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    Bukit Lawang and a Lesson in Resiliency

    Bukit Lawang is a village in North Sumatra, on the edge of the jungle. The Bohorok River plays a central role in village life, providing a place to wash bodies and clothes, to cool down during sweltering days, and to have a little fun, running smallish rapids on tubes and in rafts. The village exists almost entirely due to tourism. In 1973, two foreigners set up an orangutan rehabilitation center there, which spawned hotels and restaurants and guides to take adventurous tourists into the jungle in hopes of spotting the orangutans up close.

    My friends and I had the good luck to see several orangutans on our four-day trip, including a mother and baby at very close range during a trek through the jungle. Seeing orangutans in the wild was at the top of my list when I moved to Indonesia and I was over the moon. But it didn’t turn out to be my favorite part of the trip.

    My favorite things about Bukit Lawang were the people I met and the overall atmosphere of the place. It’s always nice to be in a place where everyone is either a tourist or in the business of tourism. It’s a relaxing and easy way to meet people with interesting stories from all over the world, and in Bukit Lawang, it was no different. But generally, those places haven’t been completely destroyed and rebuilt in the recent past.

    In November of 2003, a flash flood rushed down the Bohorok River and took Bukit Lawang as it raged past. It washed away all of the hotels and restaurants and food stalls and homes that lined the river. Worse, it also killed 239 people. In fifteen minutes.

    I knew about the flood before I traveled to Bukit Lawang--it was an enormous disaster in a country that has suffered more than its fair share of environmental tragedy in the past decade--but, as with anything, the impact of the flood was brought home to me in a personal way. We went on a jungle trek on our second day in the village. It is not an activity for the faint of heart. There were six of us with three guides. Being the oldest in the group (by about 15 years), I was also the slowest. One of the guides always stayed back with me, to make sure that I didn't get lost or eaten by a gigantic snake or something. As we walked, we chatted about our lives. He told me he had two children--one boy and one girl. Then, I asked him about his wife. He told me she died in the flood, along with two of their sons. Half of his family, gone in fifteen minutes. How does a person recover from something like that? How does a village recover when nearly everyone lost someone. How can you rely on your family, friends, and neighbors for support when you are all grieving at the same time?

    Seven years later, there are only a few physical signs of the flood. As we took a leisurely ride down the river, we saw what was the corner of a building foundation in the form of an enormous piece of concrete stuck in the middle of the river--about two miles down river from the village--and the hotels and restaurants have all been rebuilt on higher ground. But when they speak of that day, their facial expressions change from smiling and open to slightly vacant and their voices fall flat--signs that it's not as easy to recover from the emotional trauma.

    Despite the devastation, the people of Bukit Lawang have gone on. They've reconstructed their village and launched an effort to educate the population about the dangers of illegal logging and deforestation. They've recommitted to protecting the orangutan population and the jungle that surrounds them. And they've continued to open their hearts and village to visitors from all over.

    I fell just a little bit in love with the people of Bukit Lawang in my four days there. And I sincerely hope that I will have a chance to visit them again in the future.



    It's a beautiful and touching story, O.

    Thank for your post, i really love it. I will come again.

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