Monday, September 01, 2008 Indonesia Indonesia

Ramadan retreat

Pekanbaru morning [Enlarge]

Next day, our mission was to take a bus—a proper, public bus—to the old Dutch colonial mountain retreat of Bukittinggi. Before we set off for the bus station we ate as much as we could at the all-you-can-eat buffet breakfast (all Glenn can eat is seven croissants in case you're wondering; Isla had a bit of everything except the bright turquoise 'pudding').

We got a hotel car to the Akap Terminal seven kilometres out of town which is described in our guidebook as 'uncharacteristically reserved and organised'. Those would not be our adjectives of choice. We'd go for something like 'weird, ghostly, confusing, tout-ridden, sleepy and purposelessly large'. We worried that if this place counts as uncharacteristically reserved and organised, we're going to have big problems catching buses in other Indonesian towns.

We just wanted a bus to Bukittinggi. The first bunch of touts tried to steer us towards the minivan station. When we successfully got past them and found the many bus desks, they were all devoid of staff, prices or timetables. And when we managed to round up the staff who were loitering outside, they seemed unconcerned about selling us a ticket. On closer inspection as we circled the desks, followed by a little crowd of touts, we saw that there were actually a few prices handwritten on some of the windows, but definitely no times.

The locals seemed to enjoy our confusion. I guess when you spend all day every day sitting around in this place, a couple of foreigners visiting counts as entertainment. Eventually someone suggested that there might be a 12:00 bus to Bukittinggi. It was 09:10 and we knew that buses are supposed to be hourly. After a while an 11:00 bus was suggested. Then a modern looking bus pulled up outside. On the windscreen it said 'Bukittinggi'. We bought a ticket. We got the price down a bit but failed to get close to the price marked on the window. We asked why we were not allowed to pay the marked price. 'This bus full AC, so more expensive.' Yeah, right.

(Not) fixing the road to Bukittinggi [Enlarge]

We had a go at negotiating further but we didn't want to wait in this godawful place any longer and they knew it. The inflated price was still pitifully small, and again, they knew it. We paid up.

To cut a long story short it was a truly awful journey. There was, of course, no AC (even though it was clearly and neatly painted on the very side of the bus!). The bus steward was a vile person, although interestingly only to the other Indonesians—he was OK to us. Every person we picked up as he strove to overfill the bus proffered a note or two and was sent back into their wallets for more. The more we saw the more we realised that we hadn't been ripped off just because we were foreign—being ripped off is a standard part of the service. The male passengers were all chain smokers, exhaling their toxic smoke literally all over the children crowded onto the seats with them. We were on the back seat, intended for five people. There were eight on the seat including us at one point, with a further three squatting in the luggage space behind us. Our sanity was salvaged when a nice woman named Lefi got on and sat next to us. She found the experience every bit as vile as we did as she chatted with us all the way to her village on the outskirts of Bukittinggi.

This is as close as we could get. If you only knew what we went through to bring you this picture... [IMG_4951]
1.6 seconds south of the equator [Enlarge]

One of the things we'd been looking forward to on this journey was our first ever crossing of the equator. We've taken more flights on our round the world trip than we hoped we would, but we were not prepared to compromise on this: we were determined to cross the equator overland, whatever happened. This moment had been a long time coming, and we were teased to the last as the GPS told us the road was steering tantalisingly close, only to veer northward again around a sharp bend. But finally, without fanfare, flag or signpost the GPS's digits lapsed from N to S and our latitude began to move away from zero. In a brief moment we'd passed from the late summer northern hemisphere to the late winter southern hemisphere. It didn't feel any different. We shared our excitement with Lefi and the man who had woken from his slumber on top of Glenn's rucksack in the luggage space behind us. Both of them were under impressed—they've probably crossed the equator hundreds of times before.

The sun began to set and the Sumatran late-afternoon rain arrived on cue. Bukittinggi is a mountain town, 920 metres above sea level. The altitude makes the air cooler and the rain more frequent. We were dropped off on the edge of the town centre. The streets were awash with muddy puddles and full of people, motorcycles, tiny, rickety minivans called opelets which serve as shared taxis, and a few horse-drawn passenger carts. Tomorrow is the first day of Ramadan, the month of fasting which forms one of the five pillars of Islam. Everyone was out on the streets hurrying between the market and the mosque. Indonesia is supposed to be laid back and lazy but it certainly wasn't anything like that as we arrived in Bukittinggi. We cut through the crowded streets to find our hotel. From among the feet of the people a rat shot down a wide alley. It happened to be going the same way as us so we followed it and finally found our way to the door of the Kartini Hotel.

Roadside snack stall [Enlarge]

A warm shower and a cool bed would normally have restored our equilibrium, but in Bukittinggi you are never, it seems, more than 100 metres from a mosque. And a mosque that doesn't just broadcast the call to prayer five times a day from the minaret megaphones, but broadcasts the entire sermon. If we could understand Arabic and Bahasa Indonesia we would have been left in no doubt about the solemn importance of Ramadan after the three solid hours of lecturing that we received that night. Even our ear plugs didn't shut the noise out.

It was even less funny at 4:30 the next morning when the whole thing was repeated.

Bukittinggi changes its character depending on the time of day. The road layout stays the same, but from morning to evening different shops seem to appear, while others vanish; and the people seem to come out in shifts. We spent our first full day there walking around the town, seeing the sights and enjoying the simple fact that at 920 metres high, Bukittinggi is not mired in tropical heat—you can actually walk around all day if you want to. On one side of town is Panorama Park. For 3,000 rupiah each (GBP 0.18 / USD 0.32) you can wander through a long, narrow park with a great view over Sianok Canyon. The park is home to innumerable macaque monkeys who like to perch on the pillars between the railings, have play fights with each other, and climb into the litter bins to do huge, steaming wees. They're also more than happy to pose for photos. From the park, we walked down into the canyon. The river that formed this huge geological feature is now just a wide, shallow stream, lazily tumbling over a stony river bed. A woman was collecting sticks. She was the first person all day who we'd seen working. Everyone else seemed to be hanging around, doing nothing. We knew that the end of Ramadan was a big holiday, but it seemed like schools and businesses closed for the start of Ramadan too.

During Ramadan, healthy adult muslims don't eat, drink or smoke from sunrise to sunset. In a town with something like 95% muslims this means restaurants, cafes and food stalls close, all day, for the whole month. We didn't mind too much; non-Muslims are free to buy food to eat in their own homes, or hotel rooms. But we decided to respect the local culture and delay our own eating until after sunset at 18:20, expecting all the restaurants to fling wide their doors and usher in the crowds. But they didn't. It turns out that they had all gone home for a big family feast. Confused and hungry, we lapped town a couple of times before going back to our hotel to eat something there. We asked the manager what we could have for dinner, as he tucked into a large bowl of delicious looking something. "Not tonight," he shrugged. He sent us round the corner to a Chinese-owned restaurant, the Mona Lisa. One of its doors was open a little, and through the crack we could see a group of foreigners squeezed around a table, filling the tiny place. No joy. There was only one other place in town open: Texas Chicken—a KFC-esque fast food place. And that's where we spent our first evening of Ramadan 2008.

Map of Day 646

Day 646
Pekanbaru to Bukittinggi

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.