The Wilds of Sumatra- Part 2: Lake Toba (1987)
Updated: Jan 20
Further along the dusty trail during our one year, round-the-world honeymoon (1986-87). This time we leave the confines of Bukkitinggi and head for the resplendent volcanic Lake Toba.
I HATE TO BITCH ONCE MORE ABOUT SE ASIAN BUS RIDES but…
Despite the fact there were several New Year’s parties in the traveller’s section of Bukkittinggi, we four decided to spend a quiet evening and hit the sack early. We had purchased tickets to Prapat, on the shores of mystical Lake Toba, departing in the morning.
We’d heard traveller’s terror tales concerning this journey, which filled us with trepidation, certain, we’d be travelling on another “Asian Bus Ride From Hell.” Depending on who to believe, the journey could take anywhere from 15 to 40 hours! Therefore, we felt it far more prudent to get a good night’s sleep for an early departure than to consumme massive quantities of Sumatran whisky and beer.
The next day, our journey began inauspiciously. For some unknown reason, Lou and Sue couldn’t seem to get their shit together however and were taking an inordinately long time getting packed. Eventually, we all checked out of the Singalong Inn, climbed into a bemo taxi, sure we’d be late for the bus.
“No worries, mate”, Lou insisted and sure enough, we arrived just in time to board the bus.
Third World Travel Rules invoked (get there early, might be late), when we did shove off after an interminable wait, the driver spent 45 minutes touring the town picking up extra passengers, to ensure we were loaded to the gunwales for the journey through the heart of Sumatra.
Finally, we rolled out of town; we all swallowed Gravol to ease what was anticipated to be a hellacious journey. The first stage confirmed our worst fears. Climbing switch back roads, rutted with potholes, narrowing to one lane, passing blindly up hills around corners, we were glad we’d grabbed our favoured rear seats. It didn’t help matters listening to a woman in front of us retching her guts into a plastic bag.
The scenery was breathtaking, hills cloaked in dense jungle. After 2 1/2 hours, we descended into a valley, officially crossing the equator. The yellow bible advised us to look out for the giant globe near the highway. Despite Wheeler’s persuasive advice, we hadn’t taken the recommended day trip from Bukkittinggi to visit this landmark, just so we could hop back and forth across the equator. This would then give us license to say: “The equator? Yes, I’ve crossed that many times.” (Wheeler was a regular comedian. You’d have to be a joker to plan a day trip from B’ttinggi just for that thrill.)
The giant globe was a big disappointment since it was only about the size of a basketball. The jungle remained incredibly dense as rains pounded the region. Small rivers washed away parts of the highway, which is how this jounrey could become a forty hour affair. We saw evidence of landslides and washouts, but were fortunate to make this passage late in the monsoon season; we weren’t delayed by unkind acts of nature.
Despite assertions we'd booked on a first-class, express bus, the driver continued to stop to for passengers on a regular basis; it was apparent we were on a milk run. Soon, small stools appeared in the aisleway, additional passengers boarded, only to disembark a few miles down the road. Unquestionably the people were poor, the driver trying to make money in every way possible, but it was very painful to start and stop every few miles.
Just past the equator, we pulled over so the men could get off and piss in the ditch (the women travellers had to put up with the indignity of the Third World truck stop mandi). Perhaps a psychological factor at play, but the sun seemed incredibly strong so near the equator. Despite the fact it was New Year’s Day, the sun was straight up in the sky. I thought of how interesting it was to be so near the equator. It seemed surreal; Canadians were freezing at that very moment, while we broiled in the blistering sun.
Suprisingly, the journey north to Prapat wasn’t as bad as we feared. We’d had the foresight to prepare some sandwiches, vegetable tacos, pastries and other delights. We spent much of the afternoon and evening munching away, trying to keep the incessant cigarette smoke from turning our stomachs.
We were relieved to discover the first two and half hours were the worst part of the journey. Soon thereafter, the road leveled off, except for an occasionally climb up small mountains, or fairly soft decents into jungle valleys. We entered a region dominated by strict Muslim tenents; most men in the rickety villages sported white or blue skull caps of the faithful.
We didn’t pass any major centres all day; instead, village after village, each one identical to the last, as in Java. At sunset, we arrived at a small city bustling with people. It seemed strange to see so many crowded together in what seemed to be middle of nowhere, but Sumatra is rich in natural resources, which has resulted in migrations of people.
By nightfall, a new driver took over the wheel; it was apparent things were very primitive, no electricity excepting the occasional generator. Maybe Sue and Lou had earned good karma from their Java nightmare, (they'd been in a terrible bus crash late at night in the middle of nowhere Java- passengers had been killed, many wounded but they walked away with a few scrapes).
Our new driver was an absolutely expert. His style was the opposite of almost every bus conductor we'd the misfortune to travel aboard in SouthEast Asia. He was courteous, pulled over when other vehicles approached, unlike most who would play a game of chicken on the lane and a half road, a sort of “Let’s see who pulls off the road first.” Or, conversely, “Let’s see who can stay on the road the longest.”
He never took chances when he passed, didn’t have a macho mentality that dictated driving at 100 miles an hour. In short, he was a god-send, turning one of the worst runs in Indonesia into a calm journey.
Lou presented an interesting theory: “I’ll bet he’s been in a very bad accident, or maybe several. Look at how he always slows down when another vehicle comes at him, to see how big it is and whether he should pull over.”
We knew we were becoming seasoned travellers because we'd mastered the art of falling asleep in cramped uncomfortable seats. Despite blaring music with only one tape that played from about six p.m. on (“Indonesia, my lovely country; Indonesia, I love you well” our new theme song), we managed to pass out.
At midnight, about a dozen people climbed into the already over-subscribed bus. One guy perched on the stool in the aisle between Lou and I (when travelling with women in Muslim countries, always make sure they get the window seat!). This new seat mate quickly fell alseep; I awoke to find him snoozing on my shoulder. I gave him a push, but he’d leaned over onto Lou. Soon, Lou woke up, and he shoved him back on me. Finally, the guy leaned back on his aisle mate, and we all got some sleep.
We had calculated our arrival in Prapat at daybreak. I awoke in the middle of the night from a dead sleep as someone was jostling me only to discover the bus had stopped, the engine off.
“Prapat, Prapat,” said our driver, with a weary smile. He’d been driving non-stop for about 8 hours, with six more until he reached Medan, his final destination.
We were amazed to learn it was only 2:30 a.m. We had expected to arrive around 6 a.m.; the entire journey had taken less than what we’d heard was the absolute minimum time. Being at the back of a very crowded bus was now not such an advantage. After carefully extricating ourselves from the sardine tin we stood bleary-eyed on the road as the bag boy climbed on top of the bus to unload our packs. The driver pounded on the door of a hotel until they opened fort-like steel sliding doors. A bleary-eyed women emerged, we shook hands with our driver sporting a black leather jacket, looking stylish in the sickly Prapat light.
“Thankyou and have nice stay!” he said with a smile as he climbed back onto his bus.
Led by the hotel keeper, we entered a darkened lobby then shown two disgusting rooms. We were in no position to seek an alternative, so paid 2,000 rupiahs (less than $2), telling ourselves it wouldn’t be that bad as long as we avoided the mandi from hell. Peering into the tiled tub, Elaine said she saw what appeared to be a gray snake resting on the bottom. As we were virtually sleep walking, we managed to climb into our slimy beds, soon fast asleep.
Five hours later, we sat on the hotel patio in a small bay; beyond, a posh hotel perched on the cliffs. The lake, mystical in the early morning fog, awaited the sun's arrival.
We began to relax despite the 15 hours we’d just spent on a bus and the scant few hours of sleep we’d snatched. We were overcome with a sense of peace and tranquility. No longer were our ears assailed with the incessant sound of muffler-free diesel engines which had been our constant companion since leaving Bali several weeks before.
SERENDIPITY ON LAKE TOBA
Lake Toba, a backpackers centre in northern Sumatra, was once a popular stop on the old hippy trail of the late sixties and early seventies. This overland route began in Istanbul, extending across Asia, with the aid of an occasional cheap flight or boat, through Bali to Australia.
The trail begat the Lonely Planet Press; Tony Wheelers’ many books on Asia spawned with “Across Asia on the Cheap." By 1987, most of the hippy paradises were popular budget travelers’ destination, including Goa, India, Kathmandu, Nepal, Kuta, Bali and Lake Toba. Othe rplaces such as Phuket had become tourist traps.
Descriptions of Lake Toba from the Coconut Telegraph included images of incredibly cheap accommodation in Batak-style guest houses, (peaked wooden house indigenous to Sumatra and Celewes), good, cheap food, and a stunning, multi-hued lake. Euphoria over this slice of paradise was tempered by tales of the bus ride from hell: Bukkitingi to Parpat.
We felt relieved having done the journey in short order, vowing not to believe all traveller’s terror tales unless arriving from the direction we were headed. Thus we developed another theory about budget travellers: two budget travellers to a region, three opinions about it!
Our sleazy hotel proprietor in Prapat informed us the water taxi to the island of Samosir would pick us up right at the dock in front of the hotel; all we had to do was wave it over.
Sure enough, an empty bright blue, red and yellow wooden vessel pulled up and we excitedly jumped aboard. We should’ve been suspiscious of this deserted vessel, which looked like it could hold about 50 passengers however, because nothing seemed to move in Indonesia unless it was loaded with cargo and passengers. Perhaps there simply wasn’t much traffic to the island, we reasoned.
The water taxi, spent the better part of the next hour touring the harbour, while one of the crew excruciatingly yelled: “Samosir!" over and over. We were relieved when at last, the water taxi pulled out of the small bay, and seemed to be marking a course to the island.
But no, it made one last wide sweep of the harbour, and only then, did we cross the lake.
Once we were moving, the journey was quite pleasant. We sat on the upper deck on wooden seats which provided a splendid view. These ships we learned, were made by hand without the aid of power tools on Samosir Island. Later, we made a point of visiting one site where water taxis were constructed. They are durable beasts, and supply the main mode of transport around the lake for most locals.
Most hotels provided docking facilities for ferry boats. All one had to do was let the pilot know which hotel you wanted to stop at, and you would be deposited, saving a walk in the blistering tropical sun.
Some travellers in B’ttinggi recommended a place called Bernard’s as a good place to stay. This establishment, we discovered to our dismay, was full of Singapore students, who seemed fairly hung over from what appeared to be a wicked New Year’s party.
So, we hoisted our damningly heavy packs and plodded up the road in search of another hotel, defeating the purpose of our dockable taxi. After about a mile, we came upon a cloister of Batak houses, which had been built during the heyday of the old hippy trail. From the looks of some of the guests, it seemed like those days were not quite gone forever. Long-haired westerners sat out on huge verrandas leaning over the water, giving the hotel the feel of an old-fashioned hippy commune.
It seemed Samosir Island was a popular New Year’s destination, since we discovered most of the hotels were over-subscribed. Finally, we chose the Surabayak Hotel, mainly because it had two rooms facing each other. The hotel featured an interesting lay-out: a restaurant was situated at the top level about a hundred feet above the lake, its shutter-like folding windows opened onto the road (no traffic, except for the rare motorcycle). A steep stairwell led down to several batak lodges, which were split into two levels. We were assigned the top level of one nearest the stairwell, and reached it by climbing a narrow ladder.
The spartan rooms, consisting of two single beds and a small table, including their own (though somewhat primitive) mandis and screened windows. Elaine and I pushed the single beds together to make a double which proved too short and lumpy. On the roomy porch, cane chairs allowed the four of us to spend much time chatting, reading, or just gazing out at the calm blue waters of Lake Toba.
The cost for all this was a steep dollar a day!
The hotel was situated in a halfmoon-shaped bay, and across the way, a small village nestled on a hill. The locals were Christians, while the rest of Sumatra and Indonesia was predominantly Muslim.
Small house-like mausoleums dotted the hills of the island, most adorned with life-size figures of the deceased. This was somewhat disconcerting when we travelled the roads at night, as these tombs were illuminated by florescent bulbs.
On Samosir, we recovered from hard travel in Java and Sumatra, which, to use an Aussie expression “takes the piss out of ya!” One day, while exploring the village visible across the lake from our porch, we looked back towards our hotel and realized we were staying in a Batak ghetto. A series of batak lodges were jammed together. This meant the water in front of our place was less than idyllic for swimming, what with the restaurants washing their dishes, Sumatrans pissing off the dock, and the constant washing of clothes and bodies with clocklike regularity.
Instead of bathing out our door, we’d hike a short 100 metres around the bend to the Toledo Hotel, a rather swank resort which was always deserted. The beach here was very clean, complete with lounge chairs to bask ourselves in the brilliant Sumatran sun. The water was crystal clear; we spotted fish swimming more than 20 feet below. The staff didn’t seem to mind our intrusion; quite the contrary, they would come around and stare at us in true Indonesian fashion.
On our third visit to the idyllic swimming hole, a couple of hotel employees came down to the beach and stood on the jetty. Without seeming to acknowledge our presence, they then proceeded to urinate into our favourite swimming hole. Not surprisingly, this put an end to our swimming for the day. We were all far too grossed out to even contemplate another dive.
These were minor inconveniences compared to the simple pleasures provided by island life. We soon discovered Samosir was a safe haven for marijuana and magic mushrooms, a carry-over from the hippy days. We were forever being accosted by locals who took us aside to show us their “wares”: small baggies of gold buds for sale, very cheap.
We never saw any police or soldiers during our stay on the island, which kept the paranoia level to nil in a country which didn’t exactly tolerate the use of controlled substance by budget travellers. In fact, the sale of magic mushrooms or psyllosibin was so prevalent that we saw it listed as a special ingredient in pizza and spaghetti in a few restaurants. One day, while strolling through the rice paddies, a group of children came up to us displaying fresh mushrooms, still clinging to huge clumps of black soil. It wasn’t false advertising when they said they were fresh!
Who were we to argue with local custom, so decided to purchase a bag of weed, purely for anthropological purposes. A man had visited us at our hotel to ask if we wanted to score some reefer madness. We said no, but asked him where he lived. I went down to visit his shop about two hours later, but he was so stoned, he didn’t even remember me (of course, to them, we probably all look alike !). After some haggling, we agreed on 6,000 rupiahs (around $5) for about an ounce of primo buds as long as he threw in a bottle of delicious local banana brandy. It became a ritual to sit on our porch at night, after the hotel staff went to bed, and drink banana brandy and smoke a couple of doobies.
We became quite lazy, so we began placing our next day breakfast order after dinner. In the morning, Hotma (yup), the owner’s daughter, brought it to us on our porch. We’d devour our eggs, oatmeal, coffee, omelettes and fruit salads, while staring at the resplendent bay. There was lots to see: children playing in their unique dug out canoes; the owner, a dour-looking character who spent a lot of time examining his fish-pen directly below us; the ladies washing their clothes and the children washing the dishes; the water taxis overflowing with departing westerners from the Batak ghetto, or simply plying back and forth picking up locals; dormant volcanos in the distance; the green hills of Toba.
One morning, we were enjoying cool drinks in the cafe, when we saw our old friend Bob from the MV Kerinci wandering up the road. He’d stayed in B’ttinggi a few extra days, and found a private Batak house around the bend from us. As we’d expected, the “free” stay with locals in B’ttinggi wasn’t all it wa cracked up to be (we believed it was a lot less hassle to simply get a cheap room, then visit with locals if they ever invited us-saved on “owing them a favour).
“That little bastard,” Bob exclaimed. “One day, I caught him going through my things. He had my Walkman and was listening to a tape I bought cheap in Bali. He said he liked it so I said he could keep it it. I thought he meant the tape, but he wanted my Walkman! I ended up giving him my favourite T-Shirt from Mount Cook in New Zealand plus the tape, and all I got was this.”
Bob pointed to the cheap B’ttinggi tourist shirt he was wearing. He was obviously disappointed with his B’ttinggi visit. But at least he’d gotten away with his Walkman plus free accommodation. Later, we visited the little Batak house he’d moved into- a complete residence, including an upstairs bedroom. The property down a quiet road included a giant avocado tree bursting with fresh fruit. Small wonder one of the main courses at most restaurants was guacamole chapatis!
Bob joined us for many smoking and drinking sessions on our porch at night, where we’d try to save the world through our political arguments.
One Sunday morning, our calm was disturbed by the sound of men in front of our house. The owner was throwing a small party for over 300 of his nearest and dearest relatives (everyone seemed related on Samosir). It was only 5:30 a.m., and we were treated to the sounds of preparation for the day’s feast. This began with much hoarking and spitting into the lake. Then, much digging, as huge fire pits were excavated to hold the giant cauldrons for the boiling of rice.
A day earlier, we’d purchased tickets for a lake tour aboard a chartered water taxi, for the princely sum of $1 per. Our peace was interrupted by the wailing of pigs as they were carted down the steep stairs, feet tied to a bamboo pole running between their legs, heads banging on each concrete step while being dragged down to shore. Their throats were then slit but this didn’t kill them right away.
A great mess of blood ensued as the pigs eventually bled to death. Two things were apparent: these island sons definitely weren’t Muslim, as they disdain pork, nor were they animal lovers.
Lou was quite fascinated with the whole spectacle and described in detail what was happening as we ate our breakfast.
“Fuck off Lou!” Sue exploded. “I’ve only just now hankering for a decent meal again and here you are ruining my appetite!” (Sue was still recovering from the effects of Dengue Fever).
With that, she got up, stepped through a window and disappeared down the steps.
A shamefaced Lou quickly followed. Our travel mates were such a pleasant, fun-loving couple Elaine and I were shocked. We didn’t know what else to do except continue eating hoping that their tiff would soon blow over.
Sue and Lou decided to remain behind, perhaps to make up; amidst the chaos of pig slaughter, we boarded the boat at the hotel's dock. The island tour was delightful, as we glided along peaceful Lake Toba. The highlight was a visit to the hot springs, where the water temperature was perfect for indulging a warm bath. Unfortunately, there were many gawking locals, including two youths sported shotguns, so we didn’t dally at the springs for long.
Back at the batak shack, Lou and Sue brought us up to date on the days’ events at the lakeside party.
“The pigs were eventually cut up into tiny hunks and chucked into the boiling pots of rice. They threw in the blood, the hooves, everything; it was disgusting. They cooked this mess for about five hours, then fed three hundred people. It was amazing to watch them devour the foul stew. They offered some to us but we respectfully declined. Then, after eating, they all went home. So much for Samosir culture!”
After a couple of weeks on Samosir, we grew tired of the restrictive food offerings. We were missing the delicious seafood and meats common throughout Indonesia, but unavailable on the island. We asked the owner about the shortage of meat.
He pointed at one of the many puppies which hung around the restaurant, and asked if we'd like him to cook one up for us.
We assumed he was joking until Ken, an Aussie staying next door, piped up:
“He’s serious, mate,” he said.
“On New Year’s Eve, they killed a couple of puppies then cooked them up for tourists. After they bugged me enough, I decided to have a go.”
“What did it taste like," we inquired, our jaws dropping.
“Well, you know how puppies have an unmistakeable smell about them,” he explained. “It tasted like that”
Needless to say, we didn’t inquire about meat for dinner again.
Another time, we were staring at the hand-written menu trying to decide what to eat. One item stood out: chocolate cake, a novel item in the middle of Sumatra. I decided to order one for Elaine, who had yet to be treated to an official birthday cake.
The proprietors required a day’s notice, so we agreed the next night would be fine. Elaine said she’d help make a chocolate icing for it, since this wasn’t part of the offering. As there was cocoa, butter and sweet milk in the kitchen, it was fairly easy to whip up a delicious icing. Then, we heard Hotma in the kitchen beating the cake mix to within an inch of its life; not a good omen.
After dinner of rice and noodles (nasi and mee), a cake was presented. We sang a moronic happy birthday song to Elaine, she blew out the candles then cut the cake into slices. To be charitable, the icing was good. The cake, unfortunately, was impossible to eat. All the while, our hosts hovered over us to ensure it met our satisfaction. We couldn’t insult them by saying it was foul (which it was) so we swallowed hard and said it was delicious.
The family then exited, and we almost split our sides with laughter. Lou said it tasted like the inside of a tennis ball. We threw the pieces to the dogs and puppies who hung outside the open shutter.
It was hilarious to watch them take a bite then spit it out. These mutts would normally eat anything, so it was a sad day when a Third World dog couldn’t eat the cake!
The weather changed from bright sunny days to rainy and overcast skies. So, with the lack of variety in our diet, the gloomy weather, and soon-to-be expired Indonesian visas, it was time to depart Samosir. We felt very well rested, although I had picked up a minor stomach ailment. We boarded our water taxi, waved good-by to our hosts, and soon, landed in Prapat.
Scenes from Lake Toba, 1987
Our itinerary: catch the Medan to Penang, Malaysia ferry, departing once a week, one day before our two month visa expired. As a back-up, we still held a fabled “ticket out," which we'd been warned to have in hand for Immigration when we arrived in Bali, a flight from Medan to Penang purchased in Australia. We'd also once planned to visit the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Northern Sumatra, but soent too much time on Samosir - two months in Indonesia was almost over.
The bus ride from Parapat to Medan was six hours, but it seemed rigorous, especially with a mild case of Bali Belly. We passed through a region of rubber tree plantations, row after neat row of trees. I'd become tired of travel, fed up with the locals, their cigarettes, incessant staring, etc. etc…
The road was a scary place, what with the chaotic traffic patterns: everything from stray cattle to slow motorcycles sporting at least three locals on board, and the massive lorries coming straight at us playing a game of chicken.
At Medan, we came to the end of our time in Indonesia with mixed feelings. A country of extreme contrasts: rich vs. poor; spectacular scenery and incredible filth; cheap travel yet incredibly crowded public transportation systems.
Still, with over 13,000 islands,we couldn't honestly say we wouldn’t mind a return visit one day.
Next Stop: Penang, The Pearl of the Orient