Sumatra: first touch

I’ve been in Sumatra, Indonesia for five days now and what I can tell you with absolute certainty is that travel here is no easy breeze. Sumatra is massive, there is so much to see and getting anywhere takes forever! My first days were spent trying not to get killed crossing the streets in Medan, a sprawling and very loud and very dirty city, and watching my rupiah closely on Samosir island on Lake Toba.

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From the air Medan in Sumatra looks like a model version of the jungle we all imagine as kids – lush green hills covered with palm trees – but the greenery soon gives way to a sprawling mass of aged tin roofs. The city seems to stretch only a few storeys high, but it is squashed and squeezed to its limits.

I happily said goodbye to Medan and headed for Lake Toba, the world’s deepest volcanic lake – it’s 450m to the bottom. Getting there was a clear introduction into travel by public transport in Sumatra. I took a bedak – a motorbike with covered sidecar – to some road near some highway where some guy pulled me onto a minivan. I grabbed the front seat and answered all my fellow passengers’ questions about where I’m from and what’s my name and how old are and are you married and where’s your friend while we waited for the minivan to fill up. And then, then…

If I wasn’t ensconced in my bubble of naivety I would have been frightened. Swerving around potholes (there is sometimes more pothole than road) and overtaking trucks and motorbikes into oncoming traffic – all the while smoking inside the bus – makes for a death-defying ride. Talk about cheap thrills! Finally, after stopping and starting for about five hours, we arrived at Parapat and the driver left me at some vague spot on the road into town.

But there was Lake Toba. A marvel to behold, despite the rain clouds. The cliffs drop sharply to a narrow wedge of land and the lake extends further than the eye can see. I made my way to the correct jetty and caught a boat the Tuk Tuk village on Samosir island. The island is known for its relaxed atmosphere and travellers often stay much longer than they planned. I can see why. The fresh water makes for refreshing swimming and the steep, forested island is peppered with villages waiting to be explored by bike.

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Lake Toba where magic mushrooms are legal. I won’t even try to make sense of that one!

Funny thing though. I forgot to draw money before I left the city and found myself with just enough cash for a night at a guesthouse (80 000IDR/ R74 or €6), dinner (59 000IDR), breakfast (22 000IDR), a walk around the village (free) and the boat back to the mainland (10 000IDR). I learnt my lesson and I’ve now drawn a gazzillion (okay, actualy just a million) rupiah.

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