Friday 29 July 2011
Strangely, the airport in Medan is right in the heart of the city, which means you don’t have to travel far to reach your hotel, or in my case a scrappy old guesthouse called ‘Ronna’s,’ on Jalan SM Raja, near the Grand Mosque. It also means that aircraft fly very low over the city as they take off, and a man at the guesthouse told me that not so long ago a plane came down in the streets!
Ronna’s used to be on the street behind, but she has opened this new place and closed the other one down because it wasn’t in good condition. God knows what the other place was like because this one is highly ramshackle. Backpackers were hanging out under an awning set up on the pavement, surrounded by low screens, and there was a relaxed atmosphere in spite of the close proximity of a constantly busy main road. Ronna has an amazing, infectious laugh and will crack up at anybody’s slightest attempt to be funny, making all her guests feel like great wits. I asked for a cheap room with a window and she showed me to the top floor of the building, which was basically a corrugated iron hut attached to the roof, with water leaking through from beneath the plastic linoleum. But it had plenty of natural light – the room took up the entire top floor and was lined with windows on two sides, plus there was a balcony (full of junk) – and she only wanted R40,000 for it, so I agreed. It was hard to get used to all these thousands in the exchange rate. £1 was then about R14000 (! although you’d be lucky to get a good rate in an ATM machine) so the room cost about UK£2.80. There was a large double bed with a holey mosquito net, and a basic bathroom with cold water mandi style wash – tap and bucket. I liked being so high above the busy road, which was now almost inaudible, although the planes crossed so low overhead I thought they were going to hit the building.
I went out in the afternoon for a spot of sight-seeing, but the only sights in the vicinity were the Grand Mosque and the Maimoon Palace, and the former was closed to casual visitors (it is open to tourists at certain times only), while the latter was simply closed. A girl apparently living in the Palace grounds told me to come back in the morning. It was a Friday, three days before Ramadan, so the mosque was full. It felt good to be back in Indonesia, and it didn’t seem to have changed a whole lot in the twenty years since I was last here – still a bit scruffy and haphazard, with friendly, curious people who generally don’t speak much English. I made up my mind to seriously start learning some Indonesian.
In the evening there was a rainstorm and the noise on my corrugated roof was deafening. I started screaming like a lunatic and my voice was completely drowned out by the all encompassing roar. The trickle of water under the linoleum turned into a flood and it was lucky I had put all my bags up on a chair earlier. My bed turned into an island on a strangely patterned sea and I dreamed I was floating through a grotesque, capricious jungle. At 4am I was violently woken by the call to prayer, droning from the Mosque’s loud speakers next door. Welcome to Indonesia!