Lost bags, landslides & The Vengaboys. The epic journey from my house in Tokyo to Samosir Island in Sumatra.
On 20 December 2013 I got up for work at 6am in Tokyo, worked a full day, came home, grabbed my bag and went to Haneda Airport to catch a midnight flight to Kuala Lumpur. From there the plan was to transfer to an 8.45am flight to Medan in Northern Sumatra, then take a taxi or public transport to Parapat on the edge of Lake Toba. I’d then catch a passenger ferry to Samosir, an island that sits in the middle of the lake. All of this happened. Just not in the way that I imagined.
Part 1: The Bag
I’m very lucky when it comes to travel. I think I’ve only ever missed a flight once, and any delays I have had to suffer have been short and without consequence. Before I even set off from Tokyo though I had a hunch something might go wrong on this trip. Sure enough, just as I was about to take off from Haneda the Captain announced that there was some sort of power failure and we’d have to sit on the runway for an hour waiting for it to be fixed. Ordinarily I wouldn’t have cared, but like a lot of people on this flight I had a connection to make at the other end. A bunch of irate Australians started making a scene, demanding that the plane take off immediately. I rolled my eyes, put my headphones on tried to drown them out. The baby screaming behind me didn’t help. Nor did the one in front of me. This was going to be a long flight.
We arrived in Kuala Lumpur at 8.15am, with my connection to Medan due to leave in 30 minutes. Disembarkation took forever, and as soon as the doors opened virtually half the plane bolted down the stairs onto the runway, sprinting towards the transit lounge. I checked in and just made my gate. They told me to run 500 metres across the airfield to catch my flight. In between breaths I pondered a) why the hell I do this to myself and b) how nice the sky looked. I was the last to board the plane: that awkward moment when you realise everyone has been waiting for you before they can take off. I was the only caucasian on the flight, the majority older Indonesians who would just stand up during take off and chatter loudly. One woman tried to sit in the seat at the front assigned for the air stewardess and became angry when she was told to move. It was a funny flight, my brain well and truly frazzled by this stage.
Mid-flight I started to do the maths. I had just managed to make my flight, but it took a hell of a lot of effort and running and sweat. There was no way my bag made it on as well. As I waited for it at the carousel in Medan I knew it wouldn’t be there. It wasn’t. Shit. This had never happened to me before, and it’s not a nice feeling. At least I have my computer and camera on me, I thought. Ahh but your chargers are in your other bag, Justin. Shit again. Inside the Air Asia lost luggage room a man was eating durian and the whole place stank. He confirmed that my bag was still in KL and that he hoped it would come in on the next flight at 4pm, seven hours later. “What should I do until then?” I asked. “Get a coffee?” was his reply. So I did that. It killed five minutes. Only another six hours and fifty-five minutes to go.
My original plan was to grab a driver at the airport and head straight to Parapat which was five hours away, then catch an afternoon ferry to Samosir. That plan was now out the window, so I sat talking to taxi drivers and eating bad airport food to kill the time. At about 3pm I talked to a few guys about the possibility of renting a car for just me and bolting it Parapat that night. I wouldn’t be able to leave until 5pm, but they said it was doable. I arranged a deal with a fat guy who kept calling me Justin Beiber. (This happens daily to me when I’m over here. Ten years ago it was Justin Timberlake.) I dunno, it seemed a bit sketchy but I was sick of waiting and I just wanted to get the hell out of the airport and on my way.
Eventually I got my bag, went through the arrival gate and the fat guy had gone. His mate came up to me and told me to wait an hour. Screw that, I told him, I’d been waiting in the airport all day and started to walk off. Scared he was gonna lose business, he took out his phone, called someone and within a few minutes I was being led to the driver of another car.
His name was Rocky.
Part 2: Rocky
Within the first five minutes Rocky was asking me why I was in Sumatra, about my family, what they thought about me being here. Of course this was probably just him being nice but when you’ve travelled enough in Asia, and you’re alone in some randomer’s car, sometimes these innocent questions can throw you a bit. They can translate as “who knows you are here… are you meeting anyone… will anyone be looking for you if you go missing…” In this kind of situation I always just say yeah I’m meeting someone and then take out my phone and pretend to write a text to them. Call me paranoid but a simple action like this is all it takes to avoid something happening. (Unlikely as it is to actually happen.)
This time I took out my phone and wrote a load of gibberish like DAKAM HI FUKIGV, just random nonsense. He glanced down and said “Oh, you can speak Indonesian?” A lot of Indonesian text is written in capital letters and my message must have actually included an Indonesian word in it or something similar. I laughed it off. Oops.
Turns out Rocky was a standup guy. He educated me about Jungle Juice: a liquor made from palm trees. We talked about the history of the Batak tribes, the indigenous people to this area of Sumatra: notorious for cannibalism and headhunting. The streets were bustling, but progress was steady. Betchas (motorbikes with weird sidecars attached to them) beeped all around us and trucks that looked like they were falling to bits managed to stay on the road.
Things were quiet and at last everything was going according to plan. Or so I thought. Little did we both know though that Rocky would earn his fare that night.
Part 3. Lightning
At about 9pm the rain started to fall, at first a few lonely droplets splashing heavily on the windscreen then a tirade in terrific unison. Lightning filled the sky. Proper lightning, unlike anything I’d ever seen before: blinding white and blue sheets like magnesium burning under a bunsen burner. There was no thunder. Just darkness, interspersed with light. At first I was in awe of the spectacle, but then the roads started to get wet, traffic slowed and the situation became a total shambles: the road ahead a tangled mess of trucks, water and debris. A landslide had blocked our path, lorries were stuck and no one was going anywhere. Truck drivers blared their horns in vein, as if this one solitary action would cure all. It didn’t work.
We managed to backtrack down a side road, branching off at times to other smaller lanes, most of which were just glorified dirt tracks. Progress was slow and tense. The car was wading through water, with Rocky furiously smoking Marlboro Reds as we went. Suddenly he stopped the car and looked at me. Jesus, what’s wrong, I thought. “I need toilet,” he said anxiously. “So do I,” so we both got out of the car in the pissing rain and added to it by the side of the road in complete darkness. I started laughing to myself, thinking what would happen if he simply drove away. When we got back in the car, the The Vengaboys came on the radio. “We’re going to Ibiza,” they sang, followed by “Boom boom boom boom, I want you in my room.” Jesus, this situation is surreal.
The dirt tracks continued, a spider web of rocks and muck that he was somehow navigating. After a while, a group of Sumatrans in ponchos appeared out of nowhere and waved our car down. “You can’t go any further,” they warned us. There was another blockage up ahead. They beckoned us into their warung, a shop that doubles as a family home. We took refuge in their porch, me eating dry Marie biscuits while Rocky tried to hatch a plan with one of the older guys. The rest of the family looked bemused at the sight of a white guy standing eating a packet of biscuits in their house. The situation was just as bewildering to me.
Back on the road, Rod Stewart sang about gladness and sadness while Blondie told me about a girl named Maria. Bryan Adams played three songs in a row. The only song Rocky hummed along to was rendition of Top of the World by The Carpenters. We passed through drenched towns and villages, while locals sat under flickering florescent lights watching the heavens fall. Eventually we reached Parapat at 11.30pm, 6.5 hours after we left the airport. I had nowhere to stay, and the shutters of all the hotels were closed due to the monsoon. The town was deserted, the streets pitch black. We banged on the door of one place, and after a while it creaked and slowly opened. An Indonesian girl was standing there in a Harley Davidson tshirt and a pair of pyjama bottoms, hypnotically rubbing the sleep from her eyes, wondering where or who or what was happening. I said goodbye to Rocky, paying him what I owed and more, as well as giving him a Reindeer chocolate my Japanese kindergarten had given me the day before. He smiled and said, “I told you I would get you here.” Meanwhile the girl produced a key from behind the desk and led me to my room. I closed the door and threw my bags on the ground.
I’d been awake for 42 hours. Sleep would come easy tonight.
Part 4: Samosir
The next day I woke up in a strange room. I yawned, took a drink of stale water that had been in my bag from the night before and glanced at my clock. 8am. I opened my door and looked outside but it was pitch black. I couldn’t understand why it was dark at such an hour and just and stood there like a zombie, my brain not functioning yet. Only after about two minutes did I realise that my clock was still on Japanese time. I vocally called myself a stupid bastard and went back to sleep. Two hours later, the real 8am came and I got up and poured a bucket of cold water over my head. No hot water in this place. No sink or flush toilet either. The Ritz.
Opening the door for a second time that morning sunlight smashed me between the eyes. The calm after the storm. The streets were filled with people just sitting about, talking, drinking coffee. Women were selling fruit by the side of the road and men were smoking Gudang Garam, clove cigarettes that give off the unmistakable smell of Indonesia. I sought out a restaurant that looked busy with locals, because if they eat there the food’s obviously a) good and b) safe. Walking down Parapat’s main street towards the port I found a restaurant that served Islam food. There were no other tourists in town as no one actually stays in Parapat. Everyone bypasses it on the way to Samosir. As a result, my entrance to the restaurant caused quite a stir, with the girls giggling and the guys unsure how to ask what I wanted. When I told them Nasi Goreng and black coffee they looked relieved: awkward ordering situation with foreigner avoided. As I was waiting for my food I thought about the journey the night before and hoped for some sense of nomalcy to return. I also thought how lucky I was to have got my bag back. Yes, seven hours sitting in an airport was a major pain the ass, but nothing compared to if I had lost everything. Indonesian soap operas and music videos blared on the TV while a grandfather helped his stumbling granddaughter learn to walk on the table opposite. A cat brushed past my leg under the table, something that will happen to you in virtually every restaurant you go to in SE Asia yet still manage to freak you out every single time.
The port was just five minutes from where I was staying. I say port, but it was more like a jetty with room for two or three rickety passenger ferries. An adjacent market was buzzing: old women chewing beetle nuts, coffee sellers laying out beans on the ground to dry and people scrubbing their clothes in the questionably clean water. I turned up at 9.35am and had missed the last ferry by five minutes. The way things had been going so far, I wasn’t surprised. Thankfully the next crossing was only an hour away so I drank coconut juice on the street and killed time getting sunburned.
The ferry came, its driver wearing a Cannibal Corpse baseball cap. I immediately wondered if he knew he was sporting the merchandise of a death metal band or simply liked the colour. Only five people boarded the ship and as soon as we hit the water the insanity of the last 48 hours faded away with each passing wave. Lake Toba was peaceful and serene, and I was sailing on the largest volcanic crater lake in the world. Either side of the boat, mountains rose up with mist at their peaks. Active volcanoes could be seen in the distance.
45 minutes after we set off from Parapat, we reached Samosir Island. I jumped off the boat, put my bag on my back and wondered what lay ahead.
I had arrived.