A Morning With A Coppersmith Barbet

Coppersmith Barbet (megalaima haemacephala)

So, I know not all of you will appreciate the bird photos, but hey, I like the birds. Call me a freak, I don’t mind. Thus far I have seen 24 new species of birds on this trip. Actually more, but I’ve only gotten decent photos of 24. If you are so inclined you can see the photos of birds from this trip beginning here and move forward. The big winner, thus far for me, has been the Coppersmith Barbet which I saw this morning. He’s the one pictured above. My full set of world birds can be found here, with birds from as far afield as Ethiopia and Texas.


What Day Is It?

View From My RoomThe inimitable rhythms of Toba have set in, father being infected this time. (I was infected back in 2008.)

Just like 2008 I keep repeating Yeats’ “Lake Isle Of Innisfree,” and the bee loud glade where lake water comes lapping low.

Today I casually mentioned when he thought we should leave.

“Never,” he replied.

I’ve done nothing today. I plan on beating my single day record for nothingness tomorrow. I am going to sit in the same chair for nine hours and just watch sun arc across the sky, the leaden clouds drift and the bleached white egrets fly by. I’ll watch the moods of Toba, from chocolate blue in the morning, to teal green in the afternoon, to gun-metal gray at dusk. I’ll eat. Drink fresh roasted Sumatran coffee and generally do one thing, the one thing any of us can really ever do right: exist.

And yes, I heard the whisper on the wind today. I know what it’s saying now, but I’m not telling you–you’ll have to come find out for yourself.

Crawling Time

Hello From Sumatra!From the travel diary, October 28, 2011:

After the Security Check, Penang Airport
It was a breeze, the airport. No worrying about shoes. Just a quick, clean exit from passport control, a short security check and many, many smiles. We sit and wait for the 45 minute flight across the Straits of Malacca to Medan, Indonesia on the island of Sumatra. Our goal: orangutans.

Midair, over the Straits of Malacca

It is to be regretted that one can longer catch a ferry from Penang to Medan. One can longer taste the salt on one’s lips or see the tropical clouds languishing over the gentle, gentian-blue of the Straits of Malacca. Some things are to be mourned in this hyper-fast world of ours and this is one. A man or woman cannot call him or herself truly free until they have done so.

Leaving Medan, Sumatra

The smells hideous, the traffic execrable, the air is thick with diesel fumes and cloves. Palm trees line streets chaotic with mopeds, trucks, taxis and tuk-tuks–a motorcycle with a covered side-car, the ubiquitous travel form unique to South East Asia. Buildings, new but dilapidated from thirty monsoons. Skies, mostly cloudy with a chance of Noah’s floods, this monsoon has been the wettest in decades. La Nina has her effect here too.

Not a single American car, or product to be found here, all Daihatsu, Nissan, Toyota, Honda, Hyundai. A platoon of crisp-dressed soldiers disembark from their truck to subdue an impromptu proteest forming outside of town. The devout attend Friday prayers, scuttering along towards the mosque on dusty streets to the sounds of the Azan.

And then it happens, town and city disappear into a vibrant green of rolling hills, palm oil plantations and clear rivers. The vegetation clings to everything. Traffic dies down. People walk from farm and field to village, kids in tow. Dark, Melanesian skin and multi-colored dresses, skull caps and smiles. Everywhere smiles.

We pour out of our car to a roadside feast of fish, vegetables and rice. A hundred different birds chatter in the trees.

Arriving in Bukit Lawang

We pull in to the hill and river side village of Bukit Lawang. Children play in the streets. Villagers bath in the river. A gibbon hoots from the forest.

Time slows to the old ways, the ancient rhythms. We have arrived.

Final Thoughts On South East Asia

ReflectionsI just had duck rice for dinner, which will no doubt be my last duck rice for a while. I’m in my hotel room and the usual packing ritual awaits. I can’t bring myself to do it, just yet.

First things first: this will be my last post for at least a week. I will be on a boat in the middle of the Indian Ocean and I doubt I’ll see an internet cafe floating by.

I’ve been in South East Asia for almost seven months now, three of which were spent in Singapore. I’m not ready to leave. And I’m not sure why. Is it because I’m not prepared for India? Or is it because South East Asia exceeded my expectations? I would imagine it is a combination of both.

I remember that first Saturday, July 5th, 2008 when I took this shot of Singapore’s Central Business District and it seems like an eternity has passed since then, both chronologically and emotionally. Have I put the time to good use? Yeah, I have. Seeing the things I’ve seen, doing the things I’ve done and most especially meeting the amazing people along the road have made this leg of the journey special. I never expected to enjoy, much less find a facsimile for paradise in South East Asia. If Lake Toba was the highlight, these last two and a half weeks spent in Malaysia have been eye opening and extraordinary.

(Today’s photos can be found here.)

More after the jump.

I mentioned before that most South East Asian countries are very homogeneous–at least the ones I visited on this trip. But Malaysia is the very antithesis of homogeneity. What makes Malaysia work is its diversity. Take a look at the shots from today, especially those labeled ‘faces of Kuala Lumpur.’ There are Tamils, Malays, Buddhist monks, Westerners and Chinese. They are old, young, men and women, covered and not. But what’s most impressive about Malaysia isn’t its dynamism, it’s that Malaysia has done it Malaysia’s way. No ‘Washington Consensus‘ here. Their economy works for Malaysians and the common good, something it shares with Singapore, although Singapore is all about an open-economy, Malaysia’s is just different. And that’s one of the reasons the country didn’t slump as hard and as long as so many others did during the Asian Financial Crisis of 1998. Indonesia has never recovered.

Malaysia is relatively clean, cleaner than Thailand, but not yet up to Singapore’s exacting standards. The countryside is gorgeous, palm plantations, wild jungle, tea farms and many, many mountains. All of it is green, tropical, wet and humid. ‘Tropicalness’ is much more pronounced in Malaysia than it is in Vietnam, or Laos or Thailand–but not as strong as Indonesia, although I didn’t get to see Malaysian Borneo–next time I hope.

And Malaysian food has distinct differences between those of the other South East Asian states. It’s much more Indian and frequently ‘halal’ food is de riguer in most places. Sure, you can find bacon in Chinatown, but that’s about it for pork and other haram foods here. However, the Malay’s aren’t hardcore Muslims. They aren’t Saudis, for sure. Women seem to get on well here. I imagine a part of that is because there is such a significant minority of non-Muslims in the country that hard core sharia law wouldn’t work here anyway.

It’s funny to think that I blew right through Malaysia when I left Singapore, heading strait to Chiang Mai. It’s probably a good thing too. I might have wasted a bunch of time here. There is still so much to see. I can’t believe I missed Pulau Perhentian! It’s the one beach I was willing to travel to in South East Asia, mostly because it’s not like Phuket and filled with a bunch of beer swilling hoodlums, or Bali, which is just too overdeveloped for my taste. I found Toba, and for me that is enough.

All the South East Asian countries have their charms. The frank honesty of the Vietnamese, the sweet smiles from lovely Thai girls, glorious Angkor and the mellow Mekong in Laos are but a few. But if it were my choice, I’d recommend Malaysia for the three reasons: prices are excellent, you can see just about anything that South East Asia has to offer in Malaysia and the multi-cultural diversity is just impossible to beat. One never knows what one will see in Malaysia.

Alas, of all the places in South East Asia I loved the most, well, that’s a no-brainer: Lake Toba was simply astounding. But I’m grateful I saw them all, or at least all but two: Burma and the Philippines. Next time, I keep telling myself, next time. And now I am going to go engage in the ritual of packing up, preparing to move on in the hopes that I’m ready for India this time, that I’ll not be too overwhelmed, or get too sick.

I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t a bit anxious. And I’d be an even bigger liar if I told you that I won’t miss East Asia. I will. I’ll miss hearing the languages and the amazing (and sometimes awful) smells. I’ll miss the smiles and I will miss the food. But the first leg of the journey ends tonight and the second begins tomorrow. As the Spanish say, “Traveller, there are no roads. Roads are made by walking.”

Why Did I Leave Toba, Again?

I guess it is to be expected: after having a magical experience I am so hating life right now, especially Penang. There is no way I am waiting here for twelve days for that boat, so I am off tomorrow to the Cameron Highlands to see some Tea Plantations and get some more cool air. This heat in the Straits is too much.

Anyone have any idea how long it takes ribs to heal? Seems like 10 days should be enough, but damn, they still hurt.

Final Thoughts On Indonesia, Sumatra and the Batak People

Parapat BazaarAs I await my return to Malaysia tomorrow I’ve spent some time pondering the differences between Sumatra in particular and Indonesia in general versus the rest of South-East Asia. Indonesia is not of East Asia, not by a long shot. If anything it resembles an odd cross between India and Polynesia. Indeed, I believe Indonesia is often referred to as a part of Melanesia. It’s certainly not of the West, either, having its own rhythms and its own unique way of doing things. But does it have much, if anything at all in common with the rest of South-East Asia? No.

For starters it is dominated by Islam (Aceh, Sumatra, and Java) with large pockets of Christianity (Bataks and the Nusa Tenggara island chain), Hinduism (in Bali) and tribal animism (Papua and other far out islands). There is no Buddhism here, nor is there any real Confucian influence, outside of the small Overseas Chinese communities, which make up about 3% of the population of Indonesia.

(The entire archive of Indonesia photos can be found here.)

Second, the peoples: they are extremely diverse. Some of them have the pan-East Asia look, but most do not, looking more like a cross between Arab, Hindu and Polynesian, with some even resembling the Aboriginal peoples of Australia. They are built differently. The women have wider hips and larger breasts than those in East Asia. The men are taller have broader chests and their hair, men and women alike is much more varied than the straight, coarse black hair so common across East Asia.

Jo-jo and Uncle Prepare the Feast!Third, the language: Bahasa Indonesia and the assorted languages of the islands are not tonal in any way. The grammatical structures are vastly different than those of East Asia. There are some superficial commonalities, like no past, present of future in the verbs, but they have a rich system of prefixes to determine tense and aspect. Word order is important, but not that important. Pronunciation is pretty easy. If you can roll your ‘Rs’ then you can speak Indonesian. They also use the Latin alphabet and there are many Dutch loan words.

Fourth, the foods they eat: Sure, they eat a lot of rice and noodles, but so do we. They fry everything, especially chicken and it is yummy. Corn is a substantial crop as are potatoes (which leads to a lot of obesity). They eat very fatty foods and drown their veggies in curries and sauces much as the Indians do. In this they are very unlike the other South East and East Asians who eat lots of lean foods with fresh vegetables.Batak Family

As for the family structure? I would say they have larger families, on average, than many of the South East Asian and East Asian cultures. Larger in the sense that cousins, uncles, sisters, and the whole lot are always included in just about everything. They also seem to have what I would call a ‘tribal’ mentality in their family structures as well. Let me explain. Tribes are very fluid, at least historically speaking, in a sense allowing anyone to join so long as they contribute. And in this sense people unrelated to the family at large become a part of the family. I saw this a lot at the guest house I stayed in. One young man and one older woman basically lived at the guest house by dint of the fact that they were friends and just participated in the life going on around the place. I found this very fascinating from an anthropological point of view and would hope to go back some day and get more involved in Batak society.

Palm Wine/BeerGranted, I only saw a small sliver of Sumatran society, much less that of Indonesia as a whole. The country stretches for three time zones and the infrastructure and immigration rules are such that long term travel in Indonesia just wasn’t feasible. But I will come back to Indonesia. Of that I have no doubt.

Quake In Papau

My Favorite Palm Tree in the Wolrd!No, I wasn’t any where near the earthquake in Papua. That’s like thousands of miles away from where I am. But damn, I miss Toba already. I left this morning. I didn’t want to leave. And I will return. I don’t know when but I have a project in mind with regards to Toba and the Batak people.

I took some photos on my iPhone on the way back into Medan. There was a massive landslide on the road out of town and traffic was blocked for a few hours until they cleared one lane. My mini-bus was built to seat nine, but there were seventeen of us in it, including an adorable little girl next to me.

I took some photos of a rubber plantation owned by Bridgestone. Real rubber trees. How cool is that? And I took two photos of a small town flooded by the local river but still going about business as usual. I admire the Indonesians. They have fortitude and toughness, but are amazingly kind.

As I the ferry pulled out from my guest house the whole family was there waving me good-bye. It brought tears to my eyes. I’ve been to some special places, folks, but Lake Toba? It’s the greatest place I’ve ever been. Hands down. Beats them all. I don’t know if it was the people, the island, the scenery, the coffee or something in the air. But a piece of my heart is still there and always will be.

Danua Toba New Year’s Revisited

Room With a ViewI’ll be leaving Lake Toba tomorrow, early and won’t be near a computer for a few days. But I wanted to leave you all with my best memory of Toba: New Year’s Eve.

From my travel journal:

“Yesterday was a good way to end 2008. I didn’t do much–had breakfast at my guesthouse, wrote, went up to Samosir Cottages to check my email, read some Thucydides, and then roused myself up–some how finding a hidden store of energy–and went to the bookstore. I bought two new books: The Walled Orchard, by Tom Holt, which is a comic retelling of the Peloponnesian War and Gates of Rome, by Conn Iggulden, about the early life of Julius Ceasar.

“I then returned to my guesthouse, had fresh lake fish fried up for me by ‘Mom,’ as we all call her. I talked with Raphael and Mari a bit and then went down to my room to watch the lake. Around 9pm Raphael came down to gather something from his room and encouraged me to come up, as Ricky and Michael and a few other friends had arrived. (I’m not a big New Year’s celebrater, as most have turned out very lousily.) But I relented and I am glad I did. I joined the revelry–sang songs, had a beer, sang some more–I’ve learned quite a few Batak songs–and generally bullshitted around until the old year turned into the new.

“I do believe it was the best New Year’s I’ve ever had, even better than the one from 1989-90. Now that was a night to remember! I had no expectations this year to be let down. There was no pressure from a wife or a girlfriend, or friends in general. Just new friends enjoying each other’s company, all in love with Lake Toba and the Batak people and all thrilled just to be exactly where they were the moment it the bells rang out across the lake. Jo-jo, Antonio, Raphael, Mari, ‘Mom,’ Ricky, Michael, the French family with the gorgeous sixteen year old daughter (if I were the father I would be watching her like a hawk) and several others whose names escape me all toasted in the New Year together. A magical highlight to two magical weeks.”

The next afternoon I wrote this:

“The first miracle of the New Year has arrived. Rain. Rain like I have never seen it. Rain falling on the surface of the lake, like a boiling cauldron, and a gray wall blankets everything. Visibility is less than 40 meters. It comes in waves, like the ocean, intensifying and then relenting. The cycles begins again. It’s so loud I can barely hear myself think over the soothing sounds it makes, falling on the broad banana tree leaves and the corrugated iron roofs.”

I could look out, as I sit here and type, at this view every day for the rest of my life–and a long one it will be–and not grow tired of the sight. To the spit of land jutting into the waters to the north, the high green mountains, the cascading waterfall, the villages lining the lakeside, the rice paddies, the volcano rising in the far north, usually obscured by clouds, children climbing in fruit trees, the drifting clouds, the dramatic sunsets and the perfectly formed palm tree to my right I have grown to love.

We all dream of places where we find peace. Places that inhabit our souls, places seemingly unreachable, if only in our dreams. I’ve found mine. And for that I give thanks.

And as for that whisper on the wind, I finally learned what I was saying today. It says with a kind, gentle, firmness, “you’ll be back.”

Yes, I will.

Six Months Gone

Sign Says it AllI haven’t been writing much about Lake Toba lately for two reasons: one, I’m still recovering from my unfortunate encounter with the water buffalo and two, there really isn’t much to blog about when all you do is walk around, hang out with the locals, gossip, read, relax, talk some more, sing some songs and generally do nothing. But, I’ve got photos here from New Year’s Eve and the amazing rain shower yesterday, so you can check those out if you like.

I realized today that it’s been six months since I left home–Austin, to be exact–and a little more than three months since I left my job. I had a return flight from Singapore to Austin on December 24th, but clearly, I’m not ready to return. Bruised ribs aside, I feel great. The only adventure I’ve had in the last few days was the drive to Siantar, an hour north of here to get some cash.

I play and Mike and Ricky SingI needed some money. I was running low. I took the hour long ferry off the island to the mainland, walked to the ATM and it was out of money. the bank said it would be several days until it was refilled.

Annoyed, I sat down at a restaurant/coffee shop next door and complained about my poor luck. A local with good English overheard my mumbles of irritation and offered to take me to Siantar, a city about an hour north–for a price of course. He asked for ten dollars. But I told him it was too much for the risk:

“What if there is no money in Siantar? Now I have even less money.”

So, we agreed that I would pay $5 if there was no money and $10 if there was.

The drive was fantastic. We stopped on the roadside and fed the monkeys. Monkeys are just fucking cool! Anyone who can’t see we have a common ancestor with them is just blind. But I digress . . .

We drove past rubber plantations, palm oil plantations and banana plantations. Siantar was a dump, but still, I got my money. The driver taught me several local words–Batak words, not Indonesia, mind you and I can now count to ten in Batak and say, “I’m hungry” and “I want to swim.” How that is going to help me, I know not, but it was still one of those wild times when the cultural chasm that separates two men was bridged and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It also reminded me that I need to get off the backpacker trial much more often than I have and really mix with the locals.

Something I am going to do when I leave here in a few days.

As for being on the road so long, well sometimes I have guilty flashes, or premonitions about life in the ‘real world.’ Urges from civilization, I call them. As if something isn’t quite right–”call your father,” I think. “Why aren’t you at work?” “I need to get home.” Do something with my life.” To name just a few.

But, I am growing out of them slowly. I quickly remind myself:

“My father is fine. I’m not in high school anymore.”

“This is my job. Living life to its fullest.”

“Home? Where is home? And why hurry? What do I have to return to? A storage shed full of books and furniture from a broken marriage?”

“This is my life. And this, here, now, is what I am doing with it.”

This is pretty much my life right now and I’m loving it, as my friend Ricky would say.

And more is to come. I’ll be leaving Toba soon, heading back to Medan and then Malaysia to await my ship to India and beyond.

The Fine Art Of Doing Nothing

What I wake up to every morningSongbirds whistle in the trees. The soft patter of children running in the street and the sleepy rustle of leaves in the breeze fill my ears.

“Horas,” they call out in greeting. A child whines and clothes dry in the cool lake air. Branches sway; the sun falls upon my face; some invisible force pulls the clouds away and over the mountains. They watch calmly. They are patient—just like the Batak.

Shouts rise from the pier below: a ferry passes, conversations drift in off the water. Carried by the wind. A boy calls to his father. A moped sputters past and ‘Uncle’ pulls in smoke from his cigarette. He taps out a rhythm on the table with his fingers, bends over, whispers something to the boy next to him who dutifully rises, returning with a full glass of palm wine.

There is a ruckus in the kitchen. Clouds pass over the sun again. An empty beer bottle rolls on the ground, shattering the silence. A hungry kitten begs for my attention. I throw him a chicken bone. It crunches in his strong, tiny jaws. I think about swimming, but the urge passes. “I’ve already showered in the lake,” I tell myself.

Momma cat stares at me with her one blue eye and one green. Keys jingle in a pocket. A door slams. She holds her stare—“what eyes these cats have here,” I think—pale blue, almost gray. Others as green as a beer bottle. She is hungry. She wants chicken too. But it’s gone—her kitten ate all of my leftovers. She paces back and forth now. Someone tunes a guitar.

“They will play soon,” I think to myself, “when the sun sets, the songs begin.”

A pomegranate falls to the ground in a muffled thud. ‘Uncle’ coughs, drinks more wine. We can’t speak to each other but our simultaneous smiles communicate all that needs to be said.

The wind shifts, now coming from the East, from Medan and the vast waters of the Straits. It stirs up the lake water—white caps appear, a cock crows in the distance like a confused muezzin. Children mumble downstairs playing a game with rocks.

‘Uncle’ climbs into the rafter on his wife’s orders, pulls out some wires. “Those are the ones,” she indicates. She tells him what to do and he does so without complaint. They share the soft ease of familiarity, children and many years of marriage in a smile.

She is strong. She is stout. Not handsome, but not ugly, either. Her children surround her. Like pilgrims come to see the Pieta in the Vatican they touch her softly, with reverence. They tug her red shirt, mewling questions.

“Her chicken curry is splendid,” I think to myself.

‘Uncle’ confirms he is doing it right. She smiles again. He smiles. She returns to the kitchen, shooing her children away like flies.

‘Grandmother’ sits in the shade. She smiles a beautiful, welcoming, red smile.

“She likes beetelnuts,” Antonio tells me, “they help with her afflictions.” She is 70 years old but smacks her grandson for some transgression with the reflexes of a professional athlete. He howls at the injustice and runs inside.

‘Mother’ brings me ‘kopi suzu.’

“Sean,” she says, “Stay away from palm wine. Or you will be like him.” She points at ‘Uncle’ her husband and laughs. He’s playing the guitar now. His task with the wires complete.

Dragonflies circle the mulch pile like silent helicopters. A bee-eater darts in like a dive-bomber, snagging one and scattering the rest.

My coffee is of heaven. I admire the copy of Herodotus on the table before me. I consider reading it.

“Why,” I ask myself, “visit Cambyses, the Persian Conquest of Egypt and the ‘Long-Lived’ Ethiopians, when what is before me, rain rolling over a tall cliff, a canoe tugging a fishnet or that whisper on the wind are so much more compelling?”

I haven’t listened to my iPod for days. Why should I? What does that world have to offer me that I don’t have right here?

“Horas,” says Efan.

“Horas,” I reply.

Two bee-eaters in a pine tree are chattering. A mother hen clucks. The wind remains steady, water beating against the shore in regular intervals now. The waves beat time for ‘Uncle’s’ songs.

“Aha!” I think to myself. “That’s why their rhythms are so unique. Sure, the music is based on the Western scale, but the rhythms are waves beating time.”

Perhaps the secret of the whisper will be so revealed. So I hope.

I think about swimming again but put it off. There is too much nothing right here before me to miss.

I can’t afford to miss any of it and so I remain, quiet, observing with a smile and ‘Horas’ ready on my tongue.

I am reminded of Yeats and his “bee loud glade.” This must be what he meant. His other poems are too mystical for me. But I know “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” I am there.

One of the boys knocks fruit from a tree. He’s pudgy. Likes food. He smiles at me as he peels back the skin of some exotic tropical fruit. Whose life is better? Who has more imagination? This boy who has the world before him or one who plays Nintendo all day?

No, wait. The world I so want to escape intrudes. I brush the thought away.

The ferry pulls up to our pier. Perhaps we have new guests? I summon the will to rise up and see. It’s a Japanese girl.

“Traveling alone,” I think? Curious.

‘Uncle’ sings in the late afternoon breeze. I sit. Exhausted by the effort. I won’t move again for at least another hour.

It starts to trickle. Water beats down on corrugated iron roofs. The smell of fresh rain and asphalt rise in the still air. Children run inside, hurrying to take down the clothes drying in the sunshine now past.

What magnificent mélange of sounds is this? Children scurrying about, ‘Uncle’ on the guitar, the wind and the rain?

If I didn’t know any better, if I didn’t know that something else amazing would happen as I sit here over the next few hours, I might fool myself into thinking my day was complete.