Category Archives: Travels

Samosir Island On Sumatra

November 2014


Imagine an evening spent in the outdoor version of a Casablanca Bar, surrounded by ex-pats and young European backpackers, all drinking Tuak.  The notorious film-noire pianist SAM is not here to PLAY IT AGAIN. Instead, cries for an encore are met by a Batak band that performs a genre of music so unique it defies articulation.


We are on Samosir Island, surrounded by the largest crater lake in the world, situated centrally in Sumatra, the sixth largest island in the world. Samosir is home to the Toba Batak, a proud and hard-working people blessed with abundant land and lake harvests. Boat-like architecture recalls Batak past. The apotropaic Singa, a symbol of benevolent and protective power, suggests the Batak tenacity to endure. The Toba Batak, who self-identify as simply Batak, assert a healthy sense of entitlement to balance tradition with desired cultural advancement.  This is most apparent, perhaps, in their music.


Contemporary Batak music announces its self-awareness audaciously. It is bold and crisp, with a sound larger than the supporting instruments. The melody, if not carried by vocals, resonates from a hand-carved, two-stringed, ukulele-sized instrument. A chorus may include yodeling, bottle tapping, the click and clash of Tuak jars, and the stamping of feet. The energy is addictive. It induces a fever-like incapacity to orient oneself in time or place. Salsa. Mariachi. Irish Pub music. Hungarian Folk. Gospel. American and European Pop. The roots are unmistakably Batak Folk and the music echoes a plethora of genres.

Batak Folk music is the passion of our companion as we gather with the band drinking Tuak the following night. Mark, our sometimes-guide, is a local and a musician, an American who came to Samosir over a decade ago and stayed. The band members are family to him. They are inquisitive, and well-traveled, and delight in battering us with questions in English and Batak. Mark, who translates when necessary, hands me one of the two-stringed instruments and challenges me to play.

My fingernails, long and hard, are an asset. Fingertips deaden the desired sound that is rich yet sharp, a controlled and clean reverberation.  I pluck and I strum until someone kindly relieves me of my efforts. Back in the musician’s hands, the instrument sings as if glad to escape me. Conversations drift and the hour escapes us.


Overall, our experience on Samosir Island is as timeless as the music. This is a land where cultures and religions have for centuries crossed. Regardless, the indigenous Batak have tenaciously hung on to their identity. Their unapologetic response to their colonizers of the past, the missionaries, the ex-pats, and the fair-weather tourists, is to embrace a little of what every sub-culture has offered. This they incorporate it into their unique genre of music.


Tana Toraja – Sulawesi

April 2013

We journey into Tana Toraja at the end of the rainy season, when village life is uninterrupted by tourism, and aluk to dolo, or the way of the ancestors, is restored. Here, in this mountainous region of South Sulawesi, the setting is pastoral. The hills are blanketed in shades of green both alpine and tropical. The massive peaked roofs of traditional houses, known as tongkonan, breach skies swollen with rain. Roosters, pigs and children ignore puddles large enough for wallowing water buffalos. Rural life surrounds and engulfs us, manifested on every inch of Toraja’s fertile soil.

Regardless, it is death we contemplate as we journey through Tana Toraja. This is a land of bones, where the remains of the ancestors line footpaths, ascend trees, and spill out over the fertile fields. These bones are visible, and speak to the core of all that connects us to this earth. Life is cyclical, and death is an unavoidable part of the human experience. Bones endure when all else is forgotten.

According to myth, the ancestors of Tana Toraja came from heaven to earth via a set of cosmic stairs. In death, a Torajan’s soul returns to Puya, the celestial land of the souls. The process is gradual and begins only after an elaborate ceremony is held. Funding such an affair is costly. A loved-one’s body may be interred beneath the tongkonan for years before the family can commence with the funerary process.

After the ceremony is held, the remains are transferred in a wooden box to a rock ledge. This resting place may be inside a cave, or stone grave, or hanging from a cliff face. A  carved and life-sized wooden effigy accompanies the remains. The status of the deceased determines how high the coffin and effigy is placed. Thus begins the soul’s climb up the cosmic ladder.

In contrast, the bones are destined to return to the earth. Coffins rot and the skeletal remains tumble from their rocky ledges. Villagers gather the scattered bones and stack like-kind, placing only the skulls in rows. We walk with reverence along paths where the vacant-socket stares of skulls oddly reassure us. I recall a recent visit to Rome where I viewed the bones of saints, venerated as holy relics. Here, the bones are anonymous, cast-off from the souls and the effigies that once defined them.

The bones of the innocent – those of Torajan babies that die before cutting their first teeth – are buried in small niches carved into a living tree. The infant’s remains are absorbed as the soul matures with the growth of the trunk of the tree. We are drawn to the tree’s visible scars, in their various stages of healing, that chronicle both the age of the soul and the tree.


Such trees are hidden in the lush landscape, too sacred for public viewing. Since 1972, when a lavish funeral ritual drew 400 visitors, Tana Toraja has ranked second to Bali as a tourist destination. Regardless, our experience among the Torajans reflects none of this.

We stand alone on the grassy fields of Lemo, looking up to the most-photographed graves in all of Toraja. We are alone as well in the Londa caves, and on the skull-lined paths, and later, as we stand before a tree marked with the graves of babies. After all, this is the season when bruised and swollen skies weep, and tourism subsides. It is the bones that remain, and that cause us to linger as we ponder them respectfully

Sumba’s Fragile Paradise

November 2012

The Sumbanese imagine their island as a giant loom, held together by the threads of life. Through these threads pass the island’s subsistence as rain. If the threads are weak or improperly tied, these fluids escape into the sea. For this reason, weaving is restricted to coastal regions, anchoring the island and so, preserving life.


The fragility of the island is apparent in its topography which contributes to its incomparable beauty. Unlike neighboring volcanic islands, Sumba was formed by an uplift of coral and limestone from the ocean floor. Unblemished beaches reach for the sea, guarded by monolithic rocks carved into effigies by nature.

Centuries ago, Sumaba’s tribes retreated to the hills to escape slavers whose ships breached their shores. These hills appear blue in the distance, and fringed with the grass-roofed villages, the kampung, where life continues to be experienced in its simplest form.


There is very little infrastructure in Western Sumba. To reach a village our guide four-wheels a dry riverbed and across a terrain not unlike Australia’s outback. The hills we scale by foot. They are steep and without visible trails or footholds. I slip often, cursing my treadless sandals, grateful that our guide’s calloused feet root him to this earth so he can offer me a stabilizing hand.

The village is timeless. Tribal houses are clustered together in an organic maize of elevations. We are invited to crawl from one over-hanging platform to another, incapable of recognizing what personal boundaries we cross. Ceilings are low and so squatting is essential. Livestock claims the lowest regions of each house. The floors are dirt and often swept, the dust clinging to our skin, hair, and invading our nostrils.

The Sumbanese are animists. Their religion is called Marapu. They believe in a temporary life on earth and an eternal life among the spirits. The Great Mother and Great Father of the universe are the sun and moon – the only forces of nature that have proved predictable.


Tsunamis threaten the island where rain is scarce and drought brings famine. Malaria-carrying mosquitos are rampant, with a 2003 study revealing at the time that 20% of all children born in Sumba die or suffer brain damage from malaria before they reached the age of 10. All this is changing due to the Sumba Foundation. In an effort to help the Sumbanese help themselves, the Foundation has hired villagers to dig wells, educate their youth, and man the malaria clinics. Most recent studies show malaria in Sumba eradicated by 85%.


Good news travels quickly. With malaria bridled, tourism is on the rise. Already one Indonesian newspaper referred to Sumba as the “New Bali.” For now, in this village in Western Sumba, tourism has failed to make its mark.

I purchase an ikat from a young weaver. The motif includes several animals that shed their skin or shells – a symbol of renewal. Sumba too has begun to shed its skin. Revealed is the pearl within – as beautiful as it is fragile.

Malang – East Java

April 2011

A rutted road that twists and drops to rice fields below. There are no guardrails. Our van teeters, brushed to the right by a truck traveling the opposite way, the wheels searching for stability in the shoulder. A motorcycle skitters along the gutter and passes us in the rain.

In May 2006, mud flowed from a natural gas drilling site and has continued to flow, causing landslides and the closure of the Porong-Gempol road. The detour from Surabaya to Malang is arduous.

Malang’s history dates back to the Mataram Kingdom. When the Dutch colonized Indonesia, it became a European tourist destination. Cool air greets us at the higher elevations where views of Mount Arhuna and Mount Bromo are spectacular. At sea level, the beaches benefit from a breeze off the Indian Ocean.

Much of the Dutch colonial architecture remains intact in the heart of the city. By contrast, shantytowns line the rivers and railway tracks. In between, there is an affluent Chinese community. Homes are walled and very private. The Chinese are savvy collectors and deal in antiques that are pricey and rare.

Leaving Malang, we stop at the compound of a hoarder. There is no other word for this man who collects anything and everything stacked in monumental piles that extend into rafters, nooks and crannies. Among the old Dutch furniture and pieces of art are animated carvings made-for-tourists prior to World War II. Comically grotesque, these fantastic creatures retell the Hindu myths with haunting clarity. Whimsical gods with gaping eyes and open mouths performing awkward activities sidetrack us from what we came to buy – old Dutch iron gates and windows.

Dusk becomes dark and there are torrential rains. We wade in water to our ankles past the hoarder’s wife who sits on a stool and watches a wall-mounted TV. Rats run the inside perimeter. They screech in a chorus. I wonder, do rats sing?

We purchase a sampling of iron with a promise we will return on our next Indonesian visit. It’s the rats that have inspired us to hit the road. We escape into the night through a maze of ruts and ditches.

The Mahakam River Against The Wind

October 2010

We travel upriver, leaving behind us the Makassar Strait, as we make our way against the currents towards the mountains of central Kalimantan (Borneo). We are fortunate to have caught the tail end of the east monsoons winds that prolong our evenings by scattering the local dive-bombing insects.

Barges carrying coal and timber cross our paths. Navigation on this mighty river – the largest in East Kalimantan – requires an understanding of its shallow regions, narrow channels, and swampy lakes that isolate one village from the next.


Banjar houses are perched on stilts that encroach upon the river. The Banjar are mostly farmers. Evenings, they gather along the river where they swim, fish, bathe, wash their laundry, and dispose of their waste. Children standing in the muddy waters wave as we pass.

Nights, the call to prayers echoes from village to village. The Banjar’s ethnic identity is inseparable from Islam. Regardless, animist traditions prevail. Technology is shunned and nature is embraced for its inherent supernatural powers. Development in education, health care, sanitation and water purification is limited. There is no exchange of resources. The Banjar prefer their insularity.


The same can be said for the Dayak, Borneo’s indigenous people. These notorious headhunters only recently declared peace among the tribes. Still, they battle with the river, the source of epidemic dysentery and malaria. In all the villages we visit, we ask about available medical resources. There is never enough fresh water or medicine to eradicate health problems. Nor, do we learn, is there faith in modern medicine that is preventative.


Rats are a problem. As are the crocodiles, rated the second deadliest in the world. We witness a ten-foot specimen stalk a cow and her calf along the bank. We are warned to beware of even stealthier hazards, such as the irritable Vipera Russellii, responsible for more human fatalities than any other venomous snake in the world. Yet, we are fascinated by regional wildlife: orangutans, the comically long-nosed proboscis monkey, freshwater dolphins, and spectacular birds such as the hornbill and kingfisher.


Oil drilling along the river began over a century ago, and adds to the ecological challenges presented by climate change and the rising sea level. Regardless, this dirt-colored tributary remains profoundly beautiful, especially at night when the sun squats on folds of burnt reds and metallic gold. Life and death. We are humbled by this surreal river that gives and takes without restraints.

Christmas In Ubud

December 2009

Shadow and light. December 24th. Dinner was a family gathering beneath a bewildering teak-branch and banana-leaf Christmas tree. Now we approach temple gates where torched lights and flashes of red silk and gold brocade create the entrance to a realm at once intimate and vast. Here, heaven and earth merge in the shadow world.  

The headiness of the incense takes me back. I indulge myself in thoughts of childhood Christmases pageants and the mystical Magi, three Kings so mysterious and wise. But this is Indonesia. And the dance performed is a ritual presented nightly. The King we meet is not wise and while drawn to light, will let darkness destroy him.  

A tiny dancer bound in gold from head to toe sets the stage. We are swept away into a mystical forest where a princess has lost her way. Our King, bewitched by her radiance, captures this beauty and locks her in a house of stone. A fluttering raven brings the king this ill omen: he will die in a battle waged to set this princess free. 

Three principal dancers pantomime the story. They have practiced this form, called Legong, since the age of five. They dance, not as a profession, but to serve the gods. They are young and full of energy precisely delivered. The complicated footwork, animated gestures and dramatic eye movements mesmerize. Torchlight flickers. Our eyes deceive us. Did our dancers multiply, or have their shadows joined the dance?  

According to legend, Legong evolved from the fever-induced dream of a young prince. The audience is invited to enter this dream. We too lose our way. In this world of shadows, the real and the imagined are tightly paired. Two dancers enter as the double image of one character. They split. Each enacts a separate role. Then they are one again. Duality. Shadow and light. Mirrored images. Echoed illusions.  

We speak often of the spirit of Christmas, and how to achieve it throughout the year. Could we benefit a nightly ritual? In reliving the stories we have chosen to define us, could we inherit the spirit of our chosen heroes? Could we lose ourselves and gain what we were meant to be? 

The performance ends, and we leave the temple amidst throngs of tourists. It is Christmas in Ubud. For the dancers, who perform nightly for the gods and their community, it’s the end of another day.

Ocean To Sea

February 2009

We are feasting on fresh seafood in the harbor village of Popoh, having crossed Java by car from the Indian Ocean to the Java Sea. Rains have driven us under cover in a beachfront warung where the fisherman are gathered.  The catch today has not been good. No one smiles. Somewhere in my head rings the words of Joseph Conrad. “There is nothing more enticing, disenchanting, and enslaving than life at sea.”

We face that tumultuous sea, the crossroads for trade for over 2000 years. Here, monsoon winds breed unpredictable storms while treacherous currents stir a graveyard of sunken ships. Recently, a 10th century shipwreck was excavated and revealed a startling array of artifacts and treasure.  

Pirates add to the archipelago’s lore. The Bugis once ruled the seas, traveling with the monsoon winds between Makassar and the Spice Islands in prahu, the largest working sailing ships in the world. The Bugis were acclaimed sea traders and warriors often hired as mercenaries. This, and their involvement in the opium and firearms trade, inspired those frightening tales of Boogey man.  

Stories regarding fish with women’s faces gained momentum around the same time. Even George Eberhard Rumphius, the botanist employed by the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century, penned a mermaid into his factual drawings of Indonesia’s flora and fauna. Perhaps he had seen the Indian Ocean’s shape-shifter and soul-robber, Nyi Roro Kidul. This mermaid reeks havoc in southern Java. Especially when someone dares to wear her favorite color, green. 

The Indian Ocean and the Java Sea are connected by the Lombok Straits between Bali and Lombok. This is part of the boundary referred to as the Wallace Line, named after the man who first noted the striking differences between species present in Indo-Malaysia and those found in Australia.  

Musing over this, I make my own comparisons. The ancient Balinese believed the ocean represented the underworld and the source of their demons. Across the Wallace line, in Lombak, the ocean is home to a female immortal whose status is equal to sainthood.  

Folklore has it that wars were waged to compete for this beauty’s hand when she was merely a princess. To end the dispute, she threw herself into the sea. Here, she earned her immortality when her hair spawned thousands of colorful sea worms.  

Here and now. My musings have done little to curb my appetite. I’ve wolfed down my portion of this seafood feast. I lean back as the rain breaks through the warung’s tin roof and douses me in dirty water. Across the room a fishermen smiles.