Guest blog by David Woodbury
This is a story where I try to trace what left me squatting in a dark bathroom full of large spiders, in a house without electricity, on the edge of the rainforest, after an evening meal in a Dayak household (an ethnic group who are the native people of Borneo). **Note: I will star every time I consumed something questionable.
I sat crossed-legged on a dusty mat, covering a worn wooden floor. Plastic bowls of rice, bamboo shoots, and wild pig sat in front of me, illuminated under a tall sloping roof of ceramic shingles by a single old light bulb. A bottle of air putih (literally “white water” referring to clean drinking water) joined the bowls. Everyone watched intently as I scooped rice first, then bamboo and wild pig, into my bowl. The faces were curious and apprehensive. I took a little rice and a piece of wild pig from my bowl with a spoon. Eyes narrowed around me. I opened my mouth, deposited the spoon, closed my mouth, and brought the spoon back out empty**. The watching pupils dilated. I chewed slowly, not to savor the taste but because the tough meat and gristle demanded it. “Enak?” (“Delicious?”), several voices around the table asked in unison. Each face smiled earnestly now. “Enak”, I said dutifully through a mouth still full of spicy juices and tough meat.
This was actually the second time this exact sequence of events played out. The first was about a month earlier when I made my first trip to the village of Laman Satong, the location of ASRI’s most remote reforestation site. It is about a two-hour drive southeast of Sukadana, depending on how treacherous the road is that day. Laman Satong is a village populated mostly by Dayak people. They are also mostly Catholic (unlike the country’s Muslim majority), and for them, wild pig is a staple food and something they love to share with guests.
“Minum?” (“Drink?”) Ibu Ismanto asked. She is the matriarch of the household and also the chief of the food that was - in fact - delicious. She poured water from the cloudy bottle into glasses as the rest of the assembly served their own food. I took a sip of the water**. The cast of characters that sat around me were: Pak Ismanto and his wife, their two daughters, Pak Jul, the Reforestation Coordinator at Laman Satong, and his young daughter Bella. Pak Jul and Pak Ismanto both have teenage sons who were distantly present, although most of their attention was on painting the motorbike that hung from the rafters of the front porch.
We ate and talked fast. I tried to follow the conversation and got lost often. Many questions were thrown in my direction and my confused answers were almost always followed by laughter. My most common answer was “Tidak tahu” (I don’t know), which was always mimicked by Pak Ismanto’s oldest daughter. “Tidak tahhhhuuuu” she would say, and the rest would shriek with laughter. Weeks later I found out that the word “tahu” has two meanings. When pronounced without an “h” sound it means “to know”, when the “h” sound is pronounced “tahu” means tofu. Being the precise student of Indonesian that I am, I was not about to leave out an “h” sound from the word; therefore, my answer to most of my hosts’ questions was: “I don’t tofu”.
On this night, hundreds of large cicadas were swarming the lights around the front of the house and the light above our dinner. When asked if I liked to eat them, a sarcastic “ya” was my foolhardy response. Unfortunately, sarcasm does not translate well when you are learning a language, and what followed was very much in the same spirit as my mom’s favorite dessert at home: popcorn and wine…except the popcorn was deep-fried cicadas and the wine was arak, a traditional alcoholic drink made by the next-door neighbors.
I was directed by Pak Ismanto’s oldest daughter in how to prepare the cicadas for our dessert. We sat on the floor near the entrance of the house and pulled off all of the cicadas’ legs and wings before throwing them in a bowl between us. Pak Ismanto and Bella kept us supplied with fresh cicadas by snatching them from the air around the lights. The conversation was light, considering the screams that were coming from the bowl that was slowly being filled.
Part of the conversation was a story told by Pak Jul, with his tank top folded up exposing his potbelly. Pak Jul is a small man with a mischievous smile, teasing eyes, and a cute, mischievous giggle. Many of the adventures I have had in Laman Satong are a result of his vast sense of adventure and rebellion. The story he told is one of these adventures. I could not follow the story word-for-word, but because I am one of the main characters I know the story well and I will try to convey it with the same enthusiasm he does.
We rode Pak Jul’s motorbike out a long narrow trail. We came to a river after driving through several kilometers of grassland beyond which the grassland ended and the forest began. We stopped, stripped to our underwear, and started barefoot up the stream, surrounded by trees and screaming cicadas. After a kilometer of scrambling along the bank and wading through the river, we made it to our destination, a steep slope of rapids with five stages of small waterfalls. We proceeded to climb up.
This is the part of the story where Pak Jul gets really animated, so here is my best translation of what he says. “I climbed to the top of the rock above the fourth waterfall and looked back, David was about half way up the slippery section above the waterfall. I smiled, giggled, and waved. As David raised his hand to return the wave his foot slipped and he fell into the pool at the bottom. He came up blowing water from his nose. I yelled David are you okay?! He looked up dazed, and his sunglasses were missing from where they had been on his head."
Everyone sitting around the screaming bowl burst into laughter, it was at least the third time most of them had heard the same story. Pak Jul then pulled out his camera and showed everyone the numerous pictures he had taken of me struggling up the waterfall in my underwear. I think most everyone around the screaming bowl, excluding the toddler, has hiked to the top of this waterfall without incident.
The cicadas were then fried and eaten, their screams finally subsiding. They were surprisingly delicious with a little garlic powder sprinkled on top after I came to terms with the meaty texture of their heads**. They tasted of some combination of shrimp and fried crickets. The arak came in plastic sandwich bags and we drank it from small tin mugs** that were later filled with coffee and condensed milk as a capper to the night**. Soon after, we waved goodbye to Pak Ismanto and his family from our motorbikes. Then we set out through the newly falling rain toward the reforestation site.
Later that night in the dark bathroom of the small ASRI-owned house that sits on the edge of the reforestation site, suffering through the backlash of my enthusiasm to immerse myself in a new culture, I had a lot of time to think. First, I thought about how Pak Jul and Pak Ismanto like many men from Laman Satong are ex-loggers. Then I thought about how they eat lots of bush meat, and harvest fruits and vegetables from the forest. I thought about how toward the end of the night I was scolded for calling in ghosts from the forests with my whistling. They are people whose identity is ingrained in the forest.
Then I thought about how the overarching goal of reforestation is to make the world a better place to live. I also thought about how, in reforestation, we often think of large-scale issues like climate change and species extinction to justify our actions, sometimes forgetting that there are people living in these areas whose lives can also be improved by our projects. These people and their values for the forest cannot be overlooked because their cooperation is needed to create and maintain healthy forests.
From the conversation that night, the stories told, and the meal itself, I learned some of the many values that the forest has for my hosts. It is a place for recreation, and it is a source of culture and spirituality. It also provides many resources they can use to make a living. It is both loved and feared. In order for the reforestation project to be successful at Laman Satong, it has to cater to these values. ASRI recognizes this issue and tackles it with the unique variety of conservation and health programs that they offer. While still squatting in the dark, I momentarily forgot my discomfort and was filled with pride and appreciation for the opportunity I had been given to learn from this incredible organization and the people it influences.
So, where did I go wrong? What was the substance that led to my sickness? I have an idea of what I think it might have been, but I will let you decide on your own.
About David Woodbury
David is from Washington and recently graduated with a degree in Environmental Science and Terrestrial Resource Management. He is currently volunteering at ASRI's reforestation site and recently extended his stay.
To read previous Volunteer Voice reflections, click here.