Coming to Cipaganti as a volunteer, without any background in primatology, zoology, conservation or science was – without doubt – one of the most daunting things I have signed up for to date. (At the risk of that sounding overly dramatic, let me first point out out that as an actor, that may be the underlying tone of this blog entry… Sincere apologies to all.)
Why then, might you ask, would someone like me even consider such an endeavour?
Short Answer? Adventure!
Long answer? I am a closet nature-nerd (Shhhh…).
My Nat Geo subscription dates back to the age of 12 and much to the dismay of my parents, I refuse to let a single dog-eared issue be disposed of. I have also always had a burning urge to travel, albeit not to the usual hum-drum, tourist-filled places… My sense of wanderlust being firmly established yet somewhat unconventional, perhaps.
When my long-time friend from home, Rob, took up the position of field station co-ordinator at LFP, I didn’t really bat an eyelid. He was always heading off to some far-flung corner of the planet saving animals and protecting their natural habitats. Like a ninja. A CONSERVATION ninja… However, when he mentioned to me that there was an opportunity for non-ninjas, like me, to volunteer in the field and actually contribute something to this incredibly worthy cause, my interest spiked. Suddenly e-mails were being hurried back and forth and plans were being made at lightning speed. A mere seven days after my flights were booked, I was off. Nervous as hell.
Life here in the village of Cipaganti, in the Garut regency of West Java, is as far removed from “The Western Way” as one could imagine. Every now and then little hints of western culture crop up, but they are short lived and swiftly swallowed up by the immense devotion to the traditional ways by which people here live their lives. The morning call to prayer can be heard simultaneously from Mosques all over the region and without hesitation, the village springs to life, paying little heed to the still-dark sky.
Being from a notoriously sleepy town in the West of Ireland, the 5am kick-start took some getting used to. However, having recently discovered the magic of earplugs, I have been granted a new lease of life (sleep) and the slumber situation so far seems to be coming up Milhouse.
When it comes to getting around, the best, and often only method of transport is “ojeg” or motorcycle taxi. They can be easily hailed down but they will often stop to ask you if you need a lift to the next town or village. As Cipaganti is located on the side of a steep volcano and the roads are in extreme disrepair, taking an ojeg downhill is pretty much a matter of holding on for dear life. That said, the drivers appear to be some strange breed of wizard, skilfully mastering each swivel of the handlebar and summoning their bikes to stay on track despite every law of physics conspiring to work against them… Silly science.
My trip here happens to have also coincided with Ramadan; a forty day fasting period whereby absolutely nothing is consumed during daylight hours (this also includes water along with the Indonesian man’s beloved cigarette or “Sampoerna”). Children here usually begin training for Ramadan from the age of four, participating in semi-fasts with their families until they are fully geared up for the whole hog (no pun intended).
It’s incredible how little – from an outsiders point of view – Ramadan is allowed to impact on daily life here. Shops are opened, farms are tended to and business is conducted as usual. Despite temperatures of +30°C and 90% humidity, 12hour work days of backbreaking, labour-intensive graft are endured, seemingly without complaint.
As the project itself depends hugely on the support and co-operation of the local community, extra care is taken in the field house to obscure from view any food or drink during fasting hours. While this clearly portrays LFPs respect towards the local community, it also serves to make one feel like a massive cheat, guiltily scoffing away cereal and noodles behind closed doors like Gollum. The shame is immense…
One thing you can guarantee to brighten up the day, however, are the people, and in particular, the local kids. As kids go, they’re top notch. Cream of the crop adorable. Their fascination and curiosity with the project and its team is simply infectious and they are happy to sit and chatter away for hours at a time while colouring in pictures – wonderfully oblivious to the idea of any language barrier even existing. I will take many things away from this incredible trip, but the warmth and generosity of these magnificent people and their families will hold steadfast in my memories of Western Java.
– Seóna Tully