…clinging to my scruffy looking seat in this small regional (Merpati Airlines, now defunct) propeller driven plane that uses a large Velcro strap to hold fast the exterior cabin door?
And what’s that damp stain… is that rain seeping through the small window pane, sliding down the interior wall beside me?
I am hyperventilating, praying, willing a safe landing on this short flight from the mainland of Indonesia to Kalimantan, the Indonesian section of this giant, rugged island of Borneo. My husband, Norm, seated beside me, is asleep. Calm, relaxed, always ready for an adventure, his head flops back and forth as the plane dipsy doodles up and down. He does not know how close we are to not making our destination, I think.
Why am I the only one so stressed?
Years ago, I used to be the reluctant traveller. But I’ve changed. Sort of. Sometimes. Partly it’s because my husband and I have had some marvelously life changing --- a charitable word --- adventures on our world travels. Deep down inside, I knew I always wanted to experience my own unadulterated delight in exploring a culture other than my own. But it’s taken me years to get to this acceptance stage. Meaning, I get it now. I can leave for uncharted territory without a bad case of culture shock, jittery nerves, and hysteria.
But I don’t get this current situation we’re in…flying on an out-of-date airplane in an area of the world where safety first does not seem the motto.
We’ve explored Indonesia for six weeks now. This forthcoming Kalimantan excursion is our final destination.
We are heading for Tanjung Puting National Park and Camp Leakey, an Orangutan Recovery Station. Camp Leakey was founded by Canadian orangutan researcher Dr. Biruté Galdikas in 1971. The camp’s name honours famed paleo-anthropologist Louis Leakey, who funded Galdikas' orangutan research. (Leakey also funded Jane Goodall's work with chimpanzees and Dian Fossey's studies with mountain gorillas. The three women became known as The Trimates, or Leakey’s Angels.)
But before we get to meet our orangutan relatives, we hole up in Surabaya, East Java. From this city’s airport we will fly to Kalimantan.
At last --- after a depressing two day stay in our gloomy vintage English-style lodgings--- we arrive at the Surabaya airport, eager to move on, to study the orangutans at Camp Leakey.
But first we must board our flight. The open concept airport is bustling: that familiar humid, sticky smell of the tropics is stifling. Large overhead ceiling fans do little to provide relief. My stomach butterflies are in full flight.
Confirmed tickets in hand, we step to the counter.
“Sorry. No room,” says the airline attendant.
“What? But we have confirmed tickets. Right here….” And we show our printed proof.
“Sorry. No room,” the attendant says again as if we are deaf. “Next please!”
We are unceremoniously given the bum’s rush.
Astonished, we look around in disbelief, and then despair. Our flight to Kalimantan is leaving shortly. Lucky for us (later I think not so lucky), one of our country contacts who drove us to the airport, has not left. He was waiting to make sure we made our flight.
Wide-eyed, we explain our predicament.
He says only one thing. “Do you have a plain white envelope?”
I’m slow to catch on. Norm is not.
“You mean a bribe?” when it finally dawns on me.
“These people do not make much money,” says our contact.
Norm stuffs the equivalent of $20 Cdn in the envelope, seals it, grabs our tickets and me again, says goodbye once more to our man on the ground, surreptitiously slips our white envelope to the same counter attendant. As if we are VIPs, we are whisked through the gate to the waiting plane on the tarmac.
One look at the seen-better-days plane and I’m sorry we’ve spent money on a bribe.
So here we are now: me, my husband, and a few other foolish/hardy souls, aboard this flight to the jungle. I continually eyeball the Velcro strap holding closed the exterior door for fear it will release. Praying the Velcro will hold. And, what’s this now? Rain! Well, this is a tropical country. Sudden rainfalls are common. But since when does rainwater seep into, and slide down, the wall of an airplane in flight?
Somehow, after a one-a-half-hour-hold-my-breath flight, we land --- safely --- and find ourselves in a seedy, damp smelling airport, the humidity ramped higher by the passing rainstorm. Our hotel is not far in this coastal jungle town of Pangkalan Bun, gateway to Tanjung Puting National Park and our orangutan venture.
Mishaps begin almost immediately. Our taxi, sputtering along a muddy, pot-holed road to our hotel, breaks down. Our driver is exasperatingly apologetic, waving down prospective replacements as they slosh by. I need to use a washroom in the worst way. Fetid smells mixed with steaming air are upsetting my fragile innards again.
Finally, in an actually operating taxi, we arrive at our top-rated hotel. ‘Top rated’ because each room has an attached mandi (bathroom), a frivolous detail I insist we include when finding accommodation in a jungle town. By this time, I am desperately in need of a mandi.
Bursting into the room, all looks fine…the usual accoutrements, bed, windows, wardrobe, mirror…but where’s the mandi? I spy a door on the far side of the room, race across the bare floor, thrust open the door. And stop suddenly.
To get to the mandi, I must first manoeuvre down a few steps to a lower room. The odour from this area is most foul: sewage mixed with heat, humidity, mildew, tropical rot.
The next morning, we begin our two hour --- seems much longer --- journey by motorboat to Tanjung Puting National Park and the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre at Camp Leakey.
Our young male guide, Bayu (meaning Wind), is effervescent, accommodating, and knowledgeable. He offers us the only meal we will eat that day (although we do not know this at the time). Served cold, the two boxes come from his cache of items stowed beneath his driver’s seat at the stern of the motorboat where potent gasoline fumes are profuse.
Our cuisine is cold fried chicken, rice, gado gado (mix-mix), a traditional Indonesian dish of available vegetables --- bean sprouts, tofu, cucumbers, all mixed in a spicy peanut sauce --- and bottled water. (By the end of this Indonesian adventure, when we lived almost exclusively on fish, rice and gado-gado, I refused any of these foods for months after our return to Canada.)
Bayu proves a knowledgeable English-speaking guide. With a flashing smile that shows off his white teeth, he pronounces proudly: “On this (Sekonyer) river at night, we will see hundreds of monkeys, thousands of fireflies…” It’s a phrase we still use to exaggerate any claims. He also conveniently forgot to mention zillions of mosquitoes.
Soon after our departure on this muddy river, the menacing sky launches its monsoon-like rains.
We are drenched by this torrential downpour in the open speedboat. Bayu smiles and nods as he skillfully manoeuvres the boat through tangled jungle growth in the heavy deluge. At times there is no open water path, so, like Jungle Jim, he takes his machete and cuts a swathe through the overgrowth. Nonchalantly, he weaves his boat through this thick maze of wilderness. I keep watch for coiled snakes to drop in on us.
Finally, we arrive at Camp Leakey. Like a lucky omen, the hot tropical sun suddenly emerges to beat down and greet us. Now we are drenching in sweat.
As soon as Bayu docks, my husband, eager to finally see these People of the Forest, leaps from the boat to the long wooden boardwalk. I lag behind to take in a wider view of a low building at the end of the boardwalk surrounded by dense verdant bush. Then I hoist myself onto the walk.
That’s when I notice a reddish-brown, life-size, lumbering orangutan. A female from the look of her (Adult females weigh between 30 to 50 kg (66 to 110 lb.) and stand about one m (3.3 ft.) in height), she appears on the boardwalk from the surrounding jungle. Like a shy bride --- and studying us creatures with curiosity --- she cautiously approaches Norm, who looks enraptured. She only has eyes for him. He only has eyes for her.
Right now, my brain disengages, clicks into slow motion.
Languorously, the beautiful creature extends a long hairy arm towards Norm, as if to touch his hand in greeting. I can see he is thrilled with this gesture. He extends his. It is love at first sight.
I watch in awe as she curls those long, strong, human-like fingers around Norm’s wrist and hand. In a trance it appears, he willingly grasps her hand in return. Gradually, slowly, still mesmerizing with her dark chocolate-coloured eyes, she begins to walk away with him. Like an odd couple, my husband and Jezebel stroll hand in hand; they begin to veer off the ramp together towards the jungle. Little do I know my husband’s calm demeanour is beginning to fade as he realizes her grip is iron-clad. She tightens her hold but does not hurt. There is no escaping her clutch.
In my slow-motion mode, it appears she intends to take him with her, perhaps back to her nest.
And it occurs to me at that moment, I might lose him. Forever. To a fearfully strong rival.
My mind flashes forward, entertains crazy thoughts. What will I tell our three sons…that their father chose an orangutan over me? Our youngest might think that’s cool.
What will I tell our friends --- he left me for a female orangutan? One of them might rebound with ‘was she sexy?’
What will I tell each set of parents? Norm’s parents will be horrified. Mine, at least my artist father, might be intrigued with the possibility this is a surreal adventure.
Suddenly, as if in a jungle movie when the director yells CUT!, an assistant from the camp appears, races along the boardwalk from the low building. He yells at Jezebel, gestures wildly, frantically waves his arms.
She turns and looks at him with soft, languid eyes.
The assistant speaks harshly in an Indonesian dialect to her. She looks confused. Her feelings are hurt. She suddenly releases Norm’s hand. Backs shyly into the dense bush. We all watch in awe as she swings from tree branch to tree branch, disappearing from sight without a backward glance at her jilted lover.
I stare at Norm. He stares back in disbelief, shakes his hand, as if to feel it’s still there.
We will always remember this close encounter with Jezebel as the day I almost lost my husband in the Indonesian Jungle.
And I forgot my camera.