Notes from a “Terra Incognita”

First Day in Medan

I almost failed to fly to Medan this morning. For Mandala airline, I was “blamed” for not confirming my flight a day before departure. For me, the rule is too bureaucratic. As long as I know, this is the only airline that obliges their passenger to give report about their plan of departure (though in fact they already issued the ticket, like me, which I guess can be interpreted as a kind of confirmation about departure plan). After waiting for the last minute, they finally allowed me to come aboard. And the adventure into a foreign land had just begun.

I called Medan, or North Sumatra in general, as foreign land because I know nothing about it. I purposely chose morning flight to Medan in order to have time in the afternoon/evening to travel around the city of Medan. After almost three hours in the air (we stopped by Pekanbaru for about 30 minutes), the flight savely landed in Polonia airport. I walked out from the airport as confident as possible. Like in Cengkareng airport (and any other Indonesian transportation terminal elsewhere), there were many taxi drivers (both car and motorcycles) offering their services. They congregated (berbaur) with those who wish to pick up their families/friends. In confident manner as much as I could make, I refused their service offers. Though I didn’t know where to go, I walked through the exit point of the airport. And suddenly someone with a look of “non-offensive” character offered his motorcylce taxi. I didn’t know why, I just felt that it is saver to take his service than other previous services I was offered. And I felt much more comfortable when I know that he is also Javanese (I know, this is a kind of foolish idea. But I couldn’t deny that this was truly happening). I asked him to take me to North Sumatra University and to browse some cheap motels. At 2 pm, we finally found a modest motel. It is not really cheap, but cheaper than second motel we visited. The first motel, which is under the management of North Sumatra University, refused my book. It is not because their rooms are fully-booked, but more because they need a reservation before. Probably, they will need to book someone to clean the room first before receiving any guests. As for Juwar, the Javanese motor taxi driver, I think he is such a good person. Instead of taking 50,000 rupiahs I offered, he chose to take 7,000 rupiahs (the last small money I had), 3000 less than we already agreed before.

After sleeping for about 2 hours, I decided to spend the afternoon for walking with Gramedia bookstore as the first destination. I was thinking that the bookstore is the only place where I can get some basic books about North Sumatra and Batak before leaving for Hutatinggi, Laguboti. Gramedia is also a place where we can check the marketing area of our book distributor (it is a kind of tacit agreement between crews of our publisher to check whether or not our books sold in bookstores in every city we visit). I bought batak dictionary, batak grammar, and two maps (north sumatra province and medan city). Though I am not sure whether I can master local language in such a short time, having books on local language will be someday beneficial. I actually hope to get map of Tobasa regency or books specialized on Tobasa society, but there are none. Shopkeepers said there are still no books about that. Books with national or international issues are more easily found in this bookstore.

Knowing that our book publications are not found gives more encouragement to leave Gramedia immediately. I decided to go to electronic shopping center to find a recorder by motorcycle pedicab. (in the end, I just realized that the driver fooled me with such an expensive charge). The pedicab model reminds me with Acehnese pedicab. It is even exactly the same. Some newer pedicabs use the same brand (WIN) motorcycle with those in Aceh. And my memories of Aceh not only cover the pedicabs, but also some parts of the city.

Previously, I assumed Medan is just like Jakarta or Surabaya (because it is the biggest city in Sumatra) where every street is lightful (or at least some public lights exist). In fact, it is more like a city with endless transition. Some of its parts are fresh looking, with colourful lightning, as I found at Ramayana department store on Sultan Iskandar Muda Street where I found the first traffic jam in Medan or in Merdeka square where some franchise restaurants and modern cafes stand. But some other parts look gloomy, mostly are unoccupied old buildings with no lights, as I found on Jalan Mayjen Sutoyo which is just nearby Merdeka square. At these gloomy parts of the city, I felt I went to tens years back, but the absence of lights made my worries come along. Well, it may only my assumption, but I felt that this impression is very strong. I continued my exposure to Jalan Balai Kota, a bit north of Merdeka square, to find some local newspapers (surprisingly, I found at least 5 daily local newspapers). I guess I will need them to know more about local issues. And today’s journey ends here. I need to continue the city exploration in the days to come.

I felt I completed my today’s targets. I got some basic materials about locations and the society. I also met Bang Maruli (whom I previously call by his family name, Sirait) at my motel. I felt save with his warm welcome (he is my only reliable contact so far). Tomorrow my exposure will be continued.

Second Day

Clacksons were heard from all over directions. The traffic noise woke me up. I had to turn on my laptop to know what the time is. While waiting for the laptop to boot, I opened up my door slightly and I could see that traffic jams were there (my room is on the second floor where I can see clearly the traffic condition at one of streets). The time was 6.59. I took a shower immediately because I had an appointment at 8 with Bang Maruli to go to a seminar on Unity in Diversity at Polonia Hotel. It was held by Regional Office for Culture and Tourism (under which local faiths [commonly known as kepercayaan], like Parmalim, are administered). A night before, Bang Maruli told me about the event. It sounded interesting for me, not because it was held in one of big hotels in Medan, but more because it looked like a right place to know kinds of interaction between different religious or faith believers. He offered me to come and promised to negotiate with seminar committee to allow me to join the meeting.

On the way to the venue, Bang Maruli told me about how he is bored of attending such meetings. He said that so many similar meetings/seminars were held, and nothing real came up as a solution for problems of religious freedom like he and other penghayats have (he prefers calling himself as penghayat. If I am not mistaken, that word comes from the word “hayat” [life] and prefix pe- which means someone who does something. In official terms, such believers are usually called “penganut kepercayaan”, literally means “faith followers”. I felt that penghayat has much stronger meaning than penganut kepercayaan). On the same day, a similar event was also held by National Commission for Human Rights at one of restaurants here. He thinks that such events are heavily related with politics of budget spending; they hold these events because the money is there, if it is not used the money will be gone. It is not really certain whether the event organizing in September which is approaching the end of fiscal year (usually in December) is part of budget politics, but I think I should find out more when such events are mostly held (to know its regularity). Unfortunately, Bang Maruli seemed not to have idea about that. (If he compiles invitations of such an event, probably I can find the answer).

Before the committee allowed me to join the seminar, they asked me to write down my name and my institutions on the participants list. They have different sheets for different groups; ethnics, mass organizations, faith believers (separated from religious believers), state employees or institutions, women leaders, young leaders etc. They asked me to write down my name on the sheet of tokoh adat (leaders of indigenous communities). I didn’t really know why they “categorized” me in this group. I supposed they run out the blank rows to put my name on the list, and only the sheet of tokoh adat that still provide that. In general, the seminar was very boring. The only interesting experience I had was in the beginning of the seminar. Like many other official meetings in Indonesia, the seminar began with “doa bersama” (praying together) which was led by former head of provincial office for culture and tourism (well, he still has relative power in such event ). He invited all participants to pray according to their own beliefs/faiths, BUT he started the prayer with “Alhamdulillahi rabbi al-‘alamin, wa al-sholâtu wa al-salâmu ‘alâ asyrafi al-anbiyâi wa al-mursalin …….” And he tirelessly imported arabic words till the end of the prayer. Well, this is the reality of inter-faith prayer in Indonesia.

I left the seminar at lunch break. I went back to my motel to check out. But I finally declined that intention because I found no cheaper hotels around (actually there is, but it is very “inhumane”). I decided to spend the rest of the afternoon at the motel, because Bang Maruli promised to pick me up right after the seminar to discuss more about Parmalim at his house. But, in fact, I waited for him in vain. He declined his promise without any confirmation. I just knew it when I contacted him through his mobile. Afterwards, I felt that I wasted the day.

But the next thirty minutes reversed my bad luck.

Soon after I got Bang Maruli’s cancellation, I decided to go to Taman Budaya (literally means Cultural Park) where a theatre performance will be held at 7 pm. A friend of a friend of a friend of mine sent me a short message, apart from giving perkenalan (introducing himself), telling me about the performance. A Maduranese becak driver took me to Jalan Perintis Kemerdekaan where Taman Budaya is located. On the way, this driver told me about how long he has not gone home to Sampang where most of his relatives live due to expensive cost of travelling (he said that he was born in Sumatra, but from the way he told his story, I felt that Sampang or Madura is still his hometown. His javanese dialect is even no longer pure javanese; already mixed with Medanese speaking). He also told me a lot about his family. He is married to a Malay women, and have three children. The first child is already married to a Javanese. I asked him “why you didn’t marry her to a Batak, or an Indian?”. He replied “Jawa-lah” (more or less means “a Javanese is supposed to marry another javanese”). He looked enjoying telling his life, not realizing that his becak left tyre was kebanan (I don’t know the right word in English. It is a kind of condition where the tyres are completely “thin” because there are leaks in inner tyre). Surprisingly, after realizing that his tyre could not be “healed”, instead of stopping and changing his tyre, he kept insisting to take me to Taman Budaya (while the distance to the Taman is still quite far). “It’s ok. Get on the becak. It will make no difference whether I change it now or later. The tyre is already broken anyway,” he said answering my surprise. He asked to move aside on the right tyre approaching him, in order not to feel “so shaking” along the way. Later I found out that he wouldn’t let me go because I paid him a bit more expensive (shit, this is my number x failure in price bargaining).

Taman Budaya is just across Grand Angkasa Hotel, the most luxurious hotel in Medan. Quite contrary to the hotel, Taman Budaya looks old and gloomy. My good luck soon began after I entered the hall of Taman Budaya where the performance would be held. I was surprised that the performance is free of charge. I was more surprised with enthusiasm showed by Medan teenagers to art performance. Almost all chairs are seated. I observed that most of them are in early 20-s. And one of them is a cute girl sitting exactly next to me. She said that she is a first year university student, but she already looks very mature (I will not tell more about her because it is not part of my “official” visit to Medan ).

Another luck I got last night was my encounter with Hayat, a film maker originally come from Banten Java, but has been living in Medan since 1999. Apart from talking about his film community (STUPA) and his filmography (he is a friend of Afrizal Malna, he hates Lexi of Offstream), we were talking also about my research issue. He gives me an important information about the ritual of Tatean Bulan in Samosir which will be the seventh. He said that this annual ritual is usually held in September, and according to a mystical prediction, this year is the most important one because in this seventh event, all historical artefacts (believed to be the heritage of the first Batak ancestors) will be found (I should find more informations about this). He also give me the number of Irwansyah Harahap, the university lecturer whom I want to see. As for Ridlo, a friend of a friend of a friend of mine, who told me about the performance, looked very disappointed after knowing that my visit objective is more for my own research than for UPLINK’s interest. I could understand this, especially I heard that Ridlo and his friends are eagerly hoping to join UPLINK. I think it’s better to cancel my plan to visit his secretariat/organization office.

Wisma Satya Graha, 19 September 2006

10.05 am

Anggota Tim Peneliti Hak Minoritas dan Multikulturalisme Tahun Kedua, Yayasan Interseksi. Penulis adalah koordinator Perkumpulan Lafadl, Yogyakarta