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Third World speed and efficiency is definitely the name of the game in Indonesia. The pace of how things happen here is something I expected, but it is hard to completely turn off my First World expectations. The main problem is that I don’t speak Indonesian and most people don’t speak much English. I am living in their world, so I can’t complain (or at least not too much).
I had arranged a car to take me from Medan to Parapat- which is the small town the ferries leave from to go to Samosir- the island in the middle of Lake Toba. I showed up at the small travel office at 11- when they asked me to the day before. The cost was quoted as $75k rupiah (about $7) for my ride. Ideally, they fill up the car with 6 people so they aren’t losing money on the transportation. This makes sense to me- a taxi ride that loses money probably isn’t a great idea. What wasn’t explained to me the previous day is they WONT LEAVE unless they have 4 people. Right now we are stuck on 3 people- myself and 2 others. The woman at the travel office is calling all over, trying to find another passenger to get to Parapat (or presumably some place in between).
They start asking me to rent the entire car for a GREAT DEAL! Only $300k rupiah (about $26)! In a vacuum, that isn’t crazy expensive- $26 for a 5ish hour ride. However, I know they just want me to pay for the equivalent of 4 people, which to me is a bit absurd when they have already said I can get a ride for $75k. I sit around and read for awhile longer as the travel lady continues to call unknown phone numbers. Eventually, the waiting has become too much. It has been over an hour, and I need to get to Parapat by 7 pm for the last ferry to Samosir. So I tell them I will pay $100k (about $9- $2 more than they quoted me) if we leave right now. It turned out that the $2 got the gears moving, and we were on the road within a few minutes. Pretty amazing how loud $2 can speak over here.
First we had to pick up the two other passengers. This involved an hour ride through the crazy traffic of Medan. There are not many traffic lights, and the gridlock is truly impressive. We only went a few miles, and the driver had to ask directions a few times. Street signs are not very obvious here. There were funny things along the way, like a freelance traffic cop. It was just a dude with a whistle, helping cars through the crazy gridlock. The driver gave him $2k rupiah for his help. Interesting job.
After navigating the traffic/ gridlock and receiving help from some locals, the car made it to the other passengers- 2 local Indonesians. They got in, and for the next few hours there was hardly a word spoken in the car. I don’t know any Indonesian, and their English was very basic, so it was a silent car ride.
The roads here are not for the faint of heart. There is no such thing as anything resembling a freeway. To get from Medan to Parapat, it is a two lane road which everyone has to take. This means our car was going the same direction as busses, trucks, scooters, and bicycles. That doesn’t stop most of the cars from going around slower traffic at any opportunity. This is a VERY frequent occurrence, but for someone like me who isn’t used to the constant passing of vehicles it is a bit nerve wracking. Our car was constantly in the lane facing oncoming traffic. I am surprised there aren’t roughly 1 million accidents a day, but this is how people drive out here so it is totally normal.
We complete several hours on the road when our driver taps my arm and makes a “eating” motion to his mouth. Food? Yes, please. It is awesome what can be communicated with simple hand gestures. We stop at a hole in the wall place for some grub. The options are fish heads and other fish parts as well as some chicken. I opt for the chicken, they load it up with veggies, rice and sauce and it is lunch time. A visit from MR TOURIST MAN here at this random lunch spot causes many laughs, “Hello, Misters,” and plenty of photo opportunities. Besides enjoying some photos with the locals, my favorite part of lunch was that our driver at with his hands- something I totally respect. He dominated his entire meal without ever touching a piece of silverware or chopsticks. Baller. They brought us a small bowl of water to wash our hands post meal (I opted for a fork), and soon we were back on the road.
It took another 3 hours on the road, and countless amounts of weaving around slower traffic, to make it to Parapat. I grab my bags, give the driver $125k (the original $100k plus a $25k tip). I felt bad that he had to drive the 5ish hours back to Medan at that point. Parapat (at least by the ferry) is a tiny single road. I am soon hounded by a bunch of locals “Where you going? Where are you from?” I told them I was staying at the Samosir Cottages- one of the few places on the island of Samosir that had any sort of internet presence. I hadn’t paid any money to the Samosir Cottages, just had some email exchanges with someone at the property. It turned out that all of the locals waiting by the ferry were representing other properties. Since it is low season, they were desperate for people to stay at the property- meaning slashed prices.
Samosir Cottages had quoted me $200k rupiah for a hot shower room, and all these other places (which looked nearly identical by their pictures) were half that cost. I was already excited by $18 USD a night- half that for the same thing is even better. It was overwhelming being surrounded by these reps from all the different properties, as they were desperate for business. Eventually I decided to go to the property with the guy I liked the best- a 24 year old local (actually from TukTuk- the main town on Samosir island) named Roman. As a salesperson myself, I understand the job- but it was crazy to be surrounded by all these hungry sharks. I was comfortable with my decision, got on the ferry, and we made our way to Samosir.
We enjoyed a beautiful sunset during the ride, and offloaded onto the island. Roman showed me a few different rooms, and I decided to take the Deluxe room for a whopping $12 a night. Nothing spectacular, but it had its’ own balcony, queen bed and hot water. Sold! I meet some other travelers from across the globe (Holland, Poland, England), enjoy some food at my hotel, drink a few beers and relax. Roman eventually breaks out a guitar, and tells me to join him for Hotel California (one of his favorite songs). I say that I don’t know the words, but he says “Come on, you are from California!” He makes a very solid point, and at that point I can’t say no. With the magic of the internet I pulled up the lyrics to Hotel California, and everyone else got to hear our once in a lifetime duet. Despite my less than ideal singing voice, it was a pretty cool moment- people from all over the world drinking some beers and having a singalong to an old Eagles song.
The next day I rented a scooter (because of course) and cruise around the island. Samosir is REALLY big (or at least big for a scooter) and many of the roads barely qualify as such. There are long stretches without any paved sections- just rocks and huge pot holes. It is slow going with a little scooter. There aren’t too many roads, so I drive for awhile and take some photos along the way. After scootering for over an hour, I take out the camera to take a pic when I hear someone down the road. He calls me over, asks where I am from, and soon invites me into his grandmother’s house (about 100 yards down the road) for some coffee. I cant possibly say no to some local coffee. He also had a large bowie knife around his neck so I didn’t want to offend him.
I parked the scooter, and sit on the patio of a small wooden house. The local dude (his name is Theodorus) brings me a tasty coffee, and we have some sort-of conversation over the next 30 minutes or so. His uncles stop by, there are dogs and cats running around, and kids are watching TV inside. It is an amazing moment- enjoying coffee with a total stranger on a patio in the middle-of-nowhere Indonesia. The generosity and kindness from all of the locals is incredible. I finish up the coffee, have some more sort-of conversation, thank Theodorus several times, and get back on the scooter. It was a moment in time I will never forget.
I ride the scooter for a few more hours and see so many animals along the way. The list included dogs, cats, oxen, goats, pigs, chickens, and rabbits. Eventually I returned to my hotel, eat some food, and take a nap. Then I meet up with Roman. We are going out to watch the Champions League Final, which starts around 2 am local time. First we go to a local bar with live music. Everyone there is Indonesian (more specifically Batak, which are the people from Samosir). The live music is all sorts of western favorites- Creedence, Rolling Stones, Maroon 5. It is always amusing to me that in every corner of the world they enjoy more or less the same music. Which brings up all sorts of questions- are they just not good at making pop music in Indonesia? Do they not even try? Do they know what the words mean to the songs they are singing along to? Lots of unanswered questions, but it is fascinating to see people sing along with songs 100% in English.
Around 1:30 we make our way to another bar/ restaurant that is PACKED in anticipation of the upcoming soccer game. The place is filled almost entirely with locals. I am likely the only foreigner in the place, which is a really cool feeling. Here I am, at 2 am, watching soccer live from Lisbon with a bunch of Batak people, without another westerner in sight. The game was pretty amazing, with Real Madrid getting the win in extra time. Real Madrid features my favorite player- Christiano Ronaldo- who is hated by most of the soccer world. This made watching the game even more fun, as Roman and some of his friends were rooting against Ronoaldo while I wanted him to win.
By the time the game ended and I was back in bed it was after 5 am. Definitely not an ideal time to be hitting the pillow, but sometimes you just gotta roll with it while on the far side of the world. It’s not like I need to wake up and go to work, or do anything really.
Overall, Lake Toba is a great place, and ideal for anyone looking to get (and feel) REALLY far away from the normal. It is super cheap ($10-12 rooms, $2-4 meals), the lake is beautiful, and the people are so friendly.
I will spend several more nights here before packing my bags, making it back to Medan (not looking forward to that ride) and hopping on a plane to Pulau Nias- an island off the west coast of Sumatra. It will be nice to be back at the beach after several weeks away.