The Lonely Planet describes Medan as a confused metropolis of pollution and poverty, where travelers are rare and need to exercise caution. Those that don’t just jump on the first bus to somewhere else can expect serious road and Mosque inspired noise, carbon monoxide toxicity and grubby, spartan accommodation. On the upside, it says that it is a great place to experience the dirt-under-the-fingernails Indonesia that no longer exists on the tourist beat. Being right in my path into northern Sumatra, I thought that I would ignore the guide book and give the city a fair go.
Medan is not a city prepared for outsiders, and vice versa. There is no tourism structure to speak of. I left my hotel on foot early on my first morning to a chorus of concerned hotel staff urging me to be careful. After several hours wandering in concentric circles, I stumbled upon a crumbling ruin of a building loosely declaring itself as the tourist information centre. The heavy chain and padlock on the door, and shirtless homeless man sleeping on the cardboard welcome mat denied its popularity. Unable to find any way in I stepped over and around the rubbish, puddled potholes and various excreta to interrupt a furiously intense game of badminton being played in the building’s rear courtyard. Surprised by the sight of a Western face, a half dozen sweating, bare-chested young men set off on a ten minute search, chattering away in Bahasa, before one of them triumphant, held the front door padlock key aloft. Then, being orbited by my new friends, I was half pushed, half carried back in the direction of the front doors. The group snowballing as it moved, collecting another handful of interested bystanders in transit. The winner of the treasure hunt tried the key and cheers and congratulations rang out when it fit and the lock clicked open. The homeless man roused himself and shambled along with the procession of now twelve or fifteen men into the dark, cavernous relic of a foyer. Massive velvet curtains were thrown back to allow sunlight to stream through the double story windows, showing the dust billowing like a dry, yellow fog and where our footprints had disturbed the sediment on the flagstones.
Galvanised by their recent success in finding things, my group of tourism professionals set about throwing open cupboards and drawers in the search for a map while I was ushered into an ancient, decaying lounge chair to ‘rest’ with the homeless man. After a fruitless five minutes, one of the group unearthed a crumpled photocopy of a hand-drawn A4 map showing the location of the city’s banks and cemeteries and little else. The map was smoothed out on my knee and the group settled on every inch of free space around me and at my feet, like children awaiting one of Grandad’s stories. My query as to where on the map we presently were set off an heated referendum on which there was no clear winner, but it seemed that somewhere south of the river gained the most votes. All of this communicated in loud Bahasa within the group, but to me through pointing and wild gesticulations. Contract completed, the group happily escorted me to the doors, and after many handshakes and terimah kasih banyas, I was launched from the building in the same confused and random manner in which I had found it. Such is state of tourism in Medan.
My exploration of Medan over the next three days was almost entirely on foot, and almost completely lost. To an outsider’s eye there is little to distinguish one street of stall fronts, high-stacked concrete box apartments and rotting relics of Dutch colonial architecture from the next. Everywhere the overhead power lines dangle dangerously low like the strings of a broken guitar. The roads groan under the weight of a peristaltic gridlock of cars, scooters and the ubiquitous becaps. The traffic moves like a viscous fluid, sluggishly filling any free space that opens. There is no escape from the roaring engine noise, blue exhaust smoke, blaring horns, squealing brakes and riding clutches. Nor the dust, infernal heat or the dubious sweet-and-sour smell of stagnating drains. The footpaths are a pastime for a gambling man – every few steps punctuated by a potholes, piles of rubbish or rubble, chest height awnings or food vending stalls. Any vacancies in real estate are occupied by clots of static people or vehicles. Obviously, it’s hard to walk in Medan, and it seems that nobody who lives there even considers trying it. The fact that I walked for miles, and mostly on the road, made me stand out as a definite foreign. That and my very obviously Western complexion and size.
People stared at me wherever I went. Startled children would draw back in alarm when they caught sight of me, peering from behind their mother’s legs. Clusters of men would men would pause in their banter to curiously watch my approach. I could feel the eyes of the traffic on me at every hesitation in it’s movement. If I sat on a rickety plastic stool with my feet in the gutter to slurp down a piping hot rendang, a crowd would gather to watch me eat. Over the three days, and against a crushing mass of humanity, I never saw another Western face. In fact, other than the local people, the only forms of life I saw were an emaciated squirrel and two exhausted, dusty butterflys. Initially being such a focus of attention was unnerving. I mistook the staring for suspicion, even hostility. But I quickly found that any nod or a wave from me was always met with an enthusiastic greeting in return. If I smiled at someone, their face would light up in reply. English is spoken haltingly and people were eager for the chance to practice. If I attempted a few words in my very poor Bahasa, their delight at my effort was plain to see. Invariably, the people were keen to interact – curious to know where I was from and what had brought me to their city.
On my second day, and with no thanks to my useless map, I stumbled upon an expo for the twenty odd local junior high schools being held at a huge central park. Through the day, each school took a turn on the stage putting on a traditional dance, and each had a stall displaying their year’s worth of projects and crafts. The grounds were swarming with young teenagers. From the moment I walked through the gates heads turned to watch me, moving in unison like a school of fish. For the several hours I was there I was followed by shy but intrigued groups of kids. They would argue between themselves before nominating a spokesperson who would be pushed forward by the rest of the group. In polite broken English, I would be invited into their school’s stall, where they would proudly guide me through their displays. In all cases they were eager for me to sign their visitor’s book, craning their necks as I wrote my name and profession, quietly sounding out the words. Having gained confidence, they would ask me for a picture, giggling and excited when I agreed. Before I moved on they would rush around for a gift of their own making to press into my hand.
Of the hundreds of students I spoke to while I was there, none had ever met a non-Indonesian. They were fascinated by what might exist outside their known world. As am I. After spending ten minutes talking with one teacher, she shook my hand and explained what a privilege the children considered it to be, to interact with an Australian. I struggled to convince her that I felt the opposite was true.
Physically, Medan is onerous, industrial and oppressive. And, to be honest, there is very little for an outsider to see or do. Its western influence seems to have peaked in the 1930’s and been in decline ever since. But its people are so endearing that I was reluctant to leave. Surely my chance encounter at the school fair will be one of the highlights of my six months away. Yesterday, I was bounced along the dirty pot-holed road to the train station in an ancient, gasping becap with a cardboard roof tied down with string. The ragged driver chattering away through a handful of teeth. The people on the streets smiling and calling out greetings in reply to my wave. Several hours later in Kuala Lumpur, I stumbled bewildered out of a glittering seven-story shopping mall devoted to technology. A stream of people, face-down in their mobile phones, jostled me without apology onto the road and straight into the path of a growling, orange lamborghini. The contrast really couldn’t be any more striking.