September 10th: Update from September 10
Saturday morning: I awoke at 2:00AM for our drive from Bogor to Jakarta for my fourth and final flight to Pontianak, the airport in West Kalimantan, Borneo. Touching down in Borneo after four days of travel felt surreal but our day’s journey had just begun. We had a 12-hour bus ride ahead of us before we reached Sintang. Previously, the Eco-Warriors were scheduled to travel by military-escorted speedboats, but the water level is too low and it is a dangerous way to travel.
(Timeout: As I write this, my first jungle rain shower just came out of nowhere! It’s pouring and the air feels cooler already. Really beautiful. Eco-Warriors are rinsing off today’s grim and dancing in the rain, and the film crew is scrambling for cover.)
Back to the story: Our first stop was a fruit stand where I tried my first durian–quite the experience. It’s a smelly little thing–there’s an element of sweetness to it but also hints of garlic and onion.
Editor’s note: From Wikipedia,
The edible flesh emits a distinctive odor, strong and penetrating even when the husk is intact. Some people regard the durian as fragrant; others find the aroma overpowering and offensive. The smell evokes reactions from deep appreciation to intense disgust, and has been described variously as almonds, rotten onions, turpentine and gym socks. The odor has led to the fruit’s banishment from certain hotels and public transportation in southeast Asia.
The second stop of the day was when our trusty bus needed a tire change. But the third stop was the highlight and low point of the day. We boarded small taxis and sped through the back roads until we reached a “zoo”. It was the saddest, most abandoned place–not a person in sight–and all the caged animals in poor condition. Then our taxi dropped us off at the worst cage of all. Two orangutans were forced to share a small cage that sits under the blazing heat of the sun all day. The bottom of the cage was covered in trash and feces with no food or water in sight. I remember inhaling suddenly when I came upon them–these were my first orangutans in Borneo, and I was unprepared for the conditions. They stared curiously at our group, reaching out their palms to Dr. Willie Smits as he talked with them and scratched their backs through the metal bars. Their skin was in terrible condition, and their eyes pleaded for a better life.
We were supposed to rescue those orangutans at that very moment, but the Bupati was called into Jakarta for important meetings and so we will come back for them. Months ago, two other orangutans died in that cage because of the conditions. How much longer can these two hold on?
Editor’s note: A regency is headed by a regent (Indonesian: Bupati), and a city is headed by a mayor
Dr. Willie shared that we will see orangutans in far worse conditions than these two. That is terrifying to me. As I tried to fall asleep under my mosquito net hours later, the image of their desperate eyes haunted me. But the experience at the zoo was my “ah ha!” moment. This is why I am here. This is the creature whose life I can impact and change. It is beyond imagination that humans can care so little about the animal that is most similar to our own race. Surely if such cruelty can happen to orangutans, it can also happen to humans.
September 11th: Into the heart of Borneo
It is September 11th and my thoughts are back in America, reflecting on the events that transpired ten years ago. Currently being in a small Borneoian town that sits just on the edge of the jungle, my home country feels worlds away, but I know that many are relieving the horror that struck the USA.
Today I attended a Catholic mass which was held in the jungle–a beautiful outdoor church among the trees and nature. The people were very welcoming and taking communion with them was a special moment.
Then we returned to the Kobus house where we are staying and met up with young students who taught us Bahasa, the Indonesian language. I was paired up with a young Borneoian girl named Yolanda. She was a wonderful and patient teacher as I needed lots of repetition–my brain was in overload.
We are now preparing to go on our first jungle walk. Then tonight the Bupati has asked us to join him for a small party.
Tomorrow we go off the grid for four days. The speedboats will take us another 8 hours deeper into the jungle where roads cease to exist and the river provides the only transportation.
Editor’s note: Something like this…
The leaders briefed us on safety issues and other precautions. This is where the journey will get real. This is where we will meet the people directly affected by the deforestation and palm oil. This is where we will see firsthand the destruction and the reason we are here.\
I will try to prepare a few posts to go up while I’m off the grid but I won’t return to Internet access until Thursday or Friday. Until then, Selamat tinggal.
September 13th: Action Photos from the Action Team
All photos credited to: Venie Hartinie via the Facebook page – Borneo 3D: An Action Movie
September 17th: Boating Down the Malawi River
Where to begin? Yesterday we returned from a four-day expedition that took us deep into the heart of Borneo. I saw sights that I never thought my eyes would see, straight out of a National Geographic magazine; at times, it was overwhelming…..overwhelmingly beautiful.
On Monday the Eco-Warriors left Sintang in a flotilla of speedboats, eleven to be exact. The Malawi River is the lifeblood of this region. The riverbeds are lined with little villages; gold mining operations float on small boats, digging up the day’s treasures. The fishermen quietly sit in their canoes, hoping for lunch, while small children play in the river as they bathe.
Our journey on the speedboats took us from the already remote town of Sintang about 8-10 hours deeper into Borneo (approximately 20-25 hours inland from Pontianak–the Borneo airport we landed at). As the river wound around and our flotilla continued east, the villages became fewer and fewer. The gold mining boats became a less frequent sight which is a good thing. (The mining operation dumps scary amounts of mercury into the river which the locals depend on to bathe, cook, and drink from. Those who work on the mine boats expect to die a few years after they begin because of their close contact with the poison.) But one business remained on the river–huge piles of logged trees. Hundreds of chopped trees lined the riverbanks, waiting to be transported into civilization. Small tugboats would wrangle the massive tree loads. The diameter on the trees was far smaller than regulation. Yet, the illegally logged trees visibly sat for all the world to see. Except these are places the world doesn’t travel to–until now.
The Eco-Warriors had our own personal cameras clicking away, taking notes, learning about the issue of deforestation. Maybe it was the flotilla of eleven speedboats tearing through the waters, maybe it was the huge cameras and production of our arrival into the various villages….I don’t know how information spreads between tribes….but they knew we were coming and welcomed us with open arms.
They are losing their land to outside companies and are terrified of their future which is slipping out of their hands more and more with every chopped tree. The entire journey was met with smiles from passing boats, big waves from those peering outside their huts at the commotion, and welcoming ceremonies when we arrived at our host villages.
The return trip into Sintang was strange to me. After four days of being truly off the grid, I found myself slightly overwhelmed by the sights of cars and a bridge! Even Sintang is remote but during my first few minutes back, it felt like a booming city.
September 18th: Dayak Tribes
I’m sitting under my mosquito net at the Kobus house, struggling with adequate words to describe the Dayak tribes I met this week. We spent four days meeting with various tribes in their villages. They live in the heart of Borneo, removed from the ways of the world but fully immersed in their rich culture and history. They depend entirely on the land, living sustainable lives in the middle of the rainforest.
We were welcomed into their tribes as though we were kings and queens. They have never experienced such a diverse group of visitors before and prepared a full ceremony for our arrival. Before we were able to enter the village, the tribal heads preformed ritual ceremonies, cleansing the space, asking the gods to protect us and chanting. We were required to drink tuwak and rub a plant-based substance in our hair.
Dr. Willie preformed other rituals and used the machete to ceremonially cut the bamboo divider that separated us from entering the village. When the tribal heads gave us the “ok”, we entered their village.
The dry season has left many villages struggling for food. Yet they prepared their best feast for us and used valuable resources, all to honor us. It was so humbling to know this, and I accepted their generosity with the internal promise that I will repay them with our advocacy work.Often the tribal leaders would use an interpreter to share with us how the palm oil companies were illegally stealing their land and how helpless they felt. Their resources are so limited, and they would turn to the Eco-Warriors with tears in their eyes, begging us to tell the world, pleading with us to share with our home countries of the injustices being done to them. Soon, if the palm oil companies succeed, the Dayak will be slaves in their own land
One day we took a longboat even deeper into the jungle and met with a tribe who was just told a palm oil company will take their land. They took us a particular spot–their ancestoral burial ground–a sacred place where 48 families are laying in rest. They have lived in this place for 200 years. And now, in the blink of an eye, the land and all the history on it will be gone forever. What can they do?
The high priestess and village head was beside himself. I stood listening to his story in complete disbelief. My thoughts turned to my own grandfather. What if his grave was just snatched away for a company to expand their product? How can this be happening?
For a society like theirs, they do not have history books printed of their culture; they must depend on places like a sacred burial ground to ensure their traditions continue. Just another devastating example, and from village to village it was the same story, just from a different mouth. Stolen land, desperation, hopelessness.
We trekked into the jungle to meet one Dayak on the plot of jungle land he has owned and worked for the past eight years. The surrounding trees had blue spray paint on them, and he explained that a palm oil company had been there days earlier to survey the hectares of land and would be back in several weeks with equipment to clear it out. I will explain later in more detail how the companies are stealing the land. It’s all quite complex, and I’m still working to understand it myself.
The final village we visited told us again of their desperation. They shared how they had been praying, and, when we showed up, they thought we must be angels. Angels? This is hard for me to stomach because I am part of the problem. I would be appalled to read the backs of the various containers, makeup, foods, lotions, and drinks, and I believe it would be fair to say most, if not all, would contain palm oil. This trip is enlightening me and expanding my world view yet again. When I am at home in America, I am so deeply disconnected to the source of the products I consume. With every purchase I make, I submit a vote. And unknowingly I’ve been voting for the palm oil companies.
September 20th: Jojo
Meet my new best friend, JoJo. She’s a three year old Orangutan we rescued from a village called Tembak yesterday. Little JoJo was quite nervous about her new environment so Eco Warrior Ben Dessen and I spent the night sleeping in the Orangutan cage with the sweet girl.
It was an amazing night with JoJo reaching over at all hours of the night to hold my hand. My heart is obviously stolen, such a sweet girl.
September 28th: Ensaid Panjang
I know I’ve done a terrible job at regularly updating this blog during these first 20 days in Borneo, but we have been in the bush and so often we haven’t had Internet. Currently I’m sitting in the longhouse at Ensaid Panjang where we have been living with the Dayak tribe for the last five days. Time passes slowly here, helping the women in the kitchen, playing with the children, swimming and bathing in the river, and hiking in the nearby virgin rainforest. The first few days here no one explained to our group what was going on with this particular tribe. We spent our days with them in blissful ignorance, believing that their life was as beautiful as it appeared.
A few days ago, the tribal head took us into the peet forest. It was two hours of intense hiking where Willie or the village head would stop every few minutes and explain the medicinal value of various plants. Pointing to poisonous trees, they explained that, if it rained and you were standing under said tree and the water dripped off of the leaves, it would burn holes into your skin. To my untrained eye, I just saw green–green trees, peet swamp, beautiful ferns and bushes. But, to the Dayaks who work this land, pouring their sweat into this place, it is an overflowing medicine cabinet; it is a giant grocery store. It is their entire life. These people are not wealthy with money, this rainforest is their livelihood. Without it they have nothing.
In the middle of our hike, the village head stopped and pointed to a nearby tree. A fierce red slash was cut into the side–a screaming sign to the village that “they” had been here and were coming back.
The red slash is proof from the palm oil company that they are marking the land they are preparing to steal.
So how is this happening? It’s hard for me to grasp too. In America, the issue of land rights is much more clear cut. The rules of Indonesia are blurry and grey, and the corruption runs so deep on every level. Essentially, the most common story we are told as we travel from village to village is that the palm oil companies will bribe a few members of the tribe to “sell” the land of the entire village– land they have no authority to sell and certainly no permission. Sometimes the company will take certain tribe members into Pontianak (the city) and secretly videotape them to use as leverage later. The company creates tension among the tribe, hoping it will become broken and lack unity. Then they make their move, tossing in an embarrassingly small amount of money as a bribe ($50 Euros for one hectar), and take the land–the livelihood of the community.
I don’t feel like I’m explaining it very well. But I can share that these communities are devastated. They are hopeless and broken. We see it in their eyes, their dejected body language, their pleas for us to help.
It had been said that just having us here is giving them strength. Many of these villages have never had foreigners come to their community. They beg us to tell their story to the world.
September 29th: Long House
The longhouse is a flurry of activity today. I spent time with the women this morning, pounding rice flour and sifting for cakes they are making.
I needed some time alone so I wandered down to the river. One of the Dayak mothers was washing her clothes, and I sat quietly watching her until she finished. A few minutes after she left, I also turned to start back to the longhouse. As I crossed the wooden bridge leading back to the village, I noticed her wet bare feet had left perfect footprints. My stride easily fell into sync with where her feet had just walked. I couldn’t help but put myself in her shoes and think about what her life is like. What are her anxieties? Her great joys? Does she dream for the future?
I am terrified of the issues that face this village. Maybe Ensaid Panjang will find a way to save itself from the palm oil companies that are encroaching on their land; maybe DeforestACTION will aid them in their struggle. But the painful fact is that not all the villages can or will be saved. And for many, it’s already too late. Their rich culture, deep history and loving communities are disappearing as suddenly as the Dayak mother’s imprint.
Fifteen Eco-Warriors cannot save them. One hundred and fifty people cannot save them. Even one thousand five hundred individuals are not enough. But perhaps if we all spread the word, if we all start caring and making informed decisions about the companies and products we support, if we all become a voice for the voiceless…
October 1st: 3D Action Movie
Being in a film was never a dream or desire of mine, and frankly the video cameras can be a bit intimidating. At least in the beginning of the trip, I was very aware of where the cameras were; now twenty days later, it’s quite easy to ignore them and pretend they aren’t there. There are 12 film crew traveling with us, and they have been a blast getting to know! It is clear they are doing an incredible job at capturing the stories of destruction, beauty, love and hope in Borneo. What an amazing tool this film will be in spreading the story to the world.
Last week filmed individual video “diaries” where the film crew set up the camera and then left us alone to talk to the camera for 10 min. It was surprisingly easy for me, and, while I’m not sure what I rambled about, I chatted away….just me and the camera.
October 4th: Just Your Average Day
While I was in Tembak, we took a hike into the virgin rainforest. Dr. Willie came across a mushroom that he believes has never been discovered or seen before.
After taking alots of photographs of the mushroom in its natural environment, we placed it on a leaf and I carried it out of the rainforest and into civilization. Discovering new mushroom species, no big deal- just another average day!!
October 5th: Three Feet Tall and Barefoot, Meet My Jungle Tour Guide
Written on 9.16.11
My first hike into a virgin rainforest. On foot we left the village of Tembak at a decent speed. I was prepared for a 2 1/2 hour trek into the jungle. (An important side note to this story: my biggest and entirely irrational fear about this trip was getting lost and somehow “left behind” in the jungle. I had crazy visions of being separated from the group and having to trek my way back to civilization alone. Logically this fear is ridiculous. I am traveling with a group of 14 + in addition to an entire film crew. Regardless as we headed toward the edge of the forest I thought to myself “don’t get separated”.)
Just as we entered the jungle I glanced to my left and found that there were two curious eyes staring up at me and reaching for my hand. As our hands locked I was unaware that I’d be holding this tiny palm for the entire hike. My irrational “lost-in-the-jungle” fear quickly disappeared as my newly acquired three-foot, barefoot guide patiently lead me on the expedition. It was apparent that this was a forest she was very familiar with. She may have only had four years of life behind her behind but her independent little spirit and knowledge of the jungle was impressive.
As I glanced down at our locked hands I thought of her future, the history of her relatives on this land and her innate knowledge of a virgin rainforest. A four year old who knows which plants are poisonous, understands the animals that live on this land- all of it. It’s in her blood. But the palm oil companies have reached her town and are currently trying to create conflict and tension among the tribe. If they succeed she will be the last generation of Dayak’s in that forest. The last generation confidently guiding a newcomer through her first rainforest.
Funny side note: one hour into the hike our group stumbled upon a huge and beautiful mushroom. Many photos were taken, the Eco’s were “ooh and ahh’ing”. When it was our turn to walk past it my guide, with all the confidence in the world raised her right foot and gave that mushroom a swift kick that sent it sailing through the air. She looked quite pleased with herself as she advanced deeper into the jungle. Apologies to the Eco’s who were unfortunately walking behind us and will forever wonder just how magnificent that mushroom was. Although it’s not a great ending to a story discussing how much reverence the Dayak’s have for nature, her spit-fire attitude cracked me up and had me wondering for the rest of the hike what she would do next.
October 7th: Back on US Soil
So, I’m back. (I’ve actually been back since Sunday–suckers!) But I’ll tell you what, it was a journey to get home. We’re talking 42+ hours of travel. And about 6 hours into my trip, I was reaching epic levels of grumpy. However, my mood shifted significantly after my second flight touched down in Singapore, and I discovered the airport had a spa. With showers. Showers that had actual hot water. I’d be embarrassed to call myself an “Eco-Warrior” if I told you how long I stood in the shower, but let’s just say each drop of water was like a little slice of heaven. I had 13 hours to kill in Singapore but not enough energy to muster actually leaving the airport to explore, as my “adventurer meter” had officially topped off at this point. So I wandered around and made a few friends. One lady, in particular, caught my interest when she shared her grandmother was a real-deal geisha. As soon as she dropped the “g” word, I was 100% hooked and spent the next 45 minutes peppering her with questions. Hello fascination. (Anyone else a fan of “Memores of a Geisha”? Anyone?!)
When my 15-hour Korean flight finally sailed over the greenery of Virginia, I started grinning ear to ear. Soon after that, the escalator inside Dulles International Airport was guiding me into customs with a recording saying ” To American citizens, we welcome you home.” But then came the best part–patiently waiting for my arrival stood my amazing parents and wonderful boyfriend, and they greeted me with such fanfare that onlookers must have thought I had been gone for years. It was awesome.
I slept the rest of the day away, and, at 8am Monday morning, I was headed back to work. My week has been focused on only three and a half things. Catching up on three weeks of missed work, catching up on sleep, catching up on any food that doesn’t include rice, and sorta-kinda catching up with friends. Frankly, I haven’t “mentally unpacked” and processed this trip enough yet to do a decent job at sharing it with friends, so I’m relying on the sureproof option of avoidance and changing the topic as much as possible. I’ll have my thoughts figured out soon enough–and I know how important it is for me to share–but how to you condense a life-changing 20 days into 5 minutes or less? Because, let’s be honest here, people are going to start tuning out soon after. I mean, it’s a miracle you’re all still reading this blog.
I’m working on it though, and soon I’ll post a bit more about the transition from the jungle to “The Hill”. For now, it’s 8:50pm and this hour has become my new bedtime this week as my body frantically tries to figure out what time zone and continent it’s on. More later and goodnight.