Term Holiday: Lake Toba
Between report cards, end-of-term activities, and the start of a new term, it’s been pretty busy around here. I’ve got quite a bit of catching up to do, since not only am I due for a blog post, but I’ve been out of touch with the world most of last weekend and a good portion of this week.
I’ll get to school stuff shortly, but I want to begin with the term holiday because it’s still fresh and it’s also a change of pace from what I have been writing about lately. That’s nice for me, and I’d hope it’s nice for you as well. Fear not, though – there is plenty of funny, crazy and ridiculous stuff to tell you about school coming up.
Because the school year began in July, October 5th marked the end of our first quarter, which I think equates pretty closely to mid-term in US schools. We had tests and report cards, but they were sort of interim versions of the actual exams that will take place in late November (more on that later). Needless to say, it was a busy run-up and a vacation was much-appreciated. After trying and failing to sort out a trip to Bali with some coworkers, I decided to spend my 5 days at a place called Lake Toba, which is the world’s largest volcanic lake and the site of a supervolcano eruption about 70,000 years ago (I find this kind of stuff fascinating). It’s vast, about 100 km (62 miles) across and about 505 metres (that’d be over 1500 ft) at its deepest.
Lake Toba is in an area of Sumatera that is traditionally Batak, and I’m sorry I don’t know more about this particular ethnicity than the few tidbits I gathered whilst at Toba. From what I understand, Batak people are known for hospitality and hedonism (magic mushrooms are in abundant supply around the area) and the distinctive architecture of the their buildings, which have roofs that curve up at the ends like the keel of a boat.
I stayed in a Batak-style house, so I can speak to that somewhat. It was like living in a treehouse built for the Seven Dwarves for 4 days. The entrance to my room was up a wooden ladder and just over 6 feet off the ground; the door itself was at best 4 feet tall, and required crawling through Alice-in-Wonderland style to get inside. The structure was dominated by the gables, which started just above the door’s height and soared upward at steep angles to a peak probably 12 feet above my floor. There were two lofts, above the door and across from it, where the roof did its peculiar boat-keel thing, and two sets of wooden ladders to the lofts took up most of the middle of the room. The bathroom was at the back of the house, and though quite large area-wise, nonetheless had a ceiling that can’t have been more than 6 feet high. (I kept picturing my Dad and brother staying in this house, and it gave me the giggles. They’d have been ducking a lot.) Despite the idiosyncratic architecture, the guesthouse was in most other ways much like any hostel I’ve stayed at in SE Asia – clean, comfortable, a decent selection of both local and Western menu options, and often rowdy with music and conversation around and after dinnertime, despite it being very much the off-season.
Speaking of music, the first night I was there was Batak Show Night at the Bagus Bay Guesthouse. As I sat around with my pizza (blessed, blessed pizza) and nursed a bottle of Bintang beer, the patio dining area slowly filled with other tourists. I wound up sitting by a Finnish anthropologist with whom I spoke at length about what it was like to live in China, as well as the incongruity between Batak hedonistic traditions and the extreme modesty of their traditional dress; we were joined by a recent university graduate from the U.K. who had been travelling Asia for a few months and had some interesting stories to tell.
For a tourist-geared show, it was surprisingly good. I’m no judge of folk dancing but theirs was enjoyable, even if it seemed a bit simplified (touristifed, if you will). Once the first set (and obligatory audience participation) was over, though, it really picked up when the band took center stage: 5 guys with guitars singing a bunch of traditional Batak songs. The music reminded me of what I’d consider Mexican folk songs crossed with island music. Two of our particular favorites were the Rowing Song and the Drinking Song, which came complete with “drunken” staggering, and complimentary palm wine for the audience.
During the day there were plenty of outdoor activities, including swimming in the lake, biking up into Samosir Island, and kayaking. I spent a bit of time in a kayak on the incredibly still waters of the lake, and hiked around Tuk-Tuk which is the little round spit of land attached to the bigger island of Samosir by an isthmus.
At night, I hung out with other travellers at a nearby hostel and traded stories, both comic and horrifying. We played a round of Trivial Pursuit on my handphone, shared a few beers, got roped into a singalong several times with the locals, and just generally had a great time. In my travels I’ve found that backpackers always have something in common, even if it’s just the wanderlust that got them far away from home in the first place, and I so far have yet to find someone on such a journey with whom I couldn’t carry on an hours-long conversation. One woman I met was from Holland, and had an absolutely fascinating story – she’d suffered a moderate stroke about decade ago which had caused her to lose the ability to concentrate on more than one thing at a time, as well as all feeling below the knee in her right leg. She’s recovered the cognitive function almost completely, but still can’t feel that leg, and what she told me of her experience learning to walk by looking while having little ability to multitask was as amazing and inspiring as anything I’ve ever heard. It’s encounters like that which make me so glad to go out into the world and even more willing to just sit down and talk to people. True shyness must be a bit of a handicap to an international traveller, and I’m just glad I’ve gotten over most of mine through the years.