Almost heaven, West Sumatra

by Ian Lett

We have traveled with Jurgen and his mates for a few months in Japan. And their journey continues through the mountainous islands of the Far East. But we leave them for a while to take another journey in the East, this time to Indonesia. I went there to follow the trail of my great grandfather, and to see what so compelled my father to visit that he spent a year travelling on his bicycle from Germany to the islands off the coast of Sumatra.

July 30th 2008

I hit the sweaty streets of Padang to find my mobile phone. It was 11 at night when I caught up with Nevu and her friends. Nevu was a cheeky 20 year old who I had met on the street. She helped me buy a mosquito net in the crowded market earlier that day, then told me about her life. We had walked to the shopping mall where I bought her and her friends some lunch. The next morning when I found them on the same street corner where I had met them, Nevu told me that a driver had picked up my phone outside the hotel and had given it to them. This sounded implausible as Nevu had been looking through my bag before I said goodbye last night. When I turned on the phone I found that the PIN had been blocked. Nevu had been trying to guess the PIN and unlock the phone. I wasn’t too upset with her as she was just a kid making the most of an opportunity. I found a wartel (telephone shop) and got a code to unlock my phone.

Greetings from Sumatra'a West Coast

I said goodbye to Nevu and headed for the Hotel Batang Arau, a breezy hotel cafe on the Batang Arau Canal. It attracts expat Australians, surfers and NGO workers and is owned by Christina, a loud American who did not appear to do any work. I booked passage on the overnight ferry to Sikakap, on Mentawai’s South Pagai Island, the last resting place of August Lett, my moyang (great grand father).

The Suruber Usaha Baru was scheduled to leave Padang at 8pm but I was advised by Yulia in the booking office that departure would be closer to 11pm. When I arrived at 7.30pm Edy, AKA Dr Dinul Harbi, Manager of Tourism in Mentawai, was there to meet me. He introduced me to his brother Soehardo, a teacher, who was also going to Sikakap. He helped me find a cabin and a padlock for the cabin door. Then we waited.

The ferry runs from Padang, Sumatra to Sikakap, South Pagai, Mentawai

At 11pm I sat drinking Bintang beer in a gaudy room by the wharf. Bintang is a pale lager, a localised version of Heineken. The Bintang bottle is similar to the Heineken bottle and both have a red star on the label. That is no coincidence as the Bintang factory was set up in 1929 under Dutch colonial rule and renamed the Heineken Indonesian Brewing company in 1949.

Indonesia’s Bintang, a pale lager similar to Heineken

A television lit up a corner of the dimly lit room, smelling of rats and cat vomit, and showed a program of love songs and tragic heartbreak. It took me a while to realise that I was watching karaoke and that the Indo Elvis in the corner was responsible for the last song. And the seven songs before that. The air was a greasetrap, the beer warm and the seats were sticky with desperation. It was the saddest place in the world.

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