THE BEST BATHTUB FOR 100 MILES While traveling around Australia by car and caravan and boat and canoe I came one night to a campground somewhere in the Northern Territory, long after everyone else had retired for the night. The only light was outside the dunny, which was your basic hut but with a flush toilet.
One light for a hundred miles means that every flying thing in the vicinity is flapping around that light, and by the time I had forced my way through the swarm I was in no shape to be messed with. So I decided to get this over with quickly and, all in one motion, turned around, dropped my shorts and hovered, poised to pee. That was when I saw it -- a little white hand clinging to the rim of the toilet seat.
My screams woke everyone in the campground and they stumbled out of their tents to find me running around with my shorts around my knees, screaming, "It's a baby. It's a baby!"
Did you know that green tree frogs like to bathe in toilet bowls? And that their hands are white?
-- Mary Comber___________
EARTH MOVEMENTS AND OTHER TREMORS | Berastagi, a way station in Sumatra's Karo Highlands, was a stop on the road to Lake Toba for most travelers. For Kris and me, however, Berastagi was more than a passing fancy. Berastagi was ground zero for our foray into the largest swath of virgin rain forest in Southeast Asia -- Gunung Leuser National Park.
After arriving in Berastagi, Kris and I wandered to the edge of town, where we stumbled upon the Wisma Sibayak -- a pleasant, nondescript guest house named for a local volcano, Gunung Sibayak. The proprietor, Serena, greeted us with a warm smile and immediately offered tea and cookies. Serena explained that there was only one available room, bordering the kitchen, and that we could have it if we so desired.
The room seemed homely enough and we agreed despite Serena's sly smile and the muffled snickers coming from the kitchen behind her. Intense rodent activity during the second night of our stay later explained their peculiar behavior. A large rat lurking behind our bed became entangled in Kris' hair, prompting a loud scream that in turn drove the intruder onto my bare chest, off the bed and back into the kitchen.
Shaken, scarred and plumbing for ways to ease my rampant rodent paranoia, I wrote a poem the next day at lunch:
Last night as I lay, in a peaceful slumber,
Kris pierced the night, with a burst of shrill thunder.
I jumped from the bed, in our hutlike nest,
and a furry-clawed creature leapt on my chest.
It had run through her hair, along the top of the bed,
then sprang from the scene, as we trembled with dread.
Serena, knowing the risks of bedding down next to the kitchen all too well, lent us her mosquito net for protection. A thin wisp of netting wasn't exactly the reassurance we had been seeking. We huddled inside our thin veil for the next two nights listening to the rats scamper along the headboard.
The next day we hopped a bus to Kutacane, a Muslim outpost in the heart of Atjeh province. You don't have to go very far to make friends in Kutacane -- they usually find you first. Shortly after our arrival in the picturesque village, we found ourselves playing cards with an asexual clerk and a Medan businessman on the front porch of an open-air guest house. Our opponents were more interested in our life story -- our marital status, spiritual persuasion, political beliefs -- than in playing cards.
Eventually the conversation turned toward Gunung Leuser and how we were going to enter the expansive park. The Medan businessman mulled our circumstance and suggested we contact a small outfit in town that specializes in rafting expeditions through the heart of Leuser. We gladly accepted his advice and ended up lashing inner tubes to a wood palette the next day with Hasbi and Chood, our Sumatran guides for the following week.
During our six-day float down the Alas river, we experienced jungle overload. We tracked elephants, dodged orangutans, battled mutant jungle ants, followed hornbills, swam with river iguanas, showered in waterfalls and unearthed venomous, barbed shrubbery. All in all, it was an archetypal, well-rounded jungle experience with plenty of tall tales for the troops back home. Dense jungle affairs, however, are rarely archetypal.
Our third night in the rain forest, spent in the bowels of a limestone cave, was marred by a magnitude 6.2 earthquake. Kris was desperately trying to extract stinging plant shrapnel from her leg as I assisted with a flashlight and moral encouragement when the rumbler struck. The booming reverberations approached like a pack of diesel big-rigs roaring through the forest. Our cave shook violently for what felt like an eternity; and once the excitement had finally passed, the canopy erupted into a chorus of primal cheers.
Entombment was a chief concern. Hasbi and Chood were noticeably unconcerned. They quickly fell back asleep while Kris and I sat at the cave's rim watching sheet lightning flash intermittently along the horizon.
Our eventual escape from the jungle featured a shady run-in at the Sibu-Sama bus terminal -- a dusty parking lot that bore more resemblance to a convict yard than a transport hub. The local transit authority saw us as an economic opportunity and therefore tried to coerce us onto one of their buses while charging an exorbitant assistance fee. Chood, however, recognized the transgression taking place and shepherded us onto a local bus bound for Berastagi. The locals deemed Chood's actions unacceptable and voiced their displeasure. Threats were exchanged, tempers boiled and a predacious mob chased our bus out of the parking lot down Sibu-Sama's main drag.
Upon leaving Sumatra for western Malaysia, we reflected on our adventures in Gunung Leuser and the Karo highlands. The subject of accommodations dominated our post-mortem. If nothing else, we agreed, our jungle cave provided a reliable roof, a surreal setting and, compared to the Wisma Sibayak in downtown Berastagi, warranted fewer nocturnal anxieties.
-- Christian McIntosh