On July 7th 2013, I left the Pittsburgh International Airport to embark on one of the most culturally rich, educative, and exciting adventures of my life. I flew to Detroit, Michigan that day… Ok that isn’t where my adventure actually began. Fortunately I had only a brief layover in Detroit before flying to a small city outside of Tokyo, Japan: a land of strange, robotic toilets and vending machines that offer anything and everything. After a night in Narita, Japan, I flew to Jakarta, Indonesia, the capital of what I was soon to discover to be one of the most culturally and biologically diverse and beautiful countries.
Indonesia was my ultimate destination. I was traveling to Indonesia in order to volunteer as a research assistant with Operation Wallacea, an organization that runs ecological and biological research expeditions in biodiversity hotspots around the world in order to implement and assess conservation programs. The organization began operating in South Sulawesi, Indonesia in 1995. This region lies in what is known as the “Wallacea region,” after the nineteenth century naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace who independently conceived of the theory of evolution through natural selection around the same time as Charles Darwin.
Having never been even as far as Europe before, I was eager to venture to the other side of the world. Indonesia is an archipelago of about 18,000 islands, about 6,000 of which are populated by over 238 million people. The country is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, it’s ridden with volcanoes and dense forests, and it is home to what I found to be some of the most friendly and wonderful people whose diversity can be heard through their 700 or so different languages and dialects. More importantly for my research project however, Indonesia boasts the most endemic-rich forests in the world and the second most biodiversity after Brazil. In fact, Opwall has discovered 21 vertebrate species new to science in the Lambusango Forest of Buton Island in South Sulawesi.
With quite an impressive background, I was anxious to get involved.
After a domestic flight through Makassar, a small city in Sulawesi, I flew to the city of Bau Bau on Buton Island off the tip of the southeast peninsula of Sulawesi. Bau Bau was quite shocking. First off, I arrived in a tiny airport which hardly even qualifies as an airport. I didn’t see any other planes there and there was no security. The baggage claim consisted of one room hardly larger than my living room and not big enough to fit the entire crew I was traveling with, and a conveyor belt. After collecting my 40 lb. rucksack, I headed outside where the Opwall volunteers and I were separated into two groups based on our final destination. Some volunteers, mostly dissertation students, were headed to the marine research station on Hoga Island, South Sulawesi. The remaining volunteers, including myself, were headed to the village of Labundo Bundo in the Lambusango forest where the terrestrial research site was based. So I threw my bag in the back of a pickup truck, said goodbye to a couple of friends I made along the way who were headed to Hoga, Melissa and Rafael, and I climbed into a small Toyota.
At this point in my journey, I did not have a whole lot of instruction or information on what to do or where I was going and so I was sort of just happily going with the flow. I realized that there was a group of high school students in our group along with many dissertation students from universities around the world. After a short drive into the city of Bau Bau, the craziness continued. The streets were narrow, poorly paved and bustling with motor bikes and small cars which hardly followed traffic laws as they narrowly avoided pedestrians.
Our caravan of Toyota Avanzas (a model I’d never seen in the U.S.) pulled into a small lot near a busy harbor. Once again, unaware of the plan, I followed everyone out of the cars and into a restaurant across the street where we were escorted upstairs and seated to eat lunch. I asked to use the restroom and followed an Indonesian woman who seemed to own the restaurant downstairs and into the back rooms. I passed the kitchen on my left which was a very simple room where an old woman was sitting on the floor with pots and pans scattered about on small burners. Two children were running around helping her cook the food. I had never seen a kitchen like this before. Finally I got to the restrooms.
I opened the wooden door and was baffled and a bit confused as to what I was looking at. No one had told me what typical Indonesian bathrooms were like or how to use them. I would later find out the room was called a “mandi,” which simply means “wash” in Bahasa Indonesian. The mandi was the size of a typical bathroom but had tiled floor and walls. There was a large water basin on the left and on the right was a ceramic structure embedded in the floor that resembled a toilet. A bit shocked by the mandi, I had failed to look at the wall in front of me where an enormous, furry spider loomed a couple of feet in front of my face. I assumed that the spider’s diet consisted of birds and hopefully not humans. This had been quite an introduction to the city of Bau Bau on Buton Island…
After everyone had finished eating and taking advantage of the last opportunity to access ATMs, we left the restaurant and squeezed back into the Toyotas. I hopped in a car with three British girls who attended high school in Singapore named Jaya, Maytha, and Katie. I had sat with them in the restaurant and they told me about Singapore. I really enjoyed their company as they were friendly, well-spoken, and well-educated, as I found most of the other Opwall volunteers to be.
Once again we were on the road. I soon realized that we were finally on the way to the village of Labundo Bundo. Labundo is a small village of about 200 people situated on the outskirts of the Lambusango Forest where Opwall was conducting research. The car ride was a bit nerve-wracking and a bit terrifying. Local Indonesians had been hired to drive us and this particular driver was a bit obnoxious. He had a huge sub woofer in the trunk which blasted terrible pop and house dance music for the entirety of the two-hour drive. He also nearly ran a few cars and pedestrians off the narrow road which eventually turned into more of a muddy trail than a road. He also honked the horn about every few seconds, sometimes for no reason other than what seemed like habit. I soon learned that the standard for driving in Indonesia was quite different from what I am used to.
The drive was quite beautiful and fascinating however. We passed the occasional rice field and many houses and buildings built mainly of crude wood with metal roofs, often raised off the ground with wooden supports.
Finally, after the chaotic car ride, we arrived in Labundo. It was almost what I expected. The village consisted of a string of hut-like houses on either side of the narrow dirt road that ran about 100 meters through Labundo. There was also a place of prayer and a school for children. There were numerous chickens, goats, and dogs scrambling about. I would later learn that the beautiful plants and trees that surrounded were sugar cane plants, papaya trees, pineapple plants, cocoa plants, coconut trees, and banana trees. There was no internet in the village, no running water in the homes, and electricity only came on for limited hours at night.
It was in the village of Labundo that I had the first real culture shock of my trip and arguably of my life. After quickly exiting the car down by the Opwall tent, I asked to use the mandi straight away. After returning, I found the other volunteers I had just arrived with crowded around an Opwall staff member who was already more than half way through her brief 5-minute welcome speech. She was speaking very quickly and after I missed all the important things she had to say, next thing I know she called my name and pointed to a large Indonesian man who spoke no English. I grabbed my bag and followed him back up the road until he stopped and pointed to a house, and walked away. I hesitantly walked to the door, took my shoes off (I’d already learned it’s very rude to wear shoes in one’s home), and stepped inside. I was greeted by an old woman who smiled and led me to a small room with two beds with wooden frames and mosquito nets. Slightly overwhelmed, I realized this was my host house and I’d be staying here for the next two weeks.
So here I am in the house of an Indonesian family, a grandmother, her husband, their daughter, and the daughter’s young daughter, none of whom speak any English, and I have been given no instruction or any kind of schedule or plan. I was pretty far out of my comfort zone and was feeling quite awkward as I wandered out into the living room to attempt communication with the family. The young woman was immediately quite friendly and offered me many smiles as she ran around the house preparing some sort of food dish. I tried to be as polite as possible and tried to express my thanks for hosting me. I had a guide-book with me with some elementary phrases and words that I’d been studying during the 5 flights it took me to get to the remote village in which I was struggling just to communicate to this family. I tried out a few phrases but felt very silly as I was not sure of the pronunciation of the words because I had never heard them spoken.
I had found this experience exhilarating. While I came to Indonesia to assist scientists in ecological research, I found that I was also going to be completely immersed in the local culture. I made it a point to learn as much of the local language as possible (unlike most other volunteers unfortunately), and by the end of that day, I was already feeling comfortable in my host home and was speaking with the mother in Bahasa Indonesia here and there. I found the language very simple and very easy to pick up. By the end of my stay I was able to speak in complete sentences and communicate useful information and concepts with the locals. I was very proud of that and had thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of learning such a foreign language. A young man named Fifin who had been born and raised in Labundo had recently graduated from a university in Bau Bau with a degree in English. He was the most helpful in teaching me Bahasa Indonesia because he was the best English speaker in the village.
I met Fifin during jungle training, a 3 day trek through the rainforest in which a couple other volunteers and I essentially learned how to survive in the jungle. We learned what animals and plants were harmful and helpful, how to build traps, how to set up traps, and more or less how to effectively trek through the rainforest. Fifin was our guide.
Overall, jungle training was very interesting and enjoyable. It was nice to finally get out into the forest and out of the village. The other volunteers and I both felt sort of wimpy in the presence of Fifin and three other Indonesian forest guides who met us at the camp though. The guides were locals of neighboring villages who were paid by Opwall to lead volunteers through the forest because they knew it like the backs of their hands. Here we were, Westerners with high-tech hiking boots, bug-repellent, antimalarial medication, huge sacks of water to drink, and hammocks with mosquito nets, being led through the forest by Indonesians, some of whom were actually barefoot, who weren’t eating or drinking the entire day to observe Ramadan (which had just started when I arrived), and who slept outside on a hard bamboo platform with no sort of mosquito net at all. Furthermore, they built a fire and made all of our food and boiled water all for us, yet they didn’t have a single spoonful of rice or sip of water because they were fasting. All the while they were happy-go-lucky and extremely nice. I was a bit taken back by this and really appreciated their help.
Now that I was officially jungle trained, I was ready to join the research assistant pool back in Labundo. After meeting many of the scientists and undergraduate dissertation students, I decided that I wanted to help collect data on the macaques. The Buton macaque is a threatened monkey endemic to Buton island. They need protection largely in part because they like to raid crops from farms in the forest and heavily damage the farms in the process. Farmers have been setting traps and killing them off in order to protect their crops.
On Sunday 7/14 I went out at 6am to find macaques with Jane, the Opwall research scientist, and Lindsay, an undergraduate from England working on her dissertation. We scoured the Kakanawi forest for a quite large troop of macaques, about 30 of them, who Jane, and many before her, had been studying for the past 15 years in order to compile a long-term, detailed data set. We began our search near the troop’s home tree, led by Tamarin and Adi, two Indonesian guides from a neighboring village who knew the forest so well that they literally had names for many of the trees which I found pretty impressive. Tamarin and Adi had split up and searched separately to cover more ground. After about an hour Adi called out to us from a distance, maybe a kilometer or two, and we followed his voice until we encountered him standing alone, peering up through the leaves below the canopy at the troop of macaques. The macaques were so cool! I could sense their intelligence in their movements and mannerisms. The males were quite large, about the size of an average dog, and had pink, heart-shaped bums while the females were slightly smaller and had far brighter, larger, red bums. The bum was the key to identification. There were also a few infants with bald heads.
For 10 hours each day, Jane and Lindsay followed the troop of macaques around the forest and every 10 minutes they would do a “scan” in which they systematically observed and recorded the behavior of every visible monkey, with the help of the Indonesian guides. I stuck with them for a couple days and then decided that I wanted to switch to a different project in order experience and learn more. The herpetofauna team intrigued me after the lead herpetologist, Kat, presented the project in one of the nightly lectures given in the Opwall “restaurant” (wooden building where we kept the water and where we all ate). I talked to Kat and joined the herp team.
Before I started research with the herp team, I took advantage of the opportunity to climb a 120-foot tree into the forest canopy with two guys, Waldo and James, who worked with a British-based company called Canopy Access Ltd.
(to be continued…)