By Nancy Penrose
The boatman switched off the motor and we floated in the silence of the swamp. In the light of near sunset, I lifted my binoculars and traveled the leaves of trees until I latched onto gold-red fur that resolved into the body of a proboscis monkey. Nasalis larvatus. A balloon belly. A nose that hung like a gourd of flesh. A male.
We were in the Kaget Island Nature Reserve, where the Barito River meets the Java Sea in South Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia. The monkey was two-and-a-half feet tall. He sat hugging the scaly trunk of a mangrove tree. His tail—light gray and as long as his body—hung down as if filled with sand. Small red-brown eyes above his bulbous nose stared back at me. Then he vanished from view. He plummeted into the water, sank into the splash, rose and then swam to an island of dark green, a cluster of nipa palms. A female—smaller and with a more delicate nose like a flattened tube of flesh—scrambled out along a branch. Her head jerked to track the path of her eyes. For a better look at him? At us? She sprang to a nearby tree. She settled and was still. On a branch above her another female perched behind a male and groomed his fur with her black-tipped fingers.
At that time–it was 1992–I lived west of Borneo, on the island of Singapore, as did two of my fellow travelers—Michael and Julie—owners of an antique map and bookshop. With us was Annie, Michael’s daughter, come from the UK for the adventure.
Michael was a Brit, a tall man in his 60s, who had come to Southeast Asia when he was in his twenties to work in the timber industry. And he had never left. He hated cold and rainy England. I always think of him smelling of aftershave and wearing a short-sleeved, hemmed batik shirt, the business casual attire of the region. He had precisely combed and crisply parted hair dyed copper with henna. His caterpillar eyebrows wiggled like punctuation to his jokes and stories.
Julie was the business mind to Michael’s open-armed generosity and constant visions of future projects. Singaporean Chinese, petite and chic, wearing high heels and silk pants in the shop, she was the pragmatist in their partnership of many years. Annie had a wild frizz of blond hair and was always happy to be back in Southeast Asia where she had grown up until she was sent off to boarding school in England at thirteen.
That was then. I could not know of the losses I would see when I look back now after so many years. Virginia Woolf, in notes for her memoirs, wrote: “It would be interesting to make two people, I now, I then, come out in contrast. And further, this past is much affected by the present moment.” This is how I see myself now. I am two people, separated by years, memories changed by what I know. This is not so unusual.
Borneo is the third largest island on earth. It sits astride the equator and is divided among Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei. For centuries its name has evoked the exotic with tales of Dayak headhunters, poison blowpipes, penis pins, British rajahs, Bugis pirates patrolling the coast, classical rainforests, Islamic sultanates. And Dutch colonialists. The Dutch arrived in South Borneo in the late 16th century seeking pepper. They confirmed their suzerainty over the next decades and did not leave until World War II.
The four of us had set out from Singapore in search of the South Borneo of the 1830s described by a European explorer named Salomon Müller who had been sent from Holland to discover and define the riches of the Dutch East Indies empire. The report of his explorations was published in Leiden as a lusciously illustrated three-volume set that Michael and Julie owned: Verhandelingen over de Natuurlijke Geschiedenis der Nederlandsche overzeesche bezittingen. Essays on the Natural History of the Dutch Overseas Possessions. The people, zoology, and botany of 19th -century Indonesia captured in colored ink: the orange fur of an orangutan; the green-lobe leaves of a bauhinia tree circled by sketches of seeds and flowers; the blue tattoos on the bare chest of a Dayak man with a spear. Michael and Julie owned a set of Müller’s volumes. I was working on text to accompany the illustrations for the book that Michael and Julie planned to publish. We decided to see for ourselves what Müller had seen. It was a delightful excuse for a journey with friends.
Our plan was to use the town of Banjarmasin as our base to explore South Borneo. As the plane from Jakarta tilted to the runway, I looked down and saw a world where land and water were equal, where the edges of forest and swamp, rice field and river, boat and auto, canal and asphalt were blurred, where rivers were the backyards of houses on stilts, where waterways laced town to village to mosque.
Our first task was to find a guide who could help us retrace Müller’s treks into the nearby rainforest. The clerk at our hotel in Banjarmasin steered us to Loksado Tours. Michael led our troop of travelers the few blocks to the agency office and we entered the open door. The walls were festooned with machetes, baskets, blowpipes, photos of Dayaks in feathered headdresses. A boy in a sarong squatted by the back door that looked out onto the Martapura River. He stood up timidly as we entered. Michael spoke in long-unused Bahasa. The boy gestured, palm down. Wait. Then he left. Had he understood?
Within moments a Land Rover pulled up outside and the boy hopped down from the passenger side. The driver, an Indonesian man in pressed khakis, got out and greeted us, lit cigarette pinched between thumb and forefinger. “Good afternoon. I am Fuad. I am the director of Loksado Tours. How may I help you?” Michael described our quest. Fuad replied: “Three days upriver by boat to reach the rainforest. The trees are out there now.” He waved his cigarette at stacks of sawn timber piled on the dock of a lumber mill across the river. A tugboat chugged by, pushing a mountain of logs on a barge. He told us there was no real rainforest left nearby. With that our plans vanished. We did not have enough time to make the trip upriver.
Another man walked in. Skin of milk chocolate. Short-cropped hair like a helmet of tight black curls. Olive-green bush pants of many pockets. An aura of calm. Fuad introduced him as Danny and said he was available to be our guide. Danny greeted each of us with a gentle handshake. Then he spread out a brochure and sketched a plan: a day’s drive upcountry to a lodge near the village of Muara Hatib. The next day, a float down the Amandit River on bamboo rafts. He would show us the diamond mines at Cempaka and a village where timber was still sawn by hand for boats. The floating market in Banjarmasin. And Kaget Island where we would see proboscis monkeys. Michael turned to us, eyebrows raised in a question. We four scanned each other’s eyes and without words we knew the answer: Yes.
Antiques. That was the nickname for Michael and Julie’s shop, Antiques of the Orient. On the second floor of Tanglin Shopping Centre in Singapore. The walls were papered with rectangles of glass and frame that held images of Asia—hand-colored maps, botanical prints, illustrations of temples—many with a “GUARANTEED OVER 100 YEARS OLD” sticker on the back. The metal-gray bulk of map cases and filing cabinets anchored the floor. A table near the cash register was where wine and snacks were set out for exhibition openings or book launches that were always followed by an invitation to dinner two floors up at Tambuah Mas, the place Michael called the best Indonesian restaurant in Asia. There we feasted on ayam goreng, fried chicken with a blissful coating of lemongrass, ginger, and cinnamon. We drank Tiger beer and finished with gula melaka, sago pearls swimming in coconut milk. At the bottom of the bowl, a hidden pool of palm sugar that Annie had taught me to stir in for the best taste.
Their shop was a favorite among foreigners—British, American, Indian, Australian, German—many of them women like me who had followed husbands’ jobs and were looking for purpose. From a community of locals and expats, Michael and Julie sourced researchers, writers, editors, book designers. They worked with Oxford University Press to publish short histories of Penang, Singapore, Malacca, and Jakarta that featured antique maps and illustrations from their collections. They printed calendars with 18th-century maps of Asia one year and the botanical drawings of Berthe Hoola van Nooten another. They published an annotated book of days on the life of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the British founder of colonial Singapore. Michael and Julie’s projects offered a challenge to intellect, an opportunity to delve into the history and nature of Southeast Asia. And they offered community. Antiques became my home ground in Singapore.
Our first outing with Danny was the evening of the day we arrived. A river trip to Kaget Island, an hour and half south of Banjarmasin. The boatman gave the engine a goose and we pulled away from the dock. We headed down the Martapura. The sky was overcast and the air was cool.
We motored slowly and life on the river unfurled as we passed. A barefoot woman in a blue-and-white sarong pulled up to her armpits stepped down a ramp to the river, plastic scoop in hand, ready to bathe. A man crouched on the back deck of a house, brushing his teeth. Wooden houses on wooden stilts. Hard to know which was front, which was back. Under a bridge, little boys in ragged shorts and wet black hair paused in their diving and clung to the girders to watch us pass. At the last minute, they jumped, splashing water into the boat, laughing and waving. I spotted a satellite dish angled parallel to the sky, poking from the peak of an ironwood roof. The dish was a surprising and rare luxury. Timber money, perhaps. The wail of the call to prayer threaded through the beat of the engine. I followed the sound to a mosque with a shiny aluminum dome. We went under a draw bridge that Michael shouted was in the Dutch style. Perhaps Müller had seen bridges like this.
We entered the broad Barito and left the neighborhoods behind. The engine revved and we jolted against a chop that sent sprays of water into the boat.
The Barito was the business side of the city: dirty brown sawdust burners like giant shuttlecocks, plywood factories with smokestacks that fed clouds of black into the air. Barges jostled the docks, loaded with jumbles of logs. A tugboat guided a raft of once-rainforest.
The stink of pig shit reared up. I pinched my nose and wrinkled my mouth. Julie laughed and nodded, nearly lost in her sunglasses, visor, and the oversize life jacket that ballooned around her. “Smoked rubber,” Michael shouted, cupping his hand against the roar of wind and engine. Smoked to stabilize the latex tapped from the rubber trees and rolled into sheets, stored in godowns by the river, ready to ship, he explained later.
The industry thinned. Villages were sparse along the banks. We halted twice for the boatman to wrestle up the motor and clear the blades of a tangle of green, an invasive spaghetti of water hyacinth. We veered left and the engine slowed to a quiet putt.
“Kaget Island,” said Danny in a whisper.
He stood and scanned the trees. We held our voices low, our bodies still, moving only to shift around the circle of view with binoculars. We had arrived for a performance. Where were the actors?
The water mirrored a chaotic splay of greens: verdigris, variscite, chrysolite, serpentine. Spiky plants like giant blades of grass layered against the spreading hands of palm fronds that led up to bare trunks and branches topped by a froth of leaves. “Rambai,” Danny said softly, pointing to the trees. “That is what the monkeys like to eat.” He told us that the island had been made into a nature preserve sixteen years earlier, in 1976. The monkeys were protected. Before that they had been shot for their meat, for their skins. Sometimes they were kept as pets in town but did not do well in captivity.
Danny froze and pointed, arm outstretched. The boatman cut the engine. In the distance, arrayed in trees like statues, the shapes of monkeys. We had found the missing thespians.
Annie and I nudged each other at our good luck as we passed binoculars back and forth. “That fellow looks like he’s been drinking too much Bintang,” said Michael, and we all had to stifle our giggles. Indeed, the proboscis had comical bellies, Bintang beer bellies, perpetually pregnant bellies, even the males. Bellies designed to digest the abundance of leaves they must eat to stay alive.
I counted fifteen monkeys festooned in one tree. Reddish fur against the green. Julie found a female with a baby. I zoomed in for a closer look and saw dark fur, blue-black skin, tiny clinging arms and legs. A newborn, Danny said. Two half-grown monkeys chased, scrambled, jumped, and set the leaves to rattling. Teenagers, I thought. Higher than all the rest, alone, a male, sleek and relaxed. His fur was a suit of many colors. Red-gold like a cap that curled into a prominent brow. A cowl the color of cream. Red-gold again in a vest that met the light auburn of his chest and swelling belly. Gray-white fur defined his hips like underpants. His arms and legs were also gray, with black fingertips and toes. His tail was hidden in the foliage. I studied his face, an hourglass of red-brown flesh, his naked chin rimmed by white fur. His pendulous snout hung down over the curve of his mouth. I saw a smile beneath the comic nose. He was endearing, not grotesque.
The proboscis monkey is endemic to Borneo, the island its only home in the world. A Colobine primate, an arboreal folivore, it lives in trees and eats leaves. The pot belly harbors a digestive system like an ungulate; a battery of bacteria ferments the foliage that makes up the majority of its diet. The rambai that Danny showed us were Sonneratia, a kind of mangrove tree that can tolerate the brackish waters of Kaget Island.
We spent an hour watching before Danny signaled we had to go. Time to return to Banjarmasin while there was light. Hard to leave when the actors were still on stage.
I have been on whale watching trips where I have seen no whales. I have been on bird walks and missed the rare migrant, seen by others but flown by the time my binoculars arrived. But that evening, Kaget Island held nothing back from us. Or so it seemed. Only later would I learn how much I missed, how much I did not understand.
The South Borneo that Danny showed us over the next three days is the one where Julie and Annie sat on the side seats in the back of the Land Rover on the drive to the Amandit River, where Michael and I as the tall ones got the two seats facing forward, where Noor, our driver, and Danny sat in the front, where Noor apologized when the Land Rover hit a bump going over a bridge, where Danny held up his right hand above the dashboard like a blessing, where every pig or chicken or goat by the side of the road heard his prayer and never crossed in front of us, where Annie teased me for the American way I pronounced “route” as “rowt,” where the Land Rover climbed through hairpin turns on the new road slashed into the red dirt, where Danny told us the new road was being built by a Japanese company, where I imagined the new road aiming straight for new timber, where Danny took us to a house in the village of Muara Hatib with a garden of wild cinnamon, nutmeg, mango, banana, jackfruit, and tapioca, where we spent the night in the lodge by the river, where there was no electricity, where the water in the bathroom flowed through a split bamboo pipe that sloped down from the hillside behind, where the water gurgled and filled the big ceramic Shanghai jar, where we used ladles of water from the jar to flush the toilet or wash our bodies, where the sounds from the bathroom were open to the big sleeping room, where we talked louder whenever anyone went into the bathroom, where we sprayed the room for the mosquitoes that Annie called mozzies, where we woke the next morning to the sound of machetes chopping bamboo, where we watched men from the village build two bamboo rafts, where Julie and I waved for the photo Michael took of us on the raft, where the river water streamed over my toes curled around the joints of the green bamboo, where our boatman fished and smoked and poled as he took us down the river, where Danny pointed to the silver leaf monkey in a high tree, where we saw beehives like the ones in Müller’s book, where the beehives looked like giant brown teardrops clinging to the underside of branches, where Danny saw a proboscis monkey in the trees along the river that everyone else missed, where Michael roared with laughter when Danny told him the Indonesian name for the proboscis was monyet belanda, where monyet belanda means Dutch monkey for the big belly and red nose like the Dutch colonists, where Danny took us to the diamond mines at Cempaka, where a hand-cranked bellows pumped air down the shaft, where men on the ladder handed up baskets of mud, where women in long-sleeved blouses and batik skirts carried mud in baskets on their heads, where their brothers and husbands and fathers and sons sat in sluice boxes working the paddles, where the dirty water of the sluice boxes held the hopes of a gem that would change their lives, where I wondered how the women could look so dignified and graceful among the hummocks of tailings and the mud that streaked their shirts, where we rested under the thatched roof of a little restaurant, a warung, in the fields and watched, where I felt embarrassed to witness with our tourist eyes the hard labor of the diamond fields, where we stopped at a shop on stilts in the river and bought a hat made of bark like the bark clothing in Müller’s drawings, where we visited a village sawmill, where a pit sawyer balanced like a dancer on the plank he was cutting, where his brown skin was coated in sweat, where Michael was appalled at this archaic labor, where on our last night we went to a bar in Banjarmasin with Danny and Noor, where Noor’s brother-in-law who was the chief of police joined us, where we drank pitchers of Bintang, where my friends were surprised that I jumped up to sing karaoke, where we all posed for a photo with the statue of the proboscis monkey outside the Barito Hotel, where that was the last thing we did before Danny and Noor drove us to the airport, where we left pleased at how well we had traveled together, where we climbed the steps to the Garuda flight to Jakarta, where we said goodbye to Danny intending to return.
A year after the trip to Banjarmasin, my husband’s job in Singapore ended and we moved back home to Seattle. Joy and sorrow rode side by side.
Joy: Returning home to the United States, Pacific Northwest, Seattle. Family. Friends. Beloved land.
Sorrow: Leaving Singapore, Southeast Asia. Beloved land. Leaving friends. Beloved friends.
I knew when I left that Michael had cancer. I kept in touch by fax, by the occasional phone call. This was before email. But I was not as good a friend as I should have been. I was struggling to keep breathing through my own life: being home again, starting a new job, helping a child adjust. That is what I tell myself. Within a year, he was gone.
Now. Some twenty years later, I daydream of a return trip to South Borneo and search for information about the Kaget Island proboscis monkeys. I come upon an academic paper on the Internet. I scan the title. It is a slap to the face of memories. I turn away from the monitor. I do not want to read more. “The local extinction of the proboscis monkey Nasalis larvatus in Pulau Kaget Nature Reserve, Indonesia.” Joy becomes horror. I force myself to keep reading. I learn that Kaget Island did not belong only to the monkeys. Four years after our trip, when the paper’s author, Erik Meijaard, visited the Island in November 1996, there were nearly 300 proboscis, but “the central part of the island, including the reserve, had been cleared for agriculture, and only a 25-meter wide fringe around the central fields was still forested,” he wrote. The lure of fertile soils drew farmers despite the Reserve status. There was weak enforcement. The few trees remaining—the rambai trees—were ring-barked or poisoned to open up more land.
Indonesian conservation officers began finding dead monkeys and tried to save the animals by moving them to new habitats and to a zoo in the city of Surabaya on the island of Java. Translocation is the term Meijaard uses in his paper. A very painful word.
Most of the monkeys died in the effort, either during capture or in the zoo. Some were smuggled out by boat and sold in the market in Banjarmasin for $25. Meijaard writes: “Estimated population size of Pulau Kaget Nature Reserve after translocations (1999): 0.”
From hallowed ground of reserve to the hollowed ground of extinction. A hole in Borneo. I realize now the Kaget Island I observed was only an illusion. To my simple tourist eyes the monkeys were living a whole life. I did not see the fragmentation, the threats.
Terry Tempest Williams writes, “Our bodies remember wholeness in the midst of fragmentation.” Yes, my body remembers. But I am changed. I feel ashamed of my innocence, my unseeing. Was there not something I could have done to stop the destruction?
Our last evening in Banjarmasin we asked Danny to take us once again to Kaget Island. We sought again that infusion of joy that had so delighted us the first night. We were not disappointed. We found a troop arrayed in trees, watchful of our approach by boat. A male took flight. I followed him with my binoculars. His soaring body was angled for liftoff, arms stretched alongside his head, hands cupped downward like a diver, legs reaching back from his waist with grace, balanced by the slim arc of his tail that ended just beyond the tips of his black feet. Like a spring relaxing, he landed his leap in a tree across the water and planted his buttocks on a branch. Back legs drawn up into a wide squat. Left arm relaxed, hand resting on knee. Right arm straight out, fingers looped around a branch to balance the weight of his belly. Undisturbed. At rest. His body reassembled into a whole.
Copyright Penrose 2012