Changing Perspectives: Students in the Jungles of Sumatra

A selfie of the NJIS Sumatra gang swimming in the river after a faft ride

NJIS Sumatra selfie in the river after rafting.

Last November, Sarah had one birthday wish- to see orangutans in the wild.  The elusive orangutan only inhabits two islands, both in Indonesia- Sumatra and Borneo.  After some research, we put together a trip and a group of us traveled to Bukit Lawang, deep in the heart of the Sumatran rainforest on an extended weekend.  Despite Because of the rustic, basic lodging and warm, welcoming staff and local community, North Sumatra is still one of our most memorable experiences this school year.  Here are some highlights:

We became friendly with the delightful lodge owner Andrea, and before returning to Jakarta, Adrian and I had concocted a plan.  We were going to bring a group of students from NJIS back to Bukit Lawang on a field trip.  Over the next few months we corresponded with Andrea, who is trained in conservation biology and keen for a student group visit, to have our students compare the area’s different ecosystems, learn about Sumatran wildlife, and have an unforgettable adventure.  We had hoped for at least a couple of months to prepare, but scheduling conflicts gave us little choice- we would leave in three weeks and return two days before we set off to Borneo on our spring break.  Together, the trips gave us a terrific two and a half weeks out of the classroom, but little time to make the proper arrangements.  We scrambled to book flights, distribute forms and documents, and create an itinerary.  Before we knew it, we were at the airport meeting students bound for Sumatra.

The Grade 10 class picture- wanting to emulate the Kardashians

Emulating a Kardashian Christmas card with grade 10

Although we were concerned about the trip’s physical demands on the students, discipline would be effortless. NJIS students are eternally courteous, considerate, and respectful.  Most of them also lead a very sheltered, pampered lifestyle in the upper echelons of the Indonesian and Korean elite and wealthy.  One of our friends working at a nearby international school coined the term “hypernannified” referring to the shackling dependence our students have on their housekeepers, even into high school.  Most of the students have never directly witnessed, let alone lived, as an average Indonesian.  In fact, many were not permitted to go to Sumatra because it was “dangerous out there” or the students’ nannies were not allowed to trail along behind them.  They move through the city in expensive cars with tinted windows from designer shopping mall to high-end restaurant barely glimpsing the abject poverty and meager lifestyle most of their fellow Jakarta citizens experience.  Hidden within the jungle science experiments and wildlife viewing was our secret agenda to change all that.

Just arrived at the Medan Airport

Just arrived at the Medan Airport

15 students arrived at the airport, four from Adrian’s grade seven science class (dubbed Team Mosquito) one from my grade nine earth science, and eight 11th graders and two seniors taking environmental science with me.  Our repeated orders to pack light fell on rich ears accustomed to a certain lifestyle, and dragging along behind them were tugboat-sized suitcases for our six-day journey.  The trip to Bukit Lawang was an arduous one- a flight to the city of Medan followed by a five-hour bumpy minivan ride through traffic and over unkept roads.  When asked why the bus ride was so long, we poignantly replied that all the rainforest between Medan and Bukit Lawang had already been clear-cut, mostly for palm oil plantations.  We arrived in the evening seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and once the buses pulled over, we began to unload.  We had a 30 minute walk along a dirt road accessible for only pedestrians and motorbikes to the lodge.  The immediate student reaction?

“Who’s going to carry our suitcases?”

“You are.”  Oh.

Except there's no pool

Except there’s no pool

Bukit Lawang is a small, charming village which meanders between a jungle river and the dirt road lined with lodges, locally owned backpacker restaurants, and kiosks jammed with groceries and a few souvenirs.  Andrea’s place is called Green Hill Lodge (be sure to check out the pictures on their home page 😉 ), situated at the farther end of the road close to Gunung Leuser National Park, our playground for the next four days.  The lodge is a series of bungalows built of natural materials nestled into a steep hillside overlooking the river.  No air conditioning, electricity comes in shifts, showers are diverted river water in a bamboo pipe sticking out of the wall, toilets only flush with a bucket, and insects can definitely visit.  Adrian and I were excited to be back, and more excited to be recognized and greeted warmly by the Green Hill staff and Bukit Lawang community- our group in November apparently had made quite an impression, and our comfort and camaraderie with the locals made an impression on our students.  Most of the students were not, however, impressed with their lodging.  As darkness set in, some were beginning to second guess their decision to join us, particularly when they realized wi-fi was absent and phone service was scant.  Fortunately, staying at Green Hill is staying with friends.  The food is absolutely delicious and the common area is great place for relaxing, chatting, and playing games.  The comatose electronics were quickly put away and out came guitars, Uno, chess, and backgammon.  Unlike smoggy Jakarta, they could also admire the clear night sky.  Andrea, Adrian, and I sat and finalized our schedule, then sent the kids to bed for an early curfew, because tomorrow they had another full day.

Explaining data collection with the guides watching on

Explaining data collection with the guides watching on

We woke early, got the kids fed, made sure their day packs and lunches were sorted, and hiked back to the road, where we sardined into the back of two army-like jeeps and travelled to a nearby rural village.  Today was community service day- we planted 25 young fruit trees with primitive tools lent by the villagers and donated some supplies to the local elementary school.  Although they were uneasy at first in the humble traditional village performing menial tasks, the students finished proud of their contributions.  Our picnic lunch of the classic Indonesian meal nasi goreng (fried rice with veggies and chicken) was wrapped in banana leaves and we ate on a bed of palm fronds arranged by our Green Hill guides.  Afterwards, we mapped, identified species, and took data on temperature, pH, oxygen levels, and other environmental factors in a palm oil  and a rubber tree plantation.  By the time we returned to Green Hill, the students were wiped out and complained far less about their curfew.



Orangutan with baby

The next day was a half day trek into the national park, and our goal was to find orangutans (in Indonesian, orang utan means “person of the forest”).  At the first viewing platform we were greeted by two mothers with babies and a young male.  A troupe of white-tailed macaques scampered around the larger apes.  The students were very quiet, almost respectful as we watched the orangutans make their way slowly through the canopy, having learned there are only 6,000 Sumatran orangutans left and could be extinct within a decade.  Some of the students began to realize the consequences of their parents’ palm oil plantation businesses, from which their family makes an unfathomable amount of money.  Further on the trek we were visited by the endemic thomas leaf monkey, a peacock grouse, and other Sumatran wildlife.  We met up with the river to have lunch and returned to Green Hill by white water rafting.  A memorable day for the students.


Into the caves

Into the caves

We needed smaller groups for our next days’ adventures, so Adrian took Team Mosquito on a tour of Bukit Lawang township and I took the rest to the local bat caves.  Unlike Gomantong we would see the next week in Borneo, these series of three caves were more narrow, longer, and needed a bit of scrambling to get inside and through.  We were in the caves for hours taking data, exploring, and hunting for cave dwellers.  In the first cave the kids were wary, grossed out, and afraid to get dirty.  By the third cave I was being pulled in eight different directions to be shown my students’ discoveries they had found with their headlamps while busily taking data.  Check and mate.  We reconvened with Team Mosquito at the lodge that afternoon to recount our experiences and relax.  By this time, the students had befriended Green Hill’s charismatic guides and staff, so they spent the evening losing to them at chess and singing and strumming the guitar with their local rag-tag acoustic band.


Waiting turns to collect data

Waiting turns to collect data

We switched on the following day, with Team Mosquito off to the caves and my group through town.  We took more data on the canals and a rice paddy as we strolled through the roads waving to the locals.  Our walk ended at Andrea’s house where we had lunch on her front porch and took our last data entry from her fish pond suffering (as the students diagnosed from their data) eutrophication.  Our trip home was by baji, a cart attached to a motorcycle used like a taxi.  Although there are countless baji in Indonesia, particularly in Jakarta, none of our students had ever ridden in such poor man’s transport.  They loved it.


Performing with the band at Green Hill

That night Green Hill hosted a barbecue for our group and the local band came around to play.  Because NJIS was a music and arts school prior to becoming focused on academics, our students shined that night, singing and playing instruments with the band and entertaining the community, who had swung by to glimpse and hear the infamous student group that had invaded and conquered Bukit Lawang.  Adrian and I felt guilty when we had to send them off on their normal curfew that last evening, despite the pleas from the students and their audience, but we had a 4:30am wake up to travel back to Medan and catch our flight to Jakarta.

The afternoon before we left, we had a round table discussion in the common area about the take-home message from their experiences.  Bukit Lawang had wielded its magic once again, and our students were different from when they arrived.  “I don’t want to go home”, “My life will never be the same” and “I came here scared and now I don’t want to leave”  were some of the quotes from the discussion.  Perhaps the title of this entry in Green Hill’s Facebook page sums it up best.


9 thoughts on “Changing Perspectives: Students in the Jungles of Sumatra

    • Thank you, but it was really the kids that made the trip successful. On that first day they packed away their Jakarta lives and submersed themselves into the small Sumatran town. Perhaps they needed to for their own mental survival, but they put 100% into the experience, and came out better for it. I am very proud of them. 🙂


    • A trip to remember for all of us. When we heard that we had three weeks to plan, we panicked and didn’t have an idea how it would fly. Andrea at Green Hill made it smooth sailing and the kids were unbelievable.
      To be honest, it was also a great excuse to go back to Bukit Lawang- what an amazing place.


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