Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Into the Jungle

Off Into the Rainforest

The last several days have been a blur of discovery, a tornado of culture shock, seeing beautiful things, and trying amazing Indo/Malaysian food.  But most of all, what I’ve been seeing is the completely bare truth about what is happening to Orangutans in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Touch Down in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, and you will see a spotless, massive airport, filled to the brim with fancy European antique dealers, Western Fast Food chains, and sugary treats that look straight out of Disneyland.  It’s a little bit disconcerting, to see Kuala Lampur airport, because it’s a carbon copy of any Airport in Europe,  Westernised,sanitised, and completely the same.  

Kuching was an interesting place to spend a day.  I excitedly grabbed my stuff and headed out the door to be greeted by Hawaiin style humidity and Summertime warmth.  After gathering all the amazing volunteers, Hanna (from Germany) Katherine (from DC) and Trish (from New Zealand).  Along with the other volunteers going to Matang, we gathered at a flash Western/Malaysian hotel, and then went out to explore the city.

Coming straight from New Zealand to Kuching is a very interesting experience, because the value of your dollar is instantly tripled, which is a pleasant shock, because for about $3 U.S, you can  buy a feast of food which might cost $30 in the states.  Walking down the bazaar in downtown Kuching, you see an repetitive mix of people selling the same cakes, trinkets, sugary snacks, cellphones, knock off watches (one of which I bought) and of course endless rows of slightly outdated Western T-Shirts and pants.  Despite all these cheap trinkets, I was most excited to find the banana vendor.

It was a bit of an eye opener to see hundreds of people at the bazaar downtown and realising that they might be living off 2 or 3$ a day.  Especially since 150 people on the same treat might be selling the exact same trinkets and spongecake.  The only comparison I can find is in Las Vegas, where hundreds of Mexican migrants line the streets handing out stripper cards.  The whole thing makes you realise how lucky you are to come from the West, and how much our global economic system of selling crap reduces people to what I call “spongecake slavery”.  

Despite the corrosive Western influence on Kuching, I was in having a BLAST trying out all the amazing soups, noodley street food, and mouthwatering “laksas”.  The best foodcarts in San Francisco don’t have anything on Malaysian street foods.  

After a long day of exploring, we came back to the hotel to meet our guides, Leo and Dave. Both have stories heroic stories which make you stand back in admiration, and Leo, in particular, has put aside his life back in England to engage in a constant, life-threatening game of tug of War with governments officials, poachers, and soulless businessmen to save as many Orangutans as possible.  If Leo was the CEO of a company, you could see easily being a multi-millionaire.  But his love for Orangutans keeps fuelling him, despite the mountainous scale of challenges, and constant danger and stress.  

Another good thing about Leo and Dave is there is no bullshit when you talk to them.  They don’t candy coat or hide what is happening to them or the Orangutans .  Orangutans are in a fight for survival, and it is only a small group of a few hundred people which are keeping their entire species from being wiped out.  It doesn’t help much that the government of Indonesia or Malaysia can come in at any time and simply kick them out, and various Orangutan charities compete with each other for attention instead of working with each other.  This means that they have to do a constant P.R. dance with international media and the local government to simply be left alone to rehabilitate Orangutans.  

Before we came to Matang, it was a great experience to see Semagogaoh wildlife center, where a few dozen Orangutans inhabited a reserve of a few hundred hectares.  It was an awesome moment to see an Orangutan in the forest for the first time, though it wasn’t completely wild.  One mother and her baby were hanging on a tree above us, completely oblivious, while another youngster Orangutan was hanging 90 feet, performing a mid-air tightrope display which would put Cirque De Solei to shame.

The visit to the Matang wildlife center was another moment which made us all stop, and take in the seriousness of conservation.  When we think of Orangutans, we often imagine they can simply be saved from captivity, and after a few years they can be put back in the jungle to live safely for the rest of their lives.  However, this happy ending smashes up against a harsh truth, because releasing rehabilitated Orangutans back into unprotected forest often puts them straight back into the hands of poachers.  Also, when an Orangutan is lovingly hand-reared by humans, it develops an intense emotional attachment which makes it difficult to survive in the wild. Surprisingly enough, some rehabilitated Orangutans broke BACK into their cage at Matang, because they were bored of being alone in the forest, and wanted easy access to food and shelter.  This often means that the people looking after these Orangutans often have to have a heart-breaking decision to distance themselves from the Orangutans they raised since infancy.  

That being said, what I saw at Matang was a fascinating, and emotionally jarring insight into how connected humans are with Orangutans, and how   intelligent Orangutans are.  One example is the Aman, the massive, gangsta-rapper looking alpha male of Matang.  Before Aman was saved by IAR, he was blind, and kept in a small cage till adulthood.  However, IAR rescued him, and even restored his sight, which changed his life to say the least.  For the first year or so, he was completely ecstatic to simply have the gift of sight, but after a while...he realised that he was being kept in a cage, so he broke out into the forest, numerous times, but he would come back when he couldn’t find food.  Leo says that Aman has a simple, clear message which he is displaying to the caretakers at Matang.  “Thank you for rescuing me, BUT LET ME THE HELL OUT OF HERE!”  What’s so heart-breaking is that Aman can’t be released into the wild, because he was never raised to climb, and hostile locals would shoot him on sight if he attempted to get food near the city.  The folks at Matang face these intense, catch 22 situations nearly everyday, because Orangutans know when they can never go back to the wild, and they become resentful because of it.  They’re so human, they might as well be super-strong people dressed as Orangutans, living in a prison break movie.  

A real telling moment was when we visited the Quarantine area, where rescued Orangutans were being kept in makeshift cages as volunteers were simultaneously scrambling to build them new ones.  One of the Orangutans, a rescued captive, had developed a close emotional bond to Leo, and wanted to get his attention by shouting “OM!” (‘Uncle’ in Malaysian).  Though Leo said he needed to make him non-dependant of human contact, he still gave the youngster his hand.  A look of love washed over the Orangutan as he held Leo’s hand, seeming to say “I miss you”, and slowly, he let go of Leo’s hand when we needed to walk away.  

Though Leo might be able to hold an Orangutans hand in trust, I sure won’t anytime soon, because they have the power to snap an arm bone like a twig, or bite off your fingers.  It takes years to build that trust with an Orangutan, and takes alot of contact, feeding, and caring for them while they are sick.  Imagine having a 5 year old with the strength of the hulk...and that’s what your being challenged with while raising a growing Orangutan.  Though Willie Smitts might be able to caress any Orangutan he comes into contact with, I’m definitely not ready for that.  That being said, if I see a gesture of thanks from an Orangutan and Ketapang, I hope to find a way to return it without damaging it’s chances of returning to the wild.  

Along with rescuing Orangutans, the folks at Matang have to deal with an overflow of rescued sunbears, gibbons, and macaques, which all need space and cages.  However, Matang Wildlife centre gets little direct help from the government, and has to rely on the generosity of volunteers to run on a shoestring budget.  I really want my fundraiser to go well, because I see the NEED they have, and how they can use any funds.

By now, Leo, Dave and I have had a few hours of conversations, and my respect for both of them has done nothing but grow.  Though we’re from different corners of the earth, and have different callings in life, we all want the same thing...to leave this world as a place where humans will cherish the worlds most precious creatures, and where everyone will rediscover their need for nature, and their connection to it.

The bus ride into Pontianak, Indonesia was a different beast all together, and put me face to face with poverty, and “the third world”. In the morning, we set off on a 7 hour bus ride through Borneo till we would finally reach Pontianak.  I’ve never seen anything like this in my whole life, and I’m sure my brother had some similar culture shock moments biking through the poorest areas of Bolivia and South America.  

For what seemed like a journey back in time, we passed endless palm oil plantations, government checkpoints, and deforested patches of land.  Seeing all the villages along the way was spellbinding, because you say them cutting out a living on the edge of what seemed like endless jungle, and yet STILL there billboards of Jennifer Aniston, Coke, and cellphone ads.   Strangely...I kind of liked these places, because I could imagine how quickly they could be changed into permaculture eco-villages if the need arose, but that’s a discussion for another time.  The poverty was pretty shocking though, because kids were bathing in toxic brown rivers and fires were lit everywhere, filling the air with acrid grey smoke.  From the Indonesian border to Pontianak, you never stop seeing people, as far as the eye can see.

 It also felt pretty crazy being really tall for once in my life, and there were alot of eyes on us whities on the bus going to the middle of Borneo.  The bus ride was a bit of a crazy journey, because we saw every stereotype of dangerous, drunken driving, and swerving and honking as we bumped and grinded down the Borneo highway.   This is an interesting journey, and I think that I’m going to see first hand, how the conditions of the people in Indonesia reflect onto the survival of Orangutans.  

There’s plenty of more to type about, but I’m going to stop right now, because there’s some Indonesian food to try, and a squat toilet with a bucket to use for cleaning the bum...that’s going to...interesting.  

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