im a celebrity (get me out of here!)

Is exactly how I felt earlier this morning. I’d of loved to have seen Ant and Dec appear with an ITV film crew telling me I could leave the environment that I had found myself in. It wasn’t anything serious, just being stuck on a bus that had decided to drive around and around that well known Sumatran town named Pekanbaru looking for business. For two bloody hours. Oh, and this was after it turned up nearly an hour late in the first place.

Anyway, now that first whinge is out off the way it is time to tell you where I actually am. I’ve made it down to the equally well known backpacker hangout of Bukittinggi, located several miles inland from the Southern Sumatran coastline. It’s such a well known backpacker trail that I have bumped into the grand sum of three westerners in the five hours I have been here. That’s three more than the Palau Batam – Pekenbaru leg of the trip. Yes, if I craved being off the beaten track at the start of the trip, then I have well and truly found it here in Sumatra. I’m not sure if it is because this is a particularly dangerous part of the world, but there are just no backpackers or tourists here. Not dangerous in terms of the locals, who are not only very surprised to see a couple of British blokes walking their streets and catching their buses, but also extremely welcoming. The danger comes in the form of the depths of this great planet we live on. For this particular area of the planet we call ‘earth’ creates some of the most powerful and destructive earthquakes going around. Tomorrow we fly from a large city called Padang, infamous for last years quake that killed thousands of people. Less than two hundred miles away from Bukittinggi are the Mentawai Islands. These islands have been in the news since I started the trip six weeks ago for a huge earthquake and resulting tsunami that again wiped out far too many humans. Before anyone panics and tells me to get the hell out I’d just like to get one thing clear – it’s more dangerous catching a bus here than it is from the threat of Mother Nature!

Being in such a location has found me gain something resembling celebrity status in this part of Indonesia. It all started yesterday morning on the ferry from Palau Batam to Tanjung Buton. Several hours into this latest unscheduled ferry ride (more on that to follow) Pat was asked to pose for a photo with a couple of the crew. This was now an open invitation in my eyes. Within seconds of these lads diving back into the main deck, I knocked on the door and let myself in, introducing myself to the Captain and his crew! Any concerns I may have had of not being welcome were put aside by the Captain posing for a photo and the crew offering me coffee and cigarettes. Slightly off topic, but my god, Indonesian men love to smoke. Anyway, after several minutes of posing for photos on several crew members mobile phone cameras, I was taken up to the upper deck where I was introduced to several more of the crew and a few families who’s male members were also enjoying a smoke. Here followed more photos as well as questions as to my reasons for being in Indonesia. On my return to the lower deck, I was again asked to pose for a photo by a father with his two young kids. I felt like a film star or something, great fun. Sadly no one asked for my autograph though…..we went back into the main deck for the docking at Tanjung Buton, which was a pretty smart arrival. I remember flying back from Greece pre-9/11 when you were allowed as a kid to visit the cockpit. I must have made such an impression that me and my mum were asked whether or not we would like to be in the cockpit for the landing at Birmingham. Of course we accepted and I remember that arrival clear as day some fifteen years on.

The ferry we found ourselves on was the Dumai Express. Catching a taxi from the brilliant Hotel Triniti, we arrived at the terminal in Batam in good time to catch the direct ferry we planned to take to Pekanabaru. The trusty guide book told us this was possible. A look on the internet the night before suggested it was, but this was from a forum post written a couple of years previous. Asking at the Triniti was a pointless exercise as even the main receptionist spoke nothing more than broken English (better than my Indonesian will ever be, obviously) Our greeting at the terminal was off the decibel scale. Anything up-to fifteen salesman were shouting at the tops of their voices ‘Pekanabaru, Pekanbaru!!!!’ trying desperately to get the attention of two bleary eyed Englishmen. At 7am this was not high on the peaceful morning list. We sorted out some tickets that we assumed were direct ferry tickets to Pekanbaru, a mere six and a half hour journey into Sumatra. Once we handed several hundred thousand Rupiah notes over we were told that part of the journey would include a bus ride. Ok, not ideal. After a quick check with an independent salesman selling tickets back to Singapore it was confirmed that no ferries went to Pekanbaru direct.

What this ferry ride did give us was new found celebrity status. What it did not was a realistic full one day trip down to Bukittinggi which was our original plan. Pat has been on the go nonstop for a week now since arriving, starting out at 7am and earlier every day. I’ve been a tad poorly as well as sore from the Kinabalu descent, so our hope was for a two night break in Bukittinggi before a slog across Java next week. Instead, the ferry pulled in at approaching 1pm. Getting on our, shall we say politely, ropey and slightly archaic bus, we knew pretty soon that this would be unrealistic feat. It was a proper bus journey down to Pekanbaru. The roads here in Sumatra are notoriously shit in places. It was safe to say that we found ourselves on one of those notoriously shit roads. All the way to the outskirts of Pekanbaru we were being thrown up and down by the sheer quantity of pot holes. Our driver was obviously not on overtime, overtaking blind in places and not giving way to any oncoming motor cyclist or scooter that was on the other side of the road. I usually choose not to watch what is happening on the road in front in Asia as it can sometimes be a hair raising experience. I just tend to think that all will be OK, it is their country and this is what they are used to. Watching Pat squirm with every other over taking manoeuvre in the seat in front made me watch too, just to see how close we were to having a serious accident. The police here use shock tactics, modelling smashed up cars and vans as a deterrent to drivers speeding and driving irresponsibly. I’m not sure it is working.

We got to Pekanbaru alive just before sunset after the advertised four hour journey turned into five. To be fair, you’d settle for this nine times out of ten in South East Asia. For the record that’s the alive part and the time taken! Naturally not having anywhere booked to stay or even a map of the city we were slightly disorientated at first. Pat made a great call to just walk down the main road, which was packed full of crazy rush hour traffic, kicking up dust and omitting smog for fun. The locals loved us, waving and saying hello as if we were long lost family members. A coupe of girls on a scooter nearly tumbled off as they were looking round, smiling and giggling at me instead of concentrating on the road. We stumbled upon a decent hotel and after I quickly checked the room contained a western toilet, we checked in for the night. We did not see a huge deal of Pekanbaru, just popping out to find some food before taking a couple of Tiger beers home from a street vendor. The main strip that we did see gave me the impression that the city doesn’t get a great deal of westerners visit it!

Our bus ticket to Bukittinggi was arranged the previous evening when we left the bus terminal. Arranging it for 7am, we told to arrive on time. After a third alarm call in a row of 6am and earlier, we awoke and made our way via a taxi bus to the terminal for 6.45am. The minutes ticked by as it soon became clear that the bus was not going to appear on time. Again, no real issue in this part of the world, it is to be expected. Somewhere around half past the hour I piped up and asked when the bus would arrive. The answer was 8am. Ok, so why sell us tickets where you write 7am on there when the bus was never, ever going to appear at that time of day? It wasn’t worth the argument. We could have requested any chuffin’ time and the bus would still turn up when it fancied. When it did pull up I was amazed to see it empty. After a drive round the main bus terminal and another bus stop we still only had a handful of passengers. ‘Brilliant’ I thought, envisaging a more comfy journey than the cramped and sticky journey the day previous. We set off on the open road to Bukittinggi…..or so I naively thought. The driver did a U-turn and we went back to our original port of call.

This continued for two hours. Round and round and round and round (you get the picture?) we went, kerb crawling for any punters that fancied a trip to Bukittinggi from Pekanbaru. The weather was warming up and patience was wearing extremely thin. Now, I can put up with something like this for a while. In fact, I often wrote at the start of the trip how much I loved these adventures on buses. But when a salesman writes down 7am on the bus ticket, I expect to leave somewhere near this time. I do not expect to drive up and down and round and round the same bloody streets time and time again with no explanation as to why I was expected to get out off bed at 6am for a third morning running for no reason. My spirits were fine, till maybe half eight. After this my mood flipped. It was piss take. Obviously nobody does this route. Settle with the ten passengers you have instead off wasting petrol money by driving round and round the same streets of Pekanbaru. In fact, I even threw in this novel idea of something called a ‘bus timetable’ where you actually tell your potential cliental where they need to be in town at a given time. Making I’m thinking too logically here, but if I was a local and this was the standard way in which buses operate, I’d get my own car. Sod driving round dusty streets while five or six conductors spend hours getting another four or five passengers on the bus. I felt a little guilty straight after as I was chuntering away in Pat’s presence, but after six weeks of buses, trains, ferries and planes, I just had enough. I make no apologies though, its better out than in. We finally set off out of town only for me to joke that ‘We’ll probably stop for food in a minute’ Sure enough we did, a mile or two out of town. I had to laugh at this point, at least we were out of Pekanabaru, some two and half hours after the agreed time and three and half hours after the alarm went off!

Our night together in Singapore was spent catching up while eating and drinking down the local hawker stalls. Not being that well I can’t say I can give too many views on Singapore as I didn’t really get out and about apart from a few walks around the Little India area of town. The Monorail system is the dogs nuts, English cities should get involved. Anyway, we caught an early ferry to Palau Batam. Here I had my first taste of feeling like a celebrity when we lunched in the standard Asian shopping mall at the top of the hill. On the short walk to the mall we encountered many of the usual inquisitive stares which soon turned into happy, smiling faces. However, in the cafe a young Indonesian woman kept looking at me and smiling, over and over again. Now, believe or not this is a regular occurrence around here. Young Asian woman stare and smile at me. It’s not that they fancy me, I’m sure – it’s just inquisitive. As I walked out of the cafe she stopped eating her lunch, shock my hand and asked if we had met before in China! I laughed and said no…..she must have met some guy in the dim and distant past and pined after him! We also managed to have a cracking round of golf before the sun came down, chopping our way to the thirteenth hole before darkness descended. The best part of the round was being on the course and seeing the beautiful red sky reflect on the water hazards, giving stunning views. For my own record I hit 59 on the front 9, before getting the one par of the day on the tenth. Continuing on with ‘flashpacker’ trend we retired to our £10 each a night hotel, where we treated ourselves to a Jacuzzi in the hotels spa. It really can be tough travelling the world sometimes.

Tomorrow we are treating ourselves to a lie in – though given the close proximity of several large mosques, we may be rudely awaken by dawn prayers. Tomorrow sees a trip to Padang before a flight to Indonesia’s capital city, Jakarta. As you may guess from the spontaneity of the last couple of weeks, we haven’t even booked a flight.

At least the plane won’t drive round looking for passengers.


3 Responses to “im a celebrity (get me out of here!)”

  1. 1 Martin Chapple
    November 13, 2010 at 1:25 pm

    Well done for escaping from (western) Joe Public! It’s a weird feeling when people want to be seen with you isn’t it – I found it very disorientating in India. Thanks for touching base with us again, great to hear you are OK – good effort getting some golf in.

  2. 2 Matt
    November 13, 2010 at 8:41 pm

    Glad you’ve met up with Pat – sounds like you guys are having a fun time. Those buses in Asia are certainly interesting – sometimes a fine line between proving to be memorable experiences, and just straight out dangerous – but certainly an experience. Hope you survive and make it to Brisbane, not long now!!!

  3. 3 Donna
    November 14, 2010 at 12:55 pm

    Now this Blog of yours made me smile to myself and laugh out loud yet again! So funny especially the last punch line! ‘Yeah but no but you is learnin big asian life lessons in patience?!? or not???… (said in a Bristolian accent!) ha ha

    It is also seems to me that you needed the Jacuzzi…nice way to ease the strain and a big lie in yes!! So by the time you read this I hope you got that rest and have arrived safely without too much wait on route to Jakarta!!!! I am very glad you have met Pat..that arrangement seemed to go very smoothly for you both.

    I really am not now sure about the beard Rich!! Maybe though the style evokes images of Ewan McGregor – never a bad thing in my mind!! Hope that does your ego good! Ha ha…maybe that’s who they thought you were on the ferry…no, no I am sure they adored you for you!!

    The women…might want…errrrrrr dare I say it an ‘opportunity’ for a seemingly (but likely NOT) different (read as ‘better’) life shall we say….just thoughts on behaviours…that’s all… anyway a rant on gender is dangerously close… look forward to the your next BLOG. Enjoy the next leg!

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