Thursday, July 30, 2009

Cycling through the Heart of Batak Country

As racing fans around the world turned their attention to the Tour de France finish line at the Champs Élysées last weekend, Danielle and I completed our own Tour de Sumatra on the coast of Lake Toba. It was a far less rigorous course, but the scenery (above) rivaled anything the French Alps has to offer. And since the stakes were much lower, Danielle and I never developed an archrivalry à la Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador.

Time on the lake provided a welcome respite from Indonesia’s overcrowded cities. We’ve spent the bulk of our last three months among the 14 million Indonesians who live in Jakarta, Surabaya and Medan, so our Indonesia has been filthier, smoggier and more congested than the country as a whole. The pace of life in villages on Lake Toba’s Samosir Island proved much calmer, and the crystal blue lake surrounded by flaxen hills looked, to homesick eyes at least, a lot like the Golden Gate.

Cycling through the pastoral landscape certainly proved more pleasant than my attempts to ride in the city. At Lake Toba, our main concern involved dodging yaks and chickens that occasionally strayed onto the two-lane road. We saw monkeys too, but they tended to stay away. In Medan, by comparison, a car actually rolled over my right foot yesterday during a traffic jam. While I don’t recommend having a car run over any part of your body, my mishap was probably no worse than an NFL lineman stepping on your toes. My pant leg ended up with a streak of vulcanized rubber across it, but my metatarsals remained intact. Lance Armstrong has endured a lot, but I don’t think he faces these kinds of indignities when he rides.

Lake Toba forms the heartland of the Batak, the native people of North Sumatra who make up the largest plurality among the province’s diverse population. The most notable aspect of Batak life is that Christians outnumber Muslims, with images of Jesus and crucifixes feature prominently in many of the lake’s homes, hotels and restaurants.

Amid all this iconography, Danielle dubbed Lake Toba the “Indonesian New England” — with churches every 100 feet and a different congregation on every corner. The Batak have a plethora of Protestant denominations servicing a Christian population of 4 million. In our own rides around Samosir, we saw parishes for the Batak Christian Protestant Church (HKBP), the Christian Protestant Church in Indonesia (GKPI), the Karo Batak Protestant Church (GBKP), the Simalungun Protestant Christian Church (GKPS), the Bethel Church of Indonesia (GBI), and a Batak Pentecostal Church. We also saw Catholic churches, as Catholicism is the main religion of the Karo (a Batak subgroup). Batak from several different Christian faiths mark their graves with large crosses and elaborate shrines (see below for an example), combining elements of Batak Christianity with elements of earlier animist traditions.

So here in a small corner of the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, there are more Christian denominations anywhere this side of Germany during the Protestant Reformation. Perhaps that’s because German missionaries came to Sumatra in large numbers during the late 19th century. Germans are still among the region’s main visitors. We welcomed this development since it meant restaurants catering to German clientele offered fresh bread — not a typical Indonesian delicacy, but one we’ve missed in this rice-rich, wheat-poor nation.

Bataks’ love of music underpins all the group’s various Christian faiths. We heard hymns emanating from churches across Samosir Island on Sunday morning, including what sounded like religious singing on the lake at daybreak. Psalms at dawn were a departure in a country where the beginning of the day usually begins with the Muslim call to prayer.

Sunday’s music at dawn came after we’d lost some sleep the night before due to Batak revelers in the bar adjacent to our room. (As Muslims are sparse in this part of Indonesia, bars are not.) These modern-day minstrels strummed on acoustic guitars and belted out pop favorites for tourists, though favorites that are a bit dated at this point, including “Lady in Red” and selections from Four Non-Blondes. It’s nice to see the music from junior high and high school years lives on somewhere in the world. More in keeping with traditional Batak culture, we were treated to a folk music concert earlier in the evening. The ensemble of wooden instruments included a recorder with a bagpipe sound, a flute, a two-stringed mandolin, a xylophone and cylindrical drums.

In our modest attempt to acquaint ourselves further with Batak culture, we also spent he weekend in a hotel built out of traditional Batak houses (right). These houses are placed on stilts, which allow families to raise chickens and other animals underneath their living space. The area beneath the stilts on our house, however, had been filled in to allow for the accommodation of tourists rather than goats.

The houses also feature steep-pitched roofs, increasing space at the top and allowing families to live in a more stacked, vertically oriented space. These houses are built more to Batak scale, however, which means inhabitants are expected to be about 5-foot-2 and 110 pounds. Those of us towering giants standing at 5-foot-10 (or even 5-foot-4 in Danielle’s case) ended up with bumps and bruises from entering and exiting the low-clearance front door.

Our drive back to Medan passed through Berastagi, home of some of Sumatra’s most commanding volcanoes (left). Danielle told me that Lake Toba was formed in a volcanic explosion about 75,000 years ago. Later we learned it was probably the world’s largest volcanic eruption during the last 25 million years, emitting 2,000 times more ash than the 1980 Mount Saint Helen’s blast and destroying almost all human life on Earth at the time, according to anthropologists.

So there I was, a former history major, oblivious to the fact that we were standing on the spot of one of the world’s most epoch-defining events. Perhaps it’s time to expand my horizons beyond the last 200 years and dig into the Pleistocene Era. Those Jared Diamond ecohistory books keep gathering dust on my shelves, mocking me with their sober, long-term view. They probably say something about Lake Toba’s volcanic ash and the near extinction of the human race. At the very least, such apocalyptic moments in history make my crushed foot seem pretty minor in comparison.

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