Wednesday, January 24, 2007

It's a Jungle Out There

Or, Into the Woods

On my first day in Sumatra, in the small town of Bukittinggi, a man walked up to me on the street and started chatting. His Indonesian was clear and easy to understand, and he was funny and knew a lot about the area, so I played along and let myself get taken to the town’s clock tower, traditional dance hall, and night market. The next morning, as I was touring a particularly scenic spot, he walked up and claimed he had been looking for me all morning: where had I been? I was planning on walking to a nearby town famous for its silver production, about an hour’s walk away, so he offered to accompany me and show me some sights along the way, such as his ganja farm and, right next door, his childhood home. I’m far more na├»ve than you’d expect, so of course I accepted his offer and we set out. It was only a half-hour later, well-entangled in what I would call a jungle but what he adamantly insisted was only the woods, that the various dangers of my situation occurred to me. By that time, however, I was far too lost to go back on my own, so I shrugged and put thoughts of rape and murder out of my head.

I’m glad I did. The hike took about four hours, and, no matter what my guide claimed, we were definitely not on the path that Lonely Planet had mentioned—Lonely Planet didn’t warn me about fording a thigh-deep river four times, or climbing up rock walls, or walking through mud to my ankles--but it was fantastic. The night before, my guide had claimed to be an orang hutan*, or "man of the forest," and in the clear light of day, this turned out to be true. He knew everything about the forest, and showed me which plants are good for toothache and which ones were good for getting high. (I suspect he had a lot of experience with the latter.) He knew which plants would fold up delicately if you touched them—“Check it out!” he said, “It’s a Muslim plant!”—and which plants would hurt you if you even thought about touching them. He cut raw cinnamon from its tree and gave me unripe coffee beans, plucked straight from the bush, as souvenirs. He shushed me as a snake crossed the path, pointed out a gigantic elephant beetle sleeping on a tree branch, and noticed when an eagle was soaring far overhead. He also, of course, taunted me for my city-girl ways, clumsy about stepping over fallen tree branches, laughed uproariously at my nervousness when several of the free-range water buffaloes we encountered took a strong interest in me and trotted over to say hello, and made it overwhelmingly obvious that he expected me to sleep with him in exchange for the tour.

For the record, I did not, but it was equally obvious that most Western tourists would, and did. My guide had a whole collection of amazing stories—“when I was young and the water buffaloes were my best friends”; “the time I got bitten by a snake and my dog saved my life”; “when I lived on the streets of Jakarta”; “how I visited all 31 provinces of Indonesia without any money”—that were, I think, about 30% true and 70% cleverly calculated to seduce impressionable young white girls. He also had a whole litany of easy-conquest stories: the Dutch girl, the French girl, the Australian girl, the British girl. I told him pretty plainly that no, I was not his girlfriend-to-be and he should stop introducing me as such, and no, I was not going to go home with him, and no, I was not going to be "the American girl" on his list. To his credit, he didn't immediately leave me in the wilderness, but continued being friendly, though I did have to work to keep his hand off my knee. Hope springs eternal, I guess. I was not sorry to disappoint him, and that evening, after returning to civilization, such as it was, I politely thanked him, gave him a fake phone number, and promptly skipped town.

So here’s to you, King of the Swingers. May you live out many more happy days as a jungle VIP, and may you, next time, find a girl who will fall for the snake bite story. Thanks for the great day.

*whence the English "orangutan," for the interested


Tolkien Boy said...

You really need to stop being so friendly to potentially dangerous men.

That said, "orangutan" looks very nice with a "g" attached, don't you think?

Katya said...

"I . . . gave him a fake phone number . . ."

Yes! She can be taught!

And the bit about the etymology of orangutan has made my week. :)

TheParents said...

We will pretend we didn't read this one lest it give us nightmares.

Melyngoch said...

Well . . . I feel like I should disapprove. But man, everything you learned in kindergarten did nothing for you here.