This is an entry in the We Said Go Travel Writing Contest written by Virginia Moore from America. Thanks for your entry Virginia!
It’s the very end of the rainy season when I finally arrive in the Indonesian village of Bukit Lawang. Next to me is my boyfriend, Evan; we’re at the beginning of a three month tour of Southeast Asia, the last leg of a trip around the world that has ended up being almost two years. Stumbling out of the van, we are loaded down with our packs, sweaty from the ride, and covered in a fine film of dirt. But I hardly notice. What I do notice is the slow river, the verdant jungle, and the giddiness that came with my first step onto this dirt road. This small place, tucked away in the wilds of northern Sumatra, is where I might catch a glimpse of the endangered orangutan.
I can hardly wait.
This is, has always been, the draw of Bukit Lawang: the chance to see those strange orange relatives of ours up close. It started in 1973, when two Swiss zoologists built an orangutan rehabilitation center to coach captive animals back into the wild. Initially meant solely for conservation purposes, a trickle of guesthouses inevitably followed, and by the early nineties Bukit Lawang was officially a tourist destination—albeit a ramshackle, out of the way one. November 2003, however, brought tragedy in the form of a deadly flash flood. With the village nearly completely destroyed and 239 people dead, Bukit Lawang somehow managed to rebuild, but every now and then we can sense the destruction left behind.
Now, however, I am not thinking of tragedy, but of adventure. I discover that seeing an orangutan in this place is not difficult. In fact, they are everywhere; on t-shirts, carved into wood, painted on cheap souvenirs sold by people with quick and easy smiles. Within hours of our arrival we’ve signed up for an overnight trek, and the very next day we head to the orangutan viewing platform at the rehab center.
To get to the rehab center, you must cross the water on a flat canoe attached to a rope pulley. We pull our way over and join twenty or so other tourists sitting on wooden benches in the jungle, wearing dirty backpacks and Bintang tank tops. A few have big digital LSRs. We wait, silent. Below us, on a wooden platform attached to the trees, a teenage boy holds a banana in the air. The predictability of this food throws me off. In my travels, I’ve become accustomed to nothing being as I expect, become accustomed to a shape-shifting world of wonder, all aquamarine waters and gilded temples and muddy streets. But apparently the ape of my childhood does, in fact, enjoy bananas.
We wait. I can almost hear us all wondering the same question. Will they come? The air is thick with anticipation. Then, the distant crash of branches. A flash of orange fur. Suddenly we see her, a hundred pound mammal swinging through the air with impossible ease, swooping down to take her banana from the boy who grins. On cue, we tourists rush from side to side snapping photos. Pandemonium and glee abounds. Fingers point. Cameras flash. All in all, we look ridiculous. Curious, a mother orangutan with a baby hanging off her stomach climbs up to greet us, a bunch of bananas in hand. The baby’s wispy orange fur sticks straight up out of his head. She comes close, too close, and for a moment the crowd gets nervous. We fall back. And she just hangs from her tree and chews and stares at us, completely impassive to our excitement
You would think this is the highlight of the trip. It’s not. During our trek, we meet many more orangutans. We learn their names. We hand them bananas of our own and sneak carefully around one rumored to be moody. I am struck by how eerily human they seem—their intelligent brown eyes, the unexpected existence of fingernails. This is a trip swimming on harmless adventure and the mischievous company of our guides; young men who breathe the heart of the rainforest. But there is more to the story here. The fish are gone. The landscape is ripped open by logging. The orangutans are becoming infected with human disease. And the remnants of disaster linger on in the empty space left by a lost family member, the broken poles of a former home.
But for these few days, I explore. I rest my head under a pink mosquito net with monkeys banging on the roof, and a piece of my heart seems to settle in to stay here–tucked away in some wild corner, coaxed out by the infectious joy of the locals, swinging to the rhythm of an out of the way reggae song.
Someday, maybe I’ll go back to retrieve it. But for now, I give it up, happily, to the jungle.
About the Author: Virginia Moore is a writer, on-and-off again world traveler, and certified yoga lover. Currently located in Boston, MA, Virginia is hoping to conquer South America next. Catch up with her at www.thelifefound.com, or on Twitter @virginiaLmoore