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Friday, October 2, 2009

The Elephants of Tangkahan

OK -- before starting this post, I want to tell you all that I am writing this from the absolute safety of an optical shop in Sungei Wang Plaza in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where they have told me to "make yourself at home" after pleasantly and perfectly efficiently replacing my eyeglasses lenses in less than an hour!

This means, of course, that I made it out of Sumatra.

I joked (or so I thought) in one of my first few entries about disasters seeming to follow me or precede me wherever I go, and I apologized already for the Java earthquake that happened a few weeks before I left.  For those of you who have been living on the dark surface of the moon, you may not know that Sumatra has been the unhappy host to two more major and devastating earthquakes around 3-4 days ago.   I thank everyone for their extremely sweet concern about me, knowing I was in Sumatra, but I refer you to the following helpful maps:, and for even better detail including the areas I did travel to,

I was nowhere near as far south as Padang, and the island of Sumatra is actually bigger than all of Malaysia.  Padang, where the earthquakes happened, would have been a 12 hour bus ride away (albeit on absolutely crappy roads so maybe not that FAR).  So, compare it with being in northern California when an earthquake happens in SoCal.  No, I did not actually feel it.  But -- I tend to not notice earthquakes where I live, either, so maybe I'm not a good judge. 

So -- back to my trip, although writing about my adventures seems to pale in comparison to what the poor people of Padang went through.  By the way, if anyone has any money they don't know what to do with, may I recommend you find a charity that is helping out there?  Wish I knew a specific one to direct you to -- I will work on that.

On Yom Kippur, I figured I'd break up my fast with a motorbike trip from Bukit Lawang to Tangkahan, as there are no direct buses between the two, you'd have to go back to Medan and then back out to Tangkahan.  So this took 3+ hours, as opposed to 9 by bus. 

I figured out pretty quickly why there are no busses between the two.  Remember I mentioned crappy roads above?  Well, that's even the ones that are officially called roads.  Between these two towns there are basically dirt trails completely churned up by those damned palm oil trucks, mixed with nice tropical rains, in order to create terrifying risk for anyone attempting to travel between the two by motorbike.  Maybe a military vehicle would have been better.  Helmet?  I think not!  No one in Sumatra seems to ever wear a helmet on their motorbike.  This includes families of 6 seated on one motorbike with the baby in front.  We had to take 2 motorbikes, one for my humongo backpack and one for me.  The lovely Kendar from Green Hill was my driver and was endlessly patient with me and my terror.  We only fell off the bike once when he just couldn't make it stop and it was rolling backwards.  Luckily, no head trauma or even major limb trauma was sustained.  Just a pain in the butt.  Literally.


During this ride I was pretty sure I was not going to make it to Tangkahan alive.  So imagine my surprise when we finally ended up there!  All that with intact brain tissue and no organs coming out through openings that were not supposed to be present on my body!  We had to take a cute little raft across the river to get to the Mega Lodge, and Kendar and his friend carried my backpack up the 65 or so steps that these places always have, and delivered me into the hands of the extremely friendly and helpful Mega.  By this time, I was exhausted and mentally and physically wiped out given the trip, my inability to drink any water, and the fast which was on hour 20 thus far.  I spent the next few hours taking a nap in my very nice room, and then arranged what seemed like a good schedule for the next day with Mega: elephant washing, elephant trekking through the jungle, tubing down the local river, a trip to a gorgeous waterfall to go swimming, and walking back through local villages.

So the next morning I went down to the river with about 5 young people from Medan to see the 7 elephants who live in Tangkahan.  We saw a few interesting things along the way, as well..


They just mostly wanted to see the washing and not really participate in it -- except for one adorably Hello-Kitty-ish girl who wanted to get up close and personal with them but at the same time was kind of freaked out.  I just marched into the water and started scrubbing elephants with the brush.




They were lovely -- less so than Wannalee, but lovely nonetheless.  The mahouts I think sensed my comfort level with them, so when it was time to do my 2 hour jungle trek with Ardana, my elephant, my mahout saw fit to allow me to ride on the neck mostly instead of that horrible howdah seat that distances you from the elephant.  (Another useful phrase I had learned in Indonesian: "Saya suka duduk di leher gajah"-- Ï want to sit on the elephant's neck".)  However, this was a jungle trek up and down steep ravines.  Easier than doing it myself in Bukit Lawang 2 days before, but remember when an elephant climbs up and especially down it jolts you a bit.  I have to say 2 hours was just about enough!




After that the tubing I did with Dese, my guide, was totally mellow and much less like white water rafting than in Bukit Lawang.  I actually was so relaxed I fell asleep while tubing.  We went to this beautiful waterfall (photos to follow) and ate lunch, nasi goreng and pineapple served up on banana leaves as plates -- just return them to the environment when you're done!


The walk back through the local villages was nice too.  I missed the hot springs (and I think a butterfly farm?) in the area, so I guess I'll have to come back sometime...


Next installment will be about getting out of Tangkahan and my time in Berestagi.  But I must cut this short, as I have a death to report -- my camera, which had been slowly becoming terminal, and which overheard me actively covet Kathleen's camera on my Malaysia trip, died yesterday.  It lived a good life, but it must be replaced.   Which is my next goal in KL today.  So -- more later!!



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