We arrive to Medan, the largest city in Sumatra, to an open air airport, no gate..just down the steps to the tarmac. The sun and humidity hit me like a brick! As I like hot weather I’m ok with this. I will take it over the winter and lack of sunlight back home any day! Into immigration to get my visa upon arrival. Answer some questions as to my intentions and whereabouts, pay the fee, my passport is then stamped and I am officially admitted into the country. Next stop customs. The line moves fast and is incident free. I find myself slinging my pack and heading out, where I am approached for currency exchange which I need to do. There are a couple exchange stands at the airport. I compare rates, they are the same. Waved to the counter by a pretty girl with a big smile I begin the hurried process of changing my money. Numbers are quickly entered into the machine and I am reading a total I am to agree to. I hand them my money and they quickly count out a stack in Indonesian Rupiah and say to me smiling, “Now you are a millionaire.” Something feels off to me. I count and recount the money, and though my head is spinning with the amount of zeros, in addition. I am exchanging from Singaporean currency to Indo Rp’s so It takes a little more thought. Not wanting to offend, I use the adding machine on the counter just to tripple check my math. Now I am sure I have been shorted something to the tune of $100 US. I bring this to their attention. There is a big long pause as they look at each other. No mistake here…a scam. They count the money handed me, do the math again, and apologize “sincerely” with a look upon their face saying, “you caught us.” The tactic is to take advantage of of your culture shock, in a very fast paced environment, using your naive state to their advantage. I had read about scams…but I figured the currency exchange at the airport would be legit. NOPE! Anyway, they hand me the additional 1,000,000 Rp, where upon I smile at them, shake their hands and head out.
Next I purchase a local SIM card for the phone I purchased in Singapore. During this transaction, I am b-lined by a couple men offering to take me where I need to go. This increases with every step I take. I know this from NY so I just try to find the legit taxi cue. I ask a guy in a security uniform, tell him where I need to go. As with the currency exchange, everything here is through broken english of course as I don’t speak any Indonesian. This gentleman hails a cab for me, I tell him I need to get to the SM Raja bus station to catch a southbound bus bound for Parapat on my way to Danau Toba, a massive lake, the largest in all of SE Asia, that is a result of volcanic activity sometime between 30,000 to 75,000 years ago. That eruption gave way to the island of Samosir, which sits dead center of lake Toba. Somosir is roughly the size of Singapore. It’s huge for an island within an island, but a little speck compared to the size of the island of Sumatra, the 6th largest Island in the world.
After about a 10 minute drive. The driver stops in what to me is some random place, where there are “minibus.” The driver talks to the people and tells me to come. He then tells me I can take a minibus there that will leave in 1 hour for 75,000 Rp. After my money exchange experience, I’m skeptical. I tell the drivel that the regular bus at the bus station will be fine. It’s also only 20, 000 Rp and might leave sooner. Ok he says and we are off. 10 min. later he stops at another minibus place and we repeat the scenario. I’m beginning to realize I am the fish out of water here and am now in the hands of the people around me. I am told that this minivan leaves in 30 min. and is only 40,000 Rp. Ok, that’s fine I say. God bless it, I think to myself. I pay my taxi driver 60,000 Rp and thank him. I am told to throw my pack in the back of one of the vans that will be bringing me to Parapat. I drop my bag right along side two big roosters that are bound up in plastic bags to prevent them from thrashing about. The roosters just look at me. Suddenly I don’t feel so bad. At least Im not one of these roosters, or so I hope.
I sit down to wait and am approached by a man asking, “Where you from mister?” I tell him NY. He says, “Oh, Washington DC…” I explain to him that they are not actually the same place. He seems nice enough. Ok, time to go. We load up and we are off. I am sitting next to a man who is holding a riffle, in a case, cradled between his legs. I ask him if he is a hunter. He says yes. I ask what he hunts. He tells me birds and also some catlike creature that loves to eat his chickens. We both laugh. We get to talking further. After he finds out I’m from NY he tells me his brother lives in America, Minnesota. That’s where I am from so I am blown away. He goes on to tell me that his brother has lived there for 16 years and is somehow involved in the senate. He himself has visited MN a few times as well as other places in the US. We talk about Singapore and Little India. I tell him that the architecture kinda reminded me of New Orleans somewhat. He agreed. We talk about New Orleans. This man turns out to be my translator for the ride up. I take this all as a good omen and begin to relax into the journey.
Relaxing ends quickly when we hit the traffic. Never in my life have I seen driving like this. There are basic rules I guess…but beyond that it seems every man for himself, and at a very high speed at that! To panic would be useless. Additionally, seat belts here seem to be some extra thing that comes with the van, serving no real purpose, not unlike the appendix. They are not used at all. And, in this particular vehicle, they are broken. I am amazed to look around and see half the people in my van sleeping. I guess this is just life here. If this is normal driving, I should relax too. I am shooting photos out the window in total amazement. Half terrified, the other half exhilarated. I actually have to lead my shots by a bit as things are moving so fast and angular at once you are too late to just train directly on your subject. Here I mess with my new point and shoot to try and get the shots I want. I get some gems but this camera is not performing as easily as my old one, though it takes much cleaner, crisp images.
We stop along the way to pick up and let off people. There is a max of 7 of us at one time. Little food stands and stores along the way are frequented by my companions. One man behind me shares his food with me. It’s some kind of rice wrapped up in a leaf, rolled and cut like sushi. It is really tasty and I am appreciative of it as I have not really eaten yet. As night falls upon us, I sit back and close my eyes, chill out. I will think again once I get to where I am going.
About 5 hours later we arrive to Parapat, my stop. I get out and pay the driver, thank him. I say goodbye to my Minnesotan friend and the rest of the crew. I am now standing along a busy roadside wondering left or right. I consult my Lonely Planet to see if I can get my bearings. I wander along, stop in a place to ask for directions. The people tell me I have gone too far and need to take a minibus back the way I came a bit. I wait for a ride. Van’s stop, ask where I’m going. Nope. Then another and another. Ok. The ride to Charlies Guesthouse where I hope to stay is about 5 minutes drive and cost 2,000 Rp. I will be staying here tonight because it is right next to the ferry terminal to bring me across to the island of Samosir. The last ferry ran at 8pm. It’s now 9:30. I will catch the ferry over in the morning. Also, Charlies is owned by a Batak musical legend. The Batak are the native people to this region, the Toba region. Music and art is a major facet of the culture. This is a big part of why I chose to come to Toba.
I’m now standing outside Charlies and begin to make my way across a large bumpy dirt and cement courtyard to bring me to the entrance. Once there a woman comes to the door smiling. She seems very peaceful and that feels great! She tells me she has room. I go in and she shows me the room. Perfect, I say. I drop my bags and thank her, say goodnight. I am beat tired from the last couple nights of little sleep, coupled with a long, crazy day of travel in a new unfamiliar world. I quickly fall to sleep.
Awoken the next morning by the sounds of people being called to mosque, couples with the sounds of what seems like a large crowd/busy atmosphere, drilling and hammering. I get up and get ready. I open the door to what will be my new world for the day. I look to my left, off the balcony. The empty courtyard I walked through last night has been transformed into a huge, packed market place. All I can see is a sea of colored umbrellas that shade the vendors in the market. Wow! Total poetry!
I am soon greeted by a man about my age who comes over and asks me where I am from. His name is Tongam. We talk for a bit. Our conversation goes to music and he tells me of a western man from San Francisco named Mark that lives in Toba. He is a bass player, mandolin player, married to a Batak woman. He speaks fluent Indonesian and near fluent Batak, and, as I would come to find out later that he has lived in Sumatra for 13 years, Toba for a year and a half. Mark, as I will meet him later in Toba, is an ethno-musicologist who was awarded several grants back in the day, including a Fulbright. He fell in love with a Batak woman and decided to stay on In Sumatra. The rest is history. As it turns out, the man I am talking to is the musical legend I read about. Funny, as I expected hime to be an older man of another generation, in his 70′s or so. Soon we go downstairs and he plays me some of his music via mp3 over the sound system he has installed. It’s amazing to me how western pop music just dominates everything all over the world as far as music goes. It’s a shame I think because so much music and culture gets lost. Even in the states, to see musicians go for the pop dream… My question, especially among those truly talented is, what would your music sound like if you followed it instead of the pop formula for “success?” I am impressed by the professional sound he has together and the music is cool…it’s just western music, you know. To come all the way across the world to hear western sounding music is well, kinda sad I think. Anyway, it’s good music he has made and he is very nice. We talk about getting in the studio to play. He will invite Mark, from San Francisco to play bass. I am to meet him in Toba. He will phone ahead to let him know Eric, a drummer from NY is arriving.
I thank him for the help and for playing me his music. Tell him I hope we get to play together. I pay my money for the room and am off into the market. Before I go, he asks me if I eat dog. They are selling it in todays market and it is kinda rare so I should try it if it’s not too strange for me. Ok, then, I’m off.
Walking through the market, with my pack. The heat is incredible! Fruits, vegetables, chickens, fish… A lot of the ground is bloody with the guts of various creatures purchased for someones dinner. The guts, coupled with the heat, bring the flies. I’m not in Kansas anymore. This market puts Chinatown in NY on a pedestal as far as cleanliness goes.
Regardless, It’s fascinating to me to be here. There is a woman making what I am told is banana pancakes. She is pounding the mixture with a big wood muddler in a huge vat. She has two hot griddles set up that she pours the mixture into. She then layers the top with a heavy collection of spices. It’s folded over like an omelette, then cut into two, stacked and wrapped in paper to be sold. Looks delicious. I will get one of these upon return if I leave on a Friday, that’s market day.
I am offered a piece of Durian fruit from a durian farmer here. He wants his picture taken so of course I oblige. Here is seems it’s generally ok to photograph people. They are more flattered than offended which is perfect cause photos are gold to me and a big part of why I love to travel. For those who have eaten durian before, you know it’s a little bit different. I’ve had it a few times before in my life, from chinatown, and I’ve had “good” durian and “bad” durian. The durian smells bad, regardless of quality. For those that don’t know, the durian, once cut open, contains a custard type of consistency that is to be scooped out by hand and eaten. It also contains large pods that are to be sucked on. I can take it or leave it, to be fair. I will say, this is by far the best durian I’ve ever tasted. It is an acquired taste though for sure.
Again I am hounded by a couple of men who want to offer me accommodations in Toba. People here seem to not really take no thank you for an answer sometimes. It’s hard being from NY because in NY if someone comes up to you offering you something…more times than not they want something from you and are trying to hustle you. Here, it seems people are well intentioned, they just want your business cause they need the money. That’s understandable but still, can be quite annoying. Anyway, so long as the people are well intentioned, I can deal with it. And, it seems I will have to as it comes with the territory.
I await the next ferry departure, of course with unwelcome company. I am told I will love this place, that it is pretty and still, away from the main drag hustle, and also has free WIFI. Ok, I tell him I am willing to take a look as it seems futile to get rid of him any other way. Upon the boat, we talk more. Turns out he is also a musician, knows Mark also and offers to take me to meet him at 6pm at a place he will be playing music, after I see his place. He sees my swiss army backpack and asks if I’ve been to Switzerland. I tell him yes. He asks me where and tells me he lived there for 6 months in Bern. He shows me his Swiss ID card, it is legit. This relaxes me a lot as once again, I am in larger hands than mine.
We get to the port and disembark. We jump on his motorbike for a shortcut to the place. There in about 15 min. He shows me the room. It’s fine. It’s located right on the lake and really is in a beautiful and peaceful location, secluded. I can swim right there… I tell him I will take the room for at least one night. I rent a motorbike from him for 5 days for 500,000 Rp. From here I set off to explore where the hell I am and also to stop in at other places to check hotels and whatnot to compare quality, location, and price. It seems my friend has not led me astray. I tell myself it’s legit and relax. I will be paying 50,000 Rp per night here at Abadi Guesthouse. I highly recommend it to any that come to Lake Toba as it really is a beautiful location! Other places, with slightly nicer rooms would cost at least twice as much and be side by side, more hotel style accommodations. Some with a swimming pool… But, who the hell wants or needs a swimming pool when you have this amazingly beautiful lake to swim in everyday? Check it out, this is my backyard. The blue balcony you see on the right is mine. The lake is my morning and evening bathtub. I awake with the day to the sounds of singing children and crowing roosters, of course.
Samosir on Lake Toba was all formed by volcanic activity some 30,000 to 75,000 years ago to my understanding. Lake Toba is the largest lake in all of SE Asia and it also is the largest volcanic lake in the world!
Here, I have found myself in somewhat of a perfect fit. Outside of the innate beauty of this Island, many Batak people here play quite a bit of chess. I pride myself on my chess game and here, I must say, I am 7 losses and 2 wins to a Batak mid level player. Motherfuckers game here! Who knew? Tomorrow I will try my luck again. I was brought up into the hills here…way up to the top in the mountains that overlook all of Lake Toba. Man, how beautiful! Up top I drank palm wine, tuak as it is called here in Batak, and watch the mountain farmers chain smoke marijuana. I stop many places along the way to get photos of this brilliant landscape.
The graves here are something to behold! It is an interesting custom. Those that die of and beyond a certain ripe old age get exhumed after a few years, to be placed into a beautiful Batak house like structure, that is ornate as all get out. It is finer than many of the houses among the living you see here. The process is not cheap, so only those that can afford this ritual do so. Once this is done, there is a big party for that soul that has been reburied. Fascinating…these structures are really beyond words!!!
On the way back down there is a huge plume of smoke. I have read that crops get burned at certain times of the year, after the harvest, to re-fertilize the land. I assume this is what is happening. As we near closer we see kids running and adults doing likewise. A fire engine, and by this, I do not mean of the western variety, these fire engines are more modest to put it kindly, comes in to the scene, sirens blaring. It turns out a house is on fire. Later that night the news comes in that that fire claimed the lives of a few children. Reality check! The children here are so lively with the most beautiful faces…so full of life… This is devastating and heartbreaking news!
Here is a shot I took of some children up in the mountains. Look how beautiful these faces and personalities are!
I am starting to make friends here amongst the locals and fellow travelers alike. People here really are warm! Once people found out I was a drummer, I was invited down to a nightclub where the big local band was playing. Once there, it was put into order that I was to sit in with them. I ended up playing the entire first set of there music for the evening. The set consisted of all American rock and pop tunes, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Metallica, Van Morrison, Four Non Blondes… I thrashed the shit outta the set and represented rock and roll the way it’s supposed to be done! The carnage, was a bass drum pedal, which I completely destroyed. Fortunately they had a backup, and of better quality at that! Anyway, people seemed quite impressed by my playing and I instantly became the man on the drums in town. It is a trip to come all around the world and hear these people playing this American rock and roll music, and doing it well too, tapping, hammering, the whole nine. Anyhow, I represented to let em know that rock music is more than just playing the tunes! I have been invited back again tomorrow night to play again if I so wish. Regardless, felt great to bash it out here with these folks! They really love and feel western music here…yet, at the same time, kill the shit out of there traditional Batak music which you can hear all around the island in it’s various manifestations.
I have been invited to a wedding and a party tomorrow night that will entail a serious feast. The following day I am to go inland to some fresh water springs to perform a ritual. I have made a friend here who tells me he can tell I am a spiritual person with a big mind, very passionate and creative but that something in my soul is out of line. He asked me if I would come with him to perform a healing ritual. If I felt he was wrong I would have refused. But, this is precisely why I have taken this trip. How can I refuse this offer? Apparently I am going to be brought to an area where there is 7 sacred springs I will encounter. This is all I know at this time. Stay tuned!
I met a man named Kolden at the local tuak spot. Tuak is a type of local palm wine, or “jungle juice” as some refer to it here. We get to talking and soon I am invited to his house the next evening for a traditional Batak dinner. I am totally excited! Kolden is a high school teacher here in Tuk Tuk, the town I am staying in on Toba. He explains to me some of the customs I witnessed at the wedding that day. I won’t go into it because it is all vague to me on my understanding of things. I will say however that everyone looked beautiful in their finest clothes. Lot’s of live music and dancing of course. One custom I will mention is the procession of people coming up to place beautifully hand made woven blankets, called ulos, around the bride. It is a offering of prosperity for the family. Traditionally the women only wore these ulos for clothing. We talk for a while before I drop him home on my bike. I go inside, meet his wife, 6 month old baby, who is so precious I can’t even tell you, and mother, whose smile is really radiant. They are all very welcoming and kind. I sit for a while, while we smoke (Indonesians seem to be real heavy smokers) and talk. It is decided I will return the following night for dinner at 7pm. I thank them for inviting me into their home and wish them goodnight.
Here is some interesting tid-bits. Kolden was born with polio so one leg is affected heavily. His wife, really a very pretty woman, shares a handicap as she is missing one eye. Also, to add an element of humor to the equation, their cat, Katey, is missing one foot. I mention this as a point of interest as I’m not sure how these two found each other, be it natural, or if their afflictions played into some kind of arrangement. I found it quite fascinating though, to say the least! Regardless, they are a beautiful family and wonderful people. It was an honor to be invited into their home.
The next night I set off on my bike for Kolden’s house and somehow I cannot find it. I ask a group of high school kids who can tell I am lost. Turns out Kolden is their teacher. One kid hops on the back of the bike to show me the way. Small world in Toba for sure! We arrive to welcoming smiles. Kolden is hard at work in the kitchen working a large stone mortar-and-pesto, that has been in the family for over 100 years. He knees on the kitchen floor. The whole place smells delicious and I am excited for the food! I ask if I can do anything to help. He directs me out back with his student who will be staying for dinner as well. There, over an open fire is some chicken being barbecued. To the left is the chicken coup. In front of the grill is a trail of bright red blood. No question whether or not this meal is fresh at this point! A canadian man named Mark was also to join us. He was to meet me at the tuak spot and we would go together. He was no where to be found so I went it alone. I went back out to try a couple more places to see if I could find him, upon request, as dinner would be another 30 minutes or so, but no dice. I return empty handed. No worries we all agree. I feel bad for Mark though as, by the look and smell of things, he is really missing out big time!
A large woven wicker style mat is brought out and unrolled. It is hand made by the mother and really is quite pretty. We sit around in a circle on this mat, the dinner is placed in the middle of us. I always love eating on the floor so this ritual pleases me a lot! I believe the overall name for the style of food we are about to eat is called Bumbu-bumbu. And yes, of course we drink tuak to accompany our feast.
The chicken has been cooked up in three different ways. One, called Pang-gang, is reminiscent of tandoori but with completely different spices. Another, called Na Pinadar where the chicken was cut into pieces and cooked in a thick pungent sauce with chillies and a native spice called andaliman. This spice is an enigmatic to say the least. The third dish was called Gulai and was done in a light curry sauce, stewed down where the meat falls off the bone. These dishes were served with rice on the side as well as cucumber and tomato, which is common to have here with a meal it seems. We eat with our hands only, no utensils, and are provided a small dish of water to wash our hands in after eating. It is messy and delicious all at once. An additional unique experience for me was included in this feast when I scooped what seemed to be a good sized piece of chicken out of the pot, thinking it to be part of the breast or such. Much to my surprise as I raised it to my mouth and bit into it to find that it was looking right at me. Yes, I was eating the head of the rooster. Now, I am confronted by the classic textbook travel scenario you always hear about. What to do when you are given something you normally never would eat, the organs of an animal for example… Ok, so here I am caught in the middle of the real life story. What do I do. Easy, I ate it! I kinda just closed my eyes a bit until I got used to the idea and the image of the eyes and beak right there. I ate the cockles and all. They tasted as you would imagine them to taste, a bit rubbery…but, no problem. The meat around the face tasted as a chicken tastes so no problem. Eating the eyes was a bit hard. I first tried to push one out, eat around it. It exploded in my face. Never push on the eyes! Note to self and all others who will find themselves presented with this experience one day. Never push on the eyes! The other eye I ate as it came off with a bit of surrounding meat… I said nothing. What would I say? It might be hard for you to imagine, after my story, that this meal was some of the most delicious food I have ever tasted in my life, but it is most certainly true. I could do without the head, and as a result, this dish, though incredibly tasty, was my least favorite of the three. The other two…man, I really cannot explain to you how amazingly good they tasted! One must have an appetite for spice to enjoy these dishes as they do pack a wallop, both in heat and in sheer density of taste. I am a spice junky so for me this was no problem. I hope I get to eat all three of these dishes again in my life, many times, to be quite honest, as they were an absolute delight to my taste buds! And yes, for those wondering, of course we drank tuok to accompany our meal. After dinner we laid back upon large cushions, enjoying our digestion taking place underneath quiet and nice conversation and the traditional cigarette. We also watched some local television which was nothing short of magical. Imagine Chinese style martial arts films, with all the flying around and super powers, but done with the most hokey of special effects. It really was an experience and Im glad I got to see some of this stuff! Meanwhile, the rains outside were pounding with no signs of letting up at all! Not wanting to overstay my welcome and at once allow these good people some sleep, we, Kolden’s student, whose name I can not remember, and I decide to tough it out in the rain. On the bike in a torrential downpour, we slowly make out way back. I drop him in front of his house and head across tuk tuk to the other side of the town, where I am staying. No problem. Inside, I get into some dry clothes and call it a night, and a fantastic one at that!
Ok, I have opted out on the soul saving, I mentioned earlier, at this time as my “friend” wanted to capitalize a bit too much on the process. I think the popular consensus is that westerners are rich. While it is true we make more money than those here and our houses and cell phones are more modern… What is not really understood is that the cost of living in the west is far far far greater. We make more money cause we gotta spend more money. People say yeah but I will never have the money to take a trip like you are…ok, that might very well be true…but that certainly does not make me rich as you might think. While certainly there are a number of westerners that fall well in the category of wealthy, I unfortunately, am not one of them. Westerners pay more here for most things than locals. That is not a problem, and is generally understood by all…happy to do so…but, beyond that I am not mister money bags. I say that only because some people want to be your guide or friend or whatnot and one day they charge you $10 to be my guide…when you don’t haggle on the price the next adventure suddenly jumps to $30. Ummmm…thanx but no thanx. I will have to save my own soul at that point.
That being said however, I cannot stress enough how kind and nice and respectful the people here on Samosir are! Always willing to help you when you are lost or in need of something…the Batak people here are very proud of of their heritage, humanities and morals. Rightfully so as these people here really are fantastic and warm! Music here is everywhere and just about everybody plays some instrument or sings, to one level or another. Within that there are some serious players here. The 2 string mandolin or lute, if you will, called the Hasapi, is the most prominent instrument I’ve seen played here. The two strings are tuned a major 3rd apart. There is a lead Hasapi player who plays the melody, or composition, with his own inflections placed upon it, and an accompanying Hasapi player who plays the bass or rhythm part underneath him. Often times there is a bamboo flute player who plays an instrument called the Sulim. There may also be a clarinet or oboe type player playing the Sarune or Sarune Bolon (large sarune). The instrument sounds like a double reed instrument, but in fact is a single reed that is intricately carved and inserted into the sarune, similar in appearance to the oboe or english horn in regards the sarune bolon. There are a number of other instruments of course. My favorite being the Taganing drums. The taganing is a number of drums from big to small, hung in pitched row from a wooden framework which is also played in conjunction with the drums. My hope is to record on one of these but so far no such luck. I have, however, played the spoons quite a bit at the evening local jam session gatherings while drinking tuak.
As for saving my soul, healing my body, my mind, removing years of NYC concrete, extreme economics, and an inhumane pace that will take a toll on any body in motion over a period of time, I decide to hop on my steel pony, the motorbike I rented to get around the island, and head a couple hours over and up into the hills to search out the local hot springs here on Toba. The ride is poetic and of course it takes me quite a bit longer to get there as I must stop time and time again to photograph these Batak structures, framed by this amazing and grand landscape.
I know I am nearing the hot springs when I can smell the heavy sulfur in the air. It is an unmistakable smell, not unlike that of boiled eggs. I arrive to unload off my bike, do my best to read the hand painted signs directing me to the springs, and more importantly, to save embarrassment, the mens from the women’s pools, as I’m guessing that’s what som e of these signs are indicating. Having watched some boys descent the steps of one place, I assume it’s the right spot, though I’d much rather be in the other;) I ascend the steps and turn the corner to find two big empty stone pools that look far too inviting. I seem to have the whole spa to myself, at least for the time being. The water feels amazing to the touch and I cannot wait to immerse my body in it! I drop all my gear and hang my clothes on the appointed nails that frame the walls around the area. The water is so damn hot I wonder if I will actually be able to get in it. Slowly, over a period of about 5 minutes I am totally submerged, eyes closed, I have arrived! Goodbye demons that have been clinging at my bones for too long, goodbye!
Tomorrow I am supposed to go back to Parapat to play a session with Tongam, the music legend mentioned earlier, and Mark, a man from the Bay Area who has lived here in Sumatra for 13 years. He is the ethno-musicologist I mentioned earlier. He is a very nice man who has informed me a lot as to things here. He is always present around the tuak infused nightly music session hangs at the local palm wine bar. Hopefully the session will happen as the last time we were to do it, the drumset got rented out to a local band, making it impossible.
As it is nearing my time to shove off here, as beautiful as it is, I gotta a lot of other places I want to put myself in and though the trip seems long ahead of me, I know from past travels, that at a certain point, you are almost out of time. My plan is to leave in the morning, go play the session in the studio, catch a minibus from there to the next destination. I need to decide if I am going to go to Berastagi to clime the volcanos there or head straight to Bukit Lawang to trek into the jungle in hopes to see one of the only remaining orangutang populations on earth. There, the Cobra snake (present throughout Indonesia), the Sumatran Tiger and Elephant are also present, along with a large number of bird species… It sounds like an adventure, and a dirty one at that as much of the trekking is, to my understanding, slippery and arduous… With any bit of luck I will link up with some other english speaking travelers I vibe well with, in order to have some companionship through the experience. One of the hardest things about traveling alone, not speaking the native language(s) is the inability to have mentally stimulating and challenging conversations. It is a lonely place to be stuck in your mind with your thoughts, unable to articulate them to understanding ears. The same sensation takes place in reverse…not being able to understand others expressiveness… But, that’s traveling and it comes with the territory.
I decide to combine taking the ferry with Mark, to meet up with Tongam, in Parapat to play some music together, with my feeling that it is time to leave Toba, not for lack of love or desire to stay but simply because there are other places and experiences ahead of me and I cannot stave them off any longer. I simply feel it is now time to go. I pack up my bags when I get up in the morning, head on down to the lake to say my thank you’s and goodbye’s, head up stairs to get some breakfast and coffee in me, pay my bill for my stay, thank the people and head out to to Toba to catch the ferry. As I did not see Mark the day prior, I hope he will be there as planned. I arrive to see Mark, bass slung. Ahhh, in business, nice! We talk a bit until the ferry arrives about ten minutes later, board, and continue our conversation. We slowly make our way across the lake to Parapat. It is Saturday, exactly one week after I arrived, which means it’s market day there again. It is a beautiful sunny day and we enjoy the ride along with a nice cooling breeze on the upper deck of the boat.
We arrive and disembark, making our way through the throngs of people in the crowded market. The top of my backpack, even though I am crouching, catches the edge of one of the many many umbrellas, and down it goes. I catch it about midway, along with the help of others. Apologizing…it’s no problem, we all laugh and continue on. We make it to Charlies, the guesthouse I stayed in when I first arrived in Parapat a week ago. Tongam is the owner. He and his wife come out to greet us with smiles and warm welcomes. We sit down and share a cold beer between us while we wait for Tongam to prepare and also for Vaclav, an older czech man we met on Toba who happened to be on the ferry. He decided he would like to join us to listen. Vaclec went off to change some money, to return within 15 minutes. Mark and I are sitting drinking our cold beer, a rarity as all the beer I have found on Toba is for the most part served warm. We are playing with Tongam’s kids who are hanging about. They are super adorable and total characters. Fifteen minutes later and Vaclec has still not returned. It is decided that we are not only going to be playing in the studio but also for the opening of a new cafe there in Parapat. Apparently there will be an audience. Ok, cool, beats the studio any day! We are to bring the kids along with us. I will take one with me and Mark on one motorbike and Tongum will bring the other two with him on the remaining motorbike. Tongam tells this to his wife who is not very pleased by her actions. Apparently she was planning on taking one motorbike herself to go someplace. She becomes totally irate man, cursing Tongum out while pointing at him. Next event is her going over to the sound system and pushing stop. The mood gets real heavy once the silence fills the air. Now the stage is set for her to really take the stage. More screaming and cursing ensues…then, my favorite part, she walks over to the two motorbikes and without hesitation puts a dead on front kick square into the backseat of one bike knocking it over with ease as it crashes through some glass shelving, taking out a number of items that once rested upon them. Mark and are look at each other in utter amazement. Tongam remains calm, at least in action and vernacular. He says very little. Mark and I decide to head outside for a bit and let the happy couple work it out. We laugh about it outside but not without concern for them… Tongam comes out about five minutes later. We will be taking the bus. Oh shit, too funny! I guess she won that battle! I go back into the guesthouse to get my sticks out my pack to bring along. I look at the wife and ask her, hesitantly, if it’s ok I leave my backpack there. She is all smiles now…says it’s no problem like the sweetest, prettiest little thing. Wow! At this time Vaclav reappears. It’s hilarious as literally the first thing that comes out of his mouth, in his Czech accent is, “You know what I like best about here is the people are so peaceful and relaxed…nobody seems to get upset about anything here.” Mark and I just burst into hysterics! Vaclav asks why we are laughing… We tell him he just missed it! He says, “Missed what? Mark says, “A martial arts demonstration.” We laugh some more and leave it at that, head off up the road to catch the bus.
Now, we are in the bus heading up the road a ways to go to this cafe opening. Apparently the plan has changed a bit as I am told there is no drum set at the opening. This is starting to sound familiar. I am told I can play a djembe if it’s ok. Fine I say, though that definitely changes things for me as far as playing goes, and certainly playing in public. Whatever, at least we are going to the studio after to play so it’s ok I decide. As we work our way up the road there are many people and huge brightly colored signs, made from fake flowers, lining the road, These signs are announcing the cafe opening. There are hundreds of people. We exit the bus and walk through the crowd into the courtyard of the cafe. Everyone looks as us as Tongam is famous as a musician and Mark, Vaclav and I, the three only westerners, are with him, mark wearing his bass, we must be special musicians… Everyone treats us very nice! We are first brought to a food table and handed plates… We load up with some amazing looking food and head over to a table that is offered us. Soon we are brought beers and cigarettes. We all sit and eat and drink. This cafe is beautiful. It is huge and open. The woodwork is really gorgeous as well as are the window design. As Mark points out, it feels like being in a big wooden ship.
Tongam makes the rounds and talks with a multitude of people while we sit and drink and smoke. Kids come up to us and start taking our picture. I’m guessing they must think we are famous or something. Anyway, it’s all fun so no worries. It’s nice to be on the other end of the lens for a change! There are a number of men around wearing a certain kind of uniform coat and hat. I ask Mark about them. He says, “They are the local protection, if you know what I mean. Let’s just leave it at that.” Fair enough…moving right along. Vaclav decides that he should get back to Toba and leaves to catch the ferry. Tongam returns and it is decided we will not play there after all as it is not the right vibe for what he does. No problem to me as I am no djembe player and there is a lot of people here. Outside, in the courtyard there is a band playing, keyboard, bass, vocals. They are blaring loud! It’s funny to listen because in between traditional Batak tunes they play American country songs. Who knew?
Ok, Tongam has made his appearance and it is now time to go to the studio. We get up to leave, waving and smiling…again make our way through the crowd back to the road. Now, Tongum decides before we go to the studio he must bring us up the road to see his family land. We head up into the hills, by foot. Now, unexpectedly, we are stream crossing. Mark falls in and just decides to walk on through, never mind hoping from rock to rock. Mind you now, the whole time he is wearing his bass on his back. Anyhow, we head up into some rice fields, the classic multi-teared irrigation system which is quite breathtaking to see. He points out his land that’s been in the family for over 100 years.
Now, we sit down to smoke some grass. I am handed the bag and some papers and told to go ahead. I ask if they wish me to roll it with or without tobacco. “However you like” is the response. No problem. I take as much grass out as should be good for four people, as another man has joined us, and proceed to prepare and roll it. Once finished I hand the bag back to Tongam who also begins to roll one, as does the other man that has joined us. Ahhhh, I see, there will be no passing of the spliff here, one for every man it seems. Ok , no problem but damn I put a lot of grass in my joint, thinking it was to be passed around. Well, bless it i say…the journey continues, pass the torch. We sit and smoke. Mark is the only one who refrains saying, “I only smoke after dark.” More conversation over the land, my travels, this that and the other thing. Now, it’s going on 4 pm by now and we still haven’t played a note. I have mentioned getting to the studio a few times at this point and it’s always soon soon…but still no dice. Mark has to catch the 6pm ferry back to Toba and I gotta catch a bus to Berastagi, where I have decided to go next. I know the bus ride is gonna be about 4 hours and I don’t have a place set up to stay yet so I don’t want to arrive too much into the evening. Finally it is agreed we will go to the studio. We head on out, the way we came in, across the stream again, now stoned as the bajesus…back out to the road. It is decided we are to join a friend of Tongam, upon the back of his motorbike, to get back down to the main road. Three of us on one motorbike is possible but not with Marks bass and my backpack on this particular motorbike. Mark says he will begin walking and I should be dropped off, then the driver can return for him. Ok, cool. Tongam is on another bike with his kids. We take off and I am dropped off down the road. Tongum directs me over to the harbor to show me a car transport ferry for Toba. It takes all of 5 minutes. We go back to wait for Mark. We wait and wait. He never comes. We start walking down the road in hopes to see him. About 20 minutes later he shows up coming back from the other direction on the back of the motorbike. The driver assumed, because we had moved from the spot we were standing, that we caught a bus further on ahead. Anyhow, this island time shit is starting to kill me at this point. Having caught the 12:30 ferry over to play some music, it’s now going on 5pm and still not a note. Ok, Mark says he has to leave soon. Again I ask Tongam who now tells me that the guy who has the studio keys is at the cafe opening we just came from. Ok, that’s it, I’m done! Mark and I look at each other just kinda shaking our heads. “It ain’t happening man,” we almost say in unison. Safe to say rehearsals don’t go down the way they do back home in Brooklyn! Ok, we thank Tongam for the day and tell him we must go. Tongam tells me there is another bass player that can take Mark’s place and we can play later. After everything in the day I opt out, thinking no music will happen. I thank him and tell him some other time. He apologizes, telling me he didn’t know he had to look after the kids and thought a drum set would have been at the opening… I tell him no worries and that it has been a great day for me so no problem…some other time. We hug goodbye and Mark and I walk on back towards the ferry launch.
The bus station is right across the way and we stop in to get my ticket to Berastagi. I am told that there are no more busses that day. I try for Bukit Lawang but same problem. Shit! Ok, now what? I either stay in Parapat at Charlie’s that night and then leave in the morning or I take the ferry back to Toba and back again in the morning to catch the 9:30 bus to Berastagi. As the drama between Tongum and his wife was not the vibe I was looking for and as Toba is beautiful and I have made friends there, I decide to take the ferry back. I buy my ticket for the bus the next morning and we make for the ferry, grabbing a cold beer to take with us for the ride. As a side note, the local beer is called Bintang.
We sit by the water and open our beers, laughing at the day still. About 10 local kids come up to us and start talking to Mark. They know him as a musician that plays with Tongam so consider him to be somewhat of a famous rockstar. Mark, as I mentioned speaks Batak so he and the kids are joking about. The kids start playing with me too and Mark becomes our translator. These young boys are full of young machismo and it is funny to see. I am wearing a tank top so they keep asking me to make a muscle and then show off theirs. We thumb wrestle and play some silly who poked who kinda game, “It was him, wasn’t me,” kinda thing. I pull out my camera to take a photo and they all clamor to play the leading roll. They are great kids! Once we board the ferry a few of these kids come aboard the boat to perform some songs for the people, try and earn a little bit of money, and they do. These kids have great voices and can really sing! I turned on my recorder to catch some of the magic.
On the ferry Mark and I commiserate. We both thought we were going to play some music and be out… He apologizes to me about it not happening. I tell him no worries and that shit happens…tell him I had an interesting day anyway so no problem. As it turns out there is only one bus a day that runs to Berastagi, always at 9:30 am, so I wouldn’t have made that bus regardless of the studio or not. I assumed they ran more frequently. Anyway, the funniest part is the running joke of how hard it is to leave Toba once you arrive. I initially thought I would stay for three days… Now, it will be my eighth day. Will I make it out tomorrow I wonder? I know my friends will laugh when they see me again tonight, and sure enough they do! Good fun, “Ok goodnight, we will see you tomorrow night at the tuok spot.” More laughter…!
I decide to get a room at Bagus Bay which is a really nice, pretty spot, right near the ferry port. This way I don’t have far to walk in the morning to catch the 8am ferry. I meet a friend later on that night in the sitting area and we end up kicking it into the wee hours of the night. On a couple of hours of sleep I wonder if I will really make that ferry and bus i already have a ticket for. Now a big part of me is staying oh, your tired, just sleep, stay one more day, it’s so nice here…but that is how it starts…before you know it another week has passed by and you are still on Toba. I try my best to convince myself I can get off the island. A couple hours later, after a brief sleep, I am packed and out, back upon the ferry, once again bound for Parapat. It seems like I am really on my way today!
Thank you Danau Toba and all of the warm people that welcomed me there. I hope I will see you again!