Wednesday, September 03, 2008 Indonesia Indonesia

An uncouth place by the sea

Visit Indonesia?! [Enlarge]

After a couple of pleasant days in the mountain air of Bukittinggi we were cooled down and ready to continue south. Our research on flights suggested that the cheapest flights to Australia go from Denpasar airport on Bali, because Bali is one of the Aussies' favourite places for a holiday or short getaway. Getting to Bali by surface transport wouldn't be too much of a problem because the Indonesian islands of Sumatra, Java and Bali (part of the chain from Sumatra to Timor) are very close to each other, meaning short ferry hops from one island to the next. So the plan was to go overland to the southern tip of Sumatra, take a ferry to Java, down the length of Java and then another ferry to Bali. We thought we woudn't continue to the other islands like Lombok, Sumbawa and Flores because to be honest we were ready for a complete change of continent and were already looking forward to Aus.

So our next stop was Padang on the western coast of Sumatra, from where we planned to connect with road transport going south towards the Indonesian capital Jakarta on Java. Our guidebook painted a glowing picture of Padang. Most travellers rush straight from Padang airport to Bukittinggi and bypass Padang city, it told us. It went on to say that this is a mistake: Padang is well worth your while.

Hmmm... We think they got Padang confused with somewhere else. Penang in Malaysia, perhaps? Admittedly we arrived on a grey miserable day, blowing a gale and bucketing down with rain, during Ramadan, so we weren't seeing it at its best. Here's the story.

First stop as ever was the tourist office to try to get a city map. It was closed; the door bolted. The streets were almost un-walkable with diabolical pavements and big holes waiting to swallow the unwary traveller. And the locals were without a doubt the most uncouth, xenophobic and mercenary people we have met anywhere on our travels. We were trying hard to like the place, but Indonesia just wasn't weaving the same spell for us that Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Malaysia had done. It was beginning to seem more and more like India, even down to the legions of "where you go?" taxi and minibus touts. Indonesia is Greek for "Indian islands", so even the person who named the country saw the similarities. We were fed up, sick of being stared at and hungry, finding it even less possible to get food here than we did in Bukittinggi.

Eventually we had another 'sod it' moment and decided to fly out of Sumatra. We justified it to ourselves on the grounds that travelling by road here is guaranteed to bring on a near-death experience. Maybe Java would be better, we thought. We began a walk across town to the ticket office for Garuda Indonesia airline. We were both feeling disappointed, with ourselves and with the country. Every time we take a flight it feels like a small failure.

We weren't far from the airline office with Isla leading the way (we had to walk in single file most of the time in Padang) when a minibus tout decided to have a go at getting some money from the bedraggled locals approaching him. He obviously thought that, marching purposefully through the rain swept, mud-slick covered streets, we would just be in the market for a minibus ride. We weren't. And Isla wasn't in the mood to do battle with a tout either. As she moved sideways to give him a wide berth, he put out his arm to herd her towards his van. It was nearly full of locals, and these things never start moving until they're full. Everyone was impatient for us to get in. Isla's foot went onto the 45-degree angled part of the kerb, which was covered in wet mud. She slipped over and fell face first onto the pavement.

What did the tout do at this point? Apologise? Help the lady get up? Check that she was OK?

No, he laughed, as did his tout friends.

To say that being made to fall over in the rain, on a filthy pavement, by a lowlife piece of pond scum like this made Isla angry would be a world record breaking understatement. From that point on there was no doubt that we were not just leaving Sumatra, we were leaving Indonesia and getting a flight to anywhere, as long as it was a civilised country.

At Garuda Indonesia's office, we were able to start formulating a plan to get to Australia. We briefly considered stopping in Bali for a few days so that we didn't fly three times in one day (Bali is one big holiday resort and is nothing like the 'real' Indonesia, and certainly nothing like Sumatra), but then we came to our senses. There was no point putting it off any more, we should just get it over with and leave. As we stood at the counter Isla's tears (more from anger and hurt pride than the blossoming bruises on her hip, knee and elbow) seemed to make the ticket seller think that she was desperately trying to get home after some terrible tragedy had befallen her family. Magically, 171 US dollars came off the price of each of our tickets. After a lot of requests for various quotes we had put together an itinerary consisting of the first flight to Jakarta next morning, followed by an afternoon flight from Jakarta to Bali, and finally an overnight flight from Bali to Darwin in Australia. By the time the first sabbath of Ramadan came around, we'd be the hell out of here. It sounded perfect.

We walked back to our homestay accommodation via a disorganised supermarket where we bought some cold pizza slices, fruit juice and chocolate chip bread. Our purchases were tightly sealed inside their carrier bags by the staff, presumably in case we got an urge to snack before nightfall.

Imagine if being nice to visitors earned you points with Allah, rather than things like only eating at prescribed times... Then we suspect we'd want to see more of Indonesia.

Map of Day 649

Day 649
Bukittinggi to Padang

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.