Living in Indonesia has many perks: all the rice you could want, food that’s fried three times, and amazing vacation opportunities. From exploding volcanoes to sweltering jungles, sun-drenched beaches to ancient temples, Indonesia has over 17,000 islands and something for everyone.
Last week was national examinations for the 12th grade and afforded the perfect time to get away and explore an island I haven’t been to yet. Two lovely ladies (Nicole and Elle) and myself hopped on a plane and flew an hour over to Kalimantan. More commonly and romantically known as Borneo, the island of Kalimantan has much to offer. But our main goal was to unwind and see some orangutans.
Into the heart of… well not really
Orangutans are a species of monkey found only on two islands in the world, Kalimantan and Sumatra, both located in Indonesia. The word “orangutan” actually comes from Indonesian, which means “people of the forest” (orang=people hutan=forest). In December of 2011, during my epic northern Sumatran saga I did a 1-day jungle trek in the hopes of seeing some wild orangutans, but came up empty handed. I was hoping to have better luck this time around.
Nicole, Elle, and I started from the rough and tumble town of Kumai. The city has a frontier feel to it with various shops selling bulk supplies, a mix of different people and languages from all over Indonesia in search of work, and a squishy dirt main street. Kumai also has the constant soundtrack of birds chirping day and night and enormous 3 story houses that no one actually lives in.
Why build houses for no one and blast prerecorded bird chirping? It’s because of a little bird called the “edible-nest swiftlet.” This bird makes a nest with by regurgitating its sticky saliva. These nests are then boxed up and shipped to China where they sell for almost $1,000 a pound. Supposedly, the nests can be made into a broth with various medicinal benefits.
Boat full of motorcylces and life-sized bird houses (the large windowless houses in the back) in Kumai
Needless to say, we were happy to leave chirpy Kumai and get on our little wooden riverboat. We were heading up river into Tanjung Puting National Park. Our boat had a simple kitchen, an open-air bathroom, and a covered deck where we spent most of our time. The put-put-put of the engine was strangely relaxing, and we enjoyed just lounging on deck as we headed deeper into the jungle (cue Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now analogies).
An orangutan up high during our jungle trek
We made various stops at posts and camps as we went up the river. Tanjung Puting National Park is home to various scientific and rehabilitation centers for orangutans. The most famous of these is Camp Leaky, established in 1971 by Dr. Birute Galdikas and Rod Brindamour. It tries to rehabilitate orangutans that were injured, sold as pets, or displaced by habitat loss. These orangutans are gradually eased back into the wild until they can survive on their own. Each camp usually has a daily feeding time for semi-wild rehabilitated orangutans. This is where you have the best chance of seeing an orangutan up close. You follow a park ranger out to a platform in the forest where he dumps a bag of bananas and sugar cane. Suddenly, orangutans start swinging down from trees and emerging from the jungle to feast. It’s quite the experience. They are agile and sizeable creatures with fire-red hair and funny little mannerisms. We also did a short jungle trek to see them in a more “natural” setting and caught one eating fruit way up in the trees. It was really cool.
Our home for four days: We ate, slept, and hung out on our little wooden boat. The guide sits up front.
But orangutans aren’t the only stars in Tanjung Puting National Park. We also saw 3 other species of monkey, giant bats (1m wingspans), wild boars, giant spiders, mouse deers, fireflies, horn-billed pelicans, and more. Taking bucket baths in the jungle with blood-red brackish water also added to the “wild” feel of the trip. Overall, it was a great, relaxing, and adventurous four days on a boat and in the jungle.
Elle gets up close with an orangutan mother and child
But it was bittersweet too. The first reason was because of the orangutans. Although the rehabilitation programs are now extremely successful, this is cancelled out by the continual loss of habitat. The biggest culprit is palm oil, which is found in most of the make-up you wear and almost all of the processed foods you eat. Thousands of acres of pristine jungle are being cleared in Kalimantan to make way for palm oil plantations. A guide even told us a part of the national park was just sold by the government to a palm oil company. Each acre lost brings the orangutans closer to extinction. It’s hard to imagine the jungle, but wildlife we saw may not be there much longer.
Elle and Nicole
The second reason the trip was bittersweet was because it was one of the last times I’ll get to be with Nicole and Elle in Indonesia. They are two fellow volunteers like me who arrived wide-eyed and green in April 2011 as apart of the ID-5 group. We studied language together in our training village, slowly adapted to life as teachers and bule, and have gone through many of the same ups and downs that define the life of a PCV. They’ve seen me in both my best and worst moments. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
We laugh now at how strangely close Peace Corps has made us. We talk openly about bodily functions, send extremely random text messages, and bertiga even when there’s enough places to sleep. It’s weird, but warmly endearing. Now, as we near the end of our 27-month service, I’m trying to savor these moments as much as I can. When June rolls around and everyone sets out on their own path again, I know I’ll miss them a lot.
(A big shout out to everyone in ID-5 for being so awesome. You all are amazing. Also, my mom just got another hip replaced. 3 cheers for the toughest bionic woman I know.)