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Tags: Indonesia, Ketambe Orangutan Trek, Stories

Finding freedom in the home of Orangutans

Going into the jungle for the first time showed me much more than just orangutans

Liberation. It’s not a word that many would use to describe their first experience staggering through mushy jungle trails, touching strange insects and retiring to a little tent just barely able to shield the tired traveller from the rain of the night. But if you were honest with yourself, aren’t you curious to know just how free and alive you could be if fear no longer held back the Adventurer in you?

Growing up in Singapore, my days typically went like this: reluctantly crawl out of bed every morning, slog through my day in school wondering why people here loved to torture their brains so much, and then retire for the night in a soft comfortable bed, only to repeat the same thing again the next day. Things are quite predictable here, and I found security and stability in the familiar.

But after trekking through Gunung Leuser National Park in Ketambe, Indonesia last week, I find myself wondering if that’s all there is to life. And indeed, pulling yourself up slippery jungle slopes brings out a side of human nature that dragging yourself through the daily grind could never do.

Now, I also used to have an irrational fear of butterflies. Sounds really funny now that I look back! Years ago, my mum brought us to a butterfly garden and it was sheer pandemonium for me — I screamed my heart out every time one of those innocent things fluttered by me — and they were everywhere.

It was my first time going to a wild jungle, and I was quite unsure if the butterflies in my stomach were singing with excitement or fluttering in fear. Luckily for me, I had the whimsical company of Sarah, another intern at Seek Sophie.

The journey began with us meeting our driver at the Medan airport. He would take us on an 8 hour road trip to Ketambe where we would spend the night at Sadar Wisata Guesthouse before the jungle hike. You might think that an 8 hour road trip on winding roads would be the most uneventful part of the whole experience, but it was during that time that I began to notice and reflect upon the effortless smiles on the faces of the locals on the street. We passed by many villages on the way and you see eyes light up as you wave at them, and people looking genuinely happy while chilling out on their rustic wooden shelters by the road. Little shophouses and pushcarts splashed the streets with an alluring character and delicious smells.

They also improvised a lot — from lamp shades fashioned from PET bottles and toy cars crafted from construction site scraps, to furniture items constructed from odd shapes of wood to form a surprisingly artful and functional piece — the locals really know how to make do and enjoy what they’ve got while at it. Taking a leaf from their laidback joy, I leaned back in my seat and thought to myself — why am I always so uptight in the city? How much do I really need to be happy?

Fast forward to the next day, our guide showed us a black centipede soon after we got into the foliage. The night before, I accidentally stepped on a bug in our guesthouse and strangely enough, I didn’t squirm like I would have if the same thing had happened at home. Okay you might think, I did that to upkeep my image of manliness in front of Sarah, but now with this centipede in front of me, I don’t think even a pretty girl would’ve been able to make me touch that thing.

But I did, and I was not afraid. Picking up the hard-shelled creature felt natural, like this was something I was always able to do but somehow, fear had replaced my innate wonder for the beauty of the natural world until then. My fear of insects began retreating as I let it crawl on my hand, albeit with some caution and trepidation still. Of course, Abdul (our guide) had told us before that this was not a dangerous centipede. His 7 years of experience with the jungle had also given him a unique personality, as with all the guides.

Throughout the day, I realised myself paying less and less attention to the leeches and insects that gravitated to me, becoming immersed in the beauty of the forest instead. Craning my neck up to spot the well-hidden orangutans and Thomas Leaf monkeys and conquering the challenging terrain little by little, I felt at home, like a love for the wild jungle was being rekindled — though I’d never been here before. Mother Nature’s beauty had begun stripping away the fear of the unknown jungle moment by moment.

And still a greater sense of rawness and freedom sprung up within me as we showered in the river just as the guides did. Fears of animals or insects creeping up on me and attacking my half naked body just vanished in the light of the serenity and peace of the wild. The sound of the rushing water, the smell of the trees and the food (which is amazing by the way), and the banter of the guides made me feel more at home here than I had ever imagined. I was free to live in the wild, unhindered by the fears of it that city life had surreptitiously injected into me.

That night, the rains came down on the campsite, which meant that our tents began to resemble soggy dumplings just barely keeping the water out. Instead of retreating into my tent and drying it to sleep, I chose to linger outside under a small shelter the guides built for the fire. And there in the darkness of the campsite, instead of fear, I experienced peace. Instead of nervousness about some wild boar lurking behind the bushes, there was comfort when I realised that animals — like us — don’t innately want to harm things. We’re just afraid of what we don’t understand.

‘Where did this sense of adventure come from?’ I thought to myself, as I pondered how much I’d discovered I was able to do naturally when I was pushed out of my comfort zone. Bearing the insect bites on my body, falling in love with the biodiversity of the jungle and eventually falling fast asleep without missing the comfort of my own bed made me rethink the way I saw city life. Perhaps the walls we have built between us and nature in our cities have made us less natural versions of ourselves; versions that are more fearful of the unknown than our forefathers were, versions that have forgotten the wonder of nature for the comforts of modern life.

Maybe, what makes us human is what we become when we allow the walls of comfort we have built for ourselves to be stripped away, opening the floodgates for our raw capacity for adventure, wonder and creativity to fill us. That’s when we are free to embrace the adventurous spirit we’ve always had in us, but never really gave ourselves over to. If a boy who used to cower in fear at butterflies can embrace the centipedes and leeches and elements of the jungle, you know there’s got to be something special about the jungle.

Afterword: This story was written by Sean, a summer intern at Seek Sophie. This was about his first experience in the jungle with Sarah, his fellow summer intern. Back in the office, we were terrified that they would hate their first jungle trek but thankfully, they came back raving about how it had changed their views on life. Phew! 

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