Going Local In Sumatra, Indonesia

Traditional Dokan houses stand for over 200 years and sleep up to eight families

Traditional Dokan houses stand for over 200 years and sleep up to eight families

While living in Singapore, some friends approached me to travel with them to Medan on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. When I asked why Sumatra, they showed me the blowout sale Jetstar was having on flights and said “why not?”

It wasn’t until long after our flights had been booked that my joyous cheap airfare haze had been lifted and I realized I knew absolutely nothing about the destination I had booked. After a quick online search, I learned there were perhaps a few lakes and volcanoes that might be worth a visit, but also hardly any hotels to stay in.

Determined to find something, I eventually tracked down a homestay called Nachelle’s Homestay in Berastagi, near Medan, that had an online presence larger than one half-hearted comment on TripAdvisor — which appeared to be the norm for most of the island — and decided to try contacting the host, Abdy, through the homestay’s Facebook page. I sent a message explaining I would be in Sumatra for a weekend, needed a place to stay, and was hoping to see some lakes and volcanoes. After hitting “send” I closed my laptop and expected to wait several days for a brief response about the accommodation’s nightly rates.

Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a detailed and eloquently written reply no more than a few hours later. It contained information about not only the price of our stay, but also notes about how Abdy would be able to take us on a personally guided sunrise volcano trek up Mount Sibayak and tour of Lake Toba, the largest volcanic lake on Earth. Moreover, he provided step-by-step instructions on how to get from the airport to downtown Berastagi, and recommended letting him take us to a native Dokan Village, renowned for its unique bamboo architecture.

Stall selling mangosteen in Berastagi's local market

Stall selling mangosteen in Berastagi’s local market

Traveling Deeper Into Berastagi

Needless to say, by the time I actually got on that ridiculously cheap flight, I was already excited about a lot more than inexpensive airfare; however, it wasn’t until I actually met Abdy in person that the trip transformed to become a complete cultural immersion experience in Sumatran.

The moment I stepped off the bus in Berastagi’s small downtown core, Abdy picked me out of the crowd (admittedly probably not a difficult feat to accomplish as I was definitely the only small, Canadian girl in this secluded Indonesian town). He ushered my friends and I into a nearby café and educated us about where we’d be staying for the next few days before taking us back to the homestay itself, a clean, three storey building near the centre of town. Walking in, I immediately found myself in a bright and open kitchen being greeted by Abdy’s wife. The couple then excitedly bounded up three flights of stairs to show my friends and I to what they called the main attraction of the home, the rooftop balcony. When I (finally) made it to the roof, my stair climbing efforts were rewarded with panoramic views of all of Berastagi and the famous Mount Sibayak volcano.

Posing for photos on my homestay's rooftop balcony

Posing for photos on my homestay’s rooftop balcony

After ogling the view for a few more moments, Abdy said that the best way to learn about Berastagi, the market town, was to go to the local market. My friends and I immediately agreed and within minutes were standing in a gorgeous open-air market. The air was scented with delicate aromas drifting from flower stalls and my eyes could almost taste the vibrant colors of the local avocados and oranges that stood for sale.

There was a seemingly endless array of crowded aisles selling everything from tricycles to specialty coffees to vegetables that looked like they could not have been picked over a few hours ago. Sensing my awed delight, Abdy put his charisma to work on one of the local vendors and was able to procure for us a sample of mangosteen, a sweet Southeast Asian fruit. After opening the hard, leather-y exterior, Abdy handed me the fruit and I was pleasantly surprised at the silky and succulent flavors.

Puppies sold as pets are commonly found in barrels

Puppies sold as pets are commonly found in barrels

We continued to make our way through the market, but now that my appetite had been wet I couldn’t resist biting into some more fruit. I opted to try some orange and watermelon and, although I was already familiar with their tastes, the flavors of the fresh market fruits were far more juicy and intense. All the while throughout my sampling adventure, Adby chatted happily about his love for Berastagi and his career as a tour guide. This brought on a sense of confusion as we approached a barrel of puppies near the rear of the market and Abdy suddenly drew quiet.

“Does your reserve mean you’re more of a cat person?” I asked him, half-joking.

He revealed he was in fact a dog person — and even had a dog named Miyazaki as a pet. That is, until about a week prior, when he passed away. Abdy’s easy, open and cheerful disposition faded and I knew this was not a topic he discussed with everyone. I also had a dog growing up who passed away, so I felt his sadness and emphasized with his pain.

A view of the Sipiso Piso falls that feed Lake Toba

A view of the Sipiso Piso falls that feed Lake Toba

Discover a Whole New Level of Travel

After forming our connection, even the discussions about the last time Mount Sibayak erupted — only a few months ago — and the types of fish you could catch in Lake Toba (tilapia) felt as if they were coming from a friend and not just a tour guide or homestay host.

Throughout my brief stay, Abdy performed his job amazingly well, leading my friends and I on a hiking journey down a rugged cliff face in order to get an up-close view of the legendary Sipiso Piso waterfalls. Adby knew all of the best viewpoints and places to stop for photos along the way, so despite the rugged walk and impossibly steep path to the base of the falls, I clicked away happily on my camera. As pretty as the trailside vistas were, nothing compared to the view from the base. Standing directly at the base and looking up, I could barely see the top of the cliff for its sheer height and the fact that mist from the falls was splashing my face. I laughed off the wetness underneath the roar of the crashing water, happy to be refreshed after the hike. Looking back, I could see the full extent of the trail I had just hiked down the rugged and narrow pathway, around seemingly impossibly steep and tight switchbacks. After snapping a few more photos of the water powerfully crashing into the rocks, I took a deep breath and headed back up the cliffs I had descended.

Amazing as it was, the falls paled in comparison to the next adventure Abdy would lead: a 2am hike up the side of the Mount Sibayak volcano. Armed with about 10 cans of coffee but no flashlights, we set off into a pitch dark abyss guided by Abdy and the light of the stars. Although the volcano was a steep climb and seeing anything more than a foot ahead was an impossibility, Abdy lead the way with confidence and ease and we reached the summit in perfect timing to witness the sun as it began to awaken from the horizon. As Mount Sibayak was one of the highest peaks in sight, it provided incredible panoramic vistas as the sun seemed to set fire to the sky.

To end off the weekend, we drove to a traditional Dokan village, where the villagers still lived in communal houses made from smoked bamboo. While the architecture itself was enough to appreciate, with the buildings’ bright and intricately designed colors, the experience was brought to a whole new level by Abdy’s ability to speak the local language. He communicated with one of the village elders and we were invited inside her house where she offered us cups of coffee and explained how she lays the beans outside to be roasted in the sun. Sipping the coffee, I could taste the freshness along with extra notes of sweetness and berries, which apparently came from the nearby crop fields.

Celebrating reaching Mount Sibayak's summit in time for sunrise

Celebrating reaching Mount Sibayak’s summit in time for sunrise

This all said, these were not the highlights of the trip I imagined them to be. Instead, the memories I hold closest were in moments like meeting Abdy’s family, learning that his homestay was named after his baby daughter, Nachelle and sampling some of his personal favorite dishes.

Posing with Abdy atop Mount Sibayak

Posing with Abdy atop Mount Sibayak

By the end of the trip, I felt that, for the first time, I had visited a place I could keep with me through more than my photographs, I had a place I would keep with me in my heart. I had managed to uncover a whole new level of travel and to this day, I’ve still kept in contact with Abdy – and continue to try and persuade him to get a new puppy!

Contact Info

Nachelle’s Homestay
Email: nachellehomestay@gmail.com
Phone: +6282162757658
Website: https://www.facebook.com/NachelleHomeStay

Have you ever had a local encounter in Indonesia? Please share in the comments below.

Featured image courtesy of Marc Veraart

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Judi Zienchuk has lived everywhere from Southeast Asia to Northwestern Canada. When she's not galavanting the globe, you can usually either find her on a bike or consuming large amounts of caffeine (maybe even both at the same time). To get more personal, check out her blog, Travvel Sized.

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