David Rich 1400 Words
$1=9,000 Indonesian Rupiah
S U M A T R A ' S M A N T R A S
In November, 2005, I drove a rental car around Java, and loved it. The only disappointment was having insufficient time to clamber onto neighboring Sumatra to explore the wonders of Lake Toba, Southeast Asia's largest lake.
Lake Toba was plunked into the humongous mouth of an extinct volcano by an explosion making Sumatra's Krakatau's (or Krakatoa's) 1883 nuclear-sized blast a comparative burp. No records survived the holocaust creating humongous Lake Toba where Samosir Island sits in the middle, about the size of Singapore. Perhaps no written records exist because this was 100,000 years ago. To put the enormity of this amount of time in context, it was 94,000 years before the earth itself was created, according to proponents of certain faiths. Little wonder records are sparse.
This year I flew to Sumatra's capital of Medan and made my way to nearby Lake Toba for some topnotch relaxation, which I'd earned after five hours in Indonesia's unbelievable traffic. But that's the only negative to Sumatra, and is getting ahead of the story.
For context, Sumatra is the world's sixth largest island, stretching about 2000 Km (1200 miles) and bisected by the equator, which means sultry. But breezes off the spectacular crater lakes, of which Toba is only one, waft over the islands, steamy volcanoes and ancient tribal culture, keeping relaxation cool.
The tribal culture consists of the Bataks, not your run-of-the-mill docile folk, but instead cannibals who ate their enemies after battle and their criminals after summary conviction, all the way up until 1816. They continue their rebel ways, having been converted by the Dutch to Christianity, the largest non-Muslim culture in the world's largest Muslim country. However, except for Bali bombers, it should be noted that Indonesia's Muslims are overwhelmingly secular. Perhaps one out of ten women wear a headscarve.
The Bataks built strikingly huge houses with gables front and back like buffalo horns, swooping roof in the middle, and mostly on stilts six feet (two meters) high. The back gable was always higher than the front, symbolizing the Bataks' conviction that their children would obtain a higher educational level and achieve more in life than their parents.
The houses were situated to catch the cooling breeze, so large they house six or so families. The fronts were extravagantly carved wood with figures of serpents, spirits, and monsters with Betty Davis eyes. The tourist hotels have copied the architecture so when you go, be prepared for a sprawling room, all in wood and carved decorations without a single nail to sully the integrity.
The east end of Samosir Island is called Tuk-Tuk, a watermelon shaped peninsula sheltering the primary tourist enclave. Tuk-Tuk is crammed with thirty hotels in swooping architecture, featuring gourmet restaurants and exotic coffees. For diversion the hotels provide food and more food, offer trekking onto the table-top of the island, which stretches 700 vertical meters (2300 feet) to an isolated lake with great views on clear days, and excursions to remote villages scattered among emerald rice paddies populated by kids that haven't yet learned to demand pens, chocolates, and money. The Bataks offer ancient dances, musty museums, and more interestingly, stone seats where their forebears sat in cannibal cabals. It was a week of utter relaxation because I skipped the trekking. The mantra was relax or die, and I was staying alive.
I'd somehow managed to arrive on Sumatra during Indonesia's grandest holiday, celebrating the end of Ramadan, Idil Fitri, when the normally killer traffic was beyond chaos. This was the only negative to Sumatra and only lasted nine hours out of an entire week, so take this with a bucket of salt.
Lucky me was damn-near killed only once, and somehow escaped suffocating in Sumatra's hellish humidity, while being forcibly reminded of the killer traffic on next-door Java, which is even worse. For example, Jakarta on Java, the capital of Indonesia, is forecast to suffer permanent gridlock by 2014.
Seven motor-scooters emerged from a side street, swooping into traffic with their human cargo unfazed, hanging onto all visible and non-moving protuberances of Indonesia's family car. Scooters average four passengers, which mean the occasional single driver must be balanced by the several I spotted with mom, dad, and four kids, instead of only two kids.
Meanwhile the engorged main road was mere inches from literally bumper to bumper, leaving no space for merging scooters. But with every toxic belch in traffic a scooter would plunge into the barest space before the lagging driver's reflexes could close the tiny gap. But step back and take a look at the whole incredible scene.
The shear variety of diesel, soot and carbon dioxide-belching conveyances can be found nowhere else, outside of China. In addition to an army of scooters, add the odd 18-wheelers, occasional cars, the SUVs of the wealthy, mini-vans as the most common form of mass transportation, tricycles/motorbikes with sidecars, and down the middle of the road when not gridlocked, barreling near the speed of sound, full-sized buses in various stages of decrepity. During all this, most drivers are busily text-messaging and chatting on their cell-phones.
Gridlock subsides outside cities and away from intersecting roads, bridges worn to abutments, and dangerously eroded railroad crossings. At that point other vehicles move aside for the lightning of full-sized buses, whose only predator is another full-sized bus. It's an eye-opener when tooling down the narrow two-lane roads to suddenly meet a full-sized bus passing another full-sized bus, neither giving an inch in a modern chariot race, with vehicles coming from the opposite direction seemingly soon to be under one of the speeding marauders. But as your driver heads for the non-existent shoulder, one bus will somehow muster the effort to inch ahead of the other and roar into your adjoining lane with micro-inches to spare.
Where are the cops, you ask? Indonesian traffic cops exist for a single reason, to exact bribes of drivers and passengers caught without wearing a seat belt, no matter how pathetic or inoperable the belt. The mini-bus I was privileged to ride from Medan, the Sumatran capital, to Lake Toba, put a faux safety belt loosely over me and the other front passenger, a belt that wouldn't have restrained a fly in freefall. When the cops tried to pull us over because they hadn't seen our safety belt, the driver rudely gestured and pulled the pathetic belt off our laps for the cops' erudition. The cops very reluctantly waved us along.
The traffic is always three HOV lanes in each direction, though built for single lanes and no shoulder, further complicated by horse-drawn carts and even slower bicycle taxis. A few miles from Lake Toba, after five hours of nonstop adventure, my driver managed to pull out to pass another mini-van at the exact same instant that another mini-van swept toward us. How he'd missed its approach was a mystery, though it was perhaps because he was lighting his tenth cigarette in an hour. Somehow, without dropping the cigarette, he managed to slam on the brakes and hurtle back onto the proper side of the road so that only paint scraped off vehicles whose aggregate speed approached that of light. So for an escapade that pales the most violent and fast-moving computer games, go to Indonesia and revel in real adventure travel. You'll never forget the mantra of Indonesian traffic; Fly or Die. But this will be overwhelmed by the idyll that is Lake Toba.
When You Go: You can fly to Medan from Kuala Lumpur or Penang, Malaysia, for about $100 roundtrip on Air Asia and several other airlines. See www.airasia.com. Kuala Lumpur is serviced by the world's top airlines from all over Asia, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and North America with fares averaging about $1000 roundtrip for those who shop around. Google cheap airfares Kuala Lumpur. A mini-van for the four or five hour trip from Medan to the thirty minute ferry servicing Tuk-Tuk costs $6 to $9.
The world's most popular series of guidebooks calls Tabo Cottages in Tuk-Tuk, Sumatra's best hotel experience, and though I haven't stayed in every hotel on Sumatra, I tend to agree. Check it out at www.tabo-cottages.com, or email Annette for reservations at firstname.lastname@example.org. Super deluxe rooms sleeping three and encompassing the entire top floor of a typical Batak house, consisting of king-sized poster bed in a large room and a single bed in a loft, outside patio seating six plus one in a lounging hammock, and a long bathroom, cost $25. Smaller palaces are available for less. Annette also runs a smashing vegetarian restaurant featuring dishes from guacamole to crepes, every Sumatran fruit, and bottomless coffee cups. You can scooter the island for $8 a day in relatively sparse traffic. Internet costs $2.25 an hour.