Thursday, March 6, 2014

Letters from the Equator, 8 - Sumatra

Demonic clotheslines,  orangutans, brain eating and dog (not) eating, beauty, and a lot more...                                

       MEDAN - The trouble started after I got off the plane. Sumatra had looked cool and lush from the air: volcanic mountains, jungle, big muddy rivers and the palm oil plantations like green corduroy. But the city was stifling and cacophonous, hazy with auto and scooter exhaust.
       I went to its one attraction, the palace of the Sultan of Melayu Deli, a grandiose, 19th-century hulk where a young man explained one of the epic battles in Sumatra's past, full of invaders from India, China, Java, Portugal and Holland. Next to it stood a thatch-roofed shrine containing a piece of cannon that had been deified as the incarnation of the son of a ruler who had fought so hard against interlopers from the north that he exploded.
     "The rice balls are for the Sudden Death Spirit," the young man explained, but not really,"always perched on the roof."
      The cannon was draped in saffron silk, the color of royalty; incense smoldered. Maybe it was jet-lag but none of this made any sense to me. So, of course, I went into a local restaurant and had nasi padangwhich was rice with the local dishes in a battery of bowls: whole fried shrimp with the shells on, fish smeared with chili sauce (ikan bawal panggang, translated as "Roasted Toasted pomfret"), chicken, tendon (kikil), and "intestine" ( usus), all cooked with coconut, heart parts in dense, red sauce. Something like cheese sat in deceptively pale gravy, its powerful heat emerging only after I swallowed it.
       I asked the waiter what it was, and he said, "Brain."
       The "Pop Fried Chicken" was covered with stringy bits of coconut shell, hot and delicious. So was the "fish + chili + acid," but the drop-dead winner was curried goat. It made my eyeballs sweat and drove me to the mound of white rice to absorb some of the fire inherent in everything Sumatran, it seemed, from the ambient air to the mug of hot water the waiter brought with my food. Meanwhile the television program in progress showed a swordsman bursting from a flaming haystack to slit five throats at once. I began to understand that the venting of caloric intensity is a necessity in the world's longest archipelago, where history becomes myth.                                          
            In the "health spa" next door expecting to find Sumatrans pumping iron, I found instead men bent over a table of photographs of young women on a table, green plastic chips on the faces of those unoccupied and red plastic chips on those who were. An older woman shifted the chips furiously as the women trotted up and down the stairs with their customers.
     I went for a walk and realized in the shrieking Indonesian night that I had forgotten in my grogginess the name of my hotel and hadn't kept track of where I was. Traveling was getting to me. I had passed halfway round the world, and my body and mind were playing catch-up. Disoriented and a bit desperate, I decided I had to get out of the city.                          
    The next morning I was at the airport to catch the small plane to Nias, a primitive island west of Sumatra where the natives practice stone jumping and visitors - mostly Australians - suffered an awful road to surf 12-foot waves. The flight was delayed because of motor problems and I sat in the airport watching television for several hours. Anyone who doubts that Indonesia, despite its various mainstream religions, is animist to the core should watch the soap operas.
     I saw a woman's necklace turn into a poisonous snake that killed her, a man sucked to his death by a malevolent rice paddy, another man driven by demons to eat  bed-sheet, and a third strung up by clothesline acting on its own. Plus mysterious winds that flattened houses and other-structures, the involuntary levitation of a man who then disintegrated, and a plane inhaled by an active volcano.
    Not too unhappy when my flight was canceled, I arranged for a car to drive me inland toward Bohorok and Bukit Lawang, where orangutans can be viewed. Beyond Medan the infinitely pleasing Sumatran countryside took over, the roads crowded with school children in blue and red uniforms, men rolling loads of bamboo on bicycles, and stands selling durian, the spiny, evil-smelling fruit so popular with Asians, just then in season.
      Beyond the vernal uniformity of fields and rice paddies were groves of rubber trees and towering palms recalling the old Dutch plantations. The lone figure of an imported Javanese worker sawing off a cluster of palm nuts for oil was straight out of the colonial past. Sumatra had been fought over by every Asian power with the exception of Japan, and several European ones, and it contained more than 300 distinct ethnic groups, if one distinguished among the indigenous Batak tribes.
      Orangutan viewing proved to be a local industry, if an interesting one. Tourists from Germany, Holland and France had to be ferried across a pristine river in a dug-out and then escorted up the jungly mountainside. Cam-corders whirred while orangs from the national park were fed bananas. A mother orang, her young clinging to her, weary of the commotion, swung down, grabbed a squealing Dutch tourist by the ankle and bit her on the thigh. Though not serious, the incident reminded us all of who was in charge and that it's not smart to wear brightly colored stretch pants in the wild.                            

     I trekked for two hours in the jungle, until my clothes were soaked, had a second shower and arranged to go further south, to Brastagi. I wanted to climb the volcano, Sibayak, and to see one of the traditional Batak villages. Sumatra's mountains rise abruptly on the pressures of colliding tectonic plates, dense with forest that changes character as you follow the twisting mountain roads and the air turns cool.
     I had become accustomed to constant heat and humidity, and in Baristogi, in a big hotel through which the wind blew, thinking about those soap operas, I slept under a blanket for the first time since Quito. I made the climb the next morning with a guide named Frans, a Batak from farther south, a Catholic who had learned English in a public school. We talked about, among other things, the complexities of Batak culture, a proposed gold mine on the outskirts of Yellowstone Park, and Henry the Eighth. In America, he would have been the vice president of a corporation and here had gone into guiding because it was a growth industry.
     Meanwhile we passed from the fertile valley, with its buffalo carts and smoking hearths to the slopes of the mountain, past a troop of howling black gibbons, and passed over the high steaming pass of Sibayak. Steam blew from the fumeroles at 8,000 feet, and vivid yellow sulfur clung there, demonic by any standards. We saw offerings made to the spirits here - coconuts, betel leaves, cigarettes clamped in split bamboo, stuck in ground hot to the touch.
   At the bottom we soaked in hot sulfurous springs and then went to eat in the Brastagi market: roast black Batak pig and, on alternate days, roast dog. (Fortunately this was not one of those.) All with chili paste, chopped cassava leaves and bits of Flame of the Jungle flower, hot enough but augmented by a chili-and-lime concoction that was the hottest thing I had ever tasted. Also, palm wine poured from a big bamboo log that tasted sour and then sweet, a perfect accompaniment, followed by hot water to extinguish, miraculously, the fire of the chilies.
      We strolled through the market, eating as we went: fruit of the serpent, a kind of lichee covered with what looked like snake skin, passion fruit, boiled ground nuts, mango, persimmon, things I couldn't pronounce. We passed stalls devoted only to dried fish, to live carp and catfish in pans, stacks of brown sugar made into big flat hockey pucks, the most beautiful vegetables, all of it fresh and vital.                                 

    As recently as the late 19th century, some Bataks farther south ate two missionaries, evidence of barbarity, or commendable individualism, depending upon your view. We went finally to see a Batak village, of the Karo clan, with their regal roof beams crowned with buffalo horns and communal halls that were dead ringers for the maneabas of Tarawa, except that these were covered with the fine black fibres of the palm oil tree.
      We were allowed to enter one of the traditional houses, shared by several families; a girl was doing her homework on a mat while her grandmother chewed betel nuts and watched us. I felt fine after two days of walking and touched by the dignity of life here and the certainty of its imminent change in the face of modernity. There were other places I had been reluctant to leave, but none as much as this haunted, beautiful, fantastic land.

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