Tranquil Natural Beauty
Samosir Island, Lake Toba, north Sumatra, Indonesia... A friend once asked me, “If you could retire anywhere in the world, where would it be?’
I thought it was an odd question given the fact we were still edging towards our big 3-0, but I entertained her anyway and rattled off exotic places I had never even visited.
I hadn’t given the question further reflection until eight years on. Lying in a hammock on the porch of my Batak house, and right there I discovered my happy ‘retirement’ retreat. My breakfast of pancakes and fruit was arranged into a smiley face and for the first time in months, I smiled back at it. I could feel the worries of the world melt away as I basked in the glorious sunshine.
Hemmed in by 400 square miles of the sacred waters of Lake Toba, I was on Samosir Island, the world’s largest island within an island. It’s like one of those soapstone carvings of elephants with a carved baby elephant inside, and inside of that, a little carved ball... Samosir Island, on Lake Toba, in North Sumatra which is an island in the Indian Ocean...
The Dutch writer Rudy Kousbroek claimed Lake Toba, as ‘the most beautiful place on earth’. It certainly was. The surrounding rugged mountains were so lush they looked like blanketed drapes of green velvet, sometimes broken by the fine white pinstripe of a waterfall. At the foot of my Batak house, the lake winked at me against the strong equatorial sun, stretching itself way beyond what the eye could see. Its peace and quiet were almost palpable enough to touch.
The tranquility hasn’t always been present though. At the ‘Stone Chairs of Judgement’, my Easy Rider guide gave me a brief account of its macabre history. So the rumors of eating human flesh were true then... Hannibal ‘the Cannibal’ Lector did exist a hundredfold. Two hundred years ago it was an acceptable form of ‘Justice’. The circle of stone chairs was the Supreme Court for Batak kings, a place for passing judgment on outsiders, criminals, and adulterers. At an adjacent site, the accused would then be bound and rubbed with chili, salt, and garlic before being ceremonially eaten alive.
I threw my guide a wary look when he offered to take a photo of me lying on the stone slab.
He roared with laughter. “You’re safe. We are Christians. We don’t eat man meat now.”
Legends and Love
There are of course legends on how Lake Toba was formed and any local will wistfully recount the story to its visitors... “Once upon a time,” my guide began, “ there was a lonely man who spent many days fishing. One day he caught the biggest fish in his life but this was no ordinary fish. The fish turned into a princess. They fell in love but before she would become his wife, the princess asked for one thing – that he would never tell their future children that she was a fish..."
Love stories, love songs, and love in any form seemed to be A cause for celebration here on Samosir Island. On our descent down we approached a mountainside with the distinct imprint of a heart in it. Through its center a waterfall sliced through it in one clean sliver, giving it the name ‘Heartbreak Mountain.’
I’d never gatecrashed a wedding before. I didn’t wish to start now, but my guide persuaded me this was a celebration not to be missed. We arrived at the liveliest part – the pesta, where over a thousand guests squeezed themselves into every nook and cranny. The core of the celebration was coming from a marquee where loud music exploded through its thin walls.
In the true style of Batak hospitality, a plate of food was thrust into my hands. ‘Horas!’ a toothless lady grinned at me before disappearing off into the madding crowd. I eyed up the plate suspiciously. No wonder she had surrendered her food. The black cubes of meat looked as tough as old boots. I passed and handed it to a passerby. ‘Horas!’ he cried gratefully and in exchange handed me a glass of the local Tuak, a palm wine that smelt and tasted like fermented egg water. I had lost my guide and seeing me alone, my new friend led me to his small party of four. Tipsy and deep in the song they seemed to have forgotten about the bride and groom, but their zest for life was infectious.
The Real Gem
Drunk on equal measures of Tuak and Happiness, I zigzagged my way back to my Batak house much later and collapsed into my hammock. I could hear a Bob Marley tune being sung in the distance. It traveled across the expanse of water and echoed into the starry night sky above. They were singing about their favorite topic again – Love... ‘One love, One heart, Let’s get together and feel alright...’ And it was with those few words that made me realize what I loved about Samosir Island – Its sense of community is the island’s real gem... I guess you could say ‘A gem within an island, on an island within an island?’