Tom Vater

Tom Vater

Eclectic crime fiction and informed, irreverent non-fiction from Asia and beyond

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From the Archives: The Water at the Center of the Universe – Lake Toba, Indonesia

Can you imagine it? A crystal-clear tropical lake, surrounded by volcanic mountain, dotted with immense waterfalls? A green, lush island the size of Singapore in its center, populated by an independent, happy-go-lucky indigenous community? An extensive yet underused tourist infrastructure for almost all tastes and budgets? No crowds? No curfews? No high-rise condos? In South East Asia?

It’s still possible.

Welcome to Lake Toba!

Rio sits in the lounge of his guesthouse operation, tuning his guitar. His wife Anna is putting up a Christmas tree. Rio lights a sweet Indonesian cigarette and gazes across the placid water.

‘Lake Toba is a long way from the troubles my country is facing. Here there are no political problems, no bombs and no strikes. Samosir Island is an oasis of peace.’

The young couple are Batak – a people with an awesome history. The Batak, on the run from warring tribes on mainland South East Asia, founded a cannibalistic kingdom in central Sumatra on the shores of Lake Toba, a society both violent and learned, with its own script and distinct architecture. Resisting Islam, the Batak succumbed to Christianity at the hands of Dutch settlers in the 19th Century.

Today more than six million Batak live on and around Lake Toba – most make a living from growing wetland rice on the nutrient rich shores of the lake.

Rio and his wife Anna run Merlyn’s – two rooms and two Batak style houses in Tuk Tuk, one of the main resorts on Samosir Island.

This is an ancient landscape. The dramatic green cliffs that surround the vast crater-lake were formed a hundred thousand years ago in a gigantic volcanic implosion that could be heard a thousand miles away. Milleniums later, no one is sure exactly when, a second eruption formed Samosir Island.

The water of South East Asia’s biggest lake remains clear and rich in fish stock. No major industries crowd the shores. Rice fields are plowed by buffaloes, and quaint wooden churches, garish mausoleums and shipshape Batak roofs can be seen emerging from clusters of coconut palms, bamboo and banana trees, promising exotica and tranquility as the sun sets in a golden hue over the silent water. And while many hillsides have been deforested, population density remains low compared to the rest of overpopulated Indonesia.

Danau Toba, as the lake is called in Bahasa, lies right in the center of Northern Sumatra.The region has been largely isolated from Indonesia’s security woes, despite the major insurgency, disrupted since the Tsunami, in near-by Aceh, a couple of hundred miles to the North. In the early 1980s, hippies and overland travelers on their way between Australia and Europe first discovered Batak culture and began to live in local villages, in traditional boathouses. Spectacular scenery and a quickly developing Bohemian scene, fuelled by hallucinogenic mushrooms and marihuana attracted these tourist pioneers. As in Goa or Ko Pha Ngan, more affluent backpackers eventually replaced the hippies. Gentrification set in and in resort towns like Tuk Tuk, many Batak houses offered for rent now come with hot water and air-con.

But Phuket it is not.

Lake Toba retains an otherworldly quality. The views seem too grand for a tropical holiday resort, the work of nature dwarves all the human activity along the shore. There is no all-weather road around the island. Visitors can jet-ski across the lake, but the nightlife is laid back rather than vaudeville – even a hint of the hazy hippy hay-days lingers and magic mushroom tea is still plentiful. So is the local fish, which is excellent.

But the boom times have ground to a halt. With Indonesia’s continued instability, the stream of visitors has been slowly decreasing over the last few years. The Bali bombing reached all the way to Lake Toba.

The Tsunami, which so devastated Aceh Province to the North, never touched the lake region, but the effects of the wave have further curtailed the flow of foreign visitors.

While his wife is checking email, Rio finishes tuning up his guitar, ‘Anna is from the mainland you know. This song is called ‘Sugarimanian’ – ‘If I am sad I can fly to visit you.’ I used to play it for her, when she visited, but these days I play it to guests, so that they tell their friends that Lake Toba is a great place.’

A forty-kilometer drive along Samosir’s coast leads through rolling grasslands dotted with colorful head stones, Batak monuments, rice fields and small villages. Traffic consists of water buffalos and the odd minibus zipping past with a sick rattle. The green of the fields and hillsides is sumptuous and waterlogged year round. Rickety wooden churches with sheet metal towers and broken fences line the road. On a plateau above the small town of Pangururan lies Danau Sidihoni, a small volcanic lake floating above Lake Toba and facing the 2000 m. high, perfectly conical Bukit Pusuk.

Up on the plateau, a group of Batak farmers and district officials sit around a game of chess, drinking dark thick Samosir coffee, laced with rum.

The district officer offers a cup and says, ‘Samosir is really doing ok. I used to work in Jakarta, as a cigarette wholesaler. It was hell. The crowds, the crime, the pollution. That’s why I came back. Now I am just a farmer and I can relax with my friends.’

The friends agree, laughing, ‘We got so used to great numbers of tourists, we felt we were losing our culture, yet the last two years have been a bit of a shock for us. Now we wish from our hearts that they come back. So you see, it’s never easy, but the Batak are living a good life on Danau Toba.’

Images by Aroon Thaewchatturat. This story was first published in Lifestyle+Travel.

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