8 December 2011

Not Broken? [Lake Toba, Indonesia]

I just spent 2 days hanging out on an island. Nothing special, right? WRONG! This island is in a lake which formed in the crater of an extinct VOLCANO! I picked up a brochure on the place, and it stated that Lake Toba is probably the highest lake in the world! Probably is good enough for me; I'll claim it. The lake is bright blue in colour and crystal clear. And the island is like a tropical paradise, complete with swaying palm trees. Did I mention it is in the crater a volcano? How cool is that?

Let's back up a couple of days. Julia and I arrived to Medan in Indonesia after our short flight from Penang. The first sign we got that Indonesia is a fairly laid-back country was when the plane was pulling up to the terminal; we saw a guy asleep right on the tarmac, underneath a plane. I don't think they allow that sort of thing at Heathrow? Anyway. the visa-on-arrival process was quick and painless. In fact it was faster than most borders that do not require a visa. I think they are just after the cash.

We planned to get straight out of the city, which meant making our way to the long-distance bus station, a few kilometers out of town. We almost had to physically push the taxi and motorbike drivers away as they hurled offers at us, and made our way to the nearest bus stop. We almost walked past it as it looked like it had not been in use for years; rusted and covered in graffiti. The 'bus' showed up just as we were arriving... I use the term bus very loosely; it was a rusted out old van that had the seats ripped out and a couple of bench seats installed. We actually didn't have any small change so one nice guy paid for us! 1 point for Indonesia.

After about 30 minutes we arrived at the long-distance bus station, where we were immediately confronted by a man in uniform wanting to sell us tickets. A little hesitant, we agreed. Turns out he was so enthusiastic as he was taking a little commission for himself, but it amounted to less than $0.50, so we weren't too concerned. What did piss me off was that the luggage compartment was full, so he wanted to charge us an extra seat for our bags. We ended up putting one under our feet and the other in the aisle for everyone to walk over. Not ideal.

The bus ride was OK. It was interesting to ride with all the locals, being the only foreigners on the bus. There were plenty of smiles and people seemed quite curious. But the two guys behind us (along with quite a few others on the bus) were chain smoking. After five hours there was a thin haze through the bus and I had a killer headache. The guy directly behind us had his young daughter with him, right beside him on the seat as he smoked one after the other. We learned quickly that smoking is one of the two things that Indonesians LOVE to do.

We arrived in Parapat, a small town on the edge of lake Toba, at about 7pm. Unfortunately too late for the last ferry, so we found ourselves a guesthouse for the night. We thought we were getting a bargain after Malaysia - where we were paying at least US$10 a night. Here is was only about $7. It turns out that we were taken for a bit of a ride, as the accommodation here is CHEAP (last night we paid $3.50). Funny story - as we pulled in to Parapat one of the guys asked me "Tuk-tuk?". I thought he meant do we need a tuk-tuk, so I replied "Uhhh, no, I don't think so". But he was actually referring to the town Tuk-Tuk, which is the main tourist spot on Samosir Island... Hmmm, not that funny? Maybe you had to be there.

Early the following morning we took the ferry across to Tuk-Tuk. On the boat we were approached by a friendly enough guy working for one of the hotels. Not having anywhere to stay we agreed to take a look at his place. Only having the previous night for reference, I thought we were winning when I bargained him down to $7. Yeah, we weren't. But the room was nice enough and they did have wifi. The following day we changed to a traditional Batak house for half the price.

What is a Batak house? It is a house built in the style of the local Batak people, with two big points at each end. These people have lived in this region for hundreds of years, originally migrating from Burma and Thailand. They were a brutal, warlike people with some pretty barbaric customs. Today they are friendly and warm, their worst trait is sometimes trying to charge too much for souvenirs at the local market.

With spectacular views and not a whole lot to do, this regions is perfect for kicking back and relaxing with a good book. We don't have a good book between us, and both Julia and I are not much for laying around doing nothing. So our downtime was spent booking flights or planning where we want to go next.

We hired a scooter to get out and explore the island, driving the entire northern coast. The place is truly beautiful. And the Indonesian people are so friendly and just generally excited to see you. Passing by on the scooter all the children would yell out hello or hold their hands out for high-fives. And their English in general is surprisingly good. The only things we really 'did' that day was call in at some hot springs for a dip, and visit the local market.

On the way home instead of driving back around the coast, we decided to go up and over the island. It is practically a straight line versus driving ALL the way back around. It'll take half the time! What could go wrong? Short answer: almost everything. Driving the coast probably took 1.5 hours. Over the top took at least 2.5. Why? The roads were more like 4x4 trails. Huge rocks, potholes, massive puddles of mud. Parts of it looked like they were old horse trails that had not been used in years. Needless to say; the signage was very poor, and I think the locals kept directing us the wrong path - the one that brings down monster trucks - just for a laugh. I am really surprised we actually made it.

Completely exhausted, we returned the scooter an hour late! With a huge grin on her face, the lady just took a look at the scooter, literally coated in mud, and all she said was "Not broken?". Indonesians? Awesome!

We decided on Berastagi as our next stop. There is no direct public bus, and while it is possible to take a combination of buses between the two, it would have probably taken the whole day. So we decided to be lazy and take a tourist bus service for about $11 each. It actually ended up being just us two in the back of a relatively nice car. The only problem? The driver and his co-pilot were smoking like a train the whole time.

Random observations:
- I'll say it again, Indonesian people are awesome; really friendly and inviting people. We went for some dinner one night and got talking to the woman that ran the place. She was so nice; letting us know we were being ripped off at the place we were staying, making recommendations for others, giving us free drinks and huge meals.
- I mentioned that Indonesians love to do two things - the first is smoking. The second - singing. In the evening you can wander around Tuk-Tuk and there will be music and singing coming from every second place you pass.
- These is no Thai-style tuk-tuks here. Instead they have motorbikes with little sidecars. It is impressive to see how many people they can fit in one. It is like watching one of those clown cars.
- While we are on transport - the Indonesians like to use every available space in their vehicles. It is not unusual to see a bunch of people clinging to the roof of a van as it flys past.
- And one more thing, all the buses and vans are painted in bright, colourful patterns. It is pretty cool.

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