We took a ferry across the Strait of Melaka from Penang to the port of Medan in Sumatra. After a little confusion at the port of Medan, our first stop in Sumatra was Danau Toba, a massive lake that was formed by a volcanic eruption thousands of years ago. We arrived late and stayed in the port city of Parapat, and the next day we crossed over to an island in the middle of the lake called Samosir.
This upper region of Sumatra is home to the Batak people. In contrast to the Acehenese to the north and the rest of Muslim Sumatra to the south, the Batak are Christian. They have their own distinct culture and language and are very friendly, open, warm and musical people. In the past, they gained notoriety for being cannibals, eating their conquered enemies or those who violated their customs. These potentially fierce people maintained their own culture in the face of pressure from the Acehenese to the north and the rest of Sumatra. Christian missionaries eventually won them over, but at the potential cost of being eaten. The last persons they seem to have eaten were way back 1816 and we lost no limbs to the cooking fire and found them very nice. They are well-known for their musical ability and wood carving skills, and we saw them playing guitar and a marimba type instrument all over the place.
We met a well-traveled German on the ferry over from Penang on his way to meeting up with another German friend who was married to a local Batak woman. We shared a rental car and river from the port of Medan, and they helped us get a great room on the lake at the local price and were nice enough to show us around the area. We visited a traditional compound of distinct Batak houses where the family of the Batak wife of the German was historically based. The houses have peaked roofs and intricately carved gables, often incorporating lizards and other geometric designs. The houses are raised on stilts and livestock were traditionally housed below. It was also interesting to see fitted stonework similar to the Inca stonework we saw in Peru. In the compound was a ring of stone chairs where the villages elders made decisions and administered justice.
While the Batak are Christian and you see crosses and churches everywhere, they also include many aspects of their animist heritage with their religious practices. They have an elaborate re-burial ceremonies for human remains three years after death. The tombs are towering structures that look like their houses and hold many generations of remains. Spiritual masks and other totems are common elements in their wood carving on the elaborately decorated tombs.
We had a very nice place to stay on the lake, and enjoyed getting back into Indonesian food (Nasi Goring, Gado-Gado and Urap). We saw a musical performance and also visited a really nice orchid garden, before a grueling mini-van ride up to Berastagi. The ride was one of the most grueling on our trip, due to the proliferate amount of cockroaches living in the van and chain-smoking within the van (no open windows), in addition to the usually cramped seating and rough roads.
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