Radiant smiles, ears of corn, eye glasses and orangutans: Reflections on Gratitude

Radiant smiles, ears of corn, eye glasses and orangutans: Reflections on Gratitude

See a gallery of photos I took on the trip here:

Crossing the tarmac at Ketapang’s outpost airport, I am momentarily caught in a gulp of sadness. I follow my traveling companions Nichol Simpson (Health In Harmony’s Development Director) and Toni Gorog, Ph.D. (Health In Harmony’s Program Director) on board the 138-passenger Aviastar Airbus to "Fly Safe and Comfort" back to Jakarta where twenty-one hours later and a time zone or two, we’ll reach our homes in Oregon and California where winter awaits. My sadness is not because I’ve gathered up a ring of new friendships I wistfully leave behind, though that has happened, but because I know in the deep well of my heart that I’ve stepped across an invisible threshold and will never be the same again even though I know I don’t completely know how so -- yet.

This is the Health In Harmony/ASRI effect and if it was coin of the realm, we’d be rich beyond measure from a currency of unimaginable hope and hopelessness, radiance and despair, healing and death side-by-side, all freighted with a deep and abiding commitment to saving our planet in community. Its twinkle starts here in Sukadana, Borneo, where Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Hinduism exist in peace side-by-side with unabashed and fierce commitment to the community of villages.  These villages, each led by a Kepala Desa, surround Gunung Palung National Park like the bejeweled emerald clusters of peppercorns of the Piper Nigrum plant from Marjapo’s organic farm we will visit later in the week.

Arriving in Ketapang after over 24 hours of travel, Kari Malen, HIH’s Volunteer Director, meets us with a warm smile, bottled water and vehicle we squeeze selves and belongings into. Two hours later, we meet Cam Webb, Ph.D., ASRI’s de-facto Director of Restoration who stewards our sweltering traveling team through a tour of ASRI’s reforestation work at the Marcellas site in Lamon Satong. Walking the 42 acre site, reciting plant names like a most fine mantra: Ubah, Belian, Rambutan…Durian cempedak, Macaranga…sungkai, Gaharu, Mangga... Cam occasionally peels and offers up the exotic taste of wild red fruits, snakeskin pods, and spiked green footballs. Seventy thousand seeds, some the size of my palm, and seedlings have been planted here in community; an astounding 85% have thrived. By the time this day is done, I will have cast into my mouth more unfamiliar foods than ever, knowing that without equivocation, I have also cast my lot with those who with “no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.” (Adrienne Rich)

Dusk falls early, 6 p.m., and Hotlin Ompusunggu welcomes me into her home that is ground central for eight Indonesian doctors, dentists and HIH Board member Christina Fitch, D.O., M.P.H., who are sharing their time with Klinik ASRI. Hotlin, ASRI’s dentist and co-founder with Kinari Webb, MD, serve as tether and teacher to the world of ASRI for all of us. Later that night, I walk across the way to Kinari and Cam Webb’s home where I meet Kinari for the first time. It is as if I’ve always known her.

I move with HIH staff team members, ASRI doctors, nurses, drivers, farmers, widows, teachers, mothers, fathers, children, babies, patients, volunteers, community and village leaders, through a heavy, liquid heat averaging 90 degrees in our own dance around the heart of the Gunung Palung National Park and rainforest. The park’s expanse, though shrunk like wool in a dryer over the last two decades, yet protects about 10% of the world’s remaining orangutans: the people of the forest who want nothing more than to live in harmony with people of the lowland alluvial plains, mangroves and montane forests of West Kalimantan, Borneo. Tragically, as rainforest is gathered for illegal logging, agriculture and palm oil plantations, the orangutan community has declined in the last decade by as much as 50%.

Led by a Nasalis Tour and Travel guide into the Gunung Palung National Park for a six-hour hike as arduous as any I’ve done in the great Northwest, six strangers become companions. Navigating a plunging spill way and steep trail sections with low-slung jute rope, we are soon soaked by unrelenting rains even as our guide whacks for each of us fan-like banana leaves to serve as faux umbrellas. We soon leave them aside swallowed into the dense understory. Our small coterie is comprised of: Deepa, who is working with ASRI’s reforestation data on her way to a research faculty position at a university in India; Manu, a Yale/Stanford Johnson & Johnson Global Health Scholar, who is on his way to UCLA and his chosen specialty, Cardiology; Alan, an emergency room doctor at Stanford Medical Center who among other assignments will train ASRI’s ambulance drivers in the transport of spinal injuries; and, HIH staff team member Nichol Simpson.

Along the way we celebrate a flash of red-russet in the metronome swaying of a tree – an orangutan; a few scattered sightings of red leaf monkeys, a nest of three fruit bats snuggled under the cover of epiphytic ferns, a sinuous centipede, the cool clear rushing of the Putih River, and an ethereal lime green lizard whose tail is an elegant floating filament indistinguishable from among thin branches. Unseen, even unimagined, hundreds of rare and endangered species call this wild, wet habitat home. Plunging into this world of dipterocarp trees whose mammoth buttress roots embrace our smallness I am again caught in a great gulp of sadness that I recognize as reverence and awe. Back at Hotlin’s, pulling off my clammy clothes, a racing red blaze on my white camisole tells me I’ve been branded with a leech’s kiss that found its way to my soft underside. And I know: never has our work been so important, so urgent, so precious. Orangutans, as we learn later from Jackie Sunderland with Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS), are being slaughtered in some oil palm plantations with a bounty of $75 on their heads.

On Monday morning, that urgency waits quietly on the peach-pink square porch tiles of Klinik ASRI, all 25 number cards drawn by 8 a.m. – patients from near and far villages waiting for clinic to open. But first, there is morning meeting and a circle of forty+ gathers in a room no more than 350 sq. ft. that will soon double as the waiting room. We are a mélange of doctors, nurses, volunteers, ASRI and HIH staff including drivers and directors, all equal among equals, as the morning meeting begins with the spin of a pen for who will greet and lead this assembly. An hour later, logistics have been finalized, problems solved, assignments given out, tasks taken on. At 9 a.m. sharp, chairs are rapidly arranged to accommodate the day’s patients. With the musical sound of Etty Ramahwati’s (ASRI’s Outreach Coordinator) voice as she begins her lively conservation education talk that precedes each day’s clinic, I join Kinari for her rounds.

There are those that will find new life and new sight here in the week ahead; others will come here to die. That day, a wizened woman whose age is lost in the silver filament of her long hair is carefully laid upon one of the few spare and precious beds; family has gathered. I am a silent witness as Kinari sits with the daughter in an intimate space only near-death can hold. She patiently explains, without equivocation that there is no hope, not a shred in the absence of any brainstem activity. The woman has suffered a massive stroke. Here, we speak the hard truth; there is nothing else the clear heart can do. This work of dying is not easy; the work of living can be harder, yet all around us nurses and doctors are moving with efficiency through their now-well known dance of healing.

By noon when the ASRI staff and volunteers will gather collectively for lunch prepared by Mrs. Rahsyam, all twenty-five patients have been attended to. More will gather in the afternoon. Later in the week, Dr. Nurchandra Gunawan (Nur) will share his knowledge and experience of TB with the volunteer doctors in an ever-present commitment to cultivating wisdom. His talk will bring me face-to-face with the knowledge this place, the larger universe in which we operate, and the imperative of our work. It is a web of life and practice woven with strands of hope, of death, of teaching, of healing, of caring. And every dime and dollar from HIH and ASRI’s supporters helps save the precious lives that pass through ASRI’s walls.

Early morning, gathered up by the ASRI driver, Nichol, Toni and I clamor into the back of the truck for a drive that takes us into and through the heart of the villages that surround the Gunung Palung National Park. We pass boys and girls in school uniforms on bicycles sometimes single but often doubled-up; in traditional Muslim dress, the girls’ jilbabs flutter wing-like in the wind. We pass women walking with their paddy hats securely fastened; motorbikes with elaborately woven fender baskets carrying mounds of vegetables and heaps of packages. We zip by wooden slat homes with peaked roofs, some with gingerbread trim, most plain and simple, and nearly all reached by narrow boardwalks over a russet sheen of water; small “gas stations” consisting of rows of yellowed plastic bottles or steel barrels from which the precious amber liquid is measured out by hand with funnels and cups, no nozzle pumps here; and, small sundry stores offering eggs, cakes, juices, candy, vegetables and canned goods. I am humbled by this unfamiliar economic landscape. The average income in the villages near the park is $13/month. We climb onto the back of motorbikes for the 1 1/2 km ride to the organic farm cooperative that is supporting upwards of 42 families.

Pak Ngalim, ASRI’s organic farming trainer extraordinaire, introduces the twelve men, most wearing bright green shirts, like a string of emeralds. Ngalim has worked with 21 villages since 2009; these men are his most recent acolytes. Names fly, but like seeds cast into the wind aren’t caught. Still, the success of the endeavor lies all around us like a wonderfully told story: on one hectare, we learn, one farmer made $400 USD from his cucumber crop and plowed the profit into cultivating another hectare of land. Everywhere are healthy stalks of corn shooting up along side long beans and carrots while squash and watermelon vines snake across the loam. We’re handed cool, crunchy cucumbers whose juice slakes thirst and celebrates the bounty of place. Later, we meet Marjapo, his sons and wife working five hectares of lush hillside abutting and protecting the forest divide beyond which rises the Gunung Palung National Park. The farm is rich in red chili trees, papayas, pineapples, oranges, corn, cucumbers, peppercorn plants and a blaze of other fruits and vegetables I see and touch but cannot name. Reaching the end of the track, we settle on a slim wooden bench. Papayas are sliced up and a blue plastic bowl of steaming corn in husk is presented. Never has an ear of corn been so good and lusciously sweet. We appreciate tea and talk with this most remarkable family before leaving with a sack and a half of corn for Klinik ASRI lunches. For all, whether one family or forty-two, we learn that the pinch point is compost and, in the dry season, well water. The next day, we are treated to a visit with the major source of compost for the organic farms.

At Benawai Agung, Harapan Baru, Green Diamond Farm, the cooperative’s leader, Srikandi, treasurer, Setiyawati and secretary, Muhammad Nur greet us as we settle on the shaded front porch of the cooperative. Effortlessly elegant in sweltering heat, Etty Rahmawati, translates their story. Their ledger books, opened for all to see, reveal simple clearly delineated columns and carefully scribed numbers all as beautifully kept as the eleven ivory white cows, the magic behind their New Hope organic rice that has been a staple of all of our diets the last several days. As the cows munch green sweet grasses, I make my way to the third and final bin holding the finished compost. Being the avid gardener that I am, I think nothing of grabbing a fistful of the loamy brown gold and deeply inhale its pungent fragrance. This I know is the stuff of life; it is what gives plants succor and nourishment to in turn nourish those that care for and depend on them for sustenance. As far as my eye can see are peridot green rice fields.

Later that day, we again pile into ASRI’s truck and join Etty and Wilfrimus for a conservation education community presentation in Sinar Palung where village leader, Sarmanto, is our host. Like an old fashioned traveling show, everything magically appears out of the back of the truck: screen, microphone, projector, spin-the-wheel game, prizes, lights, generator and tarps for the ground. As the show begins under a black silk sky threatening rain, I can count at least sixty villagers of all ages gathered with many more that I can’t count in the shadows that stretch well beyond our well lit, radiant circle. A Powerpoint begins; it tells the story of this place, of why clean air and clean water and the Gunung Palung rainforest is life, invoking smiles and tears, laughter and groans, knowing “ahs” and awed silence. Rain falls, the crowd thins, the show moves inside where our faces are bathed in a cool turquoise glow from the painted and postered walls. All are treated to a sweet tea and rice snack wrapped in banana leaves. As we leave, Sarmanto’s wife Sulastri mentions that she hopes to be at Klinik ASRI on Friday for glasses. “I want again to read my bible,” she says. We leave with more than knowing in our hearts; we leave with profound gratitude for having been given the privilege of joining this community circle. On Friday at clinic, I see Sulastri among the thinning crowd; she’s beaming as she nears the head of the line inching nearer to being able to again decipher the word on the page.

Whatever is watching over us, I am thankful for the next day when we arrive at Sejathera village where we meet Sauyah, one of the widows in the ASRI Goats for Widows program. Holding my breath, I cross a rank mud flat on a very narrow, teetering board careful not to grab the clean children’s laundry hanging along thin bamboo handrails. Climbing through the small door into the goat crib, I join Sauyah. I’m in the radiant joy of a woman whose age I can only guess, whose 3 goats, a billy, a nanny and kid, are contentedly munching on a large juicy sack of leaves. Beaming while somewhat distractedly stroking the roan colored billy goat, she tells me with Toni translating, that she only wanted to provide for her children after her husband’s death from TB and to be able to purchase their school uniforms and supplies. Today, her children attend school and her goal is a herd of ten goats whose manure provides compost for a kitchen garden and, as the brown gold that it is, healthcare at Klinik ASRI for her family.

It is from her radiant smile, seeds the size of my palm, a fist full of dirt, a bloody blaze, a crisp cucumber, an ear of corn, the glow of a room full of children, eyes that sparkle with new sight, the passage of death and the exuberance of life here that I turn back to my work with renewed commitment, passion and grace to nourish the vision of Health In Harmony and ASRI. Nothing seems more important or as urgent as I board the Aviastar Airbus for home to "Fly Safe and Comfort". Into this vision, I invite you and your support. Give us your time, your treasure and your talent and we will give you a new way to see and be in the world.

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About Michelle Bussard | View all posts by Michelle Bussard

Michelle is the Executive Director at Health In Harmony, based in Portland, OR.