Monday, May 5, 2008

It's All Over But The Krayan


The jungle pulsates to the sound of millions of five-inch long cicadas, satiny black, with fire orange wing stripes. The air is moist and pleasantly fresh, 16,000 square kilometers of breathing trees, some of the newest oxygen on the planet. Everything is green - the ground, the sky, the canopy, so much biomass. Once your ears are attuned to the frequency of the jungle, the intervening silence is unbelievable. We are standing maybe 50 kilometers from the Malaysian-Indonesian border, a place known as the “heart” of Borneo.

Maybe 200 kilometers as the MAF prop plane flies from Tarakan, it might as well be 2000 kilometers. We landed on a grass football field carved out of “virgin” rainforest after about an hour flight over a carpet of trees, undulating like oversized broccoli. The silence was deafening. Welcome to Long Layu, administrative headquarters of the Krayan. Since the mid 70’s, Krayan Dayaks have moved villages out of the jungle and built around these missionary airstrips, their only viable connection to the outside world. Long Layu is home to maybe one thousand Dayak, living in stilt houses around their rice fields, the Sunghai Kuyur and the airstrip. The people are self-sufficient, they have to be. They grow excellent organic rice in reds, blacks and whites. They fish and hunt from the surrounding jungles, and they grow fruits and vegetables like cassava and banana. The life is simple and very much in tune with the surrounding nature. The villages function as a unit, and we get a glimpse into how humans can live together in harmony.

As I sit on the front porch of my home stay, I marvel at the passage of time here. Schedules are set on the activities of the day and with the light of the sun. There is mealtime and work time. There is rainy season and dry season. There are fruit and honey seasons. You commute on the river or through walking to the jungle or fields. Days and weeks flow by. No one needs a timepiece. It’s the kind of tranquility that seeps into your soul.

The cicadas are interrupted occasionally by the hum of the plane. Everyone can hear it coming from minutes away, and most of the village turns out to watch the bouncy landing. Boxes of sugar and coffee, noodles and rice are offloaded, and other goods and people get on. The plane is out of sight and sound in ten minutes more, and once again the aura of the jungle settles over the village. You can hear your heartbeat, and then the insects rev up again, and you try to adjust your own frequency.

Beyond the borders of the village lie acres of jungle, laced with hunting and commuter trails to neighboring villages. We hiked south from Long Layu, in a loop to Long Rungan, and Binawang, staying in the villages overnight. The locals were great hosts, and with the help of our guide Phillip from Long Layu, we entertained conversations on world politics, philosophy, and just the common plight of humans in general. The cool evenings would begin with a bowl of rice and jungle fern, or palm heart, and maybe some cassava leaves. Then we would drink coffee and eat cassava or rice krupuk and get deep into conversation. Before bed, I would gaze at the canopy of stars, so brilliant in this light free zone of the world.

The most lush and energetic jungle surrounded the Batu Sichen, Honey Rock. This is a forty-meter high limestone outcrop, where the locals gather honey in season. The beauty and energy of this place cannot be put into words, but if you want to know if the Earth is alive, you can know it here.

We went in search of the last remaining vast tracts of rainforest in Indonesia and found it alive and pulsating in the hinterlands of the Krayan Hulu. If you want to see virgin rainforest with massive trees, go here. If you want to meet people untainted by societies present pollution, go here. If you want to see hornbills as you drift down a jungle river, go here. If you want time to stop, go here. If you want a glimpse into the meaning of life, go here.