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Indonesia's 'Isle of Gold'

A Journey to Lake Toba in Sumatra

By Habeeb Salloum

June 25, 2009 

"I suggest you join a tour to Lake Toba in Sumatra.  It's a place you'll never forget!",  the very helpful Farida who worked for Malaysian Airlines at the Tourist Office in Kuala Lumpur, advised when I asked her, "What part of Indonesia would be interesting to visit?".  "I'll arrange this tour for you", she said with a smile.

In a few minutes she had me booked with a Malaysian tour group for a five-day journey to Lake Toba in the heart of Sumatra - the largest of Indonesia's 6,000 inhabited islands.  I was ecstatic.  Due to Farida's connections, the tour would not only cost me less than the regular tourists would have to pay, but during the whole trip I would be with Malaysian vacationers.  I could not thank Farida enough for making it possible for me to journey with a people who, during my month's stay in Malaysia, I had come to admire.

The excitement of making the tour was still with me when our group of 17 landed in Medan (from the Arabic 'field') - once a famous battlefield between the kingdoms of Aceh and the Deli Sultanate.  Today, it is the capital of North Sumatra Province, a busy trading centre, an important harbour and a gateway to the much-visited Lake Toba - a top tourist attraction.

Waiting outside for our entire group to finish the customary formalities I must have shed a bucket of sweat.  The heat and humidity were so oppressive that I felt like I was in a sauna.  "And you thought Kuala Lumpur was hot!"  Robert, who was travelling with his wife, Vasugee, both Hindu Tamils, remarked as our guide, Mouladi, shepherded us into the bus. 

During our drive through Medan, whose population of 2,500,000 makes it the third largest city in Indonesia, Mouladi, who preferred to be called Adi, entertained us with his jokes, laced with some facts about our trip.  His English was not the best and usually I lost the punch line.  Since I was the only one who did not understand Malaysian or Indonesian - virtually the same language - Mouladi said that he spoke in English for my benefit - to make sure my tip was to be generous, I presumed.

Beyond a main street, on which we were travelling, there were endless rusty tin-roofed shacks and other buildings badly in need of paint.  Medan appeared to be a much poorer place than any of the cities in Malaysia - a land galloping off and on into the industrialized world.

Soon the faded structures were forgotten as we made our way to our hotel.  At first we drove through an affluent section with its mansions surrounded by flowers and trees, but in a few minutes the road was again edged by the dwellings of the poor.  Yet, the inhabitants, even though living in miserable homes, still kept their unpaved streets relatively clean. 

On our way, early next morning, everyone was cheerful.  The spic and span atmosphere of the hotel had been a great send-off for our group.  No one noticed the shabby shacks, separated from the highway by muddy unpaved spaces.  Yet, even these areas were kept clean.  Mouladi declared that this was because the government encouraged cleanliness throughout the country.

Leaving what appeared to be one continual village, we made our way up a winding road bordered by densely covered jungle hills and valleys - at times, even the homes were almost totally hidden by the greenery.  I was thinking of the richness of this land where, because of the climate and soil, almost any plant on earth will grow, when Robert shouted:  "Stop!  Stop!  Durians!".

Everyone - myself reluctantly - tumbled out of the bus and gathered around vendors who had piled their durians by the road.  Each one cost about $2. and soon opened durians, considered by the Malaysians and Indonesians 'the king of fruits', were being relished by every member of our group.  I walked away barely able to stand the offensive smell.

A few weeks before I had tasted this fruit - one of the few experiences which I have regretted.  To me, not only the smell but the taste was repulsive.  I couldn't believe my eyes, watching my fellow passengers devouring this odorous fruit with so much gusto.

Regenerated after gorging on durians, Mouladi, between his jokes, talked about life in Indonesia.  He said that 70% of the some 220,000,000 Indonesians, who speak 365 dialects, are farmers.  The government is trying hard to keep the population from increasing.  Family planning is being encouraged, with a two-child family as the goal - quality not quantity is being emphasized.

Berastagi, with its invigorating breezes, 66 km (41 mi) from Medan was our first long stop.  The city is located 1,400 m (4,594 ft) above sea level on the North Sumatra Highlands that are surrounded by majestic mountains and an impenetrable jungle.  This plateau, edged by the volcanic Mount Sinabung and Mount Sibayak, is well known for its abundance of flowers, fruits and vegetables, supplying most of the garden produce consumed in Sumatra.

These cool highlands are home to the Batak Karo, an ancient Malay race.  They are one of the six sub-ethnic groups into which the six million or so Batak are divided - the others being the Simalungun, Pakpak, Angkola, Mandailing and Toba. 

Isolated in their highlands, they have defended their culture and way of life by forming clans, headed by kings.  In the past, these clans lived in villages separated from each other, but they all in common preserved, for centuries, their traditional houses and tombs in spite of foreign interferences, mainly Christianity, brought by the European missionaries.

These Men of the Cross, encouraged by the Dutch authorities who ruled most of Sumatra for over 300 years, succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.  Today, with the exception of the Karo and Mandailing who are 50% Christian and 50% Muslim, the remainder of the Bataks are over 90% nominally Christian, but retaining some of their ancient traditional beliefs.

The Batak Karo are a hard-working people who strongly support education.  They have made their area prosperous by the intensive cultivation of agricultural products.  Here, we got our first glimpse of the traditional Batak elevated homes made from local hardwood.

Entrance to their saddle-looking dwellings is through a door, which flaps up and down instead of, sideways.  The walls are always decorated with three colours:  white, the colour of heaven; red, for the living world; and black, signifying the underworld.  Traditionally, the roof used to be made from sugar palm fibre.  Now they are built mostly from tin.  At the top of the sharp roof are placed buffalo heads and horns - for the Batak, the symbol of strength.

Past Berastagi, the well cultivated fields, top-heavy with produce continued, as did Mouladi with his seemingly endless jokes and, by now, I feared, unreliable facts about Indonesia.  About this time, his use of the expression 'aah' after every few sentences was beginning to bother me.  It was an annoying habit that he must have picked up as a youth - now inflicted on group after group of tourists.

Passing through Kabanjahe, a rich farming centre, I noticed a mosque with a fine green dome.  A few minutes later, we drove by an impressive green-roofed church.  It suddenly hit me.  In spite of the propaganda in the West, to the contrary, tolerance, especially in the Muslim-Malay version of Islamic society, has always been practised.  Religions and races have, for centuries, lived in harmony together.

This live and let live policy was perfectly demonstrated in our group.  Robert and Vasugee were dressed in shorts, while Mohammed Rashid's wife and daughters - Muslim Indians - were dressed in traditional Islamic attire.  Yet, they seemed the best of friends, joking all the time - apparently not aware of any difference. 

In the words of Mohammed, "I don't know why peoples of different faiths can't live together in peace.  Look how the Serbs are raped and murdered the Muslim Bosnians!  Do religions teach 'kill your neighbour of a different faith'?"  My travels in Malaysia have convinced me that his views reflected those of most Malaysians.

A few minutes past the village of Merek, we turned a curve.  Before us, tumbling down a 110 m (360 ft) drop, was the Sipiso-Piso Waterfall, located on the northern tip of Lake Toba - the largest lake in Southeast Asia.  In its middle is the 630 sq km (243 sq mi) Island of Samosir, the only island within an island in the world.

The lake was formed some 75,000 years ago as a result of an enormous volcanic explosion, said to be the greatest the world has ever known.  Its surface is 906 m (2,972 ft) above sea level and it is 100 km (62 mi) long, 31 km (19 mi) wide and around 450 m (1,476 ft) in depth - the deepest lake in the world.  Long virtually unknown to the outside world, it is today the core of tourist attractions in Sumatra.

The view of the lake and surrounding terrain was breathtaking but the falls - a thin line of falling waters - was not impressive.  "Are they like Niagara Falls in your country? "Vasugee asked with a grin.

From Sipiso-Piso, we drove along the eastern shore of the lake, soothed by the cool mountain air.  Our route took us through the land of the Batak Simalungun, totally converted into Christians.  At Pematang Purba, we stopped to examine a 200-year old village of the Simalungun chiefs.  Of its restored buildings, the most impressive was the 'long house', the dwelling place of the chief and his wives.

A short distance further on, when the day was nearing its end, we halted awhile at Simarjarunjung, a lookout point high on the hillside.  The panoramic view of Lake Toba and Samosir Island, in the glimmering colours of sunset, was truly an unforgettable sight.  Turning to walk away, I heard Robert remark, "This view is worth every Ringgit (Malaysian dollar) I paid for the trip."

The daylight hours were fading as we made our way through a countryside filled with vegetable gardens, ringing the Simalungun villages.  Even the smallest hamlet had a church and a Christian graveyard.  Crosses were everywhere.  Driving through this part of Sumatra, one would not think that Indonesia is a 90% Muslim country.  When I asked Mohammed if the Muslims resented this showy display of Christianity, he replied, "The Malays are a very tolerant race, not like my compatriots in India who are always quarrelling when it comes to religion."

Leaving the fields of vegetables behind us, we drove under the shadows of towering pines on one side, and on the other, Lake Toba, hundreds of feet below.  It was an idyllic ride that continued until we reached Parapat - 185 km (114 mi) from Medan.

The chief tourist town in North Sumatra, the city basks in an ideal climate averaging from 20E to 25EC (68E to 78EF) year-round.  Its inhabitants are almost all from the Batak Simalungun and Batak Toba.

Here, where air-conditioning is not heard of, we spent the evening in the Parapat View Hotel listening to Batak singers with voices that could overwhelm Pavarotti.  The words were Batak but the feeling they imparted was universal.  I wholeheartedly agreed with Robert who suggested, "Now that we are soothed, let's have a good sleep!"

Early next morning our group took a motorboat and after a 45-minute ride we landed at the tourist village of Ambaritta on Samosir - the original home of the Batak Toba and the centre of all Batak culture.  After passing a gauntlet of fierce women vendors who grabbed our arms as we passed, we reached a reconstructed village with Batak houses and the remains of stone tables, chairs and benches where meetings were once held by the Simalungun chiefs to decide the fate of criminals and prisoners of war. 

Mouladi went into gory details, demonstrating with a local child how the criminal or prisoner was decapitated then sliced and thrown into the lake.  Scowling, he then continued, "And if the criminal was believed to have magical power, the chiefs, to gain his captive's strength, after the slicing, would eat his meat."

Passing through the gauntlet again, I thought of buying a souvenir.  However, I left empty-handed.  The women, at times, grabbing my hand refusing to let go, had me totally disoriented.

When, after a ten minute boat ride, we reached Tomok - a traditional village noted for its stone coffins - it was the gauntlet again but this time I looked straight ahead refusing to glance at the stalls.

On the top of a small knoll beside the stone tomb of King Sidabutar who reigned some two centuries ago, we sat down under a huge Hariara tree supposedly housing his spirit.  His father's tomb and others of their descendants were nearby - the later ones with crosses on the tombs indicating Christianity had conquered, but not totally.  Along with the crosses, there were sculptured lizards and women's breasts - for the Bataks, a symbol of fertility and long life.

That night at our hotel, the rain poured down in torrents and the noise kept us awake.  However, on the road the next day, sleep and cannibal kings were lost in memory as we made our way back to Medan on a shorter and better road.

We travelled through a rich part of Sumatra, producing 30% of Indonesia's exports.  Plantations of rubber - Indonesia is the second producer in the world - coffee, cocoa, oil palm, tea, tobacco and rice paddies followed one another.  Mouladi said that amid these plantations, most of the eastern spices like cloves, ginger and pepper are cultivated.  These condiments were responsible for drawing the European conquerors to the East and for the labelling of Sumatra as, the 'Isle of Gold'.

We ended our journey back in Medan, a city, with the exception of the Maimoun Palace and Mesjid Besar (Grand Mosque) - the largest and most beautiful mosque in Indonesia - has little to offer a visitor.  It was a memorable five-day exploration of the land of the Bataks - a rich green-covered landscape, cuddling Lake Toba, the heart of their history.

In the words of Mouladi, "You have seen a different world, have you not?  I'm sure you'll not soon forget this island, called by some travellers, the 'Isle of Paradise'."


Facts About Sumatra and Indonesia:

  1. All travellers to Indonesia must be in possession of a passport valid for at least six months. Visas are not required for nationals from most western countries.
  2. The unit of currency is The Indonesia Rupiah indicated as IDR, roughly equivalent to IDR 9.165 to one US dollar.   Foreign currency can be converted at banks and moneychangers.
  3. The island of Sumatra is the third largest in Indonesia and the largest in the world.  Also, it is second in population and first in exports, in the main: natural gas, oil, palm oil, rubber, and tin.
  4. The Batak people are happy and easy going - known for their lively and sentimental love songs.
  5. Recreational sports in and around Lake Toba include boating, fishing, golf, swimming and water-skiing.
  6. The climate in the Lake Toba region is cool and dry - an ideal place to vacation and relax. 
  7. The most important place for shopping in Medan is Jln Jend A. Yani, which abounds with souvenir and art shops paintings, offering goods such as antiques, batik, statues, carvings and Ulos (hand-woven cloths). 
  8. The Padang style of cooking from Sumatra is a highly spiced food served with rice.  It is considered one of the major cuisines of Indonesia, and Padang restaurants are found in cities throughout the Indonesian archipelago. 
  9. When meeting women, the ladies should always initiate handshakes.  Muslim women may acknowledge introductions to gentlemen by merely nodding and smiling.  In the traditional greeting a host offers both hands, lightly touches his friends outstretched hands, and then brings his hands to his chest to mean, 'I greet you from my heart'. The visitor should reciprocate.
  10. Shoes must always be removed when entering a home and places of worship such as mosques and temples.
  11. Taking photographs at places of worship is usually permitted.  However, always ask permission beforehand.
  12. It is always polite to accept a drink - generally offered to guests.  Toasting is not a common practice since Indonesia's Muslim population does not drink alcohol.

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