Sunday, May 31, 2009

Deep into Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo)


Dealing with the daily pressure of running a business, managing time, desperately trying to understand and best guide teenagers, keeping up with an ever growing garden...can be daunting.

When all else fails, I go back to my most precious moments in life when my kids were still sane young men who actually listened to their parents, when the state of the economy was not the only talked about subject.

This blog is not only dedicated to my work as a designer but also to who I am and what inspires me in life. Since my earliest childhood, I found solace, inspiration and serenity in nature. Today, I am going back to a moment in the Fall a few years ago when I had just read an article on Dr. Birute Galdikas and her life-long crusade to the save the last orangutans of Kalimantan and her battle against the human forces that are destroying one of the most beautiful rain forests on Earth. Dr. Galdikas runs the Orangutan Foundation International (OFI) based in Los Angeles.* I had read books, a travelogue by Paul Theroux and anthropological essays about the Dayak (the infamous Bornean headhunters) and was fascinated by these people. * For more on OFI, see the bottom of this post

On a whim of sorts, I announced to my family that we will be spending Christmas in the heart of the Kalimantan rain forest in a Dayak Village and my son's annual science project would be a study of Orangutan behavior.

I was now left with the task of organizing the logistics of the trip. Via the internet, I found a then small outfit (Adventure Indonesia) that could rent us a local boat with a guide and a cook in Pangkalan Bun (an outpost town at the edge of the world effectively run by the logging company and governed through fear). Advindo got in touch with a local teacher named Edy to serve as our guide in Kalimantan. Edy had lived several years among the Dayak with an adoptive Dayak mother.

Pangkalan Bun river front

Beautiful local children sending us off on our adventure

Off we go...

We boarded our boat, where the top deck was our living, dining and sleeping suite. Then we entered the most enchanting river leading to the deep rainforest. Our arrival to the tiny dock at the entrance of the Tanjun Puting National Park was announced by birds and Gibbons and Proboscis monkeys. Dr Galdikas' wonderful foundation has set up camp in this part of the Kalimantan rain forest.

The spectacular vistas of the Tanjun Puting Rainforest

Iron Wood Tree

Hadrian, trying out a vine...

We met our first orangutan and I was immediately enthralled. For days, we hiked through this magical forest, drenched by the stunning humidity and incredible heat, observing and following these remarkable "People of the Forest" which is what Orangutan means in the Indonesian language.

My son befriended Seeswee, a wonderful female orangutan and spent time just watching her. She robbed him blind of his food, his jacket, and his water bottles but a bond was forming. By the end of our stay, Hadrian made a necklace with entwined vine and demonstrated how he would place it around his neck and gently offered it to her. Seeswee took the necklace observed it, toyed with it and finally placed it around her neck... Hadrian, 12 at the time, had completed his first primate behavioral research.

Female with infant (Orangutans stay with their mothers until about age 7)

Young male drinking milk in the preserve

Seeswee, contemplating

Seeswee and my son Hadrian

Winn, the regional Alpha male who once "hugged" Julia Roberts

Gibbons feeding in the OFI camp

The deck of our houseboat

Our bedroom: A mattress shrouded with mosquito netting

Rainforest pathway in Tanjung Puting National Park

Young volunteer caring for an orphaned Orangutan at the
OFI Rehabilitation Center and Clinic near Pangkalan Bun

An orphaned infant Orangutan. If you look closely at his eyes
you will see the reflections of my husband and sons in them.
To me its quite an eery visual metaphor

We left the world of the majestic Orangutans in hope to spend Christmas in a Dayak village. It would be our own private Christmas. we embarked on the most dangerous boating ride in my life, my teeth were clenched during the brutal six hour speed boat ride up-river into Central Kalimantan. The tiny speed boats designed for 4 people were driven by kamikaze who throttled at full speed in fierce rain and ZERO visibility with a 12 inch high windshield all while dodging gigantic logs floating down river to be collected by the logging companies. I prayed and prayed and finally we miraculously stopped at a tiny barely floating dock that also served (as we later learned) for the village outhouse. Rising up a steep river bank there was a very impressive tall Iron Wood trunk ladder with hatchet-hewn notched cut-out for steps to reach the land about twenty five feet above.

A group of children immediately surrounded us and many conversations took place between our guide who understood the local Dayak dialect and the villagers. Welcome to the Dayak's world.

A family invited us to stay in their long house and many smiles were exchanged. We were also invited to the stop by for a visit with the village Chief as honored guests. Since the village was many hours away from any major town, very few non Dayak ever visit, and the village had not had any western visitors in the last 7 years.

We were offered a rice based "brandy" from a ceremonial glass container in which a variety of animal fetuses (including wild pig, deer and unhatched birds and alligator) floated to "season" the concoction.

Following this, we were then taken to the village's holy sites: First to the sepulcher of the village chief's deceased wife who's coffin the Chief slept upon each night until her jar burial would occur a year later, and then on to the totem posts under which were buried the severed heads of the villager's enemies. We had thought the custom long since ended since its outlawing by the Indonesian government. Little did we know....

Local Dayak children

The Long House which would serve
as our quarters during our stay with the Dayak

Children everywhere are curious. We had stocked up on gifts
and treats at Surabaya airport enroute to Kalimantan

Our son Alex studying the elevated storage long sheds

The elevated jar tomb of a former Dayak village Chief

My husband dancing the Hornbill Dance which we later learned from Edy was part
of our honorary adoption ceremony into the Dayak village clan.

My son Alexander dancing the Hornbill. The Dayak serve a mildly
hallucinogenic rice wine concoction as part of the ceremony.
Alex was a favorite of many of the Dayak girls his age.
Edy told him to behave as the Dayak regularly practice "Blowpipe" weddings.

Our sleeping quarters

In March 2008 I finally met the inspirational Dr. Galdikas in Los Angeles while I was there visiting colleges with Hadrian. I had joined OFI upon our return from Indonesia in January 2005. Since then we have done what we can to help this wonderful organization through contributions and sponsoring its First Annual Run for Survival. The Second Annual Run for Survival will be on October 11, 2009 at Lake Balboa Park in Encino, CA.

Also, OFI now offers a three week work-study program in Kalimantan. If you have the inclination, time and resources to participate, I urge you to do it. I really do believe that you would find it one of the most personally fulfilling experiences of your life. As soon as we can make the time, my husband and I will be heading back to Kalimantan to participate in this program and to visit this magical corner of the world that we have come to truly love.


  1. That trip is so interesting. I really enjoyed reading this post and truly want to see more pictures and hear more about it.

  2. Awesome awesome post!!!
    Dr. Galdikas is truly an inspirational person! Especially nowadays, with both the economy and environment at its downfall, its really great to know that there are still people out there who are really trying to make a difference. Kudos to you and your family as well!
    I myself have began to think of the good old days when everything seemed better. Tough times calls these memories back huh?
    P.S.- Seeswee!!! Too cute!

  3. Hi Paul: Thanks so much for your comment. I know that you are well familiar with Indonesia, though I can't remember whether you ever told me that you've been to Kalimantan. Love to all, Francine

  4. this is too cool.
    great trip for you and your family.
    x thanks for stopping by.

  5. If you really want to study orangutan behavior, go visit Craig's relatives.

  6. This is an inspiring post and what an experience for you and your family. xv

  7. how inspiring. simply amazing shots...

  8. Awesome trip!I enjoyed reading this post,what an experience for you and your family..very interesting and inspiring post indeed. Photographs as well is amazing.thanks for taking us with you. happy new year!


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