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Published: February 18th 2017
I woke up early. Checked my watch, it was almost 5am. The two lovebirds are deep asleep; let them. After washing my face I climbed up the deck. Daylight was breaking out and I could hear some birds busy with their daily chores. A pristine and peaceful early morning. All creatures of the night have gone to sleep, an eerie calm blanketed over the misty wilderness. Today is my last day in Borneo. We are yet to see the Camp Leakey, the orangutan habitat that was established by legendary Dr. Galdikas. I was also keen on visiting a local village. It’s probably my lifetime opportunity to meet the locals here and learn about their lifestyle away from the civilization.
The six cylinder engine of the boat roared into life around 7am. Desi and Kadek were up and we were having breakfast - toast with scrambled eggs and orange juice and coffee. I must admit, the food have been fantastic all through this trip and tastefully chosen by our cook. We hung around the dining table chatting and taking photos well after the breakfast. The second round of coffee suited our mood just fine.
We anchored near the
Camp Leakey around 10am. There were other boats. We jumped out of the boat to the boardwalk. My running shoes were mostly dried from the previous day and walking was much easier than yesterday in Tanjung Puting. We visited a hall that was converted into a museum with the history of the camp. Time spent there was worth it. The photos on the wall provide a good history of the place. The feeding time is around the noon and we still had a plenty of time. Outside the museum was a small cabin where Galdakis used to live when she spent her days here. Feeding point was bit of a walk through the dense bushes of ferns and other plants. We reached the feeding area, but there was no sign of any Orangutans! The area was well organized than Tanjung Putting. Even there were some benches for the visitors. We waited. The opening was surrounded by the woods and tall trees. And of course mosquito infested. My repellant bottle was already half empty. Then it started to rain. I looked behind where Desi and Kadek were sitting.
“Thank you for the ponchos, Desi,” I was really thankful. The girl
gave me a wink.
The volunteers came and dumped sacks of bananas on the bench. The rain has stopped by then. The volunteers started calling the orangutans but they never showed up. We waited and waited; I almost gave up when we noticed the forty feet tall tree tops were shaking. There they came, one by one, almost 15 of them including the children clinging to their mothers. The big guy, possibly the group leader climbed down first and started eating as many as he could. The way he was glancing over his shoulder that showed his concern; I figured he is probably not the group leader, perhaps the deputy. To prove me right, he grabbed around 7-8 bananas in his mouth and hurriedly climbed a tree and disappeared. We never found who the group leader was. A younger one was hanging from a tree branch just over our head; a display of mockery I suppose.
Most bananas disappeared and so did the orangutans. Rain stopped and we started our way back to the boat. But we didn’t follow the footsteps of the other visitors. Our guide made a detour and took a short cut through the dense,
tall trees around us. I heard a rumbling and looked up. I saw an orangutan jumped from one tree top to another high above us. First I didn’t pay much attention, but soon I realized it was indeed stalking us. I can’t read orangutan’s mind, but I was in no mood to start a brawl with one of them knowing well they have the majority. Besides, I have seen how strong their arms are. One slap and I don’t stand a chance. So we hurried to get out of the dense woods. We came to a relatively open area and I felt relieved, only to be fooled when we found the orangutan was ahead of us. He or she possibly knew a better way to outrun us. It was ‘she’, later I learned, and her name is ‘Siswi’. She waited on the tree until we went ahead and then she jumped down to the boardwalk. I glanced over my shoulder and saw she was stalking us. The other visitors have joined us on the boardwalk by that time. Siswi came close to the boat and I stopped. She looked straight into my eyes…just like another human being, an intense look
as if she could read my mind. Slowly, I went close. She gave me one look and then shooed me with one arm! It was obvious she didn’t like me! That’s fine, I had been rejected in the past, although not by an orangutan, but that's ok.....I am used to it! Besides, I am not even from her clan, so she had every reason to dismiss me anyway, I thought. Then a woman walked close by and she looked at her. And no reaction from Siswi whatsoever! Well, that's not fine! Yeah right, my hairline has thinned just like Siswi's bald head and I am not Clint Eastwood, so she dumped me! But she didn’t have any issue with the other woman! Damn it, a clear discrimination!
Apparently, Siswi is a known hang out to the boat area for food, although it was forbidden to feed them. While I was standing there fuming about her behaviour, Siswi dived into a parked boat, went inside the pilot’s cabin and came out with a mug of Coke! To my surprise, she started drinking the Coke and obviously was relishing! Total brat, I thought. At least show some manners in front of
the people who came all the way to see you guys! Nha, I didn’t have time for this impolite and prejudiced orangutan; I also decided to dump her and board my boat. Yeah, the feeling was mutual!
Sekonyer Village....a lovely name. No, I wouldn’t miss a chance to visit the village. That’s where I get to meet the people who live in the middle of the wilderness of Borneo and make it home. Missing Sekonyer was out of question.
We arrived there in the afternoon. There are only two paved roads in in the village with one intersection. And homes in Sekonyer are built on the both sides of the roads, sometimes nestled among the swamps. The houses do flood from the swamps if there is too much rain. There are a few street lights that work for 3-4 hours in the evening when the only diesel-electric generator of the village runs for a few hours. The grocery store at the entrance of the village is the only store. It gets its supplies from Pangkalan Bun once in a while. There is one primary school in the village and I was impressed to see that is
the lone decent building in the village. It’s amazing how people can happily live in such a total isolation surrounded by the swamps, grassy lands and the wilderness. One elderly person was sitting outside his house. He invited us inside. The old couples live alone. The elderly lady knits mat from the dry grass to make a living. It’s amazing how little one can have for living. Over and over I have seen this in the rural areas of Vietnam, Thailand and India. And every time I have seen this, I felt ashamed comparing our own materialistic greed. Indeed, this was an eye opener. We spent some time in the grocery store chatting with the locals. The store owner was playing a guitar like instrument made from Bamboo. Kadek also joined the fun and played to our delight.
It was late in the afternoon when our Boat started its engine. We have to sail towards Tanjung Puting before we anchor for the night. A quiet dusk was spreading all across the rain-forest and the wetlands. Day light inhabitants were making room for the night life creatures. We were all absorbed in our own thoughts. Suddenly, the boat
A lady knitting a mat
Sungai Sekoneyr village
slowed down coming to a complete halt. There was another boat in front of us not moving. We parked beside the boat. A tree has fallen across the narrow river blocking our way. Crews got down in the water with a couple of hand-saw to cut off the tree and clear our way. The water was dark, but the people swam and worked on it, while few were keeping an eye to spot any crocs nearby. Light was fading fast and it was not an easy job to cut off the large tree in such low light. Other boats came behind and all stalled. The torches were lit and it was a race to clear the tree before the nightfall. I was holding my high power torch to the folks working laboriously to make us free. The folks including our guide were risking their lives in the croc infested black and dirty water to save us hassle. I know if I take one sip of that water, I will possibly be in the diet of ‘Imodium’ for the rest of my trip. I was ashamed, but I was thankful to the crew. And indeed they cleared the tree before the
Kadek and Desi went to bed early and I climbed up the deck to soak up another night’s symphony of the wilderness. It was around 9:30 pm and pitch dark. I was absorbed in the concert of hundreds of nightly creatures, sound of monkeys, chirping of the night birds. Suddenly I heard a large splash in the swamp followed by a scream. Must be a croc grabbing a prey. I flashed my high power torch in the swamp, but couldn’t see anything. The light faded away in the rising mist from the swamp. At one time, the screaming stopped. I sighed. A life ended. And it ended in an obscure part of the world in a swampy wilderness. The world didn't cry. And a life is born somewhere else in the world. Circle of life? I don’t know. I looked up in the sky. It was a clear night. The Orion was blinking at me, its bright belt flashing. When I was a child, I was told when the loved ones pass away, they become the stars in the sky.
“Is it true?” I asked myself. I wanted to believe it at that moment.
My father used to say,
“Embrace the wilderness, travel the world, and don’t keep any regrets, my son.”
I looked at the stars and whispered “Yes father, I will.”
It was past midnight and time to sleep.
“Good night father.”
I climbed down the stairs and to my bed. But I couldn’t take my mind off the fact that a life just ended minutes ago only hundred feet away. No body knew; no one cared.
We flew out the next day from Pangkalan Bun. Desi and Kadek went to Jogja and I flew to Surabaya. The fun filled few days together came to an end. But the friendship and bondage remains forever. A true friendship does not come by easily…it’s a two way street. We hugged each other and said good bye. Most likely I won’t be able to travel to their wedding whenever that happens. But my thoughts will always be there.
I flew to Surabaya to meet my good friend Ninik. Surabaya is the second largest city after Jakarta. I didn’t have any special agenda in Surabaya. But I couldn’t leave Indonesia without meeting Ninik. A lovely
lady with a simple lifestyle. She took me to the school where she is a teacher. We went out in the evening to see a couple of tourist attractions and we had a lovely dinner together. I was touched when she brought some mangoes for me to carry with me the next day. There is nothing in this world which is more precious than love and friendship. And I have been fortunate enough to be blessed with that all along my footsteps.
The Air Asia flight took off on time. It was the end of a remarkable trip that I will ever remember. I gazed through the window, Surabaya below was fading fast in a cloudy afternoon …”Goodbye Indonesia”, I whispered. The image of Borneo that my father painted in my childhood dream found its totality in the jungles of Borneo. “Thank you father,” I said to him. I leaned back and closed my eyes.
“I had an inheritance from my father,
It was the moon and the sun.
And though I roam all over the world,
The spending of it’s never done.” - Hemingway
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