Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Batak, Tuak and Motorcylce Accidents - Sumatra Episode Blog

On The Beat and Path Episode Blog
Season Two, Episode Three
Filmed: January 29th – February 1st, 2011
Locations of Shoot: Pulau Samosir, Lake Toba, Sumatra, Indonesia

For all of you readers out there who have had just about enough of our “good-timin’-world-cruisin’-happy-go-luckin’-global-voyages” don’t worry.  Tragedy is about to strike.  We totally understand and appreciate what it must be like to read about two dudes who quit their jobs and travel the world.  It can, at times be difficult to empathize.  Eventually, our travels must get old.  This has been the deal:

Dudes go on trip.
They call it work.  Everyone else calls it a holiday.
Dudes meet musicians.
Dudes jam.
Dudes record music (Who goes to recording studios in the jungle?)
Dudes have great time.

We get it.  The only way for our adventures to increase in interest is if one of us gets laid or we get in some sort of moving vehicle accident.  Well, fear not, our luck ran out in Sumatra.  And wonderful for you, the viewer/reader/enjoyer of On The Beat and Path, Sumatra is the sort of place where you don’t wish for luck to run out.  First, let’s explain a little but about where we are.
Pulau Samosir is an Island (Pulau means Island.  Get it?), a fairly large Island (the size of Singapore really) that rests in South East Asia’s largest fresh water lake, Danau Toba (Danau the Indonesian word for “Lake”). 
This fresh water lake happens to be situated in a volcano.  Granted, a now dormant volcano (it hasn’t blasted in 100,000 years).  But, still a volcano. 
And of course, this volcano is smack-dab in the middle of Sumatra, an Island in the Indonesian Archipelago.   It’s a gorgeous locale with a million shades of green and people so nice you want to put them in your suitcase and bring them home and have them stand as your best man in your wedding.
This is where we spent our time for our Season Two Episode Three shoot.  The people who live on this Island are known as the Batak and they live in uniquely shaped homes with steep-sloped roofs surrounded by what could easily be described as Middle Earth.
The Batak are also incredibly friendly.  It’s one of those places where you rarely hear no (like Wal-Mart or the Prom).  The Batak are always willing to talk, share a story, meal or band-aid.  Oh, and they love music.
Everywhere you roam, music is being played.  Tuk Tuk is the closest thing that Samosir has to a “town”.  Here you will find ‘restaurants’, adequately simple guesthouses and locals who will be more than happy to ‘loan’ you their motorcycle.  There is a marvelous six km walk through the town of Tuk Tuk that will allow you to meet the locals and hear the strumming of a beat up axe.   Indonesians from nearby “mega-city” Medan often visit Lake Toba for a holiday squeezing a clan of 16 in a $5 room (this often being Lake Toba’s only means for tourist dollars).  As such, there are always indonesians who wish to practice their English (or serenade the Mat Salleh[1] with Taylor Swift songs) with foreigners.  Here is how Gary and I fared as we were on the hunt:
The Hunt was as always motivating albeit this time, mildly painful.  Gary and I had rented motorbikes for the second half of our tour.  Gary and I consider ourselves seasoned motorcycle drivers as both of us have our own “hogs” in Kuala Lumpur.  However, these bikes were a little different than what we were used to.  Our feet rested in front, the tires were small as our rented transportation resembled the sort of bike one would expect to see at a Senior’s Retirement Living Centre in Florida (or Arizona). 
There was a little rain that day, nothing that would make us hide the cameras or run for cover but enough to make the roads a little slick.  Keep in mind these roads were barely wide enough to handle two cars; in fact they weren’t wide enough to handle two cars.  That said, as we were traveling over a small bump, four motorcycles approached us from the opposite direction.  Neither of us was traveling very fast, there is never a need to travel very fast in Lake Toba.  But with a slick road, small tires and for some odd reason – front-only brakes, it took but a tap of my brake handle for my bike to go down.  My age and ignorance allowed me to think of the camera first.  I wasn’t worried too much about my own injuries.  But as I got up and looked behind me, I also noticed that Gary went down.  I was not expecting this.
I hurriedly forgot the camera and rushed to Gary as he was face down on the road.  He wasn’t moving (you can rent motorbikes in Sumatra but you can’t rent motorbike helmets).  This was not good.   This is never good.  He was alive.  This I knew from his voice but Gary was busy gong through his self-diagnostic check.  “Hands?  Working.  Feet?  I can feel them”.  His wrists took the brunt of the attack with blood streaming down his forearms and lower legs looking a little worse for wear.  I was more worried about his back. 
My guitar lay on the shoulder of the road as locals began to gather, offering their assistance.  Both Gary and I were shaken up by the accident, not entirely sure what to do or where to go.  This was an Island in a volcano, there wasn’t exactly a nearby hospital.  We moved Gary to the closest home where our new caregivers quickly offered water and allowed Gary to lie on the living room floor.  The homes on Samosir, as you can imagine, are very simple as the family quickly gathered offered their solutions in a language not easily understood.  They helped to clean Gary’s wounds as best they could while I went out and collected our gear and inspected our vehicles. 
Luckily, everything was still intact.  Sort of.  The damage to the bikes was minimal.  The camera only experienced a broken latch on the bag and the beater guitar got another notch or two adding even more character.  But beyond that, the only thing roughed up was Gary.  I too had a torn-up ankle but that was the brunt of the damage. 
Stopping at the Hospital on the way home.
Artistic Cars
Textile Weavers in Tuk Tuk, Pulau samosir
As soon as Gary was able to check himself out of our provider’s care, we slowly traveled home.  We passed a few cars-as-canvasses, painters, textile weavers and immediately were impressed by the Islands artists.  We allowed our minds to remember why we were on the Island in the first place and tried to get in the right frame of mind.  When we arrived at the guesthouse, I played nurse. Astonishingly, I had packed a first aid kid and proceeded to offer care as necessary.  This care consisted of Polysporin, Bandaids and Bintang Beer.   The latter of which was the key ingredient to our survival.  After a few Indonesian “pops” we were good to go.
We then met Mr. Bloom who was not only head of customer service at our guesthouse (for reasons that include his charming smile and grasp of the English language – see him in this trailer: but he also played the “Garatung” in a local cultural band.  The Garatung is a piano/xylophone-like devise made of materials that can be found naturally around the Island.  Mr. Bloom invited us to a showcase of his band’s music. 
The Batak Orchestra
The Batak music is composed with themes of history, legend, happiness and of course the obligatory drinking song.  While traditional acoustic guitars were used in their performance, other instruments included a Sulim (Bamboo flute), Hasapi (2 stringed guitar-like instrument) and a Hasek (percussion device), dancers and multi-part harmonies.  It is often said amongst the members in the orchestra that the most important musician is the dude tapping on the empty beer bottle keeping time.  That may be true.  But the luckiest guy in the band, in our opinion, is the dude who gets to empty the bottle first.  Here is a clip of the performance and of Steve doing his best to keep up with the dancers.
Steve Trying Jungle Juice
Gary and I learned that that tradition of musical appreciation starts in the home and is passed on from generation to generation.  We also learned that the men of the village meet nightly after a day’s work to drink Tuak (a form of palm wine) and sing their traditional folk songs.  The locals call Tuak simply, Jungle Juice and there remain a few symbolic makers of this beverage in each village.  While it doesn’t look entirely appetizing (resembling a glass of watered down bull semen), it does start to taste better by the second glass. 
The Kerabau "Mahout"
The nightly set up is simple: As the sun begins to set, men from the village begin to gather around a wooden, outdoor dining table.  The kerabau (bull) will stroll by finishing their days’ work, often led (or ridden) by aging-too-fast-eight-year-old boys.  Someone will eventually pull up to the party with a few guitars or some live chickens for the feast (for the record, if someone in Sumatra asks you if you want to see “how the chicken is prepared?” it’s best to stick to your Jungle Juice).  Most of the instruments in this situation are homemade: lighters tapping on coke bottles, rings knocking on the wooden tables, all to create a sound that is rich with harmony. Gary and I enjoyed the concert, starry night and chicken dish.
Our trip to Samosir was too short.  It always is.  As Gary and I left we made a vow to return.
Enjoy all of the scenes of our time in Lake Toba and be sure to tune in and catch our next episode filmed in Thailand & Myanmar (to be released April 3rd, 2011).
Catch Us Live Somewhere On This Planet.

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[1] Mat Salleh = white man

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