Welcome to Catching the Travel Bug, Gadling’s mini-series on getting sick on the road, prevailing and loving travel throughout. Five of our bloggers will be telling their stories from around the globe for the next five weeks. Submit your best story about catching the travel bug in the comments and we’ll publish our favorite few at the end of the series.
The swamp here could be the stuff of nightmares. Because this happens to be the rainy season, which lasts from October to March, the trails are meant to be waded, not walked. Yet I am utterly stuck, knee-deep in pungent red mud with stagnant water up to my waist. Ellen Meulman, a PhD student from the University of Zurich, doubles back to pull me out of the quagmire. It takes a few hard yanks. “Be careful,” she says. “You can disappear in these waters.” Thoughts of leeches and king cobras vanish, replaced by a more immediate fear.
We’ve been slogging and hacking through the Sumatran jungle for nearly three hours, on our way to rendezvous with today’s observation team. The field staff hustles day in and out to arrive at the nest-site before dawn and do not return until after dark. In between, they track the individual behaviors of the orangutan in excruciating detail.
But for now, I’m too busy worrying about myself. Asides from the immediate danger of disappearing into the quicksand-like mud and trying to balance on a crude plank trail that’s submerged in water, I’m being absolutely devoured by mosquitos. Before embarking on this afternoon trek through the jungle, I dumped half a bottle of herbal mosquito repellent all over my body, but that has made no difference. At one point, the constant biting and buzzing and circling drive me nearly to tears. Alas I’m too tired to cry.
That night, after returning to camp and getting deleeched (a complicated process that involved me screeching in a high pitch voice, “get them off; get them off”, to my driver), I noticed a patch of mosquito bites around my ankle. I started scratching them and soon enough, a half dozen bumps turned into a dozen.
My flight back to the states was set to depart in a couple days, and this swamp was something like 1,000 miles away from Jakarta airport. So I had to leave the very next day, up a winding river and then through the heart of Sumatra on a 10-hour overnight drive back to Medan. From there, I flew to Jakarta and left right away for New York.
Here the story stalls for about a week. I kept scratching my bites and they kept festering and oozing and doing all the other nasty stuff that I’ll just leave to your imagination. What was somewhat worrisome at this point was that these bites weren’t getting any less itchy–and keep in mind that a week has passed by now. Even worse, they started melding together into a few superbumps.
Then all of a sudden, I started walking with a limp. I immediately thought of the worst case scenario: I had contracted some type of flesh eating bacteria (and made the mistake of Googling the images … don’t). I ran down to my school’s health services, where something happened that you never, ever want to happen in a doctor’s office, which is to have the doctor say “hmm, that’s interesting.” He subsequently disappeared, and a few minutes later, came back with three or four of his colleagues. They proceeded to collectively give a “hmm, that’s interesting”. I could see the pity in their eyes. The end was going to come in only a matter of days.
And being the unlucky guy I was, this happened on a Friday afternoon. The nurses and doctors had no idea what I had, although they feared it was contagious. So they basically held me prisoner as an inpatient for the entire weekend. The following Monday, a dermatologist came to see me and declared that I had a “hypoallergic” reaction to the mosquitoes, which is to say that my immune system just went berserk from the utter number of bites I received.
Two weeks of heavy-duty antibiotics and a course of cortisteroids later, the scary rash that was climbing up my leg had abated. Looking back, would I have trekked out there if I knew that it would land me in the emergency room for the better part of a week? Probably!
Yo see, the orangutans in this part of Sumatra are pretty damn special. They’ve learned some remarkable tricks, such as how to fashion a seed-extraction stick to crack open the prickly shell of the Neesia fruit. The theory goes that this rather complicated skill developed from simpler abilities to use tools to dig for honey, fish for termites, and scoop for water. Yet primatologists know little more than that these smarter-than-we-thought apes possess culture; the pressing question now is to figure out how it’s acquired and transferred.
Though outsiders often refer to this swamp as “orangutan heaven but human hell,” the staff does not plan to jump ship anytime soon. They want to bring the station back to its old glory by this fall, with an new 6-room dormitory, solar panels for constant electricity, and three boardwalks (getting to the orangutans without them can take several hours). They’re even hiring-the graduate students need at least five more assistants to juggle the array of projects.
Since fieldwork stopped across Aceh, it’s difficult to precisely quantify the impact of the civil war on this biodiversity hotspot, home to elephants, rhinoceroses, leopards, sun bears, tigers, and some 6,500 orangutans. While the primatologists at Suaq lost much more time than their neighbors-eight years of data-the 70 or so test subjects haven’t missed a beat. In fact, the concentration of orangutans here, where fruits rain from the trees year-round, is greater than anywhere else in the world (twice the density of other sites on Sumatra and five times the density on Borneo, the only other island where these apes can be found). The unusually high density has enabled these solitary creatures to “teach” each other skills like tool-use, making Suaq the ideal laboratory for studying the origins of human culture.
But for now, Suaq is still a friendly neighborhood. I still distinctly remember the afternoon that I finally spot two of the residents: the mellow Lisa and her 6-year-old daughter, Lilly. Lisa, ambling in the treetops, much prefered her sour melaka fruits to our company. But for a brief moment, Lilly swung down to investigate these strange-looking two-legged apes, and realizing we would not make suitable playmates, disappeared in a blur of orange.
This brief encounter with one of the world’s most intelligent and beautiful creatures was worth dealing with the travel bug.