Crossing the line

Trip Start Aug 11, 2011
Trip End Sep 08, 2012

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Where I stayed
Orchid Hotel Bukittinggi
Read my review - 3/5 stars

Flag of Indonesia  , Sumatra,
Monday, May 14, 2012

The Bus to Bukittinggi

It's a funny old bus by jingy... that's my first thought when we finally board the 'coach' that will carry us 500kms south through Sumatra to the town of Bukittinggi. We had been waiting at the Parapet bus station on the shores of Lake Toba for about three hours, and the bus, when it arrived, was of course, an hour late. No Problem. We aren't alone, there is also Gavin,an Aussie-Kiwi guy, and two twin-like Slovakian beanpoles (tall men) also waiting - the presence of other westerners makes the impending journey a little less daunting.

The 'modern air-conditioned coach' that we clamber onto is not modern, it's shabby, and although the air con makes it cool, there are at least four men already on board smoking pungent, clove-laced Garam cigarettes. There are other people sprawled across the seats sleeping (it's only 3pm) and someone else out-like-a-light on the floor at the back. We find our allocated seats and sit down only to discover that they are wet due to a leak in the air-con unit overhead. Sheila is speechless with horror but I quickly do my 'butler thing' and put our thin plastic rain macs on the seats. It doesn't really satisfy her though, and for the next hour or so she is in angry, vocal, "I hate travelling " and "never again Mick" mode, until she gets it out of her system. The Indo guy in front of us is sprawled over two seats with his bare feet across the aisle and they are not the prettiest plates of meat either. Luckily it will be dark in a few hours and we won't have to look at them.

The bus leaves Parapet and slowly begins to wend its way south. Smokers smoke, the foot guy flexes his filthy toes, the Slovaks say nothing but change seats several times because theirs too are soaked; the person on the floor sleeps on. The countryside unfolds outside - a beautiful moving tableau of rice fields, villages of bamboo, jungle and hazy mountains all around. The bus driver is good and that is the most important thing. he doesn't use his horn much, doesn't overtake on blind bends and doesn't speed.

Darkness falls and we are somewhere in the mountains. The road is atrocious - potholed, sometimes just gravel, steep hills and oncoming trucks sweep headlights across us as they rumble past. Somewhere along the way an old man boards the bus and sits across from us. He has a sack which he puts on the vacant, wet seat next to him. Every now and then the sack moves about like it is being buffetted by a strong wind. Whatever is inside it wants out - too small for a chicken, flaps like a large bat - I don't want to know what is in there. We stop around 11pm at a scruffy, muddy parking lot in front of a large roadside restaurant. We have hot Kopi susu (coffee with milk) and a couple of cigarettes before reboarding and continuing into the night. If ever there was a need for vallium this is it. At 3am-ish, in a blue-pill induced haze, we feel the bus bottom out on the crest of a rutted rocky hill in a landscape of total blackness. For a second it teeters on the hump then tilts forward and we roll on down the road before inching up a long muddy hill into what we don't know.

Crossing the Line

We sleep. Sometime during the pre-dawn we reach a landmark in our trip - we cross the Equator. As the first light of day filters over the ridge of the roadside mountains I see palm trees and jungle, terraced rice paddies, huts. It doesn't feel nearly as daunting as it did in the dark, but it is still a wild old place that's for sure. At 7am we arrive at the bus depot in Bukittinggi. Once unloaded I flag down a local bemo (small minibus used as public trasport) and we four westies pile in along with hijabed school girls, little boys in shorts and an old lady with bags of produce. The bemo drops us in the centre of town where we consult our Lonely Planet to try and locate the Orchid Hotel. The two Slovaks stride off without so much as a good bye and Gavin decides to find different, cheaper digs. Sheila and I follow our instinct up the main road and miraculaously find the Orchid where we check in and go straight to bed for some well earned shut-eye. We are woken at 1pm by the call to prayer from the mosque next door.

Megaphone speakers are as synonomous with mosques as the crescent moon and star logo on top of their onion domes. They love God and sing it loud. The song of the muzehin is beautiful and haunting but there are dozens of mosques in Bukittinggi and they all call different prayers at the same time, a cacophony of Allah u akbar echoes through the town.

The Orchid Hotel is an OK joint; our's, a small comfortable room with viewless balcony, but clean and secure nevertheless. No restaurant but they serve a simple breakfast of black Sumatran coffee and toast with jam. The good thing is that there is a restaurant across the street - The Canyon Cafe - Lonely Planet recommended - with very nice local and western food, beer and free wifi. This is where we base ourselves for the next three days. The owner is a good bloke and a tour organiser so it is he we approach to sort out our requirements.

Bukittinggi used to be big on the traveller circuit but it has seen better times. The civil unrest in Aceh Province, the 2004 Tsunami, local earthquakes and the fact that the tourist season doesn't really kick in until July and August, means that the town is quiet and tired. The thing to do here for most visitors is trekking - there are two huge volcanos nearby, Singgalang, and Merapi, which is still active, having last erupted a decade or so ago. We aren't equipped or energetic enough to tackle the long overnight hike up to either peak, what we want to do is go back and recross the Equator in daylight. The guy at the Canyon Cafe organises this for us and the next morning we have a car, driver and guide ready to take us back along the highway to the small town of Bonjol where the two hemisperes of the earth meet.

I've crossed the equator many times by air, and twice by sea, but up until now neither of us have crossed it overland. Looking at a map of the world, we see that there aren't that many places where you can do this. Equatorial Africa, South America through the Amazon, Borneo, a few other Indo islands and here in Sumatra. It would be a shame if we missed the photo opp that this rare crossing provides, so back to Bonjol it is.

It's a pleasant journey in the day light - the mountain scenery is wonderful with cloud covered peaks, thick lush jungle, Shiny mosques in the forest and the buffalo-horned roofs of the native Minangkabua peoples' houses make for a great day out. At Bonjol we jump back and forth between the north and south like a couple of kids before visiting a nearby museum that celebrates a victory by the local Sultan over Dutch colonialists back in the early 19th century. Another battle is waged as I take on the local chess champion on the porch of the museum. I give him a good run for his money, checking him several times, but eventually succumb to his superior skill. I hate nine year old chess champs!

Back near Bukittinggi we are taken to a village where they specialise in silver wear. The village is located on the other side of the Canyon, a deep meandering gorge that cuts into the earth below the town. The silver village, we are told, is also famous for producing highly intelligent people - many natives of this small community have gone on to acquire PhDs and become notable scientists and politicians - maybe it has something to do with the volcano, I don't know. At the village we are taken to meet Dessy and Denny, two sisters who are well known here for their fine silver work and Dessy is also a maker of traditional embroidered shawls which she happily models for us.

Bukittinggi town has a big pasar or market, a meandering affair that winds down the central hill and sells everything from produce to hijabs; we get happily lost here for several hours, meeting so many local people we feel like we are famous. Groups of school girls and boys continuously accoust us to ask questions and take photographs, but they are so charming we can't resist. Calls of "hey mister, where you from" resound from stalls and passing motorcyclists - we are suckers for the attention.

It is no different sitting at the Canyon Cafe - passing groups spot us and come over to politely ask if they can interview us and take group shots - we oblige. We also meet individual locals who wander by and end up joining us for coffee. Yopi is one, a student of engineering, who sits with us for ages, becoming our 'agent' for some of the school groups that come to meet us. If we remember Bukittinggi for only one thing, it will be the friendliness of the local people.

A walk in the park

On our third day here, a Sunday, we wander up the street to the Canyon Park, a pleasant recreational area perched on the cliffs above the chasm. It's a bright sunny day, not too hot either, as Bukittinggi sits at a high altitude, and the park is full of local people enjoying their day off. Once again we are two blonde novelties, stopping to chat and be photographed until we are exhausted. The park is also full of monkeys which sit on the fence rail with mischief on their minds. We decide to walk down to the canyon floor to escape the crowds but it is a long hot walk and coming back up feels even hotter and longer.

That evening we return to the canyon viewpoint to witness a famous nightly occurence - the flight of the flying foxes that live in the forest on the canyon floor. Everynight at dusk they take off to fly to distant feeding grounds. Unfortunately the spectacle is a disappointment for us as we can't but help compare it to one we saw at Bellingen in Australia years ago where over 50,000 of the creatures swirl out of the trees and blacken the sky. Nevertheless, the view over the canyon at dusk is magical, with the towering cone of Singgalang looming above the town and smouldering Merapi lurking menacingly beside it.

So Bukittinggi is a landmark town for us in many ways. It is here that we well and truly fall for the charm of the Indonesian people. Here we also celebrate the fact that it is exactly nine months since we set out on our journey, and it is the place where we leave the northern hemisphere for the southern, moving ever closer to our eventual destination - Australia. At Bukittinggi we finally cross the line.
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