Danau Toba : Ripples in Blue
Lake Toba Travel Blog› entry 264 of 268 › view all entries
It's not even midday yet and I've already negotiated a three stage relay of every traveller's favourite game, namely : How Many Human Beings And Their Cigarettes Can Be Made To Occupy The Exact Same Portion Of Physical Space Within The Same Vehicle? Or, 'Squeeze 'n' Wheeze' to give it's snappier title. Bums pressed to seats, windows and faces. Finding or exiting a seat becomes an odoriferous game of Twister. 'Orang Barat!' one woman silently exclaims. [ 'Person/Man of the West' or 'Westerner' ]. 'Wanita Timor' [ 'Eastern Woman'] I respond smiling to let her know I understood.
Next 'The Three Ds'. Deposited, Dishevelled and Disorientated. I traverse Parapat market accompanied in my wake by the usual susurrating symphony of whispers, grins, gawps and giggles from gap-toothed fishermen's wives sat upon their well-padded backsides speculating about my appearance, lack of stature and marital status.
I now sit upon the upper deck of one of the creaking wooden ferries with cracked flaking painted flowers and words daubed upon their flanks and shard the shell from my boiled egg onto the wooden deck and chew my cold mie goreng (fried noodle) parcel it's easy enough to stare out over the majestic blue expanse of Danau (Lake) Toba and forget about stresses past and impending.
'HORAS!' [ 'Good luck!' the standard Toba Batak greeting ] Welcome to Danau Toba. At 100kms long, 30kms wide and a maximum depth of 505 metres Lake Toba is the world's largest volcanic lake.
All of this geological and human history has had many millennia to simmer down now. The caldera long ago filled with serene blue water. The giant magma chamber pimple upon the earth's surface known as Samosir island (the world's largest island within an island) has had time to rise skywards with renewed pregnant threat... and will one day, theoretically, go 'KABOOM!'. So head there sooner rather than later people - whilst the temperatures remain good, but not life threatening.
Throughout recorded modern history (yes, inevitably that mostly means colonial) the Batak people are most sensationally noted for their ceremonial and punitive practice of cannibalism that survived at least until the late 19th Century. Thankfully (well, depending upon your views on the 'virtues' of external influence Vs the right of cultural sovereignty) Islam then later Christianity, national independence and latterly tourism seem to have quelled these more colourful social practices and these days when a friendly Batak approaches you, mouth grinning wide and with a gleam in their eyes, at worst it's your wallet they'll be looking to eat.
'Welcome to the tourism village of Tuk-Tuk Siadong with its Sapta Pesona / Seven Charms' reads the sign before listing said charms : Aman [Secure], Tertib [Orderly], Bersih [Clean], Sejuk [Cool], Indah [Beautiful], Ramah [Polite], Kenangan [Memorable]. Selections of these 'virtues' appear posted outside many towns and villages throughout Indonesia. I came to Toba with a view to staying at Tony's Place, the guesthouse establishment run by my Bukit Lawang pal Tony's likewise named father. However it's closed up when I get there and it's only over the next day or so, patching together partial information from other relatives ( 'Everyone here on Samosir is related' I'm told) that I learn about the serious fire back in Bukit Lawang [see previous entry] .
My time at Lake Toba is not long and not eventful. And I don't know how to discourse or expand upon it in an engaging manner. I certainly won't be able to render this undoubtedly incredible area of Indonesia any justice. The truth is that much as a travel scribbler would like to do so, one can't always weave thin threads of narrative (fools) gold from events that were effectively as bland as straw.
No, in Toba I'm running outta time with only one week of my first Indonesian visa remaining already.
So what to do with what little time I have? This is the question that literally paralyses me in Toba and one of a few circumstances that nudge open small doors of uncertainty and ultimately unhappiness in my soul.
Options whiz around and around inside my weary skull. The 'done' thing on Samosir Island is to hire a small motorbike and take yourself off around the shore of the island for a day. Almost everyone does this and the heavily rutted roads and recurrent rain being what they are here I guarantee you will meet a number of travellers in Sumatra sporting grim bike accident injuries. Being most short on inner leg length two-wheeled transport has always induced discomfort and cowardice in me and the sight of such wounds only reinforces my lack of will to straddle one of these little beasties. So, that's a “no” to the bike option - though I can say following much consideration on this subject before and since that one of very few regrets I have from my style of journey-making to date is that you do miss out on a lot of latitude to get 'off the beaten track' and out into the further flung scenic spots and communities if you are unwilling and/or unable to get on a bike.
With bikes out I'm left with trekking. Usually a much loved Stevie staple activity but my muscles are shot to hell right now and potentially poor weather and lack of time make the chief hike on Samosir a tall order - surmounting the island's hilly central landmass to trek through the villages and past lake Sidihoni (a lake within an island within a lake within an island!) to Pangururan on the far shore where a tiny umbilicus of land attaches to the mainland. It's a trek that should sensibly take two days, but I'd only have one, on my own and on bad legs. I just don't think I can force myself into it...but I should... shouldn't I?...or?... I dunno. Paralysis starts to set in.
So I try to walk-off my indecision with a gentle start and a Day 1 perambulation of Tuk-tuk. Whatever it's historical origins Tuk-tuk is now by design a 'tourist village' and comprises a circle of hotels, guesthouses, little restaurants, artisans galleries, work shops and plenty of shops offering you all of life's necessities from postcards to t-shirts to laundry and magic mushrooms - the latter a regional and much renowned speciality. Or so I'm told.
Things are quiet here. Very quiet. Tourism is down the world over at the moment. The so-called 'credit crunch', or GFC (Global Financial Crisis) as I have heard it dubbed, is sounding the death knell for many local economies that, over time, have developed to the point of over dependence on tourism. It's not high season right now, though it should be getting there, yet the few out-and-about guests rattle around Tuk-tuk like peas in a large empty can and the place often feels abandoned after dark.
That night I splash out as the restaurants sole patron on their 'special dish' for a treat to lift my spirits and to give them as much trade as my stomach convinces my wallet to lavish.
The rain passes promptly, but my decision to be lazy is made. So all I do all morning is sit in a cafe run by a lovely young lady who cradles her son in a shawl slung around her shoulder and sit, drink coffee and - for the first time in too long - get my pencils out and start to draw some 'thank you' illustrations for my Indonesian TB pals. And I haven't been happier in a long time. Not even an embarrassing gaff with my fledgling Bahasa Indonesia is enough to dampen my spirits. In seeking to compliment my hostess's gorgeous little bundle of life I smile, shake his tiny hand and exclaim 'dia puniya mati indah.
Over my two full days on Samosir, my clothes finally burnt dry by the sun, I amble a lot having ruled out hiking and biking. Walking roughly 5km in either direction from Tuk-tuk to the villages of Tomok and Ambarita. The latter was once the Royal and political centre of Batak society with the 'kursi batu' (stone chair) of Samosir's first king, Raja Siallagan still contained within an accessible compound where ingress into 'museum' exhibition examples of the fabulous traditional Batak houses is possible for a small fee.
For my money the architectural form and decoration of Batak houses are one of the finest sights and memories to take from time spent in Sumatra. Traditionally of more natural materials, but increasingly made of corrugated, cut sheet metal that rusts to ferric orange tones, the sweeping arc roofs of these homes lifting up with high thrown eave pinnacles to back and front call to mind proud ships hulls, though I hear it is a representation of the horns of a buffalo, revered for their usefulness to the society. The wooden facades and eaves of these small buildings are often beautifully and intricately carved and painted with geometric, floral or animistic patterns and designs. The most recurrent image being that of the much loved ‘cicak’ or gecko; viewed as a protective animal in this and other cultures.
Nature is in fine display, accompanying me on my strolls with buds and flowers bursting lava, lavender and gold all the way. Lily ponds reflect the skies and project stalks and pink-petal blooms from their muddy depths whilst gaily coloured dragonflies make love upon their leaves. Chickens cluck, shimmy and nestle their bodies into dust bowls in the ground or forage for seed and shade.
...which though often reaping me great contentment with the opportunity to practice Bahasa, also, here in Toba, in its own incidental way pushes that little door of unhappiness in my soul a little further open. For the people of the non-Western world, but especially Indonesians and ESPECIALLY the Toba Batak people seem totally obsessed with my height! I.e. the notable lack of it. And I thought the Indians had been bad.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve had a lifetime developing fairly thick skin about the inquisitiveness of children on this point. Less so where adults are concerned, for they should know better. Also whilst travelling one foolish misconception - let’s call it a mistake by way of a hope - that I have had to jettison is the idea that as I headed further East into societies whose average height were far closer to my own I expected to have become less of a point of attention. But how wrong I was. And how the opposite is so true! For not only am I small, but a small European! A double crime-mystery. A five foot one (carrot-topped to top it all!) anomaly from The Land of The Invading Giants. A fact that many eastern people cannot seem to comprehend : ‘Do you eating enough at home?’, ‘Is it some kind of illness?’, ‘Did someone put black magic on you?’, ‘Did someone... you know?...’ [accompanied by hack-sawing motion to legs], ’Are your motherfathersisterbrother like... you know?’ and so on. I’ve heard ‘em all and I’ve long come to doubt my capacity to aspire to that travel writer’s ideal of blending in or ‘being invisible’ as much as is possible in order to better facilitate unimpeded third party observation of other cultures. But this is a dream as absurd as it is impossible and I almost wrote one of my Sri Lankan Psychological Postcards on this subject to be entitled ‘Standing Out from the Crowd’ but shelved the idea in the end. [See my Sri Lankan journal entries for the couple of Psychological Postcards that I did scribble]
But as soon as on the many occasions the Batak men inevitably joke about me finding a ‘beautiful Batak wife’ the conversation pulls up short and they look troubled and enquire ‘But wait, how tall are you?' ???! Oh dear, is this a deal breaker for the wife speculation then? ‘Errr, about five foot...’ ‘No in centimetres... how many centimetres tall are you?’ Blimey. ‘Um, I don’t know really, the number was never really gonna be exciting enough to bother counting, so I stopped. 152 perhaps’. He then goes on to get me to estimate the average height (in centimetres of course) of the average British man, British woman, German and Dutch man. I cook up some baloney figures if only to practice my Bahasa numerals but my internal monologue is ‘so what the f**k already, can’t we talk about the weather?’ It’s just one of those dictates of polite conversation ain’t it that you observe but don’t always enquire after a point of difference for fear of offence - or is that just the Englishman in me?
For example, though I may have scribbled down and filed away upon the throw-away, trashy, scrap paper deluged desktop of my mind the observation that the majority of Batak women have quite... um?... impressively proportioned hips 'n' buttocks and this ethno-genetic signifier may or may not be of curiosity to me, being restrained by a sometimes life-saving cultural inheritance of ‘social propriety’ I know better than to enquire directly of the men folk 'So why do your women generally have such phenomenally large bottoms?' It's just something you don't do right?! Suffice to say I know what the response would be anyway : lascivious grins wider than their chins, lewd gestures, sexual charades and the proud male affirmation that I hear sung the length and breadth of Indonesia that 'pantat besar bagus!' ** Which roughly translates as 'Nothin' wrong with a good handful or two my friend - nudge-nudge, wink-wink, knowhaddamean' - or something to that effect.
[ Not wishing the last paragraph to land me in hot water with the world's women and particularly those of the Batak Toba region of our most wonderful, beautiful, diversely composed and well-proportioned planet I must add that I imply no judgements whatsoever where posterior dimensions are concerned. I am an avowed 'anti body-fascist' and was charmed time and again by the large heartedness and beauty of Batak women that I met both upon Toba's shores and beyond in my time in Indonesia. It's merely an example of how we 'view' each others subtle characteristic (and yes, physical) differences as we amble around the globe. I am in fact most touched, honoured and humbled to reminisce even having received at this time an offer of marriage from an over zealous mother, rather taken by my well-meant struggles with Bahasa and routine 'please the people who are your hosts' observation that there are truly 'banyak cewek cantik' ( 'many beautiful girls') in Indonesia - which truly there are! The daughter in question blushed at her mother's forwardness as they sat shelling kemiri nuts on the roadside and accepted my polite words and excuses for passing up on matrimonial bliss on this particular occasion.]
But anyway, water under the bridge. Ripples in the lake. Just a contributory factor to the minor tributaries of unhappiness that I begin to feel momentarily at this time. These probably owing more to travel fatigue than anything more lasting or profound. I hope. As I dip my toes and descend the algae-slippery stone steps into the waters of Lake Toba, to paddle out into the great expanse of blue such thoughts are far from my mind, as the part of my brain versed in the adventures of Jules Verne is playing hell, scaring me with visions of what creatures may lurk in the murky unseen depths of ancient volcanic lakes... “Yikes!”
Coda (a dip back into Stevie's journal) : 'Significantly today is the first day that, for a brief but serious moment I consider the option of cutting the journey short. Essentially letting The States hit the cutting room floor and heading home from Oz precisely on my 2nd anniversary.
... the moment passes.'
* Any formal, factual information contained within this entry I must flag up and confess as mostly a rehash of Wiki-acquired 'knowledge'.
** 'Pantat besar bagus!' : 'Big bums are good!' if you wish to know the truth or hadn't guessed it.