October 25, 2012

Sapa Trek

One of the Black H'mong grandmothers poses for me
It's roughly a nine hour journey by night train from Hanoi's dusty streets up into the mountains of Lao Cai province, Vietnam. Snug against the Chinese border, this is in fact the most easternly stretch of the Himalayas. We left the cozy warmth of the sleeper car for the deep chill of early morning, paid far too much for a street-side cup of Vietnamese coffee (rocket fuel) and boarded the shuttle van to the Sapa Summit hotel,  our arranged trekking company, an hour's drive away.

After breakfast and a hasty repacking session, we headed out front of the hotel to meet our group - and found not only travelers in NorthFace coats milling around, but also a flock of girls and old women all dressed in navy leggings and navy tunics, woven bamboo baskets on their backs, laughing and joking and watching us. One of them brought us a clipboard to add our names to: this was Em, our nineteen-year-old guide.
The girls and the old women - essentially, the village members not needed in the fields - of a nearby Black H'mong village make their way into Sapa every morning in order to meet and escort every new group of trekkers on the first part of their journey. The girls asked us questions in broken English, the grandmothers twisted long-stemmed grass to make toy horses as presents. They tromped through the mud in their rubber boots, holding our hands as we edged carefully along the ridge of a rice paddy so that we wouldn't fall in.

As we approached the village where the women live, the grandmother who'd held my hand along the paddy walls suddenly had a pile of embroidered pillowcases and woven bracelets in her arms, liberated from the depths of her bamboo basket.

This is how you avoid the muddy soup of the rice paddies
"You buy from me? I help you! You no fall." she said, nodding down into the muddy valley.
She was right. I didn't fall. And although I didn't really want either - I had too many woven bracelets already, and I'll have to carry the pillowcase in my already-stuffed backpack, but I felt obligated. Which is, of course the point.

"Well, I... well. How much for this?" I pointed at a navy pillowcase, embroidered with colourful thread. I look over at Dan, who is backing away from several old women, a juice harp in his hand.

At least they were cute souvenirs.

Em cooks dinner for us - stir fried chicken and vegetables
Over dinner that night, we got to know our guide. Em is Black H'mong, one of the many ethnic groups spread across northern Vietnam's hilly countryside. In fact, she was living in one of the villages we'd walked through that day. She had been married for eight months to a man she's known her whole life, who is also Black H'mong, but from a neighbouring village.

Em became a tour guide at 16, to help support her family, and now to help support her husband's family. Here, when a girl is married, she moves in with her husband's family and makes his household her priority. So having a boy has special significance... otherwise, no one will be working to support an aging mother. Em has eight siblings, only the youngest of which is a boy, her mother's goal.

Apparently in the last decade, it has become more acceptable for a daughter to support her parents if there are no sons - in the past, the solution was to buy a son from a woman with an 'extra.'

Although Em was married young, it's now socially acceptable to put off having children until she's ready to stay home with them. For now, she wants to keep guiding tours and bringing in money to support the family.

On the morning of our second day, the fog finally lifted and we got a great view of the valley, each hill terraced into rice fields, like washed-out staircases, or soupy layer cakes. In late December, the rice has long since been harvested and the water buffaloes mill about in the muddy water, munching on the stringy weeds.


March 14, 2012

Street Soup

We left our hostel, map in hand, bundled in our fleece sweaters against the cool air of a Hanoi evening in late December. In a show of bravado, we struck out across the street. We jumped back in a panic. We froze for a moment on the curb, watched the scooters whiz by us, the drivers nonchalantly navigating the narrow, congested streets.

Eventually, we made it across that street, then another. Our destination was on the next corner, which was fantastic because Hanoi's lightening fast ribbons of scooter traffic were quickly turning me into a nervous wreck. But we'd made it, and there she was.
Tasty soups at Pho 24 

Perched on a small plastic stool behind a long, low table on the street corner was a middle-aged woman, her graying hair held back in a checkered headscarf, deftly chopping a whole chicken into bite-sized pieces with a thick-bladed machete. The table was loaded with soup ingredients and condiments - chicken parts (yum, feet?), slabs of beef, onions, garlic, noodles, vegetables, herbs, countless unlabeled bottles of sauce - all marinating in the perpetual dust of Hanoi's streets.

We plunked ourselves down on stools, pointed to the beef and said, "two?" holding up the appropriate number of fingers and smiling hopefully. Success! She conferred with the soup tureen boiling away beside her stool, tossed in the meat and veggies, and grinning, handed us two bowls of steaming 'pho bo' - Vietnamese beef noodle soup, which we devoured immediately.

I love pho, and nowhere does it better than a street stall in Hanoi. (Although the Pho 24 chain does a good job too!) This is a city where daily life is out on the sidewalks. Street food is king, storefronts spill right out to the curb. My other favourite experience here was the 'bia hoi,' or fresh beer, stored without preservatives in big kegs and doled out in mugs on corners. The beer line isn't carbonated, like it would be in Canada, and so the tube coming from the bottom of the keg is plugged with a cork - or, when business is good, with the bartender's thumb. Like all other street-side businesses, patrons perch on tiny plastic stools at tiny plastic tables.

My Dad is so proud of me.

We spent five days in Hanoi, mostly eating and drinking (I literally had pho for every meal for about three days. I regret nothing.) but we managed some tourist attractions as well. The military museum has a big display of both Russian and American military equipment that you're allowed to climb on, as well as one-sided displays on both the French and American wars. It wasn't the one side that we're used to hearing about back home, so it was interesting to dig through the propaganda to find a Vietnamese perspective.

The mausoleum: you cannot get closer than this from the front.
Immediately after this was taken, the guards yelled at us to back away.
I also got to see my very first embalmed communist leader! The body of revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh, or 'Uncle Ho,' is preserved in an enormous mausoleum in Hanoi. To see him, you must walk a half kilometre around and behind the mausoleum itself - by no means can you approach from the front across the parade square. You check your purse at one kiosk and your camera and cell phone at another. Then you walk single file along a thin red carpet into the marble building, under intense scrutiny by Vietnam's tallest military guards, all in spotless white uniforms. You do not talk, or linger, or put your hands in your pockets. Pictures are right out, thus the mandatory camera handover. Everyone shuffles slowly past the pale, waxy-skinned, serene Uncle Ho (who, by the way, wanted specifically to be cremated rather than embalmed and preserved), observes respectfully and emerges from the chilly mausoleum back into the daylight.

Cool, if slightly creepy.

We also checked out a few of the historic temples, and strolled around Hoan Kiem Lake in the old quarter. And then we ate. And ate and ate and ate.


March 2, 2012

Fighting with Spiders, and Other Creature Stories

To wrap up my posts on the Philippines, I have a couple of stories.

Our first morning in El Nido, we were signed up to go an an island hopping tour that began at 8 am. When the alarm went off, Dan hit the 'off' button and drowsily stumbled out of bed. He turned on the bathroom light and then before entering, turned around, probably to tell me to get up. Instead, he froze.

He said, "Don't move."

Which scared the hell out of me, obviously, because I naturally assumed that immediately behind my head lurked a massive and ferocious monster poised to devour me whole - or something with a similar terror value. Then, in a squeaky whisper, he said, "THERE IS A GIANT SPIDER ON THE WALL!"

It's watching you...

I sat bolt upright and followed his stare: high in the corner of the room, a jet black spider with a leg-span larger than my palm and huge, glowing eyes was staring right back at Dan. Who backed out of the room to get help (after snapping a picture of course). I did not move. I'm proud of my reputation as a fearless lady, but I was not about to mess around with an enormous murder-spider.

Dan reappeared a moment later, followed by the receptionist. He looked at the spider, looked at us, paralyzed by fear, and grinned. He casually strolled over to the spider, reached up with his bare hand, and shooed it from the room - touching it in the process.

I'm sitting there thinking, this man deserves a medal of some kind. And maybe some antivenin, just in case the monster's fangs dripped on him. But he just says, "You don't need to worry. Not poisonous. That is a Filipino house spider!" And then he wanders off, chuckling to himself about the sissy tourists.

We managed to put it out of our minds for the rest of the day. But when we returned from our tour that evening, I bent down to rummage through my pack for something, and out from behind it scuttled - to my horror - another spider. But slightly smaller. Slightly.

Dan and I both jumped backwards in terror, but in a moment of either supreme bravery or extreme idiocy, I decided that for the sake of my pride, I couldn't call on reception again. Who knows why pride mattered at this point. But I mustered all of my self control, and I reached out (absolutely without touching it. I shudder at just the thought.) and began to shoo it towards the open window.

It ran below the window and under our bed. We left the room immediately to drink as much as we could afford and for the next several nights we upheld a ban on looking under the bed.

This is Dan's big mitt in the photo, so it is a sizable bug.

As for other insects, we saw some big cicadas and beetles and ants and the like, but the largest bug we saw was a giant grasshopper. He showed up on our bathroom door while we were hanging out in Sabang. I thought he was a bit cute, really.

The other story:

Dan was swimming in the waves at Sabang's beach on the second or third day we were there, and a local guy approached him. He said, "You shouldn't swim right now. One of the boats saw a crocodile!"

We didn't think much of it until, a few hours later, we were sitting on out porch and playing cards, and a couple of boys ran top speed past us on the beach, largely remarkable because as we were at the end of the beach, no one ever walked past. Let alone ran. A couple more ran by, and as we watched them go, we noticed something in the water way out behind them.

Something long and large and a bit lumpy.

So, we donned our sandals and climbed up the jagged rocks just past our little stretch of beach to get a better view. Turns out there WAS in fact a salt water crocodile lurking in the bay! Sadly, our pictures aren't worthy of putting up. But we got a couple views of his snout and his tail, and he was at least three, if not four, metres long.

As it turns out, although nearby Puerto Princesa has a commercial crocodile farm, wild crocs are almost unheard of around the Sabang area. So within twenty minutes of us scaling the rocks to check it out, half of Sabang's small population had raced down the beach and climbed up to get a look.

For the rest of the week, all of the locals employed in the tourist business denied the croc's presence until we told them that we'd seen it ourselves, because they were worried about the town gaining a reputation as unsafe. When we left a few days after the sighting, the local opinion was that it had probably swam up the river and into the mangroves in search of food.

And to cheer you up after the stories about scary creatures, here is a picture of a cute beach dog.

The jeepney: the best vehicle going. I think that tube either a snorkel or a gas line. Or both?

We went to the Philippines on a bit of a whim, and despite the crazy creatures, I am so glad that we did. The people are fantastic, always smiling and happy. The mangoes are the sweetest I have ever tasted. The landscape on Palawan is unbelievable. And they drive in jeepneys. Amazing. I'd go back in a heartbeat.


Sabang - or, This Is My Happy Place.

The beach at Sabang drowns at high tide, the water sweeping greedily right up to the line of sentinel coconut palms that lean sleepily over the sand. At low tide, the beach is a wide graceful crescent of white sand, the flotsam raked away by the diligent staff of each little guesthouse or resort, the heavy thump and swish of the waves a slow, hypnotic beat. 

This is where, despite my better efforts and my previous protests (those of you who followed me through South America will remember my outrage here and here), I became a morning person. The electricity - and more specifically, the fan - only ran from 6 pm until 10:30 pm, so by 6:30 am each morning, at the latest, we both woke up in a hot sweat, desperate for a cold shower or a dip in the waves.


 We stayed for five nights in a little bamboo cottage on the beach, swimming (well, more fighting with the waves), drinking two-dollar-a-twixer sugarcane rum, reading, and playing cards. 

We had a single touristy day during which we trekked through the jungle for two hours to see the region's most famed attraction: a massive subterranean river, recently voted in as one of the world's new natural wonders of the world.

Although it’s a two hour drive from the Puerto Princesa City, tour companies in the city sign people up for one-day tours to Sabang to see the river, rather than encouraging tourism in Sabang itself. Sad for Sabang's potential for a tourist boom, amazing for that gloriously quiet beach.

The river was interesting. The guides use paddles rather than motors to take you through the
prescribed route, one-and-a-half kilometres down the river and back (the full river is just over eight kilometres long, so the only sound is the echo of the paddle slapping against water. The stalactites and stalagmites the guides pointed out to us were inevitably interpreted as either food items ('the mushroom,' 'the garlic') or as religious symbols ('the cathedral,' 'the face of Jesus'). It's a deliciously cool break from a sweltering afternoon. 

But better, really, was our week spent enjoying the slow life of Sabang, whiling away the days until out flight to Vietnam, where everything was about to get a lot more hectic.


February 25, 2012

El Nido

To get from Coron Town, on Basuanga Island in the Philippines, to El Nido, on the main Palawan Island, there are two options. First is to fly all the way back to Manila and then down to El Nido: not long flights, but seemingly an awful lot of backtracking. Second is to take a pump boat for eight hours (if you’re lucky) and thread between uninhabited islands in the sapphire sea while perched on a hard, wooden bench in a slightly too small and (probably) radio-less vessle, getting pummeled by waves that come right over the side of the boat.
Not such a Superferry.

Obviously we chose option two. If you do, make sure your passports are somewhere waterproof and consider wearing your raincoat. On the way, we saw a breached passenger ferry - oops? 

The beach in El Nido is crowded with guesthouses and battered day and night by the ferocious waves that roar in from the South China Sea. The town itself is basically a long strip with a small cross-street, full of guesthouses and restaurants, set at the mouth of a bowl-shaped bay.

All of the tour operators in town sell the same beach-hopping/snorkeling packages for the same prices - basically, you are loaded into a pump boat with some other tourists and shown the sights of an area in the Bacuit Archipelago, the marine park surrounding El Nido. We took tour ‘C,’ which takes you to some of the sites farther from town, the day after we arrived, and we took tour ‘A’ a few days later, which hits some of the lagoons and beaches closer in.

 This whole area is stunning: limestone karst islands jutting up from impossibly clear water, white sandy beaches littered with coral (ouch), and lots and lots of marine life. This is now a protected area, so there’s no longer the cyanide fishing or dynamite fishing that blights the seascapes of many other regions of the Philippines. The snorkeling we did here was the best I’ve ever seen.

Highlights on our tours were:  

The ‘Secret Beach’ featured on the C tour. Here, the boat stops alongside a cliff, in water that is roughly seven metres deep and full of beautifully coloured fish and bright corals. The water is absolutely clear - like being in a massive fishbowl.
The entrance to Secret Beach

From here, we swam through a small opening in the cliffside (below the water, it looks like a purpose built laneway, while above it’s barely more than a crack) into a hidden lagoon where the corals look like crimson brains, and the shallow water is calm and serene. We sat on this beach for a half hour before leaving to play in the fishbowl a while longer.

Big Lagoon

On the ‘A’ tour, both the Big and Small lagoons were gorgeous - deep green water with big limestone walls and stubborn trees at the tops. The boats go right into the Big Lagoon, where we snorkeled despite some pesky little jellyfish. The Small Lagoon is another swim-through. Both delightfully calm after an afternoon on the waves.

For a break from the crowds, we also spent a day in a two-person kayak. We didn’t go very far, but fortunately just around the headland from El Nido’s bay is a string of gorgeous beaches, all of which are untouristed apart from the famous “Seven Commandos Beach” that all of the ‘A’ tours visit. We spent our day paddling from beach to beach, snorkeling where the water was clear. Slipping along the shoreline away from the noise of the boat motors, we could hear the waves break on the cliffs, the hiss as the water tried to escape from the holes in the limestone.

Late in the afternoon, we could see storm clouds rolling over the islands, obscuring them one by one. We took shelter on an empty beach and huddled under a rock overhang as the rain pounded the beach. I fell asleep with my head on my knees, while watching the little ghost crabs scuttle over the tide line again and again, searching for tasty treats in the sand.


February 17, 2012

Journey to Basuanga Island, and the Coron Bay Wrecks

Warning: in a few paragraphs, this will turn into another dive nerd post.

Our journey from the Gili Islands, Indonesia, to Palawan province in the Philippines was, to put it politely, hellish.

Our transport company put the wrong airport code on our ticket, so we nearly ended up stranded at the Lombok airport (not useful when your tickets are for Bali Denpasar!). We lost a SECOND bank card to a hungry ATM (and have been forced to rely on credit advances ever since). We spent the night on a blanket on the Kuala Lumpur airport floor (to be woken up by the guy who collects the carts... we were in his space. He did not look impressed. As we shuffled off, I suppose neither did we). We had a moment of horrible clarity in which we put the facts together and figured out that our flight was landing at the Clarke Airfield, which is sixty kilometres north of Manila... and our connecting flight was out of Manila's city airport because we'd each booked one flight (and so we stayed in a massively overpriced hotel in dirty, dirty Manila).

So, lessons: 1) Pay very close attention to your tickets. We normally would have caught this one, but the writing was so scribbled I had no idea what it said to begin with. 2) Hold on to your bank cards!! You can get them back, but you have to wait until the bank is open, and at 8 pm at the Bali airport waiting for an outbound flight, that isn't an option. 3) Don't mess with the cart guy's cart system. 4) CHECK THE AIRPORT CODES.


But finally, finally, we landed on Basuanga Island in the west of the Philippines, just north of the long, ocean-bound finger that is Palawan. Coron Town is the biggest population centre. It's a dirty, compact little town on a bay that was once lined of mangrove trees.
We ended up at the Krystal Lodge, a little guesthouse that, like the surrounding neighbourhood, is to be found down a narrow, rickety pier, perched on stilts some six feet above the bay, which serves as both garbage disposal and sewage repository (The locals poop right into the water. I don't know exactly what was happening with our sewage, but I hope it wasn't going into the ocean. I am not sure I want to know the truth).
Beyond the sludgy waters (teeming with little fishies), our pier-hotel had a glorious view of Coron Bay and its mountainous islands, especially at sunset. One evening, in an unusual moment of motivation, Dan convinced me to climb the 720 steps up to the top of the local hill, to see the sunset.
I was glad once we'd reached the summit and watched the blazing sun sink into the distant limestone cliffs. But we definitely haven't been keeping in shape lately and it hurt my thighs!

The whole reason we'd started our Palawan adventure in Coron was to try out some wreck diving. In September of 1944, the US launched an air attack on a Japanese fleet that was sheltering in the bay, sinking a number of them. Today the site is known to be some of the best wreck diving in the world - the sites are both historically interesting and beautiful, covered in coral growth and home to millions of fish. And it is just the coolest thing to be descending into the murky depths when suddenly, you're confronted by the spectral silhouette of a smokestack and the enormous curve of a ship's bow, covered with waving sea fans and bobbing lion fish.

We did six dives in the bay about an hour's boat ride from Coron Town, three a day for two days, with a newer company called Amphibiko. The dive master, Christian, was professional and helpful. The crew were fantastic, equipment was new and worked perfectly. On the first day, we dove the wrecks of two auxiliary cargo ships, the Olympia Maru and a wreck now known as 'Tangat,' and one small gunboat, known as 'East Tangat.' On the second day, we dove on Irako, a refrigerator ship, and another auxiliary cargo ship, the Kogyo Maru, and finished up with a dive in nearby Barracuda Lake, a volcanic lake that grows hotter in distinct levels as you venture deeper. The hottest temperature registered by Christian's dive computer was 37 degrees Celsius!

After discussing the options, we decided to take Christian up on his offer to enter the wrecks. Before anyone leaves a lecturing comment - besides of course my mother, who is entitled - I know we aren't supposed to go in without specific training, but we decided that as we're both comfortable with our buoyancy (that is, staying level and swimming straight) and we wouldn't really be going beyond the open cargo holds, that the small risk was worth the chance to see these incredible wrecks. We're not likely to be back in Palawan anytime soon. We peeked into Irako, but didn't go beyond the first hold - it's known as a highly advanced, dangerous wreck, deeper than we'd been before and full of intact corridors to explore. Probably extremely cool, but certainly beyond our skill level to go inside.

The decks of the ships were truly as interesting as the interiors. Nearly seventy years of coral growth has transformed these man-made monsters into thriving ecosystems. We saw some enormous fish, and big shoals of smaller ones, circling the smokestacks and slipping in and out of the holds.

And for $25 a dive each, they give you lunch halfway through the day, and then beers on the return journey to Coron... it must be some of the cheapest diving in the world. Well worth a visit!


January 26, 2012

Desert Island Diving

On the north side of Lombok Island, Indonesia, is a trio of little desert islands in the South China Sea. The rain clouds from Lombok rarely make it across the strait. Here, the skinny cows tear at the dry grass under the watchful cones of Mount Rinjani on Lombok, and Mount Agung on Bali. This is a diver's paradise. Colourful corals, shimmering fish, and fantastic underwater visibility have made these little beach islands the hottest spot on the Indonesian tourist circuit: these are the Gilis.

Once my surf-induced sunburn was soothed enough to permit travel, Dan and I took a private van (public transport is available, but difficult) from Kuta Lombok to the ferry port at Bangsal, on the north coast. Bangsal is the worst. Endless touts and misinformation reign free, coupled with an unreliable ferry schedule, can frustrate even the most zen traveler. We managed to buy a ticket from the wrong outlet for a boat that wouldn't be sailing that day. Eventually, we joined forces with an Italian family and paid to have a boat take us to Gili Air, a kilometre or less away, because at some point, it is worth $4 each to give in and speed up the process.

Also I dislike Bangsal because it is the source of the unfortunate large volume of garbage that spoils the otherwise beautiful sea around the Gilis. Bangsal, you suck.

We'd planned to either move from Gili Air to Gili Trawangan (the party island of the three), or, more ambitiously, all the way to Ubud, on Bali - but the planned two dives turned into a more satisfying five, and three nights became six. The islands aren't off the beaten path - they're full of tourists, but the pace of life is relaxed, and the children aren't the smooth-talking, guilt-tripping bracelet sellers that they are in Kuta. So we stayed.

The day we arrived, we stopped for lunch at the Karang hotel, and struck up conversation with the managers/dive masters of the attached Karang Divers, Dante and Alex By the next morning, we'd decided to dive with this shop. They seemed enthusiastic, friendly and experienced, and (the benefit of going with a new shop) the equipment looked top notch.

We talked over potential sites, and ended up going to:
- Shark Point, where we got to put our new deep diving skills to use. No sharks, sadly, but lots of turtles.
- Halik Reef, very popular with snorkelers. Its a semi-wall with beautiful coral and lots and lots of fish. 
- Sunset, which features rare hundred-year-old coral growth (so pretty!) and where I SAW MY FIRST SHARK! (outside of an aquarium, clearly.) We had a good long look at a white-tipped reef shark as he circled around and away from us. Quite small (4-5 feet) and not dangerous, but still a shark. Lots of turtles on this dive as well.
- Hans Reef, which has lots of colourful coral at the shallow end, and a sandy deep section.
- And finally, our first night dive in the harbour area. Really neat to try diving by flashlight. At times, it was disorienting, but by no means scary.

After five dives, including our first night dive, I am happy confirm all of our first impressions - thanks, guys, for a great week!

I was sad to leave Indonesia - it charmed me, with its cheerful, generous people, its tasty food (mie goreng, how I miss you!) and its stunning landscapes. I know I'll be back - there's so much left to explore!


January 15, 2012

Lombok - Kuta

By the time we made it to Kuta Lombok, we were exhausted. We'd travelled for 28 hours across thousands of kilometres, the equator and a time zone. We nearly missed our first flight because our shared taxi from Toba left late. We ran into the airport literally fifteen minutes before the flight left, expecting to be refused... thankfully Indonesian airlines are much kinder about these things than their Canadian counterparts.

Then our connecting flight from Jakarta to Bali was denied landing, so we had to wait for two hours back on south Java. It was the end of the ASEAN conference and we think it was someone important leaving, possibly Barrack Obama. When we DID land, it was 2 am, so after searching in vain for a hotel, we took a taxi to the ferry port an hour away and caught the 4 am ferry to Lombok.

There were wide, cushioned benches for the four hour crossing - I've never slept so deeply in a public (and dirty) place!

We took a shuttle to Kuta Lombok, found a room easily and collapsed onto the bed.

Kuta, in fact southern Lombok in general, is gorgeous. The coast is a series of curved bays with white sand linings, guarded by steep, green hills. The waves sweep in unhindered from the Indian Ocean, crashing against dark, craggy rocks at the mouth of each bay.

We spent a fantastic day touring around in the hills to the west of Kuta on a rented scooter, ogling the beaches and drinking in the peace of the coastal back roads. Between beach turn-offs, it's just tiny villages and wallowing water buffaloes.

We took advantage of the surf situation and signed up for a lesson - the waves are huge and we'd never surfed a reef break, so we were nervous of going without an expert.

What I learned: reef breaks and big waves are hard! I caught a few waves and stood up comfortably, but mostly I got tossed around by the waves. The second half, after a rejuvenating cookie break on our little fishing boat, was much more successful.

Tragically, although the surfing went well, I got the worst sunburn ever. Ever. It hurts thinking about it!


Sumatra - Volcanoes

To pick the story back up, Dan and I and Jo and Janosch took public transportation - the infamous bemo - from the jungles around the Tangkahan elephant sanctuary, through dirty, congested Medan and southwest to the Karo Highlands, to a town called Berastagi.

Here, as I wrote in the last post, we met Irana and her family on our first day in Berastagi. On the second morning, Dan, Janosch and I decided to brave the misty, chilly weather and climb Gunung Sibayak, the smaller of two nearby volcanoes.

The climb up was reasonably easy: at first, our path was up a steep, but wide road, winding up the mountainside from the bemo stop that sits at the base. Most of the way up, the road ends with a wide tarmac (where buses stay, during the high season, maybe?) and there isn't much clue as to where the path picks up. Fortunately, another guest at our hostel had given us the secret: off to the left, behind an empty and rather forlorn concrete pool (why this is here, I just don't know) is a small path that leads up the loose, chalky embankment and into the jungle.

The jungle path was steep and full of slippery tree roots, but was clear and even had occasional concrete stairs. As we climbed through the palms, the smell of rotten eggs, of sulfur, became stronger and stronger - at first, we thought the scent was carried by the clear, rushing streams, but then we emerged onto a treeless, rocky stretch, and we saw the steam.

Just a bit farther up was a set of fumaroles - volcanic vents, gushing out endless clouds of hot steam, stinking of sulfur. After years and years, they've left neon yellow stains and a white film over the rocks.

After the fumaroles, we saw the crater - not, as I was hoping, a smoking hole leading to boiling lava and certain death, but rather a blocked crater. The sharp edges swoop down to a bowl filled with shallow and dirty looking water, where people have rearranged rocks to spell out names. The sides of the crater are maybe a hundred metres or less where we approached, but opposite, the black rock soars right up to Sibayak's summit, several hundred metres above us.

We scrambled up the thin, craggy path to the summit (2212m above sea level) and then after a rest and a chat with some hikers from Medan, we started down.

The route down also featured concrete steps - lots of them - but they've now eroded so that the middle is a deep pool. So basically we hopped from concrete ledge to concrete ledge down the mountainside. When the steps gave up, it was muddy and full of those slippery tree roots. Down is always so much harder than up!

At the bottom, we waded (literally) through a bamboo plantation - interesting to see the men slicing the timber into strips for weaving right on site. We skipped the hot spring at the bottom and grabbed a bemo home.

The next day, we left Berastagi for Lake Toba, to the southwest. We took a series of bemos (one of which was terrifying - I can handle the average speedy Sumatran driver, but this was the scariest ride we've had yet!) and a ferry, and landed in Tuk-tuk, on a little jutting peninsula off the main island in the lake.

Toba is the world's largest volcanic lake: as in, the lake is a volcano crater. It is absolutely massive. One tiny stretch of the lake took us a half hour to cross by ferry.

We spent four nights on the island, called Samosir, in a laid-back hostel. I'm sure that if we hadn't had a flight booked, we'd have been there far longer. It's the kind of time-free, easy-going place that draws you in and lets you linger. We met lots of new friends at the hostel to drink and chat with. We rented a scooter for a day and drove all the way around the island (water buffalo and waving children everywhere! Amazing.) and tried all the local delicacies.

At the end of our time in Tuk-tuk, it was also time to leave Sumatra, and I was a bit heartbroken. It was (and still is, as I write this over a month later) the best place we've had the privilege to visit in our travels. We'll be back!


January 1, 2012

Sumatra - New Friends

Although it was Sumatra's incredible wildlife that first drew us to the island, it ended up being the people we met - locals and fellow tourists - that really stole our hearts.

We met Jo and Janosh in the back of a van on the bumpy ride from Bukit Lawang to Tangkahan. Crushed together into an almost nonexistant backseat, Jo and I started chatting about everything imaginable to pass the time. We ended up traveling for over a week together after leaving Tangkahan, and it was an absolute pleasure. It's pretty special to meet people in the middle of a jungle who you'd be happy to befriend in real life! Thanks, you two, for the company, the conversations and for an excellent time!

In the highland town of Berastagi, we met more friends - this time, a local family.

I felt like I was coming down with a cold, so Dan and I decided to take a day off to rest and do some errands around town. We had lunch at a little bakso (meatball soup) restaurant on the main street - this is where we met Irana.

Irana is an English teacher. She has a classroom in her home and gives classes and private lessons. She was in Berastagi with her two sons, leaving Sunday morning church service when her youngest son, Joey, spotted my bright blue rain jacket as Dan and I walked up the street. They ducked into a store and came out a few minutes later, and there we were again, heading into the restaurant. So they decided they would strike up a conversation.

We found that in Sumatra, everyone wanted to practice their English. There aren't as many tourists here as the more southerly islands - Bali or Lombok or Java - and so the locals don't bother with trying to sell you things. When they yell, "Hey Mister! What's your name?" they actually want to know, especially the young people. They're friendly and as curious to learn about our lives as we are to learn about theirs.

On this particular day we were interviewed by two roving groups of students for an English class project (and posed in about a hundred photographs). One group approached us while we were talking to Irana, who ended up helping them tra

nslate their questions and our answers.

By the end of the whole affair, which commandeered the back of the bakso joint for the better part of a half hour, Irana offered to take us back to her home in nearby Kabanjahe, to talk more and to meet her family.

We took the bus to Kabanjahe and walked to the home that Irana and her sons, Joey and Gideon, share with her sister, Datna, and their mother, who introduced herself to us only as 'Mama.' Datna met us at the door and ushered us with a wide grin into the classroom, its green-painted walls plastered with student projects and photos and English vocabulary lists. We all sat cross-legged on the floor. Datna teaches public school and speaks English fluently as well, so we slipped into an easy conversation that lasted out the afternoon.

While we talked, the sisters brought out a bowl of leaves and tobacco and introduced us to a Karo social custom : sirih (pronounced Seeree), also known as betel nut.

According to the internet, chewing the betel nut is a custom throughout quite a lot of Southeast Asia, but this is the only place where we've seen it in action. You take a wide, flexible betel leaf and add calcium paste and the ground up betel nut. You fold it up into a neat little package and chew it, spitting the crimson saliva into a communal bucket.

When it's good and chewed, you take a wad of loose tobacco and dab it at your gum line to soak up the excess saliva. Between the betel nut, which is a mild stimulant, and the tobacco, I was buzzed. The Karo people, the predominant tribe in this area of Sumatra, use it as social lubricant. It works - it made us all very talkative. And it numbed my sore throat! Bingo!

Irana showed us photographs of the Karo people around the time that the Dutch began exploring Sumatra - pictures of the houses on stilts with great swooping roofs, of the proud-looking tribal chief staring into the camera, wearing a European-style jacket but still a sarong and traditional headdress. Datna showed us a video of her wedding dance, less than a year ago. We admired her clothes: a long-sleeved shirt of red lace, and innumerable sarongs and scarves, beautifully patterned, culminating in the folded headscarf.

By this time, a few of Datna's students had shown up to meet us and to practice speaking with us - friendly teenagers. They were delighted - as we were - when Datna left for a few minutes and then reappeared with a pile of scarves and that beautiful red shirt in her arms - dress up time!

Within a few minutes, they had us dressed to the nines, me in the red shirt and a soft sarong and headscarf, Dan in a sarong and headscarf. They buzzed around us, tucking and wrapping and laughing.

We posed for photos outside the front door - and caused a traffic jam as everyone in the neighbourhood slowed down to wave and snap pictures.

I can't say for sure, but we might be married as far as Karo custom goes!

Datna and Irana's mother came home in the evening - an energetic, graceful woman who took it upon herself to teach me Batak dancing and who, through her daughters' translations, told us about her childhood in what is now a preserved ethnic village near Berastagi. Later, we all had dinner - rice and vegetables and fish. Absolutely delicious!

Irana and Datna and Mama, thank you SO much for your hospitality, for opening up your home to us and giving us such an incredible experience! We could not have asked for a better lesson on Karo culture and we'll be sure to keep in touch with you!