23 July 2014

The Surf Chronicles: Part Two


You should see me in my daydreams. I am glory on the slide. I drop into waves that are well overhead and rip up the wall. I disappear beneath barrels and streak through with my hand tickling the swell. I watch myself from the shoreline, both surfer and observer. The me on the shore is enthralled. The me on the board is all cool nonchalance.

Lying on the roof of the public boat from Bawa to Si Rumbo, I let my daydreams reel. My eyes were closed and my smirk was fixed. The sun was being pleasant and the breeze was being nice. I was going surfing.

In Si Rumbo we left our boards at the harbor; food before surf. We went to a seafood shack on the beach and hand-picked a kilo worth of red snapper. While that was cooking over open-flame we watched the waves roll in. The burbling of anticipation was mostly stifled by a feeling that I was doing exactly what I was meant to be doing.

After lunch, with greasy fingers and bloated bellies, we retrieved our boards and worked our way down to the shore. I took a half-stick of wax out of my back pocket and lathered up the board. Frames from the daydream dropped over reality like misplaced slides and my confidence flitted unconcerned--a happy little bird unaware of its place in the food chain.

I hadn’t paddled out since I moved abroad. That startled me when I thought of it, so I scanned through the years trying to disprove it, but I couldn’t. In those five years I had forgotten a very important truth: I am absolutely shit at surfing—I am not my daydreams.

Fearless because of forgotten failures and remembered fiction, I strapped on the leash and followed Arman down to the entry point. Three steps in the leash jammed between my toes and I almost did a header into the coral.

From there, it got worse.

Arman, who could probably walk barefoot across a set of steak knives, scampered across the coral, dove in and paddled into perfect position in like eight seconds. Meanwhile I was standing knee deep in breakwater trying to figure out where to step without putting a coral nail through my foot. The incoming shore break pushed me around, and the board kept slipping out of my hand thanks to the sweat pouring from my pits. I hissed and winced about the sharpness, then muttered recriminating curses about my namby-pambiness. When I had finally pussyfooted my way into deep enough water I dove in without waiting for a lull in the sets. Stupid.

I was on a 5’11 slip of fiberglass and from the second I glided into the water it didn’t feel right; my sternum was digging into the board, my balance was off, my paddling was getting me nowhere.

These were the smallest waves around but they were still overhead and fast. I tried to duck-dive a wave and felt it pull me back a good ten feet. I popped to the surface and paddled hard but the next wave pulled me back just as far. I whipped my head around, worried that I might be coral bound. By the time I fought through the rest of the set I was exhausted and my sternum was on fire, it felt like a pestle being mercilessly ground into mortar. I ignored the pain as best I could and dug in hard, but the next set came up quick and once again I was outmatched.

I let an F-Bomb fly like an angry flare. Arman spun around curiously confused and paddled my way. He caught a wave in route—just ripped that salt right over the wound.

“Follow me; it will be easier if we jump off the jetty.”

And so we did, and it was easier. We approached the waves from the back and took a quick breather. I rolled off the board and let the water cool my face. I ran my thumb across the inflamed circle on my sternum. My only emotion was disbelief.

But the daydreams…

The waves kept rolling in; breaking right—always right. And we were the only ones on them. I took a few deep breaths and forced my confidence back into place. If this was going to work I needed that filter.

Arman shouted, "Go! Go! Go!" at a wave I didn't see coming. It rolled up behind me beautiful and mean. I froze. The pretty lady had caught me looking and I knew I was about to get bitch-slapped for it. I made a half-ass attempt to pop-up, covered my face with my arms and cannonballed over the drop. I came up sputtering and laughing. Even getting bitch-slapped can be fun.

I kept missing and I kept making mistakes. I dragged my knee, I scooted too far forward on the board, I paddled too soon and looked back just in time to turtle. Name a mistake and I made it. My sternum still hurt, my balance was still off and my paddling was still getting me nowhere. So, with each miss, with each mistake, failure became less fun.

I tried to keep myself focused on the adventure of it all. "Look at this swell! You're in Sumatra, man! And these are the practice waves!" But I wasn't falling for my own pep talks. A new emotion had replaced disbelief: GUILT.

The waves came at me like rippled mirrors and in the reflection I saw a dude who couldn't daydream. A poser. A kook. I was in a grand library reading pop-up books. I was in the finest of restaurants smashing Twinkies with the salad fork. My pretty little confidence had been minced and gnashed--reduced to gristle wedged between gum and tooth.  
We stayed in Si Rumbo that night with the intention of surfing again in the morning but it wasn't meant to be. Standing on the jetty, where the waves kicked my ass with perfect rights, we looked down at clear unperturbed water--snorkeling bullshit. Seriously, Chinese divers would have pushed more water than the tide did that morning. I know how stupid this sounds, but that felt like rejection.

Take your little rain cloud and crawl back to Bawa, kook.

The public boat took hours that felt like days. I laid on the roof, and put a wet shirt over my face to block the pissed off sun. I didn't daydream. I wouldn't allow it. That afternoon I wasted time rewatching TV shows. That evening I ate dinner and went straight to bed; no village, no tuak. Mentally I was throwing punches at my disappointment, but physically I was all punched out.

Arman went out with his fishing buddies and stayed out until 3am. The next morning, for different reasons, we were in a quiet kind of mood. U-ti made me a tomato and garlic omelet and I mixed myself a sugary coffee. Arman was fiddling with something under the table so I arched him an eyebrow. He pulled up a day-wrecker joint and a smile bloomed on my face. What an absolutely perfect surprise. I put on music to match the mood and we smoked while a playlist called, Chill did the talking for us. Other than the occasional, “Good song” we didn’t say much at all. It was a lovely Bawa morning.


Let's leave MB and Arman where they are for a moment. Trust me they won't notice we're gone.

Not everything that happened in Bawa fits into The Surf Chronicles narrative, but there are things just off the page that deserve to be brought into focus.

The Food...

I stayed out of the kitchen, but whatever U-ti was doing back there was damn close to magic. The staple meal was fish caught moments before served with mountains of rice and coleslaw lightly seasoned with salt and orange juice. Lunch was often the Indonesian staples, fried rice (nasi goreng) or fried noodles (mei goreng). And on a celebratory evening when U-ti's sister was in town a little piggy lost its life so that we could gorge ourselves on thick-cut chops served with rice and grilled eggplant. I expected to get skinny on Bawa and instead I blissfully fattened up like I would on a trip home to mom and dad's.


If you were to look down during practically any Bawa scene you would see an adorable little puppy named, Poochu. In Indonesian his name means "ant" but he did not earn that name because of his diminutive size, he earned it because he fell asleep on an ant hill and yelped when they started munching on his little puppy pee-pee. Everyone on the island loves Poochu. Little kids ride by calling his name, grown women stop by just to baby talk him, “Aeye Poochu!!” Poochu has many friends.

The Characters...

Much of Bawa's charm is wrapped-up in the charm of its residents. One night we went to the village and found the evening crew bumming because the TV was busted. I had my laptop with me because it needed a charge so I set it up on the picnic table and put on an episode of Game of Thrones. No less than fifteen people eagerly gathered around my little computer and watched the images flash. Inside the shop I had a sudden thought, a concern: are there boobs in that episode? A collective gasp followed by shrieks of laughter gave me my answer. I darted outside. Fourteen people were leaning forward with eyes wide, and one old lady was pissing herself with laughter. I peeked at the screen and caught Grey Worm perving on Daenerys’ right hand lady. The camera pulled back and focused on her perfect booty. The old lady loved that ass. She was pointing at the screen and clapping. Just howling. Funniest damn butt she ever saw.

“Sorry,” I said with a shrug.

“Bagus! Bagus!” she replied catching her breath. Good! Good!

Let's get back to MB and Arman. Right now they are listening to, The Avett Brothers and leveling out. Arman is telling MB a story about how he once saved a man's life when the man's leash got caught in the rocks, and how that man wanted to bring him to America to work and earn money for his future, and finally about being rejected by U.S customs officials. MB is petting Poochu's belly with no excuses to give.


I tried to float along in the Bawa lifestyle. I relaxed on the beach and swam. I went running in the morning and found big thick vines to swing on. I chilled with new friends and ate stellar meals. And despite all that goodness, I felt the irresistible urge to move on. My failure in Si Rumbo was to blame. It was ruining my Bawa buzz. 

Sorake Beach is the most famous surf spot on the big island of Nias and that is where I wanted to go. I knew it would be an easy place to rent a board, and I hoped that somewhere along the shoreline there would be waves small enough for me.

Evening. Speckled rays of sun give a golden haze to the canopy above. I am sitting on a wooden bench under the eaves, rereading a page I turned without understanding, the words spliced by daydream frames. I watch Arman pull-up on a scooter made of neon and metal. He is carrying a bulging canvas sack.

"Young coconut?" he asks

I watch him pull bright green bulbs from the sack. He picks up a machete, a curved wicked looking thing, and hacks at the top of the coconut, spinning it in his palm as he goes. He hands it to me and I see that he has exposed a quarter-size hole where the stem used to be. I don't like coconut water; the store bought kind. I am unsure about this. I tilt it back and half the juice runs down my chin. It's warm and a little sweet. It tastes unwashed and wild. I drink again, greedily. It's good. Damn good.

Arman sits across from me and plugs my computer into speakers he borrowed from a neighbor. Music is a luxury and he plays it any chance he gets. I have to tell him, but I'm nervous, I'd promised I would stay longer.

“I have to leave early. I want to go to Sorake. Surfing, ya know?”

“Okay, man. “I’ll go with you. I need to go anyway.”


“Yeah, sure. We can take my motorbike.”

Settled. I run my hands across the coconut, it feels smooth and waxy, except at the top where the machete splayed its fibrous flesh. I want to remember the sensation. I want to remember everything, because this is my last real Bawa moment.

I watch a family of pigs edge toward the porch. I hear U-ti coming--she always knows. First the broom and then her. "Chu-chu-chu," she says. The piggies scurry off with squeals that sound like cries. In the distance a startled rooster crows. U-ti turns to go back inside. Surprise and disappointment color her face. She still believes they'll learn.

I hear my name. Arman is passing a joint across the table. I reach carefully avoiding its brightly burning tip. "Last one," he says. I pull deep and exhale with exaggerated languor. And again. I turn up the volume because I love this song, Leonard Cohen growling something pretty. Over the music and the muzzled effects of memory burning the hammock is playing its siren sweet and light.

One more sip and I’ll be there...   

14 July 2014

The Surf Chronicles: Part One


This all started when I met a man named, Yoghurt.

I was eating dinner at a restaurant called Hot Chili, shoveling spicy pork in my face and slugging down Bintang when I heard the chair across from me screech. A man wearing a headlamp and a heavy camouflage jacket sat down and patted absently at the bulging pockets of his army issue gear. He didn’t seem aware that I was at the table so I continued inhaling my food. I had seen the guy around and assumed he was an acquaintance of the owner. He always entered on a mission and sat without purpose. As to his deal, I had no guesses. He started chatting me up and since he seemed more likely to talk to imaginary friends than dole out travel advice, I was only half listening. A distant buzz built to a CLANG! CLANG!  His words punched through pork and beer; surf getaway, practically uninhabited island…

Wait… What!?

“This man, Arman, a young guy—twenty-five maybe, he is a surfer and a spear-fisherman. You can stay with him and his wife. They live on Pulau Bawa; this is a very small island. I will draw you a map. Only eighty people live there. You will be the only tourist and it’s cheap, something like 50,000 rupiah a day ($5).


“Okay, but you must understand this is very basic. They eat rice and instant noodles, if you want barbecue fish or something you must pay for this. Also for tuak, the best tuak comes from this island. You can’t finish one bottle you will be too drunk. I go there just to buy tuak. And the toilet…(he chuckles a bit here) when you see it…it is only.

“Don’t care. How does this happen?”

He didn’t want to give me details where others might see, so he suggested that we drive to a shop to buy pen and paper.  I considered that this might be some bizarre dinner theatre/mugging hybrid, but I got on the back of his scooter anyway. Sitting under the harsh yellow of an overhead florescent he drew me a map and told me to contact Arman when I arrived in the port city of Si Bolga. This seemed unnecessarily clandestine, so I asked him to call Arman for me.

“I don’t have a mobile,” he replied with a shrug. “I am a simple man.”

“That’s fine, I’ll pick up a SIM card tomorrow… What’s your name by the way?”

“I am Mr. Yoghurt. I came here twenty-three years ago to sell yoghurt, so now that is my name.”

And with that my surf odyssey began.

Dropping off the grid sounds romantic and all, but it isn’t easy. I left the Forgotten Paradise of Lake Toba aboard the first ferry to Parapat a transit town on the mainland side of the lake. In Parapat I caught a public bus to the far side of Sumatra arriving in Si Bolga seven hours later. The public buses look like something the circus left behind and the seats are so uncomfortable you might as well be sitting on a pile of rebar. I spent the entire ride pressed against the window with the sun baring down, waiting for my right arm to smell of meat. The sun is supposed to continue its procession through the sky, but it didn’t that day, that day it stared through the window angry and belligerent. And then there were the roads. As is the case in much of South East Asia, Sumatra’s roads are not maintained; they are built and left to rot. Monsoon rains wash away swaths and those swaths become accepted obstacles. So for seven hours, my arm slow roasted toward cannibal kebab and every pothole felt like an uppercut to the butthole.

In Si Bolga I took a ferry to the island of Nias, one of the most sought after surf destinations in the world. The ferry traveled overnight, but it was not an overnight ferry. I had the choice between a metal seat in a bright sweltering room or the roof. I chose the roof. I laid out my travel towel and used my backpack as a pillow. I nestled in as best I could—me and three hundred Indonesian strangers snoozing under the stars.

When I woke up, I was filthy. The black smoke belching out above had covered me in a fine layer of carcinogenic dust. Arman had arranged for a bus to pick me up, but it wasn’t due to arrive for a few more hours so I wandered the harbor area explaining to every “Hey Mister!”shouter that I didn’t need a ride. I ate breakfast and bought toiletries. I got my beard shorn for sixty-cents. And eventually I met up with my driver who didn’t speak a lick of English and was clearly mystified that I didn’t speak a lick of Indonesian. Our destination was Si Rumbo a small town on the opposite side of the island—the edge of the grid—a place so remote my driver needed to get an oil change first.

We pulled into a garage and before I knew what was happening or why I felt the back of the minivan being jacked up. I sat there at a 45 degree angle sweating my balls off and reading a book to pass the time. I caught a glimpse of the driver and the mechanic talking heatedly. The mechanic drew the short straw, shuffled over, stuck his head in the window and said, “Service.”

“Oh! Ok. Thank you,” I said all corn syrup sweet. What I meant of course was, “No fuckin shit!”

Jiffy Lubed up and ready to roll we drove about half a mile and parked. The driver took off and random Indonesian dudes stopped by to drop off water, bags of rice, whatever. In the politest way possible everyone wanted to know what the hell I was doing in that part of town. Still sweating balls in the backseat I was beginning to wonder that myself.

My super awesome chain smoking driver came back and flashed up three fingers. Three minutes, I stupidly hoped. Nope. 3pm—three hours away. The driver laid down on the seat behind me and took a nap. I sweated more balls and crushed half a king-size box of peanut butter cookies because that is all I could find to eat. At 2:59 a gaggle of Indonesian women ranging in age from 2 to 102 piled into the van with me. And finally we were off.

As always the roads were a hot mess and I fidgeted constantly because at that point my ass had atrophied and was falling off the bone. I still had half a package of peanut butter cookies in my bag so I offered a sample to my fellow passengers. The oldest of the bunch swooped down on them like a buzzard. She didn’t even have teeth. I turned away from the carnage, but I very much doubt anyone got a taste of those peanut butter grandma gummies.

The pain of getting off the grid became a pleasure when we pulled into the harbor. Arman was waiting at the dock with a narrow fishing boat ready to take us out to Pulau Bawa; my home for the next ten days.

Sumatra is a surfers paradise and with good reason. Taxing away from the dock I could see three breaks absolutely ripping. The closest break peeled perfect rights away from the jetty. At a point down the coast I could see curl and drop—spray flying high. And at a reef well off shore monster waves beat down, terrifying and alluring too.

Pulau Bawa is part of an eight island chain.

"Arman, I can see surf breaks there, there, there... Do all of these islands have surfable breaks?"

"Yeah, sure."

The sun was setting as we made our way to the island. Ringed in a band of grey clouds, it looked like a distant planet pulled suddenly near. And when it dropped below the horizon it threw up its last shafts of light—a heavenly hallelujah.

It was dark by the time we reached Bawa. We hitched up to the cement pier and loaded onto Arman’s scooter. Bawa has one road, a sidewalk wide strip of cement that dissects most, but not all of the island. Arman sped down the path and I held on watching the jungle blur, and a ribbon of stars bend and curve.

Arman and his wife U-ti have a nice little place; a wood framed house with a palm frond roof surrounded by jungle. It has a great sitting area, and a hammock strung between porch and palm. The guest bed is comfortable and curtained off for privacy. The bathroom facilities are what made Mr. Yoghurt titter with concern. The toilet is in the jungle, or I should say the jungle is the toilet. And the shower is a pit full of fish and rainwater. The edges of the pit are littered with coral that Arman must have deposited for traction, but it looks like the poor creatures crawled out of the hole and died.

It wasn’t five star, but it was just fine for me. I’ve taken plenty of bucket showers. And peeing on stuff is fun.

Does a traveler shit in the woods? This one does.

There was no surfing my first couple days on the island. Arman said the waves were too big. I didn't believe him of course, so I wandered out to the point to see for myself. "Too big" turned out to be a comically low key description of what I saw. "F--- me!" was all I could say at the sight of... Well, more on that in a minute.

We went spear-fishing instead. And we must have made quite a sight getting out there. I rode on the back of a scooter with flippers in one hand and a spear-gun in the other. The guy driving was so little that I could see right over his head. I held the spear gun so that the tip was jutting out in front of the scooter like a lance. We charged through the jungle, clippity, clippity, clippity—Lancelot ridin bitch.

It was a successful outing. I have proof:

Other than that I did nothing. I swam slow and napped long. I made coral necklaces with a little girl named Sephia. I swung in the hammock watching clouds pass.

Doing nothing is an art that I have to relearn every time I travel for an extended period. I always start with a daily agenda and slowly taper down to chill.

There is no electricity on Bawa, only a few generators and those don’t fire up until after dark. Every night a crowd gathers at the village shop to smoke cigarettes, watch Indo TV and charge dying cellphones (cellphones that only work at the harbor). If anyone has a few extra Rupiah a bottle of tuak may be passed around. Tuak is moonshine distilled from coconuts and served in plastic water bottles. It’s syrupy, sweet and surprisingly strong. I got half the village absolutely slammered for like $15. We talked about a lot of things that night but most of all tourism.

A few of the more ambitious residents want more tourists to come because tourists come with money. I understand that, but there is a dark side to tourism too. So with the fire of tuak raging in my eyes I said, “Your greatest gift is that this place is a secret. You can sell the secret, but you have to keep the secret too. (Naturally I was shhh-ing for emphasis). Go to Sorake where all the surfers are. Recruit them. Sell them on the surfing. Tell them that every morning you’ll strap their boards to the roof of a fishing boat and take them to whichever break is firing. Tell them that in the afternoon you’ll do the same, and there will be a cooler on board packed with ice cold Bintang. This place is a surf video in real life. I don’t know a single surfer that wouldn’t kill to experience this just once. Get them here and the waves will do all the recruiting for you.”

Those of you who know me, know that is in no way embellished. It’s just the way I talk when I’m drunk, or you know, sober. There is this great Mitch Hedberg joke that goes like this:

"This is what my friend said to me, he said, "I think the weather's trippy.' And I said, 'No, man. It's not the weather that's trippy. Perhaps it is the way that we perceive it that is indeed trippy.' Then I thought, 'Man, I should have just said.... 'Yeah'"

I never remember to just say, Yeah.

And I imagined that I had them on the hook...

So! With my arm raised and my index finger extended, I stirred that soupy sky like a mad conductor at play.

“BUT! Tell your guests to be careful about who they tell. Tell them that you’re looking for guests who will respect the islands as a surf getaway. If you sell out and turn this place into Bali light the magic will be gone.”

We did a tuak cheers to punctuate my rant and they jabbered stuff in Indonesian. I'm guessing that, that stuff went like this:

"Did you catch any of that?"


"Dude, can talk, huh? Hey, pass the tuak! Feelin parched over here."

Tourism on Bawa is almost exclusively local; fisherman doing overnights when the water gets rough. Once a year or so a Westerner wanders through. We got to talking about the recent Westies and I noticed that something was missing.

“Am I the first American?”

“First person from America? Yes.”

That got me f----in pumped obviously, so I overturned the table, smashed a bottle and sang, “America! Fuck yeah!”

There is a wonderful sense of community on Bawa. It feels like a big extended family, everyone helping each other live as best they can. I went to a town hall meeting, the purpose of which was to raise money to build a dock on Lake Bawa. We all sat on the floor and listened to The Chief explain the need. The Chief isn’t a cop per say, but he is the first person the cops would call if anything were to go wrong, thus the nickname. I didn’t understand a word he said, but if body language translated correctly he was very convincing. A collection went around and people donated what they could, anything from 5000 rupiah (50 cents) to 80,000 rupiah ($8). By the time it got back to The Chief the community had the $100 they needed to build their dock.

This togetherness is one of the reasons I want Arman and his friends to temper how much tourism they invite. Too many tourists will create competition. Guesthouses and restaurants will be followed by motobike rentals and cash exchange places. Coconut farmers will abandon their trade to sell "I Heart Bawa" t-shirts next to a bar playing American hip-hop. Their children will have more money but they will never understand the simple traditions and pleasures Bawa once had. And every night the village shop will be empty. 

On a Sunday morning just before church we played volleyball on hard-packed earth with a ball black as lava rock. Afterwards while the others went to change into their Sunday finery I walked out to the point to check the waves. I stepped carefully along the jagged shoreline and found a place beneath the palms. I watched in wonder.

It is a treacherous break. The waves crash in deep water but a coral shelf comes up fast and sharp. Pulling at all that deep water the waves curl into heavy, mean looking things. It would be impossible to paddle straight out, you would have to circle around to the back, and even then surfing there would take a high degree of skill and ocean know how. The waves aren't always big, but when they are... The first time I went out to the point they were 8-10ft and right on top of each other. And on that particular Sunday, while the island's only church was filling up, stormy 15-footers reared up and hammered down. Paddling out in that would be stupid in the extreme, but man is it pretty.

A man named Johnnie lives on the point. He can watch the waves from his front porch and since there is no internet and barely any phone service he is the island’s surf report. He is also one of three people on the island who speak English so I stopped by to say hello.

“Michael! Surfing?”

“Not today, Johnnie. Too big for me.”

“Did you see the big ship?”

I turned and saw nothing but dark blue seas and light blue sky. Noting my confusion Johnnie handed me a sea encrusted antique.

“The ship is underwater. I got this from there. It has been down there a long time.”

My eyes glazed over. So there is a shipwreck right next to the epic surf break? Just stop it, Bawa!

Turning the antique over in my hands, I realized that it was a candle holder, the wall mounted kind, and I wondered just how old it was. I have done some research since and haven't been able to find anything, but Arman says the wreck has been down there for 100 years or so.

The next day we geared up to check it out. Arman and his friends scampered shoeless across treacherous coral, while I stumbled and bobbed around in the breakwater trying to get my stupid flippers on. The water above the shipwreck was relatively calm, but off to my right the waves were breaking something beautiful. It was the first time I'd seen really good surf at the break; clean, 8ft-10ft, glassy and barreling over.

It was also the first time I saw anyone surf them. Two brave dudes had paddled out from a fancy sailing yacht anchored offshore. I watched them drop into raging barrels and pop out like pebbles from a slingshot. The speed those waves generate... Gnarly.

I could have watched that display all day, but I had a shipwreck to see:

Maybe it was because he saw me taking pictures of surf boards and pigs. Maybe it was because my passive surf questions began to repeat. In any case, Arman came up with a solution, unprompted, the way a great tour guide does. “The waves are too big on the small islands, but I know a place near Si Rumbo. We can surf there tomorrow.”

I exhaled happily. I wasn’t good enough for the surf video, but that didn't matter, there were waves not far away, somewhere to the east of Bawa paradise. 

To be continued…

11 July 2014

Paradise Forgotten

I found Lake Toba in a weighty Lonely Planet guidebook: South East Asia on a Shoestring. This was years ago, when MB Abroad was just a baby blog, and I was still dog-earring pages and planning too far ahead.  I never made it to Lake Toba, or anywhere else in Sumatra. I had planned to finish my first long backpacking trip there, but I grew weary of the road and turned farther north into Thailand to spend a few days on the beach before reporting to Surat Thani.

Sumatra has remained an unscratched itch and it was the first place I aimed after recouping my sense of normal in Koh Samui and Koh Tao. I’m at Lake Toba now and it’s pretty spectacular. 75,000 years ago the supervolcano across from me roared in all its immensity plunging the world into volcanic winter and raining ash as far away as the East Coast of Africa. It was the largest eruption in the last 25 million years. Over the millennia water has collected in the gullet of the beast forming a massive volcanic lake with an island the size of Singapore at its center. My bungalow is on that island, in a town called Tuk Tuk. It looks like a piece of Hawaii bobbing in fresh water. The mountains are green and the buildings are bright. Pure white Egrets seem to pass in perpetuity. It is a paradise forgotten.
Twenty years ago Lake Toba was a fixture on the backpacker trail. The remnants of that era are all around and fading away; tour boats are tethered and empty, ghost town guesthouses dot the shoreline, long unasked for services are still advertised on chipped-paint signs. As a California native it reminds me of Route 66 and all those towns lost to the reroute of the superhighways.

I have this theory that budget airlines like Air Asia are to blame. They created new superhighways over Sumatra and Java, giving tourists a cheap hop from Bangkok to Bali. Why deal with all the bad bus rides when you can do a quick roundtrip; surf, party and pick-up a Bintang tank top to prove you were there? I laid this theory on Roy, my fixer here in Lake Toba and he just shrugged. He said it might be that and then added that the terrorism threats of the past hadn’t helped either. In any case he didn’t seem all that bothered. Roy is a good business man, he gets the tourism trade. It bothered me that he didn’t seem bothered. But, Roy is also Indonesian, and from what I have observed so far that means that his contentment comes from family and simple life pleasures, not the pitter-patter of backpackers carrying dog-eared guidebooks.

I can never rest when I first arrive, so I checked into my bungalow, threw my bag down and set to wandering. I trudged up a dirt hill not knowing where it led. A silver SUV drove past and a woman in an orange shirt and big shades hung out the window shouting hello. I smiled and hello’ed in return. When I got to the top of the hill the SUV was waiting for me. The woman in the big shades asked if I wanted to join them, so I peeked inside to see who them was. Momma was at the wheel and her teenage daughter waved shyly from the backseat. Her brother sat beside her and gave me a head nod looking more unsure than he intended. And from the way back a four year old giggle-box came bounding across the seats wanting to lay hands on her new toy. The woman in orange was Auntie, and Auntie wanted to flirt, so Auntie put her teenage niece on the spot: “Come with us! She wants to practice her English with you!”

I hopped in with no fear of strangers and enjoyed the ride over pothole heavy roads. They took me to lunch; grilled pork with rice. We ate with our fingers and when we finished they insisted on paying. Auntie and her niece tried to teach me local phrases and asked me about America and wondered why I had chosen Indonesia.

After lunch we walked through a market that led to a museum and the tomb of a Batak king. Auntie knew all the vendors. She playfully told them that I was her boyfriend and I playfully played along. Meanwhile her niece did an admirable job of explaining Batak culture, and like the teenage girl she is, blushed after every wisdom proclaiming that she didn’t know anything.

My unexpected tour guides wanted to continue exploring the island, but naptime was pulling me down, so we headed back to my guesthouse. Along the way they asked me to translate a pop song on the radio, so I happily explained that Beyonce was saying, “Halo halo halo” not “hello hello hello” and then elaborated on what that was all about. They cooed and clapped over the romance of it all, and told me how much they love, love, love the diva queen. Then they changed the song and asked me to do it again. When they dropped me off we thanked each other profusely. They didn’t want anything from me other than the pleasant company of a stranger. Though it seemed it at the time, their kindness was not extraordinary. From the school kids surrounding me like paparazzi to the lady selling fried bananas, nearly every Indonesian I’ve met has been curious and guard-droppingly kind.
Lake Toba isn’t a do stuff destination, it’s where you learn to slow down. I’ve floated in the lake and done laundry in a bucket. I’ve drunk Bintang and read for hours. I’ve gotten intoxicatingly full on tea and omelets and sunk into a chair while the view beyond my balcony became a movie theatre in full fantasia.

My time here has been slow-motion grand, but its lasting impression will be one of rediscovery. I was hanging with some dudes from Canada, enjoying fantasia’s fade, when we arrived at a familiar travelers lament: there are no undiscovered places. In my opinion this is a load of crap. There are no undiscovered continents sure, but there are undiscovered places. And those places aren’t far from the tourist trail that runs across every map. It isn’t difficult to find undiscovered places, but it can be difficult to be there; the language barrier is steep, basic services are often absent, loneliness is near. Only experienced travelers ever wander into the undiscovered because it takes experience to handle those places. Lake Toba is somewhere in the middle. It feels undiscovered but the remains of tourism are there to remind you that it’s not. You can go a whole day without seeing another tourist, but you can check email and pay someone to do your laundry too. It is a secret exposed but charmingly so.

My next destination is a two day journey from the tourist trail. I have been promised undiscovered. I have been promised a secret well kept.

Coming soon: The Surf Chronicles