Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Rough Road to Lake Toba and its Rewards

The woman vendor at the pier kept repeating one word to me. "Habis," she was saying. Both her palms faced upwards. Even with my bare-bones Bahasa Indonesia, I felt like I should have understood her right then and there. Maybe I was just in denial of what that word might mean for me.

I was standing in front of her, carrying all my bags, tired from riding a crowded public provincial bus practically the entire day. I was asking her about the ferry to Tuk Tuk, the small town on Samosir Island where I was staying the next few nights, including that night, in fact. It was getting dark and I was starting to worry I would get there very late.

It was not until she pointed to the sole ferry in the pier and said, "Ferry to Tomok. Tomok go to Tuk Tuk," when I finally understood. There were no more ferries to Tuk Tuk that day. I would have to travel to Tomok, an adjacent town, and from Tomok, travel overland (hopefully, not on foot) to Tuk Tuk.

Being a popular tourist destination in this part of Indonesia, I never realized it would be this challenging traveling to Lake Toba.

Lake Toba, Sumatra, Indonesia
The expansive and volcanic Lake Toba in North Sumatra, Indonesia

Lake Toba is a volcanic lake located in the highlands of Northern Sumatra in Indonesia. It was formed by the eruption of a supervolcano tens of thousands of years ago. Today, the lake, measuring around 100 kilometers long and 30 kilometers wide is the largest volcanic lake in the world. The lake and the villages on the island within it have become one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country.

At least, that is what I thought. Surely, a destination as popular as this would have a well-established tourism infrastructure, at the very least, where ferry services did not stop at 5 p.m. Then again, being well aware of what it is like being an independent traveler in rural Indonesia, I should have known better. The previous year, I traveled through the island of Java west to east, and even on that densely populated island, traveling through the provinces proved quite an adventure.

This brings us to Sumatra, where, as one writer put it, the highways are crap. The buses, if I may say so myself, are equally so.

Medan Bus
Sumatra, where the highways are crap and the buses equally so

The Rough Road Begins in Medan

My journey began in the city of Medan, the largest city on Sumatra and the third largest city in Indonesia. I boarded the bus here to get to Lake Toba. From outside, the bus looked fine. I entered and instantly, I saw dusty seats with torn upholstery and glass windows where only a small part at the top opened. Both were fine. I had been through worse.

However, the one thing I cannot endure is smoking in closed spaces. In Indonesia, it is perfectly acceptable to light up inside public utility vehicles. When I entered the bus, at least three fellow passengers had a lit-up cigarette in between their fingers. Having no other choice, I sucked it up, literally and figuratively.

The bus journey, though rough and undeveloped the highways may be, could easily be done in four hours. However, the bus stopped every two kilometers to pick up and drop off passengers, so the ride lasted close to an exhausting, agonizing, smoke-filled six hours.

Lake Toba, Sumatra, Indonesia
The town of Parapat, on the shore of Lake Toba

I was very happy when we finally reached the lakeside town of Parapat. Very few tourists stay in this town, I learned. After all, most of the attractions and tourist facilities of Lake Toba are on Samosir Island, just 40 minutes by ferry away. It is easily reachable. That is, if you arrive at the pier early in the day.

I decided to do what the vendor woman at the pier had said. I got on the ferry to Tomok and hoped for the best when I got there.

It was already dark when the ferry arrived at Tomok. The pier here was quieter. In fact, I noticed that Samosir Island was much quieter, more provincial. Night had fallen and only few establishments remained open. I went to one and asked if they could call an ojek, or a motorbike taxi service, for me. Even before I got my answer, a local who was on the same ferry approached me. She took me to a guy, who was probably my age, had a motorbike, and was on his way to Tuk Tuk. He was the "welcoming committee" for four Indonesians who arrived via the same ferry as me. Motorbike guy were taking them and the motorbikes they brought with them to his family's hotel in Tuk Tuk.

"How much can you pay me?" motorbike guy asks.

"I don’t know," I replied. "I don’t really know how far Tuk Tuk is from here."

"A few kilometers, but we have to take my guests to my family's hotel first," he said.

"I'll pay you 40,000 Rupiah." That is the equivalent of four dollars US.

"That is too much, my friend. I'll take 10,000."

"One dollar?," I said very much surprised. "Alright!"

During our drive to Tuk Tuk, amidst the motorbike engine noise and the cool wind whipping our face, I asked his name.

"Obi," he replied loudly.

"Like in Star Wars?"

"Yeah! Obi-Wan Kenobi!"

When we arrived at the hotel I booked for the night, I handed Obi a 50,000 Rupiah bill, but he would not accept it.

"I don’t have any change," he said.

I insisted saying I would drop by his family's hotel tomorrow and get lunch there. He could give me my change then. He still refused. I stopped insisting, shook his hand, expressed my gratitude, and said goodbye.

Earlier, Obi mentioned that he would like every tourist in Lake Toba to have a great experience here. He tries his best to make that happen, even if he doesn’t get anything in return. I realized just then how serious he was. Then again, I already knew how warm and welcoming Indonesians generally were. It was true for Java and, as I discovered, for Sumatra as well.

On a Motorbike Exploring I Go

The following morning, I woke up ready for a day of exploring. After a full breakfast of nasi goreng (fried rice) and sate ayam (chicken skewers), I rented a motorbike in the hopes of seeing as much of this beautiful region as I can.

Lake Toba, I learned, was one of the cultural heartlands of the Batak people, an ethnic group related to but culturally apart from the rest of Indonesia. As with most ethnic groups in this part of the world, the Batak were once pagans, a trait seen in the various totem poles and intricately carved wood and stone idols guarding traditional homes. With the coming of the Europeans, however—mainly, the British, the Dutch, and the Germans—the Batak people became Christians. Today, Christianity is one of the most distinct cultural aspects of this region, clearly noticeable with the churches and crucifixes present in every town and village.

Lake Toba, Sumatra, Indonesia
Lake Toba is the cultural heartland of the Batak, a once-pagan turned Christian group of the predominantly Muslim Indonesia.

Lake Toba, Sumatra, Indonesia
A Batak totem pole, a remnant of the Batak's pagan origins

Lake Toba, Sumatra, Indonesia
Many villages have been turned into open-museums for tourists. However, driving around the island, I was surprised to see that some villages still used the traditional Batak houses.

I arrived in one of the Batak villages which had been turned into open-air museum and tourist attraction. Immediately, what I found striking are the Batak houses, called the jabu. The jabu's base was elongated and the walls leaned outwards, almost like boats. The massive roofs were the most striking part, however, with the front and back of it jutting out and up. The roofs formed equally massive gables, which were, in turn, decorated with complex carvings of traditional patterns and mythical creatures. Though locals now preferred to construct modern homes, I was surprised to see that some villages I passed through still used the traditional jabu as actual houses.

As I continued my journey, I discovered that the road hugged the lake's coast and at many points, climbed up enough to offer sweeping views of the lake. Hills lined the lake's edges and were covered with flora of varying green and brown colors. Houses gathered forming small villages by the lakeside. The clear water of the lake itself varied from green, to crystal blue, and to ocean blue. I could not say I had seen that many lakes in my travels but if most were half as impressive as Lake Toba, I would be delighted to see more.

Lake Toba, Sumatra, Indonesia
Lake Toba's Bagus Bay by Samosir Island after a night of monsoon rains

The day wound down and on my way back to my hotel, I passed by a roadside field left muddy by the downpour this morning. Local kids all dirtied up by the mud were playing football on the field, shouting and laughing at the top of their lungs. I wanted to take a photo to preserve the moment, but ultimately decided against it.

I realized that as impressively picturesque and culturally rich Lake Toba is, it was actually the people that made this region a worthwhile visit. I was made to feel like the most welcome visitor in a stranger's home, from the helpful woman vendor at the pier to genuinely generous motorbike guy Obi and everyone else in between.

At that moment, I did not feel the need to take a photo of the playing kids. I was already taking memories of not only Lake Toba's beautiful vistas and colorful history, but also of the kindness of its people with me when I leave. Those should be more than enough.

Where have you experienced outstanding hospitality and kindness in your travels?

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