Monday, 14 April 2014

The Onion Boat - Penang to Medan

In the end we loaded the bike a day later than originally planned. The Onion Boat had experienced engine troubles when setting off from Indonesia, so got to Penang behind schedule. We met Mr. Lim at his office in Georgetown, and followed him to the ro-ro ferry. We drew a few stares as we parked up our bike, as compared with the average motorcycle in Malaysia it looks like it accidentally overdosed on growth hormones. We were a little afraid that we would knock over a scooter rider in the mêlée of disembarking, but (perhaps unsurprisingly) everyone gave us a wide berth.

With Mr. Lim to help us with the paperwork it was a breeze, and the bureaucracy part was over and done with in about 15 minutes. Considering that five minutes of this was the customs official talking to Oli about Manchester, discussing the fact that he shares a name with a certain German goalie, and inspecting some random razors that were lying on his desk, it was pretty damn speedy! If only all customs experiences could be so painless.

From the customs office it was a short ride over to the boat itself. Its main cargo consists of vegetables, supplemented by the occasional overlander motorbike. Unloading was underway, but we were told that it would be at least another two hours, so we might as well go and hang out in the canteen. All too willing to escape the sauna like heat of the outdoors we readily agreed. Sitting in a fan cooled room sipping ice milo and lemon tea was far preferable to our usual shipping experience of running between port-a-cabins, so for the moment we were certainly not complaining.

Sadly for us, the process of unloading was brought to a grinding halt by heavy rain. Mr. Lim appeared and told us it would be at least one hour longer. We consoled ourselves with an early lunch, and were happy to be joined by two Australian bikers. They are doing the same journey as us, but in reverse, and were waiting for their bikes to be liberated from amongst the vegetables. They were lovely guys, and we made sure to take the opportunity to quiz them about their Indonesia experience. After a while they could no longer take the suspense of waiting for their bikes, so went to wait by the boat instead.

The hours slowly ticked by. We tried to amuse ourselves by taking photographs of the port, but there wasn't too much to see other than the odd stray dog. The heat was exhausting, and we were starting to feel worn out. Eventually we also tired of hanging around, and decided to make our way over to the boat instead. On closer inspection the vessel didn't appear too seaworthy, and was absolutely dwarfed by the enormous ship moored behind it. Still, it has made this journey on a weekly basis for years, so we were sure that it was tougher than it looked.


Finally, six hours after arriving at the port it was time to load our bike. Whilst they are used to transporting overlanders, our enormous beast of a bike presented a bit of a challenge. The boat has no special provision for vehicles, so any cargo (our bike included) has to be lifted on by a crane. The standard support gear was too wide for our lifting points, so there was a lot of head-scratching as Oli and the guys tried to work out a way to lift the bike without ripping out all the wiring and cables. Eventually they cracked it, and it was ready to fly. The bike is pretty much our only posession of value these days, so watching it soar several metres in the air and almost bash the side of the boat was a rather exciting experience. Thankfully it made it safely on board, and there was nothing left to do but hope it made it safely to Indonesia.


Although the ferry was only a kilometre away, we gained an appreciation of why everyone drives in Penang. It was insanely hot, and we were absolutely pouring by the time we got there. Feeling a little grim, we grabbed some ice-cold drinks from the shop, and wandered onto the boat. The foot passenger area of the ferry was surprisingly well equipped. Although it takes a maximum of fifteen minutes to cross from Butterworth to Georgetown, there was a small hawker stall selling food and drinks, as well as ample toilet facilities. The views across the water were an added bonus, and we ended up quite enjoying the ride.


The next day we were a little stranded without our bike. However, this was absolutely fine by us, as we were exhausted and very much looking forward to a day of doing not much. We washed pretty much all of our clothes, watched a film and ate a big home cooked lunch. It had been a good day. We rounded it off with a nasi kandar dinner of rotis and iced tea. The food was one the highlights of Malaysia for us, so we were keen to take advantage of it before leaving for new pastures.

After a chilled out Saturday (involving a pleasant drive to a quiet beach), we awoke on Sunday to our last morning in Penang. Kean's uncle was up from Singapore for the weekend, so he joined us for our final Malaysian breakfast. On the menu was something called 'roti-tissue', basically the regular amount of roti dough, but stretched out to staggering proportions. Although I can happily put away three normal rotis, I couldn't manage a whole one of these. Thankfully Kean and his uncle were on board to help out.


All too soon we were on our way to the airport. We had really become attached to Penang. Staying with Kean had made it a brilliant experience for us, and it had really started to feel like home. Despite being seriously excited for Indonesia, we were really going to miss Penang. It may suffer from a lack of public transport and some pretty heavy traffic, but it is a brilliant place with an interesting mix of cultures, a vibrant history and endless tasty food. We will definitely be back.

The flight itself was over almost before it had taken off. The distance is so short that we were in the air for less than an hour, and with the time difference our arrival time in Medan was ten minutes earlier than the departure from Penang. As we already had our visas we didn't have to faff with filling out forms on arrival, and went straight to immigration. The official at Oli's counter didn't seem too bothered, and just stamped his passport straight away and handed it back. However, the guy at my counter seemed to take an immediate dislike to me, asking lots of questions about where we were going, when we were leaving etc. I answered as best I could, and had my fingerprints electronically taken before I could leave. I have no idea why he was so suspicious, but seeing as they let me in anyway then never mind.

Rather than staying in a hotel, we had decided to Couchsurf in Medan. Pre-armed with public transport know-how from our host, we fended off the many offers of taxis and headed for the bus stop. Not having a clue how to recognise where we were going, we asked the driver to tell us when we got to our stop. For some reason the other passengers found this hilarious, but luckily one of them promised to tell us at the appropriate point. The rest of the journey passed without incident, and after battling through the heavy city traffic, we found ourselves outside the department store that was to be our disembarkation point.

Inside was a very pleasant form of chaos. Music blasted from the live band outside, throngs of people sifted through clothing, and there were signs presumably denoting bargains everywhere. A gaggle of teenage girls passed us, looking at Oli with blushes, whispers and giggles. We managed to find the point where we were meeting our host without too much trouble. Oli decided to go for a tactical toilet break at this point, causing two shop assistants to clutch each other in a fit of giggles when he asked for directions. Like a true Englishman he felt rather awkward and a little afraid of the attention. Luckily we were soon rescued by our host, Diah, who kindly picked us up and drove us back to her house.

Diah and her husband Yudi turned out to be a fantastic couple. We got on brilliantly, and went out for dinner later that evening. One of the reasons we love to Couchsurf sometimes is that we can learn so much more about the country we are staying in. We talked a lot about life in both Indonesia and England, and Oli and I felt really glad that we had ended up with such great hosts.

The next day was to be devoted to getting our beloved machine out of Belawan port, about 30km from Medan. Initially we had been planning to get a taxi there, but Diah and Yudi came to our rescue, giving us good instructions on how to get there via public transport. In lieu of a government run transport network, Medan has a lot of mini-buses, very similar to the Turkish dolmuş system. We managed to flag the relevant one down, but on going to climb in we realised it was choc full of passengers. We were fully prepared to sit on the floor, but one very kind man immediately jumped out, waving for us to take his seat. We tried to insist that he kept it, but it was too late. Off he went, and we very much hoped that he was close to his stop. The journey was hot and sweaty, but not unpleasant. At one point an elderly man clambered on, lighting a huge roll-up and filling the vehicle with clouds of thick smoke. Sometimes I love to imagine people's reactions if things we see travelling happened back home, and this was definitely such a situation!

Thankfully Oli had thought to mark the coordinates of the shipping office on the GPS the night before, so finding it amongst the warren of streets was easy. We got there at 10:00 a.m. as agreed with the shipping agent, waving goodbye to the gang of school kids that we had accumulated on the walk. Times are obviously flexible here, as the agent (Adnan) eventually wandered in twenty minutes later. Unfortunately I couldn't accompany Oli to the port, so I was left in the office whilst they went without me. Three and a half hours passed surprisingly quickly. I had a few chats with various people that popped into the office, including a random friendly police officer who appeared to have nothing to do with shipping, but hung around for two hours doing not much at all.  At this point I will hand over to Oli for a few paragraphs, for his account of the port:

“I hopped on Adnan's Honda Blade scooter which had the baddest of all bad-boy exhausts. The scooter bottomed out at every pothole and hurt my bottom as there were a lot of them. No worries though, the exhaust was so loud that no one heard my screams. First stop was the photocopy place just outside the port. After the usual photocopies of everything, the first customs office stop consisted of a long two hour wait. However it was air conditioned and I killed time by playing Desert Rally and Snake on my old Nokia, alas could not beat any of my previous high-scores. In the meantime Adnan got bored and went out for a very very long fag brake, although I think he went for lunch.. sneaky Adnan. He turned up just on time as the paperwork was ready and gave me a little talk about how dangerous it is to smuggle drugs in to Indonesia. He told me with a knowing look that customs may search my bike. Apparently heroin is very bad, but marijuana not so much. Drugs chat over, we were back on the Blade. We dropped one piece of paper in an office with a yowling cat outside its door. This office was was full of customs bods who evidently don't care much for cats.

After this we went for the “customs inspection” which consisted of a young guy in a Liverpool footie top asking me what I was going to do in Indonesia and how many cc the bike was. Back on the bad-boy Blade we drove a good few kilometres to another part of the port where I got given coffee, presumably Adnan heard my screams. Here I waited for another customs officer in an actual uniform to “check” the engine and chassis numbers. Instead he just copied them from the Carnet and wrote them into another form...Good checking sir! Also, this office was made from actual containers, it was two storey, and as a bonus you had to take your shoes off to get in. Thinking about it maybe it was a customs temple.

Following this we drove to the back of beyond of the port to a small office, where the “big boss” dwelled. This office had given up and had actually let a cat inside, probably to stop it from yowling like the other one. The “big boss” was “the one”, the “man of power” it was “He” who had the carnet stamping authority, but alas his Highness was having lunch. His middle aged lady secretary told me I looked handsome and gave me some sweets. I am starting to feel like a celebrity already. Then she gave me some more sweets to take to Charli. She also recommended us some islands to visit, and as a bonus did a terrorist impression, with a full automatic gun mime when I said we might be going to Bandar Aceh after Medan and told us not to go...

Whilst aunty secretary was shooting me with the automatic, the big boss finished his lunch. He actually turned out to be a nice guy, but did the typical customs “I have the power” thing of hovering over the signature area of the carnet with his pen, moving it away at the last moment, and kept asking me questions. At least he wasn't inspecting razors whilst I talked, like the guy in Penang. The questions were the typical where we are going in Indonesia, Manchester United, how long we've been on the road etc etc... He did eventually sign it and stamp it...

After the big boss was satisfied we drove another few kilometres to the warehouse where the bike was stored and here we waited for a man on a scooter to come and open up the big iron gate. Finally after just under four hours of nonsense, I was reunited with December. I gave her a hug, started her up and followed the Blade to the office to pick up Charli and ride in to the sunset.”

Paperwork hoops all dutifully jumped through, Oli picked me up at the office, and we got on our way. For some reason the guys gathered there kept warning us to be careful. This was said with a very serious expression by everyone, which was not exactly encouraging. Luckily we are not easily put off, and cheerily waved goodbye as we set off down the road. We didn't get too far before realising we needed to put on our knee guards. As we were stopped a group of men talked to us about where we were from, what we were doing etc., before again warning us to be careful.

It turns out that the warnings were well founded. Whilst in Cambodia, Oli and I had often wondered aloud how dangerous the driving would be if the volume of traffic was higher. Well, Indonesia has the answer to that particular question. The driving style for most road users seems to be erratic and highly unpredictable. In theory you drive on the left here, but in practice this is loosely interpreted by a rather sizable minority of road users. At first I was slightly nervous, but quickly realised I was going to have to adopt my India strategy of just not paying attention to the traffic and focusing on something else. This helped me to relax, and soon I was loving it. Crazy driving styles can actually be immense fun. It usually looks worse than it is, and the answer is almost always to just get stuck in.

We stopped for a late lunch at a random road side restaurant. Diah and Yudi had furnished us with the appropriate phrases for explaining my vegetarianism, so Oli went to try them out. They did kind of understand us, but we were very grateful for the help of a random student who was happy to translate. We ended up chatting to him and his friends whilst we ate our meal. They were  pretty tickled by the size of the bike, all taking it in turns to sit on it or stand with it for photos. Eventually we said goodbye to our new friends, and continued along our way through the hectic traffic.


By the time we arrived back home we were hot and exhausted, so were all too happy to sit in front of the fan and drink water whilst chatting with Diah. Monday night happened to be the evening that Diah does yoga, so she asked me if I fancied trying it out. Keen to give it a go I readily agreed. It turns out that yoga is surprisingly hard work. If done regularly I can really appreciate how it would build strength and flexibility. I had imagined it to be a lot of relaxing breathing exercises. These are an important part of it, but it is also incredibly physical, and on some poses my pathetically out-of-shape muscles felt like they were screeching with pain. As it was my first go I was pretty rubbish, but  I still enjoyed it immensely.

After this activity I felt like we had earned a good dinner. We ended up going to a rather classy cafe with excellent food and coffee. We got caught up in conversation, and before we knew it we were politely being asked to leave as the place was closing. Time does indeed fly when you are having fun. We made our way home, and Oli and I collapsed into bed, shattered after a very busy day.

As we didn't have far to go the next morning there was no need to rush. We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, and had a little photo-shoot with the bike. Medan had been a great start to Sumatra for us. After just two days we were already big fans of this country, and we were very excited for what might lie ahead.


P.S. This post is now a little out of date, posted late due to lack of Internet. More updates to follow as we manage to upload photos.

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