Gateway to the Mountains

Trip Start Aug 25, 2008
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4
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Trip End Sep 19, 2008


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Flag of Indonesia  , North Sumatra,
Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Sept. 3

Carrie, Jonathan, Heather and I flew to Sumatra where Tomin, Karmelle's friend, was waiting for us at the airport. Driving to Bukit Lawang, the scenery did not change for three hours. We past row after row of perfectly lined trees planted for the palm oil trade. Tomin explained how the trees are completely changing the habitat since they don’t allow any sun to shine through. We were happy to arrive at the National Park, where the vegetation was dense and lush green mountains loomed in the background. We paid porters to help us with our bags as we crossed a cable bridge to the Eco Lodge where we were staying. Excited to be there, we dropped our things and immediately left for a hike to the nearby bat caves. We climbed steep rocks and entered into the dark caves with water dripping on us from the stalactites above. Our voices echoed and we could hear the bats and swifts flying around us. There was a section of the cave that was a narrow tunnel and we had to crawl through it in the dark, which was not good for my claustrophobia… especially when you had to be careful where you put your hands as poisonous millipedes and giant spiders lurked in the darkness.

On our walk back, we crossed a rubber tree plantation and watched how they collected the dripping rubber into the halved shell of a coconut. I was so dehydrated from hiking in the humidity that I developed a pulsating headache that throbbed with every step I took. Back at the lodge, they made me a bowl of vegetable soup with veggies picked from their organic garden. By the morning, I was good to go.

Sept. 4

We set off early morning for a jungle trek in attempt to catch a glimpse of a wild Sumatran orangutan, a critically endangered great ape. Bukit Lawang literally means "gateway to the mountains" and the name is well deserved. After hiking up river for a half hour, we had to cross the river in a carved out canoe to enter the Gunung Leuser National Park, which is comprised of over 2 million acres. A rehabilitation project had been attempted here several years ago, which released rescued orangutans into the forest until the park reached capacity. A supplemental banana feeding is done every morning so that they have the option to come in for more food if they need it. The first orangutan we saw was in a small barred cage, which wasn’t a pleasant start. It was a female called Susu, who came to them dressed in human clothes when her owner in Medan decided he could not contain her. After her release into the park, she immediately crossed the bridge and entered the nearby hotels and restaurants. Believing she was a human in an orange fuzzy costume, she couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. They have made many attempts to release her deeper into the forest, but unable to even climb trees, she eventually finds her way back. She now spends the majority of her time in lock up, a casualty to human ignorance.

Carrie, who didn’t pack for the occasion, wore her best white linen pants. She fell in the orange Sumatran mud after only ten minutes. At the feeding station, another female orang came for a meal with her tiny baby clinging to her side. It was exciting to see them, but being “semi-wild,” we still couldn’t tick the box. We didn’t see any wild orangutans that day, but were still very lucky in the primate category. We came around a corner to find a leaf monkey sitting on a low branch. We stood staring at each other until the troop moved on and it followed behind. White-handed gibbons went crashing through the canopy with expert agility. It was so refreshing to see after our experience at the Bali Zoo.

We watched trails of termites marching between the “soldier” termites that guarded their path. The giant jungle ants were also amazing. For lunch, the guides laid out banana leaves for a blanket and set out a packed lunch of fresh cut pineapple, cucumber and what else but NASE GORENG! I was desperate to see a hornbill, but they just taunted me from afar. I could hear them calling across the valley and a pair of rhinoceros hornbills flushed past, but all I saw was streaks of black, white and red through the dense vegetation. After almost ten hours of trekking in difficult terrain, our legs felt like jello and everyone began falling. At a river crossing, Carrie tried to jump, but landed in the river and took the others down with her. We were exhausted and hungry. I don’t know how Tomin did this everyday during Ramadan. Even though he was pouring with sweat, he never took a sip of water. It must have been torture preparing our meals and watching us eat.

We came back to the lodge for a refreshing Bintang. Tomin suddenly looked at Carrie’s feet and yelled for her to take off her shoes. Blood literally poured out of her socks as she took them off, only to reveal her leech covered feet. I was very happy I didn’t fall in the river.

Sept. 5

We were exhausted from all of our trekking and traveling, so Tomin took us to a local market. It was neat to see the men trading the rubber that we watched them collect in the market. The wives stood on the outskirts of the action, waiting for their husbands to hand them the money, so they could go into the market and spend it. There were beautiful vegetable stands and the people were very friendly. We met Tomin’s daughter, who took my hand and touched it to her forehead. This is done by the children as a sign of respect for their elders. Tomin sports a long pinkie nail, as many other men do around here to show that they are not physical laborers.

I found a little kitten desperate for food and attention. I watched heartbroken as it walked up to people to rub against their leg, only to be kicked away. The kitten purred and purred when I pet it, but when I tried to leave, it followed. I tried bringing him back, but he trailed behind me. At one point, I turned to see the little kitten running to catch up across the street, just as two motorcycles raced toward him. I ran and swooped him up and brought him back to where I found him. I asked the little girl to hold him when I walked away, but she dropped him out of her arms, disgusted. I found a man selling dead fish and bought two. I brought them to the kitten, who didn’t really know how to handle himself with the food. He lay tearing the fish apart, distracted enough for me to leave.

Back at our new accommodation across the river, we relaxed for the afternoon. I sat on my veranda reading when the rain started. I saw a puppy racing across the field and I whistled. He froze as he looked around to see who was calling him, his tail already wagging. When he saw me, he raced to the veranda and took a nap next to me in my chair.

A disabled man named Jos came by selling his wood carvings and we sat talking. Ten years ago, he had been a guide, but fell off a steep embankment in the forest. Without proper medical care, his right arm and leg suffered permanent damage. He still manages to eek out a living carving things out of materials that wash up along the rivers edge. In 1993, the flash flood that swept through Bukit Lawang took his shop, and the lives of over 250 people, with it. The people of Bukit are still in the process of rebuilding and mourning the loss of loved ones. 

Dinner at the Eco Lodge was very interesting. They performed a ritual dance traditional to Java. Gamelan music was played as hypnotized boys danced around, all being controlled by one man who stood in the corner of the room with his arms crossed. Someone threw a coconut into the mix and two of the boys turned into monkeys, jumping around and ripping the coconut apart with their bare teeth. They were all smoking something and I asked Tomin if they were on drugs, but he claims that they were just hypnotized. Not just anyone can perform this dance, they first have to go through a ritual that includes fasting and eating glass. We left before it got any crazier.
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