I went into a chili patch today on Lake Toba and got a lesson in island economy.

Four Batak women were hoeing the fecund earth from a 700 century old supervolcanic eruption that brought lava minerals to the surface and is in their blood. One beckoned to come rest from my jungle walk in the shade of an ingenious tarp bent over treelings, and so we sat to be joined by the other three. The seasonal rains arrived one month ago, they explained in humorously broken English, and with nil tourists they had communed to plant the chili.
The earth is tilled by shovel and hoe, parallel troughs laid across a half-acre to direct the afternoon storms, and beside us, on a green tarp under the blue overhead, sat 2000 hand-fashioned black chile pots ready to be transplanted into the dirt rows.

‘Where are you from?’ asked the first. ‘America.’

‘Are you married?‘ asked the second. ‘No.’

’Are you on pension?’ queried the third. ‘In three years.’

‘I’m the only single lady here,’ asserted the forth.

Island economy is my corollary of Island Evolution where geographic barriers such as mountains, deserts, water or even a marauding enemy isolated a region to cause observable changes that are unique to the world.

Batak is a 100km circumference jungled volcano island at 6000’ in the deepest volcanic lake at an astounding 11km depth of the world. A 300-meter waterfall crashes outside my room window to water and alter every species within drinking range. The plant, animal and human developments show ‘hot evolutionary changes’ that I’ve seen in the similar caldera of New Zealand’s Lake Taupo created by a supervolcanic eruption 300 centuries ago. Here everything in sight has a greater growth rate and size, and rich, colorful and simple patterns. The Batak people including these ladies with white palm oil smeared cheeks are the most fierce looking people I’ve met in the world and, fortunately, the most gentle and industrious in their evolved island economy.

A daily ferry runs 8km across the lake to mainland Sumatra (also an island) where a ribbon road winds past dozens of monkeys on guardrails making faces at the meager traffic three hours down to the nearest city Siantar, and sparse uphill tourists. The ferry and road is Toba village’s social and economic link to civilization, and they have evolved an independent character and economy.

The tourist trade is the chief input until the annual rains come, and this is one of the top three dirt-cheap resorts I’ve discovered anywhere in the world. (The others are Iquitos, Peru and San Felipe, Mexico.) Now few tourists disembark the ferry and I have the run of the town. A room is comped behind the Bagus Bay internet cafe every other day when a storm crashes a power line and the café closes, people invite me to meals, and I get daily propositions in so many words to marry a Batak female and ‘live happily ever after on Toba’. The requirements are that I be male, unmarried and on a pension. Three other European men have chosen this fate.

I could be a chili farmer for the rest of my life, the single girl at the patch explained as we planted. Chili loves heat, and moisture under full sun. First the plant and then the harvest, I replied and rose again to poke little holes with a stick along the rows to drop inside the 3’’ potted plants.

The gaggle paid $200 for 150 kilos of prime seed that covers the .5 acre cleared jungle garden. Drop, bunch soil, water, done. In four months the harvest will sell for $5000 across the lake, and they will enjoy fat times until the tourist season arrives to replenish.

One hundred Toba villagers likewise fanned out onto the jungle slope to plant corn, beans and other crops. These grow well, but others like cucumbers and tomatoes do not and are imported from the mainland. A huge mixed salad costs a dollar, but add tomato and cucumber and the price doubles.

I drove a motorcycle around the island broken ‘ring road’ to first note the 3:1 female to male ratio in passing among about 1000 school kids. The second interesting item is there are a handful of cars, many 100-150hp motorcycles, and a pickup truck that circles the island daily delivering vegetables. When the battered black pickup arrives at Toba the women chase and climb aboard to pick the best as the driver shakes his head in dismay, pulls out a scale, and weighs portions out to each.

The deep lake a hundred meters behind me supplies abundant fish where each morning at 6:30 the townswomen traipse a 30-meter concrete pier to fishermen’s’ motorized canoes to weigh and sell the catches. A 10’’ prehistoric looking trout sells for $US1 and each wife buys one, chucks it in her vegetable bucket, puts it on a towel on her head, and balances it home to add rice to feed the typical family of four.

My dollar stretches a ways here: A room with bath and three meals costs $10. The hotel workers and clerks earn $4 per day plus a bunkroom and meals. The cheerful workday is 13-hours six days a week and everyone is grateful to have a job, full stomach, roof over the head, and pocket money.

Smile wrinkles build, stomachs flatten, and people are more cheerful along the one town lane during this lag between the tourist and vegetable harvests. The citizens know no other way in their isolation. Nothing is locked up: Motorbikes are parked with keys in ignition, the internet café door is open all night, tools are left at construction sites, stores are unattended for an hour at a time trusting customers to pay in the register what they take, and most hut homes have no locks much less doors to hang them on.

Everyone carves at the rock-and-concrete Hobbit homes braced by ornately chipped posts that stare down like hundreds of totem poles. Nearly all play music and sing well, but none is fond of shop keeping. The deformed ‘village idiot’ next to me is the town accountant and authority on local lore. A thousand English books- classics to self-help- from the1960’s circulate town at a buck a read, and then return it to a shelf from when the tourist trade boomed before a tremor shook the island. English is taken seriously and hilariously spoken from the books and an oral tradition passed down from hippy tourist phrases from twenty countries.

There is no village store, pharmacy, doctor or knick-knack shop, however nearly every house boasts a front porch business with a table to serve meals, or hand-made souvenirs, plus two bars with live music three times a week. Every cat has a bent tail and vehicles drive the left side of the road. A motorcycle express putters by every couple days to sell stamps and pick up mail from a community wood box near the pier.

The high school is called a ‘tourist college’ to ensure the shrewd Batak children learn English to get ahead upon graduation at one of the finer $5 hotels. Chickens are trained to lay eggs inside houses ‘where it’s more comfortable’. It’s an Eden to raise a family.

Back at the chili patch, the ladies have judged my feet to be nearly as spread as theirs from daily walks, and have talked the single girl into proposing marriage. However, I’ll visit the chili patch daily to learn more about island economy and the remarkable Batak who have evolved with it.


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