S U M A T R A
It was the first week of January, and heavy cloud lay over most of western Indonesia. The flight north-westwards from Jakarta to Medan showed us nothing of the jungle that must lie below us, and the only memorable sight, quite soon after take-off, was a smudge of dark cloud rising far away in the west: the smoke of Krakatau, or rather of its "child", the young volcano that is patiently building itself from the seabed.
Sumatra is about as big as Spain, and most parts of it are fairly empty, though there are half-a-dozen large towns and any fertile area is well populated. The mountains that rise almost straight out of the sea on its western side catch most of the moisture that blows in from the Indian Ocean, but this rain feeds the big rivers that meander across the eastern plains towards the Straits of Malacca and the Java Sea. One way or another, there is plenty of water everywhere, but most of the best soils are in the hills. Recorded Sumatran history begins with outward-looking seafaring and trading empires on the east coast, and continues with relatively isolated farming communities and kingdoms in the interior. In the 1870s, a Dutch entrepreneur decided that land in the north-east of the island, which was cheap because no one thought it very useful, might be good for growing tobacco. He was right, and Sumatra's biggest city is the result, though at least half its growth has taken place in the last thirty years.
Most Indonesian towns, even provincial capitals, focus on a single main street. In Medan, it is a long street that changes its name several times between the Post Office at the north end and the Maimoon Palace at the south. There are so many people and things that need to have streets named after them that these two or three kilometres have to accommodate within their length the names of the town hall, two generals and the Green Princess, a legendary local heroine. But the whole street remains in local speech Kesawah, the road that leads to the rice fields. It could be said, of course, that all roads in Indonesia lead to rice fields sooner or later.
In this long street, on a very hot afternoon, we sat in the well-shaded office of a tour company, enquiring in the same breath about local restaurants and the possibility of chartering a car to take us to the hills. The car was soon arranged, but the restaurants were more of a problem. North Sumatra is the country of the Batak people, but the manager of the tour office did not think there were any Batak restaurants. There were the usual Javanese and Chinese eating places; there were plenty of rumah makan Padang, of course. We could get Korean, Japanese and European food, and American fast food. Eventually, we got into a taxi and asked the driver's advice. We ended up driving 20 kilometres to the port of Belawan, which gave the driver plenty of time to ask the personal questions that people in Indonesia love to ask, and clocked up a massive return fare. But it did not show us any very tempting places to eat.
Finding a restaurant in a town where you know no one is always chancy, but especially so in Indonesia, where menus are not usually hung in the window and it is impossible to guess the quality of the cooking, or even the cost of the meal, by looking at the shopfront. The best you can do is to choose one that appears to be clean and commercially successful. If your driver recommends one, you invite him to eat there as well, as a kind of guarantee of good faith. In this case, the driver didn't know anywhere, and a couple of circuits of the town were unproductive. Eventually we ate, near midnight, in the hotel coffee shop.
Next morning we were in the General Manager's office to meet the GM himself and the Food and Beverage Manager. In every big hotel, they are two members of a trinity whose third is the Executive Chef, but Chef was on holiday and had gone home to Bali. Senior Indonesian hotel staff are often Balinese, because their island has had such a large helping of experience in looking after foreign visitors. But many hotels still bring in their top managers from abroad. Here, we were talking to a Malaysian and a Norwegian.
Svein confirmed that there was plenty of Batak food, but said it was virtually unknown outside Batak homes and festive gatherings. Batak recipes use local herbs and roots that are not known, or at any rate not used, elsewhere; and these, while they give the food a characteristic flavour, also turn it a uniform dull grey. He liked the food well enough himself, but would never put it on a hotel menu because no one would order it; apart from anything else, two of its principal ingredients are pork and dog meat, both abhorrent to the Moslem majority. Plenty of people in South-East Asia eat dogs, but usually at home or in small restaurants that specialize in cooking them. Although I cannot see any logical reason against eating dogs that doesn't apply just as strongly against eating cows or sheep, I must admit that my own upbringing has prevented me from experimenting.
Some time later, we set off for Brastagi and the hills, following the usual tourist route towards Lake Toba. If you hire a car in Indonesia, always hire the driver as well. He costs only a little more (and probably needs the work). He may turn out to be a knowledgeable and entertaining guide, and will often become a friend. On Indonesian roads, you will be infinitely safer in his experienced hands, and you will able to look about you and allow your attention to be distracted. There is always plenty to see.
On this trip we were particularly looking out for food sellers. Near the city speculative developers were hastily putting up terraces of shops, usually with two or three floors of living accommodation above them, with fancily bowed windows and balconies or verandahs supported by strangely unclassical columns. Well-established rows of shops carry large amounts of advertising, and a great deal of this is for instant or convenience foods. Both the product and the marketing are American-style, and once you have seen the hoardings and heard the TV jingles you will have no difficulty in finding the familiar brand names even on the remotest island. Even rice is beginning to be branded, though most of it is still sold in large bags and labelled simply by its variety.
As long as there are enough people around, any main road is likely to become a marketplace, so ribbon development of small businesses extends outward from every town and village. Where brick and concrete fail, planks of wood, then bamboo and woven palm fronds take over. Eventually you reach the countryside, where fruit and vegetables are sold from the simplest of shelters, or by the roadside with no shelter at all. We stopped at one of these stalls to buy durian, whose heavy perfume lingers deliciously in the heavy afternoon air. Public transport and hotels ban durian because it becomes overpowering in a small space, but out of doors your nose perceives it merely as a dominant note in the chord of roadside smells, blending particularly well with that of newly-laid dust after a sudden shower.
On the way into the hills, we stopped for lunch at an Islamic eating house by the roadside. Its religious aspect was merely a promise to visitors that the food would be halal, the meat ritually slaughtered and nothing cooked in pork fat. There was also a room at the back where people could pray. The girl who served us wore the white headscarf that covers the hair and looks very becoming. The food was excellent, but at the end of the meal I made a bad social gaffe. Accustomed to city life, I left a tip. My own Minangkabau upbringing ought to have reminded me that in country districts in Sumatra this is not just unnecessary, it is an insult to the person who has served you. The young waitress tactfully assumed that I had left the money on the table by mistake and called after me. She saw my embarrassment, and rose to the occasion. ‘If you want to give something to the mosque,’ she said, ‘the box is here,’ and she popped the cash into the slot with a conspiratorial little smile.
Brastagi is about 1300 metres above sea level, flourishing greatly on fruit, market gardening and day trippers. This area is famous for its marquisa juice, which is sold in large plastic bottles lashed together with rattan; these are often conspicuous items in the hand luggage of air travellers. The market gardens produce all the fresh vegetables that Europeans are used to and which are in increasing demand in Asian cities. They do not grow well in tropical heat and humidity, and the cooler conditions of the hills don't always go with good soil, so a high fertile plateau like this one is a precious resource. A lot of the local produce is flown to Singapore. This is a nearer and more accessible market than Jakarta, which anyway has its own suppliers in the West Java hills.
On Sundays and public holidays, the trippers throng the road from Medan. Many of them make for a little hill at the top end of Brastagi town called Bukit Gundaling, a public park with views across the plateau to the high hills beyond. There you can rent a straw mat, spotlessly clean and with beautiful patterns woven into it, and sit on the hilltop to admire the view while you eat your picnic and drink cold lemonade or marquisa juice. If you feel extravagant, you can drink Guinness, which is brewed in Indonesia and advertised with a slogan long ago banned in Britain, Guinness baik untuk Anda. In translation, however, it has lost the alliterative kick of "Guinness is good for you". I don't think, anyway, that many of the young people on Bukit Gundaling can afford beer; they drink Coke or Pocari Sweat or the local brands of mineral water and are all very sober, though jolly enough, each little group gathered around a boy with a guitar or, less attractively, a stereo cassette player. But even the music is not usually very loud. It is in fact a scene of the utmost respectability, the sort of public enjoyment one gets used to here. For the middle-aged traveller it is not the least of Indonesia's attractions.
Our hotel turned out to be on top of a green hillock in another part of town, an old Dutch country club that would have looked quite at home in Surrey. They gave us a good plain dinner in a cavernous dining room and enormous, hard beds in lofty bedrooms. Only the breakfast was a little disappointing, as breakfasts often are in the tropics if you don't want to eat a plateful of rice. The trouble is the bread, which in small towns is still made to Dutch recipes that have survived since the 1930s and in big cities to American recipes that I suppose have been imported either direct from US catering colleges or perhaps via Japan or Taiwan. Anyway, the bread is almost universally terrible, chalky white, flabby, often sweetened, full of air in the middle but thickening to a soggy brown outside layer which takes the place of a crust. The common name for it is roti tawar, and the best thing that can be said about it is that it is still locally made, much of it by quite small firms, so there are at least distinctions of awfulness and perhaps hope for improvement.THE LAKE
From here to Lake Toba you cross gently-rolling hills through good rich farmland. Most of the rice that is grown here is upland rice, which is not flooded and therefore does not need to be terraced. We stopped for awhile to admire the view of the lake from its northern end, and the Sipisopiso waterfall that plunges over a ledge of hard rock and falls a hundred metres in a single drop. Toba has occupied, for the last 70-odd thousand years, a gigantic, misshapen volcanic crater, most of its centre filled with the debris of a subsequent eruption. It and the Tonle Sap in Cambodia are the two biggest lakes in South-East Asia; Tonle Sap is shallow, but Toba’s greatest depths are said to be still unmeasured. Most of the hillsides at this end of the lake have been cleared of trees and are now covered in alang-alang grass, which is almost useless to man and beast but at least slows down the erosion of soil. Uncontrolled logging is certainly a problem in Indonesia, but there is some attempt to check it, and the loss of trees is not, in most areas, anything like as bad as we had seen previously in the Philippines. On one flat, squarish hillside, which happened to face the main road, someone had cut the message BERJUTA POHON - millions of trees - in enormous letters which were already fading into scrubby vegetation.
We stopped again to look at the old timber palace of the Raja of Simalungun; it sits in its earthwork enclosure like some sort of preposterous boat in a dry dock, slightly sway-backed, supported on many wooden pillars each shaped from a massive tree trunk. We climbed into its main hall and saw the Raja's little box-bedroom and the long chamber where his twelve, or possibly twenty-two, wives slept on mats, with kitchen hearthstones at regular intervals among their bedspaces. The exterior was freshly painted in the holy colours of red, white and black. Meanwhile our driver, Marno, a Javanese, was playing chess with a man he had met in the car park for a stake of 1,000 rupiah. We gathered from his expression that he had lost, which did not surprise us; you don't play chess with strangers in Sumatra unless you are pretty good.
It took us another couple of hours to reach Prapat, halfway down the eastern shore of the lake; here we lunched and waited for the ferry to take us across to the almost-island of Samosir. Samosir figures in all the guidebooks as mystic, haunted, strange.So far as I have been able to trace the origins of this extravagance, it started in Schnitger's Forgotten Kingdoms of Sumatra, a good book published in 1938 and recently reprinted. Schnitger was impressed partly by the strange stone carvings on the island and partly by the low clouds that frequently enwrap it. The carvings are still there, and the weather is indeed very unsettled, but I cannot say I felt any atmosphere of mystery or romance. The finest sight of Samosir in my opinion is the mountain wall, 1000 metres high, that runs for nearly 50 kilometres along its eastern edge, with a narrow coastal plain between it and the unplumbed waters of the lake. If you have time and energy to climb or penetrate behind those hills, you may well find mysteries there. I cannot say that tourism has actually spoiled Samosir, because there are no high-rise hotels or tarmacked coach parks and I was only occasionally asked for money by people who were not offering anything worth having in return. But the few surviving adat villages are empty museums; there are no crafts or cultural activities that show a response to anything new, and I had the impression of a refined but very limited culture of stone- and woodcarvers and weavers, which would have crumpled quickly under the pressures of modern life even if no tourist had ever come here.
This is a pity, because the Batak are tough, vigorous, intelligent people who often do conspicuously well in the world outside. In their own homeland, much of their creative energy seems to have gone into tomb-making. Traditionally, they carved huge stone sarcophagi for their dead, decorated with staring faces and squatting, rather happy little figures. Nowadays, when many are Protestant Christians, and notably Seventh-Day Adventists, they use concrete to build small churches and very large tombs, the latter brightly painted and shaped like houses, animals, boats or combinations of these. We saw many on the road round the south-east corner of the lake, passing through the rice land around Porsea and on to Tarutung, a route that lies mostly through farming country. The way down to the coast at Sibolga is very different. Here you descend the outer face of Sumatra's mountain wall, dropping steeply hour after hour through thick jungle towards the ocean, seeing few signs of human activity apart from an occasional road-mending gang or a village doing its best to look modern on limited resources.
From Sibolga to Bukittinggi we spent another two days on the road, rejoining the Trans-Sumatra Highway that now runs the whole length of the island. It has a good black tarmac surface, but is mostly only a little wider than two buses, and very few of the bends in the old road have been straightened or widened; so it is now rather more dangerous than it used to be, and a lot more comfortable. Enormous coaches swept past us frequently, huge dayglo signs on their rear windows promising A/C, TOILET, FULL MUSIC, VIDEO, KARAOKE. They ply between towns as far apart as Medan and Surabaya or even Denpasar, travelling non-stop and changing crews on the way as stage coaches used to change horses. Though there are much cheaper buses, with battered side panels and no air-conditioning, the days when you used to see passengers on the roof-rack among their luggage, and the conductor climbing out through the window to collect the fares, are long gone. Indonesians love to travel, and they are getting used to comfort and non-stop entertainment.
But the real pleasure of the road is the endless variety of green landscape and hills that you pass through, and the mass of fine detail that takes your eye in every village. There are exceptional things: I saw a young lady riding elegantly sidesaddle on the luggage-rack of her husband's bicycle, an eight-foot two-handed cross-cut saw draped across her shoulder. One large village was full of people, even little boys, in white caps, the sign that one has made the pilgrimage to Mecca; it was a pesantren, a religious college, and we passed serried rows of students' living-cubicles, like shabby thatched bathing-huts. And there are the commonplace things, the open-fronted shops selling everything you can think of in a few square feet, the builders' yards full of precast cement columns and balconies ready to be tacked on to new houses (I know one that also stocks fresh-painted kilometre posts), and the roadside brickworks with, if you're lucky, lurid flames and black smoke billowing hellishly from the firing tunnels. In almost every village and town there is an attractive old mosque, "old" meaning that it was probably built before World War 2; the domes of craftily-shaped corrugated iron are charming, and somebody should study and record them before they are replaced by new ones in reinforced concrete, often with prefabricated domes in shiny tin bought "off the peg" from roadside shops that specialise in spare parts for mosques.BUKITTINGGI
At last I was within the borders of my home country, West Sumatra, the land of the Minangkabau, scene of my earliest memories. It is customary for a young Minangkabau to merantau, go out into the world to seek his or her fortune. I had been gone for a very long time, and my life had taken some unexpected directions. The Minangkabau have something in common with the Scots, and the feelings of a highlander returning home after long exile would, I daresay, be much like mine as we approached Bukittinggi.
We established ourselves in the nearly-new, very luxurious and beautiful Hotel Pusako, and there we stayed, making day trips into the countryside and longer journeys down to the coast at Padang and right across the island to Jambi in the east. January and February are dead months for tourism, and the place was almost empty. As a result, I came to know the hotel and its staff pretty well. The chef was a local man who had spent over twenty years in hotels in Bali. Apart from myself, another visitor in the kitchen was Donny Yudono, a lecturer from the hotel school in Bandung who was on six months' secondment to a private hotel school in Padang. Donny, like me, was working on ways of cooking and presenting traditional food so that it could it could take its place on the menus of hotels and restaurants. We had a lot of fun exchanging notes and information and of course cooking; he prepared a meal of Padang dishes for us which was served to a large group in the hotel's theatre restaurant to great acclaim.
We also toured the local markets. The name Bukittinggi means "high hill"; the town is nearly a thousand metres above the sea, and on the edge of a canyon. It has two markets, upper and lower, pasar atas and pasar bawa, one above the other on the hilltop. These are among the cleanest and best-organised food markets I have seen anywhere in South-East Asia. The vegetables, fruit, meat and fish are wonderfully fresh and much of the market garden produce would do well at an English agricultural show. The women who bring all this to market and preside over its sale are humorous, sharp, wide awake and full of self-confidence. Besides the raw ingredients for cooking there are immense quantities of snacks, convenience foods, biscuits and cakes, sweet and savoury things to crunch, lick, or chew, all of which you are constantly being invited to taste and sample as you walk round. Admittedly flies are a problem, and of course the market is not enclosed or air-conditioned, so freshness depends on a rapid turnover of stock. And I am not sure that I would want to buy the ready-made spice mixes that even the kitchen staff in the hotel regarded as legitimate time-savers. But for anyone who loves food, a walk through the Bukittinggi marketplace is a reminder of how good our raw materials can be.
Indonesian towns, even small ones, are in a continual ferment of growth and renewal, and the arcaded buildings at the top end of the market, with their oddly Spanish American air and the date, 1917, moulded in plaster, seem ancient indeed. On our first trip out of town, we came to my own birthplace of Padang Panjang, where I found the site of our family home easily enough but no trace of our old house or the school my father built. Many regions of Indonesia are known for their traditional houses and rice barns, and many of these old houses have steeply-pitched roofs whose gable ends are curved or swept upwards or pointed in some way, like buffalo horns or the ends of a boat. This makes the roof harder to construct, and has no obvious advantages for the people living under it, so presumably there are half-forgotten religious reasons for the custom; it certainly makes the houses picturesque and leads inevitably to regret that nowadays they don't build them like they used to.
My father was brought up in a real old-fashioned Minang house or rumah gadang, with a thatched roof and sharply-pointed multiple gables; but, with many others, it was destroyed in the earthquake of 1926, and even in those days no one wanted to rebuild it. So I grew up in a large brick house with plastered, whitewashed walls and tiled floors. There are still a few traditional houses left, but most are too small for the extended family group that should inhabit a real rumah gadang - grandparents (or at any rate a grandmother, Minang society being matrilineal), several daughters, and their husbands and children, maybe thirty or forty people altogether. When these great houses are constructed now, it is as public buildings, like the splendid Minangkabau Cultural Documentation Centre at Padang Panjang or the even more impressive palace near Pagarruyung, which replaces and enlarges the original, burnt down in 1976. These replicas have proper thatched roofs made of black, twisted coconut fibre; the old houses have nearly all switched to corrugated iron, and after a while you cease to deplore this and begin to admire the craftsmanship needed to produce such complex curves with such awkward material.
The landscape is rich, green and varied, a fine balance between man and nature. The roads are well surfaced and they all lead to interesting places. I am not fond of walking, and my idea of enjoying mountains is to sit in a well-placed coffee shop or restaurant and look at the view across a glass of local coffee or a plate of rice. My favourite coffee-shop, among many, is on the road to Lake Maninjau; it overlooks a neat green valley, with a stream and a village called, I think, Sungai Landir, and further off to your right there is a longer view down another valley. The village is enchanting, with the little domes of its mosque set among rice fields and a road of beaten earth leading up from the river between dense groves of bamboo; in the morning or afternoon light, every detail stands out crisp and vivid. A few kilometres further, you stop in a little ornamental park to see the entire lake spread, two hundred metres beneath you, within its rampart of hills. Once over the top of this rampart, the road descends by a spectacular series of hairpin bends. The earth here is rich and lush with cinnamon and clove trees, coconut palms, durian, bananas and rice. The roofs of the village at the lake's edge make their way slowly upwards through the greenery, and suddenly they are above you, shading you from the intensely bright sky of midday, whose light is now reflected from the water at your feet.
Maninjau is a favourite spot for Indonesians to visit, though as far as I could tell most of them come on package tours and spent at most one night in the small, rather bleak lakeside hotels. I met a young lady on the waterfront terrace where we were having a fish lunch; she told me she was a doctor from Jakarta. She was, unusually, a lone Indonesian in a coachload of Europeans, and though they were perfectly nice to her she felt rather isolated. She was eating toast and margarine Dutch-fashion, with a knife and fork. The rest of her group were eating local food in the restaurant next door, but she told me she never ate rice, hated the stuff.THE ROAD TO JAMBI
From Bukittinggi we moved down to the coast, to Padang, a busy seaport town with a long history, but exceedingly hot. We arranged for a local firm to rent us a car and driver for a four-day trip to Jambi, far away on the eastern side of Sumatra, about 80 km upstream from the mouth of the Batang Hari. The Batang Hari is the longest river in Sumatra, and Jambi province, which is about two and a half times the size of Wales, is simply the area drained by this river and its tributaries. They thread their way through what was until recently almost uninterrupted primary rainforest. There is still a lot of rainforest left, but most of what we saw along the road had been cut and replaced by new growth, or was planted with rubber or oil palms, or was farmed for cassava or sweet potatoes; there is hardly any land fertile enough for rice.
At Sungaidareh the road crosses the upper Batang Hari, and we got out and walked across the bridge, with the water rolling dangerously beneath us, swollen by days of heavy rain in the hills. A hundred metres upstream, I saw the little jetty where I had embarked, with my parents and baby sister, to make this crossing by raft, one afternoon in 1942; we were travelling from Padang Panjang to Lampung by bus, with no air conditioning, toilet, music or karaoke, and there were no bridges across the wide rivers. Passengers went first; then the raft was hauled back so that the empty bus could make the crossing. The place looked much the same now as it had then. Our driver told us that the previous evening a family with three children, going home from market in their boat, had been swept away and lost. I shivered.
There is certainly a romanticism about these flat, low-lying roads lined with endless dark-green vegetation, overhung by a sky which seemed to be always grey. There is said to be gold in the river beds, and this was the site of the ancient kingdom of Melayu, which has left a few crumbling temples in the jungle. But we were glad to arrive in Jambi, which has a personality of its own quite unlike most Indonesian towns. On the south bank of the Batang Hari, it has a fading, but still quite impressive, waterfront that I think must date from colonial times, set on a low bluff that gives a fine view of the river and of the extensive village on stilts that stands between high and low water on the north. After we had been shown round the orchid garden and bought orchids for the Governor's wife, and after I had interviewed her about Jambi food, we went in a tiny boat to call on her niece, who lives in one of these houses and runs a batik workshop. The house itself was beautifully made from fine timber, with high cool rooms and a large verandah. As we sat and talked and inspected samples of superb hand-drawn batik, I could not see the water; yet somehow it was always there, at the edge of my consciousness, giving the house an exoticism it would not otherwise have had.
Our hotel room overlooked another lagoon or offshoot of the river, much choked with weed but clear enough in the middle to allow fishing-platforms to manouevre. The water came right up to the walls of the hotel, and every guest who had ever drunk a plastic bottle of mineral water had tossed the empty bottle from his balcony. Indonesians must be some of the world's least litter-conscious people. The hotel manager had, by his own admission, only just taken over the business from his father and had not yet had time to learn much about it. However, he was reading it up in a massive American manual, which he also consulted whenever one of his staff brought him a problem. On the whole they got by pretty well, though the cooking was dire and we ate badly until we discovered a little Javanese restaurant in a walled garden, well away from the town centre and therefore not very busy. Here the food was good, the menu a little more adventurous than usual, and the staff hospitably surprised to see the same people coming back for meal after meal.
We saw a lot of the back streets of Jambi involuntarily, since our driver and guide, both of whom claimed to be experts on the town, invariably got lost on every journey through it. It says a lot for the place that I remember it with affection. Our efforts to find the museum, which is a large building in the centre of Jambi, were particularly unprofitable, except once when we were looking for something else; but at last we reached it intentionally. Most Indonesian museums have at least one or two good things in them, and the standard of presentation is slowly improving, though it is very uneven. They are particularly good on local tools, kitchen equipment and cooking pots, furniture and textiles. Many have excellent models of local houses and boats, and as Jambi has long been home to traders from all over the archipelago, many traditions of domestic architecture can still be seen here. This museum also has an astonishing old wooden chest, about 2 metres long and more than a metre high, dug out of a single immense hunk of timber, with a lid from the same block. Where it came from, how old it is and what it was for, is not explained.
We made it back to Bukittinggi in a day. It was a long trip, one section dead straight for 110 km over gently-rolling hills, but I was anxious to get home. At midday, we were waylaid by naked and threatening orang Kubu, descendants of the first human inhabitants of these forests, and had to talk and bribe our way past them. In our hotel room at midnight we watched President Clinton being inaugurated in the frosty sunshine of a Washington morning.