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Published: June 30th 2014
October 11th Continued through 15th Tags: spirit vegetables, magic mushrooms, SE Asian Rasta culture, Batak weddings, a lake in a lake, cappuccino, the one ATM to rule them all, poop, teak, abduction?, a chicken crosses the road, WHAT IS AUTHENTICITY?
The tourist resorts on Samosir Island are nestled along the coast of the Tuktuk Peninsula, a mushroom shaped protrusion off the island’s east side. Symbolic or not, Samosir is a pocket of hippy culture divorced from time, standards of service, and the rules of the outside world.
-- Day 1 (part 2):
On the boat, I befriend a local who rides the ferry to and from Parapat in order to convince travelers to stay at his hotel. He can’t be more than a year or two older than me. He wears jeans and flip-flops. Rather than sit in the shade, he sits on the back of the boat, his shaggy black mane cooking in the equatorial rays. Exhausted, I let him make his sell. Today, I’ve already climbed a volcano, witnessed a textbook case of extreme poverty/ environmental destruction, and descended a giant cliff. On top of this, window-shopping is inconvenient.
The boat drops passengers off at each hotel’s private peer along a 2-3 km coastline with the budget hotels clustered on the extremities. Reggae Hotel it is.
Wait, Reggae? Is this Jamaica? Seasoned SE Asian travelers wouldn’t even blink twice at the name. Reggae is so pervasive in naming schemes across the region that I wouldn’t be surprised if natives thought Reggae originated here! In Malaysia, there is a chain of reggae hostels. In Thailand, there is a reggae bar on every beach, decked out in the yellow, green, and red of the Rasta. At such a joint, one isn’t surprised to find happy grass or mushroom shakes written directly on the menu, police be damned. If you are there on a particularly auspicious occasion, a surly bartender wearing a pirate hat might even serve you your drink between rolling splifs, joints rolled with both tobacco and marijuana.
Reggae is practically synonymous with backpacker in the SE Asian circuit, and Samosir is no exception. At a local Muslim restaurant run by a headscarf-clad woman, there is a picture hanging of the Kaaba in Mecca, the holiest place in Islam. Next to it hangs a
Tomb of the King of Tomok
a tourist trap on the island, yet an interesting tomb nonetheless.
black and white print of Bob Marley smoking a fat doobie.
At registration, a local makes a ceremonious offer. “Happy grass,” “magic mushrooms?” I rain check, and he extends the offer if I change my mind. He wants me “to relax” and enjoy the island.
Indonesia has strict drug laws, but according to my friend there are no police officers on Samosir.
It’s my first night on the island. I sit street-side next to my hotel friend. We watch scooter born locals and lobster colored tourists fly around a bend in the street. We are shooting the shit, as is sometimes proverbially said on American college campuses and construction sites. I ask him what he does when he isn’t working. “Smoke weed, sit here, you know.”
The weed offer is made again with an unchanged answer on my part. However, he does convince me to buy a beer – a Bintang Pilsner, vintage Jakarta, “so prevalent it doesn’t need a slogan”*. Shortly after, one of his friends shows up. Then another... Then a fourth.
They ogle my beer without any shred of subtlety.
“It sure would be nice to have a beer, too,” one of the Indonesians says. It’s now I remember reading that everything is shared in Indonesia. I find the idea a little unsettling to the American ethos and try to put it into the limited and insulting terms I’m familiar with. Is he mooching, too poor to drink, or just following custom?..
It is awkward to sip a beer alone, so I fork over the 30,000 Indonesian rupees to dole out beer to the four of them (11,000 rupiah to the dollar). However small, this gesture manages to win me the genuine friendship of every guy my age on Tuk Tuk. It will also later earn me the privilege of cleaning a soccer related wound, an invitation to crash a Toba Batak wedding, and as predicted by the American model… license to buy more rounds.
-- Day 2:
I need to contact my friend and withdraw money. These two tasks manage to consume the whole afternoon. On Samosir, there is a single ATM that accepts VISA cards. However, it is out for the count. The bulldozer eviscerating the side of the
road in Tuktuk has managed to rip out the cable connecting the blasted machine to the mainland. In doing so, it has also cut the Internet on the whole island. I discover when I enter the local Internet café.
“When will the internet be back on?” I ask.
“I don’t know. Maybe a week or so?” the owner answers.
He doesn’t seem to care either way, even though the Internet is his livelihood. The guys at my guesthouse indicate that the Internet basically plays no life on the island. I suppose I can get behind an Internet-free lifestyle for a few days, but contacting home is high priority. I changed my itinerary and climbed an active volcano without telling home. I’m also going into debt to my hotel, because I don’t have enough cash.
I take the 90-minute ferry back to Parapet to use the Internet and withdraw money. At the Internet café, the local kids stick their heads into my booth. One sits behind me and watches me check my email. This is the first and probably last time that checking my email will seem fascinating to anyone.
I can withdraw a maximum of 1.25 million Rupiah/ day (about $110). I will need to be thrifty on the island. What a strange bottleneck to tourist spending the Indonesians have set up!
That night back in Tuk Tuk, I spot my Princeton in Asia (PiA) friend, Brittney, at a Batak dance event (I am to discover in my travels in Asia that I have a habit of spotting people I know). She is with an eclectic group, their friendship forged under the duress of chartering a van from the Medan Airport. The group includes a Scotsmen, a Malaysian and two men from Tamil-Nadu in India who now live in Singapore, and an American friend of Brittney’s who lives in Jakarta. The crew sticks together and I hang out with them for the remainder of my time on Sumatra.
-- Day 3:
The crew and I rent motorbikes in an attempt to ride the 140 km loop around the island. This turns out to be a tall order. Time is not a concept on Samosir, whether you want it to be or not. Breakfast takes us over an hour,
and we make a lot of stops at rinky-dink attractions. Highlights include a circle of stone chairs – a possible inspiration to J.R.R. Tolkien - that was formerly used by the village council to deliberate on executions and one dry waterfall. To get to the waterfall, we ride down a path of large stones and park the bikes at a shack swarming with small children. A man without shoes escorts us up a steep path to the waterfall. As we wheel out, I step in a squishy pit of sand and dung.
It smells suspiciously human. I am wearing sandals.
Lunch takes a full two hours (nothing compared to dinner’s three!). It is now 3 pm, and we give up on making it around the island today.
At night, we plot the next day. The others are fixated on the idea of finding a small lake located somewhere on the island.
“It’s a lake within a lake,” they chant. “And maybe there is an island on the lake!” “Yeah,” another chimed in, “It’s a lake within a lake... A lake within a lake…”
--- Day 4:
The lake within a lake sounds like someone else’s white whale to me. PiA Brittney and I dip out and take the time to enjoy the view of Toba, swim, and drink copious amounts of cappuccino. This is perhaps the first day I’ve stopped moving since I started my trip nearly two weeks before. It’s a great relief.
While our day is carefree, the crew’s journey is beset by peril. We soon learn that there is also only one licensed physician to go with the one ATM, single internet cable, lack of police officers… and Doctor Dan is on vacation at the moment.
So here’s how it happened: the crew is riding in a caravan on the outskirts of Tuktuk. Thanks to the crane that disconnected the ATM and Internet, the roads are covered in piles of bedrock and dirt. There is effectively one lane at best. My Malaysian friend Ken is bringing up the rear, when, no joke, a chicken crosses the road. To avoid the chicken and our friends’ bikes, Ken swerves into a pile of igneous and takes a tumble. When he gets back from Doctor Dan’s office, he
the restaurants in Toba have all sorts of interesting takes on western food.
looks like a cartoon version of himself. He is limping, his eye is swollen, and his leg is wrapped in gauze that has been directly applied to the wound.
When he calls his insurance, they want a police report. Cue the music: there are no policemen on Samosir to write one.
It’s my last evening on Sumatra, and Brittney and I bring the others to the restaurant where we ate lunch. At lunch, we’d talked up the restaurant workers. They’d promised to bring us a bottle of tuak – a milky yellow spirit made from palm. It has a frothy consistency and tastes like watery oatmeal that’s been spiked.
Tuak has one merit: it doesn’t blind you, an issue of concern when imbibing Indonesian hooch in unsealed containers, as my friend and PiA fellow Ben Soloway points out sometimes happens at parties in Jakarta. According to him, newspapers will run stories from time to time about parties that have been annihilated by toxic hooch. These parties have like 100% casualties, no survivors, all dead on the floors and couches of a fourth floor apartment still wearing their skinny jeans, T-shirts, and
leather jackets. To the person who discovers this, it must look more like a cult suicide than a fun evening of debauchery. Ben works for a newspaper, and sometimes I wonder if talking about these kinds of things enthrall him a little too much.
The six or seven of us are there to drink tuak and one of the bar guy begins to jam on a guitar, playing stylistic renditions of Bruno Mars and generally being an ornery drunk. He’s sitting across from a British gent I’d met some other evening. The Brit is physically unimposing. He has wiry yellow hair and pale skin that must make him the envy of SE Asian females. His greatest distinguishing feat-AH is his Man-CHA-stur accent. A friend confides in me later that he was doing all he could to stop from laughing when the Brit spoke. It doesn’t help that our Brit steers the topic of conversation to 9/11 Conspiracy theories. I like him well enough. He works 4 months a year as an electrician and travels in Southeast Asia during the other 8 to keep his off-season expenses down.
The tuak bottle
is half finished when some of the younger Tuktuk locals enter the bar**. It turns out they’re about the best surprise jam band I’ve ever heard. I guess it’s not everyone just smoking weed in his free time. The guitarist is especially good. Unfortunately, he isn’t wearing his signature white jean jacket and pants that make him look like a skinny Indonesian Elvis. Infused with tuak, we jam out. I do some singing and guitar playing. All is well.
We are planning on going to a club, but the barman insists that no, no, actually, everyone is going to this wedding down the street. We persistently refuse a ride on his 100cc scooter – there are lawnmowers more powerful – and instead walk the whole darn 300 meters to the party.
The wedding is held under a blue canvas tarp set-up in front of a house. A large band is playing traditional music and our motley group of internationals is quickly incorporated into a dance circle with the bride and groom. We are instructed to put our hands together like we are praying and to rotate them back and forth while keeping them together,
View from my new room
I moved my second day and got a better view.
all while shuffling around the circle.
Brittney has abducted a small sleep-deprived boy who seems to be a willing capture. She dances him around the circle mashed to her chest, his legs hanging helpless in the air.
A man collects donations for the bride and groom, which he arranges in a large whicker tray. Those in the circle then turn to their left and face towards the bride and groom. Led by the man with the tray, we dance towards them, hands pivoting back and forth to the beat. They retreat from us for a while and then come forward graciously to accept the money.
In a switch up with Western cultures, the groom’s outfit is more intricate and memorable than the bride’s. The groom is wearing a white tunic, purple pants, and a red and orange embroidered sash. Both bride and groom have their faces done-up in white powder. I am comforted that the couple appears to be older than me. Marriage may be far from my mind, but reminders of its immanence among my age cohort are frightening. Facebook is a daily emotional minefield to navigate.
The dancing ends and we are brought inside. There are ten or so revelers asleep on mats in the room. We tiptoe through. It appears we are late to the party.
In the kitchen, lopsided stacks of dirty dishes from a days worth of noshing guests are piled in the sink basin. “We’re out of spoons. Use yo’ hand man,” I’m instructed. My Indonesian host gestures to a water boiler full of rice and a crock full of pork. No arguing with that logic. The hot and gooey rice clings to my hand and sears off a layer of skin. More flavor I guess? I scoop the rice into the bowl and am paying little enough attention to repeat the burning process on the way down the hatch.
Back outside, the islanders are sitting on folding chairs set around card tables. They are drinking beer again, and I’m conned into providing. Their conversation switches to Toba Batak, so I join in with the Brit. After some light conversation, he gets all serious, looks me in the eye and says, “You know, I waz he-e mayBE three years ah-gooo. Is’s always da same guys. Nothing
The road back to the Medan airport
On my way to the airport, where I would fly to Jakarta, I snapped a shot of this flooded village.
has changed here.”
I’m not in the mood to argue. I don’t want to remind him about the likely permanence of the marriage we’re here to celebrate.
Sumatra, Sumatra, Sumatra you can’t imagine it until you’ve been there. It’s a land of extremes: absurdity, beauty, and openness. The smells are stronger there, as my sandals can attest, the food is McDonalds level greasy, and the smoke is so thick it crosses Malacca and smothers Singapore. But is it the “authentic experience” so many travelers are looking for? It isn’t a Pattong or Pattaya beach, so developed and full of scammers that money practically falls out of your pockets. But it isn’t the authentic experience that some backpackers hold up as their travel nirvana. Despite my German companions thinking we’d rediscovered the Middle Ages, Sumatra is on a collision course with some sort of modernity that isn’t pretty. Contrary to what the Brit says, things are changing on Sumatra at an alarming pace.
But the travelers’ search for authenticity is a grail search. A better benchmark is needed for touristic value than authenticity, lest they always be disappointed… or worse yet think they’ve found what they are looking for. I propose a simple open-ended question in place of a poorly defined term: “Will I experience something or meet people that stir my senses and my feelings? Will it be something that challenges me to learn something new?” The question might not be as easy to throw around in a conversation as saying “I had a really authentic experience,” but it might just be the difference between loving and hating a place. It is being willing to grapple with an experience for yourself, rather than writing it off or not doing it because it doesn’t meet your standards of authenticity as judged by the tourists-travelers-Lonely Planet readers-it was so much better than sayers- who’ve come before you.
In my memory, Sumatra is foremost an island full of people. In this, it’s like any other place. It’s home to Fara my one-night crush and unassailably good person, Dedi the Orangutan guide, a host of insane bus drivers, and the loveable pot smokers on Samosir. That’s it’s own kind of authenticity.
No backpacker can besmirch that through shallow analysis. On the other hand, they can completely overlook it.
Authors note: Thanks for reading! These last entries have been in experiment in a longer form and just longer-term in general. Did I succeed in producing something interesting? Was I offensive and you have a more nuanced view to share with the world? Comment. Let me know.
* Seeking copyright, Stephen Stolzenberg, c 2014
**As an aside: at what point should I be embarrassed that my mother and former teachers are reading about me going on a bender? Have I taken full disclosure too far?
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