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Bukittinggi

Written on: Sunday May 11th, 2008

A journal entry from: Around The World Without A Plane

My journey here was a tough one, mentally and physically. I took a bus that was scheduled to leave Parapet (the town that services the ferry to Tuk-Tuk and back on Samosir, in the middle of Lake Toba) at 9pm. Instead at 11pm I was still sitting in the ticket office screaming out the words to the Coldplay?s ?In My Place?, ?Yellow? and ?Fix You? that my new friend who worked at the ticket office seamlessly strummed out on his guitar. Needless to say there was nobody else in the office. At 11:10pm the bus eventually arrived, packed to the ceiling with Indonesians and their cargo. Bizarrely, right by my seat in the very middle of the bus, in the aisle was a pole welded from floor to roof, just in case anybody fancied some spontaneous pole-dancing throughout the trip. Oh, how that would have brightened up the journey. Instead of loosely-clothed athletic woman throwing themselves exotically around a pole I had mainly middle aged, moustachioed men hocking up phlegm before gobbing it out the window. I counted myself lucky, in China they would have simply spat it on to the floor. It was fortunate I was on at night, and without much trouble fell happily in to a peaceful, if a little cramped sleep. At 3:10am I awoke very aware that we were climbing very slowly, a not particularly well-tarmaced piece of road. The way we were crawling up the road, with the horrendous noise coming from under the bus I thought we had mechanical problems, and so it was after maybe another 20 seconds of ascending the hill, the bus came to a stop. It was here the bus remained for quite some time. I was aware of passengers getting on and off the bus and the occasional flashlight peering in the windows, but I did my best to ignore the activity and tried to get the best sleep I could, hoping that whatever it was that had gone wrong would be promptly fixed. At 8:20am I woke up again, strangely refreshed, but with the bus still in exactly the same spot that it was in over 5 hours earlier. I decided it was time to find out what was going on. On alighting from the bus it was evident that it wasn?t a mechanical problem at all, but a natural one just made all the more worse by the incompetence and impatience of many Indonesians. Ahead of us was a huge trail of buses, trucks and 4x4s all queuing to get over the hill we were currently on, down the other side and up another very steep one. From the top of the hill that we were parked on you could see in the distance a stream of vehicles in the same position as us but coming from the other direction. None of the road had tarmac on it, and because of the rain had just become a huge makeshift Glastonbury, capturing those stupid enough to try to drive through it. We had stopped overnight in the absolute ass-end of nowhere to wait for the sun to come up to dry the mud allowing the vehicles to pass. Unfortunately though, the clouds were hiding the sun and the rain was threatening once more. Just as it looked like we might be on the move though people that had obviously been in the same position as us for many hours took things in to their own hands and decided to just drive wherever they could to overtake the queue of traffic and get to the other side. The problem was cars, trucks and buses on the other side were doing the same thing and it ended up with sheer pandemonium and gridlock in the middle of the muddy valley with neither vehicle having room to pass one another. It all became rather comical and so at about 11am with nothing much else to do I managed to procure a packet of noodles and a hot cup of coffee and went and sat at the bottom of the hill grinning away at the idiocy of not only the Indonesian drivers, but also the two policeman who were supposedly trying to remedy the situation but had instead taken to arguing with one another. A crowd gathered and as each lorry began to take it?s run-up at the ascent of the slippery hill we would jeer as it climbed and then let out a disappointed ?Ahhhhhh? as the truck would slip back down the hill despite stamping on the brakes, or cheer at it?s success of reaching the top. By 12pm a rope was employed and began pulling vehicles up either side of the hill and finally at 1:40pm, after ten and a half hours of helplessness it was our turn to battle the hill. Our driver actually did a great job, kept it in first gear and ragged the engine for all its worth getting us to the top without the employment of the rope, and so the journey recommenced.  There were a few positives to the journey which eventually came to an end at 11:35pm upon reaching Bukittinggi. The landscape on the way was absolutely jawdropping, following the mountain range that makes up Sumatra?s spine through the lush green vegetation where just about every fruit and vegetable you can name is growing; the volcanic soil being so fertile that couples need but lie down in it to get pregnant. The other bonus after the mountain terrain began to lose its appeal to me was they stuck Rambo 4 on, and I think I was the only one on the bus that could understand it. It wasn?t the longest bus journey I?ve ever taken (that goes to the Oklahoma City to Wisconsin Greyhound debacle ? 38 hours) and it probably wasn?t the most tortuous (that has to be the Burmese one with the religious chanting tempting me to murder), but the duration and the uncomfortability (I don?t think uncomfortability is a real word) combined make it probably the worst I?ve ever endured. Oh where are the trains when you need then. My epic journey however was well worth it. I managed to get a great deal on the penthouse suite at the Orchid Guesthouse, my own room, dingy as it was, but with access out on to the rooftop overlooking the city and the two volcanoes Gunung Singgalang and Gunung Merapi that sandwich the town., all for the very generous price of ?2 a night. I chilled out the following day wandering around the town and visiting the depressing, highly uninteresting and unfortunately named Fort de Kock and its equally depressing zoo. No wonder it was only 30p to get in. Then that evening after eventually managing to convince a teenage Indonesian girl with special needs who followed me around the city for good on three hours that I really did think she should leave me alone now, I got a quick one hours sleep and then headed out at 10:30pm with Atsumi from Japan, our guide Dhany and our cook, who I?m sure told me his name was Rice, (but on contemplating this since think this simply can?t be the case) to conquer the 2891 metres of Gunung Merapi (Fire Mountain), one of the most active volcanoes in the world. Being at night we had to use torches to light our way during the gruelling climb. The first 25 minutes had me battered, it was just a continual uphill walk. My calves begged to be spared and my lungs fought to take in all the air they could. But after this, despite the trek actually becoming steeper and more treacherous it got easier. This was probably because instead of my mind being on the pain was body was going through I was constantly fiddling, banging and letting fly with obscenities at my torch that the guesthouse had lent me. In a word it was shit. It brought a whole new meaning to the word ?flashlight? as it literally flashed all the time. Anybody who could see us up on the mountain from below must have either been trying to identify the Morse Code signal or assumed there was a rave going on. Not only the flashing, but it actually strategically tormented me. As soon as I went to put my foot on a slippery rock or narrow foot-hold to advance up the mountain it would go out completely, only re-alighting when I was safely on firm ground again. By half way up the mountain at about 2am I?d had enough of the thing and resorted to using my mobile phone which was actually a god-send. I never realised quite how bright and powerful that little Sony Eriksson light on my phone was and it did me and the rest of the group a fine service the remainder of the way up the volcano. We stopped off on a couple of occasions, the first as we had ascended at quite a pace and as the top was bare from trees and had no shelter from the cold and wind was so as we could keep warm, aided by the fire that Rice built and nurtured, and then the second time at about 4am, about an hour from the summit for some coffee which again Rice took care of for us. From where we were here we could see out over the lights of Bukittiggi and come 5am hear the early morning Muslim prayers emanating powerfully from the mosques beneath. Combined with the eerie, wispy clouds at the same level as us, slowly edging towards the city, as if trying to sneak up on it without it realising, it conjured up quite an amazing atmosphere. The final ascent was very rocky, very cold and very steep. I had on my faithful Hollister hoodie that had kept me warm all those many months ago in Sweden, Estonia, Russia and China, but my hands were freezing. Despite this I distinctly remember them being on fire because of the adrenaline that was racing around my body at the near arrival at the summit. Light was already beginning to pull its way up over the top of the mountain, as cloud and the gases from the volcano mixed together in front of us to form the most incredible of views. It was like I was back at primary school again and I?d just been caught by three girls playing kiss-chase. I didn?t know what direction to look in first. With not a living thing around, besides of course my companions, and just pumice and rock boulders surrounding us, with the chill eating away at our uncovered skin, the gases exploring around us and with the first dim lights of the day it was like being on the moon (not that I?ve ever been on the moon I might add). We stood at the highest point as the sun shyly crept above the mountains in the distance and pinned us to our spot. I was as restless as an epileptic at a Chemical Brothers concert and eager to bust out a handstand right on the edge of the caldera. Dhany sheepishly and unconvincingly agreed to hold my legs as we stood in the middle of a drop-off either side leading down the edge of the volcano. I threw myself up in to my regular hands-on-the-ground pose and noticed very interestingly as soon as I?d thrown my legs up that my phone, which had done me such a gallant service earlier that morning had, aided and abetted by gravity, removed itself from my pocket and had begun merrily bouncing down the side of one of the volcano?s calderas.  I?ve never been one to make good decisions early in the morning as exemplified here. From my upside-down position almost 3000 metres above sea level I saw it take its first couple of bounces and then thought to myself ?Don?t worry, you can climb down and get it later, just pose for the photo ? the photo?s what?s important right now!? So I did, and you?ll have to admit it?s a pretty good photo, but all the same, if I?d have just kept my eye on the phone for five more seconds I could have seen whether or not it dug itself in to the ground high enough up the caldera to consider climbing down to get it or whether it had plummeted much further down to its hot, molten peril. I?d made up my mind after turning the right way up again that I would climb down in the general direction it had fallen and see if I could see it. Dhany immediately protested at me not to and probably after watching too much American TV followed his protests up with ?As your guide I?m not responsible for anything that might happen to you if you continue climbing down there.? As the ground and what looked like a big sturdy rock beneath me gave way, picked up pace and careened down the caldera I heeded his advice and climbed back up. ?Don?t worry? he said, ?Rice knows these parts very well. You are too heavy, he is very light, he will go down there and get it back for you.? Dhany beckoned Rice up to the top and then began to explain the situation to his 18 year old dogsbody and encourage him to climb down the side of the caldera on loose rock in the general direction where I thought my mobile phone had fallen. No wonder Rice wasn?t buying it. His face immediately contorted believing that this might be his last trek. It was one thing me being stupid, risking my own life to attempt to climb down the caldera, but I wasn?t going to have a teenager (whose name surely can?t be Rice) risk his own life for the sake of my phone, as good a light as it did have. There was only one thing for it. I stood on the very summit of the volcano, threw my arms in the air and yelled ?Pan tay, pan tay, pan tay!?, Indonesian for ?Fuck it, fuck it, fuck it!? We arrived back at the bottom of the mountain just before noon, sweating from the midday sun, still laughing about my phone, tired from the 13 hours of hiking through the night but all so very upbeat at what we had just experienced. Sadly my phone wasn?t the only thing to be lost that day. On the bus on the way back to Bukittinggi an Indonesian guy had asked me to move up on the bench and had moved to sit between me and Atsumi. The benches sit facing each other, but I had turned sideways to face the way we were travelling with the strange guy sitting behind me and now Atsumi behind him. Within minutes I felt a movement, a fondling on my butt, but this wasn?t some odd homosexual deviancy this guy was exhibiting, he was trying to steal my wallet. I just remained still, in one way not actually believing the audacity of the situation and for another reason not to let on that I knew what he was up to. Realising that he wasn?t able to get my wallet from my back pocket I next felt his hand reach down in to my hip pocket. The only thing in there was that crappy, malfunctioning flashlight which to be honest I would have happily bestowed upon this light-fingered little grub of the earth, but through principle I wasn?t going to allow him even that. I turned and looked him in the eyes, his hand quickly shooting from my pocket diving under a bag he had on his lap. His gaze dropped and I thought that was going to be the end of it. In hindsight now I should have kicked up more of a fuss, especially having the backing of Dhany and Rice with me in the bus and got him kicked off as only afterwards we realised that he had managed to get Atsumi?s wallet from her bag. Luckily she only had traveller?s cheques in there, but still an inconvenience for her to have to cancel and get reissued. Later that day I checked out Ngarai Sianok Canyon, another natural highlight of Bukittinggi?s and then treated myself to a good steak and chips in preparation for another bus journey the next day, even longer than the one from Lake Toba, this time all the way to the south of Sumatra to where Mount Krakatau, the most destructive volcano in the world?s history lies in wait (probably hoping for another mobile phone sacrifice).