Buenos Dias from Bogota (Is it safe?!)

We’re beginning our South American adventures in beautiful Bogota, Colombia. I suspect just the words “Bogota” and “Colombia” set off alarm bells in the minds of many of you. (ahem…grandparents?!)  People hear “Colombia” and immediately think, “Is it safe?” It’s not unreasonable. I know I did. The fact is safety is an concern here, perhaps more so than other places we’ve visited. Before deciding to come here we did a good amount of research, thought long and hard about the issue of safety, and evaluated what we could do to minimize risks. In this post, I’d like to explore this issue.

Like much of Latin America, Colombia has a violent history and a reputation as a dangerous place. In years past, the cities of Bogota, Medellin and Cali have been ranked among the world’s most dangerous. Communist FARC guerrillas have wreaked havoc from the jungles of the countryside, and violent drug cartels have often proven to be more powerful than the (often corrupt) local police and military. Not exactly confidence inspiring, or the recipe for a tourist attraction.

In recent years this has begun to change. Colombia has become an increasingly popular destination for tourists and travelers. As The New York Times describes the Bogota of today:

Colombia’s newly resurgent capital boasts beautiful colonial buildings, chef-driven restaurants and cool new cafes and galleries. Bogotá is popping up more and more on travelers’ radar these days, thanks to its increased safety, an explosion of culinary creativity and a rapidly increasing cool quotient. Visiting Bogotá now means leaving behind outdated ideas — like drug wars and gangsters — about Colombia. Today, this city exudes vitality and verve. You’ll stumble upon streets filled with hip new shops and chef-driven restaurants. And the city’s abundant colonial architecture, along with its eye-catching murals and colorful graffiti, form a backdrop that lets visitors forget about the traffic and other petty inconveniences. Down some Colombian coffee and tackle the city with the energy it deserves.

This is true. Bogota is a fantastic city but safety and security are still a concern. Many people say that Bogota or Medellin are “as safe as any big city in the US” or “safer than Detroit.” I’m not so sure that’s true, especially for tourists, but I don’t think that today’s Colombia is as dangerous for tourists as it used to be, or as some might think it is. Let’s explore this issue of safety.

What’s the real risk? Measuring risk from violent crime is not simple. Statistics are unreliable and many crimes go unreported. That said, the “homicide rate” is often used as measure to asses the level of violence and risk in a given country. Wikipedia has an article which ranks countries by homicide rate, based on a United Nations study.

Looked at by region, The Americas are the most violent region in the world:

Murder Rates by Region

When ranked by country, Central American, South American and Caribbean countries totally dominate the list as having the highest murder/homicide rates (per 100,000 population) in the world:

Top 15 by Country

As you can see, Colombia is #11 on the list, well below the popular tourist destination of the US Virgin Islands and Jamaica, and just above the Bahamas.

If we rank cities by murder rate we find that there are only two Colombia cities among the “top” (or should I say “worst”?) 20 cities with the highest murder rates – Palmira and Cali. We can see quite clearly that Latin America has some serious issues with violence. Note too that the US cities of St. Louis and Baltimore make the list:

By City

OK, at least Colombia is not at the top of the lists. That’s good. We can also see that some US cities and popular tourist destinations are fairly high on the list. That’s might surprise some people.

The question is how do these statistics translate to actual risk for visitors?  It’s hard to know, isn’t it? It could be that the high murder rate in one place is a function of gang-on-gang violence that leaves most residents and visitors untouched and at low risk. It could also be that street crime is out of control and virtually everyone is at risk, perhaps tourists in particular. There are lots of possibilities and without more information it is simply impossible to really know. Remember too that these are statistics on homicide and may not correlate with other types of crime or risks to tourists.

If we move beyond these statistics and look for anecdotal evidence, we’ll find a good amount of evidence that suggests that tourists and visitors to Colombia (and much of Latin America) are at risk of being victims of crime. Levels of street crime appear to be very high and tourists are often targeted. On the web there are noteworthy number of people describing muggings and robberies and other crimes. For example, look at the results of a Google search for robbed in Bogota or mugged in Medellin.

Before we decided to come to South America, I did quite a bit of research looking for information on the most common types of scams and crimes targeting tourists and the circumstances surrounding them. As you might imagine, as in other places around the world, pickpockets very are common across Latin America.

Here’s a video of pickpockets in action in Colombia:

And another from Argentina:

In South America, a common variation of the pickpocket game is the “mayonnaise/ketchup/bird poop/human feces” trick in which the perpetrators squirt something gross on you as a distraction. Often a “friendly” lady will appear to let you know you have something gross on your back, and produce a handkerchief or tissue to help wipe it off. Meanwhile, her accomplice will pick your pocket or walk away with the bag you just set down. (This is common in parts of Europe too.) There is a more violent version where a bucket of diarrhea or other highly disgusting goo is dumped on you from a rooftop or window above. When you stop in shock and horror, dripping with goo, you’re rushed by thugs and violently robbed. Here is one man’s account of this in Ecuador.

Pickpocketing is common in Europe, Asia, everywhere really. Most of the time it is a crime of stealth – not a violent crime. We’re experienced and alert and have never fallen victim to pickpockets. While we certainly don’t want to lose money or valuables, we are much more concerned about violent crime. It would seem to be true that violent crime targeting tourists is more common here than in many other parts of the world, certainly more than the areas of Europe and Asia where we’ve been over the past 9 months.

Our first day in Bogota we met a tourist who’s friend was robbed the night before. She was attacked by a man with a screwdriver at the front door of her hostel. The door was locked and the staff of didn’t unlock it and let her in until after the thief had robbed her and left. Nice, huh?  We’ve read and heard about at least a dozen similar attacks in Bogota.  Many (but not all) of them appear to have happened at night, in a particular neighborhood (La Candelaria) that is popular with backpackers and other tourists. Back in 2011 there was a series of attacks on hostels in this area, where armed robbers “seized” the building and went room-by-room robbing and assaulting the guests staying there.  In one instance an American tourist resisted and was shot and killed. I bet you can guess that we are not staying there, or walking around La Candelaria at night!

Like many big cities, there are a number of areas in Bogota where walking is not advisable, but taxis in Bogota can present their own dangers. In this 2013 is article, The City Paper Bogota describes what is know as a “paseo milionario” a type of robbery common enough to have earned a nickname. Last year, an American tourist was killed in a taxi robbery in Medellin, and there are numerous other stories online of tourists being robbed in taxis. Safety tips for Colombia visitors inevitably cover the subject of avoiding taxi-related crimes. (We’re mostly using Uber).

Crime. Pickpocketing, muggings, murder. These words paint scary pictures in our minds. I could go on, but perhaps detailing all the common types of crime might simply serve to overemphasize the actual level of risk. The bottom line is that there is a risk associated with almost everything we do. When we understand those risks, there are almost always things we can do to mitigate or lessen them. We recognize that crime is more of a risk in Colombia and Latin America than in many other places. We’ve done our homework to assess that risk as accurately as we can and we have taken steps to mitigate that risk. We’ve changed the way we travel on this part of our trip to help ensure that all goes smoothly and safely.

For many people, violent crime is the bugaboo in Latin America. There is no doubt that it is a real concern. But let’s remember that crime is not the only risk. Life is full of risks, and sometimes we ignore them or fail to assess them accurately.

Let’s go back to some statistics for a little perspective. If you recall, the homicide rate for Colombia was 30.8 per 100,000 population . As a point of comparison, the rate of traffic fatalities in Thailand is higher than that: 36.2 per 100,000 population. The rate of traffic fatalities in Colombia is 16.8 per 100,000 population.

One could argue that the much feared crime in Colombia is less of a risk than the traffic in Thailand! It is a simplistic view, but I think you get my point. Thailand has one of the highest traffic fatality rates in the world, and yet in 2015, almost 30 MILLION (!) people visited Thailand and took to the roads. How many of them considered the risks? We tried to mitigate the risks by being very mindful of our transportation choices. Forewarned is forearmed. One might say that life is a series of calculated risks (and rewards).

The fact remains that crime is a concern here. While some people do have their visits spoiled by crime, many more do not.  We aim to be among the latter. We are being very careful, and expect to have a fun and safe visit to Colombia and other destinations in South America.

I promise the next post will be a more cheery one. After all, we’ve been having a great time in Bogota.  The weather is perfect, the setting beautiful, the people friendly, and the food delicious!

Amsterdam Today, Bogota Tomorrow

Amsterdam - city of tiny cars that drive in the bike lane and park on the sidewalk.

Amsterdam – city of tiny cars that drive in the bike lane and park on the sidewalk.

We’re back in Amsterdam, one of our favorite cities, on our way to South America! With we said goodbye to Asia with heavy hearts and are on our way to Bogota, Colombia. We’re excited, as none of us have ever been to S. America. Our Spanish is weak to nonexistent (ahem, that would be me), so this is going to be a great opportunity to learn a language, or at least some of it!

SAmericaMap

As usual, we don’t have a full agenda planned out. Our idea is to land in Bogota, stay for a week or so and figure out our next steps. We’ll likely explore Colombia a bit, then move on to other countries. As we do our research and formulate a plan we’ll be looking for interesting subjects and themes to guide our adventures and learning. There is no shortage of things to explore in S. America. We’ll let you know what we find….

Speaking of that, we are waaaaaaaaaaaaay behind on blog posts. We’ve been slowly working on “flashback posts” to try and catch up. Here are the places we’ve been which we have yet to blog about:

  • Berastagi, Sumatra, Indonesia
  • Lake Toba, Sumatra, Indonesia
  • Medan, Sumatra, Indonesia
  • Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
  • Colombo, Sri Lanka
  • Bodufolhudhoo, Maldives
  • Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka
  • Galle, Sri Lanka
  • Mirissa, Sri Lanka
  • Kandy, Sri Lanka
  • Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
  • Ella, Sri Lanka
  • Udawalawa, Sri Lanka

As you can see, we are waaaaaaaaaay behind! We’ll catch-up with “flashbacks” as we can, and try to do a better job of staying up to date as we hit S. America. I hope the internet connections there are better than what we’ve had lately.

That’s all for now. I have to go run some errands to get ready for tomorrow’s flight to Bogota. Hasta luego!

Flashback: Bukit Lawang – Welcome to the Jungle

Jette and a very old tree in the rainforest

Jette and a very old tree in the rainforest

From Medan, we took a minivan to Bukit Lawang, a small tourist village on the Bohorok River at the edge of Gunung Leuser National Park. Bukit Lawang has been a popular stop for tourists in Northern Sumatra for at least a couple of decades.

Bukit Lawang

Bukit Lawang

It’s a trekking base for those wanting to explore the rainforest of the park and see what’s left of the endangered Sumatran Orangutans at the nearby orangutan rehabilitation center. Bukit Lawang is set up 100% for tourists, but for a tourist trap, it’s a very laid back place. Locals say “hello” and “good morning” when they pass you on the trails and unlike most of Indonesia, there aren’t any aggressive touts. There are dozens of little guesthouses and restaurants, and each night as the sun goes down it is hard NOT to find a bunch of happy-go-lucky locals sharing a few beers and singing songs with the young backpackers who are the main visitors to the area. If you visit, I guarantee that you will hear the “Bukit Lawang Song” (aka the “Jungle Trek Song”) at least ten thousand times!

Bukit Lawang is inland, far from the coasts of Sumatra, so it was not affected by the 2004 earthquake and tsunami.

BukitLawangMap

Ironically though, hundreds of people were killed and the village devastated by a flood in 2003. Here’s a photo and a snippet from a BBC news report at the time:

Bukit Lawang Flood

Another 100 people are missing after the disaster, which is thought to have been made worse by extensive logging removing cover that once retained rain.

The minister, Nabiel Makarim, blamed corrupt officials and business people for the practice.

The search for bodies continues around the worst-hit village of Bukit Lawang.

“These illegal loggers are like terrorists,” said Mr Makarim, after talks with the Indonesian President, Megawati Sukarnoputri, in Jakarta.

But he said: “It is difficult to combat illegal logging because we must face financial backers and their shameless protectors both from the Indonesian armed forces and police, and from other government agencies.”

Not only did the illegal logging exacerbate the flooding of the river by creating massive run-off, but there were also thousands of logs which came crashing downriver, smashing into homes and bridges, destroying much in their path. Horrible, but sadly, typical.

One of the reasons we came to Sumatra was to see firsthand the rainforest ecosystem, how people live with it, and the effects of man’s actions on it. In Singapore we choked on a smokey haze blowing over from the fires in Sumatra – fires which were started to clear land for palm oil plantations. On the drive from Medan to Bukit Lawang we saw, yet again, just how massive the palm oil plantations are and how little natural rainforest is left. In this area it was slashed and burned years ago and replaced with thousands and thousands of neat rows of oil palms, and in some cases, rubber trees. It would appear that about the only rainforest left in the area is the park itself.

When the rainforest is cleared, long drainage trenches are cut. This dries out the soil of the forest floor, killing or weakening the plants and making it easier to burn and clear the land. Once cleared, young oil palms are planted in neat rows between the trenches. They will mature and produce oil bearing fruit for about 30 years. Don’t ask what happens to the thousands of species of plants and animals that lived in the rainforest.

One of the old drainage trenches between the oil palm rows.

One of the old drainage trenches between the oil palm rows.

Endless rows of oil palms

Endless rows of oil palms

I won’t go on about deforestation and its effects here. Suffice it to say that it is shocking what has been lost, how much (and in some ways, how little) things have changed since I was last here 23 years ago. According to this recent study, primary forest has declined by 40% in the past twenty years and 92% of Sumatra has lost its virgin forest. Nothing good can come of this in the long run, and the local people have profited little from this great loss. Quite the contrary.

Anyway, we arrived in Bukit Lawang and checked into a nice little guesthouse along the river in the main part of the village. It was one of the cheaper places, but quite comfortable, and their little restaurant had great food. To Jette’s delight the family that owned the place had a couple of kids, and a new puppy.

Our little cabin

Our little cabin

Homework on the porch

Homework on the porch

Our home in Bukit Lawang

Our home in Bukit Lawang

Bruno - the guesthouse puppy

Bruno – the guesthouse puppy

I didn’t get any photos of them, but there were mischievous macaque monkeys around who would swing down from the surrounding trees and steal food and other things. One afternoon I was sitting on the porch reading. There was a plastic bag with some fruit sitting on the table in front of me. As I was reading, I saw a movement in my peripheral vision. I looked up from my book and there was a monkey hanging from the side of the building at the edge of the patio about 10 feet in front of me. We locked eyes for a moment and then he suddenly leapt from the wall to a nearby column and from the column to the edge of the table in front of me. Still making eye contact I leaned forward and hissed loudly, fully expecting to scare him away. Instead he opened his mouth and showed me his teeth, calmly reached over and lifted a star fruit from the bag on the table, and stuck it in his mouth. He paused for half a second to glare at me, then leaped back, bouncing off the column up to the wall, disappearing up and over the edge of the roof. One of the ladies that works at the guesthouse appeared with a slingshot and started shooting pebbles at the monkey, who was sitting at the peak of the roof enjoyed my fresh starfruit. Lesson learned. Stupid humans making hissing noises doesn’t frighten Sumatran monkeys. If anything it just amuses them.

Slingshot for chasing away mischevious monkeys

Slingshot for chasing away mischievous monkeys

The locals in the village told us that the orangutan rehabilitation center was now permanently closed. We asked why and were told that all of the orangutans had been “successfully rehabilitated” and so there was no longer a need for the center. Hmmmm… We booked an overnight “jungle trek” through our guesthouse. The next morning we threw a few things in a backpack and headed out with our guide. We walked through the village, along the river, and into the forest.

Beginning our trek

Beginning our trek

Welcome to the jungle

Welcome to the jungle

We followed narrow, but well traveled paths through the forest. It was quite hilly with some very steep and slippery sections. There was no technical climbing, but we were sometimes forced to climb or descend especially steep or muddy sections on all fours.

Full moon on this hill

Full moon on this hill

Over the mossy log

Over the mossy log

Up a muddy embankment

Up a muddy embankment

It was hot and so humid. We were sweating like crazy. As we hiked through some of the wet valley areas there were swarms of mosquitoes, but on the hilltops there were very few. There were some really fantastic, giant old trees, lots of vines that tempted me to play Tarzan, and some critters along the way.

Leaf skeleton

Leaf skeleton

A friendly turtle

A friendly turtle says, “Hey jerk, put me down!”

This is a "small" female ant. Only the big maies bite.

This is a “small” female ant. Only the big males bite.

Great old tree and vines

Great old tree and vines

Look at this twisty vine!

Look at this twisty vine!

Terminte mound

Termite mound

After a few hours, we stopped for a snack of fruit. It was quite a spread.

Fruit snack

Fruit snack

After the snack we pressed on, and came upon another lady and her guide feeding a Thomas Leaf Monkey, a species found only in Northern Sumatra.

Local guide feeding a Thomas Leaf Monkey

Local guide feeding a Thomas Leaf Monkey

Sadly, this was a scene that was to be repeated throughout the day. Now we understood why the guides had brought so much fruit – they were feeding the animals! Before we left on our trek we made very clear that while we were eager to see orangutan and other wildlife, we wanted to see them from a distance.  We did NOT want to get too close. Alas, that was not to be. We had read that some of the orangutans could be quite aggressive, particularly an adult female named Minah. Throughout the day we crossed paths with other groups and guides, and in every instance they were feeding the orangutan and monkeys. Quite clearly this was standard practice. The animals had learned that humans on the trail meant a yummy snack of fruit. They showed no fear of people, on the contrary, they approached people knowing full well that they would be rewarded with food. We can only assume that the rehabilitation center was closed so that the tourists could feed the animals on their “jungle treks.”  Yep, it appeared that we were now part of the problem.

Down the path

Down the path

One we went, and before long we saw our first orangutans, up towards the top of some nearby trees.

Seeing our first orangutans

Seeing our first orangutans

Orangutans in a tree. Can you see them up there?

Orangutans in a tree. Can you see them up there?

We hiked a bit more. We followed the trail up a hill and emerged into a small clearing at the top.  The trail continued on the other side of the clearing. Standing on the far side by the path was one of the orangutans, Minah, with a baby on her back. Another tourist and guide were standing in the clearing and the guide was getting fruit out of his bag to feed Minah. Our guide urged us closer, but we refused, reiterating that we did NOT want to get close to the animals, especially the orangutans, and we certainly didn’t want to feed them. He said that we had to go past her to follow the trail, and again we refused. Clearly frustrated with us, he had the second guide lead us down a smaller trail to the side of the clearing, allowing us to keep our distance from Minah.

Local guide feeding an orangutan

Local guide feeding Minah as we head for the side trail.

When he rejoined us down the trail, we told him again that we did NOT want to get close to the orangutans, and we questioned the wisdom of feeding them. He told us that they had to feed them, otherwise they will get aggressive, especially Minah. He showed us some fresh scars on his forearm and told us how, about 5 weeks ago he had encountered Minah on the trail. He was reaching into his bag to get some fruit for her, but apparently she got impatient, grabbed his arm, and bit it. He said that while he was punching her three other guides were able to pull him from her grasp. He seemed quite proud of this, and told us with a smile that the treks were boring if they didn’t see Minah, and that the local guides had a saying: “No Minah, no fun. No Minah, no run!” So much for rehabilitation, eh?

Going up...

Going up…

And up...

And up…

And down...

And down…

These guys can really climb

These guys can really climb

We hiked some more and again as we crested a hill, we crossed paths with another orangutan – one of Minah’s older children. Mila was a minute or so behind us, and I don’t think she realized that the orangutan was there as she came up the path.

Looking at Mila as she comes up the path

Looking at Mila as she comes up the path

Regardless, the guides led her behind the orangutan as one of them made an offering of fruit.

Too close for comfort

A little too close for comfort

We hiked on…

Jungle princess

Jungle princess

Go Mila!

Go Mila!

On one narrow, sloped section of trail we encountered Jackie, another orangutan.

Jackie

Jackie

Thankfully, that was our last encounter with orangutans. This was just too close, and the conditions too sad. We came to see and understand their plight, and ended up feeling like we were contributing to the problem. Guides feeding them for the entertainment of tourists simply seems to create dependencies and encourage interactions which are risky for both sides. On the other hand, without the tourist dollars and interest, I also wonder if they would still exist in this area at all. No doubt orangutans are beautiful creatures, but they face a dim future. Their habitat will continue to be destroyed and they will likely continue to be under threat. “Critically endangered” is not a good thing to be, and from what we saw, I doubt conditions will ever improve for our sad cousins the Sumatran Orangutans.

So, with those cheery thoughts, on with our story. We hiked on and before long the river came into view. Our campsite was on the bank of the river and other groups and guides were arriving too. Those who were not spending the night were wrapping their bags in plastic and getting into tubes to go back down river.

The river comes into view

The river comes into view

Our campsite

Our campsite

Tubin' Sumatra style

Tubin’ Sumatra style

While the guides prepared dinner, we cooled off in the river with a group of noisy French, Moroccans, and Algerians.

Time to swim

Time to swim

Ahhh...

Ahhh…

Our jungle bath complete, we dried off and went into our shelter for dinner. Jette was not feeling well. All of our bottled water was gone, and the guides were boiling and serving smokey tasting, slightly cloudy river water. Jette took a sip, but no more. She was exhausted and I think dehydrated. She didn’t want to eat, and laid down on her pallet. Mila and I ate a little bit and laid down too. We were tired and with Jette not feeling well, we wanted to keep a close eye on her. I talked for an hour or so with our guide then we all tried to sleep. The French group in the shelter next to us were sitting around a fire playing drinking games and singing. I tired to listen to the sound of the jungle, but they were drowned out by their shouts, songs and antics. This continued for almost SIX HOURS until the last couple of them stumbled off to bed around 3:30 a.m.

Extremely loud French drinking games

Extremely loud French drinking games

In the morning, Jette was feeling better. We had a good time watching the water monitors swim in the river, and troupes of monkeys along the banks. Some of the monkeys were quite aggressive and would come into camp to try and steal things. We had fun throwing rocks at them to scare them off. Of course we never hit them, but when a throw got close the monkeys would scamper away.

Feeling better

Feeling better

Morning hugs

Morning hugs

Throwing a rock at a monkey

Throwing a rock at a monkey

I don’t have photos as the camera was stuffed in a waterproof bag, but after a while it was time to pile into a raft made of inner tubes lashed together and float down the river and back to our guesthouse.

We spent another day in Bukit Lawang, and since we had been eating all of our meals and spending most of our time at our guesthouse, we walked a little further down the main path to explore a bit and had lunch at the Jungle Inn. The guys there were really nice, and it looks like it would be a fun place to stay too. They have one “cabin” that is two stories with a balcony overlooking a private waterfall. Nice.

Walking down to the Jungle Inn

Walking down to the Jungle Inn

In Bukit Lawang

In Bukit Lawang

Watermelon juice

Watermelon juice

On one of our days in Bukit Lawang, we walked from the main tourist area along the river, back through the palm oil plantations to the market area of the village. One day a week, Friday if I remember correctly, is market day and folks from all around come to stock up on what ever they might need – chickens, fish, produce, clothing, soap, you name it. Goods are laid out on the ground, or in simple stalls, and the sometimes muddy paths between them have a constant stream of local shoppers.

The weekly market at Bukit Lawang

The weekly market at Bukit Lawang

Bukit Lawang Market
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At one end of the market, there is a large, open area that was filled with men making deals and large, rectangular bundles of what looked like big mushroom tops. The smell – a rancid, earthy, fermented odor – was intense.

Rubber market Bukit Lawang

Rubber Market Bukit Lawang

Every once in awhile a man would pull out a parang (machete), chop into a bundle and inspect it. We couldn’t figure out what these things were, and my gosh the smell! I walked over and asked one of the men, “Apa ini?” (“What is this?). “Karet” was his answer. Rubber. Of course! To harvest the natural latex sap from rubber trees, strips of bark are cut forming a channel, and half a coconut is hung to collect the latex sap which oozes out. These odd bundles of mushroom-shaped things, were the half-coconut shaped lumps of latex all pressed together! Recently, rubber prices have dropped by 50% so what was once profitable is now not so much. One of our taxi drivers started driving taxis because he could not longer make a living with rubber.

Here’s a video that shows the rubber tapping and processing as it is done in Thailand. At this market the raw rubber is just bundled and sold, presumably the later stages of processing are done elsewhere.

Alas it was time to move on, so from Bukit Lawang and took a minibus to Berastagi. But that’s another blog post…

On the road to Berastagi

On the road to Berastagi

 

Flashback: Medan (Sumatra, Indonesia)

It’s eerie to consider that we were just in Sumatra mere weeks ago and just days ago, a significant 7.9 earthquake hit southwest of the island. We consider ourselves lucky to have gotten the chance to visit such an incredible place yet miss the turbulence that comes with living there.

Indonesia is a country composed of fourteen THOUSAND islands, six THOUSAND of which are inhabited; we visited ONE, Sumatra.

Map of IndonesiaOur first and last stop in Sumatra was Medan. We flew into Medan from Penang, Malaysia. We also flew out of Medan on our way back to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia before flying on to Sri Lanka. For a city that is typically used as a transit hub, atypically, we spent a combined four days here and discovered a few of the city’s charms. Our travels through Indonesia went something like this:

  • Penang, Malaysia flight to Medan, Indonesia
  • Medan > Bukit Lawang > Berastagi > Lake Toba/Samosir Island > Medan
  • Medan, Indonesia flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
  • Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia flight to Colombo, Sri Lanka

Medan is the fifth largest city in the country and is the largest city after Jakarta, Surabaya, Bandung, and Bekasi, all of which are on the island of Java.

Our plane trip from Penang was short and easy and we arrived in the early evening, right around sunset. We spent a significant bit of time inside the airport trying to find a SIM card, while politely avoiding large numbers of overpriced taxi touts. Once we had our SIM card purchased and installed, we were able to locate our destination on Google Maps. We’ve found this simple measure incredibly useful on more than one occasion. If a taxi driver has never heard of the particular guesthouse where we are staying, we can show him a dropped pin on a Google map. If that fails, having internet is useful to pull up our hosts’ phone number. We can then just hand the phone to the driver to discuss directions in the local language. Sounds simple enough, but with thirteen countries travelled so far, keeping track of all those tiny SIM cards and communicating our needs upon arrival in each new country is a step that takes a bit of time and some effort, but has always cut down on that slightly disorienting, slightly overwhelming feeling of being in a completely new place on this planet every few weeks.

Medan was a bit of a shock to our systems after the loveliness, charm and relatively high level of modern development of Penang. Our guesthouse was in a residential neighborhood about 45 minutes from the airport and most of that time was spent driving through dimly lit residential neighborhoods. Indonesian drivers are notoriously wild and reckless, weaving in and out of the suggested street lane markings into oncoming traffic. Somehow, though, we lucked into the slowest driver in Medan. His caution and slow speed may have caused all of the other drivers around us to look all the more insane.

There was quite a bit of homogeneity between the neighborhoods that we drove past in that they all seemed to be lively, late in the evening, full of smiling children running around, having what appeared to be a great time. There was, of course, a cacophony of motorcycle and car horns blasting away constantly for no apparent reason.

There were dozens of street vendors, most of whom were selling ayam goreng (fried chicken) and many others with independent petrol stations. It appeared that in order to be a licensed petrol dealer, one must first locate a dozen plastic, empty 1.5 liter water bottles and refill them with 1 liter of petrol. Once the bottles are placed across a small table, shelving unit, chair or any other somewhat stable surface for display, business is officially open. With every sort of gas-powered vehicle whizzing by, the stations were definitely a necessity, but there was a disorienting sense of redundant commerce; the stations were sometimes right next to each other, often across the road from each other and just here, there and everywhere. It seemed like a very popular business with low barriers to entry, low overhead, low spoilage and questionable margins.

Jette and I sat in the back seat, taking in our new environment, while Waco sat in the passenger seat, chatting with the driver in his rusty, yet useable, Bahasa. Jette and I sat very impressed; the driver was quite complimentary to Waco’s efforts, also!

The quality of housing and overall infrastructure, upon first glance, appeared devastatingly low. Knowing that Indonesia is a wealthy country with a significant level of profit from many industries, with the largest economy in Southeast Asia, I was quite shocked to observe the low level of road construction, garbage everywhere and general lack of solid infrastructure that I had assumed would be there based upon the country’s wealth. We drove for some time through quite similar neighborhoods until we arrived at our guesthouse, K77. We were greeted warmly by Lola, the wife in the husband/wife team who own and operate the guesthouse, but before we went inside, a little group of neighborhood kids came running up to us and some of the tiniest ones came running up to Jette and took her hand to their foreheads, a custom called “salim” which indicates respect in their social structure and hierarchy. As westerners, we are uncomfortable with outright hierarchical statements and physical acts that are representative of societal position, but in Indonesian society, hierarchical relationships are respected, emphasized and maintained, so we felt the need to go along with local customs.

We wrapped up our hellos and came in to see that our host had brought out a tray of juice and a delicious snack of sweet sticky rice lopis for us. They were sooooo good and our first time trying them. They were our first introduction to Indonesian sweets, but wouldn’t be our last; we were to discover that Medan is known for tasty cakes.

We took our bags upstairs, got cleaned up and stepped out to search for a quite bite of dinner. The street in front of K77 is quite narrow, with most of the street-facing buildings being either one or two stories. Going out on foot brought us a lot of attention. We spent a few minutes sharing smiles, then walked along to find some dinner.

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Local business? homework spot? motorcycle parking spaces? all of the above?

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Dinner spot!

We walked the wild streets of Medan for a bit, dodging traffic with every step across broken concrete rubble bits as we tried to find a place to sit and have a meal. While we explored, we ran into a young Chinese man who was also staying at K77 and we ventured around for a bit together. After an intense, life-risking street crossing, where we all ran across and teetered on a crumbling median, cars and motor scooters zig-zagging and whizzing by without slowing down, we saw a small restaurant that looked reasonably busy (always a good sign) and clean (another positive trait). We ordered with the help of Waco’s rusty Bahasa language skills and ended up having a delicious dinner. Pretty much everyone in the restaurant stared at us throughout our entire meal; we had so many pairs of eyes on us, we could only laugh. After having been in Penang, home to thousands of expats, we had gotten used to feeling like we were just one of many, and not too special. Indonesia was going to be different, very different. Our first hours here were shaping up to frame our entire visit to the country; Sumatran tourism has slowed to a trickle and people were intrigued by us. Some were so excited to meet us, they made us feel like celebrities, asking for our photos.

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This fruit vendor was a college student helping at her family’s fruit stand

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Here she is with mom, who asked for photos

The next morning, we set out in vain to find a laundry facility that could clean our growing bag of unwearable clothes in time for our departure the following day. We walked and explored, assuming that we would find a place easily, as we had in so many other cities and countries before. After walking in vain for nearly an hour, with extremely vague directions and “help” from some locals, we finally found a dry-cleaner. The clerk started to count our items and came to a pair of undies, at which point she put everything back into our bag and stated simply, “Oh, sorry, cannot”. We stood a bit dumbfounded, “Pardon”? She was quite apologetic, but their facility had a policy against cleaning undergarments. Well, there are three of us and half our laundry is underwear!

Tired, hot, and sweaty, we decided we’d spent enough time and energy on our laundry task of the day and proceeded onwards, by tuk-tuk, to some of Medan’s more interesting sights. We went straight to Tip-Top Cafe, a colonial-era relic of a restaurant that’s been around since 1934. The signage, covered patio and menu were a throwback to another time, which is always fun, but there was also an awkwardness to the experience. There were too many suited servers for the number of customers the cafe was serving. We ordered a few items and thought our meals were fine, but the formality of the service felt quite forced in a city like Medan. Tip-Top is a place where locals of questionable honor and shady expats come to rub elbows and “do business”, and spend more rupiah for one meal than the servers likely received for their week’s wages. We finished quickly and moved along.

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Amazing for this spot to have survived since 1934

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Jette relaxing at Tip Top

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The nasi goreng (fried rice) at Tip Top

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A pretty tasty little fried potato cake

We ventured across the street, to the Tjong A Fie mansion after lunch. The historically significant Chinese, feng shui, turn-of-the-century mansion, turned out to be incredibly similar to the Cheong Fatt Tze Blue Mansion in Penang, that we had just seen days before. The buildings almost appeared to have used the exact same blueprints! Our excellent guide through the home revealed that the Indonesian was a nephew of the Malaysian magnate, which was fascinating and might explain the similarity of the two properties. The Indonesian tour allowed for more exploration within the property, which was really fun and sated our curiosity to see rooms that had been deemed “private” at the Blue Mansion in Penang.

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The entrance to the mansion is quite unassuming

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Greeted with a subtle garden just inside the gate

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Original furnishings

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A grand space!

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The detail on these ceilings was incredible

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Slightly crumbling, but so detailed

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This one was outside under the porch

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The interior spaces are completely open to the exterior

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Second level walkway between bedrooms

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This is a turn-of-the-century carved stone soybean mill for making tofu

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Ground floor garden space

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Jette’s hand was eaten by this foo dog as we left

After the mansion, we walked to a cafe and had some cold drinks. Refreshed, we stood to leave and were immediately approached by a group of school kids. They had a class assignment and Waco agreed to be their subject.

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Being interviewed and filmed

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This young man had a list of questions about our visit to his city 

It was a fun moment in our day and we were happy we didn’t brush them off. There were quite a few individuals and groups who asked for money as we walked around and we (wrongly) assumed the kids might be an organized group collecting funds. We wonder where their video will be played?!?

We finished the interview and continued our walk, observing some crumbling buildings that must have had a former life filled with glamour.

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Someone bring me a power-washer!

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Look at this incredible bamboo scaffolding

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Great modernist facade with many years of “patina”

We took in more sights around the city, eventually finding our way to its famous baking district. Medan is known for many cakes, and anyone living there or passing through is obligated by friends and family to bring them a favorite cake. We saw people buying up to a dozen cake boxes at a time, and throughout our travels in Indonesia, we would notice other travellers with Medan cake bakery boxes that they were bringing back for themselves or to share. We tried Ratna Bakery and were delighted with their scrumptious Lapis Legit and Bika Ambon.

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Bika ambon

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Lapis legit

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This slice didn’t last long

The cakes were not too sweet, had beautiful construction, and unique flavors and aromas of pandanas leaf, cardamom and other unidentifiable ones. We all enjoyed the texture of the bika ambon, which some people call “honeycomb”.

Earthquake & Tsunami

We’re currently in Galle, a city on the southern coast of Sri Lanka. Last night I got an email from our friend Anita in Dallas. She’s an educator and a science nerd of the highest caliber.

Here’s what she said, “7.9 earthquake Sumatra. I think you are a fair distance but keep watch for tsunami if you are near coast.”

I immediately went to Google News and searched for “earthquake sumatra”.

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Yikes! Of course Anita was right, and her warning was timed with the earliest of news stories about the quake. It sure is nice to have and early warning network of smart friends. Thanks Anita. This is the kind of email that could have potentially saved our lives.

As you may know, in 2004 there was a similar but larger earthquake in the same area off the coast of Sumatra. Here’s how Wikipedia describes it:

The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake occurred at 00:58:53 UTC on 26 December with the epicentre off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. The shock had a moment magnitude of 9.1–9.3 and a maximum Mercalli intensity of IX (Violent). The undersea megathrust earthquake was caused when the Indian Plate was subducted by the Burma Plate and triggered a series of devastating tsunamis along the coasts of most landmasses bordering the Indian Ocean, killing 230,000 people in 14 countries, and inundating coastal communities with waves up to 30 metres (100 ft) high. It was one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. Indonesia was the hardest-hit country, followed by Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand.

It is the third-largest earthquake ever recorded on a seismograph and had the longest duration of faulting ever observed, between 8.3 and 10 minutes.[8] It caused the entire planet to vibrate as much as 1 centimetre (0.4 inches)[9] and triggered other earthquakes as far away as Alaska.[10] Its epicentre was between Simeulue and mainland Indonesia.

We’re staying a family-run guesthouse in one of the highest areas of Galle, away from the sea, so I think we would be safe from all but the very largest tsunamis. In the 2004 tsunami, the water did not reach this area, and in fact in the lower area of the fort, the walls of the Galle Fort protected it from the waves. Nonetheless, I found our host and told her about the earthquake and suggested that she call and alert any family or friends that lived on the water or in areas that might be at risk. We were on high alert.

This earthquake really hit home for us as we have spent the past month or so in Sumatra and Sri Lanka, in areas that were massively affected by the 2004 tsunami. Just day-before-yesterday we were at the Tsunami Photo Museum in the beach town of Hikkaduwa/Telwatta. It is a small museum put together by one of the survivors. It sits across the road from the ocean, in the location where her home used to be, before the tsunami washed it away.

Tsunami Photo Musuem

Tsunami Photo Musuem

The owner of the musuem telling us about the tsunami.

The owner of the musuem telling us about the tsunami.

She told us harrowing tales of how the day unfolded. She said that there was no warning and that most people had no idea what was happening. There was quite suddenly a large wave that hit the town, washing over the beach and well onto land in many areas. It was a big wave, but not too devastating.

First wave

First wave

The first wave

The first wave

After the wave hit, the waters retreated to well beyond the normal shore line, exposing ground that was normally underwater. What used to be water was now land and the sea was calm in the distance. People had never seen such a thing, and many came down to the water to look, to check the damage, and to assist others. Some people fled inland, looking for higher ground. There was a train stopped on the tracks and many villagers sought refuge on the train, or put their children on the train, thinking it to be a safe place.

For the next 20 or 30 minutes, the waters of the sea were eerily calm in the distance, and then suddenly, a giant, much larger wave came roaring in. This brought massive devastation and death. More than 30,000 people were killed in Sri Lanka. Thousands are still “missing.”

The second wave hits

The second wave hits people who had walked out to to the beach to investigate

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The train was not a safe refuge. As many as 2,000 people were killed when the second wave hit the train.

The train was not a safe refuge. As many as 1,500 people were killed when the second wave hit the train.

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Here are more photos of the museum:

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This is what the owners home looked like after the second wave. Everything was destroyed. The museum was built on the site where the home used to be.

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This is the tent the owner lived in for 6 months after the tsunami.

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Thankfully, the earthquake last night did not result in a tsunami, but it was still a powerful experience for us and a reminder as to how quickly life can change. In our recent travels, we’ve climbed a volcano where we smelled the sulfurous steam, seen hot lava flows, and felt the burning heat of the active Earth. We visited villages that sit at the base of volcanoes and that one day, will likely be destroyed in an eruption. We’ve seen first hand the devastating power of earthquakes and tsunamis. We’ve seen tragic human impact and loss as well as human strength and resilience in the face of adversity.

Have fun, but be careful out there.

POP QUIZ: How do scientists measure the strength of earthquakes?

Seismologists use equipment called seismographs to measure movements in the earth. These movements or forces are expressed in numbers using the Moment of Magnitude Scale. In the past they used the Richter Scale. For more info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moment_magnitude_scale