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Just Upon A Smile

Beautiful ginger in the Singapore Botanical Gardens
Beautiful ginger in the Singapore Botanical Gardens

Welcome back readers. Our story left off in the remote island chain known locally as Wakatobi where a friendly kid helped me find a hospital and make a call to the US then drove me to the airport the next morning, a 30min ride that would have cost 50,000 rupiah. My plane was due to make three stops on the way to Borneo. Between the first and second stop I met a nice Japanese woman who was in Wakatobi studying climate change but who lives in Jakarta. She offered me a place to stay in Jakarta if I ever needed it which I told her I hoped I never did.

During my second layover I discovered that I couldn't get the flight from Jakarta to Pontianak that I was counting on so I messaged my new friend and met her in the airport then split a cab back to her place. She lived in a high-rise in downtown Jakarta. When we got in the elevator she said: "I'm floor 16" and she meant just that; the entire 16th floor. She had a kitchen with a gas stove and German knives, a spare room with air conditioning and no mosquitoes, a bathroom with a door, regular toilet(this is what I've gotten used to), hot shower and sink + mirror, and access to the swimming pool and jacuzzi on the top floor that are never used but overlook the whole city. It was a very welcome reprieve to the places I'd been staying. I stocked up on supplies for the rest of my trip, including dental floss which I hadn't been able to find anywhere else in Indonesia(believe me I was looking). So far my foreign set of pearly whites was doing better than the local part of my tongue.

I was starting to pick up my pace in the race against the clock. I had a week before my all-you-can-ride coupon in Indonesia expired and there was still a lot of rides I hadn't hit. The first stop was a remote jungle in west Borneo called Gunung Palung national park. The internet didn't have much information on how to get from Pontianak—the closest large city—to the national park, so I figured I'd figure it out when I got there. I was very surprised to find no buses or tour companies or public transport at the Pontianak airport which is about 17k out of town. After eating some food and scouring the net for a bit more information I decided to walk for the main street where I had hoped to thumb a ride. At 9 o'clock at night on the 1km access road a man on a motor bike pulled over and offered me a ride. He asked me where I was staying and I said I didn't know. He made some phone calls then said I could stay with his friend. He took me around the city and stopped to grab some food for us to share.

We hung out that night and talked as much as the language barrier would allow, then his whole group of friends got to work on finding a way for me to get to the jungle. My best option was to take a 12hr overnight ferry the following evening which went down a river that was very reminiscent of the amazon. The next morning my friend showed me around the city then dropped me at the dock. It was not a ferry from WikiTravels or the Lonely Planet. The people on board had no idea what to make of me. They took pictures of me sleeping on my pack on the floor, gave me local alcohol and laughed with me and at me for several hours. Eventually someone that spoke English came forward and I explained my situation to him. He informed me that it was a 2hr motorbike ride from where the ferry dropped off to the national park. He told the other people on the ferry and they broke into a ruckus. The man informed me that they were all trying to decide who would give me a ride! When we arrived a group of 5 people on motorbikes escorted me to the ranger station.

Me and the group on the ferry from Pontianak to Gunung Palung(the person giving the peace sign was named Tarzan)

The ranger station didn't know what to do with me either. The only way to get access to Gunung Palung is with a permit and the only way to get a permit is to go with the only tour company that sells them. Apparently you can't get a permit at the ranger station and the tour company is in a town several hours away. I didn't have time to go to the tour company so again I explained my situation. The rangers made some calls and had someone from the tour company come to meet me. In the meantime they offered me free coffee and tea, took me somewhere to get breakfast and to a local market for me to buy fruit.

The trek in Gunung Palung was easily the most remote trek I've ever taken and likely ever will take. After a couple hours of hiking we left our packs and literally just started bushwhacking through the jungle. When I say "we" I mean me and the "guide" and when I say "guide" I mean paid escort as he wasn't really much of a guide. He didn't speak English, his pack broke instantly(I sewed it back together for him that night), he didn't have necessary supplies such as a flashlight, bug spray/mosquito nets, water etc. Luckily I was carrying easily three times more than him and had all of that stuff and more.

The jungle was eerily devoid of animals. For the first several hours I saw no birds, no mammals and only a few extraordinarily large ants. After making camp and dinner we set back out to see what we could find. Again we saw nothing. We came across some illegal logging and I helped the guide sabotage their operation. On our way back to camp we heard something in a tree so we quickly ran to explore. It was a group of orangutans! We ran closer. They moved. We moved. I cut up my hands on thorny vines as I raced through the thick growth but it didn't matter, I was excited to see the primates leap from tree to tree with seemingly no plan or destination in mind when they sprung into the air.

I later learned that Gunung Palung gets on average one group of visitors per month, the last group had been two months ago, and that most people don't see orangutans—the last several groups hadn't. Luck had smiled it's big primate teeth at me through a beard of thick orange hair, but just as quickly fate showed up with it's buddies, two more tourists! I was so happy to be all alone in the middle of a remote jungle when a woman from Poland and her co-worker from Bali showed up to harsh my mellow. When we parted ways the next afternoon they reported that they hadn't seen any orangutans on their treks. On our way out of the park I spotted another group of orangutans much closer than the previous ones and called to my guide who was a fair bit up the trail talking on his cell phone(yes, he amazingly got reception in the middle of the jungle).

My trip from Gunung Palung to the worlds largest volcanic lake was full of long rides on crowded public transport full of mystified locals with lomaxian stares and sleepless nights and nights spent sleeping in the rain on the roofs of overnight ferry's. Language barriers and long layovers provided me an opportunity to get some long overdue work done—like adding an image gallery and interactive map to my travel site. One layover in particular coincided perfectly with the US presidential election which I followed on my laptop while talking to friends in an airport restaurant which was showing classic cartoons on the plasma displays.

Danau Toba as see from atop Samosir

I had been getting by very well on a smile but Sumatra turned my smile into a grimace. The hawkers were worse than anywhere else and several people tried to rip me off. After spending a night on the shore of Lake Toba I headed for the island of Samosir. For two months I've been looking for a peaceful place to relax and get some work done; somewhere with a slow pace of life, cheap booze and good internet. The city of Tuk Tuk on Samosir was that place.

Without a ticket out of Indonesia I had to cut my time short to go back to Medan. A a day and a half on the island provided me with some time to relax and work but as soon as I arrived the hard drive in my netbook died taking with it my previous days of work. So instead of relaxing and working as I had planned I explored the island with two German girls and while offroading flipped a scooter pinning my left leg. I wasn't seriously injured so I spent the rest of my stay trying to find a way to get out of Indonesia in time.

With a ticket in hand and two days left in country I proceeded to my final destination in Indonesia, a national park by the name Bukit Lawang where I was joined by my Japanese friend from Jakarta. Bukit Lawang is far more accessible than Gunung Palung and used to be an orangutan rehabilitation center so it offers a much higher chance of seeing orangutans but the orangutans are much more used to seeing people. Again luck peeled back it's over-sized lips and revealed a glowing white smile. On our way back to camp, no more than 15min after talking to a German guy who was returning from a 3 day jungle trek where he hadn't seen any orangutans, we came in contact with two mother orangutans and their babies. They came so close that we had to keep moving back so we'd be at a safe distance. It was a much different experience than my trip in Borneo but it was nice and offered my young but myopic camera an opportunity to capture a few memories.

An Orangutan from Bukit Lawang in North Sumatra

I then continued to Singapore which wasn't the rounded corner chrome plated futuristic robot metropolis where the streets are so clean you can see the reflection of your soul that I had envisioned and that perhaps Japan really is. Still, it presented me with an opportunity to get a new hard drive, see a doctor and stock up on a few more odds and ends.

I was looking forward to a place where English is the primary language. While most people speak English, few speak it well and when they do it's with a Malaysian accent but the Queen's diction. This is due I believe to the immense cultural diversity but low assimilation in Singapore. Their language seems to have evolved like the baby of a beautiful caterpillar and horrible frankenbeast metamorphosing into an unintelligible local dialect called Singlish. The automated rail system often suggest you "alight", a word I would be fine never to hear again in my life.

I don't want to know what the punishment for bringing durian on a Singapore subway is...

For such a fine country—owing to the number of things that result in a fine—there are surprisingly few cops. I suspect the policing may be done remotely. When I was on the subway some shady eastern Europeans boarded eating an assortment of nuts and an announcement instantly played over the pa and flashed across the digital displays reminding people not to eat. For a country with a $300 fine for littering there are surprisingly few trash cans but copious amounts of non prescription black rimmed glasses.

Red orchids from the Singapore Botanical Gardens

I spent two jam packed days riding the rails, bustling through crowded shopping malls and exploring city gardens. The "cloud forest" & "flower dome" seemed like ultramodern tourist attractions, the Chinese & Japanese gardens were a bit underwhelming though I did enjoy seeing their large collection of Chinese style bonsai which in my opinion look "ok" from every angle but not "great" from any angle, and the under-hyped botanical garden with it's expansive and breathtaking collection of zingiberales and orchids.

Bonsai from in front of the Chinese garden in Singapore

As my failed expectations got washed down the gutter by the daily rains like the final Singapore Sling that slips from your hand as the imaginary robot police force escorts you from the curb, so did my smile—which would have been out of place there anyway. The low prices, street food vendors and helpful friends from Indonesia were gone. On the whole Singapore reminded me a lot more of Portland or San Fransisco than it did of the Asimovian dreamscape I had envisioned. Perhaps I spent two too many days in Singapore or perhaps I spent one too few.

I'm now in Malaysia where I raced an impending protest to get pages added to my passport. I spent Deepavali in Singapore's Little India and Al-Hijra in Malaysia's two most populus cities—neither of which were that good as a tourist. It's been a continuation of the constantly oscillating roller coaster of events and emotions but you'll have to tune in next time for more details.

Additional photos:
Gunung Palung
Danau Toba
Bukit Lawang
*Singapore Orchids*
*Singapore Zingiberales*
Singapore Bonsai

Soundtrack: The First Cut Is the Deepest (Cat Stevens)


November 17th, 2012 at 12:32 PM

That orangutan picture is sweet.

Double A
November 17th, 2012 at 12:47 PM

Is the interactive map finished?

November 17th, 2012 at 5:34 PM

No. Neither the gallery or map survived the great crash of 2012.

November 18th, 2012 at 2:14 PM

I really love the orchid pics.!!!

November 20th, 2012 at 9:01 AM

"...and I helped the guide sabotage their operation."

Oh, do tell!

November 20th, 2012 at 7:21 PM

Sabotaged might not have been the best term. My journal entry described it as: "We came across some illegal logging and I fucked their shit up". Basically, we came across a large tree that had been cut into boards which were setup to dry. It looked like this https://www.dropbox.com/s/ireeo2qa74lnnz7/IMG_0986.JPG The guide had a very disgusted look on his face--as if someone had violated his home, which I think probably wouldn't have garnered such a response--and he pointed to it and said "Illegal". He picked up a board and threw it down the hill. He tried to move the other boards but couldn't. Having more mass and strength I figured I'd give it a go and I was just barely able to toss them all down the mountain. He really enjoyed that I was doing that and took pictures of me on his phone(which I assume he was instantly posting on facebook from the middle of the jungle). Afterward he said "You good" in English even though he know I would have understood had he said it in Indonesian.

My feelings on what we did are mixed. I'd do a lot to stop illegal logging but I don't know that destroying the wood they've already cut will do any good. If anything it might just make them cut down another tree. But what we did was important to the guide so it was important to me.

If you're asking a question, it may be better to just email me at beau@dangertravels.com