Christmas with Cannibals

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January 6th 2012
Published: January 6th 2012
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“Small but effective” appears to be the unofficial slogan of Danau Toba, an incredibly beautiful lake some 900ft above sea level which is actually the collapsed crater of a long extinct volcano. Yet, there is nothing “small” about Lake Toba! The lake is 450m deep and encircles the Singaporean-sized island of Samosir, and though the local Batak tribes-people may be small of stature they are big of heart and rest assured that they all have a decent set of lungs on them!

The Batak people do not consider themselves to be Indonesian despite the country being the birthplace for many of the recent generations. The Bataks were forced to migrate from the mountains of northern Thailand and Burma many hundreds of years ago and as you might expect in the case of displaced people, their cultures and traditions have been fiercely protected; demonstrated most in the fact that the Toba Bataks only gave up ritual cannibalism less than 100 years ago. One charismatic young man we encountered on the hourly ferry from Parapat to Tuk Tuk (not the vehicle but the village) ensured us that he personally had no interest in making us his lunch, “the tourists don’t like that kind of thing”.

Throughout Sumatra we found the people insurmountably warm and generous towards us. The Bataks of Lake Toba were no exception. Perchance it is the uniform dreadlocks or the laidback attitudes that give the people here a characteristic resemblance most famously associated with the Caribbean islands; they all do a great rendition of Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” after all.

A true Toban Batak is never far from his (or her) guitar, and usually never much further from a bottle of “arak” or as it is fondly referred to, “Jungle Juice.” Regularly during our stay we were serenaded with the amorous refrain of Bon Jovi’s popular rock-ballad, “Bed of Roses,” but the real treat is to be granted audience during the recital of traditional songs, which are of course always about love; be it unrequited, successful in its cause or doomed from the start. An amalgamation of reggae and Latin American melody, on a visit to Danau Toba you can (and will) spend your nights listening to these delightful tunes for hours on end. An impromptu concert or jam session is never off the cards...

We arrived in Tuk Tuk in the dark and hadn’t booked a place to stay in advance. We soon found that the town gets quite busy with local tourists over the festive period as it is one of the only places in Sumatra where to population is Christian, thus would be celebrating Christmas. We really wanted to stay in one of the traditional Batak houses since they are totally unique in their appearance. Made mostly from wood, painted and hand carved, the Batak house is easily identified by its unusual curved roof (symbolic of the boats on which the tribes first arrived in Indonesia). Eventually we found a very peaceful spot out towards the neighbouring village of Ambarita where we could have our own Batak house right on the lake plus a motorbike (which is absolutely necessary when staying so far out of town) for the duration of our stay, and it would be the same price as staying in the town. The serene location was a huge draw for us so there we decided to spend four nights, and our second Christmas away from home, at Mas Cottages.

Inside our Batak abode was spartan to say the least. To enter you had to climb the steep staircase, as the house was stilted, and then crawl through the characteristically small door. As if in a Lewis Carol novel, the tiny door led to a big, empty room perfect for “playing games” (so we were told) if only we happened to be carrying them in our backpacks. To the back was a simple bathroom with a squat toilet and a hosepipe which would be our shower. Inside, the house had a mezzanine which was where we would be sleeping. Next to our bed was a pair of wooden shutters, windows from which we could lie comfortably in our nest and look out onto the glassy lake, perfectly tranquil in the morning although energetic come night. We would not be spending Christmas in luxury, but for us the calm and serenity was no less than ideal.

Although we promised ourselves to do little during our stay in Danau Toba we couldn’t resist the opportunity to tour the island on our little bike. Through Ambarita toward the Batak museum and onwards to the hot springs located on the far side of the island, more than a two hour ride away, we passed luscious green rice terraces, rolling hills and small sporadic villages set around understated churches. The route was littered with the extravagant tombs of those Bataks laid to rest. Some were replicas of traditional houses or boats; some were built to resemble pyramids or churches and a variety of elaborate structures, all of which were three tiered, the reason for which had been explained to us earlier. When a man dies in Batak culture their body is placed in the bottom tier, undisturbed for seven years until the family comes to clean and remove the skull which is then relocated to the apex, along with their wife’s, whose body will in time occupy the middle tier. The ritual of death is never far from the mind of these tribes-people, as we would learn the full extent of later in our travels through Indonesia.

When we finally arrived at the hot springs it had started to rain a little. The weather combined with the poor road condition and the sulphurous stink of bad eggs gave us little cause to stick around so we headed back to Tuk Tuk and “Bagus Bay”, which had become our favourite haunt due to its friendly staff and reliable Wifi (which we had been without for sometime). When we arrived we were pleased to see that the two new friends we had met earlier in Indonesia were sat at a table.

Gosha and Mattia, a delightful couple from Poland and Italy respectively, had previously been living close to our hometown back in England and we found that we had a lot in common when we initially met in Bukit Lawang. We were hoping to enjoy each other’s company over Christmas so having bumped into each other by chance we arranged a plan for our Christmas eve celebrations.

The day of the 24th we visited the village of Tomok to buy Secret Santa gifts for the party we would be attending that evening, and also small gifts for each other. We left the market having purchased a tacky bongo drum and half-way attractive purse for the party. As for the presents intended for each other, for which we had enforced a $5 limit (Tomok sells a lot of crap and little else besides), I came away with only promises to make it an “extra special Christmas next year” whereas Chris was triumphant in his purchase of a beautifully hand embroidered hold all bag for me (priced way above the budget), perfect for future trips on the continent.

The party came around and it was a welcome excuse to smarten up a little. We had been informed that the evening would consist of an “all you can eat” buffet and traditional music and dance. The food was a half hearted attempt at what we know and LOVE as the Roast Christmas Dinner, but having roast potatoes and onion gravy for the first time in a long time, we didn’t dare complain. However, Chris soon proved the “all you can eat” description to be hugely misleading and was firmly instructed to go back to his seat during a final visit to the buffet table. Further, the location of the much anticipated chocolate cake was a mystery left unsolved, much to my own avid disappointment. Despite the poor fare the atmosphere was festive, the entertainment charming and we were lucky enough to be in good company.

The next morning we opened our sleepy eyes (but no presents...) to a beautiful view and the realisation that despite the tepid weather and unfamiliar setting, it was Christmas Day! We awoke early, ate breakfast and fully intended to go to the local Catholic Church for mass, for cultural if not religious motives as the Bataks are said to be delightful hymn singers. But San, the local man who ran the cottages described the mass as a long winded affair in which the men regularly excuse themselves to smoke cigarettes whilst the women participate genially. We opted instead to take a morning swim in the lake before revisiting our bed armed with ample snacks and cult movies.

A lazy morning was enjoyed until it was time to eat yet again and call home. Chris was also under obligation to swap a small gift with a local guy we had met at the restaurant. He exchanged a woven bracelet for a heart shaped necklace that read “I love you”!

We would be leaving Danau Toba and Sumatra the next day, Boxing Day, the anniversary of the 2004 tsunami that destroyed so much of the island and killed so many. Before taking the ferry we ate an early breakfast of scrambled eggs, which proved to be a big mistake during the bus journey back to Medan...

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6th January 2012
Chess by candlelight

This is so sweet!
6th January 2012

Heart shaped necklace! Ha ha!!
Really enjoyed this entry and as always the vivid photos. Amy you look so pretty dressed up for Christmas! Looking forward to reading more guys.
8th January 2012

Many Thanks...
Thank you Andrea! And Happy New Year!! :) How's the new camera going?
9th January 2012

Having just spent an amazing Christmas in Java...our thoughts have been thinking of Sumatra...what a locale you had for Christmas...sublime.
9th January 2012

Happy New Year Dave!
How are you enjoying Java? We've heard so many good things about it, and though it was in our original plans we wont have time to visit this time round... A good excuse to come back I think! With regards to Sumatra, we couldn't speak highly enough of it, especially the people. Happy travels!

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