Monday, January 4, 2010

Ketambe, Indonesia

I was able to hitch a ride on a motorbike to the edge of town. From there I caught a bus to the city of Pangururan, on the other side of the island of Samosir, where I would decide what direction I would go. I ended up deciding to travel to Ketambe, the main access point to Gunung Leuser National Park. According to my Indonesian Lonely Planet Guidebook, the park “is one of the world’s most important and biologically diverse conservation areas.” Though it is rare, there are chances to see even rhinoceros, tigers and elephants. Oh, my! But the main reason why I wanted to visit Ketambe was to see orangutans living freely in their natural habitat. I figured that I could make a day trip to Berastagi from Medan if I chose to do so, later.

No one spoke any English at the minivan-bus service where I purchased my ticket for Ketambe. So what I thought was a ticket to Ketambe turned out to be, in fact, a ticket to Kabanjahe, a town 20 minutes south of Berastagi. However, I didn’t realize this until I reached Kabanjahe and was being transferred to another bus that would send me to Kutacane, about 40 km south of Ketambe. Earlier in the day, I had the feeling I wasn’t heading in the right direction. I asked people many times along the way, during the bus ride and pit stops in different towns, but I couldn’t find anyone who could read a map. So when I was dropped off in Kabanjahe, I literally had no idea where I was. And this city was a real dump. It was a chaotic, dirty town with loads of loud motorbikes; rusty, decrepit buildings; many street stalls; and overcrowded trucks and buses with people standing on top of the roofs. Oh, I also saw the largest pig I’ve ever seen in my life. I mean this sucker was huge. It was being transported on the bed of a pickup truck. Fortunately, a young guy, probably in his early 20s, approached me and directed me to the proper bus that would take me to Kutacane. I would have to spend the night in Kutacane and travel to Ketambe the following morning.

The roads from Kabanjahe to Kutacane were the worst roads I have experienced in Sumatra . I sat in the front seat on the passenger side of the minivan-bus and was happy that there wasn’t a window present, because if there was, my head probably would have bashed it out due to all the swaying and rocking back and forth. The pot holes were just simply enormous. Sometimes half the road would be completely washed out.

After about 15 hours on the road, I made it to Kutacane at 1 a.m. I stayed at the Marran Hotel which was a bit of a dump. My room had two twin beds that were really dirty. It looked like the sheets hadn’t been washed in a few weeks, as there were stains, a few dead insects, and some ants crawling around. Yuck. I don’t understand why it is so difficult to wash the sheets. After wiping off the bed, I covered myself in my clothes and slept on top of the sheets. And just as I was beginning to get a bit of shut-eye, the mosque across the street began blaring its call to prayer into my room. Ahhh!

I woke up early the next morning and made my way to the main road. From there, I began walking in the direction toward Ketambe bound to find a bus. As I walked through the streets of Kutacane, people would smile and wave. And of course, there was the usual ‘Hello, Mister!’ from every other person. I probably walked for about 25 minutes before getting a cheap ride to Ketambe. Finally, Ketambe.

I had the driver drop me off at Pak Mus Guesthouses. This was a lovely establishment run by an extremely nice family. The guesthouses were all well maintained with a pretty landscape, e.g., pretty flowers, green grass and trees. The meals here were quite good, as well. Though there wasn’t much of a variety of food to choose from, they had the three essentials: noodles, fried rice, and, of course, banana pancake. Yummy.

The first day, the owner—sorry, I forgot his name—took me around on the back of his motorbike to a bunch of scenic areas. At some locations he would turn off his motorbike and we would quietly coast along the jungle, pointing out the variety of monkeys in the trees. It was quite peaceful coasting along the jungle as we had a nice cool breeze, were listening to the monkeys singing in the trees, and had the sound of the river roaring below us. Ah, welcome to the jungle. The next day, he took me around on his motorbike again. His goal was to find some orangutans. We went on some hikes where they can sometimes be found. No luck. Even though I didn’t see any orangutans I still enjoyed my hikes, views, and sights of other wildlife. When we got back to the guesthouse he had his son take me to see a big waterfall, located about 800 meters behind his place. After we made it to the waterfall, we chilled out for a bit soaking in the view--literally. It was quite rewarding to see a large waterfall after failing to see one at Lake Toba . I really wanted to take a full day hike to the hot springs, but because there wouldn’t be anyone else to share the cost, I felt it was too expensive. Thus, I felt it was time to travel on. I was hoping Ian and I would meet me here. However, after two full days and Ian no where in sight, I told the owner that I would be leaving the following morning. Later that evening, however, while eating dinner, I noticed someone riding a bicycle past the guesthouse. I was Ian!

"Ian, Ian!" I shouted, as I sprinted up the road chasing him.

"Ian!" I continued to shout. I was losing ground. I lost sight of him as he went over the hill. Then a motorbike with 3 kids passed me.

"Hey, Hey! Come back!" I yelled, gasping for air while waiving for them to stop. Once they stopped, I quickly caught up to them and practically forced two of them off the motorbike and jumped on.

"Go!" I said loudly, pointing up the road. And when we made it over the hill, Ian was surprisingly just one house away.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," I told the boy, "Stop right here." The boy quickly stopped and I hopped off.

"Thank you, thank you. Terima Kasih," I said to the boy. He smiled and turned around to pick up his comrades.

After two and a half days Ian made it to Ketambe. I brought him to my guesthouse and we split the room, now only costing me $2.50 per night. Over dinner, we talked about our travels from Lake Toba to Ketambe.

Since Ian made it, I stayed another night and trekked to the hot springs the following morning. The owner, Ian and I trekked 4 hours through the jungle before reaching the hot springs. But about 400 meters before we reached the hot springs, we had to cross the river. Crossing the river wasn’t an easy task, either. The river was pretty deep, as it reached nearly my hips. And the current was quite strong as well. It also didn’t help that there were many rocks in the river which we had to cross barefoot. The owner crossed the river with ease, of course. No problem. I knew it wasn’t going to be as easy for me, so I threw my belongings over to the other side before crossing. It was a bit disconcerting as I approached the middle of the river. I almost fell over about 3 times before the owner came over and gave me a hand. Once across, I began to smell the scent of the sulfur from the hot springs. It wasn’t but another five minutes before we made it. The site of the hot springs was simply gorgeous. The river was clear and we were surrounded by lush green jungle. We would all find a shallow pool area within the river and sit back. It felt as if I was sitting in a jacuzzi. Real nice. I soaked up the splendid springs and scenery for about 2 hours. The atmosphere was quite conducive for meditation, which I did. I meditated about my life and all the events that have occurred within it for the past 2 years, and the decisions that I’ve made that has led me to this juncture in my life. But most importantly I began to focus on the present, the now. I was sitting in a natural host spring in the middle of a gorgeous jungle. This was the life.

When we made it back to our guesthouse another tourist had just arrived, a 58 year old original American hippie. He resembled Willie Nelson, with a bandana/Mexican style t-shirt, salt and pepper colored hair and beard, and a pony tail. He probably smoked as much as Willie Nelson, too. And, man, did this guy have some stories about his travels. He said he was currently living in Alaska, so the topic of bears inevitably was brought up. He told us a few stories where he nearly got caught by a bear. Ian mentioned how he had heard how you’re not supposed to run away from bears, and was wondering, if there was any truth to that. To which the Alaskan responded,

"Well, people say don’t run from the bear. I, personally, say don’t get caught by the bear."

Then I brought up how I’ve heard—from my mother, actually, who recently traveled Alaska for 5 weeks—that wearing bells works as a deterrent.

"If you stumble across a pile of crap, do you know how you can tell its bear shit or not?" the hippie asked.

"No," I responded.

"It’s the shit with bells in it."

Duly noted.

Ian and I decided that we would leave the following morning. Our plan was to travel north to Banda Aceh. However, since Ian wanted to bicycle through the Gayo Highlands we planned on meeting in Takegnon. There, we would spend a day or two before taking a bus to Banda Aceh.

Even though I didn’t get to see any orangutans in the Gunung Leuser National Park, I will get the opportunity again when I visit Bukit Lawang.

Next stop: Takegnon


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