Archive for October, 2010

31st October
written by Ilana

We arrived in a small village with a few tiny shops.  The driver told us this was Tangkahan, so we got out of the car and said our goodbyes.  We went through a small hut and saw that on the other side was a river.  In order for us to reach our jungle lodge, appropriately named “Jungle Lodge” we would have to cross this river on a “ferry.”

On the ferry

The ferry was a wooden raft with a little hut over it to shade the passengers.  The river was pretty narrow, so the ferry ride only took a few minutes.  We took the ferry, climbed off, and climbed up many stairs and through a jungle-y path to reach our lodge.

The whole place felt abandoned.

“I have a reservation “ I said to the 3 people sitting around the lodge.

I got a bunch of confused looking stares in response.

“I emailed ALEX”  I said slowly and loudly, hoping that would help.

“Alex,” a woman said to me.

There was much confusion and quite the language barrier.  It seemed the Alex who I emailed with was maybe in Germany…  In any event, he was not in the jungle.  We were eventually led to a hut overlooking more jungle and a part of the river.

View from the Jungle Lodge

It was pretty spacious, and we had a nice balcony.

I stood on the balcony and looked around.  It seemed we were literally in the middle of nowhere.  There was no electricity when we arrived; it only went on from around 6-11 pm from a generator.  This worked out well for Shabbos, because we could just leave the lights on and they would automatically shut off at 11.  I knew that there were a few things to do in Tangkahan—there were elephant treks, which we would do on Sunday, and there was some waterfall somewhere and hot springs.  I went back into our hut and remembered that I was sweating through all of my clothes.  It was so damn hot.  There was no fan, and even if there was, there was no electricity so it wouldn’t really help me.

We decided that since we had at least an hour or so before Shabbos we would try to find out where this waterfall was, and maybe stick our heads under it, and then we would at least we would know where to go to cool off on Shabbos.  We walked back into the lodge area and I tried to communicate to the folks chilling there that we wanted to know where the waterfall was.  Again, my words were met with blank stares.

I saw that on the wall there were pictures of a waterfall.  I pointed at the picture.  “WATER-FALL.”  I said, slowly and loudly.  God, I hate myself when I talk like that.  But on the other hand, locals never seem to understand me when I don’t speak in my slow loud I’m-communicating-with-a-non-English-speaker voice.  But still, I feel like such a tool.

Anyway, the message was understood, and a guy started walking.  We guessed we were meant to follow him.  He was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, and Bloom and I were also wearing our clothes, since we assumed that someone would just explain where the waterfall was and then we would briefly check it out before going back to our hut and showering for shabbos.

We followed the guy through the jungle, down some stairs and then he proceeded to walk into the river in his clothes.  He motioned for us to follow him.  Alright.  It was so hot anyway, I guess it didn’t matter that I was about to walk into a river fully clothed.  I was freaking out a bit as we climbed over slippery stones and I thought about how my near-drowning the day before.  Whatever, it was too hot to be afraid, and this guy kept on walking, so we kept on following him.  We walked past something that looked like a cross between a crocodile and a snake.  “What the hell is that??”  I asked, alarmed.  The guy laughed at me, and kept walking.  “It’s a monitor,” Bloom said.  What on earth is a monitor??  I stared at it and kept walking.

After a few minutes he climbed over some very large rocks and held my hand as I struggled up the rocks.  Then we saw the waterfall which was up quite a few more large slippery rocks.  The guy climbed up those rocks as if he was climbing a normal, dry staircase.  He then went and sat under the waterfall as the water pounded down on his head.   I was wet enough.  I was too scared to climb up more slippery rocks.  How would I get down?  I was already cooling off since I was standing in water up to my waist, so I figured I didn’t really need to climb under a waterfall.  Good, so now we knew where the waterfall was.  And it was only a few minutes walk from our hut.  “HOT SPRINGS??”  I asked the guy loudly and slowly.  Ugh, again, I hated myself as I spoke.  He seemed to understand and he bounded down the river, as again we followed him.  We waded toward the direction of our hut, and then the guy started swimming across the river.  He motioned that we had to swim across to get to the hot springs.

It’s one thing to wade through waist high water, but it is quite another to actually swim across a river fully clothed, the day after the near drowning.  No.  Bloom swam across.  I then watched as Bloom and the guy climbed behind a rock and then I couldn’t see them.  Eventually, Bloom came back over the rock and yelled across the river to me, “it’s really good here!  Come across!”  After much back and forth, and me acting like a complete baby, Bloom agreed to swim me across the river.  Yes, I admit, it is very very lame to be swam across a small river instead of swimming myself, but alas, that is what was done.  We got to the other side, and the hot springs were indeed really good.  In fact, this whole place was pretty good.  True, it was the middle of the jungle and we had yet to see more than 4 people in the whole place, but it was kind of nice that way.  Creepy, but nice.  We had our own private river, hot springs, waterfall and jungle.

We ate dinner at our lodge that night, which was beautiful and was basically a large open air gazebo overlooking the river.  Dinner was basically a war of who could get to our food first, us or the mass line of ants marching across the table.  It was pretty dark, and I tried not to think about what the odds were that I had eaten an ant over the course of the meal.

We went back to our hut, and tried to sleep even though it was ridiculously hot and the mosquito net seemed to make it even hotter in the bed.

Eventually I must have fallen asleep, because the next thing I knew  I was awoken by a scratching noise, which I tried to ignore, but then I heard a loud “HISSS.”  I looked next to me and realized that Bloom had made the hissing noise.  The scratching stopped.  Oh my god.  “Bloom, what are you doing??”
“I think there’s something in here,” he said.

It was so dark that I couldn’t even see Bloom next to me.  Like idiots, since it was shabbos, we didn’t even have our flashlights anywhere near us.  I was freaking out.  “What’s in here?  Is it a monkey??”

I love to look at monkeys.  From afar.  I am terrified of them.  They look and act too much like humans to be trusted.  I feel like a monkey would stab me in the back any day.  I also suspect that there will come a time in this trip when I have a physical fight with a monkey.  I have been careful so far, and have backed away and behind closed doors when monkeys have come near me, but I know that eventually the monkeys will catch up with me, and if we don’t have a physical fight, at the very least it will steal my camera or something else valuable and then laugh in my face.

“I don’t think it’s a monkey,” Bloom said.  “It might not even be in here.  It sounded like it was biting through the wood of the floor or the door or something.”  UGH.  Repulsive.  Maybe a small hut in the middle of the jungle with no electricity or people was not the best place after all.

I turned on the indiglo light on my watch to try to see Bloom’s face.  He got out of the bed and wandered around the hut.  I was freaking out.  What if the animal was right next to the bed?  What if it was in the bed?  What if it actually was a monkey??  I couldn’t see a thing, so I just kept holding down the indiglo light on my watch.  How could I care about shabbos when a rabid monkey was potentially on the loose in my bed??  And Bloom was out in the room wandering around doing God knows what.  I kept shining my watch on him, but I’m not sure it really helped.

After quite some time he came back to bed, but this time I really couldn’t sleep.  I kept imagining things crawling all over me, or hearing scratching on the floor, and then Bloom would hiss again to quiet down the creature.  “Bloom, maybe we should just try to get out of here right after shabbos, maybe we should forget about the elephants.  I’m really creeped out here.”
“Don’t worry, try to get some sleep.”

I dozed in and out until at some point I woke up and saw that I could see.  The sun was out.  We had made it through the night with no monkey bites!  Hooray.  In the light of day I looked around and realized what an idiot I had been at night.  There was nothing to fear.  It was completely safe here.  Bloom looked through our bags and discovered that one of his infamous banana’s had been eaten.  So there was an animal inside the room.  Ew.  I tried not to think about it.

Shabbos was uneventful.  We read, slept and swam, and discovered three other tourists.

At night Bloom and I both had a hard time sleeping.  We thought that the animal had perhaps come into the hut through the drain in the bathroom, so bloom filled a bucket with water and put it over the drain, he also locked the bathroom door.  It was still creepy.  Eventually I fell asleep, but I was again awoken by Bloom shining his flashlight all over the walls and floor of the hut.  “There’s nothing we can do, just stay here and go back to sleep” I said to him, as he started climbing out of bed.  He did not listen, and he spent a while wandering the room, shining his flashlight all over the place trying to find the creature.

We woke up the next morning and got ready to see some elephants, and tried to forget about the creature of the night.  We crossed the river on the “ferry” again and were surprised to see many Indonesian  families walking down to the river carrying coolers and food.  We were no longer alone in the jungle.

We walked for a while until we some elephants hanging out by the side of the road.  We watched as their mahouts (elephant driver) rode them down to the river to bathe them. It was awesome.  I had read somewhere that Tangkahan is a relatively new tourist destination (even though we only saw a few tourists there are still 4 guesthouses there which means it does cater to holding a few tourists), and a few years ago the whole area was in danger of being completely logged.  The locals got together and decided to protect the area and turn it into a tourist destination or something like that…  Anyway, the elephants are used to patrol the area and make sure loggers don’t come in and illegally chop down the trees.  So the elephants were being used for a good cause.

We bathed  and fed the elephants and saw the newborn baby elephant who was adorable.  We were joined by a Japanese family and we all set off to ride the elephants for an hour through the hills of the jungle.  It was a pleasant morning.  The only unpleasant part was when we got back to our hut and realized that the bucket covering the drain had been moved the night before, and that the creature of the night was still hunting us.  Ugh.  We would deal with that later, I guess.

We spent the rest of the day swimming in the river with the locals.  A girl swimming in her underwear swam up to me.  “HELLO! What is your name??”
“Ilana, what is YOUR name?”

She laughed and swam around, and then told me her name was SIska, and that she’s seven years old.  “Do you like visit Tangkahan?”   I told her I very much enjoyed Tangkahan, and praised her English skills.  She then decided to swim underwater toward me for a while, before getting bored and swimming to the hot springs to fill a water bottle with water from the hot spring to then pour all over me and her brother.

That was the thing about Sumatra, the kids were all so friendly and hilarious, and were always  making conversation with us.

Anyway, after our swim we realized that we had to figure out how exactly we were going to leave this place.

Bloom swimming in the river

Our plan was to take a bus to the big city Medan, and then connect to another bus to a small city called Berastagi where we would hang out and maybe see a volcano or two on our way to Lake Toba.  The problem was that the last bus to Berastagi was at 4 pm, so we had to get in to Medan before that.

We asked anyone some of the locals when the bus was leaving the next day.  We received many responses.  “Bus at 6, 7 and 2,”  “Bus at 6:30 and 8:30,”  “Bus only at 7:30,” “maybe only one bus tomorrow at 6?”  Whaaaat.  There was definitely no such thing as a bus schedule here, so we were not quite sure how to move forward with this one.

We went back to our lodge and asked them about the buses.  We were mostly met with blank stares yet again, until one guy who sort of knew English came by and declared that the bus was at 7.  “Ok so we want to take that bus,” I told him.  “No can take that bus” he responded.
“Why not?”
“You need to cross river with bags to get to the bus.  Ferry does not run early in morning.  Water too high.”
“Ok, well then can we sleep on the other side of the river?”
“Ok, I take you to place to sleep.”

We followed this guy back across the river and he showed us an overpriced dilapidated room surrounded by chickens.  Bloom was the one who said no to this one.

Hmm.  We weren’t quite sure what to do now.  We headed back down the steps toward the river when a man approached us and said “need transport?”  We explained that maybe we did need transport, but really we just wanted to take the (cheap) local bus to Medan, but weren’t sure how to get across the river in time for the 7 o’clock bus.  “Maybe no 7 o’clock bus” he told us, “maybe only 5:30 morning bus.”

Whaaaat.  Where was 5:30 coming into this whole plan?  This was a new one.  The man introduced himself as Mega, the owner of Mega Inn and said he would talk to the bus driver when he arrives and ask him what time the bus will leave tomorrow.  We could find him at Mega Inn and ask him about the bus times.

Ok, well at least this Mega guy seemed to be helpful.  Finally someone who would find us some answers.  We went to Mega Inn for dinner, which was delicious by the way, and Mega told us there would only be two buses the following day, one at 5:30 am, and one at 2 pm.  We asked him if there was any way we could take the ferry across to make the 5:30 bus.  We expected him to say no, after we had been told we couldn’t take the ferry across to make the alleged 7:30 bus, but Mega said yes.  He told us that he was driving to Bukit Lawang to pick up some tourists and had to get across early, so he and his friend would take the ferry across  themselves, and we could go with them.  Wejust had to be at the ferry crossing at 5 am.  Ok, I think we can handle that, I thought, as I sat back and drank my banana milkshake, and listened to one of the locals play guitar.  He played “Knocking on heaven’s door,” and then he seemed to be singing Jingle Bells, but I listened and realized that instead of the Jingle Bells lyrics he had changed the words and was instead singing “Jungle trek, jungle trek, in tangkahan.  See the monkeys, see the birds, see the elephants…”  I thought this was awesome, but am no longer of this opinion when, three weeks later, I still find the “jungle trek jungle trek”  lyrics running through my head.

We tried to get some sleep, which we of course did not do, since Bloom again spent much of the night trying to find the creature, and hanging our bags from the walls so they would be safe.  At 4:45 am, in the pitch black jungle, we put on all our bags and our headlamps and trekked through the jungle,  and down the stairs to the river, where Mega was already waiting for us.  I handed him my bag and waded through the river to then climb onto the ferry.  I felt like we were escaping Poland to try to get to freedom.  Dead of night, climbing onto boats, carrying all of my belongings, etc.  However, this place was warm, and I had yet to meet any blatant anti-semites or angry dogs, so I guess there were a few differences between  Tangkahan and Poland.  A few.

We made it to the other side of the river, and we saw our bus.  To call this a dilapidated schoolbus that was probably used in some western country in the 1970’s before it was deemed unfit for use, would be an understatement.  There were holes in the wall, cracks in the windows, and the sides seemed to be rusting away.  Oh well.  We said goodbye to Mega and got on the bus with a few local schoolchildren, and by 5:20 we were off, bumping along the unpaved jungle roads to pick up at least 100 more schoolchildren, and quite a few sacks of oranges.  I found it hilarious that we were actually on a local school bus, as did the children, many of whom used us to practice their English.  I was afraid for some of their lives as I looked out the window and saw a bunch of them hanging off of bars on the outside of the bus  and sitting on the roof.

While on the bus, we looked at our bags and realized that Bloom’s daypack had a hole in it.  Bloom looked into the bag and pulled out his hazon chicobag and saw that that too had a hole in it, he then pulled out a double wrapped Ziploc bag and saw that it too had a hole, and when he looked inside the Ziploc we were not surprised to find a granola bar had been eaten.  Damn that creature.  It must have been some sort of psychotically resourceful rat if he was able to eat through a strong backpack and into another cloth bag and then through a double Ziploc and then into a granola bar.  When I thought of this rat’s strength, I was glad to be leaving Tangkahan.

After four hours of the bumpiest, sweatiest bus ride of my life we made it to Medan, where we sat around the bus station for a while with some local crazies, some of whom had their shirts half off, many of whom were lying on benches singing to themselves.  I was exhausted, so I joined them, and lay on a bench and acted crazy myself.

Our fired driver had wanted to meet us and maybe give us back some of our money so we waited for him for over an hour.  When he finally met us, he took us to a “café” (read:  the front of someone’s house) and berated us for a while.  I wasn’t feeling well at all, so I was trying to ignore this whole meeting and hoping he would just give us some money back and we could all move on with our lives.  But for some reason he chose to go on and on about how irresponsible we were for hiring him and then firing him, no one has ever treated him this way, etc.  I had felt guilty enough about firing the guy, but at the same time, we paid him half the cost, and he had driven us to only one place!  Why was he telling us how terrible we were?  Did he drag us here just for that?  Did I lie around with a bunch of possible drunks in an abandoned bus station for this?

Finally, I said something, “look, we are sorry we decided we didn’t need you.  We told you we felt bad.  We paid you the money.  What’s the problem?”

He told us that we were reaching the moment of truth to see what kind of people we really were.  Whaaat.  He then asked us how much money we think he ought to give us back.

Oh God.  So he was testing us?  We asked him for very little back, which was more than we were ever expecting to see again, and he was happy.  He deemed us good people, and gave us some money back, and pointed us toward our bus.  Good riddance.  At least that awkwardness was over.  We are never hiring a driver in advance again, that’s for sure.

And we were on to Berastagi.

17th October
written by Ilana

Oct. 7
After tubing down the river in Bukit Lawang at the end of our jungle trek, and watching many locals tube down the river all day, Bloom decided that, for a little more than $1, renting our own tube was a worthwhile investment.

When we had tubed at the end of our trek, Bloom and I had shared a large tube that was tied to two other tubes, and we had guides who appropriately steered us through the rapids, but we had seen that water was shallow, and there were only rapids in a few spots, and tiny local children were tubing, so it must be safe, right?

I was happily reading in the hammock on our balcony, enjoying the shade and the view, but Bloom wanted to tube, so, trying to be my most chilled out self, I encouraged him to go, and agreed that of course it was fine for him to go for a while by himself, he should just come back and get me later and maybe I would join him.

Bloom left to get a tube, and I went back to my book.  After 40 minutes or so, I looked out at the water.  The rapids looked strong from here.  Shouldn’t I have seen Bloom tube by?  Would I have missed him?  No, I’m sure everything’s fine, I’m just being crazy…but..isn’t it dangerous for someone to go to open water by themselves?  Hadn’t I learned that somewhere?  Isn’t that a thing?

As the minutes ticked by, I was using all of my strength to not think that something terrible happened to Bloom in the river.  I decided I was an awful wife for letting him go alone, and got my bathing suit on under my clothes, hoping he would be back soon, and this time I was going with him.

As soon as I was dressed and ready to go, Bloom came back.  We went down to the water, and it was awesome.  The river  was beautiful, and most of it was pretty calm, and serene.  I couldn’t believe I was such a beautiful place, in a tube, in the jungles of Sumatra.  A few times the water got rough and at one point we fell out, but it was fine, and we managed to get back in the tube.

When we had gone far enough, we got out of the tube and sat in the water for a while, watching mothers clean their clothes and children bathe.  Eventually Bloom said he was ready to walk up the river and tube back down again.  I remembered how freaked out I had been when he had gone by himself, and it had been fun, so I agreed to go again.

This time was even more idyllic, since at the start of the tube ride we saw an orangutan swinging from the trees on the side of the river.  How crazy!  We floated along peacefully, hitting a few rapids, getting soaked, screaming and laughing, when suddenly we hit a rock and instead of landing on our feet like the previous time, I got pulled under the water in the strong current.  I tried to lift my head out but I kept getting pulled back in.  I got my head out for a second, but felt myself losing control.  “Bloom!”  I yelled, swallowing water.  “Grab onto me!” I heard him say, and then I saw him reach for me.  I was able to grab onto him, but only for a second when the current shoved me back under.  I felt that I was only wearing one of my flip flops, and I felt the other one get pulled off my foot.  I managed to get up again, and grab Bloom and this time I managed to pull myself out enough that I was standing, but I still felt like the water might knock me over, even though it wasn’t deep.  We weren’t far from the shore and we managed to pull ourselves over to the riverbank, where I collapsed onto the rocks.  My legs were shaking, and I was mentally shaken as well.  I took a deep breath.  I felt on my head and realized my headband that I wear almost every day was gone, and I looked at my bare feet.  Dammit.

We looked down the river and saw that around 50 feet ahead, the water was completely calm.  I wondered what would have happened to me if I wouldn’t have been able to grab onto Bloom.  Would I have just been dragged along to the calm section?  Did I hurt myself by trying to resist the water instead of letting it pull me along?  Ahhh…what a clichéd metaphor!  If only I didn’t resist and fight, I would float gently by…  Gross.

I was terrified, and I was just thankful to be alive, but maybe it wasn’t actually that dangerous…?  I guess it doesn’t really matter if it was really dangerous or not, what matters is that I felt incredibly scared, well that, and the fact that I now lost a pair of reefs and the UV protected head wrap that I will not be able to replace out here.

Needless to say, I told Bloom no more tubing.  He was not so happy about my demands, but I begged him not to go back in the water right now, and I was pretty freaked out, so he agreed.  He went to the calm part of the water to look for my flip flops, to no avail.  Oh well.  We walked back to our guesthouse, and it started to pour.  It was actually refreshing and I was already soaked and shoeless, and walking very slowly on my still shaking legs, so I didn’t mind.

I still loved the tubing, it was just a shame that it had to end on such a rough note.  I felt vulnerable and scared of this crazy jungle.  All I wanted was to take a hot shower and crawl up in bed and maybe watch a movie.  That was definitely not in the cards.  We made our way back to the room, through the rain, took cold showers, and then I lay down under the mosquito net , and read some of my book to distract me from my fear.

We went to dinner, and, as was usual in Bukit Lawang, we were joined by some of the locals.  One of them was a man called Danny (many of the Indonesians we have met go by Western names for tourists, we asked if we could call them their full names, but they seem to like the Western  ones) who had helped us out a few times and had agreed to be our driver to Tangkahan, our next destination that cannot be reached from Bukit Lawang on public transport.  He had also helped us find yet another vegetarian restaurant in the town where the owner/cook/waiter allowed us into the kitchen and showed us how he made our meals, and he had helped us plan our onward itinerary.  He was very friendly and I liked him a lot.

He introduced us to his friend and said that he was very sorry, but he could not drive us, and his friend would take us instead.  The friend was wearing what looked like a big knit kippah.  “Where did you get your hat?  My husband is looking for one like that.”  He laughed, and then he and Bloom traded hats.  He put on the green 5 boro bike ride baseball hat, and Bloom put on the Muslim kippah.

“You look very serious now!  Everyone respect you!” The guy told Bloom.

I don’t remember exactly how it came up, but somewhere in this exchange I decided to go for it, and reveal our Jewishness to this guy, explaining that Bloom wanted to wear this hat for religious reasons.  The Muslim guy loved it.  “You are religious Jewish??  Very similar to Muslim!  You are my brother!”  If only all interfaith relations went this well…

We went on to discuss all our similarities.  He prayed 5 times a day, we pray 3 times a day.  He pays attention to what he eats, only eating halal, we also have weird eating habbits.  He was very excited and asked us if we could leave for Tangkahan later in the day, since we were leaving on a Friday, and he wanted to go to the mosque for afternoon prayer.  We explained that we needed to be in by a certain time for Shabbos, and we all worked out an agreeable time to all religions.

He said that he would take us to the local market in the morning and we would eat lunch at his house.  Bloom explained our different issues with kashrut.   He was very understanding about our requests, and it was all good.

The day in the market, our meal at the guy’s house, and the bumpy 2 and a half hour drive to Tangkahan were a good time.

We said goodbye to Bukit Lawang and moved on to Tangkahan

15th October
written by Ilana

Oct. 5—We left our hotel at 5 am to make our flight from KL—Medan.  We flew with Air Asia, which was insanely cheap and super efficient about check-in.  The flight was 40 minutes, making it the shortest international flight I had ever taken.  On the plane we were approached by an old bearded man with a turban wearing a long orange shirt and matching pants.  “English?”  He asked us.  We told him yes, we knew English.  He showed us his customs and immigration forms, handed us his Indian passport and motioned for us to fill them out for him.  I looked around the plane and realized that Bloom and I were the only two non-Asian people on the flight, which must have been why the man approached us.  Bloom began to fill out his forms, and tried explaining the questions, which was difficult since the man did not know any English.  “Where are you sleeping?”  Bloom asked slowly and loudly.  The man looked at us with a confused stare.  “sleeeep-ing,”  Bloom said, slower.  That obviously did not help, so Bloom tried once again, this time making a sleeping motion by putting his head on his hands.  “ohh,” the man said, “Sikh Temple.”  Bloom wrote “Sikh Temple” on the form.  Bloom then tried to ask him why he was travelling.  Business?  Holiday?  Eventually the man got it, and said “prayer.  2 days prayer.  Back to Malaysia.”  I decided I would help ask him customs questions as well, so I tried “do you have any weapons?  Guns?  Bang  bang?”  I pointed my fingers at him like a gun.  He looked startled by that one, and shook his head.  For some reason, I found the entire interaction with this man absurd and hilarious, and I kept laughing, which I tried to hold back since I did not want the man to think I was laughing at him, when in fact I really was laughing at the situation.  Bloom and I were on a plane to a city in Sumatra asking an Indian Sikh man all kinds of customs questions.  It just seemed bizarre to think that a few days earlier we were loitering in suburban Melbourne.

We landed in the heat, and I decided to unzip the lower part of my pants, making them into capri pants.  Bloom reminded me that we had read that when applying for an Indonesian visa it’s important to look somewhat professional.  I reminded him that we were getting a visa on arrival, and it didn’t matter. We went to the counter to apply for our visa, and the man just stared at my calves.  Oh no.  Did I offend Indonesia already?  He looked at me for a while and looked back at my passport.  Eventually he put a stamp in there that said 30 day visa NON-EXTENDABLE.  This is weird, since I am pretty sure that everyone gets an extendable visa.  Luckily, we decided the day before to book our next flight to go from Indonesia (Sumatra)—Malaysia (KL)—Indonesia (Java), so we would get a new visa when leaving and then re-entering Indonesia.  But still, I do think it’s strange that NON-EXTENDABLE was written on our visa…  Maybe it’s really because of the Israel stamp in my passport…?  I guess I will never know.

In the airport we had planned to meet up with a potential driver/guide who had been recommended to us by someone who had helped us plan our Sumatra trip who we had “met” on the lonely planet thorntree forum.  We knew a driver would be expensive, but he had said he would meet us at the airport and we could negotiate.  This was probably not the best idea, since we were both exhausted at this point, and not in our best negotiating mood.  We sat in his air conditioned car and went over prices with him.  We wanted to go to Ketambe to do some jungle trekking, but he did not want to take us there, and told us he would take us to other places and we could do that leg on our own.  We went back and forth for a while, and finally he gave us a price and said he would also drive us from Medan to Bukit Lawang, a jungle town 3 hours away, right now.  “Fine,” Bloom said, “let’s take it.”  It was probably beyond our budget, but we were already in his car, and he seemed like a good guy, so we agreed, and he asked for half the money, which we gave to him.

When we arrived in Bukit Lawang we saw signs all over the place for tourist buses that would take us to the same places the driver was going to take us to, but for TONS less money.  TONS.  Oh no.  What had we done?  We had just given away a big chunk of our budget to this man, and we had agreed that he wouldn’t take us to Ketambe, the one difficult place to reach on our itinerary.  What were we doing?  We needed to cancel, or at least ask to be taken to Ketambe.  We tried to call the guy, but the power was out all around town and the call didn’t go through, since phone service seemed to be down as well.  The next morning, right before we were about to leave for a jungle trek in Bukit Lawang, Bloom got in touch with the driver, who told Bloom to meet him at his hotel.  We were meant to be trekking in 9 minutes, but at the same time, the driver was leaving town and he had half our money, and we wanted to try to negotiate with him, or we would never see that money again.

“Ketambe or bust?”  Bloom asked me.  I agreed, and he ran off to meet the driver.

A few minutes later our trekking guide showed up and said we had to leave now if we wanted to see any orangutans.  “I saw your husband.  Why did he go now?  Not a good time to go talk to driver.”  Oh dear.  If we missed the orangutans, the reason we had come here in the first place, because we had to negotiate with a driver, I would go insane.  I felt my new zen self slowly slipping away as panic set in.  I told the guide we should walk quickly to find my husband.  Luckily, this town only has one road, so we would find him sooner or later.  We eventually found him, and ran through the jungle to see the orangutans.  I have never  released so much sweat into the universe before.

Hey there orangutan!

It was so hot and so humid, and we had to climb what felt like a million ginormous stairs to reach the place where the orangutans usually come and eat in the morning.

We reached the top, and saw a bunch of orangutans in the trees.  My zen self was back.

Watching the orangutans was incredible.  The way they moved, their faces, the way they ate, I just couldn’t get enough.  And we even saw two of them who had small babies.

We were there for maybe an hour, taking pictures and watching them, and then we continued to trek into the jungle.  I had signed us up for a one day relaxed/easy trek, since this is still the first week back into things and I wanted to take it slow.  I was in for a rude awakening.

It’s not that it was too hard for me, exactly… it’s just that I have no sense of balance.  I was not so out of breath or anything, and my muscles felt fine, but I fell quite a few times, and two or three of those times I got pretty bruised up.  The terrain was insane.  We were climbing up these slippery, narrow, steep ladders of rocks and branches and then back down again.  One of my worst falls was when we were coming down some rocky area and I slipped back and grabbed onto a vine and sort of hung there off the ground.  I couldn’t believe it.  I had slipped in the jungle and was now hanging from a vine.  I looked at the guide and at Bloom.  “This is what I did not want to happen to you,” the guide said, as he carried me off the vine.  He pointed at our porter and told me I had to hold his hand for the rest of the way.  How humiliating.  Even worse was that I still managed to fall a few more times while holding the porter’s hand!  What is wrong with me?  A few times I fell while standing in place.  I was not even walking!

The guide told me that I would not be able to go to the bat cave the next day, since it is very steep and I would clearly not make it.  “Your husband, he will be fine.  Not you, I am sorry,” he said.  Are all these backpackers in ridiculous shape or something?  How was this the easy trek?  What was happening to me?  I told the guide I was embarrassed and he said “don’t be embarrassed, before this you come from America, you eating McDonald’s every day, so you are not able to walk in the jungle now.”

Umm.  WHAT?!  To add to the humiliation of my multiple falls, I now had a guide telling me that I looked like a fatass who eats McDonald’s every day, and since I am so fat, that’s why I was unable to stay on my feet in the jungle.

“I don’t eat McDonald’s,” I informed him, “I’m a vegetarian.”  I didn’t quite feel like going into the kosher thing at that point.

“You’re a vegetarian?”  He looked at my body and looked surprised.

Crap.  How much weight did I gain in Australia??  Was I delusional?  I didn’t think I looked like a person who eats McDonald’s every day…  Maybe I need a reality check?  Bloom tried to reassure me by saying that by Indonesian standards I might look large.  Fantastic.  I love Bloom, but tact is not really his thing.

No no no.  I was not going to let all of this get to me.  I was in the jungle.  It was beyond beautiful.  I saw orangutans eating right in front of me.  I was in a place that looked like a tropical paradise, with hardly any tourists.  Ok, so I fell a few times, and obviously serious jungle trekking might not be for me, but we were only trekking for 3-4 hours today, so that was good, at least I hadn’t signed us up for two days…  And so what if this Indonesian man thinks I’m fat?  And so what if I am fat?  As long as I’m healthy, who cares?  Fine, so I gained some weight in Australia, but I was traveling and hiking and walking around every day now, so I will be fine.

The trek ended in the afternoon, and we took large tubes down a river back to the town, which was pretty fun.

Trekking in the jungle

By the end I looked like a complete wreck.  I had cuts on my hands, bruises on my elbows and knees, sore arms from hanging from the vine, mud all over my pants and my shirt was drenched with sweat.  This merited a cold shower.

People like to say that when it’s so hot, you want to take a cold shower.  I do not buy into this philosophy.  I don’t care how hot it is outside, I will always want a hot shower and will always be unsatisfied with a cold one, but alas, I did not have a choice, and I survived it and will survive many more cold showers.

After realizing that I am the world’s worst jungle trekker, I told Bloom that I no longer wanted to go to Ketambe, where the trekking is supposed to be more hard core.  I don’t quite understand what’s more hard core than climbing slippery rocks and branches, but the Lonely Planet says that experienced jungle trekkers may find Bukit Lawang too basic, and those people should head to Ketambe for more serious trekking.  I had found Bukit Lawang too difficult, so I had a problem.

We had another problem which is that Bloom had met with the driver that morning and had negotiated with the driver that he would take us to Ketambe, although we would have to pay even more money for it.  Bloom said that it was clear that if we canceled the driver we would not get any of our money back, so he had negotiated instead.  So now we had already made things awkward with this driver by forcing him to take us to Ketambe, and now I realized that Ketambe was probably not worth it for us, since it is a long way out of the way for jungle trekking, and I did not feel like a competent jungle trekker.

The guilt is now coming back.  How can we cancel the driver?  Now he will hate us.  Not only will he hate us, but we have lost an insane amount of money that could have lasted us at least a week here.  So much money to lose!  But if we go with the driver, we still have to pay him the other half of the money we owe him, and it just isn’t worth it.  Or is it?  AHH.  I hate being inside my head!  I also started regretting our decision not to stay overnight in the jungle, since now if we don’t go to Ketambe, we won’t get the overnight jungle experience here.  And maybe I should just push myself to do the jungle trek!  I’ve pushed myself before, and I’ve been happy about it.  However, unlike the trekking in South America, in this case I actually feel like it’s not so safe for me to be out there where I can fall more seriously.

I need to just let it go.  Let the money go and learn a lesson not to book guides/drivers in advance.  If we ever want a guide again, we now know that we should only book it when we have been in the town a while and know the other prices.  Bloom says that as far as lessons go, this is not such a costly one.  Of course Bloom has the right attitude.  And what about the trekking?  “No regrets,” Bloom says.  “We made a choice, we had a great time, that’s it.  You are not allowed to regret our choices.”  Well then, I guess that’s settled.  But maybe I would like the trekking in Ketambe?  Maybe it wouldn’t be too hard?  Oh man, I am out getting out of control again.

So now that I have talked about our jungle trek and driver woes, I will write a little about where we are.  Bukit Lawang is a small town a few hours north of Medan in North Sumatra.  The town has a river in it, and the river is surrounded by hills on both sides.  There is one road along the side of the river, and there are rows of jungle cabins, small restaurants and souveneirs being sold to the non-existent tourists.  There are no cars on the road, only the occasional motorcycle.

Bloom wandering around Bukit Lawang

It’s a beautiful place.  Every morning Bloom and I wake up to see a group of monkeys (long tailed macaques) jump around and eat fruit in the trees surrounding our balcony.  From our balcony this morning, we also got to see a group of Thomas-leaf monkeys which are a species only found in Sumatra.  It is quite idyllic.

The driver dropped us off the side of a main road, and we then walked down into the village.  Bloom had bought bananas on the drive up, but the woman would only sell him a whole stalk of them, instead of just a few, so Bloom and I walked into town, me carrying my little daypack (someone was carrying my big bag) and Bloom carrying his big bag, his daypack, and 15 bananas.  As we entered the town everyone called out to us, “Hello!  Hello!” and then a few people called out “Hello Mr. Banana Man!”  I loved this.  Everyone was smiling and friendly and came to talk to us as we walked down the road toward our guesthouse.

Most people here are super friendly and many stop and talk to us on when we meet them in the road.  Even Bloom’s friend remembered us later, asking “Hello Mr. Banana Man!  Why so many bananas?  Where did all bananas go?”  I was surprised he recognized us without the bananas, but then again, there are few tourists here, so I guess he can remember them.  It’s bizarre actually that there are so few tourists here.  It’s a great town.  There is no internet and the electricity has gone out a few times, but it’s beautiful and cheap and there are monkeys wandering around!

We came here, as anyone does, to see the orangutans.  The national park on the other side of the river is one of the only places in the world where you can see orangutans in their habitat (the other ones are in Borneo).   Most of the orangutans near Bukit Lawang are not wild.  They are being rehabilitated into the jungle after being found in some human’s house.  People come into the jungle and steal baby orangutans, sometimes by shooting its mother, and keep them as pets or somehow exploit them.  These orangutans, when found, are re-released into their habitat, but they are still fed by rangers in the park twice a day, since they do not yet know how to get their own food.  We went to the part of the jungle where the orangutans are fed, and that’s when we saw a whole bunch of them climbing around and eating.  One of the reasons we were going to go to Ketambe was to see wild orangutans that never lived in captivity.  But I really thought seeing these orangutans still felt authentic enough for me.  They were not living in cages, they climbed around the trees wherever they wanted, and we saw a bunch away from the feeding station as well, just hanging out in trees.  Yes, they rely on humans for food, but I think it was still pretty awesome.

We have eaten delicious local food here.  Luckily, we found a restaurant which, by chance, has no meat on the menu, so we have eaten our meals there.  Our favorites have been gado-gado, steamed vegetables covered in a peanutey sauce and mei goreng which is stir fried noodles and vegetables with some good spices.  Bloom has also been eating his share of fried bananas from the street, which he loves.

Last night we were talking to some of the people who work at our guesthouse and they asked if we wanted dinner.  We were having such a nice time talking to everyone that I decided, stupidly, to explain that for religious reasons, we prefer to eat food that has not been cooked in a pan that was used to cook meat.  “We wash our dishes!”  the owner said, “you think that our dishes are not cleaned?  That there is still meat in the pan?  We clean well!  I am very sensitive about this.”  I tried to explain that it had nothing to do with cleanliness, that it’s just a religious rule and that even in our own house we have two sets of all the dishes!  “We know that we clean the dishes too!”  I protested.  He did not accept this.  “I have heard of many people doing different things, person came here who only ate raw fruit and that can make sense, but this is not good.  You want us to buy all new pots for you?!”  “NO.” I stated firmly, “we do not expect anything of you.  You have been great, it is only difficult for us, not you, we are just more comfortable not eating from those pans.”

It got really awkward, and all of the people we had been talking to were quiet, and looking at us like we were freaks.  “You should respect our religious choices,” I said, “I’m not making you do anything, just asking you to respect me…”  Awkward silence again, and finally I said, “we’re going to go…” and we left to go to the vegetarian guesthouse restaurant.

As soon as we walked out the door I started crying.  I don’t even know why!  For some reason this whole exchange was very upsetting to me.  I was upset about the way the man spoke to me about my religious decisions, and I was also upset with myself for offending one of the locals.  Travel etiquette is confusing.  On the one hand, I believe in pluralism, meaning I believe that people should be accepting of each other’s beliefs without trying to force the other to lose part of his/her identity.  But on the other hand, I am traveling in someone else’s country and someone else’s culture, and maybe some of my traditions offend them.  Maybe it is offensive not to eat someone’s cooking.  I felt like such an outsider.  I was glad that I hadn’t told the guy that we were Jewish, since it would  not make Judaism any friends.

Am I a bad backpacker because I am not so willing to accept the local culture?  I think I’m ok…  But I can see someone reading the above and thinking what an idiot I am, and thinking that I don’t have the appropriate “travel values” or whatever.  I guess I told the guy about our eating preferences because I thought he would find it interesting, instead he was offended.  I always want to hear about people’s religious traditions, but I guess that I should not expect the same of all people across all cultures, and that is that.  This whole thing happened last night, and I still feel awkward around this guy at the guesthouse, and I wish I could make it right, but I’m not sure I can.

Oh well, I am making friends as well as enemies here.  We have a driver that we yanked around and a guesthouse owner that we offended by talking about kashrut.  I guess it’s ok.  I have to stop needing everyone we meet to love me, and just get over it.  It doesn’t matter.  And anyway, tomorrow we are off to Tangkahan an even smaller town 3-4 hours north of here.  There are only 4 guesthouses there, and I’m not sure if they even have electricity.  It’s supposed to be beautiful and quiet and there are hot springs and elephants.  What can be bad?  Sounds like a good place for shabbos to me.

14th October
written by Ilana

Right now (Oct. 6)  I am sitting in our jungle cabin on a hillside in Bukit Lawang, which is in Sumatra, which is in Indonesia, which, is a country made up of around 17,000 islands in South East Asia.  Our cabin is a small room with an attached bathroom and balcony.  The bathroom has a toilet and a shower.  The shower is a bamboo pipe with cold water running out of it and onto the bathroom floor, and the toilet does not flush on its own, instead you fill a bucket with water from the shower and flush it yourself.

If you read the South America parts of this blog, then you might think that this sounds like my worst nightmare.  You might even expect me to tell some stories about how horribly wrong everything went, and how I proceeded to breakdown and cry.  Well, friends, I’ve got some news—I love it here.  I love Asia.  I love the jungle.  I love the food.  I love the ambiance.  I love cold showers and do-it-yourself flush toilets.  Ok, that last part is obviously a lie, I’m not a masochistic lunatic or anything!

I don’t know what has happened to me.  Why is Asia (or more specifically Malaysia and Indonesia and even more specifically Kuala Lumpur and Sumatra) working for me?

A few theories:

  1. Asia is warm, and warm weather makes everything better
  2. Asia has delicious, cheap, easily accessible vegetarian food, so we do not have to stress about where to find food, and we eat well.
  3. After having an existential somewhat nihilist crisis over Rosh Hashanah and then spending many many yuntif days re-reading Heschel I made peace with the world and am now living in a state of Radical Amazement trying to find God everywhere I go.
  4. I have only been in Asia for four days, so maybe I just need to be given more time here and then I will freak out.

I think all of the above are decent possibilities, with number 3 being possibly a bit of an exaggeration, but only a bit.  (Side note:  Everyone needs to read Heschel ASAP.  Anything by Heschel is brilliant, and I had forgotten how inspiring he can be.  I actually feel like I am going through withdrawl since I had to leave the Heschel book in Australia since it belongs to Bloom’s dad.  I just want to read Heschel all day.)

Whatever the reason, I feel totally at peace with the trip right now, which is a great feeling, and not a feeling I had in South America.

Oct.3– We got off the plane in Kuala Lumpur and I felt excited to be there.  I was excited about the heat, about being in a new country, and about the ridiculous sunset that we saw on our drive into the city from the airport.  The airport bus dropped us off a few blocks from our pre-booked cheap hotel in Chinatown and we made our way through a very crowded night market, past many different designer purses, wallets, sunglasses and fruit.  By the time we got to the hotel, I felt like I was drenched in sweat.  My backpack weighs a little over 15 kilos (33 lbs), and I was still wearing  the pants and hiking boots that I had worn on the plane, and it was insanely hot and humid, which is to be expected, I guess, when so close to the equator.

We went to our room, which fit a double bed and our backpacks, but not much else.  There were no windows and the place stunk of cigarettes and possibly mildew.  I opened the sliding accordion-like door to the bathroom to discover a closet with a toilet in it.  I was sure that this place was advertised as having a shower…  I looked around and discovered a shower head above the toilet.  It was not clear to me if this is meant purely for space saving purposes, or if it is also meant as a time-saver, since you can now be on the toilet and showering at the same time.  What a world.

We left the hotel and decided to find a vegetarian restaurant nearby.  In my need to be organized, I had made a list of ten vegetarian restaurants in KL, and we now followed a map to the nearest one.  When we got there we saw that everything was closed.  We saw some men standing around on an otherwise empty street, so we asked them if they knew of any vegetarian restaurants.  One of them told us he was a vegetarian and he would be glad to walk us to a restaurant  not too far away.

This was an amazing start.  I thought about how nice this man was to take two random people to a restaurant.   The euphoric hippie in my head was loving this.  However, the angry cynic is not dead yet and I heard it asking questions, “ it’s dark and the streets are empty.  What if this guy is taking us to an alley to rob us, and maybe even kill us??  He can’t really be just a nice guy…What does he want from us…?”

The angry cynic was forced to shut up when, after a few minutes, we arrived in an Indian section of town, to a strictly vegetarian restaurant.  The euphoric hippie was giddy.

We sat and ate delicious Indian food with a bunch of Indian families, and it was lovely.  When I went to the bathroom I was happy to discover a toilet bowl and not a hole in the ground.  However, instead of toilet paper there was a hose with a spray nozzle, which I think is meant to be used in lieu of toilet paper.  There was water all over the floor, so I’m guessing that while this may be a more environmentally friendly approach than toilet paper, it is a whole lot messier.  Also, what happens when you pull up your pants and you have a wet butt?  Do your clothes get all wet too?  I am sure I will learn more about this in due time.

The next day, our one full day in KL, we spent the morning booking some flights and then decided to go to the famous Petronas towers, two of the tallest buildings in the world.

Posing in front of the Petronas Towers

We took the subway there, which was cheap, clean and fast, but before we explored the towers, or more specifically the mall at the base of the towers, we wanted to look for lunch.  According to my research there was a Buddhist monastery near here that served a vegetarian buffet.  We asked many different people about this place, and not one of them knew where it was.  We wandered aimlessly for a while, until we finally found a monastery with golden buddhas and some chanting people.  We walked around the side of the monastery and found a very large cafeteria, where we proceeded to eat lunch  for very cheap.

And now, on to Petronas.  The buildings are actually beautiful in their own way, and the mall was fantastic.  We spent a lot of time looking at 3D TVs, and just wandering aimlessly.  It was a classy place with fancy stores galore.  The craziest thing was the bathroom.  Yes, I am writing about a bathroom again, get used to it.  So the bathrooms looked pretty nice.  Clean sinks, clean looking stalls, but then I walked into a stall and saw just a hole in the floor.  How did it make sense that in a random small Indian restaurant I managed to find a toilet bowl and here there was only a squatter?  And the squat toilet even flushed automatically when you walked away.  I am guessing this is one of the classier squat toilets out there.  I told Bloom about this discovery, and he informed me that in many places in Asia they offer both squat toilets and “Western” toilets.  This also strikes me as odd.  What woman would choose a hole in the floor over a toilet bowl?  Ahh yes, my Western biases are at it again.  But seriously… is there any advantage to a hole in the floor toilet??  Asians must have thighs of steel with all this squatting.

Anyway, enough toilet talk.  We wandered through the mall and then I noticed that “Eat, Pray, Love” was playing, and that a ticket was less than $4 a person, I was beyond happy.  I was still feeling tired from the flight the day before, and this seemed like a perfect way to really relax.

Inside the mall. Glorious.

Every so often I had this guilty feeling about being all the way in KL and then seeing a movie I could see anywhere.  But, I quieted the guilt and reminded myself that I needed to learn to move slowly and rest and watch movies sometimes instead of tiredly treading through the humid streets to take pictures of God knows what.  Also, I loved the book “Eat, Pray, Love,” and was really looking forward to the movie.   I know that my love of this book will make some of you judge me, since there are those who see it was self-indulgent crap.  I am aware of that, but I still loved the book.  The movie was just ok, but I loved watching it anyway, and even Bloom unexpectedly enjoyed himself.

We went to the Petronas park to see the towers from a different angle, and then took the monorail in search of yet another vegetarian restaurant.  It took us over an hour to find it, but eventually we ate a delicious vegetarian Malaysian dinner.

And that was it for KL.   The next morning at 5 am, we were off to the airport for our flight to Medan, Sumatra, Indonesia.  KL was awesome.  It had a great vibe.  The city is made up of Malays, Chinese and Indians, which makes for some good food and a multicultural feel.  Also, the city is pretty clean with good public transport options and ultra-modern shops, but at the same time, it feels Asian within the markets and the street food, and the fact that I can’t drink the water.  It was a nice balance.

Of course I am still me, so I did have to feel guilty or weird about something, and in Malaysia I felt guilty about loving it so much as a Jew.  Malaysia, as a country, is not so into Jews.  You cannot enter Malaysia with an Israeli passport.  Same goes for Indonesia.  I feel very weird about being a Jew travelling around these parts.  More to come on that later.