People ask me why I wanted to go to Sumatra of all places. I tell them that I just like the name. I have some memory of Colonel Mustard from the VCR version of the classic Clue game reminiscing about his travels in Indonesia. It just sounds like a cool place, I guess. And I found myself so set on going to see that ever-elusive and almost non-existent "jungle" that even the travel warnings weren't going to stop me. I felt better by the fact that I was traveling with my friend Eugene. And we did decide to avoid the Aceh region (our first choice) of Sumatra due to an independence movement and some bad press going on there. Anyway, there is plenty to see in the rest of Sumatra, considering it is four times larger than Java. We chose to take a ferry in to the middle of things and work our way up from there.
There are certain rules of budget travel that are consistent throughout the world. One is that you should never follow the first tout who greets you with "Hello sir" when you get off the boat. The ferry from Singapore out to the small Batam Island was only about an hour. From there we planned to switch to another ferry into Sumatra. The word that we got when we arrived at Batam was that the ongoing ferry was leaving in minutes. We had to change money at some candy shop in the terminal (although the negotiated rate was not much worse than some we got later), and decide whether or not we could trust this eager tout. I could not figure out the motive of this man who snuck us into the domestic terminal through a whole in the fence in order to avoid some departure tax. He made me kind of uncomfortable, but he did get us onto the right boat at the right time. It would still be a couple days, though before we felt that we could really trust these people without some kind of skepticism.
I subscribe to the theory that getting there is half of the fun. Particularly on a trip like this that requires so much travel time, just viewing things along the way is quite nice. I guess there are numerous ferries running around between all of the islands of Indonesia, so it seemed fitting that we try at least one of them. We made a couple stops at mysterious ports along the way before we got dropped at Tanjung Buton to switch to a bus. The bus was the hottest, most crowded one I have ever been on. There were only two other foreigners around, but I felt comfortable just because all of the locals were smiling and everything seemed cool despite the heat. On the way inland we saw some relatively barren land. No jungles, mountains, or masked tribes around here. I soon realized that most the trees that we did see were planted in perfect rows. Coconut farms. Used for the export of their oil and their fruit. Caltex is also supposed to be heavy in oil exploration and refinery in this area as well, though we didn't see much sign of this.
Pekanbaru: Oil Administration Center
Most of the towns that we passed through were nothing more than a restaurant, auto repair garage, and a few houses. Finally, around dusk, we arrived at Pekanbaru, our destination for the first night. It has the unfortunate designation as one place that is specifically unrecommended by most guidebooks. However, the town has a bit of local flavor to offer. It is definitely more of an industrial center than a cultural one, but it is still Indonesia. Eugene and I spent the evening wandering around the backstreets in search of food. Finally around ten or so we spotted a house with a food cart out front. We weren't sure if the place was really open for busy, but there were some leftover veggie pancakes in the cart. We pulled up a chair and ask for the variety plate. Eugene and I challenged each other to find what was in each cake: banana, tofu?, carrot, and other tasty unknowns. The whole meal with Sprites cost us less than a buck each. The family proprietors seemed entirely indifferent to the fact that some foreigners had shown up at their doorstep at this hour. They even mustered up a bit of English where necessary. So much for the backstreets. This trip could be easier than I thought. One full day and I haven't even had to use my phrase book.
There are plenty of cheap accomodations in Pekanbaru as there seem to be many people like us who just pass through for the day. We chose Poppies Guesthouse near the bus station. The current proprietor, Mr. Eddie, is quite a jolly chap, but he seems a bit tired of the backpacker scene. Or maybe he is just disappointed in the number of visitors the last couple years. Anyway, Euge and I quickly made friends with Keith and Natalie who were sitting around the cafe/restaurant with us trying to figure out why the gangster shows on TV were still silly, even in Indonesia. We traded stories about travels and mishaps and the related smalltalk that goes on in every guesthouse from here to Timbuktu. Little did we know that these people would become our travel companions for the next couple days. Otherwise the place was comfy and we had our first experience with the mandi, or bath. Pouring cold water over your head and trying to scrub warmth back into your skin is kinda crazy at first, but we came to love it after a while. Besides, it is pretty hot around here.
A.N.S. Bus Service
We had convinced Natalie that the morning bus to Bukittinggi was the way to go. Already we were distrusting of the transportation services, so we thought leaving in the morning provided the best chance of getting in early and before the hear. Plus, ANS seemed to be a decent outfit, although the slick new Mercedes aircon bus they had shown us the night before was suddenly missing when morn came around. Anyway, after the customary serenade from a local down-on-their-luck guitar-brandishing duo, we were off at a decent hour. The driver, like most bus drivers in the "third world" felt that he was either pursued or possessed (to steal a phrase from our favorite guidebook: Footpring Handbooks Indonesia) so the scenery went by pretty fast. I also enjoyed the performance by the bus driver's helpers who hang out the back door trying to scare up business and taunt slow drivers all at the speeds of 60-80kmh. Pretty fun stuff.