In 1971, I arrived in Medan on the island of Sumatra. I assume that it was by plane since I know that I did not arrive in the only other way, which was by boat. I do remember the long crowded and bumpy bus ride from Medan to Lake Toba which is a beautiful destination for vacationers. It is also the center for the Toba Bataks.
Batak is a collective term used to identify a number of ethnic groups predominantly found in North Sumatra, Indonesia. They are mainly Christians who had been converted by the Dutch. They also have a strong music tradition. The bus trip took several hours and took me not only through dense jungle but also through an area of beautifully terraced rice padis (fields).
During my Peace Corps service in Malaysia from 1963 to 1965, I had learned (by rote) and transcribed many Malay and Indonesian folk songs. Many of these originated from the Batak region of Sumatra. I had learned them from a friend, Ruth Daroseman and from one of my roommates, Sjafiroeddin. I wanted to visit the Lake Toba area in hopes that I could learn more of their songs for my collection.
When Rita Warpeha, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer, found that I would be going to Toba, she asked in I would take a gift of a blanket to the Ambrita family. I don’t recall how she knew them.
Upon arrival at the lake side guest house in Toba, I asked where I could hear Batak folk songs and how I might contact the Ambrita family.
Since my Bahasa Melayu (Malay language) is minimal, I was not sure that I was understood; however, a small boy immediately appeared from nowhere and led me to the Ambrita house which, as I recall, was a typical house on stilts. Toba Batak houses, for example, are boat-shaped with intricately carved gables and upsweeping roof ridges. I was greeted with open arms.
Soon I had exhausted my Malay vocabulary which was interspersed with lots of smiles and nods and thankfully, a young man appeared who knew some English. His name was Jules Verne Ambrita. I am still amazed how the knowledge of Jules Verne books had reached all the way through the jungle to Lake Toba where he was born. The family was very thankful for Rita’s blanket and, sitting on the floor, served tea with the ubiquitous sweetened condensed milk. I left – with a warm feeling.
When I arrived back at the guest house, I was told that in two hours there would be a group of young men would meet with me to sing. I was told that it would be polite for me to bring a bottle of scotch.
Sure enough, I had understood correctly and I met with about a half dozen young men – one of whom played the guitar. They were shocked that I knew all of the songs and that I not only knew the melodies but also could sing the bass parts. Scotch flowed freely. While I did not learn any new songs, it was a magical evening.
They explained that the next day (Sunday) I could go the local church for more music. The Church was crowded and I understood nothing since it was all conducted in the Batak language. They sang many hymns, some of which I knew, with great verve – more verve than style.
I remember nothing of my bus trip returning to Medan, before my next destination.