11.10.2006 - 17.10.2006
Expected, but still a jolt to the senses. Five months into our trip and Nadine’s paternal grandmother has passed away. We quickly decide that Nadine should return to the States and attend the funeral with her family. This marks the midway point of our trip, but it also caps a beginning and an end. It is the end of one life and the beginning of another. When Nadine returns to Thailand two weeks later, we will learn she is pregnant.
Her departure also stirs mixed feelings. For two weeks, I am a traveler on my own without my safety net, Nadine. She is the one who remembers the names of people and streets, prices, and all of the important facts that enter and exit my memory with fluidity. She is the one who laughs at me and my stupid jokes, or odd observations of the current culture we are visiting. She is the balance in my life. I will miss her, but I also savor the opportunity to be a sole traveler with wanderlust in an exotic place. I am off to Sumatra, Indonesia.
There are only two ways to cross the Malacca Strait between Malaysia and Indonesia: fly or travel by boat. In order to receive my “real traveler” badge, I can’t take a flight to Medan, Indonesia. I must travel by boat. First, I must get to Malaysia from Thailand.
This vagabond jumped on a van the next morning that would take me back to Penang, Malaysia through southern Thailand. This is the same four-hour van ride that we took less than a week earlier in the opposite direction into Thailand. Yet this time, I am alone and carrying a hankering for a real adventure, something off the Southeastern Asia beaten path. The three seats in my row are made for three people of Thai stature, tiny and thin. As luck would have it, I am sharing my row with two really large Kazakhstan guys who probably don’t feel like sharing precious shoulder space with a Texan like me either. These Kazakhstani guys are large enough to play on the offensive line of a major college football program, and oddly enough, they live in Thailand and study Thai boxing, a sport that consists of really small Thai guys kicking the shit out of each other’s shins. They are completing their monthly border run to renew their visa, and I am continuing to port of Penang in Malaysia. My goal is to visit the orangutan sanctuary in the wild Sumatran jungle, but it appears my first struggle is wrestling for some shoulder space with some Kazakhstanis.
Indonesia happens to be the fourth-most populated country in the world with a population of 250 million people, trailing only China, India, and the U.S. Indonesia is 90% Muslim, but the island of Sumatra has a large Christian population making it a 50/50 split between Muslims and Christians. My presence shifts the balance to the Christian side. Sumatra is the largest of 17,508 islands in the Indonesian archipelago. With all of its uniqueness, the island of Sumatra has known defeat and tragedy in the last nine years.
In November 2003, a flash flood ravaged the town of Bukit Lawang. Produced by illegal logging in the mountains, a lake had formed on the Bohorok River. The water pressure from a heavy evening rain overpowered the dam of sediment and timber, and in the span of 10 minutes, that lake transformed into a destructive wall of water and rushed through the valley and swept through Bukit Lawang. It took 325 homes and 280 lives with it, 6 backpackers included, and felled their tourist economy. In December of 2004, the Christmas Day tsunami hit the northern Aceh region and killed hundreds of thousands more. Combine this with the 2002 and 2005 Bali bombings, and tourism had suffered dramatically on this western rim of Indonesia. As a result, the island of Sumatra was practically void of tourists and backpackers. That is what held the appeal for my visit: a lack of tourists and a visit to the largest orangutan sanctuary in the world. Nadine was never eager to visit Sumatra, thus, her visit to the States gave me the opportunity to go to this island desolate of visitors.
I walked to the jetty the following morning in Penang and purchased a roundtrip ticket to the port of Balawasi, Indonesia. The exciting prospect of being seated on a ferry for six rocking hours was a chance to travel with locals and read. I looked around and proudly noted that I was one of two tourists. Seated next to a lady who smelled like she hadn’t bathed in weeks, she found me intriguing. I was torn whether to sit and nicely listen to her explain something to me in Bahasan that I couldn’t understand, or slyly make a move to the open air on deck. My personal space and olfactory senses having been overwhelmed, I made the decision to sit on the breezy, cool, swaying deck to study the waves and clouds that stood over us and ponder life.
As we neared the polluted Indonesian port of Balawasi, I returned to find my seat occupied by the malodorous girl from earlier. So I talked with the other tourist seated with his Indonesian girlfriend. This seems to be a hobby of many elderly or socially challenged Western men from observations in my travels; flee your home country and find yourself a local girlfriend in Southeast Asia. Finding an American on this ferry was surprising and encouraging since Nadine and I hadn't encountered many Americans in our around-the-world travels.
Arriving into the port of Belawasi, a mass of humanity quickly left the confines of our floating craft and rushed in a human traffic jam towards immigration. A customs agent noticed me and inquired if I had a visa. Upon my negative response, I was ushered, as an apparently affluent tourist, into his office to purchase my Indonesian tourist visa. Not having a visa turned out to be the only good decision I made in the next 24 hours, but also an omen of my near future. The cost of a visa was $10 or 88,000 Indonesian rupiahs. As I didn’t have either currency in my money belt, the immigration officer gladly accepted my 50 Malaysian Ringgits, or $18. For an extra $8, or four days work for the average Indonesian, I was ushered past the long immigration line with a shiny, new seven-day visa for a cool $18 that retails commercially for $10. My dear immigration officer friend could now take his family out for a nice dinner.
I was then steered into an oppressively hot bus that would carry us into the large metropolis of Medan. Any person that hadn’t traveled on the boat were pushed back by police officers at the doors of the bus, and that included any suspected touts, young entrepreneurs eagerly trying to part tourists from their tourist’s dollars by any means necessary. The bus proved to be a sweaty and sticky two-hour ride over bumpy, muddy streets while fighting Medan traffic. Those were my first two hours in Indonesia.
On the bus, I chatted with the American and his girlfriend, and Adam. Adam was a pleasant Indonesian guy with a good control of English and found my jokes to be funny. He joked with us two foreigners about orangutans, our current traffic, and Indonesians.
The combination of boat and bus travel left me feeling fatigued and exasperated, but my days was not over. I had to shore up some loose ends: find a place to sleep and transport up north to Bukit Lawang. I would overcome these feelings and keep my wits about me in this new country, because I am a seasoned traveler. Adam offered to help me out a bit as a newcomer in his country since I didn’t speak the language. It was the least he could do for a guest in his country.
Stepping off the bus, he led me directly to a hostel that he knew about. It turned out to be empty, dark, and dank, but complete with red flashing lights that lit the dual-purpose dance floor / dining hall. I chose to visit another place. He offered to continue helping. Adam was a tout, and he preyed on hapless backpackers like myself. He could try and take advantage of me all he wanted, but that would never work with me and my travel experience. He informed me of many things. There weren’t any more buses heading up to Bukit Lawang today. I should probably exchange all of my money before I headed up to Bukit Lawang since there weren’t any money exchangers there. That seems logical, so I exchanged a large amount of money with his buddy the money exchanger. He showed me a good place to eat, so I ate there. It also happened to belong to one of his friends. It seemed that anything that I needed, he knew someone who could help out. After several hours with Adam, my suspicions about him grew. After our romantic noodle dinner together, I told him I was tired and needed to go to bed. It was seven o’clock. Any hopes that he had of getting luckier flew out the door. After the coast was clear, I headed back outside to explore, buy some mosquito coils, and check e-mail. That night I also decided that I should return back to Malaysia via a quicker mode of transportation that charged the same amount, an airplane. I spent the same amount in Medan with Adam as I did on that $30 flight.
When I woke up at 7:30, Adam was patiently waiting for me in the lobby. I must have been a big fish for him. He felt it necessary to take me to buy a mosquito net in a taxi he set up for me, as they didn’t sell mosquito nets in Bukit Lawang. Any normal fool would have zigged when he zagged, but we were like a pair of synchronized swimmers in perfect unison. Even though I knew I shouldn’t be following him to a random house to buy a mosquito net, I was right there by his side. At this point, I bought the mosquito net for $15 that should have cost $2 and my level of agitation was quickly changing to fury. I was ready to rid myself of him. Like any bad date, this date continued costing me Indonesian rupiahs. I felt it was time to end our relationship, abruptly. I took off to the bus station without him, but still with a sense that he was still with me. I was in the taxi he arranged. Experienced traveler my ass. Adding insult to injury, the driver asked for an additional tip at the bus station. If you ever meet a very nice, persistent, affable Adam in Sumatra, please don't ask him about mosquito nets.
Independent of Adam and his entourage, I searched for a bus to Bukit Lawang with my traveler pride having been bitch slapped. I had to regain some amount of self-respect. When I learned there wasn’t a bus heading north for another couple of hours, I found a place where mini-vans leave when filled to capacity. Thus, I was on my first mini-van ride in Indonesia.
Let me describe Sumatran mini-vans. They stop to pick-up and drop off passengers along the route, and often. Even though Sumatra suffers from humidity, mini-vans are not air-conditioned, but heated by the sheer number of passengers they are able to cram in every space available. Each row has an extra person or two beyond the number of seats provided, hang a few from the door, and a couple more on top for safety, and now you have an accurate picture of this mini-van. At one point, on my four-and-a-half hour mini-van ride, I counted at one point a total of 25 people in, on, and hanging onto our mini-van. The road to Bukit Lawang wasn’t the worst ever, but it could give the top tier a run for their money. This road was littered with potholes that looked like bomb scars. Our van dodged them and bounced up and down to the screaming sound of pop music that is found on the Indonesian television show “Let’s Dance”.
Upon my arrival into the sleepy village of Bukit Lawang with a sore butt, I was greeted by one of Adam’s Bukit Lawang cohorts “John, remember we met on the ferry from Penang.”
My tempered response was a quick “I have never met you, so leave me alone”.
I quickly darted towards my $3 a night room located across the river. The river used to be 9 feet wide until the flash flood. Now it is 90 feet wide. In order to reach the far shore, you must cross a makeshift bridge that consists of pieces of board and small logs placed over wire connected to a top rope that sways with strong winds. With a large backpack resting on my back and a small one on my chest, I walked the 90 feet bent over at the waist, face down staring down into the brown, muddy water passing below, and crouched far enough down so as to not smack my pack against the wire and pull me into the drink 20 feet below. Safely on solid ground, I checked into my electricity-free room that provided such rare amenities as a mosquito net. Adam, you liar!
Life in Bukit Lawang was slow. No one was around. I saw a handful of tourists. All there was to do was watch the river flow. I signed up for a morning trek with Siyan to search of Sumatran orangutans, a guide who just happened to be on the same van as me. I crossed the bridge one more time, backpack-free, to peruse the open-air market, study the rancid smelling rubber trees, and indulge in conversation over some supersized Bitang beers with a Dutch girl, Daniella, about the school she founded in Bukit Lawang, and life before and after the flood. By the end of the night, it was dark, a breeze descended from the hills along with warm rain, and I still had to traverse the river over a rickety bridge back to my room. The beer kept me warm and my headlamp lit my slippery path across the suspension bridge.
At seven o’clock in the morning, I took off with Siyan into the jungle. We had made an agreement that if I didn't see any orangutans I didn't have to pay for his services. He guaranteed that we would see orangutans.
As we walked, I heard gibbon monkeys in the distance, saw gray mohawk monkeys passing overhead, and the calls of birds, but no orangutans. After an hour and a half up and down well-worn paths, Siyan and I hadn’t found any orangutans. We had in fact heard them in the distance, but no visual confirmation. We stopped on the jungle trail for a brief hydration break, continued a very short distance when Siyan perked up. He saw a female orangutan and ran over to confirm. It was indeed a female orangutan. To better see this animal, I followed him off the trail and tramped after him through the jungle floor. There in front of us sat Sata, a female orangutan, as she hung from a tree branch in her hairy glory. Siyan then told me he had actually seen two orangutans. The other ape was a male.
It was mating season.
After my first photo of the female was snapped, we then both saw the male orangutan, Abdul, quickly reveal himself from behind another, closer tree. He advanced us towards us quickly. Suddenly, Siyan yelled, “John, run up to the trail! He is chasing us!” My elation in seeing my first orangutan in the wild immediately expanded into alarm in having to flee from Abdul with a burdensome backpack across my chest and camera fumbling in my hands. Even on the trail, he repeatedly charged us while we repeatedly retreated towards the larger space at the fork in the trail, and Sata amused herself and watched it all transpire from afar. As we backtracked, we saw Abdul in complete form with arms hanging the full length of his torso. I have to say that I had an immediate respect for this powerful and amazing creature. It was a chess match: Abdul would charge, we drew back. We continued this cat and mouse game until Siyan took out three mangos and threw them to Abdul and Sata. This kept the male at bay for the next 20 minutes as Abdul no longer viewed us as a threat, but more like a fruit provider, and busied himself eating mangoes. This opened a window of opportunity for Sata to give us a private show.
With Abdul pacified, Sata showed off for the two hairless monkeys. She climbed up trees, swung from branches, slid down tree trunks upside down, and peed from the limbs. I just sat there and soaked it all up and tried to take a few decent photos from my camera and with my memory. That was until the female was 5 feet in front of me and hanging by one arm. Suddenly the branch broke and this female orangutan fell on her back and sulked over to the male while Siyan and I had a good laugh. Minutes later, Sata returned to exact her revenge and, dangling by one arm, took a quick swipe at my head. Fortunately she missed.
I studied their movements and mannerisms over the next 30 minutes, and their incredible physical similarities with us humans in their feet, hands, arms, head, and for a handful of humans, a body completely covered in hair. Just for good measure, during our track back towards the village, we saw another female orangutan with her two children. The adolescent felt it necessary to drop a load in front of us and not wipe. It wasn’t very hygienic.
My Indonesian experience put into perspective the negative events leading to my arrival at the orangutan preserve. Anything worth experiencing in life, it is not necessarily going to be effortless to arrive at that desired spot, may even require some danger and a few uncomfortable modes of transportation. By the end of the morning, I felt a unique connection to these apes, this battered land, and respect for what some Indonesians were doing to protect their gifts of this world.
Waiting inside the Medan airport before my flight to Penang, Malaysia, a security guard nonchalantly walked into a lady’s souvenir shop and picked up a chess set without the slightest hesitaiton. It must have been their daily routine. When it wasn’t busy, he steals the board until people start filing in terminal B. As he walked back to his security station, I offered to play him. So he joined me at a set of chairs. I played chess with this security guard for over an hour while people passed through security undeterred, unchecked, and unfazed by the lack of security. There were more important affairs going on, a match of wits between Indonesia and the United States. In this game, Indonesia started off with a quick, strong start, but the United States finally gained the upper hand, until the end, when both sides played to a draw. Both camps left happy with the occasion to play, meet, and learn from the other. The security guard returned to insuring the safety of the Medan airport terminal, and I to the ease of traveling with a loved one. As travel and life are not always easy, at times it creates memorable snapshots, and my short excursion to the island of Sumatra did not disappoint.