I needed to grow a set of balls and get on that Air Asia flight today.
‘I’ll get you there,’ he says, ‘the rest is up to you.’
I was telling Abdullah how I had spent the last nine months ducking in out of borders riddled with Muslim insurgents.
On the way to Penang, I asked him to call up his immigration buddy to see if he could get me stamped in and out of Malaysia on the same day.
See, I just don’t want to take this flight today.
‘You worry too much,’ says Abdul my taxi driver who picked me up at my hotel at seven this morning. My flight was at midday and I haven’t slept all night that was my insurance policy for hopefully catching this flight. He advised me it was better to take that flight to Medan. I agreed. It seemed the most sensible thing to do.
And seeing that Malaysia doctor and getting a couple of strips of five milligrams of Valium was foresight on my part.
But to say that I’d been to Sumatra, would give me real travel credentials.
Abdullah stops at a petrol station for a piss. He’s very overweight and can hardly walk without the help of a walking stick. When he gets back to the car he tells me he’s a tour guide and drives Malaysians as far into Thailand as Phuket.
He says he has a high ranking police officer on his payroll watching his back.
‘Malays are treated with respect,’ he says. ‘Through our network, we know when a bomb is going to go off.’
I’m going to get on that flight. I suspect I have an overstay too. I’m cutting it very fine.
‘And I hope you’ll come back to visit me,’ he says. He’s the hard working Malaysian who doesn’t want to convert you to Islam.
After being let off the hook for a two day overstay, the Air Asia jet took off. This is exciting stuff. I always love taking off. The speed under your chair. We are airborne and the plane is heading to the Promised Land. I’ll have Sumatra under my belt soon. Its one place I’ve just not got around to seeing yet.
What’s there to be scared of?
‘Nothing,’ says the gorgeous Air Asia hostess who bends down to pick something off the floor. There’s been a spillage. I’m not complaining as I get a wonderful eye full of her pink panties.
‘That’s what’s to be scared of,’ I say.
‘Would you like anything else,’ asks the delightful hostess.
I’m really fine, I say. I discreetly wiped the drool from the corner of my mouth.
I was on the way to the ‘Promised Land,’ and things were just getting more promising. I was being optimistic and wasn’t going to let fear get in the way of flying, ever again. The Valium was oozing its good will through my system and no turbulence, just clear blue skies and a hop skip and jump to Sumatra. I was in a buoyant mood.
The plane mostly full of Malaysian tourists is descending. I can see Sumatra out of my window as I work myself up into a little ‘haven’t I well’ frenzy.
It’s a lovely day, I think, as I walk off the plane and get a bus to the new terminal. What can go wrong? Smooth sailing so far and my eyes are dilated. I’m chilled. I’ve been awake for nearly twenty hours now I’m mellow yellow. Funny how those 80’s songs come from nowhere.
I’m wearing my Malaysian tracksuit pants. They are getting a bit crusty and might be the end of me. Indonesians don’t particularly like Malaysians, and wearing pants with their flag on it is just courting a response.
After I pay for my visa, I walk through immigration. I’m now a paid up guest of Indonesia for one month. I hand over my customs card and I’m directed to the X-ray machine.
This won’t take long, I think. An hour later, I sign a form saying that I wasn’t carrying any illegal drugs. They didn’t even confiscate my two strips of Valium. The cavity search was a very half-hearted one. I only had to flash my cheeks.
I pitied the custom’s staff. They pitied me. They couldn’t wait to get rid of me. Someone was going to lose their job for putting them through the stress of seeing me naked.
Outside the new airport, I couldn’t light up fast enough. A soldier carrying a very big gun told me not to smoke where I was. I couldn’t see any designated smoking area so I sidestepped a few feet, and continued smoking, thinking of a contingency plan.
Sleep, it’s now almost 24 hours since I’ve been awake. This should sort out my sleeping problems. I’ve also got enough sleepers to keep the sleeping back in the right orbit.
A few steps from where I’ve been smoking takes me to the new train station.
I need to find a hotel. I need to take a shit. And a shower wouldn’t hurt. I feel violated. I’m still disturbed and buzzing from sleep deprivation.
Whoever says traveling is fun has rocks in their head.
The brand new spanking new train eventually leaves. It doesn’t seem in a hurry.
A rusty train line runs out of the new station, all plastic and chrome. I’m expecting a fast trip into town. It’s a case of more you pay, the slower you go. Its 40-kilometres from the airport to Medan. They moved the old airport out here after a few spectacular crashes. Better the mostly military planes crash into rice fields than residential houses.
Ten minutes into the trip, the train pulls over on the rusty line to let another express train pass. It’s stop and start all the way. And I’m feeling sleepy. I pull out an ice coffee hoping it will keep me awake just a little longer. I also pop another pill. The hard part is over, now it’s time for the Valium to help me get over the shock of traveling.
It’s hard work. Lack of sleep, long taxi rides, a short flight, a cavity search, a slow train ride, and now trying to find a hotel in a city I know nothing about.
As the train chugs into Medan, the city closes in on us, shacks made from rusty sheets of tin on both sides and families bathing, defecating and cooking right next to the rusty train line. Got to shit somewhere, right? It’s abject poverty through a Westerner’s eyes. It won’t be long before I’m among them, I tell myself.
The train eventually chugs into the station built around 1951. Its art deco and flaky mouldy yellow paint. I get off and I’m immediately hustled. The hotels downtown would be charging too much. I’d need to find a cheaper hotel. The taxi driver sees a big fair and I instinctively move away. Me and inflated fares don’t get on well.
Then I jump into a side cart that’s attached to a motorbike. The drivers say he can find me a cheap hotel. I have no idea how even understands me. He doesn’t speak a word of English.
Maybe he sees sleep deprivation in my eyes, or a quick fee from a hotel for finding a customer on the dirty side of town, which is where we are heading. His price was right and I’m committed. Sleep can’t be too far away now.
The wind is in my hair and I’m trying not to choke on the fumes from all the other rickshaws on the road. I’m taking photos and have a general idea where he is taking me. It’s somewhere cheap and nasty, no doubt.
He pulls up at a hotel on a very busy road. Nope, I hate stairs and it’s too noisy. The boy who showed me the room complains about how he has to take care of his family and how his salary isn’t enough. I don’t think I could put up with such blatant humbugging. With a bit of sleep and grub, I’m sure I would have been more sympathetic.
I tell the waiting driver to take me to another hotel. He takes me around the corner. The hotel looks clean and has its own restaurant.
It has air con and a roof that I’ll find later that is leaking and full of rats running amok among the rafters. This will do. The toilet doesn’t even have a toilet spray. It’s a bucket job. Fuck, I’m too tired to find anything better. This will have to do. Looks like it’s got a few stories too.
Now that I’m here, it’s time to let the magic enchant me. Thieves, criminals, smog, flash floods, rats, cockroaches, yes bring it on.
I really wish I never said that.
I pay my respect at the Alpha Mart across the road. It’s an obstacle course to get there. My hotel is next to the Grand Mosque on a back street. At least I’ll know what time it is with each call of prayer. I cross the busy street and duck through a hole in a fence that separates the street.
Ahead of me and slightly to the left, is a small shopping mall with a Mc Donald’s. I have a feeling I’ll be spending a lot of time there. And to the right, dirty grungy warungs, a cake shop, a small bus depot, and a tatty Alpha Mart on a corner where I know they stock Dunhill Reds and Marlboro Reds.
What more could a serious traveller ask for? On top of the cigarettes, I’ll have a few Red Bulls. Reminder to self, brush teeth immediately after consumption, unless you want to the loose the last of your remaining teeth.
Time for noddy. I deserve some noddy time. I’m in Medan. It wasn’t a walk in the park. It was more wadding through spunk and human manure, but I’ve come out with flying colours. Dead beat, beat, I pop another Valium and say, ‘Lights Out.’
I wake up about two after midnight. Drip drip. I really must tell management about that leak.
The security guy, a Muslim Batak, those proud indigenous of Sumatra, says I should be very careful if I go outside this time of the night.
I totally agreed. But I needed coffee, lots of it and to get the lay of the land.
No Valium hangover. I was really feeling fine. Refreshed and ready for some adventure.
The security guy is worried about me. I’m worried about not having enough caffeine. I need a feed as well. I’m in the land of crappy food, and I’ve resolved myself to that.
I walk out of the hotel, ten meters I reach end of road, then chuck a right, and walk another ten meters before I reach the main road. To the right, a few meters, is an open warung. Well fuck a duck, my luck’s in already.
I’m partial to Alpha Mart like the next man. I run across the road, my long shadows following me from the overhead light posts. I duck under, or through the fence and inside, stock up on Red Bulls. I’ll have a packet of Dunhill clover cigarettes too. They are sold in a white package. I’ll also have a packet of Camel Lights. Fuck, I’m in heaven.
I make a mad dash across the road. It might be quiet this time of the night, but some of the locals on motorbikes like playing knock over the tourist and grab his bag at the same time. I’m looking around. Who is that walking towards me?
I sit down at the open aired warung. I feel pretty safe now. The hotel is just around the corner. Only one dark alley way to navigate, a perfect place for a bag snatching or a stabbing, I think.
I plonk my ass on a plastic chair. It doesn’t break but it will if I don’t put another one over it for much needed reinforcement. Last thing I need is a bill for a broken plastic chair. And I place my cigarettes on the rickety table, order a coffee and unwind. I’m in Sumatra, at last. I can’t be accused of being a pussy and missing that flight and returning back to insurgent territory. I’m here now. On my own fucking terms. My balls are swelling. They are growing. I pat myself on the back.
A well-built guy runs the show. Looks like his younger brother is helping out and his sister is the cook. It’s a family affair. The coffee is strong and I’m up for more. I order some deep fried tofu and vegetables. The food isn’t bad either. Then I off load to the younger brother. He says it’s a disgrace that they checked me for drugs.
‘We have problems enough getting tourists, without them being harassed by government officials at the airport,’ he says.
And they let all the Malaysians go. I was the only one who was checked.
‘The fucking Malaysians,’ he replies, ‘they are the biggest criminals under the sun. No one trusts them. They come here with their big money and fuck the locals. We aren’t impressed and we’ll rip them off at any opportunity.’
I wasn’t gobsmacked, but I could really see his point.
‘And they commit terrorist acts on our soil while we get a bad name for it,’ he continues. ‘It’s the fucking Malaysians, not us. They try to blend in here but we can tell who they are immediately and we’ll fuck them over before they can say nasi goreng.’
He spits on the ground for a pause, he’s disgusted. ‘They can’t even speak Bahasa properly.’
The young guy in his late teens was off loading for me and I offered him a cigarette. He really knew his shit. Then he offers me a coffee, ‘free on the house, Sumatra style, our welcome drink.’ His older brother, Jack, comes over and says welcome to Medan. He says he works for the army which explains why he’s on his walkie talkie all the time.
‘Security,’ he says, ‘any issues in the neighbourhood, it’s sorted out military style. ‘
I’m feeling less threatened by the bag snatchers already.
He makes up orders with his sister who like Jack, is in her late thirties. They take their job seriously and serve cheap grub.
‘If you don’t mind the rats running between your feet, you’ll love this joint,’ says Jack who is built like a brick shit house. ‘I’m the President’s body guard when he’s in town.’
‘Or when he’s out of town,’ says the younger brother, who reminds his brother of the recent Guns n’ Roses concert in Jakarta.
‘I was inner circle body guard,’ says Jack. ‘Anyone touch President, must touch me first.’
Very modest and humble people these Sumatrans were.
I’m feeling much better about myself. A few hours later of chain smoking and drinking coffee and avocado smoothies, I thank them for their Sumatran hospitality and saunter down the dark alley way, and chuck a gingerly hard right. The security guy smiles at me.
I see you are still alive.
I have survival skills, let’s just leave it that.
He doesn’t say much. Like many Indonesian men, he just smiles. A stupid smile, a dumb smile, or even a happy smile, a smile is still a smile.
I pop a few more Valium’s, fuck at this rate, they’ll all be gone. I better get a few more hours sleep and see what the day brings.
The next day I wake up feeling very refreshed. Isn’t it a blessing? And sink those coffees down me at the hotel’s restaurant. Now it’s time to meet and greet the clowns. Onto my second coffee, the first taxi driver comes up to my table. Seriously, I was minding my own business. But this jackoff wasn’t. His name is Rizal. He’ll be the end of me, I can feel it.
Wearing dark eyeliner and mascara, a long flowing red dyed beard, he’s trying hard with the Taliban look.
I can feel already. This is the end of me.
He could be mosses with his long flowing white frock.
‘I’m just a taxi driver and would love to take you to Lake Toba.’
I wasn’t going to hear the fucking end of it unless I took up his offer.
Parasite number one entered my life. Now who would be next?
He crawled onto the scene, baby steps, feeling the waters.
He was a class act.
Surely there must be a few more coming out of the woodwork.
I’m available to be fucked over, please apply at my table.
I’m not cynical, just a realist. Treating yourself can come at a very high price.
And Rizal had just the trip for me. His price was right.
‘Cheapest in town.’
One bullshitter to another, he was dodgy as hell and wouldn’t leave me alone.
He grated and chipped away until I said lets fucking go to Lake Toba and get this shit over with.
I sound bitter. I was at the time. Rizal would be the reason why I quickly packed my bag and did a runner. He was creepy. He wasn’t what he appeared either.
These are treacherous waters we move in, when money is concerned. They are a hungry people, the Sumatrans, and work hard to make ends meet. They weren’t the only ones on the make. And I really didn’t hold it against them. I just wish they’d fuck off and leave me alone.
There’s only going to be more problems resulting from their capricious behaviour. I’m not your retirement fund. My funds are limited, and better spent on me than you. That’s what I wanted to tell them. But I couldn’t.
I’m slowly losing it. I can feel it. I just need to hold on until my flight. That customs guy has a lot to answer for. He sent me in a funk.
I had some time to kill in the Hotel’s restaurant and took out my nail clippers, and cut my nails – I’ll save the toenails for later. I’m now one lean mean writing machine. I might even order another Red Bull and watch some CSI Lake Toba. A drug bust in Lake Toba – a Malaysian busted with 20 kilograms of crack. And a prostitution racket busted, run by a Chinese- Malaysian syndicate.
I’m really not sure I want to visit Lake Toba now. I’m told there is grass that grows wild. I’m not sure hanging around with hippy backpackers is really my thing. I’ll only rub them up the wrong way.
It might be safer in Aceh. Even soldiers openly sell weed, said my friend at the warung next door to the hotel.
Not only did that cough medicine sort out my cold, it also knocked me for six, four hours later I wake up without a cold. Every hour slept is contributing to breaking the vampire hours.
I joke to the security about the chicken I saw at the hotel the other day. ‘From Jakarta,’ he says,’ working the Karaoke circuit.’ And we all know what that means.
‘There were six of them,’ said the Batak security guard, ‘and none of them are interested in you.’
I admit I wasn’t prepared to go down that road
My forced abstinence was for a much different reason. I just didn’t want to upset the religious leaders. This wasn’t Malaysia where the Chinese shifted a bit of immorality around. Here the religious police were looking for offenders they could cash in on.
The hotel is next door to Medan’s oldest mosque where the locals see everything coming and going. At night time it becomes a freak show. Running that gauntlet to my hotel always gets my adrenaline pumping. I’ll be running it one more time. I’m sure of it.
One night a lady sat on a bench in the little alley way. She looked off her face and half starved. My heart went out to her. She was lost and homeless. Taking her place shortly on the bench was another zombie of the night. He’d just stare at me as I walked past him. He wanted money. I just didn’t want to take any out down that dark ally.
I can’t save the world; I’d say and make a mad dash back to my aircon room. But boy I felt fucking guilty. These are the people that really needed help. They didn’t have English to humbug off the tourists. They were totally dependent on the good will of the Indonesians, who on the most part, were struggling themselves.
I got all this from another Batak who was lurking in the shadows. It was the second night at the warung. My peace would end. This guy just latched on and sucked and sucked. As if I needed a local motor bike driver, and I didn’t, but he insisted I did.
‘And you name your price,’ he said. He told me he normally charged 50 000 per destination.
I said 50 00 per day.
He smiled. He thought about it.
‘For you, yes can do, no problem.’
He was giving me a deal of a lifetime. He only wanted 50 000 for a day. He’d take me anywhere for that price. I’d also pay for his cigarettes and food. That would be another 100 000 Rupiah. And I’d pay for his petrol. Wait, this isn’t a fantastic deal. He’s just got his own retirement fund sorted out. And you are the sucker who is agreeing.
I was in an emotional state. That bitch, Fritz’s sponsor, had got me all worked up. We haven’t met them yet. But Fritz was from Holland, and she was a local. And she’s given me the cold shoulder because I suggested she was gila, or crazy. This was all relayed over texts. I’m over that little gold digger. And I’m going to give Om a chance.
‘I’m broke,’ he text me the next day.
I went all butterflyish and told him to meet me at McDonald’s across the road, and that we’d sort something out. He was a poor substitute. I know. But it’s not like the sponsor was a hottie either.
Dealing with people is hard work. But I can’t close myself to the world. Om is the gateway to a book and Medan. So I must deal with all the money flowing out of my wallet and into his. I’m the cashed up tourist, right?
Did I have any choice in the matter?
The next day I tell Rizal to get his skates on. He’s still hassling me about taking a trip to Lake Toba at inflated prices.
I hardly slept the night before, so I thought a day trip to the lake and the volcano might do me wonders and get me rising in the mornings if I could stay awake all day.
He’s always dressed up like a hard-core mother fucking Muslim.
‘You aren’t calling me an extremist, are you?
No, but we were both extremely guilty of being into Mary’s big tits. Mary is the receptionist at the hotel and she just loves showcasing those mounds of flesh. She is always dressed in traditional Batak clothing, but somehow, we all notice the seismic movements underneath it.
I pay Rizal half a million Rupiah, and say I’ll pay the other half when we get back to Medan. Fuck, I need to top up my cash. I’m going to be short. Any surprises from Rizal, I’ll definitely have to go to an ATM. These are the perils of being a traveller. It costs you money. Hard cash. Is it budgeted for? I hope so.
Outside the hotel, he walks to the parked motorbikes. He’s a funny bugger. I humour him. We are getting on just fine as he opens up the door to his new white car.
He’s pretty cashed up for a poor taxi driver. The car is clean. He says I can smoke inside. He’s really going out of the way to make me feel welcome. His wife is the manager of the hotel. I suspect that’s why he has priority over customers. His English isn’t that great, but fine by me. He’s a driver, and I’m a tourist, and we both ease into our roles, effortlessly. If there’s money flowing, we might even ham it up.
We are heading out of Medan, south. Past the airport and towards Lake Toba. It’s actually happening. I’m really traveling. I can’t tell you how happy I am. I could do with some more sleep. But I’m moving. Heading towards a destination. And Rizal is driving like a mad man. But I suspect he won’t want to damage his car, so he’s driving more cautiously than he lets on.
He has the holy book the dashboard, and once out of the mark, he is ducking and weaving around every car.
He just hates being left behind.
He is going to get me to Lake Toba in record time.
He is a gentleman of the highest order. I am really digging North Sumatra as we head closer to our destination. I am chain smoking and he is coughing like crazy. You have to love these passive smokers.
It was a massive 8 hours on the road. It certainly beat being on a back of a motorbike. Comfort all the fucking way. It’s a wild and wonderful place and raw in the truest sense.
He pulls into a warung perched on the rim of Lake Toba. I can’t be fucked going down to the bottom; I know it’s only going to cost me. Anything deviating from the arranged route is gunna cost me. Below, a boat is crawling across the massive lake. The only ripple on the water is from the boat’s wake.
We eat our nasi goreng and Rizal has proposed a detour to the volcano. See, I knew this was going to cost me. How can I not see the volcano? He’s got me by the balls and I’ll agree. Now I owe him another half a million Rupiah on top of the other five hundred thousand that I owe him for the trip to Lake Toba. He’s robbing me, and blindly.
I’ve seen the view, now let’s fuck off to the next destination, I say to my compliant driver.
I’m not feeling well. Maybe it’s a little attack of altitude sickness. More like old age not creeping up on me, but pouncing on me.
At the waterfall drop off point, Rizal ducks off to the mosque. He used to be a truck driver transporting stuff up and down Sumatra, to be ferried over to Java. He says his record from Medan to Java is three days. He thinks he’s the king of the road.
I’m walking around, in a daze. My neck isn’t feeling good at all. I can just walk. But I’m wondering around, taking shots of the waterfall and avoiding other tourist’s cameras. This is traveling. I’m really nonplussed. I can’t wait to get back in the car and continue this expensive day tour.
Sure, Lake Toba is big. Sure, it’s a tourist attraction. But I’m feeling left out.
Maybe I just don’t like tourist attractions. Maybe it’s time to change professions.
Rizal guides me into the car. He can see I’m a bit sensitive.
I’m glad I didn’t pay him the full fee. He might have fucked off by now.
It’s agreed, we’ll do a long detour to the volcano and climb through the mountains and reach Medan by early evening. It’s costing me more than I would ever pay. This isn’t Bali and the good deals are nowhere to be seen.
Back on the road, he beeps his horn like road runner ever minute. He owns the roads of Sumatra and says he hates the current president from Java. He gives big thumbs down and says, ‘he very bad man.’
We are heading towards that volcano that sometimes lets off steam. At the moment, it’s comfortably numb. No threats what so ever. I’m a bit disappointed. But we have a good two hours’ drive before we reach it. Rizal is driving around the rim of the crater of Lake Toba and the views from these heights are just breathtaking. He even stops the car while I get the picture in focus.
He’s already deserved his tip. I still need to find an ATM to top up. I don’t know why, but owing a guy like Rizal money just makes me nervous. He’s a guy you wouldn’t want to cross.
When we renegotiated the deal in at the warung at Lake Toba, I was impressed with his business skills. I couldn’t say no. I did try to explain to him that I thought the original fee did cover seeing the volcano.
‘No,’ smiled Rizal, ‘ that’s another four hours driving.’
I agreed to pay him an extra fifty bucks of my currency which was another 500 00 Rupiah. What was I complaining about? Because he tacked on more to the original price. He’s a fucking cocksucking lier. For the price of two packets of cigarettes back home, I was getting a tour of a North Sumatra with a private driver. Yet I was still uneasy about it. Deep inside, I felt he was fucking me over. With a smile of course. Maybe this traveling business was wearing thin on me, and my outbursts were just symptoms of over-traveling.
We both have the runs. The noodle stop at Lake Toba hasn’t been kind to us, and nor is the dirty toilet at the petrol station. My driver has to keep the toilet door shut while I take my crap. It has no latch. He’s really going beyond the call of duty. He even dashes out to the car and returns with some tissue. I just can’t see a fault in this guy. You only know someone when you travel with them, and he’s been a superstar so far.
In my sleep deprived self, I recall seeing the parched side of the volcano left with desolate lava flows now solidified into megalith tarmacs, a large cabbage on a pedestal in a village many open butcher shops cutting up prime pork cuts. Those Batak love their pork. Not a mosque sight in Batak Land.
There were Christian churches and very elaborate and lovingly made tombstones, usually in pairs, between houses – two lovers living together eternally in the afterlife. The Christian Batak culture permeates every inch of Lake Toba and the surrounding mountains. There was a bust of St. Francis of Assisi on a church that had strong Polynesian architectural influence.
I should have just jumped out of the car and found a homestead. I wanted to be part of the flow of Lake Toba. But I felt Medan had a few more surprises installed for me.
True to form, Rizal climbs the mountain. We stop at a market for a piss stop. The weather is cool and misty up here. I should really be staying a night and get the low down. But unfortunately it isn’t one of those trips. Rizal says they charge too much for hotels. I see a young Western male, he looks American. He’s physically in good shape. He’s here to pull the chicks, I’m sure of it.
While I’m playing dumb tourist, he’s fucking the locals. And they are pretty hot. I really need to assess my traveling priorities.
‘He’s a cultural exchange student,’ says Rizal, ‘and if he’s not that, then he’s a missionary.’
Missionary position, not the most exciting.
I’m really finding it hard to read people too.
I check out the market. Carrots are hot items.
I’m just not in the mood for carrots.
I feel this trip is just skimming the surface and we both agree to return to the swamp.
I’m missing Medan. I’m missing my bed. I really need sleep and access to a toilet. The runs could come on any moment now. I’m sure I’ll be finding a crapper before the journey is ended.
Driving down the mountain range back to Medan, the sun is nearly obscured by fat clouds. It’s lightly raining as we make down the ranges in record time. We pass warungs which double up as brothels and the forest is speaking to us.
And I saw the ‘little’ people too, the notoriously shy pygmies who were hunting tourists from Java and boiling them up in pots.’
There were monkey’s sitting on the roadside waiting for handouts too.
Back in Medan, I’m admiring the dirty streets and the controlled chaos. It’s a shit hole I never thought I’d miss.
Now what is all this talk about Rizal being a hardnosed Taliban? Maybe I have it wrong. I found an ATM and paid him up the other 500 000 Rupiah I owed him. He counted it twice. Then I took 50 000 off him.
He looked at me like I was ripping him off.
‘It was the price we agreed,’ I said, smiling at him.
He was reasonable to understand that. It was a small victory, but I was happy with the outcome. It showed he was more reasonable that I thought. And what I thought didn’t count here.
Mary was waiting for us the reception area. She was jumping up and down so we could admire her gorgeous jugs. Rizal was in a buoyant mood. I was pretty chuffed too.
I liked Medan a lot. Any misgivings about the pesky taxi driver were long gone.
In a euphoric moment, I mentioned about a road trip to Aceh. It was said in all innocence but Rizal took it as an opportunity to annoy me until I committed.
Mary was studying at a University, Hotel management. Rizal’s wife ignored his advances on Mary. She had braces. She wasn’t that stunning, but she knew what her sexuality and youth was, and she flaunted within the confines of Islam. It was exhilarating when she smiled and directed her attention to us.
I pulled back. Sleep. Get real too. You have no chance.
Me and Rizal are the best of mates, for now. Amazing what money can do to loosen the strata’s of resistance and suspicion.
That all changed when I met this guy lurking in the shadows that night. He wasn’t shy about coming up to my table at the warung near the hotel. It’s how he generates business, preying on unsuspecting tourists. I couldn’t blame him. But once he moved in, there was no shaking this guy off.
Didn’t you already say that?
I may have, and I don’t apologise for my bitch mode.
I had time to kill. It really wasn’t that bad. I needed a local guide. And he gave me an offer too good to refuse, which meant that I’d be paying more than if it was just a flat out rate.
But I’m not going to complain. I’ve got tonnes of experiences to write about. I’m just thinking of a name for him. Om won’t do. It’s too long. He was the man on the street. And he knew what was going down. I’ll call him Misery, he never smiled. No that name won’t do either.
I was drinking a coffee late that night at the warung. I didn’t have the heart to tell Jack and younger brother that I had already been to Lake Toba. I was supposed to go with them, but changed my mind. I wasn’t into staying overnight and paying for a family. That’s the deal they were hinting at. That’s why I went with Rizal.
This guy, to this day, I don’t even know what his real name is, was a smooth operator. It was time to ramp things up. I hired him. I was reluctant at first, but once I was committed, things kind of got very interesting.
He cried poor. I could relate to it. He wasn’t allowed near the hotel.
‘I’m banned,’ said Om. He was like an uncle, so that name stuck. That he was a Muslim Mystic was a bonus. They always colour up a narrative. Om, in Indonesian, means uncle. A gentle uncle. He was far from that. He was verging on the agro side. He seemed wired. It wasn’t a case of drinking too much coffee.
‘They are asking questions about you.’
‘It’s Rizal, he thinks you are a CIA spy.’
First a drug smuggler, now CIA, I tried not to laugh.
I had heard both lines before from officialdom so didn’t take them lightly.
I was reluctant to leave but once inertia kicked in, I’d be propelled to act. It was adrenaline pumping and all that jazz. Was this a case of another phantom chasing me? ‘Best to play it safe.’ I always listen to my inner voice. Om was batting for me to leave. He had his agenda too. I can see it clearly now.
But in this instance, he was right on the money.
I refused to go to Aceh with Rizal. Every day he’d ask me. Every fucking day.
Maybe soon, I’d say, with the best fake smile. I was always on my laptop, chain smoking and drinking coffee. And the last thing I wanted to do was to go Aceh with a guy who already had fucked me over. Once bitten and twice shy. I try to live by that. The price he charged me, I could have rented a car in Bali for three days and paid the driver a salary. He screwed me over and he wasn’t going to do that again.
‘He’s telling everyone you are a speed freak too.’
I could see that. At the time I couldn’t. The walls were moving in. The dripping was getting louder in my room. They weren’t’ going to fix up that leak in the ceiling.
They had turned on me. From being the poster boy, I was now a spy.
Everyone is on the make in Medan. If you aren’t making money off tourists legitimately, then you resort to cruder tactics.
Om was worried they set me up.
‘Rizal is also an informer,’ he said. ‘He has a track record of setting up tourists.’
‘He plants drugs in their room and calls the police.’
It was all becoming clearer now. Too clear.
A lot can happen in three weeks. My surprise was due. They were running out of patience. Whoever they were. I call him Rizal. He’s the one that was making the fuss. He hardly spoke to me these days.
Even he knew I wasn’t going to Aceh. But he’d make his feelings known. He was muttering more and more. The hotel had already given me a discount. I didn’t even ask for it. But Rizal didn’t get his chance to screw me over again. He had dollar signs in his eyes. They weren’t going to be my dollars. Just that plain and simple.
I was set into a routine.
I’d wake up and head over to Mc Donald’s at the mall across the road. Or I might stay in the hotel and consume coffee and smoke out the restaurant. The Wi-Fi was very slow. But it worked fine if you were close to the modem.
The incentive for leaving the hotel was not to run into Rizal. He’d even knock on my door and then enter and sit on my bed and start playing with the hair on my arms. I definitely wasn’t going to Aceh with him. The thought of sharing a hotel room with him was just that, scary.
The night I met Om was quite amusing. He wasn’t just your usual humbugger. He had something to say. His English was quite good too. He said he was an Economics Major. He was carrying a tourist brochure. I told him to sit down. He seemed hungry, so I shared my food with him and we started to bond.
He didn’t like any Javanese. And having a president from Java was even more insulting to this proud Sumatran. He was first a Muslim Batak, then secondly a Sumatran. But he considered anyone who wasn’t a Batak to be an outsider.
And he really didn’t like Rizal one bit.
‘He’s originally from Java and he’s not Batak,’ he says, making phlegmy noises deep in this throat to show his disgust.
Om was suspicious of everyone. He felt cheated by life. And now he was confined to the margins of his own country. He couldn’t visit me at the hotel. This was fine by me. Some days I wouldn’t call him. But he wised up when he realised he could catch me at Mc Donald’s.
He gave me his number and said if I need a driver for Medan, to text him.
I left it that. I really didn’t need to get around. I heard the local mini-buses were cheap to get around, and jumping in a side car towed by motorbikes was usually 50 000 Rupiah to down town. I’d think about it, I told him then returned back to my room and continued with my writing.
The hotel was drawing me in. As I said, management had already given me a discount. But they had no idea that Rizal, a taxi driver whose wife worked at the front desk, was harassing me. He was scaring away their customers. Maybe I was the only one who saw it that way. Om certainly could sympathise.
‘He’s going to set you up, very soon.’
Om smoked clove cigarettes. I decided to hire him. He seemed very skinny.
‘I haven’t eaten for days,’ he said, a few days later, when I texted him and told him to meet me at Mc Donald’s to discuss his rates. I’ve committed now. There’s really no going back.
Before I enter the mosque next door to my hotel, I’ve got to pay young teenage boy money to take care of my flip flops.
What, do flip flops get stolen? I ask.
Do I have a choice of carrying them myself and not paying?
‘No choice, either pay or don’t enter the mosque.’
On the first landing of the steps that enters the mosque, I run into college students. Her friend is videoing me on her phone.
What’s this for? I ask the young girl who is holding out a notepad.
Only a short questionnaire, she says.
Well turn that video off because I’m not participating.
They were very disappointed. I’ve run into many of these tourist students before, usually hanging out at the Sultan Palace, or a well-known tourist restaurant, or any place that might attract tourists – they’ll run into you. They take rejection well. I’d say they don’t see too many tourists in this part of Indonesia.
I feel sorry for them too. All they want is to pass their grades. I tell them to bitch to their teacher for giving them unrealistic assignments.
‘But you’re the only foreigner who has made a big fuss about it,’ says the ringleader.
Well, excuse me.
At the mosque, I’m trawled by a local guide. Surprise surprise. I’m sure this is where Om learnt his trade. The guide casually makes conversation. Don’t the scams all start from here? It’s too casual for my liking. I’m about to get stung again.
‘The stained glass windows were brought from Spain,’ he says. He’s looking me up and down. He’s not sure if I’m a cheap tourist or the dumb kind that are easy to fleece. ‘And the mosque was built in 1903.’ He was far more aggressive than the students and for his boldness; he’d actually get one note from me.
But it’ll only be the lowest note I can find. It’s going to piss him off. That’s the whole point. He’s generous and says to take as many photos as I want. He whispers to me, ‘but just don’t let anyone see you doing it.’ Here we are in the heart of Sharia law and he’s letting me take a photo of a young man who is playing on his phone.
‘He’s supposed to be praying, so share it on social media and name and shames him,’ advises my guide. I said I’d be beheaded if I took photos of Muslims praying in a mosque in Malaysia.
‘Well we don’t like particularly like Malaysians,’ he says, ‘so feel safe taking photos here.’
He points to the cemetery. Well take me there, I demand.
‘The Sultan is buried there with his wife,’ he says.
I need to get this over with. This asshole won’t stop following me until I hand him some notes. So you are a tour guide, right? Well, yes, kind of, he says.
Well for your troubles, here is some cash. I hand him a 10 000 Rupiah note, the smallest in my wallet. He pulls a face. ‘That’s only one dollar in your currency.’ Now how the fuck does he know I’m Australian? I’m still stumped with his prescience.
I know it’s only a dollar, I explained, but the information you told me is the same from my Lonely Planet, now explain that asswipe? I leg it before he has time to throw a hissy fit.
Around the enclaves of the baroque mosque, bums sleep on the floor, escaping the midday heat.
They left me alone. This was my lasting impression. This mosque really rocked.
I had no idea about Sumatra being so pious until I saw the mujahedeen congregating outside my hotel at the little corner shop next to the Grand Mosque.
Rizal was among them. Another younger guy, wearing a whispery beard that wouldn’t grow out from bum fluff, offered me some weed. No thank you. Rizal seemed very disappointed. Bating me in the open like that was just stupid, I told Om later.
‘No it isn’t,’ he said. ‘It’s a warning that they are going to dump some on you whether you like it or not then the friendly cops are going to be called. And that will be your number up. We have very strict laws for possession of dope.’
I know, I said. It’s usually death by firing squad.
I’ve been keeping vampire hours for last three months and I’ll only tell someone who cares. After pumping Valium in my system the past few days, I’m slowly getting my sleeping patterns sorted.
I’ve tried to come to terms with my cavity search.
‘They could have planted a little satchel of ‘death sentence’ on you,’ said Om who I spending a fair bit of time with at Mc Donald’s, chain smoking and perving at the Mall staff, all gorgeous who wear a tight hugging black uniform.
He’s worried Rizal will do just that.
‘And don’t say I didn’t warn you.’
I’m avoiding Rizal blatantly. He’s not the carefree driver who took me to Lake Toba. He’s a guy intent on getting revenge for stringing him along about a trip to Aceh.
The warnings are getting stronger. The carefree days in the hotel’s restaurant are long over. There aren’t many tourists and they need all they can get. But their unofficial taxi driver is scaring away one of their customers. This can’t be right.
‘It is,’ says Om. ‘That’s why I’m not allowed there. I’d just punch Rizal and tell him to stop harassing tourists.’
I believed he would. Every time we I got on the back of his bike, he was always threatening someone for getting in his way. The last guy was in his eighties. I told Om to leave him alone and let’s just enjoy ourselves. It was a Batak restaurant we ended up for lunch this day. A two hour return trip on the back of his bike. I also paid for a change of oil. There was no way out of that one.
Great cheap food and wonderful hospitality. Om was really at ease this day. There no scowling on his face, only the occasional smile, and would you like to try this and that. He just ordered and I ate. The least I could do since I was paying. They were Batak Muslims. On the wall was a picture of a large waterfall.
‘It’s near my hometown,’ says Om.
I nod, thinking I’ll never get there. I’m in too much of a funk to even go on a journey outside of Medan with Om. He says he’s from the royal family.
‘The royal family.’
Can only be Shrijaya.
‘I believe you. I really do.’
He had that royal air about him. There was no doubt about that.
We pulled over on a busy road and had a few drinks. It was full of locals. The traffic, mostly motorbikes, was moving into the city for the beginning of the weekend. I took a few photos, hit a fruit shop, bought up on bananas and mangos, and we continued, back to Medan. It wasn’t a bad day. It was a real trip. But I could do with a long sleep.
‘Could be your last if you don’t act fast,’ says Om. He’s really concerned about me. He’s like a long lost friend. I think he really means well.
‘That’s what you said about Rizal, and now look what the cunts planning to do to you.’
Besides being a mind reader, I replied, you have a very good point.
I said the way things are going; we’ll do a surprise Houdini. Om like that one. It appealed to his intellectual sensibilities.
‘Come on, let’s go,’ he says. I was mesmerised by all the skirt scooting past on two strokes.
‘And pull your tongue back up.’
It has hanging almost to the dirty road. But I got a few good shots. So I really had nothing to complain about. This was Medan. It wasn’t Bali. In Medan they prided themselves on their piety. I had no choice but to go along.
I was drinking in the hotel’s restaurant and enjoying the sun reflecting off the mosque next door, thinking I need to get some laxatives. I’m still clogged up from bad food and cavity search. Maybe I’m still in protective mode. On the way to the chemist, I look to left and right and left again, still no insurance against being rammed.
A motorbike driver was pushing his bike. ‘Broken, hay,’ I mumble. I couldn’t really care less. I was on a mission to get some tramadols. If they didn’t have them, I’d get some laxatives. Man, I was still clogged up from drinking too much coffee. I’d also buy some cough medicine and hope that would help a little cold I felt I was getting. Also my eyes were red and sore from the pollution, so some eye drops and antibiotics to flush out any bugs I had would also be good purchases. Self-medication on the open road. It’s cheaper than seeing a doctor.
I’m back at the hotel. My hours are still all over the place. I consume the cough medicine, and then I’m out for the count.
Four hours later, I wake up. Where am I?
Medan you dopey bastard.
Another day lost to mindless fun.
I’m onto the Red Bulls. The hotel sometimes has them, other times they didn’t. Once I’m starting the day, the restaurant is smoked out. There’s usually only me and I’m doing my best to work up for another big day of writing. I’m going to get this book finished and best no one gets in my way. If they do, I’ll just ignore them or chuck a wise crack.
‘Your president really sucks.’
That usually shuts them up. Then I crank up my personal music and drown out the noise from the television which is usually booming out at high decibel.
I’m hoping everyone is enjoying my music. And if they don’t then I’m really not offended.
‘One more coffee.’
The sweet waitress from Padang serves it and I find some crumpled notes and pay for it. It’s a ritual; use all the small coins and notes. They never have change for bigger notes. And I’ve found a great place for writing. I’m really getting those ideas down.
I got to a shopping mall. I’m still not regular and take some more laxatives. Fuck, I’m dying for a crap but nothing is coming out. Two hours later, roaming around the mall the calling comes. Where is that toilet seat? The security guard says down stairs. I’m running, hopefully faster than when those laxatives decide to take a sprint.
I was here with Fritz, the Dutch guy. He likes taking pictures of models. They were mostly middle eastern and a few Indonesia. It was alright, I suppose. It got me out of the hotel and the area. We got here by local transport. If you want to experience what it’s like being in a sardine can, then the local vans are the way to go. Usually the driver is wired on speed, and he’s stopping and starting. It’s a real skill jumping on and then finding the right change to pay for the fare.
I find the toilet. It’s a mess. Good to see those laxatives are working. I’m feeling regular already. Fritz and his sponsor wait around for me and then we jump on a bus back to the hotel.
‘It’s a van,’ corrects Fritz, ‘there are no public buses in Medan.’
The expert has spoken, again.
Hot days. I just don’t see the fun in this traveling. It’s survival. Late evening now and Fritz wants to eat at a local warung. We spend about twenty minutes finding a cheap enough place for him. The food is crap, and I feel I’m going to get another does of the runs.
Fritz loves it.
‘Only cost me 50 cents.’
I paid a dollar, I said.
‘Well you were ripped off.’
Easily done when you don’t speak the language.
I’m sure I wasn’t cheated, but Fritz thinks I was.
Have we met Fritz and his sponsor yet?
Will do soon, I say, but they got a passing mention earlier.
It’s hard to write in order. I have no order in me whatsoever.
I’m still looking for a cover for this book I’m writing, I tell Om. He knows what I want but thinks I won’t get it.
‘But getting a photo of whore houses might be a problem,’ he says. ’This isn’t Bali where everything is possible.’
We’ll give it a go, I say. We’ll give a really good go. I had access to the Grand Mosque, so surely taking photos of a whore shouldn’t be too hard. I still wasn’t convincing myself. Most of my spare cash was being spent on Om, so a visit to a whore house to relieve myself of some excessive frustrations was actually almost out of my budget.
I still needed to come for Oz. I had a feeling I’d need some for an emergency. I wasn’t to know that I’d miss my connecting flight in Malaysia. I’d need cash in KL for another week before I flew out. Isn’t hindsight wonderful for making plans?
I just need the bottle to carry this one through. He could see I was hesitant.
‘Looks like you have lost the edge.’
I jumped on the back of his bike. I still had the edge to do that.
He’s somewhat an expert on whore houses. I know I’m not going to commit. I just want to compare it to other chicken farms in Indonesia. I’m going to be disappointed. None of them match up to the ones in Bali.
‘It’s just that plain and simple,’ says Om.
But Surabaya once had the title.
‘Gang Dolly, famed across the archipelago.’
I said Batam has a sordid name for itself too.
‘Just downright sleazy and expensive,’ he says. ‘Gang Dolly was legalised prostitution. They even had prices on the walls. There was none of this overcharging crap.’
I had to agree but the current President got rid of all that.
‘Cocksucking Javanese,’ he says.
Come on, I said, we’ve got some snooping to do. This is just a silly flight of fancy. But I was bored and Om was prepared to drive me around town for a few red notes.
‘I’m only doing this to keep you employed,’ I told him.
He’s cried poor and I’m his ATM until I fly out. He’s not one for taking shit. One day he nearly bashed the shit out of a driver who cut in front of us.
He’s not really gelling with my gutter humour.
‘You say ‘susu’ too often.’
Tits, ahhh, it’s about the only word I know in Indonesia.
He’s a desperate man. And I’m not? I know it sounds a bitch rich. And I have no idea why Om is not allowed to hang out at the hotel. But I’m a firm believer that this guy is a find.
‘You’ll get a book out of me.’
He’s lonely and broke. His English isn’t bad either. And he knows what’s going on.
‘They are after you, get out now.’
I’m feeling it too but I want to give them the benefit of the doubt
I tell Om how Mr. Taliban was behaving strangely towards me. Gone were the jokes and innuendos about Mary’s big breast.
‘You mean Rizal,’ he asks.
‘He suspects that you are writing for the CIA,’ he says. He just came right out with it.
What do you mean? I asked.
‘Word has got around already that you were taking photos of prisoners in their cell from across the road at Mc Donald’s.’
I couldn’t deny it. The mosque had its own lockup for miscreants. An old lady, and senile to boot, was imprisoned in one of those open cells for the sole reason that she was crazy.
‘And the locals don’t want this kind of bad publicity. Mr. Taliban has been telling the other mujahedeen that you are writing a story for the New York Times.’
Well, that was news to me.
‘And they think you are running drugs.’
How could they think that?
‘Because you fucking told everyone you had a cavity search at the airport.’
I said I told anyone who cared to listen.
‘Well even that military guy at warung has been monitoring you,’ he says. ‘And the security at your hotel are wondering why you come back late at night.’
How do you know that?
‘Another Batak driver who hangs out at the hotel told me.’
I couldn’t argue with that.
Even you know I have sleeping problems, I protested.
‘Well they are thinking you are on the gear, which explains for your nocturnal habits.’
I hadn’t looked at things that way.
‘If we don’t go now, they’ll set you up.’
Things were going south quickly.
I didn’t know who to believe. One of the staff was getting friendly and asking me all kinds of questions. And the owner of the hotel took a selfie with me.
These were odd times.
I had been here too long.
They were talking. From being a good customer, I was now someone they couldn’t wait to get rid of.
Rizal would do the grunt work.
He was the tough guy. And if he wasn’t getting what he wanted, he’d act upon it and fast.
I hadn’t yet paid up my rent. It was early afternoon and I was over at Mc Donald’s thinking about what was really going down. Not paying my rent was one thing. If I was thinking straight, I would have checked out in the morning and not bothered extending. Obviously I wasn’t thinking straight. I wasn’t impressed with the hotel. The aircon just worked. The dripping from the ceiling got worse after they tried to patch it up. I’d get a little drenching each night. And I just didn’t want to use Rizal’s services again. He was too sleek for me. I wasn’t prepared to be fucked over again, mid trip, like in Lake Toba.
Transparency is golden, and Rizal oozed of intrigue. He’s got a gambling habit. Every ten minutes on our road trip, he was on the phone talking to someone. I can only say he was placing bets. Or was it something more sinister?
I went back to the hotel and paid up for another night. It was still mid-afternoon. Then I thought some more over some coffees at Mc Donald’s. I called Om and told him what I was really thinking.
‘Get your stuff and let’s go,’ he advised.
I ran back to the hotel. Rizal was waiting for me. He muttered something very nasty. I could see it on his face. It took about three minutes to pack my gear and in the foyer, Rizal was still muttering. Mary said where I was going. I couldn’t really tell her. It was Mary who warned me about Rizal.
‘Nice to meet you and it was a shame I never got to know your tits.’
I never said that but I wanted too. I was fond of bubbly Mary and sad that we parted this way. Explaining why I left over a nice coffee would have been more preferable. Who knows, she might have jiggled her boobs again for me. I was going to miss those bubbly fun bags and her contagious smile.
I had some history at this hotel.
But I didn’t want anymore.
Rizal muttered some more as I left the hotel, never to return.
As planned, Om was waiting for me outside the front of the mosque. He’s reliable like that.
I was free.
‘Where?’ asked Om.
Anywhere but here, I said as we raced into the night, far away from a potential nightmare.
I’m beholden to no one when I travel, and Rizal can fuck off.
Medan is life itself. There’s no compromise in this city. The energy levels are high. The chances of survival are low.
I’ll live to see another day.
I felt the adrenaline pumping. My mouth was dry. And I’m thinking, rolling my eyes, I’m too old for shit. I could see a recurring pattern, and I wasn’t liking it. But I had tonnes of experience, and could now do the Houdini in my sleep.
‘They can’t set you up now,’ reassured Om as he pulled into a hotel near downtown.
He was a cool cucumber.
‘I’ve seen it before,’ he said. I bet he had. I’m sure he got a few backhand payments too.
I swear to god he set this up. How could he when I activated it? Not sure, but he’s a smooth operator.
This hotel was run by Chinese so 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.
The next day, Om picks me up. He’s going to show me the local whore houses. I’m still looking for a cover for this book. That’s my justification for taking this plunge.
The ride from my new hotel was surprisingly short. Om pulled up on a side street off the main road.
He said Batak ran most of the whore houses. The street had about four bars which doubled up as massage parlours. Discreet and tiny places, Islam wasn’t going to allow for any more extravagance than that.
It looked tame. I really needed a drink.
His negotiation skills in the whorehouse were abysmal.
This is no place for amateurs I said.
‘Need to go to ATM.’
He looks at me strangely.
I need to get money from the ATM; I do not have enough cash for a ‘milky’ massage.
He eventually gets my message. I was not interested in the whores here. It was time to move to the next place. I just did not have the heart to say that none of the whores interested me. I was worried I would be knifed for my honesty.
‘It wouldn’t be pretty,’ he said. He was on a good wicket.
‘Just say you are broke and it offends the sensibilities of the privileged Westerner.’
Spot on mate. Even I felt guilty and wanted to come to the rescue against my better judgment.
I used the ATM trick again. ‘Sorry, I have no money; I’ll be back in ten minutes. By the way, where is the nearest ATM?
I did not even get any photos.
‘They’d race you out of town if you did.’
Taking photos in Gang Dolly, Surabaya was somewhat hairy too.
‘Closed down now.’
I know but it was not that way at the Chicken Farm.
‘Yes, but you always went with the Mad Hindu. So there.’
It always helps to be with a local. I really had to agree.
I said we would have to find something local soon, ‘Otherwise, I will never find that elusive cover for Sweet Smelling Water.’
He has a more immediate update.
‘We are banned from Whore Lane,’ he says.
Why? Banned for knocking back the overtures of a big titted whore?
Banned for not fucking her, he said.
They were big and juicy boobs with beads of sweat dripping off them. Maybe Medan was getting to me.
‘Those tits would have been all over you, if you had of paid,’ said Om. He’s really making me feel good about myself.
I was forced into being pious. It was not a bad stance. Once you go down that road, the costs can really add up.
‘It is like gambling,’ says Om, ‘highly addictive and the house always wins.’
That was one way of looking at prostitution.
Moreover, they will not be getting any of my money. I really wanted to give them some of it. A titty massage would have really helped relieve a lot of the pent up stress.
‘They are wise to your ATM tricks,’ he says. So am I. It works all the time. When tempted, just say you don’t have the cash handy.
This was our second trip to Whore Lane. The joys of the flesh would have to wait.
‘A long time if you are around me,’ he says.
It’s true, I said, especially since I’m not opening my purse strings for a whore. He really wanted me to shout him one. I should have. But I didn’t want him thinking badly of me. I didn’t want to be just another one of his customers who screwed four chicks in one night.
‘So you do listen.’
I remembered that story very well. It was an English man that Om was showing around town. He took him to the little alley way near downtown. The same place that we did a runner on. I preferred to spend my money on coffee and cigarettes. Seemed a better investment. Not that Om didn’t show me the traps. We’d do late night tours, and he’d show me where the streets where the working girls hung out.
‘But too dangerous.’
He said once you got them into the hotel, someone would knock on the door. It was usually the police. This thing went on often in Batam and I was well aware of this scam.
‘The husband or boyfriend is usually in on the sting operation,’ he said.
I told him about a lady who gave me her number at Mc Donald’s.
‘I know her,’ said Om. ‘She carries a baby with her.’
Yep that was her.
‘She is always stitching up dumb tourists.’ He smiles, and then continues. ‘You aren’t just a stupid foreigner.’
You just can’t afford to be when traveling in Indonesia. Too many contradictions to play it dumb.
‘I’m glad you have been listening to me.’
I had. Om was full of all kinds of advice. He hadn’t given me a bum stare yet.
He read me the Muslim act last night. I am now apparently a Muslim. And he wants to show me a real mosque with real Muslims.
I told Om that I’m going to write him into my book.
‘You’ll be riding on a magic carpet from Medan to Bunyuwangi in East Java,’ I said.
‘Too late,’ he replied, ‘been there and done that.’
See, he was as mystic as they came.
As I said, he’s excited at the possibility of converting me. And he wants to show me a real mosque.
‘With no fake Muslims.’
He really hates Rizal and Company, and I can see why.
It’s another long ride on the back of the motorbike through the dirty streets of Medan. This aint traveling. This is just hard work. Someone should be paying me for doing this shit. But I’ve volunteered and I’m footing the bill.
I have no idea where we are. This is the holiest of holy mosques, and I’m going to meet the real deal. That’s all I’ve been briefed. And I’m not about to question Om. He doesn’t like being questioned. Only today he entered my room and went into the bathroom and washed himself before saying a prayer on my floor. He’s a pious one. He has all the symptoms of someone high on speed. He’s eyes are dilated and he’s acting really scatty.
He is converting me. I’ll go for the ride. I’m here to find stories, and a story on Om wanting to convert me is just another story I can write about. But I better at least show respect. He needs to think I’m converting otherwise it could backfire. I’m playing part pious and part ready to convert. He’s happy with my sincerity. He already knows the angels have visited me.
We have arrived. Looks like the mosque has been bombed.
‘Only half built,’ says Om who takes me out the back to meet his imam.
This is where the acting becomes the real thing. I just can’t fuck up.
The mosque is within walking distance of a warung run by Om’s friend he studied at University. So he really did graduate in Economics? I was really thinking it was a cock and bull story. His friend lavished us with plates of food. For once I didn’t have to pay. I’d use what I saved here for a donation there.
Now it’s nearly been two weeks hanging out with Om. The payments just keep going out. Nothing is coming in. He’s happy playing the intellectual. And I’m kinda happy with his company. He’s a temperamental son of a bitch. Last night I suggested we go to Mc Donald’s. So he drives me back to my old neighbourhood, where Rizal was most likely waiting for me to tar and feather me. I said I meant the McDonald’s downtown. He wasn’t happy about being told where I wanted to go or driving me back into the city.
At the McDonald’s, his lid from his bottled water fell off the table.
He demanded I pick it up. I was wining and dining him with good food, cigarettes and a few red notes. He was fucking taking me for a ride and we both knew. And the rides on the back of his bike weren’t very far.
‘Pick up that lid,’ he demanded. He was menacing. If I didn’t pick it up, he was going to do me some wrong. I don’t need this shit, I’m thinking. Only a few days before I fly out and I can’t wait to see the end of this cocksucker. What’s the problem, I eventually said. I’ll buy you another fucking bottle with two lids on it. One for you and one for me.
Give me the mad Hindu any day. At least he knew how to laugh at my corny jokes and appreciated playing chaperon to the cashed up foreigner.
He had crossed the line, again. Fucking Batak parasite, crowding my space, and fuelling my paranoia. And when it was time to drop me off at the hotel, he was still moody and did a detour around some dark blocks for a while. I really wasn’t sure I was going to make it home that night.
He’s a bit more upbeat today. I think he scored some speed after I paid him up last night, and he’s definitely feeling more sociable. He tells me that this sect of Islam follow the teachings of an Imam in India.
They sat me down and talked about Islam. A religion of peace. We aren’t terrorists. There were four of them. They were talking among themselves. What the fuck. You aren’t setting me up? I came right out with it. Not at all said the one that spoke the best English. We are just trying to find a branch for you in William Street, Perth.
We are terribly connected. In less than a week’s time I would be back in Perth.
They had no ill intentions. I needed to get my brain sorted out. I was in that state of constant fear. Bombs can do that to you. What bombs? You know those bombs. I haven’t got a clue what you are talking about. And nor do I.
It’s another long session at Mc Donald’s. I get constant refills. I really should be doing more writing. But there’s no power socket in the outside area.
But I can see everything coming and going. It’s a great location for just watching the world go by and wait for some inspiration.
I better think about getting a ticket back to Oz.
I’m winding down this show. It’s been a year of observing and writing.
I’m getting tired. I’m tired of the word. I’m tired of the intrigue. I’ll get online and find a flight soon. Air Asia does it again. From Medan to Perth, two flights, and cheap as chips. So all isn’t crappy in this part of the world.
What have I really done, I often ask myself. It’s always time for reflection. I’ve done as little as I can and as much as I needed. I did get my teeth fixed up and wrote up a few storms. The price for getting my teeth fixed up in Oz would have cost the same as being overseas for a year. So I’ve written a few books and got my teeth sorted. And I’ve still got money left over for when I return home. Now that’s an achievement. And I haven’t been killed by terrorists. See, bonuses popping up all over the place.
Wake up, light up, consume lots of coffee, and hope things are regular. Vegetables really help. And so does fruit. It’s always good to take care of your health on a long trip. But here in Indonesia, don’t expect to eat well. Don’t expect to wake up and say, I’ll have that. It’s usually crap. Unless you can afford to eat at classy joints, decent food is always going to be an issue. But they do sell Dunhill’s and Marlboros. All is not fucked up.
Meeting the Dutch guy and his Indonesian sponsor was fucked up. Give me Om’s company any day. At least he was grateful, when you compared his behaviour with theirs.
They just breezed into my life and breezed out. I didn’t mind Fritz. He was vain as fuck and I found that comical. He didn’t. It was a virtue he was proud of.
‘I don’t have a big fat gut like yours,’ he said.
‘And we don’t smell like you,’ said his sponsor, in her forties, slim and something not quite right about her. Fritz, in his forties too, blonde and trim, said he use to be a professional tennis coach in Europe.
I could just leave our meeting at that. And how I met another fellow traveller, a friend of Fritz’s. He was a Brit, in his sixties. And how he just snorted when he knew I was a person who actually wrote.
‘Why waste time writing,’ he snorted this one a long drawn out one, ‘when you could be living.’
Because living takes up too much time. There’s no time for writing.
He waved his hand, and went his way.
Fritz and his sponsor also went their way.
He flew north and she flew south.
And I texted Om and said to get his Batak ass over here. We still had some exploring to do.
Another incident at the hotel hinted all wasn’t well.
An American, in his later twenties, came up to my table and gave me the hard sell.
‘We offered the best…’
I butted in. I wasn’t interested in trekking. Behind him, was his Sumatran partner.
He was traveling with his Chinese partner and was based in Beijing.
‘Do you smoke weed?’ he asked.
Shut the fuck up. You can get life or a bullet for using that shit.
He tried to smooth things out by saying I was Hunter S Thompson.
I had four empty coffee cups, five empty Red Bull bottles, and three packets of cigarettes I was furiously trying to smoke.
It didn’t look good.
‘You look like a speed freak.’
Now that was me talking to myself.
‘You can never be too careful,’ said Om, at our headquarters in the shopping mall.
I nodded. He continued.
‘It’s not a nice picture they are forming of you at the hotel.’
I nodded again.
‘They are this close and he showed me with his index finger and thumb,’ of setting you up.’
And being associated with you doesn’t help, I said. We all know you are on the gear.
He picked up on my thoughts but just gave me his blank smile.
Agreed, better I vamenos out of this area than to give the bastards a chance of pinning something on me.
There were more little random trips. He mostly made sure he clocked in for the day to get his pay. He knew I was a soft touch. The idea of paying for friends nearly really rests easy on me. I had one long trip out of town looking for a whore house. I aborted it half way into the trip.
Instead he was going to show me where lovers out of wedlock met. It was a set of bungalows near the river. They were more shacks with curtains. Or dog houses. The only chicken around this place were real chickens that were pecking at bugs on the ground.
‘Here’s where we can be intimate away from the prying eyes of the religious police.’
Interesting, I said, now let’s get the fuck out of here. I said goodbye to the caretaker, a middle aged lady who was carrying a snotty nosed child. This place just didn’t seem safe. It was a great location for burying someone.
‘You are safe with me,’ says Om, who continues the long trip back to Medan.
It was just too tiring to be sitting on the back of a motorbike with a driver who was abusing anyone who was in his way. He was a demon on wheels. Another day he wanted to bash up a driver of a car who got in his way.
But he was showing me around, right? So why all the fucking bitching and complaining? I couldn’t answer that. Maybe I was just getting too old for traveling. Everything in Medan required more work. In Bali, it was all geared towards decadence. Here, you really had to work hard for it.
‘I had it all laid out for you on a platter,’ said Om. He was referring to Massage Alley. He really did. I just didn’t have the bottle to pull through it. Actually I held onto my cash so I could pay my driver who usually didn’t take me far.
‘That’s more like it,’ he says. ‘And it’s not my fault you don’t like long trips on the back of a bike.’
He has all the symptoms of a speed freak. He’s an angry and serious man. And when he’s telling me stories, he knows he’s working for his keep.
I find listening to these economic stories rather boring. This aint traveling. Being fucked over by a speed freak, who orchestrated me leaving the last hotel, is becoming tiring.
I don’t know who to trust. Until the very last hour before leaving, I thought he was going to fuck me over. When he started talking about how I should buy him a new car, I thought something wasn’t quite right.
A few times I’ve felt threatened by him. I’m wondering why he doesn’t have many customers. He should have been a prison warden, not a tourist guide.
Still, I’ll stick with him to the end. I’m sure there’s going to be a nice ending from all this. The question is, will I come out of this alive? I hope so.
I admit it, I’m an adrenaline junky, and I like giving people the benefit of the doubt. He was down and out on his luck and I was here to pick him up, that’s all.
One night alone, I hit the local KFC, just around the corner from my new Chinese hotel.
I had no one to talk to. I did the usual, ate, smoked, and smoked some more.
It just wasn’t the same. Having Om around was fun. He was always unpredictable. Even his economic stories seemed nowhere as bad as having to spend a night alone talking to myself. No one paid me attention. I was alone. I had no one to talk to. Maybe paying for someone’s friendship wasn’t such a bad thing after all.
The next morning my trusty motorbike driver turned up to my hotel. He was trying to get a gig at the hotel as their regular driver. He even pulled out his brochure and told them these were the places he could take their guests.
Later, I told the Chinese owners not to bother with him. Why did I say that? I felt so bad. But its how I felt. I’m just glad they never told him. They had a recent problem with another driver who was harassing customers.
He checked in the hotel for a few days so he could get close to foreign customers, the receptionist told me. ‘And after I kicked him out for not paying,’ he said,’ he returned a week later trying to check in.
The owners were concerned that Om would do a repeat of the last driver. I doubt he could afford to stay here. The hotel was pretty safe. They took his phone number but I doubted they ever called him.
They could see that he was high on speed.
‘And you better be careful.’
Too late, I said. It’s been nearly three weeks since he’s been hanging around like a bad smell.’
‘That’s the norm,’ said the owner. ‘They are smooth operators. So smooth that foreign guests haven’t got a clue that are being conned. Some even get them to buy them a new car.’
Sounds like hypnotism.
‘That’s it,’ he says. ‘The Batak are the best in Indonesia. That’s why no one trusts the Batak.’
Maybe I told Om not to come today. He pissed me off last night with his mood swings. I thought he was going to turn violent on me.
I get it now. He just didn’t like being treated like a slave. I’d send him on errands to buy cigarettes. He always got a packet of those strong clove cigarettes that were the most expensive. Last night he tried to take me Mc Donald’s near my old hotel.
I patted him hard on the back, to indicate to the madman on two wheels to stop and said let’s get the fuck out of this area and now.
Why was he taking me there and not the other Mc Donald’s in town which is open until midnight? Did he want me confront Rizal? Was he confused? Did he need another hit of the gear? I said the other fucking Mc Donald’s, ‘this one is closed, and you should know that since you live in the area.
So that explains why he was moody at the McDonald’s in town when he told me to pick up the lid. He doesn’t like being told what to do. And he was just giving me back some of my medicine. But I was the one fucking paying.
‘Still, you don’t talk to royalty like that.’
He had me there.
And later that evening of the ‘lid’ incident, he drove around and around, brewing like a tropical storm. Eventually he dropped me off. Thank fuck and praise the lord. He decided not to stab and rob me.
I paid him and said for him to take tomorrow off. Then I backtracked, ‘meet me at midday.’ I’ve only got a few more days left in Medan and I’m sure there’s more mood swings to experience before I leave. If this is what they call Manopause, I’m thinking I want very little part of it.
Being cut off from my old area was annoying.
I had done absolutely nothing wrong.
I spent a few days with Fritz and his sponsor. They showed me around Medan using the local transport. For a dollar a day, I get around anywhere. It was much cheaper than paying Om thirty bucks a day, if you include smokes and food.
Fritz was a photographer and wanted to take me a modelling school.
I thought that very strange. But I took his offer up.
His sponsor would shadow him. She adored him, even I could see that.
She never said much around Fritz. He was always taking photos of her at different locations. He really took his photography seriously.
The models, mostly Middle Eastern an Afghan refugees, were the nicest bunch of people you are ever going to meet. They were refugees and waiting for relocation to a country in the West. I always thought Indonesia would be a great place to relocate, and could never figure out why you would want to live in Australia or Canada.
They never said I stunk. They never said I was fat. They were hardworking models trying to break the tedium of being a refugee.
Returning back to my hotel, Fritz decided he didn’t want to pay the bus driver the ten cent fair. He said for us to wait until the driver came to his senses. I offered to pay his fair.
‘I’ve got the money,’ said Fritz, who had turned. ‘I just don’t like being cheated five cents.’
Everyone in the van looked at us. God knows what they thought. So the Sumatrans were more understanding than I thought. Maybe if I held my ground, I could have stayed in the area a bit longer. I’m a pussy, easily scared by my shadow. But Fritz, he didn’t give a fuck. He spoke fluent Indonesian and he wasn’t going to be cheated five cents. He was a man of principle.’
‘You don’t get to live in Indonesia for four years without working by being extravagant.’
He had his ways, and saving whatever he could count most.
He had recently had most of his savings stolen by an Indonesia friend. Fritz wasn’t happy. He couldn’t believe it happened to him. It did. He thought it was a bank scam. Not by the looks of things, I said. Looks like he just went to the bank and withdraws all your money you had placed in his account. Fritz put all his savings in his friend’s account so he didn’t have to pay the withdrawal fees. I know they add up, I’ve spent thousands on fees for ATM withdrawals overseas, but Fritz paid for it with his nest egg.
That’s the story he’s telling me. It could be just another fabricated lie that slips off lips of jaded travellers who have been floating around the boondocks for too long.
Fritz had a soft spot for models. I went to the mall to watch a show. It was the weekend of the food festival and ethnic dress. I never did see that American with the bad acne. He was the one who offered me dope. He was a reporter, covering the food festival. I forgot to tell him that Indonesian food was shit, full stop, and all the dressing up with words won’t make it taste any better.
Hot chicks stood outside phone and computer shops. They were dressed in tight jeans with curves to die for. They’d heard in the punters and try and sell them a phone. I went into a few of the shops to check out the latest Samsung. I just loved those curves. I nodded, while this goddess told me about the phone. I just kept on nodding. I didn’t have a clue what she was saying about the phone. Quite frankly, I just didn’t care.
Fritz was taking photos and in his element. His sponsor was looking on bored. She worked as an administrator for an international school. She also owned a house in Australian. Her old husband passed away and she was flying back to Oz for a holiday and to take care of her house. Fritz was going to fly to Thailand in a few days. He said he’d cover the death of the King there.
I know what he was going to do in Thailand. He was going to find a modelling school and take photos on model runways. He had a thousand dollars in American Express checks he bought back in mid-90 and he said he’d live off that for a few months before returning to Holland to sort out his pension. Huh, caught him out. He’s probably on mental disability pension. He said he only slept two hours a day. He was always editing photos, late into the night, he said. And into the morning. Fritz was wired for someone who didn’t take drugs or drink coffee or smoke
Fritz took the 5 am flight to Thailand. The night before I visited him at his apartment. He was upbeat, sad, and relieved.
I don’t think he’ll come back. He’s had enough of Medan. Maybe Medan has had enough of him.
‘This place has consumed me,’ he says.
I went to his apartment with his sponsor. That was when she was on talking terms with me. We both jumped in the side car and the motor bike rider took us about five kilometres out of town from where I was staying. It only cost 30 000 Rupiah. Om was really taking me for a ride.
He packed up his computer. He was going to stay awake all night.
‘I never sleep anyway.’
His room was basic. He was Spartan. All he cared about was his camera and computer so he could edit photos. Just what did he have to show for four years in Medan?
‘Photos,’ he says. ‘That’s all I need.’
He tells me that he accidently came across a demonstration. Someone had been shot by the police and they were demonstrating against that.
‘I just thought it was a spontaneous procession, ‘said Fritz. ‘I had no idea it was a political rally.’
He said a week later an intelligence officer asked him what he was doing there taking pictures.
‘I just told them the truth.’
He was told not to take any more photos of Medan. ‘If I did, they’d deport me.’
It hasn’t stopped him taking photos of models, but his hands are tied.
‘I’ve been told I won’t get my visa renewed here, so I’m leaving.’
He’s contemplating Bali.
‘I could start fresh there. I love the place.’
Don’t we all.
It all comes down to money. He doesn’t have much.
‘So I’ll have to return and make some more.’
Who knows what he’s going to do. Lost most foreigners in Asia, he was running from something.
‘More like running towards something.’
He said the most beautiful women are living on Sumatra.
I got it. And he wasn’t half wrong.
‘It’s the last frontier in Asia,’ he says.
There weren’t many tourists here. I wonder why.
‘They are too aggressive. The Sumatrans don’t take no for an answer. And eventually the tourists just run away. ‘
Like me? He knew the score.
‘Four years of this place, more than enough,’ he says, as I say my goodbye.
The next day I text his sponsor, and mention how she’s gila, or crazy.
She doesn’t want to meet me. I block her. We won’t be seeing each other.
At least I left on good terms with Fritz, and for that I’m grateful.
The next day, Om takes me to the mosque. He points out his relatives in the cemetery. He’s got tears welling up in his eyes. I take him to the Mall and buy him some medicine. He has an infection on the foot. I buy another shoulder bag. It’s totally crap and I’ll be giving it to Om before I fly out. But I return back to the bag shop to chat up the sexy Batak. I’m getting nowhere with them. This is embarrassing. Maybe Om is a put off. When I’m traveling with the crazy Hindu in Bali, we are always chatting up chicks and exchanging numbers. None of this happened around Om.
I found some tramadol at a chemist. Pay dirt. I pop one immediately. It might help with my running away nerves. I’m still getting over a cavity search and being raced out of a neighbourhood.
I’m quite touched by Om who pays respects to his family. He lays a flower on the grave stone and says a prayer. Despite my reservations about him, I’m feeling he’s a good guy.
Om was back in mystical mode. He’s not Om; he really is a Om. I just didn’t have the heart to write Om, two words, every time I wanted to mention him. He’s always hiding in the shadows and updating me what is the word on the street.
The last few days were just chill and relax, if that’s possible. I bought him some medicine for some festering wound he had on his foot. Not like he couldn’t buy it himself with all the cash I was throwing his way. But speed isn’t cheap, not even here in Medan.
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 kilometres from the airport. I wouldn’t check google maps again.
‘So phone has GPRS on them now?’ asked Om. 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 was turning dog on him. 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. Batak 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.
Om 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, and 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 Om 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.
Om 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 Om 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 he 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 from Kuala Lumper, ‘Missed flight.’
He said he’d be praying so that it doesn’t rain so that I could 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 traveller.
‘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 Om was praying for it to rain.
‘Then I could have milked you for a few more weeks.’
I really must ease up on the Tramadol. 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 Om. 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 no 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. I’m dealing with it now.
Death threats aside, Medan still seems more real than it actually was. It was a place, despite all its intrigues and madness, it really felt like home.