Sumatra Jungle Trek
Nov 15, 2009
|A once thriving hive of tourism, famous for jungle trekking, the West Sumatra village of Bukitinggi has fallen all but dormant in recent years. Some argue the recent string of natural disasters have caused the drop while others attribute it to the worldwide economic crisis, but whatever the reason, the effect is the same. Previously crowded multi-day treks have resorted to personalized charters and the abundance of cultural tours have dwindled to only a few. Quantity no longer matters. Operators will not turn away business, even if it is for one lone tourist. Reggie meet Erik.
Departing Bukitinggi, my personal 3 day jungle trek to Lake Maninjau, began on a different foot...a motorbike actually. Erik's theory, "Why start a jungle trek walking along the highway?" Instead, we shaved off a few hours walk by hopping on the nearest ojek's (motorbikes). Whipping down a series of bisecting mountain roads, we arrived to the start point, an overgrown path only recognizable to the trained eye. It was here Erik gave me two options: The beaten path or the road less traveled.
Without hesitation, I chose the road less traveled. More specifically stating, "I don't want to see any other tourists." Erik let out a roar of laughter and responded, "Don't worry Miss, you wouldn't see tourists anyways".
Leaving the partially trodden path behind, we began an immediate ascent into the scraggily unknown.
Battling an uphill slip and side, thanks to the relentless wet-season rains, Erik and I practically crawled up the first ridge, grabbing onto roots and low hanging vines to, if not aid, at least will forward progress.
So focused on footing, I forgot to look in front of me. Whap! Low lying branches and rotting logs inflicted the next round of jungle punishment. Slapped and jabbed from all angles, the subsequent scratches and minor lacerations were tolerable reprimands compared to what awaited me at the top of the ridge.
As if the jungle was testing my resolve for entry into its deep, untouched regions, a gargantuan spider web emerged my final rite of passage. Walking into the thick web, unknowingly of course, I was left immobilized. Thousands of sticky threads haulted physical movement while the fear of what created the web, and more importantly, where it was now, completed the full body paralyzation. Luckily, the 8 legged beast never reared its ugly head and I escaped with only a large arachnophobic fright. Give me Freddy Krueger running his nails down a chalkboard any day over another spider web nightmare!
I had survived the initial gauntlet, earning respectable admittance into the deep, jungle domain.
Impressed Erik remarked, "Ok Miss, now we can begin the trek."
"Begin? I thought we were halfway there?"
A trekking guide for 24 years, Erik was an eternal spring of jungle knowledge. Kind of like an Eagle Scout on steroids, he pointed out virtually every plant that could be, A. Edible, B. Medicinal, or C. Poisonous. He ensured me that this knowledge would save my life if we were ever separated, bitten or severely wounded. A briefing I did not find in the least bit comforting.
To reach camp on our first day, 3 mini-mountains stood in our way. Each summit reached signified the downhill entrance to another world, a world of unsung hero's. The hero's of West Sumatra; The Broom Maker, the Rice Paddy Farmer, and the Basket Weaver.
The first valley swept me into the broom maker and his families lives.
Seated inside a sweltering bamboo hut for most of the day, this old broom maker has been wrapping, winding and tying his future together for the past 83 years. Age has not hindered his ability, only honed it.
Venturing into the forest every few days, the broom makers family cuts, transports, and treats hundreds of bamboo stalks. The stalks are then used for broom shafts while the needle thin bristles growing out of the bamboo roots, are carefully extracted for the brooms bristles.
Stacking all the necessary materials to once side of the stuffy hut, the broom maker goes to work. Working quickly and nimbly, he brings his families phyical efforts to fruition with each completed broom.
His craftsmanship is unparalleled yet his sale price does nothing to reflect it; 15,000 Rupiah ($1.50) per broom.
The second valley introduced me to a whole new field, rice paddy field that is.
I first spotted the rice paddy farmer from high atop the fertile terraces. Wearing her quintessential triangular straw hat with pants cinched above her knees, she raised and lowered her hoe with a precision that only years of experience could perfect. Even from afar, the rice paddy farmer exuded a profound pride in her terrace. This terrace was her life.
I asked Erik what the farmers average work day consisted of, and, in typical Erik fashion, he responded..."Why don't you find out for yourself".
In I went. Barefoot and knee deep in what can only be described in juvenile vocabulary, "squishy muck", I sloshed towards the farmer. Greeted with a smile and a hoe, there was no time for formalities, this was work. The farmer's son offered a brief demonstration. Scooping a hoe full of mud from the shallow floor of the water-logged terraces, he would skillfully transfer the muck to the beds retaining wall, slapping and spreading it out for reinforcement. A process repeated over and over again.
I think it’s safe to say my efforts failed miserably at providing physical assistance but at least I could offer comic relief.
The rice paddy farmer explained (utilizing Erik as interpreter) that her entire family works in the fields. They produce 2 harvests a year with the 3rd harvests success relying completely on rainfall. Now bear with me, here comes the mathematic portion of my blog: Each harvest yields about 150 kilo's of rice, of which the family keeps 75 kilo's for personal consumption. The other portion is sold at 6,000 Rupiah per kilo, earning the family around 4,500,000 Rupiah ($450 USD) per harvest. So, on a good year, factoring in 3 harvests, the rice paddy family family will have made $1,350 USD. And that's on a good year.
Arriving at the days last valley, a final hero weaved her way into my heart. The Basket Weaver.
The smell of wet bamboo filled the air and the crackling noise of bamboo screaming against each bend erupted off the weavers earthen walls. Like a well-oiled machine, she only stopped to replace an exhausted candle stick or nurse the occasional splinter. Tweezers were no match for these splinters, these extractions required a machete, carefully cutting around the deep bamboo shard until it came out. A quick dab of the injury on a nearby cloth and she was off again...over, under, over, under.
Like broom making, weaving is the final stage of a long process. First, the bamboo is gathered from the jungle and stripped into thin, long planks. Next, the strips are doused in water and laid out to dry. Not once, but twice, to ensure they are pliable enough for weaving. When the weaver deems the bamboo ready, 20 minutes is all she needs to produce 1 large basket.
Her basket quality far exceeds that of the acclaimed Longaberger brand, yet is available for a fraction of the price, 4,000 Rupiah each (.45 cents). Did I say fraction, I meant mili-fraction of the price (a staggering figure that only true Longaberger followers can understand).
What makes this woman's tale even more touching is her reason for the craft. Her son.
The mother of two, her youngest son suffers from a large brain tumor. The village medicine man's ancient remedies and crude drainage procedures are no longer enough, her son needs surgery and fast. She spends her days working in the nearby chili farms but for a wage that is barely enough to live on. So now, the young mother who has only ventured from her village twice before, is saving to transport her son to a foreign city, in an even more foreign establishment, a hospital, to undergo the expensive life saving. And she is doing it all one basket at a time.
The village of Sumpu was also home to my hosts for the evening, Oma and Opa (meaning, Grandma and Grandpa).
The oldest couple in the village, Oma and Opa never had children. Sterility plagued their union from the beginning, an inability with life long repercussions. With no children to take care of them, even at 85, they must work every day to survive. No retirement funds or pensions here. Oma spends her days running a small convenient shop out of their hut, while Opa treks one hour to and from the rice paddies to complete enough work to put his wage, rice, on the dinner table.
Hosting me was, I'm sure, another form of income, but the friendly radiance that beamed forth from their cracked and broken teeth assured me that money was not the catalyst for their hospitality. It didn't matter to them that verbal communication was at a minimum, they enjoyed the company, pure and simple. As the saying goes, "A smile speaks a thousand words".
Their small hut smelled of cigarettes and damp wood. Walls were constructed of cardboard boxes with old political posters plastered overtop for wall paper. Convenient store supplies of peanuts, dried fish, and stale cookies hung from the ceiling and large, overstuffed rice bags provided a simple seating arrangement. Human speech was limited due to the language barrier, but Oma's sisters loud prayers to Allah, sung throughout the evening, filled the verbal void.
Oma and Opa's hut was nothing to brag about, but compared to my night’s accommodation, it was the Hilton.
Three small tree stumps were utilized to lift my tiny hut off the insect laden jungle floor. Criss-crossed bamboo and various bits of tree bark overlapped to create a sturdy enough floor and shards of rusted tin laid overtop one another created the partial roof. The walls reflected the same flattened card board box panels used in Oma and Opa's hut but in a more sporadic, disheveled state.
Neatly made with a matted down Care Bears blanket and a soiled, My little Pony pillow, a tiny floor mat lay in the middle of hut - My bed for the evening.
The hut and bed were tolerable, my roommates were not. Spiders.
Every corner of the small hut was decorated with intricate webbing. Some web owners were present, proudly displaying all 8 legs and a bright body, while other owners, maintained a missing in action status.
One spider, in particular, became my evening adversary. Suspended almost directly above my head, when our eyes locked, the staring match began. Transfixed by his presnese, I was afraid to look away, for fear of where this elusive little monster could go. Hours passed without movement from either party until my oil lamp began to flicker, dimming slowly at first, until finally extinguishing itself. Darkness. Tucking myself tightly under the covers, I braced myself for an inevitably sleepless night.
I awoke, if I ever slept, the next morning to the same spider, poised in exactly the same position. The sly devil wanted me to believe he remained there all night, but the webs 4 new cocooned additions, led me to believe otherwise.
Day two's trek began much like the first - up, down, up, down - but instead of meeting more of the jungle's amazing human inhabitants, we encountered nature's.
Branches exploded all around and a distinct cackle filled the air. Monkeys. Gibbons, to be exact. As interested in them, as they were of us, it was difficult to tell which party was seeking the other one more. Gracefully jumping from limb to limb they taunted us from high above. Pelted with large fruit pits and small branches, my love for monkeys changed with each direct hit.
Concentrated on our find above, we failed to notice that below. Leeches. Heavy rains the night before forced the leeches from their underground homes and during our brief stop, they wasted no time moving into new one's...Us. Well, Erik in particular. 5 leeches on one foot. Feasting merrily on Erik's blood already, removing them was no easy task. Twisting and pulling at their bodies, these slippery suckers can sure put up a fight. I was lucky to escape with only a few clingers. Slower then Erik's residents, my leeches must have still been seeking the perfect plot of Reggie real estate to sink their teeth into when I plucked them off. Phew.
Our final jungle encounter, rested humbly amongst a few bamboo tree's. The giant Rafflesia flower. Only blooming 3 times a year, for a period of 5 to 6 days, this dinosaur of the flower world was a rare find. Each petal was as large as my head with an overall weight approaching 20 pounds. It's once bright red petals shown a more muted maroon, informing us this flower was on its final days and reminding us just how lucky we were to have seen this it!
Situated half-way down the ridge towards Lake Maninjau, we made it to camp 2, Erik's uncles home, just before the evening rains.
A tree-house inspired, camouflaged abode, unless you knew the exact curves of the ridge and growth patterns of the large reference tree's, you would never find it.
Exhausted, I sprawled out on one of the weathered hammocks and let the rythmic tings of rain drops hitting the thin tin roof, coax me to sleep.
The smell of curry roused me from my slumber. Scrambling down the tree-house ladder, I found the source of the appetizing aromas. Erik's uncle and his wife were hard at work in the kitchen, sautéing greens, frying tofu, and simmering their famous chicken and jackfruit curry. Once again, my hosts did not speak English but through Erik's interpreting we managed to hold a delightful dinner conversation and even play a few card games.
I awoke on day three to screeching birds outside my lofted window and the booming laughter of the monkeys that must have antagonized them. After a quick brekkie, my favorite, banana pancake, Erik and I commenced the final downhill leg to Lake Maninjau.
Like vampires at dawn, we emerged from the dense jungle canopy shielding our eyes from the intense day rays. The final few kilometers stretched before us in divisions of large, rice paddy terraces, terminating at the shores of Lake Maninjau.
Farmers children dropped their hoes and school children abandoned recess in hot pursuit of this strange foreign woman. "Hello Mister" may have been the only phrase they knew, but I will be a “mister” any day if it is rewarded with the pure excitement and joy on their little faces.
Dropping into Lake Maninjau's crisp waters, I enjoyed the best shower in days. Rinsing off days worth of mud and insect repellent, the smell of Pantene and rotten fish have never smelled so good.