A morning atop Sumatra's most active Volcano.

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Mount Marapi

Flag of Indonesia  , Sumatra,
Wednesday, April 14, 2010

WARNING: this entry, although it only covers one day and one night is very long and slightly cheesy, and for that I am sorry, I was writing under the influence of exhaustion and aching legs.

On Monday (13/04) we went on a Minangkabau Cultural Tour. The fantastic thing about tourism being really down is that things like this are really cheap, and we have a guide to ourselves! Our guide "Phil" was a middle aged professional tour guide, lovely, knowledgeable, spoke English well, albeit slightly manic (he loved to pull up next to groups of school girls and scream out the window “HELLO MISTER!”). We started the tour at 8:30AM, when Phil picked us up at a restaurant in his Toyota 'Avanza' (for all the non-healthcare professionals Avanza is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor – an antidepressant, I thought that was funny but maybe I’m subconsciously missing work or something!)

Phil was a fantastic guide in that his English was great and he loved to talk. He told us all about the corruption in the police force and government. He told us all about his political views – the Sussile ban ban yuodino may be handsome, but he is bad luck for Sumatra as the first time he was elected he caused the tsunami and the second time the large 2007 earthquake that destroyed much of western Sumatra. Phil also told us all about his family, himself, his dislike of extremists, his beliefs as a Muslim, his daughters being bullied at school and also tried to teach us Minangkabau language. But between all that he also explained the Minangkabau culture and way of life.

The Minangkabau people are the ethnic majority in this area, and have a unique matriarchal traditional social structure. Traditionally (and this continues today) all “high” inheritance is passed through the daughters. High inheritance is predominantly land and traditional houses. This system, Phil explained, is contrary to Islam which states that sons should be the main beneficiaries of inheritance. The Minangkabau overcome this by passing all “low” inheritance through the sons. Low inheritance is things gained during ones life, for instance cars, city apartments etc. High inheritance is never to be sold or traded. For this reason there are very few other ethnic groups in this area, as they can not buy land.

The traditional Manangkabau family structure is pretty interesting too. The traditional houses have one long living/dining/kitchen area with small rooms in a row on one side. The small rooms are for the daughters and there husbands, with their children sleeping on the floor outside the room. At 12 the boys start sleeping at the Mosque – to learn the Koran and to avoid them being too close to their similar age female cousins Phil explained. The husbands would more or less only sleep at their wives’ houses “to make the babies” as Phil so eloquently put it. His brother-in-law is in charge of that house, while he would have to go to his mother’s house in the day to oversee his sisters’ families. Although it appears that the woman had most of the say of running the houses. Confusing? More or less, uncles and fathers switch roles. This tradition is fading with time, western and Islamic influence, most Manangkabau now live in nuclear families, but land is still inherited through the female side of the family.

Our first stop was what appeared to be (to our eyes) a small, bunch of boring trees by the side of the road. Phil walked us through the bunch of trees explaining them as we went, first bananas – we’ve seen them all over the place but he explained how they only fruit once then, you have to chop them down and let them re-grow. We didn’t know that, and it seemed pretty drastic cutting down such a big tree just for a bunch of bananas. Then he showed us a tall but thin twiggy looking tree with a few pink leaves on the top amongst the green. He cut off some of the bark and gave it to us to smell. Cinnamon. This tree also needed to be completely chopped down in order to harvest. The bark is stripped off and dried (this is the cinnamon sticks that you know) and the wood is used for fire wood. We happened to run into a man just after he had harvested a tree, laying the bark out to dry. Then he showed us our favorite plant. It was already both of our favorite plant before we’d even seen it. A coffee plant. The red and green pods looked and smelt nothing like the delicious nectar on which we survive. But squeezing one open you can see the shape of a coffee bean, although it was translucent green, slimly and smelt like plant matter. It needed drying and roasting. Then we were showed the source of a smell we have smelt all over Indonesia, clove. You see people with big sheets in the sun, covered in clove, drying it out. It’s a really nice aroma compared to some of the other wafts you get around here. But here was the tree, and Phil gave us a leaf each to chew on. It was really nice and really freshened our mouths. Next he showed us Penny’s second favorite plant – the cocoa tree, maker of chocolate. Once again it needed processing before we could really enjoy it, but pretty cool to see. He then took us to a little café on the edge of a mountain with amazing views to enjoy locally grown coffee and a clove cigarette (much to Penny’s disapproval).

We then spent hours driving through rice fields, watching the people work, woman planting seedlings, men using buffalo-drawn ploughs. Phil explaining different aspects of the farming methods, Manangkabau culture and random snippets of his life. Then it was lunch at a roadside restaurant. They did Padang food, they bring out heaps of different dishes and you pick and choose as you eat, at the end you pay only for what you ate. The restaurant was an open-air building on top of a fish farm. Literally on top, the stilts of the building went into the fish filled pond. Needless to say the food was fish orientated, but we got by picking out the few vegetarian dishes (although I did get a bone in the sauce of a boiled egg).

Phil then took us to the replica of the replica of the original king’s palace. This was the home of the Manakabau king before Dutch colonisation. The original had been burnt down in a civil war and the second struck by lightening. The third was under construction, so we couldn’t look inside but it was amazing from the outside. Huge with the most delicate tiny hand carved exterior.

It wasn’t far then to a traditional Manangkabau house, similar to the Batak house with the buffalo horn shaped roof, but much bigger with not so much carving and painting. The house he took us to was apparently over 300 years old, and 80% original. The whole thing was black, inside and out, Phil explained that that was due to 300 years of fires in the cooking area of the house. This was the reason that the wood could last so long he explained that the wood-eating pests didn’t like the smoke-stained wood. The house had the rooms along one side as Phil had explained it would. It was pretty amazing to think that that basic wooden structure with a thatched roof is older than any man-made livable structure in Australia.

We briefly stopped at a mill that produced rice flour. The mill was run by a water wheel, powered by a stream from a hot spring. There was nobody inside so we couldn’t actually enter but looking through the window there was a white dusting of rice flour all over the wooden mill.

Then we headed to volcanic crater lake for a coffee break and swim, although neither of us swam the coffee was good, and we watched the local teenagers swim and flirt with one another.

The last stop was a village, apparently famous for their hand woven material and hand carving. Phil took us to a shop that sold lots of material and clothing, with a woman at the back on a hand weaving machine (what are they called?), although we suspect she just sat there as we walked in, and she got up when we stopped taking photos. We also looked through the window at a woodcarving workshop.

Then it was back to Bukitinggi for dinner and a nap before we made an attempt on Mount Marapi. The tour was great to get a feel for Manangkabau culture, past and present. Through many of the little villages we were either stared at or drew huge smiles, I don’t think they see many Westerners.

We went out to dinner at our favorite restaurant in Bukitinggi, Turret café, they have great food, free wireless internet and a very friendly host. Unfortunately we didn’t consider the rigorous exercise we were about to attempt, and I ordered a very large, very heavy tempeh steak with roasted vegetables. Then we had a couple of hours nap before meeting our guide for our attempt on Mt Marapi at 10:30PM. We had a bag packed with warm clothes, a camera and 3L of water. As I mentioned in the previous entry is a Mt Marapi 2,800 meter above sea level active Volcano on the outskirts of Bukitinggi. The plan was to attempt to climb to the summit in time to catch sunrise from the crater.

We jumped on the back motorbikes and were taken to the starting point, at the edge of the forest too steep to cultivate. Our guide was to be Rommy (“like Romeo” as he put it) a 19 year old who had just finished school. He had been leading tourists up the mountain and for jungle treks for years, as his part time job. He was very nice, but quite, a refreshing change from our guide that day. The track up the mountain was wet, steep, muddy and slippery. Harder than we’d both imagined. After about an hour the uncomfortable feeling of all that heavy tempeh and roast potatoes undigested in my belly turned into full-blown nausea. Every steep ascent I felt like it was about to come out. But with a couple of breaks I think I managed to digest it and by half way I was feeling fine. It took us about 2 hours to reach the half way point. We had a short break there and continued on, feeling sweaty and tired but ok. Rommy wasn’t wearing a watch, and about half an hour later, he asked me the time, 1:30AM. Then Rommy looked a bit worried. We asked what was wrong and he told us that you don’t normally get to the half way point until 2AM and we’d past it! At this rate we’d get to the top too early, and it was cold up there he explained. So we had a long break just for the sake of killing time. We’d noticed a lot of rubbish on the path and Rommy explained that climbing the mountain and camping were favorite Saturday night pursuits of young lovers in town. Rommy was interested in Australia, although he found our ascent difficult to understand when we spoke to one another, but ok speaking to him. He wanted to know about free education and healthcare, about if you could pay the police to avoid a trial. He told us how lucky we were to be from such a place. When he told us about him having to do what his family wanted him to do (be a nurse) instead of be a tour guide as he wished. When Penny asked if he could choose who to marry he replied sheepishly “sort of…..sometimes”. He said it was hard being a young Minangkabau man. I imagine it would be particularly hard for him as a guide seeing westerners all the time, on overseas holidays doing as they please, like Penny and I travelling together unmarried!

After a long chat we continued up the mountain, tired and contemplating our talk with Rommy, what Phil had said about the corruption in government and just how lucky we were in Australia. We reached the mandatory coffee stop about one hour from the summit where Rommy boiled water on a small gas stove and we chatted some more. After a nice strong coffee and a couple of Tim Tams we continued upward. Gradually the trees gave way to bushes and shrubs then they gave way to the occasional flower between a rubble of stones. We reached the summit at about 4:30AM. It was dark and the breeze was cold. Rommy cooked us 2 minute noodles and we rugged-up then rested between large rocks laying on small stones.

At 5:30, freezing and with aching legs will walked to the highest point on the edge of the crater to watch the sunrise. As the light increased, the amazing views all around begun to reveal themselves. The sunrise was partially obscured by clouds, but was still amazing. The volcano itself was truly breath taking. In the crater that morning there was only the three of us. It was so quite . So peaceful with only a slight breeze. In every direction we saw surreal views. We were well above the clouds shrouding the surrounding mountains. In one direction we could see a large lake in the far distance, in another Buktinggi covered in cloud. The outer sides of the crater were scared with deep eroded cracks, the insides stained with colourful stone (I assume some sort of sulfur oxidization reactions). There were a few active parts, blowing a smelly, sulfurous smoke, we walked between these, on the moon-like surface. Rommy showed us a flower that grew in the desolate landscape, he told us it had magic powers in helping woman fall pregnant and give birth to healthy babies. We took photo after photo in a frivolous attempt to capture every amazing moment on top of the mountain. The silence, the smell, the breeze, the loneliness, the view below us, the height the emptiness, the power, the landscape all combined in a way that was impossible to capture, or to keep. Rommy showed us a small monument to a local boy had fallen to his death down the side of where we had watched the sunrise, then we began to descend. The descent was hard. Penny thinks harder than the ascent, definitely harder on the knees and ankles. We took the same path as the night before, but the experience was completely different in the light. The most striking thing was that there was even more rubbish than we had seen by torch light, all the way along the path. Rommy filled a plastic bag with it at one stop in a small, seemingly pointless attempt to clean up. As we continued down, and the forest became thicker we could hear the continues calls of birds and the occasional grunt of an orangutan in the distance. We passed a man and his son with a large brass rifle, hunting birds. Rommy was visibly upset at seeing this and told us it was ‘bullshit’ and he didn’t know why they shot the birds.

We got back to Bukitinggi at about 11AM, covered in mud and exhausted. Rommy apologized for the mistakes he made, when I asked him what he meant he said he didn’t know, just if he did make mistakes, he was sorry. This kid was way too sweet, we were sure that he probably didn’t get all that much of the Rp550, 000 ($60ish) we’d paid the guy who organized it for us. He was shocked when we gave him a tip, and seemed like he wasn’t sure what to do, so he just thanked us profusely. We showered and went to bed. Today, the next day, we are feeling very sore and still tired. The pain was worth it, although the memory already seems slightly surreal.
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da codge meister on

hey fantastic blog guys - i'm digging the cultural info and the pics!

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