If you know anything about Sumatra you might think of a large island in Indonesia known for its rugged tropical terrain. A place where jungle, lakes , waterfalls and volcanos are in abundance . Home to the Sumatran tiger and the orangutan. Well we witnessed most of the above on this leg of the journey but it wouldn’t be right to gush about the natural beauty of Sumatra without mentioning what was apparent as soon as we left Medan.
This was the sheer volume of palm trees where the rain forest should have been. Now don’t get me wrong, I love a palm tree. Preferably on an island, with me on a hammock, sipping a cocktail, not in danger of being knocked out by a falling coconut. This was different. We travelled kilometre after kilometre wondering where on earth the rainforest had gone. Instead we passed palm trees as far as the eye could see in every direction, and loads of lorry trucks carrying the precious nuts to make palm oil. Now of course I had read about deforestation in Indonesia, slashing and burning to make way for palm oil plantations, weak environmental laws and the knock on effects linked to global warming and animal endangerment. Reading and seeing with my own eyes turned out to be two completely different things. It’s real. Rainforests are disappearing and palm trees are taking over. I realise there is a local industry that benefits from palm oil employment opportunities but it is just so sad. Thank god there is still some rain-forest left, but for how long one has to wonder?
The other blemish on the landscape of Sumatra was the amount of litter lining almost every road we passed, namely plastic. I am not exaggerating when I say there wouldn’t have been a single stretch of road without plastic litter , presumably thrown out of car windows by passing motorists. Local people seemed oblivious to this eye-sore. Shop fronts and houses ( well, dirt patches) were dotted with plastic garbage. No one seemed to be bothered by this. Certainly there didn’t seem to be any effort to clean it up. Even the spectator Spiso-piso waterfall in north Sumatra has a steep walking track to its base that was covered in plastic litter.
Now don’t get me wrong, Sumatra is an amazing place , and the little jungle town we stayed in called Bukit Lawang was very tidy, but wow, what has happened to a society that has become so complacent to littering and a world so hungry for palm oil? I guess it’s easy to turn a blind eye when it’s not our backyard being destroyed.
Rant over …. our trip into the jungle will be a separate blog
Yogyakarta was one of those stops that had to be done. I spent 12 months here in 1996 studying at the University of Gadja Mada and embracing all that Yogyakarta has to offer – perhaps only as a 20 year old could. I was apprehensive to bring the family here because of the memories I had of Yogya and knowing that the short glimpse we would have over 4 days wouldn’t really scratch the surface. You see, Yogyakarta is a special place but if you arrive as a tourist you might see nothing but a big, dirty , overcrowded city, like most other big cities in Asia.
Murray admits his first impression of ‘Jalan Sosrowijayan ‘ – the street we were staying in, was a bit ‘what the hell?’ It was narrow, dirty and didn’t look like a there might be suitable accomodation even remotely nearby. The traffic arriving into the main drag was horrendous and as I excitedly pointed out our new home, he wisely withheld judgement. Luckily when we arrived at Bladok ( our hostel) we were greeted by friendly staff who somehow recognised me from all those years ago ( Murray was a bit suspicious of that but I assured him it was because our gang used to eat there a lot being the only joint in town that served baked potatoes).
It turned out to be an easier stop over than I imagined. We strolled down Maliiboro street, wandered through the Sultan’s palace and water garden , spent an amazing afternoon exploring Borobudur ( largest Buddhist temple in the world) and hung out at Malioboro Mall where we could eat McDonalds and hit the Kids Zone.
Yes, it was different in many ways. The becak drivers seemed to have upgraded to motorised vehicles and old buildings had been replaced with new, but the biggest difference was the vibe. Strangely, there were very few western tourists ( we could count the number we saw on one hand). The place was once an international backpackers haven but today seemed to be left off the traveller’s itinerary. Humbly though , the feeling, the energy of being in ‘authentic Indonesia ‘ was still there. It’s a place where you need a bit of Bahasa to get by, where people want to take your photograph ( or just take a selfie as you walk behind them), where your kids are treated like rock stars and fussed over especially when they say a few words in Bahasa, where people remember you. Could I ever live there again? No , sadly I don’t think so. It’s busy, it’s chaotic, it just seems like hard work at every angle.
I’m glad I got to return and show my family where I lived and studied for a whole year. Looking at it now, twenty years later, I am a bit in awe of that fearless 20 year old.
Where to next? Bukit Lawang, Sumatra …