Day 62: Falling in Love With Bukit Lawang

Trip Start May 20, 2008
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Trip End Aug 19, 2008


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Flag of Indonesia  , Sumatra,
Tuesday, July 22, 2008

D'oh my legs, my poor, poor legs... They were only half working today but somehow managed to transport me the few brief distances I decided to walk. After another delicious breakfast of toaster oven debris and a chat with the inn's server, a very friendly 19 year old guy whose name I have since forgot, I took my battered guidebook and sat down by the river to plan the next few days. The original plan was to leave Bukit Lawang on the first bus this morning, transfer buses in Medan, continue on to Danau Toba and spend a day or two there before ferrying out to Malaysia, where I'd hightail it to Bangkok on an overnight train. This plan involved almost as much Sumatran chickenbus travel as it did additional Sumatran exploration time, and was looking less and less inviting the more I thought about it. Plus, Abdul, Ita, and my other Bukit Lawang friends informed me that while Danau Toba was gorgeous, there was nothing to do there except laze about and stare at the postcard view. After almost a week in Bali, I'd had my fill of "makes a pretty postcard, but there's nothing to do here except eat, shop, and tan." If I had company it might be a good idea, but at this point I was ready for some big city action. I decided to leave for Malaysia early and make time for a Kuala Lumpur visit while staying in Bukit Lawang one extra day as compensation. So, my plans decided, I began wandering around the village at random.

Bukit Lawang has an awesome setting. There's a ranging river, wooden stilt huts built up on either side, a rickety Indiana Jones bridge connecting the two, and towering jungle 360 degrees surrounding. And by towering, I mean towering. Hills rise steeply above the town, covered seamlessly in thick trees and jungle vegetation creating what look like solid walls of plant life. This scenery combined with the odd waterfall and jungle animal noises equaled some magical walking. I stopped by a fruit stall halfway through to have my first taste of durian fruit. Durians are ubiquitous in this part of Southeast Asia. Nicknamed "the King of fruit," these giant brown spikey balls that look more like medieval torture devices than food emit an unmistakable, distinct and not entirely pleasant smell. In the Singapore MRT, alongside the usual "no smoking, eating, or radio playing" graphics were durian silhouettes with red circle-slashes over them. On the wall of my Yogyakarta hotel was a "Please do not bring fruits with strong odors in the room" sign. Travel Channel host Anthony Bourdain assured me during one of his programs however that while they smell bad, if you crack one open you're in for an instantly addictive amazing taste. So, I purchased one of the smaller durians from the fruit vendor, watched him pound the skin with a machete to crack it open, and... Oh Lord, this would not be a pleasant meal. Inside, the edible section of fruit was a softer layer of meat around the seeds, looking like some kind of kidney or human organ. I held my nose and popped one in my mouth. Anthony Bourdain lied, it tasted exactly like it smelled. Not wanting to waste the 10,000 rupiah (a buck) I'd spent on it, I sucked the unpleasure up and ate the rest. After all, when else will I get to eat a durian? Never again, hopefully... the gag suppressors were on overdrive through the entire meal.

Further wandering bumped me into another local friend I'd made, a late-20's trekking guide (forgot his name) with a huge fluffy mane of hair who invited me into his home for a cup of tea, and to just see what his home was like. As I mentioned in a previous entry, experiencing life in a local home, even if for a brief half hour, is the best kind of sightseeing one can do. We shared some tea, his shy wife offered me a full meal but I rejected because "oh, I just ate, sorry" ("you're really poor and I don't want to consume your food, which you need more than I do.") Mane-Man was very frank when chatting about life, almost laughingly admitting he married solely because of a birth control slip-up, but him and his wife had found happiness in the process. His home was small and lacked running water, he criticized himself for being a bad father and not being able to provide better living standards for his wife and toddler daughter, but none of the locals here had the money for better standards and I assured him (not that I really knew at all) that he should not worry, his family seems happy and he's doing the best he can. It should be noted that despite this man being a trekking guide and a very poor one at that, his invitation had no strings attached. At no point did he try to sell me on his services or get another other money compensation, he was simply interested in the pleasure of my company and having someone to practice English with. The sincerity of Indonesian friendliness continued to impress.

Mane-Man recommended that I spend the rest of the day at the Orangutan feeding station and get a couple more monkey sightings in before leaving the village the next morning. I followed his wise advice and began the long riverbank walk to the nearest ranger station, where in an hour and a half feeding would take place. There was a pulley canoe rigged up at the end of the trail to transport tourists across the rapids to the station. A forty minute sunbathing and swimming wait was required before the canoe-peeps showed up, but I didn't mind. There's no such thing as being in a rush when you're in country such as this. The feeding itself was a worthwhile adventure, I added # orangutans to my tally, bumping the total to 9 and finishing with the funniest orangutan of them all, whose funniness I can't really describe, she was just cute to the extreme. An army of biting flies/mosquitoes did their best to thwart my enjoyment, but the nuclear powered 99% DEET repellant I'd picked up in LA kept most but not all of them away. Feeding time ended, and I took my last, long look at the face of a wild orangutan. I'll probably never see one again, but one can never say for certain.

The rest of the day was spent relaxing and further falling in love with the village. It took two weeks to find, but I think I'd finally found my one secluded special corner of Indonesia that could take its place alongside Gimmelwald & Pepsikola in my heart. The locals were friendlier than any locals I'd yet encountered, the setting was incredible, the tourists minimal but enough to fend off loneliness, and I could find orangutans within one hour's walk in any direction outside the village limits. Could a place be any more perfect? I think not. Later in the evening, I gobbled up another of Ita's banana pancakes and departed with her to the coffeehouse for some more of her brother's guitarism. The three of us half jokingly sang the local anthem Abdul had taught me on the trek, a clearly-not-written-by-a-native-English-speaker riff on "Jingle Bells" that went something like:

"Jungle trek, jungle trek...
In Bukit Lawang...
See the monkey...
See the bird...
See orang-Utan...

Jungle trek, jungle trek...
In Bukit Lawang...
See the monkey...
See the bird...
See orang-Utan...

Walking through jungle...
See deh animal...
Trekking together...
with orang-utan...

Walking together...
Singing together...
Everything together!
In Bukit Lawang...HEY!"

...all typos deliberate.

Ita's brother also whipped out a photo album and a pamphlet about his NGO. You see, back in 2003, there was a tragic flash flood that wiped out the entire village and killed almost 300 of the inhabitants. To give you a sense of what this means in a village this small, Abdul lost sixteen family members & relatives, and only survived himself because he was living in Thailand at the time. Ita's brother was spearheading an initiative to get a vocational school built in the village to help educate the inhabitants and bring prosperity back to the locals following the flood's devastation. The pamphlet was remarkably well organized & thought-out, and he should (theoretically) have little trouble convincing richer tourists to make the donations necessary. I, unfortunately, was not rich, and had already blown my charity budget in Nepal. I took a copy of the pamphlet and promised to circulate it around USC, along with introducing him to PayPal and teaching him how he could use it to secure online donations. He was grateful for the advice and understood why I couldn't donate any significant amount of money. Honestly, I would in a heartbeat if it wasn't for the volunteer work I'd already done, but my wallet was badly broken and in poor countries such as this, everyone needs charity, you can't help everyone and just need to pick your battles. OCRC was a forgotten place, but Bukit Lawang had an orangutan preserve & Lonely Planet recommendation on its side and I'm sure will have no trouble finding outside aid in the future. The Pan-Asian tsunami diverted some of said aid away, but it was beginning to find its way back. In any case I'll do my best to spread the word around USC.  After my final Bintang, we walked back in the direction of the inn and I called of the night. Oh! Not before having my last meal of Indonesian fried rice (that's all they eat here) and chatting with the goofy 19-year-old server again.
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Comments

kyle on

This blog is insanely enjoyable to read. Iam headed to bukit luwang in one month with my girlfriend and will look for the people & places you have vividly wrote about.

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