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Students in a long tail boat in Indonesia. Photo by Aaron Slosberg, Indonesia Semester.

Welcome to the Jungle

I’ve put together some pieces from my journal about our time in and around the Katambe Jungle on Sumatra, and our first experiences with Indonesia. This yak is like 3 weeks late, sorry.

I’m here, and it’s stunning.
We took an 8 hour bus ride through the city of Medan and way out into rural areas. I stuck my head out the window to get a better view of all that there was to take in. Each view and each moment I saw was COMPLETELY new. Animals- dogs, cats, chickens- people and clothing, plants, houses, buildings,  gutters, garbage, food, shops, motorcycles, cars, trucks, busses, thin roads, steep mountains, a volcano, breeze with new scents, loud Indonesian EDM including a remix of Wrecking Ball in Indonesian…

Here in Katambe I’ve gotten to explore around the property on the edge of the jungle and I’ve seen so many new plants and animals it’s wild. Geckos are everywhere, and at night each light has a crowd around it eating the bugs that get attracted. Around the Katambe property we’ve seen huge black beetles as long as my finger, uncomfortably large spiders and ants, bright and amazingly colorful bugs, a wide variety of stunning butterflies, minute frogs smaller than my pinky nail, clusters of pink frog eggs, monkeys, a brightly colored greenish blue kingfisher, an eagle, hornbills, and much more. Banana, coconut and cacao trees grow on the side of the road, and the moving acacia plant grows all over as a weed. There are bright flowers, and plants with leaves like large umbrellas. I’m in awe and so curious. I’m actually HERE– with the animals and plants of the jungle. I’m seeing and learning about things I’ve seen only pictures and videos of, and been interested in since forever. I’m HERE and its amazing.

After about a week, we set out on a 3 day jungle trek. We met our local guides that would keep us safe and and help us, and become our friends. The course description wasn’t wrong when it said there would be “rugged travel.” We climbed up tree roots and down the thin muddy trail in our leech socks. It was a hot and sweaty trip through the foliage, across limestone stream beds with eroded pockets, lots of bugs flew in our faces, light filtered down through the trees, we picked the leeches off of our shoes, we (I) stopped every 5 seconds to take pictures of the wacky and beautiful mushrooms on the trail. My group had the extremely fun Udin as our guide, so we got to know the jungle through him over our ~3 hour trek to the site. We settled right by a river, which we bathed and swam in up to 3 times a day.

While in the jungle we went on outings in small groups. On different days my group climbed up the hollow inside of a wrangler tree, and had a pack of monkeys surround us curiously within 4′ touching distance. Another group spotted a parrot and followed it through the forest. We all got to see wild orangutans.* It was great hiking through the jungle- making friends and laughing, but also listening and watching for wildlife.

On our first night in the jungle all of us ended up sitting all together after a dinner of fried rice, and Udin and the other guides taught us parts of a traditional dance. Then they “performed” the dance for us and sang. People messed up, or sang off key, but that’s what made it more beautiful than if there hadn’t been singing interspersed with laughter and smiling, and if it hadn’t been choppy and fun. They were laughing and smiling so much and so hard, and so was I. This is what intense joy feels like.

At our site we went swimming in the river and at night sang and danced and laughed and played games with the guides. I was so happy. In the morning we ate and hiked more — to the hot springs. … It’s so beautiful along the river, steam is rising in heavy clouds into the foliage, and their shadows cast down rays. We crossed the river and walked/stumbled down to a big rock. Mark, Udin and I climbed onto the large rock that divided the river into two short but powerful waterfalls. It took a bit but I finally jumped off the rock into the water below with their encouragement. There are SO many types of butterflies they’re so stunning and beautiful.

On our third day we packed up and hiked back to the guest house. I found recently fallen orchids along the trail that had been shaken loose from high in the trees by the wind the night before. (I really like orchids. Mary this is for you if you’re reading this…) They were in really healthy condition and I was so excited as I found each one. I grow orchids at home, and seeing them in their natural habitat gives me a better idea of how I can grow them well. It was also just super cool seeing them in their natural habitat and not in pots or indoors.

There were a lot of kids at the Katambe property, and they greeted us when we returned hot, sweaty and tired. There was the oldest Iqbol ~12 and his sister Asna ~5, and I think the rest were friends that came over to play. When the kids were around, there was no safety. Tackling, tickling, poking, punching, calling your name– they were like a swarm of cicadas that ate peace and safety. We played with them and even though we couldn’t speak each other’s language, we didn’t need to. I felt loved and happy when they called my name, and when I made them laugh and smile.

On our last night in Katambe we stayed up dancing with a few of the guides. It was super fun- we let loose and did whatever. There was a lot of laughing and constant smiling. We all looked ridiculous and it was okay. Jane and I tried imitating a dance two of the guides were doing, and Luke cracked himself (and me) up with his robot moves. At some point there was karaoke, an airplane train, the makerena…. It was fun and carefree chaos.

There is so much more I can write about our time in Katambe but that would take forever. What stood out to me about our time there was the stunning beauty of the Sumatran jungle, and the intricate complexity of nature- from the way birds fly to how humans make friends. Hopefully these pictures can convey more than just writing.

*The orangutans in the Katambe jungle are some of the only ones left. There are no more on the island of Java due to human settlement and clearing of land. There are fewer and fewer remaining on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, and orangutans and countless other species have been pushed to endangerment and extinction. Massive areas of jungle are cleared with chainsaws and fire. The land is burned, creating fires and smoke that can be seen from space. In Malaysia, in addition to cloudy and sunny, an official weather condition is “hazy” due to these fires from Indonesia. These fires release huge amounts of gasses into the atmosphere, worsening the global issue of climate change. The jungle and all its wildlife is burned and replaced by palm oil plantations.

Hearing about deforestation in the U.S. I didn’t really have a handle on what drove it and what could be done, and I didn’t have a realistic sense of its impact. Now after experiencing the jungle and its wildlife, and then driving through miles of cleared land that used to be jungle and flying over endless expanses of palm oil plantations, I feel the painful reality of how much nature has been destroyed, and how endangered what’s remaining is. Palm oil is in high demand and is exported to all over the world, the biggest consumer country being the United States. Know it or not, palm oil is in an astonishing amount of everyday products. From peanut butter to shampoo to fast food to biofuel, palm oil is often only on a product label as “vegetable oil”. Being educated about the consumption of palm oil’s impact is the most effective way to lessen and halt the destruction of the forests that give the world air, and the intricate and beautiful ecosystems and species that inhabit Indonesia. I ask you to be aware of the products you buy, and choose ones without palm or “vegetable” oil in them. The palm oil industry is driven by consumer want, and the effective way to lessen the destruction of the natural world is to not buy products with palm oil in them.