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ASIA-PACIFIC ISSUE: ENCHANTMENTS OF THE FAR EAST : Visit to a Heavenly Island With a Hellish Past

April 28, 1991|RITA ARIYOSHI | Ariyoshi is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer who writes frequently on Indonesia

SAMOSIR ISLAND, Indonesia — Lake Toba is a great blue hole in Southeast Asia, so big and so blue that the horizon ghosts away and boats on the lake appear to float somewhere between water and sky.

Cradled in a bowl of mountains in the highlands of northern Sumatra, part of the island nation of Indonesia, Toba is twice as big as Lake Geneva and has in its center an island larger than the republic of Singapore. It encompasses 635 square miles and is one of the highest (2,953 feet) and deepest (1,476 feet) lakes on Earth.

I knew all those facts before I got there in February of last year, and still I was unprepared for my first vision of Toba. I saw it from a hill in the Buket Barisan Mountains. It was as if the earth stopped and at the edge was not the terrible abyss of legend but blue heaven, all around.

An island the size of a whole country I expected would more or less fill up the lake, rather like a won ton plunked in a tea cup. I think I really pictured something like an exceedingly large Acapulco swimming pool with an island of palms and music in the middle, inviting me to swim up for an exotic drink. But there was Samosir Island, off in the hazy distance, its cliffs rising from a lake that could have been a sea.

At the town of Prapat on the pine-edged shore of Toba, my husband and I caught the ferry to Samosir. It was a gray day as we chugged across the water. Fishermen in dugout canoes with basket traps on their bows glided silently on the glassy water. Even the insolent puffs of our boat engine were muffled and swallowed by the blue immensity.

Samosir and the mountains around Lake Toba have been inhabited for 15 centuries by the Batak tribal people, the famous cannibals of Sumatra. In their remote highlands, the Bataks developed a distinct culture characterized by elaborately carved homes with lyrical soaring roof lines that echo the shape of the horns of their sacred buffalo. They fiercely guarded their territory and deterred the stranger by making a meal out of him, a practice they continued until about 1920.

Now they have discovered the flip side of tourism and have turned their considerable talents at woodcarving, metalworking and fabric weaving into a thriving souvenir business. Many have built adat (Batak-style) cottages beside the lake and rent them out to a new wave of "Eurokids" who come for the beauty, the beaches and the bargain prices of Toba and its forest-clad island, Samosir.

Samosir is a 400-square-mile rugged island with a mountainous interior that surrenders only grudgingly to the works of man. The fertile lakeshores are quilted in gleaming chartreuse rice fields and deep green vegetable farms. Small Batak villages with their soaring horn-roofed homes are clustered amid a jungle of banana and banyan trees.

Like most visitors, we were staying in the village of Tuk Tuk, which has a couple of good hotels and a wide selection of rental cottages. Our room at the Toledo Inn was an adat cottage on the outside, but a thoroughly modern accommodation inside. It was surrounded by flaming bougainvillea and overlooked Lake Toba, a few steps from the doorway. The water was cool and after the heat of our travels, swimming was elixir to the skin.

We set out very early one morning, walking down a rutted road skirting the lake. The sun was just coming up over the hills, and the air was still cool. We greeted a man walking his buffalo to pasture. His smile was shy, embarrassed by missing teeth. He and his animal plunged into the tall wayside grasses and were lost to sight.

Across a small inlet we heard lusty singing coming from a lakeside house with children tumbling about the steps. Like many homes, it was built in the traditional style, but the high-ended roof was tin instead of thatching. I imagined the din on a rainy day with torrents pelting the tin roof and those lusty voices and all those children clamoring to be heard.

A woman, with her baby wrapped to her breast and a young boy beside her, was working in the rice fields. She appeared not to see us. The boy called to us, " Horas " (hello, long life). Another woman, also with a baby, was hanging laundry, singing as she draped a row of somber-colored garments on a line.

Young tourist couples were going for breakfast in the open-sided lakeside restaurants. There was such a feeling of natural order as we walked the winding road that everything except essential life-support tasks seemed an absurd waste of energy that could otherwise be diverted to the simple enjoyment of the moment. We were reprimanded by the singing, the golden light of morning, the smiles and the simplicity--for we too often squander our days on achievement and acquisition, postponing the music of life.

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