Photography, Travel

Urban Decay: Travel Photography in Medan, Indonesia

“The becak is the king of the road,” she tells me, half-yelling over the combined cacophony of buses, scooters, cars, vans, trucks and other becaks. Medan swims past in a daze of fluorescent bulbs. The becak we’ve hired zips in and out of traffic like a trishaw on speed. It is the king of the road, I tell myself. Even the buses slow down for it, like elephants accustomed to the whims of a pesky but somewhat endearing mouse.

The back of our becak is uncovered, its canvas lost somewhere. This means that our backs are exposed to traffic and I keep turning around to check if someone is going to pull me from the back, grab my hair, scratch my skin, yank me out of the moving vehicle. I keep waiting for disaster to happen.

“One time I was sitting in a becak,” she says. “I don’t like sitting close to the driver so I sat towards the edge. I was holding my bag like that –” she motions to her left shoulder which is directly exposed to traffic “– and these two men on a scooter ride up next to the becak. The next thing I know, the pillion grabs my bag!” She pauses for effect.

“Then what happened?”

“I gave the pillion a great fucking kick and he had to let go. I was shaking after that.”

It is Saturday evening, a little after 8PM, and Medan is screaming with life. Horns are bleeping tooting honking blaring from every possible direction. We brake often, lurching forward in inertia. She sits beside me, nonplussed. After four years in Indonesia, she’s tough as leather. I, on the other hand, am still soft and squishable, prone to dents and scrapes.

The more I look around, the more Medan seems like a place nobody goes to. It is an accident of travel. The Saturday nightmarket is a congested lane of motorcycles vying for space with pedestrians and vendors. Counterfeit Calvin Kleins and Mont Blancs, faux leather wallets and frilly hairbands – the usual suspects. There are no breathtaking sunsets or idyllic sea views here, no quick getaways. Who would want to read about a decaying town melting into peeling plasters and weeping walls? Medan is a sad, mournful wail of colours, all of them saturated with rust and decay, like a badly damaged film that was once someone’s pride, but now lies forgotten in a store room somewhere, unwatched, unloved.

Cloth shop along Pasar Ikan. Medan, Indonesia. © Preet Kaur 2013

Cloth shop along Pasar Ikan. Medan, Indonesia. © Preet Kaur 2013

Lady with her baskets. Medan, Indonesia. © Preet Kaur 2013

Lady with her baskets. Medan, Indonesia. © Preet Kaur 2013

Decaying wall. Medan, Indonesia. © Preet Kaur 2013

Decaying wall. Medan, Indonesia. © Preet Kaur 2013

Decaying doorway. Medan, Indonesia. © Preet Kaur 2013

Decaying doorway. Medan, Indonesia. © Preet Kaur 2013

Man in hardware store. Medan, Indonesia. © Preet Kaur 2013

Man in hardware store. Medan, Indonesia. © Preet Kaur 2013

Chipping paint. Medan, Indonesia. © Preet Kaur 2013

Chipping paint. Medan, Indonesia. © Preet Kaur 2013

Decaying arch. Medan, Indonesia. © Preet Kaur 2013

Decaying arch. Medan, Indonesia. © Preet Kaur 2013

Alley friends. Medan, Indonesia. © Preet Kaur 2013

Alley friends. Medan, Indonesia. © Preet Kaur 2013

Lines and shadows. Medan, Indonesia. © Preet Kaur 2013

Lines and shadows. Medan, Indonesia. © Preet Kaur 2013

Shutter. Medan, Indonesia. © Preet Kaur 2013

Shutter. Medan, Indonesia. © Preet Kaur 2013

Watching the road. Medan, Indonesia. © Preet Kaur 2013

Watching the road. Medan, Indonesia. © Preet Kaur 2013

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Travel

The Dragon of Tioman Island

Dragon Princess of Tioman

I only noticed the leathery old grandmother much later, when the general hubbub of a boatful of excited tourists had finally mellowed into a peaceful lull, and the munching mouths were silenced by sleep. It was then that I noticed her; a native Malay woman seated across the aisle cradling a boy no older than five. She was very old; a spidery web of wrinkles had spread across her face and her spine was bent, as though she was carrying the immense burden of her age, but her eyes, when they caught mine, twinkled brightly.

In her lap, her restless grandson munched noisily on a deep-fried prawn snack known amongst locals as kerepok. “Several versions of the legend exist,” she said in a lisping voice to the distracted child (and, although she did not know it, to an attentive me) “but they all agree on these points: the protagonist is a nameless dragon princess. Her destination is Singapore, where someone awaits her arrival. Lover, sister, who knows. She takes off from China on wings of gold and flies across many lands and seas. Fatigued by her long journey, she stops awhile in the clear, cyan waters somewhere in the middle of the South China Sea. So enraptured is she by her impromptu pitstop that she decides never to leave. The dragon princess transforms into an island vowing to offer comfort to passing travellers just as comfort was offered to her. Thus was Tioman created.”

As the boat chugged closer to our destination, I saw the twin peaks of dragon horns push out against the sky and noticed the green scales of giant trees and thick wilderness that form the landscape of Tioman. Simultaneously unapproachable and beautiful, cloaked in mist and penetrating the clouds – this, I thought, must be the Asian equivalent of Middle Earth’s Fangorn Forest.

Most of the island is uninhabitable but several kampungs or villages have sprouted up like wild, happy mushrooms as an answer to the growing popularity of the island amongst backpackers, beach bums, divers and Singaporeans on a weekend holiday. I had no desire to splurge on a resort or an air-conditioned room overlooking the sea at sunset. A clean fan-cooled hut was all I desired and all I had money for. According to my travel guide, Air Batang would be perfect for me.

One narrow cement road runs throughout the entire village of Air Batang, broken in intervals by bridges built over gaping holes in the ground, home to shy but impressive monitor lizards which scurry away as soon as they hear footsteps or the roar of an engine. Wooden chalets with thatched roofs, seafood restaurants, diving centers and the occasional bar are built on both sides of this path. Walking along it, one can see all there is to see in Air Batang.

On an exceptionally warm morning, I followed this cement road to the south.  It ended at a rickety flight of steps leading up into a dense jungle. With a feeling Alice must have had before jumping down the rabbit hole, I plodded on. The jungle path was short, and soon gave way to a flight of stairs leading down to a scene so completely unfamiliar and new that it could have belonged to a modernized ghost town. Gone were the laid-back chalets,  fecund greenery and mischievous kampung cats. This place was all gray concrete, with silent bulldozers parked next to mountains of granite and half-built brick buildings that in another couple of years will become resorts and chalets. In the far distance on a green signboard was a symbol of an upward arrow and the words ‘Kg. Tekek’.

That evening, as I nursed a beer at a strangely out-of-place reggae bar, I watched a sinking sun sprinkle a glittering blanket of orange and yellow diamonds over the sea. I thought about the old grandmother and the tale of the dragon princess and wondered whatever happened to the lover, sister, who knows, in Singapore. Probably another story waiting patiently to be told.

Published at In The Know Traveler. Permanent link here.

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Nine Lives is a remarkable piece of travel writing on India’s carnivalesque culture and society, seen through the lens of its backwater religions, self-contained cults and their outcast followers.

The book contains nine stories, each of which is a detailed biographical sketch. What does it means to be a temple prostitute, a warring monk or a man who becomes a god for 3 months? Perhaps most astonishing of all is the tale about an illiterate goat herder from Rajasthan who keeps alive in his memory an ancient 4000-stanza sacred epic.

Reading this book was so rewarding that I’ve ordered three others also by Dalrymple. You can most definitely call me a fan.

Book Review, Travel

Book Review: Nine Lives by William Dalrymple

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