Thursday, May 3, 2001

Indonesia - On a ferry from Aceh to Medan

Equator crossing
Having had a wonderful week in MANINJAU, we were fit enough to take on the next 16 hours bus trip to MEDAN...

Rather than taking a bus we were driven in a private Jeep all the way to MEDAN!
While waiting on the roadside for the bus to Bukittingi bus terminal, a local stopped and offered us a ride all the way to MEDAN. He had to go there himself for business, and wanted some company and someone to share the cost of gas. We agreed to pay him the equivalent of a bus fare, hoped in, and had a relaxed 16 hours journey.

... talking about Buses again, here a little side story:
There is always interesting things happening in Sumatran bussed, maybe because so many hours are spent inside these four wheeled sardine cans. Did you know that Indonesians often travel with a 30kg bag of rice? (Plus the 'normal' luggage). We have not yet discovered the reason for that, but we do have some assumptions: May it be that they prepare for the frequent breakdowns of the buses, and bring enough food in case a 16 hours journey turns into 16 days? Or do they just bring the rice to stuff the already cramped busses to the last corner?
The most sensible reason may have its roots at a completely different source: Every bus has black bags hanging down from the ceiling, they actually look like the ones used for collecting your dog’s droppings in Europe’s parks, but since dogs are not amongst the things Sumatrans squeeze into their buses, and this is not why these bags are commonly supplied. One can easily discover the bags intended use after some 30 minutes drive and 20+ turns. Specific gagging sounds combined with a sharp smell reveal that these are motion sickness bags!
Mystery solved: the rice, of course, is to quickly replenish the "lost" calories at the destination :-) Bull shit? No, not at all. Sumatrans honestly are not very road proof. Normally a quarter to half of the passengers does make use of the "puke bags"… the rice part is what I am not 100% sure about.

which one is the real the Equator Line?
On our trip to MEDAN, we left the Southern Hemisphere driving over the Equator. A big gate is marking the Equator, surrounded by paddy fields. Since I could not feel anything special crossing the Equator by car, I gave it a couple of tries on foot: jumping, walking, strolling...
It just didn't feel special. The guys selling poorly designed T-shirts saying "I crossed the Equator" did not quite agree with my conclusion. Admittedly it was somewhat memorable as this is the first time I crossed the Equator on foot.

MEDAN, largest city in Sumatra was a food paradise. After 4 weeks eating mostly Nasi Goreng and Mie Goreng, we finally got such delicacies as donuts, pizza, french-fries and even soft-ice. What a treat!

But even energy drain digesting all that food could not keep us from waking up at 4:30am. The wail of a Muezzin from the "Masjid Raya" mosque wakes dead people and he is without a doubt Sumatra’s loudest Muezzin.
Masjid Raya
If you've never been to an Islamic county, here a little introduction: A Muslim prays 5 times a day, the first prayer starts at about 4:30am! Since nobody cares to sleep at this hour anyway, they share the prayer with the whole village, town, city, province... Each Mosque has a couple of speakers mounted on the roof and these are aimed in all directions, ensuring that the wailing of the Muezzin penetrates each house (and hotel room) in the area. A little singing in the morning alone would not wake a sound sleeper like me, that's why the Muezzins must be chosen from the the loudest singers in town, plus his microphone is connected to a special amplifier with extra distortion. 

From MEDAN we headed to PULAU WEH, position of kilometer Zero (KM0), marking the northwestern end of Indonesia. If you've been watching the News recently, you must have heard of this area, since PULAU WEH is in the hot spot ACEH, about 60km (40 miles) west of BANDA ACEH.

I understand if you now think that we are nuts! Even though our guidebook declared PULAU WEH as a "must see", we had no intention to go where military and independence fighters are crashing in a separatist war. But we met a number of other travelers in MANINJAU and MEDAN that have been to PULAU WEH, all of them were fascinated by its natural beauty, and convinced us that it was safe to go to PULAU WEH.
Gapang Beach, Pulau Weh
We were warned not to go by bus, since they are frequently stopped by either military or guerillas, both heavily armed and in search of weapons and enemies. But the ferry was said to be safe. We indeed arrived safely in PULAU WEH (besides witnessing a shootout between the military and some locals at the Port in ACEH) and all the promises and expectations where exceeded. GAPANG BEACH with its simple bungalows under coconut palms, a bay with clear turquoise-blue water and white sand beach was one of our favorites.

Typical bungalow on Pulau Weh
But the highlight was the coral reefs and the "Underwater Garden" We were every day out in the blue, either snorkeling or scuba diving. We saw fish of every color, turtles, sharks, rays.... But the by far most memorable experience was to snorkel with a 3m Manta-ray !!! He was circling us trying to figure out what kid of sea life we were, appearing more curious.
If you are a scuba-diver, go to PULAU WEH, its well worth it, and might become soon a tourist mecca!

The eight days on PULAU WEH unfortunately also marks the last week of our Sumatra trip. Tomorrow we are going for 3 days to DANAU TOBA, our last stop in Indonesia.

... more later ...
 NOTE: we left our camera in Singapore, 
all  Sumatra pictures are from the Web