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Published: January 22nd 2009
Well, I’m sitting here on the verandah of my opulent villa at Danau Toba, sipping a Bintang as the waves gently lap the shoreline and I gaze at the shrouded volcanic peaks that ring the lake. Life is very hard here.
I woke up. I had a swim. Had some brekkie. Tried to read a book. Swam again. Ate again. Took some photos. Had a beer. That’s it. And it’s been pretty well like that so far. So please excuse a very mundane blog to start things off. I really haven’t been doing too much at all...
I arrived last Friday in Medan, a destination generously described by many as a ‘pretty shitty city’ and indeed it is but another bustling South East Asian metropolis choking on its own smog. It may well have its charms (indeed, I wandered past the pretty spectacular Mesjid Raya mosque on my first and only morning in town) but other than that there seems very little reason to hang around. I had also been warned not to stay too close to this mosque, due to the crack of dawn call to prayer, but figuring that Jane and I had survived three
months in the Middle East, I nonchalantly dismissed such warnings.
However, the call to prayer here differs slightly. Whereas in much of the Islamic world, the two-minute call is but a brief intrusion and indeed I have previously quite enjoyed that lilting melodic call that rang through the towns, before drifting back to sleep again. Not so in Medan. At 4:30 the call started, prodded my consciousness and then as I tried to doze off again, I pondered that this seemed to be going on a little longer than usual. Indeed, every time my eyes slowly fluttered shut again, the next verse began. Just under an hour later (and with myself now wide awake) the bugger finally had the grace to call it quits…
Making the most of the early start, I gulped down a very strong cup of Sumatran coffee and made my way on to the bus to Danau Toba. And as soon as I climbed aboard it all came flooding back to me - the joys of Asian bus travel. The fact that no matter how many people are on board, there’s always the space for a couple more - on each others laps, squashed
down the aisle, hanging out of the door. I ended up perched with a couple of local guys on the large sub-woofa speakers behind the last row of seats, futilely trying to contort my larger-than-your-average-Indonesian legs into some sort of semi-comfortable position. As the bus strained through the gears, the passengers collectively lit up and the dense cloud of cloved cigarettes washed over us. Even as a smoker who quite enjoys this freedom to light up anywhere - restaurants, airports, well pretty well everywhere really - I will readily admit to the merits of smoke-free public transport, particularly when their’s sixty or so of you doing it all at once and they’re smoking bloody gudang garams. Conversations, while linguistically limited, where enthusiastically attempted and again, like almost everywhere else in the world, primarily revolved around the joys of football generally and United in particular. The fact that Australia is playing Indonesia in Jakarta next week adds a juicy extra element to the discussions.
Danau Toba itself is spectacular - the largest lake in SE Asia at 1700 square kilometres, it’s the remnants of one of the many volcanic eruptions that essentially created Sumatra’s landscape millennia ago. And nestled in
the middle is the island of Samosir (although technically it’s actually an isthmus, being connected by a tiny sliver of land on the western side).
Toba is also the home to the Batak people - some of the friendliest and life-loving people anywhere. They drink, they sing and they like a good time. Although apparently it hasn’t always been so though; historically they were some of the most war-like and bloodthirsty inhabitants of Sumatra and apparently the culinary delights of selective cannibalism continued well into the 19th century. When the first missionaries dared this Sumatran heart of darkness, they were met with sharpened spears and fairly short-lived dreams of conversion. However, the promise of ever-lasting life with the grace of Jesus has taken hold and much of the population are now Christian, with a dash of their traditional animist beliefs thrown in.
As hinted at in the opening paragraph, the pace of life is so unbelievably slow here. Every time that I try and delve into a book, my eyes just seem to lazily repeat the same sentence over and over again. It’s almost as if my body is on holiday and my brain doesn’t think it’s fair,
so has gone on strike in protest.
So yesterday I managed to muster enough energy to hire a moto and spent the day exploring the island. Heading north I weaved through clusters of villages, where the kiddies would wave enthusiastically and the fishermen would squat on the shore, cigarette dangling and diligently tend to their nets. Outlandish ancestral tombs, bedecked with glittering crosses, pop up out of the flooded rice paddies and everywhere the traditional Batak houses with their sharply pointed roofs sit nestled amongst the trees.
Instead of continuing my circumnavigation of the island, I decided to head back over the mountains and rapidly ascended into the cooler weather. The roads were pretty decent for the most part and I slowly made my way through some stunning countryside, little villages nestled around small lakes (a lake within a lake so to speak) and farmers slowly tended to their fields while mud-encrusted buffalo loitered off to the side.
However, about half way across the island the road slipped into the dense jungle and reverted into a treacherous muddy mass - me valiantly holding on as I bounced, slid and swerved along it. I eventually emerged, covered in
mud and the moto threatening to quit altogether, and slowly made my way back to Tuk Tuk.
It poured with rain again last night and I caught myself in the midst of it after dinner, removing the remnants of the mud, as it just torrentially pissed down for eight hours straight. After the last few years of showering with a bucket, filling the washing machine with recycled water and watching the lawn shrivel into a prickly yellow mass, this sudden onslaught seems so wonderfully, outrageously miraculous. Indeed, it’s so easy to spot the other Aussies when it rains here - they’re the ones standing smack bang in the middle of it, like little kids relishing the chance to get wet, much to the bemusement of the locals.
So, after almost a week at Toba, it’s back onto the bus north to Bukit Lawang tomorrow where I’m hooking up with Ron and the other orang-utans, before we venture to the edge of the Gunung Leuser National Park, where the jungle, elephants and leeches await…
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