Bean n Bob's Big Adventure travel blog

Medan's Masjid Raya, or Grand Mosque, the largest mosque in Sumatra, was...

A typical jam-packed street view from the seat of a becak, or...

The Maimoon Palace in Medan.


We left Bukit at about 10 a.m., walking down the dusty path by the river in the sun, past the guesthouses being rebuilt and redecorated with intricate designs of small river stones. We passed the men saying "Come again," and "Have a good trip," and passed the children in shorts and t-shirts shouting "Hello!" and "Hello mister!" It was humid and we were both drenched; we walked down the hot concrete path through the bamboo frame curio shops, which overlooked the bamboo-frame, thatch-roofed sitting huts on the riverbed, which had a few people sitting in their shade. We passed a crowd of becaks and lazing drivers, and turned along the concrete irrigation canal, where a woman was lowering herself in, modestly wearing a sheet as she washed herself. Groups came walking the other way carrying inner tubes balanced on their heads, a young boy partially visible under two of them asking, "What is your name?" We crossed the canal, passing a girl standing waist-deep in the water, grinding a pair of pants over a washboard. She stopped to look up at us, black hair pulled back in a ponytail, red t-shirt, defiant expression, then she went back to the laundry.

We left the canal, walking through the patchy field where they play soccer, now populated with a few scrawny cows, past three men talking at a fence along the edge of a stand of rubber trees, past a family of three on a motorcycle, puttering along the dried dirt path in the other direction. We walked through the abandoned tin-roofed huts of the weekly produce market, and where a pile of trash was smoking, sending gray-white whisps of charcoal twisting into the air. We reached the bus station: an open dirt area bounded by a few tin-roofed minimarkets, a scraggly line of trees, and groups of men sitting neatly on the dirt below. They pulled on cigarettes and watched us. "Medan? Medan?" a few asked, and pointed to the lone bus resting in the dirt. A man was lying underneath it, tinkering out of the sun. We stowed out luggage in the back and took stock of the day so far: shirts soaked, waist drenched, knees of my pants damp from sweat, sweat dripping from my eyebrows and nose, sweat glistening in the hair of my forearms. We sat on the bus, waiting for a breeze at the window and played a game of rummy. Eventually another bus arrived and several of the men jumped up to offer becaks, piled people in them and stuttered away. Then quiet, save for the voices of the men under the tin awnings and the braaat and drone of motorbikes and becaks coming and going. Without warning a few people boarded the bus, a driver slid behind the wheel and it roared to life. We pulled out of the parking lot, swaying and bumping throguh the potholes, on our way to Medan.

Soon the bust was crowded with all kinds; Muslim schoolgirls in white headscarves and brown ankle-length skirts; farmer women with traditional headwear like towels wrapped around their head and flopped down the back of their neck; men in uniforms; smoking teenagers in jeans and sneakers; the comedors leaping on and off to help passengers, clinking a stone against the handrail to signal a stop, calling "Goooaahh!" to signal all aboard, step on it, to the driver. We passed a minivan packed with schoolchildren, a mash of boys lying on the roof in blue shorts and white shirts. The road was awful, the scenery usually monotonous: rice paddies, houses and shops jammed together, or palm oil plantations with cattle roaming among the tree trunks. We stopped anywhere for anyone, and the approach of Medan was noticeable only by degree, as the buildings grew taller and the traffic grew noisier and more packed-together. We stopped at Pinang Baris, and stopped to grab some dunkins and plot our next move.

That involved a hot and cramped anguta across town to a travel agent and an ATM, with the image of boys playing soccer in the courtyard of the Grand Mosque as the sun set sticking in my mind. We bought two tickets on the overnight bus to Banda Aceh (150,000 rupiah each), caught a becak to a terminal, where a minivan picked us up to take us to the real terminal, and sat to wait as men loaded bales and bags and boxes onto the top of various buses. We had been told the 7 p.m. bus was full, so we had to rush for the 6 p.m., but at 6:30, there was still no one on the bus, and we didn't pull out until 7:30, then stopped repeatedly over the next three hours.

This was the bus ride that made us swear off buses. We were in the first two seats behind the door, with a great view of the road ahead, and when the bus filled a man sat on my feet, so the night passed in a mixture of terror and half-nightmare sleep, broken only by a stop in the dawn dark for everyone to pile out and pray, and a midnight break for food. The driver was the most suicidal yet, and the nighttime roads were jammed with overloaded motorbikes, leading to many near-misses. We brushed against a palm-oil truck at full speed, scaring him back into our lane so we could pass; at one point a man was peeing onto the road and the driver refused to yield, the man stumbled backwards out of the way, a leering drunken grin on his face as he was lit by the headlights and peeing all over himself.

Despite no smoking signs everywhere, most of the people on the bus lit up at one time or the other, leaving my eyes a teary mess and giving both of us itchy throats. After a Steven Segal flick on the bus entertainment system (Tomorrow You Die), we settled in for several hours of Indonesian soft-pop hits on a karaoke DVD, classics like "Nisang Bunga" and "Tonkaya Keau." The earplugs were in, but every time I would start to drift off to sleep the driver would tap his horn or swerve and I'd snap awake to see him nearly mow down a pack of motorcycles or ram a truck head-on.

Banda was a relief. We shuttled from the bus to a becak, to the ferry dock, passing through areas that had been devastated three years ago and are now fairly well built up. You don't look at things and say, "Holy hell, there was a tsunami here!" but there is circumstantial evidence. All the homes are new, and where they are building new roads, the ditches at the sides are filled with hard-packed debris, with people picking through it in search of a spare tire or something useful.

We saw the sun come up, then got on board the ferry and were on Pulau Weh by 10 a.m., taking a minibus to the beack and the Lumba Lumba dive center.



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