iguazu falls
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.

Leave a Reply