48. Stepping Back: North Sumatra

Lake Toba, the great volcanic lake in a remote reach of Indonesia, was once an essential stop on the Asian “hippie trail.” The author shares memories.

Traditional Batak architecture distinguishes a hotel on the shore of Lake Toba. (Deposit Photos)

How do I love thee, Pulau Samosir? Let me count the ways.

When I arrived at Lake Toba in September 1976, I found a different world than the one through which I had been recently traveling. Indonesia is an incredibly diverse nation, an archipelago of 17,000 islands that stretches 5,150 km (3,200 miles) from west to east. But not even the Toraja society of Sulawesi, who carve standing burial sites into rocky cliffs, nor the Dani tribe of Irian Jaya, who hollow out calabash gourds as festive adornments for their penises, could win my heart as did the Batak people of Pulau Samosir.

Samosir is an island — in a lake — in an island — in the Indian Ocean. Indeed, in all the world, there is no island larger that meets that description. It is an animist-Christian oasis in the conservatively Muslim province of north Sumatra, its stone churches and archaic tombs revealing a place where 19th-century Dutch and German Protestant missionaries introduced monotheism to a Batak culture that performed ritual sacrifices and occasionally ate its rivals.

Forty-five years ago, it was also a destination on the so-called Hippie Trail. Long before chic boutique hotels were “a thing,” young backpackers like myself considered Toba a treasure. We were led here by our dog-eared, scrawled-in-the-margins copies of Tony Wheeler’s original Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, the once-thin book that (along with Across Asia on the Cheap) was the cornerstone of the Lonely Planet publishing empire.

Makassar schooners, fishing vessels from the island of Sulawesi, crowd the port in Jakarta. (Deposit Photos)

Cruisin’ for a bruisin’

It took me about a week to venture here after my departure from Yogyakarta. The severely overcrowded capital city of Jakarta didn’t inspire me to stay. A few paces from the antique and colorful Makassar schooners in its harbor, I boarded a Pelni Lines freighter that delivered me halfway up the west coast of massive Sumatra. The so-called “ferry” left Jakarta in the late afternoon and took something like 36 hours to make the passage. The ship circled infamous Krakatoa volcano the first evening and slithered up Sumatra’s mountainous shore to steamy Padang, which I had previously known only by reputation for its similarly sweltering curries.

Like my fellow vagabonds, I was traveling Ekonomi, which meant deck class, and that was not pretty. Most of the passengers were poor Javanese transplanting their entire families to a new home and, hopefully, a better way of life in a less-populated land. The scene was like something out of Fons Rademakers’ Max Havelaar, an unforgettable Dutch film released that same year (but banned from Indonesian cinema for more than a decade).

It was perhaps unfortunate that Pelni Lines, in its bid to be contemporary, had installed flush toilets in its restrooms. Footprints on toilet seats were ample evidence that most travelers had never before seen these contraptions. Nor did they understand the concept of flushing. Well before noon on the first morning, human waste floated from one end of the lavatory to the other. One glimpse certainly didn’t settle the paltry plates of rice served with overcooked meat and vegetables. (The “cruise” had promised “meals included.”)                                                                            

Bukittinggi’s central clock tower boasts Minangkabau “horns” on its rooftop. (Deposit Photos)

Roofs like buffalo horns

In a previous blog about durian, I recounted my two-hour bus ride from Padang to Bukittinggi and my introduction to one of the world’s most infamous foods. Although it almost straddles the Equator, the hill town of Bukittinggi, at 930 meters (3,050 feet) above sea level, provided welcome respite from the heat and humidity of the previous few days. And as the cultural capital of the fascinating Minangkabau people, it was a good place to briefly rest a gypsy’s weary bones.

One of the first things a traveler notices upon arriving in a new location is the architecture. In Bukittinggi, it was hard to miss. The traditional rumah gadang of the matriarchal Minangkabau people is a communal residence whose design reflects tribal reverence for the water buffalo. Rooflines sweep upward from the middle to end in points, imitating the upward-curving horns of the beast of burden.

Curious about local handicrafts, I discovered a village of silversmiths in Sianok Canyon. The clerk at my hotel drew a rough map that directed me to Koto Gadang, which I reached after walking a narrow but well-trodden track for about an hour through a broad ravine. Several shops, in old Dutch colonial homes, welcomed me, and at each of them I was stunned by the fine detail of the filigree work.

A 4-km hike through Sianok Canyon leads to the silversmithing village of Koto Gadang. (Deposit Photos)

Zen and (I forgot)

Ninety kilometers (55 miles) separated Padang from Bukittinggi. It was 620 km from Bukittinggi to Prapat, on the eastern shore of Lake Toba. That’s a long way in a local bus on an ill-maintained highway. At an average pace of 25 miles per hour, it took about 16 hours.

I don’t remember a lot about this trip. I’m quite sure I was traveling alone. Either I was sick or I was deeply engrossed in a third-hand copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I vaguely remember being bounced about in a mobile sardine can. It seems that I should have been on the lookout for wildlife as we progressed through jungle-clad mountains, but if so much as a lone langur (forget the tigers and orangutans) had leapt upon luggage on the rooftop rack, I have no memory. I don’t remember the boat ride from Prapat to the village of Tomok. I just remember waking up one morning at a losmen — a guest house — called Rudy’s.

I had a private room with a choice between two single beds so hard, they could have doubled as coffee tables. I draped myself in a Balinese sarong to sleep. A single light bulb dangled from a frayed cord that hung from a corner of the ceiling. No doubt, this domicile left something to be desired. Yet I felt glorious.

I don’t know how long I slept. But when I threw open the squealing door of my room to the view that awaited me, I knew I had found a little piece of paradise.

Samosir Island and Lake Toba rest in the center of north Sumatra. (Map by Pinterest)

An ancient crater lake

Geologists say Lake Toba was formed in much the same manner as Oregon’s Crater Lake, but 73,000 years earlier with the cataclysmic eruption of a supervolcano. Like the Cascade caldera, it is a tremendously deep lake (505 meters  or 1,657 feet). In the midday sun, it reflects an intense blue color, framed by the rainforest green of tropical pines creeping down surrounding mountainsides.

Samosir is not a tropical island that one casually circumambulates. It’s about 19 km (12 miles) wide and 43 km (27 miles) long. But for several days I enjoyed walking its trails, visiting Batak villages and historical cemeteries, sampling local dishes like ikan mas arsik (lake carp spiced with torch ginger) … and sitting in the stone chairs where King Siallagan offered human heart-and-kidney stew to missionaries as recently as the 1840s.

Archaeologists say the Batak have lived in north Sumatra for more than 2,000 years, and there are several distinct tribes with different customs and dialects. The Toba Batak, in particular, are traditional farmers and traders, but in modern Indonesia they have become known as teachers, artists, writers and especially national political leaders.

I was walking through the village of Ambarita one late morning when I heard a voice shout my nickname: “Andy!” It was my hirsute American friend Bret, with whom my adventures have spanned three continents. He had serendipitously arrived at Samosir a few days before me and had lodged himself at the Hotel Carolina, a couple of steps up the food chain from Rudy’s.

The Carolina was built in classic Batak style as a communal rumah bolon, its high-peaked roof mimicking the houses I had seen in Bukittinggi. Designed as a home for a half-dozen families, it was now a perfect high-end hostel entered by a central staircase. A low beam at the head of the steps required taller foreigners (of whom Bret was not one) to bow as they went in, lest they lose their heads.

King Siallagan once served human soup in this stone dining room in Ambarita. (Deposit Photos)

Just pay the men

A couple of afternoons later, Bret sat with me outside Rudy’s as a French-Swiss couple, Claude(she) and Claude(he), picked stems and seeds from the buds of an elephant stick they had acquired in local exchange. Elephant was known among stoners as a sativa-rich strain of cannabis, and the Gallic lovers were practically drooling as they inhaled its essence before packing it into their pipe.

But just as Claude(he) lit the flame that would ignite their cloudy respite, two stern-looking young police officers, the first we had seen on Samosir, arrived at the inn. They had been summoned, apparently, by Rudy, the innkeeper whose earlier come-ons to willowy Claude(she) had been rebuffed, first gently, then not so gently. He would have his revenge.

Even though laws were typically lax for foreigners, marijuana was highly illegal in Indonesia, and the constables immediately threatened arrest. The Claudes’ faces faded into a whiter shade of pale. They spoke no Bahasa, the lingua franca of Indonesia, and the cops of course spoke no French and only a few carefully chosen words of English.

I nobly donned the mantle of mediator. I knew a little French and, in two months of travel, a smidgeon of Bahasa Indonesia. At least Bret and I could count in the local tongue. Perhaps a settlement would satisfy the officers?

Cinq milles rupiahs, said the Claudes. Five thousand rupiahs.

The officers laughed. Seratus ribu rupiah, they responded. One hundred thousand. At least they were willing to negotiate.

Nous avons seulement dix milles, said the French. We have only 10 thousand.

Lima puluh rupiah. Fifty thousand. Now we were getting somewhere.

The Indonesian gendarmes were happier than the Claudes as they stuffed 20,000 rupiahs into their pockets — a little less than US $50, at the exchange rates of the time — along with the elephant stick. “We will burn this,” said one police officer with a smile, suddenly fluent in the English language. I’ll bet they did.

Ikan mas arsik — curried carp with torch ginger and long beans — made a fine dinner. (iStock photo by Miel Photo)

Letting go

Bret and I returned to the Carolina for dinner that evening. By the time we said, “Good night, my friend, I’ll see you in Singapore,” a new-moon blackness had enveloped Pulau Samosir. I was glad for my battery-powered flashlight as I started onto the trail that linked Ambarita with Tomok. To be sure, the distance wasn’t much more than a kilometer, but imagination can run wild in the jungle at night. I hadn’t heard of tigers at Lake Toba, but surely there were nasty insects. Spiders. And snakes. Big poisonous snakes.

Even a sliver of a moon will reflect a gleam off a large body of water. I took comfort in seeing the lake to my left, a brighter presence between the near shore of the island and the mountains on the far shore. Occasionally there was a lantern lit in a window beneath the tin roof of a rumah.

Then the storm began. Quickly. First a low rumble of distant thunder, then the deluge. I quickened my step as the sandy soil of the track turned to mud. And then my flashlight died.

There may be worse things than being alone in a remote tropical jungle in the black of night, in a storm so drenching that even the shimmer of light on the nearby lake disappeared, a tempest so penetrating that I couldn’t even hear myself cry for help, but I didn’t know what they might be. I was terrified. So I did what any still-wet-behind-the-ears 25-year-old, with no combat experience beyond “Capture the Flag” in Boy Scouts, would do. I gave up.

I surrendered to the universe. I stopped thinking and started walking. After a couple of false starts, running into trailside undergrowth and tripping over unseen tree roots, I found my way. Or the universe found my way for me. I kept reciting a mantra from the only book I carried in my backpack for three full years, Ram Dass’ Be Here Now. “Don’t try to figure anything out,” Ram Dass said. “Let go. Let God.”

I walked up the steps of my losmen, into my room and fell asleep.

Afternoon clouds filter the sun upon fishermen’s nets near Samosir’s Tuktuk Peninsula. (iStock photo by USKARP)
Aerial view of Lake Toba and Samosir Island’s Tuktuk Peninsula. (Deposit Photos)

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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