Sumatra – Just how I Like it

This is just how I like it…

We are the only farangs/bule/foreigners on the plane and when we touch down there are no pushy taxi drivers looking to scalp the next confused and jet lagged tourist, just a friendly face, sometimes even this exceptionally endearing: We have been picked up by the the little son and the owner of our small guesthouse that we have communicated with by email, setting up some great plans on learning about the local culture and customs.

And there is a lot of old tribal culture to learn about in Sumatra. While some of the closely related Austronesian tribes like Batak Karo have lost all but a few examples of their traditional dwellings, others, like Batak Toba on and around the island of Samosir on Lake Toba continue to build and live in traditional houses in large numbers. Some are relativel simple and unadorned and some are very detailed and colorful but all are made without a single nail or screw. Especially impressive are their cousins’, the Nianese king houses, built with huge supportive wooden beams, imbedded into hard rock stones, a very effective protection against the destructive earthquake forces. We are in the land of volcanos, after all, and some are still active.  I never tire of visiting the different villages, because it is just how I like it… we are the only white people. After bellowing the respective greetings of “Horas!” and “Ya’Ahowu!” we are always greeted by friendly faces some with big, toothy smilesand some with toothless ones. Sometimes we even get invited inside the houses and are offered much needed refreshment in the heat of the day. We really enjoy the experience of the daily life of the village: the rice being set out to dry on the main square or the laundry draped over any available surface, king’s chair or not.Sometime we even get to help! We meet locals who continue practicing age old crafts like this man, chiseling a canoe out of a single piece of woodor this big sister helping the younger one learn how to weave. We crash a wedding and congratulate the beautiful bride and handsome groom. It is good to see the younger generation interested in their traditional culture. We meet local junior high dance troop dancing and singing in new versions of colorful traditional outfits.In the biggest village, Bowomatalu, we see two athletic boys perform the traditional stone wall jump. Successful clearing of the tall wall was a rite of passage for boys, and also a training technique for war raids on enemy villages surrounded by defensive walls.We get more insights in small museums with beautiful artifacts and old B&W photographs. They are just how I like them – all ours, as we are the only visitors. The treasures were mostly collected by Christian missionaries and to me speak tantalizingly of dark magic, powerful slave owning kings and queens, and beautiful priestesses. 

To bring (and keep) their culture alive some villagers will perform their traditional dances and even kindly let us participate and make fools of ourselves. We are fascinated to find so many similarities between some far flung tribes that we have visited from Toraja Land to Sumba, Papua and even, what the heck? – Hawaii! In particular we are interested in the buffalos and pigs and their role in death ceremonies. 

These so called “primitive” tribal societies all have a special affinity with their ancestors. I think we somewhat mistakenly call this “ancestor worship”, in my humble view, it should be called “ancestor connection”.

The body of the deceased, beloved grandma or grandpa is often kept at home (embalmed) for a long time, their spirit not ready to leave the family and the descendants not ready to let it go. When the right time comes and enough money is saved for a big sendoff a huge ceremony is prepared with relatives and neighbors descending from close and far. Pigs and buffalos are slaughtered in order to feed the crowd, but in places where old traditions have not been totally replaced by Christianity also to serve as a vehicle for the soul to leave the community and this plane. The graves of ancestors are not tucked away out of sight at a cemetery, but big tombs are erected right next to the homes, so the presence of loved ones is seen and still felt every day. If I was a dead ancestor, I think that is just how I would like it!

7 thoughts on “Sumatra – Just how I Like it

  1. At least I didn’t ask you to beat the rugs clean. Cant wait to see the blog on Samui?! The ancestors would truly like it here..


  2. Thanks.

    Perhaps you will think of coordinating a trip for friends back to your favorite places?



  3. The architecture is so interesting and more smiling faces. You don’t mention coffee so guessing you are not in that area of Sumatra..


  4. OH! What an adventure! FABULOUS fotoz & LOVE the commentary that goes with them…FASCINATING! Another world! Thanks for sharing! K.


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