Wednesday, May 16, 2012


It is dark by the time I reach the island of Samosir. Not so dark that I cannot be spotted as easy prey by the touts languishing along the pier where the ferry docks. But dark all the same.

I am ill and feverish, coming down with some swine of a flu. After a seven-hour bus trip from the hell-hole of Medan, all I need is a bed so I can die peacefully in my sleep. It's not much to ask. I nod to one of the ojeks.

Sir where you go?
Libertas. Or Lindas. Anywhere with cheap clean rooms.
Ah, sorry sir, all cheap clean rooms booked now. Is Christmas.
Take me to Libertas anyway.
Yes sir.

I get on the bike and we wind our way through narrow alleys to a long, low bungalow. It sports a dimly lit bar, from which a smiling Sumatran emerges, sipping on a green tea. He is genuinely pleased to tell me all the rooms are full. Everywhere on the bay booked up, he says, gleefully. Is Christmas.
I thank him for reminding me.
A lone backpacker is sitting in a rattan chair on the verandah, flicking through a trammelled Lonely Planet. His unwashed hair is piled high on his head in the style of a Cambodian laundrywoman. At the opposite end of him is bright yellow rubber, the kind of footwear that flip-flops between being a shoe and a practical joke. He wears loose cotton pants tied with a string, topped by a t-shirt with a design that could bring on a fit of epilepsy in the unwary. He looks up at me and smiles the smug, self-satisfied smile of someone who has just had the last of the cream on his banana pancake.

Hello my brother, he says in an accent I can't quite place, but definitely from somewhere east of the Glastonbury Festival. I can help you with some information, he says. There is Mamas up the hill. It is not as cool as here, of course. And it costs more, but I am thinking you have no choice. He smiles, gets up, and disappears. I do the same, on the back of the ojek's scooter.

I know a place, they have rooms, maybe 80,000 rupiah, my driver says.
OK, fine. Whatever. I'm dog tired and sick and really need somewhere to crash.

This is my first mistake. Never, ever, show signs of weakness. Or the Sumatrans will eat you alive. Quite literally, only a few years ago.
You want nice room? he begins. I can find. Now Christmas. No rooms, everywhere booked, only expensive rooms, you know?  How much you pay?

He turns right and we make our way along a narrow causeway between the rice paddies. A Catholic church looms on our left. Everywhere there seem to be little shrines and crosses. Graves, perhaps. Graves of the people who gave me this flu. I see another tall building with a cross high on the hill.
I can find good room for 200,000, he says. Very big. Very hot water.
Just the 80,000 room is fine, I say.
I take you to Parnas, he says.

We ride past more crosses. Too many, it seems, for a Muslim country. Back in Jakarta, where the mosques swarm like mosquitoes, the blaring call to the prayer mat is everywhere. But here in the volcanic highlands of Sumatra, we are deep in missionary country.
Those crosses, I say to the ojek, what are they?  Christian graves?
He shrugs. Some of them are Christians, some of them are clotheslines.
What did you say?
He points out two wooden crosses standing ten metres or so apart, a faint trace of wire stretched between the two.
You can pay 500,000? he asks.
Oh Jesus. No, I cannot.
Because now is Christmas, he says.
And there's no room at the inn?
Just take me to Parnas. 80,000 sounds fine.
Now I think they have only 400,000 rupiah rooms, he says.
Fuck my patron saint.
He slows the bike. To our left, a crater mountain rises high into cloud. To the right, a low building bears a sign, Parnas. The yard rambles down to a gazebo by a lake, where some women are tilling the soil.

Mr Ojek calls out to them: You have room for 400,000?

Not "do you have a room available" but "do you have room for 400,000". Just to let them know in advance that, on the back of his moto, he has the goose that lays the golden eggs. Oh God. It's dark, I'm sick, he knows I'm sick, and he knows I'll take anything just so I can die in peace.

Dear God, please spare me this hell.

I promise I'll hail Mary, my Lord, next time - and not some devil dressed as a motorcycle taxi driver.