January 07, 2016

Annual NYE Hitching Trip (2015/16): Just Lviv it!

I originally planned to write a short comment on this year's NYE hitching trip for my blog, but had other stuff in mind (like applying for jobs and editing the Indian travel video) until a friend who works for the Lublin-based magazine Dziennik Wschodni (www.dziennikwschodni.pl) asked me to contribute an article particularly about our experience in the Ukraine. So here we go. Hitchhiking! Lviv! New Year's Eve!

My good friend cK and I are having this tradition to leave our home town Berlin behind for good between (non-Orthodox) Christmas and some days after New Year. Starting in 2009 when I was having my Erasmus semester in Northern Finland my then-girlfriend and I decided to spend NYE in Swedish Stockholm with friends. Among those people was cK who decided to launch a surprise attack and hitchhiked all the way up North to join us (which took him longer than anticipated, hence he arrived about an hour after midnight, thereby saving me from grave relationship troubles - what a man!). The following New Year's Eves we spent hitching together and formed quite a formidable, very successful team: 2010 in København, 2011 in Oslo, 2012 in Toulouse, 2013 in Praha, 2014 in Beograd and, well, this time in Lviv, Ukraine. We would usually see one place before and after our respective target city and spend our nights couchsurfing either with people who stayed with us some time before (as was the case in Danish Aarhus in 2010), at friends' family homes (as 2012 in Orléans) or with complete strangers (who might turn into friends afterwards). Well, one time (but really only once) we had serious bad luck and were forced to spend a cold winter's night at a petrol station (however, that was in relatively mild Central France and didn't quite kill us - we came prepared).
Other interesting side stories include getting busted for alleged smuggle of drugs which landed me in prison for some hours in Swedish Gothenburg in 2010 (all due to a half-smoked spliff of weed! Wicked, uncivilized Sweden), hitching a Serbian tourist bus at the boarder from Hungary to Nový Sad in 2014 (and the German-Swedish ferry in 2011), getting invited to spend the night for free in a spare motel room by a petrol station lady in Southern Sweden in 2010 - all of whom I can't elaborate at this point.

I will not get into hitchhiking/roadtrip details here, but we usually don't face much trouble making our way to the target city and getting into Ukrainian Lviv didn't prove to be different. Somewhere around Kraków we asked the driver of a car with a German number plate for a ride further down the highway towards Ukraine. He turned out to be Ukrainian (living in Lviv, in fact) and agreed to take us all the way. Some hours later we found ourselves walking over the boarder on foot, entering a country neither my friend nor I have never set foot on (even though we considered it for a long time). I couldn't help it, but it massively reminded me of an episode of the "The IT Crowd" (Series 2, Episode 3: https://youtu.be/qvjS_c1U6zs): Old women begging for money, hovering around looking either helpless, confused or simply freezing cold in a smoggy twilight environment. We quickly passed by, showing our passports to a nasty-mooded boarder control dude and walked on until a car with a Berlin (!) number plate showed up - our driver's colleagues, waiting to pick him up. Being inside he called our couchhost and let her know we'd be on our way ("Natasha's waiting"). Just brilliant. Shortly after entering Lviv we switched cars again; this time it's been his wife and two kids waiting and we squeezed ourselves in. Calling Natasha again. His wife doing the driving. The kids looking confused. And then we made it (not having a clue where exactly we ended up, but it kind of looked like the picture I remembered from Google Maps, so everything seemed in order. One more call from our friend's side and Natasha showed up to her apartment, filled with other travelers.

We were generally met with astonishment (even by Ukrainians themselves) when telling them we'd pick Lviv as an NYE hitching destination. How come, though, we wondered - surely Lviv ("Lemberg" in German since the city was once part of the mighty Austro-Hungarian empire; Lwów in Polish since - you guessed it - it was also Polish once) had a splendid enough reputation as "Ukraine's least Soviet city, built like a rich layer-cake of neoclassical architecture upon rococo, baroque, Renaissance and Gothic styles with a deep-rooted Central European coffee-house culture" (Lonely Planet being quoted here). It does, in fact, feel like a rather brilliant mixture of Prague, Vienna and Budapest, just without the river scenery (Lviv's Poltva floats underground), maybe just a tiny bit smaller (with 730,000 about half the population of Praha). The Soviet-style suburbs are actually half the fun; they're connected by dead-cheap little yellow buses called marshrutkas (not to be confused with matryoshka dolls, even though those could also be yellow and dead-cheap) with the centre. Lviv also has quite an extensive network of trams which makes it appear even more European in some way; however, we felt quite comfortable walking hence and forth for most of the time, despite the cold.
Coming to "dead-cheap". One of our fellow couchsurfers came up with saying something like "your tooth brush could buy a car here in Ukraine, don't lose it" and it's true: both salaries and everything else are way under EU average (indicating that it will be quite a long way until the Ukraine would be economically able to join the Union, apart from those massive political obstacles. However, I have no doubt that a reformed and renewed Ukraine will one day be part of a greater European Union - there simply are no realistic other options in today's world). The Ukrainian currency is the hryvnia and about 25 of them would buy 1 Euro. For 6 Euro both my friend and I ended up with incredibly tasty bakery stuff (filled with cherries and chocolate), good beer, yogurt drinks, garlic baguettes, fruits, chocolate bars and other sweets. Original sparkling wine from Crimea comes for just more than 3 Euro. Memories to India sprang back to mind; a little Cockaigne of the not-so-far East (Berlin being a mere 930 km away).

Having been to some dodgy parts of Eastern Bulgaria I must confess I wasn't overly confident about the general safety situation. Obviously, Lviv is as far away from the war in the Donbass region as can get, so that didn't really bother me. But what about the people in general? I still remembered being (verbally) attacked by some eerie-looking youngsters in Varna (at the Black Sea coast) in 2010. Well, not so in Lviv - I have nothing more to say than that we felt at least as safe as in any given big city in the EU, if not safer. Not a single time have we been bothered by anyone; on the contrary. Even when tottering home late at night/early in the morning of January 1 and encountering drunk Ukrainians they would neither yell nor get into our way (but simply deal with each other, trying to stay put and not crumble. Right, many people really didn't speak much English, but neither do Southern Europeans in general (and anyone above 30 in the new member states). Still, people were surprisingly helpful and some just outstandingly friendly.

What about the city itself? As mentioned before, it certainly doesn't need to be shy when it comes to comparing itself to other Central European gems. It's quite a jewel herself, featuring an Unesco World Heritage Old Town which seems completely intact (not self-evidently in post-WWII Europe), a hill (High Castle Hill) from where you can catch quite a wonderful view over the city (in summer likely as pretty as during snowy winter times), wicked backstreet yards filled with dozens of dolls and stuffed animals, magnificent cathedrals and smaller churches plus a place Lonely Planet claimed to be a place we shouldn't "even think of missing out". And we did. Oh my. I'm talking the Lychakivske Cemetary here (just East of the Old Town). You should probably see it; the "overgrown grounds and Gothic aura" certainly sound tempting.

Natasha, our couchhost didn't spend NYE in Lviv (but flew to Istanbul instead), leaving her flat to us and three other couchsurfing parties (coming from Poland, Slovenia and Kiev, respectively) which certainly came handy, but also meant that we needed to organize our own party for the evening of the 31st - a trip novelty (so far we always spent the year's last night with or among the people we stayed at). However, we not only succeeded in finding an enchanting private party, but also got to know other surfers in town. One of them - especially charming - led us to a fancy underground tavern that you were only aloud to enter by cheerfully yelling "Слава Україні!" ("Glory to Ukraine!") to an old soldier boy who would do away some booze with you before letting you head downstairs to other gleeful packs of tourists and locals alike.
On the evening of January 1st, clearly not having had enough sleep (due to the ungodly noisy Slovenian boys in the flat) we somehow got sucked into some rather business-like Couchsurfing meeting in the basement of a fancy, rather hipsterish café with prices that would almost meet Central European standards. Strangely, every girl in the round was Ukrainian and every guy was not (which made us coming up with equally strange associations); the reason behind it all was a Turkish dude who apparently tried to convince his newly-married wife of the awesomeness of Couchsurfing which was awkward in itself, but - granted - also fun. By the time he made us tell our favorite CS stories I was agitated enough to drop just some stories that popped up, but I was equally happy to leave and grab a pizza and a traditional Ukrainian Red Borscht soup in some not-so-fancy downtown foodstall.

Hitching back into the EU side of the heavily guarded boarder grounds proved easier than we would have dared to imagine: almost no queue at all (and still some 60 minutes waiting time), although the boarder control woman had a tough time believing that I actually was the guy pictured on my passport (damn beard!), let alone the delightful drivers on the way. We made it to Eastern Polish Lublin quite some hours before the estimated arrival time, again being lucky with to-the-door transport: We happened to get hold of a car which already had two passengers (who connected via the BlaBla Car ride share site) and one of the girls' father actually ended up driving us there. The magic of hitchhiking knows no boarder.

After two marvelous days and nights sightseeing (walking around in what felt like a tremendous outdoor fridge and taking pictures), cooking, having political discussions, watching Berlin-based movies and playing board games in a rather fetching Old Town café we were finally on our way home back to Berlin. It took us about a 100 minutes to actually get a lift out of town - which is usually the toughest part of a trip - but once being on the motorway network everything just seems to develop a momentum of its own. We ended up in three guys' cars; every trip was longer than the previous and featured more intense and memorable conversations. Anton, a 45-year-old Polish social pedagogue who lives in Berlin for a good 20 years, will remain in my mind for much longer than merely until the next trip. He was just returning from a visit to his fatally ill mother, but had such a positive and inspiring charisma that I will likely not forget too soon. Enter 2016.

View of the Old Town from the ratusha, the Old Town Hall.

I [snowflake] Lviv!

Old tram on Old Town Square.

View from High Castle Hill.

Meeting a wonderful couchsurfer at a "secret" tourist bunker bar underground.

Heading home late on New Year's Day.

Lublin Old Town.

Playing board games with other couchsurfers, Lublin Old Town café.

December 17, 2015

Travel notes #5: Northern Borneo and back to India

 Last part of the journey: Northern Borneo and return to India.

Sarawak: Kuching, Bako and Kubah National Parks

Borneo happens to be the third-largest island in the world (this could turn into valuable knowledge during a pub quiz some time), comes with a very comfortable amount of human inhabitants (around 20,000,000, again: pure bliss compared to India) at roughly 743,330 km² and is home to one of two species of the orang utan (the other one native to Sumatra). It is split between the two Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah (in the north-west and north-east respectively) and Indonesian Kalimantan to the south.
Ever since I was traveling through Jawa, Bali and Nusa Tenggara in 2007 I eagerly wanted to step foot on Borneo and now eventually had my chance. When reading Anthony Kiedis' biography Scar Tissue in 2010 I came across his account of catching a tricky and quite uncomfortable disease while attempting to trek through the island (was it malaria? I don't quite remember), but that just made it more tempting if anything. It doesn't actually seem to be too easy to contract serious tropical diseases if you're not just dying for it; just use a good amount mosquito spray containing DEET in the evenings.
However, I lacked both the time, necessary preparation and trustworthy travel companion (slash good friend) to do anything as elaborate just now on this trip. Some other time; possibly in Kalimantan then - with the perspective of paradise jungle beaches on Sulawasi as some sort of reward (interested?).

Malaysia for now. After some 30 hours without sleep, lots of caffeine injections instead, various lovely short-talks, free biscuits, hanging out in some executive, high-class arrival hall with superb wi-fi and three consecutive flights I arrived in Kuching, the very likeable capital city of Sarawak, on November 27. Took me a while to escape the airport, though - there is no direct public transport connection, so the only reasonable ways are a shared (overpriced) cab or trying to catch a hitch. After failed attempts of the latter (and talking to many spiritless people) I finally managed to catch a taxi with some Malay kid from the mainland who was vaguely heading the same direction. After finding my way to Carpenter Street (Kuching's minor equivalent to Kolkata's Sudder St or Bangkok's Khao San Rd) I opted for the top shack on the list of Lonely Planet's 2007 copy, some backpacker's hostel which clearly has seen better days, but I was exhausted, it was cheap enough and (since I was the only guest) I had all bunks and mouldy toilets for myself. I actually managed to head out again for a little stroll, sleep-deprived as I was, and ended up buying weird souvenirs for friends - on the first day. Argh. Then I discovered a much more tempting and quite enchanting hostel alternative in the same street for the same price and still had a room for myself; I moved there right the next morning and headed off to explore. Two rather peculiar facts about Kuching:
  1. In the local language the city name translates into "cat" - hence you'll actually find various cat statues spread around the streets and they even put up a cat museum (obviously I didn't bother going inside; the statues, though, are certainly worth a picture - or ten).
  2. For some inexplicable reason shops, foodstalls and also the visitor's information centre are either closed throughout the weekend or open and close at utterly random times; one can never be sure - for once I was really keen for proper government-office information and couldn't get any.

 Kuching waterfront.

Still, Kuching is a very amiable place to hang out; I was positively surprised. Walking along the waterfront is good for starters, then there are many crimson-tiled Chinese temples, very neat and clean parks, a superb museum that features a longhouse replica and good information on indigenous people and their culture (free entrance). Don't miss out on the Bahagian mosque in the early evening (the light creates a very inspiring atmosphere). It took me a while to find an internet café to properly edit the last travel notes about Sumatra, but the one I did find was owned by a Bosnian entrepreneur who delivered great underground knowledge about town. Shortly before returning to the hostel I met two Finnish girls and had a drink with them. They planned to see Bako National Park the following day - according to various sources Bako NP is supposed to be one of the most spectacular in the whole state; and even better: it's real close to the capital. Since it was on my little to-do list, I decided to join the two.

Before meeting the girls I had the most delightful breakfast in what was to become my favorite veggie restaurant on the whole trip (another big factor in my likening of Kuching): reasonably priced meals, creatively prepared and in a highly atmospheric environment. If you happen to end up in the city: let me know and I tell you where you find it.

Bako actually does come with two catches when thinking back of it:
  1. Despite it's proximity it's not exactly made for day trips: you have to take a bus from the city and then change for a boat to reach it (which in turn is dependent on the tides), so we ended up waiting for 3 hours or so. Some U.S. American lady was really keen to see the park just for the day and despite our early start (we were in the same bus) was forced to return to Kuching since she'd only have had an hour for seeing anything at all. 
  2. You probably can't just pop up at the NP office and expect they'd have a spare bed for you. I didn't actually know about that (all damned visitor's centres were closed on Saturday), but got lucky since the girls booked a private room that came with three beds (yay!).

Once that was settled we headed off and almost got stuck in low tide - all part of the adventure, though, it's been a blast. Bako had it all: striking landscape (steep cliffs, thick rainforests, eerie-coloured rock formations that fairly looked like being from an alien planet) and a huge variety of amazing fauna and flora (e.g. the twistedly beautiful pitcher plant) which alone made it worth to come. Right after arrival at the beach we were welcomed by a huge bearded boar (which was part of a larger family hanging out around the park office/cafeteria), a bit later by various long-tailed macaque monkeys that looked both incredibly sweet and cheeky (bring plastic bags into their sight and you will soon very much regret a grave mistake).
We did three hikes in 2 days and every single one was a big success. The first was the longest one and the three of us were soon accompanied by a very adventurous looking Chilean lawyer named Antonio (I probably spoke more Spanish than German on this trip). Our goal was to reach some rather breathtakingly high cliffs and return to the camp before nightfall. While we made it to the cliffs in time to spot a huge lizard crawling along the beach below (wait, Komodo - again, right here!?) we clearly failed to avoid darkness and soon found ourselves wandering through dark rainforest - only equipped with a single torch - and I actually stumbled and fell into a dirt puddle at one point, completely ruining my clothes.
After getting some rest in the camp the four of us paid some 10 Ringgit each (~€2,50) and joined a night walk that lasted about 1,5 hours. Despite failing to see the popular slow loris I can't complain for all the other stuff we ran into (guided by two queer-humoured rangers) was incredibly exciting: a colourful curious-looking bird, giant ants and massively sized stick insects, black scorpions, various spiders (among them two tarantulas) and poisonous little frogs. One particularly frightful looking spider was busy protecting a huge egg and close-by we discovered something that looked like a wasp nest in the making; however, the guides failed to explain, but made sure we wouldn't stay too long.
For the final trip we needed to get up just before sunrise (hard enough) and started hiking to just another beach that was said to be a sure bet in spotting the famous proboscis (or long-nosed monkeys, also known as Dutch monkeys - don't ask). Good news: we saw them! (Even if only for short, they weren't especially keen to hang out with us at the beach). Bad news (for me, that was): After spending some time filming hermit crabs I suddenly realized a sudden dizzyness, intense confusion and weakness - I nearly fainted, in fact, utterly having underestimated the amount of water necessary to consume and carry around at all time. The heavy tropic air plus the sun did the rest. I yelled towards the girls (who came running for help from rather far away) and just managed to still ask them for some of their water. That quickly helped. I remained in the shade of some hat at the trek but was yearning for me, remembering a story Antonio just shared with us on a trek the day before: While in Laos he ran out of water and completely collapsed on a hike, actually remaining unconscious until being awoken and helped out with water by other hikers. Antonio is a huge guy with a real Indiana Jones appearence and I had a hard time imagining him to crack on a trek. I didn't even bother waiting for the girls and started off to get back to the NP office and cantina which by now surely would be open; I basically jumped and ran most of the way, not quite sure if this would be a senseful decision, but I made it and emptied two big bottles of water in no time.

Hermit crab at Bako National Park.

The girls and I went back to Kuching that day (Antonio remained for another night), sparkling with excitement about our experiences. I decided to see Kubah National Park early the next day - also being close to the city it was still quite a ride and this time I would be trekking alone,  sufficient amount of water ensured. I didn't expect to see much fauna in Kubah, but was all in for a proper rainforest experience: the denser and the less people the better. I clearly got what I wished for - according to the ranger I talked to there were no more than 3 other visitors in the park today when I wrote down my name and details in the registration book. Looking up to the sky I simply hoped it wouldn't rain and made my way down into the vast green density of a real Borneon rain forest, equipped with two bottles of water, my camera, a plastic bag, a good book and a paper map that was falling apart in my sweaty hands and pockets. The humidity was very intense, indeed, and even though I felt sort of lonely in the wild I sensed this eternal and ancient connection between all living matter down in the valleys, wandering along creeks and climbing across fallen tree trunks that must have been many hundreds of years old, I pondered. And then - not quite out of the blue - it started raining. When reaching a T-point I had two options (obviously): continue my way to a waterfall (according to both map and ranger's word there would be shelters coming up soon along the way) or heading to the only road within the park that was closest from where I was standing now. Possibly no hut, though. Just when rain poured down heavier I opted to continue my original trek to the waterfall, but even after some 20 minutes there just wouldn't come up a hut and I finally decided to head back and try the road (the "waterfall" being ubiquitous now anyway). Luckily I thought of the plastic bag that was now wrapped around my bag containing camera and book; the map meanwhile completely dissolved in my pockets. And then a shelter! - right at the road - even though the rain now came from all angles. I lasted around half an hour - and spent my time filming a single, lost giant ant that must have felt as concerned and isolated as the annoying human cameraman observing sucking sugary remains from the surface - until a ranger car passed by and picked me up; and lucky me: the guys were on their way back to town and within 2 hours I found myself at Kuching waterfront - sodden, but happy.

Sabah: Kota Kinabalu, Tunku Abdul Rahman NP, Sepilok Orang-utan rehabilitation centre

That same day (or night rather) I would be flying out to Kota Kinabalu (KK), the capital of Eastern Malaysia's 2nd state on Borneo, Sabah. Since the flight was only at some time early next morning, I was bound to spend just another night at an airport (and save money on accomodation). The original plan was to cross Borneo by land, but after some time of intense internet research and talk with other travelers I decided against spending some 30+ hours on 4 different buses and expensive taxis at the Brunei boarder and whatever else was bound to happen. Sumatra was just not far away in the past yet at that point.
When sorting my stuff (and dry clothes) at the hostel I realized that the owner was around and after some curious small talk he actually encouraged a friend of his to drive me to the airport later that evening (hooray!) - as if this wouldn't be courtesy enough, said friend also invited me to a super-tasty Indian dinner and introduced me to his younger brother who just came back from a backpacking trip in Europe.

Hermit crab at Bako National Park.

While Kuching is a classic riverfront town, Kota Kinabalu is situated right at the sea - until some years after the war (it got almost completely devastated by the British when the Japanese were about to take over) the city was known as Jesselton, but the locals had trouble pronouncing it and renamed it (rightfully) after the state's (and Borneo's!) highest mountain - Kinabalu.
While it's a hundred times more straightforward to get into the city from the airport in KK, Kuching clearly hits more beauty points. Kota Kinabalu is not really an attractive town (being mostly rebuilt with ugly concrete blocks), but it comes with a highly attractive  bunch of islands close to its shore, the so-called Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park. Back on the ferry to the town of Tuk Tuk on Lake Toba in Northern Sumatra I met an Italian traveler named Emanuele who lived in KK. He told me stories of camping on Pulau Sapi and said I should ring him up once I was in town, hence I was keen to see it. That first day in KK, though, I was sleep-deprived as usual and just managed to check in at some cheap hostel (20 Ringgit again) on Gaia St, the name's "Stay-in Lodge". There wasn't much wrong with the place despite the fact that the dorms were on the 4th level and the staircase looked more like a prison than a cosy traveler's lodge. I also didn't really connect much with the other guests - everybody seemed to rather stay for her- or himself, but that was just fine. After getting sorted I decided to head out and see the city despite being incredibly tired. Made my way to the ferry terminal, checked on prices and times and somehow ended up in the movies watching some new Frankenstein adaptation featuring Daniel Redcliffe which I thought pretty well made, even though not much beyond that (just fine for 10R on a day like this). When reaching the state museum I decided against seeing the 30th whale skeleton and simply spent some cash on a good selection of postcards before heading back to the hostel where I fell asleep almost instantly (at around 4pm).

It takes around 15 minutes to reach Pulau Sapi by boat and I highly recommend it - I rented snorkel and fins, lied down at the beach near the jetty and watched packs of Chinese imbeciles yelling around loudly while wading over the fragile corals (because they never learned how to swim). At one point a local life guard approached me and we talked quite a bit about marine life and tourists destroying it: "Europeans, good people, they know, not step on the corals. Chinese, oh Chinese, they can't swim - will not listen, always step on corals. European, heh? I like, man". Well, we do have quite a reputation despite the colonial history. However, it's a sad klischee - and one being proved real on a regular basis: Just as the Japanese hate whales, the Chinese can't stand healthy corals - they must have a somewhat ancient desire to destroy everything beautiful along the shore. Humanity, that old sucker.
The life guard also told me about a "hidden beach with only Western people and good snorkeling, best snorkeling on Sapi", so I went out exploring when I ran right into Antonio, the Chilean lawyer from Bako NP. He returned to KK because he was flying on to Autralia from here and was just about to leave. Tiny traveler's world.
Anyway, just across the rocks left off the jetty comes another beach and I only met curious and highly relaxed Western tourists hanging out there, almost exclusively young couples. When the daily rain set in I returned to the mainland and enjoyed a mango shake while watching the sun slowly set across the ocean before another fit of rainfall pouring down.

Pulau Sapi, off the coast at Kota Kinabalu.

While doing some shopping in a supermarket near the hostel I noticed a sign indicating a "restricted use of plastic bags on Saturday, Sunday and Monday". What sounds like a brilliant idea to start with (European states still lack far behind on this issue) soon turned out rather sobering: the checkout ladies didn't even bother asking customers for their choice, but simply assumed they would want a bag anyway and pay the ridicilous amount of what are 3 Euro cents in conversion automatically. Hm!

Early on the next day I took a minivan to the somewhat faraway bus station to make my way towards Sandakan on Sabah's East coast, exactly spoken: to the Orang-utan rehabilitation centre in Sepilok. What happened to be the destination furthest away from home also turned out to be one of the most exciting experiences on the trip. After I failed in Sumatra's Bukit Lawang I simply had to see orang utans this time. And chances were clearly pretty damn good. Before actually entering the bus the young conductor who spoke outstanding English suggested I might want to join the two girls who would also head to Sepilok. He indicated where they were sitting (still sonewhere outside, at the bus station) and I went there and we immediately connected. Simone and her friend Marlojein (I surely got that wrong) were coming from the Netherlands (obviously - I never before met so many Dutch travelers on a single journey; and they all were most enchanting). I had no real clue about accomodation at Sepilok and certainly didn't book anything in advance (there always seems to be a way - quod era demonstrandum); however, the girls did and since we teamed up it all turned out quite perfectly. After some 6 hours riding along tremendously large palm oil plantations to either side we got dropped at a roundabout right at the highway and not far away from a place called Uncle Tan's. I was rather shocked to hear about accomodation prices at first (50R), but since it included breakfast, lunch, dinner, water, tea, cookies, free transport to the ape rehab centre and even a table tennis set this turned out to be an excellent deal and I was happily sharing a four bed bunk room with the girls. There were two other people at the place who arrived shortly before we did: John, originally from Liverpool, and his Danish wife Trine. The five of us would spend most of our time at the rehab centre together and I was quite happy with the bunch. After dinner Simone and I spent some time playing table tennis and I got completely hooked again. Perfect day.

Basically all the orang utans that would show up at the bi-daily feeding are free to go and disappear into the forest, never to be seen again. However, most are marked with chips under their skin so their behaviour and relations can be studied and many of the orang utans here are actually descendents of those that were rescued from human slavery, mistreatment or any sort of environmental destruction and hence loss of habitat.
Great apes like the orang utan (the others being gorillas, bonobos, chimpanzees and ourselves, of course) are not to be confused with monkeys which are further-related cousins to us humans, genetically less similar. I probably just feel like mentioning this here because John used the terms interchangeably.

It's hard to say what I expected from the actual feeding situation, I probably imagined we'd get a little closer to the apes, but nevertheless: it's been an amazing situation, quite one of those mindblowing moments that come up at times and get stuck for ever: When the ropes began shaking and then you can eventually spot them, coming by one after another, gently swinging along to the feeding platform where a ranger sits with a big basket full of bananas and a mixture of vegetables (orang utans almost always live vegetarian, bugs and the like rather being exceptions). And then we got closer! One ape came swinging by all the way to the photo-happy crowds and we've been warned they'd steal anything they can grab when feeling playful.
Nothing, though, could top a little private show we enjoyed some time later: The five of us were just returning from a short hike near-by when a small orang utan decided to swing by curiously, only to miscalculate a movement and fall right to the forest ground at one point, visibly shocked by his mistake, but not seriously injured.

John, Trine and I came back for the afternoon feeding (the Dutch girls headed off to a 2-night jungle trip meanwhile) and even though there were less apes showing up, we experienced a live ape-monkey confrontation when an alpha male macaque started to boldly compete for the bananas and a much stronger (though shyer and less experienced) orang utan ducked down. Another part of the centre is some sort of ape kindergarten/training area where mothers would teach their younglings how to use their arms and hands to climb. Gorgeous and stunning at the same time really.

After the feeding - at the Sepilok Orang-utan rehabilitation centre,

Sidenote: The Great Ape Project

The Great Ape Project (GAP), founded in 1993 by Australian philosopher and activist Peter Singer and Paola Cavalieri, European author and philosopher, is an international organization of primatologists, anthropologists, ethicists, and others who advocate a United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Great Apes that would confer basic legal rights on non-human great apes: chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orang utans.
The rights suggested are the right to life, the protection of individual liberty, and the prohibition of torture. The organization also monitors individual great ape activity in the United States through a census program. Once rights are established, GAP would demand the release of great apes from captivity; currently 3,100 are held in the U.S., including 1,280 in biomedical research facilities.
The Great Ape Project is campaigning to have the United Nations endorse a Declaration on Great Apes. This would extend what the project calls the "community of equals" to include chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orang utans. The declaration seeks to extend to non-human great apes the protection of three basic interests: the right to life, the protection of individual liberty, and the prohibition of torture.

To get back to Kota Kinabalu I needed to hitch into Sandakan and take a bus from there - being quite happy when leaving that place behind again; it has a certain dodgy atmosphere to it and I'm rather glad to have directly stayed in Sepilok unlike some German/Suisse travelers I talked to at the rehab centre and who I met again at the airport in KK.
My next (and last) stop in Malaysia was Kuala Lumpur (once again) and this time I chose my hostel wiser; I can certainly recommend a place called "KL Dorms" (next to the monorail stop Imbi): beds for 30R including breakfast at a good-value Indian restaurant with excellent masalas and aloo gobi. I spent my last day in the capital chatting with an architecture student from Brazil who invited me to her temporary home in Sydney (we happened to share the same bunk bed - in a dorm otherwise filled with a pack of Germans); she had quite a range of grotesque stories in store; I vaguely remember some tale about losing her passport in Manila when being high on acid one night. "Always, always take care of your passport", were her last words.

Northern India: Kolkata - Agra - Delhi - Mumbai

Still at the airport in KL I met an Australian traveler named Kate; we actually happened to sit next to each other, quickly connected and chatted about a wide range of topics: languages, possible careers, future target places and general traveling in India (it's been her first time here and she seemed happy for any tips or advice). Suddenly the captain was speaking and explained - in broken English and with awkwardly long pauses - that we were just about to cross through Krabi and Phuket ("and on the right side... you see...Krabi. Nice place"). Good man. Made us feel like on a sightseeing trip in the sky.

Kolkata Airport wasn't as bad as I remembered it; the customs guy waved us through without further ado, but I repeatedly failed to change my remaining 50,000 Indonesian Rupiahs (still some €3,40) and finally gave up. (Makes a nice bunch of bookmarks, I reckon.) Most important, however, was that they must have turned down the air con; I definitely felt much warmer this time.
Kate and I didn't need long to find a good place to sleep at the airport and it felt certainly much more secure to have teamed up. Before falling asleep, though, I noticed I must have forgotten the copy of Christie's Hercule Poirot's Christmas in the plane and there was simply no way if getting it back. Positively frustrating.

We woke up around 6am and took a bus that was heading to Howrah Station (I had a train due at 9:30), passing by Esplanade and the Central Market. The only other Westerner on it was not only Australian as well - he also came from the very same place as Kate: Noosa, Southern Queensland. His name is Paul and it's been his second time in the country; some years ago he went to Kolkata, Varanasi and two places in Rajasthan, staying in each place around a week. Both he and Kate planned to head up North towards freezing, misty, but beautiful Darjeeling.

Sharing a sleeping place at Kolkata Airport - with Kate from Noosa, Queensland.

The 35 Hours Train Ride

Finally arriving at Howrah Station (which a fellow traveler described as rather resembling a refugee camp than a railway station; Kate simply labeled it Mayhem) I noticed that my train was "rescheduled" and hence would be departing several hours late - "Hell yeah, the longer the better", I sighed. Little did I know what was still to come.

After grabbing some samosas for breakfast I found myself a sunny, yet slightly hidden corner to hang out, eat, read and watch people. I've seen guys hitting young women's butts randomly while passing by - and easily getting away with it since the girls will simply ignore it (if either of pride, indifference or fear of further molestation is hard to say).
Shortly after that I got attacked myself: one guy somewhat randomly snapped me at the face while I was sitting next to a ticket counter right outside the station. When I yelled at him and mentioned to call the cops he backed off and some other guys (or his posse?) started taking a dozen snapshots and hence making me feel like some caged zoo animal (but that's, of course, nothing new in places like Heathrow). Only worrying was the guy's selfconfidence.

After being on the train for about 28 hours I shortly jumped out at Kunpur, the largest city in Uttar Pradesh - one young, recently married Indian couple and I wanted to buy water and cookies since Agra was still some hours away. The station was so chaotic, it felt like I ended up at some Wild West frontier village, something I remembered vaguely from my collection of Don Rosa comics: middle-aged man fighting, yelling, touching each other's throats, stumbling around in circles, rushing crowds of hungry train passengers circling the only kiosk and foodstall around, people everywhere, one could certainly develop sudden fits of claustrophobia. The husband quickly got us water and peanut biscuits and I hushed back into our 3rd class AC car (see picture below) and behind my Ganesha curtain.

At Allahabad, Jawaharlal's home town, I shortly caught a glance at the Ganges and kept on reading - enough time to almost finish two books. We finally made it to Agra at 22:00 - with 7 hours delay and 35 hours in total likely the longest train ride I've ever had the pleasure to be on.


No matter how late (or early) you end up on a place you can be sure there will be enough tuk-tuks waiting for you. After a bit of haggling I was on my way to Big Brother Hostel at the East Gate Road, passing by at the famous Taj Mahal (which I didn't actually see until the next morning). The first hostel guy, who opened my door, must have been deep asleep some mere minutes ago and hence not very helpful - the second one was much more awake, immediately offered me beer and dragged me to the rooftop upstairs where I was soon part of a lively little traveler's party - a Tiger beer in one hand, a spliff in the other. Apparently they were overbooked, said hostel dude #2 - drunk and eager to score on an Hungarian girl - but I managed to find a spare bed in some dorm that turned out to be filled with coughing, spitting, noisy Chinese women that actually caused some funny nightmares in my weed-deranged head. At one point I imagined the person sleeping on the upper bunk (above me) to be some sort of twisted clownish monster with a rotten plan to rob my belongings, but well - she was merely having a really bad time falling asleep due to her nervous cough.

The roads just south of the Taj's South Gate (the area is known as Taj Granj) were a complete messy, dirty, shabby catastrophe and I wondered where all the decades of tourist money actually went to (certainly not into infrastructure and likely not into education either, sadly). People are burning plastic in the sidestreets and wild dogs, pigs and monkeys are competing for food remains in dirty piles of colourful mixed-up waste while the sun was getting up and revealed even more dirt and wicked people doing wicked things. It was so freezing cold in the morning that I actually hsd to wear my pullover for the first time since months (fair enough, I guess - it's December in the Northern hemisphere after all. Plus I finally felt justified carrying it around all the way). 

Beware: The Taj is an Islamic mausoleum after all and is therefore being closed to the public (meaning: non-priviliged non-Muslims) every Friday. I read about that only after I arranged my train connections in October, but I also didn't calculate with a 7-hours delay. Still, even if you can't get on the actual grounds there remains plenty to do and explore in Agra: visiting and getting lost in the impressive Agra Fort and strolling along the opposite side of Yamuna River in Mehtabh Bagh to get a perfect view of the Taj, at the same time beating the masses; in many ways possibly the better picture (but I can't be sure since I wasn't inside). I kind of ended up with my own private rickshaw driver, some 66y-old dude who drove me from the Fort (where I walked to) over the river to the gardens opposite the Taj and made him gain some small commission since I let him drive me to one of his connected souvenir shops - I just got some more postcards and some loose masala tea for real cheap; likely win-win situation.

At the Taj Mahal in Agra.


After Agra there was only Delhi left on my pre-set itinerary through Northern India and I really didn't want to miss on the capital even if I'd only have 2 days that I decided to spend rather well. 
I took a bus early in the morning, being awake enough to continue reading Burroughs' Junkie and - possibly a bit high on caffeine - imagined how it would be to trip on Alice right here, right now. That surreal idea didn't last long, however, and I was ending up completely sucked into the wicked world of William Lee.
A mere 4 hours later I was in Delhi. Some dude at Big Brothers (the hostel in Agra, mind) labeled it "the ultimate shithole", but I figured it could always be worse (say Jakarta, Nairobi or even Tegucigalpa). Still, it's been pretty bad, at least in the suburbs and in the markets around Chandni Chaw and the Red Fort. That said, I quickly adjusted to the capital spirit and actually started to positively like the city. 
If it just wouldn't be for the honking - neverending, ubiquitos, utterly terrifying (even the metro trains actually honk when entering the station; and they, they are loud. Bill Burroughs writes about New Orleans, it "is inordinately noisy. The drivers orient themselves largely by the use of their horns, like bats" (Junky, p.57). I kind of wish I'd hear his thoughts about just any Indian city in the 21st century.

Once in town I made my way to a place that got pretty sweet reviews on Trip Advisor; the name is Moustache Hostel and it's situated South of New Delhi, hence rather decentral, but in a very green, easygoing, almost relaxing neighborhood: Kailash Colony (on the purple line) that appeared to be a bit like Delhi's version of Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg or Schöneberg. I felt comfortable and was quite happy if it wasn't for the hostel price; they take a shameful 700Rs for a bunkbed a night and became my most expensive place in the whole of India (with only the first hostel in KL beating it pricewise).

It's been a Saturday, so I did some shopping before any serious sightseeing: bookshops at Khan Market, another brilliant bookstore somewhere near Green Park, yummie food in between and delightful conversations with amiable locals in and out of the metro. The day after - I couldn't be in any better mood that morning, my last proper day in India - I visited serene parks around the Bahai Lotus Temple, got lost around Connaught Place and tested my nerves around the Fort before having some last authentic Indian lunch at Kailash and taking a rickshaw to Nizamuddin Station, sadly missing out on both Humayun's Tomb and Qutb Minar. It's worth to hang out in Delhi at least a couple more days. I regretted leaving it so early, especially since the Metro system is straightforward and quite fun to use. It's certainly not a shithole, but full of highly educated and very polite people - next to thousands of insane lunatics, as extreme as the whole country.

The last step of the trip was as easy as can be - the train to Mumbai came and arrived on time, the only exciting incident was me badly cutting my shoulder climbing on a much too narrow upper bunk. A sweet family in the same compartment fixed me up with band-aids and I happily fell asleep with images of junkies skinning, hitting veins, kicking habits, starting a new life.
24 hours later I was back in good old Berlin.
Back in London: Heathrow Airport, shortly before the flight to Berlin.

November 27, 2015

Travel notes #4: Malaysian Peninsula and Northern Sumatra

arrived in Kuala Lumpur, capital of Malaysia, save and soundly the morning of November 9 and made my way to one of the hostels that striked me as a good pick in a dated Lonely Planet. No couchsurfing here since I felt more like live action travel talk and fellow likeminded souls.
After weeks of hectic chaos, traffic jams and noise of all kinds in India, KL (as it's usually called) is bliss. Modern, clean, almost enchantingly orderly bliss. However, one can doubtlessly tell we're still in Asia here: The city features three different and independent train/metro/subway lines that are interconnected only partly and hence will leave you quite puzzled if it wouldn't be for a readily helping hand from a smiling station officer near-by.

This has been my second time in Malaysia (my good friend cK and I found ourselves on precious Pulau Penang in spring 2013 after some months journeying through Thailand, Laos and Cambodia), hence I gleefully recalled the extraordinary food variety that striked us then and was also hitting me now. What the LP states about the city of Melaka (see below) is undoubtedly at least as true for KL: its "food mirrors the city's eclectic, multicultural DNA". I didn't miss India too much from the start - riding up the road from the airport to a country's capital and largest metropolis without a single honk clearly has its charms.

Still - after enjoying a yummie Masala dosa plus samosas for breakfast I opted for the Reggae Mansion (near Masjid Jamek) as my hostel of choice - even though it's shamelessly expensive and I wouldn't actually recommend it. In the 12-bed dorm soon after check-in I made the acquaintance of two Dutch travelers: Kiran, who was just about to leave town (but we made plans for exploring Sumatra together) and Selena, still having a full day in KL ahead of her before catching a plane to New Zealand. So we started off together and soon found ourselves on the Sky Bar Kiran mentioned earlier, overlooking the truly magnificent Petronas Towers (with some 452m the highest buildings in the world between 1998 and 2003). I didn't even bother paying the ridicilous amount of 80 Ringgit (1€=4.7R) to simply get on the Towers' Sky Bridge when the Sky Bar we were on came for free with (and high speed wi-fi).
Next on our sightseeing tour were the food stalls and markets of Chinatown, the Islamic Arts Museum (which was closed, but hey, we tried) and the Masjid Negara mosque.
I could clearly impress Selena and various stunned locals alike with my crossing-crowded-streets skills, something I learned and breathlessly practised in India: Move your hands as in using the force, direct the palms towards approaching cars, look confident - they will always slow down for you (and you can cross the road like Obi-Wan Kenobi).
After sharing some excellent hours debating religion and world politics we said farewell and I kept on socializing on the hostel's rooftop where I encountered the 2nd Gordon in my life (he was British; the story of my 1st is worth telling, too, but this blog is likely not the place).

Next on the list (after long yearned-for hours of profound sleep) were the rather surreal Batu Caves, a limestone outcrop discovered some 130 years ago, meanwhile turned into a complete tourist craze atop 272 steps which allow for quite a view. One really has to experience it, I dare-say, but it's best enjoyed with headphones playing soothing music - Indian and Malay chit-chat will otherwise eat up your nerves. And obviously someone will ask for a photograph (or 10).
Among the sights in the city centre I can highly recommend hanging out at Merdeka (Independence) Square, visiting the National Museum, getting lost in one of those crazy malls and observe dozens of cheerful, cheeky monkeys in the 92-hectare Lake Gardens - just south-west of Chinatown - even though mosquitos and bugs of all sorts make reading books on the lawns no fun. Little India was rather disappointing, at least if you're not into silk saris and rainbow coloured textiles of every imaginable kind.

I spent three full days in the capital before leaving by overnight bus to Malaysia's northernmost province, Perlis - right at Thailand's Southern boarder. Just off the coast is the 2nd largest island (after Pulau Penang), Pulau Langkawi; I mostly came for some proper beach life including klischee palm trees, yummie lassis, comfy hammocks and possibly snorkeling, too. I knew it to be touristic hence I originally planned to skip the West coast alltogether, but Pulau Tioman and all the other East coast jewels (as recommended by friends) were already closed due to heavy monsoon rain. (Well, one good reason to return some time in the future).
Being dropped at 05:30 in the morning at Kuala Perlis - the port town connecting the island - I was eagerly awaiting other backpackers and finally found myself enjoying the sunrise with a French couple and a young backpacking local who just returned from a long trip through Europe. After some time chatting he decided to take his own car, once on Langkawi, and drive me all the way to Cenang Beach in the far West, straight to my hostel of choice. Good man. The beaches were sublime, indeed, the sunsets spectacular and the hostel fairly cheap (snorkeling sucked). I quickly connected to fellow (mostly German and Suisse travelers, rented a bicycle and discovered the island's Northwest as well (even though I missed out on the waterfall - too bad). On my second morning on the island I woke up around 6am, checked on my iPod lying right next to me and spotted the news. Paris. Again.
After following the events for some three hours I started talking to my 2 dorm neighbours who, according to their accent, came from France (even living in Paris as it turned out) and we listened to the news together for a while, connected in worrying pain. I never felt more European.

Offshot: About Paris.
Due to these exchanges I decided to accept facebook's offer to colour one's profile picture - it's obviously a mere symbolic act, but this is how humans work; it's all about psychology. Empathy, compassion, condolence - especially in times of crisis. The French tricolore (and also the European flag) to me - more than much else - symbolizes democracy plus universal values as much as human rights. "Liberté, égalité, fraternité" are under attack and if there's anything I do not want to see collapse, it is this.
Thursday, a fellow likeminded traveler in our 10-bed dorm, actually came from Malaysia (just having found a job at some local boat repair, hoping to earn enough cash on Langkawi to keep on going all the way to Europe or even set sails on his very own vehicle) and we spent a good amount of time discussing the terror attacks, religion in general and possible alternative views on ethical living. He outlined quite some interesting points of view such as the West's colonial attitudes - many of the ISIS-embracing comments from his Muslim facebook friends left both of us speechless, however. I said it before and I repeat myself with rigid gravity: The vast majority of left-liberal thinkers in Europe are dangerously blinded in their naïve attitude towards Islam and religious framework and thinking. We don't need more religion or tolerance of the intolerant. We need quite the opposite: reason - accompanied by logic, science, spirituality without religion.
However, I will likely continue exploring these views in a later non-travel-related post.

From Pulau Langkawi in the country's North-West I took another nightbus South, all the way to the enchanting city of Melaka (also known as Malacca) in the equally named province. Once the greatest trading port in South-East Asia (quite perfectly located right at the sea strait between the great empires of India and China) by the 15th century and "attracting waves of conquering Europeans, each adding their own cultural overlay": first the Portuguese, then the Dutch (who later focused on Jawa) and finally the English who soon controlled most of what today is Peninsula Malaysia (the 2 other parts of British settlements one should keep in mind were Georgetown on Penang and Singapore).
The Strait of Melaka remains to stir up old imaginations of glory, sea trade and piracy, but the city itself really is little more than a tourist gem today: a gentle, medium-sized backwater with friendly locals, lots of historical treasures, multicultural traditions and supercheap hostels, comfy and modern. As a vegetarian I need to mention a place you really shouldn't miss out, cleverly named "Vegetarian" and located on the Northern part of Fourth Cross Street. Excellent, very affordable culinary delights.

Just when arriving at the bus station I met yet another French traveler (named Cyril) eagerly awaiting his friend who was supposed to follow up with a later bus. We waited for two hours, exchanged a bunch of stories about backpacking and working in Australia and then headed off to the city together only to learn that his friend was already here (exactly how he managed it remained a mystery to us); we ended up at the Jalan-Jalan Guesthouse for 16 Ringgit a night in just another 12-bed dorm. "Jalan-jalan", by the way, is Bahasa Malay (or Indonesia - it's essentially the same language with few artificial exceptions, quite like Serbian and Croatian) for Traveling.
The guesthouse also rented out bikes, so I made use of that and cruised along the streets that are very European in parts, certainly nothing remotely reminding of India (or possibly China).
Cyril and I headed off by foot at first, though, and when it suddenly started raining we got trapped in some kitschy market area that I remember best for its collection of T-shirts with anti-Israel/pro-Gaza slogans supporting violence of all kinds, including granade-throwing terrorists. Neither have I seen so many folks running around with Nazi emblems on their red-white-black shirts, likely not having the slightest clue what it could possibly represent. Well, at least we're having a pattern here: political religion and ideological extremism go once again hand in hand; add a lack of education to it - et voilà! - a lethal mixture. (If one wants to witness a 21st century fascist state in action one merely needs to look at Saudi-Arabia, but I'm drifting again.)
I later discovered a giant movie theatre and enjoyed watching the latest James Bond - Spectre - once again featuring a fabulous Daniel Craig (imho likely the best Bond of all times).

Sightseeing is pretty straightforward in Melaka - one cannot but marvel at enchanting Town Square and St. Paul's Church atop the hill, but I also recommend seeing one or two of the surrounding museums to get a better grasp of Malaysian history, their melting pot society and those endless links with European colonial powers until independence came after all (in 1957).

In the morning of November 18 I boarded the ferry from Melaka to the Indonesian port down of Dumai, crossing the Strait of Malacca. Once arrived on the other side I found myself in Sumatra and another adventure was bound to begin, even if only a short one. The last time I set foot on one of the 17,504 Indonesian islands is more than 8 years away by now and I feel old and full of wrinkles only by writing this down right now. Eight years. My good friend Donnie and I were spending four whole weeks in what was to become one of my favorite countries of all time, thereby journeying through the islands of Bali, Lombok (and the Gilis), Nusa Tenggara (including Komodo and Rinca), Flores and even Jawa (with Yogyakarta, Borobudur and Prambanan), the crystal-clear waters and the mindblowing snorkelling never ceased to amazed me, even in retrospect. That was in August 2007.

Now I'm back and I basically continued where we left off last time - ever since pondering about a way to finally experience the mysterious and spellbound remains of the volcanic explosion that formed what is now the largest lake in South-East Asia (and the largest volcanic lake on the planet), occupying the caldera of a supervolcano that slowly filled with fresh water and is now 100km long, 30km wide and down to 500m deep.
Danau (or Lake) Toba is still ages away from Dumai, this little and utterly uninteresting place the ferry from Melaka ships one to. The overnight bus trip took an unnerving 19 hours before finally arriving in Parapat - which is the mainland departure town to the lake - and it cost me some 230,000 Indonesian Rupiah (1€=14,700Rp). 
I can only advise everyone to skip on the whole ferry idea (between Melaka and Dumai) which is not at all as romantic (as I have imagined it?) and take a plane directly to Medan instead which not only saves time but also lots of cash since corrupt customs officials (well, immigration 'authorities' in Asia are corrupt by definition as the experienced backpacker will know) will fish away €32 for a visa-on-arrival by ferry (that you won't have to pay when entering the country by plane, e.g. in Medan).

However, you don't actually want to stay in Parapat (but it still is a fairly decent place), but rather hop on a 20min ferry to the village of Tuk Tuk, situated on a small peninsula snd itself part of a huge island in the middle of the lake. Confused yet? Only a map can help out here and I'm trying to provide one. Nevertheless, the island is called Samosir and basically made to be discovered by bicycle; the surroundings are stunning and feature waterfalls, rice paddies, friendly villagers and a unique architecture that reminds of a boat hull (see pictures below).
The culture is known as Batak and the people bearing this name are described as being from Proto-Malay descendence, originating from Northern Thailand and Myanmar, driven out by migrating Mongolian and Siamese tribes who - once arrived in Sumatra - lived and thrived in virtual isolation for centuries before finally being converted to Protestant Christianity through Dutch and British missionaries (despite their still widespread animalistic beliefs: the banyan, e.g. is thought of as the tree of life; they tell a legend of their omnipotent god Ompung, who created all living creatures by dislodging decayed branches of a huge banyan into the sea). However, the Batak are believed to have been practised cannibalistic rituals until the early 19th century, but that is many generations ago and today they're known as skilled musicians, always keen on playing the guitar or some "cloth-covered copper gongs in varying sizes struck with wooden hammers; a small two-stringed violin, which makes a pure but harsh sound; and a kind of reedy clarinet".
Today there are more than six million Bataks, divided into six main linguistic groups, and their lands extend 200km north and 300km south of Danau Toba.

As much as I enjoyed learning about this very pleasant cultural entity I've been ever since, in fact, more fascinated with the geological backgrounds of the area and its possible biological consequences.
If you google Toba (which you should actually do, or simply keep on reading) you'll inevitably end up at what Wikipedia describes as the Toba catastrophe hypothesis.

What does it mean? Well, in short: the explosion that has been triggered by volcanic activity some 74,000 years ago is not only thought to have been one of the loudest in the last 25 million years, but it might have also caused "a global volcanic winter of 6–10 years and possibly a 1,000-year-long cooling episode".
The erupted mass is furthermore said to be about a 100 times greater than that of the largest volcanic eruption in recent history, the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, which caused the 1816 'year without a summer' in the northern hemisphere. Toba's erupted mass deposited an ash layer approximately 15cm thick over the whole of South Asia with a blanket of volcanic ash being deposited over the Indian Ocean, the Arabian and the South China Sea.
Most interesting, though, is the 1993 theory from science journalist Ann Gibbons who suggested a link between the eruption and a so-called population bottleneck in human evolution which basically means that every single human being today descends from a few ten thousand survivors some 74,000-75,000 years ago. I think that's a pretty sweet imagination.

But back to the present and the village of Tuk Tuk; I happen to be traveling in low season which means: less travelers in general (I only met some 4 other Europeans while cycling around the village), but it also guarantees low prices: for a night in a huge room incl. kamar kecil (toilet), double bed, balcony and inspiring lake views I merely had to pay some 30,000Rp (a bit more than €2). In case you're reading this while actually being in the village: Keep your eyes open for a restaurant named Orari in the Northwestern corner (fast wi-fi, hyperdelicious Nasi goreng and a wonderful, ever-smiling owner).

I could have easily stayed at Toba for a week, even though the lake isn't exactly clean or even translucent (like, say, Lago Atitlán in Guatemala, itself of volcanic origin and an absolut highlight on every trip to Central America), but there is much more to discover in Northern Sumatra, hence I was out and about soon again, heading to the jungle village of Bukit Lawang,  some 10 hours from Toba.
You probably know that everything in Asia (and especially transport) takes longer than one would expect or hope for; never rely on schedules, promises or even rough estimations (e.g. from your driver), but always add an additional 3-6 hours to whatever time they say you would arrive - this appears especially true for Sumatra (it must be either the road condition or Medan's tricky traffic jams or both). Just to be sure, and you won't be disappointed (when e.g. trying to catch a connecting flight, you will likely miss it).
That said, at one point you will arrive and in the case of Bukit Lawang it's been a somewhat magical experience. I got dropped at the famous and well-known Yusri Café and soon made my way across a savage looking river on a hanging bridge of the kind you wouldn't usually trust even if encountered at daylight. Again, it's off season so I got an enchanting room for myself for some 50,000Rp  (even though the bathroom was a catastrophe this time).
Most people come to Bukit Lawang (which literally means "gate to the hills") for jungle trekking and orang-utan spotting, but the lack of company (and cash at this point) made me think otherwise and I used my time for long and profound talks with locals (among them a group of kids that interviewed me on all sorts of funny to rigid questions from travels to languages, religion to ethics and ecology) and I also did some minor hikes myself (where I didn't need a guide for, even though I chatted with those, too). At one point I ended up in the so-called "Bat Cave" watching bats flying around like on acid while getting caught up for some 3 hours because of a massive rain shower (luckily I always have a Poirot novel in my bag these days).

If there is one thing Sumatra has plenty of it's clearly not (anymore) endemic fauna, vegetarian food options or an understanding of waste disposal and ecological responsiveness. Nah, it's a history of tragic events - and we don't talk Toba here (there were enough more recent earthquakes due to its unfortunate location along tectonic plates).
In November 2003 - some 12 years ago now - the village of Bukit Lawang was hit by a flash flood described by witnesses as a tidal wave, the water approximately "being 20 metres high, as it came crashing down the hills, wiping out everything in its path", as described by Wiki Travel (and confirmed by the locals I talked to).
The disaster is said to have been "the result of illegal logging - it destroyed the local tourist resorts and had a devastating impact to the tourism industry. Around 400 houses, 3 mosques, 8 bridges, 280 kiosks and food stalls, 35 inns and guest houses were destroyed by the flood, and 239 people (5 of them tourists) were killed and around 1,400 locals lost their homes. After eight months of rebuilding, Bukit Lawang was re-opened again in July 2004".

It seems like the locals have learned from that catastrophe, though - virtually everyone I have spoken to seemed convinced that illegal logging would be a thing of the past. Among them was the owner of the Yusri Café where I arrived at on my first night - I learned with pleasure that she bears the same name as one of the most beautiful human I ever had the pleasure to count as my friend. YusRi, in fact, is an abbreviation for "Yussuf" and "Rita" - however, the two of them, really a lovely couple, have named the café/restaurant after their first child. If you ever happen to visit this place, make sure you drop by and order a nasi goreng which will be served in the shape a heart and tastes accordingly (hearty?).

If the tragic of the 2003 Bukit Lawang flood was a highly tragic and catastrophic event, it's nevertheless possible to track it down to human failure (in the case of illegal logging) which can, one sincerely wishes and hopes for at least, be avoided in the future. All attempts to rationalize what occured in the Indian Ocean the following winter are doomed to fail, however.
The 2004 Boxing Day earthquake and the resulting tsunami (also known as the Sumatra-Andaman earthquake) will as clearly be remembered by everyone as the 9/11 terror attacks. The main quake's hypocentre was approximately 160 km off the western coast of northern Sumatra, resulting in waves of tsunamis killing 230,000 people in 14 countries and inundating coastal communities with waves up to 30m high. The first and worst hit region was the North Sumatran province Aceh with its capital Banda Aceh with some 180,000 casualties and many more losing everything but their own life. While it's certainly hard to imagine the incredible forces of the planet on completely helpless human beings in developing countries there is enough video material out there to at least get an idea of one's own impotence.

Having many of the images in mind  I did feel slightly nervous when approaching Banda Aceh's newly built ferry terminal in the darkness of the night, freezing as the winds is brushing in the open tuk tuk that was about to drop me just somewhere near the coast. Once having securely pulled out my backpack, watching the driver disappear with some 30,000Rp that I just squeezed into his hands I swayed, still in darkness, anxiously listening to the eerie sonic sounds of pre-sunrise prayers from a thousane megaphones attached to some dozen mosques from all over the place filled by deeply superstitious people. Pretty damn exciting in a way. Suddenly thoughts of a tsunami seemed a thousand miles away and I focused on where I was that moment: another magical place at the northernmost tip of mainland Sumatra. Now, where exactly is the ticket office? Where do I get... food? Di mana kamar kecil? Is there anyone out there - out here? Am I alone? Is really everyone praying? When will they open up the shops? God, I'm starving. Screw the bathroom. Samosas, please. Sarapan, silakan. Saya kelaparan!

Some two hours later I found myself talking in Spanish to two guys who showed up rather suddenly from nowhere - and who turned out to accompany me all the way to Iboih on Pulau Weh, a famous island some 45-120 minutes by either slow or fast ferry from Banda Aceh. The Spanish guys - Markos and Gerard, both in their early 30s - really only speak Spanish (pues, and Catalan), so I turned out to be the translator and negotiator when it came to buying tickets plus haggling over taxi and beach hut prices. Qué diversión! One moment alone in the dark, the other in curious company and brain cells steadily switching from one language to another and ending up speaking Bahasa Indonesia to just another French couple, English to Gerard, Spanish to a waiter asking for mie goreng. Duapuluh? Pff. Y cuanto costa, erm, berapa, el agua - water? Berapa harganya? ¡Qué, en serio! Terlalu mahal, buddy. Boleh kurang?

Pulau Weh, better known as Sabang by the locals, marks kilometer zero on the Sumatran highway network and is best known for its spectacular fauna while diving and snorkelling - the latter, however, turned out to be quite impossible due to a ridicilous amount of fat pink and smaller translucent jelly fish - "las putas medusas" as Gerard coined it, repeatedly. Quite an adventure for me still - sharing one's underwater discoveries in Spanish. Ah, chico, ten cuidado - un estrello del mar! Ya, lo sé - ah, qué es el nombre de los peces largos y platos de nuevo? Ah, claro. Argh, ya nueva medusa, qué pena - joder! Necesitamos trajes de neopren, yo temo.

Among backpackers the Aceh region (and sadly also the rest of Northern Sumatra) is infamous for its conservative inhabitants and it's still hard to judge since it's clearly easier for a male traveler in Muslim societies than for a female Westerner. I heard stories of two European girls being arrested in the area while giving each other a goodbye-hug, being accused of being lesbians (what the fuck?). However, at least to me it actually felt safer in the North of Sumatra than anywhere, but perhaps that is rather connected to a general sensation of gratitude after years of NGO help and reconstruction. One clearly should be careful when it comes to drugs, but that is hardly news. Also, people in Aceh are obviously more religious than around Danau Toba (Christians outside Africa and Latin America just turned into limp biscuits). The north is clearly mosque country and they come in all shapes, sizes and colours.
Despite many klischees among Western travelers on one hand and very awkward concerns from Muslim locals on the other (who is anyone to tell anyone else how to dress at the beach?): This is Indonesia after all and most people will make a huge effort to communicate with you, even if their English is only very basic. Plus they're much more relaxed than in, well, India - but you still have your photograph taken six times a day.

I'm writing all this sitting at the airport in Medan, waiting for my first connection flight to Kuala Lumpur (and then having another shortly after that to Kuching in the state of Sarawak on Borneo, I'm excited!) at 8am on November 27.

Some 24 hours ago I was still lying in my little wooden hut, facing crystal-clear waters, enjoying the sounds of stones and twigs being thrown on the tin roof by playful monkeys.
Before catching my flight from Banda Aceh, Gerard and I were visiting the Tsunami museum and it left me thinking... Why just do people in, say, the Middle East would want to create hell for others and themselves? What does it take for them to realize the imbecility of their actions? The 2004 tsunami did have its advantages; it brought long-yearned-for peace to the region.
And still...  'Saudi cleric Muhammad Al-Munajjid attributed it to divine retribution against non-Muslim vacationers "who used to sprawl all over the beaches and in pubs overflowing with wine" during Christmas Break.' Well. Not everyone uses their "little grey cells" in an equally gifted manner, Christie's Poirot would remark beyond doubt.

Four more hours to go. Sleepdrunk as can be. Off towards Borneo!

With Selena in Kuala Lumpur.

Cenang Beach on Pulau Langkawi.

Delightful Town Square and Christ Church, Melaka.

Batak architecture at Danau Toba.

Bukit Lawang.

Translucent waters and magic little huts in Iboih, Pulau Weh.