I bolted out the classroom door and drove home after emailing my superiors that I would be unable to attend the staff meeting. There were pink skies over the Richmond Bridge. NPR buzzed around the mostly-empty car with talk of foreign wars and the impending election—their casual talk of tragedy, a sort of warm wave.
I pulled into our apartment, looked out at the empty ball fields, and unlocked our recently installed heavy black gate, which was bolted in by workers hired by our landlord to keep one homeless man from sleeping in our stairwell.
With hours to go before our flight, Chelsea and I mostly just paced around the bags we had already packed. I repeated over and over in a vaguely sarcastic tone: “It’s ‘Murphy’s Law: what can go wrong, will go wrong,’” with a strange desire to annoy myself as well as her.
I do this. I punish the quiet with whistling and noises and half-remembered song lyrics.
I searched the desk for earplugs because there might be a baby with lungs, but could not find any.
Chelsea poked the phone for a Lyft and we were off, already exhausted and ready for bed.
As we zipped through the orange lights and fog of San Francisco, our Ukrainian driver told us to have kids young. I did most of the talking, which is rare. We spoke about the Lyft-Uber-rideshare biz; how they get paid half as much as they did a year ago; how on New Year’s Eve his cousin gave a ride and pocketed $250 bucks.
We arrived at the airport three hours early. We read and ambled around. Chelsea taught me about “Duty Free” where you can buy things untaxed. We played Stare at the Stranger Until They Catch Your Eye for a while until it was time to board. Then, after 13 hours of X-Men: Apocalypse, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, and some spotty sleep, we ate our last steamed meal in the false night of the plane and landed, rather smoothly, in Taipei.
Inside the beautiful and amusing airport, each gate had a theme: Hello Kitty, movie theater, Taiwanese temple. Our gate was airplane-themed. I thought, “this is a little on the nose,” and regretted it, as it sounded like something someone I knew in graduate school might say.
We wandered into a bookstore and watched tiny wooden figurines get pulled in circles by hidden magnets and electric motors—their sound drowned out by a lovely song on repeat. I took pictures of the Chinese covers for American books—Franzen’s Purity, Roth’s Divergent.
Feeling like we were in a semi-enjoyable dream, we ate beef noodle soup, drank a couple coffees, and were off for another seven hours in the air to Jakarta. Chelsea and I synced up our individual monitors to watch Finding Dory. I chuckled a few times, as if obligated. I kept seeing Ellen DeGeneres in my mind’s eye.
I had recently bought Minecraft on my phone for $6.99 both to understand the psyche of the 2nd and 3rd graders I am tasked with teaching, as well as to cope with the demons of airplane half-sleep. In the game, I used a stone pick to dig into the earth, hoping to find coal for a torch, but could not, and instead just dug deeper and deeper into darkness. I couldn’t escape. Whole days passed in the game. Writing this now, my avatar remains in the hole.
We landed and drudged toward baggage claim. Two men murmured jokes in a thick Texas drawl about every passing piece of luggage—sometimes just noting the make or model of the containers and chuckling.
Ming, Chelsea’s mom, met us at the airport. We were tired and deeply subdued. We ate Starbucks sandwiches. We watched some gamelan plus snare drum and chatted about the days to come before we were off in a small, tightly packed plane to the jungles of Sumatra. There was a lot of impatience and bustle. The plane would occasionally hit some turbulence and drop 20 to 25 feet. Chelsea said the women next to her were praying ferociously. The flight attendants had a habit of sprinting up and down the aisles. I nodded in and out of a dream for about 15 minutes before our screaming machine landed with a thud on the runway.
Our driver was waiting for us amidst about 45 anxious families. He drove fast, sometimes within inches of motorcycles zipping by. I kept reminding myself that he was not being reckless, that this was simply how things went here and he was probably maybe an expert driver. It was late. In our headlights, the jungle started to show itself slowly. Chelsea was fast asleep. Palm fronds and other greenery overwhelmed the road. Families sat under sheet metal terraces playing cards. The driver played no music on the four-hour drive, but would occasionally drift into miniature reveries and emit a thin, ominous whistle of a song he maybe knew or planned to write. My phone was dead from too much Minecraft. We made whatever small talk was possible across the language barrier. Chelsea and I had taken half a year of Bahasa Indonesian at the consulate in New York, which provided us with just enough three-word phrases to elicit a chuckle now and then. Mostly, I tried to sleep.
We got to Bukit Lawang and said farewell to our driver. Another man, who we would come to know as Anto, led us through the riverside village. The street was about four feet across and lined with various jungle guide tour centers, restaurants, inns, and small shops. Everything was wet from the evening’s rain. Bouquets of chips and soft drinks were glowing in the blue half-light.
Each building seemed to have its own theme and architecture. Signs carved into dense, dark jungle wood: Orangutan Café, Free Wi-Fi. A few shopkeepers were still up. Everyone else was asleep. Our stretch of the cement brick road ended at Green Hill Guest House where a few sleepy men with spotty facial hair greeted us with cheery hellos and sized us up. We awkwardly fumbled through the check-in process. One of them made me, Chelsea, and Anto very sweet icy lemon drinks. We sipped politely until Chelsea explained that we were very tired, that we had been on a plane for 25 hours, so couldn’t really sit and hang out. One of the men led us up three flights of stone steps to our room—a tree top bungalow that looked out over the river onto a massive wall of jungle: tall, slender white trees poking out from the dense green understories of Thomas Leaf and Tiger Leaf, the medicinal qualities of which Anto would later explain.
The young manager showed us to our bathroom, and switched on the lights. I recoiled at the sight of one of the largest toads I’d ever seen. (We would later name him Henry.) He stuck around and would block our midnight trips to the bathroom. He seemed to teleport around, only hopping when we weren’t looking. Otherwise, he was frozen in his crouch or stilted high up on his legs as if poised to attack.
The young man showed us our shower: a bamboo shoot cut at an angle jutting out of the rock wall, which would gush a thick stream of cold water and later prove useful in washing away the thick layers of sweat and travel shampoo that we had smuggled in. Amused and still shaken by the sight of Henry, we crawled under the flower-latticed mosquito net and fell quickly asleep.
I woke a few times to the fan and damp sheets—surprised to find myself slightly cold in the land of permanent heat.
We rose, happy to find ourselves unexpectedly well-rested. Jolted awake by the cold bamboo-shoot shower, we slipped on our pants, slathered on 99% DEET jungle juice, and loaded up a small pack with water, snacks, sunscreen and extra DEET before meeting back up with Anto, our jungle guide.
Anto had long hair pulled back into a rough bun. He was slightly more serious than the other men who ran Green Hill, who seemed to operate on a pure, sleepy joy. Everyone greeted us like they’d know us for years. They were all very young, and napped in the rooms’ hammocks, and strummed out White Stripes and Doors songs on a communal acoustic guitar between taking orders for dinner. Pop music and war were America’s most obvious exports.
Anto introduced us to Jackson, an expert on the section of jungle we would be exploring, and they led us to a row of motorcycles. Soon, we were puttering down the narrow stone road squeezed onto the backs of their small Hondas—dodging cats, gaunt chickens and other motorcycles—the quiet town of the night before switched-on and alive.
We came to a set of steps with a narrow groove in the middle. Anto asked me to hop off. He revved the Honda and ran it up the central groove while jogging up the adjacent steps. With a putter and pop, Jackson rode straight up.
As we drove on, Anto explained to me the superiority of the Honda model as we tackled the pothole ridden roads of Bukit Lawang, which he said means “Gateway to the Hills.” We scooted over large stones and passed endless rows of fat palm trees with dense, leafy vines running up their trunks. Bukit Lawang is a sanctuary for orangutans and other endangered species of the rainforest, parceled out as the last bastion against a decimating palm oil industry. Palm oil, Chelsea explained, is all too useful in making everything from top ramen to toothpaste.
The jungle thickened as we rode on and then became smooth again. Anto revved hard and drove fast through this part, perhaps to thrill me, the dopey American tourist. Or maybe this was to ensure we would retreat from the jungle before the evening’s tropical storms inevitably hit.
We parked the motorcycles in a countryside village. Men were hacking notches into wood with machetes for a terrace. Children greeted us with selamat pagi’s (good mornings) and apa kabar’s (how are yous). Anto led us down the road to the trailhead. He showed us the rubber trees, where farmers cut V-shaped grooves in the bark, so the white rubber sap could seep down to a point where a leaf was affixed. Below it, a coconut was cut in half to collect the rubber. Around the bowl, the leaves were black where the sap had splashed and dried. It smelled like old shoes.
We passed through a farm with small yellow chilies and other vegetables growing. Anto explained this was an attempt to carve out other uses for this land beyond the clear-cutting for palm oil plantations. He shared his vast knowledge of each and every plant and animal we passed. I am hearing now the grumble of post-colonial scholars as I Other the noble sage-like native, but Anto was genuinely critical of industrialization’s ability to wreak havoc on the natural world. He also told us to stop eating pizza and McDonalds.
The morning was mostly pleasant. Anto showed us more medicinal plants, and I chewed on a tiger leaf, which is supposed to cure indigestion. We saw termite mounds latched onto trees and listened to the mathematically repetitive screech of cicadas above us. Sometimes they sound like dial-up modems, other times like sirens. Anto explained that the cicada makes these sounds by blowing air quickly out of the back of its neck. I imagine that this is some sort of mating call, representative of a reproductive cycle that is the jungle. The natural world announces itself as alive: audibly courting, copulating, and giving birth.
Three hours into our hike, we had lunch in a cave. A stream had cut a jagged hole into its roof. Though Jackson had rubbed our legs, socks, and pants with tobacco juice as a preventative measure, we continuously pulled off land leeches. The stream banks were thick with neon foliage. Vines spilled and wrapped around buttressed trunks. The waterfall roared through and filled the cave with mist.
For lunch, Anto cut open passion fruit, pineapple, tiny bananas, and the rubbery spiked, brilliant violet rambutan, which looks like a dragon’s egg. The passion fruit looked like tadpole eggs, but was delicious—tart and sweet as we sucked it out of its peel. The pineapple was the best I’d ever had. Anto handed us each a large banana leaf stuffed with nasi goreng (fried rice), krukpuk (prawn chips), fried egg, cucumber, and tomato.
The afternoon proved more difficult than the morning. The hills steepened, we were overly full, and the exhaustion from the prior day’s 25 hours of plane rides, layovers, and long drive into the mountains was starting to kick in. The rainy season had just started, so the trails were muddy and slippery. Chelsea was afraid of breaking her ankle, weakened by a tequila-induced wedding dance floor accident. She slipped twice. She endured the lashing teeth of three separate land leeches. Her shirt was red where one had crawled up to her hip, had its fill and been ripped off. She told Anto that this was not on the website. His breezy dismissal of her struggle and fear triggered my need to protect her, but instead I quietly deferred to the advice of our experts. After rappelling with vines into creek beds, and climbing steep hills with the help of Jackson, who hacked steps into the hillside with his machete, the jungle started to open to farmland again. A vast line of the rubber trees dripped their white sap. I never thought I could be so happy at the scent of cow manure.
A cement road led us back to the village. Anto smoked and crouched by the road as we waited for Jackson to come back with more motorcycles. Things had become slightly awkward between Anto and us, but it wasn’t long before we slipped back into cordiality, which is to say he was nice, proffering a few more jokes before we rode home again on the back of their Hondas. I clenched my butt cheeks as we dodged the potholes.
Back at the bungalow, we were greeted by the whole staff of jolly young men. We slogged up the stairs and washed off the mud, blood, sweat, and the mysterious briars and pricks of the forest. We were exhausted and unsure of whether we wanted to go back into the place, as we were scheduled to the following day. But, Anto promised us orangutans and assured us that he would make the next day easier. As an eco-tourist guide, one of his flourishes seemed to be going off-trail and showing travelers the depth, sublimity, and terror held by the deep jungle.
As we stumbled down the thin cobblestone road to dinner, the sky thickened to a dense grey-white overcast. Restaurant keepers started to drag their tables under awnings and to cover chairs. It started to rain, so we ran into what looked like a suitable establishment to take our meal. We were seated by a man who sang half the things he said—among them “Hotel California”—an homage to our place of origin. The rain soon became monsoon. Thunder shook the canyon and lightning flashed over the river. We watched the storm in safety. We chose soto ayam (chicken soup), mie goreng (fried noodles), and ayam rendeng (chicken curry) off the menu. I looked at the dark sky emptying. A lightning bolt linked up two clouds. We drank a couple of Bintang beers and huddled up for warmth, wondering what pains and curiosities tomorrow might hold.
One of our hotel managers, Moose, met us at the bar downstairs the next morning and we set off on foot. Moose had shaggy hair, the wisps of which just tickled his eyebrows. If Green Hill Tavern was the mecca of vaguely eco-friendly backpacker establishments, Moose was its throbbing heart—wooing white girls on Peace Corps excursions or extended Australian holiday with acoustic covers of popular 90s rock songs. He appeared to be a very happy young man.
Together, we walked down the road to a wire bridge suspended high above the water, connecting us to a new section of jungle. The bridge’s shabby planks were loose in their bolts. We passed by a large restaurant made entirely of bamboo, and squeezed through a gauntlet of school children in maroon hijabs and uniforms. They greeted us with a parade of hellos. By the school, we met back up with Anto. He led us up a long flight of teak wood steps into the hills.
It wasn’t long before we heard the shrieks of Thomas leaf monkeys who seemed, Anto explained, to be engaged in some sort of turf war. One of them bounded across our path to join the fight.
The Thomas leaf monkey is larger than the long-tailed macaques we had seen in town. It is silver and black, with what Anto called “Punky Hair”: a Mohawk running from the crown of its head to its brow.
The jungle here was less dense and the trail more populated. There was a large crowd of tourists surrounding an orangutan, some just a few feet away from where it lay docile on a large log. Everyone was feverishly snapping photos with enormous cameras. Some of the orangutans had only recently been reintroduced to the wild, so were comfortable around humans. Some guides were even letting their tour groups touch the orangutan. Anto—who would not even break a stamen reaching across the path and who would make us walk around spider webs—explained that not all were educated in how best to respect Mother Nature’s glorious creatures. We watched for a while—the crowd and the orangutan. I took some photos and we were off again. I have a bad habit of taking a high quantity of mediocre photos when I travel. I am reminded of a Roland Barthes essay about how a photograph captures a certain kind of death and thus carries a ghostly quality. I imagine this might explain the uncanny sadness and longing one experiences when caught in a social media binge amidst infinite scrolls of digital photography.
We saw another orangutan shortly after seeing the first, its body stretched across two tree branches that didn’t look like they should be able to support its weight. Amongst bright green leaves, its orange hairs filtered the white light of the sun. Its baby was moving quickly from branch to branch and chewing slowly before climbing on. We sat longer here and Anto explained that this was how he liked to experience the orangutan: at a distance. I again snapped more photos, locking up the fluid world in my tiny digital crypt.
We entered a thick grove. A Thomas leaf monkey, its long tail hanging down, stared at us from a tree in the middle of the path. We sat down on the thick roots of an enormous wild mango tree and watched it for a while. It was still, leaning against the moss-covered trunk. As we rested, a wild peacock appeared in the distance, its long tail feathers down. This species had more muted colors than its cousins in Africa and India. Anto reminded us of the variety of wildlife we had seen thus far. I had to remind myself that our relationship with Anto was not a genuine case of fast-friendship and mentoring, but was the delivery of a promise at the end of a financial transaction, the boundaries of which can be hard to discern. Not long after the peacock, we saw a centipede, about 18 inches long with bright orange legs. Anto said it was deadly poisonous and to keep our distance. We traveled on.
We had to use vines to repel down a steep hill into creek bed. Anto pointed out durian plants which did not smell because their skin had not yet been punctured, and other tropical fruits growing wild. We took lunch by the river, where another guide was waiting for us.
We sat for a while in the raw heat, partially shaded by the banks of the river. The new guide had three tire tubes blown up as big as they could go all tied tightly together with rope mesh. These would be used to keep our bums from bumping on the boulders in the river. I watched a yellow butterfly flutter above white stones. Anto and Moose laughingly referred to a man sleeping along the river as an orangutan. We eased ourselves into the central tube between Anto and Moose. Moose yipped and yelled with joy as if it were his first time, while Anto used a large bamboo pole to push us down the river, avoiding boulders, and trees. The enormous waves splashed over us and I thought about what it might be like to drown—the water smashing my body into rocks over and over like a shoe in a laundry machine. I thought about my kayak instructor from high school, screaming over the rapids.
Delicate cliff trails snaked between huts and inns along the banks of the river, partially shrouded by the jungle trees. Three boys readied a tube of their own and entered the river. Moose told them to follow us.
After the river mellowed out, Anto prodded our makeshift craft to the bank and we all hiked back up to Green Hill. We sat down to sip tropical drinks in the downstairs bar and the monsoon started to pour over the rooftops in gallons—the thickest rain I’d ever seen. We ate curry and watched the storm and sang along with Moose as he played guitar for a white girl who said she had been there for five months volunteering.
We argued about whether to turn on the fan before bed. I am weak and tend to complain about being either too hot or too cold in the night.
Without an official goodbye, we left the next morning. One of the managers met us at 4:30am, threw our packs over his motorcycle and led us up the road through the sleeping town. We found our cab and went down the mountain towards Sumatra’s capital, Medan, for our flight back to Jakarta. I listened to Mark Maron interview Neil Young and watched the sun rise over the palm and banana trees. Chelsea slept.
Indonesia: a Travel Log (Part Two) will be published January 7th, 2017. You can find both posts by searching for #WillVincentTravelLog on Entropymag.org.