Getting over my claustrophobia

While staying on the beautiful Pulau Weh, I took up the offer of a days snorkelling made to me by a dude who rode past on a moped one evening. I wasn’t sure if I’d like it, the last time I snorkeled was aged 15 in the great barrier reef, Australia. I’m now 46 and since then I’ve noticed my claustrophobia a lot more, especially when flying, so I wondered how a mask over my face and an inability to breathe through my nose would work out.

Getting picked up from the cabin on the shore, we first went out to sea to view dolphins, lots of dolphins which quite frankly was worth the trip in itself. There was only few of boats in the water, one tourists and the others fishermen.

The time came to give it a go, walking out from a little beach after coffee and breakfast, I was given the good advice to walk backwards with flippers on, and was soon swimming out into the deeper water to view the coral and fish. At first the little water coming into the mask was unnerving, and had me freaking out on one or two occasions where I ripped off the mask and snorkel to regain the sensation of breathing through my nostrils. However after a few times I got used to pressing on the top of the mask and breathing out through my nose to clear out water.

We visited more locations throughout the day, in one place the boat dropped us off at one side of an island and we floated gently on the current to be picked up at the other end, relaxing while looking at colourful fish. The best for me was snorkeling over an active underwater volcano, the sulphur bubbles like silver or mercury surrounding me as they rose to the surface.

All in all, a brilliant day and after getting past the entrapment of mask and breathing only via the mouth, I might now go for a test dive, and will certainly do more snorkelling. The trip was with a guy called Raja, you might see adverts here and there in the town, and I advise book direct with him as some hostels clearly add around 5,000 IDR if they book for you.

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I need to check my cynicism

After sitting down in Binjai for a change of bus, a bag went missing while not paying attention.  Now the first reaction was it’s been pinched and it’s goodbye to that.  However, the other plausible explanation was that’s it’s been put on the last by mistake.  After some hand gestures and translation, a dude was sent off on a moped to chase the busy down, and an hour or so later the bag was recovered.  I can’t think of many places in the world where someone would be dispatched after a bus for someone’s luggage! I need to be less cynical about the world.

The bus journey was long to Banda Aceh, including a good long break while a blown tyre was changed, but enough time to catch the first sailing to Pulau Weh.

Bukit Lawang & Orangutans

Arriving in Bukit Lawang, immediately a couple of guys were ready to pounce enquiring if accomodation was needed or a tour.  Mistake no. 1 was saying I already have a tour booked, because they decided to escort me to my hostel, chewing my ear about a tour, and also sitting with me at the hostel reception until agreeing they should come back tomorrow when I’d decided.  Tours here all cost the same price, so I’m not booking anything with two randoms on the street who wouldn’t give me a phone number, like they didn’t have phones!  I booked my tour with the hostel, who have great reviews, and I wasn’t to be disappointed.

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Spending a day relaxing, the next I was showered and fed by 9 and was on my way with 7 others walking up the hill, stopping within ten minutes to see Thomas Leaf monkeys outside a rubber plantation.  Within another thirty minutes of walking were in the rainforest and stopping in awe to see orangutans in the trees.  One large male, and one mother with baby who are used  to visitors, but still care and distance are important.  After taking loads of photos we moved on, seeing more orangutans, then stopped for lunch when the coast was clear.  To everyone’s surprise, after lunch orangutans visited us!  More photos as one of them came down to the ground for closer inspection of us, still keeping a distance.After this exhilarating experience, we did a bit more trekking up and down hill, arriving at a camp by the river.  Time for swimming and washing off dirt, sweat and sunscreen.  An enormous dinner was then served up with meat, fish and vegetarian options.  Then entertainment by the guides with their card games and humour.  More entertainment was provided by fireflies, once the torches were off their glowing bodies could be seen.Day two started with and egg, cheese and salad sandwich, then a trek back up into the forest, and a search for the well known female orangutan Mina.  This orangutan was captured when young and rescued, and understandably has issues around humans.  This was the only orangutan I saw fed by guides, possibly to keep her calm, and we were asked to move on when they saw her mood change!

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The final part of the trek was rafting back to Bukit Lawang on huge inner tubes with guides at the front and back using poles to steer away from rocks, a good way to cool off after the second day.

A fisherman heads out early morning

Lake Toba, Indonesia

I came here for a bit of rest, and a whole lot more food obviously.  Toba is a lake on top of a supervolcano, it’s got a cooler climate than elsewhere, is lush, green and inhabited by some of the friendliest people yet.  The island, which is actually thinly connected to the mainland is very affordable, around $12 (US) a night for a room with private bathroom, and balcony overlooking the water.

Tourism is down currently on the island, owing to the ferry disaster a year ago this has not only put off foreign tourists but swathes of locals too who’d usually come for a weekend at least.  I didn’t see any overcrowding, and there’s a register of people boarding boats at the mainland harbor, a likely new safety control.

Food is excellent as can be expected, and for once I can try more vegetarian food, with Gado Gado, and Aubergine Curry far tastier than the meat dishes such as Beef Rendang.  I’ve had a few excellent breakfasts and meals at a place called Today’s Cafe, which I’ll highly recommend.

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A close crop of lightning on the mainland

The scenery is enjoyable, and some of the lightning storms will definitely keep you entertained, watching from the dry land in the middle of the lake, it’s a strange sight to see a lightning storm on the mainland, with clear sky and stars above the clouds!

Berastagi, Indonesia

Berastagi is a couple of hours in a minibus from Medan, sit at the back if you don’t like overtaking round blind corners.  This is a city in the Barisan region, and popular because of the two volcanoes and hot springs.  It’s likely that your accommodation will offer to arrange trips, or you can go in to town and use the “tourist information” near the roundabout, or one of the others.  I booked a guided trip to Sibayak with my hotel which was a fair bit overpriced at 400,000 per person, and after decided I’d book nothing else with them and source my own transport.    The volcano is definitely worth doing, I think it’s walkable on your own, though you could be put off by the deaths list adorning the wall of the tourist office.

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The active Sinabung volcano seen from Sibayak

The food in the town is good, and the fruit market is excellent, but haggle for prices if you can.   The food market at is at night on the weekends when more people arrive from Medan.  Satay chicken, roast pork (Babi pangang) (pork is sometimes called B2 because of the two b’s in the name), and if you’re inclined, dog (Biang – known as B1 because of the single b).  I didn’t try the dog.  I think this is a tough place to be a vegetarian while eating out, you could stick to fruit and raw vegetable, but I get the impression that most veg dishes are cooked in pork stock.

One annoyance with my tour was not seeing one of the ghost villages at the foot of Sinabung, despite discussing this, it was requested we pay more for additional bits in the afternoon.  Personally I get annoyed by bullshit, I know some people say it’s part of travel but once someone’s given me a load, they are losing my further business and tip money.   So on my trip onwards to the south, I arranged for a driver to stop at a ghost town for photos.  The lesson is to haggle, and get a tour provider to write every details down on your receipt and state whether it includes entrance fees or not.

 

Medan, Indonesia

Arriving after a forty minute hop from Penang, that took a bit longer due to a go around landing, myself expecting to land any minute and suddenly being thrust upward and back over the sea, no explanation!  Some people seem to be down on Medan, saying don’t bother, or simply it’s shit.  What I found was a typical indonesian city, having hung round a little in Yogyakarta 9 years ago, I didn’t seem anything different here, perhaps better food, a couple of decent museums, and obscene shopping malls to cool down in, and buy a replacement pair of Eiger hiking sandals to replace my decease Merrells.

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I liked Medan, and yes it’s nothing special to write about, but worth a stopover before you head in to the island, the food is good, and I’d say definitely check out the Great Mosque of Medan.  You can go inside when outside prayer hours, and remember to dress accordingly, and not like some attention seeking instabiff.

Penang, Malaysia

I’ve read that most people come here for the food, and I can’t really question that, having eaten fantastic food from hawker markets and cafes over the last week.  I’ve been staying in Little India, and as you can guess this area has food from North and South India, excellent Snacks such as samosas and bhajis, various takes on Biryani (mutton being my favorite), and tooth rotting sweets such as Ladoo and Jalebi.  I’ve had Roti Chana for breakfast on multiple occasions, which is a buttery, flakey flatbread served with a hot spicy gravy.

Further afield, there are roadside stalls selling various rice and noodle dishes, such as Mee Curry – noodles with chilli, prawns and egg.  Hokkien Mee, again noodles in a hot broth made from pork and prawn shells, served with prawns and other additions such as pork belly, ley or knuckle.

Another sweet favourite has been Apom,  a crispy textured rolled pancake with a soft centre, made from rice, sugar and coconut milk.    And I can’t leave out pandan pancakes, delicious.

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Drinks wise, aside from water, it’s been the milky coffee made with condensed milk either hot or over ice quenching my thirst, and occasionally hot, sweet masala tea.

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Aside from the food goodness, there’s plenty visually here.  The heritage buildings are beautiful and more are being restored all the time.  The famous blue building (not the main picture) is worth a visit, and not too expensive for a 45 minute tour.  The kind guys from the hostal gave us a drive around too and brought us lunch, insisting when I offered to pay!  Also the mosque is impressive and unique with its star of David windows.