Boom, boom, boom, bap, bap, brrrrraaaap! Boom, boom …That’s the sound of torment.
If you’ve never had the pleasure of jamming to an Indonesian pop beat while riding in the back of an overcrowded, fetid, ill-crafted Soviet- bloc passenger bus, then you’re missing out on one of life’s little pleasures. It also means it’s unlikely you have been to Sumatra, the third largest of Indonesia’s islands and one of the most beguiling and frustrating, yet charming and strikingly gorgeous, destinations of the Eastern world. The harrowing journey between fascinating Lake Maninjau and the epic landscapes of Lake Toba, two of the largest crater lakes in the world, offers an enchanting escape from the ordinary, a full array of mystique and mystery and an opportunity to experience a bit of tranquility not often found in a land of 220 million inhabitants.
Forces of nature and the chaos of culture have charged and changed the landscape of Sumatra, Indonesia’s third largest island and the fifth largest in the world, over the last decade. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami rocked the region and subsequent aftershocks ravaged the infrastructure of the archipelago. The 2002 and 2005 bombings in Bali and civil unrest in Bandar Aceh terrified tourists and rerouted visitors to the beaches of Thailand, temples of Angkor and a myriad other Southeast Asian destinations free of tumult. Yet today, Sumatra stands largely a land of untrammelled territory, proud of a rich cultural legacy and purveyor of unparalleled hospitality, a natural playground where ancient volcanoes rage, pristine beaches beckon and two of the largest crater lakes in the world provide the perfect escape for the erstwhile traveler and anyone willing to brave the fiercest of Indonesian roads.
It is its wanton mystery and idyllic vision of adventure I try to focus on when our driver, the Indonesian Willie Nelson, with his long braided hair, shaggy beard and outlaw t-shirt, turns down his music momentarily to serenade us with his rendition of “Always On My Mind.” Eventually, Indo Willie drops the beat and I fantasize about the destination that is Lake Maninjau. I imagine long, lazy days on the beach, casting a line into cool, glassy water as the sun goes down and waiting for the nibble of the palai rinuak, a small local fish. I dream of unspoiled country, of hikes through the tropical rainforest and photographing the indigenous wildlife while the man next to me lights his fifteenth cigarette and dumps his ashes into my fresh water bottle. I’m daydreaming when our already standing-room-only bus pulls to the side of the road to pick up a pair of brothers hauling a slaughtered cow in clear plastic garbage bags from one town to the other. There’s no room to store the carcass in the overhead bin, for which I am thankful. The next logical course of action is to set the fermenting beef on my lap for the duration of the trip. Hours in the back of an Indonesian bus pass as you might imagine they would; poorly and slowly.
The moving medium of transportation has the power to transport you not only physically, but emotionally and psychologically to and from places you’ve already been and places you desire to go. Holding a severed cow’s head on my lap, I can’t help but pine for the open expanses of the Sianok Canyon left behind mere hours ago. The canyon, ripped asunder through years of seismic activity was made massive during the 2009 Padang Earthquake. It is a lush, fertile dreamscape of meandering water buffalo, frightening flying foxes, menacing monitor lizards and great Minangkabu architecture, one of the finest of all ancient Sumatran building styles. Located on the outskirts of the sleepy mountain town of Bukittinggi – lauded as the most highly educated and affluent of Sumatran towns and rife with fine accommodation – and in the shadow of the thrilling Mount Marapi, Sianok is a traveler’s dream. There, we hired a local guide to provide us access to the canyon; without insider knowledge one is left to wander the periphery, to scour the rice paddies and huts along the highway, as Sianok is a secret better kept than Hogwarts. Our guide, Stef, a local farmer with time on his hands, fleeced us for the experience. He estimated our bill by the size of the camera around my neck and the length of my lens, though even a rip-off isn’t such a bad deal in Sumatra – our eight-hour trek through the canyon set us back a little less than $15 US, or roughly five times the cost of riding the bus from Central Bukittinggi Station to Lake Maninjau.
Indo Willie defies death and gravity when he forces the bus’s bald tires and suspect transmission to take on the Kelok 44, the notorious hairpin turns that pave the way to Lake Maninjau. I would fear for my life and the safety of those around me if not for the view; the descent to the lake is one of the most spectacularly scenic in all of Asia. The jagged lips of the caldera tower above the lush mountain landscape, the calm water mirrors the heavy clouds that hang low in the atmosphere and we are distracted half a dozen times by cheeky macaques and bright orange leaf monkeys that dart between trees overhead. Indo Willie drops us off at our waterfront villa, carries in our luggage and leaves us with a heartfelt thank-you and a handshake that could crack a monkey’s skull. Inexplicably, all that former displeasure and discomfort is forgotten.
Our feet sinking in soft dark sand, the calm expanse of the lake’s warm water greets us. We marvel at the blood-red sunset and dine on the famed palai rinuak, pensi (small mussels), spicy jackfruit curry and hoppy Bintang beer.
The next day we meander through the throwback towns of Bayur and Maninjau to experience something of local culture and cuisine. We meet many of the people that make their living from aquaculture, harvesting fish from the more than 3,500 karamba, the floating net cages that dot the surface of the water.
We circumnavigate the lake in a sinking canoe, though the views of montane forest giving way to swampy bogs and rice paddies distract us from our plight. On a bike ride around the lake, a sobering 60km adventure on broken road, dusty path and washed out gravel, we tear the bark from wild cinnamon trees at the behest of the locals and sample the best cassia vera in the world while elusive gibbons call to us from somewhere in the mist. The days have a way of slipping by unnoticed at Lake Maninjau; here today and then you’re gone.
“Travel is hell.”
I declare this from the back of the minibus we’ve appropriated for the leg of jungle highway between Maninjau and Lake Toba, a sixteen-hour battle of attrition. No mountain range, no traditional dish, no isolated beach, no ancient dance, no crater lake is worth all this. Coincidentally, the journey started with promise. We decided on renting a mini-bus rather than tickets for a passenger liner assuming we would make fewer stops, pick up fewer passengers and enjoy a more comfortable ride. Then, an hour outside of Lake Maninjau, we stopped to fill out the empty seats. Our driver tells us we could comfortably fit seven adults plus his navigator. Begrudgingly, we agree. On the side of a dusty highway, hours away from nowhere, we add to our quartet the Perkasa family, who count among their ranks mom and dad, an elderly uncle, a teen son, twin daughters and a baby boy. Reluctant to leave their uncle behind to reach our previously agreed upon maximum consignment, we take to the road. My girlfriend and I are shifted from the spacious second row seats to the third, where we sit hunch-backed and jerk-kneed, the father between us and, inexplicably, a gigantic plastic water bottle, the kind built for office coolers, between his legs. As the family has decided to bring all of their worldly possessions with them on this trip – items including a crate of durian, two sacks of rice, four suitcases and 79 pairs of shoes, there’s no room for dad’s bottle in the back. I could forgive this easily enough if the bottle were filled with, say, heirloom coins or magic beans, but the fact that the jug is empty wholly confuses me. There he sits, legs spread as wide as humanly possible, crushing me against a window that won’t open in the back of a mini-bus that smells curiously of curry paste and Pine- Sol. Presumably to distract me from my plight, our driver turns up the volume of his thunderous techno beats. Sleep evades me as my head rests against the speaker.
Certain events mark the time we spend in the water bottle mini-bus, and, I like to imagine, help pass the time. During the first hour Father Perkasa attempts to light a cigarette while I am trying to sleep. I tell Father Perkasa that in lighting a cigarette, he is making my trip much less comfortable. I am sure I will suffocate, I cry. He offers me a cigarette to calm my nerves. My girlfriend snaps both of them in half and goes back to sleep.
Hour Five: Our driver slams on the brakes, jarring us awake, sending vegetables and fruit cascading throughout the cabin and causing Father Perkasa’s water bottle to bounce off the side of my head. Our driver has spotted a king cobra on the road, frozen in the headlights, and urges us to get out and poke at it with a stick. This is the highlight of the trip.
Hour nine: We pull over shortly after 3 a.m. so everyone can use the rest room. There is no rest room in the jungle.
Hour 12: We unload our friends at their destination. Some four hours from the lake, from freedom, from cool, cerulean waters made for swimming and a luxurious hotel suite made for sleeping we have room to stretch our legs, room to breathe, room to laugh at our own discomfort.
Hour 13: We stop again. Our navigator spies two elderly women waiting at a bus stop for a vehicle such as ours, one with far too many empty seats and ample cargo space for them and their collection of boxed fish. Smoked, fresh, curried and pasted, they’ve got it all and they are willing to share with us. Our windows still won’t open.
Hour 15: I swear I’m experiencing deepvein thrombosis, that condition you’re warned about whenever you board a plane for a long haul flight. My circulation is off. I can’t feel the toes on my left foot. My thighs are on fire, my skin smells of fish, my clothes smell of smoke and I haven’t seen the outside of the vehicle for what feels like forever.
I wonder why I’m in Indonesia, exactly. I wonder why I didn’t accept an assignment to shoot the beaches of Thailand or the hotels of Singapore. I consider quitting, of pulling over and walking in the opposite direction, when, climbing the Trans-Sumatran Highway toward the town of Perapat, the water begins to fill out the landscape before us. The sun crests the ridge of hills to the east and illuminates Samosir, the mythic island within the lake, to the west. Our driver pulls over to the side of the road to allow me a moment to capture the scene on camera. I limp, crawl and hop my way up a short hill for a better vantage and take in what lay before me. Lake Toba, in all its bombastic glory, is a scene lifted straight from a 19th century Peter de Wint watercolor. Fishing boats in silhouette pull in and out of the harbor far below. Majestic whitewashed Christian churches, remnants of Sumatra’s colonial heritage, dot the rugged, scraggy hills. Immense Batak houses, medieval wonders of Indonesian architecture, stand proud down low in the valley. Though I can’t see them, I imagine I can smell the sulfuric hot springs, dominating cliff faces and beckoning us, the road-weary travelers. I climb back into the mini-bus, my legs limber from the exercise. Through a cloud of smoke I make eye contact with our driver in the rearview mirror. He smiles. Travel is heaven.