If you were born in a country where bad roads are kind of a trade mark, like I was, then you should come for a week’s drive on Sumatra. What am I saying? You should try a day’s drive; or just an hour’s drive. I guarantee that if you manage to reach your destination without losing either your life or your mind, you’ll end up thanking Heavens for the bad roads in your home country. After this kind of an adventure, one becomes immune to anything that could drive them mad, surprise them or frighten them and even joining the Foreign Legion will look like a piece of cake.
All I needed to go through this ordeal for myself was a car. And the only relevant result I got on the Internet after searching for “Medan rent a car” was the “Medan rent a car” website. I got quick answers to my e-mails, in English and I chose a Toyota Avanza model – a locally manufactured under Japanese license mini MPV. We agreed that the car would be brought to my hotel the next day around 8 A.M. I had a long journey in front of me and I wanted to be on my way as early as possible.
It was half past eight in the morning and nobody was there with my car. I sent the man a text message. “Sori, sir, I’m on way. 5 minit. Trafic, trafic” is the answer I got from him at that moment and then again at 8:45, 9:00 and 9:15. I was beginning to smell a rat so I went to the front desk and asked for information about another car rental service. “I know about one but it’s far from here, I don’t have their phone number and even if I did it would be no use, because it’s Saturday and they’re closed”. Around 9:30 I got a text message – “I am at parking. Pleas, come inspection car”.
The whole left side of the car was dented and the paint scratched. The coat of paint on the rear was also messed up. The electric window could only be lifted with manual help. The antenna was broken and the stereo jammed. The spare tire, shoddy as a rubber, was hanging under the car in an improvised fixture. Not one tire matched the other; the rental had a Michelin, a Pirelli, a Continental and, on the right-front side, a locally manufactured Radial; all of them worn out. Although the car was only three years old, it had 120.000 kilometers on it. By Indonesian standards that means it was as good as new.
I wistfully remembered the Opel Corsa with only 800 km on it I had rented in Madrid and the Renault Clio I had returned to the rental company with double the mileage after a three day drive through Provence.
- Don’t you have any other car?
- No, sir. We only have this car.
- What kind of a rental service are you?
- This is my brother’s car. We rent it out to tourists. It’s the only one we’ve got.
If the circumstances had been different I would have lifted up the car in the air and hit the guy over the head with it. But I managed to manage my anger for it was already 10 o’clock in the morning; I had only 8 hours of sunlight left and a whole lot of distance to cover. Sadly, there were no other alternatives and I was dying to get the hell out of Medan. I took another look at the rental and I said to myself it was a cute car it’s sky-blue paint matching the colors in my mind and after all, I thought, it was a Toyota. It couldn’t fail me. I named it Azuria.
- Ok. I’ll sign the papers. Where’s the insurance policy?
- No insurance.
- But in the e-mail you said it had insurance and that it was all in.
- No, it’s not. If you want insurance, that will be another 20 dollars.
I counted and gave the man a pile of “dead presidents” for the 21 days I was going to have the car on my hands and added to that pile the 20 dollars worth of “just in case”. He was dying to get his hands on all that money; it was the equivalent of three average monthly wages, 220 servings of goreng or 630 café-lattes.
- Here’s your money. Give me the insurance policy.
- Oh, no, you don’t need the insurance policy.
- But what if something goes wrong?
- If that happens, you call me.
- Are you people in your right mind?
- No problem, sir, no problem.
Because of my habit of writing about everything I experience, I’ve begun to ignore my self-preservation instinct. If I tried to do everything the safe way and stay away from risky situations, I wouldn’t have so much to tell you about. I’m asking for it, sort of speak. So, I started the engine convinced that Azuria would bring a thrill in my trip. And it did. It brought a real thriller.
Welcome to drivers’ hell!
I’m driving on the left side of the road through hideous Medan. Millions of cars flood the city’s streets every morning like a huge hive of killer bees. The map is too sketchy, all road posts point to the airport and everyone I ask for directions politely tells me to go straight and ask again. The rear window is covered with tinted foil and I can’t see anything in the back. So I let the Sun guide me in finding the exit to Berastagi.
The road is bad. Most people wouldn’t even call it a road. There are so many holes in it that the asphalt is only getting in the way. The improvised fixture holding my spare tire is creaking like the door of a dying man’s chamber when the Riper walks in. With every hump in the road, the rear axle is clunking (as my mechanic would say) so badly that I expect to look in the rear view mirror and see my rear wheels running away from the car at any time. Oh, silly me! I forgot! I can’t see anything in the rear view mirror.
20 kilometers off Medan I get to the highlands and it’s starting to pour. The rain flows down the hillside and traps the cars like in an ambush. The road doesn’t have any draining ditches so men, water, cars and motorcyclists use the same way. Only the water is running against everybody else. I can’t figure out if I’m driving or floating so I’ll call it auto-rafting. The bridge in front of me is afloat as the water rises half a meter high before it can top the railings and fall into the river below. The bikers ride across feet on the handlebars to avoid getting wet. The lorries pass it at full speed, to soak the bikers. It’s just an ordinary day in North Sumatra.
As I get to a road turn, a bus with 15 seats and 40 passengers aboard overtakes me crossing the continuous dividing line. As it tightly passes, one of the passengers comes out the window, climbs on top of the bus and gets a plastic foil that he covers the luggage with, ties it tightly then puts one foot on the window frame and gets back inside. I’m tailing the bus. The young man comes out the window again, climbs on top, unties the ropes, folds the foil, lights a cigarette and goes back inside the cabin. The rain has stopped. The bus hasn’t. Not even for a second.
I pull over in Berastagi for a quick bite. The Sinabung volcano would erupt three months later, turning this little mountain town into a refugee camp. But today, people are celebrating. They are picnicking on Bukit Gundaling, the belvedere hill. The beautiful strong mountain horses with their graceful and showy walk carry around in the saddle two or three kids at a time. As I get out of Azuria I captivate the children’s attention.
- Hello, mista!
- Hello, mista!
- Hawayu, mista?
- I’m fine, I’m OK.
- Hello, mista. Hawayu?
Indonesian children learn English in school and are not at all ashamed to show it. For a white guy, walking among them can be a full time job. You have to say hello and answer them 10 times a minute. Yet, don’t try to engage in any sophisticated conversations with them. The Indonesian kids’ English has its limits:
- I’m fine, how about you?
- bout you…???
There’s fog and drizzle at Sipiso-Piso. You can’t see the waterfall through the mist, but you can hear and feel it. I order a kopi susu panas. The woman filters the coffee through some kind of hoes and ads two fingers of sweetened condensed milk that sinks right to the bottom of my cup. I stir and lap up the coffee. Its softness and flavor beautifully opposes against the cloud burst outside the buffet. I finish three cups. Oddly, the coffee unwinds me.