countin' the days

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Indo Life

It's been 10 days now since I hopped a ferry and crossed into Indonesia, and if it weren't for my 60-day visa, I might never leave. Things are certainly different here, and I was brought back to Africa immediately: the internet is all dial-up, transportation is all via crowded uncomfortable minibuses on hilariously unkempt roads, cities are smoggy and crowded and lane lanes & stoplights serve little purpose, prices are cheap but seem to triple for white-skinned foreigners, and relatively short distances are made painfully long by misinformation, difficulty arranging transport, and the dread of spending days jammed into the back row of a tiny van with a metal rod jammed into your back. But, that's what keeps things fun, right? Aside from these little third world tidbits, Indonesia is absolutely fantastic. It is 17,500 islands worth of unspoiled landscapes, friendly people, exotic wildlife, unbelievable food, completely out-of-this-world coffee, and unique destinations full of peace, adventure, or whatever you're seeking. The last 10 days has brought me to two of Sumatra's biggest "tourist destinations," and thankfully neither was actually full of tourists. Instead, they've been full of curious, warm-hearted locals anxious to make new friends and exchange foreign languages.

First stop on the island of Sumatra was Bukit Lawang, a jungley hill village famous for its orangutans. They have a feeding centre, where orphaned orangutans are rehabilitated and taught to begin gathering their own food so they can eventually be released into the wild. We went twice, and saw the same old man orang both times, but both times he passed by so close to me that he brushed right up against me. Almost equally as cool as watching a semi-wild orangutan swing through the trees and play around, were the Tomas monkeys, who I affectionately refer to as the mohawk monkeys. Coolest hairdo ever. But the real highlight of Lawang, for me, was the day we rafted down the fairly turbulent river in rented intertubes. After chugging a large Bintang, we floated for a couple hours, enjoying the tranquil scenery, waving and smiling at confused farmers, and rescuing our new friend Roma who couldn't seem to stay on her tube.

After Bukit Lawang, the boys headed to Berastagi to climb Sibayak, one of Indonesia's many active volcanoes. I, however, with the feel of unpleasant minibus travel suddenly fresh in my mind, opted to head straight for the chillest place I could find. So here I am in Lake Toba, easily one of the best places I've ever been. The lake itself was created about 80,000 years old by the collapse of a massive volcano that sparked the last Ice Age. It's the deepest lake in the world (450m) and the island that sits in the middle of it is larger than Singapore. The boys caught back up with me a couple days ago after taking not one, not two, but three minibuses to get here and we've all been relishing in slowing down.

Toba is one of the best places in the world to completely and totally chill out. And as I marked the 6 month anniversary of my trip a couple days ago (June 18), I am more
than happy to be unpacked and taking it nice and easy on this gorgeous, sparkling blue lake. On the days I don't feel like just reading, strolling around, and drinking way too much super strong Sumatran coffee (it is truly divine stuff), I can visit a local market, hike through the super lush mountains (read: bushwhack through the jungle), explore the huge heart-shaped waterfall, drink palm-wine with the locals, or perhaps sample the fresh local magical fungus and see where the day takes me. Just to add to it, the local Batak culture is one that is completly infused with music. I have never, ever been to a place where when anyone picks up a guitar, they can not only play it well, but can sing extremely well too... this is that place. Everyone plays guitar, and plays it well. Everyone sings, insanely well, in luscious 3-part harmonies set to local Batak songs. There is also some fantastic traditional music, which I am endlessly attempting to learn more about. Toba is one of those places you get warned about, a backpacker heaven where life is cheap, and real good, and you just might stay waaaaaay longer than you thought. And it's so true.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Getting Better All the Time

Malaysia is wonderful. I fell in love instantly, and every passing day proves further that this country is great.

Getting here, however, was not so great. What should have been a few hours' trip turned into a whole day of headaches. We took a minibus from Ao Nang to Hat Yai, a southern Thai jumping-off point into Malaysia. We made fairly good time to Hat Yai, but spent another hour literally driving around in circles before finally getting dropped off at the bus station. Catching the bus to the border town of Pedang Besar was easy enough, except that bus too then spent another hour driving around the city, picking up dozens of people and blasting horrific karaoke music videos at max volume (actually that part was awesome). Finally, we got dropped off at the border, which turned out to be this weird toll-booth looking thing. We got stamped out by Thai immigration, but poor Charley didn't realize he overstayed his Thai visa by a day, so he had to pay a hefty fee. But no matter. After marching through the Thai border, we walked about a half mile down the road (no sidewalks... apparently no one actually walks through this border), got stamped through by the Malaysia dudes (as they blasted Michael Jackson's "Rock With You"... what?) and had to walk another half mile to the actual town. At this point it was about 9pm. After considering hitchhiking, we finally sucked it up and paid to take a cab to the nearest city with accomodation available, the state capital of Kangar.

As luck would have it, there was no accomodation available anywhere in Kangar. We sat at a nearby Chinese restaurant sulking and weighing our options, and by some miracle met a fellow foreigner who directed us to a homestay down the road. The room had a decidedly skanky bathroom and cockroaches the size of my hand crawling up the wall, but it was still a blessing in rather hefty disguise. The next day we moved to a nice, clean hotel down the road and everything has been great since.

Kangar, as it turns out, is completely off the tourist track, which has made it an absolutely lovely place to visit. Malaysian people have been unbelievably friendly and gracious, stopping to wave and smile and honk at us, the only white folks in town. It's gotten to the point where we can't walk down the street without someone that we've met in the last few days stopping to laugh and smile and wish us well. Like elsewhere in Malaysia, Kangar is home to an eclectic mix of Chinese Buddhists, Thai and Malaysian Muslims, some Indian Hindus, and even a few Christians, all living together in one big happy coexistence. It also makes for some out-of-this-world food choices. We've been welcomed with wide open arms, and everyone expresses a genuine interest in where we're from, how we like Malaysia (we love it!), what we think of Bush (we hate him!, and not just in our mouths but in our hearts, as one Muslim asked), and where we're off to next (Indonesia!).

And, of course, the rock climbing has continued. We've been going to a crag that's about 8km away from here, confounding the cab drivers with our assortment of beaners, slings, and other strange looking gear of all shapes and sizes. At the crag, we met yet another group of intensely friendly and fun Malaysians, who were kind enough to give us all a ride back to town 2 days in a row. But after two days, we're done here, and later this afternoon are headed to the island of Penang before jumping off the Indonesia.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Keep on Marching

After over two weeks of climbing the peaks in Krabi, tomorrow our little threesome is off to cover some kilometers and cross some borders. First stop is Malaysia, where we'll keep on climbing at some sweet-sounding areas that just got put up in February 2007. New routes, fresh bolts, un-polished rock, and few other climbers.... excellent!

After whatever little bit of time in Malaysia, the next stop is looking to be Indonesia! Due to my crappy knowledge of geography, I thought Indo was a non-possibility for this trip, but I was wrong. It's a quick ferry ride from Malaysia over to Sumatra, and then all the other 17,500 islands of Indo are just waiting for us. Well, maybe not... but I'm really excited to discover at least some of what Indonesia has to offer. And even better, unexpectedly including Indonesia into the itinerary reminds me that I'm on the kind of trip, with the kind of freedom, that allows me to go in any direction, at any time, to almost any country. It's a beautiful thing.