The man of the forest and the folks just outside it

Monday night over satay chicken and fried tofu and a bottle of Bintang beer, Steve and I talked about the orangutans of San Diego. The zoo has a big colony of them, located not far from the entrance plaza. Over the years I’ve probably passed their enclosure dozens of times; I know what they look like. But I had only the vaguest notion of where they came from. Now that I’ve been there, I can tell you: orangutans in the wild are much more beautiful than I could imagine; of all the great apes, they look the most like movie stars.

Getting to them also defied my expectations. It was much harder than I braced for. The Sumatra Orangutan Discovery center’s website had described its full-day trek as “moderate” and suitable for families. What they might have added is, “Be prepared to spend several hours climbing up and down narrow, extremely steep and vine-choked paths that are especially treacherous after a heavy rain.” We’d had a brief but thunderous downpour Sunday night, so the ground was still soaked and the sky still gray when we set off around 9 am with a 27-year-old guide named Dani and his assistant, 25-year-old Dian.

That’s Dian on the left; Dani is on the far right.

At first the going was delightful, the path flat and wide. It wound past fish farms and vegetable gardens and a couple of guys harvesting palm-oil nuts.

We crossed one of the many bridges spanning the Sungai Bohorok River,and Dani explained how the infamous fruit of the durian tree (wildly popular throughout Asia) is grown and marketed.

It starts as one of these innocent seeds but grows into a spiky, smelly monster.

The terrain got rougher as we entered a rubber plantation, where locals still tap every tree every day in order to extract what appears to be a ridiculously small amount of latex.The forest smelled delicious and it thrummed with a symphony of percussive insects.

At the start of our trek, Dani had told us it would take 30-45 minutes to reach the entrance to the national park. It actually took an hour and 45 minutes (another example of the elasticity of Indonesian schedules? Or were Steve and I just pathetically slow?) By the time we passed through the gate, we were climbing in earnest.Within minutes Dani pointed to some orangutan nests high overhead, empty at the moment but recently occupied.Soon we came upon a small knot of people murmuring with excitement at the proximity of two bright orange forms moving through the nearby trees.

Orangutans — their name derived from the Malaysian words for man (orang) and forest (utan) — are the most solitary of the great apes. Once the males mature, they’re like bears. They spend almost all of their lives alone, hanging out with females for only a week or two to breed. And single, receptive girls are mind-blowingly few and far between. Both partners lose interest in sex once the female becomes pregnant, after she has given birth, and throughout all the time she is teaching her offspring everything it needs to know to survive on its own — a process that takes roughly 6-8 years. The youngster we came upon was several years old, swinging through the canopy for the sheer jolly fun of it.

Mom never let him disappear from her sight, but she also kept an eye on us. When she descended the tree and looked like she might approach us, all the guides urgently ordered everyone to move back. Some part of my brain thought, “She’s probably strong enough to rip me apart,” but another part felt riveted by the shocking intensity of her glossy red fur.

We watched the pair for a long while, then hiked on, stopping for lunch at one point. That’s when I discovered the red stuff dripping from a couple of spots on my lower legs. Leeches had profited from my failure to wear long socks. (“Blood donation!” Dani crowed.)

More tough climbing followed. I was ready to beg for directions to the quickest route down the mountain. But I couldn’t resist one last detour to see another orangutan mother with a much younger baby, this one even more adorably fuzzy.We finally broke away and descended in earnest around 2 pm, my knees by then grievously annoyed by what I’d put them through.

Happily, we didn’t have to walk all the way home but clambered into big tires lashed together for a tube ride back to town. Sadly, our cameras were packed into a big plastic bag so we have no photos from the raft, but this is what the river looks like.

We had considered venturing out on another trek on Tuesday to see the largest flower on earth — the so-called “corpse lily” (Rafflesia arnoldi) that blooms in a forested area about 10 miles from Bukit Lawang. The bloom had ended, however, a few weeks earlier, we learned, so we opted to spend our second morning in Sumatra instead touring a couple of the nearby non-touristic villages. This turned out to be an excellent choice. The morning was cool and sunny when Steve, Dani, and I piled into two “tuk-tuks.” Steve and I have ridden in similar conveyances throughout much of the developing world, but we’d never seen anything quite like the Indonesian variety — basically overgrown sidecars grafted onto motorcycles. They’d be hellish on any real Indonesian road trip, but they were comfy enough for our purpose.

We buzzed along the wide irrigation channels that run through some of Bukit Lawang’s villages. Naked little boys swim in them; ladies in dresses and headscarves stand in the waist-high water washing clothes.We rode for a bit, stopped and strolled, took in the spectacularly fertile landscape around us. Dani pointed out the rows of sprightly peanut plants growing along the edge of the rice fields. He explained how to tell when the rice was ready for harvesting — only three months after the seedlings are stuck in the flooded fields. Besides rice, so many things grow in this rich volcanic soil you could probably spend a week taking it all in. We saw fields of cassava…

,,,and cacao trees…

…little girls harvesting palm-oil tree fronds to be made into roof thatching…

…palm-oil frond stems drying in the sun to be made into brushes.

We made a quick stop at the home of a tofu-making couple, but we spent more time visiting one of the local brown-sugar artisans. He owns a small parcel of land containing a number of sugar palms. These have to be climbed daily to collect the clear sweet juice.

You go up the tree using a bamboo pole cut with toeholds.

If someone were not a pious person living in a very Islamic neighborhood he might ferment the liquid and turn it into palm wine. Here, however, the juice has another mission.

Cooked in a wok over a wood fire for several hours, it turns a dark caramel color. We watched as the master completed a batch. He set up bamboo forms while stirring the wok and checking the consistency of the syrup.When he judged it to be just right, he poured the thick goo into the molds…and it soon solidified into a puck of concentrated fruity sweetness.I found it delicious, not as crunchy as the brown cane sugar in my kitchen at home, but containing more complex layers of flavor.

Dani told us the sugar-maker wraps his sweet disks in banana leaves and sells them to some of the local shops. He makes very little money for all this work. By world standards, he’s very poor. So are most of the residents of rural Sumatra, but for what it’s worth, by the end of the day Steve and I had concluded this was the nicest place to be poor we’ve ever visited.

The local orangutans strike me as somehow similar. They’re critically endangered. Less than 14,000 are thought to remain on Sumatra. Given all the factors that threaten them, given their agonizingly slow reproductive rate, experts think they’ll be extinct within 50 years. It’s depressing. But for the moment, if you’re an orangutan, you wouldn’t want to trade your paradise for San Diego.

2 thoughts on “The man of the forest and the folks just outside it

  1. czatkin May 18, 2023 / 6:56 pm

    What an adventure, what beautiful animals, what a beautiful countryside. The only part of your story that made me nervous was when you blithely hopped into tubes on an unknown river. I guess there were no rapids of scary size.

    • jdewyze May 20, 2023 / 2:18 pm

      Not like the Colorado River! Just nice fun ones.

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