One thing that defiantly happens to me at some point each and every time I travel is that I somehow lose track of time. It is a wonderful thing for all of us to be on holiday and have to ask “what day is it?”, it’s symbolic of our ability to finally relax and that we’ve properly escaped our day to day routines. When you’re traveling for really extended periods this phenomenon increases and you find that you not only lose track of the days but also of the months at some points. For the last 6 weeks this has really been the case for me.
So this is what happened to our backpacking duo… After experiencing 2 of Indonesia’s 13,466 islands we decided we’d really like to visit at least one more, Sumatra. But, we were up against one of the roaming travelers frequent hurdles, the tourist visa. We would either have to pay a silly amount to extend our visa once more to a 90 day or take a flight out and back into the country to gain a fresh 30 days. This seemed to be the perfect excuse to hop over to Singapore and Malaysia and see what we’d see before returning to Indo.
The 5 weeks between these 3 countries raced by for me… I lost myself… 3 nations, 10 destinations, 14 different accommodations, 3 overnight transits… we traveled from swanky air-conditioned shopping malls to the muddy jungle. We slept in 20 bed dorm rooms, traditional indigenous housing and ocean perched bungalows. We ate every international cuisine under the sun… Singapore’s diverse neighborhoods of Indian, Chinese and Vietnamese kept me perpetually full. We had the most expensive/satisfying fish and chips I’ve ever consumed in Kuala Lumpur and a new favorite, a Sumatran curry known as a Sumiur. Time was flying and we were deep in it.
Now not to say that I got to the point I was no longer enjoying my travels, but popping into the western environment of Singapore seemed incredibly well timed to rejuvenate my backpacking will. This beautiful city made me long for Vancouver. The 2 cities I find are similar in so many ways, and provided us with all the comforts of home… like tap water… amazing! A 10 day spin around the Malay-Singapore peninsula however, was more than enough to ready us for some more dig your teeth in travel. We could see ourselves getting lazy with western convenience and suddenly longed for some challenge to our travel days… cue Sumatra!
Sumatra is a giant island and with only 3 weeks on it we decided to limit ourselves to the north. Challenges were what we were seeking and challenges we got…. like bus rides… they were always fun. Trying to buy tickets at a decent price was a regular activity. We traveled almost exclusively by minibus, mostly because of lack of options, this is not the most comfortable way to get around (think 1980’s Toyota style passenger vans always stuffed passed capacity). The rides ranged from death defying to so slow and cautious the trips times would double (although I did prefer those drivers to the ones drinking palm liquor en route). Another exciting challenge, and one we didn’t anticipate heading to Sumatra, was the week long holiday that marked the end of Ramadan. We knew that Ramadan would be wrapping up by the end of Aug, but what we didn’t realize is that this would coincide with a week long national holiday that would flood many popular tourist destinations with visitors from Java and make finding a room incredibly inconvenient. We did prevail in this endeavor but the credit for this goes solely to Wes who went tirelessly to at least 25 hotels and guest houses on Samosir island to find us a room while I engaged in a battle of my own, trying not to be overcome with nausea once again as a result of the crappy malaria meds we had started taking for Sumatra. I will never take doxicyclin again if I can help it.
We came across our last – biggest – and most humorous challenge in our last few days on Sumatra. After making our rounds through the northern triangle of tourist must dos which included hanging out with our orange haired cousins at an orangutan rehab center, taking in the wonders of one of the worlds largest volcanic crater lakes, paying our respects to the Tsunami center in Banda Aceh and losing count of the days snorkeling in our door front coral garden on Puala Weh (meeting more underwater critters than ever before), we decided to push out of the box and “get off the beaten path”, It amazed me how easy this was to do. We had read in our trusty Lonely Liar of a nice little town deep in Sumatra’s endless coffee and tea plantations and thought this would be a perfect place to close our Indonesian chapter. The town itself, I do admit, was nice enough. The people were over the top friendly and warm, but due to our own travel ignorance of speaking very little Indonesian communicating with anyone was next to impossible. No one, not the hotel staff, restaurants, or travel company people spoke much more than a tinsy lick of English and when you couple this with the embarrassing amount of Indonesian we could struggle through there was no way of finding out where to go and what we should see while in the area. We spent 2 1/2 days roaming around their side streets and muddy lake banks of Takengon with very little direction. The people however, seemed overjoyed to see us and shouted at us constantly, “Hello Mister!” a greeting I received almost as much as Wes did, unfortunately this is where all communication end.
It’s funny to digest the challenges of traveling and compare them with the big picture of your life. Language barriers especially are very interesting to me, and quite humbling. As a native English speaker I am tremendously lucky to live in a world that my native tongue is the go to language for international travel and business and it is remarkable how much we take that for granted. This is never more evident than when this luxury is suddenly yanked from you and you are dropped into an environment where you have to point and jester your way through every transaction and “conversation”. And I’m amazed that, despite this inability to communicate, there are so many people the world over who are still so interested in greeting us and welcoming us to their communities, seeking us out to shake our hands and say hello simply because we are foreign and different. This is so incredibly opposite to the way we most often react to people of the world in our communities… again, it’s humbling. I am forever grateful to have been so welcomed by all the unassuming people of Sumatra and I hope very much to have the opportunity to pay forward this gesture of genuine hospitality. Through the challenges of this journey I have been reminded how simple and sweet the little things really are.