Why tourists are wrong about Medan

Don’t head the warning

It all starts with the Lonely Planet guidebook for Indonesia. The writer paints a bleak picture of Medan by telling the reader that it is “consistently at the top of the worst cities in the world list,” among backpackers. To be fair, the writer does go on to defend Medan by saying if you give it some time it does have its charm. By this time the trip planner has already gotten it in their head that they should expect the worst.

Indonesia itself is not necessarily a part of the main backpacker trail of South East Asia. With it being such a sprawling nation of islands of various sizes it doesn’t usually come on the radar as a budget destination since it will take a few flights in order to get a proper feel for the country. The ones that do make their way to Indonesia generally stick to the tourist hot spots of Bali and Java.
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Protests outside U.S. Consulate in Medan, Indonesia

It has been awhile since I’ve posted. I’ve been busy with teaching and just life in general in Medan. Just want to give some information for anyone who has found my blog through searches about the situation here. I do not think the media has been showing the reality of the protests. It is such a small number of people gathered around the consult to protest the anti-Islam video that was posted on YouTube by an American and then later translated into Arabic by an Egyptian and shown throughout the Arab world. There are 250 million people in Indonesia and 200 million which are Muslims. A total of about 250 people showed up today at the consulate in Medan to protest via flag burning and speech. While I do not agree with the rhetoric, they do have a right to express their opinion. This however, does not excuse the violence that has occurred in other parts of Indonesia, especially Jakarta and Makassar. But, among the many protesters throughout Indonesia only a very small handful have turned to violence.

Perspective needs to be shown here. If you were to zoom out on any of the number of scenes that the media is feeding the public you would see how insignificant the protests are. Again, I’m not excusing the violence that has been going on but by the sheer number of people living in Indonesia, they are in no way represented by the acts of these few.


Indonesians burn American flag outside US Consulate in Medan to protest anti-Muslim film

MEDAN, Indonesia – Indonesians continue to protest an anti-Islam film, torching an American flag and tires outside the U.S. Consulate in the country’s third largest city of Medan.
About 200 people from various Islamic groups gathered Tuesday. Some unfurled banners saying, “Go to Hell America,” while others trampled on dozens of paper flags in North Sumatra’s provincial capital.
They demanded that Washington punish those involved in the privately produced American-made film “Innocence of Muslims,” which ridicules Islam and depicts the Prophet Muhammad as a fraud, a womanizer and a pedophile.
On Monday, violence erupted outside the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta when hundreds of protesters mostly from hardliner Islamic groups gathered. Some hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails in the first violent demonstrations over the film in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country.

A look back on 2011 and ahead to 2012

The last couple of years have been some of the best of my life so far. 2010 saw the completion of my BA from University, my 30th birthday and the breaking free of a job I didn’t like but kept at for the entire decade. I managed to complete my degree in the amount of time I planned once I decided to go back in 2007.

2011 was even better but for different reasons. I set off in January around the world on an adventurous trip through the Horn of Africa and a Middle East journey that fell short due to the Arab revolutions early in the year. I got my TEFL certification in Thailand and did some volunteer work before settling down in Sumatra. I wrote a post back in 2010 trying to predict where I’d end up living this year and Medan, Indonesia wasn’t even a place I knew anything about other than it was a port city in Sumatra. Now here I am finishing my first full year abroad and just getting going!

Here is a look back at some of the things I’ve accomplished and planned to accomplish but fell short as well as an outlook for 2012. Enjoy!

Things I set out to do in 2011…and did

Learn to iron
Learn to tie a tie
Learn another language (in progress)
Learn to play the guitar (in progress)
Live abroad
Drive a motorbike
Get TEFL certified
Become a teacher
Travel to Somalia (Somaliland)
Travel to the Middle East (Lebanon)

Things I didn’t specifically set out to do but happy I did
Live somewhere that I can see mountains from my house
Have an article written about me by ABC News
Volunteer in a small village
Cut back immensely on drinking alcohol
Lost 35 lbs (15 kg)
Have a proper party week in Thailand with old friends
Motorbike road trip through Northern Sumatra

Things I wanted to do but didn’t do
Learn to cook
Live completely alone

Goals for 2012
Have a close friend or family member visit me
Learn to cook
Return to the U.S. at the end of 2012
Survive the end of the world
Get to see one of my best friends get married
Travel to a nearby country
Visit Java, Komodo or Flores

Some of my favorite photos of 2011

INDONESIA

Banda Aceh

Grand Mosque at Banda Aceh

Bukit Lawang

Orangutan in Bukit Lawang

Samosir Island

Batak children on Samosir in Lake Toba

THAILAND

TEFL Course

Getting into it during teacher practice at TEFL International

Royal Temple Bangkok

Royal Temple, Bangkok

LEBANON

Baalbek

Baalbek

MALAYSIA

Petronas Towers

Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur

SOMALILAND

Somaliland

Somaliland

Somaliland

Tank leftover from the Somalian civil war

Berber

Camels grazing on the beach along the Gulf of Aden

ETHIOPIA

Harar

Hand and mouth feeding of hyenas outside of Harar

North Sumatra Road Trip

Map North Sumatra Lake Toba

Blue line indicates the route with a one night stopover in Beratagi

In about 7 hours me and a couple of mates are going to head south out of Medan for Lake Toba for a week-long road trip through North Sumatra. I plan on leaving the laptop at home. The camera will be with me but it’s unlikely I’ll be making any posts before I come back.

One of the biggest reasons for moving to Medan to teach English was that there is easy access to amazing places for short holidays. Christmas break is here, classes ended last Friday and the next 8 days will be spent driving our motorbikes through the Karo highlands of north Sumatra.

We set out first for the city of Brastagi which is overlooked by Mt. Sinabung. This volcano hadn’t erupted since the year 1600 but in 2010 it woke up from its long sleep with quite the fury. It erupted several times in a few months and is now quite active. We plan on resting one night here and then on to Lake Toba on Tuesday morning.

The three of us will be taking our time meandering slowly through the mountains. The journey by bus from Medan would normally take about 5 hours but we plan on spreading that over a couple of days by stopping in small villages along the way.

Samosir

Samosir Island on Lake Toba

It’s easy to forget just why we moved to North Sumatra to begin with. Medan is a big bustling city with lots of shouting locals, traffic jams and pollution. It’s important that we make it out of town as often as we can to recharge and get up close with the locals who welcomed us when we first arrived.

Northern Sumatra already doesn’t get the tourists that other places of South East Asia get. On top of this, we’re taking a route rarely traveled by foreign tourists south through the mountains. We’ll get to come across adults who rarely have seen foreigners pass through their villages and children who may have never seen a white person before. Of course this means we might have to veer even further off the main road but we’ve all agreed that we’re going to wing it… play it by ear… and see where the road takes us.

I told myself I want to try at least 10 new things this week. Horse milk? Monitor lizard? What else? Things that are taboo back home can be quite normal in these parts but I’ll talk more about that later.

We’ll end our journey in Lake Toba on the island of Samosir. I was there earlier in 2011 but this time I’ll have my own bike giving me the freedom to move about, as well as a pretty decent handling of the Indonesian language. The lake itself is about the size of Singapore and it forms the cauldron of an ancient and massive super volcano. If you look at the map you can see how all of the North Sumatra province builds in elevation until the lake a the top. The island in the middle is Samosir which was formed after the last great eruption 75,000 years ago. There are hot springs on the island where we plan on doing some swimming. The island has since been inhabitant predominantly by ethnic Batak Tobanese people who practice Catholicism and animalism. This is in stark contrast to the roughly 86% Muslim population of Indonesia.

So, it’s off to bed now, a big day tomorrow.

The day I found the pizza I was looking for…

It has taken a long time but I’ve finally found pizza in South East Asia that at the very least, does the job. I won’t begin to try and convince you that this holds up to American standards as far as pizza goes but it’s by far the best pizza in Medan that I’ve found and definitely the best pizza I’ve had in South East Asia.

pizza Indonesia

It could stand to be bigger. An 18 inch pie would work better

The key is simplicity. So many pizza places try too hard. I think they are going after the Italian Neapolitan style which IS the original however I’ve grown accustomed to the thinner sliced New York style pizza with cheese, sauce and crust with a bit of oregano. They had crushed red peppers and Parmesan cheese and the only thing missing was some garlic powder. (Luckily my mom sent me some from home so I can always bring that along in my pocket)

Out of the three main parts of the pizza the crust is the weakest. It’s tough to get that right apparently because even back home the crust is usually what pizza places screw up the easiest. I’m not sure what they’ve done with the sauce because there is usually this very typical sweet flavor of all red sauce here in South East Asia. They must have not included too much sugar because the sauce does its job. It adds flavor but doesn’t over power. Then finally the cheese. It’s not perfect but again, it doesn’t over power the rest of the pizza. You can still tell it’s not the real deal but there is not too much of any one ingredient causing the pizza to taste funny. It’s just the right amount so that the sauce, the cheese and the crust work together to make a very tasty pizza.

So there it is, if you’re living in Medan or just passing through check out Pisa Cafe which is joined with M Box Karaoke on Jln. Thamrin in Medan, Indonesia. (just down the street from Thamrin Plaza)

Food Friday: Rendang

There are few foods in this world that make my tongue dance the minute it touches them. Back home in the United States it’s definitely a nice thin slice of New York style pizza and maybe BBQ pork doused in delicious sweet sauce. As far as international cuisine, there is green curry chicken in Thailand and flour tortillas dipped in hot white Mexican cheese. (Although I suspect that is more of a Tex-Mex thing) Alfredo sauce just about rounds out all of my favorite foods in this world.

Rendang

Ren-DAAANG!

Indonesia doesn’t have the most internationally renowned food in the world but there is one item that is the monster of all dishes here, and it’s rendang.

Like most of the good food in Indonesia, rendeng comes from the province of West Sumatra and the Minangkabau people in and around Padang and Bukit Tinggi. I think rendang is an acquired taste as the first few times I ate it I wasn’t sure of the hype around it. It takes a few times to really understand the flavor.

Rendang is slow cooked much like a pot roast and seasoned with all kinds of different spices such as lemon grass, chillies, or ginger and made with coconut milk. It’s most commonly made with beef but rendang is also made with chicken and duck.

Also like other Indonesian dishes it doesn’t look like much to the eye. Prepared, as usual, on banana leaves it’s widely available throughout Medan. The best I’ve had so far is at a small warung (small restaurant) near my house. I plan to try several more locations. It’s often quite spicy but not so much that it takes away from the flavor.

If you’re in Indonesia try to break away from the common menu items in the tourist restaurants such as mie and nasi goreng and hit up a food stall that has rendang. I noticed rendang isn’t often on the guest house menus around North Sumatra possibly due to it’s degree of difficulty in cooking.

It’s easily my favorite food now over ayam bakar. Don’t come to Indonesia with out trying it.

Halloween activity for ESL classrooms

The Horror: Scary Movie Night
Halloween is my first major holiday as an ESL teacher. The student’s knowledge of the holiday is limited as Indonesia doesn’t celebrate it and only English language schools hold any sort of activity for the holiday. My school did a horror movie night for the students. I was quite surprised at the choice in movies. It was a Thai movie rated PG-13 and we had some students that were quite young. My more conservative, U.S. raised self kept thinking how stupid it was to show the kids this movie but then when I looked around the room at the young children closing their eyes and then bursting out in laughter when they get spooked, I thought to myself, no this is what Halloween is about… getting scared. If they watch some corny children’s Halloween movie that isn’t going to leave any lasting impression. Some my most vivid memories from childhood are from watching scary movies that were meant for people much older. The only bad part about this movie was that the subtitles were translated from Thai into Indonesian and then into English. This made for terrible grammar at the bottom of the screen. Even my students recognized how bad it was, which is a good sign that they have a pretty good grasp of grammar and the arrangement of the words to make coherent sentences.

Scary Horror Movie ESL Activity

Said scary movie. The Thai writing makes it even that much scarier.

Halloween Crossword
On to my quick ESL activity. This doesn’t have to be for Halloween but you can use a theme anytime you want. At my school there are guidelines to follow for lessons that must be completed by the end of the term. Depending on how far along I was in the class dictated whether or not I did some of the regular lesson or not. Some of my classes have very little to do by the middle of December so I was free to take up the entire class time with fun stuff. This isn’t a very complicated activity as it was my first attempt at putting something together for a holiday. For my younger students I printed out a pretty simple Halloween crossword puzzle to take up about 10 minutes of time and then we went through it together and I elicited the answers and explained some of them in more detail. They understood most of it but words like, “tombstone” and “mummy” needed more explanation.

Halloween Crossword ESL

We talked a bit about trick or treating and some of the students already knew what it was and a few were in shock as another student explained the wonder that is dressing up in a costume and going door to door collecting candy. I really feel bad telling them about Halloween and seeing how disappointed they feel when they can’t enjoy the same thing here.

Halloween Word Find Game
While the students were doing their crossword I was busy setting up the whiteboard for the Word Find game. I drew a few Halloween pictures on the board, including a jack-o-lantern. Then I wrote some of the rules to the game on the board.

We’ve all played the Word Find game at some point in our childhood but this is my variation. You write a word on the board like, “FRANKENSTEIN.” The students then have 2 minutes to write as many words as they can make out of that word. The students get a point for each word with 3 or more letters. If they find a word that is 5 letters or more long then they get 2 points. 2 letter words are not worth any points. This works best in groups of 2-3 students. I have each team get out one sheet of paper and pen and have them share the list and add to it as they go along. I then go around and check the lists for points and leave a check mark next to the ones worth 2 points. I leave it up to the honor system for students to keep track of their points from round to round and report after each round how many points they’ve earned.

After about 2 rounds I then add an extra element to the game called, Joe’s Secret Word. I pick out a word that is at least 4-5 letters long that if they find it they get bonus points ranging from 5-10 points. This is a good way to even up the scores if one team is way ahead. It’s up to you if you want to be an honest teacher and think of the secret word before and not change it or pretend a word on the losing team’s sheet is the secret word. This works OK for the younger students as it keeps things close if one team is too dominant. The older students may catch on to your scheme. You don’t want to get caught cheating!

These are some of the words I used for the game.

FRANKENSTEIN
JACK-O-LANTERN
DRACULA (very difficult, only about 2 easy words: card, card)
MONSTER MASH! (secret word: MOTHER)
WITCH’S BREW (secret word: PINE)
HAPPY HALLOWEEN

American Tourist Stabbed to Death in Medan

I almost considered not making a post about this because the last thing North Sumatra needs is for people to think it’s a dangerous place to visit. A few nights ago in Medan an American tourist was killed while in a becak (pedicab) on his way to his hotel from Polonia Airport. I’ve left Polonia many times by becak with my backpack and valuables in a smaller handbag, so it could have happened at anytime to me. I have always been warned to be careful of bag snatchers. This is common in just about any city in the world you visit so I always figured if it is going to happen there isn’t much I can do to prevent it other than keeping my bags close.

In this situation it looks like the American guy tried to fight back and in doing so caused his attackers to panic and stab him. I don’t think it’s common for robbers to set out with murder on their minds but when the bag snatch turns out not to be as easy as they expected then they become unpredictable. The very fact that they didn’t even run off with his bags after they stabbed him proves that they were not in the right mind during the incident.

My opinion of Medan being a safe city hasn’t changed. Again, this could have happened in any city. It is a lesson however, that when confronted by attackers it’s best to just give up your valuables and live to breathe another day.

From the article in The Jakarta Post


American Stabbed to Death in Medan
An American citizen, Samuel Hyein, 28, was stabbed late Wednesday en route to a hotel, having just left Polonia International Airport in Medan, North Sumatra.
He bled to death while being treated at Medan’s Elisabeth Hospital, due to the injury in his right leg.
North Sumatra Police spokesman Sr. Comr. Heru Prakoso said Hyein was stabbed by two strangers riding on a motorcycle, while he was in a pedicab on his way to the hotel.
“The victim had just arrived [in Medan] at 10.30 p.m. from Malaysia on an Air Asia flight,” Heru told The Jakarta Post on Thursday.
He added, “We are still trying to identify the perpetrators as well as the motives behind the stabbing, as none of his belongings were missing when the stabbing took place.”
He said three teams of detectives have been deployed to investigate the murder case.
An official from the American consulate general in North Sumatra, Kathryn Crockart, arrived to identify the victim but refused to give any comment.
“We are still awaiting the results from the police investigation, therefore we cannot make any comments yet,” the consulate general’s public affairs official, Meta Saragih, said.
Meta added that currently, they are trying to reach the victim’s family in the US.

Food Fridays: Dendeng

Food Fridays
When I ask Indonesians what different areas of their country are famous for they usually say Jakarta is fashion and Bali is for tourists. But Medan, while not the most aestetically pleasing city in Indonesia, is almost always synonymous with food. Whether it’s someone from Java or Kalimantan most Indonesians agree that Medan is a culinary paradise. It’s got its own styles and takes on other Indonesian dishes and along with Padang it makes Sumatra a great place to try real traditional Indonesian food. That’s why I’ve started to share some of the food I am eating in what I’ll call Food Fridays! A couple of weeks ago it was Sate Padang.

Dendeng
I went to a spot that my roommate suggested a few weeks back. Normally, I would get a famous Indonesian dish called rendeng but tonight it was “habis” or finished! He gave me dendeng instead. Dendeng is thin sliced pieces of dried meat. It isn’t that different from what most of us know as jerky. It’s tough and chewy but pretty delicious. In the style found here it’s usually covered in a red chili sauce and served with rice and vegetables. This is another specialty from Padang, West Sumatra. It’s not nearly my favorite thing to eat in Medan but it’s nice every now and then.

Indonesian food Dendeng

It doesn't look like much... and it's not