Borneo, Orangutangs, Travel and Poetry

The following blog post was written by John Leupold of Champaca Journeys* and my former landscaper. It’s fun to share his insights every so often as he leads small groups of travelers around the world, with an emphasis on Bhutan.

Enjoy,
Josh

Men on the bus, men of the forest

Two blind men get on a bus. I was there yesterday, seated in the bus, when they stepped through the front door. Each with collapsible white cane, both with sunken eyes (no dark glasses), and one with a hearing aid. And both with smiles and talking to each other, moving with more fluidity than I would have imagined. All the seats were taken and they walked past me, as I sat near the front so quickly that soon as I commence debating whether to offer my seat, they were past me. I stared unabashedly at them, as did others on the bus, safe in the knowledge that my scrutiny would be undetected, and yet aware that there was none the less something obtrusive about it.

I guessed them to be about 30 years old. Their faces were Asian, Chinese I think, and smooth and unlined, and I’d go so far as to say innocent. Of course I have no way of knowing this, but it was the thought that came into my mind as they passed me and as I later kept my seeing eyes on them. Towards the back of the bus they were offered seats, not together but seemingly this caused them no consternation, to be separated. Once seated they collapsed their canes. These two must have announced their destination, as after 10 minutes one came to the other and touched his shoulder, and together they made their departure from the bus, and again I saw and was struck by their innocent and happy faces, as they talked and smiled, at who I wondered, as these were not the disarming smiles that we sighted people can offer to make people like us. It left me thinking how shallow the smiles of us sighted folk can be, and how their smiles were pure expressions of their contentment, not offered to anyone.

As they talked their way off the bus, one slung a day pack over his shoulder, and then placed his hand on the shoulder of the other, and in this manner they disembarked, and he re-postioned his hand, while his friend took the lead and together they walked away. The leader had some sight I thought, though he none the less moved his cane to and fro in the manner I have seen other blind people employ.

I was profoundly touched by this scene, by the unpatronizing and unpitying manner in which the other bus passengers aided them. And by their good nature which seemed to radiate through the bus or at least as it was absorbed and processed by me. I’ll confess that I regularly hold private pity parties for myself. They never last long and I’m simultaneously aware that I have it very good, and one glimpse or thought about those that have it less good than me, fills me with compassion and gratitude. I was not having such a party when I saw them, but had one been in session, this is the sort of scene that would have ended it in a flash.

I sat on the bus for another hour, as it meandered through suburbs and shopping centers, passed a few factories, mostly the sort of new and bland architecture of suburbia and mall culture that I interpret as vapid affluence in my rather snooty and judgemental way. Though the biggest surprise to me is that this is all occurring in Kuching, Malaysia, on the island of Borneo. My first time to Malaysia, and while I’m aware it’s considered an affluent society, I’m unprepared for the amount of prosperity. When the bus is empty of all but 5 people, and these 5 all white people the driver stops and motions us to get off. We do so, 2 couples and myself, none of them even look at me, and now it’s my turn to feel lost, though I have the sight required to make it to what seems to be the ticket kiosk of my destination.

A dollar gets me a ticket and the instruction to walk 20 minutes along a road into the forest, and it’s here that I’ll see what I’ve come halfway across the world to see, the men of the forest, which believe it or not you’ll better understand when I write it in Malay (you didn’t know you knew any Malay, did you?): orangutang.

Two items amaze me here. One that just an hour outside a city of a half million there is virgin rain forest, and two that in this forest just minutes from suburbia there are wild orangutangs. And maybe a third item, that it cost just a dollar to see them, we spent $500 on permits to see mountain gorillas in Uganda, so you get lots more great ape for your buck in Malaysia.

But a disclaimer is in order. The older orangutangs here are rescue orangs. Meaning that they were orphaned when infants, their mothers shot as they were desired as pets. Cute and cuddly for a couple of years, then fierce and unmanageable and not so cute when they get stronger than their owner. Fortunately this practice has ended, thanks to education and steep penalties. Some 20 years ago several of these orangs were brought here and trained by humans in the ways of the wild, and though critics said it could not be done, they were successfull in becoming wild free roaming forest animals. The ultimate success is that they have been reproducing, so that now the number born free here to rehabilitated animals is greater than the number of rehabilitees. They are given supplemental food twice a day, as the amount of forest is not large enough to hold the 25 animals here, and this is what pretty much guarantees sightings. (In Uganda your permit does not guarantee gorilla sighting, as you hike through the forest with a ranger to hopefully find a family that has been habituated to humans). They say some days only 1 or 2 orangs show up for food, buy yesterday 15 appeared, though only 1 would have satisfied me, the sheer number of orangs was 15 dreams come true.

They are all redheads, and like any group of redheads, the color varies, some more auburn than others. Arms are longer than legs, this seems to be a pretty standard great ape characteristic, and they come is all sizes, sort of like humans, you see big and not so big adults, and all size of kid orangs. Not only opposable thumbs, but opposable big toes as well. The sex of the adults apparent as the females have breasts (and are smaller). While I first see them as smaller than humans, I soon notice they are about the size of many Malaysians, who stand a foot shorter than my 6’1′ frame. Superb climbers, technically they brachiate, the form or arboreal locomotion used by apes as they swing from branch to branch through the trees. It looks even more effortless than what Olympic athletes do. It probably is, they were after all built for this. It’s fascinating to observe, this unintentional display of brachiating grace and beauty. It occurs to me that this is what makes them so compelling to watch. Sitting is a cage, none of this would be apparent, and you might look for a few minutes. It’s the movements that are mesmerizing, and 2 hours later all of the 20 odd humans come to see the orangs are still transfixed.

We are also moist with perspiration, at least the white folks, unaccustomed to such heat and humidity. It’s an unpleasant sticky heat, and a damp towel or a shower or a blast of air conditioning would be welcome. The rangers and local tourists are wearing far more clothes than I could tolerate in this heat, and the orangs themselves look like they’re wearing orange fur coats. Yet excepting us white folks everything and everyone looks comfortable, and lush, vital, and alive. The fecundity of tropical rain forest. There is heat and there is heat, and this seems a particularly vicious form of it. Back in Kuching it was tolerably hot, I suppose the river providing a breeze and I felt comfortable. After 2 hours it seems I’ve seen everything the orangs might do, several times and my fascination is evaporating as I wilt. The time and heat equation has made me decide to leave, and I turn back along the road for the mile walk back to the highway where I can find a bus back to Kuching. Once seated on the bus, the air conditioned bus I regain my equilibrium and contemplate the amazing orangs again. Wow.

*John Leupold
Visit Bhutan with CHAMPACA JOURNEYS
www.champacajourneys.com
john
www.facebook.com/champaca.journeys

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