Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, September 2006)

Muti and Opung


I have long been intrigued by the fun-loving Batak people of North Sumatra. They are like the Scots of Indonesia, with highland games and butchness and lovely singing voices.
Last month ‘Opung’ Tunggul Sirait, a clan leader from one of the Tapanuli villages near Lake Toba, invited me and a group of friends to a Batak family ‘shindig’. It would be an occasion, I thought, to see Mutti, Opung’s German wife of forty seven years, in action, in a ceremony in an ancestral Batak village.
It was a joyous event.
Over three days, I had many opportunities to ponder the ancient links between the intensely ‘tribal’ Bataks and their distant cousins, the Balinese.
Now Read On:

14th July 2006: Chennai to Medan
Arriving at Polonia Airport outside Medan, the capital of North Sumatra – after a night of pristine luxury in the warm embrace of Singapore Airlines-Silk Air – is like the descent into hell: local pimps and taxi touts infiltrate the immigration queue. The temporary arrival hall is like a ‘bad-lands’ bus station and disco dollies are parked like Samosir sirens on each side of the baggage chute.
Sprinkled among the hectic international crowd are elite Medan-istas fresh from the fashion malls and face-lift centres of nearby Singapore. They seem like a squawking, chain-smoking version of the melodic Manusia Malang, who similarly haunt the halls of Singapore’s Mt. Elizabeth Hospital; the ‘medical Mecca’ for Indonesians of Chinese descent.
After a battle of epic proportions, we finally push out onto the baking car park of this ‘temple to chaos and excess luggage’ and find our van. We are at last set for a four hour drive to Lake Toba, the tropical world’s largest crater lake.
The first sign that all is not like Kansas is the two-foot long plastic Harley Davidson on the dash board. Above it, on the rear-view mirror, hangs a string of lemon-lime prayer breads.
The driver bares a mouth of silver-plated teeth.
A land version of a native outrigger whizzes past: the Batak Big Mama side-car passenger’s giant hand is cupping the motorcycle driver’s bottoms.
Mini-buses are painted like hot-rods.
Englebert rules!
The urban mayhem quickly gives way, however, to oil palm plantation rustic charm. On some stretches of the Medan – Prapat road, colonial era ‘stations’, immaculately preserved, line the way. Everywhere there is space, and buffaloes grazing and people having picnics. Two hours later we are coasting through the jungle hills and rice-field-lined vales of the fertile Porsea Valley that leads to Prapat, the legendary lake Toba retreat.

The view from the Inna Hotel, Prapat, Lake Toba

The first view of Samosir Island on Lake Toba is awesome – it looks the size of Tasmania.
The first view of Prapat is disheartening; the urban blight has definitely set in since its hey-day in the 1930s as a colonial era getaway.
We stay at the lovely INNA hotel, run with Soviet-era grace by Natour hotels.
That night, in the heavenly mountain lake, we sleep the sleep of angels.

15th July 2006: A Batak fête in the Sirait clan’s traditional village.
Dressed in Balinese ceremonial dress, we approach the village cluster of long-houses via a corridor of giant, polychromatic, floral, greeting cards. Our host, Opung, Professor Tunggul Sirait, former Rector of Jakarta’s Universitas Kristen, is dressed to kill in full Batak regalia. He greets us as we enter the tented reception area. A Batak band – the ancient, not the cocktail lounge variety – plays from a carved balcony above us. Hundreds of guests in traditional costume are seated in the stepped garden terraces of the communal space, which today serves as a ceremonial lounge/outdoor reception hall.
Veranda-loads of aunties with giant grimacing jaws – a Batak speciality – dot the ceremonial square.
On one veranda, poised in a discreetly figure-hugging all white Ragi Idup cloth ensemble, is Mutti, looking for the first time like Deborah Kerr in the King and I.
Now, I need to explain here that Mutti, 65, is a living saint. I often think of that Dusty Springfield song ‘Son of a preacher man’ – when I think of her. She is a Lutheran pastor’s daughter, from Braunschweig, in Germany, who married her father’s bright-eyed Sumatran lodger/protégé in 1959. In 1967 she moved to a very volatile Jakarta. She has lived there on the Universitas Kristen kampus grounds, as a rector and parliamentarian’s wife, and mother of four eccentric and adorable indo-krupuk German-Batak children. One son, an anthropologist, spent 12 years with the Dayak tribe and the orang utans in East Kalimantan; one daughter has recently migrated to Sweden after a brief fashion career in sexy things in West Java; the eldest daughter is a performance artist, and the eldest son, Pintor, my good friend, is a sculptor and industrial designer based in Bali.
I am used to seeing Mutti in a moo-moo with her hair down. To see her as a demure duchess, eyebrows arched, long fingers delicately arranged on lap, perched with poise on a veranda balustrade is a refreshing experience.
At noon the welcome dance is about to begin. A gay Batak beat rolls out from the band’s beautifully carved eyrie. Uncles and aunties form a chaotic circle and start fluttering, in the way that Bataks flutter, as wave after wave of clan cousins arrive and file in.
“Batak events are always a mix of the chaotic and the formal,” Pintor has warned me.
Gifts of rice, cloth and paper money are presented with flourish and fluttering as circles becomes spirals and the linear matrix of Christians becomes a swirling mass of Bataks. They are all intoxicated with Batak soul, music, bliss and joy and, in the bleachers, just a drop of palm toddy and beer.
My group is hooked into the Arjuna bungalow for a plate of buffalo stew and nutritious Lake Toba rice.
By 4 pm, Martua Sirait’s wife is officially part of the Sirait clan and we can return to our chain-smoking friends in fibreglass-swan paddle boats at the lake-side inn.
Life is beautiful.

16th July 2006: to Samosir Island to see the ancient culture.
Off the coast of Samosir island at Tuk-Tuk, twenty minutes into our spectacular early morning speedboat ride, we realise that we are twenty years too late: Samosir has become the island of ten thousand empty swing-wing home-stays; all bleating at us along the coast!
“The Second Bali Bomb did us in,” we were to hear later in the day.
We repair to the charming coastal village of Simanindo, 30 minutes east of Tuk-Tuk by speedboat. The ‘museum’ village that greets us is as spectacular, architecturally, as anything I have seen in my travels in eastern Indonesia – islands such as Sumba and Flores. The long houses and walled fortress enclosure are immaculately restored and preserved. Two guardian statues nestle in the roots of a giant banyan tree; the tree’s top branches are full of white herons.
We visit the village’s exquisite museum of Batak culture, the royal graves and the royal boat house before repairing to a nearby church for the Sunday Service. It is like a church in Fiji with men on the left and women on the right; everyone is dressed in their Sunday best and singing the roof off with perfect pitch.
After the service we slink off to the animist show ‘Once were Warriors’ in the museum/village nearby.
European tourists have appeared out of no-where and are perched like herons in the run of granary buildings that form one side of the village ‘court.’
Centre-stage, a water buffalo grazes under a fake banyan tree.
The dancing is wondrous, the costumes authentic and the atmosphere magical.
Tourists dance about like flailing idiots.
The show concludes with a ritual that is similar to Bali’s Kincang-Kincung ritual; the group’s dukun (shaman) dances up and down the packed earth stage with a long magic wand before finally spearing an egg at court centre.

Mangku Langgeng

21 st July 2006: to pretty Peguyangan village 15 kilometres north of Denpasar, famous for its Ballinese traditional architecture and people.
 I am invited by Leo Wijaya (a distant relative who is manager of the sublime Taman Babek Resort and Spa in sunny Sayan) to his village home for his grandmother's soul purification rites, called PENILEMAN, or MUMUR, or NYEKAH. Today's ceremony is in the beautiful garden court of the family house temple which seems to take up a large portion of the multi -courtyard home. The temple court is packed with relatives. A pedanda priest is intoning Vedic mantras over a table-load of offerings in a central pavilion.
I spy my old mate Gung Aji the priest of the barong of Medwi, the star of the recent French bio-pic on Kepaon Village, south of Denpasar, where I grew up. He is famous because his shining white beard hair (obviously sakti) was used in the hair extensions for the beard of the mighty Medwi barong – no mean honour!! 
We talk of the recent Pura Petitenget temple festival where he takes his Barong for spiritual battery re-charging once a Balinese year.
Pura Petitenget, once known as the most spooky temple in the land, is now surrounded by real estate developments and restaurants that are neurotically un-spooky. Do the developers and restauranteurs pay homage to the temple I ask.
"They never show their bony arses" he replies graciously, in the way that ksatrya barong-minders are prone to when quizzed about the spiritual habits of prancing Nancy-boy agnostics (well, the animistically-retentive) and Lachlan Murdoch wannabe real estate developers, the types that now inhabit the gay ghetto.
When I was a lad the developers and designers of the Kayu Aya (now the Bali Oberoi) would risk demonic possession to pay homage to the gods of Petitenget temple.
These days ones driver doesn't even get a drink – in hard core West Coast Expatria – let alone the gods any offerings!!
Some serious soul-searching is required amongst the villa-vendors I suggest, to address this perceived colonial bias.

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