Danau Toba : Ripples in Blue

Lake Toba Travel Blog

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Toba ferry to Samosir island in Parapat on the lake shore.

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.

'Thank you for loving me!!!'
  'Orang kecil' ... 'menikah?'... 'berapa umur?'.  [ 'small man' ... 'married?'... 'how old?' ].  Little linguistic glimpses.  Language bequeaths awareness.  Catching the gist of what's being uttered and muttered around me.  About me?  Yes.  Knowing for sure, not just suspecting you're the subject of conjecture, innuendo and occasional mockery.  The market ladies' fish float about, idly resigned to their shallow black plastic bucket prisons, mouthing sad final monologues to the skies.

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.
Sun soaking gutter cat :)
  The engine sputters and throbs as we pull away from Parapat dock, and Toba's eastern shore.  The ferry turns in a gentle arc to face this, the world's largest volcanic lake and starts to cut a line across the blue toward Samosir island, little waves peeling away from the bow.  The world is yet to immerge from between the hazy white cloud sheets that night drew across it for warmth and the powerful Toba water palette of blues slumber muted beneath an impoverished sun. A small boy bends to black the shoes of a kindly passenger or two with a can of polish and brushes and an eagerness to earn.  His even tinier brother possessed with a rag and an eagerness to learn, kneels in his tattered shorts to finish the job.  Tiny blackened hands attached to tiny lives eking out tiny livings.
Tuk-tuk village scene
  My argument of mutual incomprehension with the ferry captain subsides ( 'Kamu bisa bicara Bahasa Indonesia?!!'  [ 'Are you able to speak Indonesian?!!' ] I exclaim, not he) as we arrive at the wrong point of Samosir island and the ojek driver (motorbike taxi) beams a smile fat with the knowledge that he's my only hope.  The only time in my life I need three buses, a boat and a bike to find me a Tuk-tuk.  Tuk-tuk being the name of the village that is the locus of tourist life in Toba.

'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.
'Is the root of all all evil' ;D
  A gigantic caldera basin formed following a 'supervolcanic' eruption upwards of 75,000 years ago, that ejected an estimated 2,800 cubic kilometres of landmass into the air, creating a 'volcanic winter' that some boffins believe reduced the then human population to critical levels and altered the species' evolutionary trajectory.  The so-called 'Toba Catastrophe Theory'. 

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.
The wonderful shapes of the traditional Batak roofs
  And the shores and surrounding areas of the lake have for some several thousands of years become home to the various tribes of the Batak peoples.  Diverse in clans, cultures and languages, four principle Batak groupings habit northern Sumatra these days - Toba, Karo, Angkola and Mandailing - with the majority Toba Batak residing on and around the lake of their name; the lake considered the heartland of Batak civilisation.  *

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.
The horns of the house : roof of a traditional Batak home
  Metaphorically speaking of course.  'Babu panjang' [ 'Long pork' ] never once turns up on the menus in my time here :)

'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] .
'Magic Mushroom and Laundry service'
.. and also confirm, thankfully, that Tony, his family and business were unharmed.  I instead, and mildly regrettably, end up ensconced in the lazy, large, obvious option of Samosir Cottages.  It's a nice enough place but there are plenty more, more homely and character full places to stay around Tuk-Tuk, many of whom struggle for business in a way that Samosir Cottages clearly does not so I would urge you to spread your experience, friendship and cash a little further.

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.
Looking out over the lake
  Neither should they attempt to do so.  This is not a slight to Lake Toba.  Not one jot.  But travel, being what you choose to make of it, is not always an interesting pastime.  Nor should it be; even when surrounded by great scenic beauty as I am here in Toba.  Again neither should it be expected to be so.  When life has long since become a torrent of travel-induced variation, stimulation and excitation the advent of non-eventfulness is an event in itself.  If you follow my meaning?  One who's value is not to be underestimated in the grand scheme.  And it's only here at Toba, after 21 months, that I finally learn this obvious and important lesson.  A little more of which later.

No, in Toba I'm running outta time with only one week of my first Indonesian visa remaining already.
One example of the fabulously decorated wooden facias of Batak buildings
  Tempus fugit and Time is most certainly flying right now.  I Must be having fun.  Travelling without a guidebook, I finally clocked a serious glance at a map of Sumatra yesterday in Berastagi and nearly fell of my chair upon realising how far I still have to travel to get my Jakartan flight outta the country!  I'm also low on energy and high on muscle strain having arrived here following back to back Sumatran jungle and volcano treks, all of which in challenging weather conditions. 

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.
  Little earthquakes.  Little tremors.  Little ripples upon the surface of my inner lake of serenity, within which floats my heart.

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.
  My decision.  My loss.

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.
Nature in bloom on Samosir island

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.
'Birds do it. Bees do it. Even educated dragonflies do it...'
  A boon for tourist-crowd loathers but not for local families whose livelihoods must be drying up. Tourism in Sumatra has struggled in general for some while owing to a sum of fears within the tourist community; the 2004 Tsunami and its aftermath, the frequent and notable tectonic activity that had caused the Tsunami and other serious quakes such as that in Padang late last year and also ongoing (though I would say exaggerated) fear of the 'civil conflict' in Aceh province relating to the long-standing, and admittedly sometimes violent, Muslim movement for independence in that region.

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 elaborately constructed graves of the Toba Batak people
  It's 'ayam bumbu rujak' which literally translates as 'spicy fruity chicken'.  Whatever it is, it tastes delicious and I sit content and look down to offer you a glimpse at Stevie's journal for though my stomach is smiling my spirits are beginning to flag : 'It just struck me as I finished dinner and my mind, pondering family, mum and the paralysis of indecision I'm facing in Toba, that I can't recall the last time I cried.  Can you?  Have all my tears of missing home, family, familiarity and of frustrations and occasional loneliness just been evaporating in the sun whilst I've trotted along?  Strange.  And then all of a sudden I'm feeling a little fragile and that all I could do tomorrow is sit and write and practice Indonesian.  But that would be such a waste of a day right?'

Interior of an exhibition example of a traditional Batak household
.. the following morning, when I wake, the sound of rain washing against the glass front of my room causes such a wave of relief to course through my mind that words cannot describe!  A minor travel epiphany.  The most obvious of travel lessons sensed only now on day 620 of my journey!  You DON'T have to do STUFF every single day!  Last night my mind had tortured me to sleep with a cyclical consideration of 'Bike? Hike? Write? Bike? Hike? Write?' ad infinitum.  But it's okay to just stay put!  And I’m glad.  Even though this will mean that I see almost nothing of Samosir and the beautiful surroundings of Danau Toba.  This time anyway.  Having realised this I realise that this will likely remain a truth of many of my destinations in Indonesia, a nation so geographically sprawling and complex it boggles the mind (let alone the body).
Hello Little Batak :))
  The truth of realising that sometimes it is only possible, and also enough to be privileged just to sample even the smallest taste of something so overwhelmingly large and beautiful. 

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.
Batak design
My hostess looks a little shocked and I immediately correct myself 'MATA, MATA, dia puniya mata indah!'  [ 'EYES, EYES, he has beautiful eyes!']  Previously I'd used the word 'mati' instead of 'mata' implying something akin to 'he has a beautiful death'"Whoops!"

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.
Mud Pack Beauty :)

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.
A Fann of Fish at Parapat market
  More geckos less mosquitoes less death.  The Batak peoples are nowadays one of the most heavily Christianised ethnic communities in Indonesia (though they are not alone with large Christian groupings of Chinese and other Indonesians too) and often the form of their churches, infused with the Batak architectural template make for quite a vision.  Some even have totemic carvings of buffalo heads attached to their 'prow'. 

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.
Little Biker Gal
  Cats, enamoured of the laze induced by the sun, lie purring prone on steps and in roof gutters.  Green trees drip heavy with long white, peach throated trumpet flowers and I am nearly brained by a large mango as it plunges down from on high.  Buffalo wallow in mud pools to cool and cover every inch of their bulks.  A beauty remedy without result.  One shop offers ‘Playstation 2, laundry and No.1 Mushrooms’.  A sign painted on a school reads ‘Science without religion is blind.’  Children far younger, smaller and braver than I dash along the dusty roads on mopeds and bikes without fear.  Ladies desperately try to sell me some of their 'antique' or faux-antique traditional wood craft items such as the little concertinaed traditional Batak calendars, carved icons of the original king and queen of the Batak people, walking staffs, articulated wayang puppets etc.
  And the men, as often the case, invite me to sit and have a coffee and chat...

...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.

alicegourmet says:
Welcome back, Steve! I would prefer to die if the situation is "human beings + equal numbers of cigarettes + stuck in a small place"! LOL! Ohhhhh...some people are into big bums!!!! Hahahahahahahaha...
Posted on: Oct 19, 2010
hummingbird50 says:
Absolutely !!!!!!
Errmmmmm did you check your pm's yet?
I am off to take photos!!!
Posted on: Oct 19, 2010
Stevie_Wes says:
Cheers Bev, "good to be back" Yes, the eternal 'Bum Question' to be answered, I suppose by the eternal truth that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" :)
Posted on: Oct 19, 2010
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Toba ferry to Samosir island in Pa…
Toba ferry to Samosir island in P…
Thank you for loving me!!!
'Thank you for loving me!!!'
Sun soaking gutter cat :)
Sun soaking gutter cat :)
Tuk-tuk village scene
Tuk-tuk village scene
Is the root of all all evil ;D
'Is the root of all all evil' ;D
The wonderful shapes of the tradit…
The wonderful shapes of the tradi…
The horns of the house : roof of a…
The horns of the house : roof of …
Magic Mushroom and Laundry servic…
'Magic Mushroom and Laundry servi…
Looking out over the lake
Looking out over the lake
One example of the fabulously deco…
One example of the fabulously dec…
Nature in bloom on Samosir island
Nature in bloom on Samosir island
Birds do it.  Bees do it.  Even e…
'Birds do it. Bees do it. Even …
The elaborately constructed graves…
The elaborately constructed grave…
Interior of an exhibition example …
Interior of an exhibition example…
Hello Little Batak :))
Hello Little Batak :))
Batak design
Batak design
Mud Pack Beauty :)
Mud Pack Beauty :)
A Fann of Fish at Parapat market
A Fann of Fish at Parapat market
Little Biker Gal
Little Biker Gal
Lake Toba
photo by: Stevie_Wes