Cannibals and fumaroles

Trip Start Sep 11, 2007
Trip End Ongoing

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Danau Toba is the largest lake in South East Asia. It is wide, and volcanic, and deep, with steep sides, and 50,000 years ago there was a big eruption. The result is a huge peninsula - about 35km long and 15km wide - sitting in the middle of the lake, and misleadingly known as Samosir Island. Confoundingly, there is a second, smaller peninsula protruding from the first, where you can find Tuk-Tuk, the village where we stayed.

The area is the home of the Batak people, who practised ritual cannibalism until the nineteenth century, when they became Protestants - the arrival of a German missionary coincided with a bumper crop, and King Sidabutar decided that this was the way to go. There are German-looking churches everywhere, but traditional Batak culture has not gone away, and their religion is infused with animist rituals and traditional beliefs.

But the twentieth century brought tourists, not missionaries, and the 6 million Batak people living in Sumatra today are very friendly, shouting 'horas,' which means 'hello,' 'welcome,' 'greetings,' 'long life,' 'how are you,' 'take care,' 'goodbye' - just about everything, really! If only all languages were as easy as Bahasa Batak...

We decided to get a minibus up the coast of Samosir to a village called Simanindo. The experience is a fine example of Indonesian public transport - it's such good fun from start to finish. Driving up the road towards us with market produce piled upon high, the windscreen of the fluorescent-coloured vehicle proudly announces itself as an 'executive' minibus (which really means nothing at all).

'Are you going to Simanindo?' I ask the lady sitting by the window. She is chewing on a betel nut, and her reply is a big red-toothed, red-lipped grin, which we take to be affirmative. There is little point in asking if there is room when you're dealing with Indonesian transport. It was packed full of ladies, mostly middle-aged. There is just enough space for Tom to squeeze into a row of five. I am behind him, next to the door, half-perched on the back of his seat, where I teeter precariously. A local lady behind me is actually supporting my buttocks with her hands. Off we go, with loud music pounding dom-DOM-dom-dom, dom-DOM-dom-dom.

Every time people get on and off, I get on and off. There's only one door, after all. Fortunately after ten minutes or so more people have got off than on - they take their market vegetables with them, which lightens the load - and there is a seat away from the door, so I can reclaim my derrière, and all is well with the world.

Looking out of the window as we snake along in the sunshine, there is everything to see: fields lead down to the lakeside, chickens and baby goats, and many buffalo roaming wild; hundreds of tombs and altars dotted around the fields, each with the distinctive design common to Batak houses; steep mountains and waterfalls. We stop and reverse - we've missed someone. They get onboard. A man adjusts the tip of the aerial in his satellite dish. We rumble on over some potholes.

We arrive in perfect time to watch some Batak dancing in a clearing in front of a number of traditional Batak houses. Before the dance begins, an unassuming cow chewing on some grass is untied and brought to the middle of the clearing, where it is tied to a small tree. This is clearly significant.

There follow a succession of dances, including 'the dance of true quality' and 'the mutually cheering dance.' It is very difficult to know which one is which, though it is all good fun to watch. There is a lot of half-hearted clapping (is this true quality?) but it all gets very exciting when a woman puts a bowl of water on her head and starts flicking it at people, while another man dances with a pole called a porhalaan. This is all accompanied by four men playing music from a balcony: they play a serunai - a reed instrument - and a type of drum called a taganing.

The performance finishes with a dance from a sigalegale puppet, which is life-sized. Carved from the wood of the banyan tree - the tree of life for the Batak people - and wearing traditional Batak dress, it stands on a box concealing a complex array of togs and pulleys that are used to make the figure come to life.

Legend has it that a local widow, mourning the loss of her husband, made a wooden image of him, and appointed a local puppeteer to make it dance when she felt lonely. True or not, the sigalegale puppet is now part of the Batak tradition, although the way puppet is used has evolved. At one point it was used at funerals, where it would be made to dance on the graves of ancestors to communicate with the souls of the dead, which would be invited to enter the puppet. These days it is often used at wedding ceremonies.


After lunch on a beautiful island in the lake, we drove back down towards Tuk-Tuk, stopping at a village called Ambarita, to find out more about some stone chairs. These chairs were used between 300 and 500 years ago as a court for trying those suspected of murder, rape, adultery and spying. The chairs were occupied by the judge, four lawyers, the magic man, the executioner, the defendant, and local kings, of which the best chair was reserved for the king of Ambarita. In the middle was a round table for food.

Those found guilty would be escorted to prison, where they would be fed by the king to fatten them up. On an auspicious date, the criminals would be executed, though first they would be blindfolded, tied up, sliced, rubbed with lemon, chilli, onion and salt, and beaten with a stick. After the execution, the heart, liver and blood would be eaten raw by the kings, and the rest of the body shared among the Batak people. The bones were thrown into Lake Toba, whose waters could not be used for seven days, until the spirits had gone.

The last execution took place in 1816, and the last Batak king died about 75 years ago, the role of kingship foundering at the birth of the new Republic of Indonesia. But the story of Ambarita's interesting penal process lives on, and is retold daily for the entertainment and revulsion of visitors.


For the last two days we stayed in the town of Berastagi, an agricultural centre with a large daily market. The main draw to Berastagi was Gunung Sibayak, a volcano standing 2094m above sea level, and we set off early on Monday morning to scale the summit. It was very impressive, and a different kind of volcano to those I have seen before.

The main difference is the fumaroles, vents like kettle-whistles with gases steaming out. Sulphur is the most prevalent gas, throwing out a stench of rotten eggs, and the sphincter-like fumaroles have a yellow rim. At the bottom of the crater there was a flat muddy plane which had been decorated with stones by adventurous visitors: among them, members of the Methodist church, which is seemingly alive and well in Berastagi.

Unfortunately my balance system, which is 70% damaged but causes only occasional problems, decided to conk out on the ascent, and I only managed to get down again thanks to the patience and assiduity of my friend Tom, to whom I am very grateful. It was a scary descent, but it had been an impressive volcano to climb, with good views, and not an experience I will forget in a hurry!

Happily, after a good night's sleep I was well enough to fly back to Yogyakarta, and Tom flew home. The old line about needing a holiday to get over the holiday felt very apt after such an action-packed few days, but our exciting expedition has given me yet another perspective on Indonesia, and a horde of good memories.
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