Awake for over 24 hours and exhausted finally, we arrive in Batam, Indonesia for the next long road bus journey to Dumai.
It all started back when…
…in 1998, it was time to take off for some extended travel again.
No travel plans. No timeframe. Not a good time to travel to Indonesia. As, it’s only one month since the violent civil riots occurred in the country, which left 1,000 people dead. But, flights are booked.
So, drive over 900-kilometres from Brisbane to Sydney to take the 8-hour Egypt Air flight to Singapore, arriving at the ungodly hour of 2am. This vibrant clinically-clean city is still asleep.
A train, bus, fast ferry later, and we land in the outskirts of Indonesia’s bustling Archipelago – Batam Island.
Next stop? Edging our way to Sumatra’s north and the small, lush village of Bukit Lawang. But first, we need to take the long road to the port of Dumai, then Medan.
Onwards and upwards!
Hop off one ferry in Batam, only to catch another…
Locals direct us to the bustling terminal, making us run with all of our luggage. Apparently, the ferry is leaving – now!
Guess what? We wait for an hour before the ferry leaves, setting a precedent for ‘time’ in Indonesia.
Boarding the grimy boat with only bottled water, a little chocolate, and several travel-sized liquor bottles from the flight, we trudge along. The yellowed sun-crazed weathered windows may as well be boarded up – barely visible, is the outside world.
Straits of Malacca
Stories about the Straits of Malacca include machete-wheeling – or is that machine-gun wheeling – pirates come to mind and hope that today, they’re on strike.
The boat speeds along at 10-15 Knots weaving its way west before heading north. And, snaking through the islands surrounded by mud-green still waters.
Snippets of Indonesian life fades in and out of visibility through the opaque plastic, during the 8-hour journey.
All doors are closed, creating an unbearable and nauseating hot steaming oven inside, which seems to last an eternity.
Barely visible from the windows are the traditional wooden boats. Some with outboards, others canoe-like, rowing out in the middle of nowhere. No pirates to be seen.
Awake for over 30-hours by this time from the Sydney to Singapore flight, train, bus, and ferry trip, fragments of sleep overcome tiredness. Not for long as jolted back to reality by the boat’s swerving motion and near misses of timber canoes and islands.
Densely green pockets of vegetation, dotted with thatched huts on stilts in the murky waters of the Malacca Straits, etches a picturesque canvas.
The frequent stops on this journey are alongside other boats, or rickety stilted island wharves, made from timber and seldom real terminals.
Everything is thrown from the ferry onto a smaller boat to navigate even shallower waters, through the archipelago. Passengers use moored boats as stepping stones from the ferry, until reaching the occasional substantial wooden wharf, denoting the entrance into their village.
The long stifling balmy 8-hours sees us finally arriving in Dumai, Sumatra.
Riau Province’s main port is Dumai. This seedy area is where you’re also besieged by taxi drivers once more. It’s hustle, and bustle to make a Rupiah and no wonder, as the surrounding poverty is confronting and daunting. Though, contrasted with expensive Land Rovers and cars, plastered with Caltex stickers – a select few are making loads of money from this oil-rich island.
For under a dollar, a taxi speeds us away to the front of the City Hotel’s pleasant-looking foyer – a facade for what is to come.
Our grotty-small room includes a fridge, TV, and air-conditioner. Crashing briefly from exhaustion on the hard single beds, later take a walk in the balmy night air to explore and forage for food.
Important as a trade and transport hub, Dumai lacks finesse.
Quickly, locals latch on to us and can’t seem to shift any. We stick out like magnets and continuously asked the same questions: “Where are you going? Where you from?” Like an unwanted dull mantra droning in my ears. It’s increasingly difficult, to politely respond, but I’m learning.
It seems that everyone here has a TV. Every home – whether a shack or a decent home – shop or hole in the wall, has a blaring TV. Locals are mesmerised in front of illuminated boxes. It seems as this is all they do – what a waste. Perhaps it’s because there aren’t too many jobs.
The poverty is appalling, and yet the amount of 4X4s is baffling.
Streets are filled with putrified garbage, some of which smoulders, oozing steam alongside footpaths. The stench during the day’s heat is unbearable. Open cesspit drains run along the front of houses and makeshift shacks. Some pits are covered with planks of wood and relatively safe. Others are just open pits. Care is needed not to fall in!
The filth and grime are appalling. Although, the locals make up for all of this as they’re extremely friendly and smile a lot.
After all, we stick out as tourists – strangers in their land. Many try hard to speak English, which is embarrassing, as we respond with only a few words of Bahasa Indonesian. Am sure I’m in for a crash course in Indonesian over the next few months.
Food and an early night lead to an early morning start for a new adventure – or hassle – a trip to the bank to change money.
Seeking out a couple of banks in the hotel’s vicinity, neither would change Australian dollars or Travellers Cheques (remember those?) – only US dollars. Remember, the year is 1998.
The third bank wouldn’t accept anything but US dollars either. Luckily, I manage to get a cash advance from my MasterCard. It wasn’t possible to buy any Indonesian Rupiah before leaving Australia. Everything is relatively cheap here, even though foreigners pay tourist prices for everything.
A little on Indonesia
It’s worth noting at this point that the Indonesian Archipelago is made up of over 17,500 islands and is the fourth most populated country in the world. Yes, even in 1998. Over 206 million people squeezed onto the inhabited islands – not all islands are inhabited. The estimate is around 6,000 that are uninhabited. Sounds ideal?
This geographic challenge makes for adventurous travel between the thousands of islands dotting the archipelago. Especially when there isn’t much information available on the smaller islands. This decade is not one of a mobile phone with GPS and information, at our fingertips within seconds. This decade is about relying on the Lonely Planet’s accuracy, and also locals that are kind enough to help strangers.
Next week’s Indonesian instalment experiences an uncomfortable overnight 12-hour bus journey from Dumai to Medan. Heading deeper into Sumatra’s north, I’m longing to see Oranutangs up close in Bukit Lawang.