We send out lots of email while we travel. In fact, of
course, we send email much more often than we update the web. We can never
quite remember who we told what to, so this page is meant as a sort of
bulletin board for our most recent whereabouts, impressions, and comments
while we work more slowly and deliberately on the permanent web pages.
Thursday, August 24 —
Harau Vallen and Pekinbaru
We've been traveling at what is break-neck speed for us, changing hotels every night of the last four.
After four days at nice Lake Maninjau we wanted to go to Harau Valley.
We couldn't get a room at the ONLY hotel there so spent a night at Bukittingi, where we had already spent three nights.
Maninjau-Bukittingi was a 40 km, two hour easy trip, made nicer by the fact we were climbing and getting cooler.
After a night we went on to Harau Valley and it took us three hours to do the 50 km - by bus the first 45 km
and then by open-side car the next 5 km.
We had to wait a long time to check in because a big group had not checked out.
Then we found that we'd been mislead: we'd called and got the impression that all rooms were the same price, agreeably low.
Instead that low price bought quality far below what we'd gotten for less at Lake Toba and other places.
So we were pretty disappointed.
We compromised on a middle priced room.
When it came time to eat the service and selection were poor, again because of the weekend-holiday crowed that weren't quiet gone.
We spent the last few hours of the afternoon on a pleasant walk up the valley.
That too was a disappointment because of the haze, we presume from all the burning of rice fields around Sumatra.
As should be clear, we didn't like Eco-Lodge too much, so left after one night for Pekanbaru.
The first part, call it a mini journey, had us carrying our bags over a pedestrian bridge out to the road.
Then we walked about a kilometer, pulling the carts, until we came to the first village.
There we were able to get a pair of bejaks to take us the five kilometers back to town.
Then we waited about two hours for a bus that we expected in 30 minutes;
after being told it would be four hours late we were quite happy when it finally came along.
The four hour ride to Pekanbaru was an enjoyable trip through windy mountain roads and then through less interesting plains.
Along the way we stopped at a simple road-side cafe and ate Indonesian style.
Our arrival in Pekanbaru was a disappointment.
The city has about a million people and has been growing rapidly; it is one of the main centers of Indonesias oil industry.
Since our LP Guide was published a new bus station opened, five km farther from the center
and we learned this only when we entered it rather than the old bus station, just across the way from the Linda, the hotel we'd chosen.
We had to get another taxi for the extra 5 km, bargaining down from the extortionate Rp 100,000 asked to Rp 20,000.
Then we wern't happy with the Linda hotel (not even a sink in the bathroom) so moved again.
Now we are in the Bidadari Hotel (with a sink in the bathroom) and get to spend two nights here.
Pekanbaru is hot and sweaty and grimy and at this time of the year is
drowned in a cloud of smoke that apparently comes from all the Sumatrans
burning off the rice stubble after harvest.
The air was so bad that within hours we both developed coughs
and on our second day there Jan returned to the room
and stayed in the air-conditioning to try and protect her lungs a bit.
She mainly stayed in the next day while Gerry went out for a long walk
that included a visit to the main museum in town and a giant mosque.
For two hours he looked around at the museum,with no one, nobody, else around,
not even a ticket taker or guard.
Our first night Gerry had bought a soft bag to replace one of his two that had become pretty tatty.
It turned out to be too small so we took it back, but to another branch of the chain that had sold it.
There he got into a pretty interesting discussion with the young man that managed the book department.
Like Henry, who we had met at Parapat, he was a Batak and a Christian,
He'd gone to college and after a year managed to get a comfortable job.
Not quite up to his asperations, but a beginning.
We have to leave Indonesia by the 27th because our visa expires.
We wanted to go by boat to Batam (10 km from Singapore) or to Malacca.
We'd been told that Malacca ferrys leave Thursday and Sunday and that Batam ferrys leave on Saturday.
Yesterday we found a ticket office, or so the sign said, although inside was a tailor out of Fiddler on the Roof.
But he called over a ticket agent from somewhere nearby and that man sold us a ticket to Malacca, leaving Friday morning.
So Friday night, pirates not causing a delay, we should be in modern Malacca.
Monday, August 19 —
Bukittingi wasn't terribly exciting so now we have moved to another lake, Maningjau,
this one at 500 meters elevation and so a bit hotter and steamier,
but we have found a nice lakefront room and will stay here for four days until
the Indonesians have finished celebrating their independence day (August 17).
We will be in Singapore by the end of the month to get new visas so that we can go on to Java and Bali.
Sumatra and Indonesia in general is a bit of a surprise to us.
It apparently had a thriving tourist industry up until the financial crisis of 1997.
That and the fighting and bombings in various parts of the country caused a crash in tourist income that hasn't yet come back.
That is bad for the Indonesians but good for us as we find very good quality accommodations for quite low prices.
Our Lake Toba hotel was $15/night.
Here we are paying $12.
Coming to Maninjau, a trip of about 40 km, we splurged and took a taxi.
Actually, we were sort of hi-jacked.
At the Asia Hotel in Bukittingi we got a taxi to the bus station
and on the way the taxi driver bargained with us to take us all of the way.
We kept refusing, he kept lowering his price, and eventually we bit.
It certainly did make things very convenient being taken right to the door of the Hotel Tan Dirih.
Lake Maninjau fills most of a volcanic crater;
its about 16 km long by 7 km wide, more rectangular than oval.
Water level is about 500 m above sea level;
the mountains opposite (west side) go up about 500-700 m above the lake;
behind us (east side) they are a bit higher.
For comparison, the Sea of Galilee (Tiberias) is 21 x 12 km and 209 m below sea level.
Manijau is lower enough than Bukittingi (or Lake Toba) that it is a bit too sweaty.
The last 6-7km of the road here descends down the eastern side of the crater in a series of sharp hairpin turns.
There are so many they are numbered: 44! Do people give their address as "just below turn 29"? We don't know.
The whole place is said to be very pretty and we suppose it would be if there wasn't so much cloud and mist.
Since our arrival the weather has turned a bit worse.
Our second day the clouds closed in for a moment and there was thunder and a light rain.
Watching the storm we can better imagine the famous one on Galilee.
Here this morning's absolutely calm waters were replaced in the afternoon by rough waters, with some foot high waves.
Today, August 17, is the 61st anniversary of Indonesian independence.
In the last four months we have helped Greeks and Turks celebrate their national days
and Thais celebrate the 60th anniversary of their king's ascension.
So we went out today and helped the local folk celebrate their day.
They had a parade which lasted a bit over an hour, composed mostly of
what can loosely be called "high school marching bands".
In fact, the parade was headed up by the youngest, about 5-6 years old
and each of the successive 20-30 groups we saw was older than the preceeding.
Most, maybe all, represented a school.
At one point the parade stopped for a while with a troop of teen-age drummers marking time in front of us.
Ouch! Our ears began to hurt.
Costumes were a mixture of traditional Indonesian
(or actually what we imagine they imagine to have been traditional; such things are often romantically made up)
and real, true, American high school band-like uniforms.
Did they, asks Jan, know that once more they had been debased by another bit of global American culture?
Maninjau town is the biggest settlement around Lake Maninjau.
There is now a road that circles it, about 50 km long.
At breakfast our second day we spoke with Zal, the owner of the place.
He tells us that he started in the tourist business in 1978, the year he left school, when he was 14.
At that time the paved road stopped just outside of Maninjau
and only a few years later, in 1980 or so did they get electricity.
Then there were no hotels; now there are a dozen or so, the largest, I think, with less that twenty rooms.
Ours has nine, I think.
Back in 1978 livings were earned by farming and fishing; the main farming being to grow rice.
We started our explorations by foot, doing a bit over 3 kilometers of the lake shore.
We are 1 km north of the center of Manijau and we walked another km north; at that point there are more farms than buildings.
To see the parade we walked 1 km south to the center;
after it we walked another km south where the built-up areas ended and we reached more rice fields.
Then we rented bicyles and did considerably better than at Lake Toba.
We managed to go out about 9-10 km and came back refreshed, or at least Jan did.
Gerry again felt low in energy.
A meal soon after restored him.
Monday, August 15 —
We spent three nights in Bukittingi.
Bukittingi is at 930 m and was very pleasant to be in.
We got our introduction there to what the Dutch call "ricetafel":
a mode of eating in which a restaurant puts about a dozen small dishes on the table in front of you with a large pot of rice.
On our first try we had four kinds of fish, three kinds of chicken, some spinach
and other uncertain vegetables.
Several of the plates were in a tasty curry.
You eat the dishes you like and pay up.
We did that but the inexperienced waitress charged us too much.
As we were about to leave higher management gave us some of our money back.
Bukittingi is the center of the Minangkabau culture.
Their distinctive feature is that they used to live in long-houses,
great buildings with saddle-backed roofs that vaguely remind one of Chinese sloped roofs.
The walls are covered with intricate carvings, often of a floral motif.
Few people now live in such buildings;
old ones are around and there are imitation ones used for hotels, public buildings, etc.
From Bukittingi we walked about an hour, crossing a small canyon
and going partly along a semi-jungle path, to Koto Gadang,
an old village that has several impressive examples of such buildings as well as a couple of dozen 19th century Dutch colonial houses.
It was well worth the trip to two bodies that have seen too much time in easy chairs.
Our last day in Bukittingi we went to the top of a hill where a Dutch fort was;
now there is a concrete re-creation that is a disguised water tower.
All around it are bird cages in a park atmosphere;
they have a pretty good collection of tropical birds.
Also in the park is a zoo with some nice exhibits
and some pretty dirty ones;
we liked seeing the aligators, tiger (one)
and lion (one) in the open air.
Nearly everything there was native to Indonesia but there were kangaroos.
Also on the grounds is a museum housed in a particularly fine example of Minangkabau architecture.
We're in an area of active volcanos.
We're just a few miles from Mount Merapi (2890m),
a volacno but not the one that is now erupting and in some newspapers; it is in Java.
Bukittingi is just a bit south of the equator, which we crossed by bus at about 6:00 a.m.
three days ago.
We're at 930 meters (about 3000 ft) so the place has a very pleasant temperature.
Often we don't know what day of the week it is, unless things are crowded
and then we say it is Friday night or Saturday.
But we manage to do pretty well in keeping up with world affairs.
Before starting this email I spent more than an hour reading the Jakarta Post in English.
Through it and the BBC radio we keep up with events like the Israel-Lebanon-Hezbollah conflict.
Gerry jokes that it was a wonderful war, since everybody won.
Hezbollah said they did.
Israel said it did.
Even France got to pat itself on the back.
Actually, in truth, we were sorry to see all the killing and destruction,
but also were happy to see a blow struck at Hezbollah.
I think and am hopeful that the trend is in Israel's favor.
Sunday, August 12 —
Toba to Bukittingi
All things come to an end, except perhaps paying taxes which goes on even after death, so we ended our stay in Lake Toba.
Overall it was very nice, but we stayed on more out of laziness than fascination.
Our next destination was Bukittingi, another highland area
and the center of three places for laying back and relaxing even more intensely.
It is about 500 km south of Lake Toba (and 784 km along the Trans-Sumatran highway from Medan) so the question was how to get there.
Easily on offer was an Executive or Super Executive bus but these were night buses
and Gerry wanted to do go to Bukkittingi by daylight so he could see Indonesia.
Why would anybody want to do this trip at night?
Two days before our likely departure we talked to the couple in the room next to us at Lake Toba
and they definitely put us off this night bus:
they'd come the other way and had had a nauseous time, with little kids throwing up from the violent sways of the bus
and a toilet (extra-added, higher-priced attraction) on the Super Executive that nobody wanted to enter.
Another problem was the Super (Executive) High Price.
The Medan-Parapat bus had been Rp 18,000 for about 180 km, or Rp 100/km.
The SE would cost Rp 235,000 for 500 km or Rp 470/km.
But as we couldn't get any information about hotels along the way where we might we stop
and break our journey we reluctantly reserved seats on the night bus, the booking conveniently made at our hotel.
We set our departure for Friday, August 11.
We spent the morning preparing another batch of email, then had a late lunch,
and had just enough time to sent it before we had to leave Toba Cottages.
The bus ride was thirteen hours overnight on a narrow two-lane road through mostly hilly terrain
and lots and lots of sharp bends.
The combination of negotiating the bends, avoiding oncoming vehicles,
and overtaking slow-moving trucks made the bus gyrate so wildly left to right that
it was absolutely impossible to get out of your seat while the bus was in motion.
That in itself made sleeping very difficult but the worst of it was that the driver
was so afraid of falling asleep that he played rock music at full volume all night!
Just before dawn, around 5:30 a.m. we made our second stop.
The first stop was purely a toilet stop — most people, it seemed, were nauseated by the on-board toilet.
This dawn-breaking stop was for morning prayers.
Almost everybody got off the bus, a third or so of them going into the small mosque
in front of which we'd stopped.
Women prayed in the rear and men in the front of the single room, about 10 meters square.
The rest of us went to the toilets in the rear of the compound.
Not long, maybe an hour after resuming the trip we crossed the equator.
No big deal was made of it;
Jan noticed a small sign and Gerry missed it all.
Jan didn't like the trip at all.
For her it was another trip through hell.
She says "I was never so happy as when we got off that bus."
For Gerry it was much more interesting than expected.
The streets were mostly lit and there was moonlight or something else that usually gave a view of the countryside.
So he in the end got an improved idea of the Indonesia country side.
Along the way we passed some small hotels so we could have stopped but
they weren't too attractive so it probably was better to do it in one go.
Monday, August 11 —
Lake Toba Musings
From the evening of our arrival at Lake Toba Gerry hadn't felt just right; something putting the
equilibrium off in his stomach.
Saturday moring he was feeling ill before breakfast but seemed to perk up once he had had something to eat.
At Toba Cottages we immediately went to lunch because Gerry thought he needed food in general and salt in particular.
He had a hard time eating his lunch but eventually got it down and then felt a bit better.
The same pattern repeated itself with dinner.
Sunday it was more of the same: a feeling of bloatedness accompanied by tiredness.
Happily, something, perhaps time, or perhaps the double pot of tea with sugar, gradually fixed things
and by bedtime he was feeling much better.
Because Gerry didn't feel well during our first day and a half
we just stayed on the hotel grounds, not even going out to the access street.
We read our books, Jan going through all of Edith Warton's "The Age of Innocence"
and Gerry several hundred pages of the 1000 page "Brazil".
We found in the common area an old stack of "Der Spiegel" and read some of them and, most happily, a single "Economist".
Chess, backgammon, and table tennis were on hand but we did none of that.
Instead, beside reading and computing, we just enjoyed the view from the open-aired dining room or our mini-deck.
Most mornings we would order oatmeal for breakfast and eat it on the small terrace in front of our room.
Then in the afternoon we would move over to the main building for lunch.
That, as in so many places in the tropics, consisted primary of a large roof covering a area open on two sides.
The closed sides here held the kitchen, offices, and internet room.
We'd linger over lunch and then read afterwards.
From where we sat we always had an excellent view of the lake,
a view that we think is hardly matched from anyother point.
Finally Gerry got back some energy and we set out to do something more than hold down our chairs.
One morning we took a boat to the mainland, i.e. to Parapat, to get some money to pay for the bus tickets
that we wanted to buy for the next stage of our trip..
We had a pleasant walk from the pier to the mainstreet where we found an ATM.
We should have taken money while we stayed at the Bahai Wisata but we didn't plan that far ahead.
Then it was back to the pier and we took the boat back to Tuk Tuk, getting off at a point a bit further up the coast of Samosir
We did that so we could take a walk the two or three kilometers back to our place.
We stopped at one hotel for lunch and visited two others just to compare with our place.
We talked about moving from Toba Cottages for three or four days somewhere else, but concluded we are too lazy.
As we realized that we were going to be leaving Toba we decided to get out once more and rented bicycles.
For some people their eyes are bigger than their stomachs;
for us, or at least Gerry, our aspirations were greater than our stamina.
We thought we'd have six hours of riding in us, thinking our legs would be strong from our 2003 conditioning in Darlington
and our recent bout of swimming.
Not so! As it turned out we spent just two actual hours cycling and by then were satisfied to be returning to more passive activites.
While out we had two very annoying problems.
We'd only been out 15 minutes when Jan's chain came off and got super stuck in the pedal mechanism.
We were tool-less and it seemed that Gerry would never get it free and back in its proper place.
Fortunately he was able to borrow a screw-driver and free it.
That done, it was only another 30 minutes before Gerry had a bicycle accident.
He was boiling mad over his stupidity.
He mis-applied the front breaks and sent himself flying over the front of the bike.
He tore open the skin on his left palm and right knee.
The silver lining, if you can call it that, was an hour later we found a small clinic and we learned first hand
the way Bataks patch up people.
The morning of our last day at Lake Toba we learned some from the owner about her problems in running the hotel.
She told us a lot about the culture clash she had as a German with her Indoesian staff.
Essentially she expected staff to do as told and be responsible; they expected her to be forgiving.
She also talked about the problems of guests who have the wrong expectations.
One couple called and asked a staff member for the best room in the hotel.
Unfortunately they didn't ask for the price.
When they arrived, and after the owner had turned away other potential guests, the couple with the reservation
didn't want to take the room as it was too expensive.
Tuesday, August 8 —
Parapat, Lake Toba, and Toba Cottages
Saturday, the day after our arrival in Parapat from Bukit Levant, we had to move.
We got up early and went down to the Hotel Wisata Baharia's restaurant for breakfast,
choosing seats on the terrace very close to Lake Toba.
Breakfast was included in the price of the room but unfortunately the waiter hadn’t
been briefed and couldn’t tell us what breakfast was;
he indicated we could just order what we wanted and we did: omlet, banana pancake, mixed fruit, and tea.
The waiter shortly came back and said there was no mixed fruit and that we could only have toast and sugar!
Anything more would be extra!
In the end Henry, the friendly young clerk who'd made our checking in easy
the previous evening, came and helped us order the standard breakfast.
Although more meanger than momentarily expected, we enjoyed eating it with the lovely lake in the background.
Henry stopped to chat a little.
He is 25 and from a Batak family. They are the people indigenous to this area, around Lake Toba.
They have their own language, Batak, which he speaks with his family.
His father taught him at a young age Bahasa Indoesia, the national common language.
He has two brothers and four sisters.
Because an older sister was living in Yogyakarta (Java), he chose to go there to study.
It would take him "three days and two nights" on a bus for a trip there or home.
He majored in English language intending to use it in the tourist industry.
(This is quite common. In 2001 we met Vietnames students following the same route.)
After graduating it took him a year to find a job and he feels happy to have one.
After eating, we walked out of the hotel looking for the tourist office, an ATM Gerry thought he had seen,
and the entrance to the ferry we could see from the breakfast terrace.
The ferry pier turned out to be only for charter boats, so we would have to go into town to the main ferry.
We never found the tourist office, but did find a tout for the bus to our next destination,
Bukkitingi, and got good information there.
And finally we did find the ATM and topped up our money supplies.
Then we went back to the room, finished packing, and went off to pay our bill.
With Henry’s help we hailed a minibus to take us down to the main ferry, about 1.5 km away.
We were put down just 50 m from the pier and ferry boat to Tuk Tuk, our destination and location of Tabo Cottages.
Just in front of us, in fact blocking further progress for the oplet,
there was a big market, held every Saturday — very convenient for us —
so we loaded up on fruit before getting on board.
We then settled down on the top deck, in the open air, enjoying the breeze, and looking at other people getting onto the ferry,
to wait the half hour or so until departure.
Sitting behind us were a Franco-German couple, Mary and Joachim from Montreuil near Paris;
Jan spent the whole crossing talking to them, enjoying French once again.
Joachim helped us get our bags off the boat and to say thank you we suggested a beer at our place or theirs,
but they were a bit tired and Gerry didn't feel too good so we let it drop.
Half an hour after departure we'd crossed the lake.
The first stop was at Baggis Bay and then a hundred meters later we were at the Toba Cottages jetty.
Joachim helped us get our bags ashore and then they were quickly taken by a Toba Cottage staff member.
A very easy arrival!
Tabo Cottages turned out to be what we expected.
Nice bungalow type rooms with private bath and porch.
We had our choice of two rooms: with or without the "Jungle bath",
which is a large tiled room, partially open to the sky, and a sort of mini-fern wall on one side.
In addition the Jungle bath room had a fan and a king bed instead of a queen.
We liked the airiness of Jungle Bath room and were not concerned with the higher price,
but were sold by the bigger bed and oh so important (for Gerry) fan.
That was the right choice, but did have an unexpected negative consequence:
There are always mosquitoes in this jungle because it is open to the sky;
however the bed is furnished with a mosquito net and we are happy for that.
On our first full day we were offered the chance to move to more deluxe accommondations
on the upper floor of another cottage.
Jan went to look and was suprised on her arrival to find one of the maids that should
have been cleaning the room asleep on the bed
and the other groggy in an upper alcove.
Since the room really wasn't a lot better than the one we occupied and it was more exposed to sun and heat we declined.
It is interesting that we are paying Rp 150,000 at Toba Cottages, five times the Rp 30,000 at Nora's homestay,
and don't have aircon and do need mosquito nets.
But there is no denying that our tiled floors, actual windows,
and having room for some furniture in the room represent quite a step up in quality.
And the view across the lake is superb.
Monday, August 4 —
Bukit Lawan to Lake Toba
The question before us was whether we should stay in Bukit Lawang a few more days or not.
We'd been very happy with the orang-utan and gibbons we'd seen.
Staying longer wouldn't likely enhance that experience.
The place was too hot and steamy for us to want to make a really long hike.
And, while a raft trip was on offer and might have been fun, because we'd "been there, done that"
it didn't seem likely it would be worth the effort.
So it was either relax for a day or two or leave.
And if we stayed should it be where we were ($3/night guesthouse) or go to the Eco-Lodge?
Wanderlust or something equally indefinable made us choose to go.
On Friday we were up at six, and, as promised, Nora and other staff were in
their nearby restaurant building and we went over for a a quick breakfast in the murky twilight.
Then we hauled our bags across the two little footbridges and along 100 m or so of mud-dirt-stone path
to the street where there was a convenient bus shelter, appropriately marked "Nora's Homestay and Restaurant."
We only had to wait ten minutes for the bus and were quickly ensconced in the back just in front of our mound of luggage.
We were about a kilometer from the starting point of the bus and it already was 1/4 filled with school kids.
The ride down the mountain to the good road was both tortuous and torturous.
This bus had even less shock absorption than the one two days ago and by the end of the trip
Jan's back was suffering quite a bit.
Along this stretch we picked up many other kids going to school in Bohorok, about 11 km from Bukit Lawang.
It seemed many more girls were wearing the muslim white scarf than we'd seen coming.
Perhaps the differences in impression are due to different starting hours.
Going the first 20 of the 96 km took an hour and by then it was 8:00, school starting time.
So the bus had emptied out and we rode along in better conditions: more space, fewer bumps.
As we went along we recognized things we'd seen before and, almost as expected,
at the right moment, just under four hours after departure from Bukit Lawang
we passed through a big arch that said "Welcome to Medan."
At 11:00 a.m. we pulled into the Penang Baris bus station.
Gerry put our carts together while Jan ran for the loo.
En route she spied the number 64 minibus we needed to take to get to the Amplas bus station.
We trundled our carts and were quickly found by the minibus driver and agreed, after some bargaining,
to pay him the standard Rp 5,000 each plus the non-standard Rp 5,000 to carry our bags inside;
he'd wanted Rp 10,000 for that.
We loaded the bags and set off expecting to easily have time to catch a noon bus.
How wrong we were.
The trip seemed endless to Jan, with an increasingly uncomfortable back, stuck in a tiny minibus in the heat of the day.
Gerry had a better view and more air, so he enjoyed getting a much more complete view of Medan than we'd yet had.
We saw its better neighborhoods, quite wealthy appearing, and its poorer ones.
Gerry had moved up to behind the driver so he could get him to stop at an ATM machine.
We thought there must be one in Parapat but preferred not to be surprised and not be able to pay hotels, etc.
The driver was friendly and stopped and we got money.
Along the way a young man, a student, sitting next to Jan, whispered to her
"Do you know how much this opelet should cost?"
Jan answered yes, Rp 5,000 each. He nodded and warned that the driver might ask for Rp 15,000.
How nice of him to make sure that we would not be cheated.
We did finally get to the bus station after 75 minutes of cramped travel.
We were deposited next to the Parapat bus, the friendly oplet driver having taken us directly there.
Gerry paid him an extra Rp 5,000 for this convenience and stopping at the ATM.
We had a little verification to do: we'd been told the bus should cost Rp 18,000
and Jan went off to see if this was true and if she could buy tickets.
At the same time a man approached Gerry and in good English told him to put his bags on, inside, at the back.
Gerry was hesitant, but the man explained he was the driver.
He said don't worry about buying tickets; it is Rp 18,000 and you can pay on board.
Jan came back, tickets in hand, and made sure to get a seat forward of the back wheels for more stability
and on what would be the shady side of the bus.
And then we waited, and waited until the appointed hour of one o’clock and set off to Parapat.
The first half of the ride was pretty uncomfortable for Jan:
No potholes or lurching, bouncing buses, but instead heat; gobs of heat.
No fan or air-con and windows too high to create a real breeze at seat level
and because of all that a cranky toddler in the seat next to Gerry literally screamed for an hour.
We put in ear-plugs to dampen some of the noise but could hardly blame the kid.
Medan and its extensions seemed to go on forever, but after about an hour we were in true countryside:
actual rice fields at first and then more rubber and palm plantations.
For part of the journey Jan had an English teacher as a seat companion.
He was quite chatty and told her that he was Christian and that Christian schools
were considered the best in Indonesia because they were strict and had high academic standards.
Not too different from the US.
He also said that public schools are free from 7 until the age of 15 but
that many schools charge a fee of Rp 40,000/month and that Christian schools tend to charge Rp 100,000/month.
Our Bukit Lawang guide Amar had told us similar things: he sent his children to school in Bohorok for Rp 35,000 each;
in addition he spends about Rp 50,000/year on books for each.
Our fee to him had bought books for all four kids for two years.
When we got to Parapat, the driver who seemed to have taken a shine to Gerry,
dropped us off at our chosen hotel, the Wisata Baharia.
We had thought we might stay there for the entire time at Lake Toba,
but were shocked to learn that they would be full from Saturday on, so we could only stay one night.
So we called the best pick out of LP and made a reservation at the Tabo Cottages.
We ate an OK meal in their restaurant and Gerry started feeling a bit under the weather.
As we were both very tired from our ten-hour journey, we were in bed soon after ten.
Thursday, August 3 —
Wednesday, August 2, after breakfast we finished packing and then set out to try to get to Bukit Lawang.
We had to get to the north-west bus station, Penang Baris (there is another on the south, Amblas)
and take a bus from there to Bukit Lawang, all of 96 km and five hours away.
Armed with the information given us by the woman in the tourist office
we started by negotiating with becak and cab drivers in front of the hotel.
We didn't like their prices so decided to roll our carts the three long blocks to the Sultan's palace
where we were told we could get an oplet to P. Baris.
In Medan you can hardly walk two steps without a becak or other driver asking you for business.
Halfway to the Palace a persistent one stopped us.
He claimed he could take the two of us and all our bags to the P. Baris bus station.
After much wrangling we settled on Rp 25,000 ($2.75).
Jan was very sceptical and would have preferred to walk our bags over to the little minibus
but the guy seemed so anxious to have our business that Jan gave in to his pleading and
Gerry's desire to have "contact" with the world of Medan as we went along.
The result was a very uncomfortable ride for both of us.
We were squashed, had to hang on to half our bags for fear they would topple into the street,
and we had to have the top down to hold one of the bags and so had no protection from the sun.
Last but not least, we were sitting in the middle of traffic breathing everybody’s fumes.
Jan said jokingly at one point that she hoped the driver knew where the bus station was.
It was prophetic.
He had to stop and ask directions and found he’d missed a turn and so had to go an extra long way to find a U-turn.
Just when we were convinced he was lost again, he turned right to go down a narrow street.
Suddenly Gerry shouted to him to stop!
Gerry had heard a bus honk and looked up to see that coming down
the street we had just turned off was a bus marked Bukit Lawang.
That the driver of the BL bus had drawn the right conclusion — we were two tourists going his way.
If he fished us in he would have less effort to get enough people to justify leaving town.
Jan was never so thankful; Gerry, not having suffered so much, just appreciated not having to look for the BL bus.
In a matter of minutes we had all the bags transferred to the back of the bus and the becak owner had been paid.
Gerry give him the agreed price, but he wanted more because — get this — he'd gone extra distance.
But when Gerry asked to take his picture he became all smiles and no longer worried about more money.
Having arrived in such a flurry of activity, we then had to sit for almost an hour as the bus went
from almost empty to just over half full.
Before we had been on the bus five minutes, we already had a young man trying to convince us to
hire him as a guide in Bukit Lawang.
He worked on Jan and she wasn’t enthusiastic so he eventually went away.
After the bus had finally started out, however, a more persistent older man (40-ish)
took his place and first talked to Gerry for a long time, then to Jan, and finally to Gerry again.
Neither man introduced himself as "I'm a guide; can we do business?"
No, they start out by asking where you are going, try to engage you in small chat, and then volunteer information.
We don't want guides but our problem is how to be polite to the genuine person and avoid this sort of entrapment.
Because the bus was only half-filled when we departed we had plenty of room, including for our smaller packages on
the seat next to Gerry's.
But around 2:30 or 3:00 school was out and we picked up many more school kids than there were seats.
We didn't like the crowding; the kids just took it, which they must do every day.
They were all in school uniforms, mostly secular (i.e. government) consisting of a white blouse and
skirt or white shirt and dark pants.
But maybe a quarter of them were in muslim uniform, with white head scarves for the girls.
The last quarter of the ride was the most uncomfortable as the road was in terrible shape and so
there was lots of bumping around.
We went through many palm oil tree and rubber tree plantations, as we gradually climbed into the foothills.
Palm Oil, fixed oil made by pressing the fruit of the palm tree Elaeis guineensis, native of the west coast of Africa.
Pure palm oil is a rich orange-yellow color; it has a sweet taste and an agreeable odor.
It is liquid in the tropics, but hardens into "palm butter" under cooler temperatures.
Palm oil is used in the manufacture of soap, liniments, and ointments, and in West African and Brazilian cooking.
Its chief chemical constituent is palmitic acid. Oil is also obtained from the kernel of the palm fruit.
Known as palm-kernel oil, this is a lighter oil, resembling coconut oil.
© 1993-2003 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.
When we arrived, Gerry went off with the self-appointed guide, Amar, to get us rooms at the Eco-Lodge,
said by LP to be the most upscale place, costing Rp 180,000/night ($20.).
(It's very nice that local low prices allow us to start looking at this end of the spectrum.)
He came back with the bad news that the hotel was full, as was our second choice the Jungle Inn.
We considered just getting on the bus and going back to Medan, but we would get there at 10:00
and were unsure to find a nice hotel.
(The Garuda Plaza was sold out).
Amar had been building up to this.
He said he knew a good "homestay" where we could stay for only Rp 30,000/night ($3.30).
Gerry was interested and he and Amar finally persuaded Jan to take a look.
We had to take a becak there, about 1 km away.
The room offered us was in a two-room cabin on concrete posts and was set in a fish pond.
The place was very simple but very clean: a room with walls of bamboo and the bed with a mosquito net.
Behind each room was a bathroom that had a cold-water shower on the floor and a non-flushing toilet.
Amar had played out his line and now sunk his hook.
We ended up staying.
Amar hung around while we ate a meal (our first since breakfast)
and then we sat down and negotiated a price for a trip into Gunung Leuser National Park with him tomorrow.
He wanted to set off early but we wanted to see the feeding of the orang-utans and so we set the departure
at noon and planned to catch the 3 pm feeding and then head back home.
The price for Amar’s company was to be 20 dollars each with him picking up all the permits
and some fruit for snacks while in the jungle.
After dark we retired to the room.
We immediate noticed the candle and oil lamps on the deck in front of the room.
It wasn't too long before they were put into use due to a power cut.
The cut was short, and then after an interval there was another; so it went for the evening.
We don't know why it fails and why it can come back on so quickly.
Initially it was so hot that the cold-water shower was a real pleasure.
As the night wore on it became colder and Jan was glad to have her dressing gown as a blanket; Gerry did without.
The mosquito net kept most of the beasties at bay.
Today, thursday we woke up at first light lingered in bed, since Amar would not come until noon.
We had a leisurely breakfast and spent the morning reading on the deck in front of our room.
Amar showed up ten minutes early and so by noon we were on our way, having left our computers
sitting in the cabin behind its padlocked door.
We hadn’t told anyone that we had computers and didn’t really imagine that anyone would
try and break in but it was a gamble.
We took a becak to get to the river across from the Eco Lodge and so Jan got a look at
the place we might have stayed.
It looked OK but not tons better than where we were.
Getting to the lodge we crossed the river and could see the damage that the flash flood of 2003 had done.
It happened in September at 9 o’clock at night and killed 300 people including four or five foreigners.
On the opposite bank from Eco Lodge was a hotel that had been wiped out by the flood;
the bridge to Eco-Lodge had been destroyed and so the current one was a temporary replacement;
and you could see that the river bed had been severely gouged out and the flood had left an
enormous number of big boulders and stones in its wake.
After walking past the Eco-Lodge we followed a path up a hill through some palm-oil
plantation being converted to rubber.
We have seen lots of both types of plantations from southern Thailand through Malaysia and now here.
In about ten minutes we passed a stone marker saying that we were in Gunung Leuser National Park.
It is shaped like a big U, 120 kn north to south and 130 km east to west, with the opening of the U on a the south side.
The U itself is mostly highlands above 1000 m; the central part of the U, not in the park, is a valley,
Permits are required to enter the park; we wondered if Amar had actually gotten all of them or
petty corruption was involved.
How can you tell if a person is honest when you can’t speak or understand the language?
While walking along the forest path, Amar started making hooting and clicking sounds.
which we guessed, correctly, were to attract orang-utans.
And sure enough after maybe another ten minutes, he spotted first one, then two,
then three different orang-utans in the trees near us.
We were thrilled and watched them for ages.
They came to within 20 yards or so and then waited and watched.
It was clear they had heard Amar’s calls and it seemed to us that they expected to be fed.
Amar also expected to feed them and asked several times if he should give them a banana
or a ramb-utan (tee-hee).
We said no.
We felt a bit hypocritical as we were profiting from the wrong doings of others;
the only reason they came so close was because they had been "trained" to.
We walked on further and saw another orang-utan in a tree just above our heads.
As we stopped to crane our necks, and watch the animal with its long orange fur munching on leaves
and what sounded like nuts.
Amar called to us to be very quiet and said that he had seen a gibbon.
We spent the next 20 minutes watching a group of about three gibbons move through the high canopy
within about 50-100 meters of us.
They moved very fast and so it was hard to really examine them like you could the orang-utans,
but once or twice we got clear sightings of a black face surrounded by grey fur and were quite content.
By this time we’d been out about two hours and we both got the impression that Amar
hoped we would be happy enough to say we didn’t want to go to the feeding.
But we didn’t oblige and so in a half hour we were approaching the feeding center.
Imagine our surprise to find the path almost blocked by a big orange ape hanging from a bamboo fence.
We skirted around him but almost within touching distance.
There was another animal, a mother with a baby also very nearby and we all eyed one another
a bit suspiciously but also with considerable fascination on our side.
We spent about an hour altogether watching the apes watch us and then watching them
as they were fed with bunches of bananas and re-constituted powdered milk.
There were only three orang-utans at the feeding but that was more than enough for
us especially as we learned that the previous day a large group of 50 tourists had been disappointed.
They were almost certainly the tourists who had filled up the Eco Lodge last night.
We also learned from our fellow gawpers that they were staying at the Jungle Inn.
From what they said it seemed highly unlikely it had been full last night and we
began to be a little suspicious of our guide.
But then in the end it mattered little.
He had found us a clean place to stay; he had been correct that getting our bags
to Jungle Inn would have been a nightmare; and we had gotten to see both orang-utans and gibbon.
Nonetheless, we decided to turn down his invitation to eat dinner at his house.
We were tired and didn’t feel we knew what was expected of us.
Perhaps a cowardly reaction but it meant that we could let him go home to his family
and we could happily walk home back into the village and to Nora’s at our own pace.
In the end, we got back to Nora’s just minutes before the heavens opened and it
was raining until we climbed into bed at 9 p.m.
Tuesday, August 1 —
Monday we essentially spent the whole day in the hotel — the promised day of relaxation.
Around 4:00 we went down for another swim and both swam around 70 lengths of what we think is
a 16 meter pool, so we did 1,120 meters.
Not bad, considering that we could barely swim 120 meters when we started back in Bangkok at
the beginning of June.
Gerry’s now got his eyes set on a mile.
Only another 480 meters or 30 more lengths.
For supper we walked out of the hotel and down a few blocks to the McDonald’s.
It's located in another upscale mall but we didn't go in to investigate and
can't compare it to the Sun Plaza.
Going it was still daylight, but coming back was more dodgy as not only was it dark
but there were no streetlights because Medan had lost power earlier in the day.
(People hear about the difficulties in Iraq but don't realized such things happen in many places in the world.
We had candles available in two of our Thai resort hotels.)
We weren’t affected at the Garuda Plaza because it has its own generator.
Gerry did more internet while Jan watched a true story rescue story while doing more accounts.
As a previous entry mentioned, our first touristic goal in Sumatra is to be Bukit Lawang,
a town or village from which one can see orang-utans in the wild.
Today we went out to find a travel office that LP said had buses there.
They did, but at ten times the price of the public bus and without air-con.
Also the bus didn’t leave until 4 p.m. meaning that we would get there after dark,
at the mercy of whatever hotelier showed up to claim us.
What was the point, especially since the vibrations said the bus might not even go?
After a brief discussion, we decided to say thanks, but no thanks.
From the tour office we walked back up towards our hotel and visited the Raja mosque.
From the outside it is very pretty, but a mixed bag inside.
The carpets look like they have seen better days and
an ugly screen divides the room into two which meant you didn’t get a feel for the space under the main dome.
One thing that was rather superb, however, was the pulpit.
We were asked to make a donation and gave 10,000 rupiah.
From the mosque we walked a couple of blocks to the former Sultan’s palace
and once again were told that we should make a donation and we gave them 15000 rupiah.
The palace was interesting although you only got to see one large room
with a very fancy throne decorated with gold-colored cushions.
They reminded us of some furniture store we had seen somewhere else in the city
where the furniture was all painted to look like gold and yellow was the predominant color
as if everyone wanted to be a Sultan.
Our next goal was the train station and so we hopped aboard the first opelet
(a small van converted to a bus that carries about 10 people) and jumped off when it turned a corner away from our route.
Since we had been deposited just a few steps from the tourist office we went in
and were happy to find that the young woman who helped us gave us lots of useful information especially
about getting buses and their prices to Bukit Lawang and Lake Toba.
Informed is armed, as far as transport goes!
We spent the rest of our outing walking: to the main square,
then up and around a big block to get back to the square and the train station.
As before there was quite a variation of buildings.
Many were super modern and many were not.
We passed a small muslim cemetery just as a funeral cortege arrived.
The body was carried in a modern, white ambulance.
The mourners came in everything from 4x4s to becaks.
Along the way we stopped at a hotel that we learned was built in the Dutch era, we think in 1902.
It has changed a whole lot but there is a photograph showing it on a palm-lined quiet street.
We looked at a room that was quite huge but completely without windows;
that would have been good in the days before air conditioning when the number one goal was to keep the sun out.
We were asked more for this "prestige" non-aircon room than we were paying in the Garuda Plaza.
If we came back to Medan we would not stay in this room.
In front of the station there is a large square or park.
A large group was there to celebrate something; we think it was a picnic cum rally of a political party.
Since we could exchange very few words we never found out.
None the less they were very friendly and shared their food with us:
they gave each of us a package wrapped in banana leaves that contained boiled rice,
a boiled egg, and a green sauce in a plastic bag.
One fellow wanted to trade his baseball cap with a political logo for Gerry's
but that was a no-go as Gerry didn't want to give up his broad-brimmed hat.
From the station we hopped aboard a trishaw and headed back to the hotel for a shower and then lunch in the hotel.
Just before lunch, Gerry asked if we could leave bags here and book a room for the day we get back from Bukit Lawang
only to be told that they would be sold out.
Maybe August is just high season in Indonesia as well as Malaysia.
That means we have to take everything with us and also figure out what to do
once we get back to town after Bukit Lawang.
We have to change bus stations and it hardly seems as though there’s time for
us to get all the way to Lake Toba on the same day, so we will have to hunt for hotels again.
Too bad! Maybe we’ll just get up very early, leave BL at 6 and so make it in one day.
Monday, July 31 —
We've made more progess towards the equator; soon we'll be in the other half of the world!
In 2004 Gerry was very disappointed in South America not to get to cross the equator overland.
Jan was too chicken to do it by bus (as we would have to travel through guerilla country)
so we flew from Bogota, Colombia to Quito, Ecuador and then took a bus 30 km back up to the equator on a day trip.
This time, it is looking more and more as if we'll (he'll) get to do the whole thing overland.
We've gotten ourselves to Medan, the most populous city by far on Sumatra, with about 2.5 million inhabitants.
It is only 3.7 degrees north of the equator, well south of Sri Lanka (5.8-9.7 degrees north),
even south of Bogata (4.7 north), but nearly three times as far north of the equator as Singapore (1.3 north).
Indonesia makes our fourth country in a month.
That's a bit of a cheat, but if you count Burma, where we spent all of three hours
so that we could come back into Thailand on a new 30-day visa, we have indeed been in Burma, Thailand, Malaysia,
and, twenty-nine days after Burma, Indonesia.
Medan is not where we expected to be just now, but at the last moment we bailed out from Georgetown, Malaysia.
We managed to find ourselves there (on Penang Island, Malaysia)
just before the biggest weekend of the year when absolutely every hotel fills up
with people celebrating the feast day of St Anne, Mary's mother.
Yes, Malaysia is a majority Muslim country, but it also has lots of Catholics!
Before making plans we waited until the last moment, hoping that our hotel would have a cancelation but it wasn't to be so.
In for a penny, in for a pound, goes the saying.
So, if we had to move room — in other words pack and drag our bags to some form of transport
— we decided it might as well be the five-hour ferry across the Straits of Malacca to Medan, in Sumatra, Indonesia.
Friday afternoon we walked down to the ticket office and bought tickets for a Saturday morning departure to Balawan,
port of entry for us to Indonesia.
Actually, we got one ticket since you had to show your passport and Jan wasn't carrying hers — a safety precaution.
Saturday we woke up to the alarm at 6:30 and found that it was still pitch black.
By the time we had finished packing and got down to breakfast, however, dawn was breaking and the sun was about to rise.
We left the hotel at 7:30 and in warm sunshine hopped a taxi to get us to the ferry pier.
In arriving we'd taken a taxi for 10 RM and had been assured by the driver it was the normal, fair price.
Staff at the Continental hotel told us it should be 5 RM to go the same distance to the departure pier.
Outside, however, the taxi driver wanted much more; we were satisfied to make a deal where we'd pay only 8 RM ($2.25).
There was a bit of a traffic jam when we arrived and we had the taxi let us out without going down the street he was intending.
Jan left Gerry with the bags while she went a few doors to the ticket agent and bought her ticket.
We then started down the street to the ferry and found that we'd fooled ourselves about where it was:
The ferry entrance was just a few doors down from the ticket office although neither of us had noticed it when we walked by the previous day.
We wandered in and settled down for an hour or more wait for our boat.
The hall was very full, but that was mostly with passengers heading for Langkawi,
a Malaysian island 110 km north of Penang that is a popular destination for both foreign tourists and Malays.
We'd even considered going there but decided that we'd had enough beach resorts for a while, unless they were easy to reach
or very highly rated; this was neiher.
While waiting for our boat Jan got into a long conversation with a Scottish guy called Peter.
He said he’d been travelling southeast asia for two years and living off the rental of his home near Edinburgh.
He was a divorcee, said he was 47, but looked older, and had two or three adult children.
He said he had worked in IT and got burned out and frightened by how quickly younger members of staff could pick up the new stuff.
The ferry not only left on time, it left before time!
That is, if the ticket agent can be believed that departure was meant to be at 10:00.
Maybe, as another source told us, it was supposed to go at 9:00.
In any case, and just in case, we were there at 8:00 and it left at 9:38.
Boarding the boat was all hurry up and wait.
Stand in line to have your boarding pass checked; stand in line to have your passport stamped by the Malay authorities.
Then, in a procedure we'd only experienced before in Urkraine,
we stood in line to be interrogated about how much currency we were carrying.
The Malaysian Ringit is not a freely convertible currency so people are only allowed to
take in or out very limited amounts.
We had none as Gerry had changed it into Rupiah at a money changer in the terminal.
The last step, comparatively short, was to sit and wait for the boat to be prepared.
Getting our luggage down to be loaded was a bit of a chore because the ramp had bumps every 18 inches to stop things from careering down,
but that just meant that we had to hand carry both of our carts.
We handed the bags over to the crew for loading on the open deck above the passenger cabin and behind the pilot’s cabin and climbed into the boat.
The boat seats maybe 150-200 people in air-conditioned comfort inside but we wanted to be outside to see the world as it went by.
We climbed a stair and emerged on the upper deck in time to see our luggage safely stowed and then covered with a double tarpaulin and lashed down.
Around the luggage there were wooden benches that could seat about 10-15 people.
Luggage and benches had an awning over them that partially masked the equatorial sun.
We set above the whole journey, shifting, as the sun moved in the sky,
from the starboard to port sides about halfway along to retain as much of the shade as the light awning could provide.
Nonetheless, Jan very cleverly managed to get her face rather burned,
not realizing that shade above doesn't protect from reflections from the water below!
She now has a bright red face with two white patches around the eyes where her sunglasses were;
at least that proves the glasses protect from UVB! Gerry somehow fared better;
our best guess is that it is because he stood up nearly half of the trip and therefore had his head better protected by the awning.
Our route took us out of Georgetown along the strait that separates it and Penang Island from Butterworth and the Malaysian mainland.
In our first forty minutes we had Penang Island to our right
and we got an unexpected, free tour, that compensated for our failing to take a bus or motorbike around the island.
From the sea it was clear that Penang can be fairly compared to an oversized turtle in general shape,
including the fact that it has a single ridge along its back, going north-south.
We went under the Penang suspension bridge, and admired its modernity,
with a dozen medium sized cables holding up the road bed, rather than a pair, as on the famous Brooklyn Bridge.
At the terminus of the bridge there is a modern city with many tower buildings, all unspected by us in our stay in old Georgetown.
After an hour we lost sight of Penang.
It was amazing how calm the water was.
Near Penang it was almost lake-like, due to the protected strait.
Farther out there was a very sharp transition where the water color changed from green to a blue so dark it could be called black.
Not as smooth as earlier, the water was still very smooth, being protected by the even larger Malacca strait.
After the fourth hour we started to look seriously for signs of Sumatra, and the port city of Belawan.
Sumatra has an even bigger ridge of mountains along its spine than Penang; we thought it might be visible far to sea.
But haze masked the mountains and it was only when we could see ten or so large ships
congregated near each other that we were convinced landing was but a short time away.
Landing was low key, except for the hoards of locals who wanted to help us (of course to their eventual profit).
We'd expected to collect our bags immediately after landing and take them through immigration with us but that is not how the system worked.
We were told to go inside, get our passports stamped, and then come out again to collect the bags.
That caused us some consternation as, unlike airflights, our bags had no tags on them, and we didn't like them out of our sight.
But they were there when we went to collect them.
Belawan is 36 km from Medan and there is a bus that meets each ferry.
We were the last through immigration, slowed down by the need to unpack US$25 for each of our visas-on-arrival and then to repack a good deal.
As far as we could tell the other, fast, passengers, were made to wait sweltering in the heat for the late arrivals, us.
When we arrived the bus immediately departed, filled with about 90% locals (or at least not Caucausians).
The ride into Medan gave us our first taste of Indonesia.
It started through very ugly port-related stuff that eventually gave way to countryside.
Not all that different from Thailand or Malaysia: plenty of green, plenty of palm,
a smattering of modern superhighway among much more limited transit ways, a mixture of cars and plenty of motorbikes.
The town of Medan was sprawling and poor and so not very pretty.
We'd picked a hotel from Lonely Planet and hoped the bus would take us somewhere near it.
That would be our desire anytime, but now it was more important than usual.
Even with aircon the bus was hot and dragging our bags anywhere would be hotter.
We'd refused a taxi at Balawan because we didn't want the hassles that rip-off drivers
can bring and we didn't want to have to deal with one in the center of Medan.
It was only when the bus conductor announced that we were at the end of the line and should get off that we were nearly sure where we were.
And it wasn't comfortably close to the hotel we'd picked.
But we had found a cluster of three hotels that could be backups and we figured out that we were only a few blocks from them.
We elected to walk, rather than take any of the trishaws that were offered us.
(The construction of these vehicles, called "bicak" here, was new to us:
a bicycle or motorcycle with a sidecar like WWII motorcycles, in which the passenger rode,
rather than a rear bench.) After two sweaty blocks we found some shade
and Gerry guarded the bags while explorer Jan went off to the jungles of hotel front desks.
In about twenty minutes she'd made a kill.
As in Penang, most hotels were fully booked.
But she found a great one that wasn't, the Hotel Garuda Plaza.
It wasn't as nice as the Hotel Continental which we'd just left, but it will do.
Yes, it had a pool! And free internet!
Our first night we used the internet; it wasn't until Sunday that we got into the pool.
Then we both outdid ourselves, each swimming more than a kilometer.
In our two months in poolenesia we have regained some of our former form.
Since our stay in Panama City, in 2004, when we had an Olympic sized pool available, swimming has been hit and miss, with the emphasis on miss.
In Thailand we found it pretty easy to find a good hotel with a largish swimming pool well within our budget.
Once we even found a place with a giant pool that must have been 40 meters long, almost always empty.
It reminded us of our two weeks in Las Vegas where everyone but us preferred gambling to swimming!
In Georgetown the pool was postage stamp size but still it was a pleasure to be in it.
Our first impression on arrival by bus was that Medan is a pretty grungy town.
Sunday we went for a long walk and simultaneously re-inforced that impression and found several notable exceptions,
like bits of white chocolate in a dark cake.
The streets were hot and noisy, with much dust and irregular or non-existent or trash-filled sidewalks.
We went in the direction of the Hotel Danau Toba, the place that we'd first hoped to stay in.
The hotel was housed in a sleek, modern building, with a very large pool (crowded with too many little kids for us to want to be there).
Nearby was the Military Museum which we had thought to visit but it was closed (it's Sunday).
It was housed in a much less sleek, 1940s stucco building.
Farther down the street was an impressive Hindu temple with a gopuram entrance that, while much smaller, reminded us of the miracles of South India.
And across the street from the temple was a giant, very fancy, very modern shopping mall.
Very strange after being out in the hot, sweaty, dirty streets to go into this building and be in a cool, air-conditioned, shiny new world.
It had a department store that was a clone of any to be found on Fifth Avenue or in Knightsbridge.
There was a giant supermarket with the name Hypermarket.
While walking around we bumped into Peter, the Scot whom Jan had met as we were waiting for the ferry in Georgetown.
He was sitting on a bench with a young Malaysian man.
We leave you to guess our thoughts about this.
Later we talked to an Indonesian, obviously of non-Chinese ancestry, who said, "Oh, the Sun Plaza is for rich Chinese."
There was a giant food court offering thirty or so different cuisines.
We ate there, Jan first selecting Indian but then switching to Indonesian
and Gerry what was called "Hot Plate", shrimp over broad noodles cooked
in what seemed to be a cross between Chinese and the rest of south-east Asia.
This food court used a payment system we'd first encountered at the MBK Center in Bangkok.
First one must pre-pay as much as desired to have a credit-card charged.
Then at each stall the card is swiped and the correct amount deducted.
That worked fine for our first three purchases.
But on the fourth, with 13,900 rupiahs left on the card, and the item desired costing Rp 13,000,
our attempt at a purchase was mysteriously refused.
Language stood in the way of understanding why, but eventually we comprehended the reason,
if not the deep reason: there must be Rp 5,000 left on the card after the last purchase!
Our room has a new mix of TV.
We've just lost BBC World and gained CNN.
The continuing big story in this Muslim land is the Israeli-Hezbollah-Lebanon fighting.
We turned it on just as the UNSC was having a special meeting to discuss the deaths in Qana.
We're partisan, so it is no surprise that we are on the same wavelength as Israeli Ambassador Gillerman,
who expressed his deepest condolences and regrets concerning the deaths
and also said that Hezbollah is at heart the one to blame for siting their rockets in and around residential buildings.
After a dearth of movies in Georgetown we got a good one here:
a British movie about the "Women's Institute Calendar" with Helen Mirren and Julie Walters among others.
Very good! Moving and having new things to do has meant that major reading is on hold.
The Jakarta Post has replacd the Malaysian New Straits Times as our morning fare.
Their political line is consistently Muslim and thus always anti-Israel and usually anti-USA.
Many of their articles are reprinted from the New York Times and almost all such articles have a left-bias.
There is a pretty fixed tourist circuit through Sumatra that takes one to an orang-utan reserve
and a couple of cool(er) mountain natural-beauty areas (one nearly on the equator and a cool 930 m high).
This route seemingly could be done in two weeks or a bit more.
We will stretch that out to nearly the maximum allowed by our visa (30 days with a visa-on-arrival).
Then we'll go back to Singapore/Malaysia for a while, get a new visa for Indonesia for 60 days and use it to travel through Java to Bali.
It seems likely therefore that we will spend August in Sumatra, September in Malaysia/ Singapore,
then October/November in Java and Bali and maybe get to Oz for December.
This schedule will have a nice side-effect on our wallets.
The high(est) season in Bali is August and that is when we'll be out of Indonesia. We're still very much guessing about Australia.
Maybe we'll hop from Bali to Darwin or Perth and begin our down-under tour.
Or, if Gerry is lucky, we'll find a freighter for the crossing.
Eitherway we think we might spend three to six months and that's as far as our plans/dreams/hopes stretch for now.