Welcome to My Paradise

Trip Start Jun 02, 2007
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Indonesia  ,
Sunday, May 18, 2008

Ardana bent her legs and bowed on the smooth round stones, as if in prayer to the river. I placed one flip flopped foot on the rattan footrest and hoisted myself up, as I had on horses so many times before in my childhood. As every time I mounted a horse, my heart beat with excitement and my body felt light and free. Pren, the boy who had smiled at me on the bus all the way to Tangkahan, sat behind me on the saddle. Ardana rose, and I soon found my head among the leafy branches overhanging the beach.
Some local holidaymakers having a picnic looked at this scene with interest. Dan, my friend Felix's guest from England, looked dubiously at his elephant Sari, but it was too late to turn back now. We were off, gallumping over the rocks, rolling from side to side in slow mo like storm-tossed ships. We must have looked pretty amusing. The people smiled at us and waved. "I love you!" one of the men called (I captured him in a photo, reclining on his blanket with a naughty smile on his face.).
I don't know what got into me then, maybe the thrill of the ride, but I was swept away by impulse. "I love you too!" I called back. The crowd hooted and roared with laughter. A woman here wouldn't normally say that because it's far too ballsy and could be asking for trouble. But I can proudly say I am not normal, whatever that means, and sometimes I act more like a man would, hang the consequences. Besides, it takes some balls to be a woman and travel in Indonesia alone. Pren, in his Che Guevera shirt, looked mildly scandalized. I laughed again. I love Che Guevera. He was such a rebel. I loved all the people laughing and smiling. At that moment, I was in love with the world. What an experience, to be riding an elephant!
Gallump, gallump, gallump. We ambled off the beach onto a track that rose into the jungle-less a track and more like a series of elephant-foot sized potholes filled with muddy water, but Ardana took it well, and we rose steadily, if not smoothly, shifting sharply this way and that. We had to lean way forward to counterbalance the steep incline, so we wouldn't go tumbling backwards over the saddle. Going downhill was even scarier-we had to lean way back, almost parallel with the elephants' backs-to avoid tumbling over their heads as they gingerly picked their way down slippery inclines. This is the thing about Indonesia that is both scary and exhilarating. There are few, if any, rules or regulations, and nothing much to save you if anything goes wrong.
This is really living, I thought as I reached down and touched Ardana's skin. It was thick, wrinkled, of course because this is an elephant and they are not known for their smooth skin, with pink inside the folds and long wiry three-inch hairs sticking up like bristles.  Her big ears, covered in pink spots, flapped like boat sails against the guide's legs. The guide was sitting in front of me on Ardana's neck, and he had a machete strapped around his waist which he occasionally whipped out to clear the trail of overhanging branches. 
A friendly man (what Indonesian isn't?), he apologized for his lack of English, which only made me more comfortable because I could speak bahasa without fear of being corrected, as with my English speaking Indo friends. He told me not to worry (I wasn't really) because Ar knows where she is going and always goes slowly. She is 32 years old, quite elderly for an elephant, he said. He brought her and the six other elephants from Aceh, where he lived for 15 years before coming to Tangkahan four years ago. I counted back four years to the tsunami, but didn't say anything. Thousands of Acehnese were displaced by the disaster and came to North Sumatra to start their lives over with nothing.
Pren's older brother Mega, owner of the Mega Inn (one of the only four inns in Tanghakan) told me that villagers in Aceh were killing elephants because the jungle is disappearing. With no home, the elephants are emerging from the jungle, trampling through the villages and eating the young palm fruit, endangering the lives and the livelihoods of the villagers. Before I came to Indonesia I had read in the newspaper of a group of elephants who stampeded a town in Sumatra and killed several people. No doubt these intelligent beings were angry at the loss of their homeland. I can't say I blame them.
These elephants had no place to go in Aceh because their jungle is disappearing at a sickening rate. My guide brought them here to Tangkahan, a protected conservation area, where they can live in peace. The 160,000 rupiah per hour it cost me (tourists can take from one to three hours) pays for the food and upkeep for the seven elephants who live here. It's well worth it; these elephants are now safe from poaching, and are used to monitor the jungle for illegal loggers and poachers. The money also goes towards conservation efforts.
My Indonesian guide hopped off and used the Indonesian word for peace to tell Ardana to be still. "Diam, Ar! Diam!" But she is a bit naughty, with a mind of her own, and who can blame her for wanting to grab a few trunkfuls of the leafy delicacies surrounding her? To her and the other elephants it must be like walking through a giant buffet, with food always for the taking. She flapped her speckled ears and munched away, like one of my spirited but recalcitrant English students with their bags of Chitatos, only half paying attention.
I noticed her head was divided into two clear halves, left brain and right brain. What a huge brain she must have. I inspected her feet next. "Seperti piring besar," I said to Pren and he laughed. Like big dinner plates, perfectly round. Fabulous, intelligent, comical, beautiful. And lucky. The more wrinkles elephants have, the more beautiful they are. They sport those sags and bags proudly, unlike we humans who have taken to injecting ourselves with Botox and other substances to fill in the cracks. With elephants, even the youthful are wrinkled. At the risk of anthropomorphizing Ardana, I noticed she really did look like she could be a giant human zipped up inside a baggy elephant suit.
The guide asked me if I would like to sit up front, and without hesitation I agreed. (Later, when I showed the photos to my friends they asked, "Weren't you scared?" When I responded no, they said, "You must be very brave." Then it hit me: What on earth was I thinking? I could have been killed!) But living in the moment like that, it didn't occur to me for a second to be scared. I feel more scared trapped inside elevators in office buildings, or in a roomful of office workers who live for the next bit of gossip. Not on an elephant's back in the jungle, where I am free, free, free. In hindsight, even if she did chuck me over her head, or crush me in a sudden rampage, or slip and tumble down the ravine, I would die a happy woman. Glad it didn't happen,though.
I crept over the bamboo saddle and settled on Ar's neck, let my legs dangle behind her ears, and placed my hands on the two halves of her enormous, heart-shaped head. The guide wandered along in front, keeping and eye on us and taking photos with my camera as we ambled down the mountain, I feeling much like Jane of the Jungle. Better yet, a jungle gypsy, moving through the forest, a part of it, and in it.
Dan still had a slight frown on his face, and made no move up front, content to remain in his saddle. We ambled past a makeshift campsite where a couple of lounging locals in reggae style crochet hats waved languidly from their vantage spots over the river. Then we plunged straight into the river and waded across it-or Ardana did-with me atop her back, trying to keep my flip flop on my foot so it wouldn't fall off and be lost downriver. The guide kindly took my flip flops for me, so now I was riding both bareback and barefoot.
At the top of the hill on the other side was the landing pad for us to disembark. "Pesawat," one of the locals said. We were like airplanes high up in the air, coming in for a landing. Ar sidled up to let me off, and I thanked her. Next came Dan, whose legs looked as wobbly as mine felt.
We made our way down to the river for an elephant mandi. Ar and Sari lay down on their sides in the water, mouths open and smiling in big V's and eyes rolling around with pleasure as several guides scrubbed their backs with the same kind of brushes used for bathroom tiles. I had a go at it, too; it was like washing a car. One of the guides didn't notice Sari as he slyly sucked up a trunkful of water. Then he turned his high-powered water hose on him and soaked him to the gills. We all fell about laughing. "Want Sari to kiss you?" the guide asked.  I didn't want one at first, but when Dan got a kiss I had to have one, too, so Sari lifted his big trunk and gently hoovered my forehead. Added to list of life's incredible moments: an elephant's kiss.
After their scrubbings, the elephants gathered together in the middle of the river and trumpeted as a raft of noisy local holidaymakers floated by, backed by Pren's pal Ucok, waving at us happily. Nothing, but nothing, is like the sound of elephants in the wild-a hundred times more powerful than the Batak woman I'd encountered on the back of the bus. I thought they were upset by rafters at first, but the randy young guy told me that they were just being happy. They love having their bath, and they were excited over the flotilla of humans plunging downriver in their tubes. 
It was time for me to push off in my own tube back to Tangkahan, so I jumped in the middle of my big plastic donut and my friend Pren hung onto it from behind and propelled it into the middle of the river. The water was clear, green and warm. As we cruised down the Batang Serangan, we saw a gang of macaques scampering across the cliff face. They paused to watch us float by, and we both observed each other with mutual curiosity.
When we arrived back in Tangkahan, the same noisy local tourists were having insane diving contests-who can make the craziest dive? We steered away quickly as I was the only woman in their midst, and made for the waterfall upriver, just above where the Buluh meets the Batang. The water flowed strong and clean and warm, and I sat beneath it and let it pummel my shoulders. It might have been the best massage I've ever had, and I could stay as long as I wanted, for free. Shy Pren was very sweet, and waited patiently for me as the waterfall beat all the stress out of my back. Quite a way to end what very well was one of the best days of my life, spent in the company of Sumatran elephants in this hidden paradise.
*   *   * 
Note: A short time after my visit, two more elephants were brought from Aceh to make a total of nine. Sumatran elephants, the smallest of the Asian elephants, live only in Sumatra-another reason this place is so special and deserves to be protected. Yet, like Sumatran orangutans, they are also on the endangered list and face extinction in the next five years. According to the World Wildlife Fund, only 2,440 to 3,350 Sumatran elephants are left in the wild due to deforestation from illegal logging and palm plantations, as well as poaching and poisoning. Some sources say even fewer exist. To find out more about Sumatran elephants or what you can do to help, check out http://wwf.worldwildlife.org/site/PageServer?pagename=can_results_sumatran_elephants  www.elephantcare.org/sumatra.htm
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