Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Tourist Attraction

You know, I've come to realise that my main interest in the world is transport - getting places. Whether it's by bike, train, dirigible airship, space elevator or solar sail, transport's where it's at (except for cars - they seem to have been invented by someone who thought that getting from one place to another should be as boring an experience as possible - they displace more interesting modes of transport like a weed). In this way, the actual travel for me is an end in itself - the destination is neither here nor there.

A great part about traveling by train in Sumatra (one of the more enlightened methods of moving around) is the buskers. Some of them are pretty shocking, but there are some crazy bands out there. One girl brought an amplifier with a microphone through the carriage singing techno songs with a reverb (very loudly). A really large band had a complete drum kit, carefully modified to be portable along the narrow passageway, two guitarists and vocals, replicating western rock classics to an astonishing degree of accuracy, despite being stretched over about 50 metres. But the best one was a solo busker with a guitar singing Indonesia's Most Annoying Pop Song, but somehow transposed into a minor key so it sounded like a dirge to Sumatra's economic plight. The entire carriage joined in the singing bringing me almost to tears.

When most people think of Sumatra, if they do at all, they probably think of jungle, encroaching palm oil plantations and burning orangutans. However, despite having one tenth the population density of Java, Sumatra actually has about the same number of people as the UK - although spread over double the area. That means there are a surprising number of vast sprawling metropolises that you've probably never heard of. Palembang is one of these.

I stopped here after spending the last few days feeling like I was walking on hot coals - the hotels at each city I got to were even more outrageously expensive than the previous city, forcing me to spend only one night at each and wishing I'd had a break at the previous stop (the hotels are all set up for rich businessmen - a cheap hotel here is your family). My hotel at Palembang was both the worst and the second most expensive on my trip so far - I reckon it was designed by the same guys who did the solitary confinement ward at Pentridge.

This city is sprawled out along the banks of a few rivers, with a lot of wooden houses suspended on stilts above the water and connected by narrow causeways. I spent the day first wandering around looking for a cheaper or better hotel until I gave up, then spending ages looking for an old Dutch fort - I gave up on that too. Finally I tried to find my way back home and it took me four hours. This place really is like a labyrinth.

I'm a big deal here. Everywhere I go people crowd behind me, talk to me and hoist their children on their shoulders and point at me like I was some kind of rare astronomical phenomenon. Now I know what you're thinking - finally a place that finds me as remarkable as I find myself. And yes, I do derive some satisfaction from being The Only Thing Happening In Town, but after so many "Hello mister my name is!" calls it does get pretty tedious. Some people - and not just kids, at one time a whole police patrol - run desperately up to me as though the future of their English Language education depended on it. But really, most just want to have something to do with me. If I ever run for World President, I know where to campaign first. In fact, even when I was on the train from Palembang to Libuk Linggau several people came up to me to tell me that they'd seen or heard of me wandering the streets the day before, and Palembang is a city of 1.5 million people.

Those bandits waiting in their trees must be getting pretty hungry by now, I haven't seen a single other tourist or English speaker since I got to this island (one near exception is a civil engineer with whom I bonded in Libuk Linggau - he introduced me to his young family and we exchanged lessons in our respective languages over a thunderstorm). As a consequence of the dearth of westerners I've noticed that it's been almost two weeks since I've had any form of alcoholic beverage. I reckon I could sustain this indefinitely if it wasn't for the bitter taste of a thick black stout, which I miss dearly.

It's also occurred to me that a disproportionate mass of my reading material is about the collapse of civilisation: various books from or about Ancient Rome, "Collapse" by Jarrod Diamond, "The Day of the Triffids" by John Windham and err... "Persuasion" by Jane Austin. This is aptly reflected by my travel from Melbourne, to Bali and Java, then Sumatra. Infrastructure engulfed by wilderness. Neither does it help that my guide book says of many of the towns I visit "Few tourists get this far", insidiously suggesting that all those Europeans traveling south east through Eurasia (for whom my guide book is clearly written) usually get themselves killed off somewhere in Sumatra.

Similarly, I've found that I'm at the stage where I'm having a hard time replacing various items that have worn out or been depleted. All my water-tight snap-lock bags now have holes in them, I've run out of books written in the last ten years and the supply of songs on my ipod that haven't become irritating is quickly diminishing to zero.

But one thing has been harder to source here than I would have thought. About four days ago I dropped my only roll of toilet paper in the mandi (a large cube of water found in bathrooms the exact purpose for which remains a mystery). I quickly salvaged about 15 squares by drying them out, but I've only got a few squares left before I'm forced to resort to the old scoop'n'wash or whatever one does (I can see my parents hanging their heads in shame at my reluctance to adopt this so far). It does not help that my epic quest for a source of dietary fibre has so far proved fruitless.

I'm chilling out in Bengkulu now, a seaside town on the south-west coast. I'm staying in an old Dutch villa where I go to sleep each night listening to the rats crawl around inside the walls and ceiling and the mosquitoes hover just outside my net - waiting. In the day I've been going to beach, reading a lot, failing a geohash by getting the day wrong (hard to keep track of these things you know) and battling my way through hoards of Sumatran groupies.

Till next time!


  1. Felix, in Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand the cube of water in the bathroom usually had a little plastic bucket in it, and it was flushing water for the toilet, which didn't usually have a flush. Might be the same thing?

  2. Yeah but it also usually has a tap - why not dispense with the cube and just use the tap and bucket?

  3. Yeah, the mandi is where you bathe. I think mandi can be noun and verb if I recall correctly.