It was fairly late in the afternoon when we finally got to our final destination for the evening. It has been a very long day, driving down winding roads with never-ending potholes here and there, big and small. We headed down to the little cafe by the side the road, a very simple traditional village cafe. We sat down and ordered some refreshments whilst we were waiting for a good friend, Sebastian Hutabarat to come and meet us here this afternoon. After a short chat over the phone, we could see him in a distance, waved and gave us a big smile to greet us.
“You are late, where were you?” he protested.
“If only you knew how hard we tried to get here on time” I replied jokingly “We came a long way and the bloody road is full of potholes” I added.
We continued our conversations moving from one subject to the next. By the way, people who live around Lake Toba or originated from around here (the Bataks of course, including me that is) are very passionate about the Lake, they love the Lake so much, they almost worship it in some ways. To the Batak people of Lake Toba, criticising the lake in the local people treat it at the moment, is like insulting their ancestors. You can say something gentle about things you don’t like about the lake, just make sure you are not overdoing it.
Anyway, during our chat with Sebastian Hutabarat, we went on and on and on about the Lake, as if no tomorrow. Sebastian is a Lake Toba activist, fighting hard to keep the lake clean and presentable. That afternoon, he told us that he and a few other local environmentalists have been doing some work around the shore of the Lake, near the market in Balige. He wanted to know if we could join him there.
“Let’s go and meet the cleaning team so that you can see what problem we are facing here in Balige right now” He stood and almost hurried us off from our seats.
“Sure, it would be great to see their work” I replied.
We hopped in the car and headed for the market, not too far from the cafe where we chatted over coffee. Before we got to the market, I could see from a distance a few people busy collecting plastic wastes from around a few piles of lake weeds which have been raked away from the shore of the Lake. I could also see smoke billowing into the air, hazing everything around the area. We headed towards a small car park next to the bridge and parked the car there. I rushed into the back seat of the car to collect my cameras and headed towards the group of men busy collecting the rubbish and burning them. We got introduced casually and we started talking. The activist here were busy collecting the waste, but there is no efficient way to eliminate these waste but to burn them. As you and I know, that burning waste is one of the most horrific act to increase global warming, sadly they don’t have other ways to deal with the waste. Theres is no recycle sytem here, no government involvement in dealing with waste in this part of Indonesia. Perhaps they are far too busy counting their bribe money.
Whilst I was busy asking questions and filming the conversations at the same time, I could hardly concentrate on listening to what they were saying. My eyes were almost fixed on the crowd of women and children bathing area just a few meters away from us. Everyone was doing something; washing, bathing, washing food and vegetables, etc.
My eyes caught sight of a little boy being bathed by his mother. He was screaming so loud as his way of protesting against the cold water. It was truly heartbreaking to imagine how much germs and diseases his mother was smothering on him with at that very moment, but I feel powerless to think of ways to stop it happened.
Then I turned my attention to a huge pile of lake weed plants sitting next to the bathing area. A young girl was happily doing her washing there, a little bit away from the others. I approached her and had a little chat with her, but she didn’t seem bothered by the pile of rubbish near her. I headed towards the pile of lake weeds, joining the group collecting some plastic wrappers from around it and at the same time observing the people’s activities around the bathing area. I must admit, this was a little upsetting for me.
Personally, Lake Toba is a very special place for me, as my grandparents from my mum and dad side came from here. It is still crystal clear in my mind, how clean and beautiful this lake was when my father used to bring us here as kids. The lake has given me such amazing memories of my childhood, though I wasn’t born near here, we used to visit this lake to see relatives. To me, this is the most beautiful lake in the world. Sadly, it got so contaminated now, with so many fishing farms on an industrial scale thriving here, damaging the environment. Deforestation is also very bad around here, and the local activists like Sebastian Hutabarat have worked tirelessly to stop it, but alas no success to date. The corrupt government has worsened the situation, where illegal loggers thriving here, demolishing everything in their path. Unlicensed fishing farms could provide a little bribe to the local authority to get a patch of the lake and start their fishing businesses.
Lake Toba used to be one the most visited tourist destinations in Indonesia in the 1970s and 1980s, in competition with Bali. Sadly, the development of infrastructure here is far too slow and doesn’t support the development of tourism in the area. Visiting lake Toba is fairly costly and very tiring too. The nearest active airport Medan, is 5 hours drive away from this region. The bus services are so basic and the traffic jam along the route is usually very packed and depressing, making the journey very unpleasant.
In this part of the world, people are not actually poor, and the Bataks are well known for embracing education. Sadly, the educated Batak love to leave away from home, in the Batak land, they call these people “parjalang”, much like myself, leaving a large number of “the not so educated population” behind to short the mess out. Development here is very slow. Although the educated Bataks who live outside of the Batak land are fully aware that something is not right here in Lake Toba, they prefer not to criticise, too embarrassed to admit negative things related to their homeland. They want the world to think Lake Toba is the most beautiful lake in the world, but they don’t care if part of this Lake is actually the worst place to live in North Sumatra. I leave it to you to make your judgement.
Whilst part of this lake is smothered with tons of rubbish and plastic waste, there is a huge part of it still untouched, and a great spot to unwind. Have a look at the picture of Kampung Meat below, a beautiful shore of Lake Toba. Picture by Sebastian Hutabarat.
Our sincere gratitude to Sebastian Hutabarat for allowing us to join the cleaning team in Balige. All the best of luck