Thursday, 17 April 2014

Teaching English and a Supervolcanic Lake Holiday – Bukit Lawang to Lake Toba

The drive to Bukit Lawang was busy and tiring. Getting out of Medan meant negotiating chaotic traffic. The rules of the road seemed to have been almost completely abandoned, and the result was that we had to fight for our place in the food chain. Thankfully we are used to crazy driving styles by this stage of our travels, so it was not nearly as alarming as it would have been if we had come straight from home. The road was mostly very good, much better than we expected. However, there were also plenty of bad sections, which were made more interesting by the fact that oncoming lorries and mini-buses kept swerving into our lane to avoid them, seemingly unconcerned about the fact that we happened to be in the way.

We made it to Bukit Lawang in surprisingly good time. Whilst searching for Couchsurfing hosts in Medan, we had stumbled across another lady's profile. She was a local woman (Yoan), who had set up free after-school classes for children from the village. She is currently kept pretty busy by a five month old baby, but was on the look out for volunteers to come and run a couple of classes. As a bonus, she was able to offer free (but very basic) accommodation in a house in a nearby village. Thinking it sounded like an interesting opportunity, we were keen to give it a go and to try out our skills as teachers.

We were met at the bus station by Yoan's daughter, and followed her back to the volunteer house. We were keen to meet Yoan, so just quickly dropped off our things and made our way to her home, in a smaller village just down the road. There were no roads between the houses there, and negotiating the narrow track between rice paddies full of water on our bike was a nice little challenge for Oli. Yoan fed us a tasty lunch, and we chatted for a while about what Oli and I had planned for the next day. It turned out that we would be managing the class on our own, so we hoped it would go okay.


From here we went back to spend the evening in the volunteer house. We took ourselves out on a mission to find fruit and water, hoping to manage to buy one of the mega 19 litre bottles that we had seen locals carrying about. We found the shop without too much trouble, but the owners seemed to struggle to comprehend what we wanted. We kept telling them we were here for three days, and eventually they got that we could actually get through that much water. When Oli asked the price the guy said $1, so Oli asked what that was in rupiah. The guy then answered that the price was 3500 rupiah (about $0.30). I think maybe he wanted to rip us off, but couldn't quite bring himself to go through with it. We staggered back home under the weight, then sat on our porch entertaining the local kids with the presence of the bike.

It was starting to approach dinner time. We couldn't be bothered to walk to Bukit Lawang, so decided to just eat close to the village. We ended up in what was very much a family run joint, and were kept entertained by the owner's four year old daughter, who was keen to show us that she knew her numbers in English (well, up to four anyway). The food was tasty but probably the most spicy thing I have ever eaten. I have now fully learned my lesson never to ask for something to be spicy by Indonesian standards. I don't want to disturb anyone, so I will just say my system was not happy about this later on. Not. At. All.

We settled in to the village house for the evening. It was insanely hot, and we had no fan, so we left the door ajar. Every now and then one of the local children would pop their heads in, shout hello, then giggle, which was rather sweet. As we were sat however, we suddenly became aware that we had a rodent house-mate. It was not a particularly large rat, but it was definitely not bothered by our  presence. It strolled down along the wall, before walking into the room in which we were going to be sleeping. Now call us wimps, but this was a little too much for us, especially as we weren't sure if it had friends. We ended up setting up the inner layer of our tent, and camping inside.

We hadn't slept brilliantly, so decided in the morning to move to Bukit Lawang. We had wanted to see the place anyway, and thought it would probably be more convenient in terms of places to eat etc. We were sorry to leave the house, as our neighbours were so friendly and the atmosphere of the village was lovely, but we knew we would be better rested in Bukit Lawang. We ended up finding a nice room for £5, the only down sides being the cold-water bathroom and the fact that we had to cross a rather precarious looking rope bridge to get there. All things considered though we didn't mind the cold shower, and Oli managed to negotiate the bridge surprisingly easily.


By the time we had moved house and had lunch it was time to get to class. We had some activities planned, but without knowing what abilities we would be teaching it was hard to have a solid plan. In the event the class actually went really well. Even though they were shy they were keen to try. We finished off by giving them cards with English words on, which they then had to draw on the board for the others to guess, kind of like Pictionary but without the time limit. After class, three of the kids took Oli and I for a walk around their village. The scenery was stunning, dramatically set off by the dark storm clouds brewing over the hills. We were slightly worried that we were going to get a drenching, but thankfully made it home before the weather broke.


The rain must have been coming down for quite some time in the hills. By the time we both emerged from our showers the river had risen considerably. It had transformed from a glassy snake of dark green to a raging torrent of muddy brown. Tree trunks and huge branches crashed along in the flow, smashing against the rocks. As both our room and our bike were on the river bank, we sat and watched the unstoppable rise with a sort of horrified fascination. In less than an hour the river had risen by over a metre, and the rain was showing no sign of stopping. Our fears were not assuaged by the knowledge that 2003 had seen a flash flood in the village, with a wall of water 20m high crashing down from the mountains. Over 200 people lost their lives in the disaster, and it took over eight months to rebuild. Thankfully on this occasion, the water did eventually start to recede slightly, and we deemed it safe to leave our post and go for dinner.

After a hearty meal and a very good night's sleep, we awoke the next morning feeling refreshed. The river had gone down considerably during the night, and created a completely different scene. We had breakfast out, accompanying our food with an excellent fresh coffee. It is made similar to Turkish style in this part of the world, and seems to be rather habit-forming. Whilst we ate we chatted with a local guy who works as a trekking guide. Bukit Lawang seems to have a lot of long haired hippies, and he definitely fell into this category. He was a nice guy, and told us his name is Dedi Black, apparently to distinguish himself from the other Dedi in the village, Dedi Cool. What a guy.


We kept it relaxed in the morning, sitting outside and watching the river go by. We ate a big lunch, then caught a bechak (tuk-tuk) down to the school. The previous day had been a holiday for the election, so the kids hadn't had to go to school. This day however our class followed their full school session, and they were definitely more tired and less inclined to concentrate. Thankfully my time with the Guides in Manchester served me well, so it wasn't too hard to keep them in line. They were good kids though, and we all still enjoyed the class. We were really pleased to have had this experience, but have to say that teachers deserve medals. Our classes were only two hours a day, but were still exhausting!


Although it was hot, Oli and I very much enjoyed our walk back to Bukit Lawang. We had showers and got ready to go out for food, but our departure was delayed by the sudden arrival of very heavy rain. We were convinced it wouldn't last long, but sadly we were not correct. Not wanting the luggage that we had left on the bike to get soaked, we ran around in the downpour and maneuvered it under our porch. We were glad we had, as the rain continued on and off through the night.


We got up early, packed up, evicted a little frog that had somehow found its way into our room, and got ready to go. Whilst fidgeting about we realised that our tail-light had blown. To be honest in Indonesia loads of people don't have working brake lights, but we thought we should probably try to replace it as soon as possible. Journey well under way, we were pleasantly surprised to stumble across an actual Honda service centre in the middle of nowhere. Amazingly they had the bulb we needed, and we were ready to go in less than five minutes. We definitely hadn't expected to find a replacement so easily, let alone a genuine Honda part in rural Sumatra.

The drive to Beristagi was an eventful one to say the least. We were cruising along on an open section of road, easily doing 50 mph, when unexpectedly an elderly man on a scooter just pulled out. He proceeded to tootle over the road in a slow arc. With the speed we were travelling and the direction he was riding, it was impossible to just change our path to avoid him. Oli had no choice but to slam on the brakes, and despite the fact that we were hammering the horn he didn't even flinch. We avoided him by mere inches, then pulled up alongside him. I shouted to him to be careful, repeating it twice. He squinted at me and gave us a look as if to say “What's your problem?” before casually turning off down a side road. He must have been pretty blind and deaf, and definitely falls into the category of road user that Oli and I have termed “Danger Grandads”. It was the scariest thing to happen to us on the road for a good while, and it was frankly a miracle that he wasn't hurt.

Luckily we didn't encounter any more kamikaze pensioners, and carried on our way. Unfortunately for us, there is no bypass road for Medan, so it was necessary to plunge back into it to get through to Beristagi. We have seen plenty of traffic on our trip, but never anything like this. It was utter chaos, even worse than what we saw in New Delhi. At one point an ambulance was trying to get through, somehow opening up a lane on the opposite side of the road. Ever keen to fit in, we joined the horde of cars and bikes taking advantage of this and followed in its wake. After a short while it was necessary to dive back in, and we found ourselves sandwiched between a convoy of military lorries. A few of the soldiers waved at us, and we all did our best to negotiate the free-for-all. At one point we saw a car just drive into the back of a scooter, squishing it length-ways between two cars (nobody was hurt thankfully). It should have been hell but we strangely enjoyed it. Still, we were very glad to turn off after a few kilometres.

We made good progress for a few minutes, before once again finding ourselves in a chaotic tail-back. We wove our way through as best as we could on our fat bike, wilting under the intense sun. The traffic was so terrible that we assumed there must have been a bad accident up ahead, so were a little apprehensive of what we might see. When we did eventually get to the source of the slow down we couldn't believe it. The problem turned out to be nothing more than a small section of roadworks, and everyone was struggling to negotiate a rough stretch of road that lasted for less than three feet. The impact of this was honestly insane. Happily though, once we had passed it the traffic almost totally cleared.

By this time we were hot and tired, in need of a little break. We stopped at an Indomaret (Indonesia's equivalent of Thailand's 7-11) and stocked up on cold water, as well as cheekily abusing their air-con. Refreshed, we got back on the road, quickly coming upon a queue of traffic at a red light. Here, a gang of ladies selling water descended on us. We pointed at the water on our bike, saying no thank-you. At this, one lady just stuck her hand out and said “Money”. Oli said sorry, which did not go down well. She started shouting at us in Indonesian, presumably something abusive. Not sure how to react, Oli just kept saying thank-you to her, which made the other ladies shriek with laughter. It was a really unpleasant situation, and very much an anomaly for us so far in Indonesia. I know we have to appreciate the fact that we are relatively rich, but having somebody demand money from us whilst ignoring the driver of a car worth five times the value of our bike just behind us was not nice.

Mercifully the rest of the drive was relatively plain sailing. We arrived in Beristagi and asked at a couple of guest-houses. Both were quite crap but cheap, so we decided to go for a bit of a drive and see what else we could find. We ended up winding our way up a minor road, every now and then getting glimpses of Sibayak volcano, quietly smoking away. We got a bit carried away, and thought we might try and ride closer to it. However, our plan was quickly ended when we rounded a corner and saw that the road suddenly became thick mud. We didn't really fancy this, so turned around and went on our way.


Rather enjoying the scenery, we decided to go for a little drive. We thought we were doing a loop, but accidentally took a wrong turn. We didn't realise this mistake, so when we were stopped by a couple of officials asking for an entrance fee we argued, saying we were just on our way home. Fortunately they were decent guys, and sensing our obvious confusion, just waved us through with no payment. Just a little further down the road we found ourselves at a viewpoint offering spectacular views of Sinabung. This volcano was dormant until 2010, and the most recent eruption was only two months ago. It was a deadly explosion, with several people losing their lives. Standing on the hillside watching gently billowing smoke, it was difficult to imagine the destruction that it had caused, and the danger it threatened.


After stopping to take in the view, we continued on our way. It was then that we realised that actually we had not been in the right regarding the entrance fee, as when the road had branched off we had taken the wrong option. As mistakes go it had been a fortunate one, and through our blissful ignorance we had even avoided payment. We ended up back in Beristagi, taking the cheaper of the two rooms we had seen. It may have been a bit crummy and had a few teeny cockroaches* that made an appearance at night, but it was £3.70, which really excuses a lot.

From Beristagi, our next destination was to be the beautiful Lake Toba. We decided to take the more minor route, which turned out to be a good shout. The road was actually very good for most of the drive, only disintegrating for the last 40km or so. I definitely prefer pot-holes to traffic, so was happy as Larry. The last part of the drive took us through dense, hilly forest, which occasionally opened up to provide tantalising views of the lake below. Somewhat strangely, we also saw this building in the shape of a giant fish, nestled amongst the coffee plants. Not exactly in keeping with the setting, but diverting nonetheless.


We weren't actually sure where the vehicle ferry to the island in the middle of the lake (Samosir) left from. Fortuitously our random guesses took us almost straight there, with just a short detour through a busy market. We managed to arrive at the boat just before departure time, and for the grand fee of 90p, both of us and the bike were on board. The crossing itself was painless, although we ended up being the main entertainment for a bus full of aunties, one of whom insisted that we take a photograph together.


We had ear-marked a couple of potential places to stay in and around the town of Tuk-Tuk. As it is currently the low season, the main area actually felt a little like a ghost town. We passed a few of the places we had researched, thinking they looked alright, but nothing particularly special. Whilst I am sure we would have been happy staying anywhere, we ended up being so pleased that we pushed on. A few kilometres out of Tuk-Tuk were the lovely Mas Cottages. The location was picture perfect, with our room looking out directly over the lake. For £7 we had a beautiful room, with hot water and a proper flush. It's amazing how quickly we had become used to cold water and a bucket, so it felt like absolute luxury.


Before settling in for a few days, we decided to drive back to Tuk-Tuk to buy fruit and attempt getting another massive water. We found fruit quite easily, then moved on to the water place. The people running it were super excited about our presence, looking thrilled, and insisting on taking our photo. We asked if we could buy a water, and enquired about the price. They paused for a moment and then wrote down 50,000 rupiah. Considering that the same thing cost us 3500 in Bukit Lawang we were shocked, so queried it. Maybe something got lost in translation, but this seemed very greedy to us, so we left. When we got back we realised that we had added up the fruit prices wrong as well, and that the lady there had also overcharged us. It wasn't by much, but it's not the point. We can't understand why people would do this just to make a little quick money, as there is no way they will then get somebody's repeat business.

Thankfully the rest of our Lake Toba experience has been far more relaxing. The lake was formed by a super-volcanic eruption, the largest known explosion on earth in the past 25 million years. The natural setting is hard to beat, with hills rising steeply from the water's edge on all sides. The lake is surprisingly changeable. At sunrise it is glassy smooth, with barely a ripple to disturb the surface. As the afternoon rains brew and the wind starts to blow, the previously still water is whipped up into choppy waves, transforming it entirely. We loved that one place could have such different characters, and spent plenty of time just sat watching it from our balcony. The wildlife here is impressive, with huge eagles swooping through the sky and countless tiny fish swimming through the clear waters.


As a plus, the food where we are staying is awesome. We both love the glass cabinet canteen style Indonesian food, but it is nice to have something a little different. Avacado is plentiful in this part of the world, and has been put to some genius uses.  Our hotel offers a delicious guacamole taco, but our favourite thing we have found in Sumatra is an avacado and chocolate drink. Why this combination isn't popular world wide I cannot say, but I can whole heartedly recommend it. We have agreed to limit ourselves to a maximum of one per day, as we will definitely get chubby otherwise.

We have spent the past two days relaxing by the lake side, chatting with other travellers, and eating lots of good food. We have been trying to re-train our body clocks for early rising in Indonesia, which has meant that we have been up just after sunrise for both of the mornings that we have been here. In our opinion, this is when the lake is at its most beautiful and atmospheric. Going for a quick refreshing dip first thing in the morning is something we will not easily forget, and we find ourselves wishing that we could stay longer. However, Indonesia is huge and our visas are only 60 days, so we have no choice but to press on. We have some long mile crunching days ahead of us...


*N.B. In light of the wildlife we have experienced in our accommodation since leaving home, we decided to make a list of what we can and cannot accept. All these are ones that we have shared time and space with:

Rats: No, would rather camp in the rain.
Mice: One is fine for below £5 (to be fair, not 100% sure if we definitely had mice yet)
Frogs: Okay.
Geckos: Yes please! (They eat the mosquitoes).
Centipedes: Just no.
Cockroaches: If the price is right, say under £5, then a few are okay.
Beetles: Come on in!
Ants: We like ants, except when they try to party in the bike helmets

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