Berastagi was a bad decision; Heading for the hospital one more time

With Sheryl recovering from being sick there was no question of doing any jungle trekking in Bukit Lawang. We’d seen the orangutans there five times already, so we were ready to move on. We’d planned to work our way around to Ketambe on the west side of Gunung Leuser National Park, and the hill station of Berastagi at the south end sounded good. We could do with some cooler air after two weeks of Sumatra’s steaming heat, I thought, and there were a couple of active volcanoes nearby that we could climb when Sheryl was feeling better.

Getting anywhere in Sumatra is a massive hassle. Roads are bad, vehicles are worse and schedules are… not energetic, not adhered to or simply don’t exist. We sat in the dusty, hot, noisy market square at Bukit Lawang for two hours, waiting for the bus to leave for Medan. We had to wait for the driver to have his lunch, take a nap, make some phone calls, have another lunch, realize the bus was broken, and on and on. Wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t been so hot, and if there hadn’t been a big shit auction at the market that day. I’m not kidding. There was a giant reeking pile of dried bales of animal dung in the middle of the square. For the sake of my sanity I’m assuming it was animal dung, anyway, but I wouldn’t swear to it. However many legs its source had, they needed an improvement in their diet.

So the three-hour trip to Medan took over five hours (to go about 70km, mind you) and by the time we reached Pinang Baris terminal all the buses to Berastagi had stopped running. It’s always difficult to sift the truth out of claims like this, because usually the people telling you benefit if you believe it. Enough different people agreed this time that it seemed true, but Sheryl went off to check the handwritten cardboard signs in the windshields of the rattletrap old buses parked at the station just in case.

Medan is the armpit of Sumatra, and bus stations are the armpits of any city, so while I waited I got to deal with all the young guys who think they’re hard. They’d come up one after another and get right in my face. They’d look slit-eyed and sneering at all my piercings - first one ear, then the other. Either they sensed my foul mood or the felt they’d proved whatever needed proving, since they’d just spit on the ground, hiss a word or two and then swagger off stiff-legged. You see people at their worst when travelling, but you see them at their best too - minutes after that a clump of older men, their skin, hair and clothes gone the same uniform grey-brown colour of road dirt, called over to me holding up a jug of beer. If we hadn’t had to go off to some other bus station I might have been tempted.

Travelling is a constant exercise in on-the-fly problem-solving, usually with insufficient information of doubtful accuracy. In this case we’d been told “Berastagi! Stesun Padang Bulan! Big bus!” accompanied by a pointed direction. It’s loud in bus stations, it was a name I hadn’t heard before, and I don’t hear so well at the best of times. But I took that outside to the street and the becak motorcycle-rickshaw drivers. There’s a black art to getting information out of taxi-drivers and their kin, and I’ve become fairly good at it. The problem is that you can only believe a small fraction of what they say. They’re generally trustworthy for directions but if they sense that they can weaken you and get you to hire them they’ll say anything, which means that you can’t trust them to tell the truth about how far anything is or the existence of other transport. In this case I took my mumbled syllables and found out the name and direction of the place we wanted. Medan’s roads are choked with opelet - shared minibuses that run to their own mysterious routes. Naturally the becak-drivers all swore blind that none of these opelets went to Padang Bulan (without my even asking, imagine that). One of them even had the nerve to continue to deny it even as one opelet pulled over with a windshield sign reading “P. Bulan”. Sometimes I feel guilty about falling into the habit of thinking about travel as a game of wits with the locals as the opposition. I don’t enjoy this adversarial style of travel. But it’s times like this that thinking that way becomes very hard to resist.

The opelet took a good half-hour to get to Padang Bulan - whatever or wherever Padang Bulan actually is. I was pleased that we’d found a way to get there cheaply - until the opelet driver charged us double - either because of the packs or because we’d been stupid enough not to establish the price beforehand. Where we got dropped off was a stretch of busy road that looked exactly like every other busy road in Medan. The only thing different were the hordes of dirt-coloured, shift-eyed kids on every corner clutching plastic guitars or ukeleles and demanding money. “Hello Mister Rupiah!” they’d screech, and then stand way too close eyeing your pockets. I haven’t had my pocket picked yet on this trip and it certainly wasn’t going to start with these unsubtle little thieves-in-training - we kept our hands firmly in our pockets as we walked.

A couple of hundred meters down the road we were captured by a man touting for a minibus to Berastagi. Theis was a local’s mode of transport and no mistake - roof piled high with bags and boxes and crammed with 30 people for 16 seats, plus another 8 on the roof. Theft can be a problem when your bags are up on the roof with a bunch of guys who have a lot of time and no audience, but I was willing to trade the risk in order to have eight fewer chain-smokers inside the van - it was like a toxic chemical fire in there as it was. Not a fun trip at all, but much faster than I thought it would be, and for a price that was so close to zero that I didn’t think I could complain even internally.

After so much trouble to get to Berastagi, we only stayed overnight. The place was dark when we got there and dead in the morning when we left. About all I can say about it is that it’s cool and damp. We found a room and I had something to eat. Sheryl had a bowl of noodle soup that she stared and and stirred with a spoon once or twice, and she was asleep by 9. After being up all night vomiting and running for the bathroom, she was finally ready to admit that it was time to go to the hospital. In fact those were the first words out of her mouth when I opened my eyes in the morning. The irony is that I thought the crisis had been over when her fever had broken the day before. Vomiting isn’t a big deal for a lot of people, but it only happens to Sheryl when she’s badly sick. Besides the malaria scare, the progression of symptoms was disturbingly similar to the stomach infection that had landed her in the hospital a year ago almost to the day, in Mumbai. We have no medical insurance - the company declined to renew our policy after 18 months of travelling - but we can’t play with fire. Better we should have to spend the money and cut the trip short than to take risks with her health. So it was back to Medan again. She couldn’t have decided she needed the hospital twelve hours earlier?

Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
This travelogue comprises 16,426 photographs and 402,515 words in 307 dispatches written from 335 places in 52 countries on 6 continents around the world.
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