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Wellness & Wildlife: Exploring ASRI

This is the second in a series of stories from guest blogger Jane Lester. Jane is a pediatrician from Seattle who spent five weeks with our pilot program Alam Sehat Lestari (ASRI). She shared with us her experiences hiking in the wildlife rich rainforests and working at ASRI.

The view from Mendale Hill

Yesterday we took an amazing hike with Amat up Mendale Hill. First a 45 minute bike ride through padi (rice) fields in harvest season and past colorful houses with tarps laid out in the dirt full of drying rice. Two monitor lizards swam about in the small river, one longer than two meters. At the end of our ride we met a guide who led us into the edge of the national park. We snacked on delicious pastries filled as we climbed among banana and durian trees planted by the locals. Tiny structures where people sleep popped up here and there to keep the monkeys from eating their bananas.We saw crashing in the foliage and spotted gibbons leaping from tree to tree, dangling from one ridiculously long arm and then the other, and, of course, peering at us from beneath their bushy eyebrows. First time I’ve seen an ape in the wild, very cool. A mom cavorted in the canopy with a baby clinging to her chest. Wikipedia tells me that gibbons are the fastest and most agile of all tree-dwelling, non-flying mammals. Their wrist is a ball-in-socket joint to minimize the stress of weight-bearing on their shoulders and they can walk upright on two legs. They generally mate for life and eat fruit (maybe the gibbons are eating the bananas?) and their calls can be heard over a kilometer away. We hear them at ASRI in the mornings and I surely remember hearing the rambunctious gibbons at the Woodland Park Zoo half a neighborhood away.

Hiking through the rainforest!

As we climbed higher we saw giant black birds with white tails fly by with heavy wing beats. First two, then four, then more, twenty in all! Wreathed hornbills, wow! They eat mostly fruit but also beetles and crabs in breeding season. The website of Khao Sok National Park in Thailand tells me tha twreathed horn bills are monogamous and the male seals the female into a nest cavity where she lays her eggs. The mom and chicks are totally dependent on the dad who brings the food and feeds her through a slit. At each stream crossing I filled my hat with water and upended it on my head to stay cool. Nina and I were parched after the midday bike ride back to town and drank several water bottles filled with icy fresh sugar cane juice to revive ourselves. It turned out to be a four shower day!

A local artist’s interpretation of wreathed hornbills.

Last night we bicycled to the always-nearly-empty, built-on-stilts hotel in town and sang karaoke, in an air-conditioned room! The building was perched on an endless mudflat when we arrived, hopping with mud skippers, and on the rising tide of an ocean when we left. We rocked to Queen and Taylor Swift and Indonesian artists with hip music videos.When no video was available, a random video sufficed. So we sang Billy Joel’s Scenes from an Italian Restaurant all about Brenda and Eddie while a travelogue of Australia played and sheep trotted by.

Windows here have shutters but rarely glass and never screens. All restaurants and shops are open-air; I don’t know if they even try to lock up at night. At ASRI every exam room and office looks out to the lovely forest garden or courtyard. So peaceful. My bedroom window does have glass and I leave the curtain open at night to watch geckos dart around eating insects on the glass, my own nature show.

Two mornings ago Etty grabbed me from the doctors’ room to see if I wanted to join an ASRI Kids field trip led by Amat to the mangroves. ASRI Kids is like ASRI Teens but for thirty rambunctious 4th and 5th graders. Duh, yes! So I quickly rode home to get my hat, binoculars and bird book. Then hopped on the back of a motorcycle with the very gentle driver Barata, who will be conservation manager at a new ASRI site, and I’m pleased to report I am no longer terrified on these rides. We arrived just as the walk was ending, so back to ASRI we went.

ASRI kids enjoying their time in the rainforest during one of the program’s field trips
ASRI kids enjoying their time in the rainforest during one of the program’s field trips.

I met Amat and Barata on the front porch again at 1:00 for the afternoon trip, and after 45 minutes of waiting for the school bus to arrive, Amat learned the driver had picked up the kids and headed to the mangroves forgetting to pick up Amat. Oops. So an hour late, we were off. Ihsan, ASRI’s GIS (geographic information system) expert, taught the kids about the swamp while Barata and I hung back and looked and listened for birds. We identified a pied fantail, and on the return walk I learned the Indonesian name: murai hitan putih. The name means black-and-white magpie. I practiced it again and again until I learned it, while Barata, an enthusiastic English language learner, kept repeating pah-eed fan-tail, pah-eed fan-tail.

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