I have started this post several times, but still don’t know what to say. I had been warned about Jakarta, but it was still hard to take.
The problem is, once I try to explain what it’s like, the stories just go on and on. It is chaotic and crazy. In one stretch of about 50m I counted eleven different banks, not including those on the other side of the road, but along side, people are living in wood and corrugated-iron shacks. Parts of it are quite clean, but the river is one long rubbish dump. As well as the usual paraphernalia cluttering the pavements due to street vendors and motorbikes, with the broken paving, holes and rocks encountered, Indonesia adds the stumps of concrete posts and sharp shards of sawn-off metal pipes and bolts.
I had thought that Vietnam, and indeed Kathmandu, had prepared me for traffic, but this was much more intimidating. Museums and shops seem to open and close in an arbitrary fashion. As it was Ramadham, Muezzin would call from over-amplified speakers from three in the morning to ten at night.
I was staying with a Servas host, Ita, a writer/editor and devout Christian in a Muslim country. She is very sweet and helpful, but this also led to my spending more time in Jakarta than I had planned and much of that travelling on public transport. So while I didn’t make it to Yogyokarta or Solo as I had hoped, I did find out what everyday life is like for the Indonesians, which is probably a little unusual for a foreign tourist.
On the positive side, Indonesia has the most amazing Batik clothes – so many traditional patterns, simple and fashionable designs, so much choice! Even at the top end, they are affordable compared to the UK. There are beautiful clothes all over S.E. Asia, but I was knocked out by the quality.
These are not even the best I saw.
Another highlight was the Wayang Puppet Museum in the old town. The owner is very enthusiastic and there are hundreds of exhibits. Indonesia specialises in shadow puppets made of buffalo hide, frequently depicting scenes and characters from the Ramayana of Hindu myth.
There were other puppets of every conceivable type and from many different countries, often amusing caricatures.
Ita also helped me enjoy food in Jakarta. I feel like having a little rant about the difficulty being vegetarian in this part of the world, in spite of religions that have their own dietary restrictions. I have had so many bland fried vegetables – the same three; snow peas, baby corn and cabbage. Here there is Gado Gado – lightly cooked veg selection with peanut sauce, Nasi Goreng – fried veg and rice with egg, plenty of chilli sauces and crispy crackers. The locals may think I’m crazy, but they do try to help.
Eventually I said goodbye to Ita and her sister, Butet, (who were celebrating the success of Jokowi in the Presidential elections), to fly to Medan, bound for Bukit Lawang. This is a small village on the edge of Gunung Leuser National Park, with the Baharok River running through.
On my first full day there I heard gibbons calling across the river and while I was having breakfast I saw them in the trees in the distance. Then I set off with three couples and two guides for a two day jungle trek.
First we saw white-handed gibbons. They were high up in the trees, up to gibbon antics, swinging from tree to tree, walking along branches and on occasion just sitting and staring at us.
We then stopped under an Orangutan nest and waited with quite a crowd of people. First to come down was a bearded male.
I admit that I was concerned because the rules of the park say you should not feed the apes, yet fruit was the lure to have them approach. These Orangutan are semi-wild, as they have been rescued and attend feeding stations. The guides do this every day and there’s really nothing I can do about it. There are wild ones, but they stay clear of humans. The gaze of an Orangutan is extraordinary – calm, largely indifferent, but a little quizzical.
Later a mother and baby emerged from the nest, but did not come down from the treetops. It is a little unusual to find a family group, so even though my binoculars did not allow me a very good look, I was still happy with the encounter.
Then, after lunch, (five different sorts of fruit and Nasi Goreng), two other Orangutan came down to see us, one a youngish male and the other a small female, not long separated from the mother. They were very tender with one another, touching lips. However, the male was reluctant to share his fruit. He was particularly fond of watermelon, holding a piece in his foot while chewing on another in his hand.
In this picture the male is in front and the little female on the right. It is difficult to make them out because they are very hairy.
Later on that day we saw a group of black gibbons, or Siamang. There are a distinct species and quite rare. Our guide was very pleased, as he had not seen any in three months. There were four; a mother and baby and two others. The baby was having a wonderful time, practicing leaping from branch to branch, having a foot fight with one of the others and generally larking about. He got quite close to us and at that time his mother decided to take control and they all disappeared into the forest.
No pictures of gibbons, I’m afraid. They’re too small and too quick. They do appear to enjoy life.
After a difficult descent from the hills and definitely the most demanding trek I’ve done, we reached the river and had a bathe to cool off. Then another enormous meal and time for some games and jokes. Bed was under a canopy, sleeping on the ground on ridged mats. Not much sleep.
In the morning we went for another swim, then tubed down the river. I was apprehensive about this, but the river was not deep, the rapids not scary and the guides took good care of us. I enjoyed it.
The following day I had to move from Garden Inn, where I had been staying, as they were all booked up.
I only moved next door, though, and one of the staff from Garden Inn invited me to his family home. We got there by motorbike, which involved riding along the narrow mud platforms between rice fields. It was lovely and peaceful. As well as rice they grew fruit; rambutan, guava, mango, even cocoa. They reared fish, had chickens, ducks and cows. We had lunch in the little gazebo.
Of course, all of this involves hard work, but Yuri was very proud of his home and it was another insight into Indonesian life.
I wanted to stay in Bukit Lawang, but it was filling up due to the ending of Ramadham, so I only had one more day there. Families were arriving and bathing, playing and tubing in the river.
Everyone was so friendly and wanting to talk to me. I wasn’t able to get a bed at Lake Toba, so I had to return to Medan.
I saw gibbons again at breakfast on the last morning, much closer this time. It felt like a final farewell.
On the road the following morning , I realised the lucky break I’d had. Literally thousands of people were making their way to these two destinations, as it was now the holiday period, a bit like our bank holidays. The roads were crowded with cars, pick-ups and motorbikes, while Medan was comparatively quiet. Bukit Lawang must be heaving.
I am now in Jakarta airport, a weird place that resembles a street, waiting to check-in to my flight to Sydney. Can’t wait to see some of my friends from the African excursion again.