Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Straits of Malacca

Crossing the Straits of Malacca from Indonesia to Malaysia changed my environment drastically. While I was on the 'fast-ferry', a vessel that lurched awkwardly between the air/water interface as though it was trying to rid itself of its passengers (if not their lunch), I met a guy from Malvern and instantly put him into my debt by drugging him up against an impending motion-induced hurl. Our duo was soon augmented by the introduction of an English girl, with whom I ran my usual joke about how Australians believe they're so English they still think they have to go to Europe for their holidays, despite Australia being nearly three orders of magnitude further away from it than Britain is.

The ferry ride itself was amazing enough to make up for it being twice the cost of the equivalent plane trip - we saw a plethora of flying fish, dolphins, the wary sharing of the waters between massive container ships and tiny fishing boats, a terrific sunset and eventually the specter of approaching land.

During my final weeks in Indonesia I'd been carefully avoiding learning too much of the language, knowing that I'd need to make room for the next language I'd be encountering. My skills in this department had been progressing fairly well despite the fact that I found that communicating complex ideas could actually be achieved through the judicious employment of exaggerated facial expressions and carefully choreographed mime displays. I'd mastered the numeric system, times and dates, transport and distances, food, money and "Go away" - all the important stuff. I'd even learned a few verbs but was too afraid to use them in a sentence. I think my greatest achievement was having a political discussion in Indonesian: "SBY good?", "Yes, good", "Megawati good?", "No, Megawati bad".

But when I'd landed in Malaysia I discovered to my horror that that the Malaysian language is practically identical to Indonesian! I'd been forgetting all that language for nothing. However, this frustration proved premature as it turns out Malaysians only ever really speak Chinese or English, so I haven't actually had a chance to use it here.

You know, I've never understood the name 'Indonesia' - 'Islands of the Hindus'. Indonesia is full of Muslims, Hindus live in India, which means 'Land of the Indus River', which is actually in Pakistan (a nation named for an acronym of states, not all of which it actually controls). At least 'Malaysia', or 'Bad Asia', is straight-forward about itself.

The major change I noticed traveling between these two countries, apart from an increase in Starbucks encounters and my newfound ability to attract no attention to myself, is the national mood. Indonesians are more depressed than Malaysians. In Indonesia, the Asian Tiger crash of '97, terrorism and separatism, the tsunami and other natural disasters, the advent of cheap airfares erasing the tourism industry of most medium-sized towns and then another economic collapse in the form of the GFC seems to have imbued the population with a resignation of their future that ambushes one like a street party in a sleeping gas attack... or the Grand Final played by koalas. People spend so much of their time lying around! Most businesses are so used to not getting any customers that all the staff spend the day watching TV and eying passes-by with suspicious glances. Things always happen 'tomorrow' but are 'not worth it' and I was always asked what I was doing there in the first place. Saying that, the people do put on a brave face and are extremely friendly, smiling and laughing a lot of the time but hiding a general feeling that there is nothing to hope for. Heartbreaking.

Malaysia seems to be the exact opposite. In every person I meet I get the sense that they are on the cusp of great things, live in exciting times and have big plans and ambitions that will change themselves and the world for the better. This positivity is a breath of fresh air.

The island of Penang was my first encounter with Malaysia. Taking a break from constant travel I spent four days hanging out with my Melbourne buddy, enjoying my first beer in almost a month (a Royal Stout, naturally), going to the beach, picking up a free two-month Thai visa (they're on special right now) and seeing the movie 'Zombieland'. I also discovered that my premature ejaculation from Sumatra (there are probably better ways to express that) resulted in some embarrassing reading material. 'Sopie's World' and 'Anne of Green Gables' are good books to read locked in a hotel room 500kms from one's nearest co-Westerner, but reading them in a dormitory full of curious and literate judges of personality is another matter - especially when the covers are bright pink with girly handwritten titles. I quickly moved on to the more masculine 'War and Peace' which brings impressed glances and sympathetic nods (undeserved of course - all 560,000 words are engrossing). My gradual progress through this paper brick is followed by everyone around me.

Penang is like two cities inhabiting the same area. One is the gleaming skyscraper city of the present and the other the decaying British colonial remnants of the past. This latter city is largely left to rot out its existence independently of its successor. Huge mansions hosting collapsed roofs and trees tearing its walls apart, whole rows of terrace houses with vines twisting window frames loose and clinging onto bricks before they can fall to the street below. It's a reminder that the wilderness is always out there, waiting for us to look away for just a second before it regains its mastery over our environment. In a war with nature we can never win, only destroy ourselves.

I took the bus over the bridge to the Cameron Highlands on the peninsula. Here I loudly declared to my dorm room that this was the first night I'd ever spent on the Eurasian Super-continent, forgetting for a moment that I've actually traveled for three months in India which is connected to Eurasia via the not inconsiderable land bridge called the Himalayas. I tried to amend the definition to mean the Eurasian Tectonic Plate, but that includes annoying islands I have also visited like the UK, Singapore, Japan, Penang and, well, Indonesia. Anyway, I could at least declare that I was now just a stroll away from Nicholas Sarkozy, something one misses when inhabiting Australia.

I think all the energy reserves and sleep deprivation quotas I'd been expending in the last... four years?... finally hit zero and demanded a recharge here. Major attractions in the Cameron Highlands include beautiful tea plantations, towering rain-forest canopies, the preserved culture of the local tribes and the world's largest flower. I skipped all of these in preference for hanging out in the dorm's common-room which overlooked the rain-soaked valley, reveling in the company of English-speakers, playing scrabble, reading War and Peace, consuming a 1.7 litre tub of icecream and watching dozens of hours of Hollywood DVDs. I spent a whole week here - five days longer than planned. I did go on a couple of short walks around the local hills and ate at some Indian restaurants a few times - I think that counts as environmental and cultural tourism.

After a while I followed a bunch of travelers on a bus to Kuala Lumpur for another week of extreme chilling out - this time in the local environment of malls.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Storm Out

Just after the Kerinci Valley the architecture becomes awesome in Sumatra. All the buildings look like they're extreme parodies of 'Asian Style'. Almost like exaggerated Sydney Opera Houses jutting out of them, the roofs curve upwards at the ends to points that are almost vertical, sometimes with several layers set inside one another. If I ever build a house I'm telling whoever is cohabiting it with me now that it's going to have a Sumatran roof, got that?

...And then in the city of Padang a new architectural feature: destruction. I was only there for one night but it was enough to get a glimpse of a range of indiscriminately collapsed buildings from the earthquake a few months ago. Luckily the place was now mostly functioning. I met a local on the bus (the buses here all sport spoilers by the way - they look hilarious) and had my evening occupied by a tour of many of the local student share houses, as well as some interesting collapsed buildings. This topic was always brought up awkwardly, and it was embarrassing to answer. "Err... well... yes. Yes I do. I want to see your beautiful city crushed by nature's destructive fury".

For this impudence, the gods decided to spite me by inserting a piece of grit in my eye while I was being ridden around town on a motorbike - the next 24 hours were so painful I naively made all sorts of vows about how much I would appreciate being a healthy person from then on.

Bukit Tinggi was next on the agenda - an awesome hill town with a cool traveling scene - albeit without the travelers. The only exceptions were two Americans, my first westerners in Sumatra, allowing me the opportunity of my first real conversation in English for almost three weeks. Here I was staying in a hotel room overlooking such an awesome view, and conveniently located near a museum of stuffed Siamese twin farm animals, that I decided to stay three nights - but I found myself checking out after the second night. I'm too restless.

I got on a suitable seeming bus about lunchtime to go to Lake Toba, touted in Wikipedia as being a super-volcano formed with a 'Volcanic Explosivity Index of 8' or 'Mega-Colossal'. My one additional requirement was that the bus stop on the equator (as defined by me) which took a surprising amount convincing (come on - it's THE EQUATOR!)

Not long after taking off, winding through totally spectacular hilly jungle scenery, we arrived at this geographic marvel. I sat at the front of the bus counting down the seconds of latitude from my GPS to let the driver know when to stop and upon reaching zero hurriedly ran out to take some shots. Of course the 'official' equator was a few metres to the north of that designated by my GPS but whatever, the Northern Hemisphere can have that dumb ribbon of land. I wasn't going to build a space elevator on it anyway.

Having crossed the equator, the world seemed different. Not only did it get a lot more landy, there being more of that stuff in the north, but suddenly it got colder, no doubt because I was plunged into winter having previously been enjoying the summer months. I also felt a lot more important, cohabiting the hemisphere with the likes of Socrates, Shakespeare and Kevin Rudd - let me know if any of you Southern Hemispherians want me to use my Northern influence for anything. I also distinctly felt myself change elevation suddenly - after all, the two halves of the world can't be expected to match up exactly.

It is also worth noting that at that very instant I reached my greatest ever land speed record: 1675km/hr relative to the Earth's core. I had thought that it was my greatest speed relative to the core ever, having largely traveled west when flying over the equator, but annoyingly, the addition of the velocity vectors coming home from India by plane over the equator several years ago would have made me faster - I wasn't even aware of the occasion.

However, I did stay up to midnight for what I thought was an even more awesome personal record smash: my fastest speed relative to the Sun: 30.47km/sec. This award had to wait for midnight because that's when the rotational and orbital vectors of the Earth combine to the greatest determinant.

But suddenly I thought of something! What was my speed when I was sleeping on Gunung Kerinci? Struggling to remember my high school geometry I plugged in my elevation at midnight on Kerinci (3060m plus the distance the core) and the equatorial radius of the Earth (6380kms) into the sides of a right-angled triangle and found that my Kerinci camp would have to be less than 199kms from the equator to exceed my current speed. Crap. My GPS told me it was only 189kms south of it - I'd been 79m/hr faster on Kerinci and didn't even think to celebrate it (for pedants, my 50km distance from the equator at midnight on the bus was canceled out by my 200m elevation). I'd better work out my top speeds relative to the galactic centre and Virgo Supercluster so I don't miss those too.

The rest of the bus ride carried on into the night and then well into the next day (although the mental geometry did burn a few hours), but I was never actually bored. The first part of the ride was really spectacular as we crossed the Sumatran highlands - towering hills covered in rainforest and deep valleys etched out by paddy terraces. But even during the long flat later sections dominated by endless palm oil plantations (damn you bio-fuels!) I enjoyed the warm glow of camaraderie that inevitably develops in these situations: when the bus broke down or got stopped by a fallen log we were all in the shits together. I feel more comfortable subversively traveling techno-blasting 'ekonomi' through leafy Sumatran suburbs than pompously reclined and flat-screened 'eksecutif' through the slums. Luxury insulates you from real life.

But that's not to say this massive and crammed bus ride did not elicit any nail-biting moments. I had my GPS out for a lot of the trip (often a curse on bus rides because they wind around so much) and during the morning I saw Lake Toba 140kms ahead, then 100kms 45 degrees to the left, then 80kms 90 degrees to the left. When it started to peel away to 135 degrees and then 180 degrees off, with the distance increasing at an increasing rate, I knew something had gone very wrong.

"Danau Toba?" I asked the passengers around me. Polite nods and nervous grins were the reply. This was not a good sign. To increase the tension, the bus driver played the same 10 songs on repeat through the extremely loud sound system, and heroically managed to stop and let us out only once during the entire trip (I was so dysphasic here that I thought we were at a buffet and served myself from the restaurant's kitchen - I was the laughing stock of the whole bus). This almost unbroken driving effort was despite having to navigate the dodgy unsealed four wheel drive track calling itself the 'Trans Sumatran Highway'. Finally, what clinched it that I was going the wrong way was when the supposedly 17 hour epic bus ride turned into a 30 hour mind-mangler.

I ended up in the city of Medan on the east coast. Just before I alighted, the bus driver revealed knowing all along my intention to go to Lake Toba by telling me I should get off here and catch a bus heading hundreds of kilometres in the opposite direction. This was clearly not a very efficient way of getting to Lake Toba, but it had allowed me to hand over RPs 140,000 to that bus company.

To top it all off I left one of my sandals on the bus. Did I then find it in my pack after I'd thrown out the other one? No. The universe is not that cruel, merely indifferent. Heartless bastard.

Standing in Medan, Sumatra's largest city, I quickly decided to cut my losses and immediately go to Malaysia - I can check out Lake Toba along with Aceh on the next trip. I took the first bus to the city, then the first bus to the ferry terminal, slept in another expensive windowless mosquito den and stormed out of the country the next morning. I left behind the beautiful Sumatran wilderness, my celebrity status as a white guy and two unused flights from Medan.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Gunung Kerinci

After a few days I left Bengkulu with its deserted and extremely rippy beaches behind. I jumped on a bus heading up the coast and stopped at a couple of little seaside towns along the way. One of these, Ipuh, had a great beach at the mouth of a river. The whole place was strewn with tree trunks and debris, presumably from one of the recent tsunamis, and at high tide these would wash back and forth in the surf. For some reason along this long coastal stretch I kept getting asked where my bike was. Sure, it was welcome respite from the usual question, "Where is your wife?" accompanied by expectant peeks around the nearest corner, but damn it, it was a good question. Apparently the only tourists that came that way were cycle tourists - everyone gave me pitying looks like I was soft when I got on a bus.

Buses are definitely inferior to trains - I've always been a little suspicious of these non-rail traveling things: will they turn up? Will they go where they say they'll go? With how many chickens will I be sharing my seat? The bus from another beach town, Mukomuko, into the Kerinci Valley confirmed these suspicions by forcing me to wait seven hours for it to turn up, finally delivering me to Sungai Penuh near midnight. But when it did it rewarded me with interesting company, semi-shelter from the rain, crazy music (a monotonic monologist with violin accompaniment) and spectacular night views of the valley towns. I've been avoiding travel by night so far in order to fully appreciate the distances I'm covering - I don't want to just teleport between discontinuous points, I want to understand the true scale of the world (reconnaissance for future conquest you see).

Getting up early in the morning (and skipping breakfast - a bad move) I took another bus to the small town of Kesik Tua where I looked into hiring a guide for climbing Sumatra's highest mountain, and Indonesia's highest volcano, the 3805m Gunung Kerinci - I decided to go for that one in retribution for failing to climb Java's Gunung Semeru (Semerooo!!!). When the guide finally named his price of 1,500,000 Rupiahs for the two day trek - five times what I was willing to pay - I told him to get stuffed, hired a tent, bought some bread, biscuits and water, dumped my unread books at a homestay and marched up the side of the volcano on my own.

The walk to the campsite at 3060m (Kesik Tua is at 1800m, so don't get too excited) was fairly harrowing as mountain scrambles through thick rainforest go. I think I encountered the entire animal kingdom on my way up: snakes, leaches, some interesting spiders, giant centipedes, a variety of stinging insects and even a few orangutans swinging next to me with ostentatious ease.

It rained pretty much the whole time, turning the well-worn track into a cascading creek - luckily the actual path was largely irrelevant as I had to clamber up between tree roots and branches to make any progress. When I finally got to the campsite at the deeply uncivilised time of 3pm I found it was deserted like the rest of the trek (the guide at the bottom did say no one had climbed Kerinci for a while). Looking forward to a rest and some dryness I set up my tent - only to discover that it had no fly! Possibly the homestay divided the tent meiotically to double the revenue.

The rest of the afternoon and evening I spent dodging the increasingly frequent drops from the roof, trying to consume the dry bread and biscuits for dinner and reading Moby Dick in my drenched sleeping bag - it was a race against time as the splotches rendered each page successively illegible (I was particularly careful about the pages on the right).

Moby Dick is awesome by the way. Every now and then I come across a book like this that makes me see real life as a mere distraction from the storyline of the reading matter (and those biological necessities like eating and sleeping - what's the deal with those?). I totally identify with Ahab's monomania - at the end of the book (spoiler alert!) I was thinking, "Yeah yeah everyone's dead big deal... But hath the White Whale been slain?? That's the real question!".

Eventually I constructed a sort of tent brace out of water bottles that shed the rain a little better and got me a few hours of cold damp sleep and I drifting off to the creepy sounds of the jungle outside. Unexpectedly, when I woke up in the night a few times, I distinctly heard the sound of a woman singing at the campsite across from mine. There must be a later group also summitting the volcano in the morning, I assumed.

I got up at 4am to climb to the peak - and found that the other campsite was not only unoccupied but clearly had not been occupied all night. Had the orangutans managed to mimic human singing or had I gone crazy with the isolation during the night? Probably the latter.

Scrambling through thick overgrown rainforest on your own in the rain during the night in a foreign country is as spooky as it sounds. I kept expecting to get bitten by something or slapped by an orangutan (they do that I hear) or incinerated by a volcanic eruption or something. I was pretty thankful that I did not also have to contend with triffids, raptors or Japanese snipers. Luckily the views were spectacular enough to keep my mind off it most of the time, and eventually at sunrise I got some proper vision. I exhaustedly scrambled up the steep and loose rocks to the summit after dawn where the views of the Kerinci Valley (source of 40% of the world's Cinnamon I'm told - think about that), and the western coast of Sumatra spectacularified me - as did the 600m vertical drop into the sulfur spewing caldera below which I carefully avoided (see Mum: 'carefully avoided'). The descent felt like a disproportionately long way down - damn it, why can't I get all that potential energy back for free!?

At last I arrived back in the extremely scenic valley below Kerinci - the Shangri-La of Sumatra. I spent the rest of the day horizontally in my homestay room, nursing hot bakso soup and looking out of the panoramic first floor windows at the mountain down from which I'd just trekked, enshrouded in rain and fog, hoping the entire contents of my pack would dry at least a little (including the new toilet paper I'd recently acquired - Aghh!!) before I took the bus to Padang for some good old fashioned disaster tourism.