I have been home for over a month now, since the end of my 4 and a half month journey into the unknowns of Southeast Asia. Many of you reading wont be able to truly understand everything I saw and felt during my trip, because it is impossible to describe using words, but all of you reading know what it was like for me arriving back home.
The reality we are living in now, is what I came home to. For many of us this pandemic has allowed us to slow down and reflect upon our daily lives. Thinking without a crowded head of stress and anxiety, has allowed us to reflect. As my mom said it best, the world needed this time to reset. I am fortunate to not be affected by this virus, but for many this has brought unneeded obstacles and financial burdens. All around the world people live paycheck to paycheck, and here in the US it’s more common than we think.
For me this time has allowed me to think deeply about everything I experienced in Asia. I will take with me the lessons I learned and the advice that I received from the kind people of Asia and the countless travelers I met along the way.
My last post I was in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, enduring the 90% humidity with 100 degree weather, all while enjoying everything Malaysia has to offer. This was in the beginning of March. I was reading the news everyday hearing about the closures of other countries and how COVID 19 was spreading like wildfire. I got the message from my mom, that the US was going into lockdown for supposedly a month, and how many other countries where following suit. It felt like normal where I was, nothing was closed, borders where open and I didn’t feel the inevitable that was approaching soon.
From Kuala Lumpur I headed north to the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia for 3 days to visit the famous tea plantations there and do some jungle trekking, while escaping the heat. After a four hour windy bus ride up to the mountains I arrived. A low lying fog was creeping out of the jungle forest and saturating the small town. Every night it rained at about 6 o’clock and wouldn’t subside until around 8 am. Me and a group of backpackers hiked a few of the many hiking trails that lead us into the unknown of the jungle, where a huge opening led us to one of the 7 tea plantations. From the cameron highlands I continued north to the Island of Penang, where the heat had resumed and wouldn’t go away, no matter what time of day. Three days exploring the street art and the various foods that I still miss, I was off to Indonesia. I woke up at 5am to get to the local bus station that would take me to the airport where I would fly to Indonesia, sadly without Julia, as she informed me that she wasn’t going to be able to make it. A short flight over the Malacca straight separating mainland Asia, and the huge Island chains of Indonesia, I landed in Medan, North Sumatra, Indonesia, where I would end my trip, and where I would finally have the inevitable catch up to me, and the rest of the people of Asia, and the world.
The day I arrived in Medan, things still felt normal, I felt lucky to be in a place where I didn’t have to worry about the virus and I could keep enjoying my time. Indonesia was by far the most unique country I visited, everything was new, It didn’t feel like I was in Asia anymore, but a new world, made up of 17,000 different islands, I made it to Indo, as we surfers like to call it. Although I didn’t get the chance to surf, I still had a great time, and I couldn’t have asked for a better way to end my trip. The area I was in was called Bukit Lawang, a small jungle village located in the northern part of Sumatra, which is the Northern most island in Indonesia. Bukit Lawang is known for being one of the last places in the world to see Orangutans and thousands of other endangered animals and plants, in the wild. The first three days in Indonesia, I spent doing a jungle trekk into the 3,061 mi² Gunung Leuser National Park. In 1973 a Swiss organization set up an orangutan rehabilitation center in Bukit Lawang. The purpose of the center was to rehabilitate orangutans released from captivity, and to repopulate the dying wild Orangutang population. Three days trekking into the jungle with our guide Vishnu. It was an amazing experience that I will never forget, feeling the vastness of the jungle and seeing flora and fauna that looked like it was from another planet. Indonesia sadly is a huge exporters of Palm Oil, which destroys the natural rainforests around the world, and also the Jungles In Indonesia. The Government of Indonesia realized that its a huge problem and has set aside protected land known as the Gunung Leuser National Park. Surrounding the National park is miles and miles of palm oil plantations. A sad sight to see.
When I came back from the jungle things where starting to change because of the virus, It had finally caught up to me and I knew that It was going to be a tough couple weeks before I was finally able to make it home. I was only planning on spending 7 days in Bukit Lawang which turned into 3 weeks. Everyday it was getting worse and worse, I was receiving emails from the US embassy in Medan, 3 hours from where I was, telling me that the embassies have closed and there was a Level 4 worldwide health advisory, the highest level, and that I should arrange for immediate return to the United States. I was getting ready for the long haul, to stay there and ride out this virus. Eventually everything closed in the village and eventually I went to the market with Ucock and got fish and rice, which we ate everyday.
My first flight was cancelled due to borders closing by the hour. Everyday the power would shut off for 5 hours and I had no contact to the outside. I never felt so isolated in my entire life. Also stuck in there with me, was 2 guys my age from Germany and another guy our age from Mexico. Everyday we would meet up, talk about our plans for evacuation, and play hearts, a card game. In the 3 weeks leading up to my departure, I attended 2 local Muslim weddings, and played a-lot of guitar. I was also able to take time to reflect and swim in the Landak river that separates both sides of the village, accessible by suspension bridges.
A flash flood hit Bukit Lawang on 2 November 2003. Described by witnesses as a tidal wave, the water was about 65 feet high, as it came crashing down the hills, wiping out everything in its path. The disaster, which was the result of illegal logging, destroyed the local tourist resorts and had a devastating impact to the local tourism industry. Around 400 houses, 3 mosques, 8 bridges, 280 kiosks and food stalls, 35 inns and guest houses were destroyed by the flood, and 239 people, 5 of them tourists, were killed and around 1,400 locals lost their homes.After eight months of rebuilding, Bukit Lawang was re-opened again in July 2004. For many villagers the trauma of losing family, friends and their homes has taken a long time to come to terms with. The people were facing unemployment and homelessness. It has been a long road to recovery and an especially hard task to rebuild a town with only limited financial assistance from the government. However the people in Bukit Lawang are survivors and the new village is taking shape and more and more businesses are opening again. In 2007 Bukit Lawang received electricity and wifi.
Ucok, a good friend that I met while staying at the Jungle View Guest house, was the first person I met in Bukit Lawang, he introduced me to his friends Andre, Mr. Bean and Ejal, who would become my friends as well. He is a local to the village of Bukit Lawang, and a jungle trekking guide. He told me how they can make a-lot of money working as a guide, and how a pandemic like this can effect so many lives, the people working in the tourism industry, like Ucok are going to be affected hard. He taught me a-lot about the history of the village. Everyday we would swim and hangout, he showed me the good restaurants to eat at while they where still open. “Jungle Jimi Hendrix”, as I called him, because he played guitar left handed like Jimi Hendrix, and was just as good. We jammed everyday and hung out while I tried to figure out a way to get home. With one flight cancelled already, I took a risk and got another ticket home. 40 hours and a night in an airport, I made it home. From Bukit Lawang, I took the Local bus on the 2 hour dirt road to Medan International Airport, where I would fly to Jakarta Intl Airport, and spend 10 hours in the airport waiting for my next flight.
I flew out early to Tokyo, Japan, and then from there, back home. The plane was empty coming home, a Boeing 777, a huge plane with only 20 of us on it. Flying home I was flying over the great pacific ocean, and its all ocean until I saw land appear, a sign that I knew I was home. A feeling of sadness, accomplishment, and joy filled my head as the wheels touched the asphalt on the cool morning of my homecoming.
6 countries, 2 by motorbike, 2000 miles hitchhiking, countless expiercences, amazing people, and an amazing story, I was home. This is my last post in the story of my trip through Southeast Asia. I want to thank my friends and family for supporting me along the way, and all the kind hearted people that took me in as family over there, you will never be forgotten.
Don’t forget to slow down and enjoy the little things in life.
“Just because one wanders, doesn’t mean they are lost”.
Until my next trip, Cheers!