We entered the small unassuming shop through a low doorway. Housed in a wooden open-air cabin on a grassy hill we had stumbled upon a veritable museum of Batak art, handicraft, and culture. Like the dozen silent hotels and waterfront villas surrounding it, the shop appeared perplexingly abandoned. Its walls were draped in worn textiles, their once bright exuberant patterns discolored by time and neglect; on the dusty shelves were neatly placed statues, boldly colored wood carvings, tablets called Pustahas intricately marked throughout with symbolism and seemingly forgotten codes of divination, and from the ceiling hung woven baskets once used to carry subsistence goods throughout the island. The center of the dimly lit room contained row after row of glass display cases housing hundreds of neatly folded textiles. The shop represented a life hidden somewhere outside Tuk Tuk’s quiet streets.
The much-anticipated Batak culture brought us to Samosir Island in Lake Toba of Northern Sumatra and after a long journey from Medan, most of which was spent leaving Medan, we dropped our bags at the lakeside guesthouse Romlan in a room with a terrace that boasted one of the most majestic views we’ve had in Indonesia. Rightly so, we were not as quick out the door as we planned as we savored a cool fresh breeze amidst towering volcanos surging skywards from the serene shades of green-blue that peacefully stretched around and above us. Because we could not anticipate the natural splendor, we had arrived most interested in the Batak culture, specifically the traditional Batak weavings, known as Ulus, for which the region is famous.
It was hunger that brought us off the terrace and after devouring a lunch of traditional sak sang, pork in brown coconut sauce and sautéed vegetables, we stumbled upon the impeccable handicrafts shop. While we were attempting to open one of the numerous glass cases stuffed with antique Ulus the aging shopkeeper entered from a shadowy back room and turned on the light. He rather unenthusiastically complied with our request to open several of the display cases packed with exquisite textiles and dryly explained the names of different patterns and designs while referencing pictures in a thick, aging book on Batak history and culture written in German.
Batak culture is worthy of a thick volume. Their historical kin are believed to be the Batak of the Philippines, who emigrated more than 20 generations ago (the length of Batak memory) to the mountainous Lake Toba region. At fifty-nine miles long, Lake Toba is the largest lake in Southeast Asia and is enclosed by a towering 2000 ft volcanic rim. In its center is the island of Samosir which itself catapults hundreds of feet above the shore into a plateau of rolling hills and pine trees undulating amongst the clouds and overflowing with waterfalls. The landscape is as stunning as it is formidable and for centuries provided a protective location where the Batak could develop their unique culture protected yet not secluded from the outside world (historically they have engaged in trade with Chinese, Indians and Indonesian kingdoms for over a thousand years). Coupled with the geography, their fierce reputation kept unwanted visitors at bay. Batak have a long history of both headhunting and cannibalism that lasted into the 20th century, and many of the devoured were outsiders who had committed an offense against village custom. When the accused was a fellow Batak, to be just, before beheading and consuming the neighboring villager, the Batak would try their case before the offender’s headman. To assert his acceptance of the punishment, the headman would send a woven fabric to cover the convict’s head as well as salt and lime for the ritual feast that would follow.[i] This explains why it took until 1863, almost three centuries after the Dutch arrival in Sumatra, for the first westerner to travel to Toba and return to tell about it.
Today, Tuk-Tuk is a pleasant, sleepy town that sees a small trickle of domestic tourists along with a smattering of intrepid, mainly German travelers. Those that do still come seem to disappear among the mass of nearly empty hotels perpetually waiting for a high season that never arrives. Though this is quite a pleasant surprise for travelers seeking respite from crowds, for the Batak population the failure of the tourist industry represents yet another broken promise in a long string of misfortune that has seen their economic hopes dashed, their aspirations of increasing modernity delayed, and their cultural heritage diminished and continually fading away.
The height of tourism on Lake Toba was dominated by backpacker “reggae” culture which has no relation to actual Rastafarian, Jamaican, or reggae culture of the Caribbean Sea. Socially corrosive “reggae” tourism has become synonymous with homogenization, cheap elephant print pants, pulsating subwoofers at 4 am, a painted Jamaican flag and the term “chillout” becoming the international symbol for get drunk, be sloppy and buy weed here. While Tuk Tuk experienced a brief outbreak of reggae tourism, fate interceded and currently the only evidence of the former debauchery is a few empty bars and the bands of green, yellow and black on hand-painted signs now peeling in the tropical sun that advertise “Laundry, Motorbike Rental, and Magic Mushrooms”.
Although the decline of reggae tourism may have been for the better, the resident Batak people have seen their hopes of a prosperous future repeatedly dashed by poor public management, environmental collapse, and events so foreign and unattached to their world that they might be accused as the work of malignant spirits. Even as tourism boomed in the 90’s the government was busy undermining itself with a simultaneous bureaucratic cash grab that promoted fish-farming on Lake Toba as a further source of economic windfall. As more and more fish farms popped up visitors lost interest in venturing into the now slimy opaque waters and tourism began to slowly decline. Closer to Toba, yet still isolated from Batak culture itself, was the increasingly brutal uprising in neighboring Aceh province coupled with the Bali bombings of 2002 and 2005 and the 2004 tsunami that killed 225,000 Achinese. This string of misfortune was further enhanced by the Asian financial crisis that segued into 9/11 and the global recession the left tourism on Lake Toba utterly paralyzed.[ii]
In the absence of tourism, the government, villagers, and then multinational corporations doubled down on unsustainable fish farming. By 2016 there were 12,000 cages lining Toba’s shore each holding up to 10,000 fish which was double or triple recommended capacity.[iii] Between 2012-2016 phosphorous levels in the already polluted lake tripled. Asia’s largest and most picturesque lake was now a cesspool; its once crystalline waters covered in a film of green cinquefoil. Then the die-offs started. In July of 2016 1500 tons of fish suddenly died of asphyxiation, the polluted water no longer containing enough oxygen for the fish to breathe. Five more major die-offs would follow in the coming months.[iv]
Only after a complete environmental collapse, did the government spring into action. Five of the seven regencies surrounding the lake banned fish-farming. When the other two failed to act the federal government sent in the military to disassemble thousands of cages. Villagers were arguably suspicious that those raids came just weeks before a visit by the Indonesian president and vice-president to support their newly unveiled tourism initiative for the region. Despite having had the government encourage fish-farming for many years and that it was still entirely legal in their regency, the army under orders of the government released tens of thousands of juvenile fish into the lake with untold consequences to the native fish species. Had there been only two months wait before curtailing operations, the fish would have been large enough to harvest. Instead the villagers lost half a year’s income, much of it borrowed. This seemed to the villagers to be a cruel and vindictive approach to solving environmental problems.[v]
The catastrophe came at a time when lawmakers and moderate President Jokowi were realizing that exploiting natural resources until environmental collapse should not be Indonesia’s sole long-term development strategy. The die-offs supported a new and correlated long-term development strategy that put increased priority on tourism. The government selected ten locations for what it triumphantly dubbed “10 New Bali’s”. If you have experienced tourism on Bali you too may think that one Bali is plenty, but the planned massive infrastructure upgrades, financial investment, and environmental planning a shrewd Jokowi envisioned at least valued the rich diversity of his country. Jokowi projected an expansion of tourism from 4% of the economy to 20% which would hopefully transition Indonesia’s capitalism away from resource exploitation.[vi]
He wasn’t ignorant to assume that ecological tourism could be a powerful force to drive economics in a country with more coastline than anywhere in the world but Canada, numerous volcanos, and the world’s most biodiverse jungles and seas. However, shortly after instating the program his over-optimism became obvious because six of the “10 New Bali’s” were deemed completely unfit for large scale commercial development. The “10 New Bali’s” were pared down to four but did include the Lake Toba area, as well as Labuan Bajo, Flores; the island of Lombok and the largest standing ancient Buddhist temple on the island of Java, Borobudur. Because Lake Toba’s gorgeous scenery and unique culture was supported by an already existing tourist infrastructure and a modern international airport in Medan, tourism seemed well situated to succeed. One regional politician told the Jakarta Post that he envisioned Toba to be the Monaco of Asia. Whether or not he has been to Monaco remains unknown and based on our experience Lake Toba remains utterly dissimilar to Monte Carlo, nonetheless the government’s hopeful push to transform Lake Toba is well underway. A new expressway from Medan is taking shape (though it won’t prevent you from spending two hours crossing the city) and the network of roads winding through Samosir island are seeing their pot-holed, wash-out byways resurfaced with gleaming black asphalt while the industrious locals have repurposed the shards of the former road and pieced together charming asphalt paver patios in front of their traditional houses.
The biggest hurdle to infrastructure development continues to be water quality. Though fish farms have been drastically curtailed (though several were visible in areas where they may have been banned when we visited) 30% of the lake remain dangerously polluted. Presently the culprit is industrial waste, agricultural runoff, and sewage from the 30 rivers that empty into the lake.[vii] Tackling this problem will be far more complex than just sending in the army to tear down the problem as it rests in changing the mindset of thousands of people who won’t benefit directly from the lake’s visitors while simultaneously and significantly butting heads with entrenched commercial and agricultural interests.
Looking through the hand-written price tags neatly folded and tied around the traditional Ulus at the handicrafts shop, we were surprised to see many being sold for several hundred US dollars. Given the extensive collections folded in many of the shops, there was a small fortune of inventory in Tuk Tuk alone. However, the shopkeeper explicitly had no discernable desire to capitalize. As we examined one particularly detailed Ulu, he flatly stated that selling items like this made him very upset. This unconventional approach to salesmanship was a heartwarming instance of cultural pride and preservation in the face of uncertain and unwelcome change. His sadness and concern extended to us as he mourned the Batak art that has been sold and sent abroad when it belongs on Samosir. We questioned whether there were still weavers on the island and also why, if the work has such high value, no one continues the craft but left the shop without an answer.
Inspired and curious by the shopkeeper’s attitude, we embarked on a long motorbike ride throughout Samosir’s northern coast in hopes of finding the island’s last remaining hand-weavers. The wearing and giving of weavings are intricately enmeshed in the life events of the Batak; weddings, births, deaths, and festivals all have their own specific designs and symbolism. It is believed the Batak are one of the first peoples of Indonesia to weave and weaving is so central to Batak culture that it plays an integral role in their origin story. The maternal goddess, a weaver naturally, escapes her tumultuous marriage by sliding down from heaven on one of her delicate arching threads and ends in the seas of the underworld. It is here that she creates land and all that inhabit it.
Having gained much international notoriety, many of these exquisite textiles have ended up in museums and private collections abroad. Unfortunately, the traditional techniques have mostly failed to be passed on to the uninterested younger generations who face increased economic pressures often forcing them to seek work in large cities, while inexpensive factory-made cloth dominates every day street wear.
It is intriguing to us that young locals don’t consider weaving for a source of income when there remains an open awareness among the locals of the high value of traditional weavings in this economically depressed area. This is baffling when you consider 10,000 farm raised tilapia sell for less than a handmade Ulu. However, the weavers remain elusive.
The land on the northern end of Samosir flattens out with rice paddies and fields of corn spanning from the mountains to the shore and occasionally dotted with stilted cement and aging wood graves delicately carved and brightly painted against a waving sea of vegetation. Rows of boat shaped homes rest under narrow and deeply curved roofs are bunched among modern cement dwellings and storefronts. Adorning every surface of these traditional Batak homes are ornately carved red, black and white patterns and symbols representing a synergy of animism, Tamil Shaivism, and Buddhist influence. The structures themselves are built off the ground without nails. These edifices themselves represent a complex belief system and intriguing way of life but are interspersed in the landscape with prominent churches that serve also as landmarks of German missionaries who converted the headhunting people towards Christianity. In effect the conversion efforts created a culture that today is represented by an amalgam of animism and monotheistic worship.
On this Sunday the roadsides were busy with people walking to and from church. The elderly men and women were adorned in their best weavings while some of the younger generation deviated in jeans and polyester dresses. The tip-off that brought us up to the north coast was to locate a man who made elaborate ulus and other weavings which he exported to high-end boutiques in Japan. Unfortunately, a lack of signage and our insufficient language skills hampered our search and after several hours with no success we turned around. On the return journey I caught the word Ulu on a small sign, and we followed the arrow down a dirt path towards the lake. It was here that we found Samosir Songket. Composed of two buildings, one serves as the storefront and family house and the other a large wood building crammed with looms!
Our arrival proved a pleasant surprise for the owner Veronica Manihuruk. Samosir Songket does a small amount of exporting, but their primary business aim is to produce high-quality weaving in the traditional style and method that is also affordable among the local Batak population, so they see few foreign visitors popping into their unimposing location. An ambitious young female entrepreneur, stylishly dressed in vibrant blue and orange batik, she was eager to give us a full tour. Being a Sunday, the shop was somewhat quiet, however several workers both male and female and predominantly of the younger generation were busy on the looms performing a complicated weaving technique that required simultaneous movement of both hands and feet. Unlike the deafening drone of machines in mechanized textile shops, the room reverberated in the soft rhythmic drumming of wood on wood. The sound and motion tranquilized us as we watched the weavers slide back the arm of the loom after each rotation. This readied the cloth for another brightly colored thread that was metamorphizing from neat rows to the intricate and symbolic patterns transposed upon the ulus. Accompanying this melodic sound were the giggles of children playing in the corner. The two oldest, probably eight or nine years old, were eager to hop on a loom and show us that they too had picked up some weaving skills. The employees at Samosir Songket are paid per weaving which allows them to create their own schedule and childcare routine. This flexibility enables many women who would otherwise be unable to work earn an income. After carefully choosing our favorites from the well-stocked store, we departed with warm goodbyes and several bulging bags. We had succeed having obtained some of the culture’s magnificent art while supporting its continuation and the livelihood of the people.
That evening we ate a traditional Batak meal in a small café of lake fish in a spicy curry, and beef stewed in a rich sauce of blood, coconut rice and vegetables. The next day we hopped back on the motorbike, this time southward from Tuk Tuk. The ever more treacherous road lead us to climb hundreds of feet in elevation. Nearing the plateau, the deeply rutted and washed out road transitioned into smooth new asphalt. Now moving speedily over low rolling hills perched precariously high in relation to the land to our left that toppled a thousand feet down to the lake below. We sped past calm creeks as they overflowed off the precipice cumulating into the majestic waterfalls somewhere out of sight below. We could see none of the elaborate boat shaped dwellings on this section of island; there was little of anything but a spattering of simple clap-board homes some with small children peeking out, a few tilled fields, but mostly swaying grass, elegant pines, prolific ferns, and sky above and around reflecting to the calm majestic waters of Lake Toba below. The landscape became increasingly dreamlike as we plotted forward, however as the sun set on the future Monaco of the East we were forced to retreat down the bruised road to the empty hotels and unkept promises of the new Bali below.
Romlan Guesthouse, Tuk Tuk. A beautiful well managed place right on the waterfront with reasonably priced lakeside room with balconies. The restaurant is also delicious and offers many local specialties.
Maruba. The best place to try local specialties. If you pre-order the morning or evening before, they will put together a particularly amazing Batak consisting of multiple dishes and sides.
Juwita Café. Tasty Indonesian and local fare with a nice view
Scenery and Culture:
Guesthouses rent motor bikes and bicycles to cruise the island. We found the road running south of Tuk Tuk to have especially scenic vistas of the lake, while the northbound route had the best culture.