Samosir: The Island That Tourism Forgot

Restaurant after restaurant gapes open. The lights are on. The waiters stand by. When you pass, they call out: “Come, have dinner here. We have fresh fish.” In the bars, live bands are playing to a crowd of three. Only the local bars, where nothing but tuak (palm-wine) is served, are packed. Someone is strumming the guitar. Others are singing along to the Batak tunes. The atmosphere is jovial though subdued. Life goes on, whether there is work or not.

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Like locusts, the mass of tourists flow into paradisaical spots around the world, settle for a while, then take off, leaving devastation behind. Only to land in the next trendy place. Then another. Fads rule our travel plans. Our grandparents vacationed in their own country. Our parents in nearby countries, like Spain and France. In my lifetime, the in-destinations for Europeans have fluctuated from the Canary and Greek islands, to Tunisia and Turkey, then Thailand, the Caribbean and Bali. The quicker the jets fly, the further we go.

Samosir Island in Lake Toba, Northern Sumatra was once high on the list of must-visit places in Asia. A cool respite from the blazing coastal towns, the island may seem like a great stopover for a few days’ rest. But as soon as you get off the ferry from mainland Parapat and the fresh air fills your lungs, you know you’ll want to stay longer. Not only because of the green hills lined with narrow waterfalls, the fresh-water lake ideal for afternoon swims or the traditional Batak houses shaped as medieval ships. You’ll feel like you’ve stumbled on one of those enchanted destinations yet to be discovered. Only it was already discovered, colonized and hip, with outrageous full-moon parties in the late nineties. Then the locusts moved on. No one really knows why. Perhaps it was because of the war with the separatist guerrilla movement in the northern Aceh region. Or the 2002 terrorist bombings in Bali. Whatever the reason, the wave of tourists carved out another route, bypassing Lake Toba, leaving Samosir’s hotels and restaurants hauntingly abandoned.

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That’s why now is a great time to visit. The prices are ridiculously low: $7 hotel rooms with balcony and lake view; $15 fresh grilled fish dinner for two, including beer; $5/day for bike rental. But more than anything because you’ll get an off-the-beaten track experience with all the modern conveniences. You can ride into any village, stop your bike and say hello – the friendly Batak people will welcome you into their museum-style abodes. Walk by a wedding, and you’ll be invited to join. Stop for a beer in any village, and the barman will play you a song on his guitar. Poke your head into a classroom and the kids will die laughing at your funny faces. In the evening, return to Tuk-Tuk, the main town, and have your cappuccino, pizza or burger with fries if you don’t like local food. Or order a spicy barbecued tilapia, caught only minutes ago, that melts in your mouth and leaves you dreaming for more.

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Samosir is too fantastic to be missed. Do yourself a favor and get there before the crowds sniff up the scent again.

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Solving Problems with Laughter

“No, you need to give me more money!”

It’s not always easy to negotiate prices with someone who speaks an entirely different language. If the prices are in thousands, and all you can show are the numbers of your fingers, confusion is almost a given. Are we talking about Rp. 5,000 ($0.50) or Rp. 50,000 ($5). As a foreigner, you assume the lower price because it’s more logical. As a local, you hope for the higher. Because all tourists are rich, right?

In Indonesia, discussions always end with a laugh. The rickshaw driver laughs, because he wants more money. You laugh, because a short ride on a bicycle taxi can impossibly cost more than a New York City cab. You are left with two options. One – you give them more money. Or two – you walk away, knowing that what you have given is enough. No matter what you do, the laughs are guaranteed, and the “cheated” rickshaw driver will still greet you just as heartily when he sees you the next morning.

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Maybe it’s the sugar they overdose on, adding it to anything from avocado salads to potato chips. Just like their foods, the Indonesians are incredibly sweet. Rarely does anyone raise their voice, and almost never does anyone get angry. Instead, laughter is everywhere. If they don’t understand English, they laugh. If they don’t have what you want to buy, they laugh. If they think you’re a moron, they laugh. And when they try to con you, they also laugh. If you’re smart, you’ll laugh, too, because it’s the only way you can possibly win an argument.

It’s difficult to imagine anywhere more pleasant and easy. For such an overwhelmingly Muslim country, it’s refreshing to see the how free and happy everyone is. Muslim girls either wear a headscarf, or they don’t. Many of them have christian boyfriends, and they all hang out together, dancing and singing in Karaoke bars until late at night. Faith is a choice, not a life sentence. And if they want to study abroad, no one is stopping them. Women even have a higher value, because when a couple gets married, the groom has to pay a reasonable sum for his wife.

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After a few weeks in Indonesia, you’ll find yourself laughing just as much as they do.

“You’re charging me a dollar for a 10 cent bag of snacks?”

What’s not to laugh about?

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The Eco-Warriors of Kalimantan

The afternoon sun caresses the face of an old man sitting cross legged on the wooden floor, eight meters high above ground. With a machete, he slices thin strips of bamboo, which he will later use to weave baskets. Further down the longhouse hall, a younger man with a withered leg mends fishing nets that hang from the ceiling. His arms and chest are adorned by Iban Dayak tattoos made of soot and sugar-cane juice. Only the elderly, disabled, breast feeding and young ones remain at home during harvest time. Everyone else will spend weeks toiling in the rain forest fields, coming home long after sunset, and sometimes spending the night in temporary shelters.

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The Dayak tribes in Kalmantan’s jungle used to be known for their head-hunting skills and taste for human meat. Nowadays, they lead a more tranquil life in organized communities, sharing their homestead with up to fifty different families in separate apartments in a wooden longhouse. Almost completely self-sufficient, they still fish and hunt for food, grow cereals in their fields and pick their vegetables and fruits from the jungle. Even their stimulants come from just outside their door; they tap their palm wine directly from the trees and chew betel nuts for a natural high.

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But this National Geographic-worthy image is slowly dissipating. Large areas of rainforest have been cut down to make room for palm oil plantations, and diamond, coal and gold mines. Many tribes have sold their lands to make fast money, blind to the consequences. Orangutans who once roamed freely all over Borneo are now resigned to small protected areas in the national parks. Plants that have grown abundantly for millennia can no longer thrive under the limited shade between oil palms. The biodiversity is affected to such a degree that in only a few more years the little that is left of the jungle will be gone. And with it the orangutans, macaques, proboscis monkeys, hornbills, orange snakes and sun bears that cannot find enough food in an altered environment.

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Luckily, some tribes refuse to sell their native souls. As children of the forest, they have taken on the role of protector and savior. They are very well aware that once their rainforest is gone, so are they. As their forefathers, they have always lived off the land, eating whatever grows in their natural garden: coconuts, cacao, wild ginger, bamboo, pineapples, bananas, mushrooms and so on. It’s a garden that doesn’t have to be pruned, fertilized or watered, everything feeds off each other. No plant is superfluous. All have a purpose in the play of light and shade, and all of them make perfect sense and all have flourished there since the beginning of time. Until now.

Local and foreign NGOs are trying to slow down the devastation. By supporting the tribes and satisfying acute needs, the chiefs will not be so easily tempted to sell off forests to large companies. Turbines have been mounted in adjacent rivers to generate electricity for the villages and reduce emission from gasoline-powered generators. Home-stays have been constructed to allow tourists to stay the night in reasonable comfort in a Dayak village, providing the tribes with an additional source of income. Even the government is offering a helping hand by distributing seedlings that can be grown and sold expensively to Arabian perfume manufacturers.

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Here, the few tourists that visit actually make a positive difference. Every dollar they spend with the tribes will not only help save their ancient traditions, but will also let the rain forest endure a little bit longer. The way to Kapuas Hulu is rough: twenty long hours from Pontianak over bumpy roads, non-existent roads or mud-holes, depending on how lucky you have been with the weather. And once there, you’ll find no famous monuments or ruins. No tourist attractions. Just rainforests. Trees. The odd orangutan family. Rivers. And traditional villages. It may not be an easy road to travel, and it’s definitely not always a comfortable visit. But when you sit down for dinner on the floor of a longhouse, eating rice and fish with one hand, and holding a glass of palm wine in another, while watching lizards chase spiders on the walls, it will all be worth it. It is one of the few places in the world where nothing has changed for hundreds of years.

Except for the TVs, of course. And the modern clothes. And the cans of Red Bull.

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Seven Dollar Facial

“I should have known better. I should have walked out. Shall I get up and leave?”

The thoughts buzzed around in my head. What was I doing here? Staring up at the ceiling, I hoped the spiders were too busy spinning their intricate nets to attack me. And were the sheets really clean? Whose bed was this anyway?

It had seemed like a good idea. In Singkawan, Kalimantan, on a day so hot the tarmac burned through my sandals, I would have done anything for some shade. Cowering in an air-conditioned ATM booth was only an option for a minute until the security guard started getting suspicious. The restaurants were either closed or outside on the street. We had three hours to kill until the shared taxi would leave back to Pontianak and nothing to do. When we passed a beauty salon, I thought that having a facial while cooling off under their fans would be a great solution.

If my brain had been less over-heated, I would have noticed that there were no other customers in the salon. I would have wondered what cosmetic training these young girls had, whose faces were powdered an unnatural white. I would have probably hesitated before climbing up the rickety stairs to what looked like a teenage girl’s bedroom with vividly patterned sheets. And definitely I should have left when I saw the dirty dishrag the beautician lifted to my face, to wipe it “clean” from sweat and grime.

I didn’t. I closed my eyes and tried to avoid thinking about the critters above me, and the possible bedbugs beneath me. The adolescent smeared my face with a exfoliating crème. Then she scrubbed in circles round and round, lightly touching my forehead, nose and chin, but mostly focusing on my cheeks until I thought the skin would come off. By then I had realized this girl did not have a clue what she was doing. Cleaning my face once again with the smelly rag, she continued distractedly massaging my temples and cheeks until they hurt. After a few minutes of a soothing gel, my face was “washed” again, and the youngster proceeded to smear on a facial mask.

Heaven. At least now she would leave me alone until the mask dried. I dozed off. The girl went downstairs. Only a few moments later she came back with a friend. Completely ignoring me, they giggled, gossiped and sang along to a Justin Bieber CD in Indonesian English. I was in a perpetual hell. The teenagers’ voices grew louder as they wailed off key to something that sounded like: Ohh wooaah Ohh wooaah Ohh wooaah, you aah you love meeee, I eeh you maaaa.”

The removal of the mask hurt as bad as if they were ripping off my skin. I winced, but said nothing. Soon it would be all over and I could walk away. I bit my lip and endured the pain. My poor skin. Would I look like I had washed my face with sandpaper? Would it break out in a thousand pimples? Could I even walk outside for the next few weeks?

“How was it?” asked Eduardo when I finally came downstairs. “Interesting,” was all I could say. It had been a fascinating experience, for sure. And well worth the seven dollars. Because the next day, my skin looked absolutely fantastic.