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A Trip Across Indonesia

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4 flights — 3 airplanes — 2 airlines — 33 ½ hours — I’ve finally made it to Medan, on northern Sumatra (Nov. 30, 2015). The view out my window before I totally crash.

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(All Blog photographs © Bartay)

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Here’s what has become my typical breakfast, ‘included’ at most Guesthouse’s and Homestay’s where I’ve been staying. Some Mie Goring, toast (warmed bread) and coffee. Locally, they just put the grinds in a cup and add hot water, when you get to the bottom it’s nothing but grinds.

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The only plan I have is to buy a motorcycle, (technically it’s illegal for me to do, not being a resident) head up to Ache Province to the city of Langsa where there’s a refugee camp for the Rohingya’s, the Muslims who are being persecuted, beaten and interned in Myanmar. They are fleeing by boat to Malaysia and Thailand but some are getting marooned at sea and picked up by Indonesian fishermen. The Indonesian government has set up a refugee camp in Langsa for them.

I sent emails to three NGO’s who are working with the Rohingya’s before leaving the states. So I hope to get in touch with them and see what I can do to help get their story out to the world. Other than that… I’ll play each day as it comes.

I thought it would take me two weeks to find a bike, get all the pieces together and leave Medan. If I couldn’t find or even buy a bike, I’d probably be back home by Christmas. On my second day in Medan, I found my way to the section of town where every store was selling bike parts, tires, anything to do with bikes, but no bikes. I was looking for a helmet and stopped into one store to look around and the owner actually spoke a few words of English. After buying a helmet we got talking about bikes and I explained what I wanted to do and that a typical large scooter wasn’t going to cut it. He left and went down the street and in about 5 minutes came back and handed me a business card for a fellow on the other side of town who might be able to help me out.

The next day I took a bacak (Indonesia’s tuk tuk) across town to the bike shop. After about an hour and a half, I bought myself a bike. The largest bike I could find in Northern Sumatra, which was about the same size as my bike when I was living in Cambodia. 98% of all bikes are scooters and that wasn’t going to be enough to tour across Indonesia. A 2012 Honda with only 8,774 km (5,452 mi) on it. I had them tear it completely apart, clean the carburetor, replace the battery, bought new larger tires and give it a total tune up. After about 4 hours I was on my way.

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I asked a bacak driver (sign language and a map) where was it that they got all the bent, molded metal decoration all over their tricycle’s. He pointed at a place only about 15 blocs or so away, so I hopped on the bike and went to find it. A long row of shacks along the railroad tracks where every shop was making things out of metal. Way down at one end I found a place that worked in Stainless Steel and went inside. I took a piece of wire and bent it to the shape I wanted and held it up to the back of the bike to show them what I was looking for. Some fellow came over from another shop who spoke English and my problem was solved. I had them fabricate two of these racks, which were to keep my bags from falling into the rear tire. I had two custom frames fabricated out of stainless steel, and attached to both sides of the bike in 2 days… $21.50.

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So instead of two weeks, it’s been 8 days since I arrived and I’m on my way to Langsa. So I won’t be home by Christmas!

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Indonesia has the largest population of Muslims in the world and it’s mostly made up of Sunni’s. It is made up of a little over 18,000 islands, with Java being the most populated island on earth, and comprised of 33 provinces. Ache Province on the northern most tip of Sumatra where Langsa is located, declared Sharia law last year, so I knew going there was going to be an experience. As I walked in the back door of the hotel I was staying in, I noticed a card table set up with a cardboard tent on top that said ‘UNHCR’ (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). I knew the only reason the UN would be in Langsa would be for the Rohingya’s. I couldn’t believe my luck of stumbling into this so I gave the security guard my card and asked if I could speak to anyone.

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There were only two people employed by the UN working there, a man and a woman both from Bangladesh. They invited me in and we chatted for about an hour. They knew the 3 people I had emailed, but told me they all are based out of Bangkok. There was only one NGO in Langsa but they had no office, only a phone but said no one there spoke a word of English. They said they couldn’t ask me to work for them because everything must come out of New York.

The Indonesian government does not like journalists nor photographers and isn’t very cooperative with them. I knew they had arrested two photographers a month before I arrived and they are still being held in Jakarta. I was aware of this before leaving the States so I’m flying below radar and traveling on a 30 day tourist visa. The two people from the UNHCR told me that if I wanted to even go out to the refugee camp, I would have to go to Immigrations first and permission and papers. Because I was traveling on a tourist visa, they guaranteed me that that was not going to happen. The downside of freelancing without a client.

So after a couple of days of futile results, I decided to head back to Medan to re-group and get the kinks fixed on the bike. I decided that this trip is going to become a ‘Me Trip’ and find out what I’ve never known about myself. So I’m off …

Here I’m waiting for a ferry to cross Danau Toba. My set up, I’ve got two backpacks with clothes and misc. camera gear, one backpack filled with camera gear, video and sound gear, and a tripod. All of this went into three ‘Dry Bags’ that I tied on the back. Eventually I got the routine down to about 10 minutes to load and unload the bike, although for a week or so it took me considerably more time.

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I put the bike on the ferry and park it between the trucks and busses.

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Danau Toba is inhabited by Batak’s and they are so friendly and love to play instruments and sing. You can always hear them when you’re walking down streets or when you stop off somewhere for a bite to eat. The lake is quite high in the mountains and as usual for Indonesia, formed from volcanic action. The lake has a lot of amusement rides for the tourists, jet ski’s and those long inflated tubes that 8 or 9 people get on and they drag you behind a speed boat. I saw my first Burkini today on all the women who were out there riding the tube behind the speed boat. Interesting but I’d think it would be very heavy when it’s all wet??

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I was playing some pool during a monsoonal downpour and these three young high school age girls came in and wanted to ‘interview’ me. It was for a school project, so one filmed it with her phone while the other two asked questions. Everywhere I go the locals want to have their picture taken with me. I think they’re interested in the foreigner who is crazy enough to be traveling on a motorcycle, across Indonesia, who doesn’t speak Bahasa, and alone. Not to mention during the monsoon season. (Note: the reason for the ‘dry bags’)

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I was traveling from Danau Toba to Pandang Siedempuan and it had been pouring for 3 hours. There was a break in the weather and all of a sudden I came through the jungle and all the traffic was at a dead stop with everyone out of their cars. I went up the side to the top and there was about 30 feet of the road that had just washed down the mountain. A 10 to 15 foot drop between the uphill and downhill sides of the road filled with mud.

There must have been about 30 cars, trucks, and busses all stopped on my uphill side and at least the same numbers across the wash on the downhill side. One car had tried to go down and across but was stuck sitting at the bottom of the mud. So naive me, decides that I can do this. So with about 30 people watching me from both sides, I take off. I almost fell right away but propped myself up against the car stuck at the bottom, then kept spinning my wheel in the mud trying to get up the other side. In my thinking, I’m totally burning up the clutch but I made it to about 10 feet from the paved road on the other side and I just wasn’t going anywhere. 3 guys ran down and started pushing me up the hill and when I hit pavement I wasn’t about to stop, I turned and yelled ‘Terima Kasih, Terima Kasih’ and just kept going while everyone was cheering and yelling.

I do not know what ever happed out there, but I do know for sure that at least 50 or so cars, trucks, and busses spent the night out there. How could you turn them around on a very narrow road in the jungle-mountains?

I finally made it to Padang Sidempuan late in the day and found a guesthouse that had a room. I was covered with mud, the bike was covered with mud, and my 2 side bags were covered with mud. So I was thrilled to have a place to clean up, eat, and get some sleep. Even though the bathroom left a lot to be desired… the sheets were clean!

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The next morning at breakfast all the other guests, which seemed to be a large extended family, kept looking at this foreigner and how out of place he is. I would smile and wave at the little kids, the mothers would smile back, while the men just stared at me. After breakfast, I’m out front doing my routine of strapping all my bags on the bike and one fellow points at my license plate. Ah! The ice is broken. I say “Medan, I’m coming from Medan.” He speaks a few words of English and we start communicating. He starts telling the other guys what I’m doing and they all come over. The women are coming out and they’re all getting ready to go and of course everyone takes out their phones and tablets and they want a photo with this crazy foreigner. We all hand this one guy our phones and in unison we all yell “One More” as he has to change phones for another photo.

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I rode on to Bukittinggi, crossed the equator, and spent 3 days there. I met a couple from Germany riding a motorcycle up from Padang, Andy and Katrina, at a bar and we had quite a conversation. Both of them spoke pretty nice English and I was thrilled to have an extended conversation with anyone. Katrina was heading home to Germany and Andy was going out to one of the islands in the Indian Ocean to go surfing.

I have to mention at this point, the smoke all over Indonesia. I had read about the large problem before leaving San Francisco, but thought the monsoonal rains would clear it all out by the time I got here. It hasn’t. They’re burning the jungle and peats to make land for planting palm. Indonesia is the world’s larges palm oil exporter. But the smoke is bad and even Malaysia and Singapore have had to shut their airports due to the smoke. Buring during the rain just causes it to smoke more.

I wanted to go up to Harau Valley to see the cliffs and after about 2 hours of riding there the smoke was so bad I couldn’t see a thing. So I turned around and rode down the mountains to Padang on the western coast of Sumatra.

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I got to Padang two days ago, late in the day on Christmas Eve. Even though Indonesia is 90% Muslim, they all take the week around Christmas and travel to get away. So all the rooms are booked and after trying 10 different places I finally found a room in a Guesthouse down right along the ocean. It was an inside room with no windows but had an air conditioner. In the common room outside my door along one wall was a sink and a door next to the sink led into the shower and toilet. I shared this ‘bathroom’ with 3 other families. After two days, a room opened up next door at another guesthouse with my own bathroom, I took it. I realize as I get older there are now a couple of things very high on my priority list when looking for a place to sleep. One is my own bathroom. Another is, when available, hot water. Then if offered, I will upgrade to air conditioning.

Here was my sunset over the Indian Ocean last night on Christmas. Beautiful. I hope all of you are enjoying your holidays wherever you are.

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This entry was posted in Indonesia.

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