Stranded in Paradise

Trip Start Oct 31, 2011
Trip End Ongoing

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Thursday, March 8, 2012

So I find myself once again back in Penang in a kind of weird limbo state, waiting for my visa telex to come through from Jakarta. The plan was to come here on Sunday and be back in Medan by Tuesday. It is now Thursday. The weather today has been horrendous, with downpours continuously which has literally put a dampener on any excursions I had planned on my rented scooter, but has given me the opportunity to catch up on catching you up with all the latest, so here goes!

 The word corrupt is on the tip of everyone's tongues here in Indonesia.  Whenever I ask older students what they would change about their country, the first word out of any of their mouths is 'corruption'.  I read in a recent online article that said that "Corruption in Indonesia is just like Coca-Cola, everyone, every time, everywhere can become part of the corruption or could be the target of corruption." The police are a prime example, stopping people left right and center with fines for anything from riding a motorcycle without a helmet (understandable) to riding a motorcycle without air caps on the tyres (not so understandable). A friend of mine recently told me that there will be more police out fining people around meal times, 'they do nothing until they get hungry, then they go out and fine a few people in order to buy their lunch'. Everything here works on bribes.

I'm not sure if the aniti-corruption clamp down is a relativity new thing here but anyway, getting to the point, my visa seems to have fallen victim to an anti-corruption investigation underway in Jakarta and so in turn, I have fallen victim to being stranded on a paradise island. Not at all a bad place to be stranded, but a rather odd loner lifestyle. It's a strange sensation, travelling alone, and personally it's not something I have much experience of, or have ever had much desire to do. On the one hand it's very freeing, I can come and go as I please, eat my lunch at 4pm and my dinner at 10, change my plans at a moments notice, not answer to anyone, just 'be'. On the other hand travelling alone is, well, lonely! It feels somewhat pointless to witness beautiful views, eat great food and make amazing discoveries when there is no one there to share it with. Travelling alone makes me much more inclined to strike up conversations with random people and much less likely to back away politely when they do the same to me. On the plus side I've read a lot, thought a lot and felt generally grown-up a lot.

A major step for me on this trip was to take my first flight alone without medication, more out of necessity than choice, but I did it, and I survived. To claim a completely drug free flight however would be unfair since I did buckle at the snack counter to purchase myself a neat little can of Bintang (Indonesia's version of Carlsberg), which I was served up complete with a side order of strange looks from everyone in the airport waiting room. I tried explaining to the old lady serving that I was in fact not an alcoholic, just that I was afraid of flying. She didn't understand, or more likely, didn't care and so I discretely downed the can and moved on. My prayers were answered though when I landed a seat on the plane right next to a member of ground staff travelling to Penang to unload the bags (weird set up, but whatever works I guess), who kindly forfeited his nap to explain to me what all the plane noises were. Extremely helpful after a jittery start with the planes air-conditioning not working (really though if that goes wrong then what else is fishy?!).

I'd like to be able to say that I no longer fear flying, but I'm afraid that would be a lie. The fear is still there, but I've been doing it anyway. As Mark Twain said 'Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear--not absence of fear.' Luckily for me, being such a coward means plenty of opportunity for courage, especially when it comes to getting on a plane! And especially after
The Jakarta post published recently that there had been 'Yet another arrest of a pilot, this time from Lion Air, over the alleged use of crystal methamphetamine, late last week has raised concerns over the safety of the country's airline industry, with the National Narcotics Agency (BNN) suggesting that a large number of pilots could have drug problems.' And so apparently all I needed to do to get more drugs for the flight was knock on the door of the cockpit! But seriously, come on now, that's not the kind of headline you want to read when you're taking two
flights a month in the very country suffering from said pilots drug problems.

Going back to my funny look experience at the airport, I should explain, to travel alone as a woman in Indonesia is seen as a bit weird, to drink beer alone in an airport at 2pm is downright crazy. A lot of what I hear about the culture here (other than the no pork rule), particularly where women are concerned, eerily reminds me of school history lessons about Victorian England. I had a class with some wonderful, intelligent young women recently, all studying law, where we got a chance to discuss culture. We talked about women wearing a Hijab to cover their heads and long sleeves and skirts. One of the girls explained to me how the only person who should see what's underneath all that cloth is her husband (when she gets married).  Walk around with your arms and legs out and men just can't help themselves but look, or worse. They're weak that way, you see. She went on to explain that she believed it was actually quite romantic really, and I guess I could kind of see her point on that one. When I asked her why then, did men not have to do the same, she neatly explained that it's because women can control themselves. I briefly flashed back to some of the girls in the students union during my university days, but kept quiet. Anyway, men should, she pointed out, also cover their arms and legs. We went on to discuss equality (like how the men's half of the mosque has aircon but the
women's doesn't) and women’s roles in marriage, a truly fascinating and controversial topic that I won't bore you with just now, mainly because, to be honest, I haven't quite decided where I stand on that one yet. I came across a couple walking around a mall here in Penang, a woman dressed head to toe in black material, with the very strict face covering that leaves only a slit for her eyes, and her husband, walking beside her, jeans, scruffy trainers and a shirt unbuttoned midway down his chest, flashing rough patches of curly chest hair. I guess no one told him about the rule for men? Anyway, like I said another story and one that I need to put some time and thought into, no flippant comments, big subject!

It has been hard to live as a female in Medan, but then to be honest it's hard to live in Medan full stop. I have yet to come across someone on my travels (who has heard of Medan) exclaim 'Medan?! What a wonderful city!'. Responses to the word Medan are usually met with such adjectives as, dirty, polluted, ugly, hard, busy, hot...and the common question of 'why Medan?' In it's favour however, Medan is a wonderful get out of. I recently took Roger to Bukit Lawang (The national park I mentioned in a previous post) to see the orangutans for his birthday. We went slightly upmarket this time and opted for accommodation in Sam's Bungalows, a place I'd highly recommend if you're ever travelling to Bukit Lawang and don't mind
splashing out a little ($30 per night, steep by Sumatran standards).  I'd have paid the price for the balcony alone, complete with hammock and spectacular views of the rainforest across the river. That and the fact that anywhere that sells porridge with bananas for breakfast is a good place in my books! We took a jungle trek on the Sunday, since, a) I'd promised Roger orangutans and b) he was going slightly cross eyed from a day of relaxing on Saturday. Somewhat more strenuous than the last time I went, but well worth it for the chance to float back down the river to Sam's on giant inner tubes, and of course, introducing Roger to wild orangutans is always going to be an experience!

I hate to write and run and I aplogise for the abrupt ending, but the rain has finally let up here in Penang and my stomach is rumbling, it's past dinner time so I'm off to get a chocolate milkshake at a local cafe and use their WIFI to upload this to you. I'll be sure to fill you in soon on all my Penang adventures over the past week so watch this space!

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