This is Your Brain, Contained

In trying to be poetically pensive, I often catch myself thinking of how this country is full of contradictions. How little kids race by on motorcycles or how cigarette stands lie next to every school (more like everywhere). How the thinnest people live on a diet of fried foods and the largest own meters upon square meters of vegetable gardens. How living on a mountain means you can’t tell whether or not the fog here is truly partial condensation or if you’re just in a passing cloud. How people can be afraid of cute little puppies and believe puppy-love to be real love. Some things here are just downright backwards to me. But I always wonder, are these things really contradictions or just my own of what I know vs. what I expect? They’re certainly not contradictions in this culture, as this is their reality, their truth.

I think about these things and more each time I ride through the countryside on the back of a motorcycle, which I ironically find to be simultaneously terrifying and soothing in the sense that rushing through degraded roads as the wind blasts past my ears happens to clear my mind. Maybe there’s something about wearing a thickly padded helmet that traps your thoughts and bounces them around your head, saying This is Your Brain, contained. Like artificially buttered popcorn kernels in a microwaveable bag. Thoughts about Indonesian people and their social customs and religion bouncing around everywhere at once. Despite being taken aback by some aspects of their lives (<$1 for a cigarette pack, bottom-low wages, the normalcy of infidelity), I absolutely love learning about this culture. Learning about it makes me learn more about myself, as well as what I value and treasure back at home in America.

I’ve always believed that being quick to judge or stereotype is something that we have to constantly remind ourselves not to do and experiences in foreign situations tend to test that belief. But really, being accepting of difference, of contradictions, of things you’re not familiar with isn’t that difficult (ahem, DOMA). And having faith in humanity means believing that people can be good, even despite the differences that seem to you as flaws. Living in this village among some of the kindest, most welcoming people has made me resent and refuse the stereotypes I hear about Indonesians; it has reinforced my consciousness to be even more accepting of the unknown than I was yesterday.

Usually I press the instant “POPCORN” button on the microwave, wait for the screen to say “ENJOY,” and take my bag of popcorn to go. I’m content disregarding that warning on the bag and taking the shortcut to satisfaction. But this time I’m taking the time to carefully process my jumble of thought kernels, learning not to just take first impressions for face value but mulling them over underneath this hot Indonesian sun, sometimes while racing through the wind on a crowded street.

A village road in Cipaganti

A village road in Cipaganti


Life as an LFP Volunteer

As a volunteer, we collect observational data on the Javan slow loris (Nycticebus Javanicus) 5-6 nights a week in six-hour shifts. Although hiking up steep slopes and on muddy ledges into the forest takes quite a physical effort, it’s worth it to see these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat! Radio collars help us identify and locate each loris, which is a godsend because they can be quite speedy at nighttime when they’re not busy foraging for food. One second you can have your sight set on their eyeshine in the trees and the next thing you know, they’ve travelled 20 meters across the forest into the dense thicket of bamboo. Luckily, we also use binoculars and flashlights covered in red film to help us identify different aspects of their behavioral ecology, such as posture, substrate type, and tree species. Though I have to admit, when I first saw the reflecting tissue, tapetum lucidum, of a slow loris’ eyes, I thought I was looking at a robot! Imagine two red laser points moving around and about in the trees and you are basically experiencing what we see each night.

On a typical night of observation, we hike up the forest to wherever our assigned loris is located with the help of a radio tracker. The lorises have been tagged with radio collars and search for those signals with receivers and antennas. Once up there, we take focal sampling data about variables such as what types of behaviors and postures the lorises engage in, what trees they reside in, the height of the animal, proximity to other lorises, etc.

Since a large part of the Little Fireface Project’s mission involves educational outreach, we often have the chance to interact with local children to try and promote the message of conservation. It is always fun for us to visit schools in Cipaganti and interact with them, whether it is in Bahasa Indonesia or just waving back to them with a big smile. Despite the fact that their local language is Bahasa Sunda, most of them know Bahasa Indonesia and a tiny bit of English, so we are usually able to communicate with them on a basic level. The other day, we had a slow loris drawing and naming contest with the kids and we received some really beautiful and creative entries! We hope programs like this will better educate this next generation to protect their forests and lorises for years and years to come.

Some new friends in the village who stop by each day :)

Some new friends in the village who stop by each day 🙂

Poo, no lorises yet

On my second day here, I became acquainted with slow loris poop. Although I have not been lucky enough to see a loris yet, LFP researcher, Johanna, and fellow intern, Mark, let me watch them dissect some fecal samples. They are slightly small and can fit in a little film cannister-like container. What was most exciting was their discovery of some distinguishable insect parts and tree gum, which fit accordingly to slow loris diets found in the literature.

Julia's Photos 014

Examining loris poop. Taken by Julia Hill of The Little Fireface Project

The next morning, I went to the polisi and the village chief’s office to officially register as a Cipaganti visitor. The motorcycle ride through the Cisurupan district down to the city of Bayongbong to the polisi was one of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen. There were rice fields upon rice fields laid upon mountains that live among the clouds, all around a rocky river that runs through some of the villages here. My desire to pull out my (now working) phone and take a quick video of this video was quite great, although the recent passing of my digital camera has made me extra cautious of my electronics. Maybe next time I’ll find a way to capture this scenic ride, but for now you’ll have to take my word that it was breathtaking.

After our trip, the LFP radio tracker Pak Dendi, and I went to meet his wife, three kids, and entire family. His mother sat on the floor, hacking away at a grisly durian fruit with a huge kitchen knife in order to provide me food as we talked about my family in Surabaya and where I was from. Their hospitality was quite touching, especially the way they shook my hand with both hands and gently giggled whenever we couldn’t communicate properly. They showed me the Islamic school that their son went to, where I saw little kids taking turns chanting praises that were broadcasted to the whole village by speakerphones on the rooftop. I got a better listen at the top of Pak Dendi’s mother’s house, as well as a panoramic view of neighboring volcanoes and the city of Garut below the mountain. I can only imagine what the view is like at sunrise, when colors paint the sky behind the volcanoes and the fog lifts above the city lights below, and hopefully I’ll get a chance to experience it in the near future.


The volcano view from Pak Dendi’s rooftop

Pak Dendi also showed me the different parts of his village, including a large part of river that is probably connected to the one I mentioned before. He helped me collect some volcanic rocks that he said tumbled down from Mount Papandayan, an active volcano close to Cipaganti. This weekend, our team might venture there for a picnic, which would be great, since I wish to take more natural oleh-oleh, or souvenirs, from Indonesia.


A river filled with rocks from Mount Papandayan.


Eager to see some slow lorises soon, I went along with another radio tracker, Aconk’Z, on his round of slow loris sleeping sites. Since they are nocturnal prosimians, slow lorises sleep during the day, usually well camouflaged in tall bamboo trees in a “sleeping-ball” position, where their head is curled into their thighs. We hiked for a little over three hours in the melt-worthy sun, which is the price you pay when working at 12:30 PM. The terrain is still challenging as ever, and navigating the mountain-forest uphill, downhill, sideways, across rivers, on mud ledges, and through rice fields, all while on unpaved trails is no joke. The unevenness from the rocks adds another element of difficulty, so having an experience hiker like Aconk’Z is really lifesaving. At one point, we encountered this very steep uphill slope on our trek, in which he asked me, “So, can you fly?” Luckily, I made this mini-climb with his help, which I believe kind of makes up for all the other times I fell on my behind, right? Right…

The hilly plots of farmland that we hiked through

Hilly plots of farmland that we hiked through

Unfortunately, I did not see any lorises on this journey. However, I took the GPS coordinates of each one’s current location and noted the types of bamboo they inhabited (B. temen, B. surat, or B. tali). I will see them soon enough, hopefully! Poop and bamboo trees can only hold me over for so long.

Cipaganti Forest: 1, Me: 0

25 hours of flying and 7 hours of driving later, I have finally arrived at the Cipaganti village. It’s a relatively small village situated in the mountains, with two volcanoes and gigantic clouds in plain sight. Although one of the volcanoes is active, the last evacuation for volcano Papandayan was around ’96 so we are hopeful that lava will not rain down on the village anytime soon! The journey here has made me experience many firsts, such as my first time flying alone internationally, going on a long road trip on a foggy, rainy night without an accessible seat belt, living on a mountain in humid and warm weather, or killing four flying spider creatures in one night. But the view is beautiful and I’m excited to start working with the Little Fireface Project and the slow lorises, so it’s all worth it.

The mountain view from outside our field house

The mountain view from outside our field house

This morning, we traveled around the village for a bit on the one uphill dirt road in front of the field house. We live right across from a mosque that sirens out prayers at 5 AM each morning, which in addition to the roaring motorbikes in the morning, will be something I will have to get used to sleeping through. Johanna, one of the PhD researchers from Germany, has two mutt dogs here named Jiwa (Spirit or Soul) and Bintang  (Star) who basically frolicked ahead of us on the uphill path. The villagers were super friendly along the way, especially the kids. One yellow-shirted boy kept joyfully shouting out “Bule!!! Bule!!! Bule!!! (referring to the white people in our group)” while waving as we walked by. Soon, a few others joined him, but he was still the most excited. It makes me wonder if I was like that as kid, so eager and genuinely excited to embrace someone’s differences.

An eager boy waving at us from his house

An eager boy waving at us from his house

Later on, I saw two girls in hijabs staring at me as I took pictures of the mountains in front of our house. I waved and said, “Allo, selamat pagi!” with a nod, which made them wave and giggle to each other. It’s interesting that even though I look more like the villagers than the other bule (white) members of my team, I’m still an outsider, a newcomer, an unfamiliar face. Hopefully I can change that soon.

Fast forward a few hours and I’m rapidly sloshing through mud, rocks, and thick forestry as we try to locate our first loris, Ena. The trek is entirely uphill, except for the return to the field house. It has been raining like crazy in Cipaganti, so we are also about to assess the land slides that we can see on the mountain even from miles away. Land slides might mean deforestation for some lorises and ruined pathways into the forest, so we are hoping they aren’t too terrible. The two radio trackers in front of us quite literally have to swashbuckle through the thicket of the forest as we hop from one muddy rock-filled strip to the next. I feel like Indiana Jones, but in his blooper reel where falling down an astronomical number of times is the norm. Zig-zagging up different levels of land up to four, five feet apart, running into bushes with stump-like branches, falling into the slippery, thick mud again and again and again, we hike up the mountain at a quick, but steady pace. At this point, I am wondering what other DukeEngage students are up to. Possibly teaching English, Engineering, Dance, to kids in a classroom or studio space? They probably have planned goals of teaching their students set curriculums or discussions.  I can’t help but think that my only current goal consists of leaving something more than my butt prints behind.

A hot and sticky hour or so later the rain starts to drizzle, and a welcomed breath of coolness hits our faces. It starts off slow but pours harder and harder until we decide we cannot go on any further. It rains so hard and so fast that I can feel both my camera getting destroyed inside the pocket of my “waterproof” jacket and my phone soaking in my handbag. As we tumble down the gushing mud slopes, I’m thankful I chose to wear my hiking boots instead of my sneakers, for their slight grip, not their ability to keep out water. My feet are soaking wet and I just want to stop and let the puddles run from my shoes, but we push forward. There’s no time to pause without falling behind. Some of the water-mud currents are so rapid that we have to trek through neighboring carrot and cabbage plots for brief amounts of time, although when they ran out we take to hopping from bank to bank on alternating feet for solid mud. Other times we just speed-wade through the raging currents, hoping that one misstep won’t make us fall into the neighboring mud river.

-Possible beautiful image coming later if my camera rises from the dead-

When I finally catch sight of the village soccer field, I’m so relieved to no longer have to precariously balance on mud ledges the width of my shoe or plow through densely packed trees. I remember tilting back my head to the gray sky to feel the drops hit my face, saying a silent thanks for safe landings. The forests may have fried my electronic devices, but at least I made it out alive. I’ll be back to look for slow lorises in the mountain forest soon enough for a re-match.

DukeEngage – Garut, Indonesia

Google Calendar Reminder: Leave for DukeEngage @ Sat May 18, 2013

As if I need a reminder. 🙂

This is the moment I’ve been waiting for, ever since I started brainstorming for my independent DukeEngage* application. Upon coming to Duke, I never imagined I would decide to pave my own path instead of applying for concrete group projects held in India, Haiti, Thailand, China, and many other countries. To say I’ve finally arrived to the date of my departure is a misnomer: I am returning to Indonesia, the country I visited just last summer. Although I have been there at least four times  over the course of my life, familial obligations and pooh poohing away from harsher parts of Indonesia have given me a sheltered privilege. This is my chance to learn from Indonesia’s rural areas, to learn the importance of their customs, religion, and beliefs. Although I am technically an Australian citizen and U.S. Permanent Resident, I know that part of me belongs to Indonesia.

Tonight, I’m beginning my journey to a village by Garut, Indonesia to work on slow loris conservation with the Little Fireface Project (LFP). I first discovered these unique primates a few years ago through a series of viral YouTube videos, but was devastated when I realized how quickly they were disappearing from forests across the world. The slow loris is one of the world’s 25 endangered primates and the only poisonous primate in the world. Their main threat is the illegal wildlife market, since they are so adorable and popular that poachers reap them by the thousands and then subject them to cruel conditions (think killing mother lorises to take their young and ripping out teeth with nail clippers). Unfortunately, their loss will not only cause an imbalance to the natural forest and jungle ecosystems, but also remove a critical insect and pest consumer from the environment. Not to mention that their depraved torture and domestication is primitive and cruel.

I am positive that a change can be made if people, especially locals, become advocates to save native species like the slow loris. Hopefully, I will impart this through my Indonesian language skills to communicate with locals and youth to better understand their needs and also spread the word about the need for conservation. Additionally, I will be collecting slow loris observational data for the LFP on these nocturnal primates from 6 PM – midnight, or midnight – 6 AM each night. I am hopeful that this won’t be a deterrent for me, as college has taught me the beautiful wonders of variable circadian rhythms.

I wonder what I will miss the most. My friends and loved ones? American delicacies? (I am munching on my last Cheez-Its of the summer as I write) Strong Internet connection? Clear tap water? Running showers? Hygiene? Low risks of diarrhea? (Oh boy). These are all things I will keep close to my heart, to be returned to in August. But I’m not adventuring into Indonesia’s forests and rural villages to live in comfort– I am there to help save the slow loris while rediscovering a culture I am far from fully understanding. And despite giving up some basic amenities, I couldn’t be more excited


*DukeEngage, for readers who don’t know, is a fully funded immersive service experience for Duke University undergraduates. I created my own independent project by searching for the community partner I would like to work with, the budget I would need, and the type of project I would fit in with. Although I am the only one going on my trip, I know I am not alone in support. Thank you for reading, and I hope you can follow me on this journey to Garut, Indonesia. 🙂