“Live in the sunshine, swim in the sea, drink the wild air.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
I like to think that I’ve lived out the words of Mr. Emerson during my time in Sumatra by taking every opportunity to live in this sunshine, swim the seas surrounding these islands and drink deeply of the truly wild air of Indonesia.
Most recently I traveled with four friends to West Sumatra where I spent a 3-day weekend exploring a small island off the coast of Padang, traversing the hairpin curves of Kelok 44, eating by a serene crater lake and exploring the underground tunnels leftover from World War II hidden under the streets of a mountain town.
Sikuai Island is located off the coast of West Sumatra, near the coastal city of Padang. The island is private but for a scant US $25 you get a roundtrip ferry trip to the island and a boxed lunch.There’s a resort on the island as well, but it has definitely passed its heyday, having suffered damage in the 2009 earthquake that devastated most of the region. And while the manmade attractions on the island are subpar, the natural ones are wonderful. I especially enjoyed paddling around the coral reefs that surround the island.
When leaving the coastal city of Padang we happened upon a parade of schoolchildren. Many of them were wearing the traditional dress of the local people, the Minangkabau. A major point of interest with this culture is the fact that the Minangkabau are a matrilineal society, something I consider even more notable after experiencing how common the marginalization of women seems to be in Indonesia.
I was lucky to be seated on the side of the car where the parade was happening, so as we crept by in our van I had a clear view of the costumes. Quickly whispers began to erupt and heads began to turn as the news of my presence spread. “Bule, bule, bule” said the kids (and adults!) as they turned to see my white face in the window of the car. I’m sure that the expressions of the children mirrored my own as we both enjoyed seeing something truly special—for me, the exquisite costumes and for them, the blue-eyed white woman in the van.
Danau Maninjau (Lake Maninjau) is a beauty hidden in the mountains. Like Lake Toba in North Sumatra, Danau Maninjau is a crater lake and so it is surrounded by high peaks. The road to the lake is legendary, consisting of 44 hairpin turns, each decorated with cement statues, signs and messages. According to most travel information, Maninjau was once a major tourist destination but is now mostly just a fishing community.
While waiting for our lunch (for over an hour!), I became completely entranced in watching a local fisherman as he pulled in his nets. It was incredible to see just how much work goes into laying out the nets and then slowing pulling them in toward the shore. It is tedious work. It appeared that he only brought in about 4-5 fish after all of his efforts too.
Bukittinggi is a gem of a town situated in the heart of West Sumatra. Much like Maninjau, it was once a major tourist destination, and while tourism still rests at the center of the town, many of the attractions are in disrepair. One such attraction is the tunnels that crawl under the streets of the city. Built by the Japanese during World War II, the tunnels are just a tangle of walkways and catacombs with the occasional sign to mark that a “room” used to contain weapons, sleeping quarters or a cinema (yes, there was a movie theatre for the soldiers). It appears that there used to be displays and glass cases that may have once held artifacts for visitors to enjoy…but now these things sit empty and piled with dust and dirt.
Just like Bukit Lawang, in North Sumatra, guides ready to take you on treks into the surrounding areas can be found hanging out at Bukittinggi restaurants that cater to a more western tongue. In addition to the WWII tunnels and the large clock leftover from the Dutch occupation (Jam Gadang) located at the center of town, the surrounding volcanoes (Mt. Marapi, Mt. Singgalang and Mt. Tandikek) and the picturesque rice fields are the biggest draw for visiting this area.
The most active volcano in Sumatra, Mt. Marapi, stands overshadowing Bukittinggi. For those of you who have been following my travels, I also saw a Mt. Merapi while traveling in Yoygakarta, Java. With the difference of only one letter, they are both pronounced the same, both mean “Fire Mountain,” and both are the most active volcanoes on their respective islands.
I’m planning to visit Bukittinggi and Mt. Marapi again this weekend with the hope of doing the 5-hour climb to the summit to see the sunrise from the top! Her last eruption was at the end of February so lets hope she doesn’t decide to erupt again this week because I’m really excited about this final adventure weekend on Sumatra.