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.

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