Potter on Causey, 'Hard Bargaining in Sumatra: Western Travelers and Toba Bataks in the Marketplace of Souvenirs'

Andrew Causey
Leah Potter

Andrew Causey. Hard Bargaining in Sumatra: Western Travelers and Toba Bataks in the Marketplace of Souvenirs. Southeast Asia: University of Hawaii Press, 2003. x + 292 pp. $25.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8248-2747-2; $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8248-2626-0.

Reviewed by Leah Potter (Department of History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) Published on H-Travel (November, 2004)

Cannibal Tours

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 buffoon-like 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 "must-see" 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 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 mid-nineteenth 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 evaporates.

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 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 culture.

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 Potter. Review of Causey, Andrew, Hard Bargaining in Sumatra: Western Travelers and Toba Bataks in the Marketplace of Souvenirs. H-Travel, H-Net Reviews. November, 2004. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=10011

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