While Bali and Jakarta are high on most people’s must-see lists in Indonesia, the culture, mountains and waterfalls of North Sumatra were calling my name more than the beaches and cities crowded with heaps of tourists. By getting off the beaten track, I wasn’t only able to get a deeper feel for the country; I was able to leave my own impression on the nation as well.
Although my destination was only 40 miles from the Medan airport, crude roads and the occasional bovine traffic jam meant that getting to Berastagi took around 2 hours. The public transportation system also meant that this time was spent in the back of a crowded van painted with such vibrant colors that I could have sworn its original use was for transporting clowns.
Finally arriving at my destination, I found myself facing a dusty street lined with shops that seemed to be acting as venues for card games and lively conversations more than actual retail outlets. The fronts of houses were worn and many featured badly chipping paint, but their inhabitants carried a friendly and pleasant air that floated through the streets.
Almost immediately after getting out of the van, I was greeted with a lively wave by a fit man of 30. He looked upon me with kind eyes as if he was looking upon an old friend. After a brief moment, he introduced himself as Abdy Sitanggang, my host from Nachelle’s Homestay. My mind then clicked back to the endless emails we had exchanged prior to my arrival. Abdy had always been enthusiastic in his communication and was even more so in person. This seemed to be something the man carried in endless supplies as he immediately began to urge that we take off and explore the traditional market. Eager to see something that still excited a local, I promptly agreed. Pleased with my decision and bursting with pride, Abdy began explaining that as “Berastagi” means “rice store”, the town’s market is vital to its 40,000 residents.
I quickly found this importance to be far from an exaggeration as the moment I entered the market; I was met with open-air stalls, bursting with vibrantly coloured fruits and lively chatter. Abdy’s excitement fit right in as he bounded towards a large pile of round purple fruits topped with fluorescent green leaves. “Do you know what these are?” he asked excitedly. I made a guilty face in response; fearful my lack of knowledge would come as a disappointment. However, Abdy smiled on to explain: “they are mangosteens,” winking at the stall owner and taking a fruit off the top of the pile “see how this one is purple and squishy? That means it is the tastiest,” he explained as he peeled the purple skin to reveal a white interior.I then took off to explore the market on my own and while wandering past a shop bursting with cheery flowers, I heard a group of school children call out “miss, miss” from behind me. When I turned towards the group, they began fiddling with their hands and whispering nervously to each other. Finally, one of the girls was pushed to the front of the pack and asked it I would practice English with them. I wasn’t going to deny them something as simple as my time, so I agreed. With this, the kids immediately began rummaging through their school bags to pull out notebooks filled with perfectly handwritten English phrases.
Their meek demeanours immediately vanished and I received inquisitions about things like: “what is your favourite colour?” and “do you like Indonesia?”. As I had only just arrived in the country, I told the kids they were my favourite part of Indonesia and was met by beaming faces.
The region offered more than traditional marketplaces however, and the next morning, Abdy and I embarked on a trek up Mount Sibayak, a stratovolcano three miles out of Berastagi, at 3am the following morning to reach its peak for sunrise. We headed towards the summit in the pitch dark while being guided only by a small flashlight. Despite having summited several mountains in the Canadian Rockies, all of my previous climbs had been during the day and trekking at night was a completely different experience. Despite my hiking boots, the lack of lighting meant I almost lost my footing on several occasions and instead of the usual treetop vistas, the sky was the main attraction, hosting the largest collection of stars I had ever seen.
The peak offered more surprises as we were greeted by groups of local children also eagerly awaiting the view with more zeal than I thought was possible for anyone to have at such an early hour. When the sun began to peak over the horizon, the sky erupted with pink and orange light. With each passing minute, more of the landscape was revealed and surrounding mountains seemed to appear from out of thin air.
Once the sun had fully risen, I began my descent back down. The trail was incomparable to what I had experienced on my way up as I could now see the dense foliage and sharp outcropping of sulphuric rock that surrounded it.
My final excursion then took me to Lake Toba. Abdy explained this site as a caldera from an ancient volcano, which over time became inactive and flooded from a stream flowing down the tallest waterfall in Indonesia. This Sipiso-piso falls drop down a height of 360 feet before releasing their waters into the largest volcanic lake in the world at 702 square miles.
After trekking around the falls and witnessing the water rush powerfully off the cliff-face, Abdy took me to the small village of Tongging for lunch along the lake’s shore. Here, we entered a bright blue building overhanging right into the lake. There was a selection of tables, but I opted for a seat on a mat by the windows in order to get a full view of my surroundings. Rugged green mountains met trees with bright violet flowers before plummeting into shimmering turquoise waters. With a slight haze in the distance, the lake seemed to extend infinitely into the horizon.
As much as I wanted to gaze simply upon the calm waters and breath the clean, crisp air, Abdy pulled me away to introduce me to “the best cook on Lake Toba”. To my bewilderment, this cook turned out to be a spunky young girl of 13, Lina. Despite her young age, she lived up to her title, giving me a full demonstration on how to catch, cook and season Tilapia to perfection.
The process began by using a large net to remove the fish from their pen. Then, a couple of incisions were made and rubbed with lemon juice, onions and curry paste. Once the fish had been fully coated, Lina then placed it in a pan a top a wood burning stove to grill for about 5 minutes on each side. Once the fish was prepared, we all sat down to enjoy our creation. Although full sets of cutlery were put out, Lina and Abdy dug into their saucy fish with bare hands and I decided to dig right in as well. While enjoying crispy and spicy mouthfuls of fish and picking out a surprisingly large amount of bones for such a small animal, Lina asked in broken English about my favourite colours and what I liked most about Indonesia. Clearly wanting to practice her English, I told her my favourite thing about the country was her fish and asked her about her favourite colours and what she liked most about Indonesia. Without hesitation, she replied: “I like to teach nice people like you how to cook fish here”.
We continued to chat as a gentle lake shore breeze wafted across the restaurant. I looked out over the lake and couldn’t help but get caught in the infinite aquatic beauty that extended around me. As I admired the crystalline waters and the lush arbours mountain-scape, I realized the landscape wasn’t the only besieging allure at Lake Toba. There was also a kind, welcoming beauty in the new friendships that were forming.
Despite coming from upbringings half a world apart, I was able to create honest connections with Abdy and Lina. Since my visit, I’ve kept in contact with both of them and have come to see that it only take a few days to lay the foundation for a lasting friendship.
I had come to Sumatra to hike volcanoes in the middle of the night and visit waterfalls. While I accomplished both these feats, neither was the highlight of my journey. Instead, the new friendships I made took centre stage and opened my eyes to a whole new aspect of travel.
Guest Post by Judi Zienchuk
Address: Jalan Kenanga No. 82, Berastagi, Indonesia
Phone: +62 821-6275-7658
Lake Toba Travel Guide