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Published: December 13th 2008
me shortly before the adventure
i get lost in obvious places and wander around for days, creating all kinds of drama for nothing...
It all began with a description in the regional introduction to Aceh Selatan in my little brochure: a peaceful secluded bay 2km over a small hill from a village 12km south of the small town of Tapaktuan; there is a small hut whose owners only occasionally come by. And where there is habitation there must be access to fresh water. I had spent a week bumming on beaches on Sabang Island (aka Pulau Weh) and I was ready for another experience of paradise.
I awoke from my first night spent in a hotel since Ketambe, nearly a month ago. A smiling english-speaking young man I had met the day before was hanging around waiting for me downstairs: "So, I have nothing to do today, maybe I can take you around.. there are waterfalls and jungle treks..." he began, not realizing that suggestions are anathema to me. Still smarting from the shame of my suspicion of people who then turned out to be extremely hospitable and kind, I tried to preserve his feelings: "Yes you see after Aceh I'm going to have to begin to hurry, I need to be in Bandung in 3 weeks to extend my visa and I don't know when I will have the opportunity again, so I want to spend the next few days relaxing and catching up on some reading and writing" and told him I'd be heading to said bay for some camping. True to style he was horrified: camping? alone? no no... that's not possible. There are good people and bad people and even *I* don't go to remote villages alone, I always make sure I have a local host. "Yes, but you see I have been in Aceh for a month and I think the people are very kind and I'm not at all worried... Besides, what are you suggesting? Are they going to murder me?" He eventually mumbled that I might be robbed, but the very thought so offended me that I was too angry to continue the conversation and got up and left for fear of losing it. Rob?? Me?
And in Aceh too? Do you know how many compromising situations I've been in the past month? I head out to the market to spend myself into a good mood.
I have had the most wonderful experiences at Indonesian markets: once they realize you're shopping for flour, oil, onions, chili, garlic, vegetables, dried fish, ground coffee, eggs, rice and raw peanuts -- and not for a good photo or a "local experience" -- they seem quite willing to overlook your white skin and treat you like an equal. I do, however, admit some difficulty explaining why I'm 30 and still single, and that I'm not really interested in marrying a young beautiful Acehnese girl who lives in their village nearby. I must have been carrying at least 6-7kg of food (bananas and papaya weigh quite a bit) by the time I left with a satisfied sigh.
It seemed too early in he day to start, so I spent 3 hours downloading audiobooks and downsampling them before eventually taking my place at the side of the road to hail a labi-labi
: the time was 4:30pm. Retaining a germ of realism, I still felt confident of arriving at the beach as the sun disappeared below the horizon -- probably not much sooner. I have been blessed so consistently and repeatedly that I have no reason to suspect it will be otherwise. The unexpected lift gave me further confidence: The Universe Is With Us!
And I have heard the usual pronouncements of "you can't do it alone; you need a guide; it's too late in the day; it's too far; it's too difficult; hire a boat; take a taxi; blah blah" too many times to take them seriously in any context. Yes, the sun is going down, but 2km through the jungle takes an hour, and I have about an hour before sunset and a further bonus half hour before it gets pitch dark. Besides, I've done jungles before. Right?
The path began with wading through knee-deep water: I would normally have nothing to something like that, but there was somebody going ahead to show me the trailhead , and I didn't want to seem like I'd lived in the city all my life and never waded through swampy water before (I hadn't). Besides, the base was firm, presumably with large pieces of coral and we were "twins" because we were wearing the very same brand of all-rubber, laced Taiyokos
with crampons to boot, real genuine jungle villager gear (costing 80 cents a pair) and I was confident all would be well. This was much better that what I was shod with in Taman Negara.
I generally find it easier to climb than to descend, especially in slippery muddy trails, and the going was tiring but steady although it seemed the return would be difficult, especially after rain. By the time I reached the top and could hear the waves loudly crashing below I was drenched in sweat and very thirsty but the sun was already disappearing and I had to press on without a moment to spare. Except that to my amazement the "broadest, most defined path" lead to a couple of fruit trees and then ended. I (despite the lack of time) tried beating around, then retracing my steps and trying alternate paths, but in every case they seemed to lead to unlikely-looking drops or thorn-filled bush, clearly not downhill where I needed to be hurrying. And, as it grew dark I panicked hearing the loud scream the jungle insects make at sunset: now exhausted, literally soaked through, hungry and increasingly thirsty with no hope of water before the "spring" I expected to find below. I pressed on to the goal: a nice camp in the porch of the deserted hut, and if necessary I can tie rope to my pot to use it to draw water if the "spring" turns out to be a well. But in the near-sighted light of my headlamp even backtracking proved to be extremely difficult, with the smallest amount of clearing suggesting a trail, and by the time it reached a deadend and I turned around I had no idea which way I had come. I had been mocking those with their names on the wall of shame at the tourism office at Berestagi : they had gotten lost in the jungle for days or some had even died going up a volcano with an extremely obvious path. Now I felt the divine retribution mentioned in Turkish proverbs. OK, I thought, now I know better and won't do it again. Lesson learned. Now, how about that hut...?
Having exhausted the obvious trails, in desperation I struck out in any direction that in the weak LED light seemed remotely possible. I reached a bit of a gradual cliff and (fully convinced that I was so far on the right path) decided I should explore alternate paths down without my 20+kg bags, which I would then return for as soon as the trail became obvious. After a moment's hesitation I clipped my ipod to my belt: money belt, headlamp and ipod , now all I have that's worth stealing (and the headlamp is dubious) is with me. With a considerably lighter step I clambered down and almost immediately came across a path which I followed further to make sure it didn't lead to another dead end 10m away. When I satisfied myself that it really was the "broad and wide" I turned back for my gear, climbing up a likely-looking slope only to find myself in a different spot and without any trace of my bags. Taking into account the fact that distances seem shorter on the return trip I thought I couldn't be far off, except this was one of those troublesome situations where there is a cliff of rock to skirt and find gradual slopes up, so that there was no possibility of bushwhacking but only a discrete number of rock-separated slopes to climb. And a horrible belt of fruit trees hugging the foot of the rock, so that the path seemed to lead nowhere and often terminated at the foot of a tree in the middle of nowhere. And then I'd circle around trying to rediscover the way I had come. The thirst became unbearable, and the knowledge that my dehydration was unlikely to be serious after only a day didn't do much to moisten my lips. Hours passed, I went around and around in circles. I took every likely-looking trail and often realized I had been the same way a dozen times already. I was utterly lost even though I knew I couldn't be more than 100m from the trail. Eventually, on the upper side of the rock I stumbled upon a trail which I recognized to be the one leading back to the village; now I wasn't technically lost but I guess my bags were. And I still had no idea how to get down the rock and onto the lower part of the trail. I looked at the time on my ipod: 10:20pm.
I decided it would now be smooth sailing (at least I was out of those nasty fruit trees) and only a matter of retracing my steps and relocating my bags. But there was no moon and my LED lamp only illuminates the path immediately in front of your feet: I could have passed 2m from my bags and never noticed them. I retraced my steps, back all the way to the top of the hill and then down again, vaguely remembering certain spots, but without any sign of the broken grassy clearing where I had left my bags. I had arrived at the spot in desperation and had no collection of how I reached it.
The next time I checked it was almost 1am, and I had to face the fact that any further effort would be pointless. I would only tire myself further and make things more difficult for me in the morning. I found it ironic that my bag was full of food, had a stove, juicy fruit, a sleeping mat, mosquito net and many other essentials to make a night in the jungle not unpleasant: after all, I do try to plan. But it was now of no use to me, and a liability that only caused me frustration and fatigue. And I resolved to never again make fun of people who get drugged and their bags stolen.
I had by now thoroughly explored the area and come across a spot at the foot of a rock where there were a couple of charred sticks to show man had slept there in the past. I had no means of making fire, but I trust animals' instinctive avoidance of humans, and the fact that the fruit trees must be visited frequently enough to mark the area as "human-owned". Judging further that the fruit (although clearly not ripe and unidentified in shape and size) must be edible if cultivated, I tentatively at a couple to allay my thirst (they were very sour but the taste grows on you). Then, not without some pleasure at the imagery, I found a stone to use as a pillow and settled down wondering if I too would find a stairway to heaven.
Then it began to rain. By a stroke of luck there was a rock projecting over my bed-spot which gave me shelter and I was further able to drink a few mouthfuls of rain water dripping down from it. Some dude in Berestagi survived by soaking his tshirt in rain water and drinking from it, but I don't think my body would take it kindly if I drank anything coming from this tshirt . Actually, when all is considered, things could have ended up considerably worse. But this also meant my bags would be out soaking in the rain all night, my diary and books turning to pulp, my clothing absorbing water which would add yet more weight. But I was forced to face the fact that there was nothing more I could do but go to sleep.
And a rock makes a surprisingly good pillow (well, in hindsight at least), and it's amazing how one can sleep in the strangest circumstances. I awoke early and waited for it to be light enough to see my surroundings before setting out to continue the search. It is, after all, easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
Daylight revealed that the area was essentially as I had understood it in the dark, except now it was less terrifying to get stuck among thorns or clamber down a ledge. A couple hours later I crashed through an unlikely-looking thicket and saw my bags sitting very dignified indeed and it was with the joy of being reunited with long-lost friends that I pounced on them and proceeded to eat a quantity of bananas sufficient to make a non-glutton sick. Short pygmy bananas half filled with hard seeds which make even gluttony a reflective art. I had been going in circles around this spot all night, since in fact it was one of the least likely places to lead anywhere, and I must have been seriously panicked to have got here at all. By now I had discovered the small cleft in the rock (marked by a small black
plastic bag on a twig stuck in the ground) which was the way down, so steadying myself with a stick down the slippery slopes and with a healthy amount of trip-creepers cutting at the top of my feet or string-like branch things covered in short curved thorns -- which mercilessly cling to skin or cloth and must be dislodged with the utmost care -- grabbing at me, and a fair distribution of wipeouts (which were surprisingly painless), I made my way to the bottom.
When I finally reached there I was so enamored with the prospect of this (late) union with my promised-land of hut and well and beach and coconut trees and sand that without further thought I splashed through the stagnant gray water at the foot of the cliff (after all, there had been the same back at the village), through the rotting carcasses of trees in a swamp and onto waist-high green grass, with more of an eye for fallen coconuts than any regard for the way I was going: to the sea, duh! I found the beach a very narrow strip of sand reaching with the waves reaching the high grass in high tide. I walked along the bay but found no hut. Nor well. The layout was: cliffs, swamp, grass, sand, waves. And cliffs bordered the bay on either side. At one corner of the bay was a bit of a clearing where a horizontal long trunk of appropriate height for my mosquito net was the obvious choice to set up camp. The place wasn't my earthly paradise by a long shot, but I must spend the night at least, and it would make most sense to finish my food before the return journey. 3 breakfasts and 2 dinners: with a little effort I could get through most of the food.
I wasn't reckoning on having to boil water, though, and had a little over half a litre of kerosene which now looked a bit low. The swamp water should be drinkable if boiled appropriately and maybe flavored with green tea leaves, despite its brown color and myriad darting creatures and rotting leaves and wood in it. After all, it's only germs, right? At any rate I had no intention of drinking it without no treatment, and no other source of fresh water.
My gear was all soaked so I hung it out to air and dry before sitting down to a satisfying breakfast of coffee and freshly roasted peanuts and pancakes with bananas. After that I was too exhausted to do anything but lay listening to the audiobook of Chesterton's Orthodoxy
. It got as far as I had previously read and then the battery died; it hasn't been the same since I dropped it in a bucket of water in Karimabad . My arms up to my elbows and my feet up to my knees were covered in welts and scratches from the night's adventures, but I was pleased in my investment in Betadine which proved itself to be all the wonder-working miracle fluid I could hope for. Perhaps more annoyingly, my feet had been wet in water-filled rubber shoes for 16 hours and my toenails had begun to swell, particularly my right big toenail was swollen and tender and as my left toenail still hasn't recovered from Taman Negara , I wasn't too pleased at the prospect of losing the right one just now. I had read of something similar happening to people fighting in trenches during WWI.
By dinnertime my urine color had cleared up, and my meal of greens, tempe and dried fish with rice was delicious. But the place was literally crawling with hermit crabs, clambering over each other zombie-fashion, clustering around my mat and getting into my food, a very army of creeping zombies. More worrying were the black beady centipede-like creatures with pincers on both ends (I believe these were what we'd call ciyan
in Turkish, reputed to have a nasty bite capable of making a limb swell up painfully), hiding under dry leaves and to my dismay not respecting the territorial integrity of my mat and making regular forays across it. I tried killing one but they proved to be virtually indestructible: after any amount of squishing they get back up and continue, all the while holding on and trying to escape with their claw-like legs and generally freaking me out. A slobbering crab was running around looking retarded (if it was a person I would be convinced he was trying to distract me so he could steal my gear), and when he noticed the /ciyan/ pinned down by my knife he rushed up, grabbed it in its claws and proceeded to bite off the head and then tear off and eat the segments of its body. I had found an ally! I fed him another intruder. But the crab still struck me as mentally deficient (especially with all that slobbering) and it was with great care that I patted down with sand the edges of my mosquito net and cleared the vicinity of dry leaves before I lay down to bed, my gear returned to the bag and my rain poncho as a pillow for easy access in case of emergency. And sure enough it rained and all I could do was cover myself with the poncho like a sheet and try to ignore the rain that ran off its sides to form a puddle on the mat right under my ass. I was to remain wet for the next few days.
I awoke in the morning with a minor earthquake, which was a little disturbing considering the waves were crashing not more than 5ft from me. There's something frightening about post-tsunami beaches: one imagines them "doing it again". After all, that's clearly what has happened to this bay. As it has happened to the length of the west coast of Aceh , rice paddies and lowlands have turned to swamps with grey rotting trees still projecting out of the stagnant ponds, houses demolished, towns and even cities made completely uninhabitable. Yet for some reason the aid agencies rebuilt the houses in their former locations, perhaps not realizing that a house at the edge of a swamp is hardly habitable. It was shortly before sunrise and everything was grey. The hermit crabs had crawled in and up the mosquito net. All is wet (again) and must be aired out and dried. Breakfast is pancakes with banana and papaya but the fuel is running now and I have to be careful.
I almost always feel better after eating, and I was soon in the mood for exploration. That thing that looks like a path up the rocks to the right leads to a cliff with the waves beating and bursting beneath. I see the rain coming over the sea, and rush back down to take down my clothes before it arrives, but I'm too late and by the time I arrive it's pouring down and everything is soaked. The best I can do is to make a pile and cover it all with the poncho. I, not being made of sugar, continue to explore. There are a couple of low coconut trees to the left that can be partially climbed. I don't know how I know that coconuts should be twisted off, but it's hard work holding on with my right hand and twisting and twisting the things the size of volleyballs. Coconut juice will be a good supplement to my boiled swamp water. I nearly fall off and find myself dangling in the air and end up scratching my arms even more. Walking through the high grass is alarming: this is clearly *not* human territory, and I'm sure snakes don't appreciate being rudely trodden on (I've recently read The Jungle Books). The far left side of the bay also has a path up rocks with a similar view. Then I thought it would be a good idea "for the fun of it" to make sure I still know the way out. A dry run, you know, to minimize surprises. Easy enough: there are only a couple of potential slopes between the faces of rock, and mine should be an obvious trail leading through the grey water.
The idea of an "obvious trail" is highly relative, however, especially in a swamp where it's very easy to imagine paths through rotting logs and leaves. But they usually end in pools of water or impassible thorns creepers and branches. And then, I wasn't meant to be hacking a trail through the jungle: this is supposed to be a (reasonably) frequented trail, one I myself came down only a day ago. I wandered at the foot of the cliff for hours looking for the "grey water" but couldn't find any. The going was hard through the winding "paths" and I frequently had to wade into pools, which I didn't think much of until I sank in the soft mud up to my waist a couple of times and developed a healthy fear and horror of the swamp. It was with great disgust and relief that I splashed through the last bit and arrived at the firm land in my camp: I had now walked along the entire foot of the hill and hadn't found the grey water or a reasonable-looking way out of this mess. The tracks left by rainwater are quite similar to that of a trail (less leaves, branches, etc), but the couple candidate slopes seemed too step to be the ones I had come down with my heavy bag. But then, things always do seem to work out somehow. My food finishes tomorrow morning, I'll leave after breakfast and somehow I'll find the path and get out.
There were large turtles swimming in the water a few feet from my camp, their heads occasionally emerging looking like bits of floating logs, and I could see their silhouettes suspended in the middle of waves as they broke. Quite beautiful, I thought. Same menu for dinner. And not so scared of the /ciyan/s tonight. Hermit crabs are seriously the most senseless creatures I've seen. Rain again. Wet again. My left toenail has a big blister under it: it throbs when I stick my scissors into it and drain out the fluid. My right hand has a big gash from some thorns: my skin is absorbing water and getting very soft and easy to tear. I need to get out, and the walk tomorrow is not going to be fun.
I awake and immediately set stuff out to air. My gear is all still wet, but I don't want them to rot in my bag. The kerosene is almost gone. I have 2 eggs and a bunch of flour left: chapatis! Unfortunately i ran out of flour (or, which is the same, I put too much water in the dough) so it ended up being rather sticky, but quite edible when cooked. The technique and ordering is very important: first boil the water so you have coffee to drink while working. Then roast peanuts and cook the chapatis: there are some configurations which make them fluff nicely, but I'm still a beginner. The eggs must come last because they muck up the wok. All the food preparation must be completed *before* the stove is lit, since it's rather an adventure to light and it's prone to rebel and spew liquid kerosene and generally make my life miserable. After that there must be no interruptions in the cooking; the stove can only be lit once. And scrambled eggs with onions garlic and chili is delicious, especially with the black pepper I was given in Melauboh. I only boiled 1lt and drank two coconuts (one was basically empty) before packing up and heading out with the confidence that comes with a good meal and a clear day and the knowledge that I *must* get out. My batteries are almost dead, I have enough kerosene to maybe boil 2lt, and no food left: that means the universe must and will get me out of here somehow.
The swamp. Ugh. I'm frightened and disgusted. I plunge in and splash through. I walk testing my next step with my stick: sinking with 20kg strapped to your back far away from any help is no joking matter. The slope on the other side is one I have already judged to be incorrect and too steep, but I am so thoroughly disgusted by the swamp that I don't care, as long as I can get to higher ground I'm sure I can eventually bushwhack myself a path to the trail or the "fruit tree belt" which I should know pretty well by now. In fact anywhere is better than that swamp. The slope is steep and it's pretty soon obvious that this is no trail but on a fool's errand I push upwards, eventually scaling rock and mud with hands and feet, crawling through tunnels in the rock barely big enough to squeeze through and then drag my bag after me, abandoning my bag "to find the trail" (yes I don't learn), and climbing up and up until my worst fear is realized: I have climbed to the pinnacle of a rock that falls sharply on the other side to a narrow valley full of thorny undergrowth. Even in my panic and stubbornness it's obvious this is a dead end. I backtrack, retrieve my bag, crawl back through the hole, and slide down the mud slope and begin beating around for alternative paths. And there's another fruit tree or two, and half a dozen or so paths that all seem to interconnect, giving me a myriad of combinations, all of which lead nowhere. It's been raining most of the afternoon, and when I abandon the slope entirely and stumble around the swamp to try another I notice the sky darken and think it's going to rain again. I begin to clamber up, through the usual hopes and disappointments and walking in circles, imagining a trail where there is none and then eventually following my own tracks. But to my horror I realize it's getting dark because the sun has set! And I'm on a fool's errand up a mud-covered steep slippery slope with the swamp and maze of trees between me and my "camp" -- the only reasonable spot to spend the night.
I panic. I charge downhill and end up in the middle of thorns and biting ants. I scream in pain and terror: it hurts! I plunge headlong into the swamp: I *must* get across before it gets pitch dark. My batteries are seriously weak, and this is now becoming very serious. I get caught by those hateful string-like thorny creepers: simultaneously in my bag, tshirt and pants. In my pocket! It's almost impossible to disengage and the water is above my knees and the floor is soft and mushy and the light is failing and I'm frantic. As soon as I'm free I rush back the way I came, determined to skirt the swamp or do anything to avoid going back in those stagnant pools. But it was hard enough finding my way in the maze of rotting trees, fallen logs, dead leaves, creepers and pools in the daytime, and I'm seriously worried this experience will turn all my hair white. I fight my way to the grass, asking for mercy with every step I take, hemmed in by terrors on all sides, faced with failure in the simplest of my endeavors. I finally make it back to my camp. I collapse in utter frustration and dejection. No, I'm not going to even boil water. I'm on a hunger strike. Why me? What did I do to deserve this? Yes, I'm sure I have plenty of accumulated bad karma, but do you realize this is serious? I have no more food, no water, no fuel, and there are no people around to help. In fact I've been calling out "Hello!" periodically all day and haven't had a single response. I could die here if things continue this way. If I had seen a fisherboat I would have tried to signal it with my flashlight to come rescue me, but there were none, and besides I'm not sure they would be able to come too near given the coral and the waves. I am the very definition of miserable. I lay out my mat and when it starts to rain I feel even more intensely my helplessness before the unfeeling blind forces of cruel nature.
Something ran across me in the night: crab? rat? snake? I guess I can't be more freaked out than I already am. When I awake I am in no mood to take out my stove and boil water. And drinking swamp water is out of the question. I climb a tree and pull down a couple of coconuts using my rope as a kind of lasso (it may sound cool but it wasn't; the coconuts were barely 3m above the ground). One of them was rotten. The other was already mature so I couldn't smash it open and had to painstakingly husk it, a task trivial with a machete bu hard with stones and bits of coral you find on a beach. Luckily my efforts weren't in vain and the nut was good and the water delicious and the meat oily but still food. But I had finished all the low-hanging coconuts by now, so I would be in serious trouble if today I again failed to find a way out. 2 days! 2 whole days and I couldn't find a way out!
Today I am determined to completely avoid the swamp: the fear it strikes in me prevents me from thinking logically. I leave the bag and go wandering, looking for the grey water again. But there is none. I stumble around for a couple of hours. The slope I had been in the process of climbing when it got dark is also a dead end. Then I gave up on the grey water: cast your nets on the other side. I began to explore the far left corner of the bay for possibly an alternative way out (it would make sense to have multiple trails descending to the bay). Stumbling around leprous rotting dying trees and branches and leaves isn't something you get used to; it was as unpleasant as ever, and I got lost as often as before.
But then I saw the unmistakable sign of crampons in the mud and my heart skipped a beat! True, they may be my marks from yesterday, but they might also be from when I came down, or maybe another Taiyoko -wearing villager. I followed it up a short ways and it looked promising. Trembling with excitement, I left markers every 5m to make sure this time I would find it when I came back for it, and rushed back to collect my bags.
The going was steep but a few minutes on I heard a sound more pleasant than the sweetest music: the sound of human speech! I hailed them, trying to control my voice with a "Hoy! Jalan mana?" They were working with one of the fruit trees and asked me where I'm from. I was covered in mud, my clothes hadn't been dry for days, my arms full of scratches, and for all I knew I had a premature head of white hair. I'm giving Turks a bad name across the world.
And it was much preferable to being lost in a swamp, but it was still hard work climbing up and (as I predicted) even harder coming down. Surprisingly the water I had waded through on the way over was gone, so I developed theory that it may have been a tidal thing, which would also explain why I was unable to find the grey water again at the bay of horrors. People came out to watch me in the village. There's a feeling of pride one feels after having survived some pretty hairy ordeals-- even though my pants had torn at the crotch during my descent and I certainly had nothing at all to be proud of, except that i was a complete failure with an aptitude for getting repeatedly lost at the slightest provocation.
I marched on to the mosque, locked myself in a bathroom and proceeded to wash the filth and mud off of me, taking the opportunity to wash my hair and then put on a set of clean clothes before heading to the main road and flagging down a minivan going as far as possible from that swamp.
Sure, I then fell asleep on the way and missed my city by two hours; and I also paid 3 times what I normally would pay for a meal, but I didn't really mind: it's nothing in comparison with the joy I feel for being alive.
My diary entry from the next morning begins thus:
The beginning day, sleeping in a bed, sheets, shelter, being dry, being clean, being able to run my hands through my hair, clothes that are clean and dry, being able to air out wet clothes without fear of them getting wetter, being in the city and not in a swamp, having internet access around the corner and a market full of fruit and vegetables and shops down the road and clean water flowing from a tap and charging my ipod overnight: it's a wonderful thing to be alive! Praise be!
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