The Sumatran Enlightenment

Our Bornean adventure was over almost before it began. This didn’t have us too down, though. Teresa and I felt very privileged to have made it out to that part of the world in the first place. It was in this content state of mind that we moved on to yet another Indonesian destination, one that would have us happily immersed while present, and yearning while removed, as I am at this particular moment in time.

Bisected by Earth’s equator, Sumatra lies as far west as it could in the mesmerizing scatter of Indonesia’s 17,000 islands. Twice as long as Java’s thousand kilometre stretch, the inlands are apparently difficult to traverse and not as often sought after by travellers. After jumping off of a short Kal Star Aviation flight from Pangkalan Bun back to Jakarta, it was Air Asia to Medan, North Sumatra’s capital. We would soak up a bit of the populated city towards the end of our stay in Indonesia. For now, though, we needed a few hours of rest in the airport to gear up for a five hour taxi ride deeper into the province.

Our destination was a little lakeside town called Parapat. We drove through cities, towns, and rural areas characterized by spanning palm plantations. We were five months into living in Asia but the insanity of people’s driving here still took me off guard. There were at least a half dozen moments that I was certain would be my last.

I immediately began to notice something quite different from everywhere I’d been in the country up until this point. It began with a church here, a church there. The next thing we knew, entire communities and towns bore signs of Christianity from banners across the streets, crosses on homes, and an increasing density of cathedrals of varying proportions. These were still the days when little to no research was done on our part in regards to where we were going. We wanted almost everything to be a surprise and we’d been successfully riding on that concept from the beginning. The culture in this area south of Medan was quite interesting because further north of the provincial capital lies Aceh Province, widely known for an approach to Islam that is acutely more conservative when compared to the more moderate majority of Indonesia.

Teresa was beginning to feel sick on the winding drive. We hadn’t really had anything to eat for a while. The cab driver kept stopping to try to pick up more customers, but no one was interested. While I was annoyed at the time, especially because Teresa wasn’t feeling well, when I look back I can understand. Between the two of us we’d paid 400,000 Rupiahs, equivalent to about $40 CAD at the time. He had to drive five hours to take us through the province and then, I assume, back to Medan. I’d be wanting to make as much out of the ten hour journey as well.

We were finally beginning to get close to our destination. The lush, green scenery lining both sides of the road began to open out and we suddenly emerged along the side of a mountainous area. Below lay Lake Toba, glittering blue as the sun shone down on it, winding both northwest and southeast around the scattered mountains. The lake itself is actually the crater of a dead volcano, half a kilometer deep, and filled almost to the brim with ice cold water. In the centre of the circular lake lies Samosir Island, our sanctuary for the next week and a half, although we hadn’t decided on that length of time quite yet. Parapat is the town along the edge of the mainland with ferry service taking passengers across Lake Toba to the little town of Tuk Tuk where we’d be staying. After two plane rides, an airport overnighter, and a five hour taxi ride, that forty-five minute ferry trip was the most welcome thing I could imagine. It did wonders for Teresa’s queasiness, as well. At that point, we knew that the hard part of getting here was over.

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The moment we docked on the island, we were greeted by two young men, one on a motorbike, ready to provide us with all kinds of offers for accommodations. It certainly beat the usual throngs of tuk-tuk drivers, motorcyclists, and the lot all clamouring over each other for our business. This was quiet, respectful, and relaxed. In truth, we needed to figure out where to go to rest our heads anyway. Although it wouldn’t have been difficult to find the one main road in town and start looking, we were fairly exhausted at this point.

The guys only had one bike so they had to take one of us at a time while the other waited along the shore. We decided Teresa should go and I would wait behind.

While she was being taken to the first place we would decide to sleep here on Tuk Tuk, the other guy and I struck up a conversation. Right away, he started talking to me about one of the main attractions of the area. I’ve mentioned before the legality of magic mushrooms in Indonesia, but they aren’t available just anywhere. Here, though, mushrooms abound. They are grown in buffalo dung and advertised on every other building in the village. Signs outside would list the kinds of commodities available. Room. Food. Laundry. Motorbike. Mushrooms. That simple, that available. Several stall owners and local residents that we met seemed a little spacy most of the time and it wasn’t hard to figure out why.

This was a different kind of atmosphere that we’d entered and, as it felt when we’d arrived, we had all the time in the world to explore it. To me, that’s a moment I would grasp as it occurs because it doesn’t get much better than that. It’s in a fresh, open, and free environment like this where one has the opportunity to play with their thoughts, and become a little more enlightened than they were.

15 thoughts on “The Sumatran Enlightenment

  1. I went to Padang in Western Sumatera early last year and other than the haphazard driving, the tranquility astounded me. Rural Sumatera, especially the highlands, is a place of preservation – the preservation of nature, culture and the warmth of its people.

    Liked by 1 person

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