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Raw Angel

Renee Pluckhahn


I was off to Africa for a volunteer trip at the end of 2014, and had been doing some fundraising to take over with me to purchase supplies in country. Long story short, the trip went belly up, so I said to RAW Angel Vicki Gabriel, ‘when’s your next trip to Sumatra?’. Before I knew it we had flights and I was on a plane to North Sumatra, Indonesia with Vicki herself in April 2015. If I’m being completely honest, all I knew was I was going to this country for 3 weeks and I didn’t even get a glance at the itinerary until we were halfway through our international flight. But that wasn’t important and who doesn’t love an adventure, so I was up for it!

Vicki and I headed over for a week of checking in and organising things in Tangkahan, a little community in the jungle, 4 hours away from the hustle and bustle of Medan. If I was to sum this place up in one word, well I can’t choose just one, but I’ll settle for two – paradise and home. Anyway, more about that later.

Vicki’s daughter, Chelsea and another friend, Denise met us in Medan a week later. That first week was amazing! Day 1, I found myself at a funeral, and I’m not a fan of funerals but I went with it, with a little encouragement from Vicki. Within 5 minutes of being there, I was sat down with Dodi, (who was one of the first people I’d met the night before) and helped him paint a cross (our version of a headstone) and boy did we attract a little bit of attention, white Australian girl (bulek in Indonesian language) doing the boys work. Next we moved on and drank sweet tea with the women and then headed to the ‘cemetery’ with the boys (guides/rangers of Tangkahan). I quickly met the rest of the Tangkahan boys (people who I now call family and they do the same) and within no time found myself doing the last thing I expected – sitting around, I guess you could say relaxing, on the graves with them. I learnt pretty quickly and ate my first lunch with my fingers, something I do without a second thought now... So picture me sitting around on graves with about 30 Indonesian boys/men whom I’ve just met. Dodi and his friend Beni want to ask me a question but are being a little shy. When they work up enough nerve, they ask me what the water stuff that comes out of your nose is called. I’m trying to think quick and “Snot” is my only response... Vicki cracked up laughing, followed by everyone else! And there you have it, the first word in English that I’d taught these guys.

The rest of the week was spent teaching English at Tangkahan English Club (TEC), river tubing, getting around on motorbikes, singing along to the best local music every night, eating delicious food and of course meeting the elephants. I’ve always loved elephants growing up. I met them up close for the first time, ever and it was amazing, cliché I know, but I’m sure if you ask Vicki she’d probably tell you I looked like a little child! Straight away I had a favourite, Augustine who now has a baby boy and has remained my favourite ever since.

The next two weeks were spent doing similar things, Chels and I headed back to Tangkahan with Darwin by local bus. There’s a story about that little adventure too, but we’ll save that for another time. We spent the week, teaching at TEC, visiting the elephants, river tubing to waterfalls, planting trees in the jungle, picnic lunches, ranger meetings, soccer, jungle trekking, camping, teaching English to the rangers after dinner and music. We met up with Vicki and Denise in Bukit Lawang after a long and super fun motorbike ride with Herda and Meddi.

The money I’d raised prior to the trip, went towards concreting an outdoor classroom, purchasing dictionaries and many other supplies for TEC, funding dictionaries for many of the boys (guides), and sponsoring two children (Irwan and Undika) from the village to go to school.

I’m pretty sure we had a little party every night for the whole last week and I definitely wasn’t ready to leave.

At the end of that first week when Vicki and I headed back to Medan, I remember chatting with her and she said to me something along the lines of “Oh don’t worry, you’ll cry when you leave”. I’m thinking to myself, don’t be stupid. Well she was right, when we left at the end of our three week trip I managed to say two goodbyes before I reached Darwin and was a blubbering mess. We said our goodbyes, under strict instructions from the boys that we’d have to come back soon.

Post holiday blues! If I didn’t already believe this was a real thing, I do now. North Sumatra, Tangkahan in particular isn’t the kind of place that you can visit once and tick it off your list. But even I wouldn’t have believed that a couple of years ago, if you’d told me then.

The next stage of this little story…

I decided I was off to Nepal and India next, with a stopover in Tangkahan. I told Chels one day and she said “I’m coming”. So we got planning and set off in December 2015, first stop North Sumatra. We spent a week relaxing in beautiful Lake Toba before we headed to Tangkahan, where we spent Christmas, New Years and the most part of January 2016.

We’ll never get to the end if I tell all the stories I could, but basically we had a month full of endless adventures and here’s a few. We built a playground at TEC, painted the playground, drove motorbikes on broken roads, went river tubing, went camping, jungle trekked, visited waterfalls and other hidden gems, ate delicious local food, cooked local food, spent time with elephants, fed elephants, went to soccer tournaments… in the back of a truck with the team, canvassed and recruited for English classes, taught English, learnt bits of Indonesian, had music, star gazed, picked up rubbish, drank coffee, gave AFL lessons, the list goes on. We ventured a little further this time and went by motorbike to a nearby village, Batu Katak with Jack and Pirman. We’d planned to stop off in Batu Rongring as well, but didn’t quite get there. Batu Katak is just as amazing as Tangkahan, with guides just as wonderful.

Remember the siblings I mentioned that we sponsored to go to school. It was time for a new plan. So Darwin (my wonderful big brother in Tangkahan who looks after everything when I’m not around) and I chatted and thought and chatted some more and we ended up building this family a new house closer to the village. Their previous house was a tiny hut, leaking and falling apart. So with the help of Vicki and my dad who also chipped in, we built a new house. Things don’t always happen in Indonesia like they might in Australia, but in the end despite a few hurdles the house was finished by the boys a couple of months later. A couple of weeks after I returned to Australia, I was informed that Irwan and Undika’s father had passed away and that they were leaving the village. This was just another little hiccup in the long line of hiccups, but we (Darwin and I plus a couple of other helpers) did what we always do and worked it out, via Facebook messenger mind you, the one way to stay in touch with my jungle family.

At the end of January it was time to say goodbye for a second time. Jungle family has grown in size by now, largely thanks to ranger English classes. And let me tell you, it certainly doesn’t get any easier. At this point, I knew I was definitely a local and part of the family, if I wasn’t already sure. I was being told this but we were also being treated so – camping in the jungle, Chels and I were often the practice run for future guests; camping under a tarp on the beach, in our sarongs, nothing luxurious whatsoever. We love it!

I’ve never met people so amazing in my life and I honestly can’t describe what it’s like if you haven’t experienced it yourself. I mean, I’ve met these people twice and they send their kids off on a motorbike with me! Sometimes I feel safer when I’m in the jungle in Indonesia with my second family than I might driving down the road in Australia.

It’s the end of March 2016 and I’m back in Australia…

Of course I couldn’t wait to get back to paradise again and catch up with my big jungle family. So I jumped at the opportunity to head back over in June 2016 and help RAW Wildlife founder and Director Jess McKelson with some new projects. Jess had expressed a need for something in the way of female sanitary items in the village of Batu Mbelin, located on the outskirts of Medan. We’d had a little project in the works back in Australia for a while now, but this was where it really kicked off. When I say we, I’m talking about myself, Vicki, Chelsea and my mum was now on board. We set about working hard and had 25 ‘Days For Girls Kits’ (DFG) ready for distribution by June. Basically they’re kits of washable pads to aid in women’s hygiene and ultimately prevent them from missing out on education. To find out more about this, you can visit our facebook page; Days For Girls Mount Gambier SA Australia Team. So I found myself on my way back to North Sumatra at the beginning of June.

I spent my first week in Tangkahan, catching up with everyone, checking in and just hanging out like a local. One way to know for sure that this is true; Marsya my little Indonesian sister stands in the centre of the village one day and yells as loud as she can “Kakak” (Indonesian for sister), because she couldn’t find me.

My second week was spent between Medan and Batu Mbelin and I finally got to meet Jess in person! I worked closely with a couple of people from Batu Mbelin and we delivered our first 15 DFG kits in the village there.

I headed back to Tangkahan for my last week, with Carly, a wonderful New Zealander and RAW Wildlife Leader who I’d also just met. The day after we arrived back we headed off with Jack and Pirman to Batu Katak and Batu Rongring. We had a wonderful time, jungle trekking, caving, tubing, animal watching, cooking and singing. I saw my first wild orangutan with its baby in Batu Rongring. This was my first visit here and I was in love! A beautiful little village, not far from Tangkahan with a community of rangers passionate about protecting the jungle. We had to cross the river twice to reach the little lodge that they were still in the process of building at the time. We spent a night here, sleeping in hammocks and whilst helping to prepare dinner I learnt about Jason’s story (one of the Batu Rongring rangers). The quick version; he has a history of non-school attendance and participation in illegal poaching, and is now trying to work towards making positive changes for his community and in turn protect the jungle. Jason and the other rangers have been building the lodge so that the area is suitable for tourists and they can continue to work towards protecting the jungle. After hearing this in a lot more detail, I’m sitting there after dinner while Jason makes an anklet for me from jungle vines, and my mind is ticking away. With some help translating, I tell Jason that we can buy the first four mattresses with money I’d raised from an art auction prior to the trip and I could take back some bracelets and sell them in Australia and we could later buy another four. His huge smile said it all!

Back in Tangkahan and our last few days were busy... We concreted the house that was built last trip and arranged for a new family in need to move in, gave TEC a paint makeover, delivered 9 DFG kits to a group of girls from TEC, taught English to the mum’s in the village, and set about organising and delivering the first four mattresses to Batu Rongring! That in itself was an adventure. Darwin ordered them, they came from the city by Bechak (similar to a tuk tuk), we met them there by motorbike after a couple of popped tyres on the way and carried them across the two rivers to the lodge (a 20 minute stroll).

By now, I’m sure you’re catching on to how the goodbyes go, especially when the boy’s children cry and latch on when it’s time to leave. My Indonesian improved in leaps this trip, so I could tell them in my very best basic Indonesian “Sampai jumpa lagi” (see you again).

Back in Australia once again;

  • Our DFG group is coming along in leaps and bounds, we are well on our way to reaching our goal to make 100 kits by the end of the year.
  • Jason sent me back with 50 jungle bracelets, and he and Darwin are purchasing the next lot of mattresses and a generator for the lodge as we speak.
  • Their wish has come true and RAW Wildlife Encounters are heading there as part of an upcoming tour.
  • I’ll be back in January 2017 with Vicki, Chelsea and a small group of others to deliver the 100 DFG kits; I’m sure there’ll be many more adventures and English classes to come.

Never in a million years would I have pictured my first trip to Sumatra to wind up where we are now. RAW Angel Vicki Gabriel is a HUGE part of the reason we made it and I am extremely grateful. There are so many other special people that make up my jungle family who you can find in Tangkahan. While I might not have mentioned them all here, they are just as much part of the pull that keeps me going back…

Those two words I mentioned at the beginning; paradise and home… I’ll leave you to ponder those.


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