Sunday, February 6, 2011

Happy Birthday to Me!

A from-scratch chocolate-coffee birthday cake!
Blogging's been slow recently, while we wrap up our work and prepare to move on from Kalimantan.  The good times continue, though, and my birthday week (now two weeks ago) still has me smiling.

My big day was a Wednesday, clinic was busy and the morning flew by.  Little did I know, however, that Jacquelyn, unmoved by the power failure and gas shortage the night before, had returned home to spend the morning in the kitchen.  After lunch she reappeared, with a huge chocolate cake, candles, and accompanied by the full ASRI staff in song.  Mixed with coffee as well as chocolate, it fed the whole group and powered us through a hectic afternoon.

I was horribly wrong in thinking that was the end to the celebration.  The staff couldn't resist honoring me with a traditional Indonesian birthday surprise.  At the end of the day, as I sat on the front porch of the clinic, peacefully watching the late afternoon light and welcoming the cool evening breeze, Etty and others quietly assembled behind me.  Before I could jump up I had a raw egg dripping off my head and a face full of flour.  I spread the love and only a few escaped without needing a change of clothes.  As I rode my bike to the beach to wash off, I was greeted with laughs and "selamat ulang tahun - happy birthday" by many of the townspeople I passed.
Nur, Wil, Etty, Arta, Carla, Hari, and Jimmy, after his second cake of the day.

En route to Tanjung Puting National Park
Still itching to explore more of the forests in Borneo, for a birthday weekend Jacquelyn booked us a boat trip into Tanjung Puting National Park, down the coast in Central Kalimantan.  The 400 hectare preserve is home to nearly 500 orangutan, most of whom are rehabilitated or offspring of rehabilitated orangutan who were rescued from captivity.  Most rely on scheduled feedings by park managers, so the best bet to see one of these legendary apes is to time the trip to hit a few feeding stations at the right time.

Enjoying a cup of coffee and morning shower.
Our kloktok carried five of us (our guide, a cook, and captain, along with ourselves) quite comfortably for the two-night journey.  Jacquelyn and I slept on the deck, beneath a mosquito net and with roll-down tarpaulin sides for when the rain grew to more than a drizzle.  Once on the Seikonyer river, time slowed, noise disappeared, and the passing palms and jungle foliage proved nearly hypnotizing.  After five hours we were deep in the park, puttering along on clean blackwater and nearly enclosed by branches and vines reaching across the river.

Back on our feet, wondering what awaits us in the forest.
We made it to three feeding stations, most of which were an easy 1-2km walk through beautiful lowland rain forest.  Jeini, our guide, grew up in a village that was relocated when the park expanded its boundaries.  As we walked he told us about his childhood, growing up in this amazing forest with a father who was a park ranger and inspired his love of the natural world.  He pointed out medicinal plants, whose roots and leaves may be steeped or compounded to heal wounds, ease arthritis, and cure fever (which, here, is malaria until proven otherwise).  He could also tell us about the ongoing tension among villagers, loggers, the palm-oil industry, government officials, researchers, and tourists, none of whom are satisfied with their stake of the land's resources.

Stopping to ask directions.
Initially concerned that all this travel would yield a distant sighting, at best, of a macaque or a proboscis monkey, and an orangutan only if we were truly lucky, our reality took a dramatic shift after our first walk into the woods.  It bears remembering that these are not wild orang-utan (no where else in the 'wild' are there tables where an endless supply of bananas are placed several times a day).  That said, when bananas are placed on the feeding station, a far-off commotion breaks the stillness of the forest, trees begin shaking, limbs crack, and the ground starts rustling, closer and closer until the nearby underbrush parts and every evolutionary instinct and lesson from Man vs. Wild tells you to turn and run the other way. 

Biggest male of the trip.
This scene repeated itself enough times for us to become nearly as habituated to the 'feeding platform scene' as are the orangutans. We were visitors, and while a few hung out on the dock to welcome us and bid farewell, most of them went about their routine without much notice of the 3-4 (or in one case 30-40) humans gawking at their daily meal.  At the largest feeding station, we even shared the trail with two orangutan families - both just as hurried as we were to not miss the action.  My mind grew so twisted with 'who's watching who?' scenarios that at one point I wondered if the whole setup is meant not only to amuse the orangutans, but that it's primary purpose is to feed the local mosquito population (which I think enjoyed even better meals than the orangutans).

Traffic on the path to the feeding station.
Kids don't mess around waiting to be fed.

Siswi, welcoming newcomers to Camp Leakey (and inspecting all craft for bananas)
Siswi wouldn't let us go without a good belly drag
We admit to having fallen in love with the 'queen' of Camp Leakey.  Siswi is an older (33 years) female who has been able to reproduce only once, and lost that child, unlike most park females who usually have a child in tow for their entire reproductive life (10 years to shortly before death at around 40 years).  This has kept her big and healthy, but also sad enough to try and 'borrow' other female's babies and pitiful enough to gain extra attention from rangers and tourists.  Certainly spoiled, she met us on the dock, sat with Jacquelyn and tried to untie and steal her shoes, and wouldn't let us leave until Jeini and I dragged her across the boardwalk on her belly.  When she finally let go, unable to use all her weight to keep us from leaving, all we could do was anthropomorphize a sad look in her eyes as we boarded the boat to go home.

Sad goodbyes.
Proboscis monkey in flight.
A handful of other sights add to make this an unforgettable excursion.  We discovered that hornbills really do exist, that parks like this can protect them from hunters, and that their call is almost as lovely as gibbons in the morning.  Cuckoos are real, and kingfishers can come in every color of the rainbow.  Proboscis monkeys do look funny with their enormous nose and pot bellies, but that doesn't keep them from launching themselves from 20 meter treetops across the river and down with a splash, grabbing the lowest branch on the other side to fling them out of the water and back into the forest.  Fortunately for us, they only do this when boats pass, because the engine scares away the crocodiles.

In addition to being a fun and memorable birthday weekend, this forest showed us why we are here.  Borneo used to be covered in forest like this, with apes and birds and trees and medicinal plants and indigenous culture that knew no risk of extinction.  Now it doesn't even exist in many national parks, whose borders are unmarked and resources pillaged to earn more than it costs to protect them.  It's been such a privilege to work with an organization that not only recognizes this, but has a vision to offer a much different alternative.  Spending a birthday with the dedicated staff of this organization couldn't have been more special, even if it was a little messy. 
Sunset in Tanjung Puting


  1. Truly, truly amazing!! The experiences that y'all have had, the people that you have met and will have lasting relationships with, the nature and animals that you have seen up close and personal, the cultures, religions, villages, towns, cities that you have lived in will all be a part of you for the rest of your lives!! And more to come before you head home!

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your adventures with us! What a wonderful opportunity to experience the forests and its inhabitants. The world is a better place for what you are doing!