From Heaven to Hell – Lake Toba – Jakarta via Medan

With some help from my Indonesian friend Nassran, I ended up in Jakarta at the start of my second visa. Things got off to a shaky start as a communication misunderstanding meant that I lingered in the paradise that is Lake Toba, in the false belief that my flight was not due until later. As it turned out, Nassran who had kindly organized everything, had sent me the wrong information via text. This was a genuine error and I have absolutely no beef with him about it. It did mean that I arrived rather stressed back on the mainland and made a rush to Medan airport.

Saying goodbye to my host’s wife and children who had been so kind as to host me, I rushed into the street. While I normally avoided becaks due to their tendency to try and rip me off, this time I had no choice. Every minute of travel seemed to last for hours and I feared I would lose the flight. In this hectic state of mind, I wasn’t thinking clearly or logically, and unscrupulous people took advantage of that. The becak driver dropped me off at the airport entrance and rattled off something in bahasa(Indonesian) to a motorbike taxi driver. I paid the becak driver and rode for literally less than a minute. It turns out that the two had conspired to wring out as many rupiahs as possible by making me take a second, utterly useless taxi. All that mattered now though was getting this damn flight.

Fortunately in Indonesia, connections matter big time. Nassran is a respected member of the community, and he’d arranged to have my flights changed for a relatively low fee. As the plane overcame gravity and we soared into the air, I was grateful to be finally heading off to Java, even if this meant leaving Sumatra behind. The flight was short as one would expect, but the night was to be a long one.

In the chaos of the whole operation, I hadn’t had time or internet access to sort things out properly. As a result, I ended up in a colossal airport with no clue in the world where to go. As it was some ungodly hour in the morning, I didn’t want to wake Nassran up. To compound matters further, Jakarta is a metropolis and not the safest one in the world. I had no choice but to try to while away the wee hours of the morning, awaiting sunrise in order to go hunting for a hostel. I tried juggling, meditating, exercising, reading and other activities until finally, the body clock decided it was time to sleep. Beep! Wrong decision bro! Airport staff shuffled everyone out. I couldn’t understand how a massive airport like that one would seemingly close at night but there you have it. I was out on the streets.

It had been a long day and yet, I couldn’t risk falling asleep outside the airport among all the people there. It was too easy for someone to just go through my belongings. All around me, sitting and lying on the floor were tired people who like me had been kicked out of the airport. I wrestled with the desire to sleep and finally succumbed. To ensure security, I tied my backpacks tight to my limbs so that anyone trying to do a runner with them would encounter an irate Mediterranean man with murderous intentions. I also slept against a wall to minimize the number of angles that a thief could use.

It was thus that I slept for a few hours and woke up surprisingly refreshed in spite of having slept literally on the pavement. All my belongings were safe and sound and the warmth of the sun lifted my spirits. I was in Jakarta and could finally find a place to sleep properly. As things turned out, sleeping on the pavement outside the airport would in hindsight not be such a bad thing after all given the harrowing experience which I was to endure the next time I tried to sleep in Indonesia.Lake Toba.jpg

Lake Toba – I left here to go to Jakarta. Why!!???!? In the name of moving on

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From Heaven to Hell – Lake Toba – Jakarta via Medan

The Curse of the Air Conditioner

Walking through the door

I had a deadly premonition

And sure as day I froze my tail

Thanks to the air condition.

 

When Malta burns and bakes like a cake

Under the sun’s nuclear fission

People cool down and yet I shake

Because of air condition.

 

When sweat fills the room and diseases bloom

Survival is your mission

Staying put would spell your doom

It’s death by air condition.

 

So you try to run for it’s no fun

To teach in this condition

There’s all to lose, nothing to be won

Just endure the air condition.

 

So the windows open up as noise fills the air

As per Maltese tradition

You have to feel that life’s not quite fair

Blame it on the air condition.

 

So you’re forced to close those windows

As you’re hit with the recognition

That the foul car odours going up your nose

Are spread by the air condition.

 

But I had some powers

If I were a skilled magician

I’d cast a disappearing spell

Upon the air condition.

 

Well friend I ain’t gonna lie to you

I ain’t not a politician

But if I were in that position,

I’d push for the abolition of the dreaded air condition.

 

 

The Curse of the Air Conditioner

The Cairo Airport Mosque

It is said that a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. In my case, it started with a number of flights. The first of these took me from Malta to Cairo. From there, I was meant to take a connecting flight to Thailand. With my main luggage safe and sound in the hands of the baggage handlers, I had only a slight issue. The flight wasn’t for another few hours. I had plenty of time to kill.

Going through security, I had the misfortune to be checked by a really bored Egyptian guy who made life quite annoying for me by repeatedly checking my hand luggage just to have a laugh with his friends. Unfortunately for him, as a Maltese I was able to understand good parts of the Arabic he spoke, but chose to keep silent. This strategy paid off as I was finally free.

Thirsty due to the long flight and lack of water bottles on flights, I befriended a random Egyptian worker, and convinced him to bring me a small bottle of water. I pushed my luck a bit and scared the cat away, but the one bottle at least gave me some respite. There were still several hours between me and Bangkok though, so I needed to kill some more time. There’s only so much amusement one can get from using the internet and after a while, it’s good to give it a break. Juggling is popular with the kids but once again, anything that is done for too long becomes a drag. Finally, a sign caught my attention. There was a Muslim prayer room. Why not use the time here to learn about other cultures, I though as I headed in that direction.

Once inside, I proceeded to wash myself in customary Muslim fashion and head towards the sacred area. I’m no Muslim, or Christian for that matter, but I feel that it’s important to try to understand what drives people to be religious. Part of me was afraid that the Muslims might take umbrage at my attempts to pass as one of them, however I genuinely wanted to try to learn another religion’s prayer techniques. Much of the conflict in this world stems from misunderstanding. We fear what we do not understand and all of us have a great deal of ignorance on several matters. I did however fail to pray correctly in spite of all my efforts. Perhaps I wasn’t bending correctly, and I was certainly not using the right technique. It wasn’t long before a huge African man approached me. I wondered whether he’s get pissed at me for mocking the prophet.

The man introduced himself as a Sudanese. He gave me a tutorial and showed me how to pray correctly. He tried to teach me the words, but though Arabic is similar to Maltese, it is different enough to make some utterances a bit of a challenge. Undaunted, this patient gentle giant of a man continued to explain his religion with great passion. I had to lie and say I was a beginner Muslim, as I was afraid that if I said I was an atheist or Christian, things would get ugly really quickly. I felt a bit guilty. Here I was trying to pass the time learning about something which I was very ignorant about, and here was a man imparting his knowledge with a commendable sense of duty and love for his faith.

You may or may not believe that faith or religion is the opium of the masses, but there’s no denying the fact that it gives millions of people a sense of purpose which they might otherwise perhaps struggle to find. This man like many others from his country had been a soldier in the Sudanese war. Perhaps in his faith, he found refuge from the carnage, for bullets and mortar rounds rip through human flesh with little regard for faith or religious tenets.

Finding that I was even more of a hard rock to crack than he’d bargained for, he enlisted the aid of the conveniently nearby Imam, who was kind enough to give me an idiot’s guide to Islam. After answering several of my questions, he regaled me with a book about how Islam is misunderstood in the West. Over the next few months, many were the times were I read parts of the book with interest, not always agreeing with everything but trying to keep an open mind, until I finally traded the book away for another as is common among backpackers in South East Asia.

I may never be a Muslim, or a Christian for that matter. Religion is for me perhaps a closed book, a chalice from which I have drunk my fill and do not intend to drink from again. Still, that day I learnt more abut the Muslim religion than I would have just by reading internet articles. As I looked at my mobile phone, I noticed that over two hours had passed, enough time for me to start thinking about my flight to Bangkok. I’m sure that if the Muslim version of heaven is the correct one, a certain Sudanese man and local Iman will probably be getting lots of brownie points, and maybe even a high five at the pearly gates for the genuine and much appreciated efforts to educate this uneducated one in a matter which is for them of the utmost importance.

N.B. The image was not taken by myself, and is taken from the internet. I didn’t take images of that holy place as I feared people would react negatively to that. Still, it gives you an idea of what the place looks like.

 

 

 

 

The Cairo Airport Mosque

The Great Aceh Earthquake

Having spent three months in Thailand, and still shaking from a close shave with immigration authorities regarding an accidental 15 day overstay, I had arrived in Penang, Malaysia. Malaysia immediately appeared like a friendly place. It was more Westernized than Thailand, if somewhat less exciting in a raw sense. I really appreciated the free 90 day visa, and remain grateful to the country for it to this day.

“Ok Rich get to the point” I hear you say. Well, fair enough. I was chilling in the hostel with a few other backpackers when suddenly the entire edifice started shaking violently. I was on the bottom bunk of a two bed bunk bed, so I climbed to the top to have a word with the enthusiastically copulating couple trying to sneak in some sneaky midday sex on top of my head. There was no sneaky couple. For perhaps the first time in my life, I was feeling the ground tremble and shake violently. Confused, I rushed to the window and looked down onto the street below. People were rushing around trying to make sense of it all. An elderly Russian backpacker in our hostel bid us farewell. He was going towards the hills. When the Boxing Day tsunami barrelled into South East Asia, no place was safer than the highest of places. Surely a tsunami was about to wipe us all off the face of the planet.

In reality, none of this came to pass. The earthquake had predictably struck in the land of fire itself but fortunately, the epicenter was tens of miles underground in the most unfortunate province of Aceh. I don’t think anyone died in what would otherwise have been a catastrophic disaster. If you look at the map, you’ll see how far away Penang is from Aceh and yet, I can only imagine what people must have felt closer to the eye of the storm. In the wake of the tragic earthquake that hit central Italy recently, it’s of utmost importance to remember that we are but a species of many sharing this planet, and the more we spread ourselves across the face of the planet, the more likely we are to fall prey to natural disasters.

Perhaps it’s nature’s way of reminding us who’s boss. In any case, that’s how things happened on that day sometime in March or April 2012. Several aftershocks were to rock the hostel a few more times, but fortunately they caused far less harm to one’s health and well being than similarly named alcoholic cocktails available at bars and clubs worldwide. As for me, I hope to never find myself on the wrong end of Poseidon’s trident when he decides to wreak havoc on the world of mortals.

Image: Keh Lok Si near Penang

For more Penang pictures, please visit: https://www.facebook.com/richard.ellul/media_set?set=a.10150667767180636.405482.643265635&type=3

The Great Aceh Earthquake

The Great Australian Road Trip Part III -Yallingup, Dunsborough, to Margaret River and towards Augusta.

In the previous article, I wrote that Yallingup is considered by many to be the birthplace of surfing. As you approach, you can see why. Crashing waves and picturesque coastlines dominate the horizon. I really enjoyed this place. A huge statue of a surfer stands proud looking over the bays. At night as I set up camp, countless rabbits bounded over the green grass. These cute and furry alien invaders were brought over by the British for some sport. As has tragically been the case over and over again in Australia, this proved to be about as smart an idea as covering yourself in gravy and spending the night in the African savannah. As is to be expected, rabbits ended up shagging like, well, rabbits and before you could say “we ought to do something about all these bloody rabbits”, they were out of control. For more info, google the “rabbit fence”, which is also incidentally the title of a book about Aboriginal kids trying to return home.

Dunsborough was ok. We went for drinks once to listen to a gig by a band whom I had bumped into in a parking lot and tossed a footy around with. They gave me a sticker which I stuck to the car, the only decorative feature on an otherwise spartan but ruthlessly efficient and fiercely loyal machine.

By now, cracks had started to appear in our relationships. Although it was pleasant to have company, I also have some solitary traits and need my own space. Since we were spending most of the time together, the fellowship started to unravel. By sheer co-incidence, a British guy whom I’d met in Bangkok had played volleyball with me in Bunbury and we’d reunited. This is a common theme in the region, as you’ll often rub shoulder with the same people over and over again if you travel for long enough and on a predictable enough axis. In any case, for reasons long forgotten we eventually decided to split up. I did sleep on the beach in Gracetown and visited Bunker Bay where a young man had been taken by a great white a few years earlier. I dipped into the sea, but didn’t venture far. In Australia, one learns to fear sharks, and while I happily swam with certain species in South East Asia, I’d never dream of swimming with great whites unless I was very well prepared. I’d most certainly feel much more comfortable in scuba gear as I wouldn’t need to go to the surface for air except for the safety stop before the end of a dive.

It was near a library that we finally went our separate ways. I was finally free to travel on my own terms and at my own speed. It didn’t feel intimidating. It felt great! My next port of call was Cowaramup where fellow Maltese Nicky had invited me to stay for a few days. Nicky had successfully found farm work but his job was not for the faint-hearted. As I pulled into the farm which I’d had trouble finding, I saw a forklift move a dead cow. Walking into the farm, I got zapped by an electric cow fence. Clearly, I was a very green farmer. A piece of rope had been tied to a tree, which lead to some excellent upper body training. In this very small town, there was a statue of a cow, which was an amusing play on the name of the village. I love a town which doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Sleeping in a room for the first time in a while, I took the opportunity to make frequent visits to nearby Margaret River. Here, I tried to put my name down for farming jobs with agencies such as Vinepower, but this was about as useful as an ashtray on a motorcycle. As such, I decided to move on south.

Before Augusta, there’s two important events that I won’t soon forget. One was getting the car stuck in a forest alone. I was in deep trouble because it was getting late and the car’s tires weren’t having any joy as they rotated in vain on tracks designed for a 4 wheel drive. I calmed myself and think clearly. In one spot, the tracks dug into the soil were narrower so I focused on this, and sure enough the car was free. Carefully, I navigated out of this treacherous forest and found to my relief good roads towards freedom..

The other special memory is of the stingrays in Hamelin Bay. Quite what makes this beach so attractive to these members of the shark family, I’m not sure but the Steve Irwin slayers are there in huge numbers. Some of them are quite huge. Tourists flock to the area and deservedly so. It’s not everyday you get to see all these stingers. Quite impressive. I decided to camp there that night, sheltered from the winds between dunes. As always, I made sure not to camp on delicate sand or vegetation. The winds were so strong that they almost rent my tent asunder as they thrashed it around like a ragdoll. In the end, I found a better, if less spectacular spot and spent the night there. Next morning I was off to Augusta.

More pictures at https://www.facebook.com/richard.ellul/media_set?set=a.10151299331800636.1073741830.643265635&type=3

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The Great Australian Road Trip Part III -Yallingup, Dunsborough, to Margaret River and towards Augusta.

The Great Australian Road Trip – Part II – Bunbury and Busselton

Following Mandurah, we headed south towards Bunbury. Before going into the town, I made a detour to visit Donnybrook and Boyanup as the backpacker word had it that there was farm work to be found there. I found Italians aplenty but no farmwork at all. Together with two Italians, we tried to go up to farmers and check if they needed help with seasonal work, but were treated with immense suspicion. Perhaps we gathered, the Australians weren’t the friendliest bunch, but then again three random guys driving around in a Hyundai Excel are always bound to arouse at least some suspicion in even the most well-meaning of folk.

Bunbury is similar to Rockingham but with one great difference. Whereas dolphins do occur in the sea around the latter, Bunbury might as well be named Dolphinville. This is the home of the famous Dolphin Discovery Centre. This museum celebrates the town’s intimate affinity with the cetaceans who have taken to visiting every morning for snacks. The staff at the centre say it’s all controlled and safe but really it’s more than likely an excuse to put Bunbury on the map, for not many other interesting sites would seemingly attract the curious tourists to these parts, and the place lacks a huge jetty like Busselton has.

We set up our headquarters in the parking area of the Dolphin Discovery Centre. We also made friends with an Italian couple and a French one. In this way, we formed a party which now included members of several European nations. Life was simple. We cooked using the beach barbecque sets, showered at public facilities, and got free internet from the excellent library. Playing beach volleyball accompanied by the athletic Italian girl was always a treat as dolphins did unexpectedly appear at times. Locals were unfazed by this of course as they are more than used to it. For us, it was splendor!

In Australia I camped in countless spots but I always made it a point to never get under the skins of the much feared and maligned yet misunderstood rangers. I developed a healthy policy of waking up before “ranger-o-clock”. This habit was to come in handy before long. Apparently, some wealthy locals must have complained about the presence of filthy foreign backpackers even though we didn’t harm anyone and didn’t trash up the place. One morning while I was wide awake studying  a huge map of Australia, a ranger approached. My tent had long since been dismantled but everyone else was asleep. One by one he knocked on campervans and left notes but was kind enough not to fine anyone. I gesticulated furiously towards the Italian girl, but the German and Belgian duo were very fortunate not to get fined.In reality, rangers are mostly all about following the rules but if you’re nice to them, they won’t get in your hair or bald head in my case.

Swimming in Bunbury was fun. Flipper could show up at anytime, but if you swam too close to the dolphin discovery centre they’d threaten you as you might hard dolphins by swimming next to them. Apparently, feeding dolphins is completely natural behaviour, but in any case it is quite possible that the DDC might in fact be a force for good as they really seemed to care about a particular female dolphin called Old Nick who had a pretty bad wound probably caused by a shark or propeller. We would stand in line at times for the feeding, a spectacular event which I was to experience again in Monkey Mia sometime later.

Gathering local intel, we learnt of a place called The Cut where one could apparently see dolphins in  a more natural state than possible at the DDC. It took us a while but we were rewarded. The surging waves were child’s play for the dolphins, and they surfed them for fun. The French managed to get excellent photos of this with their high powered camera but unfortunately, I never managed to get them off them and we drifted apart. I’d love to have pictures of dolphins surfing waves at The Cut, like the cheeky showboating mammals they are. Miriam did get to swim even closer to one of the “cute” dolphins. I still regard them as wild animals and give them a wide berth. Dolphins have attacked people in the past although that’s usually under stressful conditions in captivity.

I randomly met a very friendly Filipina who was generous enough to invite me to her father’s birthday party over in nearby Australind. I found the place using the car’s GPS, a true MVP device all over Australia. Much meat was served. As I was to learn later in the Philippines, meat is all the rage there. In any case, I tried to network a fair bit but found only dead ends. In any case, there’s only so many dolphins one can see before moving on, so it was on to Busselton next, home to my good friend Jay the basketball fan(atic).

Busselton is somewhat unremarkable save for the extremely long jetty, the longest in the southern hemisphere. I walked to the end of it in the rain. Fairly remarkable yet it does get old pretty quickly. I don’t remember how long we stayed here but it was a shorter duration than Bunbury. By now we had travelled a fair bit together and while the Italian couple had returned to Perth to sell their campervan and leave the country, we soldiered on towards Yallingup, the alleged birthplace of the sport of surfing.

Photo links:

Bunbury:

https://www.facebook.com/richard.ellul/media_set?set=a.10151299323850636.1073741828.643265635&type=3

Busselton plus more locations:

https://www.facebook.com/richard.ellul/media_set?set=a.10151299331800636.1073741830.643265635&type=3

 

 

 

The Great Australian Road Trip – Part II – Bunbury and Busselton

The Great Australian Road Trip Part I – Perth->Rockingham->Mandurrah

sealIt is of course impossible to fit all of one’s experiences in an entire continent in a single blog post. Even an amoeba travelling around Australia would certainly experience more exciting adventures than said blog post can do justice to. Nevertheless, this series shall focus mainly on the logistical aspect of completing a lap of Australia more or less. While reading this, you may benefit from having google maps open on a separate tab in order to track the journey as the loop opens and closes.

It all started with a flight to Perth. Thanks to my good mate Naz and his mates, I was able to spend some memorable times in and around Perth. When instability reared its ugly head and the amazing(but somewhat structurally deficient) house I was living in was put on the market for sale, I decided to move camp. As a matter of fact I hadn’t camped at all yet, but that was to change shortly. Following an epic farewell party, I was finally on the road.

The first port of call was Rockingham, still part of Perth. Here I rendezvoused with a Belgian and German backpacker. They were travelling in a campervan owned by Miriam the German. The campervan had the advantage of allowing people to sleep inside it, while my Hyundai had the advantage of speed and economy. We cooked close to the beach, trying to shelter from the relentless wind. A female police officer came and warned us not to camp at the beach as it was illegal. I followed the GPS to a supposed rest area which turned out to be nothing but an industrial shithole of a place. Nevertheless, we set up camp here for the night.

Next day we woke up early and headed to the beach. To my utter amazement, a dolphin was swimming only a stone’s throw away. That’s something you’ll never see in Malta. Miriam swam out to get closer to it, but didn’t quite get far enough. The dolphin swam towards some random people who happened to be further out, but then veered off and disappeared. It must be immensely satisfying for Australians to be able to see dolphins so easily. It must make morning beach walks much more exciting if there’s the chance to see a dolphin.

One very fortunate event was to present itself soon. Although Miriam and I didn’t get along too well, she earned her stripes one day. We had booked this tour to go to Penguin Island in the Shoalwater Bay. The trip itself was interesting enough with dolphins aplenty, but Miriam used some charm to befriend a tour guide. He offered to take us on a trip to Seal Island the next day. There was no way we were missing such an opportunity! We turned up at his house and were off! All I can say is that this day was absolutely phenomenal. We tied the kayaks and got close to the seals lazing about on the sand (I wonder whether they get sunburnt and Google can probably answer that question). One particularly curious seal played games with us. We would make moves underwater and he would copy us, cutting a much more graceful figure than us in the process.

It was amazing, witnessing what was more than likely a demonstration of high intelligence. If sharks want to hunt seals, they’d need to be on top of their game because these underwater denizens are as agile as they come. In the end, we left them to their own devices as if they get too excited they may bite just like dogs. A seal biting another one is not much of a huge deal for either but with us frail humans, it’d be a trip to an emergency ward. Our guide whom we’ll call Steve in honour of Steve Irwin, had bite marks to prove it. He was much more familiar with the seals and they responded to his call while ignoring us completely. Truly a day to remember. It was three beaming backpackers who kayaked back to the mainland, having appreciated the hospitality of a local taking us on this adventure for free. We bought him some booze but that’s about it. He’d offered us the experience of a lifetime!

Mandurrah was interesting in that it has a huge Marina. Miriam got to do some fishing, failing miserably at first, then catching a pufferfish, which was summarily executed by two ruthless looking sheilas who explained that it was an invasive species. “The place is full of these cunts.” I felt quite sorry for the pufferfish. Imagine chilling in a body of water when suddenly you’re yanked out and murdered in cold blood as your cold blooded body bakes under the merciless Australian sun. It didn’t mean to be an invasive species. It was just doing it’s thing yet you can’t blame the Aussies for wanting to eliminate these voracious critters although that will surely be a tall order.

In the evening, I set up camp on the sand, but once again the wind was so powerful that it threatened to snap the whole tent like a twig. With no other option, I slept quite uncomfortably in the car, something I was to do none too happily from time to time. When I awoke, I took a short walk and was pleasantly surprised to see a park absolutely teeming with kangaroos. They come out in the evenings and hide during the day, but when you camp outdoors you don’t tend to sleep in all that much. These were my first kangaroos but you can bet your bottom (Aussie) dollar that they wouldn’t be my last!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Great Australian Road Trip Part I – Perth->Rockingham->Mandurrah