January 29 Travel to Sumatra, Indonesia

This blog entry is about some of my general impressions of Sumatra, Indonesia. I am going to write about these things in this first entry, so I can talk more about where we went and try to keep the following blog entries from being too long.

Sumatra, Indonesia, has a lot of people. Everywhere we traveled, except for when we were in the jungle, felt crowded, much like the east coast regions of China

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People waiting alongside a street near Medan, Sumatra, for a bus.

.The jungle was amazing, and filled with lots of different animals!

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A monkey in a tree in Gunung Leusur National Park in Sumatra

Traffic everywhere was chaotic. Vehicles drive on the left side of the road, like in England and Hong Kong. There are few traffic lights, even in the city of Medan. Few streets have lines painted on them, and drivers often ignore driving lanes even if there are lines. People park and block traffic lines, and routinely drive up the sides of the road and cut other drivers off. You need a skilled, aggressive driver to get anywhere.  Fortunately, we had one. Tian was very good at dealing with Indonesian traffic and roads!

The photo below is one that Jeff took of a teen-aged boy directing traffic in Medan for tips (money) from drivers. He had heard about that happening in Jakarta, Indonesia, on the NPR podcast “Planet Money”. Apparently. this also happens in Medan!

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Teenage boy directing traffic at an intersection in Medan for tips

Roads! One of the most memorable parts of the Sumatra experience, and not in a good way! Here is a summary of the road types in Sumatra.
Excellent =with pavement and lines, very few of these roads, mostly in Medan
Good = pavement and potholes and bumps, lots of roads like this outside of the city
Poor = rocks and dirt, lots of roads like this in the countryside
Bad = mud and ruts, some like this in the jungle

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Harmony standing on a typical Sumatran road with potholes, some pavement, and no lines

Harmony accurately described Sumatran roads as a “series of disasters”. She said that the roads in Sumatra were worse than the roads in Malaysia. She also noted that our average travel speed around Sumatra was less than 25 kilometers an hour, due to the condition of the roads and the traffic! I completely agree. I also want to say that I now understand how travel felt back in the 19th century, when people would be jostled around in stagecoaches over bad, bumpy roads all day to travel only a short distance. Thanks to Sumatra, I have now experienced exhausting, short distance travel!

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A Sumtran motorbike “rikcha”

There were many types of vehicles on the roads in Sumatra.There were some SUVs and jeeps, and many vans, but few cars. We were traveling around in a van. There were a lot of motorbikes. There were many rikchas, which is what our guide called the motorbikes with side carts attached to them.There were many private buses of all types around the city of Medan.There were lots of trucks.And there were also bicycles

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A private bus on the streets of Medan. These buses had no doors of them so passengers could quickly hop on and off.

There was only one company that operated all the gas stations that we saw, It is called Pertamina. But many vendors sell one lliter bottles of gas for motorbikes in recycled water bottles on racks in front of their small stores, because there are many places where you can drive for a long distance without seeing a Pertamina station.

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Gas station attendants at a Pertamina station in Sumatra.

Menus in restaurants are just a suggestion, often they do not have what is printed on the menu. This happened so frequently that we got into the habit of asking “what do you have?”  Indonesian food is rice, fish, chicken, fruit, noodles, dried fish, eggs, and canned mixed vegetables. There were very few green veggies on any menu or for sale from street vendors. Almost everything was fried or battered and fried. Not a really healthy diet. Is all the palm oil grown and processed in Indonesia to blame? But the fried bananas we eat during our trip were delicious! Also Sumatran coffee is excellent! And there were many good curries.They often had bottled water on the table that you could buy to drink with your meal-no free glasses of water!

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Harmony and Ann eating dinner in a Sumatran restaurant.  Notice the fried chip snacks in the center of the table that you could purchase to eat as an appetizer!

Most cooking was done with small propane tanks attached to burners.

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Small propane cooking tanks for sale at a street vendor’s stall

Indonesians are short. Harmony and I tower over the women. It was very easy to see Jeff in a crowd, as he is taller than most Indonesian men. Also, I was asked to be in many photos again. Here I am posing with a group of high school girls. Jeff took this pictures, and they had a friend take photos for them with their cell phone cameras.

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Ann posing with a group of Indonesian high school girls

When we said that we were from America, it often brought the response “Obama” and a smile. The only advertisements that we saw outside of Medan were political posters. They were everywhere! The Indonesian election is in April 2014, and our guide, Erwin, said that currently there are 39 political parties in Indonesia, so many people are running for office! He also said that many government officials were corrupt, and they could get a lot of money on the side, along with their good public salaries. So that is why so many people were running for office, and spending money on advertising!

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One of the many, many political posters that we saw all over Sumatra!

The climate was hot and humid in the Sumatran jungle and the lowlands where Medan is located. It was cooler up in the mountains at Beristagti (1,500 meters or about 4,500 feet in elevation) and Lake Toba (1,300 meters or 3,900 feet in elevation). The equator passes through the island of Sumatra about halfway down the island. We were on the northern section of Sumatra, but still not far from the equator, so I was expecting hot and humid weather. I did not know that it would be cooler and more pleasant in Beristagi and Lake Toba, as I did not realize how high up in the mountains they were located. We visited at the end of the rainy season, but there was very little rain. It only rained at night when we were in the jungle. Was Indonesia in the same unusual dry weather pattern as Taiwan was experiencing?

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Tree with large twisted roots in the jungle

There were not many other tourists, as we went in the off season, so we had to book a private tour with a guide and driver and van.

The currency in Indonesia is the rupiah, or IDR. The exchange rate is about 100,000 rupiah to 8 US dollars. We got used to using bills with very large numbers on them! Coins are rare.

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Photo of Indonesian rupiah (IDR)

There were lots of children everywhere. They all seem to go to school, as we usually saw them in school uniforms, unlike in Cambodia.

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Middle school children in uniforms heading home from school on Samosir Island in Lake Toba

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