An aerial view of the North Sumatran countryside west of Madan shows fertile terraced farmlands amid a lush tropical setting. Photo by Pavel Kirillov
By Jessica Chesbro
In ancient Sanskrit texts, Sumatra island was known as Suwarnadwīpa, the Island of Gold. Tenth-century Arab explorers wrote about the kingdom of Lambri, on the northern end of the island. Marco Polo, in his writings, referred to it as Samara. Historical records from the Song Dynasty talk about a king known only as Haji Sumatrabhumi, or “King of the land of Sumatra,” sending envoys to China’s Imperial Court. The sixth-largest island in the world, Sumatra is both culturally and ecologically rich. Sumatra’s rainforests are home to elephants, orangutans, tigers, and other rare animals.
Medan, Sumatra’s largest city, was founded July 1, 1590, by Guru Patimpus. While studying Islam with a local scholar, Patimpus fell in love with the princess of Pulo Brayan. Patimpus married the princess, and they and their sons founded a small village that they named Medan.
Medan later became the capital of the Sultanate of Deli. The Sultanate of Deli was a kingdom founded in 1630, as a tributary kingdom of the larger Sultanate of Aceh. The kingdom’s original capital, Deli Tua, is now a suburb of Medan. While the sultanate lost political power under Dutch colonialism, the royal line remains an important cultural symbol. The current Sultan of Deli, Mahmud Lamanjiji Perkasa Alamm, became the youngest person to hold the title when he was crowned in 2005 at only eight years old. Under Dutch colonial rule, tobacco planters moved into Sumatra, causing the city of Medan to expand rapidly. The Deli Company, which began a tobacco enterprise near the Deli River, made use of Medan’s port and set up tobacco warehouses, contributing to the population increase. Parts of Medan still bear names such as Polonia and Helvetia, after the Polish and Swiss planters who used to own the land.
Near the end of World War II, Indonesian leader Sukarno, who would go on to become Indonesia’s first president, formally declared independence. As the Allied forces planned to return Indonesia to Dutch control, this led to the Battle of Medan, one of the first battles of the Indonesian National Revolution. Dutch and British forces fought against the Indonesian Army for control of Medan.
Today, Medan is the capital of the province of North Sumatra, and a major hub of trade and industry. Strategically positioned close to Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, with short direct flights from Kualanamu International Airport, Medan is both a transit point to many popular tourist destinations and a gateway for regional and international trade. The U.S. Consulate in Medan’s district includes the Batam Free Trade Zone, where U.S. companies such as Caterpillar, McDermott Steel, and Apple Academy employ more than 10,000 Indonesians. The district also includes the Strait of Malacca, one of the most important shipping lanes in the world. As the main route of transportation between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the Strait of Malacca are economically and strategically important to countries around the world.
Medan’s diplomatic community reflects its strategic importance, with diplomats from China, Japan, India, Singapore, and Malaysia, all located in Medan. Medan’s international community also includes a United Nations office and a number of third-country nationals. Medan’s expat community is small, but close-knit, with an active social calendar. Families tend to connect through the Medan Independent School, which parents described as welcoming. The U.S.-accredited school offers English-language education to students from kindergarten through high school in an International Baccalaureate program. The school educates a mix of expat and Indonesian students, creating close connections and offering children significant multicultural learning experiences. Extracurriculars are also inexpensive and readily available, with children learning activities such as swimming, soccer, music, and dance.
Medan is a port city noted for the quality of its food, with well-stocked international supermarkets and a wide range of restaurants and take-out options. Locals recommend trying the cuisine of Aceh. Medan’s Indian community ensures plentiful vegetarian options, both at the restaurants in Little India, and the many local restaurants that use tempeh, mushrooms, and seitan to create vegetarian versions of popular Indonesian dishes. Medan is also noted for its durian, a distinctively pungent fruit that can be eaten plain or incorporated into custards, crepes, and a wide variety of creative dishes. One local restaurant specializes entirely in durian and durian-themed foods.
Medan is noted for its multiculturalism. Medan is near the lands of the Batak people of Sumatra, and many establishments sell the hand-woven Batak ulos cloth, both for use in traditional clothing and in modern updated styles. The city also has significant Chinese and Indian communities, with influences visible in the city’s architecture and houses of worship.
Medan has a proud tradition of religious pluralism, with many Medanese people having people of different faiths in their family. Consequently, Medan’s multiculturalism is especially clear during the holidays. There are public decorations and events for a wide range of holidays, including Christmas, Eid, and the Lunar New Year. Everyone celebrates together, and it is common for locals and expats to be invited to a wide range of celebratory events.
“Medan’s diversity, reflected in its dynamic local staff, is part of its unique charm,” said U.S. Consulate Medan’s Principal Officer Gordon Church.
Sumatra’s tremendous natural beauty also contributes to Medan being a positive environment for families and outdoorsy people. Lake Toba, surrounded by tropical pine forests, sits in the caldera of an ancient supervolcano, the surface of the waters nearly three thousand feet above sea level. Family member Marta Casbeer explained that a trip to Lake Toba is “like going to paradise.” She recommends it for weekend excursions with the family. Another destination popular with families and backpackers alike is Bukit Lawang, home of Medan’s orangutans. For conservation reasons visitors are expected to keep a safe distance, however patient visitors can observe these gentle creatures in their natural habitat. Bukit Lawang offers both shorter day hikes and two-day jungle treks that involve an overnight in the jungle. It also has an elephant sanctuary that protects Sumatra’s native forest elephants. Additionally, jungle guides can lead you to specimens of the world’s largest flower, Rafflesia arnoldii, known as the “corpse flower” due to its unfortunate smell.
“Sumatra’s diving opportunities are amazing,” said Deputy Principal Officer Jessica Chesbro.
The island of Pulau We, in the province of Aceh, has vibrant coral reefs teeming with colorful creatures such as blue-spotted stingrays and mantis shrimp. Fortunate divers can sometimes encounter larger marine life, including enormous gentle mola mola fish and reportedly the occasional passing whale. And for wreck diving enthusiasts, WWII-era wrecks off the coast provide impressive opportunities.
The U.S. has had a consulate in Medan since Indonesia’s independence in 1949. Consulate Medan covers the 10 provinces of the island of Sumatra, which has a population of fifty-five million people. With a consular district that borders the South China Sea, this post addresses key diplomatic, economic, and security interests. Indonesia’s South China Sea issues with Beijing play out in Sumatra’s waters. The consulate’s public affairs team works with up-and-coming leaders to promote messaging on a range of issues, including countering violent extremism, maritime security, human rights, and environmental protection. Alumni of exchange programs including the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative and the International Visitors Leadership Program, work to build community capacity and develop creative collaboration.
“The nexus of policy issues attracted me,” said inbound Political/Economic Officer Suraj Mungara.
With so much important work to be done in Sumatra, Consulate Medan is expanding by adding additional foreign service officer positions. The Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations is constructing a new consulate compound, which is expected to be completed in 2024. Post is expanding its housing pool by adding furnished apartments with recreation facilities in addition to free-standing homes.
Shopping in Indonesia is simple, with an increase in app-based online options for delivery directly to homes. Popular apps such as Grab and Gojek offer not only food and grocery delivery, but transportation, delivery services, movie tickets, and more. Medan also offers an impressive selection of restaurants, shopping centers, movie theaters, and other recreational activities. While speaking some Indonesian is helpful, Medanese will go out of their way to resolve communication challenges and offer inclusive and positive experiences.
U.S. officers serving at Consulate Medan have been known to enjoy serving at the post for its expeditionary diplomacy on key policy issues in a tropical environment. In fact, many U.S. officers serve repeat tours in the country. At the end of an officer’s tour rather than saying goodbye, Mission Indonesia’s locally employed staff reach out to say, Sampai nanti (Until next time).
Jessica Chesbro is the deputy principal officer at the U.S. Consulate in Medan.