Lake Maninjau, Sumatra -- spark ling like an emerald in the sun, the deep-green waters of Lake Maninjau are set inside the ring of a volcanic caldera perched high in the Barisan mountain range.
The road snaking down the steep walls that rise dramatically from the lake's tranquil shores has 44 hairpin turns. The rainforest that clings to these walls is home to the rare Sumatran tiger, but alongside the road we see only technicolour butterflies, rhesus monkeys snacking on tasty lychee fruit and flowering orchids that spill from the lush tropical canopy.
The lake is always in view, its warm green waters growing ever larger as we descend from the cool mountain heights.
Nearby, children laugh and splash in a waterfall that cascades down the crater walls.
The journey to Lake Maninjau alone is spectacular enough to warrant a trip, but even its best views can't compare to what awaits at the lakeshore.
Home of the matriarchal Muslim society of the Minangkabau people, Lake Maninjau in the morning is a time of ethereal peace. Fishermen in dugout palm canoes drop their nets into the still lake long before the sun's first rays reach over the mountaintops. The call to prayer echoes from mosques around the lake.
To avoid the heat of the day, this is the best time to begin cycling around the lake. All area hotels rent bicycles for $2 to $4 a day. The 60 kilometre trip on the mostly paved shoreline road winds through orchards, rice paddies and tiny villages, passing only one town of any size. The lake's residents are friendly and usually eager to share some of their bountiful harvest with us.
Delicious tropical fruit is abundant. Be sure to try the spiny green durian. The creamy pulp of this stinky delicacy has been compared to everything from chocolate bananas to sex in a peel. Plug your nose and open your mind the flavours of a good durian are said to transform several times in a single bite, and Sumatran durians are reputed to be the best in the world.
Upon returning from our cycling journey, we encounter a Guns N' Roses cover act. Bizarrely, the dusty streets are alive with the sound of acoustic singalongs to early GNR tunes. Just after sunset each night we're there, the strains of November Rain and Sweet Child Of Mine begin to fill the air. It seems that everyone in town loves to strum an acoustic guitar and happily sing for any passerby who'll listen.
For those who aren't fans of Axl, Slash and the boys, traditional Minangkabau dancing is practised a few times a week. The all-male dancer/musicians drum a primal beat on their tightly pulled sarongs as they leap high in the air and dance in a circle. The show must be seen and heard to be believed.
The December 2004 tsunami hit Sumatra hard. Images of ruined villages and newly homeless people in a prolonged state of shock touched our hearts. It sparked such an enormous avalanche of giving that medical NGO Médecins Sans Frontières had to offer refunds to donors since it had more money than it could use for its tusnami relief programs.
Though the ordeal of coastal communities has been widely publicized, the lesser economic hardship that tourism-dependant areas like Lake Maninjau have suffered has gone largely unnoticed.
Aid was rightly targeted at the ravaged communities of the West Sumatran coast, but it's done nothing to stem the economic decline of the interior.
Visiting places like Lake Maninjau can help return a sense of normalcy to an island whose recent past has been devastating. Stimulating its economy reduces the need for foreign aid while increasing the island's ability to recover from the disaster.
Who knew a bike ride could do so much good?