Day 59: Into the Wild!
Trip Start May 20, 2008
77Trip End Aug 19, 2008
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To my utter shock, the plane landed not an hour late but in fact ten minutes early. Luck had granted me more room for error, but not much more. Also, I'd misread my flight itinerary... I did not have 2.5h scheduled between flights, but rather 2 hours flat, crap. The plane doors opened, the clock started ticking... I bounded out at full throttle only to grind to a halt at the lengthy immigration line. It took some lengthy length of minutes to get through. I looked at the bright side: with such a long immigration wait, at least I wouldn't have to dawdle around the baggage belt waiting for my rucksack to appear; surely it would already be there. Wrong. The belt didn't even start moving until after I cleared the passport controllers. By the time my bag showed up, a half hour had passed between landing and the take-off of my Sumatra flight, and things were starting to look grim. Thankfully, KL Airport recently won some "Best Airport in the World" award for being so danged efficient, and this efficiency would save me. When I exited the terminal, the departures area was just across the way. Check-in was quick, security was quick, and the gate was right there on the other side of the entrance security. No bells and whistles, no mile long pseudo-mall to navigate through (Singapore, I'm looking at you...), just the waiting area and an odd duty free shop here and there to keep you entertained. It was marvelously simple and left me with a full hour to kill upon arriving at the gate. I hopped on the connecting flight, and off it was to Medan City, Sumatra.
Landing involved a descent through one of the thickest layers of smog I've ever seen. The book had said Sumatra would be shrouded in an eerie haze from its infamous constant manmade rainforest fires, but I had no idea the pollution would be this bad. Equally ominous was the look of the city on the way in. Medan appeared to be made up of shanties, shanties, and more shanties, stretching on as far as the eye could see, including right next to the airport. Blahdadada I'm lazy right now blaadadada. Anyways, so I exited the plane and took up position in the immigration queue, chatting up the only other (very nervous) white guy in line, a middle aged American named Ricky who had clearly drunken too much coffee this morning. The rest of the crowds were Malaysian or Chinese business people, or other Indonesians coming back from their Malaysian vacation. Between this and Ricky's jitteriness, one thing was clear: I had officially strayed far from the tourist trail, and far from it was exactly where I wanted to be. Victory. Once, a long time ago, Sumatra was a must-hit on the SE Asian backpacker circuit, but since 9/11 and the end of the 90's tourist numbers have nosedived. This is in part due to the eruption of political instability since that time, part due to Islamocrazies (parts of Sumatra are subject to medieval Sharia Law), and part due to the island's bad run of luck with Mother Nature of late. Between countless flash floods, earthquakes, fires, tsunamis, and Krakataua throwing a tantrum, this is basically the international capital of biblical-scale natural disasters. Remember that 2004 Pan-Asian tsunami that killed almost 200,000 people? Not only was Sumatra, along with Thailand, was one of the worst hit areas, but the massive 9.5 earthquake that caused the tsunami in the first place originated here. Fun stuff. The guidebook warned that due to the tourism downturn, I'd be an instant target for every unemployed tour guide in town. Boy they weren't kidding, were they...
I was involuntarily joined on my hunt for a taxi to the bus station by a smiley fellow who seemed to make it his solemn duty to help me out with every little task that confronted me (baggage handling etc), including acting as translator between the taxi drivers and myself (read: get in the way of my bargaining.) It was sorta helpful, but mostly irritating. Once I found a taxi and got the driver down to a fair price, this Instant Friend(tm) opened the back door, beckoned me in, and then sat himself down in the passenger seat. At this point I was like "Wait a minute, who the hell is this guy?"
"I am your tour operator, nice to meet you. :-D"
"Bffhwaha ...I think not."
Thus began an extremely irritating back-and-forth as he tried desperately to woo me into his overpriced Bukit Lawang (my destination) jungle trek while the taxi driver took the long way to the bus station. Instafriend also tried to talk me into hiring the taxi to drive me all the way to Bukit Lawang (a 3 hour trip at maximum warp), insisting that the buses left only once every two hours (fat chance) and wouldn't arrive until 10pm. His math in this matter was quite funny:
"Yes, next bus appear not for a while, it four hour trip, you take bus you won't get there till nine, ten PM... if it come at all. Better you take taxi. (taxi driver nods enthusiastically)"
"What time did you say it was?"
"And it takes four hours?"
"Yes, so it take till 5... 6... 9... 10pm... Taxi better."
"Right... (we pass a bus labeled Bukit Lawang) That's the bus, right?"
"It was nice meeting you, thank you for your translation help & have a good day."
Upon arrival at the Medan bus station, Instafriend #1 was effectively detached from my ankle and fended off by Instafriend #2, a chubby dumb looking man who called himself Johnny and was, likewise, a Bukit Lawang trek organizer. He had a friend named Linny, and combined these two were a funny pair. When I said I was from California, they both burst out into a brief botched sing-along of "Hotel California" and proceeded to rave to me about how much they love The Eagles. Linny also asked if I liked the "Red Hot Chili Spices." I told him they were ok... Between these two fellows and the several other chatty locals, it was fast becoming clear that Sumatrans, or at least North Sumatrans, were a magical and good-humored people. As run down and Kathmandu-ish this area was, I would have no trouble feeling at home. And so it was the case. Before I delve into the coziness of Bukit Lawang village itself however, I must share with you the highlight of the entire SE Asia Lonely Planet Guide, as it is Sumatran bus transport related:
...There will be chain-smoking, deafeningly loud Indo-pop tunes, visits from roadside troubadours, rampant breast feeding, hitchhiking cockroaches, and, yes, vomiting. The bus driver will stop at random to pray eat and perhaps get laid, and you and your fellow passengers will be at his mercy.
The aisles are packed with cargo and absolutely overflowing with passengers - at least three to a seat. At one point on our ride to Danau Toba from Medan we were touching seven people at once. At home we'd be disgusted. But in the Sumatra slow lane boundaries erode, you drop your hang-ups and begin to go with the flow. Next thing you know, a smiling stranger is urging you to share some exotic fruit, you're buying lollipops for children, and chatting with someone who speaks broken English and loves Green Day. And you will laugh and smile like a Zen saint drunk on life."
While my two bus experiences weren't exactly as colorful as what's described there, possibly due to Bukit Lawang being a less traveled route, the insert was nevertheless a pretty apt description. The exotic fruit merchants frequently opened up good natured conversation even after I rejected their offers, teens acting as entertainers popped on and off crooning local folk songs on their guitars, and one man even complimented me on my seat choice. "Charlie know how to pick good seat! Ladies always sit near the front! You get lady now, ay? Snicker!" Sumatra & I had become a classic case of love at first sight.
I arrived in the jungle village just after sunset, following a bumpy dirt road ride past palm plantations and thick jungle. Some nervousness crept up as we came to a stop; this was easily one of the most remote locations I'd ever visited and if something went wrong out here, I'd be in some serious trouble, but there can be no adventure in places that have real tourist infrastructure. Plus, this was one of two places in the entire world where I could see a wild orangutan (the other being adjacent but simply too far Is. Borneo), so the trouble would be more than worthwhile. After checking his license and barreling through the most aggressive, victorious round of bargaining I've pioneered yet, reducing the trekking fee from 70 euro to 40, I secured my arrangements and settled down for the night in the Garden Inn, what turned out to be one of the cheapest and best lodges in the village. Score another win for the Indonesia section of the guidebook (the Malaysian section has been much more hit&miss thus far.) It was a basic room of four walls, a locked door and something resembling a bed, but had its own private bathroom, which was a huge plus. I fell asleep quickly in preparation for tomorrow's early trekking start.