Take me home, country roads: West Sumatra

The Sumatran countryside basically looks exactly like you picture it should

On day two of our time in West Sumatra, I asked my friend Leora, trip planner for the CQ Posse, why she had chosen Padang, West Sumatra and environs as our post-Malaysia destination. To paraphrase: “Well…we knew we wanted to go to Indonesia, and Bali seemed overdone. And the flight to Padang was cheap, and it looked cool on the Internet…” And that was enough.

We landed Padang, the largest city in West Sumatra, with a general outline of where to visit when, and of course my all-important Lonely Planet guide. Our first impressions of Indonesia were not particularly positive: customs took 70 minutes, and touts outside the airport hawking their transport options were particularly vocal. But soon we were on our way: squeezed in our new “Uncle’s” van, clutching a million rupiah each (We’re rich! Oh, that’s actually only $90 or so), sitting between a man in a traditional Arabic white robe and hat on my left and a man in a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup t-shirt on my right. While country music in Bahasa Indonesian played.

Old Dutch clock tower in Bukittinggi

Our first destination, Bukittinggi, was picturesquely described by guidebooks as either a “busy market town” or an “incongruous” place “blessed by nature, choked by mortals.” The Orchid Hotel (pronounced with the “ch” as in Charlie) left something to be desired, but what it lacked in structural style it made up for in personality. Or, several personalities.

On our first afternoon, while Sumatra companions Leora and Meghan napped, I realized that neither my iPhone plug nor the adapter I had bought in Malaysia would fit the Indonesian sockets. I went downstairs and asked the nearest available staff member for advice. “I’ll show you,” said my new friend An, and within three minutes we left the hotel on motorcycle. We zoomed to the market, and somehow in the next few minutes I developed a burn from the exhaust pipe, felt compelled to accept and finish the first cup of coffee I can ever recall having drunk in its entirety, and acquired an invitation for my friends and I to join An’s cohort for street food and karaoke later.

Our first stop on our evening extravaganza was a street corner across town, where we enjoyed Bukittinggi’s finest martabaks, pancake/dough things stuffed with either meat (delicious) or desert items like banana and chocolate (unbelievably and mind-numbingly delicious).

Meghan, Leora, me, and our new friend Putra in the countryside near Bukittinggi

Next up was our friends’ friend’s bar-cum-internet café, where Leora’s driver Putra and the non-English-speaking Uncle Patrick (incidentally, the only word I learned in the local dialect was “om,” uncle) played guitar while we all raised our voices in song and enjoyed Indonesian Bintang beer. You know who’s popular in West Sumatra? Maroon 5 and Brian Adams and John Denver. You know who’s not? Lady Gaga.

Lake Maninjau

The next day we joined our Indonesian Besties on an all-day motorcycle tour to scenic Lake Maninjau and sites around (LP intones that “In Indonesia, the line between business and socializing isn’t as distinct as it is in the West”—that may have been true in our case, but it wasn’t an objection for us either, considering the situation for many would-be guides in a state that enjoys far fewer tourist and tourist dollars than it used to). Spending the day on a motorcycle may have left me a little road-weary, but there were lots of great stops on the way to the lake—rice paddies, a jewelry maker, and a roadside lunch where all the restaurants dishes are placed on the table and one eats and pays for only what we want—using only one’s hands as utensils, of course.

Our bungalow in the Harau Valley

The next morning, having had enough of the Orchid and the Indonesian Besties, we moved on to another scenic spot, the Harau Valley, a village surrounded by 100m cliffs. With help from Orchid we picked Abdi Homestay, an option I cannot recommend enough that is comprised of three electricity-less bungalows nestled down a dirt path between a rice field and a cliff face. It’s a family affair, with owner Ikbal and his brother Ricky holding down the fort and leading guests on hikes and Ikbal’s wife providing all the meals. Our first day featured a short hike to a series of waterfalls (why yes, to avoid a bucket-shower in the bungalow I did bring soap to the waterfall for a hair-washing alternative), and the second day featured, improbably, the hardest jungle trek yet!

Resting on Jungle Trek, Hour 2

I wondered at first why two guides (Ikbal and Ricky) were needed to lead the three of us on a hike, but it turned out to have been an important choice. Hour 1: Eating Mangosteens, Without a Care in the World. Hour 2: Steep Uphill Scramble of Sweat and Suffering. Hour 3-5: Weaving through Jungle Foliage and Ferns and Wishing I Brought a Machete—but also, Delicious Picnic Lunch. Hour 6: Reaching the Top Just as the Mini-Monsoon Hits. Hour 7: Weaving Down Over Wet Rocks, Cliffs, and Ropes, thanking God coordinated Ricky doesn’t mind hand-holding all the way down. Hour 8: Back at the Bungalow, I have never been so excited to see a porch hammock and bucket-shower in my life.

That night, sitting with Leora and Meghan enjoying homecooked food, good conversation, and our own exhaustion under the glow of a kerosene lamp was one of the highlights of the whole trip. The next morning we took the public mini-bus back to Padang—five hours packed in with patrons like a children’s soccer team and vendors who hop on and off the moving bus, while the Wicked soundtrack mysteriously played softly—and finally reached the thoroughly untoursity urban sprawl of the city in the late afternoon. Meghan and I headed to the surfer beach via disco bus (no really, I have never experienced public transport where house music played so loudly I put in ear plugs) and motorcycle, and quickly garnered attention as the only foreigners, and almost only women, on the beach. But did I mention that the beach featured copious goats?

Padang beach

An advantage of visiting untouristed locales is getting a more “authentic,” local experience (if you even believe in such as a concept). But the flipside is that populations less used to seeing foreigners may give more negative attention—something all Peace Corps Volunteers in China are used to experiencing. In a place like Bali it’s easy to forget that Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim nation, but in Sumatra and I’m sure elsewhere, where most women wear headscarves and the call to prayer is a noisy and constant feature of life, it’s hard to forget. On the beach in Padang, uncomfortable with leaving our bags alone on the beach, Meghan and I took turns wading into the shallow water. We had already gotten a lot of well-meaning waves and greetings, so I thought nothing of a shirtless surfer who gestured to me and then approached. Indicating my bathing ensemble (a long tank top over my bikini), he told me in fractured English that, this being a Muslim country, my attire was inappropriate.

Aaand here’s where I have a problem. On the one hand, as a reasonably well-informed traveler I know how important it is to make some effort to adapt to local custom when encountering another culture. But how does one approach customs that are entirely anathema to one’s own beliefs, like the idea that women must remain covered and pure and sequestered? While I wouldn’t hesitate to cover my head when visiting a mosque, any more than I’d do the same inside a church or temple if appropriate, for me this was a situation where such considerations broke down. I am a foreigner with different beliefs, I object to objectifying women by enshrouding them, and I am swimming in this ocean. To what extent should local custom dictate our behavior when traveling? Feel free to weigh in.

Twilight in Padang

In any case, the incident didn’t worsen our beach afternoon, since we also made friendlier friends who competed for the honor of driving us back to town on their motorbikes (something we were happy to accept, having no alternate plan for returning from the remote beach.) Back at the hotel we rendezvoused with our friends and headed to dinner—but not too far from the hotel, since the catcalls on the street got old fast. At 3:30 the next morning I awoke to prepare for my solo journey across the country to Bali.

Sumatra was, in many ways, the hidden gem of the trip. The urban sprawl and its accompanying annoyances were sometimes unpleasant, but the beautiful scenery and friendly people we met more than made up for it. Ikbal, proprietor of our Harau Valley bungalow, told us when we left how much he hoped we would return some day—we should come back on our honeymoons, he suggested, and he’d let us stay for free! I’ll keep that one under advisement.

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One thought on “Take me home, country roads: West Sumatra

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