Medan, Indonesia’s third largest city and capital of North Sumatra is not a popular destination with tourists. The whole province has been suffering from a sharp decline in visitors over the past twenty years, a decline that has been attributed to the 2004 tsunami, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, a civil war and of course corruption. But maybe there’s a much simpler reason for the lack of tourists. Maybe Medan is just not a very nice place.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. North Sumatra is beautiful and well worth visiting and Medan functions as the gateway to the area. As a gateway, should it not be the kind of place you want to get out of the second you arrive? If Medan were nice, people might spend more time there and miss out on the rest of the province.
Not to worry though: Medan is not nice and shows no signs of changing that in the near future. First of all, budget accommodation options are centered around the main mosque. I’m sure this sounded good in theory, as the mosque is one of Medan’s main attractions. It’s actually an entirely unspectacular mosque, but since it competes with such other attractions as a run-down shopping mall, a crumbling neglected palace no one cares about and two museums with extensive collections of absolutely nothing at all, it has easily become Medan’s Eiffel Tower or its Big Ben.
In practice, locating accommodation near a mosque ranks somewhere between putting it behind the public restrooms in the city’s main slum and situating it next to the city’s primary garbage collection area (known in the local language as “the ground at your feet”). Why? Because it’s a mosque.
Five times a day (apparently—seems closer to twenty) beginning early (very, very early) in the morning, the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer. Calls is the wrong word—he howls and screeches through a set of tinny speakers that blast his call at three times their maximum volume to anyone within earshot, which includes several of our closest neighbors. By “our” I mean humans and by “neighbors” I mean alien races on other planets. When aliens sit around in their mother’s basements with tin foil hats on their heads scanning the radio waves for life on other planets, they hear the muezzin in Medan.
For those of you staying in one of the guest houses near the mosque, it sounds like the guy is kneeling right next to your bed howling at you through a bullhorn. Needless to say, this does not rank high on my list of preferred ways to wake up. You might try staying in your room or even going back to sleep, but by the second or third assault on your eardrums, you need to get out.
You could go for a walk around Medan, but might run into some problems with the sidewalks. In Medan they have a unique method of constructing a sidewalk. They take large concrete slabs and lay them over the city’s drainage system effectively creating a walkway next to the city’s roads. This is where most cities in the world stop. Not Medan. Here, they proceed to remove a number of slabs seemingly at random and sometimes even two or three in a row. The only rule here is: don’t be predictable. You want to ensure that any pedestrian not paying complete attention to every single step ends up in the sewer.
You might think they do this for a purpose, such as maintenance. They don’t. Every single sidewalk in the city has had a good portion of its surface removed and no repairs are going on anywhere. My theory is population control. I think the Indonesian government is worried about their rapid population growth and they consider China’s one-child policy too controversial, so after extensive study, they’ve determined the exact number of sidewalk openings needed to keep population growth at a steady percentage.
The safest way to avoid Medan’s sewers is to take a motorized rickshaw, but that comes with its own annoyances. Despite being a small city (by Asian standards), according to the rickshaw drivers, every single place in Medan is “very, very far” from every other place. You could ask one of these guys to take you across the street and he’d launch into an explanation of how the inaccurate map you stupidly purchased combined with your complete lack of any navigational skills might make it seem like the other side of the street is just over there on the other side of the street, but in fact you have to cross two oceans and a large swamp, but since the two of you are such close friends, he will take you on his super-secret shortcut across a mountain range, which will cut out one of the oceans completely and reduce the fare to only US$2,000 and since you two are basically conjoined twins who were separated at birth, he will further reduce the price all the way to $1,999. Every single driver, every single time. It’s exhausting.
Now, you might read this and get the impression I didn’t like Medan, but I kind of did. A little. Mainly I liked the fact that you could get to a lot of other, nice places from Medan. And I also liked that there were so few tourists—it makes for a nice break sometimes, to not see other travelers everywhere you go. And it’s not like the tourists aren’t there at all. You don’t usually see them, but if you get lonely, you can just reach down into any of the sewers and pull out someone to hang out with.