Going by bus from Jakarta to lake Toba in North Sumatra was never going to be fast but I guess we should have been a little more picky on our choice of bus company. Most people fly these days and we were told that the bus would take about 48h to reach Medan. We had read in our guide book that Parapat was en route and assumed that our journey would be a few hours short of that. As seasoned slow-travellers, we thought we could stomach it.
Our bus was due to leave Jakarta at 3pm and things first started to be a little suspicious when it did not turn up at the main station. Instead, we were taken by car to some out-of-town bus yard and were told that our bus would not leave before 7pm.
It was not clear why. Some mechanics were under the bus and looking at the engine but judging by the commotion, the delay was more due to the loading of the cargo. It turned out that the bus was more about freight than about passengers. They loaded about 6 tonnes of goods on the roof – including a motorbike. At 8pm, after going to a service station to fuel up, we were finally on the road.
The first night and day, including the ferry crossing, was mostly eventless. Sumatra seemed as green as Java and everything progressively became more rural. Rubber and coffee were the predominant cash crops, with the usual rice, banana and coconut back drop. The architecture was different with the majority of houses made of timber.
As the hours went pass, our notion of time became blurry. The meandering road and green scenery put us in a sort of trance.
It would seem that our journey nearly stalled when attempting to cross the equator. Both drivers being tired did not help. On the early hours of the second morning we stopped by the roadside for an hour or so: the driver taking a nap on the steering wheel and everyone else trying to sleep on seats that did not recline. After two nights of backbreaking poor sleep, I succumbed to the first coffee of the trip – a cup of genuine Sumatran black gold.
We passed many beautiful places – but it was impossible to ignore the scar the road created on the landscape. Like an infected vein, the road carried both vital supplies to the settlers and the greed that contaminated the land. Here in Sumatra the virus is called Palm Oil.
Palm is a subsistence crop that replaces lush forests, destroys biodiversity and promises short-term returns while undermining the real wealth of the land. From it, impoverished growth and decaying dreams bleed.
We passed concrete compounds and multi storey warehouses. The dust form the erosion and an overcast sky put a veil between us and the lush forest that the steep slope still protected from the chainsaw. Hope took the guise of political posters – one of such depicted a wealthy looking couple holding a big fish. As the forest is cleared, the timber nearly becomes litter and is used carelessly for temporary structures or as scaffolding for holding the numerous concrete roof that are under construction. Like a banknote used to light a poor-quality cigar, the forest is going up in smoke to bolster the voracity of the food, cosmetic and biodiesel industry.
The road was at times mountainous and we often got stuck behind struggling trucks along narrow hairpin roads. We went slowly and despite the conditions always felt safe. The tedious and long journey was punctuated by short burst of relief like the silence after hours of Indonesian Bollywood-style music or the smile of child on the roadside or the sight of an ochre chested monkey.
Yoel read his book, I tried to communicate with some of the passengers whose english did not go much further than “where from?” and “where you’re going?”. It is ironical that it is only during these last few hours – after nearly eleven months in Indonesia – that I regretted not having learned ‘Bahasa’.
After more than fifty hours, we had no clue where we were and how much longer the journey was going to take. Finally, we reached a city – Pekanbaru – this when to our horror we realised we were only halfway through. Our dream to see beautiful lake Toba were shattered. We were already two to three days off schedule and could not afford to spend another few days in road trance. We decided to jump ship and leave behind our cargo bus and unexplored Sumatra.