Travelling without a guide

Back in Malacca we traded in our Lonely Planet southeast Asia guide and decided to travel Sumatra the old fashioned way.  As a result, we end up asking more questions and getting local advice for where to go and how to get there.  As we’ve moved inland we’ve skipped the tourist buses and taken the often cramped but always interesting local transportation.  Coming from Berastagi to Lake Toba we began by catching a “minibus” (otherwise known as a converted pick-up truck) by the side of the road.  On journeys such as this, you must have faith that your driver will bring you where you want to go.  In this case we ended up being transferred to another bus (this time larger) also by the side of the road.  This second bus was terrifying, complete with a psychotic driver who believed his minibus was a go-cart in some video game and insisted on swerving sharply into oncoming traffic to pass everyone in front of him.  This mixed with the suspension destroying conditions of the roads seemed to scare even the locals.  We were herded off the bus once again on the side of the road in some unknown town where, after refusing a taxi ride, we asked the local police where we could catch what we hoped would be the final bus to Lake Toba.  A friendly police officer asked us to sit and fed us rambutans (similar to lychees).  After a few minutes he’d flagged down a bus and we were back on our way.  This third bus was larger still (but with smaller seats) and was packed with school children.  By this time we both had headaches and were sitting shoulder to shoulder in a crowded sweat box, where smoking is permissible, nay encouraged.  Finally we arrived on the shores of Lake Toba where we tasted our first breath of fresh air in five hours.  The last step in our journey was short, pleasant ferry ride to the island of Samosir in the center of this huge volcanic lake.

Some might be wondering why we would put ourselves through all of this, isn’t travelling with a guidebook easier?  Although it can be easier, you often end up missing the cheaper options for transportation as a guidebook can’t recommend that you stand by the side of some road to catch a bus.  Guidebooks are useful in countries where everyone takes the same bus for the same price at the same bus station.  When writing about under-developed countries, these centralized bus stations tend to be more expensive and in some cases non-existent.  Our three buses cost us 3 000 rupiah, 20 000 rupiah and 5 000 rupiah respectively for a grand total of 28 000 rupiah or approximately $3.  The tourist bus costs 80 000 rupiah (about $9) and a private taxi costs 450 000 rupiah (about $50).  So why suffer to save $6 per person?  This sum, while insignificant by Western standards, is the reason why we have been able to travel for so long on such a small budget.  In Indonesia $6 will buy you a double room for a night or four modest meals.  This is similar to the rest of southeast Asia.  Apart from being able to save money by asking for local advice, not using a guide forces you to interact more with people and subsequently learn more of the language and culture of the region.

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