Medan the Nostalgic City

“You know, as I was little I used to wait for your grandfather to get his big mug and tell us (me and my older sister your aunt) to go fetch him a mug of black coffee from a coffee shop next door every single day. We were very happy to do that because he always let us keep the change.”

That’s one of the childhood memories of my mother in the city where she was born and grew up, Medan. That’s it, I thought. I have to go to Medan, even if it’s based on that single piece of story alone. I guess I’ve always believed in myself as a story-teller, and I’ve always been intrigued by stories. Stories carry me away, listening to them I can’t help creating a stage in my mind where I reconstruct everything I hear. Anyways, I’m kind of obsessed with the ideas related to places and cities lately. I need to see that old coffee shop, the street lined with old colonial style offices on Jl. Hindu, the colonial style of architecture of the main post office my mom told me once, the famous Tiong Sim noodle restaurant that she explained to me with excitement coming out of a buried passion I hardly see in her before, the puzzled feeling I always have towards all passionate foodies, not that my mom is one except when it’s about Medan.

The first impression that struck me as I first arrived in this third biggest city in Indonesia is that its cleanliness. I mean, you can hardly spot any garbage piling up on its pavements. Or maybe it’s only the main streets I didn’t dare to be decisive about it, for as I brought up the subject to my cousin who spends all his life there to get some sort of affirmation, I noticed that he had never even thought of that.

Medan is a rich city. However it’s too bad that the locals don’t seem to be fully aware of it, or even if they do most of them have a hard time to really present the richness of the heritage, monuments, and historical values to the outsiders. This is the city that is far than boring (I’m not talking about the lunatic betor or becak motor that will, believe me it will, drive you crazy with the slowness, heedless turnabouts, and ridiculous size/width). Medan skillfully presents a mixing scene of old and new, of pristine and modern. On one side of the street you may find the typical character of big cities tattooed with numerous amount of billboards wherever your eyes look upon, but there’s also this positive stubborn air of collaboration among the Hindu, Buddhist, Chinese, Malay, Western, and Islam seen through its urban architecture shaping the diverse cultural heritage of this city. In almost every street corner, there’s always a scene that captures my eyes. A Hindu temple with a shabby-hipster-looking Indian sleeping at its entrance (they might not be homeless for then I knew from my cousin that when those people have money they spend the money on liquor, get drunk and sleep on the streets but when they run out of dough, they stay home), some Colonial ruins right in the city center, the grand style of architecture of Lonsum (London Sumatera) originating from the colonial time, the black-white pavements and wide streets that strongly remind me of Bandung, the Maimun Palace adopting the blend of Malay, Islam, Spanish, Indian and Italian styles of interior, the impressive Tjong A Fie Mansion that most Medaners have never been to, the ancient to modern Buddhist/Chinese temples, the historic Hindu street (Jl. Hindu which happens to be where my mom’s childhood home was located), and last but never the least, the fabulous multinational food scenes that would leave Bandung’s to be worth no mentioning at all.

The Medaners, yes, they’re a bunch of community that try to convince you that the traffic in Medan is worse than in Jakarta and if you bother to argue and convince them of the opposite (like I did), you’ll end up desiring to have the worst traffic, which is nothing but pointless if you really think of it. The Medaners, I believe, always have a hard time wiping the smug look off their faces every time you give kudos to their chili paste, pork, and whatsoever being served on the dining table alive or dead. And if the Germans drink beer like water, the Medaners eat durians like monkeys or some of us eat peanuts. And when you tell them how expensive and distasteful the durians in Jakarta are, they will gasp in fake disbelief “no waaaaayyy” as if it’s the most disgraceful thing on earth and when you don’t see it, their pitiful look will reach out to the back of your head “oh look at these poor Jakartans let’s feed them with durians while they’re here.” I guess I didn’t go there for the food for I’m more of a light eater and I’m not a die-hard fan of durians either, and besides, I believe that the weight of my body determines the chance of happiness I get. But still, I was deeply impressed by the overly-packed Soto Medan restaurant that my cousin took us to for breakfast, of Tip Top which happens to be the oldest surviving restaurant in Medan whose wood-oven is exactly as old as my father. I was fascinated by the fortune that Ucok the durian “Donald Trump” might make from feeding hundreds of people coming to his duriandom every day, I was enjoying the night scene on Jl. Semarang which is mushroomed with food stalls, and I took notice of how the Apek’s coffee shop still keeps its interior as well as exterior ever since 1922 perhaps out of idleness or an anchored fondness for nostalgia (I’m not sure which). And how a group of Chinese-Indonesian middle-aged businessmen were enjoying the coffee in their tight bike outfits while parking their fancy bikes outside the coffee shop unlocked. And the combination of all those, I believe, is what makes Medan rich, in my own terms.

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