Indonesia Update #7

Communication on Borneo has been tough, with limited cell reception and no internet.  Some of the very few electrical outlets for charging phones haven’t worked, either.

Cruising up the Kumai

Our last day on the river was nice.  We saw a huge crocodile, and several species of birds, including a large egret, spectacularly colored kingfishers as well as the smaller blue and black models, and a large black and red-brown raptor that our guide Kasri called a brahminket.

We went to another feeding at Camp Leakey, the orangutan study area, but no orangs came.  The absence of animals underscored that the orangs are free to come and go, unlike at a zoo.  There are parts of camp Leakey that look like Washington; there are familiar-looking ferns, and it is so green!   Some forests here have an incredible 200 species of trees.  There are some lianas and epiphytes, a lacy pine occasionally appears among the broadleaf trees, and we’ve seen three species of insectivorous pitcher plants, ranging from ½ to 6 inches in length.  Very cool.

Water and Forest Mixed

Descending the river yesterday afternoon was peaceful.  It was hard to leave.  Time here has been fairly relaxed and calm.  The river at Camp Leakey is deeply browned by tannins but clear, about 25 feet across, and surprisingly deep.  The banks are nonexistent as palms grow directly in the water 15-25 feet in from solid ground.  The river is tidal-influenced, so at times you can see the whole palms but at high tide, just the upper fronds are visible.  At Harapan Village, the tidal flux is nearly 7 feet.  Heading downstream, long-tailed macaques played in the trees, swinging and chirruping.  Further downriver we turned onto the main branch and the water became wider and muddy-brown.  We saw more endemic proboscis monkeys, who grew restless with our approach, shifting higher into trees and making incredible leaps away from shore. The babies and the old, fat, giant-nosed men are most fun to watch.

As we continued downstream night fell, yielding a spectacular sunset and our first visible moon. Kasri was excited to show us lightning bugs that are very different from the ones at home.  These are small and light brown, and seem magical because they don’t light up so much as shimmer and twinkle.  They swarm around palm trees with a delightful, supernatural effect.

Orang Means 'Person'

We moored at the confluence of the Sekonyer and Kumai Rivers.  There we ate dinner, had class aboard the boat, and were in bed by 10pm.  Our flight out from Pangkalun Bun was canceled due to mechanical issues, so instead we had to fly out of Sampit, a 4-hour drive from Kumai.  Thus we got up at 3:30 am, motored into town, waited for the taxi, and began our long ride to Sampit.  Most of us tried to sleep on the bumpy drive, but it was our one chance to see the inland part of the Kalimantan region. Instead of it being endless jungle, it proved to be endless plantations.  Flying out of Sampit drove the point home:  Vast expanses of forests razed to create oil palm plantations.  Unbelievable.  It was exactly what we’ve been reading about as the major threat to orangutans and other species.  They say 300 football fields worth of jungle are cleared every hour here, making Indonesia rank third in greenhouse gas emissions.  Fascinating to see… yet horrifying.

Life On a Boat Can Be Fun

After flying to Jakarta we had more waiting for our flight to Bali.  It was a long day, especially since we didn’t reach our hotel until 1 am.  We had the hotel send cars to pick us up, which was more expensive but made sense after the epic day.  A lazy morning was definitely in order after our 22-hour travel day, and now we are beginning to experience Bali.  This is the part of our trip focused on Indonesian arts and culture, so it is a bit unsettling to be seeing lots of white-skinned tourists for the first time!  Our hotel is pretty luxurious compared to the rustic accommodations of Borneo.  More on the cultural richness of Bali in the next post.  We’re on the home stretch now, and some of our group members are ready to be home.  Yet we are remaining as open as possible to the richness of this phenomenally colorful, richly detailed, and abundantly aromatic country.

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Reforestation with Villagers

I think our reforestation project was a very cool thing, but I know our one hectare isn’t gonna fix everything. After driving past, then flying over the palm oil fields that have replaced the jungle, we saw how seriously the habitat is being depleted. I found great joy in helping plant trees.  It was hot and tiring and I was sweating like a hog, but when I found myself wanting to take “breaks,” looking past the low shrubs and seeing the last tree, it gave me motivation to continue the work and plant more trees.

It was really funny working with the locals.  The overall parade of people was amazing to see: twenty villagers on their bikes, one carrying a baby, with trees sticking out of their backpacks.  Or on their motorcycles, with stoves and tents sticking out, just storming down the jungle path with huge smiles.

I was sweating and panting trying to talk to them we’d all end up just laughing at me — and that was communication enough. When Graham and I were planting, two men came and just pushed us to the side, grabbing our tools and digging the rest of the holes for us.  I thought it was funny.  So we just followed them along putting the trees in the ground.

My biggest challenge with our time on Borneo was not taking showers, having a constant flow of sweat down my back and face, and just smelling bad.  It was also hard to sleep in a tiny hothouse tent and hard not to pet the dogs.  Knowing the overall goal of the project, though — working to improve the forest for the orangutans — made me happy and helped me just forget about everything else.  — Merissa

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Undisturbed Tropical Forest

What the Rainforest Should Look Like

We planted 400 trees, 20 rows of 20 trees in each row. It was hot (thankfully the sun wasn’t beating on us) and I felt a bit light headed at times.  But all in all I feel pretty good about having done it.  Later, as we were driving down the extremely bumpy road to Sampit, there were endless rows of palm oil plantations.  So much forest has been lost that, unfortunately, I feel as though the dent we and the village people made in our tree planting project is kind of insignificant.

The experience was a good one to have, because the villagers were so happy to have the help.  They seemed grateful that people would come from somewhere else to help in this reforestation process. I felt good being able to contribute, as well as helping make our trip carbon-neutral.

Learning from Locals

When we were done we had time to sit around and talk, despite the language barrier. Sitting on the porch at the Beguru Ranger Station, it was nice to talk and relax after a hectic day of getting to where we needed to go and carrying the trees to the field where we planted them.

I think it would be great to come back to the open field that now holds all of the trees that we planted and see how many of them survived and how quickly they grew.  Knowing that the people in the village and the FNPF (Friends of the National Park Foundation) were pleased with the tree planting work we got done was, for me, probably the largest accomplishment of the day. — Marina

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Last night we experienced, for most of us, a completely new and exciting kind of show. The lights were slowly dimmed until the only source of light came from a single post lit with several small candle-like flames. The audience kept their voices at a low whisper until the dancers appeared through an open door on stage. I watched in amazement as dancers steadily flowed through the entrance.  It seemed as though there was a never-ending line of them.

The show began with maybe a hundred or so men of all ages sitting in a circle around that single light source, and slowly but surely they began a chant unlike any other I’ve heard in my life.  I personally struggled at times to keep up with the story line. But even though I had trouble processing what was actually happening, I still very much enjoyed the performance.

The dancers’ movement was very unnatural, but at the same time smooth. I know what you’re thinking, you can’t be unnatural and smooth at the same time, it’s just weird that way. Well, they accomplished it quite nicely. Knees bent slightly and arms in a similar fashion was a common theme through out the entire performance. Vibrantly colored clothing was worn by all members of the Kecak. Most of the costumes consisted of multiple layers wrapped around the waist and lower body, some laced with golden threading. The masks used were quite different from most masks I’ve ever seen.  Their long and visible teeth and untamed hair made them truly unique.

As much as I would love to share my experience more fully, I find myself out of words to fully describe the impact of the experience; it was amazing, but words and phrases can’t even begin to tell what we saw.     — Claire

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