My first visit to Sumatra, and my first ‘solo’ travelling for a couple of years.
Friday 15th September 1989
Tuk Tuk Timbul
I moved here from Smiley’s for the promise of electricity, and I’d like to stay here for quite a while, perhaps a week. But there’s a problem: this is being written by candlelight thanks to a power cut and it’s a long dark walk or boat ride to wherever there is light shining.
Smiley’s was recommended by colleagues. Wanting and needing some solitude as an escape from the past year’s exertions in Jakarta, I stayed there for five nights. It’s isolated from all the other banana taco – the Samosir island pancake – places. So isolated that no-one else stayed there, except for Linda, her mother, her brothers, their wives, and their children, a dog and a few chickens. And a motorbike or two under constant repair. Peaceful, it wasn’t.
Linda’s house is old: 8 August 1836 is the only decipherable paintwork outside. In those days Bataks must have been very short or, like me, they were constantly banging their heads on the lintel at the top of the ladder effecting entry. As the sole guest there was little comfort at Linda’s where I stayed . While I ate specially prepared meals, the family noisily got stuck into their rice sprinkled with a few vegetables.
Still, I do feel better after the expat debauches of the past few months, and this was the right place to come to. To get here, I crossed the Equator with Garuda. I will cross it again, but by bus as I make my way down the west coast, via Bukittinggi and Padang. Yet I am cold; I need blankets at night and a shirt over my T-shirt in the day.
The lake and its surrounding mountain rim, remnants of an enormous pre-history supervolcanic explosion, remind me of England’s Lake District or the Scottish Highlands and walking is a familiar pleasure. There are similar ferns and grasses, stone walls and goats and what at first sight appear to be jackdaws. But they are minah birds, which I last saw in India. The coconut palms, banana trees, water buffaloes and rice paddies enforce the contradictory memories, the old and new.
The weather is contrary too. Having driven the 160kms around the island facing the sun and wind on a rented motorbike wearing a short-sleeved shirt, I’m burnt – very. But on the homeward stretch it rained. You could see it coming, eating up that landscape as it approached.
And after, wisps of clouds nestled on the ridges above, with a blanket gently rolling off the top, brushing the escarpment and the tops of the conifers which soften the sheer slopes.