25th November, 2014
The end of my time in Sulawesi coincided with the expiry of my 60 day tourist visa, so, after a thirty hour journey involving three flights and transits in both Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur, I exited Indonesia and entered again. This time into a different region; Sumatra.
Indonesia is so large and culturally rich it often feels like you have just stepped into a different country when you move between different parts of it. Bali was shiny, beautiful, and inhabited by fervently superstitious Hindus. Nusa Tenggara was a rustic archipelago of mountainous islands populated by a diverse range of tribal minorities. Sulawesi had everything from bustling, modern cities, to remote islands and exotic jungles. The one thing that that has been quite concurrent though, throughout my first two months in Indonesia, was that my adventures were primarily nautical and involved many boats and beaches.
Sumatra is going to be a little different. It is a very large island – larger than many countries, even – and while it does have many wonderful coasts and islands, it is mostly for its interior of jungles, mountains and lakes it is known, and for which I am particularly interested in.
So, with my much-used snorkel now buried to the very bottom of my backpack and new pair of hiking boots on my feet, I arrived into the airport at Padang at around 9am and was stamped into Indonesia again. Sometimes, when I am issued a visa and see how long I have been given, I can’t help but look at my passport and think; “You do know how big your country is, don’t you?” In this case it was 30 days.
I was very tired by this point but, as it was still the beginning of the day, I decided to knuckle through the next twelve hours and make the most of the daylight. I explored Padang.
I began by walking to the Adityawarman Museum which, while not particularly grand, cost a fraction of the price I am used to paying to enter places in Indonesia as a foreigner. It had a small natural history section with taxidermy examples of Sumatran wildlife and a collection of proto-human skulls accompanied by an evolutionary family tree. The upper floor was mostly about the marriage practices and customs of the local Minangkabau people.
More rewarding for me was the Taman Budaya Cultural Centre which, at the time of my visit, had an exhibition of paintings by local artists. Most of which was very impressive.
After that I strolled around aimlessly and stumbled upon a decrepit looking building which had a sign outside saying “Gallery”, which I decided to investigate. A caretaker was sweeping the floor and seemed very surprised to see me; he ran into one of the doorways and returned a few moments later with two young women who spoke a little English.
They escorted me up to the stairs to what turned out to be a small memorial museum.
Sumatra, with its active volcanoes, yearly monsoons, and frequent earthquakes, has one of the biggest natural disaster rates in the world, and the case is especially true for Padang which sits upon the meeting of two tectonic plates. When I checked in into my guesthouse that morning one of the details I was asked to fill out on the form was an emergency contact – which is quite unusual – and I also noticed while walking around the town that almost every street-corner was accompanied by a sign pointing towards the direction you should run in the event of a sudden tsunami.
Padang was not affected as much as many other parts of Sumatra by the tsunami in 2004. More devastating – and much more recently – for them, was 7.6 Richter Scale earthquake in 2009, in which much of the city was destroyed.
I wondered around the displays, viewing photos of the colossal damage and reading some of the information. The girls put on some background music, which was moving, but tasteful. I eventually came across a number: 1115 – that was how many people were killed – and looked back at the two girls who were watching me, realising that, with Padang having such a small population (95,000), almost everyone must have known at least one person who died that day.
Strangely, they both smiled whenever my eyes met theirs and, rather than being solemn, they were very eager to show me around and answer any questions that I had. Always, with a stoic smile on their faces. I think they were happy I was there, because they want to make sure that people don’t forget what happened.
When I was finished I decided I wanted to leave a donation and reached for my wallet, but one of them stopped me.
“Free,” she said.
After the memorial museum, I walked through the market and then on to the colonial quarter by the river, which had lots of interesting Dutch architecture and some old Chinese shophouses. I was approached by many friendly locals who were all keen to converse and, like the two girls I had met at the museum, spoke of the 2009 disaster stoically.
By the end of my day there I found myself becoming fond of Padang, with its sombre atmosphere and brave people.
For more photos from Padang, click here.