It's a Bumpy Road to Paradise

Trip Start Jun 02, 2007
Trip End Ongoing

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Saturday, May 17, 2008

I'm really proud of myself. I made it to Tangkahan-a long, hot, bumpy ride from Medan. I went alone, with only a vague idea how to get here because it is so tiny, a gem of a place hidden in the mountains on the North Sumatra and Aceh border, tucked between two wide, meandering rivers-the Buluh on one side, which feeds into the Batang Serangan on the other, the same name as my street but far more serene.
My becak driver was helpful and found me the right bus, about a kilometre down the road from the Pinag Baris bus station. The thing was a massive, ancient hunk of metal, its original paint peeling off like old wallpaper and ripped up interior seats that slipped off. I jumped into the back of the bus and joined the mass of smoking, lounging humanity. A young girl named Lena soon followed me in and sat down beside me. We chatted all the way past Binjai-the usual questions, how old are you, are you married (no, suka merdeka saya, I said. I like my freedom), and she looked at me with surprise, then pondered the possibility. A load of schoolkids piled on in Binjai, including a large group of naughty junior high school boys smoking X brand cigarettes and a young smiley boy who kept peering at me over the back seat of his cushion. Finally, Lena and I both lost our energy and tucked our heads down to rest in the unbearable heat and smoke. I had drank my bottle of Aqua too fast and in the third or fourth hour had to pee-not a good feeling when the paved road gave way to a bumpy, pothole filled cowpath.
Through one of the many kampongs we passed, the bus lurched to a stop and all the kids in the back piled off the bus to let a big ibu come on. She was like mother earth herself, massive breasts and bottom wrapped in sarongs of wildly clashing patterns, a spectacular unibrow joining her fierce round eyes, and two chickens hanging upside down from her hand, strung together by their feet and murmuring their resignation. Shouting in guttural Batak Karo, she set the entire bus to listing and groaning on one side as she hoisted herself up.
Her entourage followed: a huge basket of vegetables topped with hairy coconuts that looked like shrunken heads, which the bus attendant shoved next to my seat, muttering permisi, along with two large cans of kerosene which an old man tied together with string, then promptly sat on and lit up a cigarette, and a big wooden crate and several tarpaline bags wrapped several times over with twine. The big bu settled her self in, propping her dirty, cracked feet up on the coconuts next to my lap. Lovely. Then the schoolboys scampered back on and lit up. They lounged on the farm equipment or hung in the open doorway, cigs hanging from their mouths, watching the bony cows and plantation palms whiz by.
Older Batak women have powerful voices, like rivers thundering over the rocks. It was just my luck the bu sat directly behind me; she boomed in my ears for the next two hours, marveling loudly to another noisy bu, for the benefit of all on the bus, that a bule was in their midst. "Bule" (westerner) was the only word I understood because she spoke Karo, not bahasa. 
After bucking and lurching and listing sharply from side to side like a storm-tossed ship, through several kampongs and countless stoppings for people to get on and off,  I was glad that we hadn't crashed over the side into the river or exploded from the kerosene-cigarette combination. A big garland of plastic peonies nodded their gigantic heads with each dip in the road, sometimes agreeing emphatically when we dipped and crashed into a big pothole. Finally, into the sixth hour, when I though the trip would never end, it ended. Almost. There were only about 10 people left on the bus, including the smiling, peeping boy, the bus groaned and lurched to a stop. We had a flat tire.
By this point, my bladder was going to explode before the kerosene gas cans, so I had to summon the courage to enter a kampong hut and ask for the toilet. The woman and her husband gaped at me as if they had a ghost in their mist, and said in Indonesian it was in the back on the right. They yelped and laughed in disbelief as I followed their directions perfectly, having understood them. Bule mengerti! I can't help but feel a bit smug when I surprise people with my knowledge of the language. It makes up for the times when I feel completely lost and left out of entire conversations that go too quickly.
The big bu and her friends wandered up the road to somewhere, leaving their baskets and crates behind. As I lay back down on my seat for a rest, happy to finally have it to myself so I wouldn't be so squished, there was a scaffuffle and an outburst of clucking; apparently the chickens weren't exactly enjoying being tied up together. I searched around on the floor but couldn't find them. Then another short struggle kicked up the dust from beneath my seat; the bu had put them directly under me, where they lay miserably in the dirt to await their fate. I was tempted to set them free outside, but instead moved to lie on another seat, where I wouldn't feel their misery and half-hearted struggle directly beneath me.
The driver, as ancient as the bus, finally-finally!-got the wheel on and started the engine. It coughed and sputtered and roared to life like an old farm tractor, and we were off again. I asked the attendant how much longer, and he said half an hour. Which meant, of course, at least an hour, but it was closer, that was the main thing, and it was getting cooler now that it was getting late. Kilometer after kilometer of palm plantations later, the mountains rose into view and we entered them, down the rutted road. The smiling boy and his friend came up to sit and talk to me. Mau ke mana? Tangkehan. Ah, we live in Tangkahan! We live in the lodge there. We can show you. The boy, in a shirt sporting the handsome and determined mug of Che Guevera, a popular icon for Indonesians, along with Rage Against the Machine beneath it, must have spotted me as a guest from a mile off, or at least a length of bus away. I wondered if he knew the band, so I asked him. He only smiled and shrugged, another young Indonesian sporting the symbols of a western culture he doesn't yet comprehend.
The sun was going down, but we finally made it. The bus ground to a stop in front of the newly built Tangkahan Visitors Centre. The villagers were gracious, holding their hands out to welcome me as I scrambled after the boys, down the path and long winding stone stairs to the river, where a makeshift hut bound between two sampans awaited to take us across. Twilight had arrived; the river gentled through a cascade of darkening jungle, rising up steeply on both sides. I immediately felt at home as we walked the single bamboo board onto the floating sampan house and went across, an old man poling it over like Charon on the river Styx, in all of two minutes. A lodge was nestled in the trees at the top of the river bank, and as we ascended another long, winding flight of stone stairs to reach it, a surge of exhilaration went through my tired limbs. I was back in the jungle, leaving the chaos of Medan far behind the winding, muddy dirt road.
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