The flight from KL to the Sumatra island of Indonesia is short and easy. A no-frills affair in a cheerfully red airplane, with a sharply-dressed crew.
Once landed, we find the place to get our entry visa, but not before pinballing for a while between the various desks and lines of the airport. They ask for 35 US dollars, I offer them Malaysian ringgit, they give me change in Indonesian rupiah. I find it more and more difficult to manage the collection of unfamiliar banknotes. I need a system.
Now we’re ready to face passport control: we have a nice sticker in our passport, an exit card (do not lose it, they warned), a colorful little receipt of unspecified function or value, and the long and tedious immigration declaration (yes, we have no bananas, we ditched them on landing). As it turns out, no one cares about the latter piece of paper, the minor guilt I felt for filling it out in pencil was totally wasted.
The airport in Medan, Indonesia is nice and airy, a tall, white structure. We notice this in passing since we only have eyes for the illuminated rectangle of ATMs. Our survival for the next few weeks is predicated on the ability to produce cash for all goods and services.
The problem with withdrawing 4,000,000 rupiahs (about $400) in one transaction is purely mechanical. The wad of 100,000 rupiahs is simply too thick to fit through the slot of the ATM machine. I came across this before, in the wild days of Romanian inflation, when withdrawing enough money to buy a TV set turned into a comical routine. But that’s a story for another day.
Now we’re looking for transportation. We are headed towards the jungles of Sumatra, in search of orangutans. The first stop on this trip is Berestagi, about 3 hours drive away. We decided beforehand to hire a taxi because it is not much more expensive than two local bus tickets.
At the airport, the transportation offers attacks in multiple waves, much like the monsters in a computer game, but in reverse. The game is kind enough to dish out minor monsters first. The airport shows no mercy. The first wave is strong and skilled. They carry colorful, laminated menus that illuminate the vehicle choices. They claim legitimacy by pointing to a desk sitting under a big red sign. They try to establish a precedent by recalling the two backpacker girls from Boston who were such happy customers just earlier this morning. They smile broadly and they want to be your friend and trusted advisor. Fleet as lightweight boxers, they doggedly keep their inflated offering right in your face no matter which way you turn. The only weapon Andrew and I have is our height. Looking right over their heads, we forge through the airport doors to face the next wave of taxi sharks. Mobbed again by less ridiculous offers, but more of them. Buoyed by our first victory, we march ahead undeterred towards the end of the taxi line. Someone comes from behind with a reasonable offer. We present our counter offer. No, they say, their offer is final. I see a female dispatcher who concurs. Her face is earnest and I trust her for no good reason. Deal, about $30 for a 3-hour taxi drive.
The most interesting moment of the trip turns out to be the police incident. It happened so fast that I could have missed it altogether had I not paid attention. On the side of the road was a gesticulating policeman. I didn’t think it was directed at us until our driver pulled off abruptly. The policeman ran around as our driver rolled down the window. Several things happened in fast succession. As the policeman barked a short sentence, the driver produced a banknote at the tip of his fingers. The policeman counted out some change with the dexterity of an old-school bank teller, took the proffered money with his left while returning the change with his right. As this exchange was taking place, the window was already rolling up, and we took off. No more than 15 seconds start to finish. The driver’s only reaction was a displeased grunt after we were safely out of the policeman’s hearing range. There were no unnecessary formalities, no arguing or pleading. Pure efficiency.
We hop into an oven of a Chevy and the driver takes off. He does not speak English, and the few Bahasa Indonesia words we know cannot even begin to start a conversation. We remain silent throughout the trip.
For about two hours we drive by houses and businesses that hug the road. Every other business seems to be an auto or motorcycle mechanic. In time I will learn to appreciate their utility; when your vehicle breaks down or busts a tire, help is only a few yards away, no towing needed. While the drive does not provide charming vistas, it is quite fascinating to see people going about their daily life.
Suddenly the road starts climbing, the houses fall behind, and we are in the forest. The air outside is cooler now and we roll down the windows. On the side of the road, I see a monkey, walking casually, unfazed by the traffic. I stare at it like a tourist.
Once we arrive in Berestagi, the driver can't find out hostel. It is getting dark fast so we pick another one, in the center of town. We head out to find the market, a restaurant, and a place to get SIM cards that make our phones work in Indonesia.
The market is crowded and swimming in a muck of undetermined origin. Gingerly we walk through it trying to minimize the splash. Several teenage girls run up to Andrew telling him they think he's handsome. Nobody bothers me. At the market, we get introduced to salak, an amazing fruit that I will talk about later.
On the way back to the hostel we get caught in the rain and arrive soaked. It’s the first soaking in a series that will change my tolerance for wearing wet clothes. We go to bed early, we're tired.
It’s morning now, the mosques have started their dueling calls for prayer, but they have competition from the roosters. I wonder if the imam wakes the roosters or the other way around.