8 pm last night saw us loading into a Toyota Kijang Innova with three other passengers plus a driver, en route to our next destination: the Kerinci region of Jambi province, in Sumatra. We picked an overnight transfer because we figured it’d be preferable to losing a travel day on transit, and we figured we could at least get a little bit of shut eye on the way. Oh how wrong I was!
We were stacked 3 across in the second row next to an older woman who had a large box that smelled of strong fruit on her lap, plus her handbag and a plastic grocery bag. In the back row there was a younger guy alongside some luggage. The ride was set to be just over eight hours long, so upon entering, Jason and I worked on figuring out how to get comfortable for the duration.
The van stops every couple of hours for a pee break / leg stretching session, and on the second stop, after fitful nodding off where I kept finding myself slumping or sliding toward the woman next to me, the guy in the back offered me the other seat in his row. He must have been watching my struggle from behind. Thinking it’d give Jason and I both a better chance at sleep, I accepted, but the second my bum hit the chair, I realized what I had done. By then seats were already back in place and the driver was ready to take off. I decided to suck it up, resulting in not one wink if sleep the entire night.
Sometime during the previous leg, the woman next to me had passed her box back to this row. There was also a large-ish day pack and some other parcel in a plastic grocery bag on the floor, plus the legroom was about half of what’s available one row forward, not to mention the fact that once butt cheek was riding on the wheel well, meaning my hips were cocked at an angle for the next four hours. The headrest sat pretty much between my shoulder blades, and no amount of fiddling with it was going to budge it upwards. On top of this, like most men in this part of the world, the driver was a chain smoker, and he left the window down for the whole ride, most of which was set in the chilly altitudes around 3000 feet. While Jason somewhat fitfully slept in the seat ahead of me, I donned socks on my hands and shoved my arms into my open daypack as deep as I could get them, and shivered the night away while crumpled into some incredibly mangled version of the emergency bracing position from airline safety brochures, NOT SLEEPING AT ALL.
The road to Sungai Penuh (our destination) winds around a lot, is very narrow, and is pockmarked with potholes, washouts, and the occasional stream running across it. Suffice it to say it was not terribly pleasant, what with huge trucks and speedy little motorbikes coming in the opposite direction, or passing where there wasn’t room to, or riding on the wrong side of the road, etc. The saving grace is that no one really goes very fast thanks to all the road hazards along the way.
The good news in we arrived in Sungai Penuh unscathed, and we checked into Hotel Kerinci ($22.50/night in standard room with hot water) at 5 am only to fall immediately into a deep sleep. When we awoke, our host Sim came by with a couple of gifts—toilet paper (not used in this part of the world, water is used instead)and cinnamon sticks (cultivated organically in Kerinci area). He also introduced us to our guide for the week, Rycko, and we set out for some touring.
Sungai Penuh is an alluring little city set in the Kerinci (pronounced “ker-in-chee”) Valley, sort of in the central west/southwest of Sumatra. It’s very clean by Asian standards, and the people are incredibly open and welcoming. They don’t see a lot of “white people,” so we’re something of a marvel, and when we’re walking down the street we tend to draw a lot of attention. The nice thing is, people are definitely not jaded about tourist outsiders jamming cameras in their faces, and instead are all about posing for your photos, and very interested in seeing them when you’re done. It’s cool.
Five times a day, calls to prayer are issued from the minarets of the many mosques around town, and the city fills with the cacophony of muezzins. It’s an incredible ruckus, and I find it helps me mark the passage of the day. We visited one of these mosques today, the Masjid Agung, a nontraditional looking older mosque built in a style reminiscent of Melayu buildings, using carved woods fitted together like puzzle pieces, and using no nails whatsoever. The floor was covered in Persian rugs and prayer rugs. The prayer rugs are stitched with a pattern that demarcated individual prayer spots to make it easy for a person to pick their space when bowing down to pray.
We also visited the busy main market, and a batik artisan’s studio where I picked up a gorgeous swath of traditional Kerinci style batik for $10. The edges aren’t finished, but we’re headed into the jungle for 5 days if trekking and camping, and I’ve been informed women do not undress to bathe in villages and camping. They go into the stream wrapped in a sarong when bathing in public, and since I don’t have a sarong, I figured my batik cloth would likely make a good stand in. I only hope I don’t destroy it.
Around sunset, Rycko rejoined us to take us up a hill at the back of town for a look over the town and the valley, and for some yummy grilled corn and pisan bakar (grilled banana topped with coconut shavings and palm sugar). It was hazy like most afternoons are in this hot and humid part of the world, but still very pretty. We’re learning that if we want crisp, clear photos of broad landscapes, we need to take them in the morning. afterward we stopped off at Rycko’s house for a chat and to look at his photography, and returned to the hotel for a break.
Finally, tonight around 8:30, Rycko picked us up and walked us down to the night market, where we grabbed another helping of martabak mesir (meaty omelette a cake with sweet and spicy chili sauce), and another martabak, this time like a sweet pancake.
Tomorrow we leave for five days trekking in the jungle, with visits to a few lakes and some hot springs, and a village called Renah Kemumu, 2 days into the jungle. Luke and Sim at Wild Sumatra, our Sumatra tour guides, have us all kitted out with camping gear, Rycko, a jungle trekking guide, porter, and camera traps that we can set in hopes if capturing wildlife like a tiger, deer, elephant or pig while we’re out there. Tigers or deer would be absolute gold, but both are very rare, so we’re not sure how lucky we’ll be.
We’ll likely be off the grid until the 1st, so don’t panic if we go dark for a bit!