Samosir, Sumatra, Indonesia
Wednesday, April 10, 2013
I decided to visit Lake Toba after reading about it in Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything
. I’d climbed Tambora (most devastating eruption in human history) and sailed to Krakatau (biggest bang ever); the final piece now, in my Indonesian volcano jigsaw, was Toba. For several years I put off going there, but then I was galvanized into action by a rave report from Svante, my Swedish friend. He knew nothing about Toba’s geological significance but sang its praises as a place of cultural interest and natural beauty.
On the map of Sumatra, Danau (Lake) Toba is immense. I hadn’t realized, until I got there, that inside the Lake is an island called Samosir (the fifth largest lake island in the world). This is where tourists go. Specifically, they go to a place called Tuk Tuk, a 30-minute boat ride from Parapat on the Mainland.
Tuk Tuk is like a flat mushroom-shaped nodule protruding from the oval mass of Samosir. As the ferry approached Carolina Cottages (Svante’s recommendation), I was struck by the steep - almost vertical – hillsides overlooking Tuk Tuk. Samosir is not volcanic, but
the seismic forces of long ago thrust the earth upwards, creating the sheer-walled island of today.
Actually the word 'island’ is a misnomer. Until recently, Samosir was connected to the Mainland by a slender isthmus or umbilical cord. Then a canal was dug to facilitate navigation, so now Samosir is completely bounded by water, although it cannot be classified as a true island.
The island is a natural paradise. It is floriferous, densely wooded and host to many bird and insect species. The hotel where I stayed – Carolina Cottages - has a restaurant balcony where I spent many happy hours reading my book, eating fried noodles, playing chess, drinking Bintang beer and gazing out at the beautiful Lake. Straight ahead of me, across the breeze-beruffled water, lie Parapat and the Mainland. To my right, just visible through the tree branches and red-flowering bushes, are the seemingly perpendicular wooded hillsides of Samosir and the roofs of Tomok. On the shoreline beneath me elegant white egrets wait patiently for passing fish. Huge butterflies and buzzing insects weave flight patterns in the air.
I travelled to Pagururan, the administrative centre, on the back of a motorbike, and I walked
to the nearby villages of Tomok and Ambarita. Talking to my driver, and observing the landscape, I learnt about the culture of this place. The most surprising fact – which Svante had told me about in advance and which had further whetted my appetite for Toba – is the religion of the inhabitants. Toba is almost entirely Roman Catholic – a pocket of Christianity inside the world’s most populous Muslim country. The visible signs of Catholicism are the little churches which speckle the landscape, the roadside graves, the people in restaurants crossing themselves before eating and the pork on every menu.
The churches are modern, ugly and gaudily painted. The roadside graves or tombs are in similar bad taste but much more interesting. Some of them are grandiose – lavishly tiled, expensively decorated, with the traditional Batak (this is the name given to the local Toba culture) upsweeping roof. The deceased showing off his/her wealth to the living world. The Christian cross is always apparent, but what really catches the eye are the Batak designs and patterns, belying the dead person’s ostensible Christianity. The patterns and faces I saw on these graves looked distinctly pagan in origin.
grave in Tomok – where a former king is buried – has African-looking faces, vivid black and red zigzag designs and carved pillars depicting geckos and female breasts. The gecko is a symbol of good luck in Toba, and carved geckos abound – as tomb decorations, wooden ornaments and tourist souvenirs. At the end of my stay I bought a pair of stylized wooden geckos for $20.
Now let me say more about Batak roofs. They dominate the landscape. They, more than anything else, symbolise the distinctive Batak culture. Everywhere you look on Samosir there are houses with beautiful roofs sweeping upwards – artistically and transcendentally - at both front and rear. Their shape reminds me of a ship’s hull or a saddle or a pair of horns. Usually these roofs are of corrugated iron and rusted. Sometimes they are painted brown or tiled. Often they are in rows, heightening the artistic effect. These are not relics of the past, museum pieces or the exclusive property of the rich; I saw many brand new houses, humble houses, houses under construction, with these fine roofs.
A thread running through my time at Lake Toba was chess. Indonesians love to
play chess (I discovered this years ago in Bali and the islands to the east), and so do I. It’s a kind of passport to friendship with people who speak only a few words of English. I played nearly every day. The manager of Carolina Cottages, Robby, was the best player around – he beat me four times out of five. The receptionist, Darling (his Christian name), was handy, and so were the men who played in the roadside shacks. They were untutored but good natural tacticians, and they played fast. They used large plastic Staunton pieces. I was delighted to buy a set for only 50,000 rupiah ($5) in a hardware shop in Pangururan. My souvenirs of Toba are my Indonesian chess set and my geckos.
I didn’t swim much in the Lake; I preferred to look at it from the terrace through the lens of a beer glass. It was the rainy season, and the weather was cool. Most days it started raining in the late afternoon, stopping before bedtime. I did manage three swims – very pleasant after my morning excursions. The water is pure and still and deep. Where I swam – at the Lake’s edge – it is 5 metres deep; in the Lake centre the depth is 500 metres.
I have only hinted so far at the event for which Toba is chiefly famous and which drew me there. Approximately 70,000 years ago, Toba was a supervolcano (similar to the one today at Yellowstone National Park in the US). When it exploded, it spread ash all over the planet, blocking out the sun’s rays and killing off most of the humans then living. A huge crater remained, which gradually filled up with rain water and became what is now Lake Toba. Hard to believe that this paradise was once hell on earth.
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