Toba's Tourist Slump

Trip Start Jun 02, 2007
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Trip End Ongoing


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Flag of Indonesia  ,
Monday, June 25, 2007

Sitting out on the balcony of my Batak-style bungalow, gazing out on the waters of Lake Toba, enjoying a lazy morning. A group of Chinese tourists are laughing and fooling around in inner tubes at the water's edge, and on the small stretch of beach a blonde-haired German couple are sunbathing and catching up on some reading.
 
Brettany, Felix and Budi have all returned home, and I am alone now, for the first time. It's a peaceful feeling, but a little scary, too. So I just concentrate on watching the fishermen gliding across the grey-blue water in their sampans, rods out to get their morning catch of ikan nila-small, round black fish they will sell to the local restaurants here in Tuk Tuk or in the markets of Parapat.
 
Looking out on the steep slopes that cut down into the lake, I try to imagine the size of the volcano that collapsed here 75,000 years ago in an eruption that must have been so massive, it would have been enough to cloak the entire planet in ash. That collosial eruption created this lake, which is so deep and so large (450 metres and 1,707 square kilometers), it has the qualities of an ocean; when the wind blows, it creates waves that resemble those rolling in on the rocky shores of Canada's west coast.
 
Yet this place is like nothing else in the world. Samosir is, literally, floating in the middle of a massive crater. But it is tranquil now, here at Samosir Cottage. One of the local ferries churns by, sounding its horn (it sounds like a car alarm) to signal its arrival for those waiting on the pier. The cook is singing sweetly downstairs as she chops up vegetables for nasi goreng, the traditional Indonesian breakfast of rice and eggs.
 
But there's a dark undercurrent to all this peace and tranquility. It's almost too peaceful. Since about 1998, the once-thriving tourism industry has stalled, and very few westerners come here.
 
Several people I spoke with said it's because the Muslims are giving the country a bad reputation. Indonesia is about 85 percent Muslim, 10 percent Christian and five percent Buddhist and Hindu. The majority of people here are Batak, a local aboriginal tribe that converted to Christianity in the last century. Some say the Muslims look down on them, believing their religion is superior. And the news seems to bear that ou that perception, providing extensive coverage of the bombings in Bali and Jakarta. With the world situation as grim as it is, people from North America, particularly those in the US, are afraid to come here.
 
When we were playing pool in Berestagi, Brettany was nervous at the sight of an American flag hung upside down on the wall. She felt uncomfortable about saying she was American, an understandable concern. But I had to ask her if anyone had treated her badly so far, and she had to respond that no, she hadn't; all the people she had met were friendly.
 
I've had my bouts of nerves, too. Once, when we stopped off at a mosque so Budi could pray, I became painfully aware that Brettany and I were the only westerners wandering around in the gardens among the Muslim families; I felt a bit like we were trespassing on private property. But the people were extremely gracious, smiling and chatting with us and helping us find our way to the bathrooms.   
 
It seems to me that sometimes tourists perceive a threat that doesn't really exist; it is simply a fear fed by the media reports of conflict created by a very few radical extremists. I don't mean to negate the seriousness of terrorism, but people here have much more to worry about, like extreme poverty. When it comes down to it, if you come to an area with an open mind and respect for the culture, you will receive the same respect in turn. The power of meeting individual people and getting to know them can overcome fears that have no true basis in reality, but from the rhetoric of misguided governments and media reports that cannot possibly reveal the true nature of a place and its people.
 
When I walk down the road in the village of Tuk Tuk, it's easy to see that it has been hit hard by the lack of tourists. Women sit at the entrance of their shops and call "Hallo, hallo," trying to entice a stray tourist like me to enter and buy from their selection of Batak carvings, sarongs and postcards. The hotels and inns are getting run down because the owners can't afford to make repairs without income from tourists. Poverty is everywhere.
 
At Popy's Fish Farm, Restaurant and Library, my favourite place for conversation and iced cappuccino, Popy's computer and satellite dish are broken; all his money goes to his six children, whom he can barely afford to send to school. "We have no help from the government," he said, shaking his head sadly as we looked out over his pond of goldfish. "No money for marketing Samosir, to help people realize this is a safe and beautiful place." I've heard this also from Annette, a German woman who owns and operates Tabo Cottages, where we had our gazebo dinner. It's frustrating that the people here must suffer because the government has done so little to combat misperceptions about Sumatra's safety. This is, after all, where the 2004 tsunami took its greatest death toll--200,000 people on the coast of Aceh province, hundreds of miles away. People watch the news and remember these things, and are now too afraid to come, not knowing that Sumatra is a large island about the size of California. There is much more to Sumatra than its disasters.

The secret lies in the kindness of the people. Despite his financial hardship, Popy is one of the most generous people Ive ever met. He drove me all the way to Tomok on his motorbike so I could get the best rate at a wartel (phone station)-20,000 rupiah instead of 25,000 in town, and refused payment for gas. I sat in a small shed in the middle of the darkness and talked to my mum for the first time since my arrival while he waited outside to give me privacy. And when I come to his restaurant for a cappuccino, he and his wife are always ready with a big plate of bananas or sliced pineapple, extra tea with lemon and honey, or a clove cigarette. He holds his youngest boy, Ito, with fatherly pride, and when I take the child's hand Popy urges, "Chiuman!" and the little boy kisses my hand.
 
"Next time you come to Samosir," Popy said, "You stay at our house. No charge. Family." This family who has so little in material goods, but is so rich with the things that really matter, is one of the many gems of the island, and why I will return to it again someday. Samosir, and the entire island of Sumatra for that matter, has enough problems without being sealed off from the rest of the world by media coverage of only the bad and the ugly. Sumatra has had more than its share of disasters, both natural and man-made, but it is still not a place to fear. The people here, and the incredible wonders of nature found nowhere else in the world, are worth getting to know. I'm glad I came here to find that out.
 
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