Travelogs & Reflections > Therese's Travelog > Southeast Asia > Indonesia



November 21, 2005

The bus ride back to Medan was a demented real-life version of Mr. Toad’s wild ride! I was wrested from my cat-nap during one particularly harrowing turn in the road and became aware that we were involved in a serious road race through the thorny streets of Indonesia. First you must understand the players. There’s a definite pecking order for all moving vehicles, with rickshaws and motorbikes at the bottom of the heap. Naturally, the larger you are, the more influence you yield, and since it’s essentially a game of chicken, other vehicles had better surrender to the nearly ultimate authority of the bus! Now, buses in addition to their size, also have another advantage. Each bus is armed with two scouts posted at the front and rear of the bus. Their purpose is basically to let other vehicles know they need to make way, even if that means moving off the road altogether, heckling the vehicles we pass as we zoom by, and acting as additional side-view mirrors, i.e. looking for opportunities to pass or pointing out hazards and/or other obstacles to our being victors in this perilous road race. In addition, the rear scout controlled the main exit. When a passenger needed to deboard, the bus would slow to nearly a stop and the passenger would be quickly dispatched from the bus so as not to lose time or position on the road! Our bus driver’s insatiable desire to be King of the Road drove him to continually need to re-establish his pre-eminence. It was an affront to our driver’s pride to be surpassed by another bus, let alone a “lesser” vehicle. One time he was passed by a fellow bus on the road and then got stuck in traffic. You could tell that he and his scouts were feeling terribly thwarted in their efforts to hit the open road at high speeds and surpass this rogue bus. The scouts fell into a state of despondency, their shoulders slumped in dejection, while the driver kept impatiently veering out into oncoming traffic to look for his opportunity to pass. He finally did and we cheered when he safely reasserted his first place position but when he continued to pass just about every vehicle thereafter, I began to grow weary in this life and death vigil and was very glad to finally arrive in one piece in Medan! We stayed at a very stark hostel in anticipation of our ferry ride back to Malaysia the next day.


November 19, 2005

For the past couple of days we’ve been relaxing on Palau Samosir, an island in the middle of a volcanic crater. This basin was formed 100,000 years ago by a massive volcanic eruption and what evolved was the expansive lake of Lake Toba and the island of Samosir that emerged from its interior in a secondary volcanic eruption. We’re staying at Samosir Hotel which like many of the other hotels along the perimeter of this peninsula has its own diving board directly into the lake. From the gazebo on the grounds and throughout the island, you can see bald eagles soaring overhead. One nearly swooped down to catch a big fish, Paul (!), while he was swimming in the lake one afternoon.


There aren’t many other tourists on the island so we’re the talk of the town. This comfortable village caters to tourists and we had our first pizza in a very long time. Our hotel has pool and ping-pong tables and we’ve had several tournaments, enjoying the leisurely pace and the opportunity to unwind.


On our last day on the island, Peter, Steve and I rented bikes and took off to explore the island. As we got out of town, we were enveloped in a sea of shades of green. In the foreground were farms of banana, corn and pineapple and green rice fields swaying in the steady breeze of the island. Further up in the foothills of the steep mountains in the interior of the island was a dense layer of tropical forest in speckled shades of green. This ultimately gave way to the blue green of evergreens in the higher elevations, reminding us of home in the Pacific Northwest. 


We were looking for the stone chairs in the village of Ambarita but there were no signs so we rode right past it and up a small mountain before finding out that it was back in the village we had just passed! We decided to take break at a bench at the summit that overlooked the lake from this small, picturesque peninsula. A bald eagle flew right overhead and landed below us in the thatch. It was a fantastic view of this majestic bird with its rust brown body, dark brown outer wings, elegant white head, and dark piercing eyes. Later it launched out from its hunting soire  soared over the lake again right in front of us and this time landed on a high perch in the distance, only its white head visible against the blue sky. On the way back to town, we soared downhill and this time, asking for directions several times along the way, we found the stone chairs. The chairs made of stone from the nearby mountains served as a tribunal for the animist tribes that inhabited this island in ancient times. The chairs are surrounded by a congregation of batak dwellings that housed the elders of the village, who made the determinations of guilt and innocence for those charged with offenses, as well as other important decisions for the welfare of the village. The exhibit was surrounded by souvenir stalls, and the operators descended upon us, like wild dogs on raw meat. When they saw the cross I was wearing, they were quick to tell me they too were Christian; Lake Toba is an oasis of Christianity in an otherwise predominantly Muslim country and there were church steeples everywhere, an usual sight throughout southeast Asia. Peter very aptly negotiated for souvenirs for himself and for his friends. We had promised the proprietor of a local restaurant we would stop for lunch after we went to see the stone chairs, and sure enough, as we began riding back to the beginning of town, she drove up beside us on a motorcycle. She’d been looking for us and just wanted to be sure we hadn’t forgotten to come to her place for lunch! We enjoyed our mie goreng and talked about the melancholy that we all seemed to be suffering from these past few days. It seems we were all stricken simultaneously with a mild case of homesickness. Naming it however helped assuage the effects and we were all quick to reassert our commitment to the trip—for the long haul!


On our way back we took a detour through another village at the edge of the mountainside. Many of the villagers in the area were busy planting new rice starts. As Steve was taking a photograph of one of these scenes, the women in the fields beckoned to us to join them. We followed the narrow borders of several fields and waded through the mud to reach them. They greeted us with a bouquet of brilliant smiles, many of them toothless, and animated chatter. One woman became the spokesperson for the group because she spoke broken English. They asked where we were from and about our family and then initiated us into the process of planting the rice seedlings. They were amazing—efficiently plugging small bundles of rice starts in ordered rows in the swampy paddy and then with a flourish settling the mud securely around them. As we were planting, my glasses almost fell off my face into the mud. When I went to grab them and settle them back on my face, I smeared mud on my face. Mrs. Ijen shrieked when she saw me and I painted a few other lines on my face to assure her that I could handle a little mud, providing us and our new friends with a spell of comic relief!  Steve pointed out a couple of snails he had found and they confirmed that they were indeed bad for the rice. Ten minutes later, one of the workers ran over to me and stuffed a handful of snails in my hand. We both shook our heads in disgust and laughed and I stashed them in my pocket to haul out of the rice fields when we left! As we worked, Mrs. Ijen and I managed to share a few other details about our lives. Through the cross I was wearing, we determined that we were both Christian, which pleased us both. She also told me about her no-good husband and we all had a good laugh about useless men but when we said goodbye, her eyes welled with tears and she told me how difficult it has been for her to raise her three children on her own since her husband abandoned them and married another woman. We embraced and I told her, motioning to my cross and heart, that I would pray for her. Our encounter seemed to have given her joy and she only asked that I send her a copy of the photo Steve had taken and a letter. She was absolutely thrilled to record her address for me and again begged me to send the photo and letter. During our short stint as rice field workers, Peter and I managed to plan the outer periphery of half a paddy, a meager accomplishment in light of the sea of rice fields that surrounded us, and our sections looked a little motley compared to the tidy rows of our experienced counterparts. But it was enough time to discover how back-breaking this work is, and these women spend 7 hours/day doing this back-breaking work. Wow, we were duly humbled by their cheerful fortitude! We all waved a fond farewell.


From the fields at the foothill of the mountains, we had a fun downhill stretch to the main road and raced the rain clouds back to Tuk-Tuk, arriving at our hotel to join Paul for a late afternoon swim in the lake and wash the mud from our legs, hair, face, and arms! Aah, how our skin glistened from the mud bath!


November 18, 2005

We left Bukit Lawang at 6 a.m. and it took us a full, grueling day to get to Lake Toba, a 3-plus bus ride to Medan, another 4 hours to Parapat, and finally a short ferry ride to the village of Tuk-Tuk on Lake Toba. At the bus station in Medan, we were descended upon by a group of guys hanging out at the station looking for odds and ends jobs. One volunteered to escort Steve and Mom to the bank and he apparently was like a town-cryer, announcing to everyone that they were off to the bank, not something you want broadcasted as you’re about to withdraw money! The group that stayed behind seemed over eager to tell us about a recent Muslim terrorist attack in Java, referencing the “Wanted” posters posted around the station, and were joking about one of their friends being Osama bin Laden. Needless-to-say, we were glad to catch the next bus to Lake Toba. 


November 15, 2005

Orangutans in the Wild

Our 3-day, 2-night trek in the jungle of Bukit Lawang began with a steep ascent on a trail right behind our guest house and when we reached the ridge and overlooked a rubber tree farm at the perimeter of the national park, we sighted Thomas leaf monkeys in the distant jungle, and a black eagle soared overhead, welcoming us to the entrance of the park. Not long after we had descended into the thick of the jungle, we came upon a wild orangutan and her baby high in a tree. She allowed us to sit with her for quite some time as she and her baby took their noon hour siesta. Orangutans travel 3 kilometers per day, and usually rest from noon to 1 p.m. in the heat of the day. These clever primates prefer to take the high jungle road rather than travel on the ground, where they might be prey to predators such as Sumatran leopard, python or tiger. Thanks to the rehabilitation program of World Wildlife Fund over the past several decades, the orangutan population in Bukit Lawang has grown to 5,000 with many having transitioned to a semi-wild or completely wild state. Their territory encompasses 200 hectares and the higher and deeper you get into the jungle, the more wild they become and the less likely they will be to rely on human intervention for survival. Orangutans can live to 50-plus years of age.


More Wild Animals

Further down the trail, we encountered a mammoth teak tree, over 300 years old. This wood is noted for its strength and is used to build houses and canoes, while the bark of the tree is an excellent fuel. We admired this ancient guardian of the jungle as we caught our breath and then bid farewell to Grandma Carrol as she returned to the village and we penetrated deeper into the jungle. She chose the right juncture to turn around because we immediately faced a rugged, root-ridden incline and before long we were deep in the Sumatran rainforest and surrounded by the din of jungle insects and the pungent smell of decomposing leaves and logs. Shortly after reuniting with our friends, Sarah and Arune, who had left about a ½ hour earlier than us, and forging through a particularly mature stand of jungle, full of majestic trees and dense understory, we caught a glimpse of the pig-tailed rumps of a group of baboons scampering into the forest. Further down the trail, I got an obstructed view of a male baboon shimmying down the trunk of a tree, seemingly agitated by our presence. As we climbed to the summit, we were greeted by the distinctive call of the hornbill. Sure enough, one habitat hornbill and two rhinoceros hornbills flew overhead, their large wings majestically pumping against the wind in a characteristic and rhythmic “thwump, thwump.” A short way down the path, our guide, Dany, pointed out a white-handed gibbon, well camoflauged amidst the dense vegetation. The area was pulsating with life at every turn and you could sense there was much more wildlife than we could see. Reluctantly, we descended from the jungle to a small river and traveled along the river bed to our lunch site. Peter, Paul, Arune, Sarah and Sonny had gone ahead to stake out the site and I was quite happy to finally spot them and to get my lunch, the Indonesian staple, Nasi goreng, fried rice, egg and vegetables. Boy, was I starving after 4 hours of strenuous hiking. The next order of business was to douse my head in the small cascade in the stream as I was drenched in sweat and, boy, did that feel refreshing. Our lunch unfortunately was cut short as dark rain clouds forebode impending rain. Instead of the relatively easy hike along the river bed, we had to take a short cut to camp and climbed up a steep cliff nearly straight up, followed the ridge and then began descending the cliff just as ferocious cracks of thunder that literally shook the jungle heralded a mighty down pour. I decided not to bother with my rain coat as I was wet already but it was a treacherous descent down between the trail turning to a mud slide and my glasses continually fogging up and slipping off my nose from the steamy humidity that rose from the ground when the rains began. Were we ever so glad to see the nice dry lean-to awaiting our arrival. We dove for refuge and soon were sipping hot tea in our well-constructed and well-engineered dwelling.


Flash Flood!

Despite the rain, Sonny decided we should all experience the waterfall and so we followed him upstream. Paul, Steve and I were in the rear and as we rounded the bend, there was Peter, sitting at the precipice of the waterfall, waving and grinning with delight. I screamed with panic, thinking he was about to be pummeled over the edge but Arune assured me that he was quite secure along the rim of the upper pool. It looked freaky though with his head bobbing just above the cascade! We had to scale yet another cliff to get to the main waterfall, and Paul, Steve and I scrambled over and sat on the edge of the pool watching Peter, Sarah, Arune, and Sonny swim to a log in the center and then lounge along its perimeter and working ourselves up to the big plunge. Just as Sonny and Sara had finished performing their feats of daring by plunging their upper bodies under the main falls, the character of the water changed dramatically. Paul noted it first as he pointed out how the placid pool was now a frothy cauldron of water. Just as I realized that this was due to a sudden and apparently sustained increase in the volume of water that was pummeling over the edge of the falls and that we could be looking at a potential flash flood, Sonny hopped over to the ledge and directed us to not panic but to file out of the area immediately. As we began traversing the swelling river, I was concerned about Paul getting across when Steve stopped midstream with a cramp in his thigh. Sonny threw Paul on his back, hauled him to safety and then returned to help me with Steve. We both massaged Steve’s thigh vigorously and then helped him to his feet. He walked a few strides before the muscles in both his legs were seized with cramps, forcing him to stop again. As the rain continued to pelt down and the river raged, we finally hoisted him by the shoulders out of the river and back to our lean-to. The cold had caused a rash of cramps among our company, and Sonny and I were busy administering massages to the victims that evening.


Sonny’s assistants prepared several dishes and I relished the teriyaki chicken as well as the vegetable curry and rice. That evening, Sonny entertained us with several games and card tricks and regaled us with his expertise in chess.


Day 2: Scaling Jungle Cliffs

As Dany had returned to town the night before for his sister’s wedding, Sonny guided the whole lot of us on day 2 of our trek. We were just about to set off when four orangutans came sweeping over the river near our campsite—a mama with a baby, another female and a teenager. Sonny set out some bananas but they waited patiently, swinging among the rattan vines and tree branches for better vantages, until we were safely out of the way before grabbing the loot. We lingered with them for as long as we could before Sonny signaled us on our way. Once again we found ourselves going straight up a nearly 90 degree incline and scaling the muddy cliff. Sonny, Arune, Sarah and Peter and Paul forged ahead and Steve, Martin and I were the pod in the rear. At one point, I lost track of them and found myself muttering under my breath about where the heck our guide was. My mood was restored when we finally plateaued and caught up with them. Several of us complained of being itchy and when Sonny pointed out the poisonous hairy caterpillar we were all on alert, certain that one was crawling on us. We traversed a few more cliffs before taking a break along the stream for lunch. Sonny miraculously started a fire with wood doused by the heavy rains of the day before and cooked some delicious noodles for our lunch. Once again, our lunch break was curtailed by the threat of rain. We scurried up yet another cliff but upon reaching the summit, the pace of the rain clouds that were approaching seemed to slacken and we were granted a reprieve to enjoy the view from Panorama ridge. Paul spotted some movement in some trees across the valley and Sonny identified the culprits as white-handed and black gibbons. I was able to watch their antics with binoculars and we all very clearly witnessed one gibbon fly through the air 6 meters to a lower branch! Impressive! The rain held out for a little while longer but once again just as we were starting our final descent to camp, it started to rain. I took a hard fall on our way down and was glad to finally reach the camp. This time I went directly to the river to bathe. I just couldn’t stand the mix of sweat and rain any longer. A half hour later, blessedly clean and in dry clothes, I savored a cup of tea and waited for the rain to subside. After about an hour, it stopped and we were able to explore the surrounding river bank. Steve and Paul spotted a family of long-tailed macaques and came back to get the rest of us. Over the course of the afternoon, we saw 11 rhinoceros hornbills, always a thrill as they flew from the highest perches in the canopy of the jungle, their distinctive profile outlined against the now brilliant blue sky.


Day 3: Close Encounters with Primates

I woke up early because I promised Paul I would accompany him to look for wildlife at 6 a.m. I heard a chorus of animal voices and though Paul was too tired to get up, I went to scope out the terrain. Without Paul’s keen eyes, I only spotted a couple of hornbills during my hour or so vigil. At 8 a.m., we said goodbye to our friends Arune, Sarah and Martin who were continuing on a 5-day trek and waited for Dany and Ian to return before setting out on the final day of our trek. We had breakfast along the river looking for wildlife. A black eagle and a couple of hornbills made an appearance, along with a long-tailed macaque at the top of a dead tree.  When Dany arrived, we set off for the last segment of our trek. We hiked up the nearby waterfall and then up the side of the gorge. Ian and Ian’s brother offered critical assistance as our energy had waned on this, the third day of the trek. When we reached the top of the mountain, we took a break to catch our breath. Dany beckoned us over to a nearby tree and we watched a monitor lizard slither up it, slyly looking for bird nests and the homes of small critters. Paul, Ian and Ian’s brother went off in search of the call of gibbons. Paul returned breathless 15 minutes earlier. They hadn’t found the gibbons but they had seen a great Argus, a rare, peacock-like bird. Unbeknownst to them, a long-tailed macaque had followed them back. We all fed this bold, but friendly little monkey, handing him pieces of banana, which he accepted quite cordially and politely with his small hand. It was a special, up-close encounter with our long-tailed friend. We were on the precipice of orangutan habitat and Dany reminded us once again to stay close to him and follow his cues, especially if we encountered Mina, a particularly aggressive female orangutan. Unfortunately, Mina is aggressive because of several negative experiences with humans, the first of which was when a ranger wrested her dead baby from her to analyze the cause of death. In the exchange, Mina grew distraught and tried to attack the ranger. The ranger hit her with a stone. Since then, she is wary and aggressive around humans. We quietly descended into the habitat and had not ventured far before Dany saw Mina. She was traveling with her four-year-old son and friend, the orangutan with the dead baby. Dany told us to walk briskly past her, but once we had gotten by, he told us to run! I negotiated that downhill segment with amazing adroitness. It’s amazing what a little adrenaline will do for coordination and motivation. But Mina was tracking us and we had to run again, this time on an uphill stretch. This time I wasn’t as agile as I was faltering from exhaustion. As much as I enjoyed being with the orangutans, I was glad to leave Mina behind and head back to the village. We arrived around 1 p.m., laid out all our wet clothes to dry and took a glorious shower. Dany had invited us to attend the last of the festivities at his sister’s wedding so we caught a tuk-tuk to his family’s house. A large signboard on the road decorated in colorful artificial flowers proclaimed greetings to the bride and groom (“Selamat Bahagia,” or “Good Luck”), and, when we arrived a large crowd was assembled, watching and partaking in a traditional Batak wedding dance. For one of the numbers, we were encouraged to participate and I tried to emulate the women next to me with their graceful gestures. Peter and Paul did the same but I attracted a male dancer who strutted and pranced in front of me. The woman next to me told me I was supposed to give him money but I didn’t have any and I very uncomfortably withdrew from the dance floor. Dany invited us to eat some traditional wedding dishes. They were indeed very delicious, beef, vegetable and chicken curries. The vegetable curry was made out of young banana shoots. The dessert was sticky rice coated with  brown sugar. As we were eating, we attracted a group of curious children, and we exchanged names. They were quite tickled that I wrote them down in my book and were quick to correct me if I got it wrong so I share the names of our delightful, little Muslim/Bahasa friends with you now: Patma Aprilona, Raia Lomenta, Budi Antarakara, Roni Shaputra, Adifin Angrine, Aditia Lastari, Suchi Norhitma, Yulia Fiska, and Serafia Angrani.


We spent our last evening in Bukit Lawang at the Inda restaurant with our friends Dany, Ali G, Ian and Ian’s brother singing songs about this amazing jungle. Paul’s favorite was sung to the tune of Jingle Bells and went like this:


Jungle Trek, Jungle Trek

In Bukit Lawang

See the monkeys

See the birds

See the orangutans



Walking in the jungle

See the animals

Walking together in Bukit Lawang

Singing together

Sleeping together

We do everything together in Bukit Lawang!


November 12, 2005

Orangutan Convention

Our first encounter with the orangutans of Bukit Lawang was at the feeding platforms in the national park. We were led to these decks suspended from the trees in the thick of the jungle by a couple of park rangers who brought along a nutritious drink and bananas for the orangutans. We didn’t even make it to the platform before we were surrounded by orangutans and nearly all of them were toting babies! It was amazing. The rangers instructed us to continue walking along the trail even as one orangutan walked along side us. I could have reached out and touched her. I was awed. Here we were in the jungle peacefully communing with these magnificent creatures, brilliant in their rust orange coats in the vivid afternoon light. The surrounding jungle vibrated as they swung through the trees with astounding acrobatic grace, their brawny musculature carrying their awesome weight with surprising ease. These semi-wild orangutans, rehabilitated at the now-defunct World Wildlife Fund center over the last decades, were very comfortable with the park rangers and often came right up to the rangers to collect their food and drink and some of them drank directly from the cup, holding the cup as a human would with their appositional thumbs. One orangutan was carrying the carcass of her dead baby. You could tell by her sad countenance and how she traveled alone that she was grieving the loss and we felt for her. The smell of the rotting carcass however was nauseating and everyone, including the rangers, covered their nose and mouth when she passed or lingered in the vicinity. I could only imagine how difficult it must have been for her to see so many other mothers with their babies. The rangers explained that orangutans really love their babies and like humans, tend to their every need; they often carry them for the first two years of life, and the babies remain with their mothers for 5-6 years. When the baby’s digestive system is still immature, the mothers smell the fruit to make sure it’s not rotten, chew it, store it in their jowls, and later serve it to the babies like a milkshake. I still have that haunting image of the mother carrying the black carcass of her baby around as if she could nurture it back to life.


On our way back, we crossed the river by a canoe attached to a pulley system, getting swept out by the swift current of the swelling river and then reined in by our dexterous driver and deposited on the other side. We got a cool drink at the Jungle Inn that faces the national park and watched the goings-on in the jungle across the river. One lone long-tailed macaque sat on a boulder directly across from us for a long time contemplating life. At first we wondered if he was an outcast, perhaps injured or lame. But when some 20-plus monkeys bounded over to him a little while later, no one tangled with him and he seemed to exert some authority over the rambunctious troops.


November 11, 2005

A Raging River

After booking a 3-day jungle trek, some of the guides from the area accompanied us to the local market in town. The entire village was destroyed in November 2003 when a flash flood decimated the town and instantly killed over 500 people. Now, two years later, the people are still waiting for their replacement housing promised by the government but many of the people we talked to fear that in the wake of the tsunami that devastated Banda Aceh on the northernmost tip of Sumatra, the government has forgotten Bukit Lawang. They are also disillusioned by the graft that affected all levels of the rebuilding efforts. The new housing development can only accommodate two-thirds of the village’s families and the houses are too small for the average Indonesian family that often includes three and four generations. Progress on completing the housing development and restoring basic services such as electricity has ground to a halt and the people do not know when their permanent housing will be ready to occupy. Sonny brought us through the rickety temporary dwellings where he and his family and hundreds of other families live and introduced us to his friend, Fadil, and others who told us about their experiences during the flood.


The flood happened at 9:30 p.m. Waves, 13-15 meters high, bulldozed houses and other buildings whole as the raging water, mud and debris tore through the town that lay along the Bohorok River. Sonny tied his 2 ½-year-old son to his back and ran for 15 minutes up the mountain to escape the rapidly rising water of the river. When he looked down from his perch high on a mountain ledge, the river below looked like a sea and the surreal scene was eerily illuminated by intermittent lightning strikes. There were hundreds of people in the water desperately trying to reach the shore. As they surfaced, many of them were killed by large debris from the wreckage. But, when a generator crashed into the river, even more were electrified. His voice subdued, Sonny said that the electricity charging through the water sounded like an automatic rifle firing in rapid succession and as people emerged from the water, it was as if their bodies were being assaulted by bullets. The next morning hundreds of bodies were strewn on the shore of the river. Traumatized by this horrific event, Sonny’s son still does not like to go near the river.   


Before the flood, Bukit Lawang was a thriving resort village, the gateway for one of Indonesia’s premiere national parks. There were lovely hotels on the river, coffee shops, restaurants, discotheques, fish farms, and other agriculture, in short a well-rounded economy. Sonny and his friends mourn the loss of livelihood and the community that once was but make the best of their circumstances. Fadil creates jewelry and other sculptures out of coconut shell, rainforest wood and bone. (If you are interested in his work, contact him at: Fadil, P.O. Box 20774, Dsn Sabah-Pasarodi, Bohorok-Langkat, North Sumatra, Indonesia.) Sonny is a licensed jungle guide, but he has other plans for his sons. He works hard to ensure that they have opportunities other than the arduous and often dangerous life of a jungle guide.  


Their story was very compelling. It was difficult to fathom all that the Indonesian people have had to endure from rampant political unrest over the decades to natural disasters such as flash flooding and most recently the tsunami in December 2004. And, yet, these are a resilient and remarkably light-hearted people. Somehow, they have found their way through some of the most unimaginable horrors with dignity, spirit and even joy of life in tact, reveling in music, social interaction and community. My respect for the people of Indonesia is immense.


November 10, 2005

The ferry to Sumatra departed at 9:30 a.m. We thought it would take about 4 hours to cross the Strait of Malacca to the island but though we traveled at a clip rate, we didn’t arrive until 3:30 or 4 p.m. By the time we took care of our Visas and other immigration business, it was 4:30 p.m. and we were shuttled on to a bus to Medan, still having only eaten breakfast and a few snacks. On the bus, we were immediately accosted by a friendly Indonesian who kept giving us his version of the low-down regarding getting to and booking accommodations and treks at Bukit Lawang. He hovered over us and a couple from Denmark, the only other Westerners on the bus, interjecting his advice the whole way to Medan, and, when we arrived in the city, we were personally escorted directly to his travel agency and given a pretty high-pressure sales speal. We and Arune and Sarah, our new Danish friends, were able to resist most of their pitches but did have to hire a mini-bus to Bukit Lawang because the last local bus of the day had already left. Famished, we found a street vendor who sold Indonesian murtaboks and roti cane. The roti cane here was a dessert, kind of like a doughy donut and we all devoured our murtaboks, roti cane and ordered more, and when Sarah and Arune saw them, they ordered a bag too!


The mini-bus turned out to be more like the sawngthaews of Laos, an enclosed flat-bed truck and we were sandwiched into our rigid quarters for a very long and bumpy ride to Bukit Lawang. We were all a little desperate when the driver started stopping and asking for directions and wondered when we would actually make it to our destination. But at one point, we picked up a guy who unbeknownst to us had been alerted by the travel agency in Medan that we were on our way. He was a guide and also worked for the tourist information network and I think was sent to close the deal. We were all stalwart, however, that we were just too tired to book a trek tonight and would discuss the possibilities in the morning. It was pitch dark and raining hard when we arrived at Bukit Lawang at 11:30 p.m., but there was a welcoming committee there to greet us and we were bombard with all kinds of information about accommodations. We bulldozed our way through saying that we had been told that there were rooms available, and before long, we were being led across a rickety suspension bridge to the lodgings on the other side of the river. The first hotel was closed so Ian, who turned out to be another guide, led my mother-in-law and me along a dark and muddy trail to another hotel. A large group of people were congregated at the restaurant at this hotel and we found very basic accommodations for the whole entourage there. Exhaustion had not assuaged Peter’s insatiable adolescent appetite, so we ordered some food and enjoyed the rockin’ tunes reworded to reflect the Bukit Lawang experience from the group of locals and guests assembled at Bukit Lawang Inda