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The curious history of Lake Toba

Volcanic winters, cannibals, and an unusually large lake are but some of the things that lend to Lake Toba’s mystical charm.

Volcanic winters, cannibals, and an unusually large lake are but some of the things that lend to Lake Toba’s mystical charm. A worthwhile sidetrip from perhaps a visit to the capital Jakarta, Bali or Yogyakarta, it is a destination that holds within it a side of Indonesia that tourists rarely get to see — among these, a history of great geological significance, a culture so impressively preserved, and strange traditions that its people are more than willing to share. The stuff of legend, really.

CALDERA TOBA GEOPARK

The first thing you notice is the climate. Located in Sumatra, Indonesia, an island known for tropical rainforests, the wildest wildlife, and its 45 active volcanoes, Lake Toba has an elevation of about 3,000 feet. Its mountainside, accessed via Caldera Toba Geopark, is green and wet and alive with the sounds of nature. As a kid, this was how I guaged how far I was from the city: when the earth was a deep shade of Ovaltine brown, leaves on plants and trees were the size of humans, and noises from insects were so high-def, it’s like they’re right there with you. And most of the time, they were. At that age, I had a mild case of botanophobia, reserved specifically for gigantic leaves, and as we drove up the winding road to the geopark — giant plants jutting into the highway, reaching to grab me — I had to give myself a pep talk unbeknownst to my companions. 

Our mighty tour bus at twilight, at the entrance of Taman Eden

However, as it happens, we lose all fear at the sight of beauty. When we arrived at Taman Eden nature park, I forgot all about my old phobia and, in its place, came a new one. The kids call it FOMO, and it makes you do things you would normally pass on, such as walk on inclined earth in inappropriate shoes. “There’s a coffee shop at the top, overlooking the jungle,” our tour guide said, and that was enough for me to soldier on. Nobody says no to coffee in the mountains. 

Blackwood Coffee House is a charming cabin on a hill, with a small cliff for a backyard and the Sumatran rainforest for a backdrop. It’s the perfect place to have coffee, as well as a selfie or two. The cabin is decorated with vintage mementos. Records, a dog-eared copy of John Grisham’s The Testament, an old transistor radio, a gas lamp, a typewriter. It was my kind of place and I did not want to leave, but the sun, which had been hiding all day, was soon setting and we needed to head back to level ground before dark. 

At the visitor’s center, we had another drink, hot tea spiked with andaliman, a wild Indonesian pepper that numbs the tongue, sort of in the same way undiluted mouthwash does. Mixed into the drink, it had a gingery bite, warming and more than welcome. My palate is that much richer thanks to our brief pit stop. Soon we were hotel bound, the giant leaves waving goodbye as we drove back the way we came.

PESONA DANAU TOBA

Whenever there is a huddle anywhere, it’s never my first instinct to find out what’s in the middle of it. At Pesona Danau Toba, a local festival at Lake Toba that was celebrating its fourth year during our stay, we were right in the middle of a giant huddle of merrymaking and dancing that lasted for a good afternoon. I had covered plenty of festivals for work, but I’ve never been part of the actual parade. 

As part of the community’s efforts to increase tourist interest in Lake Toba, Pesona Danau Toba, is an annual event that draws locals from all over the area to partake in colorful parade of costumes, floats and cultural pride. At the festival we’ve come to learn that the Batak people, who are indigenous to the island, are fiercely proud of their town and heritage, and are, also, tireless dancers. 

If you’re having a party and it’s kind of a bore, throw a Batak in and it’s going to be lit. From experience, that seems to be the guaranteed effect. At the festival, which was held in the town of Balige, the dancing began even before the program started. Characterized by small, repetitive moments, it is simple, timid choreography made larger-than-life by the people that keep it alive to this day (and frankly, also by foreigners such as ourselves who clumsily try to copy it — all caught on tape!)

Friends from the Ministry of Tourism and the Embassy of Indonesia in the Philippines: Irwandi Tama, Melda Pane, Gama Nasution, Aprilia Ayu, Ghora Dhira, and Shanty Saragi.

According to our Batak guide, Jo, his people are naturally loud. They love speaking emphatically, highlighting even more the intonations in their dialect. As you might already know, we share many similar words that carry different meanings. As language sharing goes among millennials, the first words we learn are the funny ones — I shall leave you with that and let you discover them on your own on your next visit. 

Team Indonesia with Team Philippines: Euden Valdez of Philstar.com, Regine May Lao of Uni-Orient Travel, Inc. Astrid Alvarez of The Poor Traveler, Nikki Ferriols of Living Asia Channel, Boboy Recuerdo of Business Mirror, the author Chonx Tibajia, Rodel Mercado of Living Asia Channel, and Arlo Custodio of The Manila Times.

LAKE TOBA AND SAMOSIR ISLAND

Lake Toba is a product of a super massive volcanic eruption that took place 75,000 years ago. It was so intense that scientists have agreed that it led to a volcanic winter that was felt worldwide. Today, the lake itself occupies the caldera or crater of a supervolcano, although you wouldn’t know it from the serenity of its waters and surroundings. Viewed from Huta Ginjang lookout point, the lake extends as far as the eye can see, almost looking like an ocean. Traveling by ferry on the lake itself allows you to feel its expansiveness even more, as a trip from the city to Samosir Island, which is right at its center, takes about 45 minutes to an hour.

The author at Huti Ginjang, overlooking Lake Toba

I read somewhere that Samosir Island is almost the size of Singapore. If this is true, then we did not see even a quarter of it, and yet, we already saw so much. Tomok Village was our first stop — a shopping district with streets lined with stalls selling local handicrafts, batik fabrics and souvenirs. Our guides taught us the Batak way of haggling, which was just really never leaving until the seller gives you the price you want. “Always aim for half the price,” said our guide. I guess I have a “pushover” face, so I never actually got a substantial discount on my own. However, with local intervention, I was able to buy the dasters that my mother specifically asked for.

Forty-five-minute ferry ride to Samosir Island, at 15,000 rupiah

Another ferry ride brought us to Huta Siallagan, an ancient Batak settlement at is still very much alive to this day. The settlement is open to tourists who want to learn more about local culture, maybe sample local food, and hear all about local legends. I’ve never heard of the Batak Cannibal until that day. I was minding my own business, enjoying the naniura or goldfish sushi that the inang-ingangs prepared for us, when someone said we were going to learn about the tribe’s alleged cannibal practices. I’ve never been more relieved to witness how my meal was prepared — it was fish, for sure. I saw it.

According to the Siallagan leader and official tour guide, who is also incidentally a direct descendant of the King Siallagan, stories of Batak cannibals came from actual traditional practices. So is there any truth to the legend? Yes. (Warning: graphic details ahead) At the compound, there is an Execution Area, where criminals are skinned, tortured with lime juice, drained of blood, and then cut open. The king, who leads the ritual, then offers the heart and liver, which are already marinated in lime juice like a carpaccio, to his soldiers. He doesn’t force them, but the soldiers volunteer, hoping that the king would see them as loyal and strong. The cannibalistic practices among the Batak people stopped when Christians first came to the island. Today, Lake is a predominantly Christian region.

* * *

Lake Toba is accessible via local flights from major airports, such as Jakarta and Denpasar, to Silangit International Airport. Some cities such as Kuala Lumpur and Singapore have already opened direct flights to Lake Toba. It is about an hour’s flight from Bali, which is one of the most visited destinations in Indonesia among Filipinos. For information on Lake Toba, visit http://indonesia.travel or visit @indtravel on Instagram. Follow the author at @pineapplechonx and @gistphfor more lifestyle, entertainment and travel stories. Header image illustration by CARISSA BAUTISTA.

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