The Jungles of Sumatra - Leopards, Locals, and Learning, Bonderman Fellowship, Week 4

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While I stick to my sentiments that there is no such thing as a utopia, outside yourself, Bukit Lewang comes close. It's that harmonious, quaint jungle village, which you only hear about in a children's book. (Of course the village isn't perfect, it comes with its own set of unique problems - over commercialization, aggressive locals to name a few.)

The harmony is not in the objects we typically associate with harmony - rainbows, butterflies and people holding hands in a circle - but rather more subtle devices. It lies in the fluid and playful interactions between locals. It lies in the kids swimming in the river, playing without a care or a screen to distract them from their environment. It's in the incessant sharing amongst locals, which isn't a question but an unspoken principal. Indicative of these constructs is the fact that they all look incredibly young. They smile and laugh often, and I haven’t heard the words “worry”, “stress”, or “anxiety”.

The locals speak of learning happening through the jungle. An experiential knowledge, one that is tested and tried for true instead of taken for true. Maybe most evident of this is how the jungle tour guides learned their English from trekking with travelers, not their English schooling. It seems as though there is abundant wisdom and infinite resources within the jungle, available to all whom are open minded enough to listen and patient enough to experience.

The locals seemed to have more acute senses. I was often taken back of them being able to hear me walk from 30 meters away while they were sitting besides a rushing river. (A condition I believe which stems from having a quieter mind/ being more tuned into their environment.)

I embarked to continue the process of learning from the wisdom of nature and those who have lived intimate with the natural world. It is something I've craved, heard so much about from Martha’s classed, read about in Thoreau's "Walden", and have gotten glimpses of from being in silence and solitude in nature. I feel as if there is any theme to this trip, it is this. Learning about a wisdom, understood by many, but known and felt by so few. It is a knowledge that is being washed out with time. It is not transmitted through words or study, rather gained through experience and practice.

I will start by talking about the raw experience itself, and then the bottom half I will talk about more philosophical topics.

Desiring a more authentic immersion, I wanted a way to go with only locals, so they could trek as they usually would and not have to accommodate to a large group of tourists. Within 30 minutes of arriving to Bukit Lewang, I befriended locals. As the night went on the proposition of taking me out alone, off the books, for a trek arose. I can't lie, though this was exactly what I desired, the invitation was welcomed with apprehension. Doubting and fearful thoughts entered my mind. What if we got lost? Are they just using me for money? Would I be able to keep up? And what about those malaria tablets I never took? Reluctantly, I agreed to meet them in the morning, and checked in for a rough nights sleep.

The fear I felt the night before, was replaced with sheer excitement as the dawn rose. Here I was in some rural village about to trek the jungle. I remembered thinking as we began to make our accent up several hundred stairs to access the entrance of the jungle, how lucky I am, I have arrived, I'm here, this is what I've been craving for so long.

Days in the jungle are no walk in the park. Hours are spent in the claustrophobia of thick vegetation, slippery and muddy climbs, relentless and perpetual ups and down. Though you may be climbing to get to the top of a hill, there are several ascents and descents on your way there. Each move must be calculated, while maintaining a vision for your next 5 or so steps. Using the natural environment is a necessity, trees are a point of balance, elongated vines and branches assist to repel down steep slopes, or climb heavy inclines. Grab the wrong branch, and you'll strike blood. The struggles made the rewards that much better.

Some of the highlights of the daytime entailed. Standing only a meter away from wild orangutans. Hiking through a claustrophobia of vegetation for hours, only to arrive to a slight view point atop the canopy. As the vegetation peeled back, I could see a cerulean blue sky, lush green hills, a vast green horizon that extends to blur with the blue horizon , creating an illusion that you are seeing an ocean. The tiredness from the strenuosity of the day faded, and I was left with an expansive, alive, and fresh feeling. It was just what the doctor ordered, renewed energy to finish the day strong. Only after we arrived to camp in the night, did my guide, Ardo, tell me we took the wild trek that day, the area which I remarked as super claustrophobic, is where most people get lost… There is so much more to tell. I often would lay on a branch and close my eyes so I could hear more. Wild pigs, serene lunches by remote streams, diverse floral and fauna, but the night times ended up being where I learnt the most.

As the sun descends the jungle prepares to make its final bow. But what fades of a visual performance is reciprocated in terms of audio stimulation. The jungle becomes alive when darkness takes lights place. And I will never forget the alive feeling I felt, when my porter, Ady, woke me up in the middle of a nights rest, to frantic yelling “get out of the tent.” I soon learned his alarm was for a leopard, as curious about us as we were about it, standing there motionless on the other side of the riverbank. We stalked the leopard, moving barefoot from rock to rock, for 30 minutes or so. It's a captivating sight to see, the grace it which it moves, the effortless power it displays combined with some of the most luminescent and vibrant eyes I've ever seen - eerily invigorating. Sorry friends, i was captivated and did not take a picture!

What turned out to be my favorite moment wasn't the exciting leopard stalking but rather spending time with locals. It's a necessity to make it to camp before sunset, this means to arrive round 5pm. This also mean plenty of isolated down time. I spent this time mostly conversing with the only people we had, myself, Ardo, and Ady (and occasionally other locals/ tourists who shared the campsite). I learnt that this trek was very different from others, as at night it is usually noisy tourists conversing, but now it was quiet.

Before I talk about the wisdom of the locals , I want to speak to an insight which arose from conversing with locals. One of the things my teacher in Michigan , Angela, told me, was that it would be beneficial for me to learn to listen to others without it making its way back to me. I'm sincerely trying to practice this skill. An importance of this teaching hit me hard in the jungle. One of the things I realized was although it's a completely normal reaction to relate others experience to yours, and one that isn't necessarily malicious in intent, it hinders real learning about others and their culture. (I know this sounds obvious, but I am sure many of us unconsciously do it.) The more you relate things back to yourself, the more you shift focus of the conversation from others to yourself. You are hindering your ability to get deeper with someone else's story because you are reverberating back to your own. Thus you are remaining in the box of your own perspective and experience and neglecting a chance at learning and expansion. Not to mention the lack of sincerely listening to another. Each time I caught myself relating things back to American culture, I noticed a lull in the conversation. Thus I started simply noticing when my thought process would reverberate back to myself, and then instead of expressing these relations, I would rather just observe the thought form, then consciously decide to probe deeper into their story line, rather then my own. This really has fostered not only deeper conversation, learning and connection in the jungle, but with all people ever since. If you want to get another persons unbiased perspective it is best not to speak yours first, as it can influence the authenticity and uniqueness of what they may have to share.

With an obvious interest in their story, they opened up. They told mystical stories of the jungle. They talked about the spirit of her, and how it's something you need to honor and respect. They shared in techniques, one being that Ardo would mark, our path, by nicking thorny branches along the way, so a trail would be made of slightly bent vegetation. They spoke of the wisdom of their fathers and grandparents, how they contained the knowledge of all the plants and their medicines, and stories which would only be labeled as woo- woo. Most of all, they talked about the dynamic nature of the jungle. And how you have to learn to go off a feeling, you develop a sense of certainty of your location based on this feeling not possibly mapped by any geography.

The locals always seemed to have so much to share with each other. Their conversations were elaborate, filled with hand gestures, smiles and laughs. I had a desire to understand what they were saying, and only felt frustration, when my guide would reduce 10 minute conversations to a single sentence in English. The ones who could speak the least English, often had the most to tell, and not only about the jungle. Take my porter Ady, he spoke little English, but had so much to share. In turn I would teach him English, beat boxing and yoga ( quite the combination).

After our trek, he shared with me his home and his life. With his brother there to serve as translator, I was able to get a little more into Ady's story. He built his home himself, out of a mix of bamboo, wood, and concrete. In only 5 months. He shared a room with the rest of his family, his wife and his 2 kids. He also taught me various things. How to climb a coconut tree, how rice is made, and introduced me to his brothers family as well. He gifted me a beautiful feather of a peacock, and in turn I gave him an extra hat I had. Though he spoke less English there was more understanding between us.

Locals have offered me to come back, to live essentially for free, to teach English at the school by Lake Toba. Ady and I have discussed ( or tried to ) me coming back, and doing a longer trek, where instead of offering just money, I can offer the service of teaching him English. Each day I feel a slight twinge to go back. And I still might. For now I will remember the story of the Jungle, through some poetry I wrote after my first night sleeping in it.

" A story is being told in every moment

Rich with timeless history

Vengeful with a relentless resilience

Outpouring with life in every inch

The story is always being told

The question is are we listening"

PS. I have fallen way behind on translating all that I am experiencing to a digital space. And only experiencing  more and writing more and more everyday, in a game of catchup I will not succeed.

PSS As I post this I'm off to the jungles again. This time in Borneo!