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Vol. 13, No. 1, 2014
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Robert J. Lewis
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hex and sex in



John M. Edwards middlenamed his daughter after his favourite travel writer, Bruce Chatwin. His work has appeared in, CNN Traveller, Missouri Review,, Grand Tour, Michigan Quarterly Review, Escape, Global Travel Review, Condé Nast Traveler, International Living, Emerging Markets and Entertainment Weekly.

Lake Toba is the penultimate in penis envy.

Needless to say, you are here to flop down like a fetus and utterly relax at the legendary Tuk Tuk (a place not a taxi), a Christian/Pagan entrepot purportedly rife with white and black magic and reputedly better than St. John’s Wort at curing the blahs.

A ripple on the edge of time, Lake Toba is certainly a proverbial prime meridian of ecotourism versus narcissism -- a place for travelers to kick back and make snap judgments about its personified inhabitants, such as the wealthy losmen (guesthouse) owner, Mr. Bullshit (his real name translated from Bahasa, the official language of Indonesia), who likes to corner the market on impecunious dirt-bag backpackers.

Even though Heaven has the most expensive real estate in our cosmology, this largest lake in Southeast Asia is an outstandingly good runner-up, consolation prize.

No other tourists, though. Save one.

Not counting all the pretend travelers, descendants of Dutch neocolonialists, here was a complete stranger whom nobody had ever met before, wearing a JanSport backpack with a lame Maple Leaf flag on it -- always a sign these days of a candy-ass American disguised as a Canuck, fearful of international terrorism and upscale tourism.

Unfortunately, the American was me.

It was only in the cheaper losmen -- artistically decorated, near-nailless Batak houses on stilts -- where you could meet not only frisky fellow and feline budget adventure travelers, but also could wash everyday from a mandi (a box of water with a plastic scoop and the occasional evil rat swimming around in it).

Lake Toba, a pagan animist retreat filled with intrepid treats, including some of the best euphoria-producing coffee on the entire damned planet, was a perfect place to indulge your sex drive.

The snack carts were filled with impressive small booster plates, including a dicey dish misnomered Beef Rendang, available also throughout the Malay peninsula if not everywhere else in Indonesia, and which was made with Alpo-like meat chunks flavoured with coconut and a hot sauce called Sambal Oulak.

On the bus in the ersatz capital of Medan in Sumatra, the American (I and I in the 3rd person) spots the Swiss babe he had already met. She obviously was freaked out about how male Medan was, with not another woman in sight.

After a lengthy trip, the bus landed at a ferry terminal to take everyone to a charmed spot on the shores of Lake Toba, Sumatra’s largest inland lake.

On the boat ride over the American also bumped into the Belgian mercenary who had forcibly turned a difficult trip into a free vacation. There was a WANTED poster for him in Bangkok’s famous Kho San Road: he did not pay for his hotel and restaurant bills. The American wonders idly if there was some reward money involved.

Meanwhile young Indonesian boys kept trying to get everyone to promise to stay at the various hostels they represented. One young boy tipped the American off, “We are the best. If you agree to stay at my hostel, no one will bother you.”

This was sage advice, and the American accepted.

The American wondered if Toba towns were going to turn out to be nightmare hubs of overdevelopment, which always gave him rollercoaster-stomach heebie-jeebies, like having a catheter stuck up your shonk.

Remember some of those dreams you had which seemed almost real? Well, some of them were. And this was one of them.

Arriving at night in a Xanadu-like town the American wants to keep secret, stuck in a crunchy hostel (which begged for anonymity) like an overdue cable bill without a stamp on it, the American bumped into a Dutch handler with whom he became fast and furious friends.

This was partly because the American was the only person there with an enormous bottle of duty-free whiskey from Malaysia: (Malay Muslims don’t regard Scotch as alcohol, and often drink it on special occasions such as weddings, and sky funerals, wherein the corpse is left out in the elements for vultures to peck at).

The American also said, with anti-Darwin force majeure, “If Man were descended from the Apes, then why are the Apes still here?”

“That’s very clever,” the Dutchman allowed.

The friendly Indonesian waiter looked mightily impressed, too. But then the Dutchman made a disparaging comment about Germans.

The American looked over at a neighbouring table full of suddenly silent Germans drinking oversized bottles of Bir Bintang with disappointed faces, one of whom resembled a department store mannequin of Dr. Phil, with an antique Himmler moustache.

Vaguely forking his burned Ayam Sate (chicken skewers with peanut sauce resembling black bile), which Sumatrans claim is their invention, the American decides the plate looks like the volcanic blasted ruins of a bombing campaign, a Pompeian plate frozen in time, mortuary meat.

Two gorgeous Dutch girls with witchcrafty Hester Pryn tresses seemed absolutely thrilled to meet a real Mayflower descendant and were convincingly overwhelmed.

One girl said she was studying foreign affairs. The American bragged about how he used to work for the spy caterers Emerging Markets, covering world development bank meetings.

The American then heard someone behind him spit the word out, with contempt: “Cyclops.” But nobody knew what that meant.

Now a little late in the game, the American discovered in his excellent guide book (Lonely Planet Indonesia) that in 1783, the explorer Marsden discovered a “cannibalistic kingdom” here in the banyan-treed interior of Sumatra: The Bataks.

Members of this warlike tribe, whose name translated in Malay as ‘robber or blackmailer,’ were more Malaysian than Indonesian, but with a shared ethnicity if not culture and language.

Surprisingly, all of the Bataks near Lake Toba are Protestant Christians, many of them proud members of The Dutch Reformed Church. But at the same time most of them are also Animists, who worship an omnipotent god named Ompung.

Here, among Toba’s artists and craftsmen, the American procured an Indonesian lingam (for sexual potency rather more extended than Viagra) and a magical augery book called a pustaha (for protection from evil spirits, not only domestic but international).

Of course, hypnotic gamelan music tinkled everywhere in the background, while native orangutans peeled back rainforest fronds for a peek.

Food here at Toba was really an aphrodisiac, even though I didn’t have a clue half the time what I was eating: bull sperm, monkey brains, barbecued meat. A safe bet was Gado-Gado, which is Bahasa for salad with peanut sauce. Even safer is the aforementioned international Sate, which they say is a Malaysian dish, not Indonesian -- even though that is where the native Bataks originally come from.

“Saya jalan jalan ku bulan,” the American says to a passing pilgrim dressed in an expensive Ikat shirt.

“You speak Indonesian,” the pilgrim says with a surprised, elastically easy smile betraying perfectly white teefers, probably a user of the popular imported teeth cleaner from India called Darkie Toothpaste, which is also advertised on the tube for “sparkling white teeth.” Seriously.

“No, no, just a few words.”

What the American had said was: “I walk walk to the moon.” In fact, Westerners coming here are known as Moon People.

Much later, a handicapped Batak guitarist, with a malformed mitt missing several digits, launched into a mesmerizing song none of us had ever heard before, which was so beautiful the American felt fatalistic tears welling up on the edges of his eyelids.

The song, of course, was “Tears in Heaven,” Eric Clapton’s eulogy to his dead son: “Would you know my name/ If I saw you in Heaven?”

Luckily, the American wasn’t arrested for trying a Happy Pizza. Or a special Nasi Goreng made with psilocybin magic mushrooms.

The American walked over to the lake with an expensive pungent cup of Kafe Lewak (coffee made from the scat of wild civets) and skimmed a rock across the surface and watched the ripples spread.

also by John M. Edwards:
Kutna Hora and the Chapel of Bones
Remembering Bruce Chatwin
Coffe Art of Sol Bolaños


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