One day after Toni arrived at Singapore, we started our week long journey in Batam, a small island located less than 70 kilometer away. It was nearly our only option to cross the border, because my visa to Malaysia had expired and we were quite appalled by planes. But considering the fact that we had crossed the United States twice in two weeks before, we decided to go a bit further. After our frantic research on a sluggish computer in the ferry terminal, we planned to follow the advice of a tax driver to take a four-hour boat ride to the border of Sumatra, followed by a four-hour bus ride and a two-hour taxi ride to Bukittingi. We had out doubts initially, but when a second fellow on the bus raved about his affection for Bukittingi, we were sure that we had made a right decision.
Bukittingi was a buoyant city with a strong touch of local flavor. Having only thought about the beach and the sea during packing, I was obliged to borrow a long-sleeve shirt from Toni to cover my bare flesh and blend into the crowd. The religious devoutness was so intense, that we had to book two separate hotel rooms and abstain from any corporal contact. At one time, Toni sneaked into my room to get his towel, and was immediately caught by a stern security guard who knocked loudly on my door, cautioned Toni against any improper advancement on me, and stationed himself resolutely outside of my room until Toni walked out with his towel.
Even though the streets were littered, the buildings were crammed and the sky was hazy, we soon grew warm towards Bukittinggi. Be it a fruit juice seller (who blended strange kinds of fresh fruits at an exceedingly low price), a restaurant goer (who observed us with a conspicuous curiosity), or a motorbike rider (who navigated nimbly through the smallest gaps in the traffic), everyone exhibited an inimitable happiness that affected us deeply.
Ramadan was a particularly low season for the tourists, because virtually all restaurants were closed in the day when fasting had to be observed. But noticing our foreign appearances and hungry faces, a young girl warmly ushered us to her restaurant, which was separated from the rest of the market by some colorful plastic curtains. All of a sudden, swarms of children ran to our table from different corners of the curtains as if having heard a command from a whistle. They giggled loudly at the awkward way which we wrapped the food and vegetables with our hands and gobbled them down, often accompanied by drips of oil trickling down our palms and dropping onto the table. One man even seated himself on the opposite side, lighted up a cigarette and stared at us until all the ashes were blown away by the wind.
At last, I feel compelled to write a bit more about the toilet. Its shabbiness shocked me greatly at first, but when we realized how much water and energy could be saved through such a simple system, we were truly impressed. Everything was done by a small bucket alone- flushing, bathing, cleaning, and even wiping ass. It was outrageously plain, but sufficient to sustain the general aspects of life.