18 June 2018 – 9.26am – Car between Bukit Lawang and Medan
This is part number three of our journey through Sumatra and Malaysia. Part number two (Lake Toba) is still to be written and will follow soon. Enjoy reading!
I am sitting in the car to Medan, third biggest city of Indonesia and pretty much disliked by everybody we met in Bukit Lawang. But I found quite a lot of blogs which say that there indeed is something to see and do in Medan so we decided to give it a try.
It’s kind of hard to leave the jungle village which started to feel like home after staying there for a week.
I remember how strange we felt when we arrived and had our dinner in Bukit Lawang Indah while there were mixed groups of locals and foreigners sitting around us, jamming or smoking something undefinable. Most of them seemed to know each other quite well and we felt a bit wrong in there.
Then, I think of our wonderful last evening yesterday. Indah became our living room while watching the Germany-Mexico match. We put off our flip flops, made ourselves as comfortable as possible on the plastic chairs, joked with the locals who had guided us through the jungle and hummed the songs we had sung half an hour ago.
When we started our work at an English school (more about that later), Lea and I agreed that it was a nice place but we wouldn’t really be able to live here for longer. The bathroom was too Indonesian for us. But after I had to get along without toilet paper in the jungle, I’m fine with it and, yes, I could imagine staying here for longer.
But I’ll start from the beginning: A privat car brought Lea, me and Per from Denmark to Bukit Lawang (it was hard to find out if we would have been able to make it on public transportation so we decided to just be tourists and take the tourist minibus). The 9 hour ride took us trough Berastagi where we picked up two girls (one Czech and one from Bukit Lawang), who turned out to be volunteers at that English school in Bukit Lawang where we would help out for a bit. We went on to Medan, short stop at our driver’s home, kisses, hugs and a „see you later“, and off into the jungle. Well, not really. It used to be jungle but the jungle’s biggest enemy destroyed most of it: human, who loves to eat palm oil. The ride from Medan takes about 2,5 hours and around one hour of that is through palm oil plantations. I have to admit that they don’t look as frightening as I thought they would. But knowing the background of palm oil production, the thousands of thousands of squaremeters of huge palm trees can make you feel quite depressed.
According to WWF, an area of 300 football fields are deforested every hour. If it goes on like this, the orangutan is expected to be extinguished within 5 to 10 years and the Sumatran tiger within 3 years already. 90% of their habitat has already been destroyed within the last 20 years. And if the orangutan dies, many plant species will die with it because they need the ape for their seeds to germinate.
… just to state a few facts. I will definitely be more aware of that issue once I’m back to Germany. What about you?
Gunung Leuser National Park is still protected and one of the only two places on earth where you can see orangutans without cages and feeding stations. People here fight for the protection of those wonderfully green hills full of unique flora and fauna – not only because of its uniqueness and importance for our planet but also because they live from it. The small village is full of guest houses, from basic to luxurious, and many tour operators offer treks into the jungle, from one day to ten days.
I can strongly recommend Janine’s and Dodi’s Bukit Lawang Jungle Trekking because it’s not only about us tourists having a good time out there but also about our responsibility to protect the wonderful things we get to see which is possible thanks to ecotourism. Janine, a German, and her husband Dodi are aware of all the issues here. When you arrive in their guest house, you will see the information signs about the negative impact of plastic straws on every table, the many bins, one for every kind of garbage, the t-shirts for sale with the new logo of Bukit Lawang Trust, an organization which provides free English lessons to kids and supports ecofarming. When you take the bus or taxi to Bukit Lawang and you have watched palm oil plantations for around twenty minutes already, look out the window on your right and at some point, you will see a three story yellow building with a colorful sign next to the street. This is the school which is run by international volunteers and the new sign is drawn by us, Lea and me.
We spent three days working on it and enjoyed every second of it. „I finally feel useful again“, said Lea.
It became a small routine to walk half an hour along small canals from Bukit Lawang to the school in the morning and back in the evening, greeting the kids playing in the clear water, the women taking „a shower“ and doing their laundry and the mid-aged man in a wheel chair who always sat at the same place. We were quite proud when we had our first small conversations in Bahasa after Sara, one of the volunteers had taught us how to ask „How are you?“. For lunch we brought potatoes and ate them with salt and bananas which was a perfect treatment for our unhappy stomaches. Sara from Ireland showed us the local market, Vini from Brazil surprised us with baby scorpions which he caught while working on the compost behind the school and Consti from Austria got our compassion because he had had to feel that cyclers are weaker than scooter drivers the day before.
Although Janine always told us that there is no pressure on us to finish anything, Lea and I of course couldn’t help putting some ambition into our work which was why we returned home quite late, starving for the good food at Indah (pasta and pizza for Lea and curries and fried rice for me).
Our ambition was worth it: the sign is in its place again and the swing shines brightly in green and red.
Just in time for our jungle trek which started an hour late on Friday because our guides wanted to join their families for praying in the morning. It’s Idul Fitri and party time for everybody who doesn’t go into the jungle for jungle party.
I would have been interested in the celebrations in town but I would never have wanted to miss our time in the jungle. It was awesome and after five hours of hiking up steep hills and passing quite a lot of other groups, I knew that I want to do this for longer to really get away from all these tourists, build my own camps at night and eat what the forest gives us. Next time!
Our group itself meant a lot of fun already. A blend of an American ex soldier who worked with spies, two Germans working in Singapore, one Singaporean who hiked most of the mountains and jungles in South East Asia, two young Germans with funny laughters which made everybody else laugh as well as soon as they started to laugh (= us), Andy who was just funny himself and carried all our pineapples, water melons and fried rice packs (the food’s really nice!) and our amazing guide Jimmy who had a lot of games that made us laugh a lot so that he had his fun imitating us 😀
We weren’t only lucky with the people we went with but also with the animals we saw. Mina and Jackie are the celebrities here, being two semiwild orangutans who found their ways to get fruits even though most of the guides don’t feed any animals. Mina is the aggressive one who also bites if a guide doesn’t do what she wants. Jackie grabs tourists‘ arms and doesn’t let loose until she gets something to eat. The guides are very well trained and know how to handle them both. „If you don’t pass the Mina test, you won’t become a guide“, says Jimmy.
He didn’t need to show us his Mina skills, though. Mina seemed to be very happy and even performed some head stands when we met her and her son, who was playing in the trees and made us all want to join because it looked so fun to jump from one tree to the other. Jackie, whom we met the next day, had her own food and was busy finding termites when we took selfies with her.
Of course, being that close to the two of them is only possible because they grew up with humans for their first years. Other monkeys (Thomas Leaf Monkeys, Black Gibbons and White Hand Gibbons) and apes were a lot shyer but not less impressive.
Just as memorable as our ape encounters were the evenings and nights in the jungle.
It’s impressive how loud the forest and its inhabitants are at night. When I woke up in the morning, I thought it rained heavily until I realized it’s the river which we didn’t hear in the evening because of all the noise from the woods!
Evenings with candles, good food (I loved the fern curry we had one night) and lots of laughter (speaking like an orangutan is really hard!); mornings sharing the stories of the night: „Something jumped on to my head!“, „Well, the mats are so short that you have to make the decision: either your head or your feet will be exposed to… whatever.“, „I swear there was something outside which pushed against my head!“… There were some funny sentences and we weren’t able to agree on whether that something was inside or outside of our tent.
If you make it to Bukit Lawang one day, definitely go for at least two nights in the jungle!
On our third day, I managed to find two other hikers who weren’t either lazy or had broken knees and wanted to go on a short hike up the hill before rafting back to the village. We set out with Andy in his jungle skirt who borrowed Jimmy’s guide jacket and was pretty proud of it. As soon as he knows enough about the treks and the forest, he will be a guide as well and will have someone on his side who carries pineapples and watermelons. We climbed the path which we had come down the day before. Steep, very steep! That kind of steepness when you are faster going up than down. I love it, some knees of our group really don’t.
After we had saw the waterfall, got our jungle tattoo and ate our last jungle lunch, we take our places on the rafting tubes and start the one hour journey on the river. As soon as the first guest houses appear, the first local tourists sit on the banks of the river and it gets more and more crowded. We’re the stars of the day – white and blond and rafting. Me: „I feel like the queen.“ (Because of all the waving when the kids scream hellos and how are yous). Brenna: „I feel like in the zoo.“ (Because of all the pictures which are taken of us). Well, both is kind of right.
The end of our time here is amazing (except for the victory of Mexico in the soccer match in the evening). I get a ride to Janine’s house together with Brenna, Andy and Jimmy. I’m glad I go with Jimmy on his scooter and Brenna joins Andy on his motor bike cause 60km/h is fast enough for me with flip flops and short pants. But it’s amazing, I can’t stop smiling. The coconuts which we pick directly from the palms and drink with natural straws made out of the branch of a papaya tree leaf are very tasty though the taste is different from the ones I know from Hong Kong. Those ones are imported from Thailand so they are older than the ones we have in Janine’s beautiful garden, where pineapples grow next to maracujas (passion fruit) and papayas. It’s a small paradise and makes me fall in love with the small jungle town even more. Instead of going back directly, we get a scenic (and of course fast) ride to Bohorok, the next small village, and on our way back, we stop for dinner with a nice view over the river, very much local style: sitting on the ground with a plate of rice and vegetables, some grilled fish and spicy sambal in our left hand, using the right hand for eating. It’s delicious but if I come home with worms, they are probably from here cause I found some extra proteins in my food which I would have preferred not to have found there.
I hope I will get the chance to come back, for some giant ants which I didn’t get to try because we didn’t find any on our last day (apparently they taste like lemonade – our ex soldier used to cook them in water to have something delicious to drink and Jimmy just eats them alive) and some more trekking.
Next time, I won’t stop in Medan though. I have to admit that it is right what we were told in Bukit Lawang. There isn’t much to see and the heavy rain in the evening doesn’t make the dirty city cleaner. The nasi goreng I eat is the best thing about our twenty hours here, and that means something because the rats running around from time to time don’t make the food more delicious.
It will only be the entrance gate to bigger, wonderful, adventures, I guess.
Here some images, although only the ones taken with phones… there are by far better ones on Lea’s camera