(Published in the NOW! Jakarta Magazine, February 2012)



A view of Lake Toba and Samosir Island from Tebe Point.

Lake Toba, North Sumatra


Last  month I went to Lake Toba for Christmas and discovered a whole world of all-singing, all-dancing, all-smoking Sumatrans. The scenic splendour of the Lake Toba region and the frantic fretwork of the handsome adat houses were wondrous, but were naught compared to the exuberant character  of the Batak people I met there over ten days.


A catholic church on the shores of Lake Toba.

‘Ompu’ Nommensen, the German Missionary who introduced Christianity to the Lake Toba region in 1864.

Batak men wake up barking and yelping, then  eat giant quantities of two-tone noodles before changing into urban cowboy outfits and heading for the palm-toddy stall to await the 3 p.m. ‘Sunset Cocktail Hour’ opening.
Batak women  wake up and placate screaming and yelping Batak boy-children (“Shut up or I cut you in half”) before diving into laundry cubicles to abuse items of clothing. They then head off to the rice fields or the market, to make it all possible.
It’s as if all the 2,000,000 tough-talking Bataks are apologists for the 180 million back-peddling, super-refined Javanese on the island to their East.

•    •    •


Balinese Turis Domestic Apel poses on the Lake edge at Balige

View from the Ompu Kerti, hotel, Balige at dawn.

For my first four nights I stayed in Balige one hour west of  Porsea on the crater lake edge. My home was the  bizarre  Ompu Kerti, owned by Batak superhero General (Ret) T.B. Silalahi. It is “bizarre” only by Balinese hotel standards: tourism in the Lake Toba region is still in its Soviet Era.
 Biographies of the great general/former national minister were available at the front desk but I chose, instead, to drive the short distance up the hill, to the remarkable T.B. Silalahi Centre and Batak Museum. There one gets a 3-D experience of Batak culture, might and megalomania. The Silalahi Centre is next to the social-realist style tomb of the last king of the Bataks, Sisingamaraja XII, which is next to a charming colonial era mountain bungalow — the lobby building of the old  Swiss-owned Toba Hotel (built in 1927), which is now home to the cemetery ‘s wiley caretaker.


The supreme Batak being at the T.B. Silalahi Centre overlooks the Mayoral complex beyond.

The Lake Toba area is riddled with exotic architectural treats: quaint churches abound as do mausoleum monuments which are always large and fanciful. Graves come as psychelic-coloured adat houses in the sky; big ‘Black Pete’  rajas on ponies with magic wands is hand and pretty ‘ tree of life’ sculptures on Art Deco obelisks.
Basically, one’s daytime tourism choices boil down to two: one can ogle exotic architecture and scenic views all day, or one can go to a Lapo palm-toddy-fueled men’s fight club, or to the market (to buy ulos cloth or great wide-brimmed farmers’ hats), and get one’s head chewed off. At night it’s either the scary discos, the teenage macho Batak cyber arcades or bed.
I took a Balinese friend for protection (Batak men are nothing if not determined) and enjoyed a fabulous week of bizarre church services and family events. My hosts, the Manurung clan of Janjimatugu, were effusive in their hospitality.
I was dragged to church on Christmas Eve for Christian karaoke hour and then lead home like a water buffalo to be fed  copious amounts of pork meat while the whole clan gathered around a tiny plastic Christmas tree and sang “Silent Night” as if their lives depended on it (See my video “Christmas with the Bataks” link: http://youtu.be/s1nMpxV_DPM)

On Christmas day, after church, I took the family  on a long drive from Porsea to Pangururan on the western banks of the crater lake. We descended the wild- west pioneer-towns of Hutagalung and Harian — which are rife with settlements of Nias warrior-labourers. After 3 hours we stopped at  the Department of Tourism-sponsored Tebe Lookout Point and Rusta Shack to admire the view of Lake Toba and Mount Pusuk Buhit,  which is considered to be the ‘birthplace’ of the Bataks. In the Sagala Valley below we spotted the settlement of Limbong. On the steep drive down to the lake we went through many pretty traditional villages on the foreshores.
We stayed at the bizarre but comfortable Saulini Inn, opposite Pangururan near the hot springs, as I was keen to stay near the Sagala-Limbong Valley.
Pangururan sits on the west side of Samosir Island but is connected to ‘Sumatra proper’ by a causeway.

•    •    •

There are two roads heading from the hot springs to Limbong via the tomb of the Batak Rajas.  We took the south road which winds  along the crater rim shore for 5 kilometres before cutting through a tight river valley.

The steep-sided valley ‘pass’ opened onto a fertile valley which is ringed, on its northern, southern and western flanks by the caldera rim. Traditional Batak villages dotted the valley. It felt like a land time had forgotten, with a people you can’t forget.
At the tomb of the rajas we discovered a man placing mutant lemons on an altar to an animistic deity together with a list of all the “arrogant” family members he wanted cured.
Across the valley we found an ancient megalith praying stone, the Batu Hulon, dating from pre-Christian era of the Batak parmalin culture.
The first missionaries to the Lake Toba region were a pair of Belgians, in 1984, who were scalped and had their blood drunk by the chieftain.
One imagines that the culture  was pretty ‘colourful’ back then.


A stylish grannie in Negeri Singkam Village.

Boxing day lunch in the church at Negeri Singkam.

After lunch at the SYUKURAN at my friends the Manurung’s house.

At the end of the valley, on Boxing Day, we discovered Negeri Singkam Village — a real gem of neat rubble stone terraces and rows of exquisite Batak adat houses. Its pretty church, was having its Christmas Day service, a day late due to agricultural priorities.
Inside the church there was a huge amount of yelping and barking and smoking going on as the pork curry was being divided up from the pulpit.
We stayed for lunch and then roamed the village’s upper terraces.


The water buffalo is a symbol of strength and prosperity for the Batak people.

Tanjung Bunga Village near Pangururan, Lake Toba West.

•    •    •

On the last day of our tour we drove around the North Coast of Samosir Island, stopping at Sumanindo for the Song and Dance and Puppet Show (well worth the detour as the atmosphere and the architecture inside the walled compound are magical).
Late in the afternoon we caught a very noisy disco-ferry from Tuktuk to Prapat an old Dutch-era resort town now over-run with the urban sprawl that accompanies mass tourism. Young Batak lovers canoodled on the poop deck.

Dance performer poses after the show at the Huta Simanindo, Samosir Island.

We flew back to Medan on Susi Air from Silangit, 20 minutes outside Balige, in a snazzy Cessna with two pilots but no other passengers. We had all the amazing aerial view of Lake Toba to ourselves.
In Medan we stayed in Jalan Surabaya in the centre of old town, at the delightful new Swiss Bellinn hotel, formerly a trendy boutique hotel called My Place.


Giant Amazon Medan — Chinese waitress at the Jalan ….. food street, Medan.

It has a back door which leads onto Jalan Selat Panjang the famous Hokkien-Medan food street.
 I discovered descendants of Kublai Khan's warrior women and Chinese mensch uber-dagang babies manning cash registers.  Fierce, giant, Amazon bimbos served perfect Hainan chicken rice and char kueh teow.


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