Monday, February 22, 2010


My guidebook says unless they’re coming from southern Sumatra, most travelers will enter Medan from the rest of Southeast Asia and put the city on their “worst places I’ve ever visited” list. The good news is that I WAS coming from southern Sumatra, and therefore I was quite happy and Medan seemed like a serious step up.

I flew into Medan on a Thursday, and fellow ETA John and I set out for Lake Toba the next morning. Not before, of course, attempting to exhaust Medan’s culinary possibilities (read, a couple food stands and one large grocery store). I’m constantly surprised by the products well-known brands sell in foreign countries that I’ve never even heard of in the US.

Lays brand “seaweed chips?” Hmm. Pringles sells “basil and garlic” and “salt and pepper” flavored chips here, as well as crab-flavored and:

Valuable lesson learned: just because it comes in pink doesn’t mean it tastes good.

Actually, we didn’t even come close to skimming the surface of Medan’s food offerings. Since a large number of Christians live there, you can find meats like pork and… yes, dog. They label the stands so as not to offend Muslims, though: B1 is dog and B2 means pork. Sadly, I only saw one of those stands as we drove past it quickly.

Getting to Lake Toba required a 30-minute becak ride (a motorbike with a sort of side car), four hours on a hot bus that doesn’t stop, and a 45-minute ferry ride from Parapat to the city on Samosir Island with what must be one of the coolest town names ever: Tuk Tuk. It’s pronounced “took-took.”

Toba is the largest lake in Southeast Asia; it was created by a volcanic eruption tens of thousands of years ago. Samosir Island, which is actually bigger than all of Singapore, sits in the middle of the lake. And it’s the 14th deepest lake in the world.

“Danau Toba has been part of traveler folklore for decades. This grand, ocean-blue lake, found high up among Sumatra’s volcanic peaks, is where the amiable Batak people reside, largely untouched by the rest of the world. The secret of this almost mythical place was opened by the intrepid… Expect a chorus of ‘horas’ (‘welcome’) to greet you at every turn, as the locals quietly strum away the afternoon on their guitars while passing around a flagon of jungle juice—the locals are proud, debaucherous Christians who love a drink.”

One of my friends in Palembang told me an old legend about the area. Apparently, Lake Toba was once a beautiful lake with no island in the middle. There were many men who enjoyed fishing out in the clear, blue water. Once upon a time, a fish fell in love with one of the fisherman. She begged God to turn her into a woman so she could marry this man and spend her life with him on land.

God finally agreed to her plan, on one condition: that the (fish)woman nor her husband could ever mention that she had once been a fish. She agreed, and God turned her into a beautiful woman. The fisherman quickly fell in love with her and asked her to marry him. She told him how she’d spent years admiring him from under the water while he worked.

For years, they were very happy. The (fish)woman thought she was the luckiest (fish)woman in the whole world when she became pregnant with a son. Unfortunately, after the boy was born and started growing older, the husband and wife began arguing more and more. Soon, they couldn’t agree on a single thing, especially on how to raise their child.

One night, the fisherman got so upset he screamed, “What do you know?! You’re just a stupid fish! You’re not a real woman!”

God was angry that the fisherman had broken the promise. So he immediately turned the woman back into a fish and she lived the rest of her life in Lake Toba. As for the son, God decided he didn’t have to be a fish, but he couldn’t travel land freely like the rest of humankind. So God built Samosir, an island in the middle of the lake. The son spent the rest of his life there—stuck on that small piece of land and surrounded by the water where his (fish)mother swam.

Fortunately, there were no signs of (fish)women or scorned sons on our trip. Our hotel was unbelievable for the value—hot water and only $5 a night. And a pretty great view:

Good morning, Lake Toba.

Toba definitely gives you the feeling—appropriately, I suppose—that you’re at a lake; it’s no Bali. The air is cool enough at night that we didn’t even need an air conditioner.

Lake Toba has some of the most delicious pizza in all of Indonesia. Or maybe they just have real cheese. Either way, yum.

We rented a motorcycle and visited the Stone Chairs, which are more than 300 years old.

Rock solid justice

The king sat in the biggest chair, and the accused sat across the circle from him. The king and other prominent village men decided the sentence. If they chose death, the condemned man was beheaded.

This nice little boy volunteered to demonstrate.
Too bad we had to eat him.

First they “rubbed” out all the bad magic from the criminal, often stabbing or cutting him. Then they cut his head off. If the executioner wasn’t able to cut off the criminal’s head in a single chop, then he was beheaded. Quite a high-risk career, no? Then they rubbed the body with chili and garlic… and ate the criminal. The whole village would take a piece, believing they were made stronger by the man’s flesh and blood. The Bataks were cannibals well into the 1800s.

The tour guide we hired (for about $2) to lead us around the chairs and the Batak houses on the museum grounds showed us some traditional utensils, musical instruments, and wedding garb.

Batak houses have little doors.

He also pointed out the large masks and symbols adorning the houses. I thought it was interesting that he said they used to be magic until the Batak people discovered Christianity, and now they’re not magic anymore. He didn’t at all imply that the people were ever mistaken about magical powers, just that as the faith of the villagers evolved, so did the significance of their once-magical symbols.

We also tracked down the spot where Lonely Planet took their picture of Lake Toba. I was very excited about this. Although it’s obvious we either came on a very overcast day or there was some serious photo-editing going on.

My camera just couldn't decide what to focus on.
I know the feeling.

We still had the motorcycle for a few hours, so we decided to just drive around and explore the island a little. It certainly didn’t feel as big as it is. There were hardly any tourists on the island, and it was nice to just zoom around and look at the views. We came to one crossroads, and John said “left or right?” I picked left, and I’m glad I did, because we found one of my favorite parts of the whole weekend.

I’ve had a place in my heart for water buffalo since my freshman year at BSU when we read that horribly disturbing chapter from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried where a soldier beats and kills a baby buffalo. Luckily, these buffaloes were much happier. Children were climbing all over them and were happy to let us join.

"Is it licking you?" "Yup."

They said, "Stand up!" I said, "Why not?"

John asked what the family what they used the buffalo for, and they said meat. I’ve never heard of anyone eating water buffalo… and I’m just not going to think about it.

John and Kate + 13

John is way better than I am at speaking Indonesian, which is both very helpful and a little annoying. He says communicating in Indonesian is like swinging a big club—you can say so many different things with the same words. English is more like a scalpel, which you can use to say exactly what you mean and in a number of different ways. That’s so true. And I’ve never been good at swinging clubs anyway.

I’m especially glad that I spent the weekend still on the island of Sumatra. I feel like so much of the traveling I do involves going somewhere else, which is nice. But island pride feels good.

Bye bye, Lake Toba.


  1. What does the B stand for?? BAD??

    That poor Buffalo is licking you, and you are going to eat it...

  2. beautiful.
    except for the whole eating people part.

  3. Hahaha...I love the comparison of your photo to Lonely Planet's! And I love the pic of you standing on the water buffalo. Classic! Sounds like you had a great trip.

  4. I bet water buffalo tastes a lot like beef. I mean, come on, a water buffalo is easier to eat than all those lovely little bunnies that think they're being taken home as pets...but end up as dinner.