Sunday, August 5, 2018

Medan, Indonesia: a Delightful Surprise

In 2017, I attended the UNWTO's annual conference. I still remember the Secretary-General promoting "second city" travel to balance tourism's benefits with respect for local residents ("Travel, enjoy, respect."). Medan, Indonesia--a relatively unknown place that focuses on domestic tourists despite having attractions that would make more popular international destinations blush--is exactly the kind of place the UNWTO had in mind. 

As soon as I landed in Indonesia, I was impressed with Kualanamu International Airport (KNO). Not too busy, not too empty, the entire area had an unusually appealing vibe. Growing up, I traveled in Western airports, which tend to share the same unfortunate traits: 1) sadists who sign up for busybody work allowing them their only taste of power; and 2) dead eyes immediately identifying people who've given up on dreams they once had. In Kualanamu, not only did the staff seem to have genuine smiles, they were genuinely helpful. 

Visitors will notice a tourism board office near the exit doors, and I entered to grab a few leaflets. An employee struck up a conversation with me in English and before I knew it, I had his WhatsApp number in my phone and a reliable contact to arrange daytrips to Sipiso-piso waterfall and Lake Toba.

Lake Toba
I asked about the train into the city centre, expecting a Suharto-era specimen, perhaps operated by steam engine. Freshly baked roti bun in hand, I walked outside, across the main vehicle pickup area, bought a ticket at the counter, and waited for the next train. I had managed to avoid both taxis and touts by walking one minute. 
Not the 1930s-era steam engine I was expecting.
Tourism boards and local governments don't understand how much visitors dread getting from the airport to their hotels. They listen to international consultants promising tax revenue and jobs, including for drivers, a popular career choice for uneducated men. But most poor people cannot afford to buy reliable cars, so many of the new jobs promised go to already-affluent residents or are contingent on banking loans or investments by ride-hailing apps. 

Despite billions spent on eradicating poverty, I firmly believe the world doesn't really care about poor people because the elites dispensing the money don't have a clue how poor people think or live. They'll accept the idea of a new airport generating a certain number of jobs without realizing poor people don't have formal banking relationships and don't typically understand the concept of interest, forcing even scrupulous loan agents to explain only monthly payments to prospective car loan applicants. To bridge the gap between formal and informal economies, governments in developing countries may want to follow the example of California's Bank on San Franciscohowever, a more modern approach would eventually incorporate online apps throughout neighborhoods, not just government services. If Tbilisi, Georgia can have RFID-enabled payment systems in small grocery stores, why not Indonesia? I already trust Go-JEK to store some rupiahs for me, and almost everyone, including the poor, owns mobile phones. As ride-hailing apps branch out into payment systems to support food delivery and other services, we're going to see a revolution in banking, but it will all be for naught if every segment of society isn't included in meaningful ways or if banks continue to sell loans with opaque terms. Singapore has the best laws in the world regarding loan disclosures, though I'm not sure if its regulations apply to all loans or only mortgages. Regardless, if I may be so bold to suggest, countries ought to follow the MAS's example when regulating banking disclosures to consumers. 

A joke cover at the MAS Gallery.
Furthermore, to counter a few affluent groups or local mafias from cornering the "income market"--I won't use the term "jobs market"--governments should require ride-hailing companies and taxi companies to deposit a minimum base salary into a bank's escrow account every two weeks, which would then be transferred into a driver's (new) no-fee bank account, preferably linked to a mobile app. Drivers could of course earn more than the base amount, but such payments would be between the driver and employer. I have yet to meet a driver under the age of 50 in Indonesia or the Philippines who owned the vehicle used to transport passengers. In many cases, a ride-hailing app will show the face of the owner who applied to be a Grab or Go-JEK driver, but the person actually driving will be a contractor of the driver who pays either a flat daily rate to use the car or 40 to 50% of daily earnings. (Astute drivers will demand vehicle owners pay 50 to 100% for diesel or gasoline if working on percentage. I felt terrible when I realized one particular driver had failed to do the math and was earning a minuscule amount after daily gas expenses.) 

I'll get back to tourism tips, but allow me a final paragraph on economics: one proven method that balances humanity's self-interest with honest service is competition, and when governments build trains at airports, they encourage taxi drivers to improve their level of service, making repeat business more likely. The key to sustainable tourism is repeat business. A city with too many one-off visitors will not reap the real benefits of tourism, namely, cross-cultural exchanges, foreign student enrollment, corporate growth, useful corporate loyalty programs (customer data is vastly profitable if reliable), and greater overall connectivity. If well-managed Medan is any indication, perhaps cities in large, spread-out countries are better off focusing on domestic tourists first, then international ones. 

Thankfully, the South Korean-built airport train connecting visitors to the city centre (City Railway Station Medan) is clean, fast, and efficient. It took about 30 minutes to get to the Medan stop, which connects to a large shopping mall with a taxi stand (in case you don't have Indonesia's most popular ride-hailing app, Go-JEK). As soon as I entered my hotel, Ibis Styles Medan Pattimura, I knew I'd made the right choice. I had a great experience with Ibis in Casablanca, Morocco despite their weird logo (technically, it's ibis, not Ibis), and I ended up very happy with their Medan property. Breakfast was included in my stay, and it's walking distance to a fancy cafe (Warung Koffie Batavia); an excellent bakery (All Day Bread--get there early); and a wonderful restaurant (Bebek Ubud). I don't even like duck, but I loved the duck at Bebek Ubud and their chicken satay. 

One of the best meals I've ever had.
While we're on the topic of food, you've got to visit two places while in Medan: 1) Bolu Meranti (multiple locations); and 2) Otten Coffee, a coffee roasting facility that sells coffee beans. Otten Coffee at Jalang Kruing No. 3EF, Sekip is near a Bolu Meranti and difficult to reach because it's in an alley but worth the trip. Otten Coffee allows customers to buy small cups of black coffee (a "long black") but not lattes, mochas or, God forbid, a frappuccino that's more sugar than coffee. (I will confess, I enjoyed my Starbucks Shiok-ah-ccino in Singapore, even if I'm certain it gave me instant diabetes.) 
Otten Coffee
Bolu Meranti is a cake shop--"bolu" means sponge cake, and the name of the shop is the name of its most popular cake. 
I thought the bolu meranti cake was okay, but I really liked the durian pancakes, which were more like Greek bougatsas or Danish remonces than American pancakes. (And yes, durian isn't only in Singapore now!) 
In Medan, not Singapore, lah!
I really wish I had tried the pandan chiffon aka bolu pandan, but they had already sold out when I arrived. Also, unless you really like tapioca, I'd skip the bika ambon. The "kue sus" is Indonesia's version of profiteroles, and they were my second favorite item after the durian "pancakes." 

If you're looking for traditional Indonesian food, try Restoran Garuda. The name is very common (beware imitators!), but it's a specific chain of restaurants that has taken the typical Indonesian serving style and expanded it, making it more accessible to patrons used to larger floor plans, easy parking, and fancier ambiances. I discovered jengkol and ayam bambu here, and for that experience, Medan will always hold a special place in my heart. 

Traditional Indonesian food at Restoran Garuda.
While most international tourists visit Medan to see UNESCO sites or the orangutans in Bukit Lawang, I hate zoos, even "natural" ones. My only memorable zoos were in Buenos Aires (baby elephants!) and Tokyo (fennec foxes!), and I still can't shake the feeling I'm unintentionally promoting animal cruelty when I visit animals for human display. Meanwhile, because Costa Rica is in its own league when it comes to "nature tourism," it's difficult to impress me with nature reserves. So why did I come to Medan? I came because I like seeing and feeling the hum and smells of a busy up-and-coming city. I did not expect to see one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the world in Sipiso-piso, located a few hours from the city. 
It took about 20 minutes to walk down a mostly paved path, then a more arduous return uphill. Altogether, expect 1 to 1.5 hours roundtrip if you visit and want to go down to the waterfall and touch the water. I saw grandmas walking barefoot or in sandals with their families on this path, and if an Indonesian grandma can make the trek, so can you. 

I'll post three more photos with explanatory captions, then I must sleep. It's past 3AM in Singapore, and insha'Allah, I fly to see another Indonesian city tomorrow. 

Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim country, and Medan is one of its most diverse cities.
The population is about 25 to 35% Christian, and churches are ubiquitous.
I haven't covered all the fun activities you can do in Medan. This is from Istana Maimun aka Maimoon Palace.
Once in a while, I get lucky and take a decent photo.
This appears to be a congkak.

From Singapore's Indian Heritage Museum

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