Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Double Double

On the island of Sumatra lies the world’s largest volcanic crater lake, Danau Toba. Within Lake Toba sits the Singapore-sized island of Samosir. And, if you’re quite determined, high up in the alpine trees of this double island, there are several smaller lakes. If you have the kind of bucket list we have, there’s just no resisting seeing a double lake on a double island.

On rented scooters, we set out to circumnavigate the island, turn inland and head up an over the island in search of said lake. We headed past remnants of the island’s animist history, palm trees on one side of the road, pines on the other. Through rice fields and rocky hills dotted at random with the massive, colorful multistory graves unique to Samosir.

We lost ourselves in towns, through markets filled with staring Indonesians. After some false starts, kind strangers eventually directed us onto the road that would lead us on a quick jaunt across the island. Stop at a lake, click of a camera, back before dark. Or so we thought.

“Hati, hati” and “Palan, palan” are two oft-ignored warnings in Bahasa Indonesia. Slowly and Caution mean very little in a land where driving is reckless, passing is nonchalant, and speeding is a given. So when told to drive slowly and be careful, we assume it’s because we are white and suspected of ignorance about driving motorbikes.

As pavement became pockmarked, giving way for wide expanses to dirt and gravel, we figured it couldn’t last. Wouldn’t maps indicate a dirt road? The road did, indeed, wind its way past the lake, the x on our treasure map. But that's about as far as our luck lasted. 

Eventually, you go too far to turn back and must forge on ahead. Even as you are driving at a snail’s pace, the sun inching closer to dusk, trying a dip and dodge around innumerable rocks and potholes,  scooter rattling and scraping all the while. At some point we crested the top of the island, some 3,000 feet above sea level, to see the island ring road a thin snaking string along the coast, far below us.

Much in the way that all good things come to an end, so too must the harrowing. After a brief pavement fakeout (which had us so assured we were done with dirt that we stopped for a victory break), the dusk trickled into dark, pavement back into rock and dust, leaving us to crawl back by the light of a barely-functional headlight.

Aching and dusty, we finally pulled up to our hotel. Soothing pizza and beer were applied to our wounded spirits. Bed was crawled into early. But, sometimes it’s not easy to reach your destination.  Especially if you’re looking for a lake on an island in a lake on an island in the ocean. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Red Head

Native only to the jungles of Sumatra and Borneo, the orangutan is a rare and exotic creature. With a name meaning “forest person” in the local tongue, our distant relative is truly a sight to behold. 

Eerily human, extremely intelligent, and largely solitary, the orangutan spends the first six years of its life with its mother. Much of this time is spent learning how to build nightly nests high in the branches, as well as the ins and outs of the diverse and complicated diet that gives these critters sustenance – primarily a wide range of fruits, supplemented by plants, honey, bark, and occasional bird eggs or insects.

Large, gangly-limbed, with frizzy red hair, orangutans still somehow manage to exhibit grace and ease while swinging from tree to tree high above the forest floor. No easy feat when you weigh up to 250 pounds.

It is a majestic and magical experience to witness such a rare, solitary animal in its native habitat. Perched high in the safety of the trees, the orangutans can be as interested in the people below as we are in it. And with any luck, this interest, this intrigue, will fuel efforts to keep the number of orangutans up, to keep the jungle from reducing in size, and to keep the devastation humans can bring from encroaching farther into the realm of the wild. 

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Paradise Found

Off the northernmost tip of Sumatra lies the tiny, rural island of Pulau Weh. Reaching this haven required some time and effort: a twelve hour bus to the north, a becak to the pier, a ferry to the island, and a harrowing, eye-watering, ear-popping motorcycle taxi across the island. But it was worth the work to reach Weh Island’s rustic (budget) tourist digs.

Waters vary from crystal clear to impossible blues and greens, enticing swimmers to find sweet, cool respite. Waves gently caress shores rocky and sandy alike, lulling the hammock-bound into swinging afternoon naps. Afternoon thunderstorms patter on tin bungalow roofs. For me, the bungalow balcony offered a perfect spot for morning yoga, and the affectionate local cats were ideal cuddle partners for those afternoon naps. It is in many ways postcard-perfect.

Even the negatives on Weh Island yield positive results. The herds of goats that love to clip-clop down onto our bungalow porch provide us with incredible goat’s milk cheddar for morning omelets. The impossibly incorrect maps lead us on a drive over the entirety of the magnificently picturesque island. The rough speedboat ride that sent us hurtling over six-foot swells through a thunderstorm and left us soaked to the bone allowed us to snorkel with dancing schools of fish, color flickering in the sunlight; it also ended with our being gifted a 25-pound fish, a gut-busting feast, even for six people.

With its minimal tourist infrastructure, herds of goats, and numerous mosques, Weh Island isn’t the ideal paradise getaway. It was rustic, our tour guides also made their living fishing, there wasn’t hot water or air conditioning, we forgot to reapply sunscreen, and the beer was absurdly overpriced and hard to find. But it was gorgeous, the people friendly and helpful, the food delicious, and the cats plentiful. I truly couldn’t ask for anything more. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Nearby Neighbor

Traveling from Thailand to Indonesia is a bit like visiting a friend whose house has the same floor plan as your own; everything is familiar, but the furniture is bizarrely different. The Elaborate Buddhist temples have been replaced by equally elaborate mosques, the tuk-tuks replaced with sidecar-wielding becaks.

Call to prayer, haunting and melodic, pours over the buildings, snaking in through windows and doors. It wakes you in the morning, and bids you farewell at night. Hijabs of every hue cover the heads of devout women, equally a proclamation of faith and a fashion accessory. Cats lounge and prowl in broad daylight, flaunting their power in the absence of canine competitors. The fried rice has a bit of a kick, the variety of local curries an even bigger one. 

The landscape and weather are both similar in temperament to what we live with in Thailand. Tropical flowers, palm trees, and banana leaves abound; fried rice and noodles rule the kitchen; smiles are offered openly and easily. Yet, touching down in Indonesia’s northern island of Sumatra, we are greeted by a land that is still incredibly travel-worthy, with a diverse culture, rare plant and animal life, and a lush array of landscapes. 

Despite being so close to Thailand, both in kilometers and in attitude, and despite having been to Java and Bali in the past, Sumatra offered us a whole new world to explore.