Although it was Sumatra's incredible wildlife that first drew us to the island, it ended up being the people we met - locals and fellow tourists - that really stole our hearts.
We met Jo and Janosh in the back of a van on the bumpy ride from Bukit Lawang to Tangkahan. Crushed together into an almost nonexistant backseat, Jo and I started chatting about everything imaginable to pass the time. We ended up traveling for over a week together after leaving Tangkahan, and it was an absolute pleasure. It's pretty special to meet people in the middle of a jungle who you'd be happy to befriend in real life! Thanks, you two, for the company, the conversations and for an excellent time!
In the highland town of Berastagi, we met more friends - this time, a local family.
I felt like I was coming down with a cold, so Dan and I decided to take a day off to rest and do some errands around town. We had lunch at a little bakso (meatball soup) restaurant on the main street - this is where we met Irana.
Irana is an English teacher. She has a classroom in her home and gives classes and private lessons. She was in Berastagi with her two sons, leaving Sunday morning church service when her youngest son, Joey, spotted my bright blue rain jacket as Dan and I walked up the street. They ducked into a store and came out a few minutes later, and there we were again, heading into the restaurant. So they decided they would strike up a conversation.
We found that in Sumatra, everyone wanted to practice their English. There aren't as many tourists here as the more southerly islands - Bali or Lombok or Java - and so the locals don't bother with trying to sell you things. When they yell, "Hey Mister! What's your name?" they actually want to know, especially the young people. They're friendly and as curious to learn about our lives as we are to learn about theirs.
On this particular day we were interviewed by two roving groups of students for an English class project (and posed in about a hundred photographs). One group approached us while we were talking to Irana, who ended up helping them tra
nslate their questions and our answers.
By the end of the whole affair, which commandeered the back of the bakso joint for the better part of a half hour, Irana offered to take us back to her home in nearby Kabanjahe, to talk more and to meet her family.
We took the bus to Kabanjahe and walked to the home that Irana and her sons, Joey and Gideon, share with her sister, Datna, and their mother, who introduced herself to us only as 'Mama.' Datna met us at the door and ushered us with a wide grin into the classroom, its green-painted walls plastered with student projects and photos and English vocabulary lists. We all sat cross-legged on the floor. Datna teaches public school and speaks English fluently as well, so we slipped into an easy conversation that lasted out the afternoon.
While we talked, the sisters brought out a bowl of leaves and tobacco and introduced us to a Karo social custom : sirih (pronounced Seeree), also known as betel nut.
According to the internet, chewing the betel nut is a custom throughout quite a lot of Southeast Asia, but this is the only place where we've seen it in action. You take a wide, flexible betel leaf and add calcium paste and the ground up betel nut. You fold it up into a neat little package and chew it, spitting the crimson saliva into a communal bucket.
When it's good and chewed, you take a wad of loose tobacco and dab it at your gum line to soak up the excess saliva. Between the betel nut, which is a mild stimulant, and the tobacco, I was buzzed. The Karo people, the predominant tribe in this area of Sumatra, use it as social lubricant. It works - it made us all very talkative. And it numbed my sore throat! Bingo!
Irana showed us photographs of the Karo people around the time that the Dutch began exploring Sumatra - pictures of the houses on stilts with great swooping roofs, of the proud-looking tribal chief staring into the camera, wearing a European-style jacket but still a sarong and traditional headdress. Datna showed us a video of her wedding dance, less than a year ago. We admired her clothes: a long-sleeved shirt of red lace, and innumerable sarongs and scarves, beautifully patterned, culminating in the folded headscarf.
By this time, a few of Datna's students had shown up to meet us and to practice speaking with us - friendly teenagers. They were delighted - as we were - when Datna left for a few minutes and then reappeared with a pile of scarves and that beautiful red shirt in her arms - dress up time!
Within a few minutes, they had us dressed to the nines, me in the red shirt and a soft sarong and headscarf, Dan in a sarong and headscarf. They buzzed around us, tucking and wrapping and laughing.
We posed for photos outside the front door - and caused a traffic jam as everyone in the neighbourhood slowed down to wave and snap pictures.
I can't say for sure, but we might be married as far as Karo custom goes!
Datna and Irana's mother came home in the evening - an energetic, graceful woman who took it upon herself to teach me Batak dancing and who, through her daughters' translations, told us about her childhood in what is now a preserved ethnic village near Berastagi. Later, we all had dinner - rice and vegetables and fish. Absolutely delicious!
Irana and Datna and Mama, thank you SO much for your hospitality, for opening up your home to us and giving us such an incredible experience! We could not have asked for a better lesson on Karo culture and we'll be sure to keep in touch with you!