The first afternoon and evening took in a visit to a sprawling market set back from the road in a muddy square full of many scents, some of which were far from pleasant. The people were all smiles, however, and I picked up a word in the Batak dialect - 'horas' - which covers both greetings and farewells. A pregnant stall-holder pointed at her rounded belly and said: "Mister, I hope this one turns out like you - very handsome!" I asked her if I resemble her husband to which she said no, so I replied that the chances were slim but god works in mysterious ways sometimes. And, of course, I was flattered, so I bought a bag of passion fruit, for which Berastagi is famous throughout Indonesia. Later we feasted at one of the street stalls that sprang up on the main road. At 3pm the pavement was bare - by 4pm a row of make-shift restaurants were dishing out steaming dishes of fried noodles, rice and barbecued fish. The latter was very tasy indeed, served with the spiciest sauce yet - and there had already been some seriously hot accompaniments.
The following day, if the weather was good, I had hoped to climb to the top of Gunung Sibayak - the smaller and more accessible of the two peaks. But the sun was not shining - instead the sky was obscured by sheet grey cloud threatening rain. Vincent and Maude were both feeling under the weather to boot so we resolved to postpone and, in the process, extend our stay in Berastagi by a day. I took the opportunity to try to get my laundry done at my guesthouse - surely two days would be enough to get it washed and dry - and to hit the computer hard. I had
some serious writing to catch up on and for around 20p/hour I wasn't going to be paying too much for a day in the internet cafe alongside the online gamers battling it out with rivals from across the globe.
I was feeling wired as I lay in bed later that night - too much time spent in front of a computer screen. Just as I was starting to drift off it started. A cat below my window unleashed a sound that I can only describe as feline crying. It must have been a serious case of heartbreak as the noise lasted most of the night, only to be drowned out in the darkness by the early morning call to prayer blasted out of the nearby mosque's booming speakers. So I was not really feeling in the mood for scaling a volcano when we convened at breakfast and were joined by a Dutch couple I had met in Bukit Lawang briefly - Irina and Torbsen (if my memory serves me correctly... And I am not good with names). And then it appeared - the cat with obvious emotional problems sauntered across the dining room emitting the same yowl that had plagued me the night before. I wanted to throw it out of the window. Or put it in a wheelie bin.
Meanwhile, there did not seem much point in tackling Sibayak if the top was going to be shrouded in the grey cloud of the previous two days and it wasn't looking good. The three of us were considering heading to Lake Toba that day, cutting our loses - me with a bag of wet laundry. But the Dutch contingent was much more
positive, convincing us that we should give it a shot regardless and we were almost instantly rewarded with a change in the weather. The sun broke through and signalled a beautiful day as we went in search of an angkot - one of the many mini-buses running up and down the main drag - heading to the start point. It only took a couple of minutes before we were on our way. It seems there is always some form of bus going my way in Indonesia.
We were dropped at a small office beside a block to prevent four-wheeled vehicles proceeding any further up the road and paid a small entrance fee. The sky was blue and the sun was shining. Luck was on our side as we continued up the road for a few kilometres until it petered out beside a set of concrete foundations long ago forgotten about, the intended building never errected. Along the way we had been joined by an Indonesian guy out for the day from Medan for a spot of hiking. Together, we turned onto the steep and rocky path cutting its way towards the crater above. Reaching the flatter area at the top I could see plumes of acrid smoke billowing from sulphur-stained vents. This volcano was definitely still bubbling away beneath the surface even if it hadn't blown its top for over three centuries.
Further in the distance was the curved rim of the crater, grey primal rock juxtaposed against the lush green grass feasting on nutrients and sunshine in the foreground. A beautiful sight that I had to thank my Dutch companions for. We followed the path to the rim of the crater, inhaling whiffs of eggy sulphur along the way. At the bottom of the crater was a shallow lake autographed with many names - the letters formed by placing rocks on the bed. Inspite of the obvious human footprint it was a sight of great natural beauty, the sheer rock at either end of the crater showing evidence of an almighty blast all those years ago. We took a rest to take in the lush view across farmland and rolling hills on the other side of the rim - as well as spotting the path that took us down steep rocks and then onto a slippery trail of concrete ridges descending rapidly through steamy forest.
We spotted a green snake poking out of a rocky crevice sunning itself. As we approached it hissed and slowly retreated into its refuge. As we reached the bottom of the valley we passed through a forest of giant bamboo
and passed a geothermal energy plant on the fringes of a village where we found a hot spring. We paid the small entrance fee and changed into soaking attire which, for me, meant stripping to my pants as I had failed to bring swimmers with me. My companions were more prepared as they eased into the hot water while I was content with sitting on the edge with only my feet and calves submerged. A couple of Indonesian families were relaxed by the pools and it wasn't long before they asked to have their photos taken with me. More stardom - the previous day Maude and I had been approached by what seemed like a whole class of schoolgirls who wanted individual photos with us. Life as a model is tough, I thought, as my smile began to falter.
We took a crowded angkot back to Berastagi where I found myself face-to-face with a woman chewing on betel - a deep red ball of betel nut, betel leaf and lime which is held between the lips and is the cause of some seriously stained teeth. Not a beautiful sight but a very interesting one. Not that I held it in the mind as I finished off the day with another bout at the internet cafe followed by another meal out on the street. The following morning I was up early to collect my just about dry laundry and pack for the onward journey to Lake Toba.
Bukit Lawang was going to be a hard act to follow. Where to next? Why, Berastagi, of course. From the rain forest to highlands boasting two active and scalable volcanoes. Two buses down and a stop for cash in Binjai and we were deposited at the side of the road in chilly and bustling Berastagi - it stands 1,400 metres above sea level. My first impression was not entirely positive since I had been expecting a sleepy one-road town from what I had read. There may have been just one main road but it was far from sleepy or picturesque. And a smattering of rain didn't help either. But give Berastagi a chance, I thought - not everywhere in Indonesia is going to be a Bukit Lawang.