CANNIBAL TOUR IN BATAK LAND .WHAT A JOKEWITH CANNIBAL?I THINK ITS TRUE . Causey. Hard Bargaining in Sumatra: Western Travelers and Toba Bataks in the Marketplace of
Souvenirs. Southeast Asia: Series. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2003. x + 292 pp. Illustrations,
maps, notes, glossary, bibliography, index. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-8248-2626-4; $25.00 (paper), ISBN
Reviewed by Leah Y. Potter, Department of History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Published by H-Travel (November, 2004)
In the documentary Cannibal Tours (1988),
Aussie filmmaker Dennis O’Rourke shadows a
group of Western tourists as they journey up the
Sepik River into the interior of Papua New Guinea.
European and American passengers seek contact
with native tribes whose ancestors, the tour guide
assures them, indulged in anthropophagy not too
long ago. The locals, meanwhile, gather along the
riverbank to await their visitors, prepared to go
along with almost any routine that brings currency
into the cash-starved village. O’Rourke brilliantly
captures the ensuing encounter between so-called
primitive and civilized peoples, juxtaposing the
condescension of tourists with the humanity of the
natives. It does not take long to figure out who the
real cannibals are. One of the most revealing
scenes features a local artisan who feels frustrated
by having to bargain so much with tourists. He
wants to know why rich Westerners demand lower
“second” and “third” prices when he is expected to
pay regular price for the blue jeans he purchases in
town. Asked why he wants money, the man’s reply
is sure to surprise many viewers: “I want to go on
the boat. I want to travel to other places.”
Reading Andrew Causey’s compelling and
personal study of the souvenir trade in North
Sumatra, I was often reminded of Cannibal Tours.
Both Causey and O’Rourke record the cultural
impact of tourism on host communities by
focusing on marketplace interactions. Both deal
with populations perceived as cannibalistic. Both
also tend to sympathize more readily with
indigenous groups, who they consistently portray
with respect and candor, than with tourists whose
prejudices seem somehow less excusable.
O’Rourke, in particular, manipulates the footage to
ensure that Westerners come off almost buffoonlike
in their rudeness, ignorance, and vulgar
souvenir fetishes (while also ensuring that his own
intrusion into a foreign “other” remains outside the
scope of the camera). In a refreshing contrast,
Causey openly acknowledges his role as a
temporary actor in the complex cultural drama he
documents so sensitively.
Causey first traveled to Indonesia as a tourist
in 1989, not speaking the language and dependent
on guidebooks for information. He spent a week on
Samosir, a small island located in northeastern
Sumatra that is surrounded by Lake Toba.
Remoteness and natural beauty make it a “mustsee”
destination for travelers to Southeast Asia.
The Toba Bataks who live there provide a variety
of goods and services to visitors, but are best
known for their intricate wooden carvings that
some believe hold magical powers. Causey’s
search for a genuine Toba Batak artifact led him
away from the tourist market to a private home
where a woman sold him a “real antique.” It was
only after he boarded the ferry back to the
mainland that he realized he had bought a fake.
Rather than sour him on the place, the experience
inspired him to learn Indonesian and pursue
research in Sumatra. In 1994, Causey returned to
Samosir to spend fifteen months of fieldwork
exploring the effect of Western tourism on Toba
Batak carving practices.
Hard Bargaining in Sumatra is divided into
seven chapters, with a separate introduction and
conclusion. There are also photographs, most taken
by Causey himself; comprehensive footnotes and
references; and a glossary of Indonesian and Toba
Batak terms, though Causey’s practice of inserting
parenthetical translations throughout his text
makes this feature largely unnecessary. Chapter 1
outlines a “theoretical road map” of the study’s
primary issues (p. 21). Causey aligns himself with
theorists like Dean McCannell, who are more
concerned with elucidating abstract notions of
identity and place than with quantifying tourism’s
effect on particular societies.[1] Fastening upon
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Louis Marin’s concept of “utopic space,” Causey
describes tourist venues as liminal zones where
Toba Bataks and Westerners behave differently
then they do at home. He also coins a new term,
“tourate,” to identify locals who occupy utopic
spaces and directly interact with tourists.
Chapters 2 and 3 elaborate on the themes of
place and identity, respectively, as they relate to
Samosir and its inhabitants. Whereas Westerners
view Sumatra as an exotic vacation spot, Toba
Bataks view it as a homeland that provides both
physical and spiritual nourishment. Each group’s
perception of the other is also at odds. Tourists
often mistake Toba Bataks’ gregariousness for
aggressive sales tactics, and constantly fear being
cheated. Toba Bataks, on the other hand, assume
that all Westerners are wealthy. They act polite to
tourists, but are easily offended by those who dress
too casually or mingle too freely with the opposite
sex. Despite underlying cultural differences, Toba
Bataks appear willing to gratify Western urges for
“exotic” holidays and “authentic” souvenirs
provided they are able to subsist off the profits.
Causey historicizes the encounter in the midnineteenth
century after the Dutch imposed control
over Sumatra. Missionaries, colonial officials, and
travelers brought back stories of the island’s
“lettered cannibals” who appeared to blend animist
practices with advanced systems of writing and
rice cultivation (p. 81). During the colonial rule,
the Dutch converted much of the native population
to Protestant Christianity. Ironically, Western
interest in “primitive” art emerged during the same
period, roughly the 1890s to 1930s, when
Westerners were trying to eradicate the “primitive”
religions for which such art was intended. Today,
the majority of Toba Bataks are Christian. Many
express amusement that a cannibalistic image of
them persists, but are more sensitive to the
imprimatur of primitive, which is taken as a
disavowal of their faith.
Chapters 4, 5, 6, and 7 each address an
aspect of Toba Batak carving. Taken together, they
provide a composite portrait of a carver-family’s
life and labor. Causey demonstrates the extent to
which contemporary carving in Sumatra has
become intrinsically connected with tourism.
When Toba Batak carving was on the verge of
dying out–largely because locals who converted to
Christianity no longer desired objects associated
with old ways–tourism revitalized the craft.
Beginning in the 1970s, Lake Toba became a
favorite stopping place on the Southeast Asian
“hippie-tourist trail,” and demand for the carvings
grew (p. 113). Many families sold off heirlooms
for cash, and, when this stock ran out, enterprising
individuals such as Partaho, Causey’s friend and
carving instructor, decided to set up shop.
Partaho and other carvers face several
challenges in trying to satisfy tourists’ quests for
authenticity. Some simply pass off new objects for
old ones, as Causey discovered during his first trip
to Samosir. Toba Bataks do not necessarily
consider this as duplicitous as Westerners do, but
ultimately understand that selling fakes is not a
viable business strategy. Carvers also must
communicate with customers who do not speak
their language, a barrier that intensifies cultural
misunderstandings. After several months with
Partaho, for example, Causey realizes that whereas
Westerners use the word “antique/antik” to refer to
old things, Toba Bataks usually use it for “things in
the old style” (p. 152). Creating “neotraditional”
objects is complicated by the facts that few historic
artifacts remain in Samosir. Toba Bataks must rely
on photocopies from Western museum catalogs for
examples of traditional Batak material culture.
Most difficult of all, they must try to fulfill all of
Westerners’ desires without appearing to do so.
Causey overheard one tourist in the marketplace
complain to his friend, “ugh, it’s the same old stuff
in every single shop! I don’t think its real–it’s all
made for tourists” (p. 192). If travelers believe that
Toba Bataks produce carvings only for outsiders,
any sense of an object’s cultural integrity
Causey’s agility as a storyteller is the main
strength of this work. Most chapters begin with a
story that illuminates one of the themes from above
that is then developed using ethnographic analysis,
historical context, or, as is often the case, more
stories. Causey, consciously mimics the structure
and rhythm of Toba Batak narratives hoping “to
evoke for the reader what life is like in a small
North Sumatran village that is the focus of tourist
attention” (p. 14). His vivid, deceptively simple,
stories usually succeed in this goal. An account of
the steady rains that literally wash away the sounds
and smells of the land, for example, transport you
to Samosir during the wet season. It is easy to
picture Causey sitting in the living room of Partaho
and wife Ito, smoking a kretek (clove cigarette),
and discussing what type of objects might sell well
in the marketplace, as a TV playing reruns of
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American soaps hums in the background.
There are, however, some downsides to
Causey’s reliance on storytelling. Hard
Bargaining in Sumatra could be better organized
and less repetitive. Stories are used more
effectively to raise questions, than to resolve them.
Readers would benefit from clearer and more
concise statements about what to take away from
some of the encounters Causey finds so intriguing.
Indeed, the complexity of the interaction between
tourists and the tourate at times threatens to
overwhelm Causey, who frequently voices his
amazement at people’s thoughts and actions. While
there is something endearing about such an
unabashedly bemused narrator, Causey’s
uncertainty can result in some fairly hollow
conclusions, such as at the end of chapter 3 when
Causey sincerely wonders “if any of us know who
we are” (p. 101). He writes more persuasively
when commenting about specific incidents or
people than when issuing broad claims about
Causey is particularly adept at painting
realistic and unvarnished portraits of Toba Batak
carvers and their families. Without
sentimentalizing the Batak “tourate,” he captures
the different aspirations and frustrations felt by
those who make their living marketing to tourists.
You finish the book with an appreciation of how
Partoho’s motivations differ from those of his sons
and neighbors, and also with an awareness that his
attitudes will change over time. This nuance,
however, makes Causey’s stereotypical and static
view of tourists–who are presented either as rude
and selfish, or well-meaning but misguided–a bit
surprising. Causey admits that his “personal
rapport with Western tourists was inadequate,” an
understatement that glosses over what is arguably
the study’s main deficiency (p. 19). His solution of
distributing a tourist questionnaire just exacerbates
the problem; the indirect, generic approach of the
written form contrasts tellingly with the intimate
conversations he shares with Toba Bataks. I am
guessing that he is also dissatisfied with the
outcome since he incorporates the results from the
questionnaire so sporadically. In Causey’s defense,
it is hard to establish bonds with people who by
definition are transitory and whose curiosity is
directed outward rather than inward. Yet if Paul
Fussell is right–that “we are all tourists now,” and
tourism has become the default mode for foreign
travel–then Causey and others who record
encounters between tourists and the tourate must
penetrate both mindsets with equal measures of
persistence and acumen.[2]
[1]. See Dean MacCannell, The Tourist: A
New Theory of the Leisure Class (New York:
Schocken Books, 1976).
[2]. Paul Fussel, Abroad: British Literary
Traveling between the Wars (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1980), p. 49.
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Citation: Leah Y. Potter. “Review of Andrew Causey, Hard Bargaining in Sumatra: Western Travelers
and Toba Bataks in the Marketplace of Souvenirs, H-Travel, H-Net Reviews, November, 2004.
Copyright © 2004 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this
work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date
of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed
use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at .
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