(Long ass post ahead, and also the last of the series!)
Medan, a bustling city with a diverse language and culture. With mainly Indian & Chinese living in Medan, it's hard not to feel like I am in Malaysia. No doubt the difference in both nation's (Malaysia and Indonesia) culture and language, both nations share similarities in the way of life.
In a snapshot, both cities share immediate differences in the hygiene of the streets, where Medan had cleaner streets with actual locals cleaning up after they use it. While public bins are available at almost every establishment, some litter do find its way onto the streets in the form of cigarette butts, tissue paper, and several nondescript items. Despite the differences, it was observed that Medan have many people living on the streets, where evidence of their living is clear in sidewalks, shop fronts and back alleys. The homeless, at some points, dominate the sidewalks, resulting in impassable paths. Where its safe from the traffic and weather, signs of the homeless can be seen.
Unlike many cities that discourage people from sleeping on the streets, Medan it was observed that Medan did not share the infrastructure to keep people off, but keep people in. Bringing light to the topic, the people of Medan indeed shares distinct differences in the financial class. For instance, one may see the middle-high and high-end people spend more time sheltered, in cars and in air-conditioned shopping malls, while the middle-low and low-end people spend more time outdoors, within their local vicinity.
Despite the latter, Medan, like most towns in Indonesia share similarities in its transport situation. With a few traffic lights and a high amount of vehicles (of all kinds) on the road, traffic jams in Medan can last from a minimum of 15 minutes to 45 minutes. Well on the bright side, the use of traffic lights are strictly enforced with the police on a lookout, making the safety of pedestrians a tad bit higher.
However, a constant fear in Medan and most parts of Southeast Asia is the fear of getting mugged, stolen from, or pickpocketed. However, the lack of foreign tourists seen in Medan makes it less likely for tourists to get into some form of trouble. On one occasion, while we were returning from our late night supper, we ran into a beggar trying to get some change from us. We declined. Within the same time, I notice a middle-aged man suspiciously approaching us from a distance. Without much delay, we picked up the pace and eventually left the area. As it was my first time with such danger, the brief encounter has continued to stay with me to this day, as a reminder to be alert while travelling overseas
Despite the harsh realities of society, the good continue to surround everyday life. For example, we encountered helpful and understanding people while travelling and even had a conversation going! In short, interaction with locals bring joy to the experience and lights up the path to exploring the unknowns.
Untouched and isolated, forests in Indonesia remain as one of the more beautiful places I have ever been. Despite the effects of eco-tourism, nature areas remain etched in the beauty of its own, in its already beautiful landscape. For instance, a road divides two forests at the plateau of Samosir Island, giving a weird vibe to the landscape. The division of the forest, undoubtedly causing the destruction of the natural ecosystem, resulting in a way for visitors to observe how different the forest is.
With industrialisation dominating most habitable parts of Medan & around, little pockets of nature do appear around large landmarks, such as Mount Sibayak, along with little bits of civilisation. At the base of the volcano, a line of shops, possibly for travellers in its peak period cover remain disused using the off-peak. With that comes the immerse amount of litter that is disposed of in a pile near the forest.
Undoubtedly, the presence of litter on Mount Sibayak was also alarming, where a variety of plastic bottles, food packaging and waste charcoal fires continue to remain on the mountain for years to end. Despite the littering on the mountain, views of steaming geyser vents and the constant fog continue to shape the landscape on the mountain. Yellow-stained rock show signs of sulphur, while the constant scent of 'rotten-eggs' got stronger near the vents. Sounds akin to the roar of aeroplane engines continue to roar at every interval. The volcano was still, very much alive! Surprisingly, green was hard to come by on the mountain, except for small pockets of greenery tucked between boulders.
When the moon rises, light from the moon brightens up the area sufficiently for us to walk around without our torchlights. However, light from our torchlights attract the irritable beetles that latch onto anything that brightens up.
A natural landscape, though largely visited remains as peaceful as it was untouched at night. When dawn came, clouds came and gone while the sun rose, creating a spectacular sight only the human eye could capture. Gladly, temperatures rose from a chilly 16 degrees to a mere 18 degrees, giving me some much-needed warmth. But heck, if I had the equipment to spend another night on the mountain, I would gladly do so.
Fast forward to the journey to Bukit Holbung (pronounced as hol-boong). Walking over 11 kilometres, we passed through a landscape of local, village life. Greenery was everywhere in the form of rice plantations. While houses congregate about an area the size of Bishan Park, the rest of the area was left to rice plantations, family tombs, schools and village convenience stalls. Despite the warm, mid-day sun, views of the area around were breath-taking, apart from the usual 'what-are-you-doing-here faces' the locals give us, accompanied with the usual, 'Saya Ta Boleh Bahasa' upon starting a conversation.
A spectacular landscape with shimmering rice fields, glazing in the hot, mid-day sun, surrounded with multiple terraces of rice fields of difference hues, and dem rolling green hills that seemingly feel very easy to climb. Much like your usual Microsoft wallpaper, the view was simply the best one yet.
Bukit Holbung, though one of the many hills in that area, is a largely touristy hill that actually has one of the best views of Samosir Island and neighbouring hills, such as Puksit Buhit. With dem rolling hills all around the hill, Bukit Holbung isn't just a hill but set of many small hills, clustered into one. No doubt, its beauty easily relates close to soft, puffy clouds, except it is green
As mentioned in the first few paragraphs, I shared how diverse Medan and its surroundings are, and there you go - with culture comes food. From the usual Wanton Mee to the uber usual, Nasi Goreng, there ain't no cuisine you can't miss in Indonesia. Commonly sold items such as Nasi Goreng (Fried Rice), to Indomie Goreng (Fried Noodles) and the usual Nasi Padang can be found almost every corner in and around Medan. Unlike the latter, Chinese food in the form of Bak So Mee (Pork Noodles), huge-ass buns and Wanton Mee (Dumpling Noodles) can be found at some places where the Chinese congregate.
Unlike Malaysia, Nasi Goreng served doesn't usually comes with a sunny-side up, it is either served with its egg already mixed in the rice or as an omelette covering the rice. The chilli used, is surprisingly spicier and actually comes with a kick! At some establishments, a serving of Keropok (Prawn Crackers) comes together with the meal. As usual, MSG as a form of flavouring is added, along with several other flavourings such as Kecap Manis, that sweetened the already tasty rice into a perfect concoction of fried stuff. Undoubtedly, Nasi Goreng continues to be one of the most affordable eats in Indonesia, between prices of 10,000rp to 35,000rp.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Indonesian cuisine is how a popular Instant noodle named, Indomie could hold its place in most menus. Served in a spicy soup or fried with meats and seafood, Indomie Sop/Goreng never fails complete any meal.
Despite the common cuisine, one drink dominates the country, and that is - TEH BOTOL. Teh Botoh is a lightly sweetened tea usually served chilled, or with ice. Amazingly, it pairs well with most dishes, considering I had been binged drinking it almost the entire week in Medan. Haha
Amongst other sweet treats, I found love in carbohydrate-rich items such as chocolate rice covered pancakes, dem buttery murtabak, chendol, and glutinous rice cakes. What is common within all that is mentioned, is that it contained relatively simple ingredients. For instance, the buttery murtabak is actually made by glazing the pan with butter, followed by pancake mix, followed by more butter, followed by the flavouring (chocolate + chocolate rice). That's not all! Once cooked, the surface is coated with another round of butter, making murtabak one of the most guilt-driven treats I've ever eaten - damn it is even worse than doughnuts!
Glutinous Rice cakes came in a chewy, purplish cake that felt dry yet sugary. Coated in powdered sugar, the cake tasted semi-sweet but had the consistency of the Sticky Rice (From Thailand's Mango Sticky Rice). A sweet treat I would say, once in a while.
Chendol, a chilled dessert with a variety of nuts and glutinous rice cakes, is enclosed in coconut milk and topped off with Gula Melaka (Brown Sugar). A traditional dessert familiar to Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, the Chendol varies in its ingredients and tastes, depending on the region. For the Indonesian one, a thick, starchy item was discovered and dem it tasted weird. I did eventually try one, but the chendol was really sweet.
On the whole, Indonesia (Sumatra), you have been an eye-opener. From spectacular natural surroundings to bustling cities, to the friendly people of Samosir Island and around, the journey to explore the unbeaten track has been fulfilled. Cultural and social differences, between Sumatra and Singapore, bring light to how I should be grateful for the sense of security I get at home, and the belonging I shall continue to uphold throughout my lifetime. Things we take for granted, are those things we only cherish when it is taken away from us. I'll be back for more, Indonesia.
Till we meet again <3