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Medan (2 days) and going to Bukit Lawang | We're Not There Yet

Hey all, R again, filling in for my better half.  We got back to Medan yesterday from Danau Toba, loaded down with some unbelievably heavy Batak wood carvings that I had decided that I couldn’t live without.  But (inevitably) after spending an hour carrying the damn things around in the heat, and dragging them back to the hotel in Medan, I realized, as I always do, that I’m an ass.

In any case, we figured that we’d enjoy Little India one last time in Medan, wake up early the next day and ship our wood carvings home, then head on to Bukit Lawang.  And so after a dinner of not very memorable Indian food (Sumatra, no matter how close, is just no Malaysia when it comes to good naan), we went home and crashed.

I got up first thing the next morning and headed to the central post office only to discover that it was closed.  I found a way in by entering the loading bay out back where I learned that – and this is a guess, since the guy I met made no effort to make his Indonesian intelligible to me – it was a holiday.  So, long story short, the woodcarvings which I spent too much money on now forced us to spend a whole day just sitting around the sweltering city of Medan.

So we read, ate, I went to the mall (where I saw an Indonesian Ronald McDonald leading a McDonald’s festival), and in the evening we went to the one-street Chinatown for some good food, but all in all it was a day wasted because of my impulsive buying habits.  Whatever, I make no apologies.

I got up the next morning, went back to the post office, and this time spent a FORTUNE shipping the goods home since the good people at the post office voluntarily built me a wooden crate to hold the shipping box, but which tipped the scale to over 10 kg, which greatly increased the shipping price.  It was pretty frustrating, since the cost of shipping ended up as almost the same as the (not cheap) cost of the stuff that I bought, but, whatever.

So I headed back to the hotel, picked M up and we set out.  We went to the bus station (no hijinx this time) and jumped out.  The locals raced over like sharks to blood, demanding to know where we wanted to go.  When we told them Bukit Lawang, they hailed a minibus over and tried to get us to pay all kinds of crazy prices.  Finally I shouted in Indonesian that I didn’t want to bargain, didn’t want any bullshit, and that I would pay $2 per person.  They nodded approvingly, and it was only later that I realized that the actual price should be just over $1 per person and that I looked sort of an ass by firmly telling them to quit with the bullshit, that I knew what they were up to and that I would be paying double the actual price, thank you very much.

The trip was long and hot and annoying.  We were sitting above the engine, and since these minibuses have no insulation which meant that the metal under our feet was burning hot to the touch. We spent 2.5 hours lifting our feet as often as possible to try to cool them off, and keeping our bags on our laps so that they wouldn’t melt.  Meanwhile, jungle trekking guides in Bukit Lawang hang out all along the route, ready to jump on any minibus with white people on them.  Basically the deal is that all of a sudden a friendly Indonesian sits down next to you on the bus.  He speaks great English and is a super nice guy. Then, as you approach Bukit Lawang, surprise! he lets you know that he’s a jungle guide and would you like to hire him.

We knew this ahead of time, although that didn’t help avoid the onslaught.  So, at our first stop, the seat next to us magically opens for a guy to get on, and guess what? he speaks perfect English (which is unbelievably rare in Indonesia).  He tried throughout the ride to talk to me, pointing out what we were passing, and all the other tried and true conversational gambits, but I was unresponsive to the point of being really, really rude.

Not that it did any difference.  Over and over again he started conversations with me, and when we were finally pulling into Bukit Lawang he tried for the sudden reveal, letting us know that he was a guide, but it was pretty clear to all of us that this had been expected and he seemed almost shamefaced by his “ruse.”  He finally left us alone, but on our 20 minute walk to our hotel we were surrounded by other erstwhile guides in the form of friendly helpers who just happened to be walking by.

By the time we reached a guesthouse we liked and set our bags down we discovered, to our surprise, that we were again in paradise.  Bukit Lawang is a tiny town strung out along one side of a rushing, white-water river.  On the other side of the river is Gunung Leusar National Park, a true National Geographic kind of rainforest, utterly mountainous and jungly.  The national park has one of the world’s largest orangutan populations, and it also has jungle rhinos (which have two horns and are as big as a cow), tigers, leopards, gibbons, monkeys, and thousands of hectares of beautiful, virgin, green jungle with massive trees and vines and criscrossed by innumerable streams, rivers and waterfalls.

View from in front of the hotel

This is how you cross the river. Get in the boat and haul yourself across on the rope

Our hotel was a beautiful, empty place, right alongside the rushing, tumbling river.  The hammock on our porch looked out over the river and at a virtually vertical cliff covered in jungle and massive, towering hardwood trees (where monkeys and orangutans can sometimes be seen).  Local kids and adults are frequently seen floating down the rushing river on inflated tubes and, occasionally, inflated trash bags. It is stupid beautiful here.  The river makes for a constant soothing background sound, people are incredibly friendly (once you’ve picked your hotel and guide they lay off in a BIG way), and the jungle is right across the river.  If you imagine those underwater glass structures where people can look at coral reefs without getting wet, this is similar in the sense that you can look at a tropical jungle from a hammock with a cold beer in hand and no mosquitos anywhere. It is as much a paradise as the idyllic Togean Islands were, but in a jungle setting. I can’t believe that Indonesia has this too, and that we’re getting to experience it on our trip!

Cost of our room with balcony over the water ($10 per night).