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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Cross between Survivor, Fear Factor, and just plain insanity!

Apologies to those who were waiting as Sumatra is NOT the easiest place to find internet access.  Went back to the one in Bukit Lawang to find the proprietor had shut early because he and his family were watching a movie.  And there was none in Tangkahan.

Anyway, the little overnight jungle trek I was supposed to go on in Gunung Leuser National Park ... right.  We're talking climbing up and down steep ravines with sort of kind of a "trail" but not really.  Getting to the top of the canopy was incredible, looking down and realizing I'd have to get back down to the river terrifying.  In keeping with my usual tradition, none of the shoes I have are ever appropriate, including the TWO pair I brought on this trek.  Actually, more likely, I need different feet, ankles, and legs to go with the shoes.  I'm not sure why I seem to keep forgetting I'm officially disabled from my injury when I decide these things seem like a good idea...


Of course what made it worth it were the people I had for company (Andrea, Mbra, and Phii, the latter two of whom absolutely and totally saved my life multiple times),


and the wildlife I got to see -- the great argus which is like a giant peacock singing its amazing song which we caught on video!

and sadly no orangutans while we were looking -- but I loved the Thomas leaf monkeys which are endemic to North Sumatra and look like rock stars with little mohawks,


as well as the gibbons and siamangs.

No leeches, thankfully!  I I will always be grateful for that as well as it not raining during my hike -- I would absolutely have been dead.  In fact, there were many instances during which I wanted to be dead, since that would have been preferable to my imagining falling to my death.  There were a number of times I just had to abort my imagination in order to get through the next 10 steps.  They were endllessly patient with me and kept saying "pelan tapi pasti"-- "slowly but surely!"Phii actually held my hand for a lot of the way down and showed me where to put my feet for each step.  Andrea says that my acknowledging that he saved my life means that I need to marry him now.  We'll see ;)  I don't know which of the above reality shows this is most starting to resemble!

I sweated sooooooooooooo much during this hike, that despite starting out at 9 am and drinking about 1.8 liters during the hike, I did not have to go to the bathroom at all.  Till the next day.  22 hours.  I shudder to think about what my electrolytes must have looked like,  but that was better than getting up in the middle of the night where we were camping to use the nonexistent squat toilet.  The sounds of the jungle were beautiful though and not stressful at all, and we did not run into the Sumatran rhino or the rare Sumatran tigers. (However, in town, people noted that there are "many small tigers" -- the town cats).

The next morning, we tubed back to Bukit Lawang via inner tubes along the Bohorok River.  In places it is a bit like white water rafting.  We got repeatedly drenched and had all our stuff in dry bags and it was great fun with no damage incurred! 

That afternoon I went to see the orangutan feeding, another hike and a half up to the feeding platform.  I felt that since I had missed them on the actual trek, I should see them up close and personal.  Unfortunately only one showed up for free bananas and milk, but I got a few good photos, and the rangers assured me that that was actually a good sign that this season there is enough food in the forest that they don't really need the supplements.  Good for them, sad for me!



That night was the beginning of Yom Kippur, and I realized that my adventures had been fully in keeping with the notion of "torturing my soul" and making my body uncomfortable so I could atone for wrong deeds and actions done over the past year.  ;-)  I think I have fully atoned now, but also went ahead and fasted for the next 25 hours just in case.

I have to thank all the incredible gang at Green Hill for humoring me despite my whimpering and making it an incredible time!  Check them out at  I was sorry to say goodbye to them -- they felt like true friends by the time I left!


More installments hopefully to come soon!  :)

Friday, September 25, 2009

Jam Karet: Welcome to Sumatra and the Chicken Bus

Oh, and what a ride it's been~!

I got up at 3:30 am, said a goodbye to my lovely roommate Margaret, and took a taxi to KL Sentral from which the super well organized SkyBus to the airport leaves.  I was able to book it as part of my airline ticket with Air Asia and it costs <$2 US to get to the airport.  Not bad!  And it was my last fabulous (I mean to say 'normal') bus ride.

At the airport, I had plenty of time and was bored walking around.  Even at the low-cost carrier terminal there were some great shops, including a chocolate themed restaurant called Theobroma.  I wish I'd had the interest at 6 am, but not really.  Luckily due to giving some things away, my baggage only weighed 15.9 kg, which is close enough to 15 to not cause me any overage fees on Air Asia :)

Completely uneventful one hour flight to Medan, Sumatra where let's just say I was the only redhead on the plane, and then the only redhead at customs and immigration.  The only other non-Asians were all Dutch, on a group package tour.  Apparently given the colonial history of Indonesia being connected to the Dutch, they still like to come there on holiday.  It took about an hour to pay the $25 visa fee and then be the last one on line through immigration.  I then went to the ATM where it rejected my card 3 times.  Then it turned out the ATM was "rusak" = broken, and some security guys did finally come to fix it. 

In the middle of all this I got into a conversation with a woman named Rosalie who was married for 25 years to a Dutch guy and living there, and was on her way back to visit her relatives in Lake Toba.  She helped me convince a taxi driver to wait ages while the ATM was fixed and then take both of us at a very reasonable fee to a place I could buy an Indonesian SIM card, as she wanted one too, and then take me to the bus station which was clear on the other end of town.  The taxi driver spent about 2 hours with me for a total cost of $5 getting all my errands done in the awful heat and crazy Hari Raya traffic (they are celebrating it through the weekend and school doesn't start again till Monday).   And then he put me directly on the "chicken bus" at Pinang Baris bus station bound for Bukit Lawang.  I didn't even have to touch my big backpack, it went straight to the bus helper guy who put it in the back where I sat down.  The bus looked like an old rickety school bus with no A/C and some open windows and a door in the back which the bus helper guy would pop open and lean out of as he shouted "Bukit Bukit Bukit!" very perkily trying to get more customers to board.  In a while (the concept of "jam karet" or "rubber time" starts to apply here) we were off and running!  Now, by the way, I thought it was referred to as the "chicken bus" because per the lonely planet guides, 30 people are shoved into 10 seats like a chicken coop.  However, as you will see below, there are more reasons than one...

The driver turned on an incredibly loud sound system with thundering bass in the back, right near where I was sitting.  It sounded almost like Bollywood music, but it was obviously Indonesian lyrics as many of the passengers were singing along loudly.  The bus was about half children and everyone, certainly everyone male who was not a child, was smoking.  More and more people got on and crowded in.  A man sat down next to me and I realized he was holding a live duck in his hand, head poking out of a rice bag.  Another duck was shoved under the seat in front of him and under the seat in front of me went a box of chickens.  Live chickens.  Strangely enough the box was labeled "Mie Ayam -- Ekstra Pedas" which means "Chicken Noodles, Extra Spicy" ?? Was this what they were going to be turned into?  I asked in my best Indonesian if they were for food, he said no, but I knew better than to believe him.  Too bad.  The duck was adorable.  I remember thinking maybe the duck was thirsty in the sweltering heat of this bus.  The bus went through countryside and tons of palm oil plantations and rubber trees, and then there was a really bumpy, less well paved part.

By the time it was all over, I actually realized in retrospect that it hadn't been that bad.

I texted Andrea from the bus station and she and Mbra (her husband) came to get me in a becak -- or actually I think they call them ojeks here. 

It's a motorcycle driven open air taxi that barely sits two normal sized people.  He took one with my luggage and we took the other one.  But you can only get a certain distance with these things -- the town is laid out along a river with steps up and down and after a while we just had to get out and Mbra carried my backpack for me and we hiked up and down.  This is the kind of town that does not see a lot of travellers, and everyone is so friendly that they all said hello to me as we passed.  Sometimes "Hello Mister".  I forgive them, I think.  There was a massive flood here in 2003 and apparently about 1/3 of the villagers lost their lives, many guesthouses were destroyed, and people are still recovering but very resilient.

We made it to Green Hill, their guesthouse.  It's beautiful and there are two cottages which are up only about 50 steps and essentially are situated like treehouses in the jungle.  Amazing!  Nice big cottage with a big outdoor balcony looking onto the Bohorok river and tons of people tubing down it (big Hari Raya crowd here this week, mostly locals) and the primary rainforest. 


Separate toilet room with a skylight in it and down a flight of steps from that is an open air shower where the water comes out of a bamboo spout.  An adorable family of toads live in the shower.  And Thomas leaf monkeys (which are endemic only to Sumatra and look like they are wearing eyeglasses) come crashing through the trees next to my balcony every now and then.  Really idyllic.  Now, if only there were A/C ... and .... um .. light!   There are multiple elecrical outages each day in this town, so I guess the A/C would have only been moderately helpful if it existed.  It has even been a challenge to charge electronic devices (including my camera batteries from hell)!  And the Internet only came to Bukit Lawang 6 months ago.  I am now sitting on the floor in the internet cafe called "Leuser Net Wave" having walked past a flock of ducks and geese and the guy's living quarters to get here.  Decent connection, when the electricity is working (this is my second attempt today so I'm trying to grab it in!!!) so I'm most grateful for that.  Plus I was able to Skype my mom with a great connection :)

Last night I was able to turn in a bunch of laundry to be done, and find out what the Indonesian mosquito repellent of choice is (it's called Autan, made by some sort of Johnson subsidiary, and though I'm not sure if it works, it only costs a dollar).  It reportedly has 20% DEET.  After internet catch up time, I was too exhausted to have dinner so just came back to the treehouse and crashed.  It actually got cool enough at night to be relatively comfortable.

Breakfast was an absolutely delicious chocolate pancake made by someone named Phii (spelling??) after which he took it upon himself to accompany me to the weekly Friday market which was a few km away near the bus station, since it was my "first time" there. 


It was at least a 45 minute walk, there were no ojeks available, and then we looked around this market which was full of people and had tons of gorgeous veggies and fruit and I bought some grapes, which are new to this area ("anggur"), something called "klangkang" which is like a lychee or a longan, and some mangoes.  Also scored a pair of socks, as I lost a pair in Malaysia, and a new sarong.  Phii insisted on carrying my stuff.  I treated him to some es campur (very much like the Malaysian ABC with all the weird ingredients in it but not shaved ice, it's more like a drink containing black jelly and green rice-flour "worms" and round pink things and also rice ....delicious.  

We also saw the weekly rubber trade (one of the few profitable industries, smells just like the awful smell from the longhouse in Borneo) and a jeep type car so rickety that they had to tie the door closed.  It would have been condemned long ago in the US but here they make it work.  Hopefully I'll be able to post the photo.


Then he took me to see the "hospital" which was more like a clinic.  No one spoke English there but I fared ok with my Bahasa and took some photos of all the promotional posters.  At least I could tell which diseases they were talking about.


I asked him what most people here do when they get sick.  "Usually nothing," he said.  That or jamu-jamu which is traditional herbal medicine.  They just die young, it seems.  60 would be considered on the old side here.  Perhaps all that damn smoking contributes.  He estimated 70% of adults smoke, but I think it's more like 90%.  Each person that I've asked can't explain why it is, other than it's cheap...

After the market trip, Phii asked me why I was not married "yet" (typical question around these parts to which my usual top 30 answers are not suitable) and then took me swimming in the river.  The water was ice cold which felt just great!  After that, nice long outdoor shower after which I started back out for the internet but the electricity was "rusak" so I ended up getting into a conversation with a woman named Siti who ran a little roadside cafe, and her friend Obai.  Both spoke English very well and I got to hear their life stories whether I wanted to or not ;)  I heard about Siti's awful Batak husband for whom she had moved to Sumatra after working for 9 years in a relatively much cushier job with better pay as a nanny in Singapore.  I also got to hear about her Canadian boyfriend.  I also got to hear what other services she offers: she works as a trekking guide, she offers Javanese massage at $6/hr, she teaches cooking classes ... I'm not sure how she does all these things at once so I asked her and she said when she's doing these other things her friend runs her little warung "just like a family."  Must be nice.  I ate dinner at her place, a lovely long bean curry with some extra chili paste and peanuts and noodles on the side.  It cost 70 cents and the intense life story was free!

Tomorrow I am going trekking with Mbra and Andrea and hopefully seeing some orangutans as well as other wildlife!  We've heard, but not seen, gibbons across the river from us at the guesthouse, and when I was swimming with Phii, we came across a whole family of 6 macaques.  Very much looking forward to the 2 day jungle trip with the overnight in the jungle, and we will be tubing back along the river :)

The sights and sounds and people you meet here are just so extreme and multilayered ... don't know if I've managed to convey it well but I feel like I've experienced a year in just two days!  More after the trekking, depending on electricity.  After that I'll be heading to Tangkahan where there are elephants and not sure about internet.