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Friday, July 2, 2010

In love with Danua Toba, Sumatra

Lake Toba in the center of Sumatra has to hands-down be one of the most amazing places on earth and totally not what I has expected to find in Indonesia. I think it may be my personal favorite destination of them all - or at least it is running in a close tie with the Perentians, but for totally different reasons. (I had to post 2 Perentian sunsets at the top here as I haven't had the chance yet - the rest of the photos are from lake toba and Samosir Island)
Samosir Island is where I am staying right now. It's a fairly big island in the middle of Danua (lake) Toba which is in Northern-Central Sumatra high up on the mountains. The Lake is one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. I caught my first glimpse of the lake on an extremely precarious but beautiful road winding down to the lake (on the 3rd public bus of the day from Berestagi - still quite the experience :) - and I was actually shocked that I was still in Indonesia. I feel like i should be in the Swiss Alps, only the dizzying peaks surrounding the lake are tropical jungle instead.
The local people that live on the Island are the Batak people who call Samosir their spiritual or "healing" homeland. I have so many things I want to say all at once about why I love this place so much and am so SO glad I made it here. First of all it's kind of bizarre - because there is a small stretch of the island that seems to be set up for the backpacker crowd - there are many guesthouses (hostels) and even hotels with pools that looked like they were once pretty happening, but most of them are closed and have been for a while. Apparently, its kind of a has-been place. Older locals tell me that it used to be the home of the full moon parties before Thailand stole it away. Locals my age don't remember these times and outside the one stretch of guesthouses and the one resort that is still open people stare wide-eyed at the site of tourists.
Because of this, it is actually the perfect balance: I have a great room for $3 at a place with internet, motorbikes, bicycles, hammocks attached to each balcony, great food and the once place with a tv to catch the World Cup at night (Go Ghana!!) All the comforts of a proper holiday, but without the hoards of other people. There are just enough travelers to eat and chat and watch thegame with. But during the day you can cruise around the island and feel like you are the only one here.
The first day I got a tour from a really cool local that works at my guesthouse around the entire island by motorbike. The photos I have here don't even come close to showing the amazing views at every turn. There is a road at the very top of the island that is, somehow, impeccably paved (have not seen that since Malaysia) and it winds high above the shores of the lake in big wide turns that on the back of the motorbike just felt like I was flying. It was a pretty spectacular afternoon. I think I had a smile plastered to my face for the entire 5 hours.
Yesterday I decided to retrace a leg of the journey on my own by bicycle and ended up riding 80km on probably the most uncomfortable bike ever which might be the most ambitious physical day of my life! No joke.
But it was great. Passing through the little Batak villages, most people would stop and just stare. A few of the people that spoke some English would stop me and motion for me to come take a rest and have some tea or fried rice. There was one lady in particular whose English was great, she was about 55 and when tourism was bigger here she ran a western food restaurant, now closed. I think I talked to her for about 2 and a half hours. In the meantime, attracting kids and other ladies to come sit and ask her to translate their questions to me. It was especially funny when they heard I was American they would light up and say "Ohhh Obama!" an repeat 5 times that they loved Obama. I'm not sure what news they get in those little farming villages and I haven't really heard that anywhere else. It was so fun! Its the kind of day I had sort of pictured having when I was planning this trip. Of course, the circuit around south east asia was so heavily visited that you don't really get to see what life would be like if the economy didn't thrive on tourism. I am usually on guard now when a local strikes up a conversation with me because I assume that they are just trying to swindle me into something. But totally not so here. It has been so great to just talk to people. I had to insist that Saba (my friend with the motorbike) let me at least pay for the fuel and no, he never tried to take me to his uncle's jewelry shop or his cousin's restaurant etc. etc. He was happy to just have someone to practice some English with and ask questions about California.
I really had no expectations coming here at all. I hadn't originally planned to come to Indonesia and didn't really know what it would be like. I met a girl, Sophia, from the Netherlands on the Perentians and she had just come from here and she told me that it was quiet and I wouldn't see many tourists and that its hard to travel around but that for her Sumatra was the trip of a lifetime. I wish I had her contact info because I would send her a massive thank you. I was toying with where I would go in Indonesia with the time I had and my conversation with her solidified my plan. Having totally unexpected adventures and in such a serene and gorgeous place makes for a great place to explore, relax and just think. I can see why the Batak people say this is their 'healing island." I can't figure out why Sumatra kind of went of the backpacker radar, but I for one am pretty glad they are all in Bali and I am here :)

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