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Staying in House of Students on Sumatra

An interesting look inside the home of some students on Sumatra.

I was riding on the train from Jakarta to the small city of Merak on the western fringes of Java. From what I saw, there was really only one thing in that place: a port with ferries to Sumatra. This is a fact that I discovered by surprise a little too late in the night . . .

I got of the train and began looking for a place to stay. After ten minutes of walking down a set of dark railway tracks I came to what was serving as a commercial area. In other places in the world it would just be called an intersection. I found two roach hotels not worth the sacrifice — not to mention any money — of bedding down in. I would have been better off camping out on the train tracks than in one of those encrusted cinder block cells. I walked back down the tracks to the port. I got on the next ferry to Sumatra.

Wherever I was going was sure to be better than where I was.

Earlier I’d met a university student on the train to Merak who invited me to stay with him in Palembang, which is one of the larger cities of Sumatra in the southeast. I declined, as I planned on staying the night in the port town and leaving in the morning. Now the situation had changed. I looked for him on the ferry but couldn’t turn him up until we were disembarking.

So, about that offer . . .

It still stood.

It was a good move taking it, as where the ferry dropped us off in Bandarlampung there where there was less than nothing — not even a couple of roach hotels on a derelict commercial street. To get to town and find a hotel at that time of night would not have been especially difficult, just a compromising move of travel where you’re hamstrung by a lack of options — you take what you can get, fine or not.

We had to ride by bus for three more hours on a bus to get to Palembang. My new companion called ahead and arranged for his roommates to meet us at the bus station. When we arrived well past two AM they were there. We hoped on the back of their moto-scooters and rode for 15 minutes through the nighttime streets. We rode down a wide boulevard which, other than the palms and other tropical trees that lined it, could be called “global standard.” Block-like cement and rebar buildings, chain stores, quicky-marts, gated up car repair garages, and an impressively massive Dunkin’ Donuts that for some reason was still blaring its lights, still open. Everything here appeared to have been built within the past 20 years, more than likely within the brief lifelines of the students I was riding with.

We turned off the main road into a tightly packed residential area, cut across what appeared to be someone’s garden, and rode right into their apartment. They parked the scooters in the narrow hallway.

This was technically my second time in Indonesia, but my first visit was merely to the Batam free trade zone for a day. I hadn’t yet been in a home; I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to get behind doors to see how these people really lived.

Three middle class engineering students lived in the house I’d just entered. They gave me a short tour of the place — which was basically a hallway that lead from the front door to a small courtyard in the back that had a few rooms hanging off the side of it.

There wasn’t a piece of furniture in the entire place. Everybody sat on thin bamboo mats and slept on roll out futons on the bare grey cement floor. The single burner electric stove was on the floor, utensils were kept in a tray on the floor, laptops were on the floor, an electronic fly swatter was on the floor, text books and notebooks were on the floor. It worked. There just didn’t seem to be a reason to complicate the living space with additional material that would ultimately serve the same function as the floor. It was interesting to see the practice of living on the floor, which is very common in tropical villages where the houses are generally made of soft wood and thatch to hard, being transferred to un-pliable cement in a more or less modern house in a city.

Beyond that, there was absolutely nothing extra. The only thing hanging on the wall was an inspirational poem that one of the students had written or copied from somewhere. I imagine that this is the cultural standard — at least for cash strapped students who’d just taken their first steps out of the nearby villages and small towns they came from.

I believe they said they paid what amounted to well under a thousand U.S. for the place for the year — the equivalent of a few hundred dollars each.

The students sat altogether on the floor in the front room, which seconded as one of their bedrooms, talking, playing on their phones, studying, and watching television. I sat there with them to very late in the night. When I got too tired to remain one of the students gave me his room and bed mat to sleep on. Genuine hospitality.

Indonesian home (2)

Indonesian home (3)

Bed where I slept

Bed where I slept

Indonesian living room

Indonesian house (2)

Shared well in the courtyard.

Shared well in the courtyard.

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Filed under: Indonesia, Travel Diary

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 83 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3215 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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