Last Sunday, we returned on motorbikes to Roang for the traditional kapok to bless our trip. After chatting for an hour in the kepala desa’s house (the administrative head of the village), consuming local coffee and the best ‘pisang molen’ I have ever had (banana slivers wrapped in a thin pastry layer and deep fried), we moved to the house of the senior ketua adat house (Pak Franciscus Sahaba, the traditional-law head man). One by one, the rest of the five ketua adat arrived, all elderly men, dressed in fine locally-woven sarongs and traditional head-dressings.
Other villagers filtered in until maybe 50 people filled the front room of this modest house. Pak Medartus Bahanu began to talk on our behalf as arranged earlier, speaking quietly, not looking at the ketua adat. He passed over symbolic gifts we had procured, envelopes of money, bottles of beer and cigarettes. Pak Franciscus would nod and say “ya, ya” at regular intervals. After Pak Medartus was finished, Pak Franciscus began a long monologue, explaining to those gathered that we were welcome and that he wished for safe passage and no trouble from the forest spirits. Two chickens were brought in and held gently. Pak Franciscus explained that chickens were naturally alert and watchful, warning as they do of both the dawn and the dusk. He then explained to them that they were going to die, but that there was an important reason, so that they could in some way warn us of dangers and spirits in the month ahead. As the chickens were passed back into the kitchen to meet their end, Pak Franciscus poured some beer (a ready alternative to the more appropriate sopi palm wine) into a glass and threw it out the front door, to again satiate the spirits of the forest. These rituals completed, I explained what our work would involve, and the administrative head of the village, Pak Sebiu Antonius, read aloud from my many official permit letters, ending with the very satisfying Indonesian word sah (“all is set, all is in accordance”).
The next day, the transport truck we had requested from Roang arrived in Labuan Bajo at 8:00am, and we loaded in a month of camping and food supplies, and our “first wave” team of Acun (project staff), Sahudin (forestry department staff), Megawati (LIPI herbarium staff), Fery (Burung Indonesia staff, along for the learning opportunity), and me. These transport trucks (kol) are the default mode of transport on the rather challenging roads of Flores: ~5-ton trucks with 10 rows of wooden, chuch-pew-style seats in the truck-bed. We bumped along in the drizzle for an hour, almost being defeated by a particularly steep section of road, which was worn down to slick white limestone boulders. The clouds of rubber smoke from the spinning tires was overpowering!
At Roang, we assembled with the village members of the team, whom we had now met several times before (Agus the team leader, Pon, Stanis, Paul, Adi, and Asti), and four additional porters who would help us with two round-trips on this first day. As we left the village, I experienced the familiar pre-trip sense of anxiety and insecurity: floods, accidents, team conflicts, inappropriate forests and soils, etc. But the pleasure of being back in the woods, the sun beginning to peek out from behind leaden clouds, and the sheer buoyant goodwill of the team members carried me along up the river. It was not long until we arrived at the spot where we had found the possible sample forest the previous week. As everyone dumped their heavy loads, Agus and Acun and I scouted around for an appropriate campsite. This is a key phase: the intangible feeling of a place (the suasana; perhaps even the feng shui!) can make or break a trip: is it somewhere light, friendly, and comfortable that one wants to return to at the end of the day? Or a dark, dank, noisy hollow? We rejected two spots before choosing a perfect site: tent-site amid the trees up above the floodzone (but not too far), an open, sunny area of pale gray boulders aligned east-west (needed for maximum sunlight for our solar panels), and a deep pool to wash in. In just a few hours, we had performed the satisfying process of “campsite-engineering,” creating a home of tarpaulin shelters (in blue, orange, and brown), dome tents, and my trusty hammock, double-protected this time by an extra tarp above the flysheet (I learned from the rainy Papua trip!).
In the next post, I’ll talk about the forest itself, but here are few more observations on camping in the rain forest:
- When you pick the rainy season to visit, even the drier parts of Indonesia are very wet! Most days last week there were torrential downpours, with heavy gray clouds making even mid morning seem like dusk. I have long known that my mood and sense of well being is strongly correlated with sunny skies or lack of them, but it’s always a challenge of mindfulness to remember that the weather is usually the cause of “blue” feelings when hunched over in the mud with rain pelting down on a dripping tarpaulin. The flipside of this is that when the sun finally comes out, as it did on Thursday, the gorgeous, dappled forest is perhaps the best place in the whole world.
- Aside from weather-induced moods, I also need to remind myself that “getting into” camping always takes a few days. We get so “soft” in our daily expectations of dry, flat surfaces. Of chairs and beds. Of being able to stand upright in a room. Of having a place to put the soap as you rinse off. Of being able to visit the toilet without getting soaked by rain! But I find that after those first few days of rude re-awakening to a more edgy life, the difficulties fade and a wonderful sense of liveliness fills the most mundane activities. Until it rains again!
- We have designed the methods of these research trips around being able to do the basic “morphotyping” of the trees while still in the forest (see previous posts). This means fairly long stints at the computer. I’ve realized that I simply cannot do this work hunched over a laptop on the ground; my back won’t let me. So I’ve taken to requesting a makeshift desk at each site so that I can sit upright. This trip’s version is of top quality! For a seat, a lovely rounded river boulder; for the desk, a couple planks that the forest-furniture team found upriver. The result: I did four hours hacking straight through on Thursday with little discomfort.
- Food! “An army marches on its stomach,” said Napoleon (reputedly), and I’ve found the same to be true of a forest research team. Don’t skimp on quality, don’t bat an eye at the literal mountains of rice on each plate, do get plenty of vegetables, and do supplement meals with “goodies” here and there. This includes goodies found in the forest. Everywhere I’ve been on these trips, the standard night-time entertainment (other than playing cards, drinking coffee, and telling stories) is fishing. So far on this trip we’ve been treated to freshwater eels and a basket of huge freshwater shrimp (thanks, Agus!). And one afternoon, some egg-collectors passed the camp and kindly left us with some of their prize: giant eggs of the orange-footed megapode (Megapodius reinwardt). Like the megapodes we saw on the trip to Waigeo, these birds build giant mounds of rotting vegetation in the warmth of which they bury their eggs. Unlike the eggs of battery hens we are used to, these eggs had been doing their job for several days and contained well-advanced embryos, which became suspicious dark mounds in the resulting scrambled egg!
As you can imagine, I am conflicted about having our team participate in the harvesting of food from the forest. Of course, they regularly do it anyway, but our sustained presence undoubtedly contributes additionally to the decline of what are certainly endangered resources (stream fauna and megapodes). Perhaps I should ban fishing at night? But it would not go down well, and so far it has not been a battle I have felt willing to fight. That these woods so close to a village even still contain such fauna to be collected is a surprise. The difficult truth is that these trips I’ve been making do have a small but detrimental effect on the forests we visit. We cut saplings and small trees to make a camp, we harvest from the river, we erode slopes, we leave trash (despite best intentions and efforts). My justification must be that our positive effects outweigh the negative. Locally, we provide employment alternatives to logging and hunting, and share information and attention that makes local folks more proud of their forests; nationally, drawing attention to precious places does help, by placing hidden gems in the public and administrative eye. But if it’s any consolation to the reader, this tension does not sit with me easily. In a way, this case is just one representation of the larger uneasy truth: though we care deeply about the natural world, the climate, and the biosphere, our lifestyles and indeed our very existence do inevitably cause their degradation. The real question is what we do with this knowledge: deny it, suffer guilt over it, or thoughtfully accept it?