Tuesday, March 31Tim and I took a hydrofoil from the Singapore port to the town of Tanjun Penang, on one of the 13,000 islands that make up Indonesia. From here we were going to catch a boat to Pekanbaru, a 2 day journey up the river into central Sumatra. The boat leaves several times a week, and the next one is scheduled for tomorrow.
We found a small guest house to stay in, went to the port to buy our tickets, and then hung around for the next boat. It was supposed to leave the next day, so we amused ourselves by playing pool, singing Beatles songs with the Indonesian guys who ran the guest house, and unsuccessfully chatting up some women who were also in the guest house. We also started meeting other travelers who had tickets for the same boat. We visited a nearby island that had some interesting old ruins, and for lunch a young boy scaled a tree and tossed fresh coconuts down to us. I guess we were somewhat of an unusual sight on this small island. When we arrived, small children ran circles around us with cries of "Hallo."
Fresh and bountiful is the best way to describe the fruit situation here. I've never seen so many different and unusual fruits, and they are all available at the peak of ripeness. I've been eating passion fruit, star fruit, rambutans, mangosteens. And don't even get me started on bananas. There are more than 250 different kinds of bananas here from 1 inch to 1 foot long, with white, yellow, orange, or red flesh. One restaurant offers a 10 fruit salad and different days would have a different selection.
All this banana eating, sightseeing, and guitar playing was happening because the boat hadn't arrived. It was originally supposed to leave on Sunday, but the boat never showed up. We then figured it would arrive on Monday, but it didn't show up then either. Finally, it appeared late on Tuesday afternoon. The Indonesians call this "Rubber Time." When asked why the boat had never showed up, the dock workers would just shrug their shoulders and say "Rubber time."
As we all climbed aboard, about 20 backpackers and 100 Indonesians, the two groups self segregated from different desires as to where to spend the trip. The Indonesians preferred to be inside the boat, with each ticket guaranteeing its passenger a rectangle about 3 feet wide and 5 feet long on which to sit and sleep. However, each rectangle already had bundles of cargo on top of it, so there was less than three feet of headroom. After examining our quarters, most of the backpackers climbed onto the boat's roof, where a gentle breeze was blowing and the sun was beginning to lay low in the sky.
After several hours of loading, the boat finally took off into the sunset. But the day's adventure wasn't over yet. We sailed for about 45 minutes before a police boat approached. The backpackers quickly scampered off the roof, for fear that we would get the boat captain in trouble. The police, chests puffed out, talked to the captain for awhile, and then left with several cases of soda. The bribe paid, we set off again.
Spirits were quite high on top of the boat as darkness fell and we began
to get to know each other. Someone had a bottle of rum, and it was empty
after a couple of rounds. While most settled down on the hard roof top
to sleep, I joined a Brazilian surfer and a Indonesian man and his wife
on some mattresses that someone was transporting. We all fell asleep under
the clear sky with the stars of the Southern Cross lighting our way across
the channel and up the river.
|We awoke early in the morning, but the cool
early morning soon started to get very hot. Some of the romance of the
boat ride began to wear off as we put towels on our heads and even hid
inside the boat cabins to avoid the fiery sun. There was a woman in the
back of the boat who was preparing food and fresh tea. The food was really
awful, but hot tea is a good way to drink purified water, so it was the
drink of choice. To eat, I had brought some food purchased in Tanjun Penang,
including some fried battered bananas, fresh nuts, other fruits of unclear
identification, and several large bottles of water. The water was flowing
quickly, and even the cold bananas tasted good. By evening, I think we
were ready to be there, but we weren't expected to arrive until sometime
the next day. We spent another night on the roof.
The next day was cooler and overcast. As we slowly chugged up the river, it grew narrower, and we passed huge log rafts floating downstream to the saw mills. There were monkeys and birds in the trees, and women bathing in the river (alright now, this is a PG-13 travelogue; they still had their sarongs on). It rained suddenly and hard in the afternoon, drenching my bag as we huddled in the cabins.
The memorable journey ended around 9pm with our arrival in Pekanbaru. Though the trip up the river was uncomfortable part of the time, boring more, and not the least bit necessary, I highly recommend this trip for others journeying to central Sumatra. It's a great opportunity to meet other travelers and Indonesians. The scenery as we chugged deeper into the rainforest was breathtaking, and we stopped at a number of interesting villages along the way.
We found a guest house in Pekanbaru, and ate some of the best food-stall food yet. Or maybe it was the best just because it wasn't a cold fried banana. Tomorrow, we will catch a ride to Bukittingi, a medium sized yet important town in central Sumatra.
(Afterword: On its next trip up the river, the same boat caught fire
and sank. Nobody was hurt, but all the passengers had to disembark and
a lot of luggage got soaking wet. So it could have been worse.)
Continue on to Bukittingi
Copyright 1997 by Jason Thomas James. All rights reserved.