My time in Sumatra was nothing short of extraordinary. I trekked through dense forests, met with one of our earth’s great apes, spent a night sleeping in the heart of the Gunung Leuser – but what was most extraordinary was getting the chance to spend time with the kind, gentle people of Sumatra.
People are the embodiment of culture and the people of Bukit Lawing in Sumatra’s north are truly the soul of this place. Many of the people living in this region are jungle dwellers, making their living off the tourism industry that came to light with the conservation and rehabilitation efforts of Orang-utans in the 1970’s. While Bukit Lawang was growing as the main tourism hub the surrounding villages were also increasingly benefiting from this newly introduced industry.
With tourism however, comes the need for language and interpersonal skills. Many of the guides, shop keepers and guesthouse owners I came to meet on my travels explained to me how they had learned their English purely from encounters with tourists and how they believe that future opportunity, and prosperity, for the local people requires the next generation to be similarly competent in the English language. While this may be easy for those who live in the main city areas, those who live in small villages along the Bohorok River with limited access to basic facilities would find themselves at a disadvantage.
Luckily there are people who are helping to bring the English language to those who can benefit from it most, and one of those people is Jungle Edie. I met Jungle Edie through my contacts at Sumatra Adventure Holidays, who I had contacted regarding interest in sustainable tourism and opportunity to help the local community. Mr Uddin proceeded to tell me about a school that had recently opened in the village of Salang Pangeran, about a 30 minutes drive from Bukit Lawang. I offered my English teaching skills for the week and he accepted.
Two years ago, with the help of the local and international community and the money he had saved through running trekking in the forest, Jungle Edie built the first English classroom in Salang Pangeran. Made of simple materials including bamboo weaved walls and a concrete slab floor, this school would be the place where the children from remote villages could come to practice their English skills. After partnering with Sumatra Adventure Holidays he opened the school to volunteers, while also providing a homestay alongside the volunteer program. The volunteers would teach for two hours per day, five days a week assisting the resident English teacher Mr. Hern, who helps with the translation.
My week teaching at the Jungle School was unforgettable. Each day the children would welcome me with smiles and hellos. They would eagerly and actively participate in all the exercises and games we played in the classroom. They would walk the long 2 kilometres here each day to learn English, and afterwards enjoy a swim in the nearby river. Many of the children know very basic English, and others are at a more advanced level, so Mr Hern and I would split the class in two and I would teach the advanced students while he cared to the younger students.
After class was over I would spend some time with the locals, learning basic Indonesian and sharing stories with them. They would make me tea or coffee and we would sit under a bamboo hut by the river, and I would learn more about their culture and more about the program. For the week I was there the people I met begun to feel like my family, this village in the remote regions of northern Sumatra begun to like my home away from home.
I admired Jungle Edie’s passion to help his community, he was passionate about education and especially passionate about the environment, which struck a chord for me. Aside from the education projects he runs a tree-planting program for the volunteers. Each person who arrives at the school gets the chance to plant a fruit tree in the adjacent hills so that, in future, the Orang-utans and other animals have more fruit to feed on. He tells me about his ideas to build a garden out of used plastic water bottles, and eventually expand to build another school. It’s those kinds of ideas that go towards creating great change in a place like this.
When I said goodbye on my last day I knew I would return. The people of Sumatra burrowed a place in my heart that will forever remain. I want to follow their journey, and share their story, and come back to see what progress they have made. It was one of those experiences that you have as a traveller that really stays with you, and I can only encourage others who visit Sumatra to spend some time here, or at the very least help to share the wonderful work they are doing for their community.