On the West Sumatra Trail

Photo by Belinda Lopez

Published on Asia Sentinel

I am sitting in the backpacker cafe in West Sumatra, Indonesia, that members of the Southeast Asian terrorism network Jemaah Islamiya had planned to bomb. I am drinking a beer. It may be an immature way of giving the middle finger to fundamentalism, but in the otherwise peaceful town of Bukittinggi, the tourism industry clearly needs a toast.

Kafe Bedubel, a well-worn rest seat along the backpacker trail, was reportedly spared in 2007 only because of the would-be terrorists’ last-minute nerves that too many Indonesian Muslims– presumably the bar staff– would be killed in the explosion. Nine suspects were caught in Palembang, South Sumatra, in July last year. Days earlier in the province, police arrested the alleged ringleader of the Bukittinggi plot and key Jemaah Islamiya figure Mohammad Hasan, a Singaporean who has claimed he also plotted to bomb his country’s Changi airport. Hasan was recently sentenced to 18 years in jail, while five others got 12 each in connection to the Bukittinggi plot, among other terrorism charges.

Perhaps Kafe Bedubel’s cardboard lanterns sporting beer brands were an affront to their ideals. The only other bule — the name Indonesians use for Westerners — in the cafe is a dreadlocked, skinny hippie-looking fellow speaking Indonesian with a lived-in ease.

The government’s “Visit Indonesia 2008” campaign failed to meet its target of 7 million visitors for the country, unsurprising given hysterical travel warnings doled out by various governments in light of the execution of the Bali bombers last year. The US ambassador to Indonesia Cameron Hume gave the country a boost in 2008 when he said the country was safe to travel in— apart from, he added, the fact that terrorists had been caught in Sumatra.

Rather than looking like a breeding ground for terrorism, West Sumatra embraces a moral conservatism that some Westerners might find difficult to comprehend. Many of its cities and towns have reportedly passed Sharia-inspired bylaws that insist local female students and public servants wear Muslim headscarves. I am traveling in a group of five friends, and the manager of the hotel we are staying in, the Singgalang Hotel, across the road from Kafe Bedubel, asks if there are any Indonesians in our party.

There is only one. This is fortunate, we discover, because had there been an Indonesian couple among us, we would have had to produce a marriage certificate in order to be permitted to stay in a room together. The result of this interaction will be a serious discussion that lasts over our four-day journey on the best strategies for producing fake documents, down to buying rubber stamps and copying country seals.
Sumatran conservatism, however, does not extend to a willingness to venture forth. From the city of Padang and across West Sumatra, its people have a reputation as entrepreneurial travelers. Stalls selling the famed masakan padang (padang cooking) can seemingly be found on every street corner in Indonesia’s capital city, Jakarta. For the uninitiated, padang food is an attack on the sinuses and stomach. Adrenal glands and brains, among other organs, soaked in thick, spicy sauces are considered a tasty body blow. You pay only for what you eat, and you eat with your right hand, pinching at white rice. I am a left-handed vegetarian, and therefore not designed for this. I struggle clumsily to grab green boiled vegetables with my right hand. My left hand is hidden away politely on my lap, a custom in most countries with a Muslim majority.

While Padang is a bustling city we mostly want to avoid, and Bukittinggi we are happy to explore for a day, we have other plans. We rent a car and driver for Rp500,000 (US$47.45) and set out on the hour-long drive to Lake Maninjau, a 17 km-long crater lake formed as the afterthought of a volcanic eruption.

We hire creaky bikes for Rp35,000 and cycle along the dirt road that weaves around the grandiose lake front. Clouds, mountain tops and forest face the lake like theater in the round. People actually get live like this, we tell each other, salivating. The scene is so beautiful it’s practically tourist pornography, but the locals have suffered heavy losses from it in the last few months.

“The fish are sick,” a middle-aged woman in worn clothes tells us in Indonesian, standing on the wooden edge of her fish farm suspended on the lake. Thousands of similar farms— locals’ livelihoods— have suffered heavy losses of about 7,000 tons of fish, the result of sulphur whipped up from the bottom of the volcanic lake during storms.

But we’re too busy romanticizing over the lake’s vista to let a little thing like possible sulphur poisoning stop us swimming in it. The water is warm on entry, and turns icy after a headfirst plunge into darkness. It’s liquid meditation.

Rubbish, surprisingly, is not a problem on the riverbank, and this is unusual for Indonesia’s notoriously bad rubbish management, even in rural areas. Littering the streets, though, are the banners of the dozens of political parties taking part in Indonesia’s election season, leading up to the presidential election in Juiy. PDI-P, PPP, PKS- the party’s acronyms are as stutter-inducing as the range of their promises.

We find ourselves discussing politics the next day, on top of a mountain in the Harau Valley, a two-hour drive from Bukittinggi. Our local guide for this hike, Ikbal, tells us he likes Prabowo Subianto as a presidential candidate. A former military leader who has conceded responsibility for the abduction of 24 human rights activists, 13 of whom were never found, Prabowo’s Gerindra party was nearly buried in the April primary election and he remains an extreme long-shot vice presidential candidate in the July runoff. But, Ikbal adds, he doesn’t really think any politician really cares about people like him.

He works at Echo Homestay, where we bag a simple yet cozy two- storey cabin among the trees, sleeping five, for Rp300,000. Over the phone when we were booked, we were again warned: no marriage certificates, no couples. But the Sumatran forest proves to be far less modest. Dozens of the native carnivorous “pitcher plants”, which go by their Indonesian name kantong semar, (slang for a man’s genital region) hang off green foliage. Ikbal refers to them as “condom flowers”, and manages to find a specimen he deems appropriately-sized for each male member of our party, according to their continent of origin.

He’s arranged to guide us for Rp50,000 per person for four hours up one of the forests behind the cliffs. We throw down our bags to point multiple cameras at a black gibbon swinging in the trees above us, as apes sing out across the valley. Like bats, birds and other small creatures, gibbons are hunted to be put on sale as pets in dirty menageries throughout Indonesia. We see this for ourselves deep in the forest, when Ikbal waves hello to two young men who are staring up at the trees. High in the branches they have hung a tiny bird cage with a sparrow fluttering inside, a trap for the native species they are trying to catch. “For collection,” Ikbal tells us.

The day has been bright, and hot, and the best option seems to meander down to a nearby waterfall that also serves as the local swimming pool. It’s an amusing montage, an imposing natural cliff spilling water into a man-made concrete pool, complete with retro-blue tiles. Young girls are swimming fully-clothed and I follow suite, deciding a bikini would be horribly inappropriate.

There hasn’t been a backpacker in sight since I arrived in this valley. Although it’s a shame for the local economy that the place seems to be so underutilized by foreign travelers, a tiny little part of me is selfishly pleased that some people let government warnings, foiled terrorism plots and preconceptions get in the way of reaching here.

Accommodation & Sites:

Echo Valley, Lambah Harau
812 673 0609. Mr (Pak) Adek.
Ask for Ikbal for hiking tours.

Singgalang Hotel,
Jalan Ahmad Yani, Bukkittingi
(62) 752 21576
Car hire available from here.

Cafe Bedubel
Jalan Ahmad Yani, Bukkittinggi