The Flirt of the Forest

by Ant Stone on June 9, 2008

in Indonesia

It was a classic play; some would say a suave snatch, others, a seductive triumph. Each time I look back at the moment, I applaud and tip my crown in respect. I’m newly single, off women and emitting that couldn’t-care-less, rough attitude that comes with unkempt hair, sparse stubble, a loose tongue and yesterday’s t-shirt.

I saw the way she looked at my friend, it was a look of assurance. Her eyes rolled him around and left me playing the dutiful observer in her royal court.

As we turned to leave however, she revealed her bluff and made her move – on me.

Meet Jackie, the Sumatran Sweetheart

Jackie is a gorgeous redhead, typically passionate and playful. As my back was turned, she placed her hand assertively on my shoulder. She was guilty of intent, while I was innocent of any invitation.

Within seconds she’d wrapped her legs round my waist, allowing her warm paunch to sink around me and tighten almost every one of my muscles. There was little I could do, other than the same as any English gent born of the eighties – I lowered her gently onto her back and into the classic Missionary Position.

Voyeuristic photographers stood their ground, but as I looked over her bust and brow her devious play dawned on me.

She was making him jealous.

Him being an enormous, fully-grown and worryingly wild orang-utan: the authority of the Sumatran rainforest, and I was deep within his territory.

Nobody Touches my Orangutan

It was my guide, Darma’s advice to lower Jackie – the doe-eyed orang-utan – to the mulched deck of the tropical rainforest, near to Bukit Lawang in northern Sumatra.

They’re not used to being on the ground. Being arboreal, their home is up in the trees; the very same trees being loaded onto lorries and shipped around the world as mere wood.

The Sumatran orang-utan is critically endangered, with less than 7000 left in the island’s rainforest – and some experts predicting extinction as early as 2012. The chance to see them in the wild was an unmissable.

The two-day trek was adjoined by a nights camping in the rainforest, toking “Sumatran specials” while the wayward red embers of the campfire mingled with the green flecks of fireflies, and together with the bright white speckles of stars, they acted as the traffic lights to my thoughts.

People of the Forest

We came across orang-utan (Indonesian for People of the Forest) six times over the two days, but the trek offered an abundance of bonuses in the forms of scorpion, wild peacock, a munching tortoise, streams of tiny ants, massive lemon ants, trillions of termites, sweat bees, millipedes and their not-so leggy cousins the centipede, screeching cicadas, macaques, Thomas Leif monkeys and hornbills, along a route through a steep, slippery landscape of dense tropical rainforest.

With humidity topping 100%, I was pouring sweat between the heavenly moments where I could dive into a cool river and devour fresh pineapple.

The serenity of the rainforest is a far cry from the urban-jungle that provides the necessities of man.

Boarding the bus for the journey into north Sumatra from Danau (lake) Meninjau to Danau Toba was a typical rendition of an Asian bus journey.

Travelling in Sumatra

Allow yourself a moment of daydreaming; you’re followed onto the bus (a rotting oblong of rust and filler) by a ripple of laughter and mother-tongue-mocks.

Your bags are stowed beneath (out of sight but not out of mind), while your camera bag’s above you, protected by so many Bruce Lee moves you almost want someone to try and take it.

The driver hops in causing the vehicle to tilt forward and right. He stokes up the engine to fill the cabin with fuzzy white noise from the radio while he grapples to find a station to blare incessant Indonesian pop music.

He’s set the tone for twelve pungent clove cigarettes to be simultaneously sparked up.

Within an hour the neighbour on your left vomits through his fingers, a minute later he tops up the floor with carrot-and-rice-and-all-things-nice while the acrid bile makes a run for it with every lurching corner – of which there are many.

Within three hours you’re dozing on the palm of your hand, until a hefty bag falls murderously from the luggage rack and before the night is out, the neighbour to your right (a local man of fifty-odd) violates you twice with what you can only conclude is ‘sleep groping’.

Twenty-seven hours since you boarded the Executive A/C “sixteen hour journey” you recover your backpack, now inexplicably soaked, and releasing 11 months of sweat. The disgustingly moist and musty smell makes your eyes water, but you have no choice but to wedge it onto your back to trudge off in the afternoon heat.

The bus rolls off, tilting to one side as the windows fill up with the white’s of eyes dancing to the muted tune of a farewell ripple of laughter from almost every remaining occupant – including, to your annoyance your neighbours’, Sick and Sordid.

Ignore the romancing naysayers; bus journeys can be a daunting, intimidating and tiresome ride and in Sumatra the only alternative to cover this distance is to fly (boo, hiss).

Rose-Tinted Spectacles?

It’s when I look back on a country however, that I realise how much of the way of life of that place I saw through the windows of buses – because god forbid I’d ever get off in some of these towns where you’re more likely to find Eminem than an ATM and anyway, hah, there’s no museum.

Towns where men hover over chess sets; a bonny young Muslim woman leans companionless against the door frame to her home; crops of rice are raked and dried and cigarette smoke flirts with diesel fumes where small motorbikes struggle under comical loads.

In Sumatra (as in much of The Trail) shop fronts choose their clan colour to fund their signage – SimPATI red, L.A. Lights cool blue, Marlborough gold, Djarama Black Tea green with pink polka dots (I’m joking, it’s black) or failing that some rubber tape crudely stretching out the words Nasi Goreng (fried rice).

Sumatra is doused in raw colours and second-hand fashions.

From the blue, green and magenta money to the olive green patches of choking grasses defending its ground from the onslaught of a dusty pale brown street. Odd ginger coloured palm leaves sacrifice life for their fellowship while chocolate brown rust slopes of the typical corrugated iron roofs.

Everything has a tinge of something else, like its Asiatic sisters, Sumatra’s larger urban limbs are not attractive (save the tribal influenced architecture), they’re Nuevo-rustic, retro-crap, and they slump on the landscape like a receding punk.

The saving grace for Sumatra is unsurprisingly found on the cratered peaks of its volcanoes, in the eyes of the rainforests distressed red-headed damsels, it’s found on the silky surfaces of its danau’s and bound by the continuing strength of its various mighty lineages. Selamat tinggal, Sumatra (goodbye).

Look after Jackie for me.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Nomadic Matt June 13, 2008 at 10:03 pm

I’ve always been weary of sumatra but your stories from there have made it seem like a good place.

Ant June 14, 2008 at 6:19 am

Thanks Matt, it’s true that Sumatra has it all. I didn’t visit the beaches, or Mentawi Islands but all in all, three weeks in Sumatra, or two, will offer you an unforgettable trip. There are better islands in the world, but they don’t have orang-utan… apart from Borneo, but they’re a different species apparently.

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