BATAK PEOPLE WHO LIVE AROUND LAKE TOBA WAS HAPPY BEFORE ISLAM BOMB BALI/JAKARTA now no more tourist .
The tourism situation has seen great improvement in this century. Indeed, the Bataks today are exceptionally good hosts. They still consider Toba’s waters sacred, though, and when you first crest the long grade up from Medan and look down upon the lake, you may be excused for thinking that you instantly understand why.
Ringed by rugged blue mountains spiked with towering volcanic cones, Lake Toba supplies the bejeweled floor of a natural amphitheater nearly as vast as it is superb. The lake is 56 miles long. Dark, sheer, 2,000-foot walls, pinstriped by the fine white lines of waterfalls, alternate along its shores with pine-covered beaches, deep gorges and broad gentle green plateaus. The eye eventually picks out signs of human habitation: the brilliant green squares of rice paddies terraced across the hillsides, and the dark green enclaves of Batak villages dotting the land in all directions, with the dramatic, boat-shaped roofs of the houses poking improbably from their protective groves. Out on the lake tiny dugout canoes skitter, and directly across from your roadside vantage point – in fact, prominent in the view from anywhere on Lake Toba – is the great, grassy, pine- topped bulk of Samosir Island.
Where the highway reaches the lake is the small resort town of Prapat. Very popular with tourists from Singapore, Malaysia and other parts of Indonesia, and increasingly so with European package tours, Prapat offers a variety of accommodations, ranging from extremely cheap guest houses ($3.50 for a pleasant lakeview double room) to first-class hotels like the Danau Toba International and the Hotel Parapat.
It is also possible to stay over on Samosir. Something that guidebooks and brochures rarely note about Asia is the incredible din that obtains day and night near any roadway or halfway-large settlement. Prapat is no exception to the noisy rule of radios, motorcycles and muffler-free trucks, yet Samosir, with only one rough track in its entire 300 square miles, is another matter. Its peace and quiet are almost palpable.
Ferries make the half-hour crossing between Prapat and Samosir several times daily, and dozens of tiny losmen (guest houses) have sprung up along the Samosir coast in the last few years. Lodging on Samosir is generally more primitive than in Prapat, although places like the Tuk Tuk Hotel ($25 double) do offer hot water, private baths, electricity and similar Western comforts.
Wherever you stay on Toba, the views are certain to be magnificent and the climate, thanks to the 3,000-foot altitude, pleasant. (Though you’re only three degrees from the Equator, you may even want a sweater in the evening.) Swimming, waterskiing, fishing, boating, shopping, hiking and sightseeing tend to fill the days of most visitors, although some still find time for a great deal of unadorned laying about.
Eating is also popular. Indonesian cuisine is an eclectic, generally delicious array of dishes, and menus on Toba feature virtually all of its main attractions, as well as fresh lake fish and crab and excellent, prodigious fruit salads. The latter involve every tropical fruit you can name, and several you probably can’t, such as rambutan, which, if you were to see in its natural prickly red jacket, you would never believe contained such pearly sweetness.
Another local fruit to try is durian, but don’t smell it first. Anthony Burgess compares the durian experience to ”eating strawberry blancmange in an unspeakably foul public lavatory.” The stench of the otherwise pleasant fruit may be why the Sumatran tiger has been known to break up his customary raw meat diet with an occasional durian binge.
Oddly enough, in such wild country, one of the chief tourist attractions, at least for Europeans, is the local architecture, particularly the traditional, or adat-style, Batak houses. Often hundreds of years old, constructed entirely without nails and up to 60 feet long, a Batak house may have as many as 12 families living inside it. Its most distinctive feature is its tremendous, saddle- backed, twin-peaked roof, which is made from a special palm fiber and commonly anchored by long poles in a manner reminiscent of the stone-weighted chalets in Switzerland.
Upon closer inspection, Batak houses reveal another extraordinary dimension: their decoration. Fantastic mosaics and carvings of snakes, lizards, serpents, magic birds, monsters known as singa, manlike figures and double spirals adorn the beams and the front facade. Water buffalo horns hang from the gables and the jutting roof-points, and whole carved water buffalo heads with arched necks and lowered horns glare down from blind dormers. Carvings are painted in the Batak holy colors, red, white and black.
Batak houses have no doors, but are entered by a ladder through a trapdoor in the raised floor. The most striking thing about a Batak house from the inside, though, for a non-Batak, is that it has no windows. With some of the most beautiful scenery on earth outside, Bataks choose to live in cavelike darkness. When you first gazed down upon Lake Toba, and suddenly seemed to understand some of the local people’s jealousy of this place, could you have imagined such indifference to ”the view”?
For great carved houses, the most popular place is Tomok, where the ferry lands on Samosir. Although adat building skills are disappearing today among the Batak – old men talk of carving on a single house for a year – and the scarcity of the necessary palm fibers leads to such sad substitutions as sheet metal roofs, Batak houses are still found everywhere around Lake Toba and are still built on Samosir. The former king’s house at Simanindo, which now houses a small museum, is perhaps the finest single example of Toba Batak architecture (tours daily).
Besides being master woodcarvers, the Bataks have been known for centuries as silversmiths, goldsmiths, weavers and workers in bone, shell and bark. For the souvenir-seeking tourist, these ancient skills have resulted in a positively boggling selection of local handicrafts, antique and otherwise, for sale. Prized items include carved and painted wood panels, ornate gold- embroidered cloth, ceremonial staves called tungkat and copper pipes three to four feet long and covered with carvings, often of phallic human figures.
”Batak calendars” and bark books called pustahas are among the most coveted and expensive (up to $100) antique goods available. The pustahas, which are predominantly works of astrology and divination, are made from thin slices of the alim tree, treated with rice water and bound with part of the wood left on the outer edges as a cover. They are filled with arcane incantations written in a low, circular script. Not for sale are the boatlike, megalithic stone sarcophagi, frequently adorned with a singa on the prow, in which Bataks traditionally buried the skulls of their leaders.
These shrines can be seen all over Samosir. The tomb of King Sidabutar near Tomok is probably the most visited. Another site for Batak stone carving is ”the stone court of kings” near Ambarita, a whole courtyard of stone chairs and benches where important matters were once discussed and war councils and criminal trials held. Nearby is a stone block where enemies and the convicted were beheaded as recently as 1900. Those unfortunates’ last view of this world was, at least, a pretty one. Ambarita is is an idyllic spot.
Of course, tourism is changing Lake Toba. The young backpacking Westerners who seem always to discover vacation hot spots a few years before the package tour organizers do make their way to Samosir’s cheap losmen these days. English is more and more widely spoken. The first motorcycles and truck-taxis are starting to putt back and forth between Tomok and Tuk Tuk. And up on the hill behind Prapat, construction has begun on an international airport.
Beyond the narrow margins of tourist facilities, however, things change slowly, if at all. A powerfully exotic, pre-industrial way of life thrives everywhere in this country, and the best way to experience it is on foot. Samosir is ideal for walking. Countless footpaths connect the villages.
By doing so, you enter what may soon begin to seem like an enchanted land. Women in sarongs and huge silver earrings sit in rice paddies twitching strings to scare away birds. Men in long striped serape-like shawls carve solu, the traditional mahogany dugout canoe, or hunt wild pigeons from horseback. Tiny children appear herding flocks of ducks.
Where should one walk on Samosir? At the least, you should try to stroll through the rice paddies to the base of the waterfall that tumbles down the mountain behind the Tuk- Tuk peninsula, an easy one-hour walk from the ferry dock. Beyond that, once you climb the mountain behind Tomok, there are numbers of trails and nearly any route will yield something different. Shrines and forests, hot springs and splendid views – and some of the best things move around. You might get lucky and see the Samosir Opera, a fantastic little circus that has no schedule but drives local crowds wild. If you do much walking at all, you can certainly expect to encounter a Batak orchestra, an ensemble of gongs, lutes, drums and an instrument something like a clarinet that makes a weird, unearthly music.
The Bataks are a vivid, generous people, more demonstrative and straightforward than their better-known countrymen, the Javanese and the Balinese. Shout ”Horas!” (”Lord protect you!”) when you meet them. To the one query that a passing stranger is constantly asked, ”Mau kemana?” (”Where are you going?”), the simplest acceptable reply is, ”Jalan-jalan, saja” (”Just walking”). But if you stop to ask directions, beware: it is impolite in Indonesia to contradict someone, especially a stranger, or to answer ”No” – so people will usually confirm the truth of nearly anything you assert, whether or not they understand it and whether or not it is correct, and will answer virtually any question ”Yes.” Try to phrase inquiries accordingly. If you’re wondering about the Batak cannibalism mentioned in passing: The rumors are true, and the practice continued into this century. The eating of human flesh was always a highly formalized ritual, however, involving specific religious beliefs, and only outsiders, consenting old people and certain kinds of criminals were consumed. When a Batak from another village, accused of one of the few capital offenses, had been duly tried and convicted, the sentence could only be carried out after the raja of his own area had acknowledged its justice by sending a cloth to cover the face of the condemned and a plate of salt and lemons as a garnish.
While hiking in the peaceful hills and valleys of Samosir – quite easy walking where it is not steep, for unlike most of Sumatra, the Lake Toba area is predominantly grassland – such horror stories seem very far away. Especially if it’s Sunday, and the beautiful, vibrant Batak hymns are pouring out the open windows of the ubiquitous churches.
In a country that is 95 percent Moslem, a majority of the million Toba Bataks are Christian. They were converted en masse by a German missionary named Nommensen, who arrived in the 1880’s with only a Bible and a violin and built the first mission station on Samosir in 1893. Nommensen succeeded in making converts where centuries of efforts by North Sumatra’s coastal Moslems had failed, largely by adapting his Lutheranism to the local animism.
Indeed, Batak Christianity can sometimes seem little more than nominal. You may, for instance, see the pastor beating on a drum for two days to ward off devils, or a church wedding followed by the traditional unjung ceremony, which unites clans by a ritual slaughtering of a water buffalo and a protracted communal bartering over a bride-price. The family and kin group remain the basic Batak social institutions and many aspects of their complex, pre- Christian forms of ancestor worship are still practiced. Even churchgoers on Samosir can recite their lineages back 20 generations.
Another holdover from ancient times is the playing of a game called chess. Bataks have been playing it for centuries. If you play, stop in at any one of the innumerable ”coffee shops” (warung kopi) in the highlands. There’s an expert in every village, and he or she will no doubt give you a game. But you should know that Bataks are among the best chess players in South Asia. And they love to tell the story of the day a barefoot Batak peasant stalemated a Dutch World Champion in the Grand Hotel in Medan.
Although day hikes on Samosir will take one gratifyingly deep into the scenery, there are, for the hard core, a number of extremely basic places to stay overnight on the island’s high central plateau. For the mythologically minded, there is also from the plateau a very good view of Pusuk Buhit, the mountain peak to the west where Bataks claim that their first king and single ancestor, Si Raja Batak, descended from heaven to earth on a bamboo pole.
And for all good amateur philosopher-geographers, there is this small, shining lake up there. . .Now if those pine trees silhouetted across the glittering water happen to stand on a still-smaller island, as they almost seem to do, and if there should be a rain pond on that island . . .