Day 1.5 – Friday night 10/29/10

Kalimantan Barat – Pontianak – Borneo


I arrived on the island of Borneo amidst a steamy, wet tropical storm early last night on a small, teetering plane. Closing in on over 30 hours of travel, from San Francisco to Hong Kong to Jakarta to Pontianak, my weary eyes settled on the lush vegetation and small dwellings, reminding myself that I was on the other side of the world now and that there was no turning back. Somehow I negotiated my way into a hotel decision and taxi cab and ended up in a what looked like from the lobby very fancy hotel but once you get inside your room things crawl through the cracks room. I placed my bags down and didn’t feel lonely for long as I discovered a friendly cockroach skeetering across the bathroom floor.

“Oh, hi,” I said as I shook off my eeby jeebies.

After a hot, sweaty but plentiful in deep sleep night, I decided to examine my surroundings from the window just before 6am as the starlings enjoyed the beautiful dawn hours. My mind was at peace but my body ached and my stomach groaned in confusion after not eating a proper meal for 48 hours. “Well, I guess this is what jet lag feels like,” I said to myself after realizing that up until this moment I had denied its existence despite many long journeys around the world including to places like Brazil, Poland, Australia and Italy.

I ate a delicious breakfast in the lobby and was happily able to provide entertainment to the entire hotel lobby staff by trying to pay for breakfast. Each of the staff tried using different words, sign language and gestures to explain that breakfast was included with my room until one of them finally said, “Free!” The look of comprehension on my face at last gave them all a great giggle as they congratulated the winning contestant who was able to get through my mostly entirely Bahasa-free, foggy head. “Terima Kasih!” I said as I walked out to meet Adri in the lobby.

It was 4 minutes past 9am, and I was embarrassed to be late in meeting up with Adri. But as the clock passed 9:30am I began to worry and called Adri. No answer. Just as I was pulling out my computer to try to find him on Skype, he showed up. His chain had fallen off his motorbike on the way over, forcing him to stop and get it fixed. Well, that’s a good excuse I thought to myself. After getting to know the kind forest researcher and activist for several minutes, we sped away on his motorbike with my luggage on my back. The next 20 minutes was both exhilarating and frightening. Not to say that I didn’t trust Adri and his 30 years of developed skills in maneuvering an Indonesian motorbike, but sweet lord I wondered how anyone got out of the onslaught of motorbikes and vehicles surging and pulsing through the crowded streets alive.

I noticed several small children including babies being held in the arms of someone on back of the bike or sitting in front of the driver holding on but falling asleep and I thought wow, and carseats in the U.S. can’t face forward until the child is 40 lbs? As we weaved through traffic honking our little horn every 10 seconds to warn our fellow driver friends that we were passing or about to pull a hell of sketchy maneuver such as squeeze between another motorbike, a coconut cart and a van, I held on and soaked it all in, gratefully accepting the new experience. Not quite like being on the back of the Van Kesteren’s motorbike in Holland riding along canals with Erol, I thought, in appreciation of the different cultures.

What clearing for palm oil looks like. Photo of Sarawak by Mattias Klum

We pulled up at Lembaga Gemawan, a local NGO that works to support palm oil-affected communities in their struggles to maintain rights to their ancestral lands from the ever increasing expansion of the palm oil industry. Much more like a house than an office, I joined the three men around the big table all working independently at their laptops. As the morning hours disappeared, I noticed that about every 12 minutes, internet would cut out for approximately 14 minutes making internet productivity very challenging but personal conversations much more rewarding. Adri and I took advantage of this time to have several great discussions. He taught me about the palm oil licensing process, about all the key corporate players in the palm oil industry in Indonesia, and shared many fascinating details and insights into his experience working with affected communities across Sumatra and Borneo. Throughout the entire afternoon of discussions he had a cigarette in his mouth, as did the other men in the room.

On the brink of extinction

I asked him if it would be possible to see an orangutan on during our field visits which we would embark upon after the RT8 Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) meeting in Jakarta next week. He shook his head and laughed at me.

“There aren’t any left in West Kalimantan, Ashley. Very hard to find. It’s all palm plantations. A decade ago, yes. But now I return to those forests where I found many families of orangutans and now it is all palm plantation. A few have survived in cages of local communities, but it is very sad. The communities keep them in cages, don’t want to let them go because they love their orangutan, but often the orangutan will die of hunger or emotional stress in that cage. If the community let it go, the orangutan will bite the children because it is stressed.”

I took a deep breath, absorbing what he had just said, and wondered how it could be true that the world’s first ape could go extinct in the next decade due to the expansion of palm oil companies in natural forests.

Around 1:30pm the sweet staff who had been working upstairs brought Adri and I lunch. What a pleasant surprise! I opened my box to find chicken and white rice with a small plastic baggie of meat sauce and one of greens. Adri told them I was a vegetarian (he’s so sweet) and they took the meat away kindly and brought the most delicious soup ever – Jack fruit soup!! I bit into the mysterious slices of meaty flesh and to my fearful surprise melted in ecstasy. It had a rich, coconutty, orange broth and big chunks of jack fruit. Yum!

Throughout the day we could hear the multiple calls to prayer at the mosque nearby. Adri explained to me that over 50% of the population in West Kalimantan is Muslim, about 30% Catholic and the rest a mix of Buddhist and Hindu. The majority of women wear their heads covered with beautiful bright colored cloth.

Watching the news tonight, I could not understand what people were saying but the unmistakable devastation in their voices was more powerful and moving than words. Hundreds have lost their family members to the tsunami in Western Sumatra and thousands more have had to flee their homes on Eastern Jave from the second eruption of Mt. Merapi. I’m keeping all of these people in my prayers and ask that you do too.

It’s now Saturday morning and I am about to meet with reps from Walhi Kalbar (Friends of the Earth Kalimantan Barat) – another group doing amazing work to protect the few remaining forests in West Kalimantan. I think I am finally full after a lot of effort put into filling my hungry body – I just ate a breakfast of: a piece of toast and jam, a vegetable noodle dish, yellow rice and egg dish, two sweet potato balls, 2 bowls of corn flakes with coconut milk, fresh watermelon and papaya fruit and a glass of orange juice and papaya juice. Lekker!

To follow my blogs on Rainforest Action Network’s (RAN) site, there is about one a week posted on Here is the latest one.

Love to all.