Christmas travel planning narrowed our choices down to 'somewhere in Indonesia'. Not actually very narrow. The leading candidates were Sumatra (but where, exactly) and Java (again - where?). Java and Sumatra are both very large islands on which you could easily spend three months and not see everything they have to offer. Preferring not to be on the move for our entire two week holiday, we settled on Sumatra: specifically the west central highlands around Bukittinggi and Pulau Weh off of the northern tip of Sumatra.
Bukittinggi, at 1200 meters elevation, was formerly a Dutch hill station and is blessed with a relatively cool climate. It's a pretty sleepy town with quiet streets pleasant atmosphere. It is normally a popular place on the backpacking circuit, with abundant nearby natural beauty. The November to February rainy season had decreased its popularity, however, and we encountered at most a half dozen other travelers.
We arrived in town on the afternoon of December 23 by way of a Jakarta - Padang flight and a beautiful hour and a half car ride. I had been in communication with a local guide named Hendri and he agreed to meet us the Hotel Kartini that evening. The hotel was a nice place that catered to Indonesian travelers more than western ones. We had a room with a balcony overlooking a quiet street and the neighborhood mosque, not more than 75 feet away. We were warned about the 5AM call to prayer and came armed with earplugs.
With Hendri, we hashed out a plan for our week in town. With Christmas on the immediate horizon, we planned to spend Christmas Eve in the Harau Valley at the Echo Homestay.
On the way to the valley, we took a muddy walk out to a blooming Rafflesia, the world's largest flower. Along the way, we met and photographed our first leech. Continuing on, the Harau Valley is a dramatic river valley with 100 meter sheer limestone (?) walls and at least a dozen waterfalls (in the rainy season).
There is not a lot to do in the valley, unless you come equipped with climbing gear (there are bolted climbing routes, but no equipment hire), but we were looking forward to spending a quiet Christmas Eve between Canyon walls. We had some nice walks along quiet roads and it seemed like a great place for a bike ride, yet there were no bikes to be found. Hendri showed us around to some of the more impressive waterfalls and then headed with our driver back to Bukittinggi. We popped our Christmas crackers on Christmas Eve and donned our LED equipped jewelry. In the morning we were surprised to find that Santa had managed to track us down in the middle of Sumatra (Karen must have given him some good directions) and we opened our stockings and gifts. After a lazy Christmas day where we were the only guests at the Echo Homestay, we headed Bukittinggi in the afternoon.
We met back up with Hendri at the Canyon Cafe to discuss our next plan of attack. We planned to do a two day trek from Bukittinggi to Danau (Lake) Maninjau. The next morning we met up with Hendri at around 9AM. He was constantly warning us about 'Indonesian time' (not to be too worried about punctuality) yet he was consistently on time while we were the ones who were always running late. We took a taxi to our starting point and plunged downhill on the muddy jungle path and into the Sianok Canyon. At the bottom of the canyon, we had to make a thigh-deep (for me) stream crossing. It's a good thing it hadn't rained the day before or it might have been chest deep. I was a little worried that we were getting our shoes wet so early in the trip, but it became clear fairly quickly that it was going to be impossible to keep dry anyway. The trail was a quagmire in places, and the foliage was wet. We walked for about six hours with the varied scenery of small villages, jungle trails and walking through farmland - mainly rice fields.
The people we met along the way were always friendly, often yelling 'hello mister!' Hendri pointed out all of the fruit trees and spices being grown in people's yards or in the forest. The area produces a lot of cocoa and cinamon. The cinamon wood smoke (used for cooking) and the drying cinamon bark smell great. I asked Hendri what the local people used cocoa for, thinking they might use it for cooking as they do in Mexico, but he said it was a cash-crop only (for export) and that no-one used it. Towards the end of our day, we popped out on a road in a small village, and were ferried on four motorbikes to Lawang Top, an overlook of Danau Maninjau. From there, we plunged downhill for about an hour and a half to Anas Homestay, a kind of jungle encampment halfway down the crater rim. We picked up a few leeches on our descent and had to concentrate in order not to fall (we weren't always successful). We rested and waited for the proprietor to arrive from his hour walk uphill from the village. That evening we were treated to a beautiful vegetable curry that was prepared ove a fire in the kitchen. In the morning the same fire produced wonderful banana pancakes and strong coffee with condensed milk. Yum. Coffee grows locally, and the local method of brewing and drinking is to grind the beans into extremely fine powder, pour an inch of the stuff into a mug and fill with hot water and a healthy dose of condensed milk. It can be a little gritty at the end of a cup, but it's great stuff. We were sharing the homestay with a colorful couple of ladies who were teaching English in Sumatra. Rachel is English and has long dreadlocks the color of my hair. Kate is South African. Nate played Jenga with them and their guides. We spent a night listening to the wild things around us. In the morning, a troupe of gibbons who also shared our orange hair color passed by swinging through the trees and munching on fruit. After the pancakes, we continued slip sliding away downhill to the village of Maninjau and the Beach Inn Homestay. In Indonesia, everything below the level of 3 star hotel seems to be labelled a homestay, somewhat of a misnomer, since you're not actually saying in someone's home. Guesthouse might be more appropriate. Anyway. On our way down, we met Anas, proprietor of the Homestay, who doesn't make it up the hill anymore due to advancing age. During our visit, it was staffed by his son-in-law.
Beach Inn is a relaxing place to spend a couple of days, so that's just what we did. As soon as we arrived, the rain that had been mercifully absent during our trek, kicked in with gusto.
It hardly let up for the next 36 hours, so we spent much of our time in the restaurant, playing dominoes with staff and guests, playing uno, rummikub, et cetera. There was an older Dutch couple that had been staying there for more than a week and planned to stay through the new year. I didn't catch their names, but everyone called her Mama. She was extremely loud and said 'WOW!!!' a lot, especially while playing dominoes. She was a character. On our second day there, another Dutch guy who looked like Ernest Hemingway showed up in his sailboat with his Indonesian wife. They collected our Dutch couple and set sail (actually motored) for the market. Across the road from the homestay was a Padang restaurant where we planned to catch the local bus that would take us back to Bukittinggi. The restaurant served local food in the local style. There is a glass display case out front that contains the dishes for the day (and possible for several days!). Various curries and wonderfully spiced dishes - most quite hot - were spooned into small dishes to go atop your plate of rice.
We could sample 3 or 4 dishes each and get drinks for about $5 total. While we ate, we watched 3 half-empty buses go by in about 20 minutes. We missed a fourth after lunch when I encountered some mild intestinal distress and had to visit the toilet. Then we had to wait for about an hour for the next bus to come by that was completely full - not even any standing room. The ticket salesman insisted there was space for us and managed to throw our backpacks on the roof before we objected.
Back in Bukittinggi, we (I) had wanted to climb Gunung Merapi, a local 10,000 foot volcano. The following day was the Muslim festival of sacrifice that follows the Hajj, however, and no guides were available. Instead, we planned a walk out the the 'silver town' that is famed for it's handmade silver jewlry and ornaments. We walked around Panorama Park where we (Nate) got an education in monkey sex. At one end of the park, we watched the aftermath of the sacrifice of two bulls. The were being butchered and the meat handed out to the villagers. As we walked down into Sianok Canyon again, we got lost and came upon another mosque where the sacrifice was just being performed. The silver village was a bit of a let down. Having not seen any tourists in a while, and it being a holiday, they weren't prepared for us. Karen bought a pair of earrings and then we headed back to Bukittinggi.
Hendri had arranged a ride back to the Padang airport for our afternoon flight to Medan, so we bid adieu to Bukittinggi after another lunch of terriffic Padang food.
We took the long way to Bukittinggi, not that there is a short way.