Photos from India

Friday, March 28, 2008

Chili's, mmm mmm good!

So, I was taking some night photos (which turned out incredible by the way) of the Petronas towers in Kuala Lumpur the night before my flight to Cambodia. While waiting on the timer on my camera to fire the shot from the tripod I looked up at the towers and saw a sign for a Chili's in the window. Suddenly I started to salivate thinking about a taste of back home. I entered the mall at the base of the towers, made my way up five escalators and sat down at the bar which could very well have been a Chili's back in Birmingham, Alabama. I ordered my favorite thing on the menu, the chicken crispers and I have to say that it was one of the best meals I have ever eaten. With nothing left on my plate, for the first time in several months I can actually say I was full after my meal. I would gladly eat there again if I find myself in Kuala Lumpur. While I really enjoyed taking photos of the towers on such a stunning night, I have to say that my night out at Chili's was a close runner up for the best experience in Kuala Lumpur.


I find myself here in Singapore and can't even comprehend that a city or actually country for that matter can somehow exist in the middle of Southeast Asia. The prices are sky high on everything, I would have to say that the food and drink prices is right on par with any city in the U.S. In fact, if you could look past the fact that all of the people here have slightly darker skin and different shaped eyes, it could actually be a city anywhere in the U.S. Actually, I have to take that back. It is ten times cleaner and than anywhere I have ever visited and it has the most sophisticated, smooth operating and overall absolutely incredible public transportation system you could ever imagine. Even the bus stops have computerized boards that say what bus numbers are coming and how far they are away. While I am not a city person, I have to say that Singapore is a nice stop over for a few days to get a quick glimpse of civilization before I head off to Cambodia.

Exploring Bukittinggi

I am not going to attempt to describe the details of all the exploration I have done around Bukittinggi but I have to say that it is one of the most stunning landscapes that I have seen in my entire life. Mountains, valleys, cliffs and waterfalls everywhere you looked. I spent four days on a motor scooter going everywhere I could. It is a place where the people are not only happy to see Westerners and invite them into their homes but they truly want to talk to you and become your friend. That is something I have found to be very rare in the more touristed areas of Southeast Asia and one of the reasons that I have fallen in love with Indonesia.

Thirty Hour Bus Ride!

When I bought a bus ticket from Lake Toba to Bukittinggi, I was ready to move on. Knowing that the journey was supposed to be fifteen hours was obviously not something to look forward to but for this trip actually had a proper bus service and I was on an “executive class” bus. The super executive bus was about five dollars more and I now realize that I should have upgraded. Maybe you wouldn't have been able to smoke on that one? Anyway, so the bus sets off a bit over an hour after it is supposed to. Leaving late is by all means expected here so I patiently waited on the bus to show up. Now on board and winding our way through the Sumatran Jungles as the sunset, I was happy to be on my way.

It was now dark, the sun had set and we had just taken a break for some dinner at one of the roadside food stands. A bit of chicken and some rice and I was ready to attempt to fall asleep and wake up the next morning in Bukittinggi. It took a while to fall asleep so I enjoyed looking out the front window of the bus to see the densest jungle you can imagine and our driver expertly navigate roads that are barely wide enough for one car up and down the mountains on the absolute most curvy road I have ever seen. Combine that with the fact that there was a non stop downpour the entire trip and it was an incredible sight to watch, better than any movie could have been had they actually played one. There is no telling how slow we were actually going but this was like a ride in a theme park. How we didn't run off the road or collide with another vehicle I will never understand but all in all I wish it had been daylight so I could have enjoyed the amazing scenery that surrounded this tiny little road that is the main highway across the island of Sumatra.

When I awoke the next morning, I felt the bus come to a stop. We were in the middle of the jungle and I could see a few cars lined up ahead and didn't think much of it. It was just past sunrise and after a quick look around I fell back asleep. A couple of hours I woke up again and we still hadn't moved. I spent most of my morning reading my book as it was raining outside and I didn't want to soak everything I was wearing for the rest of the journey, how ever far that may have been. The rain finally began to let up and it was just in time as I was beginning to feel a bit sick from the stagnant smoke from all of the passengers on board. Unsure of what was going on, I began walking ahead to find what was blocking the road. Not too far up the road, I found there was a massive landslide that had taken a huge portion of the hillside and deposited it on the road.

Although the landslide had happened six hours previously the only people trying to clean it up were a few guys who had shovels and picks in their cars and one man who fortunately had a chainsaw to cut up all of the trees that had washed down. With a couple of hundred people watching, I was unsure what to make of the situation. After a few hours of watching the pathetic display of a cleanup, the trees around the previous landslide began to shake and everyone began screaming and pointing at the hill when suddenly another chunk of the mountain slid down onto the road. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Just when I thought they were making progress and we would soon be on our way, the road was now blocked even worse than before.

Several hours later and I was beginning to think that it was going to be another night on the bus without food or water. As I finished the last page of my book, a bulldozer came rummaging along the side of us. Everyone on board let out a big cheer and I couldn't have been happier. Twenty minutes later and the road was cleared and we were off on our way. Traversing down the mountain we came across signs of many other landslides and trees that had been across the road which had already been cut up and moved out of our way. At the base of the hill, we came across a village who had suffered from the heavier rains far worse than we had. Every home and structure in sight had about a foot of water inside of it. For miles and miles it looked like we were driving alongside a lake with a bunch of floating houses. Strange however, everyone seemed to be enjoying the river that was now running through there homes. Children played and the adults just smiled and watched. I can only imagine that this is such a regular occurrence that they are used to living with it and just see it as a part of everyday life there in Sumatra.

Thirty hours after my fifteen hour bus ride began, we finally arrived in Bukittinggi. Tired and hungy, I found a guest house and after tossing my bag in my room I headed for a place called the Canyon Cafe that was just across the street from where I was staying. After first ordering a beer I managed to order about half of the menu and had my first meal in over 24 hours! Needless to say when I went to bed that night, falling asleep was definitely not a problem. I think I am through with long bus rides for the remainder of my time in Sumatra. It means scratching a place I wanted to see off my list but I don't think the reward of making it there would be worth all of the effort!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Relaxing on Lake Toba

I arrived at Lake Toba which is actually the crater of the largest volcano in the world, five days ago. Being that this is the number one tourist destination in Sumatra, I had heard many good things about it. However, saying that something is the number one tourist destination in Sumatra may seem like it would be quite crowded. Although I have seen more westerners here than anywhere else in Sumatra, I don't think that number exceeded about twenty. Apparently back in the early 90's before a lot of Indonesia's political troubles, this place was as popular a spot to visit as Bali. Now however, there are just a few people on the backpacker routes along with a small weekend crowd that comes down from Medan, the largest city in Sumatra. Seeing the overwhelming number of guest houses, restaurants and half finished hotels here would break anyone's heart. Everything is empty and the people are so kind to you and hopeful that they can persuade you to have a meal at their restaurant or buy just a bottle of water so they can have just a bit of money. I don't think that I have eaten anywhere on the island in the middle of the lake that I am staying on where there has been another person in the restaurant with me. While having your own private restaurant could in some ways be a wonderful thing, here it is a sad story of people who have built a life on a now non existent tourism industry that has virtually disappeared.

When I arrived here, I knew that if I really wanted to relax and enjoy my stay, finding a nice guest house was going to be a very important factor. I spent a couple of hours walking around the village of Tuk Tuk where I am now based on the island of Samosir in the middle of Lake Toba. After visiting about ten different guest houses, all with a lot of character as well as very affordable, I finally made my way to a place called Bagus Bay guest house. When I asked to see a room, they took me up to the second story of a little villa and when the door opened, it was like a seen from a movie. The wind was blowing through the open windows onto the balcony making the curtains that were a deep shade of blue flutter through the air. With deep red colored tiles on the floor, white walls and the ceiling, doors and other wood work all stained a rich brown, the blue curtains, matching bed spread and mosquito net completed the picture of the most pleasant place to stay I could imagine. It had a private balcony with an obstructed view of the lake through the dense tropical foliage that surrounded the guest house. All of this for 50,000 Rupiah, or just over five dollars!

While here, it has been a series of rainy days with some intermittent sunshine. My first day here it practically rained the entire time but after the miserable bus ride down, I was glad to take some time to sit on the porch, listen to the rain and read a good book. It reminded me of my days living on board Seawanhaka when most of the days were filled with nothing more than complete relaxation. Sometimes on a rainy day aboard the boat when we weren't sailing, we would all find a spot inside and sit down and read. By the end of the day, we had all finished our books and were ready to start another. When you have the time to enjoy the rainy days it is in my opinion the essence of what traveling is all about. There is no rush to see things, they will be there the next day and as you don't have a schedule to worry about you just sit back and wait until the rain quits even if it takes a week to finally come to an end.

The next day, the morning sun was coming through my window and I knew it was going to be a beautiful day. The overcasts skies and rain that had been around for the past week or so were gone and I got out of bed and had a wonderful breakfast overlooking the lake and the steep mountains that make up the rim of the volcano that surrounded me. I rented a motor scooter to set out and explore the bumpy road of the island as well as the nearby shoreline of the lake that is connected by a small bridge on the Western side. It didn't take long for me to acknowledge the fact that I should have put on a bit of sunblock as it was only nine in the morning and I could already feel the equatorial sun cooking my arms along with the back of my neck. Ignorantly I pressed on without turning back and would rapidly begin to regret that decision.

With the roads to the South blocked by a massive landslide I took my time cruising down the shores around the Northern end of the island until I had circled about halfway down the Western coast to the town that is home to the bridge connecting the island with the mainland. I crossed the bridge and ventured up to the nearby hot springs that was on my map I had picked up back in Tuk Tuk. After paying the 1,000 Rupiah entrance fee (about 15 cents), I parked my scooter and began walking up what looked like a landslide with a series of pipes running up the middle of it where many of the nearby guest houses had obviously tapped into the springs to provide thermal baths for their guests. I soon realized that what at first had looked like a landslide was actually more a small area of volcanic activity. A stream of steaming hot water flowed over the rocks covered in white and yellow sulphuric deposits. At the end of the stream was a waterfall, pouring straight out from the rocks from deep beneath the ground. From the heat being generated through all of the rocks around me, I knew it wasn't just the warmth of the sun that was heating this place up. I bent down to have a feel of the water running down the springs and yanked my burned fingers quickly back. The water was as close to boiling as any other hot spring I had found before. I don't know that I would have braved those temperatures in the middle of a Canadian Winter, but I sure as hell was not sticking my already toasty skin into the water here today.

The hot springs were about the only thing shown on the map on the mainland including roads but I decided to risk the chance of getting lost and headed down a bumpy, not to mention muddy road that seemed to follow around the edge of the mountain that the hot spring poured from. The road at first followed the edge of the lake revealing incredible views of the nearby shores and then slowly began to climb and make it's way inland. At one point, I had brought the bike to a stop and was taking a picture of the island where I was staying when I turned around to discover a small old Indonesian woman making a motion pointing at the motor scooter and pointing up the mountain. I determined she wanted a ride up the mountain and I have to say that even though it is pretty common here to see an elderly woman either driving or riding on the back of a scooter, I am still impressed by there capability of riding on the bumpy roads without a complaint of a soar muscle in their bodies. The woman who had to be at least eighty years old climbed on the back and we took off up the hill. It only took about fifteen minutes till we reached the top of the hill where she pointed to a woman who was drying some rice in front of a little shack that looked like it must be her home. I dropped her off and she thanked me in Indonesian and I responded with Sama Sama, “your welcome” the extent of my Indonesian language skills.

The road continued to circle the mountain as I hoped it would and seemed to be leading me back to where I began. The views of the valley on the backside were incredible. The entire time I was looking down on an enormous valley with a multitude of waterfalls pouring in off the nearby mountains. All of the communities that lived in this area were traditional Batak communities that still dwell in these massive houses with enormous sweeping roof lines. If you took away the satellite dishes that seemed to be everywhere, it was like looking through time into the lives of a civilization that existed hundreds of years ago. Realistically, the only things that have changed for the people living here is the invention of electricity and the motor scooters that they all get around on. Apart from that, there simple lives as farmers, sustaining their families off of the land still continues today.

When the road finally ended in a “T” and what felt like I must be almost back to the lake but now on the other side of the mountain, I noticed another road winding high up one of the tallest mountains that I could see. Not knowing exactly where I was or if the fuel gage on the motor scooter actually worked, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to see where this road would lead. For a full hour, I wound my way up the multitude of switchbacks and turns on the bumpy road towards the top. The views along the way of the nearby valleys as well as back toward the lake and Samosir Island were among some of the best sites that I have seen anywhere in the world. While the air had significantly cooled off near the top, I could definitely tell that the sun was wreaking serious havoc on my arms and neck.

At the peak of the mountain, I came upon a sort of viewing tower and made my way up to the top. From here, I was rewarded with a panoramic view of the massive island I was staying on as well as a view in all directions of the entire crater of this enormous volcano. Along with the incredible scenery, I could also see the extent of the dark clouds that had been slowly creeping up on me throughout the day and that I had chosen to ignore since the sky in the direction I was heading was always blue. I was hoping for the “it will blow over” scenario but now sitting at the highest point for miles around, I could see the rain overtaking the North end of the island along with everything else beyond.

After enjoying the view for a bit, I decided I better make my way to the nearby town and try and beat the rain. My plan was to zip down the mountain to the town where the bridge was that crossed back to the island. If I could beat the rain there, then I could find a restaurant to sit down and have some lunch at and wait out the storm. Racing the clouds, I pulled into a small cafe just as it began to pour. I was pleased with my accomplishment and smiled that I was still dry while the rain came down around the small patio that I was now sitting on ordering some lunch.

With my meal complete and the rain pouring down even harder, I began to wonder if this was the kind of rain that was ever going to end. It's funny but I couldn't help thinking about the fact that when I considered bringing sun block with me this morning, I had also thought that it would be a good idea t throw my raincoat in my pack. No, I said, it is too nice of a day, it won't rain! Ha!, my own stupidity! I now found myself faced with a severe sunburn which I knew would turn into a somewhat unattractive farmers tan as well as the decision to ride back to Tuk Tuk in the rain. Even though we are practically sitting on the equator, the elevation of the lake is pretty high which provides for mild days and cool nights. I knew that riding a scooter here in the rain was not going to be a fun experience at all. I could only think back to how many times I had been caught out in the rain on my motorcycle back home in cold weather and found myself uncontrollably shivering by the end of the journey.

I gave up on waiting and set out into the cold rain for a full hours long journey back to Tuk Tuk. After shivering most of the way and feeling like my sunburned face was being constantly jabbed by needles in the form of sharp raindrops, the rain finally let up. I was almost back to Tuk Tuk and there was hardly even a sign of rain there! It was a sunny afternoon with a few puddles of rain left over from the rain that had passed through. Looking back at the North end of the island, I could see however that the rain was continuing and seemed to be lingering there blocking everyone's path who wanted to cross to the other side of the island. Soaking wet and as sun burnt as I have ever been, I made my way back to my wonderful little room where I found some warm clothes and applied some lotion to help ease the suffering of the pain on my arms, face and neck. I may have been in pain, but I have to admit that it was a truly amazing day filled with scenery like no other that I have scene before.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

The torture of traveling by bus in Sumatra

I know I have talked as if everything in Sumatra is quite wonderful but I have failed to mention how difficult getting around here is. The journeys between towns are the most difficult and miserable of anywhere I have been before. While you can probably imagine crowded buses and bumpy roads, unless you have been here, you can't imagine what it is like to be stuffed into a small van or mini bus with a ridiculous number of people not to mention the fact that there is always room for one more on board. I can only say that the short trips I have made so far on the island have been some of the most trying and difficult times in my life and it honestly makes me feel sick every time I think about the distances between all of the places I want to visit here in the future.

On my journey between Bukit Lawang and Berstagi, I began my day by walking a couple of miles carrying all of my gear through the rain to where I was able to find a motorcycle taxi who in turn brought me to the bus station. This was the only real bus I have ridden on here and was also the most comfortable portion of any of the journeys yet. While it was bare bones, extremely cramped and very bumpy, it was a virtual luxury compared to the vans and mini buses which are the main forms of transportation to so many of the remote places I am visiting here in Sumatra. It took three and a half hours to travel seventy five kilometers or about forty miles. Not so much because of the constant stopping but the roads were more like a four wheel drive path through deep muddy puddles and rocky escarpments scattered throughout the jungle.

After the long bus journey I had to switch to a mini bus. I boarded a half empty mini bus which is basically nothing more than a big van with a ton of seats inside. It is set up to have five rows of five seats plus three passengers in the front with the driver, totaling 29 people in the same space that back home we would normally have room for maybe 12 to 14. Now just because the bus was half full when I got on didn't mean a thing. In the hot tropical sun, we all sat for over an hour waiting on the bus to fill up before departing. With half the passengers smoking, the heat from the sun cooking the van and my shoulders jammed between the window and a wall of people I was beginning to feel absolutely sick. Just when I had reached the point where I didn't think that I could take it any longer, we started moving and the breeze began to flow through the window making at least the cigarette smoke dissipate as well as the sweltering heat. For two and a half hours this time on fairly decent roads we manged to cover about sixty kilometers (about 35 miles). When we finally arrived, I gladly exited the the torture chamber that the driver kept referring to as a bus in the chilly mountain town of Berstagi.

Traveling yesterday however was even worse than the previous trip. This time there was no chance of riding on a regular bus at all and I would have to make my way through three different mini bus transfers over the course of four and a half hours covering around 100 kilometers or sixty miles. Of the three mini buses I was on yesterday, only the second one which also happened to be the longest was completely miserable. The other two probably would have been worse had I not experienced an arduous journey a few days prior but I don't think I have ever been as cramped and miserable as yesterdays travels.

When I boarded the mini bus just outside of Berstagi on my way to Lake Toba, I looked at it and it seemed to be a step up in quality from the one that had almost driven me out of my mind a few days ago. They pointed me to the first row of seats where sat the two heaviest Indonesian people I have ever seen. Seeing as how I am bigger than most of the people here, it is strange to come across two people who are extremely fat and swollen to at least twice the width of my body. Most everyone else is smaller and very thin so I can see where putting five people in a row of seats is not so bad to them. As I sat down next to the heavy set couple, I was feeling a little cramped but I thought that this would be a bearable journey and I began to relax.

As the bus filled up waiting to depart, the driver made a motion to me which I soon realized indicated that there was going to be another person sitting in the row with us. I looked around and realized that there were actually four headrests on my seat instead of the three I thought I had noticed. The large couple and I squeezed in as tight as possible and made about half of a narrow seats width worth of room for the Indonesian man who would be sitting next to me for the entire trip. Without enough room for all of us to sit with our shoulders side to side, my left shoulder was digging into the middle of the back of the man to my left while the squishy arm and shoulder of the woman to my right came to about the middle of my chest. Every turn was excruciating as I we leaned from side to side with the motion of the van careening down the narrow and bumpy road. I don't know if I was in more pain or the poor man whose back was taking the full force of my shoulder digging into it along with the weight of myself and the Indonesian couple beside me.

Just when I thought it couldn't get any worse and all the seats were filled, we began stopping and picking up more people. In the front seat next to the driver was a double stack of three people in the seat and three people on their laps which completely blocked my view out of the windshield. All said and done, for me that was probably for the best as I didn't have to look at my life flashing before my eyes every time we passed someone or went around another turn. Now in the row with myself and the three other people was a man standing directly in front of me. Hunched over and holding onto the front row of seats with a cigarette in his hand, he continuously ashed on my legs and blew smoke into my face. To the left and the right of my head were the faces of two other people who were in a similar position to the man standing in front of me only they were positioned one row back. Using my shoulders as grips around the turns they pulled and tugged to avoid being tossed around as we followed the narrow road a little further down to where we could find more people to stuff in the tiny little van.

I never took count of how many people were actually in the van but at one point I would have to guess from the amount of smoke as well as the number of times we stopped and another person crammed in behind me that this van held over thirty five people. With my legs cramping, my shoulders hurting and sweat running down every inch of my body, I don't think there are many things in my life that I have done that have been half as miserable as that journey. I admit that the rewards of the places I have seen have been worth the journey but this makes me miss the convenience of having my own car back home where I have my own seat, my own music, the ability to roll the windows up and down as I please, and most importantly the right to ban smoking from inside my vehicle!

HIking Gunung Sibayak

While finishing my lunch that consisted of three pieces of chicken, some french fries as well as an order of ice cream, all for under three dollars, I laughed out loud at the wonder of being able to eat so cheaply and then I suddenly felt guilty for having such a wonderful time everyday and wondered how everyone back home was doing sitting at their desks, grueling through another eight hour day at the office. I can't say that the guilt lasted to long but I ran back through the events of my day and thought about just how lucky I am to be here in Indonesia right now.

Without the sound of an alarm clock, I slowly got out of bed on a brisk and cloudy morning in the town of Berstagi which sits in the heart of the mountains of Northern Sumatra. After getting dressed, I made my way down to the small cafe at the guest house I am staying at and as always started my day off with a cup of coffee. Not only is the coffee here in Sumatra some of the best I have ever had but they also pour sweetened condensed milk in it which makes it taste even better! Sitting at a table outside and watching the gray clouds begin to part allowing large patches of blue to fill the sky, I made my way through a couple of chapters of Amistad, the most recent book I have acquired. With the cup of coffee now empty, I spent a few minutes looking over the menu and ordered a cheese omelet, some toast and a couple of peanut butter sandwiches to take on my hike with me.

With my mornings energy needs met, I took my time packing my small back pack for my hike up nearby active volcano Sibayak. Departing from my guest house just after eight, I thought about what life back home was like this time of day. The phone was already ringing and my mind was already going in fifty different directions. Here I was however, strolling slowly uphill along the path to an active volcano with no one around and the only sounds I could hear were from the steam vents that lie just ahead.

The narrow asphalt path that led most of the way up the mountain eventually ended and I emerged from the jungle into the Martian landscape that surrounds the craters of active volcanoes throughout the world. With loose rock in every direction and now high enough to be immersed in the clouds, I could hear the constant roaring and hissing sounds from the steam vents that were all around me. Hearing that there was a large vent just off the trail, I wandered off into the mist to find the source of the angry hissing that the volcano was discharging nearby. It didn't take long before I found two small holes in the rocky surface surrounded by a yellow film that were emitting a stream of steam that looked like the largest tea kettle in the world was ready to be taken off the burner. The sound was incredible. It reminded me of standing near a jet engine on a runway but about three times louder and ten times more exciting!
After inspecting the steam vents, I could still hear others in the distance but decided I should make my way back to the trail to avoid getting lost in the clouds that were engulfing the top of the volcano. Once back on the trail, it wasn't long before I reached the crater and realized that attempting any photos of the cloudy landscape would be useless so I just snapped one of myself with everything white beyond just to have a memory from the top of the volcano. I sat down with the constant hissing sounds all around me as well as the noise from strong winds ringing in my ear and ate my peanut butter sandwiches to provide me with some energy for the long journey down.

It took a while to find the path that lead down the other side of the volcano to a nearby hot spring and after venturing off onto another of the many unmarked paths, I found I was going nowhere. I climbed back up to the crater and tried to figure out what to do. I had been wandering around for a solid hour but I couldn't figure out where to go to make my way down to the hot springs. Just when I was beginning to feel a bit of defeat and was going to follow my path back down, the clouds thinned out for a bit and I saw what looked like it could be a path leading over a nearby ridge. As I climbed the ridge, I still had my doubts as to weather or not this was actually the way to go or not. This is not the kind of place where they mark trails or anything. Most trails just exist and that is why they usually want you to take a guide. For this hike however, I had gotten hold of an extremely rudimentary map which at this point wasn't doing me any good. The one redeeming part of the map was that it did mention there was a point on the way down where there were “well maintained” concrete steps. As I followed the ridge down the other side and began descending the face of the volcano, I stopped to take a look around and see if I could tell where the trail was going to lead me. With not much hope on the horizon, I looked down at my feet and found the rock I was standing on was actually a chunk of concrete! There they were! The concrete stairs! I can't say that I would call them well maintained by any means but I was standing on one and not far from me was a few more that had slid down the mountain. It looked like the volcanic activity had destroyed or at least moved most of the stairs, but this was definitely the right direction!

As the trail down got away from the exposed face of the volcano, the stairs became more consistent and became an easy to follow but long path down the mountain through the jungle. On the way down I was hoping to spot more wildlife in the jungle but was only able to locate a few monkeys in one of the nearby trees. They were a different breed than any other that I have seen before so I was excited to at least find another creature that I had never seen before.
After what felt like an endless downhill journey, I finally emerged on the edge of a small town where I quickly located the hot springs and settled in for a relaxing soak to ease my aching muscles. All alone, I sat in the hot springs and looked back up to where I had just come from. It wasn't until then that I realized that this volcano was actually missing an entire side. It must have been blown off in the most recent eruptions and scattered throughout the rocky debris falling down the side were a series of enormous steam vents shooting the superheated water into the sky to add to the misty effect that the clouds were taking on the top of the volcano. It was a beautiful sight and a relaxing place to spend the early afternoon soaking away in the steamy baths after a hard day of climbing.

Feeling a bit hungry, I decided to end my soak in the springs and make my way back to town so that I could enjoy a late lunch. After withdrawing 1.2 million Rupiah out of the atm, I found a place called Mexican Fried Chicken. The first I have seen of anything like that here but seeing as how I am tired of rice and noodles, it sounded pretty good to me. Sitting there, I began to reflect on what a wonderful day it was. The daily adventures that my travels take me on never seem to grow old. I know they will end one day and I will be back at a desk somewhere wishing I was still visiting new places but for now, that is a distant thought as there are still so many places to see and visit.

Arrival in Sumatra

Phenomenal! I think that best describes my initial reaction to Sumatra, an enormous islands that make up Indonesia. Having wanted to come here for years and see this mountainous island that is covered in forests, volcanoes and wild animals, my first day in Sumatra has shown me that it is everything I expected and more. I flew into Medan, the largest city on the island but had no intention of staying there. My destination was the town of Bukit Lawang which sits on the boundary of Gunung Lesuser National Park, home to tigers, rhinoceroses, elephants, and orangutans as well as many many more other types of strange animals and exotic birds. The guide book told me that it was about a four hour bus ride from Medan and after meeting a German couple at the airport we elected to save some time and take a taxi instead.

Now I had read that the roads here were bad but until experiencing it first hand, I could never have imagined what it would have been like. The journey from Medan to Bukit Lawang was only seventy five kilometers but it took about three hours in the taxi to get there. Some stretches of the road were quite smooth and we battled our way amongst the armada of motor scooters and other vehicles plowing down the narrow streets. The rough bits however were another story. Slowing down to the speed of a brisk walk, we traversed large stretches of road that had virtually disintegrated. More four wheel drive trails than actual asphalt, the roads were in the worst condition of anywhere I have seen in the world. Many other backpackers had told me stories of how bad the roads here were but until making the journey myself, I could never have imagined.

As we left the bustle and crowds from the city the road became enveloped by the jungle and the occasional small town along the way. We criss crossed our way over the river on small decrepit old bridges and every now and then were gifted with a stuffing view of the mountains we were heading towards. The last twenty or so kilometers of the journey were by far the slowest. Sometimes villagers on bicycles were traveling much faster than our little taxi as we crept over what was left of the what had previously been a road.

When we arrived to a small parking lot at the edge of town, I asked if the taxi driver knew where the jungle inn was so that we could be dropped off there. By now, the car was surrounded by people trying to show us to the different guest houses in town. They all said that there were no roads and we had to walk from here. We reluctantly agreed and found that everyone was correct. The town was a series of paths and rope bridges that crossed the river and followed it upstream with the surrounding forest almost overtaking all of the buildings that were gently tucked away into the edges. After a brief tour of several guest houses, I made it to my the Jungle Inn, my original destination. With a large outdoor patio overlooking the river as well as the entrance to the National Park, the surrounding rooms and buildings seemed to spill forth from the jungle and down to the river's edge. I asked to see a room and they led me to a spacious room with a king sized bed, my own bathroom and clear roof panels allowing the sunlight filtered by the surrounding jungle to fill the room. Through the screened in windows that were open I could see a small waterfall pouring out of the jungle just a matter of feet from my window which poured into a rushing stream running alongside the adjacent wall of my room. No other sounds could penetrate the rushing water going past and I knew this was the perfect place. I asked how much and the man told me it was 80,000 Rupiah per night. I didn't bother negotiating as I knew the German couple I had ridden up from Mean with was looking for a room and after having such a bad experience at my hostel in Kuala Lumpur, I was glad to dish out nine U.S. Dollars for such a wonderful place!

After setting my things down in what was like a palace for me, I took a shower and ventured back outside to the porch where meals and beer were served. Sitting down to enjoy a banana milkshake, I looked out at the forest on the other side of the river and noticed a couple of red blotches on the trees. After staring at them for a bit, the red blotches began to move around and I realized that as I suspected, they were wild Orangutans. I couldn't believe that I was already seeing wild orangutans here in Sumatra and I hadn't even left the guest house. What an amazing place this is going to be to travel! I can't wait to venture into the park and have the opportunity to spend several days immersed in the surrounding jungle along with all of it's wild inhabitants!

Friday, March 7, 2008

Kuala Lumpur

A day and a half was more than enough time to have a look around Kuala Lumpur. The city wasn't such a bad place to visit but from a tourism point of view, there is just not that much to see there. I spent the first afternoon there wandering around the colonial district which is filled with fascinating examples of old Moorish style buildings and afterwards I strolled through the overwhelming markets that occupy most of China town. Between fake Rolex watches and pirated DVDs, I have to admit that it is a shoppers delight. While I didn't purchase one single thing there, I found it is cheaper to buy movies in the markets as is the case through most of Southeast Asia than to rent them back in the U.S.

My second day in Kuala Lumpur I awoke early and made my way to the Petronas towers where I stood in line for an hour and a half in order to obtain a ticket to walk across the sky bridge that joins the two towers together a little less than half way up. They only give out 1200 tickets a day so I was told to arrive early in order to obtain one. As I came down the stairs inside the tower I found there to already be a short line. It was strange however to see that there were no boundary ropes to contain the line in any sort of order. As the line grew, at the direction of a security guard, it began snaking it's way back towards the ticket counter now on the opposite side that you entered the room. To everyone who came in, it now looked like there were two lines and they would all come and stand behind me as I was standing at the turn where the line reversed itself. Even though all the people in the second line were facing the back of the room instead of the ticket counter, I still had to explain to everyone who came that this was not the back of the line. After three more lines of people built up in this same fashion, the end of the line was basically shoved into a corner and the space between the first line and the wall kept becoming more cramped and cramped while the side that you entered on remained wide open. To add to this, the wall that enclosed the other side of the line was a fitness club for the building and all of the health conscious Malaysians who worked there had to battle their way through the mass of people to get to the door. I kept wondering why in a building so complex the simplest portion was designed so poorly.

At the ticket counter, the line problem did something even stranger. Just before you walked up to the ticket counter there was a small rope near a yellow x on the floor that stated to please do not stand on the x to allow people to pass through. Seeing a slightly bland corridor leading in the direction the x on the floor let to, I figured that it was for security and other building personnel to pass through. To the opposite side of the ticket counter was a small museum which I assumed would eventually lead towards the elevator to take us to the bridge. After a quick exploration of the museum, I found that it was my turn to go up to the sky bridge and was quickly led through the other line, across the yellow x on the floor to the elevator that would take me to the top. I don't know if it was the architect in me thinking but this had to be the worst arrangement I had ever seen for something so simple. You don't typically find things like this is buildings that are not only amongst the tallest in the world but also the main tourist draw in the entire city.

Along with about 25 other people, I piled into a cramped and very drab looking elevator. It felt as if we had been stuffed into a cargo elevator at the back of some garage in order to not be seen by the wealthy occupants of a building. It was strange to see as everything else in this building was so first class. At the sky bridge level we all departed and were promptly discharged onto the bridge. Looking out the window was a pretty amazing experience as the roofs of nearly every other building in the city were below us and here we were not even half way up the towers! After our ten minutes on the bridge was up, our group was quickly ushered away to make room for the next group to visit.

I left the towers and took some photographs of the outside on an unfortunately gray and overcast day. Finding a place to sit down in the nearby park I consulted my guidebook to see what else I could spend my day doing in the city. Other than visiting the top of the KL tower, there didn't appear to be much left for sightseeing in Kuala Lumpur. Combined with the fact that I was staying at the absolutely worst hostel in Southeast Asia, I decided to visit the Air Asia office and move my ticket to Sumatra up one day thus allowing me to leave the following morning.