I hadn’t called Huggy for the last five days. I was saving money. As soon as I called him, cash would be flowing into his pocket.
‘More like out of yours,’ he says.
He hadn’t harassed me in those days of silence even after I ignored a text message to take a tour of Medan. That was big tick in my books.
‘I’m broke and need work.’ That was his text when I reestablished our communications.
He hadn’t even done a test run for me. He had a tourist brochure of all the places he could show me around Medan. I was impressed with that. I was more impressed with our conversation at the warung near my hotel. We really hit it off. He was someone I could trust. He hated the President and was suspicious of the Javanese rulers. I could see a new spin on Indonesia and he was my man.
It was the magic line that opened up my wallet. I’m not sure where he learned it from but it worked like a fucking charm. He wasn’t broke. He owns one of the best motorbikes in Medan. He was conning me. I should never have got his mobile. Then I would never have parted with my cash. But I’d also have very little to write about. I need to get smarter and write about something that doesn’t cost me money. It’s always hard in Indonesia. They see a foreigner and they’ll figure out a way to take their money. It’s just that plain and simple.
He wasn’t broke. He owns one of the best motorbikes in Medan. He was conning me. I should never have got his mobile. Then I would never have parted with my cash. But I’d also have very little to write about. I need to get smarter and write about something that doesn’t cost me money. It’s always hard in Indonesia. They see a foreigner and they’ll figure out a way to take their money. It’s just that plain and simple.
But I tried to hold him off a few days. And I found that my days were fucking boring. I needed to pay for some excitement. And Huggy Bear knew the town. He was a good friend and didn’t really take the piss that much. He never over ordered.
‘I’m an economic professor.’
So I had heard.
I met his friend, who studied with Huggy at Uni. Or so he says. It was around the corner from the mosque. His friend has a family restaurant. The food was laid on us. I don’t particularly like Indonesian food. And now I couldn’t just leave the plate empty, could I?
For someone who is ‘broke’ Huggy has good friends. His life seems carefree. He demands it. He’s the man. A little bit of English can go a long way in the tourist sector. The whole time I was with him, he never offered me any drugs. I thought that was good enough for me. You just can’t trust some guides who want to push drugs and set you up.
But he has no license. He’s limited. No one wants to get on the back of a motorbike and drive around in Medan. And I mean no one, except the locals, who have no choice.
It’s dangerous out there. I’m writing a parallel story on Medan.
‘It’s called Sweet Smelling Water,’ who decides to pop into my thoughts.
Soon both books will have the same word count. I can feel the adrenaline pumping. My mouth is dry. And Huggy is waiting for outside the Grand Mosque while I pack my shit and meet up with him five minutes later. This is another escape. But I’ve packed everything this time. Traveling light means you don’t forget much stuff. He smiles.
‘They can’t set you up now.’
I jumped on the back of his motorbike. I ignored the rickshaw driver. He didn’t need to know where I was going. I had only paid my rent an hour before. But I was in a position to throw it away.
‘Better find another hotel, far away from this area.’
Huggy Bear was a cool cucumber.
‘I’ve seen it before. Looks like they were about to plant some drugs in your room.’
He said the second floor was an easy target for thieves.
But I’m on the first floor.
‘Doesn’t matter,’ he said. ‘The cleaners have keys. So it’s very easy to plant drugs in your room or to steal your passport and laptop.’
I carried most of my valuables anyway.
‘And so you should. But I can’t stop them planting drugs in your room.’
We were long gone. My mouth was dry and first stop was outside Tip Top, the longest running restaurant in Medan. The hotel had an elevator. Can’t do I said. I hate elevators. And Indonesian ones must be worse than Malaysian ones. We were getting further away from my old area. He knew just the right hotel.
Run by Chinese, I checked in.
New and spacious and not too expensive, I had found a place to cultivate my sanity for the next few days before I flew out. I was on the second floor and the internet was fast. No smoking in the rooms but I’d just open the window. It had a window. What a bonus.
I looked out at Medan from the rooftop of Bob’s apartment. A storm was brewing and the mosque next door was quiet. Bob said that the street was owned by the military. While he was packing up his possessions, I contemplated what had brought me here. I was smoking a Dunhill. I had no idea what I was doing here. I was a voyeur. I was peeking into the lives of other people. I don’t think Bob knew what he was doing here either. Now imagine paying someone money so you could write about them. Despicable, right?
Huggy came around again today. I had softened again. And I knew I’d get some more stories.
He’s a friend for hire.
He doesn’t do much for his money.
When I’m on the back of the bike, he’s hellbent on destroying anyone who gets in his way.
He’s called a few drivers monkey. He’s a colourful character and I’ve kept him off the streets for the last two weeks.
It was a case of just going with the flow and letting him bleed me dry. I lectured him today. You really need to say thanks when I buy you a drink. And you really need to ask me before your order a drink, since I’m the one paying for it. I never went to the last point. And the other points I did go into, he denied them.
I’m not one to lecture but I asked him why he told me to pick up a cap from his drink that accidentally fell on the floor. I told him why. You were under the influence of the devil. The jinns were running amok inside you and you were going places you had no right to go.
Now that’s all fine, I said. I know a little bit about Indonesian trancing. But you can’t do that shit with normal tourist. They’ll just dump you like a hot potato like I nearly did the other night after you decided not to kill me.
He waited around my hotel all day. I made him wait. He wasn’t going to get cash off me if he pissed off home. I suggested he go to the mosque and cleanse himself of the evil jinns. Just maybe, you might be back to normal soon.
His eyes weren’t dilated today. I even went to the chemist to buy him some cream for a bad skin infection he has on his foot. He said he had a phobia of taking pills. I forgot to ask him if he had a phobia to smoking them. Who knows, he may well be clean.
I did my shopping, a few black T-shirts, and a new computer bag. And I asked everyone where they were going. ‘Auntie, where are you going?’
You can’t say that to someone who is not married.
I can say what I fucking want. I’m the one paying you to listen to me. So shut your piehole.
I found a warung. It was run by a Lake Toba Batak. Huggy Bear is a Muslim Batak south of Lake Toba. He told the man at the warung I was looking for big milk.The owner of the little corner shop went off at Mr. Batuk. ‘That’s totally disrespectful to Indonesia.’ His loud tone said it all. I was laughing. I was laughing so hard inside.
I said the price of milk is high because it has to be transported from either Australia or New Zealand.
‘He spoke to me like he was a lecturer,’ said Huggy.
He wasn’t happy being lectured. He only likes doing the lecturing. I had my giggle and the 15 bucks I spent on him today was worth at least a story. That fact that I bought him a packet of cigarettes in front of the warung owner only confirmed to him that my driver was a big freeloader. It spoke volumes. Don’t prey on tourists, it said. Get a real job and show some dignity like us Christian Batak.
But all in all, we had a nice day. I got my way. I could call everyone Ibu or aunty without being lectured by my driver who had been doing very little of that lately.
Driving I meant.
I don’t think I’ve seen one tourist sight the whole two weeks he’s been taking cash off me. I’ve seen many mosques he ducks into pray, and many cheap and dirty warungs he likes to eat at. He’s as local as they come, I guess.
The last week he’s been talking to me for his cash. I tell you, this guy is very good. He’s still cheaper than a whore I guess, and really I’m not complaining. So far he’s kept me away from the whores. ‘Too dangerous,’ he says. ‘They’ll call up their pimps once they are in the room with you, and then the religious police will demand a big payout.’
And if no pay?
‘Either a bullet in the head or a long time in jail.’
No short time?
‘Yes, if they plant high-grade speed on you or in your room. And if you can’t pay, you might be lucky and get a quick bullet between the eyes at the end of the firing squad.’
I’ve told Mr. Batuk not to come to my room anymore for that very reason. People might think we are having a session over the pipe. Too dangerous, don’t you think?
He hasn’t got a clue what I’m saying. He’s only thinking of the next red notes he’ll get off me. He decided to leave early tonight. He knows it’s my last night here. But he’s tired. I’ve paid him his motorbike driver rates and haven’t even got on the back of it today. You’d think he’d give me a discount.
I guess he feels he’s worked hard enough. The cash I gave him was for the fuel that I never used and all the other expenses spent on him like lunch, cigarettes, and his ointment were for him being a really nice and well-spoken guy. His English is crap unless I clean it up into good English. He only knows numbers. The higher the better. At least he has his priorities in the right place. He’s cut the Muslim mystic crap. I think I’ll have to revive it tomorrow. It always makes for interesting reading.
He only knows numbers. The higher the better. At least he has his priorities in the right place. He’s cut the Muslim mystic crap. I think I’ll have to revive it tomorrow. It always makes for interesting reading.
He was back in mystical mode. He had taken me the back way. He wanted me to visit his brother. I was on the back of his motorbike on the way to the airport.
‘We go back way, avoid police first, and second, show you remote village surrounded by rice fields.’
I passed on seeing his brother. Why would I want to visit a complete stranger? I pulled out my phone. Battery nearly flat. I checked the map, and we were still 33 kilometers from the airport. I wouldn’t check google maps again.
‘So phone has GPRS on them now?’ asked Mr.Butuk. You bet. He knew I was sussing out his route. I still had four hours before my flight but I needed to know if he intended on taking me to a quiet place and finishing me off for telling the owner of the hotel that he was no good.
Many things go through your mind after a massive Tramadol hangover. And these were a few.
Stop at the mosque, I barked. I needed a piss and I needed one last prayer before he finished me off. I also needed to sound out Mr. Batak’s sanity.
His eyes weren’t dilated. But I’m sure he’s taking me on a wild goose chase.
The prayer went well. I got a good stretching and was able to wash out the Tramadol with a face wash before prostrating myself before Allah. I needed all the luck I could get. Even a safe flight would be a godsend.
The tramadol purged from my system, I felt great. And I had more witnesses if I were ever to disappear. The police could trace me back to this mosque.
‘Yes yes,’ the witness would confirm. ‘He was wearing a pair of tracksuit pants with the Malaysia flag on it.’
Mr. Batuk could see the inner glow.
‘The angels have visited you again,’ he said.
He wasn’t going to kill me. But I wasn’t 100 percent certain.
‘Without Islam I’d be a dangerous man,’ he said, moments before I jumped back on the bike.
A motorbike with a side car got very close. And bang. The bike grazed my foot but only grease on the side of my foot and a little bruising from the collision.
Mr. Butuk was seeing red and he wanted blood. I said Allah had performed another miracle and to leave the asswipe alone.
‘It might look disrespectful to Allah,’ I said, ‘after he saved us, to beat the crap out of the driver.’
‘It was deliberate,’ he said. ‘He really wanted to hurt you.’
I had reservations about taking a motorbike to the airport, but I was growing fond of the Mystic Muslim. If my funds could help him get back on his feet, then I’d throw the last remaining Indonesia currency at him.
‘Lucky you stop me,’ he said, over a meal break at a warung with pink painted walls. ‘I would have killed him.’
Better you kill him than me, I thought, as I repacked my bag and gave him the spare one, packed with old shirts I didn’t need, a Nokia smartphone, a pink battery charge pack, and some cheap sickening perfume.
The rain came on hard and strong.
Work your magic, I said. Make the rain stop.
He put on his best prophet posture and prayed to Allah earnestly for the rain to stop.
A few minutes later it started again. I really should have asked him to pray again. But in a period of two days he had done the ‘stop the rain’ prayer and I really didn’t want to push our goodwill with Allah. I’d be needing it for the last leg of the trip. Either down a quiet dirt road into a muddy rice field, or into the airport, I’d be invoking Allah’s help.
It was the last leg and raining and the rice fields past us as Mr. Butuk took me deeper into the countryside.
I couldn’t see any planes. I couldn’t see anything but muddy rice paddies that would be more than accommodating for a middle aged fucker who liked fleeting around extreme Muslims in the badlands of South East Asia.
Mr. Butuk stopped to ask for directions.
He took a right turn down another quiet paved road. A few oncoming bikes and trucks gave me hope. More witnesses.
Now this is the moment. He must have a knife concealed on him. He’s going to stab me to death for slagging him off at the hotel.
Then the road reached a major highway that led straight to the new airport. ‘Allah Akbar,’ I yelled. And then Mr. Butuk would reply with an ‘Allah Akbar.’ And I took out my camera as the rain came on hard and strong. I just didn’t care about the rain getting on the camera lens and I snapped away. I didn’t care about anything except that Mr. Batuk was a man of his word.
We were both screaming to an unseen god ‘Allah Akbar’ before we stopped at a cafe near the airport where I offloaded the rest of my cash over a hot sweet tea and a few cigarettes.
Then we walked catacomb of the airport in silence. I broke it by giving him a hug and heartfelt thanks. I couldn’t feel any knives under his jacket as sentimental thoughts threatened to flood out the rest of the Tramadol residues sloshing around in my blood system. I was going to miss Medan Madness.
Enough of this shit, I said, as I pulled back.
‘See you next time,’ I said.
‘Yes, Mad Batak see you next time.’
‘Alhamdulillah’ was the last word I said as I waved goodbye. That would get him. He’d be thinking and dreaming about that one for a long time.
I texted him Malaysia. ‘Missed flight.’
He said he’d be praying so that it doesn’t rain when I fly out.
He really was a Mystical Muslim. They do exist. And Sumatra is a good place to find them.
But do tread carefully and respect them.
‘Otherwise, I’ll fucking knife you.’
He was the nicest of men.
‘If you don’t fuck with me, I won’t fuck with you.’
And he was the perfect guide for a place like Medan that can get under the skin even of the most seasoned traveler.
‘If they fuck with you, I’ll fuck with them.’
Luckily it never got to that stage.
I missed my flight to Australia after a delayed flight from Medan.
I bet Huggy was praying for it to rain.
‘Then I could have milked you for a few more weeks.’
I really must ease up on the Tramadols. I think I might flush them tonight.
A text comes in from Medan.
‘Still looking for crazy tourist. But I think only one of them in the world, and that’s you.’
I really had to take that as a compliment. The Bataks use them sparingly. He was a hard-nosed bastard with a heart of gold.
I’ve got a few days to write up another chapter of Sweet Smelling Water. I never did find a cover.
‘That’s a load of shit,’ said Huggy. I had emailed him a few chapters. ‘I suspected at first you were a space cadet when I met you in Medan, now it’s confirmed.’
And I said to him I had now idea he was quite a connoisseur of the low arts.
‘I’ve been telling you all along,’ he says, ‘ I’m descendant of royalty.’
Now watch your back, he says, ‘Dark powers are after you. It won’t be a Batak. It will be a fellow countryman. But they won’t penetrate my shield that’s been conjured up after many late nights of prayers to protect you. See you in Medan soon.’
He was right. Death threats aside, Medan Madness still seems more real than it actually was. It was a place, despite all its intrigues and madness, that felt like home.
‘It was home,’ said Huggy, ‘you just didn’t realize it at the time.’
And he really liked where Sweet Smelling Water was going.
‘I can understand your paranoia,’ he say. ‘Trust me, not all Muslims are into random violence.