A Tragedy in Toba

After traveling by minivan for most of the day, I took a short boat ride out to the very laid-back Sumatran island that provided locals and tourists a place to enjoy a sunny, warm and idyllic ambiance.

After quietly bedding down in a large hostel room alone, due to sparse tourism because of the erroneous forest-fire scare, I quickly reached a coma-like state.

Like most of that eighty-nine day jaunt drifting through SE Asia, I was up nice and early, trying to maximize the time in my current, mostly unplanned, place of existence. Upon leaving my secluded hostel, I began a random stroll around the island.

After walking for about half an hour, I noticed a sign depicting an attractive beach resort, with an arrow pointing to the right.   After walking through lush forest along a dirt road, and speaking to a local outside of his tourist shop, I came up to a tourist resort.

Upon walking up to the resort around mid morning, I noticed only a handful of people scattered around in different spots, lounging, reading, eating and perhaps swimming. I don’t remember if I saw anyone swimming or not.

I kicked myself back in a bamboo lounge chair and started casually reading my English to Indonesian phrase book.   After looking at one phrase, I heard a voice yelling.

I peered over to my right, at a swimming area. A woman was yelling frantically in Indonesian. I couldn’t understand a word.   Without time to think, I dropped my phrasebook and shorts that contained my valuables.

In seconds I’d sprinted to the edge of the water.  I was standing beside a rocky cliff, not by the beach where the woman was, but off to the side. She was looking at me, hoping that I could help, still screaming in Indonesian.

She was pointing down during the whole micro episode. It seemed as if the pointing was directed down at her feet or calves.  I thought: Could an animal of some sort be attacking her?  I was mildly scarred from the orangutan experience  a week prior and figured that maybe she was being attacked by some sort of sea creature.  She was now bawling and still pointing down.

I was beyond aware that something was very wrong.  Bewildered, I jumped in the water looking and wondering:  What the fuck is going on here?  A blond-haired girl was swimming, saying and motioning:

Over here!”

I swam towards her.

I looked down to see a precipitous drop where the swimming area changed from shallow to very deep.   If you didn’t know how to swim, you surely didn’t wanna cross over this unmarked spot where the surface dipped.

The western tourist pointed down at a woman curled up on the sea floor maybe 20 feet below us. I knew that it was the deepest I’d ever swum down.

The woman was unconscious on the sea floor, against the sea wall, right where the lake abruptly changed its depth.

The gorgeous island sat in the middle of Lake Toba, the remnant of a volcanic explosion that took place roughly 75,000 years ago.

Very quickly I had the body draped around me. It was an average-sized person.  I was instantly amazed at how light a body is while under water. I quickly swam her up to shore, where all of a sudden there were more people around,  people who had heard the distressed friend’s hollering.

Upon pulling the woman from the water, there were three ready, western men who I’d handed her over to. They felt a pulse and started performing CPR. I was relieved that I didn’t have to.  I was technically certified but I’d never practiced on a real person.

I pressed back a bit and acted as a spectator, hoping;  hoping so much that they’d revive her. I retrieved my shorts and phrasebook. Then, all I could do was hang out. Hang out and hope, watch, and wait. She auspiciously spat up water.

The amount of spectators had increased. Almost half an hour had passed.

A doctor arrived and checked the woman as the exhausted men were still giving everything they had to revive her. The doc put her hand up and pointed her index finger across her own neck. The faces of the men dropped.

I fled the scene and came up to the same tourist man I’d spoken to before arriving. He realized that something had gone awry but didn’t know what.

I sadly relayed the entire occurrence. We then had to step out of the road for a windowed van going past, away from the resort. Next to the driver was a western girl holding the frantic woman who was hollering.  In the back, easily seen through the large window, lay the fresh corpse.

The tourist shop owner then said to me in a face that changed from a perplexed state, to instant gloom:

It’s the schoolteacher from Jakarta.”

All I could do then was find out when I could get the next ferry back to the mainland, while in one of the most beautiful surroundings I’d every witnessed.

While walking along the road, just minutes after the woman passed away, I remember hearing children depicting jubilation.  I walked by a tourist in awe of the nature and perfect climate, smiling and saying hello.  No one had any idea what had happened, while  I was in a state of perpetual shock. I’d wished that I’d gotten there just a minute or two earlier, or that the blond-haired girl had swum down and rescued her before I got to the cliff.

At 7 am the next morning I boarded the passenger ferry for the mainland. It was a two-minute walk from my hostel. What I didn’t know is that the ferry would make one more stop at the resort where I’d been the morning prior, before making its way across a stretch of the lake.   At that hour, the resort was completely empty.

I didn’t recognize anyone from the day before. I was the only person on that boat that had any idea that something poignant and tragic had happened less than 24-hours prior.


4 responses to this post.

  1. Wow. I just found this post. You did an amazing thing in an attempt to help that woman. I’m sorry she lost her life, that would have been a horrendous thing to witness.


    • SARAH: Thanks so much! Yes, it was horrible. I was scarred from the situation and only spent a day in Toba because of it. Now, years later, I’d love to get back there. It’s such a uniquely beautiful place. I wonder how touristy Sumatra is now as you here so much more about Bali, Komodo and other islands.


  2. Posted by Maida on January 6, 2011 at 01:40

    Wow, what a story – how sad that she passed away. It sounds like you and those who performed CPR did everything possible to save her.


    • Yeah it was surely one of the saddest, if not the saddest thing I’ve ever witnessed. I didn’t understand why the victim’s friend didn’t get someone’s attention sooner, or why the girl swimming who pointed her out to me hadn’t retrieved her.
      Also, I believe that the archipelago of Indonesia has over 17,000 islands. You’d think everyone would learn how to swim. However, swimming being second nature is something that we take for granted coming from a developed country.


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