I have been traveling for 3 months now and have volunteered with a few wonderful organizations and received my yoga teacher training near the holy city, Rishikesh, India. My most recent journey was to a small Dayak village in Central Kalimantan, Borneo. The village of Tongka was on my list of places to visit because for over a decade I’ve been very curious about Borneo and the effects of the palm oil industry and illegal logging on orangutan habitat losses. Luckily for me, my boss at Lush cosmetics put me in contact with Robert Hii, one of the most knowledgeable people on all things Palm oil and Borneo. I ended up in this beautiful village because unlike several small Dayak villages that have unfortunately allowed the Palm oil industry to bring down their forest in exchange for a source of income, they stood up to the industry. Instead, with the help of Leny, a wonderful Dayak lady with the mission of protecting Indonesian Borneo’s forests, they were able to have several hectares of their forest protected so that the ancient forest would stay intact.
My trip to this village took 2 days and a total of 9 hours. We stopped at Kondui about an hour away from the village the first day as it was beginning to get dark and the last hour to get to the village is mostly very small unpaved roads and bridges that are pretty flimsy.
The village has a few hundred people in it and they sustain their livelihood mostly through harvesting rice and farming. There are no jobs in the community and they all support one another almost like a cooperative. My purpose for the trip was to experience the majestic forest they are trying to continue to protect and see what a day in the life of a Dayak community was like so that I could better understand the challenges they face as well as look for ways to bring them income so that they continue to say no to Palm companies and properly protect it from illegal logging. Luckily for me, one of my previous LUSH employees, Andres, was also able to join me on this journey and help me overcome many firsts.
As soon as we arrived, there was a welcoming ceremony that took me by surprise because of how emotional it made me. The purpose of having the ceremony was to have their visitors leave behind any negativity we might be carrying with us and also make us feel welcome. There was a structure that had just been built from large palm tree leaves and there were several snacks and juices hanging from it. The Chief of the village, chief of culture, and neighboring village chiefs each spoke and although I couldn’t understand much, I kept hearing “terima kasih,” thank you in Indonesian and Leny kept translating that they are grateful and hope we can tell the world about Tongka.
Andres and I were the first westerners there in over 20 years and they seemed so grateful to have us there. Their thank you didn’t seem like empty words, it seemed like a craving to be able to tell their story. I felt captivated by them and the way they looked eagerly at us to help them explain to the world what is happening in their backyard.
We ended up having two welcoming ceremonies the first day and both were filled with dance and music. The first one, Andres and I did just as much dancing as everyone else. We had a great time laughing at ourselves and letting them laugh and marvel at our goofy moves, but the second was a Balinese performance. In this ceremony, the men danced around large palm leaves with the traditional attire and very heavy metal bracelets that made musical sounds by moving their hands in sync with their song. I felt so honored to be able to experience such a beautiful and intense dance. The only thing that eventually ended up slightly distracting my often scattered thoughts was the constant smoking of cigarettes. At one point there was a cloud of smoke throughout the entire room and there was no fresh air. I started to look around at all of the children in the room and began to wonder about the health statistics of the village and whether or not anyone else was feeling the discomfort from the smoke as I was. It seemed like there was maybe one woman in a corner covering her and her daughter’s face, but other than that, it was as if there was no smoke in the room to everyone else.
Although the music and dance ceremonies from the adults made me feel honored to witness such a unique and beautiful tradition, the children wrapped us in their arms and clung to us, dragging us around to try their adventurous ways by the river and showed us the beauty of finding enjoyment in nature. Also, Andres generally not being very fond of kids, was smitten by them and seemed to be having more fun than they were. It was so wonderful to see so many laughing faces with so much energy jumping in the river, swimming up stream, doing back flips into the water, and going down the mudslide with Andres. The kids filled me up with so much happiness because it’s such a vast difference from what I see back home where kids are generally always carrying around an iPad, glued to a tv, or with some other source of technology that is distracting them from being a kid and enjoying the outdoors. Not that I don’t see the merit in distracting them with technology at times, but seeing these kids be so entertained with their beautiful surroundings and enjoying life was a wonderful thing to experience.
Later that night, not thinking the day could get any better, Leny brought to my attention the intensely magnificent night sky. I had seen pictures of skies with giant clusters of stars but never thought I’d experience it first hand. It was electric and it felt as though I could see every star and could even see some swirls of stars that looked like a different Galaxy. I had an overwhelming sense of gratitude at that moment for this untouched village and those who helped me visit it.
The only thing I was not prepared for was the heat. Although I had been in Thailand and India for the past 3 months experiencing temperatures in the 30’s, the humidity made it feel slightly more uncomfortable as it meant having a constant layer of sweat on my body. I knew there would be no air conditioning but I had not anticipated that there would be no fans anywhere in the village. Even with windows open, there seemed to be no ventilation which made falling asleep at night a challenge.
The following day I got to teach the kids a bit of yoga and loved how eager they were to learn. It seems that the kids are just starving for new ways to enjoy their days and even though it was 6am, they were all bright eyed and bushy tailed, giving full undivided attention. Even when an hour later I tried to end the class, they continued to try the different postures they had just learned.
While we waited to begin our journey to the forest, I had the opportunity to speak to the chief about the village and his hopes for it. At one point I asked him what he hoped to gain from the proposed ecotourism that was in the talks of happening in the village and his response was that he wanted to get more solar powered generators in order to charge phones and also get a large community TV, along with medicine for joint pain. My heart broke a little bit. What I loved so much about this village was the absence of western ways. I loved that they enjoyed being outside because they didn’t have televisions and there was no internet signal in the town for them to obsessively check Facebook and Instagram the way I do. I did however feel excited again when on his priority list of things to get for the village, he asked for soccer balls and volley balls. My faith was restored again and I was happy to see that he also wanted to preserve their outdoorsy ways.
I also probed a bit and asked if there were any medical issues related to smoking and was shut down very quickly. I was told there were not very many people complaining about chest pain or excessive coughing. This was apparently a conversation that I had to drop. After digging a little bit deeper and asking more questions, he agreed that he would like fans, mosquito nets, and to have English teachers come to the village. This conversation had my mind running wild the following few days trying to think of ways to get him what was in the wish list.
In the late afternoon our expedition out to the forest began. It would be a total of 7 of us camping out in the forest and we only had two dirt bikes to take us, so Leny, her boyfriend, and one of my favorite kids from the village that I nicknamed Yogi Bear got a head start on foot. Two of the guys from the village took Andres and I on the bikes.
What ensued after we hopped on the bikes was the most adventurous few hours of my life – no, this is not an exaggeration. Without any instruction on how to be a passenger and with no helmet, we went on our wild way into the forest. There were muddy patches of puddles and steep inclines, where our incredibly physically fit guides couldn’t handle us being on the back of the bike and we would just hop off and walk. I say they couldn’t handle it, but more than likely, I didn’t know how to be a passenger and help him get up the inclines or muddy patches, so I would generally ask him if I could walk those bits. In fact there were several times I asked if I should walk and he would just reply, “no, it’s okay,” but my fearful self would practically jump off and say that I’d just walk instead – partially because I felt bad seeing him push us through the muddy parts and partially because I was scared we’d fall backwards if I stayed on.
As scary as the ride was, I was completely trusting of my guide, Ricko. I knew he’d done this trek several times before and the way he maneuvered the bike and controlled the steering even when we came across unexpected rocks covered under the tall grass on our path, he made it seem like the most fun roller coaster ride I had ever been on. Yes, I was fearful of how fast we would go downhill at times, but still I was completely trusting of his control over the bike. Ricko was a total badass and it was funny to see my black pants completely covered in prickly grass and see that he was just in flip flops and shorts. It blew my mind, but he didnt even seem phased by wearing shorts. Getting him proper hiking boots however would be put on my list of things I’d want to get for the village.
The ride was not only one of the biggest adrenaline rushes of my life, but it was also beautiful. The further we went the bigger the trees got and the more covered we were by their massive height. At times we could barely see the sky because of the tree canopy. It felt so refreshing to be immersed in so much greenery.
Midway, the guys stopped and went back to get the rest of the group and Andres and I attempted to be adventurous and walked forward a bit to explore the forest. It was so beautiful to look up and see the massive trunks go so high up and then look down a hill and see so many bundles of trees. We quickly became less adventurous, however, when I spotted a fuzzy large black and white spider that was about the size of my hand on our not so clear trail. We decided to turn around and enjoy the small safe patch where they dropped us off. Once we got to our spot where we’d be camping I felt similar to how I felt when I completed my half marathon. We made it and I was on a huge high with an overwhelming sense of appreciation for our beautiful earth and that Ricko kept me alive in one piece.
I will forever feel so bonded to the six others that camped with me because it was my first time sleeping outdoors and also the little platform that 5 of us shared was a nice snug fit. Unfortunately, sleep did not come easy that night. At first, it was difficult to fall asleep because of how hot I was and how damp everything felt. The humidity is something I’m used to in Miami, but the air here felt wet. Also, I woke up in the middle of the night cold because I had gone to bed on top of the sleeping bag thinking it was too hot to get in it. When I looked over, Yogi Bear must’ve gotten cold as well. I saw him hop off of our platform and begin to make a fire to keep us all warm. He’s ten years old. I barely knew how to do anything for myself when I was ten. My heart melted. Although I could not sleep well, I had the beautiful sound of the forest to help calm my mind.
The following day, Leny and the guys took us deeper into the forest to see some of the older trees. The walk was a little under an hour and we got to see several large trees up close and feel their energy and life. The larger trees were ironwood that grow about half an inch each year, so looking up at them you could feel they were rich with history and had been growing for several hundred years. It blew me away that anyone would want to bring any of this down. Once we got to the old binuang tree, it was just breathtaking. You had to pause and admire with amazement. We stayed here a bit and just appreciated it’s beauty. Not only was it’s width massive, but when I looked up, it was hard to see where it ended. It was stunning.
It’s interesting how when I first thought of coming to Borneo, it was all about protecting the Orangutans. Being deep in the forest and seeing some of its wonders and the beautiful village of Tongka, made me realize it’s so much more than just Orangutans. I really hope the people of Tongka are able to continue to protect this marvelous forest. This area is not often travelled, but it would be great if more people could experience it and see why it’s so worth protecting. Not just for our planet’s protection and because it helps clean our air, but because it is rich with history and beauty.
This journey ended up being so much more than I could have imagined. I will be forever grateful for the hospitality the chief and his wife gave me. He was so passionate and she was lovely and maternal, constantly checking to see if I was okay. I will also never forget the children that showed us how to have fun and be kids again. I will value the rattan bracelet that was made on my wrist and the matching ring made in the moment by a couple in the village. I have unbelievable gratitude for the Chief of Culture and Leny for being so protective of the beautiful forest. It is not easy standing up to those with infinite resources and quick fix solutions that can be tempting to villagers. I will always have a giggle and appreciate the encouragement and security Andres offered me on this trip. Whether it was going number 2 in the forest, drinking water from the cave, eating with our hands, or accepting the intense heat in the village, I’m so glad he was there to help me overcome so many fears. I’m grateful for the river in the village and the fun it brought into my life and loved bathing in it as there were no showers in the house. It was the best bathing experience since my LUSH baths back home. I will never forget the afternoon of the guys in the village serenading us and each other.
I hope to one day be reunited with Tongka village and see them receive each of the things on their wish list. I love them all so much for opening themselves up to us and creating some of my most memorable experiences I have had and will ever have…so much love.