THE GREAT BUST: TUK-TUK, LAKE TOBA

WHERE ARE THE UNWASHED MASSES OF EUROPEANS?

“Seven years ago we had many visitors,” Anne said, “but after tsunami and earthquake, very few come.” I was sitting at a table in the empty restaurant on the one road that circles through Tuk-Tuk, a village perched on a peninsula that sticks out into Indonesias largest freshwater body, Lake Toba, like a broken thumb. I sipped from a cup of ink black coffee, thick and grainy and strong as hell. I was trying to write in my notebook but Anne wasn’t having it. In fact, anywhere we go in this village it’s the same story: restaurants and guesthouses with nary a guest, and owners who are so happy for your business that they sit next to you and sling heaps of friendly questions your way.

Lake Toba was created by a volcanic explosion some 50,000 years ago, and is surrounded by green and grey highlands that surround the deep waters like the rim of a bowl. In the middle is Samosir Island, a rock escarpment that rises like a gnarly spine, with enough flat land for some farms villages, and the once-tourist magnet of Tuk-Tuk. The lake is well above sea level, and as a result a welcome bit cooler than the sauna that is the lowlands of Sumatra. The mornings are generally sunny and hot, but by late afternoon the clouds pour over the mountain ridges and turn the the sky grey and greyer. A wind whips the waters of the lake and any thought of the scorching tropical sun is immediately put to rest by the moody enironment.

Tuk-tuk looks like a backpackers’ haven. Countless guesthouses offer dead cheap accomodation with lakefront access. Open air restaurants serve up thick curries, pizzas, banana pancakes, and standard Indonesion fare (nasi goreng (fried rice) and mi goreng (fried ramen noodles) being omnipresent. (I’ve already downed about seven nasi goreng’s in the five days I’ve been on the island. The culinary die has been cast.) The local Batak people are all smiles and welcomes and probably the friendliest I’ve met anywhere on my travels. As Christians, they all drink, sell the hell out of Bintang beers, and are much more laid back than the rule-burdened Muslims that make up Indonesia’s religious majority. The place is beatiful, and as laid back as anywhere I’ve been in Laos, which sets the standard for chill. It’s easy on the wallet, the eyes, and the soul. The question is: Where are the people?

The place was built as a magnet for both international travelers and middle-class Indonesians, but the latter only make it in serious numbers on the big holidays. That leaves the Euros and Aussies and odd North American to fill in the gap, and since that big fucking wave, the tsunami of 2004, and the other earthquake that followed just months later, the flow of tourists has dried to a trickle. The word Sumatra, once known for rich coffee and exoticism, became synonymous with catastrophe, and nothing scares the travelers more than the threat of death. Sumatra is also a bitch to get to, especially this village of Tuk-Tuk. From Korea we had to fly to Kuala Lumpur, Indonesia, and then shoot over to Medan, Sumatra’s capital. From Medan we took a local minivan, which, after a five-hour white-knuckle marathon, delivered us on the shores of Lake Toba.

WHY DO THEY HAVE TO DRIVE LIKE TOTAL ASSHOLES?

We were happy to get out of Medan, despite the novelty of sleeping next to the biggest mosque in town. With the exception of travel in China’s Xinxiang province (where the call to prayer is muffled by authorities), I have spent no real time in the Muslim world. But that town was a dusty fume-filled pit and the three of us were glad to board the mini-bus and get the hell outta dodge. But beware what you wish for! For it soon became apparent that our driver was as masochistic as any I’ve encountered on third-word roads; he slammed the gas pedal and drove like a methed-up rabbit on the car, bus, and truck-choked two lane road that led to the town of Parapat, which sits on Lake Toba. Traffic was horrendous but shot forward with velocity, and it soon became apparant that our man was a compulsive passer, no matter what was headed our way in the opposite lane. He’s rush right up on the ass of whatever vehicle cruised in front of us, jerk into the other lane, shoot forward as menacingly fast as possible and then careen back into relative safety, twice coming within INCHES of clippin the oncoming car. He’d then rush and repeat. Rush and repeat – even on blind corners – horn blasting in a feeble attempt to “clear” whatever two-ton piece of metal may be rolling headlong our way. Minhee managed to sleep on my shoulder much of the time, closing her eyes in a kind of denial, while Sam and I gripped the seats in front of us and braced each time. This guy was so insane that even the couple of Indonesians aboard, who are well-used to such shenanigans, squealed in protest.

I can’t tell you, dear reader, how many times I’ve literally put my life in the hands of these dickheads who drive with some sort of chip on their shoulder, where, despite the obvious dangers and treacherous conditions, they feel compelled to go AS FAST AS POSSIBLE and pass any vehicle they roll upon – even the fast ones – as if their very manhood is as stake. And it’s not about deadlines. I’m sure this guy saved neither time and nor a tongue-lashing from his dispatcher. Half of these suicidal cuntbags have been drivers I’ve hired personally, who are supposed to go at a pace that the passengers are comfortable. But telling them to slow down is like telling a dog not to shit in the grass. Deaf ears and all of that.

THERE GOES THE CHRISTIAN VILLAGE

Anne, like all Batak people, is Christian. Church spires poke up all over the region, and the restaurants and homes of the locals are all adorned with crosses and depictions of Christ in many forms, both beautific and suffering. These people are seriously Jesus’d up.

“How is it living in a Muslim country?” I asked her directly. “Do you guys get along well around here.”

“Generally no problem,” Anne replied. “But the Muslims now, more are coming. Before not so many (a kind of inverse of tourists, it seems), but now…” She shook her head and raised her eyebrows. “They are not so friendly, you know. Always like this with the Christians,” she stuck her arm away from her body with her palm up, a literal representation of <at arm's length. “You know, for Christmas, we give our neighbors food that we cook. This is our tradition. The Muslims they take the food, but they never eat. They just throw away… if they give us gifts we take and eat, but they throw away. And if Batak woman marries Muslim man, we never can see her again. Muslim family doesn’t even allow her to go see her family, to go to wedding…”

“That is too bad,” I said. I tried to explain how her Muslim neighbors were probably not trying to be rude by throwing out the food they received, but just following the rules of halal, but this did little good to assuage her skepticism.

“Let’s just hope that, despite your differences, you can continue to live peacefully, side by side.”

She nodded her head in aggreement.

“And let’s really hope the travelers come back again.”

With that she smiled and laughed.

“Yes, yes. Let us hope. In the meantime, are you hungry? Nasi goreng?

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