Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Indonesia  ,
Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Once properly in the mountains, the scenery became truly breathtaking. Between Parakumbuh and Bukittingi, there was a relatively level plateau, with villages cultivating rice and sheer rocky outcroppings. I stopped in Bukittingi for a couple of hours and visited it's rather dubious tourist attractions: a Dutch colonial structure called 'Fort De Kock' which was unimpressive, despite having an amusing name, and a zoo with some very unhappy looking elephants. Their covered market was lively though, and I was given some fruit I couldn't identify. (An odd thing; dark, pear shaped, but with a crispy, shell-like skin, covering a hard, tart fruit; if jackfruit is natural winegums, this was like the natural sours).

From Bukittingi it was forty gorgeous kilometers to Lake Maninjau; This was a slight detour, and took me off the main road. Climbing and descending on a narrow lane through emerald rice terraces bordered by craggy limestone cliffs. This was the definitive rural idyll. Until I reached the lake, which was even better. Maninjau is inside a 30km wide volcanic crater. Coming from Bukittingi there was a 10km descent into the crater, down 45 outrageously steep hairpin bends. The views on the way down were spectacular. Clearly, they were also distracting. Hairpin number 5 (they were all numbered), not far from the bottom, was the scene of much commotion, as the wreckage of a car was being retrieved from it's precarious 'italian job' position. The driver was already in hospital, (just a couple of broken bones, apparently), so I joined in the rubber-necking for a few minutes.

I found a lakeside bungalow for 5USD. This was the most 'touristed' destination I passed through in Sumatra. I saw an English family and another European couple in the village. The following day I met two of the guys I'd met in Penang, Malaysia, partaking of the only tourist 'activity' available- renting pushbikes and riding around the lake... They were doing a full kora; I was heading for the outflow river on the far side. This was easy to spot: steep crater walls formed a complete barrier around the lake, apart from the narrow cleft where it emptied. The lakeside road passed through even more magnificent scenery, before turning off to follow the quick, clear river 30km down the mountainside to the west coast.

The coast road to Padang was quiet and flat, with only occasional views of the beach and ocean. Mostly it cut through more oil-palm plantations. Padang was smaller than I'd expected, since I knew it was one of Sumatra's biggest cities. I took a sunset stroll along the corniche and found a local restaurant. Padang cooking (Masakan Padang) is the most common kind of restaurant in Sumatra and Java. I was already very familiar with the form.
The system was as follows: you sit down and look hungry. Combining this with eating gestures (specifically, eating-with-fingers gestures. Mime using a spoon and terrible confusion awaits), and pointing at food will eventually persuade the owner that you really did come into their restaurant in order to eat food. At this point they bring a bowl of rice, a bowl of water, and a collection of dishes, consisting of some (or all) of the following: several different fish, chicken and boiled-egg curries, an omelete, a couple of pieces of boiled and fried beef, fried chicken pieces, fried fish, chilli and tomato paste, raw vegetables. You help yourself to as much of this assortment as you want, spoons are provided, for transferring food from bowl to plate. You use your right hand to get it from there to your mouth. (hence the bowl of water).When you're finished, you ask for the bill. The owner surveys the remaining dishes, sucks his teeth like a mechanic giving a quote, and plucks a number out of thin air. There was very little consistency between meals, pricewise, but since they were always less than 2USD I didn't mind much.
The Masakan Padang in Padang was no better than elsewhere, sadly, but there was a superb variety of streetfood in the centre. It was here that I re-discovered a treat to which I subsequently became seriously addicted. I'd first had it in Malaysia, bought on the street in the middle of nowhere, and never seen again. In Indonesia, it was ubiquitous: a thick Scotch-pancake-ish base, but with yeast, cooked on one side only, and sprinkled with a generous handful of sugar. As it cooks it bubbles up, so it has the unsealed, spongey absorbance of a crumpet. It's then buttered and sprinkled with more sugar, crushed peanuts, chocolate chips, sugar, condensed milk, sugar and sugar. Folded in half, brushed with butter on the underside for good measure, portioned and served. The vendor offered to add grated cheddar to this mix. I laughed in his face and accused him of insanity, and possibly witchcraft. But in the next town, I was offered the same thing. Clearly this was normal here- a local speciality- it'd be rude not to. Rude and, it turned out, very foolish. Strange as it may sound, the cheese was the piece de resistance. Pure genius. A little bit of savoury to balance all the sugar, and the uniquely appealing stodge of unmelting cheese. (I was riding pretty long days at this point. It's possible my body had begun to respond exclusively to calories and water) Whenever I bought one, the other customers in the queue were invariably parents with several children. I suspect that conventionally one of these puddings feeds an entire family.
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