The Cannibals of Sumatra

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October 21st 2012
Published: October 31st 2012
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Big Pointy RoofBig Pointy RoofBig Pointy Roof

The trademark feature of Batak architecture. Also useful for inviting very tall people over
After weeks of frantic preparation, my World Tour Number 3 was underway. Leaving friends and family behind once again to explore far flung countries, climb mountains, discover exotic foods and hack through jungles with my trusty machete. And not forgetting the less glamorous side of squat toilets, sunburn and mosquito bites.

In the week prior to my departure, my preparation had mainly consisted of eating all the food and drink I would be missing on my travels. My last Roast Dinner. My last Bacon Sandwich. My last pint of English Ale (actually, i had quite a few "last ones" of those). Each meal was eaten with great ceremony and reverence, although it was actually just an excuse for a week of gluttony. By the end I was like a fat little seal with an extra layer of blubber, which would help sustain me on long bus journeys in the weeks to come.

The first stop on my travels was Indonesia, a vast country spanning a distance of 3,200 miles from East to West. Indonesia consists of five main islands and over 13,000 smaller islands, and has an estimated population of 250 million people, making it the fourth largest country
The biggest Mosque in MedanThe biggest Mosque in MedanThe biggest Mosque in Medan

Perfect for waking you up at 4am
in the world. It's a country plagued with natural disasters, including earthquakes, flooding, landslides and tsunamis. But it's also a country filled with warm, welcoming people and a rich diversity of landscapes, including volcanoes, jungle and gorgeous beaches.

So, my first destination was the island of Sumatra, changing planes in Singapore. I had arrived at Heathrow airport in plenty of time, and was greeted by the departures board which was cheerfully blinking away that my departure would be delayed by two hours. Great. I managed to fill some time by wandering around the shops, and was amused to see that some shops are now selling food items that Brits can't get abroad. There was a shelf filled with miniature jars of mayonnaise, marmite, and nutella. There were also small tins of Heinz baked beans and mini bottles of tomato ketchup and squeezy mustard!

Eventually we boarded the flight and according to the cabin crew, the delay was due to an electrical fault (caused by the pilot using a travel iron in the cockpit - my personal theory). Twelve hours later I arrived in Medan, the capital of Sumatra. For the first night I had booked into a decent
Zena and The Pavement of DoomZena and The Pavement of DoomZena and The Pavement of Doom

Teetering on the edge of a hole in the pavement. Beware of this in the dark!
hotel to ensure a good night's sleep. My friend Zena would be flying in from Bangkok in two hours time, to join me on my Indonesian Adventure. But I had an unsuspected surprise when I reached the hotel. The manager informed me that this was a strict Islamic hotel, and no alcohol was permitted. Dammit! I was so looking forward to that first beer. Then I realised that I had booked a twin room, and my unmarried female friend would be arriving shortly. This did not go down well.

Anyway, Zena arrived and was escorted to our room by a burly doorman. Our hotel room was plush and comfortable, and included a prayer mat and copy of the Koran in Indonesian. Zena couldn't find a safe, so I suggested she hide her money inside the Koran. No-one would think to look in there.

It was late, but we left the hotel under a cover of darkness, in search of an ice cold beer. This was not without it's risks, because the pavements of Medan were an obstacle course. The sewer system ran under the pavements, and some of the stone slabs had collapsed, leaving dark holes in their
Room with a viewRoom with a viewRoom with a view

Lake Toba, as seen from Reggae guesthouse
place. So you had to jump over the holes, provided you could see them in the darkness. I almost failed to spot one hole where a manhole cover had fallen down, and nearly fell into the smelly depths. This would not have been a good start to my trip.

After a successful mission of beers and noodles we returned to our Islamic den. I had chosen this hotel to have a good night's sleep to combat the dreaded jetlag. It had giant comfy beds, soft pillows and blackout curtains to keep out the early morning light. However, being the premier Islamic hotel in Medan, it was also right across the road from the largest mosque in the city. This meant an early morning call to prayer at 4am, which was belted out from super-sized turbo speakers to be heard from miles around. Just my luck.

The next day, after an amazing breakfast consisting of four curries, we headed south to Lake Toba. We were packed into a seven-seater minivan for a five hour journey during which we saw some amazing scenery. Less amazing was the woman who was smoking in the back of the vehicle and making everyone
Welcome to the Disco BoatsWelcome to the Disco BoatsWelcome to the Disco Boats

Bright and loud. And hopefully unsinkable
cough, or the lady who was throwing up into a bag during some of the winding roads. Halfway through our journey, we swapped vehicles for some unknown reason. The new driver was a jolly chap, and he spent several minutes rifling through his CDs whilst driving round sharp bends. He finally found what he was looking for, and looked at me whilst waving the CD triumphantly. "Slow Rock Classics!" he proudly proclaimed. So for the next hour we were subjected to slow rock torture, which turned out to be Karaoke versions played on a video screen on the dashboard. I didn't feel inclined to sing along.

We arrived at the shores of Lake Toba shortly before dusk. Our final destination was an island which dominated the lake. Now consider that we were on the island of Sumatra, and were about to cross a lake to reach another island. On that island was another lake, and who knows, there could be another island in that lake. Which would make it an island in a lake on an island in a lake on an island. The Russian Doll of the natural world!

The island we were heading for was called
Joe - the host with the mostJoe - the host with the mostJoe - the host with the most

Our hospitable Batak host, who made us feel at home
Samosir, and our boat was a gaudily-painted antique which started blaring local disco tunes at high volume as soon as we set sail. 45 minutes later, our dishevelled disco boat docked on the island. I say docked, but it would be more accurate to say it bumped against a loose collection of tyres on a half-collapsed wall. We had met a local guy at the port called Joe who was friendly and not at all pushy. He ended up being our guide and our "fixer" for the next few days. You name it, he could sort it. His family ran a guesthouse on the island, and he arranged everything out for us from accommodation to bike hire to local entertainment. We disembarked, and Joe sorted out motorbike transport to his guest house. By this time it was dark and it was raining. I climbed onto the back of Joe's bike, and Zena climbed aboard a second bike. We clung tightly to our drivers as we sped off into the darkness. I'm a very nervous passenger on motorbikes at the best of times, and here I was wearing no helmet, flying along in the pouring rain with a rucksack on my
Life on the lakesideLife on the lakesideLife on the lakeside

Our humble abode, right on the water
back which felt like it was pulling me backwards off the bike every time we went up a hill. Scary but exhilarating.

We were staying in a small village called Tuk-Tuk, and our delightful guesthouse was called Reggae. Our room was fairly basic, but was right next to the water. Each morning we awoke and leapt into the refreshing lake for a morning swim with the fish. Each night we went to bed with bats swooping through the trees, snatching midnight fruit from the branches. There was also a home-made springboard consisting of two planks of wood attached to a rock. I used it once, heard a loud splintering sound, and decided against any further springboard antics.

This region was home to the Batak people, who have a fascinating history of black magic and cannibalism. They were once fierce fighters and the most warlike of the Sumatran people. You would not want to mess with them, unless you fancied ending up in their cooking pot. The Batak were studied by many Western explorers, and there are are varying accounts of their cannibalism, which seemed to vary tribe to tribe. For some tribes, human flesh was only eaten during
Traditional Batak ArtTraditional Batak ArtTraditional Batak Art

An impressive piece of carving
wartime, when enemies were captured. For others, it was a judicial punishment for crimes such as adultery, theft and treason. (Steal and we will eat you! An excellent deterrent). Some tribes would eat the flesh raw, whereas others would roast it over a fire and eat it seasoned with lime and salt. There are even accounts of Batak tribes eating human flesh while the person was still alive!

The Bataks also believed in a soul energy, or "tendi" as they called it. Eating certain body parts was thought to increase the strength of a person's tendi. The heart, blood, palms of the hands and soles of the feet were thought to be especially rich in tendi. However, the practice of cannibalism was gradually stopped by the missionaries, as they converted the Bataks to Christianity.

Another interesting tradition of the Batak people is the Reburial Ceremony. Unlike cannibalism, this tradition has survived and is still performed today. As the name suggests, it involves digging up the dead and reburying them after a special ceremony. The "tendi" is the living soul of a Batak, but once someone has died it becomes the Death Soul, also known as the "begu". The
Lakeside viewsLakeside viewsLakeside views

The view from Tuk-Tuk village
death soul of your ancestors can be elevated to a higher status in the afterworld, and thus can offer good fortune and protection to it's descendants. This is the purpose of the reburial ceremony. The bones of the dead are unearthed and the female relatives clean the bones using the juice from citrus fruits. Then after a ceremony lasting several days, with songs, tributes, animal sacrifices and village feasts, the bones are reburied in a special tomb. These tombs can be seen all over the Lake Toba area. If an ancestor was especially great and honoured, the reburial ceremony can take place a number of times. Each time, the Death Soul will be elevated in status. The highest level is reached when an ancestor from ten to twelve generation ago is reburied, and this festival can last several months and involve all the tribes of the district!

Whilst on Samosir, we cycled to a Batak village called Ambarita. Here we saw a perfectly preserved circle of stone chairs. This was where the tribal leaders would hold court, and would decide the fate of people who had broken the law. For this this particular tribe, if someone was found guilty
Local petrol stationLocal petrol stationLocal petrol station

Esso and Shell, eat your heart out. This is how it's done!
they would be sliced all over and rubbed with chilli and garlic. Then they would be beheaded and eaten. If you have ever gotten vinegar into a small cut, you know how much it hurts. Imagine the pain of being rubbed with chilli and garlic!! I suppose it makes a great marinade through. The chilli and garlic would be provided by the family of the person being eaten, to show that they agreed with the verdict, and that revenge would not be sought.

Because this was the start of the rainy season, there weren't many tourists on the island. It was deserted as we walked the empty streets of Tuk-Tuk in the light drizzle. Zena remarked that it was "like Morecome in November". We passed a wooden shack that turned out to beauty salon, and Zena was enticed in for a pedicure which was offered for the bargain price of two pounds. She asked the lady how many customers she'd had this month. apparently she'd only had three, and this was almost the end of October. Even during peak season, she would only have twenty customers a month. It shows how hard life can be on the island. Under
Drinks in a bagDrinks in a bagDrinks in a bag

The easily transportable, nearly drinkable palm wine
the circumstances, Zena paid her double for her services.

During our time here, we got to know some of the local Batak people through our host Joe. He introduced us to his friends, and they were very hospitable and friendly people. One of them, Brown, invited us to a BBQ lunch of freshly caught lobster with a crowd of his friends, including the local policeman (I asked him about the types of crime on the island. There didn't appear to be any). Another chap invited us along to a birthday celebration in the evening. A whole wild pig had been caught and slaughtered earlier that day. The resulting meat was made into a celebratory dish called Saksang, which consists of pork cooked in a mixture of pig's blood and coconut milk. Sometimes dog meat or buffalo meat is used instead of pork. No cutlery was provided - just a finger bowl and a portion of rice. We ate with our hands, rolling rice into balls and scooping up succulent chunks of pork covered in blood sauce. It was utterly delicious, and I could taste the spicy mix of lemongrass, ginger, chillies, garlic, turmeric and lime leaves. Plus the addition
The one-stop chicken shopThe one-stop chicken shopThe one-stop chicken shop

For all your poultry needs
of a local spice called "andaliman". We had juices dripping down our faces and were licking sauce off our fingers. Lovely. I was less enthusiastic when the tripe was brought out (pig's stomach). I was still chewing a piece five minutes later. We also drank Palm Wine, which arrived in large plastic bags and was decanted into jugs. After my first sip I thought "my God, this is disgusting" and almost spat it out. But out of respect for my hosts, I finished the glass. After the second and third sips you start to develop a taste for it, and it becomes reasonably acceptable. There's an underlying flavour that becomes lip-smackingly tolerable. And it's so simple to make!

1. Make an incision into a palm tree

2. Tie a gourd underneath to collect the palm sap

3. Leave to mature

And that's it! The palm sap is high in sugar, and yeasts present in the air begin a natural fermentation. Within two hours the alcohol content will be 4%, and it will continue to rise up to 24 hours later. Our palm wine was lethal, and after a few glasses, a guitar came out. It was
The Cutest Dog in the WorldThe Cutest Dog in the WorldThe Cutest Dog in the World

Awwww, will he fit in my backpack?
passed around the table, and each person took a turn playing and singing. The Bataks love music, and everyone we met could play the guitar and had a great singing voice. It was unfathomable that EVERYONE was so musically talented, but it was true. Everywhere we went over the next few days, a guitar was never far away, a gentle strumming in the background of a cafe, or on the streets as you walked by. One night we went to a traditional music performance, Zena got dragged up to dance with an Indonesian lady. It turned out she was a TV presenter, and Zena was filmed doing traditional Batak dancing on Indonesian TV!

Tuk-Tuk got a bit busier each Sunday when ferry loads of school kids arrived from the mainland. They arrived with their teachers, looking for tourists to practice their English with. We got involved, and the group of kids took turns asking us questions. The session finished with a group photo, which would be uploaded to the school's Facebook account. This was fun the first time, and we were more than happy to help. But by the third and fourth time, it started to become
Live fish for saleLive fish for saleLive fish for sale

Choose your own carp
a bit tiresome. Tourists were a bit thin on the ground, and so Zena and I became hot targets. Kids would spot us in the distance and shout "Mister, Mister", and start heading towards us. We would quickly accelerate in the opposite direction. But the kids were roaming the streets in huge packs, and they were everywhere. They were hard to avoid. We hid in the doorway of a chemists at one point until they passed, and dived into a bar on another occasion. We didn't want to be mean, but we'd already helped out a few groups and felt our contribution had been made. We also visited the village of Tomok on market day, which was a busy scene of locals selling, chickens, shoes, vegetables, fruit and live fish. Lake Toba is full of huge and tasty carp, and this market was the place to buy them. Near the water were a group of people killing, scaling and gutting fish. You could even pick your own fish from a plastic tub. One woman had a big happy smile on her face. She looked like she really loved her job, and could quite happily gut fish all day long. I
The Happy Fish LadyThe Happy Fish LadyThe Happy Fish Lady

Cheerful, chirpy and loving her job
asked her if I could take her photo and she was delighted.

After several days of island bliss, a ferry picked us outright outside our room like our own personal taxi service. We headed to the mainland once more, heading north for further adventures.

Additional photos below
Photos: 16, Displayed: 16


31st October 2012

Hey Pete, thanks so much for sharing the beginning of your latest greatest adventures! You have a real gift for transporting a person to the place you are describing, enabling me at the very least to live a little vicariously through you :) Safe travels and I look forward to the next exciting update! Take care, Annelise x

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