57 - Pit Stop Padang & Backtrack Fever (Sumatra, Indonesia)
Muddy mud-skipping, a sigh of disbelief. Douchey peacocking in high relief. Cat piss fever and big water disposal. Rick took a dump on my Mentawai proposal. But all was not lost and though I did bungle, my fearless Een carved a route through the jungle.
by The Nostomaniac
RECHARGED. REFUELED. REINVIGORATED. I bid farewell to Sungai Penuh and retraced my route back to Tapan. Having traversed this dirt road before, I knew what to expect… almost. It was dry the first time around. And the return? Not so much. Dirt plus rain equals mud. Mud plus Phantom equals elevated blood pressure. Wrong bike? Maybe. Wrong tires? Definitely. An uphill climb in the muck was a lesson in concentration and balance.
That was the easy part. Time to descend. Oh, mama. At the highest point, I weighed the pros and cons of retreat but realized, either way, I had to go down. Down, down to goblin town. There were lorries lined up atop the hill hesitant to descend. They were having trouble braking in the mud. From the look of these vehicles, I’m guessing the brakes weren’t tip-top to start. And once you began sliding, it was grab your balls and beg for mercy. I very much wanted a photo, but was too afraid to stop for fear of losing momentum… and courage… and feces. I pressed on.
I was never so happy to encounter shitty, torn up asphalt. From then on, it was smooth sailing. The scenery from Tapan to Bungus Beach more than made up for the cortisol assault I suffered in the morning and the eight hours I spent mashing my junk in the saddle. Oceans, mountains, and jungle… ahhhhhh!
Who doesn’t love a good cavalcade? Motorcycles. Sports cars. High-end SUVs. Men with toys playing in the street. Adorable… except it isn’t. Traffic’s a bitch, and I’m sure you can imagine how douchebags on Harley Davidsons circumventing congestion under police escort is perceived among the proletariat. It’s fucking obnoxious. I have nothing against enthusiasts getting together for a spin. The problem is, this has nothing to do with love of the “open” road. On the densely populated islands (Java and Bali in particular), there’s no way to appreciate what these machines can do. Not enough room. Long stretches of congestion-free roadways are few and far between. They exist, but not enough to warrant the burden these pageants place on the city in which they pass.
No, this is much more about masturbating peacocks flashing their feathers. A twenty-thousand dollar Harley in Indonesia? Useless. The same goes for Ferraris and Land Rovers, both of which I’d spotted on previous occasions. Slow down traffic so wealthy assholes can have pretend time on toys they have almost no clue how to operate. I saw a parade of tweaked out Land Rovers whose operators would probably get stuck in their backyard after a light drizzle. But they looked good. Real good. Maybe, I’m the asshole, right? Normally, I’d agree, but all this nonsense makes headlines. Yahoos with money to burn and a healthy supply of contempt to mete out. Ride Indonesia!
Still, it wasn’t all affluent douche-nozzels. I also saw Tiger (Honda’s popular 200cc motorcycle) processions, Kujang (a small two-door SUV-ish vehicle) parades, and even standard-issue moped motorcades. Then again, with the traffic situation, every day is a fucking million-man march. These “lesser” spectacles are devoid of police support. Just some dude going ahead and stopping traffic. Whatever floats your boat, I suppose.
Bule Club, anyone? I’m thinking tall white goofballs on unicycles wearing unitards blazing a path amid death and destruction while juggling coconuts the whole way.
Somewhere between Tapan and Bungus, I stopped for a bite to eat. I watched helplessly as a cat pissed on my backpack. Didn’t see it coming, and by the time I reacted, the little sumbitch’s bladder was empty. I wanted, no I needed revenge… but how? By pissing on the pretty kitty? A valuable lesson, no? Probably not the best “hearts and minds” strategy, so I relented.
I found suitable lodging in the small oceanside village of Bungus Beach, planning my next move over beer and seafood. It was nice enough though there was nothing remarkable about the village or the accommodation. I considered sticking around for a snorkel but the cost for a solo traveler couldn’t possibly justify the reward. So, I forbore.
My amusement with a sign posted at my guesthouse was more than adequate compensation. It was aimed at day trippers (i.e. locals) looking for a little fun in the sun. “Mandi” is a basin that holds water for bathing. “Buang air kecil” refers to pee-pee. “Buang air besar” encapsulates number two. “Buang” means to throw away. “Air” is water. “Kecil” and “besar” are “small” and “large” respectively. So, if you need to “buang air besar”, you have to literally “throw away big water.” Twenty cents to bathe. Ten cents a squirt. Ditto for dumping. Capitalism rules.
The next morning, I ventured twenty minutes north to Padang City. There were a few possibilities I wanted to explore before continuing on to Bukittinggi. One curiosity was Air Manis beach to the west of Padang. Heard good things. Read good things. I was open to the possibility of spending a few nights plying the shores for insights and meaning. And, truthfully, it would be remarkable save for one detail—the enormous amount of trash washed up and/or deposited on its shores. This was too much. No hope of relaxing amid ecological catastrophe. Quite a pity. One possibility down.
On to possibility #2. I’d read about the surfing paradise that is the Mentawai Islands. I had no intention of surfing (ain’t no place for neophytes), but I was intrigued by its history, culture, and reputed beauty. My guidebook investigation led me to Rick, an Aussy expat living in Indo for over twenty-five years. He was part owner of a surf company organizing tours for radical dudes. I met him at the office, and he graciously invited me to his home for brewskis and a chat.
At the time, getting to the islands wasn’t such an easy affair. Without the benefit of a group, going solo was prohibitively expensive. From a cursory internet search, I see this is no longer the case, and from what I’ve read, I should’ve been more persistent. Along with unique flora and fauna evolving after its break with mainland Sumatra (think Madagascar), there are also indigenous hunter-gatherer tribes (Mentawai people) that maintain a somewhat traditional lifestyle. Even as I write this, I flagellate myself mentally for the misstep.
Although Rick discouraged an island visit, it didn’t sour our exchange. I found his take on Indonesian living enlightening. In two hours time, he reaffirmed many of the idiosyncrasies I’d encountered during my stay. I mentioned previously that many a time while stopping to ask directions I encountered the deer-in-the-headlights-what-is-this-thing-that-speaks-to-me expression. I thought it was a natural consequence of my subpar language skills. As it turns out, Rick has experienced the same phenomenon many times in spite of his fluency. I guess it’s difficult to believe white stuff might know a few words of the local tongue. I thanked him for his hospitality and moved on secure in the knowledge I was destined for confusion no matter how clearly I communicated.
Ever have a spaghetti sandwich? Me neither. So, you can understand why I had to have one when I spotted it on a menu. I had zero desire for either spaghetti or a sandwich, but the combination titillated me. It wasn’t half bad though it only contained spaghetti (as in tomato) sauce, not pasta. Maybe next time.
Ever had Padang cuisine? Allow me to introduce you. Sit down. Bowls of standard fare appear. Eat what you pay for. No more. No less. The rest is returned. Returned? Returned where? Not sure. I’m guessing as long as you don’t touchy touchy, the food can be “recycled”? Maybe? Probably? Not clear how it works. Didn’t really want to think about it. Vegetables, meat, and fish comprise most of the cornucopia but there are many varieties of each. In fact, I could only identify a solid twenty-five percent of the food. That didn’t stop me from eating it, mind you, just gave me pause before diving in. I did smell first, so I’m not a total barbarian.
*Author's Note – Almost three months after I left Padang, a 7.6 magnitude earthquake devastated the area. A near miss? Oh, the fickle hand of fate. I can’t imagine the chaos and heartache.
With disappointment on my breath, I drove on to Bukittinggi. No beach getaway to Air Manis. No island retreat to Mentawai. Part of me believed I should’ve pushed harder, but I knew too much money and time would’ve been required. With less than two months left on my visa, I had to choose my battles. In the end, I think I chose wisely, but there will always be that nagging regret nestled in some dark recess of my mind, the “What Could’ve Been Department”… sigh.
I hadn’t meant to reach Bukittinggi when I did. En (my guide from Mt. Kerinci) was supposed to text me with orders to return for our jungle retreat. I heard nothing, so I texted him. No reply. I assumed the trip was off. Annnnnd… what happens when you assume, grasshopper? You make asses all around. I hadn’t heard from En because he was in the forest scouting a route through Kerinci National Park… ya big dum dum.
He finally answered. It was game on. I had little wish to drive a hundred eighty miles and eight hours in the opposite direction. Of course, I was dying for a jungle adventure, but I had an irrationally neurotic “move forward, not backward” impulse. This was, well, fucking stupid, I know. I knew then.
Turns out, I have some semblance of a conscience. Who knew? I let guilt be my diving rod. En spent three days surveying a route in the shit (i.e. the intended inclusion area). He’d spent his own time and money at my behest. I couldn’t leave him hanging. This wasn’t just business. I genuinely like En and considered him a friend. Sure, a shitload of things could go wrong, but I had to take the chance. The payoff was potentially huge. Lions, and tigers, and bears, oh my! (Minus the lions and the bears). Elephants? Tapirs? Rhinoceroses? Who knows? Only one way to find out, right?
Time was of the essence. He was only free for a week which included the three days for the trip. After that, he was traveling elsewhere. So, I had to move. And I did. As it stood, I would have only a day’s cushion. Arrive. Prepare. Sleep. Jungle. No rest for the wicked.
The eight-hour drive back to Kersik Tuo was not uneventful. First, I missed a turn and drove forty-five minutes wrongly in the wrong direction. Whoops. “Whoops” but not the “Oops!” and “Oh, shit!” I witnessed on the way. If I thought I was having a bad day, I had to adjust my perception when passing a large lorry overturned on the roadside. That was a bad day. Wow.
I stopped for lunch at a small restaurant. Using my acute powers of deduction, I concluded they didn’t see the likes of me often. How could I be sure? Well… I entered and sat. A female employee approached, sat across from me, and began snapping photos on her camera phone while speaking to a friend standing nearby. When she finished, she got up and walked away never speaking a word to me. Zoo animals of the world, I emphasize. And no, I wasn’t the least bit insulted. On the contrary, I feared uncontrollable laughter might cause offense. Suppressing a giggle fit required supreme discipline.
I arrived home (i.e. Mr. Pak’s Homestay) where I’d quartered two weeks before. I met with En for an orientation. To the jungle, bubba! It was then I learned he’d planned a five-day excursion, not the three-day fandango we’d discussed. You could say I was less than disappointed. A visceral “Fuck Yeah!” resulted. Giddy as a goat fucker was I. We were to leave the next morning.
Hungarian birdwatchers were at my guesthouse. Two Hungarian birders. Two birdmen from Hungary. Twitchers twitching in the jungle… from Hungary. Over the past few years, I’ve come to appreciate our feathery Earthmates more and more. There really is something magical about the secret life of birds. But you have to pay attention. You have to earn it, so to speak. Patience is a virtue, knowledge a prerequisite.
The other day I knew spring had arrived. Not by the calendar and certainly not by the weather. Too cold. Too much snow on the ground. Visually and viscerally spring felt far, far away. Auditorially, however, it was a different story. The red-winged blackbird’s conk-la-ree. The robin’s cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up. Once you “see” you can’t unsee. Birdsong is a gift, one I’d taken for granted for most of my life.
See bird. Identify bird. Enjoy bird. I once sat in my backyard near an abandoned beaver pond “conversing” with a Canada goose. I used audio files on my computer for my little back and forth with one confused goose. And hummingbirds? Don’t get me started. Amazing. Birds have always been present. Me? Not so much.
That being said, allow me to be dickish. Exceptions abound for sure, but the bird watchers I’ve crossed paths with over the years haven’t been the most exciting folks. (Like accountants on half an Adderall, maybe?) Not bad, just a little boring. A little. I’m all for birds. Protect them. Watch them. Hump them if you like (responsibly). As I’ve mentioned, my appreciation for aves swells every day. And yet, I can’t imagine trolling the jungles, savannas, and mountain ranges of the planet hoping for a fleeting glimpse of a distant Tweety-tweeterson. Eagles, owls, Birds of Paradise (New Guinea), and others of the ilk I can get excited about, but I still don’t know if I have the patience to wait around hoping one will beguile me. Again, you have to earn that shit. If you do have the patience to focus on birds, more power to ya. Honestly, we probably need more like you, especially in the research realm. Patience? Mental fortitude? You win. Without a world-class expert in tow and an obnoxious set of binoculars, I’m afraid I can’t get on board… yet. Still, my mind is open…
*The photos and video below are from upstate New York.