25 November 2008
Lake Toba, Indonesia


Back on the road again - it's a great feeling. We stayed in Australia longer than we had originally planned because the fare back to this part of the world was incredibly cheap with Air Asia, but they didn't start the service until November 12th. For the first flight, we had TV and newspaper camera's, free sandwiches and drinks before we boarded and a brand spanking new plane. While it was OK for the 8 hour flight to KL, especially because we had three seats between us, I don't think we'll take this option when they start flying to London though - it was all just a little bit too cramped. Air Asia are famous for their 25 minute turn around - I had doubted the possibility of this, particularly on international flights but last year when we flew from Bali to KL, we saw the plane land and 24 minutes later we were taxing down the runway. The first flight into Melbourne had landed 15 minutes early, so they thought we'd be leaving earlier than planned. They obviously hadn't counted on Australian work practices though -we were exactly an hour late taking off.

I saw a documentary on Lake Toba in North Sumatra a few years ago and thought it would be an interesting spot to go to. The lake was created by a super-volcano eruption and I don't think anyone is sure exactly how deep it is and it has Samosir Island in the middle. We could have got the ferry to Medan, but it was more expensive than flying and a lot longer - 45 minutes as opposed to anywhere between 4 and 6 hours. I'm really not sure how the ferries are still in business with those prices. Peter doesn't get on too well with planes because of his sinuses, but even he said we'd be crazy to sail.

Medan is a monstrosity of a city. With 3 million people, it has the same population as Melbourne, but they're squeezed in a lot tighter. It's dirty and noisy and dusty and busy and smelly but not in a good way. Bangkok is all of the above, but it always feels good to be there. Ditto Ho Chi Minh City and Hong Kong. On first impression, Medan didn't have a great deal of appeal. Having spent a bit of time there, it still doesn't. Public transport - bench minibuses - were as dangerous as any we've ever experienced.

We had intended to stay there for two or three nights - you can't get to have a good look around anywhere if you stay any shorter, and it's not as if we're in a hurry to get anywhere. Lake Toba is a good 4-5 hour bus ride away - actually, a bad 4-5 hour bus ride away, but more on that later - and with our stomach's acclimatizing to the local food, we ended up staying 5 nights.

This is far more time anyone would need to see the sights - there are about 3, and the palace underneath is the only bit of greenery we saw in the whole time we were there, apart from weeds growing out of the top of decaying but still lived in buildings. We walked for miles, usually to surprised expressions. I don't think that they see too many westerners wander around the streets of Medan - can't think why. Walking on the road was our only option. Where there were pavements, they were either collapsed, covered with rubble or rubbish or filled with parked motorbikes and cars. Sometimes we were walking right in the middle of the road, where cars had not double but TRIPLE parked. Funny thing was, there was a local authority employee taking parking money of the triple parkers.

The traffic was totally crazy - every bit as bad as Cambodia. Driving on the left, like traffic lights, seemed to be optional, to be obeyed only if it fitted in with your plans.

We declined the offers of the tourist bus to Parapat, the mainland town where the ferries leave to Samosir Island on the grounds that they cost IDR90,000 each. The minibuses that touted the route charged the same price, would get there in half the time of the public bus but all had 12 seats and 20 passengers. No thanks. The public bus was only IDR22,000 each, and what buses they were. Usually, buses have two pairs of double seats either side of the aisle. Indonesian public buses for long distance look like ordinary buses, but have one double and one triple seat at either side of the aisle. They also have so little leg room even a shortie like me couldn't sit facing forward.

Thankfully, we had three seats to ourselves so we could both sit at an angle. The bus didn't have air conditioning, but it wasn't a problem as it wasn't really hot and the windows, combined with excessive speed let in a good breeze.

Another plus about no air con and open windows was that almost everyone on the bus was chain-smoking - mostly clove cigarettes, and if you've never smelled them I'm not going to try and explain. A lot of hotels in Asia request that guests refrain from smoking clove cigarettes in their rooms in consideration of future guests. So the windows were good. Until it rained. Rain brought two things - all windows closed and the driver seemed put his foot down even further as if trying to beat the torrential tropical storm. I'm glad we couldn't see out of the windows, because everybody else on the roads seemed to be driving in the same way.

We had no idea what time we would land in Parapat, so had taken the precaution of booking a night at a hotel in case we missed the last ferry to Samosir. We told the driver and the jockey where we were staying and asked that they let us off close by. We didn't know it at the time, but we drove past the hotel on the way into town, dropped some people off at the bus station, circled and passed the hotel again on the way to the ferry port. We were dropped off fairly and squarely outside the office of Samuel. We grew to hate Samuel.

A lady on the bus who spoke a little English was telling us we'd passed the hotel and had to get a local bus up the hill and not to pay more than IDR2,500 when Samuel jumped on the bus. There was a temporary lapse in the rain and we wanted to get off and get undercover as soon as we could until we found transport, but we didn't have a chance. Samuel is the most annoying and persistent tout in the world. I asked him, to please get out of the way so we could get off. Didn't work. I told him to move. Didn't work. "I help you" he said. "Tourist Information". MOVE.

He was blocking the doorway, but to make things worse, when the rain had started the bus stopped and the jockey had moved our bags out of the luggage compartment to the space behind the back seats to keep them dry. Samuel was standing right where Peter was trying to haul the bags from behind the seats. He pulled his back, and it was 3 days before he could walk properly again.

The lady who had been helping me tried to intervene but it was no good. Eventually, Peter squared his shoulders and said "Mate" in just the right voice and he got off, but stood in front of the doorway so I couldn't get off. MOVE. NOW. I've had grown men a lot bigger than me back away when I turn full attention on them, but he seemed to be impervious to my charms. He did eventually move - the bus wanted to get going and couldn't with us still onboard. It occurred to me later that it was no co-incidence that they had dropped us off in front of his office. As soon as we were off, it started again. We totally ignored him, immediately found a mini bus going past our hotel and jumped on. Guess who jumped on next to us? We tried to ignore him, talking amongst ourselves in very hammed up Geordie accents - this is always good when we don't want people to know what we're talking about. Of course, Samuel got off the bus with us. He was trying to get us to book accommodation.

We said we were going to have a look around before booking anything. He was pushing Samosir Cottages, which I'd already found on the internet, seen good reviews and was well priced. We'd pretty much decided we were going to go there anyway, but he was so annoying we didn't want anything to do with him, even if it meant saving money.

He followed us into the hotel and tried to talk to Peter as I checked us in but Peter ignored him and told him to go away. He wanted to sit down and talk. We were tired - it was quite a bus ride and we were both getting a bit tetchy. We walked away from him and he started following us until we both glared at him and he said "Yeah, tired. Later" We said no, but somehow we knew he wasn't listening.

We got into the room unpacked toiletries for the night and I headed back to the reception area for a cigarette. I opened the door and almost walked into him. He was standing right in front of it.


"I have photo's of Samosir Cottages" he said. I told him I'd already seen the photo's on the internet and didn't want to see them again. He told me I would have to book if we wanted to stay there. I told him we weren't going to stay anywhere until we've seen it first and checked it out. Again he told me I would have to book as they were very busy. I pointed out that there were no tourists in North Sumatra, but of course he disagreed. I sat down to have a nice peaceful smoke and he sat next to me. I gave him the evil eye, walked away and found somewhere outside to sit and thought we'd seen the last of him. Ha bloody Ha.

We went out for something to eat later, and guess who came and sat at the next table, trying to talk to us? "We're eating". "Yeah, yeah. Eat first, talk later". We got a lucky break - his mobile rang and out we shot, walking very quickly back to the hotel.

The next morning we got the ferry to the island and asked to be dropped off at Samosir Cottages - most places have their own landing jetty. As we approached, we were thinking that we were just about to arrive in paradise. And who was waiting at the jetty? I couldn't believe it.

To be fair, he wasn't there for us - he'd accompanied a couple of backpackers on the previous ferry and was waiting to go back to the mainland, but he wasn't going to miss a chance. We got off the boat and he started. Peter did the big sigh and squared his shoulders. And we were rude. Both of us. Peter usually leaves that kind of thing to me as it doesn't come quite as naturally to him as it does to me, but it was one of those rare occasions when he'd had enough too. Not just a little bit rude - we'd tried that the day before and it hadn't worked - but the kind of rude that, old as we are, our mothers would give us a good slap around the head for it kind of rude. No raised voices, no bad language, just good old fashioned rude. And it worked.

We were later told that the Lonely Planet book has a warning about him. To top it all, even though we weren't really listening, the prices he was throwing about were more expensive than we'd seen on the internet by booking directly, and just walking up without a booking meant an even better price, as it almost always does in backpacker type places. If you're heading this way, don't say you weren't warned.

We've had a lovely peaceful, quite few days here. Most of the community on the island are Christian, and without exception, whatever their religion, they are incredibly friendly and warm and very welcoming. It's the perfect place to just come and chill. The altitude means it doesn't get overly hot and the lake is perfectly clean and great for swimming - despite it not being hot, the water isn't really cold. Also, possibly because of the stiff breeze coming over the water, there are very few mozzies, which had been our biggest worry. That breeze also means we go to sleep listening to waves hitting the rocks.

We didn't get to do too much walking at first - it's very hilly and Peter's back was hurting too much. On Sunday, we set out to walk to Tomak, the main harbour on the island about 5km away, but we only got about 100 meters before we were hijacked. Evalina is a student teacher from Siantar, which is the nearest big town on the mainland. I promised I'd put her photo on the internet, even though I think she only has access to email via her mobile phone.

Every so often, Evalina and a few other student teachers bring about 100 kids over for the day. They know that there are always westerners on the island, and they need their students to practice English, mainly pronunciation, hopefully with native English speakers. We spent a very rewarding few hours with them, were provided with lunch- which they wouldn't let us pay for - and we made a very good friend. Evalina is a real live wire, and gets the students to work by humour as much as anything. When trying to think of things to talk about with the students, I compared our legs to see who needed shaving the most, and I had the students in tears trying to teach them how to pronounce "th" then running for my umbrella when they all practiced in my direction. She invited us to her village and offered to be our tour guide - and meant it, asking us to cut short our stay here by a day or two. I've told her when she graduates I'll come to her school and teach her students to be naughty. She thinks this is funny, and that she's never met anyone quite like me. Westerners are usually so serious about teaching kids English. And we really will go to her school if we possibly can.

We'll definitely come back here again - it's so peaceful, there are plenty of shops with really good collections of books for rent, the food is great and the people lovely. The only thing missing is the tourists. The island is full of empty and abandoned hotels and guesthouses, some of them huge resort complexes. Locals say it's been going bad since the financial crisis and trouble in Jakarta in 1997, but the last 5 years has seen tourism all but come to a stop. It's a great shame. It's not the easiest place in the world to get to, but it would have to rate as one of the best. We've made arrangements to meet up with the boys from Seremban in Hat Yai next week, otherwise I think we'd be staying on a bit longer. It's just that kind of place. We've met plenty of people who have been here for months and are showing no sign of leaving. Nothing to do with the unending supply of magic mushrooms, of course.