by Elidé Beltram Ph.D.
The recent screening of the Imax film Born To be Wild at The American Museum of Natural History, which is about the efforts of Dr. Galdikas to save and rehabilitate the Borneo Orangutan reminded me of my own time spent as part of Dr. Galdikas research team.
I remember vividly the day we arrived in Kalimantan on the Island of Borneo on a blue klatak, a small wooden boat. It carried our research team, Professor Galdikas, lots of bananas, and bags of rice and tea.
The dyak (boatman) with a cowboy hat was steering the motorboat with his bare feet. Other dyaks looked at us like we were rare beings. We we looking at them, admiring their faces, hair and mannerism, which were all very open. We connected with their beautiful black eyes. Their teeth were misaligned, showing signs of neglect. I remembered from my anthropology classes that their ancestors shank the heads of enemies.
“Neglect,” said Audrey, my friend from Connecticut. “Neglect is cultural. They see it as a natural thing that teeth grow like this.” She showed me her immaculate white teeth aligned by many sessions with the dentist.
We were all tired, hot and dirty. It was dusk, and the piercing sounds of the insects frightened me. Back home they would be called “tree frogs,” small delicate frogs with suction cups that timidly accompany the evening in Rural America. Here in the virgin forest everything was bigger, louder, more intense and dangerous. Hesitantly, we walked up to the different orangutan: Supina, mother of Bruno; Mr. Ed, the alpha male and Peggy and Shekeila, ex pats who were at the camp to be retrained on how to survive the wild.“They were brought here by poachers, when the kidnapping of orangutan for circuses and private use was still allowed. Usually the babies were killed, but through my political efforts we can save some 50 every year.” said Professor Galdikas, the world-renowned orangutan primatologist. She carried a baby orangutan around her neck like a fur stole.
“So I put up camp. We fed and nurtured the babies and trained them to climb trees, eat on their own and socialize with their own kind, so that we can free them and they will be able to survive in the wild.”
We met other team members in the “longhouse.” I noticed that it was framed with chicken wire and had no windows. We grabbed some bananas and rice. Soon enough night descended on us. We were in the virgin jungle, out of reach of any motorized vehicle, airplane, telephone, and electricity. In case of an emergency, a dyak would have to travel by klatak to Kalimantan and attempt to call somebody 250 miles away, who then could only access us by a small river.
Everybody fell asleep on their small airbed, while I attempted to go to the hothouse (outdoor facility). The silence was sudden. The deepest silence was rarely experienced by people. It almost hurt the ears, like being situated up high on the Swiss Alps. The darkness hurt my eyes too, forcing me to feel one with it. It all devoured me. I felt breathless without a sense of space, time of where I was. I gained courage and with the help of a small flashlight descended a wooden peg ladder like a blind person with no sense of reference other than what I was touching. Slowly, I sensed everything, seeing nothing or too much, imagining too much, breathing unfamiliar smells of the deep jungle, the virgin forest of Borneo. I tried to stay centered as not to lose my mind or lose a sense of self. I imagined anacondas hanging from trees or angry mother orangutans seeing me as an enemy, or maybe a headhunter wanting my head.
Everything was so magnified in Kalimantan—even the moths were as large as my foot. I reached the last peg and did not want to leave it, as it was my own familiar object in that dark space. I could feel chest pains, my adrenaline surge. I was having a panic attack, and knew there was no way that I was going to do what civilized do: look for the loo. Warm urine tricked down my leg. I feared that I might be marking my territory for my enemy, so with frantic energy, I climbed the steep long-pegged ladder and found my blanket and mosquito net. Then I checked that snakes hadn’t slithered under my blanket in my absence, a habit formed from memories of sleeping in my uncle’s hut in the Swiss Alps during the summer and finding vipers in my bed.
I survived the night. Sleep saved me from another panic attack. I was awakened by a long kissing sound next to me. I looked at the chicken wire surrounding the longhouse and found an orangutan with open arms and legs looking at me and repeating the kissing sound. “She is sending you raspberry kisses,” Audrey said. “Monkeys give these sometimes.” … For more of my stories like these of Borneo Orangutan and our time with Professor Galdikas research, read my book The Memory of Vinegar and Oil: Origins Unified.
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