The first word you learn here in Danau Toba is “horas.” It translates literally into “All is king.” But it means so much more. The concept behind the greeting is very Christian: treat every one as king and you will in return be treated as such.
“Be good to your neighbors, help them when they need help and they will help you in return,” said Antonio, the young man who is the co-manager of the guest house where I am staying.
The key word in describing Batak culture would be, and has to be, authentic. It’s not like the faux culture shows so many tourists (and even myself from time to time) see in places. Here it is real and all to easy to slide right into. Before I knew it I found myself humming the Batak ballads I’d heard the night before as I showered in the lake. Soon I’ll be pining for the pungent Palm wine and literally doing nothing all day. Take yesterday as an example: I sat in the same chair for seven hours, just talking, looking at the lake, singing, talking, a little eating and licking the sweet taste of cloves off my lips.
Antonio tells me about Batak women, I listen to his broken English as best I can.
“They are not pretty like the Javanese or Acehnese girls. But they are the best women in the world. The best hearts,” he says, pounding on his chest.
“They take care of everything. They plant the rice, they cook the food, wash the clothes, never complain and take care of their men,” he says with a wink.
“They are all loyal,” he adds, “we men here don’t do much. We play chess all day, guitar and drink at night. Sure, we build the houses and other things like that but they love us the same.”
“Men and women here in Toba are the same,” he says. “We are not like the Javanese or Acehnese who cover their women, and make them lesser, like slaves.”
In reality, and although the culture here is patriarchal, the women do indeed appear to have the upper hand. Nothing gets done without the grandmother’s or mother’s permission. The men do sit around and play chess or smoke in the shade drinking ‘kopi suzu’ all day. They sing Batak ballads late into the night, accompanied with Palm wine and clove cigarettes. In the words of Lord Macaulay, “they have all the qualities that serve to make a man interesting as opposed to industrious.” (He was writing about the Irish in the late 19th century.)
“We’re Christian here,” says Antonio. “We Batak people. Ok,” he says with a frown, “Muslims are ok, but they can be difficult. For us, if you want to go to church you go on Sunday. But if not, no muezzin will scream in your ear early in the morning.”
“Horas,” he said loudly as he strummed the guitar. “All is king.”
As the sun set we saw a pair of White-Headed water eagles, one with a fish in his talons, circle around the point three times, geckos crawled over everything and Minnie provided us all with hours of mirthful amusement.
“Church is a very social event then here in Toba?” I asked.
“Yes, church is only one hour on Sunday, but everyone brings food, guitars, palm wine and stays all day. Women get important information from their sisters and cousins and everyone talks about what they did this week. Who saw what and what house needs to be fixed, or whose rice fields need help harvesting or planting,” he said.
“Will you go tomorrow,” I asked?
“No, I too much palm wine tonight,” he said, laughing.
He then played a song I’ve heard three times already and it gets better with every replay.
Their history, smashed as they are between the Acehnese Sultans and the Javan Muslims encroaching slowly up the island of Sumatra is curious. Both the Javans and Acehnese fear them and their former ritual cannibalism.
“Acehnese tell their children, when they see Batak women who are eating beetelnuts, that their mouths are red because they eat Acehnese children,” Antonio told me.
Of course, the Batak feared the Acehnese and Javans as well. Then Dutch missionaries arrived and they found something in Christianity that jelled with their way of life, I suppose. So they traded in war and cannibalism for guitars and Christ. And they do, at least all the people I have seen, live a very real Christian life. “All is king,” lives in their thoughts and actions. Words and deeds.
“An Acehnese would never marry a Batak girl. They look down on us. And an Acehnese family would never let their girl marry a Batak man,” said Antonio.
“But all can be Batak,” Antonio says, pointing at me. “Even you Sean, already you be make Batak. All you need now is Batak wife.”
“We are different from them. They do not like daughters,” he told me. “We love our daughters. They are our precious gift. If there be no daughters would be no Jesus,” he said. At this point his English failed him when he tried to explain how the ‘Virgin Birth’ is idealized in Batak society.
He begins singing a song and Minnie jumps on his shoulders and claps her hands trying to keep up with the rhythm.
“We could make Toba and Tuk-tuk into a tourist place like Bali,” he said, “but why? We have all we need here. No one is rich, but no one is poor. The tourist who do visit us are like you and you are like us. We are all Batak!”
At this point ‘Uncle’ yelled out in a Palm wine slur: “Everything is going to be alright!”
“Exactly,” agreed Antonio. I nodded my head in agreement. I was disappointed that Ricky, the one handed guitarist didn’t show up tonight, but he’ll be around soon.
“The lake gives us water and fish,” he said, “the hills give us rice, bananas and coffee and trees for our houses. And the tourists give us a little money for extra things we need.”
They are a very content people. All smiles. All the time. They are very welcoming to foreigners. And they don’t want anything from us. No tourist scams. No one asks if you need a taxi, or pre-planned tourist itineraries. There are no t-shirt or souveneir hawkers. No touts. Just a people going about life. And if I happen to stumble into a dinner or an impromptu jam session there is an open invitation to join them, as if I were a cousin who just strolled in from Tomok or one of the other villages on the island. “All is king” indeed.
On a scale of 1-10, 1 meaning I accomplished little but eating and breathing and 10 meaning a full productive day at the office, yesterday was no doubt a 1.5, maybe 2. I managed to snap some photos and put up a post (and I managed to add several kitties to my Kitties of The World collection). The rest of my day was wasted. It was one of the best days of my life.
Will I see the hot springs today? Or visit Tomok? Who cares. Tuesday I will go with Efan’s aunt to plant rice all day. The only other plans I have are celebrating Christmas with Efan’s family.
Why bother worrying about anything else? Especially when I have another glorious day to waste.