Crash. The sound of the jungle is interrupted by vegetation snapping and tearing. A large male orangutan emerges slowly. Slowly, but not cautiously: There’s a calm confidence that they’re in charge at some level. My guides and I back away rapidly and abandon our fruit salad snack.
I’m in a national park near Bukit Lawang, North Sumatra, on the island of Sumatra in Western Indonesia.
Getting to Bukit Lawang (variously bucky-lah-wang or book-it-lah-wang) requires patience and a sense of humor. At least for my route. For example, my travel included Manila Airport which was recently voted the worlds worst airport. To give a direct example of why someone might vote that way; there’s a free airport inter-terminal shuttle bus every hour. Yes, hour. During peak time, there is no other way to get to another terminal.
If you take the shuttle bus you can read Waiting for Godot in the time it takes you to arrive. To make it more entertaining, the bus drops you off outside the terminal you’re going to. This forces you through multiple rounds of security.
Therefore, if you have less than 6 hours to to make your connection (which, by the way, flies once a day), you’re staying in Manila. Unless you cajole and beg your way through the lines and sprint for the gate and are the last on the plane.
Jakarta on the other hand somehow built the worlds best airport. They did this in the “infinitely long big building” school of design. So big, that if you squint in to the distance it starts to fog. Jakarta to Medan is easier than any US or EU flight, unless you fly Lion Air who either fly planes in to the ocean (really this is unfair and Boeing’s doing), or not at all (they cancelled my flight).
Garuda Indonesia on the other hand do actually take off and land planes on a set schedule, even if they’re A330’s. The A330 comes from the era when we built planes out of metal, not plastic and carbon, back in the 90s. That is, it’s ancient history. But still it takes off, and later, lands.
Medan’s completely reasonable and modern airport gives way to actual trains (not taken) and roads to the city or beyond. We are in the beyond category and take ever smaller, slower and pot-holed roads over about 4 hours. Road markings and modern buildings fall away to old concrete and vaguely defined boundaries between cars, motorbikes, tuktuks, bicycles, hawkers, busses and pedestrians.
Entrepreneurial Indonesians have found that doing a U-turn on some of the busier roads is difficult and fraught with honking. For an unspecified fee passed rapidly out the window they will stop opposing traffic for any car. They do this by risking life and limb and stepping in front of cars at speed, occasionally waving a flag. My western mind wants to build better roads or light signals, me developing mind is in deep admiration.
Eventually the roads give out entirely and we have to walk. A paved-ish path runs parallel to a river, shared by mopeds and people. Either side of the path are sequential small hotels, each offering (apparently) 3-8 rooms or so each. All are open air with a seating area and a notional bar/restaurant.
They’re open air because it’s hotter than hell, and humid too. It’s about 95 degrees every day without fail, at least in May. Any movement of any kind involves sweat and the fashionable traveler will need modern materials to hide it and evaporate it off as quickly as possible.
Weirdly, sun shirts from voormi (headquartered in Pagosa Springs, Colorado (population 1,500)), made from some kind of wool-science-magic blend work well in the heat with the sweat.
Which brings us back to Orangutans. Why are they hairy, in 95-degree heat?
I have no idea, but they don’t seem to suffer from it. Orangutans are apparently made out of 99% muscle and can crush your skull easily which is why we abandoned our fruit salad.
I suspect that my guides absolutely know that cutting up a lot of pineapple, bananas and oranges in a jungle full of various monkeys will attract them. And thus is it so.
We interpret orangutan faces as somehow wise, or as Pratchett said, like a surprised coconut. Wise or not, they are calm and unlikely to attack. Orangutans are the most chill and solitary of the great and lesser apes (as far as my Wikipedia adventure says, anyway). They’re not likely to become psychotic and dangerous like most of their genetic family.
Calm is how I’d describe them. Like a Buddhist. A 300lb Buddhist with the ability to snap your arm, sure. But calm. Loping. Slow.
Trekking through the jungle we come across multiple troops of monkeys who would not be described as calm. Darting or perhaps daring monkeys. I’m warned not to engage in any way. When on their own they may be frightened of a human but in a group of 20-30 or so they have the ability to give you a bad day.
The main predator of Orangutans is of course us. Humans. The endless palm oil plantations which have replaced the jungle look and feel like an ecological desert on the order of a British cricket lawn: Looks good to me but an ecologist would cry. Does that mean we should avoid palm oil, which is in every product, ever?
I don’t know. I’m reminded I’m in a huge dynamical system and making a change has unforeseen and unintended consequences. The palm oil industry employs a lot of people, what will they do? Maybe if we farm some other thing, it will be even worse? Our western pronoun problems are very far away from the concerns here, which are closer to things like food and shelter.
It’s fashionable to have opinions on everything as if we have some kind of control over anything at all. So I offer none but that Orangutans are pretty cool and we should try to keep them around.
One of my guides picked up a piece of plastic trash on the trail and pockets it. It struck me that this is approximately the sum total of control we have most of the time. Think global, act local.
We waited some time for the orangutan to leave, yet he was waiting for us. We politely - cautiously - skirted around him after 20 minutes or so. If you saw the same orangutan at a zoo you might be done in 90 seconds and have an entirely different relationship. That is, no relationship at all.
Being on the orangutans schedule and at his convenience vs. going to the zoo is something like love vs. prostitution. You may think you see an animal at the zoo but you don’t really at all.
Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park puts it thus:
Most kinds of power require a substantial sacrifice by whoever wants the power. There is an apprenticeship, a discipline lasting many years. Whatever kind of power you want. President of the company. Black belt in karate. Spiritual guru. Whatever it is you seek, you have to put in the time, the practice, the effort. You must give up a lot to get it. It has to be very important to you. And once you have attained it, it’s your power. It can't be given away: it resides in you. It is literally the result of your discipline.
Or perhaps as Steve Jobs said, the journey is the reward. The act of seeing a wild orangutan is lesser somehow than suffering the worlds worst airport or enjoying fresh mango juice by a wild river, and so on. This is the value. Actually taking photos of the orangutan is the capstone perhaps, but not the other 98% of the pyramid.
It’s easy to lose this, or even think about it at all. This was a group we came across, much more engrossed in act of recording the moment than being there:
It’s cheap to attack some kids using their phones, that’s not the point. It’s to ask the question of how much we’re doing this in our daily lives? Not just being on auto-pilot but actively focused on the copy of the thing, as if it’s the real thing?
Zoo’s aren’t nature. Social media is anti-social. Morning coffee just balances the crash from yesterdays morning coffee. FaceTime isn’t. Vitamin-D pills aren’t sunshine: Sunshine means taking your shirt off. Connecting with the sand or the grass. Breathing fresh air. Pausing. Who knows what physiological effects all that - and more - has? What is a vitamin-D pill by comparison?
Whatever the difference is, the people of Bukit Lawang playing guitar by the river don’t need to take the pill version of anything that I saw. They’re happy and kind and drink water from the river. I saw them do it, like a crazy person. Who the hell lives next to a river you can drink from?
Not me, but maybe I should.