Rhymer´s Travel Diary: Entry 14, May 19, 2002
Bad, Bad Bikes, Buses, Bullfights



Daua Toba is one of those great landscape set pieces, nature showing off. It is the world's largest crater lake, formed by the collapse of an enormous volcanic caldera some 70,000 years ago; a second later cataclysm resulted in the formation of Samosir, a mountainous island rougly the size of Singapore in the middle of the lake. In practice it looks a little like Lake Tahoe, though without loads of Americans telling you that this is 'Ghaad's own country'; it also bears a passing rememblance to the lakes of northern Italy, though obviously it is considerably bigger than both. The region's other great natural asset is the weather: even though it is a stone's throw from the equator, at 900meters every day is a perfect English sumer day and the night's are cool. On the ferry over to Samosir we met a couple of Brits; like us they had just come from southern Thailand. I asked if they'd enjoyed it, adding that I found the area cute but very dull, full of wasters and that I greatly preferred the magnificence of Indonesia.The older one looked at me a little strangely: 'I thought Thailand was great,' he said, 'the tourist infrastructure was just fantastic. It's easy to get from A to B, everyone knows what you want and everything's set up for tourism.'
After slacking by the lake for a day we decided to explore the island. Samosir is the home of the Batak people and looked like a pretty interesting place. The Batak build their houses with roofs that dip in the middle and rear up pointily at either end, rather like ship's prows or klansmen's hats, although they are intended to resemble the horns of the water buffalo, an extremely versatile animal they are understably keen on. Their other curious custom is (despite having been converted to Christianity by Dutch and German missionaries) a penchant for burying their dead twice - once when they die and again later, when they have the wherewithall to build a suitably stylish tomb
To explore, we (Grant, his girlfriend, Charity, Jane, and Ben and Ian, the Irish guys) rented motorbikes, first heading to a Batak centre where we saw a tradional dance, whose sluggish, trance-like motions suggested that the Bataks may well have discovered an ecstacy-like substance many years before the west. This impression was furthered by the exhibits in the nearby museum. Every other exhibit's tag read: 'Made of horn. Used to keep drugs/ magical things/ special things.' Suitably steeped in Batak culture we motored on half way round the picturesque island before deciding to cut back half way down, along the Island's moutainous spine.
This prima facie easy detour soon turned into an epic slog, comparable with our broken axled journey to the lake. Ian's bike, despite assurances, hadn't been filled up and ran out of petrol. We had to borrow a length of tubing from a man in some godforesaken village to siphon, which left Grant belching petrol for the rest of the day. But this wasn't enough and later on, in surprisingly steep and heavily forested hills, he ran out of petrol on an unmade road. So leaving Grant and Charity with Ian, Jane, Ben and I went off to get petrol as the sun went down. Dusk descended and the roads deteriorated; just as we thought we were thoroughly lost (more through luck than anything else), I spotted 'our' side of the island from a ridge and 20 minutes later we were at the top of a scarp leading down to our village. Miraculaously this no-account hamlet also boasted a bar, with a reasurringly pointy roof and a man who could sell us a couple of litres of petrol. Bearing petrol, our saviour and Ben roared off to find the others.
Twenty minutes later, we were reunited and refuelled. Surely, we thought, from here, it can't be more than half an hour back to Tuk-tuk, our village. In fact, it would be another fun-filled three hours. Rather than improve towards our destination, the roads went sharply downhill in every sense of the word; soon we were heading down a steep mass of broken rock and scree. You wouldn't want to take a Land Rover down it, let alone a crappy moped, especially in the dark. Charity had long since left the back of Grant's bike to walk and Jane decided, quite sensibly, to abandon her's, too. Thus Grant (interestingly, the only person actually licensed to drive a motorbike in the UK) wound up heroically driving two bikes down in relay, while the girls walked and I drove or watched over the bike Grant wasn't driving.

After three spine-jarring hours we were back at Tuk tuk, exhausted and facing a reception committee of Bataks far less cute than the ones we'd seen earlier. They were furious we'd bought the bikes back at 10:30pm and demanding extra money. No way, we countered: firstly there was no agreed time and secondly, the only reason we were late is that one bike had no petrol. As it turned out, when you rent five bikes, each comes from a different person and the whole is organised by the guy at the guesthouse - who was sensibly staying out of it. Naturally, the person who'd provided the empty bike had buggered off sharpish. Two others didn't seem too bothered but Grant and I were faced with a waspish haridan of a woman who, in sharp contrast to the South East Asian norm had completely lost her temper and was spitting venom. We protested pointing out (hidden damage to their suspension notwithstanding) the bikes were fine and full of petrol; if she wanted more money, perhaps she could ask the idiot who gave us the empty bike. Eventually the whole thing ended in stalemate, but not before Grant and I had both been threatened with extreme violence by a man who was all of five foot tall. He may have been puffed up like a fighting cock and deadly serious about giving us a pasting, but it was only through the greatest self control and cultural sensitivity that we didn't wet ourselves laughing.

From the world's largest crater lake, we headed down to Bukittingi, home of the world's biggest flower (tick those boxes!); this journey was to prove another rewarding Sumatran experience. We had bought tickets from some weird little gimp on the island and it turned out we had bought the last tickets on the coach which entitled us, not to reclining seats in air-con comfort but to the scabby seats at the back by the toilet. To compensate for this we got an entire family (and Indonesian families are big - not much of the country's prodigious rubber output is consumed locally) camped on the shelf behind our heads. Naturally we complained and naturally there was nothing to be done, but deal with it. We were joined in our complaining by a couple of joyless Swiss, who were whingeing despite having perfectly good seats. Seemed they thought they'd overpaid. I told the Swiss guy to think about it in European terms: don't let 50p ruin your day. He looked askance and asked me 'But we are not in Europe - why should I think about it in European terms?' Because you bloody dimwit it is a bank account full of fat Swiss Francs that allows an imbecile like you to live like a rich man out here.

Bukittingi, despite the occasional rave review is, a rather ordinary little town. It has a nice canyon and some OK tunnels, built by Indonesian slave labour under (surprise, surprise) the Japanese in world war two; these are now sponsored by Fuji Film, which is a nice touch. Over lunch a cafe owner - as is the custom in these parts - tried to sell us everything from volcano treks to a bullfight. I hate this sort of unconnected upselling: if I want lunch, I may want a drink or salad; it is unlikely I will want a nine day wilderness trek for desert. Anyhow, he managed to talk us into returning at 4pm to catch a bus to the bullfight. Not quite as barbaric as it sounds: bullfights in these parts involve a pair of fairly placcid male water buffalo rather than an enraged bull and a guy with swords. The fight is over when the winner chases the loser away. Basically, it's just an excuse to bet on big, dumb animals cracking skulls.

Back at the cafe at our allotted time and the bus had gone. Great, not only had he ruined our lunch with his irksome sales pitch, he couldn't even deliver. But there was little point in arguing and now we really wanted to see the fight. So we decided to use public transport and after a series of false starts and complicated changes we got to Kota Bahru, bullfight central, slapping ourselves on the back for keeping it so real and saving a squillion Rupiah or about two quid. As we arrived the first contenders were being paraded around a paddock. I don't know much about male water buffaloes, but they look like big hairless cows, have huge pink knackers and really don't appear to be up for any sort of fight. But after a bit of persuasion they locked horns. It wasn't much of a scrap: within 30 seconds the winner was chasing the loser round the paddock and winnings were changing hands, with terse mutterings from the crowd suggesting the first pair weren't up to much.

The second duo were considerably better matched. Initially reluctant, once going they cracked skulls noisily and locked horns with some brio. In each other's horny embrace, the circled around like punch-drunk prize fighters and pushed each other back and forth, with the advantage shifting from bull to bull several times; enthusiastic cheering suggested this twosome measured up to the crowd's expectations. Eventually the slightly smaller bull delivered an impressive series of skull cracking blows and gained the upper hoof. Seconds later he was chasing his vanquished foe round the field with gusto, trampling several luckless bystanders during his victory lap. The fun over, we trouped out of the field, passing both loser and winner, neither apparently any the worse for wear. Predictably the loser looked cowed and the winner, well, he seemed bullish. And, much to my surprise I felt curiously elated by the whole spectacle- a wholly unreflective, unironic macho Hemmingwayesque sort of feeling. And this hitherto unknown side of me well satisfied, I caught a bus back to town to drink manly beers.