Kamu selalu senyum is Indonesian for “you always smile.” My driver/guide told me this in the middle of our day-long motorbike tour of Lake Toba’s Samosir peninsula (in North Sumatra). I had good reason to smile – it was a great day in a breathtakingly beautiful part of Indonesia, and I got to experience cultural, natural, and slice-of-life features of the area, with a little bit of ridiculousness thrown in. (This is Indonesia after all, meaning there’s a good chance SOMEthing ridiculous will happen on any given day.)
For the record, I use the term “driver/guide” quite loosely here because:
- His English was pretty limited. However, this was great practice for my Indonesian. He also taught me a few words in the local Batak language, which was a hit at the sites we visited. The locals LOVED it if I could throw in a few words in their language.
- He couldn’t tell me very much about the sites we visited. This was partly a language issue (because he could only give limited explanations in English, and I could only understand limited explanations in Indonesian), but also because he just didn’t know much about the sites. He had only been a guide for about a month.
- We kind of got lost a couple times and he had to ask for directions to make sure we were going the right way.
- He spent much of the morning trying to convince me that I should drive the motorbike if we came upon a police checkpoint, which I laughed off. When we actually did approach a police checkpoint, he panicked. We stopped to figure out what to do.
He was worried they would want a bribe because a) we didn’t have helmets and b) he didn’t have some required bike paperwork. He thought the police wouldn’t stop us if I (a foreigner) was driving. There was actually a point when I was standing on the roadside holding the keys, insisting that it would be more dangerous for ME to drive the bike on a gravel mountain road than for him to drive the bike and get stopped by the police. We waited it out and didn’t end up getting stopped. Whew. (Remember when I mentioned the ridiculousness part? This would be a prime example!)
Anyway, our tour began with a visit to a Batak museum to watch some traditional dances. I also got to crawl into the attic of the traditional house where the musicians were playing. None of the other tourists got to do that. I’m not sure what the story is behind my special access, but I was loving it!
Next we rode a couple hours (stopping for a goat curry lunch along the way) to a scenic overlook with some old Batak kings’ tombs. The tombs were alright. The views were exceptional. Have you ever seen something so beautiful you can feel it pulling at your chest? It was that kind of beautiful. Really.
More driving and learning about local flora. Like stopping to pick some coffee bean berries to taste. (They’re sweet! And delicious! And taste nothing like coffee.) Or sampling a fuzzy bean growing in bushes all along the roadside. I love trying new foods! It’s called “pote-pote” in Batak. My guide couldn’t even tell me an Indonesian word for the plant, much less an English word for it. He did tell me that “pote-pote” is a common Batak breakfast. I asked what they eat it with. He said just pote-pote, not even accompanied by rice! I was flabbergasted and admonished him with the Indonesian saying: “If you haven’t eaten rice, you haven’t eaten.” I love being able to joke in another language!
More driving, and more slice-of-life experiences. Like getting stuck in a traffic jam that consisted of us and half a dozen cows being herded down the street. Or dodging chickens in the road. Or piglets. Or dogs. We also stopped at some old stone chairs, which is where Batak royalty would decide punishments for criminals, often involving the removal of a limb or possibly a head. We then visited King Sidabutar’s grave, also interesting, but more fun because I got to impress some Indonesian tourists with my growing Batak vocabulary. Loved it!
Ten hours later, I found myself at a local pub where the Batak men hang out at night drinking “tuak,” a palm alcohol special to this area. (Remember, the Batak are Christian so the alcohol flows freely here!) I think “tuak” smells and tastes kind of like cheese. Not very yummy. But it was fun to hang out with the locals. Okay, I felt a little conspicuous being the only female in the place. But they were impressed with my Indonesian and my willingness to try their so-called jungle juice. And they broke into song as the Batak are wont to do, which I find endearing. It was a fun (and slightly ridiculous) end to the day.
So yes, I had a lot to smile about during this tour because it highlighted some of the best things about Indonesia – heart-achingly gorgeous views, a rich and varied cultural heritage, exotic flora and fauna, and friendly people. When my guide told me “Kamu selalu senyum” it made me smile even more. Outwardly because I was having an exceptionally enjoyable day. But also inwardly because that compliment struck a chord. I know there was a time when no one would have ever said something like that to me, and I’m glad I moved out of that state and am building a happier life for myself. And that’s definitely something to smile about.