Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Journey Through The Minang Heartland...

This past week I took my little Honda on a 900-kilometer ride up north through Minangkabau country at the request of a friend of mine, who asked me to check out a cacao farm near Payakumbuh (I'll write about that experience in a future post).  The trip took me from Sungai Penuh in Kerinci Valley (where I live) up through Solok to Padang, over to Padang Pajang, through Bukit Tinggi, on to Payakumbuh and Lima Puluh Kota district.  On the way back I passed through Batusangkar and Ombilin, around Lake Singkarak and down through Solok city before returning through Solok and Solok Selatan districts.  It was definitely a trip to remember, and I'm going to use this post to share some pictures of some of the neat things I saw.

My first stop was in Padang, which I won't describe because I hate Padang (no offense).  But along the way you start to see indications of the rich culture of the people whose homeland you are entering.  One of the most noticeable aspects of Minangkabau culture is the style of architecture.  The roof of the traditional Minang house is the most distinctive feature; it is made to resemble the horns of a water buffalo, which is the symbol of the Minangkabau.  In fact the name Minangkabau means "triumphant buffalo.  You can see a couple of examples below.  The first is from Batusangkar.  

As you can see the houses are elaborately decorated.  This one is the home of an affluent family; there are also more basically decorated places.  Another characteristic is the finials or decorations at the top of the roof peaks.  Most of the time these are Islamic moon and crescents, but sometimes you see things like weathercocks or airplanes.  The next one is from a village outside Payakumbuh.

After I left Padang I headed for Bukit Tinggi.  The drive is really beautiful through the mountains and there is a stunning waterfall along the way.  Unfortunately, I broke a sprocket on my Honda in the hills.  Fortunately the town of Padang Pajang was only about 5km away, and so I was able to limp the rest of the way.  In most places there is a Honda service center, and the guys there replaced my chain assembly and changed the oil.  It cost about $40 and took two hours, giving me some time to wander around.  The picture below is of a lovely mosque there.

After my bike was fixed I moved on and spent a couple of days in Bukit Tinggi, which is a place I'd been before.  Bukit Tinggi is one of the centers of Minang culture and is well established on the tourists' path, so you can google it if you want to see pictures.  I really like it there; the weather is cool since it's at about 1000 meters and the food is delicious.  It's a great place to spend a couple of days.  In lieu of pictures I've included this video of a delightful street performer.  I was amazed at his ingenuity.  

After Bukit Tinggi I made my way over to Payakumbuh, about 45 minutes away.  This is a bustling little town with friendly people, and is a good base to explore the surrounding countryside.  In addition, all through Minang country (with the exception of Solok city and district), the roads are really good.  God bless the Minang and their road maintenance skills.  So you can get around fairly easily and quickly, but you still have to be careful because the people drive crazy.  

The next place I stopped was Harau Valley, about 15 km outside Payakumbuh.  The older I get, the rarer it is that I see something that is breathtaking, but the Harau valley definitely qualifies.  You can see a picture below, but this doesn't do it justice.  Harau valley is a narrow closed gorge with massive granite walls rising hundreds of feet on either side.  I'd never heard of the place before I went to Payakumbuh, but I would definitely recommend it to you.

While in Harau I has an experience that has helped to convince me that I need to get some basic medical training when I get back to the US.  I first had this notion seeing broken bodies from auto accidents being haphazardly moved, contrary to the basic first aid rules I learned in Boy Scouts.  On my way around the dirt track loop that rings the back of the canyon I picked up a local who looked as though he could use a ride.  He happened to be going to an out-of-the-way waterfall, where he was working as a laborer for some film students from Padang Panjang.  I hiked back to the waterfall and was chatting with some of the students and then it happened.  

One of the students started having a full-on grand-mal seizure.  When I was younger I used to have seizures, so I was familiar with the routine.  But then the seizure didn't stop, and the young man's breathing got lighter and lighter while his heartbeat became more and more regular.  I suggested lightly that the kid needed to be taken to a hospital or the local PUSKESMAS, but no one was listening.  After 15 minutes someone went to get "help" which arrived in the form of a local villager who quickly diagnosed "kesurupan", or "possession", which could be remedied with the proper prayers.  As time went on I could see the poor young man's life slipping away.  I didn't know what to do; I tried to call a doctor friend in the US but we were out of signal range.  I became more forceful, arguing that the problem was physiological rather than spiritual.  "What is it, then", they asked.  "I don't know.  I'm not a doctor, but it could be an allergy, a bite, epilepsy, too much sugar, too little sugar, many things.  But I know that we can't do anything....your friend needs medical attention.  So please for the love of God let's get him out of here.  PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE!"  Finally they relented and we carried the kid back to one of their trucks, but the local "healer" was not too pleased with me.  I felt so helpless, and I normally pride myself on being able to handle a crisis.  

The next two pictures are from Ombilan, which is a town on Lake Singkarak.  This is a pretty large lake, maybe 20 kilometers long, which is evidently a popular vacation place for the locals, but when I was there it was blanketed in haze, which I think comes from the burning of rice chaff.  The first picture shows a mountain pass.  In the second you can see a curious road sign.  It's pretty clear what it is advising drivers against; the question in my mind is why drivers need to be advised against this particular hazard.  

My next stop was more just to take a break from the road.  I paused to get some Sate Padang in Solok City, and while I was complaining to my new friend, the proprietor of the restaurant, about the miserable condition of the roads, a Minang wedding procession happened by on the side of the road.  One of the interesting aspects of Minangkabau culture is that it is matrailinial, and so property is inherited by the woman's side of the family.  Men leave their own extended families when they get married and become part of their new wives' families.  

One the folks I met on the road told me there are three types of Minang weddings:  for regular folks the ceremony and party lasts 3 days.  For people with "a little bit of money" it lasts 7 days.  For rich folks it lasts 40 days.  There are all sorts of neat courtship ceremonies as well, and if you ever get a chance to see any of them you should.  Below you can see another picture of the procession; all the ladies are carrying baskets filled with rice.

This next picture I think I'm going to send to Sesame Street.  I took this on the way back home.  There is actually a place called "Letter W"; it is right on the border of Kerinci and Solok Selatan districts on the Kerinci side, so it is in Jambi province.  It is basically a rest stop.  I asked the locals where the name comes from and they told me it's named for a nearby waterfall.  They didn't seem to know why it is called "Letter W" as opposed to "Huruf W".  They asked me if I would like to see the waterfall, and I asked if it was a normal waterfall or an extraordinary waterfall.  They told me it's pretty run-of-the-mill, and since I've seen dozens of waterfalls, I decided to take a raincheck.  They didn't seem to put out.  Incidentally, the distance to Sungai Penuh indicated on the sign is incorrect.  This is pretty common, so don't get your hopes up when driving.

In this last picture you can see yours truly.  I don't take a lot of pictures of myself, but I like this one.  This picture was taken when I stopped on the way home in Solok Selatan at a little shack to get out of the pouring rain.  In rural Sumatra the people are very welcoming, and they're usually happy to pass the time with you chatting and laughing.  The old man in the picture is a rice farmer; the younger fellow repairs motor scooters out of the shack.  I chatted with the old man about John F. Kennedy and President Sukarno, politics, and conservation.  We had a pretty good time as you can see from the picture.  It may sound corny, but encounters like this are my favorite part of the journey.  The kindness of normal Indonesian country folks is beyond remarkable.  

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