Our time in Southeast Asia was coming to an end, but we had one more stop before flying back to Jakarta and out of the continent. An overnight bus took us out of Banda Aceh and back to the northern capital of Medan. We’d been through here twice already. The first time was when we initially landed in Sumatra and immediately took off for Lake Toba and Samosir Island. The second time was on our way back from Samosir and headed north to Aceh Province, passing through the capital once again but not really getting to experience it at all. Now, with a couple of days left in Indonesia, we had the opportunity to get a little taste of a city that is, in my opinion, poorly characterized in some of the travel guides I read; Medan offers more than is often claimed.
The first thing that happened when we hopped off the bus at around 6 AM was the tuk-tuk driver who offered us a surprisingly low rate got into a verbal altercation with a few other drivers. It seemed as though our driver, who was well into his 70s by my estimation, offered us too low of a fare that the others couldn’t compete with. Halfway to our destination, he was still fuming and pulled out a long knife from under a piece of clothing on the dashboard of the vehicle while speaking angrily in his language. I guess he was trying to tell us what he would do to anyone who got in his way, tuk-tuk driver or otherwise. It was a surreal moment, not exactly scary because we knew his anger wasn’t directed towards us, but intense nonetheless. At this point I offered him one of my djarum cigarettes while trying to make light of the situation; anything to get this man on our good side. He accepted it with a wide, nearly-toothless grin on his dark face.
We’d read there were several guesthouse options near a massive octagonal mosque called Masjid Raya, or the Great Mosque of Medan. We got to the main intersection where the mosque was, but it was still very early. We opted to get something to eat before looking for a place to stay.
Across the street was a mall/shopping centre with a McDonald’s out front. Yes, we decided on McDonald’s breakfast as our first meal in Medan. It’s not something I’m proud of, but I won’t deny it. We enjoyed some sausage and egg McMuffins, some hash browns, and orange juice. Of course, it doesn’t taste the same as what many of us are used to in the West. There was a slight “offness” that we couldn’t quite put our finger on.
We relaxed outside on the patio for a little bit before crossing the street, called Jalan Sisingamangaraja, back to the side where Masjid Raya loomed from above. We walked about a block south where there were a cluster of accommodation options. We checked a few out, asking the usual questions regarding price, A/C, hot water, etc. Nearly everyone was very friendly and polite about everything. Nearly.
We came to a narrow guesthouse right on the main street, maybe the third or fourth one we took a look at. A woman who I would estimate to be in her 40s grumpily brought us to one of the rooms they had available. It was absolutely disgusting with mold growing on each and every surface. It was muggy and hot despite the air conditioning blowing away, probably spreading around the thriving mold colonies. We asked her a few questions which completely set her off. According to this lovely lady, we had no right to ask any questions about the accommodation whatsoever because we were not a married Muslim couple and that no one else in Medan would take us anyway so we should essentially shut up and accept what’s offered to us. I don’t get offended easily, and I wasn’t even offended in this situation because it was so over-the-top rude it was hilarious. If this was the first place we’d checked out I may have been distraught, possibly assuming that this was the mentality in this area of Medan (we had read similar stories beforehand). But because everyone else we’d met so far was very polite to us, even as we moved on from their guesthouse, I just thought it was funny. Teresa on the other hand didn’t take it so lightly. She was fuming and clearly wanted to slap this narrow-minded woman across the face. Obviously, being the mature young lady that she is, she restrained herself and we moved on to the place next door who welcomed us immediately. It was actually run by a Hindu lady, not that her religion matters at all because every Muslim guesthouse owner we met was welcoming too. It just so happened that one woman, with her old school views and whom I have all kinds of awesome adjectives to describe but won’t on my friendly-spirited blog, was not so welcoming. We didn’t let it get to us and did everything we could to rub it in her face as we walked around the neighbourhood where everyone else accepted who we were and what we were about. After all, we had rupiahs to spend.
We essentially spent our short time in Medan walking around the city, enjoying delicious Indonesian stall food, and stopping in at a large mall to go to the movies (we watched Escape Plan starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stalone).
One thing I have to mention is that when we first got off the bus, just before we made arrangements with that spunky old tuk-tuk driver, we grabbed our backpacks from the storage area underneath and realized that someone stole Teresa’s runners that were tied to the bottom of her bag. It’s a sad fact that still brings melancholy to her to this day; those were her travel runners that she’d trekked through Southeast Asia with for the last six months. Right at the end of our time in Asia, someone snatched them off of her bag. I don’t think any less of the people of Indonesia because of this incident; it could have happened absolutely anywhere in the world. It just sucks because travel runners are a piece of the trip that go through as much rugged difficulty as the person wearing them. A very important memento in my opinion and something I’d be very sad if I lost. She has, however, moved on.
On our last day in Medan, we arranged for a van to take us to the airport where we jumped on an Air Asia flight back to Jakarta. Here, we had one night where we stayed on Jalan Jaksa once again, but this time in a far less fancy place than where my sister insisted we stay the first time around. We hit up some of our favourite food stalls and stocked up on Djarum cigarettes to take with us back to Canada. We even looked up the limit before they were considered a commercial transference so that we could bring back as many as possible.
The next morning, we left Asia after having travelled through this beautiful continent since May of 2013. We had about a three hour layover in Singapore before heading east. In the airport, there is this massive screen that takes people’s pictures and then sends them to your phone or email if you want. Teresa and I had to stand in the right place to get some pictures taken on the massive screen, and then we in turn took pictures of the screen for ourselves. Soon after, we were off, out of Asia until our inevitable return in September 2015 to South Korea and the Philippines.
We weren’t ready to head home just yet, though. We still had close to two weeks before landing back in Canada. No, we needed a bit of a transition before jumping right back into our lives in Toronto. It was up for discussion for some time as to where we should spend the last eleven days or so. For much of her life, Teresa dreamed of visiting New Zealand. On your standard map of the world, it’s about as far away from home as it gets (if you live in North America). Now, we were about to land on the tiny oceanic nation on the far reaches of the globe. The welcome we got from two wonderful people who quickly became our friends made it feel like we’d come home early.