no pictures for now

19 03 2008

I’m on the world’s slowest internet connection, so uploading the latest batch of pictures will have to wait. Last I posted, I was in Singapore. Spent some time there shopping for odds and ends – new camera battery charger, very particular type of polarizing filter, deck of playing cards for rainy days, etc – and eating spectacular food three or four times a day. Vegetarian food abounds, and the backpacker hostels are the dangerous kind where the internet is fast and free, people are hanging out and chatting all hours, and movies are always playing on the big screen TV. A little too comfortable and easy to blow a week, when you’re counting days to try to fit everything in.

So I flew on to Sumatra, Indonesia. Had the world’s worst transit from Singapore to the airport in neighboring Johor Bahru, Malaysia – stuck in a mile-long traffic jam to leave Singapore, then a several-hour slow-motion shoving match to get through Singapore customs, being elbowed in the gut by five foot tall grandmothers. Then an hour wait at the bus terminal for a bus than never came, gave up and took an expensive solo taxi ride to the airport, followed by a short hop to Jakarta, Indonesia on a bargain flight. The trip itself was comfortable, but the two heavily-riveted metal patches on the fuselage of the airplane gave me a bit of pause.

Indonesia has a notorious rule, seldom enforced, requiring proof of onward travel before the expiration of your 30-day tourist visa. I don’t want to admit to anything incriminating here, but there were some hasty arrangements made with the help of a shady fellow who hangs around the immigration desk to ‘facilitate’ such issues. Finally I exit into the empty and closed Jakarta airport around midnight, having left Singapore at 3pm. My next flight on to Sumatra wasn’t until 6am, so I had to nap on a bench in the smoke- and mosquito-filled air waiting for the domestic terminal to open. More shoving matches to enter the terminal (no waiting area at all, everyone waits outside on the sidewalk until their flight is called), another short hop, and landed in the ugly sprawl of Medan, Sumatra. Life for a westerner here is constant catcalls – “mister, where you go?” “mister, taxi!” “mister, motorbike!” “mister, you want?!” – which I can endure without too much stress.

Eventually got on the right bus for Bukit Lawang, home to a famous and extraordinary orangutan rehabilitation center in the jungle. Displaced, captured, or domesticated orangutans are brought here to readjust to life in the wild through a sort of half-way house with daily milk and banana feedings, then gradually they wander off into the adjoining national park. The feedings are open to the public, and a mighty female with a tiny baby orang clutching her side passed by me only two feet away. This plus a two-day jungle trek into the park, where we saw four separate orangs over the day and climbed some really dizzying trails, directly up and down the very rugged contours. Lugging quite a bit of heavy camera gear, I was drenched to the skin in sweat all day long both days. But we camped on a comfortable bend in a river, ate an excellent and varied meal cooked in woks over a simple twig cookfire, scared off a variety of 3- to 5-foot long monitor lizards determined to get to the chicken bones, swam, and showered under a waterfall. Slept in the open on the thinnest foam rubber mat you’ve ever seen, but despite our fears were hardly bothered by bugs at all (this area isn’t considered malarial anyway). The return trip was a decidedly touristic affair, on giant inner tubes lashed together into a raft, shooting down some water optimistically described as “rapids.” Close call though – an hour after getting back to town, the heaviest downpour I’ve yet seen began, and the river gradually turned to full flood. That would make for exciting rafting indeed.

A hundred-year flood in 2003 wiped out the village and killed 280 people. The guesthouses are rebuilt and open, and the trekking guides are all on the prowl for customers. Unfortunately the tourists have not yet returned in their former numbers, which means that guides outnumber visitors some two to one. Competition is cutthroat and a little nasty. The guides prowl the three-hour bus ride to the village, pretending to be friendly, disinterested fellows just going home from shopping or visiting family. Then they launch into the hard sell, complete with books of photos and letters from happy tourists – hard sell on which guesthouse, hard sell on a jungle trek, dire warnings about all the other guides in town, following you from the bus, constant nonstop harassment. But nonetheless, seeing the orangutans in the wild was pretty spectacular.

So now I’m on my way to Sulawesi, toward what is reputed to be one of the world’s top ten dive sites. Sumatra has a well-earned reputation for being difficult, exhausting, hard-sell – I’ll be glad to leave it behind for mellower parts of Indonesia. From here it looks like I’ll be in Sulawesi, Maluku, and/or West Papua until sometime in April. Then on to Bali until my visa runs out. Transfer to Malaysian Borneo, exploring the jungle parks and hilltribe villages before the well-known Sabah Fest in Kinabalu. Then back to Indonesia, exploring Java and finishing with the Buddhist holiday of Waisak at the ancient Buddhist temple complex at Borobudur. I’ve been led to expect thousands upon thousands of orange-robed monks deep in devotional rituals and a massive quantities of vegetarian food – we’ll see.

Send me email!

Andy Radin



One response

20 03 2008

I’m jealous of the diving–hope you get to go on some good dives. I’ll bet the water is a lot warmer than 55 degrees….

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