Just another day in Aceh Province: crazy jungle trekking and rebels

Posted on 11 March 2011

I’m going to tell you a story about how I went on a trek into a jungle in Northern Sumatra. This was before the tsunami, a few years back, but still whilst Aceh province (where this particular story takes place) was a battle ground for government and rebel forces.

The story starts in the Sumatran Port of Medan. I and my mute travelling companion at the time had arrived after a horrifyingly long voyage from Malaysia. Only by rationing out the remaining nine generic valiums did we manage to force ourselves out of consciousness, and with that escape the incessant optimism of the 64-year-old American Missionary to our right.

On the bus from the port to the town an overweight Indonesian called Monty befriended us, and convinced us to come and stay at his guest house. His guest house turned out not to be the seething opium den I had been hoping for, but we did meet Fido there, a skinny Indonesian with long hair and a photo album. Fido gave me and The Mute a cigarette each, sat us down in the yard in the balmy tropical dusk, and showed us the pictures in his album.

To be honest the pictures were terrible – blurry and unsaturated photographs of what looked like a dismembered toy orangutan strung up on a tree. Anyway, we stuffed a wad of cash in his hands and arranged to meet him the next morning to depart for the jungle.

The journey to the jungle was relatively uneventful. It did involve a five hour trip in an open truck in pouring rains, but the bedraggled chicken that had decided to make a toilet out of my feet made the rain seem altogether refreshing. Several armed checkpoints and aggressive glances later, we arrived. A note: when dealing with South East Asian military personnel, don’t act mute – my travelling companion was of course, not acting, but nevertheless it didn’t work out very well for him.

Our jungle guides were to be Fido, the skinny, long haired gentleman (the kind of man you wouldn’t want on your side in a fight) and another man whose name I forget – most likely because he never spoke directly to me. He talked to The Mute a lot, and I took this as a clear sign of his extensive levels of self involvement. Regardless of this, he looked like just the man for the job. He was compact, his rusty machete was at least half his height, and on his barefooted frame he carried his pack, our tent, two woks, three large cooking utensils, food for four people for three days, and two kilograms of a very pungent, but ethically sourced, tobacco substitute.

Two hours in, The Mute had been lost. We doubled back and found him panic stricken, facing off a large troop of oversized ants. The nameless guide giggled, and picked one of the inch-long ants up, letting it run around on his hand, and up his arm. It was when he looked us in the eyes, smiled warmly and nodded, and turned to start off on the path again that my confidence began to wane. He had not removed the immense ant, but just let it run up his arm and now around on his back as he hopped nimbly in front of me. Was this the kind of man I wanted taking care of me in the dense rainforest?

We came eventually to our resting point for the evening, by a small river. What made this spot special was the accompanying hot spring, which fed steaming hot water into the flow of the river. Past trekkers had built a makeshift dam across half of the river, thereby creating a natural Jacuzzi. I tinkered with the taps (smaller stones used to alter the quantities of hot spring and river water) to create the perfect temperature, stripped the sweaty clothes from my body and slid in.

I spent the next two days in this jungle Jacuzzi, accompanied occasionally by The Mute, at most times by the ethereal sounds of monkeys whooping above me, and at all times by a cigar-sized Indonesian clove cigarette. The smoke from these cigarettes is so dense that I would often surge into consciousness, gagging on the hot water, having passed out momentarily from (I can only assume) lack of oxygen.

Our trek back went smoothly apart from the harsh re-entry into human society. Even a short time in the jungle can leave one extremely sensitive to the abrasive sounds of mopeds and cars, and the aggressive exclamations of other people. Just two minutes after we had emerged from the thick undergrowth onto a small tarmacked road, three men appeared a couple of metres in front of us. Each had a machete slung from his waist, and rebel forces insignia on his bandana and shirt. One wore red slip slops so bright that for a second I was transfixed by them as my visual cortex readjusted to such an unnatural colour palette. Worryingly, Fido and his friend immediately skipped behind me and The Mute, rendering us effectively human shields.

I saw the red slip slop man’s hand slowly moving towards the handle of his machete at the same time that The Mute took a confident step towards the trio. I raised my hand to hold back The Mute by the shoulder, but too late. By now red slip slop man had his machete raised menacingly at our faces, and had machine gunned out a few staccato words to The Mute. No response. Obviously. The Mute reached into his back pocket, and for one tense moment I thought it was all over – red slip slops had taken a step forwards, and his two companions had their hands on their machetes as well. The Mute removed a packet of clove cigarettes, and with a large, literally disarming grin on his face, offered them to the three rebels. The tension dissolved as quickly as it had arisen – the trio took the packet of cigarettes, and disappeared back into the jungle on the other side of the road.

So ended our jungle trek experience: hot springs, giant ants, whooping monkeys, clove cigarettes and machetes. Oh I forgot to mention – we did see one Orangutan as well. It was hanging from all four arms/legs, twenty metres above the ground, urinating. Just another day in Aceh Province.

Picture courtesy of Krishna Kumar

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