Same Same, But Different

Trip Start Jun 02, 2007
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Flag of Indonesia  , Sumatra,
Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Some people need a McDonald's or a Starbucks to give them a sense of familiarity in a foreign land. Maybe it's because you know what you're going to get.
 
From Moncton to Minske, you know you can count on the same golden arches proclaiming billions served, the same lingering odour of greasy fries, the same plastic swivel chairs, the same hamburgers that taste like cardboard stuffed with sawdust.
 
Or the same brown velvet armchairs you can sink into, the same piped-in remixed jazz covers, the same overpriced coffee that tastes burnt no matter what kind you order, in the same mugs bearing the same logo of the same girl with the same long wavy hair and star on her crown.
 
Same, same, same.
 
Even when we want to get away from it all, we're creatures of habit. What is the point of travelling, though, if you want to see the same places, eat the same food, and hang out with the same kinds of people?
 
It all gets so boring and repetitive. I came to Indonesia partly because nobody I knew had ever been there. No hordes of tourists sporting cargo pants and tank tops, pot bellies and sunburns. No hippie hair bands over blonde hair buns, no Paris Hilton sunglasses, no sport sandaled beer-swilling backpackers. Or at least fewer of them. I didn't want to see anyone who looked even remotely like myself.
 
Nor did I ever want to lay eyes on another Wal-Mart, Home Hardware, Chapters, Dairy Queen or Subway, the signs of which you can see in any Canadian town, large or small, robbing it of its uniqueness. Not unless I wanted to read Harry Potter in English or had a craving for a peanut buster parfait. Or maybe an Italian sub on honey whole wheat, extra olives. (Note that Tim Hortons is officially off this no-no list. It was started by a Canadian hockey star, thereby making it quintessentially Canadian and immune from this little rant. Besides, the coffee is better than Starbucks, and it has donuts too.)
 
Sure enough when I landed here in Sumatra, everything was dazzlingly different, like landing on a different planet. My senses were turned upside down and inside out, first by the heat, then by the haphazard recklessness of it all. Indonesia is life in full swing-brown-skinned waifs with dazzling smiles ripping down the road on their bikes waving paper Indonesian flags; entire families-I've seen as many as six-piled on motorbikes off for an afternoon at the mosque; women garbed in wildly clashing colours or teddy bear pajamas balancing baskets on their heads; family-owned food stalls in various states of disrepair, smudged windows filled with noodles and fresh vegetables, barbeques laden with smoking goat meat satay or stinky salted fish. Freshly butchered chickens, covered in flies, dripping blood, splayed on decrepit old tables in the traditional markets-you wouldn't see that at KFC. Random signs abound, never to be replicated elsewhere. Pink Beauty Saloon, Ball Coffee, Skinnic de Palace, Steak n' Shake, Smile Internet Café.
 
Randomness. Glorious randomness. Not a Starbucks or McDonald's in sight!
 
Wait a minute. All this submersion in the exotic and unfamiliar--the bombardment of heat and the languages you're struggling to understand, the rickety chairs that can only be perched on, not slumped in--can be really tiring. Sometimes sensory overload calls for a Big Mac to make it all go down easier. Maybe once it sits like a ball of lead in your stomach, you will feel more grounded. For desert, a non-fat half-sweet half-caff mochaccino, served with chocolate sprinkles, a croissant, air-conditioning and wi-fi, would be kind of nice.
 
So. Yuki Plaza, across from the Grand Mosque in Medan's main tourist area, has a McDonald's on the main floor. It's hard to miss the big plastic Ronald McDonald lounging outside the doors in his yellow jumpsuit and striped socks. Incidentally, it served the best Big Mac I have ever tasted, perfectly stacked and looking like the one in the photo. That never happens, but just this once it did. The McDonald's here has also adapted its menu to serve fried chicken and rice, to suit Indonesian tastes. (There's also a McDonald's at Merdeka Walk, the big outdoor food fair, but I cannot vouch for the Big Mac there.)
 
Merdeka Walk is closer to Sun Plaza, the main shopping centre in Medan, where you can shop at Ace Hardware, Gramedia books or Hypermart, the Asian equivalent of Wal-Mart. On the first floor you will also find a good portion of the city's 50 or so pasty, bespectacled tourists and expats at Starbucks, frothy coffees at their elbows and noses in their laptops, facebooking their friends and family to tell them how strange and foreign Medan is.
 
For more of the same old, same old, there's always KFC. Everyone loves KFC in Indonesia. You can find them all over the place. On wall, as always, is the same picture of the smiling mug of Colonel Saunders sporting his goatee and bow tie. The chicken can be long-legged and bony, though. Not like the stuff in Canada, all juicy and plump with steroids and antibiotics.
 
The pizza is pretty good at Pizza Hut, except that it's often smothered with Thousand Islands dressing instead of tomato sauce. J.Co's donuts aren't as good as Timmy's but they definitely quell the cravings. My favourite is the tiramisu with the whipped cream inside.
 
Same same, but different.
 
It's enough to make me burst a button on my cargos.
 
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