Happy birthday to me!!

Trip Start May 31, 2008
Trip End Jul 14, 2008

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Flag of Malaysia  ,
Wednesday, July 2, 2008

July 1
As I write this we are on the 'high speed ferry' (and that's debatable) heading to Penang, Malaysia.  Our Indonesian visas expire tomorrow...US citizens get one month to be here...which is hardly enough to fully explore this extensive chain of islands.  But we'll go to Malaysia for a week and then fly out of Kuala Lumpur to Tokyo and after a week there, it's good ole New York!!
But let me tell you about our wild transition between idyllic Lake Toba and Malaysia.  First of all, I could barely drag myself away from the beauty, the food (Jennie - the one with the magic mushroom omelettes also made an amazing guacamole and vegetable taco....not what you'd expect....but exquisite), the people.   Annette, the German woman, introduces me to Alfonso, a Batak man, who started a program called Toba Dreams.  It's all about combining the music, the people, and the environment to preserve the Lake Toba area.  So it started with a rewriting of traditional Batak music and putting on a concert by musicians from Jakarta and using the proceeds to start planting trees all over the island.  His goals include promoting an environmental education program in the grade schools and awareness raising regarding the value of Toba to the Batak people and the need for its conservation.  So I spend some time with Alfonso, he shares his work and his goals with me...and his enthusiasm...he really wants me to visit the forestry station where he works but I am simply out of time.  But I get some great footage of him plus a video he helped create about the project.  Alfonso is a quiet man but so committed to his plan...his 'of course' attitude makes it evident that success is inevitable. 
So it's time to go to Malaysia...no easy thing...we take a boat over to Parapat on the mainland...we wait around for a public bus to Medan, the noisy and unattractive -at least what I've seen of it - city on the coast of Sumatra.  Now a word abut Sumatran buses....probably the most skanky buses I've traveled in all year.  The seats are made for narrow people....and Sumatrans are not narrow and neither am I, there are jaggedy metal pieces sticking out in surprise places...they get beyond jammed packed...the only windows that open are along the top...AND you are allowed to smoke on them!!!  
Haven't been in a country yet where you're still allowed to smoke on a bus.  And it seems like most of the men decide the bus is a perfect place to overindulge their addiction...a constant stream of lighting up, sharing cigarettes....lighting up again...and no effort made to blow the smoke out a window....And I have to say, I've only seen men smoking in Sumatra.  If the women are doing it, they're private about it...but it's a free for all on the bus with the men.   I noticed it right away the minute we landed in Sumatra at the airport...I could hardly retrieve my luggage because the smoke was so thick.  Not so on the other Indonesian islands. 
Anyway I am attempting to act comfortable, squeezing my hips into a too tight space....and my shoulders....I'm hanging off the seat into the aisle and my spine is doing an S shape to accommodate the armrest.  But the woman I'm sharing my seat with is very sweet, even in our non-verbal communication, and then there's this little girl across the aisle....I break out the Peruvian finger puppet and we have a great time....she gives me a huge hug when it's time for her to get off the bus...the ladies around us are thoroughly amused and smiling and pleasant.  Even though our bodies seem closer than one should be to a complete stranger. 
And then, dead stop.  Up ahead there's a bus hanging off the edge of the road over this steep drop.  Did I mention that this road climbs steadily along steep slopes masked only by the growth of abundant vegetation along the sides?  Well, the bus has taken out the guardrail and it looks like the 2 side wheels are on the edge.  Traffic is stopped in both directions....maybe we won't even get to Medan tonight?  How long might it take to clear up this traffic jam...we debate getting our bags off the bus and walking back to Lake Toba...it's a long hike but it's downhill and I'd rather be stuck there than here.   But I chat it up with people in some other stuck cars...and it is a scene...it looks like there is a big crowd of people giving the bus a heave in the right direction...and believe it or not, in some reasonable amount of time, the bus gets unstuck and we all begin to move. 
And even with the squishiness, the ride is pleasant...but all too soon the group shifts...my favorite people get off and more and more and more people climb in...I'm now next to this guy with shoulders far too wide for the space....the aisles are more than full...the smoke is thick...I'm feeling totally hot and claustrophobic...every time we hit a larger town, I'm hoping it's Medan...but I find out from other passengers that it's still hours away.  
Ok, no need to belabor the point here...the ride was challenging me.  But finally we arrive in Medan...still a big ugly (to me) city.  And it's dark.  And we're on a section of the road that's torn up by construction...a real mess.  And then the bus stops.  I'm expecting to be let out at some bus station...lights, maybe a little food, transportation options...but no....here's what I see here...  Totally black night...no street lamps of any sort...the only light provided by small bonfires here and there in the rubble. I see small groups of men hanging around...pretty much havoc.  We have to move quickly to retrieve our luggage off the bus.  It looks like we're holding up traffic since we stopped in what seems like the roadway of the construction zone.  Immediately we're surrounded by men trying to get us to ride on their motorbike at large sums of rupiah.  In situations like this, one has to stay cool, act like you're not over stimulated, but rather that you know exactly what you want to do.  I'm really just trying to see into the darkness and decide which of these men does not smell like alcohol...and who can actually carry both of us and our luggage on their cart. 
So we settle on this young guy who believes he can do it....I'm just thankful to hop on board and have someone carry me out of this hell hole we've arrived at.  In our little cart powered by a tiny motorbike, we negotiate thick, dirty, fast-moving traffic...and little by little the scenery changes...the city is still pretty haphazard but we arrive at the hostel we were aiming for....of course, it's full...we check in at another...the room is an ammonia scented box with a nasty hole in the ground for a toilet...can't do that right now.  So we sweat our way around the neighborhood and our only choice is a fancy hotel for Indonesians.  The minute they open the door we are appeased by the feel of air-conditioned coolness...no matter what we're staying right here.   Welcome to Medan...can't wait to hop on that 'high speed' ferry to Malaysia in the morning. 
July 2
It's Malaysia today...new country.  And that is obvious.  We locate in Penang, on the northwestern coast.  It's an old colonial town previously controlled by the British.   It's really an island just off the coast.  And as soon as you enter Penang you can see that there's more wealth here than in Indonesia, especially Sumatra.  There are some very well maintained colonial structures, people noticeably weigh more, and there are far more cars than motorbikes.  Nice cars too...the roads up until now have been crowded with motorbikes and rickshaws....here we've got cars with AC. 
The cultural mix is so interesting here.  There are the Chinese in an area which is probably the oldest part of town, little India with music blaring in the streets and Bollywood videos on display, and then the Malay people.  Each area seems to strongly retain its own culture, clearly expressed in places of worship, in food, in the music, and by looking at the faces.   There is some great food here....still pretty cheap and really tasty.  And it's my birthday.  We celebrate by going to the most upscale hotel in town for their buffet lunch.  And is that ever exquisite...including a chocolate fondue!!!  Plus all the seafood you might want to eat...grilled, baked, any way you might want it.  I think I eat about 2 dozen grilled to perfection scallops...I'm a little embarrassed to go back for more. There are a multitude of desserts...tiramisu, flan, fruits, cheesecakes, lots of chocolate.  After the meal all I can imagine doing is heading outside the door to sit by the side of the pool and digest.  It's really hot out...this luxurious place is right on the ocean...what more can you ask for. 
And in the evening we decide to indulge? in a little bodywork.  Foot reflexology and a back massage.  The foot thing is big here...I personally have never had foot reflexology work but I've heard it can be agonizing if it's done right.  And I've got this guy working on my feet that doesn't hold back....some parts are ticklish, some muscles get relaxed, and then many areas are purely painful.  I can bear it because I know he's got to cover a lot of ground...he can only spend so much time in each painful spot...  He doesn't speak much English but points out all my body problems as identified by parts of my feet that hurt.  And then, my feet get a little time off and it's time to work on my neck and shoulders.  He goes right to the area of tension and reams on it....I think he does a great job but I can barely handle the intensity.  I walk out of there a year older and a new woman...well I don't know about new...

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