An American backpacker treats Sumatra, Indonesia’s “Lake Toba”–filled with crunchy Elysian entrepots –as a writers’ retreat where backing off comes with the territory
“Characters are just like black marks on paper. . .
–William Gass, Fiction and the Right of Life
I arrive by high-speed hydrofoil across the Malacca Straits to Medan, the ersatz capital of Sumatra, during Ramadan. I was, of course, on my way to flop down and relax at the legendary Lake Toba, a Christian/Pagan entrepot purportedly rife with magic and reputedly better than St. John’s Wort at curing the blahs.
A ripple on the edge of time, Lake Toba is certainly a proverbial prime meridian of “ecotourism” versus “narcissism”—a place for travelers to relax and make snap judgments about its personified inhabitants, such as the wealthy losman owner, “Mr. Bullshit” (his real name translated from Bahasa), who likes to corner the market on impecunious backpackers. Even though Heaven has the most expensive real estate in our cosmology, this largest lake in Southeast Asia is an outstandingly good runner-up consolation prize.
“Moisture, I need moisture,” I croak like The Carrot Man from a memorable episode of “Lost in Space,” not being a big fan of not being able to find any place near to eat and drink. Another traveler, of the local persuasion, returning home “jalan jalan” (walking walking) and wrapped like a Rajah in bright colorful batiks, smiles and trips down the wooden plank leading to someplace really not that well known-yet.
The first thing I notice on land, moved to tears on the surprisingly long sea voyage by watching a comical Jackie Chan Hong Kong kung fu flick and an action-packed Van Diesel venue, was that the streets were deserted even though there were plenty of hotels to pound rupiahs and pick on.
No other tourists, though. Save one.
The other tourist, a complete stranger whom I had never met before, was wearing a Jansport backpack with a lame “Maple Leaf” flag on it—always a sign these days of a candyass American disguised as a Canuck, fearful of international terrorism and upscale tourism.
These kinds of tourists just didn’t get it.
I didn’t want to meet him; he didn’t want to meet me.
It was only in the cheaper losmen (guest houses)—some of them artistically decorated “Batak” lndonesian houses on stilts with nary a nail in them–where you could meet not only fellow and feline budget adventure travelers, but also could wash everyday from an outlandishly inconvenient mandi (a box of water with a scoop and the occasional evil rat swimming around).
Also, the losmen were parfait for discussing the slings and arrows of sightseeing logistics, what Rolf Pott’s ranks as “Indie Travel,” via impromptu advisories and roundtables in the hostel-like common rooms.
Nevertheless, this time, I picked out a decent luxury hotel called “Best Western” (I think, at least), filled with swarthy Middle Easterners and Maghrebi businessmen with Saddam Hussein mustaches and locked briefcases.
I knew I had an ambitious schedule ahead of me.
I not only wanted to check out nearby Bukit Lawang on the bubbling Bohorok River, with its ecotourismic “Orangutan Rehabilitation Center,” described by me in my early article “The Abominable Sumatran,” one of my first pieces for Bootsnall, as being the stomping grounds of Indonesia’s very own version of the Missing Link.
Or, “Little Foot.”
An Indo orange ape man similar to the sasquatch and yeti called “Orange Letjo” (Gibbering Man) or “Orang Bulan” (Little Man), but known to tourists and locals alike simply as “Sedapa,” this ginger-haired devil could indeed possibly exist in one of the most remote primary rainforests in all of Asia.
But that, as I have already told you, is another story entirely. Worthy of a free “Ask Jeeves” search, if not an expensive “Nexus” spitout.
No, this essay right before your eyes now on an Ipod is about a place not many ever get a chance to visit: Lake Toba, a pagan “animist” retreat filled with white and black magic, including some of the best euphoria-producing coffee on the entire damned planet.
So the next morning, I left the virtual reality of nearly empty Medan, only because it was Ramadan and there was nothing really to do, see, eat, or drink. I did however come across a Christian, with a heavy cross around his neck, pushing around a “Snacky Cart” filled with impressive small “plats,” including a dicey dish resembling cannibalism with sticky rice: “Beef Rendang.”
The Snacky Cart vendor told me he had noticed me getting off the boat (polite interest here is often confused with freelance spying.) “I think you are Egyptian!”
Vaguely miffed and flattered at the same time by his crack, referring obviously to my lobsterish tan, I realized we were supposed to play the guessing game.
“Then you are British?”
I almost said yes because I came this close to being born in Britain in a small village called Brill, near Oxford, where my dad was then on sabattical doing research at the well-known Bodleian Library.
I also was a direct descendant, through my Grandma Helen Havighurst Edwards, to William Bradford of Mayflower fame, the first governor of the Massachusettes Bay Colony, the forerunner of the Revolutionary War-inspired “United States of America.”
“You are South African?”
“You are Australian?”
“Ah, but you are German!”
There was an embarrassing silence, while I decided whether this was good enough.
“Actually I’m American.”“American! Absolutely unheard of!”I stood still, lingering like an insult.
“I still think you look Egyptian,” the vendor insisted, raising one eyebrow with precision. In retrospect, I could tell he was giving me a cover in case I met any curious Sumatrans with anti-American sentiments.
And who knows, maybe I was related, if not to Boy King Tut Anhkamen then to Pharoah Smen Khahare.
He also told me the mystery dish I was enjoying was invented here in Medan (available also throughout the Malay peninsula if not everywhere else in Indonesia), and was made with Alpo-like beef chunks flavored with coconut and a hot sauce called “Sambal Ouelak.”
Ominee, ominee, num, num—and I was off.
With my tortue-like backpack on, I clambered into an chromatic autobus filled with sad-looking gents strangling live squawking chickens, where I scanned the empty seats for a good-looking traveler from Switzerland, whom years later I bumped into again at the Saigon Airport, though she fell sick and returned to Bangkok the very next day. Being in motion, coincidences occur. (She was one of the lucky ones.)
Anyway, the Swiss babe motioned to me to sit down next to her.
I smartly honored the request. She obviously was freaked out about how male Medan was, not another woman in sight.
After a lengthy trip, we landed at a ferry terminal to take us to a charmed spot on the shores of Lake Toba, Sumatra’s largest inland lake.
On the boat ride over I bumped into the Belgian mercenary who had forcibly turned a difficult trip into a free vacation. There was a WANTED poster for him way back when at a hostel on Thailand’s famous Kho San Road in Bangkok saying, “THIS IS A VERY BAD MAN!!! He did not pay for his hotel and restaurant bills.”
Buddhists are very sensitive about people who blatantly break laws. Still, the criminally negligent Belgian with the fancy black stash, resembling an old sepia photograph of Sir Richard Burton (translator of the Kama Sutra and The Arabian Nights) was a hot topic around hostel roundtable discussions, the Belgian vaguely attaining folk hero status among the impecunious pennypinching backpacking cognoscenti.
Still there was some reward money involved, so I would keep my eyes open, or, er, peeled.
Standing on the boat, looking like he had just been beaten up and complaining about his loose teeth, the Belgian said, “Glug glug gluck.”
Immediately, I realized that the on-the-run Belgian drifter was a “Walloon,” impossible to understand.
Meanwhile young Indonesian boys kept trying to get us to promise to stay at the various hostels they represented, an absolute barrage of pick-me-ups. On young boy, with braggadocia, tipped me off, “We are the best! If you agree to stay at my hostel, no one will bother you.”
This was sage advice, and I accepted.
The mildly significant froufrou of the wind on the revelatory lake was a little intimidating. I wondered if Toba towns were going to turn out to be nightmare hubs of overdevelopment, which always gave me rollercoaster-stomach heebie-jeebies, almost like having a catheter stuck up your shlong.
Remember some of those dreams you had which seemed almost real? Well, some of them were. And this was one of them.
Arriving at night in a Xanadu-like town I want to keep secret, stuck in a crunchy hostel (which requested anonymity) like an overdue cable bill without a stamp on it, I immediately bumped into a Dutch “handler,” with whom I became fast and furious friends, partly because I was the only person there with an enormous bottle of duty-free whiskey from Malaysia: (Malay Muslims don’t regard Scotch to be “alcohol,” and often drink it on special occasions like weddings, and funerals).
When I told him I was from New York, the Dutchman was mightily impressed. “New Amsterdam,” I added with emphasis. We discussed politics and economics.
Out of an archaic sense of absurdist humor, I said I was a “neocolonialist,” who thought Darwin a bit of a fraud, even if the proliferation of species makes sense: simple enough, a huge boat full of Brits, Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese blokes land like visitors from outer space, and then suddenly you have a colony full of people. I also said, with force majeure, “If Man were descended from the Apes, then why are the Apes still here?!”
“That’s very clever,” he allowed.
The friendly Indonesian waiter looked mightily impressed, too.
But then the Dutchman made a disparaging comment about Germany.
I looked over at a neighboring table full of suddenly silent Germans drinking oversize bottles of Bir Bintang with disappointed faces, one of whom resembled a department store mannequin of “Dr. Phil.”
I countered dramatically by saying to the Dutchman–realizing he might actually be a “local” descendant of Dutch colonials–I used to work (sort of) for ZDF (Second German Television), with a large audience clientele in Europe bigger even than the BBC.
Mortified, the Dutchman added meaningfully, as Indonesian rubberband men stood around menacingly, listening to every word of our convo: “But of course,” the flying Dutchman addended, “The Germans have all the money. . . .”
Now, we were all friends.
“You are a New York bigshot!” the Dutchman added only as a well-meaning compliment. The Dutchman then told me used to work in, of all places,
Vaguely forking my burned Ayam Sate (chicken skewers with peanut sauce resembling black bile), which Sumatrans claim is their invention, I decided the plate looked like the volcanic blasted ruins of a bombing campaign, a Pompeian plat frozen in time, cannibalism on rice, mortuary meat.
What else could this mean but a portent?
I said I had a friend from when I studied at Tulane University, named Hassan Haidir, who was a Lebanese Christian from a very wealthy family. During freshman year during a dorm party, my old friend cartoonist Scott Groening came panting into Hassan’s dorm room where we were in a political discussion and informed us, “Man, Bess is blowing chunks in the bathroom!” Hassan replied with foreign-exchange excitement, “Who is this
Chunks?!” We laughed for hours at poor Bess, and even today I can’t help but hold back an instinctual animal whimper of hilarity.
Here on Lake Toba (the largest lake in Southeast Asia), I realized for my own safety that I must reveal myself, so as not to be mistaken for the wrong kind of traveler. Under my breath, I said “Mayflower,” and the Dutchman realized why I was here in the first place. It suddenly unfolded that the only foreign tourists here coming into the room seemingly out of nowhere were all from Holland, many of them obviously the descendants of neocolonial locals!
Two gorgeous Dutch girls, whom I dubbed via hair color as “Black and Tan” seemed absolutely thrilled to meet a real Mayflower descendant and were convincingly overwhelmed.
One girl said she was studying “foreign affairs.”
I bragged about how I used to work for the spy caterers “Emerging Markets,” a diplomat-level gig obviously funded by the CIA, covering world development bank meetings, such as the EBRD (European Bank for Reconstruction and Development), the IDB (Inter-American Development Bank), the AfDB (African Development Bank), and the ADB (Asian Development Bank).
In other words, free travel.
“Emerging Markets? III’ve heard of themmm,” the black-haired Dutch girl hummed like a real humdinger, with meaningfully witchcrafty Hester Prynn tresses twisted into an emphatic “Mathilde” braid.
I heard someone behind me spit the word out, with contempt, “Cyclops!”
But I did not know what that meant.
Now a little late in the game literarily, I discovered in my excellent Lonely Planet Guide to Indonesia that in 1783, the explorer Marsden discovered a “cannabilistic kingdom” here in the banyan-treed interior of Sumatra: The Bataks.
Members of this warlike tribe, whose name translated in Malay as “robber or blackmailer” were more Malaysian than Indonesian, but with a shared “ethnicity” if not culture and language. Surprisingly, all of the Bataks near Lake Toba are Protestant Christians, many of them proud members of “The Dutch Reformed Church.” But at the same time most of them are also “Animists,” who worship an omnipotent god named “Ompung.”
Here, among Toba’s artists and craftsmen, I procured an Indonesian “lingam” (for sexual potency rather more extended than Viagra) and a magical augery book called a “pustaha” (for “protection” from evil spirits, not only domestic but international).
Of course, hypnotic gamelan music twinkled everywhere in the background.
A rival losmen owner to Mr. Bullshit was this shy and retiring Indonesian manager, who was a proud paraplegic married to a seriously devoted German gal and had given me a copy of Alan Kurtweil’s marvelous A Case of Curiosities, a worthy paperback from his book exchange.
I exited stage left to read it.
It was the perfect book to while away the hours on the grassy banks of charmed Lake Toba, feeling the charged elemental power, which was a little too cold to swim in but mightily impressive in the memory banks.
I tried not to think about my girlfriend, who makes a sudden appearance herewith, who was throwing up everyday from eating street food instead of restaurant meals. I tried to warn her, but she would not listen to me. I hoped that the demonic bug she had caught would go away, but not exactly anytime soon, since I was selfishly having fun flirting.
Stuck here at Toba I let my life flash before my eyes, like a year of living dangerously. Ever see that Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver film, where they are both so good-looking that it seems they aren’t really that much into each other, while the puppetmaster androgynous Midget raves on like Swedish Nobel-prize-winner Per Lagerkvist’s “The Dwarf.”
No doppelganger could replace me.
Food here at Toba was filling and good, even though I didn’t have a clue half the time what I was eating: “bull sperm,” “monkey brains,” “barbecued meat.” A safe bet was Gado-Gado, which is Bahasa for salad with peanut sauce. Unfortunately there was no “Sate,” which they say is a Malaysian dish, not Indonesian—even though that is where the native “Bataks” originally come from.
“Saya jalan jalan ku bulan,” I say to a passing pilgrim dressed in an expensive Ikat shirt.
“You speak Indonesian!” the pilgrim says with an easy smile betraying perfectly white teefers, probably a user of the popular imported teeth cleaner from India called “DARKIE” toothpaste, which is also advertised on the tube for “sparkling white teeth.” Seriously!
“No, no, just a few words.”
A Malay trading language, Bahasa is fun, what I had said up above meaning: “I walk walk to the moon!” In fact, Westerners coming here are known as “Moon People.”
Much later, a handicapped Batak guitarist, with a malformed mitt missing several digits, looked at me and said apropos of nothing, “Don’t kill me!”
And then this talented local launched into a mesmerizing song I had never heard before, which was so beautiful I felt fatalistic tears welling up on the edges of my eyelids.
The song, of course, was “No Tears in Heaven,” Eric Clapton’s eulogy to his dead son: “Will you know my name?/ If I saw you in Heaven./ Will things be the same?/ If I saw you in Heaven./ I might be wrong./ To carry on./ But now I know I don’t belong/ Here in Heaven. . . .”
I walked over to the lake and skimmed a rock across the surface which rippled like a series of 33 rpm records spinning out of control. . . .
–Author, “Hell’s Kitchen,” 2013