We travel from Malaysia to Sumatra, Indonesia, on the Vomit Boat. Its real name is the Star Express. But throughout the four hour journey we listen to everyone on board throw their dinners up into plastic bags (ironically, before this, the staff give everyone a meal of chicken and rice when the boat is still on deceptively calm waters). The boat sways roughly from side to side, and there’s no access to a deck or any fresh air.
If you want to find out how it feels to be famous (and I mean really famous like a Hollywood actor) then head to the town of Tanjungbalai. Everyone we pass says hello to us. Everyone wants photos with us. And this sets the tone for our month hitchhiking through Sumatra and Aceh.
Hitching this part of Indonesia certainly isn’t as easy as in Malaysia, and journeys take many hours longer. “Oh my god, I can’t handle this, Chris!” I say, almost in tears, as we stand at the side of the road, trying to hitch our first lift. Countless tuktuks (or baycaks, as they’re known in Sumatra) and minibuses pull up beside us, even though we’re holding up a sign which says numpang (meaning to ride share). And if tuktuks aren’t surrounding us, people stop and chat to us, making it really difficult to flag down a vehicle.
But once we get out of Tanjungbalai, hitchhiking is much easier. We always hold up the numpang sign, and we make a hitchhiking letter in Bahasa Indonesian, explaining to drivers what we’re doing.
I don’t understand why the people of Sumatra are so excited to see two foreigners. One young guy explains as he sits with us over dinner: “It’s a special moment for us. We don’t get many tourists in Sumatra.”
Hundreds of people ask us for selfies. Travelling here is both beautiful and exhausting. It’s really lovely to meet so many people, but tiring because I want to make an effort with each new person.
Drivers in Sumatra and Aceh are reckless. Hitchhiking – mostly in the back of pickup trucks – terrifies me here (although walking on the streets terrifies me more). Men drive at insane speeds on the wrong side of the road. If someone or something gets in their way, they don’t do the logical thing and slow down. They continue at top speed, beeping their horn until the truck/person/cat/chicken moves out of the way.
Whilst hitching in Sumatra and Aceh we meet sexist male drivers who make lecherous comments from their truck windows at girls who are barely older than fourteen. All over the world, women and girls have to put up with this shit. It makes me so angry. And in the comment book of one hotel, I read one woman’s comment about how she was sexually assaulted by a middle aged man on a public bus. When she shouted out, other men on the bus ignored her calls for help.
Sumatra’s a beautiful place, though, and one of the highlights of my life happens when we hike up to the crater of Sibayak volcano. Despite this being the most visited volcano in Sumatra, Chris and I are the only people around. The sulphur fumeroles hiss and smoke so loudly that I wonder if there’s about to be an eruption.
Aceh province had an armed insurgence against the Indonesian government. The Indonesian police and army carried out massive atrocities in the region. Aceh is now officially an autonomous region. In our fleeting week here, it’s difficult to see any evidence of the resistance that occurred against the state, and it’s even more difficult to see what the people have gained from this new autonomy (unless corporate capitalist investment is seen as a gain). Indonesian military propaganda is everywhere in the city of Banda Aceh, along with a massive military base in the centre of the traffic-clogged town.
Banda Aceh was the area most affected by the 2004 tsunami, although the city has been largely reconstructed. We visit the Tsunami Museum, which is dire. The building is an impressive piece of architecture, but this alone is not enough to make a good museum. The museum’s videos and displays focus on how the Indonesian government “rose to the challenge” of helping the people of Aceh. “It’s like reading the government’s annual report,” Chris remarks. Other displays in the museum focus on all of the countries that donated to the reconstruction. There’s barely any firsthand accounts of what people went through.
It is in Aceh province that we visit Gunung Leuser national park. We do a two day jungle trek from the village of Ketambe. This walk is steep, difficult and slippery, and is a million times better than any trek you would do in Laos or Thailand. The tour guides are not attempting to commodify ‘hill tribes’. The hikes from Ketambe are purely about the jungle. We are lucky enough to see gibbons, Thomas Leaf monkeys and wild orangutans. I have seen semi-wild orangutans before at a sanctuary in Borneo, but these orangutans are completely wild. These beautiful beings only exist in Sumatra and Borneo, and their lives are at stake due to deforestation.
Every year – in the dry season – Sumatra goes up in flames as illegal fires are started in order to clear forest and peatland for palm oil plantations. As we travel through Aceh, we see forests on fire. How pointless palm oil is. An ingredient that’s added to processed junk foods is replacing ancient, precious jungle, home to so many beings. The rainforests are disappearing at a crazy rate. Boycott palm oil!
Once again, we are very grateful to the kind strangers who helped us to travel around Sumatra. Here are just a few of the people gave us lifts: