Borneo’s Bird King: An Origin Myth

A translation of a myth told in the South of Borneo paints a picture of governance, being the main cause of the destruction of the rainforest for palm oil, and the origins of Borneo’s precious animals. #hanyamitos @indo_myths

Indonesian Myths

In a distant past, the rangkong was still the king of the birds, and trees bowed to the weight of their own fruits. He sought for seeds that would bring the most food to the forest; passing beyond the horizon, he flew by day and he flew by night.

While the hills and valleys were full of celebration, many convocations of eagles were brooding, becoming hateful and jealous of the rangkong. As they feed on baby chicks from the nests of others, the eagles had found themselves in a spot of trouble; the adults that watched over these nests never seemed to fly away anymore, since the fruits they enjoyed were now in abundance.

The hornbill, known as the king of the forest in Borneo. Album of Abyssinian birds and mammals Chicago :Field Museum of Natural History,1930.

The eagles encouraged the hornbill to take over rule of the forest, sacking the rangkong as king. And for the cunning of the…

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Wakatobi Sea Ghosts, by Yusran Darmawan kicks off with a translation, Wakatobi Sea Ghosts, introducing the mythology-only branch of Igneous Bomb! Selamat Menikmati Membaca!

Indonesian Myths

A translation of Hantu-Hantu Laut di Wakatobi, by Yusran Darmawan

The coral reefs around Wakatobi are renowned, and behind them are a few humble confidants of the ocean herself. Not only experts in her language, they are friends of her demons, whom whisper demands for the protection of her reefs. They are the Bajo Tribes and their simple homes are built above the sea.

On the edge of the Buton Sea, Baubau, an older man just stands there staring straight ahead. Tracking a distant boat with its sail rolled up neatly, hand flinching, he then waves at it. After a while, a koli-koli, much smaller and rustic vessel, comes to pick him up. Leaping in, he and the driver set off for the larger boat.

He’s the most respected skipper here – of the Bajo Mola tribe,”

says a friend when he catches me staring at this new arriver…

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Voices above the Dam – Script


“One might call this ‘the tragedy of the tragedy of the commons’”

Natural Resources and Capitalist Frontiers, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, writing about the Meratus Mountains of South Kalimantan (Borneo), Indonesia.


What happens when we block a river to build a hydroelectric dam on tribal land in some of the oldest rainforests of the world?


A TURBINE SPINS. The image wipes from right to left, and the sound pans from right to left, with the motion of the turbine.

An image of nature. Forest. The way it fades in is as if the image itself is being shown on an old projector that’s about to die.

TITLE:HANYA UNTUK MASYARAKAT MISKIN’ (only for the poor), written on a tank of butane gas, changes to become ‘VOICES ABOVE THE DAM’. We HEAR a gas stove starting. [IDEA: use motion effects / lighting effects / to make it seem like video / that there is a fire]



 ON TOP of the DAM now, a YOUNG BOY appears, standing there.

 CU on young boy / artfully mixed with the turbine (transparencies wiping right along with a SWIPING SOUND and the underlying sound of CICADAS)


Villagers have seen a ghost;

a barefoot boy of the Dayak tribe stands on the earthfill retaining wall of a hydroelectric dam in Borneo – a child of a near-forgotten tribe, who once owned this land and settled here for at least a few hundred years – the Meratus Dayak.

Down river, a deer hunter tells me the spectral boy can be seen from many kilometers away. The boy watches his own people go on with their modernizing lives, in the 12 villages above the dam. He’s a reflection of their conscience.

And that’s just one of the many myths from the reservoir of Riam Kanan, Kalimantan Selatan, Indonesia.



STONES in a river.


These people once knew a different kind of power, and a connection to nature that wasn’t only 30 Megawatts. These stones once held it all.

After a full day of hiking, we arrive at the area’s tribal roots: the abandoned village of Binjai, reclaimed by nature, centered around these stones. The descendants of the people of this village are now Muslims – but they are not conflicted in saying that these stones were once sacred; this history gives the surrounding environment the air of a cemetery. A reverence. A spook. Here, nobody dares curse, and nobody cuts down trees. The forest is a whole; hornbills pass overhead. Like the Dayak boy on the dam, wilderness is protected by a myth. And that is exactly what I came here to understand.

MONTAGE: Best clips of animals from around Indonesia.


Raymond Williams writes that nature is “all that was not man: all that was not touched by man, spoilt by man” (1980:77) To take it a step further, you might say that true nature is only ever imaginary.

Seven years ago I came to Indonesia to capture images of endangered marine turtles. It was then that I realized how much beliefs affect nature, especially in this country.

Attracted by my theme, friends at Lambung Mankurat University recommended a location for a documentary, a confined area – the catchment above a dam where folklore and nature are inseparable, and the people’s connection to nature complex, evolving, and counter-intuitive.

Coming from Canada, I packed my bags and moved in – not to one house, but into 12 poor villages above a dam – to follow my theme, to listen, and especially, give voice to entire histories and suffrage that had never been exposed.

The 3rd largest island in the world, this is Borneo; somewhere as important – to life on Earth – as the Amazon and the Congo. The lungs of the world.

But by the way things are going, either the stories you are going to hear and the places they consecrate will soon give away.


 Title Card: Riam Kanan (pop?)

 MONTAGE of the best waterfalls in the area.


2:20 – As for Riam Kanan, the origins of the name, Riam means waterfall. The area of waterfalls. This was the name even before the dam. And actually there isn’t only one waterfall. There are tens, even hundreds of waterfalls.

Clips of going down the river into denser forests.



And deeper in the forest live the U’ut people.

These people are clever, crafty, and lively.

And they’re strong enough to choose life in the forest.

They won’t die just because they didn’t buy a lighter.

Just with a rock, by way of only being scraped together

they create their fire.

On the way to anywhere, they don’t get tired and weary.

They hardly feel an ache along the way.

That’s their lifestyle.

That’s why they’re called Dayak.

They’re well-known, because life in the forest is what they’re used to.

They won’t get lost.

And so why would they be interested in big city life?


That’s the jest of the story I wish to tell you –

a story from myself. That’s all. Thank you.




Village #1

Liang Toman (Tiwingan Lama)

Population 1,384


WE see MULIYANI and INSERTS of a SNAKE on the front of a moving BOAT. The DRIVER rubs his eyes.


I am Muliyani. I’m from Liang Toman. I’m a fish farmer. I have three fish farms. So, I was looking for fish, found a snake, and picked it up.

I was thinking about money. That’s what gave me bravery.

I’ve caught around 20 snakes in total.

We sometimes catch monitor lizards – though they aren’t even worth much anymore. So we don’t bother them. So, what we can make money off, snakes, pangolin.

MONTAGE: the entire village of Liang Toman with MUSIC by SUN ARAW.



The most trafficked animal in the world, the critically endangered pangolin is the armadillo of Southeast Asia. And Muliyani usually brings them down to China town – where their scales are ground down to treat cancer and asthma.

 The salvage frontier is rough and austere, and people cannot turn down any opportunity. Others did not stop at anything to fill their pockets and escape.

When the dam was built, the waters came up, and most of Muliyani’s village went under – the hilltop town of Liang Toman is all that remains with a Mosque like a watchtower.

I spent four days here teaching children how to draw the animals in the woods around them – and a little bit of yoga too.


4:22 – Yah and that’s the name of our village. There’s toman fish. Liang Toman. Lots of toman fish. Long ago there was a real big one. Eyes the size of coconuts. […]






The camera focuses on the back of someone’s HEAD as they repair a broken fishing net and boat down the river. We never see their face.


An emerging class of farmers have set up fish farms – keramba – like water spiders on the catchment. Each of these floating huts contains a car battery and a stereo – to break the stillness late at night. The boys hired to sleep out here and feed the fish every 3 hours admit to being spooked by something out here; murmurings from sunken villages: the cemeteries, the stones of their ancestors, forests, Mosques, speak to them from the bottom of the river.

In Binjai a fish farmer invited me to stay with him if I would teach his daughter English.

When he promised to be my guide to the peak of Pahayangan Mountain, I doubted it at first. I had been trying for forty-five days and nobody wanted to go near this mountain – which was really more like a large hill. So I quickly agreed to the deal, on the off chance that he would take me there. There were so many myths about Pahayangan, the environment should be intact; it is said even patrollers and police do not want to go in there.

That’s why he knew the place, actually.

We finally reached the peak and settled in for the night next to a freshwater pond.

And late at night he told me that this is his favorite hide-away when he needs to lay low for a while.




 Shots of the mountain from 12 different angles and 12 different villages.



8:20 – There’s a snake with seven heads. The mountain is made of seven heads. These mountains here and here make up the body. In the middle, where the pools are, that’s the very center. That’s what people say. That’s the origins of the mountain.

9:26 – No matter where we see the mountain from it always looks the same. Because the seven headed snake is watching us. […]

9:54 – There are seven heads. So they know everything. They gaze off in all directions.


 Going down a river in a small boat. The FISH FARMER’S back faces us. We never see his face.


The fish farmer’s brother, a deer hunter, moved through the forest like a yellow muntjack, setting things up long before we arrived.

It was easy to catch fish and from here we explored the canopied forests. The environment was complete, self-cooling, and with a breeze that kept the mosquitoes away. It was eden.

The brothers were held up here for an entire month once, after they escaped the tunnels of the illegal gold mines of Tanah Bumbu.




Their father had taken them out of primary school while they were still small enough to fit down the mineshafts; here, they were raised around murder, gambling, landslides, fights to the death. As boys, they proved themselves by drinking mercury.

Finally though, the brothers stepped up, and with mixed emotions, they tell me that they won, taking the lives of other miners – many times as they made their way out of the tunnels. The fish farmer was promoted. He became the guard for the money handlers in the camp. But when he had some money saved, he and his brother made their break.

They laid low here, on a mountain where nobody goes, in part because of deep-seeded beliefs surrounding the three freshwater pools at the core Pahayangan Mountain.



Time lapse of sunrise over the pools.


2:16 – Well, the water in those pools – if these are the end of days, and I think these are, then it’s all finished. But they say that if a person were to go into meditation on that mountain it would split. The mountain would break apart, and the whole world would cease to exist.

2:31 – If Pahyangan broke apart we’d all be doomed. But long ago, somebody did meditate there. A Chinese person. Their fingernails are long and their beards are long now. They’ve since been embraced by the roots of trees. Hugged by the roots.


10:26 – There’s a story of a man who cut some wood there. Blood came out of the tree. The blood of the meditating Chinese man. The meditating person had become the snake with seven heads. Yah well, it’s like that isn’t it.



1:18 – The crying trees. So the old people would hear the ulin trees crying. So they went searching for it. They found the trees. They thought it was a baby! There wasn’t a baby. It was from the woods. The ulun trees were sobbing. They had eyes, noses, eyebrows, mouths. There was an image. They had eyes, eyebrows, noses, mouths. […]

3:00 – The tears were real. Just water from their eyes. The ulin trees could cry. They could cry, but then we cut them down. They cried beforehand, said the old people. Now they don’t cry. […]




WIDESHOT PAN of the pools and the rich forests while the chainsaws FADE OUT.


We woke up at midnight and finished off the fish we had cooked earlier. It was then that fish farmer made his pitch – trying to sell me a boat loaded with high-calorie coal, extracted from forests that are protected by law.

In her account of this same region, Natural Resources and Capitalist Frontiers, Anna Lowenhaupt writes: The activity of the frontier is to make human subjects as well as natural objects.

The life story of this fish farmer is also the story of the resource frontier, spanning most of Southeast Asia.

It is the story of a movement of millions of transients, known as anak rantau. And it started with the gold rush sparked by the monetary crisis of 1998.




Lengthy shot of moths going towards a lamp.



 A headline in the Los Angeles Times reads: “‘Indonesian Miners Revive Gold Rush Spirit of 49ers.’ On a continent famous for producing knock offs, even a resource frontier seems unoriginal, “shaped by other wild times and places.”

She writes.





4:50 – We used to live in the village of Menungul, which is now underwater. Our heritage is in Menungul. From the start, we were there. But after the dam was built, it sunk and we moved. But then we had to move again. Near to the diamond mine, across from there. So we moved here because there was lots of gold.

3:50 – “where there’s gems there’s people”



We were digging down about 75 meters. Then there was a landslide. My friends were all down in the hole. About 15 people. Then a rock fell and buried them. The hole collapsed. Peoples’ legs were broken. Heads were broken open. We got an excavator and dug them out but they’d already died. That’s all. Thanks.


6:36 – about 15 people died that day. And that’s already totally normal. If you’re a miner that’s just normal. Landslides, rocks – covering up holes, and you’re 75 meters down. Underground it’s hot. And my friends on the surface opened it up so I could get out.


5:36 – The event I spoke about before never made the news or the paper. The police didn’t even come by. That was in 2003.

Usually there are people fighting to the death. Almost every day.

:32 – Up until now, I can only think about it, but I don’t want to mine again. It’s the only way to live – unless we plant trees, or take care of cows, or plant rubber farms. Long ago it was all miners.

5:47 – The wood that fell? That was in the village of Terlahur*. We were digging away in the dirt…Getting rocks. Then there was a lot of water. Up to our noses in water. We were stuck in there for about four hours. No one was killed. Bones were broken. My nose…It was hard to breathe. My nose was in the dirt and the grass?

7:56 – I didn’t lose hope. I could see my friends. So I was trying to help my friends also.

1834.MOV – I don’t remember what I said to my friends.


INSERT of the rope coming out of the TUNNEL and COILING around the SPOOL.


As the economy rebounds, after nearly twenty years under ground, many miners are coming out of a fever, coming to the surface to sew crops in the soil up above.

I asked one of these men what the main difference is between a miner and a farmer. He took out his machete and angrily toppled some shrubs in reply. Yes, the first word that comes to my mind is patience.


SHORT MONTAGE of MOODY SCENERY leading to RANTAU BUJUR village. Foley of “ALLAH AKBAR” with the sound of cicadas and villagers chatting at night.

TEXT: A QUOTE, W. ARABIC, ABOUT FARMING (test it out to see how it goes)






5:45 – I’ve always been a farmer. Just a farmer.


So I learned in that environment, yah about giving food and all. Here though, even big animals can roam free and we don’t need to feed them. They grow faster here, also.


4:44 – […] And in the woods around here you can find plants that Dayak tribes planted in the middle of the forest. Everywhere they went the tribes planted cempadak, Duren, pampakin, lahung, and duku – until this day! So, when people find these fruit trees, people can take the fruit, but we have to treat the trees respectfully. They can’t be cut down either. But feel free to take the fruit. Anybody. The fruit trees are still standing!


This is a left-behind village. The citizens here are farmers. Without farmers what do the office people eat? It’s farmers that are the pillars. They are the people in charge. No child is going to grow without them.




 Village of Apuai & title card.


In the village of Apuai, Government-run mobile health clinics are making an effort to work together with the shamanic midwives whose practice predates them by centuriesthese healers treat their patients with magic, and their influence is still very strong. Even the nurses, these city people who are supposed to be training them, are not immune to their wives tales.

MONTAGE of children being weighed in a scale.


7:21 – Today we’re taking care of the younger ones and the newborns. We’re checking their immunizations, vitamins – so they don’t catch any eye viruses.


[…] We’re from PUSKESMAS Aranio … We take care of families and the people here.

What was it like long ago, traditionally?

Long ago there were magic men and magic women using traditional medicine. Sometimes from plants. Sometimes oil from plants. I don’t know what plants. They gave attention to people who were hurt or had broken bones, burns – rub on a little oil and you could be healed. Or drink some of their concoctions you could be healed. Yah so people believed in them – before we started coming.

4:36 – If a problem can’t be solved by the local healers, people have to come see us. Often problems can be solved locally. There are some special people with oils that can make us healthy as soon as we drink them. But there’s a big risk – you could become a ghost. A ghost could come out of your head.


INSERT: some images / patients or exteriors to give pause.



Some people go the doctors. They can get treated. But if they don’t also come to see us [healers] that won’t help them at all.


I am a village nurse, but also a holy water person. We can get water for sick people. People have rocks in their bodies, we can take them out of their hands. We can take those rocks. We put prayers from the Koran into the water. We say the prayers, offer the water in a glass while reading the prayer.

2:49 – The wind can go into our bodies and take shape – like peanuts. And we can take those out and bust them up, if you’re sick.

If someone’s bitten by a snake, we offer water.


10:43 – I don’t have any special equipment. It’s all about the water. Offering the water. Reading the prayers in Arabic from the Koran.


INSERT: A few exteriors for pause.


00:30 – As for myths, they exist. But most people don’t really believe them. But the myths do of course exist!




Boating into Apaui falls. Hiking through rivers. Cutting through forests. Arriving at the falls. And then departing.



7:51 – Long ago there were people near the waterfall whom occupied the forest, waiting for the water. They were human like us but you couldn’t see them. And so if we want to have a picnic there or something, we should invite them. We should tell them that they’re welcome to eat with us. Take whatever you want. It’s like that over there mostly.

9:10 – So the kids would go there, cooking, making noodles. I always told them to offer food to the other people. The occupants. Give just a little rice – like this. Tell them, this is yours. If you want to eat together, let’s eat. And one of my kids had a camera. He got a photo of them! They were wearing clothes like this – same as the two of us here. Same as us. The small people.




GOPRO VIDEO of the children cutting out cartoon characters. Then DSLR video of the children chasing each other around with said cartoon characters dangling from strings.



The little people that the healer of Apuai spoke of are sometimes said to be the guardians of these forests. And there is no saying how much of Borneo’s priceless rainforests may be under their control. Although taboo, the head of the village of Pa’au still continues to make offerings to these figures once a year at the stones of Binjai.

So when the children saw me drawing a Kodama cartoon, they instantly recognized it as one of these little people – without knowing that the Kodama is actually seen as a guardian of the forest on the far away islands of Japan.

These two mythologies met for the first time in the village of Arta’in.

A farmer in the village of Pa’au tells me that, if we are not thankful for what the forest gives us, eventually these little people will close off our rainforests in a wall of smoke. There is no telling for how many generations this eerie myth has been foretelling our current reality.

The people of Borneo have reverence for sweet and uncomplicated folklore. Light stories that appeal to the heart. And the right stories do a better job at protecting nature than any of the government’s heavy-handed, corrupted interventions – like the ironically titled ‘Green Project’.






Men with harpoons freedive for fish in an underwater forest. The banks around them are bare like deserts.


3:24: “The Green Project started in 72 until 79. 80% didn’t work. Nobody was serious. After planting everything was just left. In the hot season it went up on fire. All over the area.”

4:33: “Their aim was to improve the existing forest, and they made really great reports about it. KBH reports. Keep the Boss Happy.

5:20: the consequence of the green project, the rivers became dry. Because “acacia” trees are not native.






As he mends his net, the fish farmer talks; it becomes clear that his battle with the government and the ministry of forestry, which he says is as corrupt as many institutions in this country, probably comes from the same fury that helped him fight his way out of the mines. They always deliver less than they mark down, he says. And as soon as you plant the seeds they’ve given you, your land becomes their property, by law. He speaks out alone. He says the ministry will hire your neighbors and your family – just to keep you from speaking out. For him though, social status could not ever be much of a concern. Sometimes it seems as if he were still seventy meters underground, looking up.


MONTAGE of barren wastelands.



The forest doesn’t change. We do. We speak Bahasa Banjar now. If we can’t plant peanuts, we plant bananas. Nature doesn’t change. Only we change.

Nowadays lots of outsiders come here. Nature doesn’t change, only if changed by people.


Isn’t it hard to find animals in the forest now?


It’s tough! The woods have been split by outsiders. The animals took off.

The Green Project. Outsiders came.


What kind of project was it?



Outsiders came in. Got permission. Came in. Planted trees.

They took the original forest. […] They took our nature. Replaced it with acacia, pines, foreign trees, seedlings.

6:26: And they didn’t succeed. It was better before. The original.

They failed.

The old forest was gigantic. Now it is no more.

What they planted was not right here.




8:18: The forest would be better off if the people were in control.

Like our own home. When broken, we would fix it. It would be better off in our hands.




A fisherman takes broad steps through the forest. DAYAK MUSIC starts to play. A man on the banks of the river sells fish to another man.


When in the village of Pa’au, sleep a few days on the floor of Pak Kartini’s ironwood home and he will catch you up on two things: politics and mythology. Be sure to ask him for the one about the proboscis monkey that may or may not have been able to fly.


CUT to interview with INSERTS of MONKEYS.



I was already grown up. The monkey came from the farm. It slept in the forest, came by once in a while. It slept in the forest. But after the harvest, farmers left their fields and the monkey came too. People were shocked. It was friendly though. At night it usually slept in the trees because that’s what it was used to – but then it would come down in the morning. It would come in. Lots of people came to see this friendly proboscis in Binjai. Foreigners came. Gave it bread. But it didn’t eat a lot. It didn’t drink a lot. It never finished anything. But it was a strange animal.

It could get pretty emotional sometimes…But usually it was nice. It sat with us at the same table with people who had come from a long way away. It sat with me. Became familiar with us. Cozy. I don’t know where it went after that. It was familiar with us. But now it’s gone. Came from the farm.


At ANOTHER LOCATION TRAP BUILDER puts some bananas inside of a trap for monkeys.



In local folklore proboscis monkeys are always referred to as our friends.

Myths, like the one Kartini told me in his living room

Surely go a long way in influencing public opinion about an animal. It may serve to explain why the endangered animals made our good books – perhaps just in time.


1240 – “”

We need to move them because the habitat is not good. Sometimes they try to cross the road. Sometimes people take them from their habitat. So we need to move them.

1241 – Have you made this before? Often. For what? Leaf monkeys. Last time.

My kids can make traps like this, sure. If they’re not at school.

1244 – … They’re caught up in the progress in the city. So they forget the ways of our ancestors and our traditions. So today we’re also giving life to an old practice.


MONTAGE of busy roads seen from inside of the FOREST.



About 10 o’clock we had a report from these people that there’s a proboscis monkey here. They said it fell out of a tree and was picked up by the locals. They said he was fatigued. We (Forest Police) picked him up but wanted to confer with you guys before releasing him. So we called Sahabat Bekantan Indonesia.




PROBOSCIS is released and many can be seen in the trees.


For local people, being an environmentalist in Borneo could even cost you your life; it is frustrating to the point that sometimes people flirt with the idea of deliberately seeding and spreading new folklore – to protect a species or an environment. The owner of the rehabilitation center for these monkeys agrees with me: some of these dreamy tales, like the fabled existence of a friendly half-human orangutan boy, if distributed widely enough, would affect the burning of the rainforests – and even climate change.




A MUSLIM FAMILY enters a house full of MACAQUES. They take off their toddlers’ clothes and force the kids to give treats to the monkeys. After that the room is united in an Arabic prayer to Allah.


On the inner-city island of Kembang, an older, Hindu belief protects a different species. Here families bring their newborns to shower in holy water and make offerings to these long-tailed macaque monkeys.

What would happen if they didn’t? They’d rather not know.

They worry that consequences could be much worse than the warnings of the Imams.

The confusing syncretism – that is their burden – is then smoothed over with a recitation from the Quran to bring us out of a forbidden history and back up to speed.


Using Kartini’s B-REEL (so that you can see his face more)


(this may be deleted)

A name well known around the catchment, Pak Kartini knows the forests and how to live in them with a little grace; a solid guide and chain-smoking storyteller, Kartini continues to send me text messages from borrowed phones, from under the one tree in the village that has signal – he wonders if I will ever be able to help the people back there in Pa’au.




MONTAGE of children playing with CATS and cats from around Riam Kanan. Then WIDESHOTS and TRACKING SHOTS of BIRDS and BOYS hunting birds with slingshots.


They say you can even see the ‘M’ for Muhammad on the forehead of some tabbies – as they were the prophet’s favorite.

And so domestic cats are now arriving in these priceless forests – one of the most destructive creatures on the planet, contributing to the extinction of at least 33 species worldwide.

The people’s traditional, tribal beliefs, however, credit birds with the creation of the world. So while there is no longer any fighting between believers – and there hasn’t been much – wildlife reflects the clash of their beliefs in its numbers.



TEXT: “Not only is hegemony never total…it is always threatened by the vitality that remains in the forms of life it thwarts. –Comaroff





A little girl sews up a pair of pants while her grandmother sits on the ground next to her, muttering something.


The older generations here could tell the youth many horror stories to bridge their contemporary suffering with a past of austere brutality.

INSERT: Landscapes to abridge speakers



…The Dutch came. Then Japan.

There was no comfort. We were tossed around. Just to get food in Kala’an Baru was tough.

Then came the gerombolan gangs, and after that the communists.

After that, President Soekarno was taken over, replaced with President Soeharto.

The problems ended there. Public opinion, now we’re safe.

Then our rivers were dammed. Officiated by Soeharto.

The old villages went under. People were compensated.

And we moved to high ground.

Between 73-74 we took our places.


-9:37: ” Then we were colonized by Japan and we lost a lot. They took a lot of our nature. Many of us were killed to gain independence again.”


00:30: Gerembolan (the time of the gangs), mom was anxious. They took our food. They took everything. Why was mom anxious? Neighbors were being arrested. The time of the gangs was our greatest hardship.


7:25 – No, it wasn’t somewhat safe. There wasn’t any safety at all at that time!

7:39 – In that era we couldn’t do anything. We were afraid. There were no activities. Sometimes we just went into the forest. There was no money. Most people couldn’t eat at that time.

8:33 – The problem, after independence from the Dutch, those chosen to be soldiers – paid soldiers – many Javanese people too, they’d finished fighting the Dutch. They’d been told to fight to the death. And now the fight was over, and they felt underappreciated by the government. Totally undervalued. That’s the key to the problem. They were brought here from Java and now there was nothing.

9:50 – They weren’t compensated at all. And they became pillaging thieves. Gangs.


So all I know about Gerombolan, life was difficult. We were stuck. Side with the government, you were in trouble. Side with the gangs, you were in trouble. Side with the government, the gangs would come. People were murdered. And at that time the government didn’t really want to know about it. Not like these days. Nowadays they’ll help us a little. At that time there was no help.



In the time of gangs, our goods were stolen. That made them worse than Japan. People ran for the hills. Gerembolan was the most disruptive. Disruptive to children. Kids were arrested. Taken. Disruption. Communists weren’t even that bad.




Shots of the egret birds in the trees.


These birds are communists –

executed around 1965. Folklore says they are the souls of family, friends, neighbors – who arrived in v-formation after the mass graves of the executed communists were closed up, and they have never left. They return to the same trees every evening at 6 PM – waiting around, as if for closure.





You know what commies were? Thieves! Chase them down. Shout, “COMMIE!” They stop. “But I’m not commie! I’m just a thief! Not a Commie!” … It was violent. Serious. They’d slit your throat. Better to be a thief than a commie.


-10:47: “1964 the Dutch allowed the first governor. They also promised dams. 1966, Japan worked on it until 1970. The water rose for two years. 1973 it was opened by Soeharto. The old villages went under. People were compensated.

The shots of the model become REAL shots of the HYDROELECTRIC DAM.


Models of the luxurious resorts and campgrounds used to persuade both investors and landowners to sign off on the project are still only miniatures forty-three years later.


INSERT: The farms of Benua Riam.







INSERT: FREEDIVING ten meters down and looking for fish.


-00:23: “After the dam was built 8 villages were sunken. The people lost a lot. Old farms. Houses.

-1:54: “a few have been compensated in 63. They have the documents. A few have not been paid.


9:44: I work as a farmer now…I can plant cassavas, beans…

10:17: Muslim people believe we must be grateful…Allah fills the land with plants…Beans, bananas, cassavas…We must be thankful to Allah, who manifests everything…Being grateful is important.

INSERT: The rocks of Binjai.


-So we give cakes to the small people. In Binjai. At the rocks. For safety.

-Long ago everyone gave offerings in Binjai.

Why give offerings?

“So that we’re not bothered.”


“Pembakal Pa’au gives stuff to the forest so that we’re all protected. We’re not bothered.”


8:50: “And we give cakes to the forest to show thanks so that we are not ever disturbed again.”

PAPER CUTOUTS of “THE SMALL PEOPLE” come down from the trees.


4:20 – The change? Now is more comfortable. There’s fish. Fish farms. Farms and livestock. It’s come a long way.









Jakarta city shots.



Despite all of the offerings my dear friends make to their little people above the dam, how much better are things getting really?

When I arrived in Indonesia it was the dry season and from the plane I could see circles of fire growing on Borneo.

Landing in the capital city of Jakarta I then went to a miniature park of the country – to repeat the surreal experience from a gondola over a vast map of the nation – made of earth and water.

The most honest detail of the miniature park, the smog from these same forest fires closed in from around five hundred kilometers away – adding a haze to the map of the nation, choking the capital city, waiting for the rain.




We cannot let it come to forest fires as large as last years. My grandchild couldn’t breathe. We took her to the hospital. That’s all I ask of the Government: don’t burn the forests like you did last year. Thanks.


MONTAGE of Jakarta streets. Heavy drums.



At least $38 billion dollars has been made available to companies actively burning the rainforests of Indonesia to give us junk food, toothpaste, cosmetics – and the haze has resulted in the premature deaths of up to 100,000 people living in the so-called lungs of the world.

On the ground, people are so exhausted just putting food on the table – the months of smog just drift by, and this hardly makes the news. Whatever these people suffer is the will of God – and the only solution is to pray, either as Muslims, Hindus, or as Dayaks making offerings to their little people. Others practice all religious rights just to cover all of the bases.

As I was teaching for three months down the river, I was consoled to realize: it wasn’t so much the economy that needs to improve – but education. Teach the children the facts, because I can’t be the one to spread new mythologies here.




  1. Balai stats

Rantau Balai 616


4:27 – The forest is thick, the wind is cooling, the people are open and friendly, peaceful, safe. We’re like a big family and nobody is excluded. We’re all Muslim and very religious, also.

BEFORE speaking of education problems we should see them having fun for a bit.


The furthest stop down river, Rantau Balai, meaning the holy river, was once a place for Dayak ceremonies, encircling the old stones, hundreds of years ago now.

People froze mute in the streets when I stepped out of the boat and walked into town.

I was surprised to be welcomed by the Imam – welcomed to teach at the only school around for miles, creating a window for me to reside here in the remotest of all 12 villages, feeling welcome – and with many new fans under the age of fifteen.

The last foreign visitor, an American had come by before me – in around 1974. He left a black-and-white photo behind with his friend, Pak Udin, who it seems had been waiting for me to come so that he could tell me the problem with education in Indonesia.



6:10 – As for education, teachers don’t want to live here. It’s not enough for them.


2:36 – School is just okay. But too minimal. No support from the government. And the wages are minimal.

3:00 – So, my opinion, here needs a national school. Because here in Rantau Balai there’s only an Islamic school.

3:36 – There should be balance. If there’s an Islamic school we also need a national school – for the kids future. They need English. So that it’s easier to get into University. With religious schools they won’t get any jobs. Religious schools are just for religious needs, and that’s all. This place needs a national school.

4:30 – Religion has no meaning concerning business of this world.

4:51 – Only a small portion of us think this way. Most of them still cling to tradition.


GOPRO footage of DAVID (32) teaching the children of Arta’in.


5:44 – Loud and clear in the monitor. Thank God, Mister David, the water has finally come up! Arta’in has water again! And our students here in Arta’in miss you. [Not clear] A thousand thanks. The biggest. For filling a portion of our schedule at the public school here. Thanks Mr. David. Over.








Village #3

Benua Riam

Pop. 764

CHILDREN wearing monkey masks and costumes struggle to climb a bamboo pole and reach some junk food tied to the top.


Before a wedding ceremony, children from underprivileged families hide their faces – behind masks – and climb up a pole to reach some snacks and sandals – in a public staging of their every day struggle, with a little entertainment value for the rest of us. Somebody’s pet gibbon may have been watching from a front porch nearby.

LENGTHY shot of school girls crossing the square. FOLEY of perpetual chatter from the Mosque.


Here in Benua Riam, the spacious town square and Mosque have the air of a movie set from an old Western film – though against a backdrop of Asian rainforests.

The films of John Wayne were once very popular here – and the Native Americans on screen often called ‘Dayakan’ – resembling the famous local tribes of Borneo.

Then, the ‘hedra’ music, a Middle Eastern sound in the Asian ‘jungle’, signals the start of the ceremony.

While the Muslim ceremony is ongoing:


Before Islam I believed in the arts, in Dayak.

Why did you become Muslim?

It was an opportunity to be like the others.

2:40 – To become a resident, you have to choose a religion right?

3:39 – “The other options were Catholic…I don’t know those. So I became Islamic. There are Buddhist, there are others…But I don’t know. So I chose Islam. Because there are no more – of the old culture – I chose Islam.”

In the opinion of the Government, are your tribal beliefs a religion?

No. They are not.





INSERT: CU of the DAYAK BOY staring into the camera.


10:13 – As for the old cultures, we’re 100% Muslim. But our heritage is of the Dayak tribes. Perhaps my grandfather’s parents were Dayak, but my parents were already Muslim. And their beliefs have gone that way as well. Ceremonies have already gone. They’re not Islamic. […]



The performers hired for the ceremony reflected a different wedding: the first, organized religion, is married to the looser sounds of tribal belief.

The groom’s friends braved the stage, jamming with traditional Dayak instruments, and wearing tribal bracelets too. In the end, only I applauded them.


Our lives are oriented – though through catastrophe and misery –

because we will fight, and we will educate ourselves.

Our lives are not too bad.

Long ago, hardly any were educated. Some chose to stay in the forest – while others chose school.

There still are people in the forest to this day.

The Dayak boy, Arif, disappears from the top of the dam.


In one of the wildest passages in the Quran,

Muhammad mounts a Pegasus and leaves his tribal roots behind forever.

His famous night-flight, eight hundred miles to Jerusalem,

Is in itself the process of hidjaria:

Leaving tribalism forever – for a new ideology

And a broader geography.






CU of the SNAKE EYE. WIDESHOT of the forest. Muliyani takes the snake off of the boat and puts her on the grass.



In the end, Muliyani the poacher was happy to sell me the python for less than half of what they would have given him in China Town – and so I chartered a boat to take us ten kilometers into conservation forest, where she will never be bothered again.


Yah, I usually sell the snakes in the market. But I’m certainly happier if I can sell to [Tourists]…It’d be great if this happened more often […]


The snake is released.








THEN SHOW THE PLTD & change to the topic of electricity



Once a month a boat delivers 10 tons of diesel to three communities in the furthest reaches of the regency.



We’d like to enjoy electricity day and night as well!

Because some people say we’re like candles.

We’re burning, but other people are getting all the light!



Due to unregulated logging and farming above the dam, the dam now produces 9 megawatts less than it did forty years ago, causing rolling blackouts of nine hours in the nearby city of Banjarmasin. While electric company is compensating by burning coal, the eviction of the villagers has to be considered.


9:15: For example, if there were no people here, it would be safer. The dam would be safer even (no effect from people). The forest would be safer. The animals would be safer.

Life would be better.


  • AND CONTINUE down the river again to RANTAU BALAI (if necessary / enough footage)


  • Last shot: A MAN stands there out of focus. FTB










In a day above the dam: Kids use torches to cross a bridge on their way to school, because fire keeps the ghosts away. Sunrise on the island of the pine trees, Pulau Pinus. The people of Apuai bathe here, catch their fish here, and now are sifting through the riverbed for traces of precious minerals. Quite possibly the most useful item above the dam, parang blades are fashioned at a Thursday-only blacksmith’s inthe harbor of Tiwingan. Here the kelotok boats queue and wait to be chartered. Meanwhile in Kala’an Baru, the frantic search for clean water ends – at the freshwater spring feeding the rice paddies, which double as fish farms. The spring, however, is seven kilometers from the town; so today everyone works together to connect to the new source. In Sungai Luar, one family has caught some freshwater lobsters. A garbage fire burns in Bukit Batas. The sun sets over the hilltop town of Arta’in.






-9:13: We need land rights because we’ve been living here since long before the government came in with their rules.

-3:20 – []There is evidence that people were here since 1822*


5:30: “the problem that 12 villages face is that they don’t have land rights…no hak milik. They’re free to stay – so long as they don’t damage the ecosystem.




“In wildness is the conservation of everything.” ~Thoreau



Then let man look at his food: how We pour out water in showers, then turn up the earth into furrow-slices and cause cereals to grow therein – grapes and green fodder; olive-trees and palm-trees; and luxuriant orchards, fruits and grasses….as Provision for you as well as for your cattle. (Qur’an 80:24-32).

And He it is Who sends the winds, as glad tidings heralding His mercy. And We send down pure water from the clouds, that We may give life thereby, by watering the parched earth, and slake the thirst of those We have created – both the animals and the human beings in multitude. (Qur’an 25-48,49).

“There is no man who kills {even} a sparrow or anything smaller, without its deserving it, but God will question him about it.” (Narrated by Ibn ‘Omar and by Abdallah bin Al-As. An-Nasai, 7:206,239, Beirut.

“One who kills unnecessarily, even a sparrow will be questioned by Allah on the day of Judgment.”

Allah Subhanahu wa Ta’ala berfirman :

وَلَا تُفْسِدُوا فِي الْأَرْضِ بَعْدَ إِصْلَاحِهَا

And do not you make a mess on the face of the earth, which Allah had prepared. [al-A’râf/7:56]
Dan janganlah kamu membuat kerusakan di muka bumi, sesudah (Allah) memperbaikinya. [al-A’râf/7:56]

Allâh Azza wa Jalla berfirman:

اللَّهُ الَّذِي يُرْسِلُ الرِّيَاحَ فَتُثِيرُ سَحَابًا فَيَبْسُطُهُ فِي السَّمَاءِ كَيْفَ يَشَاءُ وَيَجْعَلُهُ كِسَفًا فَتَرَى الْوَدْقَ يَخْرُجُ مِنْ خِلَالِهِ ۖ فَإِذَا أَصَابَ بِهِ مَنْ يَشَاءُ مِنْ عِبَادِهِ إِذَا هُمْ يَسْتَبْشِرُونَ

ظَهَرَ الْفَسَادُ فِي الْبَرِّ وَالْبَحْرِ بِمَا كَسَبَتْ أَيْدِي النَّاسِ لِيُذِيقَهُمْ بَعْضَ الَّذِي عَمِلُوا لَعَلَّهُمْ يَرْجِعُونَ

When it’s obvious that the lands and sea have been destroyed by humans, Allah can bring a part of the mess that they have made and give it back to them, so they can return to the correct path. [ar-Rûm/30:41]

Telah nampak kerusakan di darat dan di laut disebabkan karena perbuatan tangan manusi, supaya Allâh merasakan kepada mereka sebahagian dari (akibat) perbuatan mereka, agar mereka kembali (ke jalan yang benar). [ar-Rûm/30:41]


Allah, he who sends the wind, and the wind moves the clouds and Allah forces them into the sky in a brilliant way, and clusters them together; and you see rain come through in strands, and so when the falling rain hits His servants, suddenly they are overjoyed.
Allah, Dialah yang mengirim angin, lalu angin itu menggerakkan awan dan Allâh membentangkannya di langit menurut yang dikehendaki-Nya, dan menjadikannya bergumpal-gumpal; lalu kamu Lihat hujan keluar dari celah-celahnya, maka apabila hujan itu turun mengenai hamba-hamba-Nya yang dikehendakiNya, tiba-tiba mereka menjadi gembira. [ar-Rûm/30:48].


Danau / Waduk PLTA Ir. P.M. Noor

Berupa Danau / Waduk seluas lebih kurang 8.000 Ha dengan fungsi utama sebagai Pembangkit Listrik Tenaga Air satu-satunya di Provinsi Kalimantan Selatan.

Kawasan ini ditetapkan dengan Sk Menteri Pertanian Nomor: 10/Kpts/UM/I/1975 tgl 8 Januari 1975 seluas lebih kurang 55.000 Ha.

Periode Konstruksi:
1962-1964 – Studi kelayakan, desain tehnik
1964-1966 – Pengembangan Situs termasuk akses jalan ke situs
1966-1973 – Main bekerja (Dam, Waterways, Daya tanaman, jalurtransmisi dan gardu)


Reservoir :

DAS : 1.043 km2
Kapasitas penyimpanan kotor: 1.200 Juta m3
Efektif kapasitas penyimpanan : 600 juta m3
Daerah reservoir : 92 km2

Type : Earthfill
Tinggi: 57 m
Volume : 670.000 m3
Elevasi Crest: EL 66.00
Panjang Crest : 195 m

maksimum (gross) 1.200 juta meter kubik dengan daya tampung efektif 600 juta meter kubik air. Luas waduk ini sendiri adalah 92 km2 dengan luas daerah tangkapan air 1.043 km2. Struktur badan bendungan dirancang mampu menahan air hingga ketinggian muka air maksimum 60 meter, minimum ketinggian muka air agar mampu memutar turbin adalah 52 meter, apabila ketinggian muka air mencapai 63 meter maka air akan keluar melalui pelimpasan air (emergency spill way).


Megastructures, like the earthfill dam of Riam Kanan, now block 22% of the world’s rivers; many of the Amazon’s greatest waterways will soon become stagnant reservoirs like this one – and the same is planned for most of Asia. And as always, the people with ties to place – those who change when their lands are changed – are largely being ignored; those tribes who always seem to be saying that not enough research has been done into the side effects of dams in general. This project belongs to them, and all of their strange and wonderful cosmologies.

Nature is “all that was not man: all that was not touched by man, spoilt by man” (1980:77) Taking it a step further, nature is imaginary. –Raymond Williams quoted in In the Time of Trees and Sorrows


In the Time of Trees and Sorrows

Nature, Power, and Memory in Rajasthan

Ann Grodzins Gold and Bhoju Ram Gujar

“ […] the way people choose to remember an event, a history, is at least as important as what one might call the ‘facts’ of that history […]” (2000:8) Each person’s story has intrinsic value-not just as a crude source to be refined into data, but in the telling […] we do not weigh speakers’ interpretations against supposed actuality. Rather, we layer multiple versions to achieve a textured, contoured narrative density. -In the Time of Trees and Sorrows


…these voices are of people who have not only taken pains to educate me more or less from scratch, but have made me feel at home among them […] (my) capacity to hear small voices has been unimpaired by grand visions.


Our claims are considerably…modest: to contribute a few thoughts and a greater measure of grounded substance to three currents of academic discourse-nature, power, and memory…scholarship concerned with envisioning nature and tracking environmental transformations, with subaltern consciousness and struggles, and with the relationship between individual recollections and historical truths.


In two often-cited meditations on the meaning of the English word “nature,” Raymond Williams has argued both that it is “perhaps the most complex word in the language” (1976:84) and that as an idea it contains “an extraordinary amount of human history” (1980:67)


Nature is “all that was not man: all that was not touched by man, spoilt by man” (1980:77) Taking it a step further, nature is imaginary.


“the violence of colonial environmentalism” (1999:192) -Ajay Skaria


“complexities of wildness, and the many sites at which it was produced” (1999:43) -Ajay Skaria


conjoined natural and social transformation




It was not only that the words and views we taped were rarely heard […] but that during the past era not just these elders’ voices but their very beings had been suppressed. At the same time their capacity to speak was indisputable, and their lively tongues articulated not only what they had endured but how their spirits had not been crushed by it.


It is this experiential level that we feel equipped to portray and convey: textures of a life-world in which power’s subtleties are rendered vivid in memories.


“Not only is hegemony never total…it is always threatened by the vitality that remains in the forms of life it thwarts. It follows, then, that the hegemonic is constantly being made-and, by the same token, may be unmade.” (1991:25) -Comaroff


This is voices above the dam. And it should be the voices – not the dam – that captivate us.


my work is part of the disciplinary turn to privilege polyvocality and highlight contested or negotiated realities: in short, following Guha’s admonition […], to admit discord to disrupt monolithic, reductionist accounts. It follows naturally that this turn should favor memory over document; subaltern over rulers; and multiple, fractious voices over omniscient observer. It distrusts records and listens to stories, as we have done-stories of abundant trees and multiple sorrows. -In the Time of Trees and Sorrows


“And though I can hear the dissonant voices in the background protesting just this choice of words, I believe there is still a role for the ethnographer-writer in giving voice, as best she can, to those who have been silenced” (1992:28) -Nancy Scheper-Hughes



Giant mining conglomerates were licensed to save the land from the pollution and depreciations of wild miners, yet legal and illegal prospectors were inseparable. “They go where we go”, a Canadian engineer explained, “and sometimes we follow them”.


This is the salvage frontier, where making, saving, and destroying resources are utterly mixed up, where zones of conservation, production, and resource sacrifice overlap almost fully, and canonical time frames of nature’s study, use, and preservation are reserved, conflated, and confused.


The frontier is not a philosophy but rather a series of historically nonlinear leaps and skirmishes that pile together to create their own intensification and proliferation. The most helpful scholarship, then, is not to be found in abstract treatise but rather in historical descriptions and ethnographies.


Their chainsaws come to them through networks of renting and profit-sharing that cross local, ethnic, and religious lines. They form the slender end of channels of capital reaching from rich Chinese entrepreneurs, conglomerates, and – at that time – the family of the president, flowing in ever narrowing channels out into the forest.


…it was difficult not to conclude that an emergent masculinity fuelled this regionally spreading dynamic, with its ability to unite men across lines of local culture and religion in a competitively intensive virility.


One might call this ‘the tragedy of the tragedy of the commons’, that is, the tragic result of state and corporate policies that assume and enforce open-access conventions as the flip side and precondition of private property.


The activity of the frontier is to make human subjects as well as natural objects.


Natural Resources and Capitalist Frontiers, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing


In Brazil, a moment of alliance between rubber tappers and Indians offered conservationists a strategy to save the forests. Yet in Indonesia, the alliance between frontiersmen and indigenous residents has only recruited the latter to the frontier. This has not been an alliance that saves forests.



…on the meaning of the English word “nature,” Raymond Williams has argued both that it is “perhaps the most complex word in the language” (1976:84) and that as an idea it contains “an extraordinary amount of human history” (1980:67)

-In the Time of Trees and Sorrows



In Riam Kanan, man is up against man and nature is caught in the middle. The health of their wildness is being sent out in megawatts, and the turbines are turning ever slower – as logging and farming practices suck up more water.

Could the locals’ connection to nature also be measured in megawatts, I wonder? Could yours? And the screens and lights that get you through the day?

The country is burning more coal to compensate for a loss of 9 megawatts, and so the eviction of the villagers from their ancestral lands has to be considered.


Frontier landscapes are particularly active: hills are flooding away, ants and humans are on the move. On the frontier, nature goes wild.


The activity of the frontier is to make human subjects as well as natural objects. The frontier, indeed, had come to Kalimantan.


“‘Indonesian Miners Revive Gold Rush Spirit of 49ers’ proclaimed a headline in the Los Angeles Times.” On a continent famous for producing knock offs, even this resource frontier seems unoriginal, “shaped by other wild times and places.”


…to them, the world is a frontier. There is no point in asking how frontiers come to be; they are nature itself.



2:04 – […] But nowadays nobody sees these things anymore. Because we were afraid, we did something about it. We got them to go away!

3:34 – I don’t know what we used to be able to see in the woods.


The Tribe Who Killed Ubud

Healing is a sensation. And it’s a sensation that has people selling their possessions, going broke, even sucking their families dry of money. What are some other things that cause people to act that way?

To be on the inside of any religion, there are some absurd concepts (the Earth is only a few thousand years old) we must accept without skepticism. The healing, new-age, global tribe communities of the world have similar ‘true lies’ at their core. First, you must always believe that you are helping and healing people (more than you are polluting the environment by flying around the world). You must entirely ignore the transactional reality of the services you offer – along with all of the filth that is tied up in the money that changes hands. Having experienced life in the Canadian community of Nelson, where no money is ever involved, Ubud seems like a commercialized amusement park for yuppies. And on a lower and subtler level, most members of these tribes also convince themselves that their obsessive yoga, ecstatic dance, eye gazing, and wearing minimal clothing – is not open to a Freudian interpretation. Sex is seen as another kind of transaction – if you can call it that – that has to be considered unimportant to the community, transcended, precisely in order for it to take place as often as possible. Nothing wrong with that; just saying, the game is even less opaque than a white cotton shirt.

Once in my two years in your macabre garden, I sat across the table from a man with a cigarette as he suggested the many ways I could lose weight; I sat across the table from a man eating a sweet piece of banana cake while telling me to stop eating sugar; another time, a drunken yogi confronted me about the miseries of diabetes – and then stormed out. I knew it was time to leave Ubud when I became fearful of your public places and your long tables – because conversation always, always rang pseudo-psychiatric.

What amount of crap – sucked out with enemas – can you bury in your good intentions?

Some ‘classes’ led by the healthy, young and affluent bule, detached from raw, raw struggle, and forever touring the world, – felt a bit like primary school gym classes, accompanied by a speech like a mediocre sound bite from an old, free-form Ted Talks presentation. That’s because I also recognized these phony gurus as people from my public school: The athletic ones who had health and wealth since birth. And that’s what they were trying to sell us – not for cheap, either!

Some people will feel forever premature in this life, carting around a deep and cellular thirst to spend existence in a velveteen womb, if only it were possible! These types will be vulnerable to the ploys of the healthy, energetic, and unburdened others – trying, with futility, to sell inherent virtues, dealing promise, DNA reprogramming, suggestive diagnosis, preying on hope.

We all felt dangerously comfortable in your Phys Ed classes, however. I took the ubiquitous advice to give up my job and all of my worldly possessions. Then I realized that the only way I could afford to renew my membership with ‘the tribe’ was to cash in on a human impulse to help my fellow human beings. Some of you Ubudians really do remind me of that friend of the family who comes over for dinner and tries to suck everyone into a pyramid scheme with a perfume-spraying vacuum cleaner. It’s shameless! Haven’t you heard of keeping your work and your personal relationships separate? The legitimate among you were too few, in the end.

The tribe says that everyone comes to discover why they live in Ubud eventually, because it has always been a place of healing. This tiresome maxim surmises the suggestiveness inherent in healing communities like this. Just like Big Pharma’s billboards towering above major intersections, could the presence of healing be wafting the suggestion – that you are unwell?

My suggestion? Don’t wait. Don’t pay rich foreigners to stand in for the Hindu-originators of these spiritual practices. Don’t endure another Coldplay song during a yoga practice either. Open Youtube and you’ll find tai-chi, qigong, and yoga – entirely for free!

In the Time of Trees and Sorrows

Nature, Power, and Memory in Rajasthan

by Ann Grodzins Gold and Bhoju Ram Gujar


“the violence of colonial environmentalism” (1999:192) -Ajay Skaria

Nature is “all that was not man: all that was not touched by man, spoilt by man” (1980:77) Taking it a step further, nature is imaginary.


…these voices are of people who have not only taken pains to educate me more or less from scratch, but have made me feel at home among them […] (my) capacity to hear small voices has been unimpaired by grand visions.

“ […] the way people choose to remember an event, a history, is at least as important as what one might call the ‘facts’ of that history […]” (2000:8) Each person’s story has intrinsic value-not just as a crude source to be refined into data, but in the telling […] we do not weigh speakers’ interpretations against supposed actuality. Rather, we layer multiple versions to achieve a textured, contoured narrative density. -In the Time of Trees and Sorrows

Our claims are considerably…modest: to contribute a few thoughts and a greater measure of grounded substance to three currents of academic discourse-nature, power (electricity!), and memory…with the relationship between individual recollections and historical truths.

my work is part of the disciplinary turn to privilege polyvocality and highlight contested or negotiated realities: in short, following Guha’s admonition […], to admit discord to disrupt monolithic, reductionist accounts. It follows naturally that this turn should favor memory over document; subaltern over rulers; and multiple, fractious voices over omniscient observer. It distrusts records and listens to stories, as we have done-stories of abundant trees and multiple sorrows. -In the Time of Trees and Sorrows

“complexities of wildness, and the many sites at which it was produced” (1999:43) -Ajay Skaria

It was not only that the words and views we taped were rarely heard […] but that during the past era not just these elders’ voices but their very beings had been suppressed. At the same time their capacity to speak was indisputable, and their lively tongues articulated not only what they had endured but how their spirits had not been crushed by it.

It is this experiential level that we feel equipped to portray and convey: textures of a life-world in which power’s subtleties are rendered vivid in memories.

“Not only is hegemony never total…it is always threatened by the vitality that remains in the forms of life it thwarts. It follows, then, that the hegemonic is constantly being made-and, by the same token, may be unmade.” (1991:25) -Comaroff

“And though I can hear the dissonant voices in the background protesting just this choice of words, I believe there is still a role for the enthnographer-writer in giving voice, as best she can, to those who have been silenced” (1992:28) -Nancy Scheper-Hughes

In two often-cited meditations on the meaning of the English word “nature,” Raymond Williams has argued both that it is “perhaps the most complex word in the language” (1976:84) and that as an idea it contains “an extraordinary amount of human history” (1980:67)

conjoined natural and social transformation

Balabalagan: Touring Uninhabited Islands of Sulawesi

In October 2016, Sardhy Binsal had put out an open invitation for travelers to come and hang their hammocks on the uninhabited islands of Balabalagan. The chance attracted five foreign nationals – from France, Croatia, Canada, Switzerland, and Italy – and some local diving aficionados; the boat, for this first-time expedition, filled quickly – to the wooden trim.

The simple islands are suitably called only ‘islands’, or Balabalagan, in the language of Mandar. A scattered archipelago once torn in between Borneo and Sulawesi, the regency was made part of Sulawesi only ten years ago. Local officials have been promising to develop the regency ever since – and there are even rumors South Korea wants to blemish it with a casino. Perhaps due to corruption of funds, these balabalangan remain mostly unchanged and uninhabited – but is that such a good thing?

Departing Mamuju, after four and a half hours cutting waves on a speed boat we crawled ashore on the bright, bright island of Arbo; children came out to meet us, leading us down the white sand streets between their bright colored homes, up on stilts. At an intersection of straits and currents, people here will surprise you with their brown hair and eyes, deep-set dimples, light skin, curls; some of them are descended from the Dayak tribes of neighboring Borneo, while others – it is hard to say!


Sambil makan siang (pulau Arbo, Balabalagan).

In what must have seemed a very foreign impulse, we then piled back in our boat and left them in favor of an uninhabited island.

There was a party of Bugis fishermen inhabiting the island of Pattilagaan, however, having come all the way from Makassar. In a clutter of mangrove roots and sand we strung our hammocks up in the rain and set in on cooking some nasi goreng. Our cluttered shelter was back-to-back with the Bugis men’s – these kind seafarers and nomads of Indonesia, who gave us coffee with sugar and took a smoke break while listening to the only French saxophonist the island is likely to host.


Lunch in Arbo: David (Canada) Alex (Croatia)

After a slow rise we spent the next day submerged, diving and snorkeling around the drop off. While the bule foreigners were impressed, a local diver sighed, exclaiming:

The reefs are ruined!

Never mind Korean casinos, locals suffering economic lows pose great threats to their own natural resources – fishing the modern way: with bombs and poison bius. Sardhy hopes the election of a new regent will bring some change, come February 2017. He also hopes that a few islanders are sent abroad for comparative studies to learn how to protect the environment and open up for ecotourism.

At the next landmass our Indonesian faction would stay behind with the boat. Sumanga Besar, an austere bank of white sand with a buffer of shrubs and conifers, bears a curse: Anyone who sleeps here will lose all of their vitality and cheer, they say. A direct result of this fear-mongering myth, the frilled and rolling reefs around Sumanga are neon and complete, sloping down into a wall of eerie blue; green sea turtles passed on their commute through psychedelic corals.


Handstands on Melambar: Sardhy (Memuju, Sulawesi)

Scouting out an island to camp on, we found the uninhabited half of Malamber island rimmed in shallow reefs and rough waves; our curly-haired pilot, as he calls himself, diverted us to an only less uninhabited island nearby. There, the two wives of one very large and happy fisherman met us with coffee. Together with three of their eleven children, the family lives alone here in the shade of 500 square meters of coconut palms – rimmed in white sand.

The rain was a never-ending applause as we picked out our house and base camp. Few can convince their children to stick around the islands so there were five large wooden homes raised on stilts to chose from. Sardhy said that one could be purchased for around $10,000 or less. Anyway, we took over the ghost town, and I asked, “What are some local myths?”

In West Sulawesi, everyone knows a few To Dolo – tales that have been passed down. These might involve the modern city of Waitira, hidden behind a waterfall that you can only enter with an offering of five white chickens. Or the To Pembunyi, a fabled tribe said to live in the rain forests – also the fabled ancestors of the people of West Sulawesi and originators of the local animistic variant, Moporondo.

Other tales involve tabani gnomes: noses upside down living in fear of the rain that pours into their nostrils – but taking a gleeful pleasure in tickling people…to death!

The reefs surrounded Melamber like painted eyelids – intact, rich, alien megalopolises; coconuts were ripe; we watched the last sunset like a film, walked the island late at night to see the stars and watch for turtles – then piled into the boat and went home, salt-sprayed, wind-swept, sunburned, with impressions of Balabalagan.


Melambar, see you again!

Borneo Magic – in Kalimantan Selatan? 7-Day-Tour w. Sahabat Bekantan Indonesia, Banjarmasin.


The city of Banjarmasin, Kalimantan Selatan, has many masks: A place of important Muslim pilgrimages, the southern port to the third largest island in the world, and in the eyes of many a Bali tourist – nothing at all. For this reason I recently took a group of five European friends on a true adventure around the province as it still offers the novelty of exclusivity no longer available in Indonesia’s usurping comfort zones. Our expedition included five orangutan spottings, a bonfire in a Dayak tribal community, teaching French in underdeveloped villages, mornings at floating markets, appearances in newspapers and on TV, and spotting tens of proboscis monkeys – crucial experiences of Bornean magic in one week!


Our first morning we sat cross-legged on the roof of a kelotok boat coasting along a Borean freeway – a traffic jam on a broad river leading to the floating market of Lok Baintan. Known as the city of a thousand rivers and the Venice of Asia, traffic signs line the riverbanks of Banjarmasin. Being stuck in a jam of elderly women selling fruit, coffee, and local sweets loaded in their wooden jukung boats for about two hours was an experience of the world closer to the humble – and chaotic – start of human history, the spirited morning of the world. Paco from France stood tall on the roof of the boat, calling out for pisang goreng (fried bananas) and a vendor eagerly paddled over to us. Borneo’s floating markets are reminiscent of those in Thailand and Myanmar, as are the indigenous tattoos and piercings – because the original people of Borneo descended from Myanmar in boats. The people of Borneo are a minority in Asia, having avoided any influence from Mongolia – culturally and genetically. They instead opted for life in Borneo’s 140 million-year-old rainforests.


Later that same afternoon we boarded another boat to tour the island home of some 75 proboscis monkeys on Pulau Bakut, under the Barito bridge and the trans-Kalimantan highway. A local conservation effort focused on saving their city’s mascot, the proboscis, from extinction, Sahabat Bekantan Indonesia’s employees thoughtfully brought along some mangrove trees for us to plant on the banks of the island – to help deal with erosion. And as we sunk the trees into the muddy banks tens of proboscis monkeys were ghosting us from the trees above. Barges the size of warehouses carried pyramids of coal and piles of lumber down the river, traveling forwards with the relentlessness of these changing times; and in their wake are just a few more mangrove trees.

The Punan and U’ut Dayak have been the strong and lively children of these forests for millennia. They would tell you, however, that orangutan have never been easy to come by. For a glimpse of them it was a full day on the road into the neighboring province of Kalimantan Tengah. We passed the city of Palangkaraya once slated to become the capital of Indonesia – now at the heart of the forest fires of a palm oil economy. From here we rented a boat and channeled through the forests encircling an island rehabilitation center – for orphaned apes. I should think that triangulating our gazes into the eyes of an animal at least resembling a common ancestor – and then back at one another, then back to a female ape where she sits in the dark shade of green leaves, would unite any odd assortment of people. With permission, we went overboard and swam as close as possible to the orange people of the forest – who responded by wisely tossing sticks and stones our way.


As you approach the tribal communities of Loksado the rules of the road change, because Dayak motorists are said to be fearless; we sounded the horn at every turn and motorists flung past us thoughtlessly. While the main community of Loksado has many conveniences and basic services, hiking trails lead off into the hills, connecting Dayak settlements that are set back – both in space and in time. Pigs and dogs roam the streets and families partake in weaving and preparing cinnamon sticks on their front porches. The attraction at the heart of Loksado’s popularity for a good reason, we couldn’t leave without taking a raft down the rivers and through the woods. Our Dayak boatman propelled us through the forest, stopping every hour for a swim in azure whirlpools. He had once rafted down the river for a full month to sell some goods in the city of Banjarmasin.

If an itinerary didn’t leave some down time for connecting with locals it would be a soulless photo opportunity not anchored in any deeper reality. As five foreigners walking into Teluk Mendung village, small flipflops slapped down the boardwalks to greet us. We greeted kids with one blank book each – for studying, doodling, learning, and we also brought writing supplies. Under the awning of a front porch we sang songs, exchanged national anthems, and had a jam – on the only saxophone some of these people will ever see or hear. While the foreign sounds captivated everybody, Valerie, from France, disappeared for about twenty minutes into a wooden shack that was raised up on stilts above the river. The women of the village had invited her in as she was the only female of the group. Without a single communicable word between them, they passed twenty minutes together; a pregnant woman ran her fingers over Valerie’s face, arms, legs – and as a woman Valerie knew the point of this Malayu tradition. The local woman was inspiring French features in her unborn baby to be born on the boardwalk banks of a river in Borneo. When Valerie came back she was in a higher emotional octave. Traditionally, pregnant women of Kalimantan should also avoid looking at monkeys so not to inspire impishness in their children; husbands alike should also try to avoid reaching into a narrow opening to remove an object, until the child is born.

From the port of Tiwingan Lama our last experience was the catchment of Riam Kanan – down the rivers and to the small villages above an important 30 MW hydroelectric dam. We strolled through a village in the forest; Liang Toman was draped with flags for independence day. Here we sang more songs and jumped into the water with all of the village’s children. Our last sunset in Kalimantan was on an uninhabited island in the middle of a vast river – barefooted, windswept, wide-eyed, and together. We were all more than a bit reluctant to head back to the comfort zone of Indonesia – though at this time we needed the rest.