Intro: Far from the economic and political vortex of Jakarta, the city of Medan (and its environs) hustles and bustles with the business of a major metropolis. It is Indonesia’s third largest city with a population of about 2.2 million, The Asian gay travel site Utopia-Asia playfully suggests "that’s about 90,000 Utopians" (gay people). Perhaps. If there is anywhere close to that number I found virtually all of them invisible. Sumatra swarms with beauty: flowers, mountain rainforests, ancient temples, color-splashed artwork ,unique architecture, great lakes, exotic customs and swarthy friendly faces. But few of those faces reveal they are gay.
Updated May 2008
It’s five AM in the city of Medan on the island of Sumatra. Rain is pouring out of the night sky, crashing down on tin and tile rooftops and into polluted culverts. A muezzin’s early morning call from the nearby mosque rises above the wet rush of the rain.
The rain makes it difficult for the sidewalk eateries to set up their portable kitchens in their daily ritual of deep fries, chicken and rice served on palm leaves. Here in the north of Indonesia, sleepy heads awaken to another day of another month of their hand-made, hand-held lives.
The conflagration of traffic has not yet hit the streets as homeless beggars huddle quietly under disheveled shelters near the train station. Soon the countless swarms of fuming motorbikes, tuk-tuks, bicycles trishaws, run-down taxis and shiny SUVs will crowd into this city’s arteries for another day of commuting and commerce, shop-keeping and bargaining (little with with the few tourists that come here).
I’m staying for the night at one of the city’s ‘grand’ hotels, the rather dowdy Dharma Deli Hotel, an historic old place formerly the Boer Hotel which hosted many stalwarts who came in from the rubber and palm plantations in times past. Once the most favored hotel, it now appears worn and outdated. But the casual staff, who don’t move quickly, make an effort to keep up the appearance of tradition.
Shopping for Friends
A few hundred meters down the main street from here is one of the city’s more popular retail venues, the Deli Shopping Center. In this city of mom and pop shops and restaurants, Deli is several stories tall with dozens of shops on each floor connected by numerous escalators and elevators. It’s big enough to house two separate food supermarkets and a sizable parking garage.
The variety of shops is what you might expect–from ice cream to fried chicken, from gyros to more upscale restaurants. Clothing stores, flower shops, cosmetic shops, music stores–the whole range of attractions to pull in the crowds, most of whom are under thirty. I didn’t’ see many people carrying large bundles. Smaller low-price items seemed more appealing to this crowd.
But, for some patrons, the shopping is of another sort. This happens to be one of Medan’s most popular gay cruising venues. (It says so in the Lonely Planet guidebook!) With hundreds of shops and hundreds of customers moving and milling around, sipping sodas, window shopping, gossiping with friends, the mall offers a good mask for gay guys to wander the halls and floors and central courtyards checking out each other. (You don’t see many young women alone–especially Muslims girls; they are usually in pairs or groups.) On my first walkabout my gaydar picked up about 20 to 30 cruisers, mostly unaccompanied, but some in pairs.
As I rounded one corner, I didn’t need gaydar to see two guys boldly holding hands. In this Asian country where non-gay friends hold hands with ease this couple were distinct since one of them was a middle-age westerner and the other an apparent native. This is not casual or usual. I noticed these men were quite self-conscious about their ‘brazen’ behavior. They were watching other people watch them–actually few noticed anyway. They shot a glance at me as we passed quickly in different directions. Unfortunately the moment happened too suddenly for me to realize the opportunity these guys offered for understanding the gay scene here in this big but gay-remote city.
Of course we are everywhere so I was pleased to see this mid scale arcade with its glitter, music and commotion as an exchange place for gays instead of a dark, sleazy alley in a barrio somewhere.
It’s remarkable also how cruising behavior is the same all over the world. Riding up an escalator in Deli Mall I could see guys with that disconnected object-viewing look as if perusing candles or donuts, followed sometimes by a backward glance to see if there was mutual interest from a certain other person. If so, there’s the circling, just to be sure–up an escalator then down again to see if he follows. Eventually perhaps a risky trip to the men’s room–but hormones lead to risks. I’d like to think in this city of no gay venues that some words might be exchanged which could lead to friendship.
Other than window shopping at Deli Mall, I didn’t see any deeper signs of gay life on the streets or hotels or countless dusty shops of Medan. That is, until I accidentally met Hendri at the tourist office where my tour bus stopped on its way to Lake Toba. Tour buses by the dozens fan out in every directions from Medan seven days a week headed to popular destinations such the magnificent Lake Toba and the ‘primal’ upcountry village of Bukhit Luang with its orangutan rehabilitation center.
(Note: tourists are usually not told the details about these buses: the route they take; air-conditioned or not; English speaking driver or not; or where they stop either for food or for picking up more passengers or dropping off friends at their homes. And the duration of any trip is longer than anything said or written. So my bus stopped, unexpectedly, at the office after picking me up. There we were told to change, also unexpectedly, to another bus with the excuse that ours needed repairs. Indeed I saw two boxes of brake pads on the dashboard.)
While we were waiting for the change, Hendri and another staff member came out of the office to apprise us of the change of vehicle and schedule. Initially told we would be here for a 10 minute stop, we finally left about half an hour later. But Hendri was quite friendly and spoke reasonably good English. In fact, Hendri’s friendliness was a little more than necessary for greeting strangers. He was also somewhat coquettish and playful in a manner that let those ‘in the know’ see that he was gay.
Picking up on his cues, I responded with my own form of ‘gay talk’ that informed him that I was also gay. He was pleased to get a response to his signals and became receptive to my smile and banter. But the bus was soon to leave and I wanted an answer to one important question: was there any LGB organization in Medan? Hendri looked slightly surprised, as if I had asked an impertinent question. He frowned and lowered his voice. "Oh. No. Of course not. This is Medan. There is nothing like that here."
A few minutes later I was told the bus was waiting for me so I had to hurry off, promising that I would call him when I was back in town after a few days in Lake Toba. Short as it was, our talk at least gave me a minimal frame for seeing gay life in Medan.
Lake Toba isn’t a part of this gay report but I can’t help offering my praises of this lake area--a magnificent surprise and delight especially after the grit and grind of Medan. The lake is a crater lake formed by the collapse of an ancient volcanic caldera after it exploded about 100 thousand years ago.
In the middle of this giant fresh water pond–about fifty miles long and twenty miles wide–is the island of Samosir, about the size of Singapore. The island and it surrounds are dense with green beauty that’s mostly unspoiled.
The surrounding rim of the caldera is jungled, mountainous and drops down rugged cliffs into the clear fresh waters below. On a small peninsula on Samosir Island is the village of Tuk Tuk where I dissolved into the serenity for a few days at the comfortable 4-star Carolina Hotel (photo on right) for $7 day. ($9 with hot water, but who needs it here?)
Tuk Tuk is about as laid back as rural Indonesia can get, with a collection of small hotels and guesthouses, numerous eateries and your choice of quiet beaches. Unfortunately many tourists have recently shied away because of the Bali bombing in 2002, the restive political situation in Jakarta, the smoke from Borneo’s illegal logging fires (which have mostly stopped now) and the fighting in the far northern Sumatra province of Aceh where rebels have been fighting for independence. (Negotiations are supposedly under way.)
But a visitor to Tuk Tuk village would never know about all that. It sits peacefully on a ‘golden’ pond. If you go, stop at the tiny Juwita Cafe (near the Carolina Hotel) for a delicious meal with owners Hedi and Sam. You need mother Hedi’s food and they need the tourists.
Parapat Village Market at Lake Toba
The day I arrived at Lake Toba I briefly encountered an unusual and engaging person.
Before taking the ferry to Samosir Island and Tuk Tuk I strolled through the weekly open market in the town of Parapat on the mainland. I wandered up and down the narrow aisles among hundreds of stalls and ground cloths loaded with the merchandise of common life–mostly a cornucopia of food. The usual wide variety of fruits and vegetables were laid out in palettes of color–bright red peppers, purple onions, green leafage, white rice and yellow spices.
Further along in one corner were the meat stalls, mostly fish and only one chicken seller–that is, butchered chicken. One stall sold live feathered clucking chickens, light and dark, that got plucked out of their crowded cage-basket and held upside down for inspection by housewives who squeezed them to determine their meaty size.
The most eye-catching offerings in the fish department were large goldfish that are raised in fish farms in Lake Toba; they are not native to the lake. At first I thought they were sold for pets! But then a hand reach into one of the large plastic buckets to grab one, and flop it on the scale–pretty, shiny golden, flopping. Then she tossed it on a wooden block and chopped off its head and tail–from pretty exotic fish to table food in ten seconds. The yellow corpse was then dropped into a plastic sack and carried home along with the cabbage, leeks and potatoes.
A couple of aisles beyond the butchery sat a cosmetic seller sitting behind a table chocked full of lipsticks, nail polish, mascara and other such items I rarely use. The seller had on bright red lipstick and a sort of dark floppy hat. On second look, it was a guy. Heavy set but not fat, his shirt partly open I could see a bit of his definitely male chest as he cheerful said "hallo mister, where you from?" (Every merchant asks that of passing tourists.)
From his very first gesture it was obvious he was one of the girls–and there were several around him selling other women’s items. When I held up my camera and asked to take his photo, he shied away but only slightly. When I told him I was from California and smiled back he warmed up so when I asked again for his photo he was willing to oblige.
He actually sat up and posed with a tilted head. My camera is digital so I showed him the picture immediately and he howled with delight and showed it to his friends who giggled and laughed as well. Then he wanted another one.
Next, one of his customers wanted her picture with him. (In the flourish of the moment, I forgot to ask his name.) Each time, my camera got passed around to giddy laughter as they saw each other. After three pictures of our guy, his girlfriends also wanted in on the action so I took several more frames. Silly and delighted, one of them said she wanted copies and gave me her address in Parapat.
Back in Medan
Some days later, Hendric and I ate lunch at one of the restaurants in the Deli Plaza. I could name the restaurant but since the owner is gay it would be risky in this conservative city. Our tasty lunch lasted a couple of hours during which my host gave his impressions of gay Medan. I say impressions because he is not an activist or leader; he felt he had limited awareness about Medan’s gay life, such as it is. He has a few gay friends with whom he occasionally goes to the cinema or has some eats or hangs with at home watching TV.
"I tell you there is no gay life here. There is no serious gay people who make organizations or parties," he claimed vehemently and remorsefully. There is not one gay bar or club or café where gay people can meet for socializing. And if there were one potential patrons would be nervous that someone they know might see them.
The closest approach to such a happening was actually in the same restaurant where we sat. Since the owner is gay (Hendric said he was rather effeminate and therefore ‘known’ but not hassled) he tends to hire good looking waiters who may or may not be gay. (Indeed, our handsome young waiter was very friendly and willing to chat in English–he was studying it in college.)
Former Sultan’s Palace in Medan
Last year one of the gay waiters started telling his friends about the restaurant and his employer. Thinking the restaurant was a gay-safe place they started to come around to eat and hang out. But this didn’t sit well with the owner who feared his place might become known as a place for gays and chase away other customers on whom he depended for most of his business. Hendric didn’t know if the waiter was fired or quit but Medan’s gay spot quickly dissolved.
Sumatra, according to Hendric and others I spoke to casually along my way through the city and hillsides, is a place that is conservative yet easy-going. Here there is no hostility among various ethnic or religious individuals or groups. Muslims are in the majority but they live comfortably with the large Christian minority as well as others who are Buddhist or Hindu or Animists. People, I noticed, did not intrude on others. Especially in the rural countryside there seemed a certain indolence and live-and-let-live attitude among tribes and ages and beliefs.
Yet when it comes to sexuality that tolerance seems to tighten up, both out of conservative social and religious attitudes and also very much out of ignorance. Hendric had said, "If I tell my family, maybe they will understand–I think my parents know. I’m 32 and I don’t want to get married and my mother doesn’t say anything about it anymore. But if I told my brother or sister they would be angry with me. They don’t know anything about gay people. They don’t know what it is. So they would be angry. My brother, I think will hit me." Indeed Hendric says he knows of others who have been punched or treated with physical assault when they came out to their family or friends. Some have been rejected by their family and not welcomed back home. The only acceptable life is married with kids.
As for relationships, Hendric was rather cynical. He didn’t know of anyone who had gone beyond a couple of months dating one person. There appears to be no role models for long term relationship, as he sees it. "Indonesian guys do not know what romantic sex is. They come here to the shopping center to cruise and maybe have sex in the men’s toilet and then it’s finished. They don’t know what kissing is for so I don’t like to go with them." He prefers western men because they know more about romantic sex and are not afraid of it.
However, his chances for any abiding relationship are close to nil since few tourists come to Medan and fewer have reason to stay; most are only passing through to the more appealing places like Lake Toba and Bukhit Lawang. He has, however, had contact with an occasional businessman from Europe who met his expectations but exciting as they may be for Hendric they are also short-lived.
So there is not much to report about evident gay life in Medan. But there are quiet hearts that beat and look for a moment of ephemeral passion in the aisles and halls of Deli Mall and other serendipitous places. For the LGBT traveler, the best ‘romantic’ place in Sumatra is Lake Toba. There you are assured of beauty and appeal. And who knows, perhaps serendipity might provide another wistful and willing Hendric to keep you company.
Check the Utopia-Asia referral list for Medan LGBT venues.