Thursday 19 January 2012

Washing the Elephants in Sumatra

Sumatra January 2012
The night had been cold and the rain relentless. Sleeping under mosquito nets we only had sheets to cover us so we kept our clothes on for extra warmth.
Clothes we'd washed the day before would take days to dry in this weather.  After a breakfast of nasi goreng and strong kopi (coffee) Andreas, a German  friend of mother and Faridahs living part of the year in Tangkahan came to see us. Word had gotten round on the jungle drums. He took us down to the river and we waded along to a splendid waterfall.
The river here is totally pebble bottomed so I was feeling rather smug aout being the only one to bring crocs along - no sore feet for me! For future reference the two most useful pieces of footwear to have on this trip would be crocs and trekking sandals.
Then we slogged back thru a really strong current to get to the other side where the volcanic spring came out, heating the water deliciously and stinking of sulphur.
Andreas invited us to his house for coffee so we tried to get to it across the river but the river had risen in the night and the current threatened to pull us under - maybe if I wasn't carting my iPhone back and forth across the river all the time it would of been fine if we got a dunking crossing but we judged it too risky so we went up and thru the forest.
A vague path thru the forest eventually led to a rather large and astonishing house perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the river. He spoke about how difficult it was to get any consistent work out of the local Karo people with their natural inclination toward idleness. He was also very carefully not to leave anything outside if he wasn't at home due to the native inclination to permanently 'borrow' things. We talked about the earthquake a few days ago and the odd behavior of the animals in the ocean over in Penang. What were the family of otters doing in the ocean? Apparently a few days later dolphins were spotted in the same area not normally native to those waters. Where had they come from and why had they deserted their natural habitats? Was their migration linked to the earthquake? During the tsunami the preceding earthquake had release hot muddy water up from the magma layer in the earths crust, heating the water and making it black. A lot of the bodies that had been found in Banda Aceh had been half boiled.
In the afternoon we walked several kilometers to meet a group of elephants having their afternoon bath. Before they were allowed into the water the four adults had to poo. Their mahouts helped them out by sticking their hands into the elephants bottoms up to their elbows and pulling clumps of elephant poo out.
This completed the adult elephants and three baby elephants got into the river for a bathe. One of the elephants was pregnant, the gestation period for an elephanis being 22 months. There was one bull amongst the female with lovely large tusks an astonishingly long purplish penis.
A couple of the adults came over to us and lay down on their sides waiting for us, scrubbing brushes in hand, to give their thick skins a good scrub. Afterwards we delighted in poking delicious bananas into their mouths, their thick pink tongues smooth as an eel against our fingers. Any fallen bananas accidentally dropped were picked up with the trunk, the sand rubbed off first along the upper ridges of the trunk before being deposited into the mouth. The baby elephants were still awkward in their trunk manipulations . One baby was very naughty and not only tried to undo Torsten's shoelaces but also delighted in trying to push people over. The pip squeak only came up to our waists!
The bathing over we rafted back down river to our huts, bumping over rushes of white water, our bottoms sitting in water we spotted monkeys in the trees glaring at us.
 Women and children crouched at the rivers edge washing their clothes on the river stones. It's the custom to spread the washing out over bushes to dry because the surface area exposed to the sun is much greater and hence the clothes will dry faster. In the evening we ate rice and banana flower that had been cooked into a mild curry. Sitting on our balcony overlooking the river and jungle we watched a massive front approaching and discussed the possibility of being stranded here by flooding the next day.

Wednesday 18 January 2012

Patrol of Illegal Loggging

My mother decided that we should go to Tangkahan from Bohorok, deep in the jungle where they run elephant patrols to into the forest to monitor illegal logging activity. The price of a battered old jeep and it's pubescent driver was negotiated for 800 000 rupiah (about $90 at the time), our glossy red suitcases strapped to its roof and launched onto an 'unofficial road'. Savannah and Faridah being the shortest were squashed in the backseat with the lowest ceiling space. Torsten was jammed in the middle section with India and mother against a wooden board where the window had been. The padding on the seats had long since ceased to exist and mother declared that she would have been better off having a bicycle seat to sit on than the board that was left of the seat. Relief was acheived every time bounced over another rock or pothole and our bums became temporarily weightless before shifting into a new postion. For almost four hours we drove at such a speed that had it been any slower we would have been going in reverse! The dirt road was pitted with potholes full with water from the monsoon rains of the night before. Palm oil plantations leased by Malaysia accompanied us for many kilometers. We slipped and slid down steep hills to crawl painfully up the next one. Suddenly, in the middle of nowhere literally, we came across an enormous factory, sitting in the middle of the palm oil plantations for the express purpose of extracting the oil from the palm fruit. Discarded mounds of already processed husks lay along the side of the road. According to Faridah who knows all about anything edible or medicinal in the jungle, a special type of mushroom grows in these mounds which is particularly delicious. We drove past clusters of houses and huts along the way, presumably housing the palm oil workers families. The poorer people have wooden houses with thatch or tin roofs and those with a little bit more have cement houses with tin roofs. However, nearly everyone has a mesh satellite dish. In fact the majority of Indonesians had satellite dishes pulling in tv stations from arzound the world a decade before Australians even vaguely thought about getting the inferior small white solid dish satellites which even now are not so common. We were also surprised to find perfect mobile phone reception in the middle of the jungle despite the absence of electricity. Finally we reached Tangkahan. An old rusted out bus sat in front of the official lodge, wires hanging out of the steering column, seats spilling foam padding. It was actually still in commision and used as a shuttle to Medan! Whenever we arrive somewhere people immediately start talking to us in halting English only to be completely surprised when mother starts prattling with Faridah (who speaks no English) in Bahasa Indonesian. I studied Indonesian at school for two years but in between visits my Indonesian gets very rusty. Unperturbed Faridah fires away at a million miles an hour in Indonesian to me I really have to pull my socks up and remember long forgotten words if I'm to communicate with her. The great advantage of having two fluent Indonesian speakers who live here is that we never get ripped off or charged tourist prices although someplaces will try it on only to be met with 'the wrath and scorn of Faridah'. Whenever she's angry with someone because they're asking too high a price we can tell because the words shoot out of her mouth like a machine gun firing at the enemy and I think 'Wrath and scorn! Those poor people have no idea what they're up against'. Anyways, we registered with the officials and then proceeded to head down to yet another river where a raft was tied up.
We walked across a wooden plank onto the raft while some boys loaded our luggage on. The current was strong and the pilot pulled the raft across the on a rope strung between the two shorelines. Lucky for us we hadn't come the day before, the rope had broken and the only other couple staying there had had to swim across the river to get to the huts! We climbed to steep hillside  next to the river and sat down in an roofed eating area for some lunch. Faridah started talking to the locals about the plan ts growing around and how to cook them. Apparently they didn't know a lot of them could be eaten so busied herself collecting and cooking them for our dinner, instructing the locals as she went. We were given three huts with balconies overlooking the rushing river. Hot and sticky from the long drive we went down to the river for a swim. Crossing the strong current to the far shore we discovered a hot spring oozing between the rocks from a nearby volcano. Refreshed we went back to our huts. With no electricity and only a  jungle vista for miles around I imagined myself in a Somerset Maugham novel, sipping on a gin & tonic declaring 'purely for medicinal purposes old chap! The quinine in the tonic is good for the malaria!'  as I watched the river flowing past far down below and listened to the thunder and incessant monsoon rains. (I will update this post with photos when I can access proper Internet).

Tuesday 17 January 2012

Trekking the Orang Utan

Sleeping in the hotel on our first night in Bohorok, Bukit Lewang, where the Orang Utan rehabilitation centre is in Leusa national park, I woke up at 1am. I lit another mosquito coil which would help slightly against the relentless onslaught of ferocious mozzies and went back to sleep. I must have dropped into a deep sleep because at 1.37am there was a massive earthquake - 7.6 on the richter scale, it's epicenter just out from my mothers place on the west coast of northern Sumatra.  Shortly after there was an aftershock 204km down, something most unusual was going on! Mother and Faridah both noticed their bed shaking as the rest of us slept peacefully on. In the morning mother was really pissed off that she wasn't back at her house on the coast. "Damn it! We haven't had a really good earthquake in ages and here we are miles away from it! That little shake of the bed last night was so boring!" she protested. We were up early to set off on our trek thru the jungle to get to the Orang Utan feeding station, hopefully to catch the first lot of apes as they came in from the forest. The afternoon before had been black with heavy rain clouds and sure enough they had deposited their burden during the night, making the steep track up the mountain dangerously slippery with thick yellowish mud.
Arriving puffing and panting at the top we were greeted by a crashing sound through the tree canopy and down swung a mother and her baby, quickly followed by several other mothers and a few lone apes.
The Orang Utans (which means person of the forest in Bahasa Indonesian) are only fed bananas as a supplement to the food they already harvest from their natural habitat. We were astonished to see that they also drank greedily from mugs filled with fresh water. The babies were agile climbers and one in particular left its mother to show of its skills to us, wiping around trunks and dropping to neighboring vines before scooting rapidly back up to its mother when it got too close to us. The centre had been established in the seventies by two Swiss girls to rehabilitate Orang Utans Back into the wild who had been orphaned or kept as pets until they got past the cute stage and became too big for their owners to handle. My mother had visited the centre in '77 when there was just a single hut to stay in and the only food available had been rice and fern shoots. Trekking back to our hotel thru the jungle we took a different path and climbed another two mountains on the way.
Image coutersy of
Leeches clung to us, rivulets of blood running down our legs when we pulled them off. We came across those rather enormous ant whose pincers are used to seal a cut instead of sutures. The procedure is to hold the body of the ant, place it's head and thus the pincers on either side of the open wound and allow the ant to bite, or grab hold of each side of the wound with its pincers then swiftly removed the body from the head thus leaving the pincers and head intact to seal of the wound.The result looks rather like when R uses the staple gun to seal a wound instead of stitches.

We also came across a tree whose bark our guide peeled off and made Young son and I chew. We both had colds and the bitter bark was a cure all. In fact it was so potent that the plant was becoming rare as it is harvested and sold commercially for its effectiveness, particularly for fatigue.

As we approached the village we walked thru rubber plantations and cocoa pods hung thick from their trees. The rubber trees leaned waiting to set down new roots as they searched for water - they are known as they walking trees. Tired from our 4 hr trek over death defying terrain the kids hired tyres and floated down the rapids of the river outside our hotel.

Monday 16 January 2012

Tiffin City

Tiffins have a long tradition of use in Penang. These stacks of stainless steel or porcelain containers held together with a locking handle have been used used for a,long time as lunch containers by the local population. Of course we had to acquire some so the kids could take their lunch to school in them - plastic lunch boxes are so passé! We walked thru the open air food market where sellers displayed freshly slaughtered meat, fish head and various vegetables and fruits. We found a local café (carefully screened for the absence of westerners) and had fish ball soup and lime and sour plum juice. A trip to the Komtar the main shopping centre surprised India and Torsten with the strong presence of an Indie culture. Cute Peter Pan collared floral mini dresses and floral men's shirts - Torsten was served by a cute Chinese boy with bleached and bobbed hair in shorts and white bobby socks. That evening Faridahs friend Rey and her friend Waty called on us and took us to dinner at a nearby Indian café where we indulged in the rather excellent murtabak - a pastry/omelette dish filled with meat or vegetables and served with a curry sauce. Rey and Waty then took us girls on an expedition to see another friend of hers, Rafidah, so we could be 'properly' fitted for bras. Rafidah took one look at each of us and had our sizes down pat. She quickly sorted out what was wrong with each of our breasts and prescribed the correct bras to 'fix the problem'. She was actually amazingly expert and runs a successful business exporting and personally fitting to New York, Melbourne and KL. With newly 'fixed breasts' we ventured out the following day looking scarily Madonna like. Heads swiveled as we made our way thru Little India to the Buddhist Bookcafé, a Taiwainese charity organization, R and I had discovered on a previous visit. We sipped at rosebud tea and recharged in the serene surroundings. We found a Chinese café and ordered spicy whole fish, deep fried squid tentacles and nutmeg juice before meeting up with Rey and Waty again for a trip to the seaside. Much to everyone's astonishment a family of otters came swimming by, not native to those waters. We all wondered how they had got there. The largest family member was extremely proficient at catching fish and feeding the others. Rey and Waty took us to another Indian café for dinner. They were both so delightfully entertaining and full of bonhomie. They insisted on taking us to the airport but caught in a traffic jam they drove all the way out there to meet us there instead and made sure we were feed and watered with iced coffees before we flew flew out. On our last night I took the kids to the Eastern & Oriental hotel, a luxurious hotel from the colonial era akin to the Raffles in Singapore for cocktails in the Farqhuar Bar, old chap. (I will update this post with photos when I can access proper Internet).

Sunday 15 January 2012

Coming to Penang

Ok so here's a travel tip - if you think you've done you're research about where to stay think again! I'd booked a hotel in KL Malaysia for our overnight layover enroute to Penang on the basis that the hotel was only 2.5km from the airport. At the airport upon disembarkation we got a voucher for a taxi (not possible to get one freelance amazingly though we tried) "What? 80RM to get to the hotel? But it's close by!" I exclaimed. The Indian Malay lady behind the counter wobbled her head in acquiescence and replied "I'm sorry ma'am but that is the tarrif" What can one do with three children in tow at midnight? Once in the taxi the ride seemed to go on and on and on. I looked at India who had helped me pick the hotel for its convenient proximity to the airport and we shrugged our shoulders. Was tha taxi driver taking us for a ride? Were we being kidnapped? Was he lost? None of these as we found out when we eventually got to the hotel that was in fact 2.5km from the airport - a different airport to the one we'd landed at! The next morning we hiked back to the airport and flew on to Penang. My mothers friend Mojo had booked a room for us at the hotel my mother normally stays at in the centre of Georgetown, the 'Modern Hotel' which is a Chinese run relic from the early 1930's. Hauling our bags up to the first floor the old Chinese man greeted us "Ah, you daughter Lise! Have your mothers room - no 8!" he said cheerfully handing me the old key. The room had two narrow double beds and an added single that Torsten claimed. Third daughter Savannah and I shared a bed. Surprisingly the shower was warm and the clothes we washed and hung out on the balcony dried quickly. Fortunately I'd remembered to pack a sarong for each of us to use as towels and to sleep in. The toilets were down the hall. I lit a mosquito coil and watched smoke curl around in air being whipped up by the large circulating fan - no aircon here, but for Penang it was unusually cool weather, not the stifling heat of previous visits. We went out and found a old Chinese café serving Yum Cha - we positively gorged ourselves on the fantastic dishes. Chinese tea was served in a yellow teapot and we finished off the meal with Portuguese egg custard tarts. The Portuguese had first served these up in Macau from whence they had spread to Hong Kong where we first encountered them five years previous. From Hong Kong they had then spread down to Penang much to our delight. On our way home we stopped in at Mydin supermarket to pick up a $6 kettle so we could make tea and coffee in the enamel mugs I'd brought with us. Amazingly we slept thru the 5.30 call of the mosque next door to our room and didn't wake till the second call to prayers later in the morning. (I will update this post with photos when I can access proper Internet).

Saturday 14 January 2012

Death Defying Acts

We arrived in Medan, north Sumatra on the Air Asia flight from Penang -late in the morning to be greeted by mother and Faridah and promptly whisked off in a four wheel drive they'd hired. This was to take us to Bohorok, Bukit Lawang where the Orang Utan rehabilitation centre sits at the foothills of the mountain chain running down the centre of Sumatra, Indonesia's largest island. (First daughter second daughter and third daughter) were relieved we weren't spending the night in Medan at the 'paedophile' hotel as second daughter India calls it. This is the hotel Sakia that we'd stayed at on a previous visit to Medan because mother always stays there, a very cheap $7pn hotel that sits next to a mosque and has delightful views over the cemetery but creepy looking single men staying there. Regarding the cemetery mother informed us that actually one can tell the difference between the men and women's graves in a Moslem cemetery by looking at the headstones. The women's headstones are slimmer and smaller and the men's thicker, wider and taller. We stopped at a halal restaurant (Faridah being Moslem refuses to eat anywhere that might even have had a pig carried past it) called Bukit Tinggi, which of course served delicious Padang food.

Padang is a town near the city of Bukit Tinggi in south of Sumatra wch makes a particularly spicy and delicious type of food enjoyed by most Indonesians. We tried to trick Young son Torsten into having what looked like stomach but worse it was actually beef skin cooked in a yummy sauce - that would have to be worse than the German eisbein which also wobbles on the plate with it thick layer of fat. India being vegetarian was treated to curried Jack fruit which has a delicious meaty texture. Our thirst was quenched with tree tomatoe  and star fruit juices. As we continued on the traffic in Medan was atrocious! Apparently according to mother it's never that bad. I sat in the front next to driver and was amazed to find that I was fairly immune to the crazy drivers after many years of experience driving in Asia. Only once did I become slightly concerned when I spotted several drums painted blue and white arranged down the middle of the road with the word hati hati, meaning take care, and the picture of what looked like an elderly alien painted on them. At the sight of the these the driver promptly sped up and overtook all the traffic in front of us - on the wrong side of the road! Finally out of the urban centre we sped for the next two hours thru palm oil plantations and rubber plantations, past motorbikes laden heavy with overhanging wads of green grass destined for the owners buffalos, family of five on motorbikes and water buffalos roaming nonchalantly by the side of the road. Torsten was particularly impressed by the number of boys aged 12 and up riding motorbikes whilst I marveled at a young mother who rode with one hand whilst clutching her baby in slendang (a strip of cloth tied around the body) in the other. Finally we made it to our destination but unbeknownst to us more hair raising perambulation lay ahead.

We poured out of the jeep, stretched our legs and grabbed our suitcases and proceeded to walk a ways along a path running by the fast flowing rapids of a river. A rope bridge with a few planks to walk on was suspended across the river and we needed to cross it to get to our hotel. My life flashed before my eyes - well at least that moment in my life when I had been 8 months pregnant and trying to cross a similar but one plank rope bridge in the tree canopy of Borneo. I was happy to cross this bridge now not being pregnant but the kids refused to cross it with their suitcases so we hired some men to carry them across. Faridah nearly had a fit over the amount they charged - 50 000 Rupiah ($5)! - per suitcase!!!

Our hotel was a single story cottage room overlooking the river. Our bathroom annoyingly held a western style toilet but with no flush (we prefer the squat especially if you're just using water and no loo paper it's much easier and your bum gets much cleaner than smearing the poo around with loo paper). It had a mandi - a large container of cold water which you then use a scoop to pour water over yourself and wash, very refreshing on a hot day and oddly enough a basin that was set at knee height and had a tap that didn't work. Apart from that the room large and furnished in bamboo. It even had a television for decoration (it didn't work - but getting Internet on the phone was no problem!) We retired early to prepare for our trek to the Orang Utans the next morning (see post 'Trekking the Orang Utans').