Where have all the Batak smiles gone?

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September 2nd 2008
Published: September 2nd 2008
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endless palm oil endless palm oil endless palm oil

en route to Lake Toba
The latest edition of Lonely Planet Indonesia proclaims that "tourism in Lake Toba is almost dead." I think there's something like an 18-month delay between finishing off the editorial work and the book being printed and arriving at bookstores. During that time, someone pulled the plug on Toba's life support line and it is today a ghost town.

This was evident even in July, peak travel season for Indonesia. I didn't think I would mind that too much, but the effect is saddening: locals hanging out in their empty shops talking to neighbors all day, no business, abandoned hotels, derelict lots overgrown with weeds. Worst of all, not one single person said "Horas!" to us in the 4 days we spent there -and Lonely Planet claims this hearty welcome by the warm locals as one of the supreme reasons for coming to visit the place.

Never heard it once initiated, but if I said it first, a smile would usually flash across the local's face and he'd come back with it, though not always.

Swimming out in front of the Carolina Hotel, which for US $9.50 was one of the funkiest steals in our trip through Sumatra, was divine. There's just something about that volcanic lake water, a smoothness, a silkiness, something. I noticed a lot of small fish squiggling around in there, so on our second day I dug out my snorkel and went in and checked them out -feeder guppies! Thousands and thousands of wild guppies with fire-colored tail fins.

Day 3 I rented a bicycle and rode out to the eastern side of the lake where some centuries-old Batak home survive in their original wooden structures, including a local king's.

The hillsides all around are denuded of trees but still beautiful, reminding me of Ireland. Somewhere far off I heard a chainsaw buzzing away, eating up the last few trees that remain in the area, no doubt.

Had some nice pizzas in Rumbas and great snapper in Poppy's Fish Farm. I cannot recommend Brando's Blues Bar, which LP lists as a "foreigner-oriented" drinking establishment. Low-ceiling and dark with Puff Daddy blaring and eardrum-perforating levels.

Is a trip to Lake Toba worth the 4 hours it takes to get to from Medan? Tough question. Once again, you'll pass through miles upon miles of palm oil and rubber plantations, not seeing any forest until you're about 3km outside of Toba itself. It's a relaxing place and certainly better than Medan, but I think I prefer Berastagi over Toba. The road between Berastagi and Toba is by far more scenic than the one linking Medan and Toba, so if you're interested in going to Toba, I suggest you spend a day or two in Berastagi first and then take the shorter and more scenic route from there to Danau Toba

Additional photos below
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Is that Galway?Is that Galway?
Is that Galway?

Nope, it's Toba
these homes have a namethese homes have a name
these homes have a name

...but I prefer to call the, "old traditional wooden houses"

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