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Dec. 1st, 2006

My first Nias earthquake

I've spent the last hour or so sitting on a little balcony overlooking the Strait. There's unsecured wireless internet here for the use of NGOs and the like. It's a good connection, a great view, and pretty much the ideal office. There's even a shipwreck a hundred metres away.

A few minutes ago I felt my table move. I thought maybe a big truck had pulled up. Then I noticed that the floor below also moved. In fact, everything moved, albeit slightly.

There's an Indonesian fella seated near me, enjoying the view while he puffs a Marlboro cigarette and taps away at hs laptop. He looked up, gave me a smile, and said, "Earthquake, yeah?"

Then Vasco called, just checking that I had felt the tremor, and reassuring me that the gang in her office had looked out at the ocean and it was still flat. No tsunami.

We had a party last night - around fifty Indonesians crammed onto our veranda, cleaning out the fridge, and having a good old chat. A couple of the older blokes were surveying the house. They remarked that it was made of timber, which is good in earthquakes, and some very tough coconut palm wood. Very safe, they said.

On the way here Penny and I were getting drenched. It was pissing down. The last minute actually involved hail or something, and it stung like buggery. There's been sunlight since then, but now it is pouring again and the ocean view I was enjoying is obcured by mist.

Hello Pulau Nias.

Nov. 30th, 2006

Notes from possibly the world's dodgiest net cafe

A few things I have been meaning to mention but have been unable to for want of a reliable internet connection.

Bad boys on bikes

Young blokes in Nias seem to have a bit of a thing for black t-shirts adorned with slogans or band names in english. You know, Metallica shirts and that kind of thing. I'm not always certain that the wearers know what their shirts say, but sometimes I am sure that they do.

Yesterday I was doing the Honda Wobble along Jalan Diponegoro in the midday traffic jam. This young dude on a big sputtering trail bike flew right past me, weaving between cars, bikes, and school kids. The back of his black t-shirt featured a picture of a skeleton riding a motorbike. It read "Ride hard, die young".

A beautiful garden

For a few days now I have been setting off in search of the fabled German monastery. Not to over-dramatise, this means simply turning down streets I have never been down before and cruising on Penny until I get lost and either find a known landmark or do a u-turn. These little diversions have led me to some interesting areas both in Gunung Sitoli and on its outskirts. No monastery as yet.

Last week I mentioned to Vasco that I was a little sad to see no gardens in town. And no well-kept homes. Everything seems so utilitarian here and I am longing for some glimpse of the Nias that existed before the Honda shops opened and the tsunami struck. Or maybe some examples of traditional homes or art or music or something. Maybe in a village.

Anyway, this morning I was heading off to find the monastery. There was a road near the markets that I had been eyeing off for a while - it led up into the hills, inland, north, away from town. So off I went, taking a turn onto a windy road that circumnavigated a large hill above town. Homes up here were bigger and more traditional. I started to catch glimpses of some scenery between the buildings that lined the road. Mountains, jungle, heavy clouds. Very nice.

I crossed a dodgy old bridge comprised only of wooden planks - and not very bloody many of them. The road continued to wind. I had just decided to do a u-turn when I spotted a beautiful green garden in front of an old wooden house. It was the most carefully tended garden I have yet seen and had clearly been established for many years; ornamental palms, heart-shaped taro, ginger, flowers, and narow walkways of soft green grass. Even some of the tall, thin fellas I have planted at home along the front of our veranda.

Later, I brought Vasco along for a look. We hopped off Penny like a pair of timid tourists, said hello to a woman who spotted us from the doorway, and asked if we could look at her beautiful garden.

The town is exciting and interesting, and it's a great way to get to know the people and the place. But it does get to be too much from time to time. We're planning a road trip this weekend, and my itchy feet are longing to hit the road. Meantime, this garden has made my day, and reminded me that there is more to this little island than rattling motorbikes and muddy streets. It was a timely reminder.

Boats to Sebolga

Nias depends on mainland Sumatera for a number of goods, both food and non-food items. One such item is tahu (tofu), although Vasco has a bit of a scheme in motion to remedy that. So boats head to and from the mainland daily from a big ugly concrete dock down behind the central business district in Gunung Sitoli. There are also ferries that take people to and from Sebolga.

From my perch on our veranda - known as the "Bintang Seat" - I watch these boats almost every night. I can look out to the north and see a clump of lights on the water's edge representing the dock. Above it is a small lighthouse.

From here, the boats themselves look like a string of lights floating on the water. The lights become more dense as the boat fills. When it is full and well-lit, the boat detaches from the dock and heads north-east in a very straight line. I can watch them for a good forty minutes at which point they finally blink out on the horizon. At about the same time the next one detaches and starts the same journey.

I love watching the boats. A little string of lights on the dark water, moving steadily away. I have to remind myself that up close they are probably alive with noisy madness.

They head off in pretty much any conditions. It can be bloody pissing down with rain and they still detach slowly from the dock and make their steady progression out onto the sea. When the weather is good they head off en masse, pulling out every ten minutes or so instead of every half an hour, so there is a procession of lights moving away from the island. When there is a storm nearby, the lightning illuminates the water for miles around and I can see the surface of the sea, its vastness a reminder of how small the little Nias boats really are.

Nov. 27th, 2006

A couple of things


On the weekend I was able to spend a couple of hours online to catch up on some news from home. I needn’t have bothered.

A cease-fire in Palestine, Australia beating someone at cricket, the Opposition calling for an inquiry into something, deaths in Iraq, deaths in Afghanistan, an activist disappearing in China, shootings in the US.

Seriously, these stories could have come from the news headlines on any day over the past five years or so. Maybe I don’t need to worry about not reading or hearing the news for a few weeks. It will all be there later, just as I left it.

A brief encounter in morning traffic

I visited the markets early this morning, around eight o’clock. At this time of morning, the traffic at each of the main intersections in town is being directed by whistle-blowing police officers who stand in the middle of the road.

There’s a little bridge in town, just before you reach the markets and the big one-way loop that comprises the central business district. The bridge is always congested – bicycles, becaks, motor bikes, school kids walking along, four wheel drives – and this morning was no exception.

I slowed on my approach to the bridge and settled into the traffic alongside other wobbling motor cycles. I love the Honda wobble that occurs when things are going so slow but no one wants to actually put their foot out and stop.

On my left I saw a tiny little girl in a maroon skirt and white blouse. She was sitting on a bench attached above the back tyre of a bicycle and had her arms wrapped around the young, wiry man who I assumed was her older brother or father. Her head was resting on his t-shirted back and she was watching the traffic roll by.

The fella riding the bike spotted an opening and moved forward ahead of me. I slowed to allow him passage, and he gave me a smile and a "pagi". The little girl waved and smiled as they disappeared into the surging flow of traffic and around the bend ahead of me.


I had my silly little ginger beard trimmed in Medan. The barber did a very professional job – including an interesting move that involved shaving my, err, forehead. Anyway, I think maybe it’s now time to cut the beard off completely.

You see, as I was wandering around the markets this morning, a lovely young lady said to me, "Selamat pagi, pak", or "Good morning, old man."

Cheeky bugger.

So I’m thinking about visiting a barber tomorrow. Maybe he can dye my grey hair, too. That’s a request that will really test my Bahasa Indonesia.

Nov. 26th, 2006

Wild weather

Our home on the hill is a big wooden place on stilts with a veranda extending half way around both the main living area and the two bedrooms. This affords an amazing view of the Strait and the town below, with jungle on both sides and the hill rising behind us. And so when the weather turns wild - as it seems to do most days - we have front row seats.

The sea can tell you a lot when you are lucky enough to look upon it from a height. For example, today I remarked upon the semi-circle of brownish haze that was hugging the coastline near Gunung Sitoli. I hoped it wasn't pollution. Indeed, it is silt from the two rivers that flow through town - likely some of it is also waste.

I'm perched on the veranda to type these words. Right now the sea is warning me to go inside before it pisses down - there's a monstrous body of dark cloud moving across the mountains behind us and to the north, and I saw it's shadow over the water before I saw it. The water is dark, and becoming choppy.

Last week a pretty spectacular storm rolled in off the Strait, originating north-east of here. I've chatted with a few people about it and we reckon it was a small cyclone.

I was in the kitchen that afternoon, having just finished painting our timber furniture. The kitchen faces the sea on one side through large windows. I had noticed that a storm was moving toward us, but when the water started to churn and darken I knew this was going to be a bewdy. From up here, the water actually looked like it was being sucked into the storm.

When the rain reached land I could hear the water lashing the buildings in town. Gunung Sitoli all but disappeared into a mist. And the rain was coming in on a vicious angle. I watched the rain move up the hill toward us like a sheet. There was a pause after a few minutes - like in the eye of a cyclone - then it continued on again. We lost several sections of the roof and the place was drenched.

The big black cloud I mentioned before has headed north, but it is still pretty dark here. When I sat down to start typing around fifteen minutes ago it was sunny with a nice sea breeze. Now it is still - sweaty, quiet, and almost tense.

Before I landed on Nias, a few Indonesians I had spoken to had referred to Nias as "wild". I'd laughed then, but now I agree.

The German Monastery

A few nights ago the Tropical Correspondent took me to dinner at a noisy road-side restaurant named Bintang Terung. The TC spotted a UN bloke that she knew and asked him to sit with us.

We had a pretty good chat about Nias, the development issues here, and a few other things. When we were talking about the island, this fella asked if we had been to the old German Convent near town. Huh? Yeah, apparently there is even an old German nun who lives there.

I have seen plenty of churches around the place and have spotted religious paintings on walls and so on, but a convent would be so out of place. I just didn't know what to think.

Anyway, this morning the TC and I headed to the Gunung Sitoli markets on Penny.* We'd sloshed through the mud to the fresh produce stalls and were hunting down spices, fresh veggies, and tofu.

We were in the process of buying black rice and tofu when we noticed an old nun standing beside us and making purchases from the same stall. The German nun! She was chatting away with the stall owners in Indonesian and when she noticed us asked where we were from and what we were up to.

As she left, she joked that she always left the market with less money, then she said goodbye to us in German.

Okay. Indonesia. Small tropical island. Saturday morning. Fruit and vegetable markets. German nun. Of course this makes sense.

There are a lot of things that catch my eye as I wander through the streets of Gunung Sitoli or cruise on the roads along the coast to the north and south. Little things that make me want to know more about this place and its history. This is another one of those things, I reckon.

* Penny is a blue 125cc Honda SupraX and I love her.

Nov. 24th, 2006

Some observations of northern Nias

There is a lot to be said about Nias Island. About its people, its history, and its future. Among many other things. And I reckon there's probably plenty to be said about its natural environment and ecology, too. I'd like to make a small contribution to these discussions, and will do so down the track a little bit.

For now, though, I'm concerned with the present. And I am conscious that my notes to date are a poor offering when compared to my more robust journal entries from earlier this year. I'll attempt to make amends for this, and we'll pick up where I left off – arrival on Nias Island about two weeks ago.

Such a vibrantly green island

I was stunned by the beauty of Sumatera's dense tropical forests, and yet I only saw them from a distance. Upon arriving on Nias Island, I found myself looking upon this greenery at very close range. And now, settled as we are atop a hill, we are surrounded by jungle. It encroaches on homes, provides canopy above roads and walking tracks, and is literally moving with life throughout the day and the night. Even standing in the town centre, you can see the thickly forested hills above.

So Nias is a green island. There is much I am yet to see, and frankly I wonder how it can be navigated. Apparently there are some caves nearby (indeed, just a few hundred metres away) and some tracks that a few international residents traverse with their mountain bikes. I can't help but think that, when the post-tsunami work wraps up and the NGOs move out, there will be an urgent need for new sources of income for the local community. The opportunities for eco-tourism are immense, although I fear that at this point they are not being realised. But more on that later.

Lazy (chicken-littered, pot-holed, dusty, muddy, riveresque) Highways

After marveling at the jungle surrounding the tarmac, it was time to jump into a four wheel drive and head into town. A very windy and narrow asphalt road snakes its way along the coast toward Gunung Sitoli, never out of sight of the water and never taking us too far inland where the hills begin their steep climbs. Timber and brick homes cling to the road like the artery that it is, set back only far enough to allow space for deep, open concrete drainage. Many of these drains seem in need of maintenance, and just as many are currently being repaired.

Most of the homes along this main stretch are road are small, built on the ground, and with thatched or currugated iron roofs. All have small green patches of garden in front, beside, or behind. The little heart shaped leaves of sweet potato and taro are everywhere. Some gardens also host headstones for deceased family members adorned with a cross. And there are churches everywhere! Chooks, naturally, run all over the shop. School kids walk along holding hands and chatting, their little blue Unicef backpacks strapped on, seemingly oblivious to the traffic but managing to stay clear of danger.

Traffic in Nias is a slower, less intense version of what you would encounter in the larger cities of Southeast Asia. Bicycles, motor bikes, trucks, four wheel drives, and pedestrians all swim chaotically and largely unharmed across the road. Drivers toot their horns only to let others know where they are, it's okay for kids to walk three or four abreast on the road, and everything just kind of works. Even the dogs seem to understand the rules – they just sit and scratch themselves while the trucks and bikes hurtle by.

The approach to Gunung Sitoli itself brings the road very close to the sea again. Here the sight is breathtaking and, sadly, the smell is much the same. Palm trees line the road, leaning out toward the seas. The water is flat and dark blue. Sumatera is invisible, shrouded somewhere on the horizon.

Gunung Sitoli

I'm perched on our veranda as I type this, looking down on Gunung Sitoli to find the words to describe the place. From here, it is nothing more than a tangle of shiny iron-roofed buildings clumped together in the jungle, clinging to each other between the tall palms. There is no city noise. Indeed, all I can hear is the wind in the trees, the distant rattle of Honda engines and the blurting of their overworked horns, and some old bloke cutting down bananas with a machete. There are no high-rise buildings, no factories or huge warehouses, no highways or overpasses, and no railway tracks or stations.

Well, that's covered what isn't in Gunung Sitoli. So what is there?

The main road into town is know as Jalan Diponegoro*, or Diponegoro Street, and it is simply a more cluttered and congested version of the coastal road. Here it is toko (shops) that hug (sometimes strangle) the main arterial – barbers, hardware stores, roadside restaurants, motorcycle repairers. Most shop fronts are weathered concrete or timber affairs.

There are two main points of congestion before the road reaches the town centre. The first is the petrol station – the only one in town, although two more are being built – and the bus terminal (where the word bus is simply used for want of an appropriate english equivalent). The petrol stations generates very long queues of both trucks and motor bikes which almost constantly spill out onto the street. The roadside near the bus terminal is crowded with becak drivers and motor bikes.

The centre of town comprises a large one-way loop which is home to dozens of shops, hotels, and restaurants. Nearby is the traditional market, another point of congestion – bikes here wobble dangerously as they almost come to a complete stop behind trucks and four wheel drives. You can imagine the noise. Backing onto the loop is a water front strip littered with vendors of imported foods and goods and a gaggle of restaurants. Oh, and I have seen a few goats, too. Then there's a series of streets leading away from the town centre and towards the hills, and this is where we find homes, banks, schools and government buildings.

Gunung Sitoli isn't all that big, but it can be as noisy as any other city, particular at the congestion points. With so much construction work being carried out around the town the roads are constantly rumbling with the passing of trucks. Those stuck behind them toot their horns. Shops play music as loud as possible. The Muslim call to prayer rings out. Honda engines crackle angrily and demand to be serviced. As Vasco says, there is no volume control in Indonesia.

I guess that's enough for now. Welcome to Gunung Sitoli. I'll post shortly about Home on Miga Hill.

* It is my understanding that the name, Diponegoro, derives from a Javanese prince who fought against the Dutch in the nineteenth century. It was also the name of a military unit that Sukarno served in during the war for independence.

Nov. 23rd, 2006

Photos now, words to come

Just a quick g'day. All is well, and job-hunting is now under way.

I'll post some words on Gunung Sitoli in the next couple of days or so, and a few thoughts about Indonesia and its people.

There are now a few more photos up at my Flickr page including this peak through our kitchen window which is my favourite.

See ya.

Nov. 20th, 2006

A fragment of electronic communication...

I sent a text message to a mate last week and she helpfully transcribed it for posterity and emailed it to me. Here tis.
Haven't thought about Sydney for what seems like a very long time. Now chillaxing on the veranda in the sun. Kids across the road keep yelling out and waving. The city is tiny below our hill, and the noise of the traffic occasionally reaches me looks like rain coming slowly over the hill. There's a nice breeze. The ocean is flat and blue. Have bought my second long neck from next door. The girl serving at the little window cant be more than six. Vasco will be here soon with her knitting, sitting on these low plastic seats we have and nattering about the NWAB at work. Hope you can perch here with us one day.
Sums it all up quite nicely.

From Sydney to Medan to Nias

I realised last night, as I knocked the tops off a few Bintangs on the veranda and watched a heavy storm break over the sea north of here, that it's been less than three weeks since I walked out of the office for the final time and struck out to find a new path. Since then I have become immersed in a new culture and a new climate and have settled into a new home. The adjustment period has been pretty smooth, and I have finally found a net cafe in Gunung Sitoli, so it's time to update this journal. [Edit: The buggers are always full, closed, or suffering a bad connection, so I am actually (eventually) posting this from an undisclosed NGO office.]

Medan via Singapore

When I packed my bags a couple of weeks ago I was proud of my efforts to pack light. Nothing spurious qualified. However, no sooner had I boarded the plane then I realised that I had forgotten a number of important articles: designer sunglasses, Italian shoes, a gold-plated watch...

Fortunately for this travel-weary consumer, all of these things plus much much more can be purchased at SIngapore airport! Imagine my relief as I fossicked in my pockets for my plastic. And what's more, all of the advertisements featured white people like me, so I couldn't get confused by the sight of an Asian face.

Yes, I found SIngapore airport quite interesting, and very amusing, in a dark kind of way.

The contrast with Medan's Polonia airport could not be more pronounced. It's a fraction of the size, and reminded me of the airports in Cambodia and Vietnam. A lovely black labrador sniffed me enthusiastically for contraband - failing to notice the antibiotics for which I had no prescription! - and that was that. Hearing a shout of "Tofu!", I quickly located the Tropical Correspondent at the taxi rank.

Hati hati!

Our taxi driver was a madman - seriously. Even by Southeast Asian standards, this bloke was loopy. He'd nose the vehicle out into traffic, spot an opening, slam the accelerator down, and then shout "BINGO!" This happened several times, sometimes topped off by "Here we go!" or "Let's get it on!" Even Vasco's shouts of "Hati hati!" could not slow him down - he simply laughed maniacally. Great fun.

We spent a few days in Medan, a big commercial city with (I think) a population of around two and a half million. Travel is by bechak (bay-chuck), a motorbike rickshaw. Medan reminded me a lot of Phnom Penh, although a marked difference would be the number of cars on the road - much more than in Cambodia - and most of them big new four wheel drives, just what you need to negotiate crowded city streets. A sign of new wealth, I'm guessing, just like the large new houses we saw on a couple of our bechak trips.

We ate primarily at street restaurants, except for one night when the noise was just too much (and we had spent three hours trying to find a restaurant that had closed down) and a lunch we had in the food court at the scarily large Sun Plaza shopping centre. I am a big fan of the street food - compressed rice, tofu, different curries, rice porridge, noodles, roti, and plenty of veggies.

But Medan was merely a stopover. Once we had stocked up on lentils in the Little India area and my beard had been expertly trimmed (and photographed) it was time to hop on a light aircraft and cross the sea to Nias Island.

Crossing the Mentawai Strait to Pulau Nias

I don't think I've ever been in a twelve seater plane before, but I am looking forward to doing so again on my way back to Sydney in December. I was perched right behind the pilots and had a great view of both the scenery around us and the flight controls.

From the air, Medan's sheer size was breath-taking. We then headed out across densely forested mountains toward the Mentawai Strait. Crossing the water, small islands could be seen here and there. The plane was buffeted a little by rain and wind, but I am assured that this is normal. Indeed, the Correspondent slept in the seat next to me for much of the journey.

After around an hour, Nias Island came into sight - basically a jungle rising out of the water - and we touched down on a strip of tarmac etched out of the jungle. I was absolutely speechless - everything was so green and wild and beautiful.

I've realised that this is getting quite long, so I'll leave it there and post more soon. If the connection speed will permit it, some photos will be uploaded to my Flickr page, too.

Nov. 8th, 2006

Leaving Sydney

My bags are packed and I am leaving tomorrow at midday. First stop is Singapore, albeit briefly, and then Medan, Indonesia. I'll be spending a few days in Medan and surrounds with the Tropical Correspondent before heading to Pulau Nias for a two month stay. A trip to Aceh may be in there somewhere, too.

Net access will be limited, so I expect there'll be radio silence for a week or two, then I'll log in and post some thoughts and images. See ya!

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