18-Sep-2010 -- The city of Tarutung lies conveniently on the Trans-Sumatra highway, but seldom sees any tourists. As a result, the locals - already a very friendly bunch - are very eager to talk to a foreigner and practice their English skills. They will run from across the street or from inside the cafe to greet the foreigner with a cheerful "Hello, Mister!" before he passes on by. The conversations usually start with the greeting then progress on to a few questions about where he's from, where he's going, how old he is, where his girlfriend is (if visibly alone), what his thoughts on politics and religion are, and if they're in the younger generation whether they can add him on Facebook. To the Westerner who is used to small talk with strangers and even then only after eye-contact, just walking down the street can be exhausting and time-consuming. It can also, however, result in a very rewarding cultural exchange.
The first night in Tarutung I got a healthy dose of attention after settling in at the Hotel Diaji near the river. The next morning I set off around 8 am and flagged down a minivan heading the right direction. The driver was friendly even though no English was spoken. I had picked up a few words of Bahasa Indonesia and tried to direct him towards the point. After a few kilometers, he was pretty confused about where we were going. He even stopped the van a few times to look around for an English speaker in some of the local stores to translate, but eventually I convinced him I just wanted to go a few more kilometers on the main road. When my location seemed to be about 700 m from the point, I directed him to stop. It was obvious by his pained smiling that he had no idea where I was trying to go and maybe also had a twinge of worry, but I thanked him and paid the requested Rp 5000.
Behind the houses on the east side I could see the hills where I presumed lay the point. I decided to walk down the road to see if I could find some kind of path. As usual, I was greeted by several people before I was waved to stop by a local Batak family, who then woke up their sleeping English-speaking son to come talk to me. Daniel invited me into his home and his mother offered to make us all coffee. Once the excitement of this foreigner's arrival had gone down, it was time to begin explaining the reason why I was here and what the Degree Confluence Project was all about. I emphasized that it was merely a hobby of mine (I remembered reading about Rainer Mautz's misadventures in Guatemala) and added that we probably wouldn't see anything special once we got there. Daniel was a pretty smart kid, so he caught on quickly and was eager to help me. After some more chatting with him and his family, we grabbed some boots and machetes and left his house at about 9:30.
The GPS device I brought worked quite well and directed us with no problems. Paths through the hills past the rice fields seem to appear in just the right directions. Whenever we passed someone he told me things to say in Batak to them, but as a visual learner I find it pretty hard to remember most of the phrases until I see them written. He told me the name of his village is actually Rura Silindung (I wrote this down in my notes) and the mountain on the other side of the valley is called Martinbang. We passed by the cemetery mentioned by the last visitor and noticed a fresh grave. He pointed out huge ant nests in the trees which he said carried over 1 million ants each.
At about 70 m, I noticed the point was directly to our left and told him we should look for a way over this overgrown fence. Once again, we found a path. At about 30 m, Daniel pulled out his machete to cut through the smaller trees. Under the pine trees the GPS position lock went in and out, but a determined Daniel said we needed to get all zeroes. Mostly it bounced around the point by 20 m or so, then suddenly we lucked out and hit it on the nose. Daniel reminded me about the "confluence dance" I had promised him, so I chuckled and busted a few moves out and a few Texas Fight songs there in the middle of a Sumatran forest because it felt appropriate way to celebrate the visit. Daniel was celebrating too, but more because today was the first time in his life he was able to meet and talk to "someone like Aaron."
We left the confluence point at about 11:15 and got back to his family's home 30 minutes later. An invitation for lunch was graciously accepted. Padang style beef curry, tiny fish with chili and tofu, served with rice and most of the children watching and laughing with me as I tried to master the technique for mixing the curry sauce with the rice and then shoveling the mess into my mouth. All by hand, of course.
After a few more hours of chatting, I gave him instructions for finding me on Facebook, finding the DCP and this entry, and then we took a few group pictures to commemorate the experience. With their help, I got a minivan heading back to town for the real price of Rp 3000. The rest of the day I was giddy from the day's activities and went walking around town to see what other sorts of conversations I could drum up in the warungs of Tarutung.