Going Your Own Way

Sumatra received her name by happenchance when Italian explorer and conqueror Marco Polo returned home and pronounced the island’s name, Samudra, with a lisp and popularized the mutation. Personally, I’m attached to her previous name for its local translation, “ocean.” Living on a yacht, I thought traveling to a country called Ocean sounded like a pretty good idea. Outside of an affection for the name, we came to Sumatra with little expectation other than a feeling that we had missed our opportunities for the year. At the time we had no clear plan and only fragmented ideas of what we might do with the remainder of the year. We realized that this year, more than any other, we would need to cast aside our expectations and find a new way forward.

The 1292 slip-of-the-tongue was about all we had to go on when deciding to set off for Sumatra. At the time we knew little of the country’s biodiversity, its rich cultural history, its diverse marine environment or the island gems that lie off the coast. We chose Sumatra by default. Forced to cancel our plans for an Indian Ocean crossing due to Braca’s diagnosis, we reunited as a family in May with our son’s diabetic crisis and our daughter’s hand operation behind us. By the time we regrouped it was too late to follow through with our original intentions. John and I felt we had few desired options as we were returning to Atea midseason; we didn’t want to rush across the Indian Ocean to South Africa on a tight timeframe, nor did we want to spend another year in Malaysia or Thailand. Where could we go that would allow us time as well as new territory? Sumatra popped up on our radar as an option for the year. Initially I was disheartened; we knew little of Sumatra because there was little cruising information on it. Cruisers do not typically travel her shores as the island lies too far south for boats traveling the northern route across the Indian Ocean, and it lies too far north for boats traveling the southern route. We departed for Sumatra knowing little of what to expect but prepared for quiet solitude; I had resigned myself to making the most of what we could of the year but feeling saddened that we’d been knocked off our track.

 

Sumatra is a perfect example of what happens when the best-laid plans fail: Something unexpectedly amazing. Now that I’ve had a preliminary introduction, I couldn’t speak more highly of the country from a tourist perspective: The people are gracious, friendly and good-natured, and the country is diverse and offers a wide range of options. Now that I’ve sailed her shores, I couldn’t speak more highly of the country from a cruiser’s perspective: The islands off the west coast are hidden gems, unspoiled and unexploited. This is contrary to the little information we had prior to arrival. An article posted by a fellow cruiser stated, “You may find hostility against non-Muslims by locals. For safety it is best not to bring women ashore into any village.” Reading this, I expected a very conservative Muslim society and initially covered myself head to toe when going ashore and donned a headscarf when walking through any village. It didn’t take me long to recognize that I was a bit excessive and the smiles beamed at me regardless of my covering. I cannot imagine what situation brought on the negative experience of the other cruiser; John and I were warmly received and the kids doted on and adored. We didn’t have a single experience that led me to feel uncomfortable with the locals; it was completely the opposite. Braca and Ayla gained a reputation in the places we stayed, their names called out as we passed shops and children flocking by our sides as we wandered down streets. Women and men excitedly waved as we drove past them in our becak, smiles beaming. Where is this enthusiasm in our own culture? The simple pleasure in greeting a stranger, overtures made to assist any possible need or engage at every possible moment? In Sumatra, the people were as pleasant and as engaged as they could be, language barrier not withstanding.

 

English is not commonly spoken and I did feel a loss at how superficial conversations were without a common language; it would have been so wonderful to get a deeper level of understanding of the people we met. There are so many instances that I would have loved to been able to ask for details. On one beach a local canoe arrived with two very sheepish looking locals, who trotted into the bush and emerged with a bunch of small bags filled with colourful reef fish, presumably to stock international aquariums. Neither of the two men welcomed our curiosity and it was clear that their acquisitions were not legally approved – perhaps shared language wouldn’t have provided answers regardless. On another day, we visited a hut hidden deep in the bush and found thousands of dead or dying hermit crabs, clearly collected and harvested for the shell and not the animal. Were the shells on their way to be ground down into herbal remedies in Asia? Were the shells sent to replace the outgrown shells of other captive crabs in Western homes? What of the monkey roaming the courtyard by rolling the sides of his wire cage? What about the cock fights in the middle of the village or the monitor lizards bound and tied, left in a twisted heap to slowly die in the blaze of the tropical heat? All cultural curiosities that we were never able to ask questions of or answers given in Bhasa that we will never understand. But there is no better sign language than a smile, of which we received many, and gestures go a long way in conveying attitude, if not meaning. The locals had time for us, and patience with us. They smiled often and warmly. They waved from a distance and stopped us on passing, wanting to engage regardless of the lack of shared language. Braca and Ayla were once again center stage, the subject of every photo and the object of every curiosity. This was clearly not the Sumatra that the other cruiser experienced, whose wife was presumably left as caged in her boat as the trapped monkey ashore, and who missed out on the incredibly sociable and fun-loving attitudes that we were exposed to.

 

From a cruiser’s perspective the published reviews of Sumatra were equally harsh. As the westernmost of the Indonesian chain of islands, the country is off the normal cruising route for yachts passing from the Pacific Ocean into Asia, and few yachts travel south to visit her western shores when making passage through the Indian Ocean. We knew few boats that had traveled this way and Rod Heikell’s Cruising Guide did not give us much faith that it was a worthwhile trip to make, stating “[Sumatra] is no place for cruisers to be during the SW monsoon since it is very exposed and the seas run high.” It is true that the more north you get the stronger the winds, but conditions were no more adverse than Malaysia and Thailand this time of year and I couldn’t rate the destination more highly. In fact, outside the occasional squall – less regular the further south you sail – sailing conditions have been good as we traversed her western shores during the monsoon season; rather than exposed anchorages and high seas, lack of wind was our most common issue. The anchorages have almost all been protected and calm, and while it is true that they can run deep we were able to find suitable depth to anchor in every location we visited.

 

What we didn’t expect and came to us by surprise was the lack of coastal and offshore fishing vessels. A comment made in passing is that the fishing industry is in a huge slump, or perhaps the weather this time of year is too wet and changeable. Not only has the fishing fleet dwindled but the fishing traps that riddle the coastline appear unused as well. These traps are large wooden structures with nets that hang below and miniature houses that sit atop, set on floats or fixed by poles to the seabed. Regardless of the reason, it is a reprieve for us to be rid of the hoards of Thai and Malaysian fishing trawlers that litter the ocean day and night – so much so that most cruisers refuse to sail at night because of the maze of boats you have to navigate through. While fishing is clearly still an important aspect of village life, it is at a much slower pace – old men still punt around in small dugouts with wooden paddles, outboards are in use but there isn’t the constant roar of speeding boats and buffering of wakes. Unique to the area is the regional differences of boat: Flat aft end, double-rig with a hut perched on top, small canoes precariously balanced. We are often approached with the days catch on offer, ranging from $3-5 for fish, prawn, crab, lobster or octopus and it is always, always, offered with a smile.

 

While Sumatra offers a host of things for the intrepid traveler – to track the illusive Sumatran tiger, two-horned Sumatran rhino or the Sumatran elephant deep within the Gunung Leuser National Reserve, to dance along a line of a hundred bubbling volcanoes, to swim the sleepy shores of Danau Toba’s deep inland lake, have a date with a wild orangutan or smell the sent of the world’s largest flower – our experiences were based on coastal locations and the countries best known draw card: its infamous surf. Regardless of all its history and all its natural riches, West Sumatra is only really a name that passes through the lips of die-hard surfers searching for the epic break. Now that we’ve been here, I appreciate why the surfers have kept this remote coastline a secret: the surf is legendary and the waves empty of the crowds that define other popular international sites. Accommodation ashore is rudimentary, however, and the surf camps that crop up are no more than expanded local homes offering places to stay and a home cooked meal. Land travel can be difficult without well-developed infrastructure and to arrive in the islands requires a complex transportation arrangement. For us, we are not into this for the surf given our heads come in contact with the board more often than our feet, and not only are the waves monstrous but they also end on gagged coral. It is not a playground for the novice.

 

While Sumatra has long been a name that has been whispered within intimate circles by the obsessed surfer, recently the dive community has begun setting their sights on the country’s underwater world. Gaining in reputation, the northwestern corner has built a reputation as a dive destination.  Having just purchased a dive compressor we were keen to get some time underwater and verify the validity of the rumours. We found them sound. The sites were filled with a diversity of fish life and an abundance of coral; twenty meters and above was less exceptional, but at depth there was plenty to dazzle the eye. Given we had independence, we first sought to explore the area ourselves but soon found the currents in the area too severe and a boat driver a necessity; too bad, as the locals ashore were more than happy to watch the kids while we played underwater, often refusing payment for their services. So we partnered with a dive operation and for a nominal $25 inclusive, we spent our days underwater. The further south we traveled, the more we were left to our own devices as very few dive operations exist outside Pulau Weh. We continued to drop our kids at the local sitting service – a fisherman happy to sit under a coconut tree for the hour – and played in the underwater garden in the afternoons. The coral was bleached in places, from tsunami or other factor we are unsure, but there was plenty of new growth and an abundance of marine life: butterfly fish, batfish, leaf fish, trumpet fish, angle and clown fish, box and blow fish, devil fire and scorpion fish, wrasse and blue tang blanketed the reef. Eel, rays, sea snake slid between boulders and reef shark lurked in the shadows. Unfortunately, the trevally and tuna were always just out of our grasp for our dinner plate and the lobster just a tad too small. What we didn’t see and were happy not to is the deadly salt water crocodile, though a few friends had some pretty intimidating experiences with swamp snakes and a few others had stories of malaria and dengue fever – a reminder that Sumatra is not for the faint of heart.

 

There are few travelers other than the obsessed surfer and the itinerant diver that find their way to Sumatra’s western shores, and fewer still who do so by yacht. One quote by the owner of a surf camp said that 10-15 boats pass this way a year; in terms of cruising numbers that is an infantile amount of boats transiting annually. Sumatra’s northern neighbors of Malaysia and Thailand get hundreds of yachts passing through in a given season, and an equal amount run the milk route through Indonesia on their way west. Perhaps cruisers are dissuaded by the Cruising Guide or by the experiences of other cruisers, or perhaps by history. In line with the country’s looming dangers, Sumatra is also a country with a collection of the world’s largest significant global disasters. The 1883 explosion of Krakatau produced a noise audible 5,000 miles away, waves that reached England, and changed global weather for three years.  More recently, the 2004 Sumatran earthquake and tsunami were so violent that earth tilted on its axis and more than 300,000 people were killed across the Indian Ocean. The scars left behind after the earthquakes are still visible. At its most extreme, the land shifted 36 meters in places. What we’ve seen at almost every stop is the rise of land three meters; reef that used to be submerged now rings the islands, waterfront homes that now look out on an expanse of beach; palm trees once standing now submerged, new tracks of land thick with fledgling growth. We have to navigate with care as the charts are no longer accurate and many areas much shallower than what have been recorded.

One of the most poignant stops we made was to Banda Ache, a provincial capital that achieved worldwide recognition by being the closest city to epicenter of the  earthquake, and as a result, the hardest hit by the tsunami that followed it. Being a low lying coastal city the destruction caused by the tsunami was almost absolute and 170,000 people lost their lives. After a multi-year reconstruction effort, it’s now a pleasant town with some bizarre landmarks. There is the ocean freighter high and dry eight miles from the sea, and the most iconic image of all – the 36 meter fishing boat atop a house in an otherwise normal suburb. It was a simple but powerful image of the terror and destruction that hit the city on Boxing Day almost a decade ago. Braca still talks about “the boat on a house” and how sad it was, but his frequent use of “I’m a giant tsunami” in his playtime shows how hard the magnitude of the event is to grasp.

While popular opinion was for us to avoid West Sumatra as a cruising ground, we’ve been pleased to experience such a different side of the culture and country. That said there are a few areas where Sumatra poses its set of challenges. It is not an ideal country for either breakages or part delivery, and so one hope’s to bring with them guardian angels or appeased spirits, good fortune or blind luck. Without a third eye painted on our bowsprit to ward off evil spirits, Atea fell pray to a few casualties. At one point in our trip the engine died as we entered Sibolga Harbour, and we had to bring the ship in at night into the busy port under the propulsion of our outboard, dingy attached alongside with me as driver and John steering Atea at the helm. We did a few unplanned donuts to the confusion of a moving tug, but finally settled her at midnight. After a tiring and long event, we decided to open a sacred/long-preserved bottle of port for celebration… to find it topped with a cork and no corkscrew to be found. Double-wham! We also had to deal with a continued issue with alternator bracket that is faulty by design and continues to present problems. We discovered that a corner had nearly cracked through and was close to complete failure. As a result, we urgently needed a welder otherwise we would have been unable to run the engine. Had we been in Thailand or Malaysia we would have easily been able to get a repair, but in Sumatra these skills were hard to find. We found a roadside welding shop that had us on our way in a few hours with a rudimentary fix at a fraction of what we would have paid anywhere else. We are also in need of a diesel mechanic to help solve a persisting engine oil issue and a radio engineer to fix a defective long-range radio, but these technical skills have been hard for us to find and remain unresolved. On the upside, at one stage the weather presented us with a surprise squall that delivered 50-knot winds, laying Atea flat on her ear for the first time. While it was fevered chaos onboard at the time, our new sails and rigging upgrades held fast and the event brings consolation that our ship is seaworthy and prepared for the adverse conditions that often present in the Indian Ocean. Leaving the shelter of Asia and the lack of wind that often defines cruising in these waters, we look forward to the rough and wide spaces of the Indian Ocean and finally letting Atea unfurl her sails and let the winds take us.

What comes to stand out for me during our short two-month stay in Sumatra is how individual experiences are and how personal a recommendation can be, and I am reminded of the importance of following your own path. If I think of the cruisers we met and list their favourite anchorages, there were few that resonated with us. Our best anchorages have been ones we found without following the cruising notes of others and our best experiences have been when we were on our own. Following our own nose has yielded more than we ever imagined. However, recommendation was spot on in one area of Sumatra’s listed cruising limitations: It is not an ideal country to depart from for any significant voyage. Provisioning is much more constrained than in Malaysia and Thailand and any hope for luxury items are a distant dream. As we prepare for a long distance passage to an uninhabited archipelago, much of what we will have to rely on are stores purchased earlier in the year. A-grade flour and rice are not available, let alone staples such as nuts and seeds, milk, butter and cheese, top-grade meat or the decadence of quality coffee or chocolate. That said produce in the fresh markets in the larger cities is bountiful. This came as a relief as in all the villages that outskirt the mainland towns have rudimentary produce shipped out one day a week, and the reliability of the supply boat is weather dependent.

As our time in Sumatra came to a close, I became a regular attendee at the market in Sibolga. For one week I wandered through the labyrinth of crowded stalls, produce spread out on burlap sacks in long lines down the market square. The stall-keepers soon began to expect my daily shop and a kind of camaraderie was built. They would ask for my children by name if they weren’t with me, they would greet me enthusiastically and proudly show me that day’s delivery, and they would hold onto my bags as I continued to shop. I tried to spread my loyalties but inevitably biases were built around the freshest or rarest of items. As the days continued I started to see a part of the undercurrent of the market and developed some temporary friendships, faces that brightened when I pulled up with my shopping bags and my Indonesian rupiah and my lost puppy look. “Mister! Mister! How are you?” was asked by almost everyone we passed and directed to both of us equally. With very good English, the conversation might stretch to “Where are you from?” before it screeched to a halt, open mouths closing into wide grins. Our greetings were as basic, having learned enough for the pleasantries but falling short of any real communication. A handshake or a thumb’s up would close the exchange and we would each meander on towards completing our individual tasks for the day. The language in the market was just as constrained as on the street, but the difference was we required the exchange of meaning in order to complete transactions. “Brapa kilo?” I’d ask of the weight and cost of an item, then I would gesture a scribble on my hand and pass pen and paper. The exchanges often lead to laughter and cheerful backslapping as they teased in my pathetic attempts to communicate. It always amazes me how much can be conveyed in simple sign language, hand and facial gestures and even if the meaning is totally lost, how much fun it can be regardless. Given my inability to communicate and my seeming insatiable appetite for goods, the women were wondrous at the copious amounts of certain products I was purchasing as it was not the average shopping habits of the typical tourist. A woman shook her head when I bought ten cabbages, asking what I did with so many. I asked in return what she would have chosen and she pointed to fresh greens and indicated a handful not a cart full; items at home that would be a staple supply wouldn’t last a few days in our current environment.

I needed produce that would last two months not two days; it is a long time to run on simple stores, and my eye was on only the greenest and heartiest of items. As a result, my other criteria for selecting produce that would last the duration was to pick out the greenest and hardest fruit and vegetables; on many occasion I had my entire selection put back into the bin by a helpful local. They would laugh at my apparent ignorance and a collection of observers would gather while I was tutored in a language I didn’t understand as to how to select the best quality: ripe, sweet and ready to eat. I initially tried to validate my choices but my mime only confused matters. Their attempts to help a wayward foreigner were so sweet that I simply gave up on my objective and effusively thanked them for their assistance. John would shake his head when I returned from yet another trip with food that wouldn’t last, knowing that I would be returning to the market the following day to get what I actually went for.

While Sumatra is not a typical stop for the ‘cookie cutter’ cruiser, it has proven itself to be a worthwhile destination for the intrepid soul. We met two solo sailors, one pushed towards cruising by a severe motorcycle accident at home and the other who sought it out as an extension of her globe-trotting adventures. They revived in me the passion for risk and challenge. These two adventurous livewires highlight how easily life can pass you by if you are not out there pursuing your dreams and challenging yourself. There were also a few cruisers who come annually as a break from work and the rainy season in Malaysia and Thailand, and an Australian who has come six years running as a short midyear escape from the fast-paced city life. Each sailor is a prime example of the merit in finding your own way and ditching the notion that there is more value in traveling in a pack or sticking to popular routes. While we knew few people prior to coming, and know only a few more now, those that we have met out here define the kind of cruiser I respect: Individuals who venture off the trodden path to make their own discoveries.

And so, this is the way life happens: The greatest things come when the best-laid plans fall through. What I imagined would be an isolating experience turned into something very different. Instead of disappointment, it has been a fantastic introduction to a country I knew little about. In leaving a social lifestyle ashore I was initially reserved about spending the year sailing outside a cruising community for social support, but I decided early that I was going to enjoy our detour and I have had an exceptional time doing so. It is a reminder that wherever you travel there are discoveries that await you, new experiences to broaden the mind and adventures to put wind under your wings. You just need to go your own way to find it.

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