Our first Sumatran excursion took us to the small village of Dokan, just outside Berastagi. Despite the small geographical distance, the village contained many traditional buildings and houses of the native Karo tribe. The Karo people are part of the larger Batak culture (but prefer to be referred to as “Karo” over “Batak”) and have a longstanding history in Sumatra.
The main cultural attraction of the village is the traditional Karo houses. These establishments are home to up to 8 families and although the buildings are constructed predominantly of bamboo, they last for over 200 years since smoke from indoor fires coats the wood with a protective and preserving layer. This also means that in each village, the building of a house is a community-wide event that everyone takes part in.
As we approached the first house, an older lady hunched over a large pile of coffee beans she was laying out to dry greeted us the traditional Batak Karo language. Unfortunately, Batak Karo is nothing like English, French or Spanish (shocking, I know), so I was at a complete loss.
Fortunately, our guide was well versed and jumped straight into a lively conversation. As it turned out, the lady had been living the house for a total of 82 years and must have been charmed by our charismatic guide, as she proceeded to bring us in for a tour.
Before bringing us in, she first stopped to point out the bullhead on the peak of the roof, which was the official symbol of the Batak Karo, representing strength. I hadn’t previously noticed any of these bulls, but one she pointed them out, I counted a total of 27 scattered across the village (it made for a fun game of I Spy!)
The interior was small, but homey, with ladders jutting out at seemingly random angles to connect the different floors of the buildings. Most of the villager’s possessions were locally made, as trips to Berastagi and Medan needed to made by foot, and were a pretty significant mission to take on (the village was in the mountains after all). Looking around, I spied a rather large collection of board games, and was happy to see that they had fun priorities sorted out.
Although these traditional houses are no longer the norm for the Karo people, as many have moved to more modern facilities along the outskirts of the village, they are all still very proud of their culture, and happy to share it with passing travellers (provided the language barrier doesn’t get in the way).