Farewell Indonesia

Loading the ferry

Three nights ago we left the peace and quiet of Lake Toba to head for Medan, a large city on the northeast coast of Sumatra. The plan: to spend one night in Medan recovering from the 5 hour bus ride (this one had absolutely no leg room, a nightmare for me especially) and then to catch the fast ferry to Penang, Malaysia on Sunday morning. Our time in Indonesia was nearly up, and we were feeling ready to leave.

As it turns out, Indonesia wasn’t quite finished with us. We discovered upon arrival in Medan that the ferry only left on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. A warning to other travelers — the Lonely Planet guide is wrong on this one, at least the 2008 copy we have is. They were also wrong about the price. When we did buy our tickets they ended up costing nearly twice what the book said. I guess it’s important to learn early on not to trust the guidebooks implicitly. We’re usually much better at avoiding things like that, but we missed this one. As a result, we suddenly had three days to spend in Medan.

Mesjid Raya

One doesn’t hear too many glowing reviews of time spent in Medan, and I’m afraid we won’t be changing that. The city is sprawling in a seemingly unplanned and chaotic fashion, and the land around the city is nothing but palm plantations and pollution. We stayed in a cheap hotel near the city’s main attraction, the Mesjid Raya mosque, which unfortunately is a lot more impressive from the outside than from within. We paid a small sum to visit the nearby Royal Palace, only to discover that the tour consisted of two rooms, both of which we could see from where we stood to pay the fee. Pretty disappointing.

Luckily, there was a shopping centre nearby that had snacks and a salon, which offered really affordable haircuts, treatments, and massages. We both salivated at the idea of getting a nice foot reflexology massage to pass the time, so in we went. This was my first reflexology experience ever, and I discovered that there is a very large and very important distinction between reflexology and massage as therapy. It was perhaps the most excruciatingly painful hour I’ve ever spent, a true torture in thin disguise. I felt pretty good afterwards, but I have a theory as to why. It stands to reason that if you submit to an hour of painful torture, the best feeling in the world to hope for is simply an end to it. So when it ended, I was happy. I think I’ll opt for the massage as therapy next time.

Meg also decided to get a trim at the same salon. The stylists told her that they had “fun cutting Barbie hair”. As she left with her new ‘do, there was a marked increase in the amount of attention directed her way by the locals. But back off guys — she’s with me.

Deadly sidewalks

Aside from our salon adventures, we spent some time wandering the streets and trying to avoid falling through the sidewalks. This was not an exceptional circumstance: nearly every sidewalk we saw had sections like this, sometimes too large to step over. Good thing there weren’t too many interesting buildings drawing our eyes upwards, or we surely would have fallen in.

Tuesday eventually came, and we boarded the ferry to Penang. We had to pay a penalty of $20 US each for overstaying our tourist visas by one day, thanks to the misinformation about the ferry schedules. As we sat on the ferry, I started to think about the month we’d just spent in Sumatra. I would be lying if I said we didn’t feel relieved to be moving on. Don’t get me wrong — we had many wonderful experiences and moments in those 30 days, but our experience was exhausting in many ways.

First of all, there was the travel. Every leg of overland travel through Sumatra was a test of willpower, whether it was ferries that looked like they would sink any second, buses that drove people to vomiting in the aisles, ojeks (motorbike taxis) that don’t offer helmets to passengers, or public mini-buses trying their best to pass every other thing on the road ahead of them. We came to dread our travel days. I had to ask myself if I would do it again this way, and I think the answer is no. However, I’m extremely happy to have done it once. As painful as the journeys were, they afforded us the opportunity to see a side of Indonesian life that would otherwise have remained hidden. Sometimes the simple act of being exposed to something like that has an intrinsic value of it’s own. We also feel like it’s earned us some traveler’s stripes, so to speak.

Secondly, there is the issue of food. Indonesian food can be, and is, delicious…but not everywhere, and not necessarily for a month straight. We can’t wait to start eating non-fried, sugar- and msg-free food again. Our digestive systems can’t take it any more. Not that it was all bleak: Lili’s in Maninjau makes perhaps the world’s best banana pancakes, and we did have some good gado-gado here and there. But these seemed to be exceptions rather than rules.

Finally, there are the people. The people of Indonesia that we met were, perhaps to a fault, extremely nice. So nice, in fact, that we could hardly walk down a street without every person in sight yelling “hello mister!!” in our direction. In cities, this was usually accompanied by a sales pitch of some sort. We did learn that the best way to navigate this gauntlet when traveling is simply to let these salesmen take care of you. Nearly all of the ones we dealt with offered fair prices, and took us where we wanted to go. It’s a lot easier that trying to find ticket counters, which often don’t exist anyways. In fact, I really shouldn’t put this type of thing as a drawback at all, except for the fact that it becomes very hard on the nerves at times. But it’s well meaning, and that’s the most important thing.

The challenge of traveling in Sumatra even carried over to the two weeks we spent volunteering with Hands On in Sungai Geringging. Even though we were fed and housed, the living was tough. The women slept inside and the men in a tent outside, on bunks with mosquito nets, if you had one. There were only cold bucket showers to erase the dirt of a long day’s work in the heat, and the work itself was hard, physical work. On the flip side, the time we spent volunteering was one of the biggest highlights of our travels so far. Even though spending two weeks with HODR prevented us from reaching some other desirable destinations in Sumatra, we wouldn’t trade our experience there for anything. The people we met there were one of the real highlights and I’m not only talking about the volunteers (they were awesome — good work everyone!). The locals that we were able to help were wonderfully welcoming and gracious. It was a very inspiring, challenging, and rewarding time.

Batak dancer on Lake Toba

In essence, I think that’s a fair description for most of our time in Sumatra: inspiring, challenging and rewarding. The places we got to were fantastic, and the journeys in between were exactly the opposite. It created a strange sort of balance where the one extreme exaggerated the other, making the beautiful even more beautiful, and the painful even more difficult to bear. I hesitate to say that this is Indonesia, since there is such a vast area of the country that we didn’t even come close to. But such was our personal exposure this time around. Now we are moving onwards to new countries, to new challenges, and to new rewards. Can’t wait.


    Be prepared for more of the same bus and ferry travels. Thailand and Laos are full of longer than expected, uncomfortable rides. I hope you find a way to avoid them.
    When you go to Laos, I suggest not sticking around Vientienne for too long. Go north to Vang Vieng or to Luang Prabang.

    You will never forget this part of your life. This is a great description of a time and a place. Keep going!

    Love, Dad

    That picture of Meg is awesome! Glad to hear there were no broken legs! Looking forward to seeing you two in Laos!

  1. Laura and Tim

  2. Hey megs and mark

    sounds rough out there – like the true glories of take-it-as-it-comes travel… well cheers (go get a shot of whatever the locals are drinking) to maintaining a sense of direction amongst the crookedness(and pot holes)of this here world

    We’re heading into Laos very soon, and Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang are two places we are definitely going. Any suggestions for must-see places in Thailand?

    Can’t wait! See you soon.

    Go Rock Climbing in Krabi Thailand!
    You are also very close to Pai which is a great mountain vibe in northern Thailand.
    Go river tubing in Vang Vieng and Waterfall jumping/swimming in Luang Prabang.
    Have fun!

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