Thursday, 19 November 1998
Banda Aceh, Aceh, Indonesia
Going to a new country is always fun and arriving by boat must be the best way to make the transition. Sadly we were sealed into a very fast passenger ferry for four hours and so did not get one whiff of sea air. We transferred from Belawan to Medan quickly, wisely ignoring the money changer in the port who offered ludicrously low rates. After this we ran around to find a much better rate and then found ourselves at a bit of a loss as to how to get to Pulau Weh, our first destination at the northernmost tip of Sumatra. Getting on the transfer bus at Belawan a leaflet had been thrust into our hands about a cafe where they could arrange everything and we would get a free cup of tea into the bargain so we headed for this.
Hotel Sugar, it turned out, was run by a rather too relaxed German (or maybe Dutch) guy who went by the name of Sugar. He rather disconcerted Anna by telling her to sit down and relax before he would furnish us with any information. This having been done he outlined the alternatives, getting us a ticket for the normal night bus to Banda Aceh or arranging a special minibus that would take us directly to the ferry port for Pulau Weh arriving at just the right time. We opted for the later as there were three more people heading in the same direction and this way we would have saved ourselves a day hanging around in Banda Aceh. Whilst we waited for the arrangements to be made we got acquainted with the other travellers who turned out to be an English guy called Jon and two Belgians Dave and Dirk. Hours later, and everything at the Hotel Sugar took hours including making a cup of tea, Sugar returned to tell us that the minibus could not be arranged. It was all a bit odd and we were not sure if it was some elaborate scheme to keep us in his cafe all afternoon. However he had got us tickets for the night bus and a free ride to the bus station thus saving us an expensive taxi ride.
That night the rain turned into a massive thunderstorm. Despite the road being flooded the driver drove like a maniac and managed to only have two blow outs. I dimly recall waking up in the middle of my uncomfortable slumber, later I was told that this was down to the fact that we only had one spare and so had to get the wheels fixed - it was all reminiscent of our Kashgar-Urumqi trip even down to the thunderstorm.
Friday, 20 November 1998
Pulau Weh, Aceh, Indonesia
When we unloaded the luggage in Banda Aceh we found that the compartment with our rucksacks in had got partially flooded in the night. Worse still someone had placed a load of fish in the compartment so both Dirk's and my rucksacks smelt bad. Not seeing much percentage in complaining and keen to get to the beach we then set about wasting the time until the ferry left at three. We managed to do this by trying to find something to eat a task that involved a lot of walking around since we wanted more than just Nasi Goreng. Needless to say that was all that we could get hold of that early in the morning so rice it was.
We met up with the other three in a cafe in the market. They were chatting to some locals who were trying to convince them to privately hire an opelet to take them to the ferry for five thousand each. We quickly pulled them away from this "bargain" and got them in an opelet with the locals for two thousand. The ferry terminal at Krueng Raya was a surreal experience. At least fifty soldiers were making their way to Pulau Weh (presumably there is some base there since it is the most northern part of Indonesia) and were lounging around the terminal's cafe with their H&K rifles deposited on the table next to them. When I say cafe what I really mean is a straw roof with a couple of wooden benches ten foot from the beach. In and out of this scene were wandering various livestock including cows and chicken and at one point a goat had to be removed from one of the tables. We had expected the ferry itself t be brand spanking new since the previous one tragically sank in 1996 killing 250 people. However it appeared that the intervening two years had taken their toll and we were faced with being cooped up in a grubby, almost enclosed, passenger deck. There was room for about four people to stand at the only opening in the hull and the westerners occupied it in strict rotation to get a bit of sea air.
Arrival on Pulau Weh was, as usual, a big confusion. Normally when you arrive on islands reps from the bungalow operations turn up to give you a lift to the beach. No such luck, for in Pulau Weh the beach is a good hour and a half from the ferry so it looked like we were faced with making our own way there. However someone had turned up with a transit and was yelling out Gapang and Iboih, the names of the two beaches. However the price, at ten thousand, looked excessive since this is enough for a night's accommodation. Quite a few people agreed with us so we started asking the other opelet drivers to take us to the main town - but they would not talk to us. Then suddenly this atrocious American girl popped out of the expensive bus and in a nasal whine exclaimed "look its more than a two hour drive to the beach so if you want to stand around arguing about a few thousand you can but you'll probably end up having to take a taxi for a hundred". At this the majority of people caved in, i.e. westerner in the know lets follow her. Jon pointed out that one of the locals had told him that they could do it for two and a half and she responded that this was probably by labi-labi (another name for an opelet or converted pick-up) which sounded about what we wanted but was apparently not viable. I pointed out to her that what was annoying us the most was that the diver was clearly operating some scam since the other opelet drivers would not tell us where they were going. She replied with some pathetic excuse and Anna pointed out to her that it was a lot of money in local terms. The long and short of it was that the nasal girl got very vicious with Anna and with everyone else backing down and getting in the transit we had little choice but to give in. Sadly I ended up having to sit next to her since we were last to get in and due to her rudeness I felt compelled to ignore her for the entire hour and a half.
Things started to look good on the trip with a superb sunset and several views of sandy coves. We were mildly phased when we arrived because the locals were charging a one thousand rupiah entry fee but since it was so small decided that it was better not to argue. As it turned out it was probably not legitimate as we learnt from nights spent at the restaurant next to the gates that they only came out with their ticket books when a large group was about to arrive. If you arrived on your own, either walking from the other beach or by motorcycle, you could walk straight in. Finally we encountered the bungalow reps and we followed one and then got another to undercut the first's price. We ended up with a pretty foul mattress on the floor arrangement but we were pretty tired so did not care. The dumping of the rucksacks was closely followed by a Nasi Goreng dinner and our first (and one of only a few) beer in Sumatra. The astounding thing here was the price, admittedly Aceh is a quite staunchly Muslim province of Sumatra but at fourteen thousand a bottle a beer cost more than double the price of our room!
Saturday, 21 November 1998
Pulau Weh, Aceh, Indonesia
I was hoping to wake up stroll out of the bungalow and find myself on a white beach. Sadly in the darkness of the night before we had located the cheapest bungalows and of course these were located furthest from the beach. So we went and found the beach, which was white and lapped at by a crystal clear blue sea, and then moved bungalows. It was all a bit cheeky since we used the low price of our current accommodation to get a bargain price for a bungalow just off the beach which was one hundred times better (well the bed was off the floor anyway). After settling down and having breakfast our next step was obvious - go snorkelling. We had chatted to an English girl at breakfast who had told us that the best place was to go to the Sea Garden on the opposite side of the small island Pulau Rubiah which was about 200m off the beach. So we hired a mask and fins each then swam to the island, walked over it and then went for a look around.
This next bit could get a bit boring for anyone who does not like snorkelling so if you are one of those people lets just say it was a riot and you can skip to the next paragraph. Basically from the very first moment we put our heads in we were enthralled. Our first encounter was with some parrotfish - nothing special you might think, but the size they had grown to was. Next we had a real treat, a honeycomb mMray eel was still feeding on the corals and we followed it most of the way back to deeper waters watching it glide gracefully from outcrop to outcrop. After this we were hooked and spent hours swimming around. The coral was amazingly dense, of every imaginable colour (well every imaginable colour with a hint of blue) and totally undamaged apart from the ravages of the odd electric blue crown-of-thorns. We saw huge clams with vivid green and purple lips, standard coloured moray eels, puffer fish, boxfish, trumpetfish, angelfish, cleaner fishes swimming around the gills of visitors to their cleaning station, etc. Jon et al. who had coincidentally decided to snorkel in the sea garden that first morning also saw an octopus.
Okay the fish list is over. We swum all the way up one side of the island and finding ourselves in a tricky current, surfaced and found ourselves on a tiny desert island beach on which we rested for a while. The swim back was eventful due to an afternoon current just off Iboih beach which required a lot of hard swimming to maintain your course in. After we came in we rested for a while and then went snorkelling again, this time just off the beach itself where the density and variety of fish was no less impressive. After this, realising that we were completely burnt, we handed the mask and fins back and washed in the well and bucket arrangement that was the communal shower. There is no better way of following up a day watching fish than to spend the night eating fish. We left the fried rice menus of the bungalow restaurants behind and went to a place just outside the beach gates. The routine here was you pick a fish from the ice-box then have it barbequed while you wait. We chose two small snappers and with rice and vegetables the whole thing came to 5000 each, so just under a pound for the two. We realised that it would be very difficult to spend a lot of money in Pulau Weh.
Sunday, 22 November 1998
Pulau Weh, Aceh, Indonesia
It must say that since we started hitting the beach I have had a lot of "did nothing today" diary entries. It turned out that I had very badly sunburnt legs so snorkelling was out and it we were feeling a bit to lazy to do any walking around. Jon and the Belgians had gone on some day trip which encompassed a bit of swimming with turtles, a bit of dolphin chasing, some snorkelling and some fishing but it all sounded like a bit too much too soon. Anyway the Belgians were on a bit of a tight agenda - they had originally gone on holiday to Thailand but finding that it was rainy everywhere let Jon talk them into going to Pulau Weh. This sounds okay until you consider it had taken them two days to get to the island and would take them three days to get back to Bangkok. This made for a total of five days solid travelling for three days in Pulau Weh. I am sure that the effort was worth it but I was glad that we had more time. Dinner again was BBQ fish but at a different establishment and although the fish was nicer we both agreed that the first restaurant had a better atmosphere.
Monday, 23 November 1998
Pulau Weh, Aceh, Indonesia
One of those days where it starts out looking like you are going to do nothing but end up feeling so guilty that you end up going for it. In our case we went snorkelling again and got just as hooked (!). Fish list included two Moray Eels, a million lionfish, a scorpion fish and some stingrays. In the evening we had, yes you guessed it, fish for dinner. Although to be fair we did try to order pizza at our bungalow restaurant to be told that there was no cheese.
Tuesday, 24 November 1998
Pulau Weh, Aceh, Indonesia
Diving was not something we had planned to do at Pulau Weh but the fact was that at $20 a dive it was cheap and we desperately needed more experience for the upcoming barrier reef trips. It was a bit unnecessary because there was just so much to see snorkelling that diving would potentially be an expensive disappointment. However the dive shop on Iboih beach was very flexible and had no problems letting us do just a morning dive. We set out for the other side of the jutting out bit of the island that Iboih is on with Bu, our divemaster, and a collection of other divers including a skin diver and an Englishwoman diving for the first time in ages. The skin diver proved to be quite a laugh, he had spent a long time as a diving instructor in Thailand and now was concentrating on skin diving. He had, and I say had because one snapped during the trip, an amazingly long pair of flippers. With a set of weights he would get down to the bottom quickly, look around, then use the extra thrust of his flippers to get him up again. The amazing thing was that he was reaching depths below 20m during his dives and so was in fact going deeper than us with our tons of equipment.
The first dive site was to be the Canyon however strong currents meant that the less experienced of us could not go down. When the others came up we returned them to the beach and went out to a more sheltered site. Sadly our first actual dive did not go according to plan either. During the previous days snorkelling I had been diving to five metres to look at corals etc. and had been practising equalising (i.e. popping your ears) during these dives. So instead of my usual problems I was able to get down quite quickly. Anna on the other hand had no such luck and from my position ten metres down at the bottom of a rope I watched as she tried to get down but kept having to stop because of problems equalising her ears. After a while she told the divemaster to go on without her and he came down and the two of us set off. I must say that this was the first dive I have had where I really felt in control. One of the hardest things to master is buoyancy and even in Thailand I had been plagued with problems with this meaning that I would use to much energy trying to compensate through swimming and generally surface too quickly because I could not control my rate of ascent. This time however I reached diver's nirvana, neutral buoyancy. This is when you are neither sinking nor floating but "hovering" at whatever depth you want. The best thing about it is that you control your height using your breath, breathe in and hold your breath and after a while you start to float up. Breathe out and you start to sink. Of course you are meant to master this a part of your training but it is one thing doing it in a swimming pool and another doing it 20m under. For the first time I was able to investigate things without flapping my arms around just gliding up or down to see it. However our suspicions were confirmed, there was much less to see in the depths and we did not catch sight of any big fish, the snorkelling in Pulau Weh was hard to beat.
Anna in the meantime was having a whale of a time snorkelling on the surface. In fact she saw a shark, which was a bit ironic because 20m below her this is exactly what I wanted to see and I think it was the last thing she wanted to see. So when we came back for lunch opinion was severely divided on the subject of what we would do that afternoon. With my new found ease I wanted to get right back into the deep and with her new found experience of sharks Anna wanted to stay well away. A compromise was unfortunately not reached and we ended up parting company for the afternoon - something that we had hardly ever done in the five months we had been travelling so far and not something I enjoyed that much. The truth is that I enjoy things more if I have someone to experience them with me. It may be a bit existential or it may have something to do with having someone to talk about it afterwards without having to resort to useless adjectives (as I do in this diary) because they were there. Whichever it was I enjoyed the second dive much less. I had seen honeycomb morays, giant barrel sponges ad fish before and could not really see the sea slug that Bu was pointing at.
Anyway Bu was very nice about the whole thing and let us off with paying just for my two dives whereas most diveshops would have charged Anna for her aborted dive. In fact Bu was generally a nice guy and deserves a mention because he just about ran everything on Iboih beach, the dive shop, the restaurant we went to nearly every night and he would always come out drinking with everyone to the small hours. So right after we finished with him at the dive shop we saw him again at the fish restaurant. Jon also turned up at the restaurant, the Belgians having left that morning, and he amused us with tales of his time as an Egyptian movie star. Jon was a bit of a character, it was a bit hard to figure out what he did but he seemed to have had a string of jobs in clubs and bars in London interspersed with jobs in clubs and bars abroad. Having done a month of this myself in Majorca just after university I knew that the reality of such work (it is hard and you get paid little) rarely matched people's dreams of spending months in the sun. I also fail to see how someone could stretch it out for as long as Jon had done. However he told us a tale of a few months he spent in Egypt. Apparently the Egyptians had hit upon the idea of using budget travellers as extras to play Europeans in their movies. So they put an ad up in a budget hotel and Jon applied launching himself on a movie career that included six films and a shampoo commercial. I guess that when you add it all up it would be quite amusing to be Jon for a while.
Wednesday, 25 November 1998
Pulau Weh, Aceh, Indonesia
The bus to catch the ferry leaves Iboih at 0600, when you add this to how cheap it is to stay there, how relaxing it is and how good the snorkelling is you start to realise why it is so difficult for long term travellers to leave. In fact there seemed to be a fair number of people who had not. It was a running joke that Jon would never leave and I started to wonder if we ever would....
It was time to investigate Gapang beach. I had seen it from the boat diving the day before and it was a picture perfect white sand strip much longer than Iboih without the urchins in the shallows which made swimming at our own beach difficult. Of course the coral was not on a par but there was the added attraction of turtles and back in Medan we had been given a voucher for a free day of mask and fin rental. It was a three quarter of an hour walk but even so nobody had made it out of their bungalows onto the beach by the time we got there. We picked up the equipment and then took the plunge. The turtles were pretty easy to find, all you had to do was forget that you were looking for them and suddenly one would appear. They are amazing creatures to watch as they glide so effortlessly through the water. They breathe very slowly and every so often a tiny air bubble pops out of their mouth. We followed one going to the surface for air and it was quite amusing to see its tiny head pop up out of the waves. We could have followed the three of them around for hours but it seemed a little excessive so we poked around the coral and annoyed the fish for a while in between sessions of turtle stalking. I did not want to risk more burns so we kept the snorkelling short but sweet and the made back to Iboih for lunch.
At lunch we found out that Jon was doomed to stay longer. Four fellow Cornishmen (and women) had turned up and it was going to be beers all round that night. He came up with a pretty persuasive argument that he would leave on Saturday because there was a second ferry at the weekend so he would not have to get up so early. I was sorely tempted to follow his lead but we thought about it and realised that it would severely limit our time in the rest of Sumatra. So we spent the afternoon packing. That night we had our last fish (a huge tuna) and managed to last for the first half of the drinking session. Our meeting with the Cornish turned out to be well timed because they had just finished two novels so we were able to do a straight swap thus cutting out the cut throat middlemen.
Thursday, 26 November 1998
Banda Aceh, Aceh, Indonesia
We did actually manage to get up at 0500 and get away from Pulau Weh. It was pretty easy but sadly the people that operated the ferry were determined to make us wait in Banda Aceh for half our lives. We got there around 1000 and our bus to Takengon (which was to be the next place on our route) was due to leave at around 2030. We filled in our time visiting KFC (a mistake but then it was a unique experience - they served us their bad burgers on a plate), sending postcards, check e-mail, phoning home and buying a shirt to replace one of mine that bought it on Koh Lanta. The shirt was a fairly interesting experience because in every stall in Banda Aceh market they sold European and American brand names, Levis, Gap, Armani, Calvin Klein, everything was there. We at first suspected it was because a lot of companies have sweat shops in Indonesia, in truth I think this was the source of the inspiration rather than the garments themselves. I bought a Gap shirt for less than a fiver, it was however obviously a fake - it had all the correct labels sewn in it except for the washing instructions in whose place was a label from a pair of shoes. The fake culture is very interesting, I guess it does the companies very little harm in a country like Indonesia because their potential customer base is tiny. One peculiar name was "Alien Workshop" a label that made a tiny impact in Europe but apparently in Indonesia is big business.
Friday, 27 November 1998
Ketambe, Aceh, Indonesia
The bus to Takengon was the usual nightmare, worsened by the fact that we were compacted into the back seat with a very talkative guy who could not believe we did not have an address in the UK. I made the very fatal mistake of answering his question about what religion I was honestly which meant we had to spend a long time explaining what Atheism was to which the response was "a man who does not believe in God is no better than an animal". The bus arrived at a very inconvenient 0400 which meant sitting around for five hours until the bus to Ketambe would leave. The second bus of the day was the bus from hell. We had to push it to get it started, we had super cramped seats and it did not look like we would get ten metres before something fell off. The scenery on the way was not as spectacular as we hoped, aggressive logging has left most of the slopes of northern Aceh totally bare almost to the point where the only trees are in Gunung Leuser National Park. Sadly, due to lengthy and unnecessary meal breaks we were fated not to arrive in the national park until after sunset.
We were dropped off at the gates of a hotel, unsurprisingly the most expensive in town, and there waiting to greet us was Eloy. I think the last thing anyone would expect to find in the middle of the jungle hundreds of kilometres from any sort of civilisation would be a hotel run by the cast of Le Cage au Folles. But there it was, there was no avoiding the way that Eloy minced around and the fact that his very dour assistant wore eye liner. Anyway the Pondok Wisata provided a very welcome break from spending the night in a bus and even had hot showers something we had not experienced since Georgetown.
Saturday, 28 November 1998
Ketambe, Aceh, Indonesia
Looking for a guide in Ketambe (well Gurah really but everyone calls it that) is not a hard job, with very little in the way of cash jobs in the area nearly everyone is glad to assist. First off we had Halem who seemed to patrol the Pondok Wisata restaurant. However his price was not right, at 200,000 a day we thought that he was a little on the expensive side. So we just walked through town and waited for someone to pop-up. What popped up was Iwan: "What are you looking for?", "a guide", "Ah, I am a guide". We went to his house and talked about options, looked through his recommendations (which were all pre-1994) and then discussed prices. At 100,000 a day, all inclusive, the price was right and so we jumped at the offer. With the benefit of hindsight we should have asked a few more questions but we were paying him half now and half later so what could go wrong?
We were soon to find out the answer to this question but first we had to transfer our bags to his house where we were to stay the night so that we could leave early the next morning. After this we took an opelet ride, sitting on the roof for the full experience, to nearby Kutacane to stock up on supplies. The first time we realised that not everything was alright was when Iwan took us to his office. He had explained that he normally worked out of Kutacane but since it was low season he had gone back home to Ketambe. So we went to the office and whilst he talked to his boss we glanced at jungle pictures on the walls. Eventually the boss called me over and said "If anything goes wrong do not come back to this office". He would not take any responsibility but I thought this was obvious, we had purposefully by passed the tour agencies so we could give the money direct to the guide and thus benefit the community and save us some money at the same time. I looked at Iwan and he was sweating, so was I but that was because I was hot. We then had lunch with Iwan and left him alone for a while and had a walk around. On the way back from our walk Iwan intercepted us, "I am in trouble, I need some more of the money". Internally I groaned, I did not see how it was possible to spend 200,000 on food and we both feared it was some con to get as much of the money out of us before skipping. This actually turned out to be wrong, I am still not sure how he managed to spend so much money but on that front Iwan was at least honest. We gave him 20,000 more and that seemed to sort things out.
The problem with the whole episode was that Iwan was starting to fell that we did not trust him, and the trouble was we did not. I am not sure whether this was the root of Iwan's nervousness but certainly things were never the same again. Back at his house we tried to level with him and explained why we had found a guide directly and cut out the tourist agency and why, as westerners used to going through some sort of office, we were naturally a bit nervy. I think he understood and explained that the incident at the office was down to the fact that his boss was cross with him because he should have referred us to him instead of going out on his own. We said this was stupid because we would never have gone through the agency anyway etc. We ended up rebuilding our confidence in him and we agreed upon an early start the next day as opposed to the 1000 start he had suggested. Iwan made no moves to pack but I thought at the time that he would get up unnaturally early like all locals seem to do and sort it out. How wrong could I have been.....
Sunday, 29 November 1998
Ketambe, Aceh, Indonesia
We woke up around 0700 and started to pack. Iwan asked us what we wanted for breakfast and went off to prepare it. We emerged into the living area of his house to find that everything was still lying around unpacked. After breakfast (0830) they finally lurched into action and managed to make packing last for a hour. We then strolled out to the road, caught a bus and were ready to start walking at 1000. This was a bit dpressing because we had by then missed the best part of the day and certainly the coolest. We started the walk along a track to a slash-and-burn village up in the hills. Here we started to see a pattern emerge, Iwan's "assistant" who carried half of the copious amounts of food and cooking utensils dropped far behind us and we had to stop for lengthy breaks in order for him to catch up. During one of these breaks Iwan revealed that he was "training" his assistant and this was in fact his first trek. Precedent number two was revealed at 1130 when after only an hour and a half's walking we stopped for lunch. Worse than this it was to be a cooked lunch so a fire had to be lit etc.
After over an hour for lunch we started off again through the area cleared for the farms of the villagers and finally reached the edge of the forest. Here we had our first taster of balancing on logs as we had to cross a deep ditch via a fallen tree. Over the other side the path seemed to fizzle out and we paused for a while so that Iwan could relocate it. Suddenly I heard this low pitched buzzing noise above my head and before I knew it my whole head felt like it was on fire. I flapped around and Anna was trying to tell me to keep calm until she got stung too. It appeared we had wandered into the territory of giant bees - not your regular English country garden bees but black and orange monstrosities that attack on sight. Naturally we ran for it, the bees followed us and we ended up cowering ten metres away waiting for them to give up. During this time Anna realised that she had lost her glasses whilst flapping. Iwan volunteered to go back but had to admit defeat after getting stung badly. We had a go at finding them, putting on our waterproof jackets. The result of this was that they stung me in the leg. We were forced to abandon the glasses (which were broken anyway) and carry on. Iwan did suggest camping nearby and returning at night but since we wanted to do what supposedly was a five day trek in four days and we had only walked for two hours we pressed on.
The going after this was slow. Iwan had been stung about six times on the head and with me in agony from just one I guess he could not have been feeling too clever. So now we had two very slow Indonesians to contend with. The path itself was very well defined and we soon found out why. A series of about ten locals dragging huge bundles of freshly cut rattan paraded by. Although we were in the jungle now we rated our chances of seeing animals this day very low and we were right. We reached the campsite about 1600. It was a clearing next to the path and we later realised that it was some sort of convening ground for the armies of rattan cutters. As Iwan and friend started cutting poles to make a shelter more and more rattan cutters paraded past. Due to a shortage of firewood and time they were not able to get much of a fire going and although we were happy with the results of their they made it clear that were not and we should not have walked so much etc.
Monday, 30 November 1998
Ketambe, Aceh, Indonesia
The first morning of waking up under canvas. Or should I say plastic because our tent was basically two clear plastic sheets draped over a wooden pole frame and a heavier duty plastic groundsheet. We were even treated to an audience - the rattan cutters had now congregated in the clearing and watched us as we dressed. On previous treks, for example around Songpan, we were used to the guides getting up very early and waking us up a bit later. With Iwan and pal it was very much the reverse, us getting up was their signal to get up and thus we would have to wait around whilst they made the breakfast and then packed. They were incapable of doing things in parallel so even if only one of them was needed to cook the other would just hang around smoking rather than pack up the camp. We packed up the tent every morning without being asked to and without being thanked by the underemployed twosome. We did this partly through boredom and partly because we wanted to speed things up. However no matter what we did we never started walking before 1000 on any of the days.
Iwan had told us that if we wanted to complete the five day trek in four days we would have to walk at least seven hour a day. Bearing this in mind we reckoned we must be very far behind consider the incident with the bees and all the waiting for the guides to catch up. So we decided to take a more positive role in the planning because we suspected Iwan was angling to make the trip a day longer and thus get another day's pay. So we told him that we would not be stopping to cook lunch which he accepted without comment. We started walking and it was again clear we were travelling in the footsteps of the rattan cutters, cigarette packets were strewn everywhere and there was not an animal in sight. However the jungle grew denser and we began to feel a lot more adventurous and stopped a couple of times just to listen to the sounds around us.
About 1200 we came upon a barren rock strewn hillside. The whole place smelled of sulphur and there were yellow streaks on the odd rock. We stopped for a quarter of an hour and Iwan spread some of the yellow powder on himself proclaiming it good for the skin. At the top of the hillside there were some dead trees and Iwan gathered some firewood. We did as well at Anna's prompting but I must admit that I was not keen of the thought that I'd be carrying the wood for another few hours. I should not have worried about it however because our campsite turned out to be at the bottom of the slope and I had to carry the wood for approximately ten minutes. Totally stunned I stood there as Iwan et al. started setting up camp and it was not even one. We wondered what this would do to our schedule but it was clear that seven hours a day was something of a fiction because the target of our trek, a lake, was apparently just over the next ridge.
The chosen campsite had one advantage, it was next to a stream which had a small waterfall and pool so we were able to take a much needed bath and generally splash around in a very Tarzan-esque setting. After drying off we decided that with only two hours of jungle time under our belt that day it would be best to go off for a stroll and see what we could see. We told Iwan and received no more reaction from him than if we had informed a nearby tree. I had expected some sort of "There's a good path over there" or a "sometimes monkeys hang around here" but no such luck. Thus we walked up the side of the stream and soon came to a small path that snaked through the trees. It was great fun following the path since we were able to examine the plants and trees and the jungle here was a good deal more menacing than what we had encountered so far. We eventually reached the stream again and crossed it then turned back. On the way back I noticed something moving on my shoe and stopped to investigate. It was a black caterpillar like thing with a brown strip down its side and it seemed rather in a rush to get to my socks. It was, of course, a leech and to make matters worse we had, we thought, lost the purpose bought lighter at our previous campsite. I flicked the sock bound one off and dispensed with another one that had made it and then, to my amazement, spotted the tail end of one that had just wormed its way through the fibres of my sock. As a boy I had read a couple of books on survival and knew that a lighter was the only way of dealing with a leech. The problem being that if you picked them off there was a chance that their head would remain stuck in the wound and it would become infected. So having taken my sock off and seeing that one was affectionately gnawing at my ankles I was a bit stuck as to what I should do. That was until we looked at the ground beneath our feet, it was alive with the things heading like rush-hour commuters in our direction. We decided that in the situation the best thing was to put my shoe back on and run back to the camp, Iwan must know what to do.
It took us about a tenth of the time to get back, heading at light speed. Iwan's reaction was to attempt to pluck it off, I was amazed, had he not read "The SAS Survival Handbook", did he not know the dangers? We asked him if he had any matches or a lighter and he looked at a loss. We pressed him a bit more and he grudgingly produced a lighter, the same lighter that we had lost that morning. Without asking any questions we fired the lighter up and, not knowing if it would explode, catch fire or emit a high pitched sound and jump off, we held the flame to my leg. What it did was get uncomfortable, move a couple of inches and reattach itself. I was amazed, why did they not tell me this in the books? We repeated the procedure adding a swift flick at the end and thus got rid of it. I had one more on the other ankle which we disposed of and then we moved on to Anna who also had two. The other thing they do not tell you is what to do with the vicious sods when you have flicked them off, we realised this after we had done it. We were standing barefoot, ankles bleeding profusely, in the midst of four slightly provoked leeches. I guess I had assumed they would shrivel up and die as soon as the flamethrower hit them.
Our wounds having been disinfected and dressed we sat down and played cards until dinner was ready. Iwan and co. had surpassed themselves, a full Nasi Campur with all the works was that night's fare. However our resentment towards the ever more sheepish Iwan was increasing. We could forgive him for not telling us about the leeches even though he knew that they were there. We were a bit perplexed about the lighter, he had handed it over in the manner of a naughty school boy being asked to return a stolen tuck box. Finally we were cross about the food. In all our previous excursions we had equipped ourselves with little more than crackers, cheese and fruit which had been enough and kept our weight down. However here we were trekking through the jungle with the Indonesian equivalent of Marco Pierre White and Egon Ronnay with Harrod's hampers strapped to their backs. It was little wonder that apart from the final day we never walked more than four hours a day and even then at a snail's pace. It seemed that we were a badly mismatched foursome. We saw food as an unavoidable distraction to the pursuit of the jungle, they saw the jungle as an unavoidable distraction to the pursuit of food.
As a footnote to the day the two of them got a roaring fire going after dinner and we asked Iwan if he would like to play cards. In return he asked us if we would like to play chess instead. Rater than pointing out that this was not at all appropriate for four payers we asked him if his (non-english speaking and generally unforthcoming and unnamed) partner would like to play. Without consulting him Iwan replied "He's busy". This was the last time we tried to intrude on their hectic social calendar.
Tuesday, 1 December 1998
Ketambe, Aceh, Indonesia
It again proved impossible to get the dynamic duo started before ten. This was annoying because the campsite had been invaded by an army of normal bees who, having grown accustomed to flora of all description, thought that our bright blue rucksack was some new species of flower. However it was a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire because the path we were about to follow was the leech infested route we had found yesterday. To combat the problem we had soaked our socks in insect repellant and wielded a cigarette lighter switched to the blow torch setting. After an hour during which we flicked countless blood thirsty devils off our boots we stopped at a beach by the side of a stream and did an inspection to see if our defences had been breached. Fantastically they had held out. Not so lucky Iwan's assistant who had not even been equipped with a pair of socks. He sat there plucking them off his ankles and then sensibly grinding them up between two stones. By the end of this process his ankles looked like a scene from the Exorcist. Iwan jokingly entertained us by swinging over the river on a vine, ironically it snapped and dumped him in the river.
The entire walk to the lake took less than three hours including leech inspection breaks. The jungle was pretty spectacular and although we did not see any wildlife we did get the feeling that we were at least in with a chance. The most engaging thing I saw was a leech that had crawled onto a log crossing the path and was doing the leech equivalent of standing on tiptoe and swaying backwards and forwards in an effort to attach itself to a passing crotch. The most engaging thing Anna saw was also a leech which had engaged itself to her hand. Understandably she screeched and was unable to do anything because it had attached itself to the very hand that she needed to get the lighter out of her jeans. One of the guides decoupled it in the non-SAS fashion.
When we arrived at the lake it was a nice surprise. I had imagined a lily pad encrusted watering hole in the middle of a vast clearing surrounded by elephants and tigers quenching their thirst. In fact it was fairly big and overhung by trees on all sides. On one side was a small clearing and in this our guides down tooled and began their culinary exertions. Lunch made us feel bloated and so Iwan's suggestion to circumnavigate the lake came as a welcome one. And it was probably the most fun we had in the four days. The path was fighting a loosing battle with the vegetation and so Iwan's parang came into good effect, I even had a swing. We went a third of the way round and then turned back due to a shortage of time. After this it was obviously time for more food the surprise this time being chips.
Wednesday, 2 December 1998
Ketambe, Aceh, Indonesia
That morning we had a minor success, we got out of camp by a quarter to ten! We wanted to get out of Ketambe that night and had said to Iwan that we would forgo lunch in an effort to get back by 1600. We retraced our steps through leech territory and then took another branch of the path just before reaching our previous campsite. The going this time was tough, the path had been obliterated by toppled trees and new paths created by elephants in whose footprints we followed. Iwan had to start chopping through the undergrowth and we would pick up the occasional animal track only to come to a dead-end and have to turn back. Yes, you guessed it, our guide was lost and arguments with his partner clearly indicated that he was just as cross with Iwan as we were.
About 1400 after two hours of hacking through the jungle, being ripped by thorn covered creepers, climbing ridges and slipping down the mud on the other side Iwan finally found a path. He admitted to me that he had previously been lost and I asked him how much further we had to go. Three or four hours was the reply, in other words we had lost two hours scrambling around. After a while we encountered more rattan cutters and it was clear that we were on our way out. It was not that easy, we were heading downhill and everything was as slippery as hell. Worse than this there was rarely anything to grab hold of as even the palms had lethal thorns coating their stalks. However we did have one reward on this nightmare of a day, some white-handed gibbons came to screech at us and we were able to observe them swinging through the canopy. The only trouble was that we were very late, covered in plant lacerations and stings and caked in mud. What we wanted most at that time was a bath, not to hang around watching monkeys.
Our problems were nowhere near being over when we finally exited the jungle. We emerged in another patch cleared for farming although not entirely cleared. The thing is that they often clear more land that they need and in the absence of a canopy the undergrowth parties. Instead of vainly trying to keep paths through these wilds open the farmers make use of the fallen trees. Thus you find yourself walking on rotting tree trunks and branches at an unknown height above the greenery obscured ground. This is okay until you actually miss your footing and then crash through layers of interwoven rotten branches and greenery. This is what I did, fortunately I managed to grab hold of a branch and Mr X pulled me up. The funny thing was that even though I feel my full height my feet did not reach the ground.
It took about an hour of log walking, muddy path skiing and finally a walk along a semi-sealed road to get back to the main road. We then sat down by the roadside and waited for a bus to urn up which it did. By the time we got back to Iwan's it was clearly to late to even consider leaving town. We quickly paid Iwan off, picked our stuff up and hightailed it back to Le Cage aux Folles. The subject of a recommendation was not even brought up, I guess Iwan knew that he had been a bit of a disappointment to us and that he would have to do some thinking before his fledgling guide business took off. Maybe we were a bit unfair, after all we did have a good time and we got back safely. However it was clear that he had a rigid idea of a how a jungle trek should progress and rather than adapt that plan to our needs he just distanced himself from us. We told him every single night we wanted an early start the next day and he just hung his head and listen despondently and the next day we would depart, as per usual at 1000. Worse than this he seemed to hide a lot of information from us, we could have done the entire trek in three days easily or covered a lot more ground in the four days if we had known how little was actually involved. Another thing that nagged at us as we watched him and his partner in crime preparing meals or sitting by the fire smoking dope every night was that it was them, not us, on holiday. We were in a way a bit of an obstacle to their plan for four days dope smoking in the jungle. They were very lazy in our eyes and although they carried quite a lot of weight it was of their own doing, we did not need a fourth person and we had food left over at the end of the trip.
An interesting aside is that as we laboured over dinner that evening we eavesdropped on a neighbouring booth's conversation. An English consultant biologist had been commissioned to do a report on how tourism could help Gunung Leuser and he was interviewing two girls who seemed to have little comprehension of where they were other than it was a stop on the way to Pulau Weh. He started off by saying that he thought that tourism could benefit the park if done right. One of the girls then related her experiences of monkeys who get aggressive when you do not have bananas at Bukit Lawang. Anyway there was a lot of waffle until the biologist said "Well is it really any good for tourists, I went on a birdspotting trek myself and spent three days going up and down ridges and seeing nothing more than the under storey because my binoculars had clouded up and my camera stopped working. It was more like hard exercise than tourism". Having just done it ourselves we agreed completely with this sentiment. It is sad but there is no real middle ground, you either turn the jungle into an amusement park and scare all but the most dependent animals away or you leave it as is and cater for the handful of people prepared to put up with its hardships.
Thursday, 3 December 1998
Kabanjahe, Aceh, Indonesia
Having seen how long it takes to get anywhere in Sumatra we decided that the best thing to do would pick one more destination and head there for five days before leaving for Singapore. The Banyak islands were regrettably out as with only two boats a week we saw the possibility of getting stranded just before a flight that we could not reschedule as unattractive. Number one tourist attraction in Sumatra is unfairly lake Toba but we had been warned off this by several people. Instead we set our sights on Lake Maninjau in West Sumatra, just below the equator. We started late as we had been too tired to pack the night before and got to Kutacane at a very poor 1000. From here we probably should have headed straight to Medan where we would have had the possibility to catch a night bus to Bukittingi. Instead we chose to join the Medan-Bukkitingi express route at its closest point Parapat on the shores of Lake Toba. Sadly it was not to be, by the time we got to Kutacane we had to wait two hours before the next bus to Kabanjahe and by the time we got the last onwards bus had left. To make our annoyance at being stranded in the middle of nowhere the bus driver had refused to believe we wanted, and had paid, to be dropped there and not taken to Medan. The result of this was that we had to walk half a kilometre back to the bus station. Realising we were stuck we attempted to find a hotel. Every time we asked someone where one was they replied Berastagi, another town popular with tourists fifteen minutes ride away. We eventually discovered there were two hotels one very grubby and expensive the other just as grubby but cheap. Naturally we were not allowed to stay at the cheap one and we suspected that they were owned by the same people. All the time people were yelling "hello mister" and rather than helping us spent most of the time taking the piss out of us because we looked lost rather than helping us. Out of our three weeks in Sumatra this was definitely the low point.
Friday, 4 December 1998
Lake Toba, North Sumatra, Indonesia
So the next morning we had to get as quickly as possible out of Kabanjahe to Parapat to see if we could catch an onwards bus. Obviously things could not be that easy, we had to change buses before Parapat, but we got there in the end. Lake Toba was not as I had expected, for one thing it was too large. You could not see either end and the island in the middle could easily have been mistaken for the other side. We decided not to stay and found a travel agent who probably ripped us off and put us on just about the worse bus imaginable. We were forced to play reclining seat warfare all night with the chap in front of me reclining his all the way back and the woman behind screaming her head off when mine was reclined by half an inch. In the end we had to shout at both of them and had a reasonable nights torture. I vaguely remember crossing the equator but it was all a bit too dark to tell.
Saturday, 5 December 1998
Lake Maninjau, West Sumatra, Indonesia
When you approach to Lake Maninjau from Bukittinggi you spend an hour slowly climbing then drop into the crater of what was once a volcano. The view was pretty special as we quickly descended to the level of the lake on a road with forty-four numbered hairpin bends. We got dropped off and then went for breakfast. We found a cafe where I would have had a cheese and tomato toasted sandwich except they had no cheese or toast. It did however provide us with a base to leave our stuff whilst we located a hotel. Now I am not going to make any excuses, we did go a bit over the top, but you must bear in mind that we had no clean clothes and some of the dirty clothes were in a state of decomposition. Thus it seemed hot water was a necessity and the cheapest place with hot water was the Tan Dirih at a discounted 60,000 Rupiah a night (roughly £6). The fact that the rooms had bath, TV, fluffy towels and a lakeside terrace with table and chairs was irrelevant, we wanted 24hr hot water.
So we got down to washing and this is what we did for most of the day, Anna the clothes and me our boots. We stopped briefly for lunch and then continued, or rather Anna did because the boots did not take that long. The other residents of the hotel were two portly Dutch fellows who delighted in telling us they were loggers and owned a bull farm locally and came here four times a year and wanted to buy the hotel etc. They also asked us if we wanted to come for a big party at their farm but we were tired and did not really want too much company so turned them down. Instead we went to a place called JJ's cafe where they did a very nice steak with all the trimmings with some ice cold beers.
Sunday, 6 December 1998
Lake Maninjau, West Sumatra, Indonesia
We were determined to be lazy but with the lake literally outside our hotel window (it was a metre and a half higher than usual and had partially flooded the split level back terrace of the hotel) it was difficult not to be tempted in. The hotel owned a dug-out canoe and for a very reasonable price we rented it for the morning. We asked for two paddles despite being told that it was easier if just one paddled and then set off. We did not manage to get very far before we found out that it was not as easy as it looked. We tried one paddling on one side and one on the other but as I paddled stronger we went in circles. We tried paddling on both sides but we hit each other crossing the paddles over and then went in a circle. We tried shouting instructions to each other but we both said the opposite of what the other said and then went around in a circle. Eventually we gave up and took it in turns to paddle which also resulted in us going in circles, but not quite so many. At a rough guess we probably got about two and a half kilometres before we noticed the storm. This is one of the terrific things about the lake, its weather systems are fairly contained, the crater walls are high enough to ensure not many clouds get in or out and they act as a dark blue backdrop to any approaching rainstorms. We had, the day before, watched a rainstorm on the opposite side of the lake and today we could tell a storm was working its way up from the southern end. The wind picked up and the waves started to get a bit rough and a friendly local hinted to us that it might be time to head back, so we did.
Fortunately I had been watching the locals and had figured out how they managed to paddle on only one side of the canoe. You basically do your stroke but leave the oar trailing in the water and use it like a rudder to correct the fact that you were swerving off n one direction. I was able to get us back almost two-thirds of the way before the canoe sunk. Or rather before it completely filled with water from the waves lapping over the side and we were forced to evacuate it. My previous experience with kayaks had taught me that we needed to turn it upside down to get the water out. Fortunately we had predicted the sinking and were heading towards the shore when it finally happened. We emptied it and seeing that the waves were getting worse we beached the canoe and waited.
The immediate vicinity of the place we landed contained a waterfront restaurant and a zoo which consisted of a couple of distressed primates chained to posts. There really was not much to do so we inevitably got bored and decided I should walk back to the hotel to ask them if the rain was going to stop and if it was not could we return the canoe the day after. Of course I only had a t-shirt and swimming trunks on when I walked the kilometre back. This resulted in more than the usual number of "hello mister"s but strangely enough no offers of a lift. Naturally by the time I got back to the hotel the rain stopped and the lake was as flat as a pancake, so I had to go all the way back. Thus more greetings and even a "hello would you mind if I practiced my English?". We got the canoe back easily and then just mucked around near the hotel, the canoe doubled as a really relaxing sunbed and I was able to get completely burnt.
Monday, 7 December 1998
Lake Maninjau, West Sumatra, Indonesia
We had earmarked this day for a trip to Bukittinggi to sort out our onwards travel arrangements. It was a pretty easy journey but of course te return trip encompasses eighty-eight hairpin bends. As well as our travel arrangements we wanted to buy some freshly roasted coffee beans as Christmas presents for our parents. We had the good luck to run into Japang, a local guide who also happened to live next door to a coffee "factory" and since he was going home anyway we could go with him. The factory turned out to be the house of two old women who did not have any unground beans in at that time. So we had to go to another house and then on to a third before we found what we wanted. Here we sat in the living room of a one Mr Abbas as he weighed out two kilo bags of very richly aromatic beans. After we left we thought that any second Japang would ask us for some money for guiding us around the coffee factories of Bukittinggi but he did not. Whether it was because he was as nice as he seems or because he was labouring under the misapprehension that we would book an actual tour with him we will never know.
The rest of the day was consumed by running around trying to sort things out. We were pretty stupid to book our Singapore boat tickets from Bukittingi as we later found out. At least we did not get it through the first agent we asked who wanted 65,000 as opposed to the 57,500 we eventually paid. Other than this we enjoyed the quirky mix of traditional Minangkabau and colonial architecture that the town offers. We got back to the hotel late and went for another steak at JJ's before collapsing into bed.
Tuesday, 8 December 1998
Lake Maninjau, West Sumatra, Indonesia
Finally we managed a day of doing absolutely nothing. We wrote diaries, bought postcards, failed to find a souvenir worth buying, sat in inner tubes on the lake and not much more. As a footnote to the leech episode one had managed to survive six days on my boots and intensive washing and scrubbing. It was finally flushed out by me rewaterproofing my boots with silicone spray. I flicked it casually into the green waters of Lake Maninjau wondering if it would return to prey on one of the guests at a later date.
Wednesday, 9 December 1998
Pekanbaru, Riau, Indonesia
Anna's name day was spent, rather grimly, on the bus. We woke up early and lucked out with a direct bus to Pekanbaru from just outside the hotel. The trip was long, hot and noisy. Once again we had sat underneath the loudspeaker and the driver was repeatedly playing a tape of some high pitched woman singing badly. We got to Pekanbaru at around four and checked into the very dismal Poppie's homestay - a sort of transit dormitory for people heading to and from Sumatra. We went for a name day cake at the "New Holland Bakery" which seemed to be undergoing an identity crisis and was either called Van Holland or VanFC (Fried Chicken that is) depending on which sign you looked at. After this we treated ourselves at the Chinese Restaurant in the Amon hotel. We were very early but as the evening wore on the placed filled to overflowing with the local Chinese ex-pats, all very rich and all driving around in Toyota jeeps. One sad note to the night were the scores of children attempting to sell Mickey Mouse posters for a bit of money by holding them up to the window and yelling "hello mister". The divisions in Indonesian society that lead Indonesians to burn Chinese businesses in Jakarta earlier in the year were clearly on display.
Thursday, 10 December 1998
Never use travel agencies in Indonesia, you save a load of money and end up on the same crappy bus anyway. We realised we should have adhered to this motto after us six tourists heading for Batam were taken off the cosy minibus which had ferried us to a bus company's office and shown the way to a very clapped out and cramped affair pretty much packed with Indonesians. The agency in Bukittinggi had sold us a ticket, at a mark-up, which was arranged by Poppies who in turn took a large amount of profit. It was all designed with the lazy tourist in mind but really we would probably been 25% better off if we had just walked into the bus station. Anyway we had no leg room for four hours whilst we watched Indonesians getting on and off the bus and paying the odd thousand. We were then dumped at a shanty town which revealed itself to be the port and given no further instructions. We had to walk along three different piers before we found the right boat and it left an hour late.
Things were fast and furious when we got to Batam. Throughout the day I had been cultivating a fear that the cost of the ferry in Rupiah would have risen to counter the fall of the Rupiah. This proved to be true and we had no way near enough money to get a ticket. Fortunately one of our fellow travellers had maintained quite a stack of Rupiah and was able to change some dollars for me. We then bought tickets to Singapore and after a brief wait boarded a brand spanking new passenger ferry.
A remarkable feeling of deja vue swept over me as we stepped onto the soil of Singapore . Despite the difference in our transport the whole thing was like a replay of the instant we arrived in Hong Kong from China. We docked just below the World Trade Centre and walked through it's ground floor, a vast gleaming shopping centre complete with glass shop fronts and chrome fittings. I was quite sure that most of our fellow passengers were from the more in tune Batam than from Sumatra so would not have been as much in shock. When I compare the ferry terminal at Sumatra with that in Singapore I find it difficult to believe that the two places are on the same planet let alone five hours from each other. It was not only the difference in material wealth and technology, it was also everyone's general attitude. Everything was orderly, everybody knew what they were doing and were happy to help you if they could.
Compare this with the Sumatran end where nobody knew what was going on and nobody particularly cared, they had a blind faith that they would eventually get where they were going. On one hand the material difference presents you with such a vivid sense of the inequities of the world that a lifetime of watching news reports and documentaries on the subject at home could never even begin to approach it. On the other however difference in attitudes dampens the sympathy. From what we saw the average Indonesian was pretty relaxed so it was easy to see how corrupt politicians such as the just departed President Suharto could rule the roost.
As we gradually settled into things we began to feel our way around and boarded a bus bound for the centre of town. Someone on the bus asked us if we needed any help and showed us where to get off the bus. We swept through wide streets and despite getting caught in the traffic of Orchard Rd found ourselves at our destination in no time at all. The guesthouse we picked was close to Raffles and called Waffles but there similarities ended. I doubt Raffles could have maintained its air of exclusivity all these years if its entrance was a door in the kitchens of a 24hr halal restaurant. Nevertheless it was cheap and clean and the restaurant proved handy as a set of stairs was about the limit of our travelling abilities at the end of a very long day.
Friday, 11 December 1998
Having waffled endlessly about the difference between Sumatra and Singapore it may surprise you to know that I did not fall madly in love with Singapore either. However I did experience what could best be described as a brief fling. It started eating a warmed oat bran muffin liberally coated in butter in Starbucks that first morning. It ended attempting to do our Christmas shopping on Orchard road about an hour later. You see Orchard road is basically a lengthy series of glass and chrome malls stuffed with Guccis, Body Shops, MacDonalds, Pradas and just about every other international chain you could care to name. The only thing that was unique about it was its lack of uniqueness. If I was suddenly teleported there I would have difficulty working out which of a dozen cities I was in from my surroundings and only by a process of deduction would work it out. We both failed to buy anything because we felt our various relatives would be unimpressed receiving something from the other side of the world which they could have bought just down the road (admittedly at twice the price but "money isn't everything" as they keep telling me).
We were offered a welcome break by lunch with Paul Ng an old work colleague. The unusual thing about our lunch was that although when we had worked together we spoke nearly every week I had never met him. He worked in Toronto but on the same global project. It was good to finally put a face to the name. We had lunch on Boat Quay which is a row of refurbished houses just around the corner from the financial sector and on the banks of the river. It was quite a nice spot despite the fact that with around thirty restaurants in a row it was something like an eating amusement park.
After finding Anna some replacement glasses for the ones lost in the Sumatran rainforest we returned to Orchard Road and again failed to find any Christmas presents. One amazing thing was an attempt by a salesman to sell me a camera lens I was browsing and did not like too much. He asked me how much I would like to pay for it, I told him that money was not a problem it was not an issue it was just whether I liked the lens and that we had to think about it. He then began dropping the price and coming out with such gems as "In Singapore we don't think about things we just buy them", "you big boy now you can afford such toys". By the time the price had dropped to two thirds we had too much fun and I walked out, his passing comment to Anna, who was trailing behind, was "tell him I'll give it to him for [half price]".
Saturday, 12 December 1998
We had only two days in Singapore so we thought it would be a shame to do nothing but walking around the shops. The choices of what to do were both numerous and very limited at the same time. The thing is that in order to amuse its hardworking citizens and project a more fun image of the city to visitors a whole series of amusement parks were built. So you have Zoos, Orchid Gardens, Chinese Gardens, Chinese theme parks, Crocodile World, Bird Park, Arabian Nights theme parks and if this is not enough they have Sentosa which is an entire island of amusement parks. Outside this you have one island on which you can trek, sadly we could not get there in the time, and the Chinese and Indian Quarters of which little has survived and what is left has been painted in such paintbox pastel colours that you once again feel like you are in a theme park. We decided that Jurong Bird Park sounded the best of a bad lot, we had felt a bit short changed after our jungle trek and so the chance to finally see as well as hear some birds seemed too good to miss.
The first part of the day it rained buckets. We took the frighteningly modern tube system and out of the centre of town, raised above the surrounding suburban sprawl we could see that the storm was of such a density that you could hardly make out the surrounding buildings. We took a bus from the terminus of the tube to Bird Park and in the two minutes it took to walk from the bus stop to the park gate we were completely immersed. Fortunately the park sported a couple of inside exhibits, a nocturnal birds area whose occupants seemed asleep despite a reverse lighting system and some penguins. Like most Londoners penguins conjure up images of the penguin enclosure at London Zoo. Fortunately someone had twigged that to get the full penguin experience you not only have to see them wobbling around and slipping over on a small patch of concrete, you also have to see how elegant they are under the water. So the huge herd of Humboldt penguins had a massive landscaped half aquarium, half desolate coast line sort of affair and they absolutely loved it.
It stopped raining just as we came out of penguinsville. We then walked around some more conventional birds in cages areas until we found the Hornbills who after four days of avoiding us in the jungle no longer had the luxury. Along with the penguins the highlight of the place was the aviary. In an ideal world I think that the only way of keeping birds is in an aviary, of course it makes it hard for your average punter to spot the different species and you would not be guaranteed to see every one but at least you would see them flying around rather than just sulking at the back of their cages. The aviary here is superb, it is huge, stuffed with vegetation and even sports its own 30m tropical waterfall. We rounded the tour off with a visit to the impressive parrot collection, the birds of prey (who were unfortunately chained in their cages rather than doing their daily show at the "Fuji Hawk Walk") and a final peek at the penguins who were as mad as ever.
When we got back into the centre of town we picked up Anna's glasses and then mooched around Chinatown which, apart from a bustling discount market was every bit as sterile as the guide books make out. Of course no-one can go to Singapore without buying something so as a last ditch attempt we decided to make a bee line for Sim Lim Square, Singapore's Tottenham Ct Rd. The comparisons do not end at just the functional, the prices were pretty much the same, although in Singapore dollars not pounds. Fortunately for my backpack I could not see how a DVD player would benefit us in South America, doubly fortunate is that I did not reveal these doubts to the salesmen as they would have been able to reassure me that no hike in Patagonia would be properly equipped without one. In the end we bought the camera lens I had been debating the day before - the price he gave us was lower than the final price offered to us on Orchard Rd and the salesman would only budge as far as giving me a free UV filter on the price.
Sunday, 13 December 1998
Another day entirely taken up by travel. But this time in a plane bound for our next destination, Australia. The flight was made slightly less dull by the fact that Emirates' twelve channel video system allowed us to watch Wuthering Heights.