Shorts: Traveling in Lake Toba

Riding the ferry alone to Tuk Tuk from Parapat in Sumatra, an older man with slightly rheumy eyes and a long, left thumb nail smoking a hand rolled cigarette yells to me in Indonesian from where he sits with his family, “Do you speak Indonesian?”

“A little.”

He comes and sits close, asking many questions in unfamiliar Indonesian, thickly laced with local phrases.

“Gama-gama?” he asks. “Muslim? Kristen? (he makes the sign of the cross) Buddha?”

“No, saya tiduk punya agama-agama.”

“Tiduk agama-agama!” His eyes widen in surprise and horror. “Mengapa? (Why?)”

I do not have the language to explain that many people in American have to religion. That I am spiritual but don’t subscribe to a more rigid set of religious tenets.

“Apa yang anda makan? (What do you eat?)”

“Sudah. (Already)”

“No, apa yang anda makan? (What do you eat?)”

I stare at him blankly.

“Babi?(pig),” he asks.

“Ya, babi, ayam, ikan, daging sapi, sayur…”

“Ahhh! Babi! Anda Kristian!”

“No, saya tiduk punya agama-agama.” He stares at me blankly again. Blinking.

“Keluarga? Anak-anak?” he asks, turning his arms into a cradle for an invisible baby.




“Barapa lama?”


“Apa nomor telepon anda?” Here I hesitate. I do not want to give this man with a three-inch yellowed left thumbnail my phone number

“Saya tiduk tahu. (I do not know)”



He types his number into his phone and asks me to write it down. I do. I ask his name and he pulls out an ID badge to show me: Situmorang. We sit in silence. I stare off at cloud-coated Samosir Island in the distance. He continues to sit, smoking. I return to writing in my journal. He scoots closer, leans in, his leg touching mine, starting at the incomprehensible English cursive.

The shorts. I’m wearing shorts that stop 2in above my knee. The entire morning, as I walked around Parapat hoping to retrieve my missing camera from the van where I spent 10hrs the day previous on the painfully long drive from Bukit Lawang to Danau Toba, women have been giving me dirty looks from underneath head scarves or clad in toe length dresses and men look me up and down (from the black sweatshirt to the knee-revealing shorts). The shorts have given him the wrong impression.

I scoot to the other side of the cracked-white metal bench and tell him in English, “You’re making me uncomfortable. That’s too close.” He continues to sit, watching me write for 10min before returning to the women of his family who’ve been staring during our interaction.

It is only a few more minutes before the ferry will land in Tuk Tuk, and I can put on pants.

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2 Responses to Shorts: Traveling in Lake Toba

  1. Sara, beautifully done: just enough, not a bit too much. In Queretaro with that high school group I took before we went, the Mexican counselor, Patti, warned the girls about wearing shorts on the street. They did anyway, of course, and suffered through the onslaught of lewd remarks and catcalls, incapable of grasping such a difference in culture.

  2. says:

    Sara- well told. Such a familiar women’s traveling story.. and the self-awareness, cultural confidence and courage it takes to finally say: “this is making me uncomfortable- move,” is such a leap some times. At least it was for me.. Trying to find that balance of cultural respect and self respect can be tricky when traveling. Those are lessons I will never forget. Thank you for this. Big hugs from Denver.

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