Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Can food really taste this good?

In July, Malacca (on the other side of the strait in mainland Malaysia) and Georgetown (on the island of Penang) got put on the Unesco list of world heritage sites. Georgetown was settled in the late 1700s as an outpost of the English East India Company and rapidly inhabited by Chinese merchants, Indian money lenders, Malay workers,Arab scholars and numerous other nationalities. Until plane travel became more affordable in the 1960s, Penang was the major stepping off point for Muslims taking ships to Mecca for Haj. The English designed the town on a grid system, but various areas were settled by different immigrant groups. Streets initially named after English lords were changed to reflect the ethnic group that lived in that area eg Aceh St, or Burma Rd. So today it's an amazing melting pot of predominantly Asian cultures, with all the wonderful food that goes with it.The Chinese were the great businessmen, forming associations based on family and business connections, and many of these clan houses are still in use today. As philanthropists, they also set up many schools and looked after new immigrants. Being the largest community, they tended to encroach a little on the others, such that you can be walking along a road full of chinese shops then suddenly find yourself smack in the middle of Little India, complete with sari shops, loud music and Bollywood posters!Now did I mention the food? Well there's Chinese food, like dim sums for breakfast and noodle soups, or something called lok lok which is a sort of help yourself buffet of food on skewers that you dip in boiling water to either reheat or cook the contents, then dip in a sauce of your choosing. The skewers are colour coded so you hand in your skewers when you've had your fill and pay the summed total. Some of the food is unidentifiable, best not to ask!Then there's Indian food, like Nasi Kandar which is rice with your choice of curry. Or there's the banana leaf restaurants where you get rice on a banana leaf and a selection of curries, a thali in essence. Not to mention the stalls selling all the finger food, from samosas to sickly sweet halwa.At night there are various hawker centres that open, so you can choose from a huge variety of food stalls, all freshly cooked on the spot. It's a riot of colour and cooking smells, definitely worth experimenting with what's on offer.A particular type of cuisine unique to Malaysia and Singapore is Nonya food. Baba-Nonya is the name given to Chinese who took on many malay customs, and their cuisine is a melding of malay and chinese food. It uses fresh spices and quite alot of coconut milk, and is said to be some of the best food in the world. Well with claims like that I searched out a restaurant renowned for its traditional nonya food and asked them to prepare me some dishes that truly represented the cuisine. What a mouth watering treat it was! Yes it lived up to my expectations, my gosh it exceeded them. And having left the experience till my last evening in Penang, I was unable to return for more!Besides eating food, there are other pursuits besides lazing on the beaches to the north of Georgetown. There are some excellent museums including one which is a restoration of the house of a famous chinese merchant, who was known as the Rockefeller of the East. It was built on Feng Shui principles and it is actually possible to feel the energy at the centre of the house. You may have seen the house in the movie Indochine.There's the butterfly farm (thanks mum for that suggestion), with a big collection of live butterflies flying around in an enclosure, as well as scorpions (they were well kept behind glass thankyou very much!), some lizards and turtles, and a curious collection of stick insects who take camouflage to new heights. I experimented a bit with some macro shots on these alien creatures, yep I know where the inspiration for those movies came from!Nearby is a wonderful garden planted with spices and other tropical plants, which was a delight to wander through and to spend some time relaxing in the huge wooden swing suspended in the canopy.

I could have stayed weeks in Penang, eating my way through the countless food options available, but the road beckons and it was time to board the overnight train from Butterworth and head to Bangkok.

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Friday, September 26, 2008

Chillin' out at Toba

Lake Toba was my last destination in Sumatra, before heading over to the Malaysian peninsula. It was formed by an eruption 10 times bigger than Krakatau, that completely anihilated all plant and animal life in the region, causing distinct differences between the flora and fauna of north sumatra and that further south. It's also why there are no orangutan in the south (apparently!).

The lake is 6okm long and has an island, though it's really a peninsula with a narrow isthmus, in the lake called Samosir. One small section of Samosir, known as Tuk Tuk, was backpacker central until the late 1990's when the Indonesian monetary crisis caused an exodus of tourists who appear not to have returned. There is buckets of accommodation and countless empty restaurants, all keen for my business. Actually, it's a ghost town!

I stayed to the north of Tuk Tuk, on the recommendation of some fellow travellers I'd met weeks before, in a lovely spot right by the lake. An early morning swim was a nice way to start the day, particularly given that the temperature of the lake water was warmer than that coming out of the shower!
Toba is about chilling out, getting drunk, stoned and eating magic mushrooms. For the record, I only drank - my days of experimentation with drugs long over. It's also a place to visit local villages and to marvel at the weird gravesites which have progressed from ancient stone carvings to many different interpretations of a batak house, to those that look like churches, to more recent modernistic designs. All that money spent on the dead when it's still possible to see the effects of malnutrition amongst the population!!

Toba Batak houses are different to the Karo Batak, with a greater resemblance to the houses of Toraja in Sulawesi. Besides the houses in the museum complex, I was unable to find another traditional house that hadn't had its palm thatch roof replaced with corrugated iron. But at least there are still entire villages remaining of these houses, often with addon renovations that have brought kitchens and bathrooms inside. The intricate carvings are always painted in the traditional colours of red, black and white. Even the catholic church gets in on the act, with a spectacular carving of Jesus.Toba is quiet, very quiet. Quiet enough for me to learn how to ride a motorbike without fear of the traffic. So now I'm confident with the handling of a small 100cc bike the sky's the limit!

And just for a little more culture, straight after the sunday church service the local dance group don their traditional costumes and perform a series of dances that celebrate their animistic past. Kind of ironic!
Numerous beers later, it was time for me to pack the bags, jump on a ferry then take a share taxi the 4 hours back to Medan to catch my flight to Penang.
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Fertile hills of Berastagi

At 1400m above sea level, surrounded by steaming volcanoes and enjoying good rainfall, the Karo highlands around Berastagi are the food bowl of North Sumatra. There are vegetables growing up every slope, flowers and plants in abundance and an exuberant market every day. As usual I had a ball taking photos of all the brilliant colours and textures to be found. Out in the country every piece of dirt is planted with some vegetable or another. But there are also some forest plantations (looked remarkably like eucalypts to me!) and a few natural sights. One is Sipisopiso falls, where the water comes rushing out of an underground cave and falls 120m into a small stream which flows into Lake Toba.In my enthusiasm I climbed a nearby hill to get a good view of Toba from the north, it being my next destination.Another, and larger, volcano called Sinabung can also be climbed, but I decided I'd had enough of all this sweaty exercise for a while so I just visited the tranquil lake at its base.
The Batak were converted to Christianity from their original animist beliefs. This means lots of cute churches dot the countryside and the restaurants are still open during Ramadan. Huge sigh of relief!
Evenings at Berastagi were spent eating at the numerous foodstalls which set up on the pavement each evening, with barbequed fish being a favourite. For dessert I discovered some new sweets, putubamboo (a sort of steamed rice dumpling with a palm sugar centre and sprinkled with coconut and sugar) and martabak ( a thick pancake) filled with black rice and chocolate. No chance I'll be losing any more kilos for a while!!
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Thursday, September 25, 2008

How many families in one house?

You don't have to travel far to discover that there's still alot of people in the world living in overcrowded conditions. It's not unusual for three to four generations of a family to live in one house, including a number of young families. But this practice isn't just one of economic necessity, it has its roots in traditional living styles.
The Karo Batak people around Berastagi originally lived in large wooden houses with palm fibre roofs, housing up to ten families. They shared a cooking fire between two families and each member of the household had a particular role. They made decisions by consensus and had shared property. They also had a rich animist religious culture, but the christian missionaries put paid to that pretty quickly!!

A picture from 1952 shows one of the villages, Lingga, as it was then. Now, with both loss of interest and skills in living in and maintaining the houses, there are only a few traditional houses still standing. One can hardly blame the people for wanting more space and the modern conveniences (running water, inside toilet) we take for granted, but it is a shame to see these houses falling into disrepair and eventually disappearing.There is hope, however. Lingga village is doing all it can to preserve what houses it has left, with the old men teaching the younger men how to build traditionally, and through the sale of handicrafts. So far they have fully restored three houses (all being lived in), but they still have another six to do. Most villages have only 5-6 houses left, mostly in disrepair though some are still lived in. It's hard to know how long they'll survive, let's just hope some do!

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

One more volcano...

Well it just sits there, looking down on me every time I head up the main street of Berastagi. And it's only tiny, a mere 2,500m from Berastagi at 1200m above sea level. So why not?

Packed with ample supplies and water I set off at 8:30 am for a planned 3 hour walk to the summit. Well this one's an easy one, half of it is along a road and the rest is up a concrete path with steps! Sure there's a bit of a scramble over some rocks up in the crater but nothing like climbing the scree on my two previous volcanoes.
Sibayak hasn't one crater, but a whole series of fumaroles: high pressure vents releasing sulphorous steam. Pretty darn loud too. This makes it quite spectacular and a real change from your bog standard steaming crater at the end of a seriously hard climb (yawn, yawn!!).Now the walk down, that was a different matter. That was a scramble as the original steps have worn away and the going is quite steep. Gave the quads a really good workout, but hey, I'm a volcano veteran now and my legs seem to now be up for the challenge.

Celebrated (only took me 2 hours to the summit!) with a soak in the hot baths and a cold beer back at my lodgings. Commiserated with some first timers who really struggled doing it - hey I've been there too!

The rest of the photos are here

Monday, September 15, 2008

Deep in the heart of Aceh

Heading north from Ketambe seemed a good idea. I wanted to see a bit of Aceh but wasn't all that keen to go all the way to Banda Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra. I didn't want to go scuba diving on Pulau Weh, and the rest of Aceh is in shutdown mode as it is Ramadan. Aceh is governed by Sharia law, which means for the month of Ramadan the restaurants, schools and even internet cafes are closed during the day. There's still lots of food to buy at the markets but it's kind of take-away and then stuff your face in the privacy of your hotel room. Takengon is the capital of the Gayo Highlands, in central Aceh. It was also home to the GAM separatists who for 30 years or more had been waging war on the Indonesian government in an attempt to obtain autonomy and a better share of the rich natural resources which Aceh has. This left the people both terrorised and in extreme poverty, causing many to leave the province to find safety and jobs elsewhere in Indonesia.

The tsunami in 2004 effectively kickstarted peace talks between the GAM and Indonesian government, and allowed the influx of overseas aid and NGOs who have helped develop economic programs for the impoverished Acehnese. We in the West tend to focus on the tsunami victims, but the effects of years of conflict on the population has been a much wider problem.
With peace and stability at last in Aceh, many Acehnese have returned home to start up again, bringing both money and expertise from their years working elsewhere. One couple I met were Alex and Nudia, who lived in Bali for 20 years, making and selling shoes in the lucrative tourist market until things went belly-up for them with the Bali bombing. The tourists dried up and so did their income, so post tsunami they decided to return to Takengon, where Nudia's family come from. Initially they set up a restaurant, which did well on the NGO trade, but with withdrawal of UN peace monitors they were again losing money and it was time to close that as well. Currently they are having a well earned holiday and after Ramadan plan to commence their next business venture.
Alex learnt to make shoes while he was in Bali, with Nudia being the design guru. Other members of the family, who have also returned post Bali bombings, have expertise in the business so they will be obtaining a government grant to teach ex-GAM fighters to make shoes. There are currently no shoemakers in Aceh (all shoes are from Medan) so it will be an exciting new economic venture. Many ex-GAM fighters know nothing but fighting and intimidation of villagers, so teaching them worthwhile job skills is a key incentive of the fledgling Acehnese government. Now that the provincial govt controls 70% of its own resources they are in a position to rebuild Aceh into the economic powerhouse it used to be. But corruption is never far below the surface, so Acehnese continue to remain sceptics.

Alex and Nudia made my stay in Takengon a joy, making me coffee when I was so desperate for a cup during the locked down day, and inviting me to join them for dinner, as well as cooking me a yummy black rice pudding which I now have the recipe for. I am also the first westerner to own an authentic Gayo made shoe, complete with traditional Gayo embroidered design.
Takengon itself is a sleepy little market town on the edge of a spectacular lake. The markets, as usual, are a glorious display of colour, sound and smell. Local transport around town is by becak, motorbikes with sidecars, and the locals are all wonderfully friendly and helpful. They speak local Gayo language which makes my attempts at communicating in even my limited Indonesian somewhat of a farce. I went for some lovely walks along the lakeside road and visited some rather uninspiring caves, as well as hanging around the river watching the fishing folk. If this place ever gets on the tourist trail, I can imagine cute little bungalows along the lake shore, it will really do well.

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Next off it's the overnight bus to Medan then on to Berastagi and Karo highlands, and perhaps a bit more volcano climbing!

Looking up the relatives

For the bargain basement price of about 15 AUD it is possible to take a 30min scenic low level flight from Medan across the mountains to Kutacane. For the same price or more you can take a 7 hour bus ride. The hitch? Well it's a small double propellor plane, and you land in the middle of nowhere and have to negotiate a price into town. After a year or so flying in small planes in the NT small planes don't worry me, and the views were fantastic out the window. I opted for a bum-numbing motorbike ride the full 40km to my accommodation (which cost me more than the flight but heck, it saved me lots of time waiting for the local transport).Photos of the flight

The action here is based out of Gurah, or Ketambe, where there is a research station in the Gunung Leuser National Park. This National Park is home to wild orangutan, the reason every one of us handful of tourists come to this end of the park. There are also rhinoceros and tiger but no-one ever sees them anywhere close to the villages.

Trekking here is a total twaddle, involving walking for an hour or less before each rest stop, really an excuse for the guide to have a cigarette. Total walking time per day is usually somewhere between 2-4 hours, with the morning being the best time for spotting our red headed cousins. Orangutan like to feed on ripe fruits in the morning then have a sleep for the rest of the day. If they're not moving around and chucking fruit discards away, you're just not going to find them up there in the canopy. They never come down from the trees, drinking water from hollows in the branches. And watch out for an angry one, woken from sleep so the tourists can take photos of him. He'll behave like the typical teenager, chucking things at you and making a lot of noise. Personally, I don't blame them, the guides can be pretty relentless at annoying the poor creatures.
I was lucky enough to see five orangutan: the aforementioned angry male on the first day, then a group of four including one with baby, who were eating fruit and relatively unconcerned about our presence.
The trekking itself is quite slippery work, often involving a bit of jungle bashing to get to the best vantage points to see the orangutan. It also involves getting very close and personal with my least favourite animal - the leech!! I ended up with four of the blighters sucking my blood, but removed scores of others from my clothes and even from inside my boot. Slimey creepy buggers!!

We camped one night beside a river where the swimming was very pleasant after the humidity of the jungle, the second night at hot springs where rock pools have been formed as the springs merge with the river so you can bathe in the water temperature of your choice.
Orangutan aren't the only primates to see. There's the bog standard monkey, there are macaques, and these really cheeky Thomas Leaf monkeys who have a punk hairdo. There are also many birds, including hornbills, but I only ever saw the hornbills flying overhead in the evenings, though you would often hear their strange calls while in the jungle.

Back at my homestay it was time to purchase some fruit. Pak Mus, the proprietor, took me on his white motorbike up the road to buy Durian. You either love or hate durian, there seems to be no middle ground. Personally, I'm in the love category, just can't get enough of the creamy rich delicacy. I don't notice the smell, some people say it smells like rotten flesh, just smells like durian to me. Well I bought a few durian, so there would be enough for both myself and Mus' family. In the end we bought 10 durian, total price around 6 dollars. After feasting myself rotten on the fresh stuff, the family cooked up the rest and some sticky rice for durian pudding - what a taste sensation!!

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Thursday, September 4, 2008

A week in Kerinci

Kerinci Straits National Park is 200km south of Padang. Alex, a young chap from Reno, USA who'd decided to join me for some volcano climbing, and I headed down there in a rented car. Up into the mountains and along winding roads to our destination on the Karu Ayo plateau 5 hours later.

The plateau is at an elevation of 1400m above sea level and is home to the largest tea plantation in the southern hemisphere. It literally stretches for miles in every direction and it employs most of the people there. Watching the workers head off to the fields with their sacks, gumboots and conical hats while enjoying a spectacular view of the huge volcano in the background was a regular part of every morning spent there. Seeing them return laden with clippings and trudging home exhausted in the evenings makes you realise just how hard they have to work.Bullock carts are still a feature here, particularly for those working the vegetable fields further up the slope of the volcano. If it wasn't for the continuous traffic in minivans, trucks and motorcycles going along the road, you could almost convince yourself you were back a hundred years.

We stayed at a homestay in the middle of the plateau. Although our aim was to climb Kerinci, the tallest volcano in western Indonesia, we decided to go to Gunung Tujuh first as the weekend was looking a bit crowded on Kerinci. We decided to camp a night up there and enjoy the surroundings.
Gunung Tujuh is a crater lake with seven mountains surrounding it. It's not a difficult climb up to the descent down to the lake, but it is easy to take the wrong path. We picked up a guide who showed us the way. Alex and the guide headed off in some sort of hurry to reach the top while I just took my time enjoying the beautiful jungle scenery and not busting a gut when I had a big climb coming up in 2 days time. I had learnt from Merapi just to climb at my own pace with the knowledge that I would eventually get there. We had all day to do a four hour climb so I couldn't see the logic in ignoring the flowers, fungi and insects to be found on the way.
The lake itself is completely surrounded by mountains, and home to a rare pitcher plant, however we didn't know where to find it so mostly stayed around the lake. The different moods of the lake over the evening and next morning were wonderful to watch.We returned back to civilisation the following day, via a circuitous route (yes we got lost taking the wrong path), and found an elephant chained near the track. Alex rather unwisely let it take his aluminium hiking stick, which it promptly broke into pieces and tried to eat.

For all the photos click here

Next up was the big one, Kerinci itself. We hired a guide for the two days and headed off about 8:30 am. The lower slopes are typical rainforest, very lush and very muddy indeed. As you climb higher you reach beautiful moss forests, real Lord of the Rings type scenery. I loved it. Although there are tigers and rhinoceros in the park, all I managed to see were a couple of squirrels and monkeys.
We camped at 3000m elevation and next morning at sunrise began the assault of the summit. Here the going got pretty tough as the track became increasingly steep. As we neared the treeline any bush you touched would release a cloud of ash - evidence that this volcano is indeed very active.
Above the treeline was a climb of 500m over ash and rocks to the crater rim. Alex headed off way in front while the guide and I made a slow and steady ascent. It was a tough climb, but the reward at the top was worth it. We were joined by a trio of Jakarta lads and it was photos all round. The view from the top is stupendous, especially over to Lake Gunung Tujuh, as is the massive crater giving off sulphurous steam.
The descent back to the campsite was pretty hairy, as the climb down is often harder than going up. Hot noodles and coffee, packed up the tent and then it was time for the rest of the descent. It wasn't too hard and we were back in the tea plantation by 5pm.

In some ways it was harder than Merapi, like the final ascent, but the approach was much easier. My legs were definitely up to the task though I never at any time attempted to keep up with Alex, whose interest in anything but the top of that volcano was seriously lacking.

The following day we visited Sungaipenuh, the main town in Kerinci valley, in order to view a mosque made of wood apparently without nails. We were unable to view the interior as it was locked up and no-one was around to open up.
That evening I took a walk through the village in which we were staying and had some fun photographing the kids riding their makeshift billycarts down the hill.
The morning we left, the volcano was spewing out large clouds of ash. It certainly brings into perspective just how dangerous it can be on an active volcano. In fact the trek is actually officially closed, but that doesn't seem to stop anyone.
We took a bus back to Padang then it was farewell as I flew north to Medan. I'm on a flight to Kutacane in Aceh tomorrow to begin some more jungle trekking, so it may be a while till the next installment.
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