Tuesday, 19 July 2011

When Borneo beckoned....

The forest welcomes us into its folds; the smell of the wet earth carried by the cool breeze whipping my face. And trees shrouded in mist. And tantalisingly unknown calls & sounds from those very trees. And then the veil lifts oh-so-briefly & my jaw drops. The rough landing of our flight & the churning knot in the stomach are forgotten. Everything is worth this. The sun gleams through this grey evening sky to illuminate a beautiful tree here & another there; each towering over the next. And then, the veil drops once more. And I step out to watch the drama unfold, raindrops gently pelting my face; listening to the pitter-patter of the rain, that I love so much. Everything says, loud & clear: “Welcome to the rainforest, my child!”

The next week is spent in a trance. The forest allows us glimpses into its life; sometimes surprising us by allowing more than a glimpse. It envelops us with its sounds, smells & feel. It awes us with its splendour, humbles us & shows us why it deserves admiration. And love. And respect. Yet, it holds some things back; as if to say “You must come back for more; I can’t reveal everything at once”. It is a lesson in patience. I’ve made my peace with it. 


The forest that shelters all; from barely visible fungi to gigantic trees; from tiny insects to large primates.
The forest where you awaken each morning to the call of the Hornbill & sleep each night to the call of the Cicada.
The forest slowly emerging from the mist each morning; every bit as theatrical as it sounds.
The forest where light filters through dense layers of trees, forming spotlights along dark paths.
The forest with its hot, humid scent; where sweat pours down in rivulets & clothes literally cling to you like second skin.
The forest where you can jump into surprise pools of cold water to refresh you on a muggy day, even as you try to avoid being tickled by nibbling fish intent on giving you a pedicure.
The forest, freshly bathed each day; water & morning dew on the green, sparkling like diamonds.

The water & dew also adorn spiders’ webs on the floor & in the air; woven like exquisite lace.
The water turns the parched brown trunks of wood into a home for more ferns & moss. And, for pretty epiphytes, adding so much beauty to the host tree.
From the same dampness rise fungi, in un-imaginable shapes, sizes & colours; some so delicate, it has to be magic.
Water-seeking roots from trees spread into the earth & grip it strongly; not wanting to let go of the place that is rightfully its.
Roots form beautiful patterns as they merge with the ground; the ground where water & mud form slush and Leeches crawl, mouths up in the air, alertly scanning for some blood.

Trees so tall that you can’t see its’ other end.
Trees so majestic that you feel ant-like. And humbled.
Trees with their beautiful, back-lit, ethereal morning glow.
Trees with vines, ferns & leaves wrapping around their trunks; like in a tight embrace.
Trees so strong, they can support the weight of Orangutans as they swing from branch to branch. And bridges suspended between them; for you & me to walk on & enjoy the forest.
Trees with enough girth to allow the beautiful Hornbills to nest comfortably.
Trees with leaves so large, they can hide a child.
Trees shedding leaves that come spiralling down from the sky like helicopter blades.

Canopies so incredibly dense, with swaying bridges across them. 
Canopies so distinctively shaped, in so many hues of green.
Canopies that look pretty even after sunset, as silhouettes.
Canopies housing animals, birds & un-explored unknowns.

Shy Orangutans peeking at you from the canopy, high above. And covering its face with its palm, as if photo-shy!
Hungry Macaques eating juicy fruit; their faces smeared with the pulp, like gleeful children.
Families of Proboscis monkeys occupying a tree: mothers grooming the young ones, some playing with each other & the very delightful pot-bellied males, looking strangely benevolent.
Pig-tailed macaques crossing bridges & jumping across rivers; but, not before thoroughly scouting it for lurking crocodiles.
Kingfishers playing catch-me-if-you-can & leading you on a chase; flying off to the next branch each time you come close.
Hornbills diving down from trees comically & just as you laugh at the clumsiness of it all, they do a volte-face with a graceful spread of the wings.
Darters with only their necks sticking out of the water; dunking in & surfacing with fish before tossing it about & gulping it.
The large butterfly, the ‘Tree nymph,’ floating slowly past; like a lace handkerchief being carried by the wind. 


The Sea eagle with its amazing display of eyesight & skill, stunning us with a dive from over 50 meters above in the sky; emerging victorious with a fish. All we could do was gape.
The curious Leopard cat, disliking the flashlight; yet, wanting to know who we are. So, it emerges from the bushes with its eyes closed.
Noisy Hornbills, arriving to roost in the evenings; like a bunch of excited school-kids, cackling away. The Helmeted hornbill with its unique call; capped by an eerily human laugh at the end. And the Rhinoceros hornbill whose casque is so multi-coloured & shining that it looks plastic.
The nocturnal Tarsier, a rare find that had us running into the forest one night without our leech socks. We ran out faster, after being bitten by Fire ants, angry with us for disturbing them. It taught me never to under-estimate a ‘tiny’ creature.
The omnipresent Leeches, cold & clammy to touch; hiding in every fold in your feet & footwear. Sometimes, even on your arms or clothes.
The Orangutan that deigned to allow us a close & long encounter and sent us in raptures before crossing the road in front of us; nonchalantly walking past the expensive camera gear lying there.

And then, to shake us out of the reverie: the Oil palm & the Palm oil. And the logging. The same qualities that make these trees beautiful are also its bane. Log these strong trees. Sell the copious amounts of timber. Make tons of money. Plant Oil palm trees in their stead. Sell the oil. Make more money. It’s a simple modus-operandi.

Resolving the issue, however, is not as simple. Do you support the environment at the cost of ‘development’ or vice-versa? Can ‘development’ & the eco-system co-exist; maybe even mutually benefit? Or is it just very convenient to not worry about the forest? Because it is nameless. Faceless. Voiceless. Powerless.

In the bargain, you lose everything that we saw and so much more that we didn’t see. And, if it continues; these forests will be something that none of us will ever see again. And that pains me. More than me not seeing it again, it pains me that all these bugs, bees, birds & animals have nowhere else to go. And it pains me because I may be guilty of contributing to the sorry state of affairs; as may be you. How, you ask?

Well, India is one of the biggest importers of Palm oil from Malaysia & Indonesia (over 60%, I’ve heard). And our fondness for wood is well-known. Can we do something about it? This is something I’d like to find out, for sure. Can the locals there do something about it? I read this quote that made me ponder “It’s hard for hungry people to appreciate nature”. Read this for a brief idea of what’s plaguing Borneo: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/11/borneo/white-text/1

I wish I had had the guts to climb the impossibly high, vertigo-inducing climate tower.
I wish I could have seen the Argus pheasant. And the Pygmy elephant. And the Pitcher plants.
I wish I hadn’t run because of the Fire ants & admired the Tarsier for longer.
I wish we could have climbed the tree & buried ourselves in the canopy.
I wish I could go to Borneo again.
I wish Borneo could be itself again.
I wish wishes were horses…..

I travelled to Borneo: as part of an expedition led by Kalyan Varma

My Borneo photo-essay, published in Outlook Traveller:

An un-edited version of the Outlook Traveller photo-essay:

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