(Excerpted from Chapter 22: Chiang Mai to Lake Toba: The Grateful Unrich…)
Lake Toba, Indonesia 5-31-06
Lake Toba has been a highlight of the Southeast Asian trail for decades, so there are tons of guest houses and restaurants here. But ever since the 1997 economic crisis and the ensuing unrest, tourism has crashed in Indonesia. Then came the Bali bombings, the tsunami and the Free Aceh Movement.
Tuk Tuk, the main village here, is like an overbuilt ghost town. Bargaining is the norm. There is one Aussie and one Brit at LaBertad. We hear Mike the crazy Canadian is at Christina’s, one reason we decide to stay here. Each guest house has its “Bob Marley”, who goes to the ferry dock to wait for backpackers. Ours is named Taco. He scores us some weed this evening. The weather is just slightly warmer than Berstagi – just perfect. We’ll park it here for awhile.
It’s June, time of fireflies and June bugs in the Ozarks. Time of tassling corn and the corn ear worms that go with it. Time of coming out of the woods parties and the first of summer’s heat, which usually comes around the 10th. Here in the cool Sumatran Highlands, just north of the Equator, we hang on our porch in the treetops – smoking ganja, washing clothes, playing chess, reading, writing and waiting for colorful birds that show up during the heat of the day looking for shade. There is a blue and black butterfly the size of a dinner plate. There is a green, blue, red and yellow woodpecker. Frogs, insects, and birds sing the day away.
Four more bungalows fill up tonight. We have a nice conversation with an Aussie and his young female travel companion from Banda Aceh. Strictly platonic we are told. The scrambled egg and veggie sandwich is our regular breakfast, with two cups of strong Sumatran coffee. An American, her daughter and their guide show up. They seem standoffish. A nice elderly German man named Gunther moved in next door. He’s a fundamentalist Christian, but nice. He will stay awhile.
Today we do nothing. Again. How wonderful! The American is from Marin County and wants you to know it. She leaves today, their cumbersome luggage heaped into a wheelbarrow headed for the 9:00 AM ferry to Parapat. Without saying a word, I let her know what I think of her. She begins to grovel. It’s the classic American “be rude to nice people and bow to the evil ones” routine. The clinical name for this condition is Stockholm Syndrome. John – second in command here and a damn nice guy with a beautiful alto soprano voice – gets stuck pushing the wheelbarrow full of luggage.
Tonight we drink three big bottles of Bintang – the national brew – and sing Pink Floyd, Eagles, and Cat Stevens tunes while John, Renaldo and Taco play guitar. I get in the usual two games of chess with Mr. Moon (Moon 1, Stalemate 1) – the stoic 46-year-old manager of the place. He is a farmer and you can tell. He’s very down to earth and is always asking “Dean, what can I do for you?” But he’s also very dignified. He did his time as a traveling salesman, peddling pharmaceuticals and wood products. But he prefers his job here working in this garden paradise. His brother is married to the German woman who owns the place. Moon and I are birds of the same feather. Tonight we feel two small earthquakes. The Batak are extremely good chess players.
Every family in the village has a pig in the backyard. The pork sandwiches here are divine. While Muslim traders converted the indigenous people of coastal Indonesia, Christian missionaries made their way into the interior. This is the reason the Batak are Christians and thus pig farmers.
Yikes, the date reads 6-6-06. Maybe some crazy Illuminati scheme will be carried out today. Jill was up all night sick and I was just up all night. Today she sleeps and I am sick. There’s something funny in the air. Some curse. I put the shields up and ask Moon about a clinic. Instead, he gives me a packet of mixed spices – turmeric, garlic, cinnamon, chilies, clove and nutmeg. He says his father learned to make it because he worked in the mountains far from any hospital and because he was too poor to go to a doctor anyway. We take three doses each, no water allowed. He says it will literally burn out the bug. If it doesn’t he has a more powerful concoction made from guava leaf. It works like a charm.
Moon calls his all-male staff his “nephews”, though only the youngest – 13-year-old Harry – is blood. Harry’s dad drinks too much so Moon took him in. The others are boys from poor families who he wants to train to get them out of poverty. John, the eldest, is married and has one child. He lives at his own house and draws a salary. The other three, Harry, Renaldo and Taco, get only room and board, although the last two “Bob Marleys” get a commission for each backpacker they snag at the dock. All of them crash upstairs in the restaurant. Moon says he teaches them three things: how to cook, how to play guitar and how to speak English. His ultimate goal is that they will each marry a Western woman and get the hell out of Indonesia. Such is the Indonesian predicament.
At least in Cambodia and Laos – the two countries we’ve visited this trip where the poverty rises to that of Indonesia – there is some sort of safety net for the poor due to the legacy of Communist rule. Since the overthrow of Sukarno in 1965, Indonesia has become a cesspool of wild-west crony capitalism. It’s the fourth most populated nation on earth and will soon pass the United States for the #3 spot. Suharto – the dictator who replaced Sukarno – ruled with an iron fist and gave away the country’s vast resources to multinational corporations. Finally run out of office in 1997, he is dying now and will probably never see the jail time he deserves. It’s sink or swim in Indonesia. Most people are treading water. And their collective arms are getting awfully tired.
Danau Toba is Southeast Asia’s largest lake and is 450 meters deep. It occupies the caldera of a volcano that collapsed in upon itself some 100,000 years ago. It is one of only three super-volcanoes on earth. And it is drop-dead gorgeous.
It’s our 12th day here. Toba has tied the Cameron Highlands for longest stay of the trip. We do one last loop around Tuk Tuk. A one-eyed 3’8” man invites us to a party. The three dogs here who we’ve come to really love – Bongo who is ½ Buck, ½ Milo; Lady, the black female; and Tiki, the timid fluffy puppy who finally sort of trusts us – seem sad. They already know we are leaving tomorrow. The Batak do not treat dogs well. The Muslims treat them worse. Moon has gone to Medan to visit his wife – who is a nurse there – and their daughter. He’ll go to church, then go to his Berstagi farm to get oranges for the restaurant. He will be missed.
Dean Henderson is the author of five books: Big Oil & Their Bankers in the Persian Gulf: Four Horsemen, Eight Families & Their Global Intelligence, Narcotics & Terror Network, The Grateful Unrich: Revolution in 50 Countries, Stickin’ it to the Matrix, The Federal Reserve Cartel & Illuminati Agenda 21: The Luciferian Plan to Destroy Creation.