Trip Start Jun 02, 2007
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Indonesia  ,
Friday, June 15, 2007

After our six-day trek in the jungle, we returned to Coconut Island a bit worse for wear but satisfied with the experience. We'd each had our challenges to overcome. I had recovered from my bout with jungle fever--Felix ended up taking me to the doctor where I got a shot of vitamins in the butt and a bag full of antibiotics and other mysterious pills, which finally did the trick. Briony had survived the poisonous barbs of a muscular six-inch caterpillar, which she had put her hand on by accident when hauling herself up the mountain. Donna had narrowly avoided a good leeching in a very delicate area when the slug-like beast entered the crotch zipper of her pants. Brettany overcame being "vertically challenged" by braving it across deep rivers and up steep slopes. Dan managed to fashion a new water bottle from a piece of bamboo after losing his down the river. Karen was still energetic and in good spirits after shepherding us the whole way. And everyone was thrilled at the sight of a wild mother orangutan and baby up in the trees-though she wasn't quite so happy to see humans, and threw sticks down in discouragement.
We must have smelled pretty foul as we traipsed down the path to the house with our backpacks full of moldy, damp clothes, some bearing small round bloodstains where we'd been leeched. Washing the clothes in the river and drying them on rocks didn't help because the high humidity prevented them from drying properly.
But Wobbles didn't mind. Coconut Island's resident cat, a pitifully tiny little thing, came out to greet us, weaving down the path in her unsteady gate, legs akimbo and pausing occasionally to balance herself. Wobbles was the victim of Sumatra's insane white-knuckle traffic. Most people here have motorbikes but no helmets, competing for space on the narrow potholed roads with overloaded buses draped with passengers, massive trucks carrying several tons of palm fruit from the plantations, and bechucks, motorcycles with sidecars used as taxis-all spewing lung-chocking diesel fumes.
Every ride is a hair-raiser. People here are generally supposed to drive on the left-hand side of the road, but it appears that to most drivers the middle is just as good. Vehicles weave around each other at breakneck speed within mere inches of catastrophe. If a vehicle wants to pass, the driver honks the horn quickly a couple of times and guns it, often shooting between trucks on one side and people milling around on the other. They never honk out of road rage, as drivers do at home; rather, they honk to say either, "I'm passing," "watch out," or "hallo!"
Amid all the chaos roam skinny cows, anorexic chickens, honking geese, mangy dogs and scrawny cats. Amazingly, we never saw one incidence of roadkill. A bus driver may come barrelling straight for a dog lying in the road, and it will simply get up and shamble off within seconds of losing its life, or the driver will swerve at the last possible moment.
Wobbles wasn't quite so lucky, but, if anything, this 12-ounce bundle of fur and bones is a survivor. After her accident, she was rescued by the people here at Coconut Island and given a home. Now she wobbles around and makes a nuisance of herself with Batwa, the cook who comes in the morning to prepare our meals. Batwa clucks and looks at the cat disapprovingly when she sees her curled up in a tiny ball on my bed. Wobs took me for a softy right away (she may be injured but her brain cells still work), and has been revelling in the comfort of my sleeping bag and travel pillow. I just don't have the heart to kick her off, and have also been trying to fatten her up with scraps from my dinner. On witnessing this, Karen said, "You're turning into a right little madam, aren't you Wobs?"
She may play to my sympathies, but good old Wobs is no invalid. She's a wicked hunter who can snag a goldfish when she's steady enough, which she eats with a very self-satisfied look on her sphinx-like face. She has good moments, too, when she manages to stop wobbling and hold her own, but it's usually followed by an extra giant wobble afterwards that can send her tipping over. One day Karen and I watched her pause and steady herself as she came down the ramp to the front porch. "Good girl!" we encouraged. But when we looked away, we heard a splosh in the water. Wobbles had fallen in the pond again. She climbed out, looking skinner and more bedraggled than ever, but unharmed.
Aside from her handicap, Wobs leads a good life, probably better than that of the other cats who roam wild and seem to belong to no one. Sumatra's domestic animals don't have much to eat, and must eke out a living off scraps (cats are always lurking in the restaurants, looking for food) and whatever they can get from hunting or foraging amongst the gardens and scrap heaps. It's hard enough for people to feed their families, let alone domestic animals, unless they are useful for eggs, meat or milk. No fat, fluffy pampered cats here. And the dogs seem to be only one breed, of a kind I've never seen before-small and lean, scruffy with squarish heads, and often travelling in packs. Animals in North America live like royalty in comparison.

But, like Sumatra's people, they don't seem unhappy. They know no other way of life, so they just get on with it-a testament to the land's extreme contradictions of large and small, contentment and desperation, life and death.
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