Hiking

Chile & Argentina - Up a Volcano, Through the Lakes, Toward the New Year

The view from our tiny wooden capsule room. Volcan Villarrica was beautiful to watch over the course of three days, changing as quickly as the sun and clouds would, and letting out steam whenever she cared to. She is one of the most active volcanos in Chile, and the day after we took this photo, we hiked to the top.

The view from our tiny wooden capsule room. Volcan Villarrica was beautiful to watch over the course of three days, changing as quickly as the sun and clouds would, and letting out steam whenever she cared to. She is one of the most active volcanos in Chile, and the day after we took this photo, we hiked to the top.

El Ten Eleven - Transitions

Pucón, Chile

Valdivia treated us to a Christmas dinner and German-Californian family. It’s time to leave again and cross the Andes for the second time. We hop on a bus to Pucón, a mountain town on the Chilean side of the range. It’s pretty, neat - maybe too neat - just like Tahoe or the Swiss Alps, with the obligatory chocolate shop at every corner. Villarrica, one of the world’s most active volcanos, paints the perfect picture overlooking town - the most volcano-looking volcano, with a superb cone shape, its top tier covered in snow, and a thin line of smoke slowly climbing up.

Around the mountain town of Pucón, Chile.

Around the mountain town of Pucón, Chile.

Madie and I prepare our dinner at the hostel, debating for too long whether we should climb the peak. Everyone there recommends it, and so does the Malbec, so after an early breakfast the next morning, we hop on a small shuttle to the base of a ski resort. We get dressed, put on heavy boots and start climbing, first in dirt, then snow. One slow step at a time. Plant the ice axe, lodge your left foot into the snow, lodge the right one, and repeat - for five long hours. Someone forgot to tell us a volcano only gets steeper the higher you climb. We start zig-zagging. The walk is long and arduous, and the air starts getting thin as we approach 2,800 meters. But looking over to the valley we see the (literally) breathtaking sight of the Andes. In a couple days, we will cross them again, amongst the many lakes of the Lagos Provincia region. But for now, we keep climbing, one step at a time.

Slow and steady wins the race. After over 4 hours hiking uphill, our treat was to slide down almost 2.5km of snow in snow pants and with a small plastic disc. Madie was laughing the whole way down!

Slow and steady wins the race. After over 4 hours hiking uphill, our treat was to slide down almost 2.5km of snow in snow pants and with a small plastic disc. Madie was laughing the whole way down!

The top is cold, windy, and gas masks are required for the occasional sulfur cloud blowing our way. I remember Kawah Ijen and my sore throat the following day. Madie peeks at the crater and sees lava spurting out. A short lunch just below the ridge and it’s already time to come down for the best part of our trek. We’re provided small plastic sleds. Madie will giggle for the next 45 minutes. Who can say they sled down a volcano?

San MartÍn de los Andes, Argentina

With little else to offer on a small budget, we leave Pucón and embark on a ride to San Martín de los Andes, a quaint town on the Argentinian side of the Andes. The dramatic scenery keeps us awake for the few hours of the ride. Tall trees only seen in this region (of which we’ll never know the name) make up the large forest, completely uninhabited. Another border crossing, this one ending on a dirt road of kilometers and long fields of bare trees. We arrive in San Martín de los Andes, with ice cream for lunch at a local chocolate shop. Our dinner at a parrilla brings us back to Argentina, to misplaced ‘shhs’ and perfect beef.

Summer sun on the lake in San Martín de los Andes.

Summer sun on the lake in San Martín de los Andes.

Bariloche, Argentina

In the morning we make our way to Bariloche, finding a new hostel where Tonya awaits us. Another dear friend, Adrian, joins us there and suddenly we’re in good company for New Year’s Eve, happy to exchange travel stories and gossip with them. Tonya’s friend invites us to a small refuge nestled against a lake, with mesmerizing views of the region.

Our unforgettable New Year’s view in Bariloche, Argentina.

Our unforgettable New Year’s view in Bariloche, Argentina.

Grateful to have spent the holiday in such a warm place, and in the company of friends, old and new.

Grateful to have spent the holiday in such a warm place, and in the company of friends, old and new.

Ringing in the New Year.

Ringing in the New Year.

We spend a private New Year’s Eve with Tonya and Adrian, a few more folks (a businessman, an artist, a journalist, and two builder and fishermen brothers), and three dogs. New and old friends mingle, with the help of wine and BBQ lamb. We’re all so close, if only for one night. The next day’s hike reveals more of the lake district and how beautiful this place truly is. 

Happy to celebrate the New Year with friends who will meet you on this side of the world, even on a whim.

Happy to celebrate the New Year with friends who will meet you on this side of the world, even on a whim.

Vietnam - Sapa, Three Days with Pê´

Little ones selling bracelets. Our arms would be full if we bought one from every child asking us.

Little ones selling bracelets. Our arms would be full if we bought one from every child asking us.

Yann Tiersen - A Quai

It was a difficult choice between Sapa and Halong Bay, but we opted for what fit us best - far from crowded boats, polluted waters, and sometimes disappointed experiences. Sapa it was, the mountain town in Northern Vietnam, home to H’Mong and Red Dao minorities.

We arrive aboard a sleeper bus after 4 hours of winding roads with magnificent views, or so we are told. We only see a white blanket of fog, which colors our first 24 hours in town. But we do like it here - it feels familiar. The climate is cool and the fog is thick. It’s August, the coldest time in San Francisco, and Sapa treats us with the City’s weather. The small hillside city is quaint yet has enough tourists to attract (too many) Italian restaurants; the main street is lined with ladies and their local crafts, and shops selling low-price North Face gear. We negotiate poorly for two waterproof jackets, preparing ourselves for the next few days.

Our first morning we find Sapa O’Chau, a non-profit organization offering local communities an alternative path from difficult farm life by providing education in English and tourism, helping artisans sell their crafts, and even employing them as guides or hosts for their many treks. Wanting to help in any way we could, we try helplessly to convince the manager to give us something to do, to let us volunteer. But a week is too short, students get attached, and hosting volunteers takes much more effort than we imagined. Instead, we help by being conscientious tourists: we order a second coffee and opt for a two-day trek, with a night at a homestay promising a short course in herbal medicine and a bath. 

Ethnic minority women getting ready to sell handmade hemp, indigo-dyed, embroidered products along the market roads of Sapa. 

Ethnic minority women getting ready to sell handmade hemp, indigo-dyed, embroidered products along the market roads of Sapa. 

Sapa is surrounded by minority villages of the H’Mong and Red Dao people, two of the most prominent of the region. These minorities are ethnic groups originating from the area and not yet accustomed to modern life. They are often too poor to afford the things we take for granted, like electricity, clothes, or education. They live in small communities (read: tiny) spread throughout the countryside - we had our first experience with them between Da Lat and Nha Trang with the Easy Riders uncles. Now we get to live with them for one night.

The start of our two day trek with Pế.

The start of our two day trek with Pế.

It’s 9am and we meet our guide, the shy and young Pế. While trekking out of town we are followed by a lady insistently selling textiles, her voice filling the awkward yet understandable silence that occurs when people with a language barrier come together. But in time, all three of us open up, and Pế’s candid, sweet interest in our life is touching - “No babies yet?”. We slowly discover more about him and his H’Mong village nearby; we learn he has been learning English for only six months at Sapa O’Chau, walking miles to get to town for classes. He wants to be a full-time trek guide and keep perfecting his already unbelievable English. During the first half of our day, Pế will stop many times, chatting and laughing with locals and offering invitations - his younger brother is getting married in two days. Soon the seldom silences are the comfortable ones you can only have with a close friend.

Pế shows us his country, takes us along winding mud roads and across vast farmlands, tells us about hemp and how to cultivate and treat it, asks us about whether we’ve ever tried smoking it, puzzled by why we’re not using it for clothing. We pass small villages nestled in vibrant fields of green, barely a few houses, with roaming chickens, pigs, and water buffalos. There’s an elementary school, a small old crooked building with corrugated metal walls. I think of Worldreader and hope they’ll be here soon. We keep going, cross ruined bridges and step over gaping holes, falling silent to the scenery in front of us, the dramatic landscape of rice terraces, hills, and valleys of Sapa. Everything the fog was hiding from us a few hours before. We got lucky with the weather, as a couple days before Typhoon Nida was hitting the area, causing a large, fatal landslide blocking the way up. Now we’re in this painting after the storm, with large clouds overlooking our trek.

This part of Vietnam is really special to us. From trekking 24km with our new friend Pế, spending a night with a Red Dao family of ten, and visiting Pế’s H’Mong village home to celebrate his brother’s wedding. Our hearts couldn’t be more full. The beautiful landscapes are just a bonus. 

This part of Vietnam is really special to us. From trekking 24km with our new friend Pế, spending a night with a Red Dao family of ten, and visiting Pế’s H’Mong village home to celebrate his brother’s wedding. Our hearts couldn’t be more full. The beautiful landscapes are just a bonus. 

The food in this region is quite simple by Vietnamese standards - not as many sauces or herbs, surprisingly - but delicious, nonetheless. Standouts for us were the Sapa spring rolls (in a distinct wrapper and filled with the usual ingredients plus egg, mushrooms, and more vegetables), and really flavorful steamed pumpkin, both of which we ate at Sapa O’Chau’s post before Ta Phin village.

The food in this region is quite simple by Vietnamese standards - not as many sauces or herbs, surprisingly - but delicious, nonetheless. Standouts for us were the Sapa spring rolls (in a distinct wrapper and filled with the usual ingredients plus egg, mushrooms, and more vegetables), and really flavorful steamed pumpkin, both of which we ate at Sapa O’Chau’s post before Ta Phin village.

A warm lunch of local food and we’re off again for another 10km in the fields. The kids we pass are many, often curious and smiling. Madie has a knack for getting them to smile and laugh. We explore a small cave, ford a river and turn our hands blue with indigo herb.

We finally arrive at our homestay, a humble wooden house of a Red Dao family of ten, set on a cliff overlooking the valley. Electricity is only for light and TV, everything else is made with open fire. Grandma is the only English speaker, and her welcome is as warm as a grandma’s could be. She is wearing traditional Red Dao clothing, a hemp robe dyed indigo blue with colorful embroidered patterns. We sit outside on small wooden stools, munch on french fries, and watch heaps of corn roast for the chickens. We talk, sharing a bit about ourselves and our cultures, and soon learn about the tragic human trade of the surrounding villages - daughters being sold into marriage to Chinese tourists (the border is only 20-30km away) for a mere $3,000, a large fortune here. Our shock translates to sadness in Pế and grandma’s eyes. 

Grandma and granddaughter outside their home.

Grandma and granddaughter outside their home.

Their life is simple, humble, but full of joy, laughter, and the screams of a three-year-old girl running around, the end of a toilet paper roll to her mouth so to be as loud as possible. Her older brother is proud, also blaring, and butt-naked most of the time, his pants a size too big. The two children join us and grandma as we pick herbs along their property, the plants serving various cures for stomach pains, joint aches, skin rashes, headaches, and more. Put them all together in a cauldron of boiling water and we have the cure-all bath we were promised. Right before dinner, grandma fills two large wooden barrels with the steeped dark liquid and hands us towels. We close the curtain and jump in, giggling as quietly as we can - our smiles too large for the room.

Various herbs procured and being steeped for our wooden barrel bath.

Various herbs procured and being steeped for our wooden barrel bath.

After dinner with the family (and plenty of happy water to go around) and a restful sleep, we hike our second day back to Sapa, passing the local market to have proper bowls of phở with Pế. Over our bowls of noodles, we finally give in and promise to come to his brother’s wedding the next day, a little shy at first, but sticking to our promise to say yes as many times as we can this year. And we could not have been more right.

We rent a motorcycle to head over to Pế’s brother’s wedding the next day, taking off from the top of the valley and riding alongside the dramatic and breathtaking landscape. The road is full of potholes, giving me a chance to perfect slalom techniques. It turns to gravel and mud on a steep incline as I proudly conquer the road with a manly roar, too oblivious to notice Madie getting nervous. Finally approaching a bridge, the road is now impassable - we took a wrong turn as it turns out.

Breathtaking views of Sapa’s valley.

Breathtaking views of Sapa’s valley.

After an hour of being lost and messaging Pế, we finally arrive at his village, Y Linh Ho - between Ta Van and Cat Cat. The towns are spread out amongst the rice fields, so we meet at the only describable place: the local shaky red bridge. As we head over to his house, sweating profusely after 20 minutes of uphill walk, we enter a small house (missing to hit my head twice) filled with many of Pế’s (slightly drunk) family and friends around a few tables.

Pế’s mother Mai in front of their house.

Pế’s mother Mai in front of their house.

Humbled to have been invited to Pế’s brother’s wedding celebration.

Humbled to have been invited to Pế’s brother’s wedding celebration.

Madie with Pế’s mother and aunt.

Madie with Pế’s mother and aunt.

The wedding is humble, with many guests approaching the bride and groom for a traditional speech and toast, spoken quietly as if only for them. The rice wine flows, with Pế’s mother making sure we get our fair share, clearly happy we’re here. The warmth of the wine and the people quickly overtakes us. We try to make small conversation in broken English, feeding on sticky rice and spicy salt barbecued pork and boiled chicken. As we leave and thank them profusely, we’re given one of the many bracelets sold around Sapa by the mother, a simple token to remember this place.

Madie and I walk away for a couple minutes, and stop to feel this moment again: beautiful in its simplicity, sincerity and profound emotion; people we barely knew inviting us to their home for a celebration; people we may never see again but who we will remember vividly for a long time; some call it a blessing. We take a minute together and let the happy tears go away before we continue toward our motorcycle.

We will spend the rest of our day with our favorite activity, roaming around the countryside on a motorcycle, stopping for iced coffee and to reminisce on a beautiful three days, finding ourselves lucky to have skipped Halong Bay. Meeting and spending time with people was always more important to us than seeing limestone, and here, in this beautiful valley of Northern Vietnam, we met the beautiful people of Sapa O’Chau, the Red Dao family of our homestay, and our new dear friend, Pế.

Dressed in traditional Red Dao clothing with our guide and new friend Pế.

Dressed in traditional Red Dao clothing with our guide and new friend Pế.

Sapa treated us with its picturesque valleys and quiet beauty; it showed us another side of Vietnam, one of the mountains and far from the country’s busy motorcycle-packed streets and sidewalks. It’s been a month since we landed in this country, in Saigon, the capital of South, which lost the war to the North. We have seen many faces of Vietnam: we found new uncles and friends, and met old ones; we indulged in cheap delicious food at every stop, with local beer to wash it down; we met students who wanted to speak English and learn about the US; we caught a glimpse of propaganda at Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. It’s time to head back to Hanoi for a few days before the next country. We walk through the old town where streets are named after what is sold there - maybe this is “Restaurant Supply Street”; this one must be “Keys and Locks Street.” We stop for more Bún Chảs and Bánh Mìs, for one last Hanoi beer and random delicious soup on a small red stool, for a final Chè. We haven’t left and already miss the best food of our trip, the perfect balance of spices, fresh herbs, heartwarming broths, and succulent meats. We walk lazily, thinking of nothing and of everything our trip has come to be. I realize this is the first country in SE Asia where people have learned to do nothing, to just sit at a terrace and drink Vietnamese coffee - finally some French influence. But daydreaming is dangerous - a scooter almost runs over me. It’s time to leave the heat and humidity of SE Asia and head to China.

A local boy with the sun sinking below Fansipan. This is the highest peak of Indochina, and at 3143m high, it’s the most south-eastern part of the Himalayas. Here we are, just 50m from our hotel, at golden hour.

A local boy with the sun sinking below Fansipan. This is the highest peak of Indochina, and at 3143m high, it’s the most south-eastern part of the Himalayas. Here we are, just 50m from our hotel, at golden hour.

Indonesia - Greens & Oranges of Bukit Lawang, Sumatra

Our trekking mate Joh and the last group of orangutans that we played with at Gunung Leuser National Park in North Sumatra, Indonesia. Truly an amazing experience.

Our trekking mate Joh and the last group of orangutans that we played with at Gunung Leuser National Park in North Sumatra, Indonesia. Truly an amazing experience.

Beirut - After the Curtain

We are on the last leg of our trip in Indonesia, heading to its west-most island, Sumatra. Despite its proximity to Malaysia and Singapore, it is a detour few people make - with fewer roads, smaller airports and any destination within the island is bound to take a day or two. But we come with two specific goals: the jungle and the orangutans of the Gunung Leuser National Park.

A short flight from Jakarta bring us to Medan in the morning. Having read too much about the bus stations scams and the touts, we do our best to avoid them and try to talk directly with the minibus driver, to no avail. We’re not very good at it, this time, losing our wits and forgetting to walk a little more to avoid them; we’re a little pressed for time if we want to get to our destination before nightfall. After paying too much, we finally hop into a small rusty 10-seater for the bumpiest ride we’ve ever had; for four hours, we’ll be jumping off our seats as the driver goes through large potholes on dirt roads, a real gold mine for a suspension repair shop (its a few days later that we’ll understand it could have been worse - the return ride to Medan will be filled with 24 people). With our spines a couple inches shorter, we finally get to Bukit Lawang, a small village at the entrance of Gunung Leuser National Park, home of wild orangutans, elephants, and tigers.

It was a day-long journey to get to Bukit Lawang from Jojga - two flights, two buses, a tuk tuk, and a walk uphill in the rain (in flip flops!), but it was worth it. This village is a secluded playground set in the jungle next to a river, with warm, resilient people. In 2003 there was a devastating flash flood that took the lives of 239 people, and destroyed everything in its way. It took 8 months to rebuild the town and reopen. Today the younger generations are helping ecotourism thrive again, as many of them speak English, and are training to become jungle guides.

It was a day-long journey to get to Bukit Lawang from Jojga - two flights, two buses, a tuk tuk, and a walk uphill in the rain (in flip flops!), but it was worth it. This village is a secluded playground set in the jungle next to a river, with warm, resilient people. In 2003 there was a devastating flash flood that took the lives of 239 people, and destroyed everything in its way. It took 8 months to rebuild the town and reopen. Today the younger generations are helping ecotourism thrive again, as many of them speak English, and are training to become jungle guides.

Feeling a little bitter about the last scam, we proudly decide to walk to our guest house instead of taking the local tuk-tuk. An easy two-kilometer stroll to relieve our legs? It could have been, yes, if it wasn’t for the torrential rain, creeping twilight, unsteady flip flops and getting lost in a small village. Google Maps did not know that this town is separated by a river, with only a few bridges to traverse it that small cars or tuk-tuks cannot cross - hence not showing as streets. A nice local gets us back on track and points to the closest bridge. “Thomas’ house is on the other side, on the right after you cross.” Ah... the bridge - a skinny wooden white bridge in a tall arc, maybe a meter wide and 50 meters long, cables swinging in the rain, almost no light in the dark night of the surrounding jungle, and, of course, dubious wood planks. It had a real uncanny resemblance to many nightmares I had when I was young (read: 30 y-o). Madie and I look at each other - “Are we really doing this?” I ask - “I guess so.” She always finds the words to make me feel better. We take slow steps, clinging on to the ramp; I’m doing my best to look at my feet without looking at the void below. A third in, the side ramp is broken for a couple meters, removing all notion of security (as if I had any). And for the full cliché, there are few missing planks halfway through the bridge. Lovely. The thing with nightmares is that they’re a lot less scary in real life. For the first time in all my dreams, I manage to step over the gap and pass the bridge, drenched in the rain. I add an evil laugh for full effect.

The infamous bridge of nightmares, which we had to cross in the dark and in the rain.

We cross a bit of jungle (only because I miss the real pathway 10 meters away) and get safe and sound to Thomas’ Retreat, a beautiful guest house set against the jungle and with a view of the river. We fill up on warm pumpkin curry and chicken satay, chatting with the young hosts, jungle guides in training. We learn about the remote girlfriend tradition (apparently a real thing, western girls enamored with the jungle and their adventurous guides - like me, right Madie?), the concert they’re playing at later tonight and the park we’re about to trek in. Their excitement about the jungle is contagious; they want to show people their beautiful country and, more than anything, educate so it doesn’t go away. Tourists are welcome here because they bring an economy that does not destroy the forest, unlike the palm plantations causing devastating deforestation all over Sumatra. We stroll around town the first day, crossing all the skinny bridges connecting the two sides of Bukit Lawang, looking at naked kids jumping in the river and going down the currents. We prepare ourselves for a two-day trek hoping to see as many orangutans as we can.

The beautiful riverside town of Bukit Lawang is the gateway to Gunung Leuser National Park in North Sumatra, Indonesia.

The beautiful riverside town of Bukit Lawang is the gateway to Gunung Leuser National Park in North Sumatra, Indonesia.

Trekking through the jungles of North Sumatra.

Trekking through the jungles of North Sumatra.

We leave early the next morning, filled with banana pancakes, and covered with Deet to fend off the mosquitos of the rubber plantation. Johnny, our guide, sets the pace in front as we approach the park and gives us the ceremonial talk. There are simple rules: be nice with the orangutans, approach carefully, and start walking away if told to. We walk up and down the many hills of the park for a couple hours, using lianas to support us, always wary of where we put our hands (you don’t want to wake up a snake).  At the top of a hill, we finally see the first ones, a mother and its infant nestled in the trees. Female orangutans only have one child at a time; the child will stay with her for 8 years before leaving, slowly learning the ways of the jungle: how to make a new nest every day, how to find food, and how to stay out of trouble. The males are harder to find, as they constantly travel between tree tops, in search of the next female. After a couple hours of dense jungle, it suddenly feels that we’re in their home, and it’s an unforgettable moment. Orangutans look at us with human eyes and so much meaning, with more human expressions than my 10th-grade German teacher. We touch their hands and fur; some guides give them fruits - the orangutans know exactly how many are behind their back. We stick around just to be with them.

Up close and personal with one of the orangutans at Gunung Leuser National Park in North Sumatra, Indonesia. It was a joy to observe them eating fruits, playing in the trees, building nests, and interacting with each other.

Up close and personal with one of the orangutans at Gunung Leuser National Park in North Sumatra, Indonesia. It was a joy to observe them eating fruits, playing in the trees, building nests, and interacting with each other.

Throughout the day, we also encounter white-handed gibbons and Thomas Leaf monkeys; we meet Mina, an old orangutan known for her aggressive behavior (she’ll follow us to our lunch spot, making us flee away and lose tomatoes in the process); we meet Jackie and her child, another famous orangutan, this one known to be nice and hold hands with passing tourists. Jackie is holding a tourist’s hand and is pretending to bite it as she looks at the guide, hoping for some fruits in exchange. The trek continues through the jungle; we climb down hills holding on to lianas larger than my arm, pass small rivers at the bottom, only to go up again a steep path - a slow but exhausting walk through the lush emerald jungle. A large rhinoceros hornbill quacks and flies over us at the top of the hill, landing on a nearby branch, showing proudly its beak and horn.

After 7 hours of trekking, we finally get to the camp for a well-deserved rest. Johnny has to go back to town already - he feels compelled to thank us for visiting his jungle and respecting it; we feel thankful and blessed to have met him. He leaves us in the good hands of Olo, the camp cook and master entertainer, and Sonny, our guide for the next day. We stay with our new friends, Marine, Joh and Manu, and spend a night of game and laughter with Olo and his crew, deep in the smell of the clove cigarettes - Olo’s laugh is as contagious as it gets. Joh took a silent wish for the duration of the trek; her face lights up when we try to cheat during the games. We solve brain teasers and learn the tricks of the 3-4-5-6 stone game scam. We talk about life in town and in the jungle; we learn about the flash flood a few years ago, taking the life of a few hundred people in Bukit Lawang in less than 15 minutes. We all head to bed in the camp, and again, I can’t truly believe we're sleeping in the jungle.

Our jungle kitchen and shelter for one night. We drank river water boiled over a fire pit, and ate the most delicious bergedel, chicken rendeng, tempeh, and some of the sweetest fruits we’ve ever had. 

Our jungle kitchen and shelter for one night. We drank river water boiled over a fire pit, and ate the most delicious bergedel, chicken rendeng, tempeh, and some of the sweetest fruits we’ve ever had. 

Sonny takes us all back the next day (after a heavy breakfast), and after a short raft ride down the river, we stop for another 3 hours of trekking and more orangutans. We stay with a mother and its infant for another hour, as Joh and Marine slowly fall in love with them. I understand then that Joh’s silent wish is to experience this trip to the fullest and be most mindful of this experience. I might try it, I tell myself, but only when I can make sure Madie won’t feel too lonely. As we get back in town, her wish ends - and her voice starts filling the room. She has a lot of catching up to do, and we all have a lot to talk about after such an experience.

After the blues of Komodo and Kawah Ijen, after the bright colors and pretty pastels of Bali and Yogyakarta, Sumatra and Bukit Lawang took us to verdant greens and bright oranges. In Indonesia, we saw nature as we never imagined, from the depth of Komodo to the lush jungle of Gunung Leuser; we swam with manta rays and counted oranges with orangutans. We explored the Hindu and Buddhist past in Bali and Yogyakarta, marveled at the vibrant canang saris and waterworn walls of the water palace. We lived Ramadan in the streets of many cities, listening to the Muezzin’s song, getting filled with street food at the wrong time. We went up the raw paths of volcanoes at dark hours to tickle our throats; we drove on a motorcycle in the pouring rain. We haggled, avoided tourist traps, still paying too much the scammers. But maybe more importantly, we went through it all with the warmth of the Indonesians, guiding our way to make sure we saw the beauty of their country. There would be too many names to write and to thank, but we remember all of them, their smiles, laughs and clove cigarettes.

Indah means beautiful in Indonesian, coincidentally giving root to a well-named country. In 28 days, Indonesia took us through quite a trip, with all its colors and characters, each island with its identity and richness. We saw too little of Indonesia in the end, but it will bring us back, cantik Madie and I, to the jungle, the sea or the temples - or maybe next time to the tribes near Papua New Guinea. For now, it’s time for a short flight to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.

Tips and Links

  • The Gunung Leuser National Park is a protected forest and is part of the World Heritage site: the Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra. It is one of the only two remaining natural habitats for Sumatran orangutans and is also home elephants, tigers, rhinoceroses and more.
  • Oil palm farming and illegal logging are still large threats to the park and its diversity. This is from a report in 2011: “Despite being protected by federal law from any form of destructive encroachment, illegal logging is still rampant in the forest, with the foliage of the Leuser ecosystem disappearing at a rate of 21,000 hectares per year.” How to help? Support low-impact ecotourism to provide another economy to the region, buy sustainable palm oil FSC-certified products, and go visit the orangutans!
  • Bukit Lawang is the village at the entrance of the Gunung Leuser park. It’s a little bit of an adventure to get there. We roughed it up with a bus ride, but you can also find private drivers through your hotel for Rp 500,000 - 600,000. More info at bukitlawang.com/Transport 
  • Thomas’ Retreat was a great place to stay, with some of the best food in town. They also organize treks in the jungle.