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.

The road to Bukit Lawang

I did not come to Indonesia to do road trips. But now that I’ve done half of one, I can say at least they’re educational. If like Dorothy, you want visceral assurance you are NOT in Kansas, a drive through parts of Sumatra delivers. Our experience Sunday afternoon also solved a mystery for me, namely I had been unable to imagine how it could take four hours to go 65 miles in a nicely maintained Toyota SUV. Now I know.

We wound up on the road trip because we wanted to see orangutans in the wild. Steve and I have tracked both chimpanzees and gorillas (in Uganda), and we’ve hung out with bonobos in a sanctuary in the Congo. There’s only one other species of great ape in the world — orangutans — and they live only on two Indonesian islands. My first impulse was to seek them in Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo, recommended by Lonely Planet as the best choice for observing the hairy orange guys in the wild.

When I started planning this trip back last October, it looked like we could easily fly to giant, exotic Borneo from Java (the island that has long been the center of power in this country). Connections on one of the best of the many small domestic airlines were good, and I found a trekking outfitter who seemed respectable. This all fell apart, however, when the flights on the good airline vanished from the Internet (and for the month or two in which I was obsessively checking, they never reappeared. Who knows why). We could only fly to Borneo on a mediocre airline at an inconvenient time. Frustrated, I shifted gears and set my sights on the jungles of Sumatra.

I learned we could fly from Jakarta on one of the better outfits (Citilink) to Medan, the biggest city on Sumatra (and the third largest city in all of Indonesia). I also connected with a well-reputed outfitter just outside Gunung Leuser National Park — one of the richest rainforest ecosystems in the world. (It’s home not only to orangs and other primates but also tigers, rhinos, elephants, and leopards.) I booked a room in the Orangutan Discovery lodge ($23 per night). For an extra $50, the manager said a driver would pick us up at the Medan airport and transport us the 65 miles to the lodge. This seemed reasonable.

Happily, all our travel connections went flawlessly, until we walked out to where the driver was supposed to be holding a sign with our name. There was no sign of him…

Sadly, we were not from the Fuso shop.

…but he did show up after an hour, apologizing and explaining that a truck had overturned on the highway. We piled into Hari’s small SUV, and he announced the drive usually took four hours. This sounded astonishing but also kind of fascinating. How could it?

At first the mystery deepened, as Hari bombed along at 60 miles per hour or more on a well-maintained tollway. But it wasn’t long until we left that and turned onto the main (maybe only?) highway to Bukit Lawang, our destination. The asphalt wasn’t in horrendous condition but it threaded through one human beehive after another; moreover most of the bees appeared to be buzzing around on some kind of wheeled contraption: bicycles and cars and trucks and buses and a vast army of motorbikes, each carrying between one and five people between the ages of newborn and ancient.When you’re all barreling over two narrow lanes, driving becomes vastly more freestyle than anything you ever see in the US or Europe, People thread their way up the wrong side of the road. Many folks favor straddling the faded middle divider line, probably to enhance their readiness for passing. Not passing is NOT an option. You simply must get around all the barely motorized vehicles carrying improbable loads.All this chaos feels remarkably dangerous, and we saw direct confirmation that, yes, it is. We passed the large truck whose crash had delayed Hari. Someone had somehow got it upright again, but it was still stuck by the side of the road. Further along, we whizzed by a demolished motorbike whose driver was still struggling to get up from under it.

Apart from all the scary bits, it was an interesting ride. At times we drove through palm-oil forests. Vast tracts of native rainforest have been torn down to make way for these squat, heavy-crowned trees bearing seeds from which oil is squeezed to fry all the zillions of tasty Indonesian tidbits. If I hadn’t know that Indonesia contains more Muslims than any other country (and Sumatra is known for its especially religious ones), the ride would have educated me. Every minute or two, we passed another roadside mosque — many topped with amazingly colorful and/or flashy domes that contrasted sharply with their homey bases. My head swiveled, too, at all the broad rivers we crossed, most the color of coffee with cream.

The further we drove, the more the road condition deteriorated until at times we had to slow to a cautious creep over the most busted-up sections. Around 5:35 the light was starting to dim and I cringed at the thought of it vanishing altogether as we rattled along for another 75 minutes. But then Hari piped up that we were almost at our destination! Indeed we bounced over dirt road for only a few minutes, entered a jungly stretch of road, and then stopped at a sign for the lodge next to a dirt path leading into a thicket of green. The sun still hadn’t set when we greeted the owner.

For all the ruined stretches of pavement and the death-defying traffic, just a bit over three hours had passed since we left the airport. So why had Hari told us it usually takes four? I suppose it’s possible he was trying to prevent our being disappointed if an eastbound truck turned over like the westbound one that had delayed him. I think it’s more likely, however, we’re in a part of the world where people relate to the interval between numbers on a clock differently than they do in San Diego. I suspect time is vaguer here; less precise. If so, that’s a good thing to be reminded of at the start of our sojourn.