“I <3 Bukit Lawang"
When you’re traveling, it’s crazy how time flies. When you’re not traveling, it’s crazy how time flies. I’ve been at my new job for over a month now, and I’m loving every minute of it! Unfortunately, the 9-5 doesn’t give me much time to blog… Now I’m picking up where I left off: from Kintamani in Bali to Bukit Lawang in Sumatra.
While Kintamani was a beautiful village, something about it didn’t agree with me…my stomach, that is. My last day in Bali consisted of a very violent stomach flu – I won’t share the nauseating details, but let’s just say it left a bad taste in my mouth. (buh-dum-tssh)
I was sad to leave, but I was mostly disgruntled by the 2 hour taxi ride to the airport, followed by a 2 hour plane ride to Jakarta, a 3 hour layover, another 2 hour plane ride to Sumatra, and then what was supposed to be a 40 minute taxi ride to the hotel – but turned into an hour and a half ride due to an incompetent driver. I had to make frequent trips to the bathroom, but on the bright side, I did get a whole row to myself on both flights! The “I could puke on you at any moment” card really came in handy.
When we finally arrived in Medan, the landscape was vastly different than Bali. It was very polluted, crowded, and the buildings were dilapidated and dusty from exhaust. Temples were replaced by mosques, blue skies were replaced by clouds and ocean vistas were replaced by skyscrapers and cityscapes. One night in the city was enough for us, and in the morning, we were off to Bukit Lawang. But not before – you guessed it – a 3 hour taxi ride! Luckily, the effects of my stomach bug were wearing off, but I was feeling incredibly weak from not having kept any food down for more than 24 hours.
The pace of life instantly slowed down once we made it out of the city and into the countryside. Bukit Lawang itself was a tiny village with just one ATM and no banks or hospitals.
We walked over a rickety bridge made of wooden planks, bamboo and some sort of metal wiring….
And we were greeted by a rushing river and a bustling Sunday afternoon crowd.
Our hotel, called “Thomas’ Retreat,” was just 6 rooms…
and it was situated right on the river, close enough to feel the breeze and hear the babbling of the water on the rocks.
It was beyond relaxing to sit out on the makeshift porch and watch life float by. Literally – floating by. If Bukit Lawang had an official pastime, it would be tubing.
There was a constant stream of young boys walking past with 2 to 4 tubes stacked on their heads…
People of all ages waded out into the highest point of the river…
Strapped several tubes together, and then set sail! Using bamboo poles to avoid stranding their pontoons on stray rocks, they shrieked and laughed, bouncing through ripples and over eddies. Some stripped down to just underwear, while others wore a full burqa. For tourists, an inner tube cost around $15 to rent for the day. We never found out the price for a local to rent one, but judging by the number of people out on the river, it seemed like they were being paid to borrow them!
A couple returning from their “jungle trek” interrupted our people-watching.
They were from Austria, and this was the last leg of their 6 week vacation in Indonesia. They raved about their trip, and rattled off the wildlife counts – orangutans, Thomas leaf monkeys, you name it. It was hard to tell whether the sweat dripping from their clothes was a product of the humidity or the strenuous hiking. Their two guides didn’t seem at all phased by either of those things.
The younger boy was in training, and didn’t speak a great deal of English. After cleaning the copious amounts of mud off of his rubber shoes, he puffed on a cigarette while his little brother played a game of “I’m not touching you.”
After lunch, we decided to venture out to explore the village – which wouldn’t really take long. The whole place was barely bigger than a college campus.
The first person we met on our grand tour was this precious little girl. She asked me what my name was, and I told her. I asked her what her name was, and she said “You-nee” (spelled phonetically). She asked me where I was from, and I told her. I asked her where she was from, and she said, “I am Bukit Lawang.” I asked her how she was, and she said, “I am fine, how are you?” Then, I asked her where she lived…and if she liked tubing…and if she knew how to swim…and she looked me in the eye, smiled and gave me a big shrug. We relied on hand motions and my incredibly basic Bahasa Indonesia to carry on for a few more minutes, and then I asked her I could take her picture. She of course loved that. It reminded me that even with all our differences, we really are more similar than we think.
We left Younee and began our wandering. I stuck out like a sore thumb, despite my best efforts to appear racially ambiguous. People stared, people shouted hello from restaurants as we walked past, and one guy on a motorcycle even slowed down to get a better look as he drove past. I joked that I should be prepared to sign autographs as a certified white-skinned westerner.
I snapped this photo of these two guys walking across the bridge…and when they reached the other side, they asked if they could have a picture with me. I felt obligated to comply – seeing as I had just taken their picture without permission!
We saw the occasional monkey swinging through the forest. Monkeys in Indonesia seemed to be the equivalent of squirrels in America – no one pays them any mind. The scenery was quite serene at times…
And disturbing at others. The town’s tiny infrastructure had no system to handle waste management, and so everyone had to burn their trash in these makeshift bonfires. At around 5 pm every evening, clouds of smoke would drift up into the forest, leaving an eerie screen covering the trees and hills.
In addition, tourists in the town couldn’t drink the tap water. I use the phrase “tap water” very loosely – most establishments pumped water directly from the river into their pipes using a small generator. As I would later learn, waking up before the employee who was the designated water pumper meant you had to wait to use the sink, flush the toilet or take a shower! Not using tap water meant that THOUSANDS of disposable plastic water bottles (large jugs, regular sized bottles, even single-serving sealed cups) were used – and burned – each day, releasing countless toxins into the air as the plastics melted.
And tourism doesn’t show any signs of slowing. By my rough estimate, nearly 80% of the town relied on tourism for their livelihood. Hotels, hostels, restaurants, taxi services, trekking companies, money changers, laundry services (locals simply did their laundry in the river, but tourists could opt to pay for theirs to be done in a washing machine), souvenir shops – if a tourist had ever requested a service, you can bet there’s a business for it. In the market stalls, you could find almost any article of clothing – swim trunks, sweatshirts, boxers – with “I <3 Bukit Lawang” printed on it, in true NY style.
And after the flood about 10 years ago, the town is still rebuilding – repairing old buildings and starting new ones. It seemed like everything was under construction.
But despite the strain on the infrastructure, people in the town live on island time, and seemed to have adopted Simba’s motto of “hakuna matata.” All of the young men in the town could perform at least one Bob Marley song on guitar. After a busy few weeks traveling around, this looked to be just what we needed to slow down, relax, and appreciate the little things in this little town.
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