Tuesday 8 January 2013

Holidays in Tangkahan - Part 5: Creepy Crawlies

Hmmm... I don't like them, don't like them at all!
Snakes are still OK, but everything with more than four legs is just horrible. At home I scream for help, I can't even get close to spiders. So, what was I thinking when I booked a trip to Tangkahan, you might think. Would it all go away just because there are nice elephants?

Honestly? I don't know, I really wanted to see elephants and possibly Orangutans; one takes a lot to make a dream come true. The truth that I found was, that elephants and Orangutans are every single bit as amazing as I expected, and that creepy crawlies are actually quite bearable.

See, if they are coming into my house I consider them intruders, if I meet them in the wilderness and even in the lodge, I respect that we are sharing the same environment.

Leeches, those small ones are more a messy nuisance rather than painful.
My mum had a frog falling off the ceiling just the very moment when she wanted to go to the toilet, the little guy got lucky she hadn't opened the lid yet. At home she might have got a heart attack, now she just got the camera, took a picture and then ran over to my lodge to call me so I could have a look as well... how considerate!

Quite cute even with his big eyes

There is a bush in front of my lodge that seems to be a happy place for all sorts of snakes and lizards. Every time I visit, somebody finds another one in this shrub. Again, first thing is to get the camera out.
Well and spiders are just that tad bit bigger than at home. I guess the encounter that halfway cured my fear was a toilet visit at a camp in the middle of the jungle. As usual the door was hanging halfway open, there was no wall to hold on to - well the palm leaf panels separating the two cabins were already broken when mum tried to lean against it earlier, her fist went straight through... we never told anybody... - and I was not wearing glasses that early in the morning. 

So I was busily minding my business when I realised that some of the bamboo or palm leaf fixings looked funny, kinda more fuzzy than the rest. I decided that the 'open door feature' was actually very re-assuring should a quick exit become necessary, finished quickly, squeezed myself past it, got the camera and there it was revealed: the biggest spider I had ever seen in my life.

I admit that I still get goose-bumps as I write, but I am much better with spiders ever since. On my last trip I even through one out of my lodge all by myself.

Since I am half blind without glasses, and my vision adjusts quite slowly even with glasses on, I really despise of everything fast moving like cockroaches. I don't mind them as long as they are sitting still, but I had one running in my bed and from there into the suitcase and initially I wasn't sure if it were a spider... ah, what a hassle. I decided to get me a bit of help.

I got so used to her sleeping on my legs, I didn't even noticed anymore
A friendly little cat who had been sneaking through the open window and sleeping between my clothes initially ran from me, but got very tame and cuddly. So, I made sure she was around when I went to bed and invited her to join me under the mosquito net - one never knows if creepies might not find a way into and underneath the net, but this little cat was always hungry and I could be sure everything moving would be hunted down by her. 

And I have my trusted torch. It is not very big and not very suitable for nightly hikes, but it has a wrist tie and I always have it attached during sleep. When I have to get up I always check the floor first and if I don't wear flipflops then the shoes as well. There is nothing worse than to hear the crunchy noise of a flattened cockroach during a nightly bathroom trip, or to find a scorpion in your shoe. And I don't like frogs and geckos falling on me either, so I check the ceilings,  very much helped by my little friend who is hoping for prey.

Geckos are the creepies I actually really like. I watched them once trying to catch a moth. They really keep other crawlies at bay. They make funny cackling noises, though. I needed a couple of nights until I realised that such a tiny thing can create such a commotion.

The conclusion of the matter? I still don't really like them, but as soon as I arrive in my lodge I am starting to take things with a grain of salt. I see elephants, I eat wonderful food and I meet great people, it is warm, I hear the river, I see monkeys jumping off the roof while I have my breakfast sitting underneath, and at night, when I have a little rest in my hammock before turning in, the noise of the jungle makes me sleepy and a gazillion fireflies add their light to the stars, and all is good!

Saturday 5 January 2013

Holidays in Tangkahan - Part 4: Bathroom Business

Understanding each other's culture is key

I think I found this on FB, and I have no idea who owns it! Please get in touch if it is yours, I really would love to keep it here :)
This bathroom business is only a problem because nobody talks about it. Only in recent years some TV shows became outrageously open about colon therapy and those sorts of things, but there are still a lot of taboos. I even wrote a blog about 'How to go to the bathroom' some years back, but to follow those tips you need a seating toilet. When you travel, you will be faced with a rather different set of issues. Travelling  to developing countries can be daunting, and information usually comes in horror stories from the ones who had learnt the hard way. So let's put some perspective to the subject.

Which one is mine?
So embarrassing to run into a guy with his pants down. This even happened to me in London, but for other reasons than language barriers. Even if you are not planning to learn the language: you may want to look up the words for 'toilet/bathroom', 'male' and 'female'.

Bathroom = Kamar mandi (Indonesian)

Indonesian for 'man'

Indonesian for 'woman'

Seating VS Squatting
I really didn't trust my eyes!

While the locals get quite visually educated, nobody ever told me how to use a squatting toilet. At times I am still confused which way round I have to stand. I guess all boils down to me being a really stiff Westerner and the right way round sometimes does not allow for enough space or has no wall to hold on to, but I am getting better. On my last trip I used the airport squatting toilet in Medan wearing a big back pack, a heavy belt bag - very inconvenient when letting your trousers down - while my computer bag was hanging from my neck. Sometimes I think this would make good material for a comedy movie.

However, in the meantime I prefer a clean squatting toilet to a dirty seating one. All it needs is a bit more preparation. In squatting toilets the floor usually is wet, so I roll up my trouser legs before descending to business - don't forget to roll them down again... - don't laugh, happened to me several times, it is hot, one is used to shorts, one has enough to do getting sticky trousers up on sticky skin... one forgets a few things...

Rule number 1: Develop a routine!

Door locks - Get over yourself!
Really - it's the only thing you can do! Ever so often they don't exist, if they exist they may be from the outside - beats me! Probably a re-used door the wrong way round - or locks are funny contraptions made out of household items. 

General rule seems to be: if the door is open, then it's free; if it somewhat ajar there might be somebody in. Usually the rooms are small so I can reach if somebody pushes against it, or I might need the door to hold on to anyway, if the room is big then all I can do is to sing or whistle, or to create some sort of commotion.

Rule number 2: Be noisy!

Paper VS Water
I know... if you have very modern toilets then you have 'paper & water'. I had a chat with a friend and although she lives in South East Asia since a while, she has no clue either on how the toilet routine is meant to happen.

So, we have established the first bits of the process: you find the right one, you go in, you decide on how to deal with the door and which way round to use the basin, you do what you need to do...

... and then there you are... what next?

All there is is in the best of cases is a bucket or basin with or without water, a ladle kind of pot thingy and a water tap which usually is already running/trickling - no paper, though!

This leads to the assumption that Indonesian people wash, something which comes close to the French bidet solution, just with the difference that there is no PAPER for crying out loud... Maybe things are easier when you are flexible in your legs and actually can operate things like ladles for such purpose rather then needing your hands for balance and grabbing hold. And maybe things are easier when wearing sarongs and light, calf length cotton trousers which look a bit like sleepers. I however never saw anybody look like having wet themselves just from pulling up trousers over a wet buttocks... I have no idea how it works... maybe there is somebody out there who can enlighten us.

I for my part am always prepared now; I never go without my trusted belt bag which I modified with two hooks so it actually goes into the loops of the trousers, otherwise the belt has a tendency to slip as soon as it is opened, and I can use it without wearing a belt. This little bag contains wet wipes and tissues. Initial worries of blocking the drain have left me. I am very resourceful in my paper use, as it is hard to get hold of,  and a big scoop of water will flush it away. Additionally this ugly little thing allows for plasters, deet, money, teatree oil, small torch, all the stuff appropriate for the respective day trip. The front pockets are always equipped the same way and I find stuff in my sleep, the big part gets tailored for the day. I hope it never breaks!

Rule number 3: be prepared!

How2... Deep Clean!
Oh well, I just don't! I do things to get refreshed, but as soon as I sit in the car to Tangkahan I throw my Western standards in the bin. Jess, the director of RAW, always looks like a lady, well groomed, fresh and radiant even in the middle of the jungle. Like the majority of people however, I have given up and it works fine for me. I so far only stayed for two weeks at a time and that is just OK for survival in clothes which are always a bit damp and without a shower. See, this is not a complaint, not even a challenge, for me this reflects what this kind of trip is all about.

Don't get me wrong: I love going to a long spa weekend as well. Here however, I am going back to my roots. When I was a child we had one bath every week, and for the rest of it it was a wash cloth and cold water. I got lucky when my grandma prepared a kettle of warm water in the evening before she scrubbed me down. And my skin was less itchy and allergic back then. Our culture of having a shower every day might make us appear very cultured and clean, but actually it is harmful: for the environment and ourselves.

At my lodge I have a tap, a big bucket and a sitting down toilet. A little shelf allows for storing some soap, toothbrush and paste, and I have a nail to hang a towel. This is perfectly fine. I only need half of the big bucket for washing my hair and scrubbing myself down - I am a wash cloth girl, I just can't get myself to pour cold water over my back - and this water I then use to flush the toilet. I feel fresh and I actually am clean, just that it feels differently.

The only concessions to the Western lifestyle I do is using my own shampoo - not really good as it is not bio degradable, but my hair became really bad last time when I used the bio stuff - and I use stay in conditioner spray, which I only use if needed, rather than the wash out stuff. I let my hair dry as it is, no power for blow dry anyway; body lotion I skip, the humidity puffs up my skin nicely, and a few minutes after washing I will be sweaty again, which together with cream would make things extra sticky.

In summer when the river is nice and clean we used to bath in there. This is fun, but one has to keep clothes on while washing and I find that a hassle. I rather do everything soapy in the privacy of my little bathroom and use the river only for refreshment. 

Rule number 4: Less is more!

What if there is Nothing?
Using a bush in the cultivated Western world already is a bit of an ordeal, in the jungle it is even more challenging. This is the only occasion which induces penis envy in me. Don't despair though, there is a thing called 'Shewee' and you get it in outdoor shops. I haven't used it yet, but I diligently put it into my suitcase just in case. The idea is to use it in conjunction with a bottle, preferably a wide neck one, so other stuff can go there as well, and nature is safe from human stink and wildlife will be undisturbed. I guess this is more for hard core trackers, on our tracks we did use bushes. 

It is more a matter of timing rather than availability of shrubberies. After lunch for example everybody all of a sudden is strolling off, which somewhat compromises privacy. I tend to try and get ahead of the game, especially if the travel group is only newly formed. It is amazing how toilet issues tie a group together over time. Things one is quite squeamish about initially get freely shared for the benefit of the group a bit later on. 

One tip I have right now is: Use Deet (insect repellent) all over before you put on your clothes, be careful not to get it on soft tissue. It is rather nerve wrecking to see leeches reaching up while you are not in a position to run. Whatever you leave, cover up and mark with a little stick or so, then others will be able to avoid the spot.

Rule number 5: Take things with a grain of salt!

Coming up: Befriending creepie crawlies

Friday 4 January 2013

Holidays in Tangkahan – Part 3: The Elephants

Oh, Elephants!
Tangkahan is all about the elephants. They are wonderful, and although I still can’t really tell them apart one can see that each of them is a very special character. Augustin is my favourite. On my first trip my mum and I did the four day jungle track on her back and she just sticks. Apart from Theo, the bull, she is one of the biggest and she is an ol’ cuddle; one can just hug her trunk, lean the heads together and have a little chat eye to eye. I like to imagine that she remembers me, but so does everybody else...
Big Hug on my arrival! Augustin and Ame
Then there is Juni; she is a bit naughty and always after food. During the track she would be bathing in the river and sneakily move closer to the place where the dishes were washed in the hope to get the trunk into the leftovers of the rice pot. She had a baby called Namo last year, and then during my April visit disaster struck. A herpes virus which is infecting the heart killed Namo and Tanga, Olives baby.

Those pinapple skins look really, really tempting!
Olive is the smallest of the Elephants, she was always struggling a bit and rocking back and forth and nobody really knew why. So when she was the first one to get a baby, everybody had great hopes that she would become more confident, and then she lost the baby. I was so pleased to see now, that she is really well and rather spirited. Whenever she is in the river the mahouts have to be very vigilant because she tends to just stroll off.

Theo is having a bit of fun with Olive. He likes the petit ones!
Sari is the oldest one, and is easily recognisable from the slash in her left ear. She got a baby just before my last trip and everybody was so worried when the virus hit. But little Ame(lia) is fit and growing. It is amazing how strong these little things are. When I went into the paddock to say ‘Hello’ she came running and gave me a good push. She is only as high as my hips, but you really don’t want to engage in a wrestling game with her, she just doesn’t know how strong she is.

Ardana and Eva are the two I am struggling most to tell apart. They are same size and very similar looking to Augustin, and they are all very protective about Ame. The little one however seems to have adopted Augustin as auntie and always hangs around between her legs.

CRU – Conservation Response Unit

CRU is basically the elephant’s employer. Yes, they are hard working individuals. Well, they need to be kept on their toes and interested anyway, so the mahouts teach them all sorts of tricks. They are too smart animals and their brains need stimulation. The CRU was founded to look after elephants and mahouts. There are many CRU units and a lot of them are located in the Aceh province up North of Tangkahan. This is where the elephants originally came from; they were wild animals and were driven out of the forest by logging. Like African elephants they follow their age old trails, they know where and when the best food is growing and ever so often they stumble over newly built settlements or palm or rubber plantations. For the elephants those encounters mean either death or captivity. The ones who now live in CRU camps are well looked after and their main job is to patrol the rainforest. They even are successful in driving wild elephants back into the forest and teaching them new trails, thus helping to maintain the wild population.

Elephants cost a lot of money however, so the rest of their time they are working for the eco-tourism business to top up the CRU budgets. Last year the Tangkahan unit was hit quite hard financially: The three mums with their babies couldn’t go on elephant tracking, and when the virus hit the elephant camp became an intensive care unit and no business was undertaken. Since a few month funding from NGOs broke away as well, so right now things are looking really rather grim. About £4000 per month need to be raised to keep the elephants in Tangkahan.

Conservation Funding

Just a little detour and definitely not comprehensive information, but bits and pieces I picked up. Finding funding for projects is such a difficult yet profitable business. Apparently there are websites out there listing the organisations, which grant funding. However, I was told that the focus of those organisations has changed. In the past it was ‘species protection’. So, you could apply for elephants, bears, tigers and so on and if your cause was found worthwhile you could do your stuff. Now the focus is on community driven conservation projects, you have to show that what you do fits a greater scheme. The Tangkahan elephants are perfectly positioned for that as they are a big part of the community eco-tourism scheme which has as its main focus to enable the locals to do rainforest conservation. They have a well trained group of rangers who patrol the forest and work as guides as well; the elephants patrol the forest, so all should be fine and well, just that there is this funding gap. The organisation, which sustained the unit basically since the beginnings, has pulled out and new funding is only applied for now. So, soon you might see some blog posts under ‘Bloody Hell... what did I do now?’ because I will be killing myself in some sort of charity challenge to help close the gap.

The fun part!

Well, just seeing them when you arrive, already is quite something. It is a short drive along a bumpy road of mud and pebbles from the visitor centre to Green Lodge. Their paddock is right at the corner where the road bends into the access to the lodge. Tall palm trees give shade – elephants can get sun burn and overheat easily – and there are palm leaves on the ground to munch on.

Then you may go off for a wash – buy a voucher at CTO and give it to the mahouts, first. The elephants line up, get a bit of food, you can take pictures and then they take trunk to tail, marching like little school children down to the river. Once they arrive it’s toilet time. Firstly, you don’t want to have that in the water, and secondly, due to their camp lifestyle digestion is rather slow, so they need a bit of help to keep the guts healthy – it is a bit gross, though. As soon as the business is sorted and they got over their initial boisterous joy of being in the water, they settle down and you can wash them and later feed them some bananas, and they may even show you a few of their tricks.

Me and my girl, Augustin

Jony with Augustine and Abdullah with Olive, showing off some circus skills
On arrival back at the lodge they each collect a pile of palm leaves and to take back to the paddock for a much and a rest before the elephant riding tours start.

June 2011, I think it is Tanga and Olive
I found that either long trousers or shorts with a soft rim are best for a ride. Otherwise the seam might be rubbing on the saddle. Strong shoes are a good choice as well, and use Deet (insect repellent) and sun block – Deet reacts with sunlight badly and can cause burns if you don’t use sun block or good clothing – and off you go into one of the best adventures a person can have.

June 2011, wearing the shorts which taught me the hard way
Coming up: A bit of hygiene
More pictures of the RAW June 2011 Elephant Odyssey

Thursday 3 January 2013

Holidays in Tangkahan - Part 2: Money, money, ...

I wish to think that it was my wonderful writing style of the previous post that made you decide to come back and wanting to know more about visiting Tangkahan. So, what's next? I guess the most important thing to know about is the money: Which cost would this trip run up?

Here is what I found out: You need a currency converter and a list of the cost as they occur!
- Flight
- Visa on arrival for European countries and Australia, all others please check Visa regulations
- Taxi from airport to hotel
- Hotel in Medan
- Food in Medan
- Tips (taxi)
- In RAW package
  • Transfer from Medan to Tangkahan
  • Lunch on the way
  • Accommodation in Tangkahan
  • Food full board
  • Activities
  • Transfer from Tangkahan to Medan (possibly lunch) 
- Tips staff at Tangkahan
- Hotel in Medan on way home
- The odd lunch or dinner
- Transfer from Hotel to airport

However, the most important thing to know is that are no ATMs in the jungle, so Medan is the last time you can draw money. For my last trip I travelled with a big pile of banknotes in my bag, because I had to pay for my entire stay in Tangkahan in cash.

If you are travelling to Tangkahan from abroad, then Medan Polonia airport will be your entry point. Medan is the capital of Sumatra, a sticky, dusty place, stuffed with motorcycles and noise, and I love it! On my first trip it scared the hell out of me, but since I dare leaving the hotel it really grows on me. To get there, you will have to book your own flight even if you book the tour with RAW Wildlife Encounters. They however are always happy to help and they are expanding their services all the time, so just check with them.

Visa on Arrival
Guests from European countries and Australia buy a visa on arrival, all the others please check the visa regulations. In the air plane already, or even at the gate before boarding for the flight to Medan, you will get a customs declaration and an entry card. Best fill it in straight away, it would be a hassle wanting to do it on arrival, although Medan airport is amazingly organised. Staff sometimes looks a little bit 'important' but they are actually quite friendly. In a far corner of the arrival hall are two counters for Visa. On one you pay, on the other you get it stamped into your passport. Visa cost US$ 25, but I saw somebody pay in Indonesian Rupia (IDR) - yet, better check that information if you want to do that, the dollars definitely work!

After that you go through Immigration. I never know what sort of paperwork they want, so I drop passport, custom declaration, Visa stuff and sometimes even the boarding pass on the counter and put a silly smile on. So they patiently select what they need and send me off to collect my suitcase.

There is only one conveyor belt from which everything plonks on the ground. Before you leave the building to enter the steamy heat of Medan you give the customs form to somebody in front of the door, you will know to whom as they already have piles of those in their hands; nobody seems to be really bothered what is written on it as long as they get it.

Taxi and Hotel
Taxi from the airport: If you are travelling with RAW then the tour officially starts with the transfer from Medan to Tangkahan, but usually somebody from the team will be in Medan to pick you up from the airport. The way forward is to stay a night in a hotel. Tangkahan is a four hour drive away and rain usually kicks in in the afternoon making the road a bit of an adventure ride, so starting fresh the next morning makes sense.You will have to pay for taxi and hotel, though. 

Hotel: I usually stay in Swiss Belhotel Medan, a 5-star hotel, which is very nice. It can be booked online and you can book airport pick-up and drop-off with them, too. Those are 5 stars of European standard.
My boys Ika and Bimbim
 The breakfast buffet is amazing, and a mall can be reached through a side entrance of the hotel, so ATM, a store for Indonesian SIM cards and so on are easily accessible.

Christmas decoration, Swiss Belhotel lobby
The transfer between the Swiss Belhotel and the airport lasts about 20 minutes and cost approximately IDR 50,000 if you use a bluebird taxi, they are the safest, a choice I nevertheless only take when I get picked up by RAW tour guides. If I travel alone I arrange pick-up by the hotel taxi, which then cost IDR 70,000. In any case I tip something like IDR 10,000, which is about 50p. I have been tipping in US$ as well because I did not have small IDR bills. All this will change in the future as they are building a new airport outside Medan, so cost and travel time will rise.

A cheaper hotel option is the Pardede International Hotel, Medan. Less then half the price of the Swiss Belhotel, it has wifi as well, the breakfast is decent, sockets for charging appliances are a bit scarce but it is doable if you take a multi-socket extension lead with you, something I highly recommend anyway. This way you only need one power adapter - Indonesia has the European style sockets - and you can charge everything in one go.


The hotel is just around the corner of the current airport. So yes, it is a good hotel, but nothing like the standard of the Swiss Belhotel.

For dinner you either can eat in the mall, which is still very affordable and tasty, or if you are with the team, go out to one of the street restaurants. The food is amazing, but I am still not 'street smart' enough to dare going out on my own.

The Adventure Package
If you are travelling with RAW, then the transfer to Tangkahan, accommodation, food, fees, and activities are included as stated in your bookings and itineraries. If you are travelling individually you will have to consider the individual costs.

Transfer to Medan: I tested the different ways to get from Medan to Tangkahan. When I booked with RAW it was included anyway, the team usually would meet the guests at the Swiss Belhotel the evening before and then share cars to go to Tangkahan as convoy the next day, very safe and organised - and fun, travelling in a group.

For my second trip I book a car via a young lady who usually did the bookings locally for RAW. Everything went well and the car was on time, yet the driver did not speak English. In an emergency we would have had no means to communicate, so I was glad that coincidentally a guide was in Medan who was about to use the bus. So it was a win-win, I had my translator and he had a comfortable ride.

For trip number three I used the hotel to book the transfer and that went horribly wrong. The car just didn't show up. So I got double lucky again that my Tangkahan friends had come to pick me up and they called their own car. This saved me quite some money as well - via the hotel the car would have cost IDR 700,000 and booked directly by the boys I only paid IDR 500,000. Depending on the bills I have I tip IDR 50-100k.

The solution for travelling alone: Get in touch with CTO  (Community Tourist Operator) or the RAW office in Medan (they are only just establishing now, but check the RAW website for details), and ask them to arrange pick-up and drop-off for you. Now, this 'getting in touch with CTO' thing is again showing how remote Tangkahan is: Internet is weak, so email usually is not working well. Facebook turned out to be a fantastic tool to communicate as the mobile application usually works. So either:
  • send SMS or call the CTO mobile on +62 85275605865 (Rilly), or +62 813 61423245 (Darwin), or
  • befriend them on FB and send messages to Rilly or Darwin
Rilly is the lady in charge at CTO, Darwin was running the CTO office and is now taking on the new RAW-Indonesia office in Medan. 

Fees, Accommodation, Food, and Activities: On arrival in Tangkahan you have to stop at the visitor centre to register and pay the entrance fee. In the end all the cost will be paid to visitor centre, except purchases and services arranged with the respective lodge like washing clothes. The picture below gives some guidelines what cost to expect for fees, accommodation, food and activities. I however will not be able to update with the latest version, so please check with Rilly about the actual price. This is really just meant to give you an idea. All the lodges are beautiful, I however can't help but stay in Green Lodge. The elephant camp is right next to it, and it is a bit more remote than the others, I just love it there and it has become my second home.

prices as of April 2011, please check with CTO for current prices.
Tipping Guide - North Sumatra
I took this from the RAW material which I recieved during my first trip. There it says that tipping is not compulsory yet it is generally recommended if you believe the service warrants a show of appreciation. They gave their recommendation in A$ I am using a converter to give you a rough idea:

I hope all of this didn't put you off! Things are quite cheap; going for lunch with seven people to the local open restaurant usually set us back 120 - 200k which is something around £10-15. Those restaurants usually don't look like much but the food is just amazing.

Last lunch in the Lake Toba area before heading home to Tangkahan
Coming up: The Elephants