, that’s pretty clear. I guess the [catholic] church does has a lot to answer for”.
A simple thing, I’m sure you’d agree, but it was the first time I heard someone change their view during an argument when someone else presented a fact.
It was a lesson that I would sadly take another twenty years to absorb.
Having said that, I think also it was part of the process I mentioned at the tail of the last chapter where the trip was changing my mental state, to a less arrogant arsehole.
And the fact that I even noted Win’s change of argumentative direction, shows part of the process.
Mind you no one likes to be wrong, and this was best demonstrated to me by an SBS show called ‘Life Support’.
It was a simply superb send-up of those ‘life style’ shows and one of the characters on it was a well dodgy South African doctor called Rudy.
“Have you ever been embarrassed”, said Rudy, “at a dinner party because someone else is better informed, and more articulate than you?
“Well here’s the solution, sleep with his wife.
“Then next time it happens, you just wait till he’s finished putting you down, then say, ‘yeah, well I’ve slept with your wife.’
“Of course, considering the behaviour of most middle class couples on the dinner party circuit, there’s some chance that he’s slept with your wife, if this happens, sleep with his daughter as well, just to be sure.”
Anyway, enough of that, none of us like to be wrong, and there are many reasons for that, but I still admire Win for being able to admit it.
We had a good time in Padang, we hung with John, Gunther and Win, recharged our batteries, and planned out next move.
My stomach and throat recovered (slowly), probably due to the fresh ocean air and not having to sleep next to an open sewer, and slowly the memory of the four days of hell getting there receded.
We, Neil, John, Gunther and I, decided to head for Medan on the East coast of Sumatra and catch a ferry to Malaysia.
This was a journey diagonally across the top of the island and somewhat to my surprise when I went to the mapping software it gave me this message:
“We could not calculate directions between Padang, West Sumatra, Indonesia and Medan, North Sumatra, Indonesia.”

Why this should be so, I really can’t say, but I strongly suspect that it’s because we were now about to traverse the real backwoods of Indonesia and that’s saying something.
So we boarded a bus and the headed for our first stop, Lake Toba.
This was one of the most beautiful places we stayed in our whole time in Sumatra.
Mt Toba is an (we fervently hoped) extinct volcano, and our accommodation was on a large island in the lake, which in itself formed a large puddle at the bottom of the caldera.
There was a jetty coming out from the deck below our room and we were able to watch the sun come up over the volcano rim from our beds.
It was everything we had come to Indonesia for.
Also I remember it was the cheapest place we stayed, something that called to my skinflint soul.
Our rooms were 1000 (A$0.10) rupiah a night, compared with the most expensive, 19,000 in Kuta Beach, Bali.
So I was happy again.
The next morning we then had one of the most enjoyable adventures of our whole stay.
We rented push bikes and circled the island.
The island we were staying on was about twenty k long and this fits with my memory as we rode all day around the circumference, approx 50 or 60 k.
And the thing I most remember is defying the laws of thermodynamics.
As the ride went on I got faster and faster.
At 28 I was reasonably fit, and with my illnesses receding I felt good for the first time in a long time.
Plus, I think it was some sort of tension release from twelve long weeks of doing nothing but being stressed over late or non-existent buses, which were overcrowded when they came, not understanding the language well, being ill, all of it was released in a day long ride of increasing euphoria.
There was only one road on the island and not a lot of traffic (another first for Indonesia) and we just rode.
With the green waters of the lake on one side, the spike of a mini-mountain on the other, we really felt we were flying over the surface of the lake.
My legs flew on the pedals and with each k that disappeared under my wheels I felt better and better.
But even then my inability to care about anyone else caused a problem.
John and Gunther had set off with us on the bike ride, but within a short period of time only Neil was within touching distance and it wasn’t till later that evening that we found out what happened to Gunther and John.
From the start John’s bike had been playing up, and after a few Ks, one of the pedals began rattling, then came off.
So he and Gunther, who had stayed with him, walked their bikes into a village and asked if there was anyone there who could fix it.
The villagers pointed them toward a little mechanic’s workshop at the top of the village and they went in, showed the grease-stained man inside the errant pedal and asked if he could fix it.
He nodded and then began fiddling with the bike.
After a period John and Gunther realized that he didn’t have a replacement pedal and was trying to fix the broken one back to the stem.
Then a further time later he began shaking his head and they realized he couldn’t fix it.
So they went to push the bike outside and try to find somewhere else that may have a solution, but then the guy became somewhat agitated, grabbed the handlebars, and tried to stop John taking the bike away.
An argument ensued and eventually John and Gunther understood that although he hadn’t been able to fix the bike, he still wanted to be paid for the time he had spent working on it.
That then led to an increasingly acrimonious exchange between the three of them and finally John wrested the bike from their erstwhile mechanic and began to walk away.
The mechanic then went back inside, grabbed a large machete and returned waving it threateningly at the two of them.
John and Gunther then did what they probably should have done in the first place, paid him some rupiah, and walked away.
Having said that it is difficult to know when to negotiate in the third world over money.
It is important not to pay too much, as respect in two directions is on the line, but likewise, don’t pay to little, as that equally shows a lack of respect toward the vendor.
Anyway, with that sorted out, they still had a non-functioning bike, and Neil and I were by this time a long way away.
They asked around but couldn’t find an answer, so in the end poor John had to push his bike back home the five or so Ks we had already ridden.
That night we caught up for dinner and heard their tale and were generally happy we were leaving the little island tomorrow.
Islands are by their nature insular, and none of us wanted the machete waving mechanic’s relatives visiting us and asking for more cash.
So the next morning we caught the bus onward toward Medan.
Again my snapshot like memory is unclear how far we travelled each step of the journey, but I do remember Neil and I on mopeds, so I’ll just broach that topic a little.
Whether we used them to go forward in our trip, or if we rented them to make some sort of circular day trip, I’m not sure, but I favour the latter, as by its very nature renting a moped means that you have to return it, so I think it was some sort of sidebar day trip.
I mention this because if life was dangerous enough on Indonesian roads when being driven around by a local bus driver, then riding a moped is another league up in nerve-wrack.
We were riding along and a group of local young men on their moped swooping over toward me.
I say group, because mopeds were a favoured method of travel across the archipelago, and like all Indonesian transport, it was overcrowded.
There were three guys on this particular one, but I have heard of more, up to the record, claimed to have been seen and photographed in Bang Kok Thailand, of 14 on one scooter.
I can’t vouch personally for this, but can clearly recall whole families of five on board, sitting in relative comfort.
So these three guys moved in toward me and began gesticulating toward my plastic helmet, which I had looped over my shoulder.
I had done this because when I examined it when renting the bike I saw that it would be no Earthly use in an accident, and obscured my peripheral vision to boot, so was actually decreasing my safety.
So I hung it over my shoulder and set off.
But now these young men were trying to tell me something.
So I slowed down and metaphorically cupped my ear with my hand to understand.
The oldest, who was driving, and spoke quite good English eventually got through to me that it was illegal to ride a moped without a helmet.
This I thought pretty rich and wanted to yell back that I thought the authorities would be better off making it illegal to have 45 people in an eight-seater minibus, but riding along the trans-Sumatran highway at 50k, while yelling broken Bahasa at three young men on a moped is not the time to join the debating society.
So, I gave in and pulled my helmet from my shoulder and put it on.
The three young men then gave the usual Sumatran mile-wide smile because they were able to help an honoured guest in their country, accelerated to 90 and soon were lost in the traffic up ahead.
I rode up next to Neil and repeated what my mobile friends had told me and he put his helmet on as well and went kept moving.
And just to digress slightly.
A friend of mine Julian was a helicopter pilot who worked with various aid organisations throughout the pacific and he was telling me that New Guinea has similar laws, and similar plastic helmets.
One day he saw a guy riding along with an ice cream tub strapped over his head as a helmet.
In Julian’s opinion it would have provided the same amount of protection as the horrible plastic helmets, and he was obeying the law.
So with helmets now firmly on, we did enjoy our ride that day, I think because once more because we were in the back blocks of Indo, the traffic was relatively light, and so near death experiences were limited to one an hour or so.
This was of course a severe stepdown in anxiety from being on the roads in the more crowded areas, around Jakarta particularly.
Ride over, we handed back our bikes and moved on in a bus.
Eventually we arrived in Medan and the next thing I remember is getting totally slaughtered in a dockside bar with an epileptic Dutchman and his German friend, whom we had met in our hotel.
I say epileptic, because he had the mannerisms of those taking Tegretol, the main epilepsy medicine, of continually, moving his head up and down as if trying to swallow something large, and opening and closing his eyes, particularly while deep in thought.
However, being deep in thought, for any of the four of us, soon became a less frequent issue as the Bintang went down.
Indonesia was a Dutch colony in colonial days, Jakarta was originally known as Batavia, and was the Asian headquarters of the first ever limited company, the Dutch East India company.
Thus, many Dutch things were taken to the colonies, and Heineken beer was one of them.
Heineken was rebadged to the local name ‘Bintang’.
It means ‘Star Beer’ in Bahasa and this is appropriate because if you drink enough of it, and we did, you’ll be seeing stars all right.
We had, to the best of my recollection, 6 large bottles in that bar over some hours and eventually staggered home to our bunks the worse for wear.
I think this equates to 18 middies of full strength beer, and it showed.
I mention this carousing because I think it lead to me sleep walking.
Sleep walking is a little understood thing and almost every example of it is worth relating for the sheer strangeness of the thing.
I remember a time when my mother and brother went down to Sydney to help our aunt move house.
Typically of my family, my brother was expected to work hard with no reward and criticized for everything he did.
They arrived at about noon on Saturday and went straight to work.
This labour of packing, loading, driving, unloading and returning then proceeded virtually non-stop over the next three days.
On the Tuesday night at about three am, my mother was in slumber when her bed lurched and she awoke to find my brother trying to lift it.
She said, “What are you doing David?”
And he replied, “You know I’ve got to move this bed.”
Then he went back to trying to lift the bed, with my mother in it, bodily, on his own.
My mother realized he was sleep walking, so she got up and told him he could do it in the morning and shepherded him back to bed.
Another tale of the night travels happened to my friend Dave Smedley.
He was helping his dad to tear down the old garage and build a new, larger building on the site.
His friend who lived across the street from them was helping and they worked away on it for some weekends.
Then one night Dave was in bed when there a knock on the back door.
With a muttered, “what the hell?”, he got up and went down to the door.
He opened it to find his friend from across the road standing there.
His friend said, “Oh, is Dave there?”
Dave at first thought he had smoked too much pot and had warped into the famous Cheech and Chong sketch, “Dave’s not here, man”, but then when his friend (whose eyes were open, but quite vacant) just stood there gaping, he twigged that his friend was sleep walking.
But the amazing thing was how he had got there.
Dave lived on a very hilly street, the road was the floor of the valley as it were, with all the houses set back from it, up extended and quite steep driveways.
His friend had got out of bed, walked down his driveway, across the road, up Dave’s driveway which was a maze of reo, lumps of demolition debris, concrete mixers and god knows what, then picked his way across Dave’s backyard, around the side of the house to find the back door in the dark.
He then knocked on it, and when Dave himself answered, asked if Dave was there.
Dave, like my mother before, shepherded his friend back through the maze, marvelling as he did so at his friend’s somnambulant ability to not break his leg, and home into bed.
The next day Dave’s friend had no recollection of the incident.
Now this night in Medan was the second time I had walked in my sleep.
The first, in my share house in Leichhardt in the inner west of Sydney, involved me getting up, walking down the hall, outside, scrabbling at the garage door, then coming back inside, down the hall, turning right instead of left and going to sleep again on the bed of my flatmate across the hall.
Thankfully, my flatmate, a nice gay woman, wasn’t home that night as she would have been non-plussed, to say the least, at me coming in and getting in her bed without so much as a by-your-leave at two a.m.
I likewise had no recollection of this incident, with the exception of waking up in Sanda’s bed, the entire events of the night before were related to me the next morning, by my other flatmate Sue, who slept at the front of the house near the garage door.
Again, very mysterious.
So back to Medan.
My mummy-like perambulations were related to me by Neil, who had stayed up to have a last cigarette before retiring.
I came out of our room, said Neil, stood near him and began running my hand through my hair.
Neil looked up at me and said, “Do you want something?”
I didn’t reply.
Then I seemed to make a decision, reached down, grabbed Neil’s water bottle, turned on my heel and went back inside.
I put his bottle on the floor next to my bunk, got in it and went back to sleep.
Neil came in, stared down at me for a moment, and then realized I must have been sleepwalking.
He got my bottle, filled it, put it where I could reach it, picked his up and went to bed.
The next morning he told me about the incident and we docketed it away under the Bermuda Triangle-like topic of sleepwalking and began to make preparations for our ferry ride.
I might add in closing the topic, that for the manyeth time that trip I was thankful Neil was there and I hadn’t slept walked my way out onto the streets of Medan looking for a water bottle, god knows where I might have ended up, under a truck most likely.
So we packed up, heaved our gear on our backs, a process that I was by now coming to loathe, and made our way down to the ferry port.
Needless to say it was nothing like catching a ferry from Manly across to Circular Quay, with its, Sydney’s, clearly labelled embarkation pathways.
The whole area was a vast, rambling, train, bus, ferry interchange with elements of a Clydeside shipyard thrown in.
We bought our tickets, finding the ticket office an achievement on its own, and then began a genuine trek down to the water’s edge.
We walked around trains, some stationary, some moving gently.
We went up onto overhead gantry walks, looking for all the world like a giant’s mechano set, we took off our packs and lurched under overhangs of various sorts, from shopfronts to fettlers workshops.
One would normally think that finding a ferry is easy as you obviously just go down to the water’s edge and there it is, but as described, even finding something as large as the Malacca Straits wasn’t easy.
Eventually we got there and went into the waiting area till we were allowed to board.
I do remember thinking that an odd thing about the area was that this was an international border, the entering and leaving point for Indonesia, and security was non-existent.
But further thought on the topic reminded me that this kind of fitted as well, as no one wants to get into Indonesia, secretly or otherwise, they only want to leave it, and since the ferries out of Medan only go one place, Malaysia, I guessed that any border security would be at the other end.
Time came and we got on board and settled into our first comfortable transport for some time.
This was a modern, catamaran ferry, based on a design that came out of Tasmania, of all places, and was becoming the standard world wide.
Additionally, we were in first class, so sat indoors, upstairs and watched, alternatively, the ocean flying by outside, and a Charlie Sheen movie on the big screen at the front of the lounge.
What’s more, I’m guessing due to cost, there were no locals in our lounge, and so I was spared clouds of clove cigarette smoke billowing about my head, racking my throat dry.
So it was a generally pleasant trip, but about half way across I was absently rubbing an itch on my left forearm when I realised that I had been rubbing it a lot that morning, I looked down and understood why, bed bugs.
Obviously the previous night in our Medan fleapit they had emerged from the mattress and made whoopee with my soft western skin.
I have never been bitten by bed bugs before (or since) so I don’t know the form, but these ones were like every other bug in the third world, super bugs.
The way they had worked was to bite me, then move on a body length, approx 2mm, then bite again.
The bite number varied, I’m guessing in some places they were full, and in others I had moved in my sleep, displacing them from their banquet.
I examined my arm and discovered that the bites I had been scratching ran around my forearm, under my elbow and resurfaced trekking in orderly fashion across my bicep.
I got up and went into the gloriously luxurious toilet, and took off my shirt.
Under the harsh glare of the fluoros I could see how comprehensively I had been bitten.
The tracks ran everywhere, even as I know saw, down from my hairline, across my nose, around my cheek and down to my neck.
I looked like a zombie freshly sewn together by an Igor–like character in a Transylvanian castle.
I went back to our seat and questioned Neil about two things, “did he know that my face looked like a recently produced baseball?”, and “did we have any calamine-lotion-like unguent in the medi stores?”
The answer was “no” to both, though I did see him grinning slightly for the rest of the trip, so knowing his sense of humour (warped), I strongly suspected that he was enjoying my fall from any semblance of
However, despite my resemblance to a fright night character, the bites weren’t overly itchy and we continued our waterborne passage across the Straits, until Malaysia, and the Asian continent proper hove into view.
We docked and got our things together and made our way into a new country.
The port was called Sitiawan, and from the start we knew we were in a place where things were done differently.
To start with we didn’t have to bribe our way in, as we had had to do when we touched down in Bali at the start of this trip.
Malaysia is more developed, but a lot more boring than Indonesia.
The country as a whole didn’t make much of an impression on me, for a few reasons.
Firstly, we only spent three days there, and secondly, as stated, I was already in London playing rugby in my mind.
So really Malaysia was just another place to get through on our way to Singapore and a flight to Europe.
Even the capital Kuala Lumpur I have no memory of, though we certainly passed through it.
Indeed the best memories of KL I have are some digital photos taken by my friend Russell when he visited twenty years later, so that gives you some idea of the low key nature of the place.
Think of it as a tropical Canberra, boring and you only go there if you really have to.
The things I do remember though were worth it.
Not far from Sitiawan was a tropical insect zoo, it sounds flesh-crawlingly creepy, and it is, but as Neil and I were both in that field of study we went for a look.
It was really quite amazing, butterflies the size of ham sandwiches in all colours of the rainbow filled the avery, and leaf litter scuttlers like small off road vehicles tickered-tickered about on the ground and we spent a morning there quite fascinated.
However the main event in that place was the scorpion pit.
Inside this were many hundred large black scorpions going about their business.
As we looked in at them I was truly, truly thankful that it seemed the only thing the gods of travel hadn’t visited upon us so far on this trip was one of these in the bed.
Their stingers were frightening just to look at from some metres away, and their claws made one involuntarily cross your legs against the thought of a double grab at your funzone in the night.
But even that was put in the shade by a truly amazing feat performed by a local Malaysian woman some years after we were there.
She lived in the scorpion pit for a month.
She did it to show that they weren’t as bad as they were perceived.
This is true, as their bite, while gruesomely painful, is not lethal, and since they were part of the eco-system, this brave woman went in their to show them in their better light, and to try to stop the wholesale scorpion killing that went on any time one of them was encountered in the wild.
The footage of her time in there was quite amazing.
She has to shake her sheets out before she went to bed, then hope not to roll over on top of one of them after she went to sleep, as they moved back in as soon as the sheets had settled.
When it was time to cook, she had to open the cupboard doors carefully, remove any scorpions that were in her pots, or nesting in her bags of rice.
Once that was done she then had to be careful that a scorpion didn’t wander into her saucepan, or she would be eating them as well.
All in all it was an amazing thing to do and she got to the end of the month without too many bites.
I, then and now, admire her courage, I couldn’t have done it.
The next morning we left Sitiawan and headed south toward KL and then Singapore, and on the way visited the only other place I remember from Malaysia, the Cameron Highlands.
I think this region sticks in my mind because it was a cooler, temperate, mountain region, that for all the world resembled Hampstead Heath in London, or perhaps the mountains of Yorkshire or Scotland.
To find it nestled within easy driving distance of the equator was quite a disjunct.
The region is famous for its tea, and most of the tea drunk in that part of the world comes from there.
I still retain in my mind after all these years the rows of tea following the contours of the rolling hills, in ruler-like fashion, like a vineyard in France.
Also, I think the chilly crisp breeze flowing over the highland was the first we had felt in nearly three months, so this also aided in making the place stand out.
And adding to the beauty were the extensive roses.
I’ll slip in a quick horticulture lesson here.
If you visit any vineyard in France or California, you will find at the end of each row of vines a rose bush.
This is done so that the farmer can see if any insects that may attack the vines are present, as they go for the rose bush, with its coloured petals, first.
And so it seemed that the founders of the tea plantations of the Cameron Highlands had followed the same plan, and there were rose bushes all over the place.
Thus the crisp mountain breeze came to you redolent with the scent of tea and roses.
It was an intoxicating experience.
Finally, I think that the process of mental change that had started on the road to Padang, then noticed fully on the beach there, was continuing apace, and I was for the first time starting to appreciate beautiful things, and not be embarrassed about saying it.
Just to put that into context, later on in this trip I was walking with Neil and  another friend from Sydney, Misha, in the hills of Scotland in the Autumn.
The trees were in their full glory of colour change, with yellows, russets, auburns, reds and browns filling the vision with true beauty.
I was brought to speak, and said: “You know guys, I’m not a poof or nuthin’, but these trees are really beautiful.”
So apologies to any gay readers of either sex.
I put that in to highlight that although on the way to higher mental things, I still retained the vestiges of my Australian yobboness, and couldn’t even use the word “beautiful” without a qualifier protecting my manliness.
So we enjoyed our day on the roof of Malaysia.
At the end of the day we boarded our bus and headed back to the backpackers, thence on the road to Singapore.
Many have travelled that road throughout history, Singapore holds the most strategic position in all of Asia, at the oceanic cross roads of the exotic East, and so had over time developed into a major entity.
It was once part of Malaysia, but soon became so rich in its own right, that the burghers of the town began to resent paying tax to the poorer Malaysia and so succeeded and became an independent country, like Monte Carlo, Moldova or San Marino.
Despite all this economic muscle, it is a really boring place.
It is infamous for flogging, with a reinforced riding crop, anyone convicted, or even accused of, graffitiing a wall.
You cannot spit out chewing gum on the street without incurring a heavy fine, and littering will get you executed.
However, despite the heavy-handed crime control, there were obviously backhanders going toward the inspectors of cheap accommodation, because whoever set up where we stayed should have been prosecuted.
Our accommodation was in a three story terrace and the sleeping arrangements were a new one on us.
Each floor was carpeted with mattresses, you checked in at the front desk and then went in search of a mattress that didn’t have a backpack on it.
Once you found one, you put your backpack on it and that was your bed.
There were something like forty single mattresses per floor and no, or at best a vanishingly narrow gap, between them.
So walking in and out involved tip-toeing along, trying not to walk on someone else’s bed as you went.
This was hard enough in daylight, but at night it was a nightmare.
Since usually a third of those staying had some sort of dysentery, your sleep would be interrupted by one of your floormates, sprinting for the toilet at three a.m and to hell with who they trod on.
However, we were learning to take most things in our stride now, so we found a couple of mattresses near each other, threw down our backpacks and then went out to see a bit of Singapore.
We visited the zoo and saw the only Polar Bear on the equator, wondering then as now, at the phenomenal cost in energy to keep the enclosure down at arctic temperatures.
We then toured the town a bit, but there wasn’t much to see, as Singapore is largely just a big industrial port.
We then went out with a contact I had gained from my lecturer at teachers college, Mike.
He told me to get in touch with a Singaporean student, now a qualified teacher, who rejoiced under the name Len.
This was his real, Asian, name, and was a happy coincidence for him when he went to study in an English speaking country, as his name would transpose easily.
I mention this, because there have been some really unfortunate names.
The medal winning student in the Veterinary faculty one year was the unfortunately titled Coq Liq Kew, which when announced at the award ceremony was done Anglo style as “Liq Kew, Coq”.
I also read in a book about the same area, it was a novel, so I can’t attest to the authenticity, but a chinese character in this book was called “Fuk Yu”.
So Len did all right compared to those.
Now if you follow this story through the upcoming chapters to the British Isles you will learn a lot about hot curries, but I was about to get my first lesson there in Singapore.
Indonesia does have a lot of hot food, Rendang curries are probably the best known, but I don’t recall eating anything that was particularly noteworthy in the heat stakes.
But all that was about to change, Len took us to a large food court, presented us with a small keychain that said “Singapore” on it, and then helped us to order.
Neil’s order as usual involved a number of dishes, and the working of overtime by half the kitchen staff, but I was not sure what to order, so Len got me a black bean and curd laksa, which he was having himself.
While he ate it with enjoyment and talked about his new career as a respected professional teacher, with frequent mentions of Mike’s great tutelage, I stuck my spoon in the dish, and had my first mouthful.
I turned purple and small wisps of steam began to come from my ears and cheeks.
Mother of fucking god.
I looked at Len, but his lovely olive skin was largely unchanged.
I looked doubtfully at my bowl, whilst throwing every container of water on the table, including the flower pot, down my throat.
I quickly began wondering if I had by some chance been given a bowl of nitric acid.
So the meal continued with Neil and Len talking easily, and me making the odd croaked announcement between throwing liquid down my throat.
I finished the bowl (eventually), and then we said “good bye” to Len and headed back to our floor dwelling accommodation, with me trailing a small cloud of steam behind me.
On the way, partly because of my newly installed internal combustion, and partly because it is an iconic Singapore thing to do, I asked Neil if he wanted to stop in at “The Raffles” for a beer.
The Raffles is short hand for The Sir Stamford Raffles Hotel, the priciest place in Singapore, named for the Englishman who founded most if its modern day infrastructure.
He agreed and we stepped into the cheapest part of it we could find.
I grabbed my beer like a drowning seafarer grabbing a life jacket for two reasons.
One, I was still burning inside, and two, it was time to tell Neil that my trip was over and I wanted to leave him and head for London.
To reiterate briefly, the original plan was to “do” Indonesia, then Malaysia and Singapore, then travel back up the west coast through Burma to India.
But of course, now I was in no mood, or condition, to face this, so I told Neil that it was time for me to go to Europe.
He nodded, then said, “It nothing I’ve done, is it?”
“No”, I replied, “really it comes back to those psych questions Marayka asked us in Java, you remember them?”
He nodded, and I went on, “Well my answers mostly concerned rugby, so I think I want to just head off to London and get settled, find a club and get on with it.”
He nodded again, then said, “Yeah, I understand, parts of this trip have been hard haven’t they?”.
I nodded in turn, with some vehemence, then we ordered another beer, drank it, then headed back to our terrace.
The next day Neil began getting ready to move off on his own.
He was going to head up the East coast of Malaysia to a turtle sanctuary called Terrenganu, and meet up with a scientist he had worked with on the Great Barrier Reef.
He made his arrangements for this, while I started making mine to fly to Europe.
We met back at the terrace that night, and he informed me that he was off on the morrow.
The next day I walked with him to the bus station and saw him off, with the upmost relief that I wasn’t boarding another Asian bus, then walked back into town.
I had three more days till my flight would leave, and was kind of at a loose end.
But even so I was somewhat surprised when I sat on a bench overlooking a little park and burst into tears.
If I was a commercial author I would end things here on a suitable dramatic point, and leave the reader (hopefully) gagging for the next chapter to find out what was going on, but I’m not, and probably never will be, an author at all, but a chronic bullshit artist who saw fit to inflict his choleric moaning upon the internet.
So I’ll go into now, what was happening?
Well, as far as I can tell on looking back there were immediate and life long factors at play.
In the immediate, I had nothing to do, and nowhere to go, in fact the reason I sat on the bench in the first place was to figure out what to do next.
Neil’s bus had pulled away at ten or thereabouts, now it was near eleven and I had, as stated above, three more days to hang around Singapore, we had been to the zoo and there were no real tourist activities to do in that city, so I was like Marvin the Paranoid Android from the Hitchhikers Guide, “severely stuck for something to do”.
So I sat on my bench and thought it through.
My backpackers was for sleeping only, and not much of that with the nocturnal comings and goings of various toilet-bound others.
There was no common room with a table tennis table or even a TV to watch, so there was no point in going there.
If I had been an alcoholic, as I would become later in life, I probably would have found the cheapest bar in town and sat in there drinking for the next 72 hours, but I wasn’t, so that was out.
And as the minutes passed on that bench, I became sadder and sadder, then the tears started, and looking back I feel that the reason for this torrent was that it was the first time in my life I was alone.
Much later I would read a tremendous book by Stephanie Dowrick called “Intimacy and Solitude” and finally come to understand that there was a difference between being alone and being lonely.
But on that bench I was both.
And I’ll just fill in the background to illustrate this.
I lived with my parents in the forced labour camp of the family home from birth to the age of twenty.
I finally escaped and moved to Sydney and went to Uni, this filling my life, both mentally and geographically, for the next three years.
From the hallowed halls of academia, I then moved to Canada and was met there by my friend from soccer days, Darin.
He helped me settle in, I quickly got a job with Greenpeace, then in short order a good friend, Sean, and a girlfriend, Deb.
Deb is a wonderful woman, we became closer and then married.
We came back and lived in Sydney together for the next 18 months, and my life was full with my work with Greenpeace, my soccer with Sydney U, and home life with Deb.
Then my terminal immaturity and dysfunctionality brought our marriage to an end.
Deb went back to Canada, and I moved into a share house in Leicchardt, in Sydney’s inner west, with Gav, Sue and Sanda, and enrolled again at Uni to do my teaching diploma.
This likewise filled my time and I had no moments for reflection and then when that finished I teamed up with Neil and we set off for adventure in Asia.
Thus, with his departure, I was alone for the first time in 27 years.
And all those feelings of loss and grief for the childhood brutally stole from me by my parents, grief also for the way I treated Deb combined in that one moment on a bench in Singapore.
I was alone, I was desolate, there was no one to come and help me.
In a weird way this was a trauma and a help, since there was no one around who knew me, I could cry without being labelled a sissy, which is what had been beaten into me as a child at both home and school.
I cried for some time, I’ve no idea how long, but eventually I must have come to an end, then I got up and went back to the backpackers.
Whilst there I met two female travellers, a Swiss and a German, and they were, like me, waiting for a flight, and so I began to do things with them.
I sadly now can’t even remember their names, which is a pity as they were saviours in my life in that time.
All unknowing, by simply giving me someone to do things with, my sadness lifted and I began to feel better.
We went in a cable car up somewhere.
We went to the “beach”, a hideous grey-yellow strip of greasy sand next to the main shipping channel, and we talked.
With their help I got through the time till my flight was due.
And so that’s where my Asian experience ended, but the journey inside my head was just getting moving, whatever was happening, I was shedding the carapace of arrogant arsehole and that’s got to be a good thing.
Next stop Frankfurt, Germany, of all places, as greater change from Asia as one could wish.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

2 - Dawn over Palembang

When we left things in the first chapter Neil and I were sitting on our backpacks in Bandur Lumpang station, on the southern tip of Sumatra, considering our options.
If we’d been thinking clearly, we would have gone back into Bandur, stayed overnight at a nice beachside hotel, breakfasted well and then gone to the station in time to catch the lovely coastal train via Bengkulu to Padang, our shimmering, glittering oceanside goal, halfway up the Indian ocean side of Sumatra, Indonesia’s northern most island.
But as you already discerned, clear thinking is not something easily achieved when travelling in Indonesia.
If it’s not the noise, if it’s not the horrendously crowded buses, if it’s not nights spent squatting over a hole in the concrete floor adding your faecal load to the rudimentary Indonesian sewage system, then it’s any one of a thousand other impediments to tranquil thoughts.
So we discussed things and more because we were already there in the station we made the bad decision to catch the night train to Palembang.
This was an inland train, with no coastal views, but I think we just wanted to be on the move.
So we bought our tickets and retired to the corner of the station to wait.
I had thankfully bought a single volume set of all three “Lord of the Rings” books, so got it out and began reading.
Neil had “A Passage to India”, and likewise began perusing its contents.
I was still feeling pretty rocky from the night spent in the prison-like hotel of the night before, and Neil wasn’t too hot either, but we had all day to wait, and he had the toilet nearby, so time passed reasonably smoothly.
Actually, it was an unlooked for benefit of that all afternoon wait.
I couldn’t remember the last time I had simply sat and read for hours before.
Bandur was still in touch with, if not fully on, the tourist trail and so we did catch the eye of the odd local.
They would come over to practise their English and ask the standard questions.
“Where are you going?”, Padang.
“Where have you come from?”, Jakarta.
Where are you from?”, Australia.
And so the afternoon passed.
Around four things began to happen.
More staff appeared and began to do various tasks.
Passengers appeared and began stacking their luggage around and about.
Then a train pulled into the station.
With the best Bahasa I could manage, I gleaned that this was out train, so we found our carriage and boarded.
Backpacks up onto the overhead rack, books out.
We sat and waited.
We were looking forward to this, it was our first train.
So far most of our travel had been by road, crammed into the front seat of death-defying, eight-seater minibuses, then a ferry ride across the Sunda Strait that had been anything but relaxing, so a nice soothing train ride over the mountainous spine of Sumatra would be just what the doctor ordered.
Well that idea lasted for about three seconds.
Unlike the minibuses, whose seat booking system could best be described as anarchic and could really be simplified down to “can-another-square-millimetre-of-human-be-put-anywhere?”, the train was more expensive and so to start with wasn’t as crowded.
We found our assigned seats and sat in them, another first as it was the only time I could remember in Indonesia where a seat was only occupied by one person.
Eventually, diesel smoke blew and the train lumbered out of the station.
The rhythm picked up and the clickety-clack we all know so well began to soothe our ruptured souls.
But if the train wasn’t overcrowded, it had an anarchy of its own.
Although the passengers all had assigned seats they quickly began to bestrew themselves about the cabin.
On the floor, on the luggage rack, you name it.
I was a little bit mystified, the most comfortable places on the train were the padded seats, but the other passengers took the first opportunity to sit or lie on something hard.
Oh, well, perhaps it was just the mind set of the country that had spent a generation under the despotic rule of Soekhano, that they now couldn’t handle comfort, deeming themselves unworthy.
And I’d like to add that if my tone so far has been patronising toward the Indonesians, that is accurate, I was a very dysfunctional person with my western superior mind, but as we are about to see, Sumatra was to change that, and set me on a path to greater compassion.
But all that is ahead, for now, I watched as at least five separate card schools started up on the floor of the train.
It is well known that Asians love to gamble, and here on the floor of the night train to Palembang, that was writ large.
I watched with patronised amusement, but then as ever with this trip, a problem occurred.
The Indonesian in front of me got off his seat and sat on the floor with his legs sticking out into the aisle.
He rested on his arms splayed back behind him and in the two first fingers of his right hand was a clove cigarette.
The smoke from this was sucked, in beautifully efficient fashion, under the seat in front of me, up past my face and out the window which I had partially open to enjoy(?) the night air.
My throat was a little better and had improved from the rusty chainsaw stage, but was still crackly and this acrid smoke, now set it off again.
I wanted to say to this guy, could you put your cigarette in your other hand, but my Bahasa wasn’t up to it, and anyway, now that I looked around, as usual every single person in that carriage, including Neil, was smoking.
With a sigh I resigned myself to my fate and opened the window a little further.
This however, had little or no effect, and soon after I closed it down to a small aperture again.
And I’ll tell you why.
One of the best physics lessons I ever saw, was not at college, but occurred on the school bus one afternoon on my way home from Kelso High.
An older tougher boy, and I can assure you, nearly everyone was tougher and cooler than me, called John Markwick was sitting about halfway along the bus and smoking a cigarette.
He finished his fag and threw the butt out the window.
Due to Bernoulli’s principle the butt travelled down the outside of the bus, level with the smaller upper windows and re-entered via an open window near the rear and hit another older boy, Greg Cole on the side of the neck.
We were all a little astonished, but there you go, physics rules.
And so on this train, everyone who finished a fag, threw the butt out the window, and if it was bad enough taking in the smoke, I deffo didn’t want to take a full butt down the windpipe at train velocity while craning my neck out to get some fresh air.
The conductor began to circulate, and for about half a millisecond I thought he would tell everyone to get up off the floor, stop smoking and possibly to stop gambling as well, but far from that, he stopped and chatted with one group, accepted a cigarette, then stopped and played a few hands.
Neil didn’t help by maintaining a perfectly serene and content demeanour, while I was going out of my tiny mind.
Including our last night in sweaty, smog ridden Jakarta, this had “third-night-without-sleep” written all over it.
So with throat scratching and eyes smarting I sat and tried to meditate in the smoke filled carriage as the train rattled on threw the night.
I’m guessing I must have gotten some sleep, but that was like the night before in the prison like hotel in Bandur, snatched here and there for five and ten minutes, jerking awake as the weight of my head grabbed at my neck ligaments.
The train stopped occasionally and the population of the carriage revolved, the only real sign of this was the numbers at the different card schools went up and down.
I’m guessing that most were regular travellers on this line, as they merged seamlessly with the game as if they had been playing since the train left Bandur.
But eventually the train rumbled down out of the hills into Palembang.
The card games disbanded, people picked up their baggage, chickens included, and disembarked.
Station staff scurried about doing end-of-journey tasks and the station at Palembang slowly emptied.
The passengers began to walk or ride buses into town, the staff completed their duties and returned to their various nooks, probably, to judge from the conductors behaviour on the train, to finish their card games and slowly quiet, then silence fell.
Neil and I humped our backpacks down the train steps and stood on the concourse.
Dawn was breaking over the town and there is something indescribably beautiful in a palm tree dawn.
Additionally, it was the quietest moment I could recall since we had got off the plane at Kuta Beach in Bali, the start of our Indonesian jaunt.
Despite all my troubles and tribulations, I remember thinking that to see this dawn, in the metallic quiet of the Victorian era station in the mountains of Sumatra, made it all worthwhile.
So captivated was I by this that I turned to Neil, stretching beside me, to say words along these lines, when without warning liquid diahorrea burst forth, ran down the inside of my leg and pooled in my left sock and boot.
I should have known that Indonesia wouldn’t provide beauty without a complication.
Too say I was gob smacked is to entirely understate the effect of this faecal visitation had on me.
I stared down at the last dribbles as they oozed over my sock top.
Neil, was rolling then, lighting a cigarette, and had no idea.
Eventually, I stopped staring down and began to think what to do about this.
I didn’t want o move in case that spread my affliction around, and the last thing I wanted was to be standing on train platform in Sumatra with liquid dynamic lifter pooling in ever increasing circles around my feet.
So I turned to Neil, instead of something lyrical about the tropical mountain dawn, I instead had to say, “Neil, could you get some toilet paper please? I’ve just had an accident.”
He turned to me in surprise.
As I say, the whole event had caught me by surprise, so he obviously had no idea.
Even the smell, was no indicator, swallowed as all bad smells are by the background E coli count of Indonesia.
He turned and was about to speak, but I just pointed at my stained sock.
He got the message, moved away with his back pack and then had a quick search, found the paper, handed the roll to me, then stood back.
But having done that, I was now uncertain what to do next.
Undressing seemed the next step, and those who know me well will tell you that although most of my time at uni was spent undressing in public and displaying the broad, panoramic spectre of my arse to the world.
It was less well known that sober I was massively introverted and becoming voluntarily naked in the middle of a, thankfully, deserted train station was not overly desirable.
I asked Neil if he could see a toilet anywhere, he had a quick look, but none was obvious, but a he did rouse a passer-by to my predicament and he, the passer-by, came over and began trying to communicate something to me.
Once again my Bahasa wasn’t really up to it.
And quite frankly, I was hardly in the best physical or mental shape to bring my mind to bear on translation at this point.
But I did my best to focus, “Mandi?”, he kept saying, pointing to me and repeating, in a questioning fashion, “Mandi?”
He said it a few more times, and slowly, a bell began tinkling at the back of my mind, ‘where had I heard that expression before?’, I thought to myself.
Then I remembered, a Balinese man had said it, when we were on the beach there.
He had said it, then gone into the ocean, and began to…, what had he done?, THAT’S RIGHT!, he had washed himself in the waters of the Bali sea.
I realised what our friendly Palembangian, (if that’s the word) was trying to tell/ask me, “did I want to wash?”
“Yes”, I said.
Now I saw that he had been making rubbing motions to along his arms and legs and realised he had been miming having a wash.
“Yes, yes”, I repeated, “Mandi”.
“Where?”, I asked him in Bahasa, motioning around about me, “Where can I Mandi?”
He then led me to a horse trough.
There were still plenty of these about, whether they had been built for horses to drink out of, or were purpose built for humans to wash in, I do not know, but either way, it was my only option.
But as I looked into it, I began a desperate mental search for another, ANY, other option.
Foul trolls had built that thing with the clearly stated goal to spread diphtheria and cholera.
There was water in it, actually, I’m guessing once it had been water, pure, liquid, silver drops that had fallen from the pristine heavens onto the mountain redoubt of Palembang, but now I wasn’t sure if it was water anymore.
Black it was, I could see my reflection clearly in it, oil looked like this.
But I really had no option.
I took off my foetid shorts, socks and boots.
I threw away my shorts and socks, but had to take my boots in and wash them as best I could.
I took my t-shirt off as well, it wasn’t dirty from the accident, but since my nether regions were exposed I decided I might as well go the entire pig, and wash all of me.
Neil handed me some soap with extended fingers, if he had had surgical tongs he would have used them, and I did my best.
I didn’t stay in there long, apart from the colour, the consistency was more like goulage than soup, and I was starting to believe that every drop of whatever lurked at the bottom of this horse trough was increasing my filth load, rather than removing it.
So with a rudimentary clean at best, I declared my Mandi over and got out of the horse trough.
I handed the soap to Neil, but he said “keep it” and so I stuck it in my backpack, got out some clean clothes, put them on and declared myself ready for the next hurdle.
Moving on from Palembang.
We were as ever uncertain and so cast about for some help and found it quickly.
A young boy, ten or twelve years old was passing by the station and we made ourselves sort of clear that we wanted to go north from town.
He grinned the mile-wide smile of happiness that he could help and led us away from the station.
Neil stayed conspicuously upwind of me, and I don’t blame him.
The boy took my hand and we walked like lovers into town.
I should say, this was quite a common site in Indonesia, often fully grown males would walk like this, I was still quite homophobic and struggled whenever I saw it, but since our small guide seemed to know what we wanted and where to get it, I held on quite happily and we hiked into town.
Life was coming onto the streets in the traditional zero-to-a-hundred fashion of Indonesian cities and we were soon encompassed by the full throated roar of Palembang.
Eventually we arrived at a sort of green square and our young guide gestured toward a shop front.
It looked like all the others in the square, but we couldn’t make out from the signs in Bahasa, what it traded in.
Then our young guide gestured that he had to go and left.
And so once again our travels came to a halt while we tried to figure out why he had brought us there.
While we debated a crowd gathered.
I have mentioned previously that we were becoming minor celebrities, particularly Neil with his blonde hair, and now we were well off the tourist trail we began to stand out like certain parts of a male canine’s anatomy.
All the tourists with an ounce of sense and who had done the minorest bit of planning, took the coast train to Bengkulu, then on to Padang, but here in the mountainous heart of Sumatra, we were well away from all that, and in all probability the first tourists that had come there for some time.
So, while we debated, a crowd gathered and when I eventually deigned to notice the commoners, there were nearly a hundred Sumatrans sitting and standing around just staring at us and giggling behind their hands.
So I decided to make use of our notoriety and began to ask if anyone spoke English.
Soon an orderly queue had gathered, almost as if I had advertised a position as guide and translator, fixer, journos call it, and they were all hoping for the job.
But here again being off the tourist trail counted for us and against us.
Although there were many people here staring at us, not many spoke English better than my halting Bahasa.
I didn’t help by saying “Padang?” over and over.
Palembang was nowhere near that city and wasn’t connected to it by any transport link.
But we persevered and eventually we got someone who seemed to understand from my woefully inadequate mumblings what we wanted.
He then gave a great grin and waved his hands and led me by the hand to the shop that our young friend had earlier indicated.
I went in and realised what both friends had been trying to say.
It was a travel agent.
The young man behind the desk again didn’t speak much English, but we got out our guide book and pointed to Padang, and he nodded and went into action.
He shuffled papers, looked up things and then began writing.
I didn’t really know what he was doing, but did what we were doing a lot of these days, hoped for the best.
Eventually, he finished what he was doing and held out two slips of pinkish paper.
He then held out his hand in a world renowned gesture, obviously asking for money, and I said one of the few phrases of Bahasa that I was fluent at, “How much?”
But even then I’d like to provide a travel tip for others.
Learning the local language is a good thing to do, but it’s no good knowing how to ask a question if you cannot understand the answer.
I’d been caught before like this, commonly when asking “where is the nearest backpackers?”, only to have my interlocutor rattle of a stream of Bahasa that left me floundering after the third word.
I scratched my head, we did want the tickets, but was this a situation where we had to haggle?
If so we were in big trouble as my language skills, and Neil’s less so, weren’t up to it.
Or, was this a standard price, as our train and ferry tickets had been?
Either way, we needed a new, non-verbal solution.
I massaged my forehead and then did what I should have done in the first place, looked at the ticket.
I checked closely, but if the price was on it, it wasn’t visible.
I then did have a good idea, I made a gesture toward the travel agent guy like I was asking for the bill in a restaurant, writing in the air with my left hand on my right palm.
He understood, got out a pen and wrote the price down.
Thankfully we fell on it and got our rupiah out and paid.
Then with much bowing and thank yous (“Terimah Kasi”), we backed out of his store.
Having done that we were now faced with a new problem, what were these tickets for?
They were almost certainly not for the train, as Palembang was the end of the mountain line, and the only trains out of town went back to Bandur.
We guessed they were for the bus, but if so where did we get that?
Luckily our crowd was still with us, so I showed the tickets to those in the front row and made what was becoming an incredibly useful, “Where?”, sort of gesture.
The crowd members at the front read our tickets avidly and then made various, “come with us” gestures and we, and about twenty of our followers moved off.
As we walked I remember thinking that we only needed a couple of tumbling acrobats out front and some elephants in gold trim to mimic a procession as of some colonial governor of old arriving to take up his position as ruler of the savage land centred upon Palembang.
Thankfully the walk wasn’t a long one, although as usual within an hour of dawn in that area, carrying a full backpack for three minutes led to the sort of sweating that would task even ten litres of Gatorade to replenish.
As we processed, shopkeepers and stallholders would ask the Indonesian members of our troupe what they were doing and they replied in the local tongue.
What they were actually saying of course we didn’t know, but assumably something along the lines of “we are taking these lost giants where they want to go.”
Eventually we arrived.
The bus station.
Well, that was a reasonable guess, but now we faced another hurdle.
Presumably our tickets were therefore for a bus, but which one?
Neil and I re-examined them and there was no ‘Padang’ on them, but it did say ‘Jambi’.
Our followers gestured inside and then began to move off, we thanked them in Bahasa and then went inside.
I might add that another of my reprehensible character traits at the time was that I was a cheapskate.
And I should have handed out some rupiah to our jolly friends for their help.
But learning not to be tight with money was something else that I sadly wasn’t to even begin learning for another twenty years.
Anyway, inside the bus station it was the usual anarchy, with the additional problem that no one even spoke rudimentary English.
We solved the problem by showing our tickets to anyone who would take an interest and were slowly gestured toward an empty part of the bus station.
This was a facer, why did they send us here?
We put down our backpacks and considered the problem.
Eventually Neil hit on the answer.
“Does it say what time this bus goes?”
I re-examined the ticket.
It didn’t, but then no Indonesian bus, and certainly not one out here off the tourist trail, runs to a timed schedule, when it is crammed full, it goes.
But Neil had come up with the answer, our tickets were for a bus that didn’t leave for some time, and presumably, when it did start to get organised, it would do so from this section of the bus station.
So we sat on our backpacks and waited.
Neil ate some food, but I wasn’t hungry.
After my throat and now with incipient dysentery stalking my moves, food was the last thing I felt like.
A shower, ten beers and a long rest would have top of my list, but since they weren’t on the menu, I dozed while I waited.
Not too long though, which was nice.
Eventually the area around us began to exhibit a quickening of tempo.
Locals came and gathered then a bus arrived and parked nearby.
There was no name on the front that I recall, but when the driver and his offsider got out and began animated conversations with the locals, I shouldered my way through and showed our tickets.
The driver nodded and said something incomprehensible to me, but it was clearly our bus.
I don’t remember that particular bus trip, it was 25 years ago, the next thing I remember is being in Jambi, so I’ll move things along to there.
I’ve checked the mapping website and it lists the road journey from Palembang to Jambi as 4 ½ hours, which tallies with my memory in this way.
We certainly got off the train at dawn, I remember that well, and the horse trough aftermath (likewise, clearly, I’ll never forget that!).
I remember the crowd around us in the square in the morning sunlight, so I’ll conjecture we caught the bus at lunchtime or thereabouts, rode it for six hours and arrived in Jambi near or just after dusk.
This would fit because we stayed the night there.
I might add, I was kind of concerned all day as from the moment we got off the train, through the interaction with the travel agent, followed by the walk through town with our friends, then in the bus station, we didn’t know where we were going.
We certainly weren’t going to Padang.
We were basically hoping that wherever we were going, and however we did it, that we were moving closer to Padang in some form.
Rather like a bad pool player who moves their ball closer to the hole each shot, till eventually they can pot it.
So dusk, and Jambi.
I remember without having to look up the guide book, the description of that town as if I had read it yesterday.
“There’s not much to be said for this pleasant riverine town, it’s just there.”
We had to take this as read as we couldn’t see much as night was falling and we weren’t there to sightsee, it was merely a stopover.
We likewise weren’t in any mood to hotel hunt, and so allowed to most vigorous of the touts at the bus station to guide us to a nearby hotel and checked in.
So since we didn’t do much in Jambi except stay overnight, I’ll report something I read there.
If Jambi has any tourist activities at all it is mountain trekking.
And each trek company has a book that tourists can write down their thoughts about what they experienced and the best (possibly in history) was written by a group of Australians at the end of a five day hike.
They described “bad food, rain that knocked you flat, insects the size of tractors in your tent and a guide who wore an enraging smile for the whole five days having lunged his length into a blonde kraut trollop the night before we left.”
Our hotel for the night was a nice rural domicile, not opulent, but clean and since it ran to three floors, well aerated.
I actually got a good night’s sleep there, which was important because if you include our last night in Jakarta, tossing and turing in the sweaty backpackers there, it would have been my third night with little or no sleep, but even that was obliterated in the end because as we slept war was declared.
When I awoke it was to the sound of artillery going off everywhere in the traditional pre-skirmish barrage.
I arose from my bed as if one of those shells had landed under it and ran to the window.
But the vista wasn’t as I expected, hundreds of Indonesians marching to and fro firing rifles and trying to overthrow the government.
The streets weren’t red with blood of hated oppressors and slogans of revolution weren’t being daubed on walls to urge the populace to revolt.
It was raining.
Many before, and surely many after me, will try to describe rain in the tropics, but nothing can really portray the all-encompassing aural assault.
Our hotel was roofed with gal iron and of course was not insulated with pink bats for heat and noise suppression, and the rain in Jambi fell upon it and made a noise like Satan had given a drum kit to each of his demons and they had all come around to rehearse on the hotel roof.
I panicked.
Well again as I look back from a vantage of 20 years I realize now that I was becoming seriously unhinged.
If you read the first chapter of this tale, you may recall that just two nights ago I had a near death experience in which I nearly drowned off Java, I think the shock went deeper than I realized.
This was followed by virtually no sleep and two ailments, throat and digestive tract, destabilising what little equanimity I had left.
And I’ll tell you this for nuthin’.
As I’ve written, I had nothing against the town, but I didn’t want to be trapped in the middle of nowhere, with my stomach loosening and not being able to communicate with the doctor (if we could find one).
So I leapt to my pack, packed it in record time, raced out to get Neil, then stopped in my tracks.
He was sitting, smoking a fag, serenely looking out the window at the waterscape that had enveloped the town.
I, in a panicked tone, said “C”MON, WE”VE GOT TO GO!”
And I have to hand it to him, then and now, he has always been able to keep his cool, he turned to me and said, “Why?”
Then blew a slow stream of smoke out his nostrils.
I’ll stop writing in capitals now as it is annoying for the reader, but take it from me, everything I said that morning was in a loud, racing, panicked tone.
“It’s obviously going to flood, we’ve got to get out of town before the river rises, plus we don’t know where to go to next, and we have to find the bus station, then we’ve got to buy our tickets…,” I railed on for some while.
Neil, to his credit, saw what I would take 25 years to see, that I was panicking and becoming deranged, and so agreed to pack and we would head for the bus station and move on.
He then gave me one of his Lomotil’s, a medicine for diahorrea, which was vital for another day being bounced around in the back of a bus, and helped me calm down by getting ready quickly.
He even forwent his breakfast as I recall, which only those who know him well, will realize what a sacrifice this was.
Neil, had, possibly still has, the mightiest appetite that I’ve ever seen.
He has won two eating contests that I know of.
One was at a party late at night after it had began to die down.
Much pot had been smoked and Andrew, another friend from uni, who witnessed it, described things for me.
“What they did”, said Andrew, “was sit down in front of the fridge and had a bet on who could eat the most.
The rules were that they wouldn’t shut the fridge door until there was no food left.
It was pathetic really, the young woman he was eating against was full after 20 minutes.
But Neil was still sitting there when I went to bed.”
So forgoing his breakfast was something I appreciated.
Also, and literally, thanks be to the heavens above, the rain had stopped.
And as we made our way through the streets back to the point where our bus had dropped us the night before, steam rose from the streets and soon the sky was blue and we were sweating again.
Life in the tropics all right.
We then went through the usual rigmarole at the bus station but things were starting to go our way slightly.
From Jambi, although there was no direct connection, the name Padang, was not unknown.
So we paid our rupiah, got our tickets and took our seats in another bus.
And now, get ready, because you are about to read something that I strongly suspect has never been written before, and will possibly never be written again.
We boarded the bus, which we learned was taking us to the town of Solok, a mere hour from Padang.
The driver started her up and headed out onto another mountain road and soon we were switch backing our way over mountain passes along a narrow two lane mountain road.
This was another 18-seater, mid-size tourist coach, and so Neil and I were put on the back bench seat as the only place we would fit.
I was right in the middle and so had no seat back in front of me, and had to hold on to the seat backs on either side of the aisle, one in each hand.
And here it is.
The problem I had was that the bus wasn’t crowded enough.
Never heard that before, huh?
I had too much room, and longed for ten or so Indonesians to be wedged in next to me to stop me sliding around on the slippery, sweat-soaked plastic seat.
Each time we began a climb I would be slid backward and each hillcrest saw the bus pitch forward and I would have to grab the seat backs hard and brace myself to stop me sliding down the aisle all the way to the front.
Additionally, I was already fully clenched in the buttock area as I couldn’t imagine the embarrassment of having another “Palembang-station-incident” on the bus and having…, well you can see what I mean, I won’t describe fully the outcome that would have followed from that.
And so the day wore on, we climbed, then we descended, we climbed, we descended.
This went on for hours.
Once again I’ve checked the mapping software, and it lists Jambi to Solok as four and a half hours.
I can assure you it seemed like forever we were traversing those hills.
But eventually we came to a flatter area and to the delight of my buttocks we began a smoothish run into Solok.
Then things began to go our way at last.
We arrived in Solok and debussed into another diesel-fume-soaked bus station.
We found that we were in the shadows of the post, and not only was the name Padang part of the talk here, but we had reconnected to the tourist trail and so many of the station staff spoke good English.
Not only that, but there was a bus to Padang every hour and the next one was leaving quite soon.
With a relief that I still list as among the greatest of my life we bought our tickets and boarded our last bus.
It was till early afternoon and the next thing I recall was riding through the streets of Padang in the sunlight.
Slowly the bus emptied at various stops and eventually the conductor fellow came back and said, “Dimana turun?” (Where do you want to get off?)
I replied, “Youth Hostel” in a questioning tone, he nodded and went back to speak to the bus driver.
Slowly the bus emptied and then we were the only ones on board.
Finally the bus pulled up outside a tourist hotel and the conductor gestured to us.
We thanked him and the driver, and got off.
I don’t know if the bus was scheduled to stop there, probably not, like having no timetable, Indonesians buses have no set routes, and they had courteously driven us to the nearest suitable hotel.
The bus pulled away, and we went inside.
We checked in and having thrown our packs on the bed, went back out and walked the hundred or so metres to the ocean.
So Neil and I finally stood on the Indian Ocean coast of Sumatra and stared out to sea.
The mapping software listed our journey, all going well, as 26 hours.
It had taken us nearly four days (96 hours) and nearly did for me, physically and mentally.
But now new feelings were beginning to steal over me, like dimmest, reflected starlight revealing a shape in the night.
What was happening?
Well I’ll start with a rather bizarre digression, which I hope will help show what was going on.
I have never watched a lot of Star Trek, indeed most of my interaction with the show has been through secondary spoof sources, sending up the essential ridiculous nature of the show.
A writer to Viz probably put it best when he wrote: “TOP TIP: Star trek captains. Always do the last ditch, million-to-one shot idea to save the Enterprise first, as it is the only one that ever works.”
But enlightenment can be found in the most unlikely places, even in Star Trek, and so here it is.
Whenever the crew of the Enterprise were in deep space and came under attack from the Stillettan Armour Fiends of Stitterax, the hostile aliens would begin to pound the Enterprise with their laser cannons and they crew would put up the deflector shields to reduce the damage of the bombardment.
Sooner, rather than later, the captain, Kirk, would radio down to Mr Scott in the engine room and say, “Mr Scott, stop all non-essentials and divert power to the deflector shields.”
Scotty would then reply, “I’m giving you all I’ve got captain. If you want more you’ll have to stop the engines, or shut down life support.”
Or something of that nature, then they would go on to do the last ditch thing, whatever it was, to reverse thrust fire or something, blow up the Armour Fiends, and move on through space.
Well, like that scenario from science fiction, that four day journey from Jakarta to Padang, threw up the same choice inside my head.
So taxing was the trip with sickness, tiredness and all the rest that eventually my emotional engine room sent the same signal back to the bridge, “Lachlan, we don’t have enough energy to keep up your emotional shields. You have to decide what you want to keep doing, either keep your emotional shields in place, or stop travelling and get some rest, you can’t do both.”
I had come to Indoesia from a very privileged, white bread, comfortable existence in Australia.
I don’t know what I expected from Indoesia, but in retrospect, I wanted to maintain control, and mostly keep up my emotional deflector shields, so that I could present the image I wanted the world to see.
I wanted buses on timetable with set routes.
I wanted taxis to come as the second hand was ticking up to twelve.
I wanted access to 24-hour health care.
I wanted brilliantly lit, sparkling clean bathrooms with crystal clear fresh water taking my waste away to the latest high tech sewage treatment facilities.
I wanted people to speak English on demand.
I wanted everyone to put their cigarette out as courtesy to me because my throat was sore.
This list of wants could go on interminably.
So the question you naturally want to ask is, “Well, why did you go there?”
And that is a good question that I find it hard to answer even now, 20 years later.
I went to “go travelling”.
But what does that mean?
I found the mechanics of travelling in the third world were nothing but painful, so the actual “travelling” part was something I detested.
I don’t like sightseeing much, then as now, so I wasn’t there to see the buildings or experience the culture.
While I was there I was to learn and come to understand the acronym that anyone more self-reflective than I would have told me that it was time to stop travelling, “NAFT”.
Not. Another.Fucking.Temple.
I didn’t surf then, and that is the major reason that most Australians go to Indonesia, so I wasn’t doing that.
Thus, why was I there?
The original plan I’d made with Neil was to go to Indo and then across to Malaysia and the Asian mainland, up through Burma to India, across that and off to England, where I was to take up my newly minted teaching career.
But now as I stood in the dusk on the shores of the Indian ocean I realized more third world travelling was the last thing I wanted to do.
And so to the questions asked me by the two dutch nurses at the beginning of this story.
Again, looking back it was the first time I came to understand that psychology, while not a hard science like chemistry and physics, was indeed real, and more real than I could imagine.
My parents attitude to psychologists and psychiatrists was that they were all madder than the people they saw, and that only fools and weaklings go to counselling.
So I had come to a man’s estate thinking I was a strong powerfully-minded individual who didn’t need any help and knew everything.
So it was with some surprise that I found my first encounter with the invisible part of my own mind a disturbing experience.
So to recap, here are the questions and my answers, which even as I contemplate writing down for you all to see, I can hardly help but cry out in anguish at the pretentiousness and arrogance of my 27-year-old self.

What is your favourite animal? Taipan. This animal represents how you interact with other people.

What is your second favourite animal? Dolphin. This animal is how you would like to be seen by other people.

What is your favourite drink? (Cringe) I said the first cold beer you have after winning a rugby match.
This drink represents how you like sex. Sadly, this shows I saw it as a prize, a conquest, something to be grabbed and consumed in rioutous fashion.

Picture a box, what it is made of and what is inside it. (Double, triple cringe), I said a shoe box with a pair of rugby boots in it.

Describe the ocean in three words. I said “Big, scary, waves.” This answer is how you see life.
Clearly, I saw life as pretty frightening, which was directly contraindicated by my answer to the last question, which was:

Describe how you would travel across the ocean from one island to another. Money is no object, and the laws of physics need not apply.
I said, “I would like to windsurf in a straight line on flat calm ocean.”

Indicating that I wanted to travel through life with no hiccups or problems whatever.

These questions are unlikely to be found in any clinical psych text, I feel they would be described as potted psychology at best, but I found them stunningly, blisteringly, accurate.
The two questions related to rugby, embarrassing though it is for me to relate, were perhaps the most.
Before Neil and I had left Australia I had changed from my standard winter sporting fare of soccer to rugby, and had finally broken away from my mother’s stern injunction that I wasn’t allowed to play rugby because only uncouth yobbos played that and had taken up the game with a passion.
And indeed, I realized that I didn’t want to see another temple, I wanted to get to London, open my shoebox, pull on my boots and start flying into tackles and running with an egg shaped ball under my arm on the green sward.
I think the only thing I can lay credit to on that dusk in Padang was recognizing my feelings and giving weight to them.
In retrospect it was the first time in my life that I had understood that my parents were wrong about something, psychology was important, and I did have feelings and desires, and it was time to start looking at them.
I didn’t announce to Neil that our joint travelling was finished there on the beach at Padang, but it was coming.
I might add, Padang was already notorious as one of the few, possibly the only, beach resort on Earth, where swimming was banned.
When we went down to the ocean I had thought ‘how bad could it be?’.
But as soon as we got there I understood why, the shore break, just ten metres from where Neil and I eventually came to a halt to watch, crashed down on the sand from three metres.
The sound and vibration of that murderous shore break was genuinely frightening to behold.
Contemplating that I had thought it would make the most perfect end to my story: “So after four days of travelling hell, we stood on the sand by an ocean you couldn’t swim in. Just fucking perfect.”
But then I changed my mind, that ending continues with my patronising attitude toward Indonesia and the Indonesians.
Now my ending for this stanza is, I’d like to think even better for journalistic irony and pivotal balance.

In the end, my journey was just beginning.

Next Chapter

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