iguazu falls
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.

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