The rain began to fall before our nap, and what began as an afternoon shower had now become a full-on deluge. The sky wrung out the clouds with malevolence, transforming the town’s walking path into a gurgling calf-deep stream, which itself branched out into many cascading tributaries. These all emptied themselves into the river below, which, despite being the picture of emerald tranquility just hours before, was now violent and brown and expanding by the minute. This normally wouldn’t have alarmed me, since it was the rainy season and we had come to expect heavy afternoon rains; but we were in Bukit Lawan, a flood-prone town situated high in the hills on the edge of a very large and real jungle. In fact, just eight years before the whole place had been wiped out when the river metamorphosed into a wall of water that not only took out the town, but over three hundred inhabitants as well. This loomed in our minds as we eyed the boiling river and wondered if it was prudent to rent a room just a literal stone’s throw from the water’s edge. Evacuation plans were concocted as we splashed through the newly-formed stream to the little restaurant next to the guesthouse in hope of getting something to eat.
The open-air restaurant was half full of patrons, who hunkered down at candle lit tables and waited out the storm (the power was out). They openly smoked spliffs and drank from large bottles of Bintang, while the couple of staff on hand nervously looked over the balcony to the rushing water below. They tried to assure us that this was no big deal, that it rained like this often and that we were in no real danger of flooding, but I wondered if that’s what they told the tourists on the night that much of the town was scoured from the bank. But the more sensible side of me prevailed and I chose to leave it be, ordering a rendang curry instead.
Eventually the power was restored and the rain abated, and we were soon joined by Kinu, a long, frizzy-haired local dude who, like most everyone living in Bukit Lawan, served as a guide for the Gunung Leuser National Park, situated directly across the river from where we were sitting. The park is a true jungle wilderness–one of the largest in Southeast Asia—home to Sumatran tigers, rhinos, and the real reason why anyone comes to Bukit Lawan: the orangutan.
Jungle Trek, Jungle Trek, in Bukit Lawan
See the monkey, See the bird
This, sung to the tune of “Jingle Bells,” is the theme song of Bukit Lawan. The town is a jump-off point for the jungle next door. People come to Bukit Lawan to arrange guides for rain forest treks, with the intention of seeing orangutans, since the area Bukit Lawan boasts one of the world’s largest populations of the creature.
Over 7,000 orangutans are said to exist in the park, with many living very near the town. Bukit Lawan was home to an orangutan rehabilitation center, which took in domesticated apes and trained them to live in the wild after the Indonesian government banned the keeping of them as pets in the 1970’s. The center has since closed its doors, but the semi-wild, introduced apes still live in large numbers near the old center. In fact, some of the orangutans are fed twice daily from feeding platforms on the fringe of the park, which is a tactic mainly aimed at supplementing the semi-wild mothers with much needed nutrients, since the formerly domesticated apes are always at a disadvantage when it comes to foraging food.
That’s why we had come to Bukit Lawan: we wanted to get our monkey on, and after an exchange of cash and a handshake, we were set to do just that that following morning.
* * *
After a breakfast of searingly-hot Indo fare and Sumatran coffee, we met Kinu and crossed the rickety foot bridge that spanned the Bohorik River, soon meeting up with Christine, a Swiss woman who would be joining our group. Christine had spent time in Indonesia before, enough to evidently get a decent handle on the language, which she freely spoke with Kinu, which annoyed me a bit. His English was shaky to begin with, and now she was giving him–the guy who we hired to explain to us the flora and fauna of the surrounding area—a disincentive to speak it all. But I respected the fact that she could speak Bahasa Indonesia (though I am told it’s pretty easy, as languages go), and despite the fact that I am racist against Swiss people, turned out to be all right.
We quickly climbed away from the river, through a patch of rubber plantation land, and at once entered the park. But we weren’t the only ones. We were joined by many other groups of varying sizes. In fact, for the first time of the whole trip, I felt like we were on the tourist trail. We were doing the thing than anyone who comes to Sumatra—foreign or Indonesian—feels most compelled to do. Most annoying was the pack of forty Indonesian college students who shrieked and screamed with each step they took into the forest. They were mainly comprised of young women who squealed and laughed as they compulsively snapped each others’ pictures and were oblivious to the fact that they were frightening away any wildlife in the area. I rolled my eyes and sighed and fantasized about owning a machine gun for times such as this.
“Don’t worry,” Christine said. They’re just a day group. They’ll be gone soon enough.”
And she was right. We followed Kinu and a few other guides (and their groups) down a barely perceptible path, and soon the students were out of both eye and earshot. We were now surrounded by the true sounds of the jungle.
We pressed on into the forest, always behind, with, or in front of another group. It was a Saturday, and a lot of folks were out. It seemed that everyone got the same trek, as well. I don’t think there were too many variations in the itinerary. The sheer amount of other humans was disconcerting: it’s one of the things I like LEAST about living in Korea: whatever you want to do, 10,000 people have the same idea. The Tour Bus Syndrome.
Despite the slightly crowded conditions, we did get our money’s worth, animal wise. We soon heard and spotted a howler gibbon, a troupe of thomas leaf monkeys, and less than an hour later were into the first of a few orangutans. He was a big male, nesting just above the trail, and paid little heed to the pack of wildlife paparazzi snapping away underneath. After that we came across a mother and her baby hanging high above. I took off my pack to take a shot, and at one point she made a move for it, but the one of the guides chased her back up with a stick before she could pull a snatch and grab. All the while we tried to keep our distance, while at the same time keeping close enough to get a good shot. Orangutans are wickedly strong and have been known to RIP FACES off people. Really.
We kept hiking through the afternoon, stopping often for protracted breaks. It occurred to me that this trek was pretty amateur stuff. I like to HIKE when I hike and was bummed that every fifteen minutes it, seemed, was an excuse for another sit-down. I also realized that we were never that far from the town. For much of the trek I could still hear the sound of the odd motorbike putting away.
But the last thirty minutes was gnarly, heading straight down the hillside to the river below, along a “path” that would have been suicidal in the rain. It was slick enough from the downpour from the night before, but I only fell on my ass once, and soon we at our camp, along the now green and slower-moving river.
There were three main camps in the area, all of which were made up of black plastic lean-twos constructed by the guides’ support crew. They were already cooking up dinner when we arrived, and our camp would house about fifteen trekkers and maybe seven or eight Indo guides, cooks, and porters. But the star of the camp wasn’t human, but “Jackie” a semi-wild orangutan whose baby clung to her as she clung to tree limbs, looking down at us with huge, sad eyes.
“Jackie was pet before,” Kinu filled us in. “She just wants to hug people. She is spoiled.”
Minhee joined to group of young European trekkers who aimed their cameras for the best shot.
“I want to hug her,” Minhee said.
“Do not,” Kinu warned. “She will hold you for more than one hour and she is too strong to break the hug.”
Jackie and baby
After a bone-cleansing swim in the cool, clean waters, the late afternoon rain came, and we all ducked under the shelter, watching Jackie as she improvised a rain hat from the numerous jungle leaves nearby. She took the opportunity to come down out of the tree and attempt to join us under our tarps, but was quickly chased off by a stick wielding guide.
“We cannot let her get used to people,” Kinu said. “Even though she was pet before, we must treat her as wild orangutan.”
Jackie was there the next morning, and joined us as we took our coffee on the boulders alongside the rushing water. She ambled among the rocks, baby clinging to her side, while she hammed it up for more of our photographs. This ape loved people and soaked up the attention with fervor. Each attempt to chase her away only resulted with the needy orangutan slowly making her way back to the encampment, where she could bask within camera range at the awe she instilled in the cluster of Westerners compulsively snapping away. We came for orangutans and we got orangutans, though it was Jackie who stole the whole fucking show.
* * *
(The next five days saw us relaxing at Iboih Beach on Pulau Wei, a gorgeous island off the northern tip of Sumatra. We met up with Sam, who was already there, living it up in tropical splendor. It was a lazy, wonderful time, even though the beers were hard to come by and cost over $3.50 for a little-ass can. But the waters around Iboih Beach were protected and full of life. We spent nearly as much time in the water as out of it, snorkeling mainly, but by the end of the stay I had gotten a couple of cortex-blowing dives under my belt and felt that I had accomplished what I had set out for. With only two days left, it was time to make our way back home.)
Syahrul Shows Us Around Banda
On the morning of December 26th, 2004, the city of Banda Aceh was scoured from the map by a massive, earthquake-spawned tsunami. We all know the story, that over 220,000 people lost their lives in a collection of countries which rim the Indian Ocean. I personally remember watching endless footage of the aftermath for days—the bloated bodies, the mud, debris and incomprehensible destruction that was wrought on that terrible morning. Little did I know that some eight years later I would visit that place that, in an instant, became synonymous with tragedy.
Banda Aceh after the tsunami. Only the grand mosque remained.
Banda Aceh was obliterated by the tsunami. Over 170,000 were killed—many of them women and children—since a lot of the men were out to sea, fishing at the time. To give it some perspective, only about 150,000 people live in Banda Aceh TODAY. And it shows. In contrast to the other cities in Sumatra, which are positively writhing with human activity, Banda Aceh seems much more sparsely populated. The streets are wide and not strangled with traffic. The air is clear and the whole place lacks the stifling yoke that is present in other Indonesian cities. In fact, it was easily the nicest town we visited; after the tsunami, international aid money poured into to Banda Aceh, and the city was well-rebuilt, spiffy, modern, and clean, the very opposite of say, Medan or Padang.
As Minhee disembarked from the ferry that had carried us back to the mainland from Pulau Wei, we were approached by the usual phalanx of taxi and moto drivers. It was nine in the morning and our flight to KL took off at noon, so we had an hour or two to get to the airport. We had blasted through Banda Aceh on the way to Palau Wei, but we were barely awake and saw little of the place. I wanted to at least get taste of what this city was about, witness any lingering physical tsunami damage (the emotional and psychological damage to the locals will linger for ages), and pay my respects, in whatever small way I could. So, when a thin man with honest eyes approached us and asked, “Airport?” I acquiesced at once.
We stacked our bags on the back of the sidecar and squeezed in. The driver’s name was Syahrul, and he kicked started his dented up bike and soon we were on our way away from the ferry dock and into the town itself.
“Tsunami.” I want to see tsunami.” Syahrul nodded his head in affirmative, despite the fact that he didn’t speak English. He knew the score and exactly where to take us.
What became obvious to me, as we putted along the open streets of Banda Aceh, was just how much of a sitting duck the city is, when it comes to ocean-born catastrophes. The ridge of highlands that makes up the spine of Sumatra ends abruptly many miles before the sea, and Banda Aceh sits on a wide, flat plane. There is little high ground to speak of, and almost nothing to mitigate an ocean swell, should it arise. A tsunami will blast into the city unchecked, and that’s exactly what happened on 12/26/2004.
Syahrul slowed down in front of a side street and pointed. “Ship! Ship!” He shouted, pointing. We pulled off and before long I could see it, a huge metal ship, deposited there, more than a mile from the harbor, by the wave. A park of sorts, complete with wooden walkways affording the best views, had been recently constructed around the boat, but for some reason it was not yet open, though more rudimentary memorial lay next door. Minhee and I climbed out of the sidecar and took in a massive wall of photographs, all of which documented the disaster in grisly detail. We saw the mud and destruction, but what killed me were the bodies. I stared at photo after photo of bodies. Some were laid out and covered up, but most were caught up in the debris, twisted and crushed, swollen black and blue and putrid yellow. Almost no shot was without one. It was only then that the scale of the catastrophe hit me true. I could smell the rotting flesh through the picture and knew at once that Hell itself can manifest itself right here on earth.
I impotently put ten bucks in the donation jar and got back into Syahrul’s side car with Minhee. Syahrul pointed to the ship and, with is best charades, acted out his part in the tsunami.
I was sleeping that morning. Sleeping. Then the wave hit. Everything went upside down. I was swept from the house. I grabbed onto a tree and held with all my strength. I was almost washed away, but I held strong until the wave subsided. I lived… but the rest were gone. All ten members of my family were dead.
Ten. His splayed out fingers spoke the number with chilling clarity.
Syahrul’s eyes were hard, yet beneath the veneer of toughness was a wasp’s nest of pain. My own eyes stung with tears that I did my best to repress. I looked at this man—a man who was no longer our driver–but another human, another person who knew love and loss and was doing his best to connect, to let his story be known. I nodded, cinched my lips, and gave him a weak pat on the shoulder. What else could I do?
Our next stop was about a fifteen minute ride from the big ship. This was another boat—a fishing boat deposited on the roof a house. This site had been preserved as a memorial was well, complete with a tourist kiosk selling coffee and T-shirts. As sad as all of these sites were, the sheer absurdity of a boat on top of a house managed to bring a twinge of a smile to all of our faces. There was something, well… almost silly about it.
And even more bizarre, according to a placard in English, not only did the wave deliver the boat, but underneath the hull they found a massive crocodile. One thing did cause my blood to ice over, though. There, carved into the cement, was this permanent reminder:
Syahrul took us to a fruit stand (Minhee was now a full-blown tropical fruit addict) and then onto the airport, which was a long haul out of town. It was hard to leave him. We had only spent an hour and a half with the man, but felt something very warm and very human during that brief time. I don’t always reach out when I travel, partially because of my Western prejudices, and partially because I’m often on guard from touts, thieves, and scammers, but Syahrul’s story had moved me deeply, and I was very glad that he had offered himself up as our guide that morning. I paid him well, shook his hand, and walked away into the chaotic little terminal. We were now on our way back home, back to the cold, back to Korea.