As we read somewhere, the hardest part about travel is the traveling. We agree. Like some other countries on this trip, traveling in remote areas of Sumatra is neither comfortable nor easy. Sometimes there is no alternative to an arduous day, though, so you just do what you have to do and try not to get too crabby in the process. We also don’t tend to highlight those stories here because they are usually relatively boring, but I’m going to share this one because it took the prize.
After Gunung Leuser National Park we wanted to go to Pulau Weh, a small island off the tip of northern Sumatra for another off the beaten path experience that promised excellent snorkeling and diving. Getting from this particular A to B, which is only 228 miles as the crow flies, went like this: Four days before we were to travel, Mr. Jally at the Rainforest Lodge called up SusiAir to reserve a pair of seats for us on a flight that would comprise one piece of the multi-piece trip, which we’d have to pay for — in cash, of course — when we got to the airport. He said he did this, but the conversation took place in Indonesian with questionable cellular service. All set, we hoped. On the day before our flight, we left the Rainforest Lodge via a two-hour minibus ride that took nearly four hours, and of course included the obligatory smoker who lit up a stick next to us a few times along the way for good measure. Even though the driver had confirmed aloud four times that we were going to Thousand Hills Lodge in Ketambe, he forgot to drop us off. We fortuitously checked our Google Maps to realize we had passed it about 10 kms (6 miles) earlier. We alerted him about this misstep and he stopped. But then he told us he wasn’t going to turn around, he would take us to the next town about an “hour” away where we’d have to catch another minibus back. Uh. No. He eventually took us back, but not before making everyone wait in the really hot minibus for five to ten minutes while we argued with him about it. We were happy to get out of the minibus, and unlike the bungalows at the Rainforest Lodge, Thousand Hills had a proper bungalow with a real bed and shower — it even had soap and a western toilet!
The real travel day dawned, and I asked our host to call SusiAir to confirm that we actually had reserved seats before we embarked on the journey to the airport. He called the number that SusiAir lists for the airport we were flying out of. Yes, we had seats. He also recommended that we leave by 10:00 to get to the airport early for our 2 p.m. flight because SusiAir sometimes took off early due to the weather. We were to take a minibus just like the one we took the previous day by hailing one on the street, then take a taxi to the airport from where it dropped us off. Ok, got it. Except it was not a minibus. It was more than an hour spent in the back of a pickup truck (with side bench seats, open windows and a roof), breathing in its exhaust and packing our backpacks around an inexplicable, enormous, freestanding speaker in an effort to keep the volume of the crazy music to a just-less-than-completely-unbearable level. I finally had to pound on the window and tell the driver to turn it down, and I was wearing earplugs (I had them handy for our flight)! Along the way, several friendly Muslim women and their offspring boarded and disembarked at various villages. Once we reached the town near the airport, we didn’t eat lunch because we didn’t want to miss the maybe early flight. Instead we got directly into an ojek, which means a motorcycle taxi with a sidecar, and drove at least thirty more minutes on narrow and sometimes very rough roads, through rice paddies and villages to the actual airport in the middle of said rice fields. We got there fully two hours early. Waaay too early as it turned out.
This was a tiny airport with nothing resembling services. There was one sizeable, non-air conditioned building with a single fan in one closed off waiting room with no one in it because of the horrifically strong smelling air freshener attached to said fan, and a few people milling around outside where it was cooler. We were hot and hungry. We “checked in,” meaning we gave our passports to some guy who wrote down our names on what appeared to be the start of a paper passenger list and paid him cash for our tickets. In exchange he gave us our boarding passes, which were small pieces of paper with SusiAir printed at the top on which he had handwritten our names. He weighed our backpacks on a manual scale and put a tag on each one, then set them over by the wall. That done, we prepared to be bored, hungry and hot for two more hours. Ah, but fate had something else in store for us. About an hour later, three airport workers — including the guy who checked us in — came over and told us in broken English that we weren’t on the passenger list, the flight is full, and here is your money back. Uh. No. They would insist for a while, showing us some handwritten list that didn’t include our names, and then we would insist for a while. This cannot be happening. First, we had no contact info for Mr. Jally who reserved our tickets. Second, we had no contact number for our host who confirmed that very morning because the number on his website had the wrong number of digits, so we couldn’t call him to find out whom he talked to about these confirmed seats. Luckily, Jodi and Andy were still at the Thousand Hills Lodge and we were able to communicate with them, they were in turn able to communicate with the host, who then called SusiAir again to get things sorted out for us. He was again calling the number SusiAir listed for the airport we were at, but he wasn’t really because, naturally, there was no phone. So, no one in the airport knew this was all sorted out and wouldn’t/couldn’t call anyone else within SusiAir. Our host told us, through Andy and Jodi, not to panic, be patient, it will be sorted out by the staff once the plane lands. He said there was a miscommunication because there were two cancellations and we had those seats, which we told the airport staff in an attempt to hold them at bay. When the plane finally arrived, the same pilot I had talked to about the committed runway at the last airport stepped onto the tarmac, and we practically ran over to him in relief so he could tell us we had seats because the pilots were the only new “staff” on that plane. Of course he had no idea. As we were explaining our story to him, we looked up and suddenly saw someone carrying our backpacks over to the plane. We took this as a sign that we did. Have. Confirmed. Seats. We have no idea how the airport staff figured this out, or why they weren’t aware of all this in the first place, or who in the world our host was calling, but we got on the flight. This was stressful primarily because, as bad as our travel plan was, we had only really onerous backup options, none of which could happen that day.
We had an ninety-minute flight through building thunderstorms, which I enjoyed because it brought me back to my cloud seeding days. We landed at Banda Aceh at the northern tip of Sumatra and decided we might just have time, if we could get a taxi driver to drive really fast, to get to the ferry dock to catch the last ferry that day to point B. According to our guidebook, confirmed by the taxi drivers who swarmed us after we stepped outside the airport, this was a 30 minute drive. We had 27 minutes. Off we raced in a (proper) taxi, and because the ferry left 15 minutes late, we made it. Victory!! After 45 minutes on the ferry, we arrived at the island, where we got into another ojek. Forty-five more minutes of dazzling scenery later, during which we were chased by aggressive monkeys, we arrived at our $22/night, oceanfront bungalow on Pulau Weh, with a huge sigh of relief. Unfortunately, we were unable to toast with a glass of wine because Pulau Weh is Muslim and alcohol is mostly off-limits, but we didn’t care. All in all, eight hours of stressful travel but the reward was worth it as Pulau Weh is a gorgeous island.
Our host on Pulau Weh told us the island is the kind of place people come to, planning to stay for a few days, and the next thing they know, their visa has run out. We can understand that, we stayed twice as long as we had originally thought we would and could have stayed longer. The people are super small-town friendly with smiles and waves to strangers they pass on the road. We spent ten days there exploring the island on a scooter, snorkeling, and diving. We went snorkeling twice and diving eight times, and it was fantastic. It was like swimming in an aquarium, with fish of every color and size from very small to large, including sharks and 4′-5′ giant trevally, lots of different kinds of moray eels, including some truly huge giant morays, octopus, and the added bonus of harlequin shrimp, who eat starfish (which is good, because starfish eat coral). Here are some videos:
The island has the distinction of having a huge monument that marks “Kilometer 0,” the northwesternmost point in Indonesia. It must be a big thing for Indonesians because most of the visitors to the island are apparently Indonesian, and the vast majority of tourist T-shirts being sold had Kilometer 0 on them. It’s also an interesting place because Pulau Weh is part of the Aceh province in northern Sumatra, which due to recent events of internal conflict (which you can google if interested), enforces Muslim Sharia law based on the Koran. Think public canings, things like this. It shouldn’t affect tourists because Sharia law is supposed to only apply to Muslims, but due to stories on the Internet, we weren’t sure if that was true, and wondered if I was going to have to wear long pants and long sleeves the entire time in 90+ degree weather to cover up like Muslim women do. In reality, that wasn’t the case at all. Pulau Weh is liberal, and shorts and a short-sleeved/sleeveless shirt was fine for both of us; just no bikinis or Speedos on beaches that are in front of a village. Easy enough, and shows yet again that you should never believe everything you read online.
And with that, we are — for the first time in many months — caught up on this blog as we left Pulau Weh only a few days ago!