Friday, July 10, 2015

Crazy $h!t that's happened to me in Asia: Hostage crisis

With this chapter of my life soon coming to a close, I can't help but look back at everything that's happened over the past ten years. Now that I'm older, now that I'm someone's mother, I can't believe some of the situations I put myself into. I was at times naive, stupid, and lucky (or perhaps unlucky, if you're a glass-half-full kinda person). Many of my most bizarre experiences I never wrote about, but it's not too late. In fact, I think now is the perfect time to reflect and share my craziest adventures living in traveling in Asia. I'm going to start with my favorite, the time I got held for ransom in the Sumatran jungle.

The story starts out typically enough, at least for anyone whose a globetrotter. My friend M and I wanted to meet up. She was in the US, I in China. She'd already visited me in China once before and I had recently been home to the States for a visit. We needed a totally new venue. Somehow, we settled on going to Sumatra—I think it was because M was hoping to spot a tiger in the jungle. We rendezvoused in Kuala Lumpur before taking a quick flight down to Banda Aceh, which is a large city on the northern tip of Indonesia's island of Sumatra.

boat stranded on top of housing, Banda Ache

Our short time spent in Banda Aceh was a bit surreal, a precursor for what was yet to come on what was overall a very intense trip. Banda Aceh is a difficult place to visit for a couple of reasons. The first being that it was the place hardest hit by the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. Everyone in the city lost someone that day, many people lost everything. We toured the city with a local, who showed us numerous inland shipwrecks, boats that were washed ashore by the tidal waves, too heavy ever to be returned to the sea. The tsunami museum was truly heartbreaking, with a wall commemorating the dead, flags honoring the countries who donated to the city's reconstruction, and live footage of the actual event.

boat stranded inland, Banda Ache
Not only was the sadness that surrounded the tsunami hard to swallow, but I was also overwhelmed by the staunch conservatism there. I'd been to Indonesia before and knew it was a predominantly Muslim country, but nothing quite prepared me for being in a state of the country that practiced sharia law. Suddenly, I felt very aware of the fact that I didn't have a headscarf on, very aware of the fact that I was simply a woman, roaming around freely in public. Everywhere we went were packs of men, but very few woman. At one point a young man in a cafe made a lewd gesture at us. Another time I was berated by an old man for wearing inappropriate clothing (a fitted, collared blouse with 3/4-length sleeves). I was indeed a strange person in a strange land.

From Banda Aceh, we moved on to a more relaxed local, Pulau Weh, an island renowned for its diving. I chickened out on the diving bit, thanks to an irrational fear of water I've harbored since early childhood. No matter, an island vacation is still paradise with or without a dive. After the island, we headed to Bukit Lawang.

river running through Bukit Lawang

Bukit Lawang. How can I even describe such a place? It's hardly a dot on a map. A small town by a river with a number of cafes and guesthouses catering to mostly foreign tourists. This place attracts travelers thanks to the nearby national park and orangutan sanctuary as well as its reputation for organizing decent treks to spot orangutans in their natural environment (and other animals too; if you are really, REALLY fortunate, you might see a rare Sumatran rhino or tiger). When we arrived, we immediately signed-up for a trek. We decided to do a basic one, two days and one night in the jungle with a near guarantee of spotting orangutans. Perfect.

Before setting out, I had done a little reading about these treks. Both online and in my Lonely Planet guidebook, I read warnings about a certain orangutan, known by local guides as Mona. Mona was a force not to be reckoned with. If she wanted something, you gave it to her. End of story. I, who in my previous travels had already had a number of unpleasant run-ins with monkeys, made an early note to stay clear of Mona.

Naturally, we spotted Mona early-on in our trek. I was a bit nervous, but the guide made a peace offering of rambutans and she let us go on our way, unscathed. I was happy to have seen an orangutan--a famed one, at that. I felt like I'd already gotten my money's worth. If given the chance, I would have headed back to camp, but I was forced to press on. I quickly realized that I was in worse shape than anyone in our group. I've always known that I wouldn't stand a chance if I was caught in some sort of Hunger Games situation, but I wouldn't expect myself to be the first dead. In this case, I was definitely the group's weakest link.

our trekking group, post-trek
I fell further and further behind as I sludged miserably through leech infested mud and climbed up slippery mountain slopes, grasping at tree roots to avoid sliding down and off the narrow trail. Before long, I was losing sight of our group and guides. One lone Frenchman took pity on me and slowed down his pace so I wouldn't be left in the dust (mud). I began to cry in frustration.

"We are going to lose the group. Just leave me!" I urged him dramatically.

"I can still see them up there. If you are worried, we can just call back one of the guides. It's their job to keep us together," he assured me.

"Okay," I sobbed, "I think I'm about to have a panic attack."

I didn't have a panic attack, though I definitely felt something close to panic. The kind Frenchman told me to stop and take it easy and then called to the guides. One of them came back to join us and I felt immediate relief.

With my new escort, the Frenchman picked up his pace and joined the rest of the group ahead, but I could easily see them in the distance. But suddenly there was something else I could see in the distance. . . another orangutan. It was swinging towards us. It was swinging down towards the ground and was coming straight for us. Oh, wait. No, coming straight for me. I stood frozen. Before I knew it, she was on me.

pure terror behind my smile
I was filled with pure terror. After all my bad run-ins with monkeys and stories I heard about rabies, this was my worst nightmare come true. She held my wrist as I looked into her brown eyes, face to face with my captor (and her offspring), trying to make sense of it all. What did she want from me? Was she going to try and take me up into the trees and integrate me into orangutan society?

At this point, our group had stopped and everyone made their way towards us. Soon they began snapping photos.

"Rosie, just turn your arm and slip out of her grip!" M called to me.

I made one futile attempt at that. It wasn't going to happen; my wrist was in a vise. This was an animal who spent most of her time swinging from branches. She was going to hold onto me as long as she wanted to hold on to me. Luckily, our guide had a plan. He was going to bribe her with fruit. She quickly ate through a pile of oranges and a bunch of rambutans, but still she refused to release me. I was beginning to wonder if there was anything left in our guide's backpack. He pulled out a large bunch of bananas and set them on a long vine. He somehow managed to jimmy the bananas up high off the ground. He then pointed them out to the clinging beast. She let go.

She was off running to claim the prize extorted from us. We didn't bother to stick around to see if she reached it, scurrying quickly, deeper into the jungle. "That was Jackie. She does it all the time," the guide said casually as we continued on our way. Why was this not mentioned in the guidebooks?!

That night, as we settled into camp, I was the envy of the group. Everyone else wished they could have had some one-on-one time with an orangutan. But the experience just cemented my fear of monkeys and now I am full-blown phobic. It might just be the craziest thing that has ever happened to me.

What about you? What is the strangest thing that ever happened to you while on vacation?

my jungle hat


Autumn said...

OMG. That is awesome. Though I was braced for serious hostage-taking, with guns and the like.

I love that Jackie has figured out how to game the system. Hilarious.

Constance - Foreign Sanctuary said...

I am glad to hear that I am not alone and that some crazy stuff has happened to you in Asia as well. Usually the adventures like this, the crazy unexpected ones, is what makes life and travel interesting!!

Jackie is one smart animal. I just love how she wouldn't let you go! And it is so cool that you have the pics to prove it! :)

rosieinbj said...

Yeah, it wasn't as bad as bad guys with guns but it was still pretty terrifying at the time because of monkey phobia, plus I didn't really know what she wanted.

Sooo, Constance, care to share a crazy travel experience???

martalivesinchina said...

Aaaaaah this is even worse than guys with guns!! I hate monkeys!! They are crazy!!!

rosieinbj said...

Yes! Finally someone who shared my opinion. Monkeys are horrific little (sometimes big) beasts. They are cunning, but worst of all, they can be incredibly aggressive. They are also unpredictable. UGH.

Constance - Foreign Sanctuary said...

Well, I have already shared one where I nearly died in a plane crash. However, there are so many more. My husband tells me that I have a flare for the dramatic and crazy incidents just seem to follow me. I will get to sharing some more soon!!!

Still laughing that this post!! An epic experience indeed! :)

shanghaironin said...

Wow. That was an intense story! I had no idea that you have such adventures under your belt!

I would be scared shtless if an orangutan came up to me and hugged me like that. I actually went to monkey forest in bali with my friend, and one of the monkeys hopped up on her shoulders and gave her a hug (but not in a good way). She started crying and we all stood still like statues. I think finally myself or someone else flung a banana to get the monkey off her bag.

I also thought that, initially, you were going to be kidnapped by terrorists or something in this blog post after reading the title (aha). I'm glad it was just monkeys!

rosieinbj said...

Mary, I also went to the Monkey Forest in Bali and had a few monkeys on my shoulders (and head) trying to open my purse. That was pretty terrifying for me as well. Never again!! I have some more really bizarre stories that I want to write about. . . we'll see. :)