“I’m an explorer.”
“A real one? I didn’t’ think they existed anymore or there was any place left to explore.”
“No. I am. I go off into the mountains of Western Sumatra, where people have not been and find what is there. I have to take my big knife,” Arlen swept his hands through the air in a machete chopping gesture, “so I can make my own path through the jungle. A real explorer.”
“What are you finding?”
“Different things. Sometimes for the government or to make new maps or just for fun.”
Arlen mesmerized me with his explorer’s tale as we sat on a grassy clearing in the middle of the West Sumatran jungle having lunch. My two girlfriends and I had left early that morning for a two day jungle trek from Bukkitingi to Lake Maninyoui, where we would end up staying for close to a week.
We had met Arlen at the cafe/bar/restaurant across the road from our hostel in Bukkitingi. The place that had entrapped us and wouldn’t let us leave. The workers at our little hideaway loved serving us our favourite Indonesian tea sweetened with condensed milk during the day, and smuggled bottles of whiskey at night.
They kept thinking of new adventures for us to have so we would remain.
Our jungle trek with Arlen was one of them and I now felt a little more secure knowing that my guide into the great wilderness was an explorer. In fact I was downright excited.
It was stories of explorers that began in my year 4 history classes that first ignited a thirst and passion for me to have similar experiences and explore the world myself. But, I always felt that “real” explorers no longer existed because everything was already found. Well not in Indonesia.
My adventures with Arlen and the inspiration I gained from listening to his exploration stories came at the beginning of my overseas travelling life, in 1997 during my first trip abroad in Indonesia.
It is incredible how even though it was 14 years ago, I still remember Arlen and my time with him almost as if it were yesterday. There are some people you meet on your travels who will have that lasting impact upon you, and the passing of the years will never fade away the memories they helped you to create.
I was soon able to see some of Arlen’s jungle skills put to the test. After about an hour lunch break, we packed up our supplies and started our trek again. Just around the corner from where we sat was a small river we now had to cross.
Suddenly, Arlen put up his hand to signal us to be quiet and take a step back. His urgency did not invite me to question, only to do.
He ran forward, bent down and put his hand over a spot on the sandy banks.
“Been gone for about an hour.” he stated quickly and breathed. “It is okay.”
“What has been gone?”
We moved forward to where he was standing and looked down. There clearly imprinted in the sand was the gigantic paw print of a tiger.
“A tiger.” he said “was here about an hour ago, drinking from this river.”
He nodded, confirming what we were all thinking. …. if we didn’t stop for lunch.
I swallowed. Hard. My knees went incredibly weak.
“How do you know it was an hour?”
“I can feel the heat rising off the paw print. It lets me know it was about that time. Here feel it.”
I was almost afraid to put my hand over it in case it magically conjured the tiger up out of the bushes. Sure enough, a warm heat radiated out from it.
“The only thing is I don’t know where it has gone. Hopefully that way” he said pointing off into the opposite direction to where we were headed.
I hoped so as well, but wasn’t so sure as that way went through the clearing where we sat. Surely we would have seen it.
My dream of being an explorer suddenly felt really stupid. (Even more so a few weeks later when my mum informed me that a couple of people were killed by a tiger trekking through the jungle in the same area we were now in.)
I really did not enjoy the rest of the walk and I could sense some tension from Arlen. I held tightly to the St Christopher medal that hung around my neck. That was at a time when I had not yet questioned the beliefs and traditions of my own upbringing. I wore it, not because I believed it would protect me, but more out of fear of it not.
That fear and the medal no longer circle my neck.
The walk which had this morning been quite calm and gentle, now turned strenuous along the steep and rocky, muddy paths. I was beyond relieved when we reached the top of the mountain and entered into farmlands and Arlen suggested we jump in the back of the passing pick up truck and catch a ride the rest of the way.
Whatever you say dear explorer friend.
That evening a vicious headache spread up from the tension of my neck. Arlen sat with me and taught me how to relieve headaches through the use of certain pressure points in my body. I had learned my first natural remedies for sickness while travelling. He had been kind enough to pull the leeches from our skin only hours before as we raced down the slippery mountain to reach our guesthouse in time for the monkey feeding.
[/caption]We sat around and laughed and joked, while Arlen and his travelling companion, Buddhi, who could not speak a word of English but wore a constant smile, strummed the guitar and sang us Indonesian songs.
Our adventures with Arlen did not end there in the Sumatran jungle. We were convinced once again to take another exploratory trip. This time to nearby remote islands perfect for snorkelling and swimming. Arlen was not wrong.
We had the islands all to ourselves and went back to primitive basics. There was no running water, electricity or even a bed to sleep in. Arlen caught fish for our dinner, while we swam around exploring the delightful and abundant underwater world. We ate with our hands and washed up with ocean water.Our evening was spent playing charades and shithead, telling stories, and singing more songs around the campfire, where we eventually lay our heads down to sleep.
When, after our two day stay in the Bukkitingi area turned to two weeks, we decided that we could not handle another sweet tea and dragged ourselves away to the nearest bus station.
Arlen came to bid us farewell. It was the first of many painful goodbyes I would soon have along the travelling road. I just wanted our Indonesian explorer friend to come along with us. Where would our own explorations now go without his steady, faithful hand?
I wrapped him up in a bubble and placed him in the special memories box in my heart, knowing that way I could keep all he had taught me and all the fun we shared forever safely in there. Time then, could never destroy that which was once so great.