Trip Start Aug 11, 2011
Trip End Sep 08, 2012

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Where I stayed
Carolina Hotel

Flag of Indonesia  , North Sumatra,
Thursday, May 10, 2012

After five days lazing about on Pulau Weh, it's a shock to our systems to be once more hanging around bus stations. Nevertheless, we make the most of it, chatting with the local people who are also hanging around Banda Aceh Bus station, not as future passengers but because this is where they hang around. English football, a subject I know little about is the main topic of conversation. After a couple of hours I realise I know more about the Premiership League than I realised. The bus arrives at 8pm to whisk us back to Medan and once we are settled there is nothing more for us to do than relax until a kind of sleep overtakes us.

We reach Binjai, a town near Medan, at dawn and spend the next couple of hours inching through a nightmarish rush hour traffic jam until finally pulling into a depot somewhere in the city. We catch a bijak to the Angel Hotel, check-in, and after breakfast it's straight to bed until the early afternoon. Once we feel human again, we buy minibus tickets for the following morning to our next destination - Danau Toba, four hours drive south east of Medan. At 9am we are on our way, weaving through the busy streets until we are at last back in the countryside, heading towards the mountains.

Danau Toba, or Lake Toba, is the world's largest volcanic lake. It's deep blue waters are encased by the walls of an enormous caldera, over 100kms long and 30kms wide. The water itself is 500 metres deep. Within the caldera there sits a huge island, Samosir, a massive cigar-shaped landmass with steep fluted walls all around and an undulating plateau on top. The cataclysmic eruption that created this geographical wonder some 70,000 years ago made Krakatoa sound like a fire cracker. We are treated to our first view of the lake as we come over the forested rim of the volcano and wind down to the small town of Parapet on the lakeshore. Parapet is the tourist hub servicing the lake and is a busy place, especially as it's market day down by the jetty.

There are small double deck ferries docked here to take us to the resort area which is on Samosir island. This whole region is home to one of Sumatra's ethnic minorities - the Batak People. They have lived here for millennia and have a historical reputation as a fierce and war-like people. Curiously, they are now Christians, having been converted from their original Animist beliefs a couple of centuries ago. The Lonely Planet describes the Bataks of Danau Toba as "Debauched Christians" who like a drink and love to sing and play guitar. They sound great and we can't wait to meet a few locals to see how true this description is.

The ferry takes half an hour to cross the lake to Samosir island, dropping us right at our preferred choice of guesthouse, the Carolina Hotel. As we set foot on the grassy lawn in front of the Carolina we realise that this is now our 13th island, despite it being an island within an island (Sumatra). The Carolina is situated on a small cigar-shaped peninsula attached like a tiny twin to Samosir. The protruberance, called Tuktuk, is about 5kms around and is ringed with guesthouses, cafes and souvenir shops. The whole place has seen better days, it was once a top backpacker destination, as the number of restaurants and places to stay illustrates. Nowadays, not so many people make it here, especially in early May. The place is very undersubscribed with tourists, extremely peaceful and stunningly beautiful.

The Carolina is regarded as the poshest resort on Tuktuk and it is indeed a lovely place. All the buildings are constructed in the Batak style - intricately carved and painted timbers covered by a huge curved roof with high pointed gables on either end, built to represent the horns of buffalo.The Carolina restaurant has an awesome view over the lake as does our smart looking bungalow. We realise the whole place is a bit tired and in need of a refurbishment when we look inside and see the peeling paint on the ceiling and the large but featurless bathroom. Nevertheless, it is only about $25 per night with breakfast included and the location more than makes up for any failures in decor.

What really lets the hotel down is the quality of the food. It's not bad per se, but it could certainly be better, considering the care taken by the staff who are all friendly and attentive. On our first night we wander along the road that winds circuitously around Tuktuk. There is hardly anyone here it seems, other than locals who are sitting about on their front steps or congregating in the Batak equivalent  of a pub where we see groups of men drinking some kind of milky white liquor and playing guitar. After a couple of kilometres we find we are walking in the pitch black and so return to the hotel with a plan to amble around Tuktuk in the morning.

The road winds around the contours and bays of Tuktuk which itself feels more like an island than a peninsula. Along the way we find a bookshop - Penny's, and go in to see what she has for me to read. I find a book I fancy but discover that it, and all the best novels, are not for sale but to rent, like a library where you pay. The proprietor, Penny will not part with the book for anything - I'm willing exchange one I just finished plus pay some cash. We can't understand her reluctance to sell us a book as there are no other customers around to speak of, and as we are only staying here for five days, I won't finish reading it in time to redeem the rental deposit, so why not just sell it to me for the deposit price. She wont have any of it and we leave shaking our heads and bookless.

No sooner are we one our way again when a group of school girls accost us on the roadside. They are on school assignment - find tourists and interview them. It's all about English language practice but the girls are charming and friendly and want to photograph us in various combinations.  A bit further on and we are ambushed by more students, and so it goes for most of the day. 

It's hot and sunny here, but not uncomfortably so, the mountain ridge is a lush verdant green, palm trees sway with the breeze off the lake and the the general ambiance is one of peaceful perfection. The buffalo-horned houses are everywhere, as are many Christian churches built in an extraordinary and eccentric style - art deco crossed with Dutch colonial Protestant with spires clad in corrugated iron. The Batak have managed to amalgamate Christianity with their ancient Animist and ancestor worship beliefs, building small shrines or tombs all over the island. These structures are often bizarre in the extreme - models of houses, boats, strange geometric constructions covered in shiny porcelain tiles, Escher-like staircases leading nowhere - unique, although they are reminiscent of Thai spirit houses or Vietnamese tombs.

Two thirds of the way around Tuktuk we are held-up by three young men who want to interview us. We are offered seats in old armchairs on the roadside and two of them proceed to grill us for half an hour - "where are you from", "how many children you have? " How much money you earn?" "How old are you?" We have to explain to them that some of their questions are just not asked in polite conversation. The third guy who turns out to be their English teacher is grateful that we have told him this, he will rephrase the questions in future.

Next day we hire a motor scooter from the hotel, only $7.50 for the day including a tank of petrol. Our plan is to ride 45kms down the lakeshore of Samosir and over to a natural hotspring on the opposite side of the island. I'm not a motorbike rider but I'm game and with Sheila hanging on out back off we go. The road that leads off Tuktuk is hilly and potholed and  despite a few wobbles we manage to make it onto the main road around Samosir. There is hardly any traffic here, just a few motorbikes, some Bemos (little public minibuses) and the odd car or truck. The ride is so scenic - sparkling lake, Batak villages, steep green mountainsides, palm trees and farms. 

Once around the Northern tip of the island we ride on until it reaches a narrow isthmus that joins it to the other shore. After negotiating some traffic we head around the inner rim of the crater for a while towards rising clouds of steam and sulphur gas that mark the site of the hot springs. These are disappointing. The springs have been built over with spa pools and resorts and the only accessible one for the public is very shabby indeed. Plus, the water is bloody hot and there's no way we are going into it. After a coffee at the little cafe we head back to Tuktuk, stopping along the way to take photos of the astounding scenery and to rest our aching backsides.

That night I go up to Roy's Pub near our hotel and catch a really good local band - just a pub rock outfit but good players and the lead guy is a good singer too. The crowd here is a mix of locals and a few tourists and some of the local girls are partying hard - it must be their "debauched Christian" spirit coming through. On another night we are seduced into a restaurant where we have one of the best barbequed fish we've ever tasted. Sheila is overjoyed to find an abundance of avocados at Tuktuk, she almost overdoses on them.

I to buy a book in another secondhand bookshop with an idea in mind.I really want that novel in Penny's, so armed with my old book and the cheap new one I bought I go back to her shop and after almost 20 minutes of haggling she finally agrees to part with the one I want, for the exhorbitant rate of two books exchanged and 30,000R. I am know the happy owner of 'The Messenger' by Marcus Zuzak... I hope it's good.

We can't say how much we enjoyed Lake Toba - it's a unique part of Sumatra - a quirky, isolated community with western attitudes, Indonesian sensibilities and a charm all of its own set in stunning surroundings. Once again we are reluctant to drag ourselves away, but time is moving on and we've already spent three weeks worth of our two month visa and still have a huge distance of the Indonesian archipelago left to traverse. Tomorrow we leave for our next port of call, a long haul bus journey away (yes we are suckers for punishment), five hundred kilometres south in fact. It's a town in the mountains with a memorable name, volcanos and a mountain climate, that's all we know. Oh yes, and it is on the other side of the equator. In less than two days we will be in the Southern Hemisphere. So the next morning we pack all our gear and catch the ferry back to Parapet saying farewell to Danau Toba, or as the Bataks say... Horas!
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