Cannibals and cats...welcome to Sumatra

Wednesday, November 09, 2016
Tuktuk Sonak, North Sumatra, Indonesia
Eventually the 'good things' in Langkawi finally drew to a close and it was time to move on to somewhere new. That somewhere new is Sumatra, Indonesia, a place that like Borneo I used to read about when I was young. A place I have seen on many documentaries and wildlife programmes and what a pleasant surprise it's been so far.

After 16 hours of travel from Langkawi on the cheapest flights we could possibly find (the joys of traveling on a budget ....I could have been back home in Sunderland in a similar time) we eventually touched down in Medan, Sumatra at around 11pm. Unfortunatey all the buses and the train link into the city had stopped running so we were left in the hands of the local airport taxi touts to haggle for our lift in to our digs bang in the centre of Medan, the Capitol city of Sumatra. In an instant the £20 we had saved by spending 12 hours sat around in KL airport was reduced to just 10. At this point you really have to scratch your head and wonder if it is wort it but hey £10 is £10 I least I'm trying to see the positive amongst it all but these are the kind of challenges and gambles you face when backpacking on a shoestring. We didn't get to our digs until after 1am and sweaty and tired we turned in straight away for some well deserved rest.

The following day was the only full day we will spend in Medan and it's really just a big dusty dirty Indonesian city so we made the most of our small but cool room and slept until around lunch time before venturing out for a wander round the streets and to grab some food . Despite the fact Medan is a grey boring concrete city with no real landmarks to visit (the 3rd best thing to do in Medan according to Tripadvisor is ride the train from the airport to the city) and the fact we didn't see another single Westerner on the streets all day we were both pleasanty impressed witth how friendly everyone was towards us. People passing you by smiling and saying 'Hello mister', folk riding past on scooters with big smiles and shouts of hello, it was really nice to experience that. We had read that the folks in Sumatra are a friendly bunch but I guess we didn't expect to experience it immediately in a big city devoid of other Westerners. The food was great and very cheap as well. £2 for a tasty meal and a good coffee each is really decent these days even by Asian standards thanks to the plumetting value of the pound over recent months. The ladies in the small Warung we ate at were immensley friendly and happy to see us.

The rest of the day was spent doing research on where we want to visit in Sumatra and how to do it . Not as if we didn't have enough time to do that in Langkawi but we were too busy enjoyiing ourselves and our decision of where to go and booking of flights was fairly last minute, As opposed to thinking of us as lazy travelers I would like to think that we are a little more organic and abstract in how we travel now. Not structured anymore witth a set itinery just free flow and safe in the knowledge that it will all come together somehow.

So after a minimal amount of research and deliberation we decided to head inland to lake Toba and then head North from there. Lake Toba is a caldera lake from a super volcanoe that changed the entire worlds climate around 70,000 years ago. The lake is around 100km long so I cant even begin to imagine how big this volcanoe must have been back in the day when it was going off. It wiped out the majority of the human population on the planet at the time causing a volcanic winter with it's ash falling as far a field as Africa. Hopefully it doesn't go off again anytime soon! At the centre of the lake is an island called Pulau Samosir or 'Ttuk Tuk' to the locals and that is were we have decided to head first .

With our transport arranged, a cramped taxi shared with 4 locals, we were on our way out of he city and soon hurtlig along a manc highway. Now I don't know what it is but we always seem to get thhe craziest driver on the road. Similar to our taxi from the airport. I'm really not exagerating here either. When your driver is weaving all over the road and through impossible gaps and is never overtaken by anybody else, not a soul then surely that is the craziest dude on the road at the time. After a couple of hours we turned off the highhway and started a gradual climb up into the hills. Miile after mile all we saw everywhere we looked was palm plantations. Two hours of non stop palm oil farming as far as the eye could see. It's a disgusting business that is raping rain forests all over the planet, parrticuarly in Borneo and Indonesia. Eventually though the palm trees gave way to some rice fields then deep pine filled forest. We had reached the lake and were dropped of right at the ferry pier with one all ready to depart which we were quickly ushered on to and on our way to Samosir island . Within 5 minutes of leaving the ferry we managed to find some good clean digs for only £6 a night and dropped our bags off before heading out to get our bearings and explore a little while there were still a few hours of the day left.

Samosir is a strange experince. When you wander around the place, particularly in Tuk Tuk village where we are staying, the place has a distinct island feel to it. Similar to a Thai island. There are loads of cheap warungs, bars dotted about, every other place has signs up advertising magic mushrooms (unforunately out of me I asked at many places) and it's hard to believe you are on an island on a lake high up in the middle of the country. It has a great character though. It's the heart of the Batak people, an ethnic group witin Northern Sumatra. They are famed in the past for being ritual cannibals and 99% of te population here is Christian. There are churches and crosses dooted about everywhere on the island. Made from wood, metal sheeting, breeze blocks, comncrete ....basically anything they can get their hands on to fashion a church to pray to God in which I didn't expect in what is generaly known as a very strict Muslim country.

The people here are very welcoming and friendy. The first night we spent some time with a bunch of local guys who werre playing dominoes and drinkking local palm wine. Palm wine is about the cheapest alcohol you can get here at 25p a glass. It has a very pungent raw yeast taste and we could only mamnage a few mugs between us such is the sour sickly taste. I also suspect it is fairly potent as well as after those few mugs I was feeling a little bit wobbly so we bid our farewells, grabbed a quick bite to eat and headed back for the night to get some rest.

The following day we grabbed a scooter and headed off to explore round the Nortth and West side of the island. Again the warmth and happyness of the people was evident everywhere we went. Particulary with the school children . They are so so happy to see you. Blowing kisses at us and shouting hello, holding their hands out for high fives as you ride past, it's great to experience. Even the olds folks ggiving big smiles and happy nods as you ride through their village. We probably spent a little too long stopping at places on our way round as we didn't get too far before time had passed and we needed to turn back round to get the scooter back on time. But thats fine I don't like feeling rushed or whats the point. We stopped off to see a few churches and many of the local Batak houses that you see dotted about here, quite often in groups and rows. They are really impressive buildings looking almost like small ships. Low roof at the mid point then arcing up and out impressively at either end into the sky.

As we neared Tuk Tuk on the way back we spotted a beautiful looking house at the roadside with steep steps climbing up draped with plants and flowers and a small red post box. We pulled in nd spotted a sign that said 'Toba cats garden' . Well it oouuld be rude no to pop in and find out what it was all about woldn't it?

After a little exploring we were greeted by a local guy who goes by the name of Uncle Bond, a Batak James Bond fan whose life was changed two years ago by his new found love of cats and helping the strays he finds aroud the island. Uncle Bond is quite tthe character. Larger than liffe and immensely passionate about his cats. He has converted his family home into an organic garden and sanctuary for his cats and kittens. I really felt for Uncle Bond as he has so many dreams and visions for how he wants to develop his place but I will giive the guy this he is certainly determined to go after these dreams of his. His cousin who is a little more tech savvy than himself has set him up with a Facebook page as well as helping him set up on Air BnB. He has cleaned up and converted one room in his house for animal loving guests to stay in and slowly but surely through good reviews on Air BnB he now has a steady trickle of people paying for his spare room and earning a little bit of money to help feed his cats . It's aa wnoderful place to stop off at and he is a wonderful man to meet if you ever find yorself in these partts.

Thw following day we were up and out a bit earlier as we wanted to try and ride round the whole island, around 80 miles or so. After stoping off at a place called Tobak for some simlple cheap breakfast we soon fund ourselves on a nice quiet road slowly snaking our way up the mountain side past small farms and rice paddies. The views from the top and all along the way were spectacular. Looking down the steep mountain side to the deep turqiouise lake below with mountains and hills stretching off into the distance. We couuld have spent a long time just sat there taking in the views and relaxing but time was getting on so we started our descent down the otherside towards the south coast of the island.. The smooth rideable tarmac soon gave way to pot holed dirt track and we slowly bounced our way down the moountain to the next villlage at the lakeshore. Thankfully as we left the village the road turned back to fresh new tarmac and we sped along the lakeside making up some ground . The amount of school children waving and shouting hello long the way was incredible. As we neared the town of Pangarunun we pulled over to check the time and where we were and got chatting to a local woman on her way home from shoppping. I never met anyone so happy to meet someone from England. this woman was giddy with excitement, laughing at anything and grabbing us. She invited us back to hers for tea whch was so nice and tthe kind of opportunity we love to accept normally but we had a deadlie for getting the bike back and still hallf of the island to get round so unfortunately we had to decline. A very nice offfer though.

Just as we were entering the town of Pangarunun we rounded a corner to be faced with a Police road block. I forgot to meention in my last entry that on one of our last days in Langkawi we were stopped by Police and lightened of £40 from our wallet thamnks to a fine for no license. The corrupt bastards, it went straight into their back pockets. As we hit the road block a Police woman stepped intto the middle to stop us . My heart sank as we can mnot afford to be payng fines. thankkfully when she spotted we weren't locals she smiled and waved us on with a quick shout of "Hello mister". Brilliant!

We didnt hang around the town too long with time being tight and eventully made our way back towards our digs grabbing some food on the way back.

We have reallly enjoyed being on this island...on a lake...on an island. It has a lot of variety as you work your way around it. Both with the people, the scenery and the buildings. It has a great variety within a fairly small area and it would be easy and temptin to stay for a lot longer if we had the time. On the night we hung around our digs and spent a great night with one of the staff here. Chatting away, listening to him play guitar and sharing some of his smoke which was very nice of him. It was a reaally chilled time and before we knew it it was the early hours and our eye lids were getting a bit squuinty and heading south. Time for bed. We are supposed to be moving on tomorrow.....we will see what time we wake up and what the day brings I think.

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