The pier we emerge onto at Lake Toba is a small, unassuming stone affair. Large, volcanic stone mortared together, layer upon layer out of the calm surrounding water and leading to land. Two young men sit hoping for customers for their water-craft tourist experiences. I pause to talk with them. With only a month of language-learning under my belt conversations are fairly short and simple unless by chance the other person(s) speak a little English as well.
Such is the case with these two young men.
The sky is vaguely cloudy, but the clouds blow by quickly and then pile up. Soon a fine, light rain makes its way from the far end of the lake and to the small jutting of stone into the lake. We gather under a nearby eaves, and I discover they can speak a little English. They’re happy to practice bahasa English, I’m happy to practice bahasa Indonesian.
Because familial relationships are such a core part of Indonesian culture, some of the basic questions we’ve been taught to ask center around family. Are you married yet? Do you have children? What tribe do you belong to? What is your family name? Questions we might find highly intrusive in American culture are matters of basic info here in Indonesia, with the answers dictating the nuances of how speakers interact with each other and demonstrate the appropriate respect and acknowledgement of the other person. So I begin asking questions.
We exchange names, and I’m afraid I don’t remember the second young man’s name. But I remember the other man’s name because he introduces himself as Edi, but his friend quickly adds that he’s really known as Edi Long Hair. And indeed, unlike most of the Indonesians we’ve met thus far, Edi sports a longer hairdo, naturally tight, small curls pulled back into a loose pony tail. He smiles shyly and shakes his head when his friend conveys this, but doesn’t deny it.
They’re both Batak, the largest tribal group in North Sumatra, consisting of several major sub-clans including the Batak Toba that come from the area around Lake Toba. Edi is 26 and his friend is 21. Neither are married yet. Both are struggling to survive Covid and the associated dearth of tourists. Lake Toba doesn’t see many foreign tourists in general but even local tourists have been sparser due to travel restrictions and other issues at various points over the last two years. They both anticipate improved times financially and otherwise as Covid continues to wane in Indonesia and many other places in Southeast Asia, prompting countries to relax their restrictions regarding foreign tourists and quarantining.
Conversation comes to a close before too long. Its such an idyllic setting, the water grey and calm, the clouds variegated shades of white and grey, and the surrounding sloping hillsides a violent class of different greens. Waterfalls can be seen on parts of the hillsides. It seems like a place that shouldn’t have troubles, but of course even in this fairly remote locale there are troubles and the issues of the larger world impact the lives of locals like Edi Long Hair. At least those troubles haven’t dampened his smile as he gazes out over the lake. Tomorrow is another day, and perhaps tomorrow will bring more tourists.