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.