For the last few months, I have read accounts of expeditions to Borneo, to the Amazon, and to New Guinea in preparation for our travels. Reading about their trials and tribulations, I have jotted down notes about essential items that might help us avoid their pitfalls. I am amazed that they made these journeys without the help of plastic. Above all else, the rainforest is a very wet place.
Our research camp was constructed in a forest clearing using small trees, rattan for rope, and large blue tarps. Watching the structure materialize, I was skeptical of its ability to keep out the elements and to keep us comfortable. Aside from one night, when the roof almost collapsed during a downpour, it held up for our stint in the forest. I do think the plastic tarps helped. Privacy was not a feature of the camp – we all slept side-by-side on large canvas hammocks that were strung tightly between two wooden poles. I would not call the hammocks comfortable, but they were certainly serviceable beds. Our guides strung up their hammocks in a similar fashion, but they used old rice sacks instead of canvas and I was told they were comfortable but itchy.
I chose to sleep without a mosquito net on my hammock since there were very few biting insects and I preferred to have a breeze. Of course, this also meant that I had frequent nightly visitors – from giant spiders to beetles to wasps. On the first night, I lay on my stomach reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch by the light of my headlamp and was startled out of a drawing room in England by the appearance of a giant longhorn beetle scuttling past the top of my book.
A research table was put on one side of the large tent along with a small tent for changing clothes. The tent was also used by a number of the researchers for their prayers. One the first few nights, before the tent was covered, I would see one of the girls praying in the middle of tent after dark. In my mind, I have a beautiful image of her wrapped in an ornate prayer shawl, bending forward on a mat in our muddy research camp. I am still struck by the incongruity of her elegant piety in the midst of a dirty rainforest tent.
In addition to our main tent, we had a kitchen area were we took our meals. The guides built a small hearth were two fires were kept burning throughout the day. The two cooks were women from the village and they would often rise at 4am to start preparing the rice, which they had to boil in a giant pot. The guides also made us a dining table for the kitchen by binding together a row of small, equally sized branches. The stocks of food were stored in the kitchen on another platform and I was continually surprised by how many insects were interested in me and how few were interested in the open food containers. Rick had a roach crawl out of his lunch at one point, but food was generally insect free (he finished that meal like a champ!).
Downstream from the research camp, the guides built a toilet and shower for us. The toilet consisted of a four-foot deep hole in the ground. Planks were strapped together with a hole cut in the middle, and this platform rested over the hole in the ground. The toilet was Indonesian-style – a hole over which you balance and squat. After a few days, we even erected a tent-like structure over the platform for some privacy. The toilet helped us contain our waste and even played home to some frogs for a while. The saffron-bellied frog particularly liked the toilet and could often be heard singing from the deep when disturbed.
One of the best parts of camp was the lovely river where we took our baths. Just below the camp, there was a pool about four feet deep under the shade of a giant tree. For the first few nights, I bathed with the other girls in the pool after dark. Although Rick and I had brought too much for the expedition, I failed to bring a sarong to use for bathing and could not bathe freely until nightfall. Tika, Ririn, Fabe and I would sneak down to the river after dark and use our headlamps to bathe in the pool. The first night we did this, screams and squeals echoed up from the stream each time a headlamp shone down on us from the research camp. The girls would duck behind the rocks, hopeful that no one could see them from above. While I unabashedly stripped down to my underwear to bathe, the other women were more modest. They left on much of their clothing, removing only their head scarfs in the privacy of our nighttime bath. Standing in the cool pool under the dark canopy will remain one of my favorite memories of the whole experience. This joy was not even diminished after we found a number of water snakes, fish, and crabs in the pool over the following days.