Lake Toba is the most remote place I have been so far. After working the whole night in Jakarta, I flew in to Medan – the gateway to Northern Sumatra – early in the morning. With long day ahead of me, I had my caffeine dosage in Starbucks in Soekarno-Hatta International Airport. It made my day when I accidentally bumped into an Indonesian friend whom I met in Bali a month before. Small world indeed! After a small chit-chat, I looked for my own table and went to fulfill one of my purposes in life – to break wifi’s code for free internet. Heh. I can’t recall if Starbucks in the airport has wifi but anyway I found myself breaking in to the airport’s VIP lounge wifi.
Not bad for a choice, Christine. Not bad.
After doing some reports, I was off to the plane that would bring me to a couple of the most memorable experiences I have in my backpacking life.
BUT before that, I went to the toilet first. Could have been an uneventful experience except that I entered the male’s rest room and it doesn’t help that the queue line is close to the toilet and the people saw me going out from the male’s rest room. I just smiled and said “Wrong number.”
If you have flown in any parts of Indonesia, you would probably agree with me that the country has the most notorious sky for a plane to fly. I have never experienced any turbulence as wild as it is in Indonesia and most especially with my flight going to Medan. For almost half hour, I felt like throwing up and prayed hundred times that I would make it alive in Northern Sumatra. I love flying and throw me inside the plane anytime but I don’t want to experience that kind of turbulence again. It was that bad!
I landed in Medan before 2pm. One of the few advises of my well-meaning friends is to be careful with the place. Being in the last leg of my trip and fatigue started to set in, I wasn’t able to properly communicate with the resort I was planning to stay in so after getting my luggage, I realised I hadn’t communicated where the driver would pick me. I asked around where the passengers usually wait but no one could give me an answer. Tired as I was and with no idea how to top up my local SIM that I have been using since I started my trip in Indonesia, I went to the closest phone shop that I could find and planned to buy a new SIM. I was fortunate enough that one of the staff can speak decent English and not only he topped up my phone, he also helped me called the driver and translated instructions for me. The staff also offered me a chair where I could rest while I waited for the driver and let me recharge my dying phone.
The fun began on our way to Parapat. I know that Indonesians are as crazy as Filipino drivers but I never knew how crazy it was until I got to Medan and our driver promised me that we would make it to Parapat before the last ferry leaves. Uhuh, didn’t I say I wanted to make it there alive?
I have never read about Northern Sumatra before I went there. Except how to go there so I didn’t have any idea about their history etc. One that surprised me though is that majority of the people in Northern Sumatra are Christians. It is prevalent on the number of Catholic and Protestant churches I saw on the road. Like-in-every-corner. It was surprising because I never expected that in a Muslim-dominated country like Indonesia. Aside from being a crazy driver, our driver is a nice and funny middle-aged man. We were joined by a young family of three who can only speak basic English but enough for me to know a little bit of the history of Batak people. It was over-all a fun experience just exchanging stories with local people.
As we entered Parapat, I was amazed how beautiful the lake is from the mountain ridge. The sun was about to set and much as I wanted to capture it with my camera, it was impossible with the way our driver drove. LOL. I arrived in the port on time and there was this guy who assisted me to find my ferry. It seemed that the owner of the resort had already coordinated my arrival with him. I spent my time waiting eating my ice cream and talking with the men in the port guiding foreign passengers. They were amazed to learn that I am from the Philippines. Filipinos might be everywhere in the world, realising their dreams and their families’ but Lake Toba is still to be discover by my fellowmen.
I was joined later by an American family and another foreign solo traveller and a couple of locals in the ferry and at 7pm, we were saying goodbye to Parapat and to the locals I have befriended. I didn’t expect it is cold in Lake Toba until we started sailing. And as I have already sent majority of my stuff back home when I was in Jakarta so I could travel light in the Sumatran region, I had nothing but a cardigan that I used as protection from the sun instead of cold weather. I tried not to die of hypothermia by rubbing my palms and arms. Even with my thick jeans, my legs were not spared. I was starting to get really sleepy being up for more than 20 hours and fatigue started to set in, when a young boy declared they couldn’t travel further from Tuktuk, the main town in Samosir, because of the bad weather. I didn’t know it then how far my resort is from Tuktuk as all I knew was the ferry would drop me directly at the front of my resort. Talk about fun.
We got off the ferry at the main town which doesn’t seem to be a main town. I saw nothing but a warung or a little store still open, a couple of small houses and the endless darkness ahead. I didn’t know what to do as there wasn’t even public transportation that I could ride or rent. This time, I finally talked to the cute Swiss guy I travelled with in the ferry. He got no clue as well where to stay or where to go. Looking at my phone who already died with the lack of nutrients on its battery, I knew then I was in trouble. The American family had already left and Tuktuk was their main destination so I was assuming they have already been picked up. It was already past 8pm and with no way to contact my resort, I didn’t know what to do.
Until a local Batak guy approached me and my accidental companion. He offered to take me to my resort but not until his brother arrived who was at that time was busy picking up tourists and bringing them to their respective resorts on his motorcycle. The Swiss guy and I went with him to their restaurant/ guesthouse. The local guy offered me their guesthouse and I politely declined because I have my prior reservation with Tuktuk Timbul, he respected it and even offered us a drink and something to eat. The Swiss guy decided to stay as he was tired as well but he accompanied me for the meantime while I waited for the motorcycle that would take me to my resort.
We spent time talking about our previous adventures and it was interesting to know that prior to Lake Toba, he was in my home country volunteering for almost 2 months right after typhoon Yolanda – the strongest typhoon to make a landfall in human history rummaged central Philippines. We were joined later by the wife of the local guy and offered us something to eat again. Based on the stories of the wife, the life in Lake Toba is pretty simple and basic. There’s no nightlife or any major entertainment in the island except swimming and trekking. People also study in the nearby town of Parapat and if you have money and can afford to go to Medan or Jakarta, that’s where local people get their degrees.
Past 10pm, the local guy arrived from fetching his brother and decided to take me to my resort instead of his brother as the brother was already drunk when he saw him. Ah island life! Being in a foreign country, in the middle of nowhere and with strangers, I was still kinda hesitant to just trust people. I was toying with the idea of just staying in the town with the Swiss guy (at least we’re both travellers and might be able to count with each other) rather than being drive at in some-ass-place-i-dont-have-any-idea-where in the middle of the night. But then I thought I owed it to the resort owner for sorting my transportation etc. So off I went with the local guy who said the resort is just 10-minute drive from the town proper. After driving in a rough terrain with basically not seeing anything, he dropped me off to an equally dark place after he said, “just go downwards of that pathway and that’s where your resort is.” I offered to pay him but he just shook his head and told me to be careful going down. They also didn’t let me pay for my drinks and food in their guesthouse. Sweet!
I couldn’t see the pathway seriously. With my dead phone, I didn’t have something to lit my way as my flashlight got broken in the middle of my trip and didn’t know I would be needing it. I have never been afraid of my life until that night where I couldn’t see anything but the silhouette of the trees, heard nothing but forest insects, water splashing on the shore or something and the occasional growling of dogs. As I slowly descend on the rough pathway (which I later learned it’s beside a small cliff leading to the lake and with small mistake could lead to your death), I heard some animals approaching me and my greatest fear of being stuck in some ass place with vicious dogs barking like crazy became reality.
I was halfway (though I didn’t know it that time) between the main road where I was dropped off and to the resort and I didn’t know whether to keep going down or just go up again to the main road. Going down means meeting the dogs face to face and going up means waiting for impossible like finding a transportation back to town. So there, for the first time in my backpacking life, I was close to tears and calling myself stupid over and over.
“Christine you might be sleeping comfortably on your bed back home or laughing with your friends and family over dinner or party at this time you know?.What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
I tried to scream as loud as possible and hoping that my voice would reach the resort but nothing worked. Just to let you know, I have a BIG phobia with dogs since I was a kid and I’d rather walk 10 km to avoid dogs than to walk 5 meters to get to my destination while dogs are guarding it. I was close of attempting suicide than being eaten by dogs for late dinner when suddenly a vehicle appeared at the top of the pathway where I’ve been. It was renegade jeep with bunch of tipsy European men who just arrived from their night out whatever that means in Lake Toba. They stopped when I flagged them down and I asked for the direction and if it’s safe to pass through those dogs. They happened to be guests of the resort as well and one of the guys, decided to walk with me as we couldn’t fit on the jeep anymore.
And finally after being in the road for more than 17 hours and with no sleep from the last 30 hours, I arrived in my destination. The reception was even surprised I arrived as they thought I’ve changed my mind. They said they were calling me but my phone was unreachable and they were planning to just pick me up using their own speedboat as they thought I didn’t make it on ferry on time. Or I got lost.
After checking in, eating and finally cleaning up myself, I dozed off in no time without seeing anything on the place where I was staying. Only to be awaken by some buzzing in my ear after few hours. I was still tired and no idea why something seemed knocking inside of my ear. I started to panic thinking silly things then I remembered getting a cotton bud and found a dead big ant inside my ear! And I thought my nightmare was over!
I didn’t know how I fall asleep again but I woke up with a mild heat touching my face. And when I opened my eyes, I saw this view directly from my open window.
After all I’ve been through the day before, I can say, the place is worth all the hassles I’ve been through. And true to its words, after twilight, the sun rises.
I ended up my stay in Northern Sumatra surrounded by the goodness of people. The last one was in Medan. I was in the airport, trying to find a place to charge my phone while I waited for my flight going to Kuala Lumpur. An airport staff saw me lying on the floor and offered me a chair. Afterwards, a bunch of airport security personnel were in front of me, asking what I was doing. Explaining my side, they asked me to sit besides the security scanner, offered me a more comfortable chair, an outlet to plug in my phone and a fan to comfort me from the high humidity. I saw the curiosity of the passengers passing through on the scanners, as it was obvious I wasn’t part of the security details of the airport. But the head of the security just told me to stay there as long as I needed. Moments like this make me realise how much beauty we missed when we choose not to open up with others.
My first day in Lake Toba promised a beautiful stay ahead. And it was.
Many times we shy away from the unfamiliar, from the uncomfortable and from the unknown. If I listened to people not to go in Northern Sumatra, I might not have discover the beauty of the people living there or the beauty of the place itself. It is so easy to distrust strangers thinking they will harm us and it is much more easier to stay in our comfort zone. That’s what the mainstream media feed us – the world is a dangerous place to live in. But unless we take the courage of doing things outside of the box, we will never discover the hidden beauty of this world. It might not be easy sometimes, but sure to hell it’s effin worth it.
“Trust me, it’s paradise. This is where the hungry come to feed. For mine is a generation that circles the globe and searches for something we haven’t tried before. So never refuse an invitation, never resist the unfamiliar, never fail to be polite and never outstay the welcome. Just keep your mind open and suck in the experience. And if it hurts, you know what? It’s probably worth it.” – The Beach, Alex Garland
Your Backpacking Executive,
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