Easter in the jungle

 

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One of the worst things about weekends is how short they are and how quickly they disappear. As if through some sort of dark magic, Friday night manages to very quickly dissolve into Sunday afternoon. There’s a specific feeling that rolls around on Sunday night when you realise you’ve spent the last two days wearing pyjamas and playing on your phone while the TV mumbles in the background. Mourning a weekend wasted is not the best way to start a new week.

Weekend escape is a vague phrase trotted out by tour companies and airlines to sell everything from mystery hotel staycations to all-inclusive resort packages. To me though, neither of these are escape. Escape is the opposite of everyday. It’s a phone on flight mode and ignored, it’s getting dirty when the real world demands clean, it’s doing things the hard way when everything is easy and convenient. I know it’s not for everyone, but getting out into nature is my favourite way to escape. Desert, rainforest, tundra, mountains, it’s all good, but my particular favourite is the jungle. It’s immersive, unforgiving and another world completely from the sanitary, city-scapes of Singapore. Fortunately, I don’t have to go far to get my fix. An hour flight and a few hours’ drive is all it took last weekend.

Gunung Leuser National Park in Sumatra was the setting for our Easter long weekend. While our Instagram and Facebook feeds filled up with picture of foil-covered chocolate, we chose orangutans over bunnies and bird-watching over egg hunts. After a night in the hazy chaos of Medan and a winding, potholed drive, the oil palm plantations gave way to pristine rainforest and rivers so clear it was impossible to judge their depth. Bukit Lawang was our gateway to the jungle. The sleepy town leaned over the banks of the Bahorok River, whose gentle rapids were the ultimate playground for the local kids. I could have spent a week there, but all we had was one afternoon, well-spent exploring bat caves and sinking frosty Bintangs with spicy food.

Our trek began the next morning, before we had even cleared the rubber trees of the village, our guide pointed out a tiny snake halfway through swallowing a frog that was three or four times its size. Welcome to the jungle.

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Much like the hapless frog and the, likely very full, snake, the jungle has a way of consuming you. It dictates your every movement and permeates your every thought. Humidity settles around you like a thick coat and your eyes become sensitive to flurries of movement in your peripheral vision. Time is blurred: you could have been walking for ten minutes or an hour, the trees dilute the sun’s light and make it impossible to judge what a clock might say. But suddenly, it doesn’t matter.

The boots that seemed so bulky and unwieldy when you stuffed them in your check-in luggage are the only thing stopping you from slipping on damp leaf litter and hidden slick clay. Fingers that spend most of their time tapping on keyboards are suddenly grasping rocky ledges and curling around vines. You’re not sure if you’re soaked with rain or sweat, your arms bear the marks of mosquitoes and sharp sticks, mud cakes around your boots and also your bum from scooting down those places that were just too steep. But you don’t notice, all that matters is that next footfall. In this modern age, we might call it mindfulness. Nothing else exists except for that moment.

I challenge anyone to think about emails while tentatively bouncing on a tree root to see if it’ll take your weight. Is it even possible to think about work when you’re staring up at a Sumatran orangutan who is peering right back at you with her impossibly expressive eyes? A final example, and one that is probably more aligned with the general tone of this blog, is if social media is on your mind when you’re coaxing your tired, shaking legs to squat over a jungle toilet. I’m going to guess, probably not.

But then, just as quickly as you arrived, you leave. A hot shower and soap are exquisite luxuries at first, but as you scrub the jungle from your skin, the real world comes flooding back. Then it’s flight times and bag-packing, taxis from the airport and morning alarm clocks. Your bed accepts you back as though you never left. But it takes a bit of time to get back to normal, longer than if you spent the weekend at home. There’s a part of you still in the jungle; in your mind’s eye, you look like Tom Hanks at the end of Castaway, and are still quietly amazed by the potable tap water and clean, quiet comfort of home. The jungle’s effect on time lingers. It feels like you were gone for a long time, but you weren’t. Just an Easter long weekend.

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KL, I love you but you’re bringing me down

Malaysia is disappointing. It’s a good kid that’s fallen in with a bad crowd. Full disclosure: I love Malaysia. The food is sensational (mee goreng, need I say more?), the people are friendly, the language is fun to (butcher) try and speak, and the jungles defy logic. That’s what makes the palm oil situation even harder to stomach.

I was first well and truly confronted by palm oil earlier this year in Malaysian Borneo. We spent six hours on a bus through Sabah and all we saw, as far as the eye could see, were oil palms. For six hours. We were on our way to the Kinabatangan River where a sliver of national park offered some of the best chances at spotting really wild wildlife. It was spectacular: cruising the river at duck and dawn we saw hornbills, monitor lizards, a wild orang-utan building a nest, and even, on a muddy, leech-riddled walk, Pygmy elephant dung. The experience though was marred by the reason we were having such great luck seeing things. The reason was that instead of having hectares of virgin jungle to live in, everything had been forced into a strip of national park along the river. Just one kilometre at its widest. At times, you can glimpse the ubiquitous oil palms group the jungle.

As is the nature of our media-saturated society, we quickly become desensitised to pictures of decimated rainforest and orphaned orang-utans. It hit home on yet another bus trip, this time from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur. As soon as the bus crossed the causeway, it was four hours of oil palm plantations. Then again this morning, flying out of  KL  for Colombo. Flush against the airport fence were oil palms, and then they could be seen blanketing the countryside as we rose into the air.

It honestly makes me really, very sad, because something has to give. And it’s not going to be the endless quest for the almighty dollar. It’s going to be the Oriental hornbills, the Pygmy elephants, the silver leaf monkeys and, of course, the orang-utans.

* I promise the next post will be something fun about Sri Lanka but for now: vote with your wallet! Say no to palm oil.