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Planes, Trains, Ball and Chains: Monkey Business

“Should we be worried about the volcano?” I ask our guide Ren, reaching down to give Rachel a hand as we climb up a slippery mountain trail. Texts and emails had been flooding our inboxes with subject lines like, “R U OK??” or “Sumatra Volcano??” Apparently it’s been all over the world news, with tens of thousands of Sumatran residents being evacuated from their homes. Falling ash, impending doom, death from above…with no one round here saying a word about it.

Ren looks back at me blankly like, “Which volcano, again?”

“Mt. Cinnabun,” I say, informatively.”

“Oh, Mt. Sinabung?” he corrects. He mulls it over for a second and shrugs it off like, “What-evs.” Then he puts his finger to his mouth to quiet us and glares up at the rainforest’s canopy. “I think Julie is here,” he says with a twinkle in his eye, “…but I hope not Mina.” The twinkle vanishes.

We are hiking through the thick and steamy Gunung Leuser National Park near Bukit Lawang, North Sumatra tracking wild orangutans, by the way, and only a couple hours in. We follow narrow, sometimes unrecognizable footpaths that weave through the lush rainforest, loud and alive with cliché-like jungle sounds. Apparently there are even Sumatran tiger sightings now and then, a critically endangered predator on the verge of extinction. Our guide, Ren, and his young son sandwich Rachel and I, pausing every so often, both to catch their own breaths and to listen to the trees that might shake with a heavy, redheaded primate.

Ren looooves orangutans. Ren’s also the kinda guy that eats his fried rice lunch with his fingers, then snaps a photo of you with his ipad and seconds later, smugly says, “Already uploaded to Facebook,” with a look on his face like, how easy was that? He licks the remaining sauce off his fingers. Ren has also named quite a few of the orangutans we’re tracking too. He speaks fondly of Julie and Sandy, smiles and shakes his head when talking about Jackie and her child, but Mina — not so much.

“Mina is mean. Very aggressive,” he says with a frown. “I hope we don’t see her…Mina bite.”

“Like, Mina bites often?” we ask, a little concerned.

“Maybe once a month, once a week in high-season,” Ren says, scanning the forest cautiously. “She has bitten me before.” He rolls down his sock and shows us a nasty scar. So, it’s personal. Also I’m pretty sure it’s the high-season.

Suddenly there’s a rumble directly above us. We crane our necks straight up and an orange-haired mass descends toward us at an alarming pace. There’s a tense moment where I can tell Ren is glaring at the creature in the tree to get an I.D. and then bursts into a smile, “It’s…Sandy! With her baby!” He glows, proudly. He reaches into his backpack and hands Rachel a banana. “Share with them.”

Rachel takes a piece of the fruit, moves a couple of steps forward and the two women reach out to one another, Sandy with a small child clinging to her chest. The orangutan’s hand grazes Rachel’s softly, taking the banana. One of those beautifully wild and pure moments in life.

We continue on for a few more hours and eventually see Jackie, a nameless large alpha male, a man getting attacked by a swarm of bees, and, luckily, not Mina. We also find out that Mt. Cinnabun is less than 50 miles away from the park. C’mon, Ren!?

Who wants to go hang out with orangutans in the jungle?? We do! Check out the next installment from the Flemister's around-the-world adventure! 

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