A friend had 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. I was 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 were arranged in to 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 the eye could see. Its peace and quiet were almost palpable enough to touch.
It’s 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 rumours 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 judgement on outsiders, criminals and adulterers. At an adjacent site, the accused would then be bound, rubbed with chilli, 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.”
Safe from being cast in to a stew pot, I climbed on to the back of our motorbike and continued coasting along empty roads. Traditional boat-shaped Batak houses with prominent saddleback roofs and elaborate carvings of serpents, lizards and mythical creatures, glided past us as we climbed towards the summit of Samosir Island. Women in sarongs and huge silver earrings were submerged waist high while men paddled around in traditional mahogany canoes.
Far removed from its cannibalistic heritage, the Batak people are fun-loving, happy and generous with a natural passion for song. As we passed one of the houses I heard the strumming of a guitar accompanied by a melodic haunting voice that filled my heart.
The power of song was contagious. Warm breeze flowing through my hair, I found myself singing aloud… ‘On a dark desert highway, cold wind in my hair…’ My guide whooped gleefully and belted along with me, ‘Warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air…’
Passing cyclists caught our tune and joined us in song until we parted company at a crossroad.
The view was spectacular as we ascended further and further up the mountain. At the top, the panoramic view allowed me to appreciate the enormity of the crater lake and the catastrophic explosion that caused it. The lake and island were created 100,000 years ago in what was the largest volcanic explosion the world has ever known. It makes Yellowstone National Park seem like just a sneeze.
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. He gave her his word and they spent many happy years together, bearing a daughter. But forgetting his promise one day, he grew angry at his daughter and in a rage told her she was the daughter of a fish. Feeling betrayed, the princess threw herself in to the lake as a fish once more. She created a big explosion, and then a flood that is said to be from her sorrowful tears.”
Love stories, love songs, love in any form seemed to be 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 centre a waterfall sliced through it in one clean sliver, giving it it’s name ‘Heartbreak mountain.’ Samosir wasn’t all about doomed romances and broken hearts though. Outside Tomok village, a passerby called to us that there was a wedding being held between a Tomok and Tuk Tuk family.
I’d never gate crashed 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 in to every nook and cranny. The core of the celebration was coming from a marquee where loud music exploded through its thin walls. The bride and groom were nowhere to be seen, shielded by the numbers of people dancing and lining up to carry gifts of colourful textiles to the newlyweds.
In the true style of Batak hospitality, a plate of food was thrust in to my hands. ‘Horas!’ a toothless lady grinned at me before disappearing off in to 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 song they seemed to have forgotten about the bride and groom, but their zest for life was infectious. I joined them until my guide found me, taking in tiny sips of Tuak so I didn’t appear impolite or ungrateful.
Drunk on equal measures of Tuak and Happiness, I zigzagged my way back to my Batak house much later and collapsed in to my hammock. I could hear a Bob Marley tune being sung in the distance. It travelled across the expanse of water and echoed into the starry night sky above. They were singing about their favourite topic again – Love… ‘One love, One heart, Let’s get together and feel alright…’ And it was with those few words that made me realise 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?’