International Writers Magazine: Asia Travel
chalk it up to heat-induced temporary insanity. It could happen
to any Canadian crossing the equator. I had a strong desire to
make my way to Germany, dye my hair orange and drum for a punk
band which specialized in industrial music.
The desire passed
as the bus followed the road through the lush jungle vegetation, past
rice paddies and wilted looking livestock. When I thought about summoning
enough energy to listen, I was convinced I could hear the plants grow
in the humidity. The whole island was a hothouse.
The single minded bus driver seemed to be the only one expending energy
as he missed pedestrians, livestock and other vehicles, leaned on the
horn. We were used to the danger by now. A sort of fatalistic resignation
takes over on breakneck bus rides through the countryside of Sumatra.
It was too hot to care.
We had left the craziness and heroin of Penang behind. The sweat dripped
off of our noses. Everyone on the bus, even the natives, had a worn
out, washed out look.
We were travelling from Medan, where the ferry from Penang had taken
us, down the spine of Sumatra to Lake Toba, thence to Padang, about
halfway down the island, on the coast. In Padang we spent hours at the
consulate waiting to get our visas renewed because it was cheaper there
than in Bali.
Of a dozen uniformed clerks, two were reading, the rest inspected the
Western girls or stared into space, a paper clip twisting in their fingers.
When they did stir to attend the sweating crowd of travellers they wanted
to first see proof that you had a return ticket. Its the only
legal way to enter Indonesia. It didnt matter that wed entered
days before at Medan. The passports and applications lay in a pile on
They didnt have to worry about an overwhelming influx of immigrants
heading south since the island of Java is the most thickly populated
place on earth, but it was one way for the government to get money from
A Japanese girl told Joyce that she had tonsilitis and that they didnt
have toilet paper even in hospitals in Padang. It was also seventy-five
cents for dormitory beds at the local hostel. Officially marrying before
getting to Asia saves a lot of problems. Single women are targets.
At Lake Toba, we recovered from the bus ride during which it was too
hot to sleep. The soaking heat deprived us of every travellers
last resort, the final escape from the tedium and discomfort ... sleep,
There, time stood still, then went backward.
We had landed in a timeless, primitive existence. Surrounded by the
jungle and jungle sounds. Old men wailed their night songs in the dark.
It sounded like a Tarzan movie. Wild boar lived in the jungle, endangered
humans occasionally, provided meat and tusks more often. Snakes and
mongooses and their spirits were part of the diet and the mythology.
Ancient Sumatran devils caused poor sleep, restless dreams. All the
dwellings had horned roofs which intruded, then dominated. A reminder
that no matter what it was like in the outside world, this was here
and now. This primitive existence was the present. Reality. No luxuries,
no concrete, no advanced plumbing or electricity.
made nests in the roof so when you woke up into the flickering darkness
from a dream of ancient enemy skins hanging by the fire, you could
hear them running along the rafters over your head. You could see
their shadows on the thatched roof when the candle light caught
them. Sleep again became a refuge along with a short prayer for
the balance of rats.
We finally boarded
a freighter, in Padang, the cheapest way to travel from Sumatra to Java.
The beginning of our sea voyage was normal. We watched the port, then
the island of Sumatra fade into the distance behind us and with it,
the confusion and brain fever.
Deck space, a place to sleep beneath the canvas strung across the deck
for protection from the sun and rain, was what we paid for. Two big,
deeply tanned Aussies who were obviously used to the sea and travelling
by sea, probably lived by the sea, told us they had accompanied fishermen
from an island near Bali on an early morning trip. They witnessed, then
tried, the eating of the raw hearts of the fish they caught. They found
it to be a life giving experience with aphrodisiac powers.
Meals were cooked in the tiny galley below deck; a green vegetable which
had obviously been boiled, over a bed of rice, on a tin plate. Tasteless,
but necessary to settle the queasy stomachs everyone felt
The sea looked calm enough. But a rhythmic sway began to get to everyone.
Coconut oil smoke made it worse. Even the regular crew and the Aussies
were hit by sea sickness. They laughed and made wise- cracks between
spews. The rest of us werent so lighthearted about it.
Soon there were travellers and crew members staggering to the rail to
vomit over the side. The unwary ones stood downwind from others puking
over the side near the front, got splashed.
One grain of rice, well soaked in the stomachs digestive juices,
inadvertently snorted while vomiting, causes untold misery in the nasal
passage and a long lasting, unpleasant reminder of how sick you really
were. Finally, that particular movement of the ship passed and so did
The travellers and crew wobbled about unsteadily for a while, then settled
No one offered the travellers rice after that. Our diet became the fruit
we had brought on board with us.
We settled down on the deck, tried to sleep through the hot days and
Serge from France, tanned dark brown, curly hair down past his shoulders,
wispy goatee, regained his happy smile as he recovered form the seasickness.
He wore a sarong like a native, always carried a flute attached to his
backpack. Everyone commiserated with him when we found out he was on
his way back to France to fulfill his military obligations. He had been
drafted. These were his last few days of freedom. He had made his choice.
He was tempted to keep travelling, but he knew that eventually hed
want to return to France. The army was one step above jail. He couldnt
go back on the run. He was a proud Frenchman, but that had nothing to
do with the governments army. His ideas and life were far from
conformity, uniformity, the military.
One night, in a Tull like performance, he started playing. Under the
canvas, starry night above, the sea breeze blowing his hair in time
with the tempo of his song, Serge captivated everyone. All the travellers
stopped talking or sat up to look and listen, even some crew members,
smoking by the dark rail, paid attention. He started in the familiar
pose which we had all adopted... leaning, laying back against our packs
and bedrolls, then he seemed to find something as he played the first
few, hesitant notes.
He stood up, still playing. His flute came alive. His song gained and
lost volume and speed as he breathed life into it. It wasnt recorded,
probably forgotten, even by Serge, a few days later.
There was the soft soughing of the ship as it made its way through the
water, the sea breeze in the wires, occasionally something would flap
in the southern night wind. The notes of Serges flute seemed to
linger and then be snatched away by the other sounds. His eyes closed,
Serge stood and played to the night, to his humble companions, listened
to the sounds around him and echoed them. He didnt stand on one
leg, but he carried us all away as he talked to the wind in its own
Selamat Jalan...Good Journey. A fitting Indonesian goodbye to Sumatra.
Then someone told us that we were passing Krakatau which erupted in
1883 killing thousands of people. It was just a lump on the horizon
from the deck of the ship. A famous volcano which the world knew about
because of the tragedy. Later that day, we landed in Djakarta.
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