I spent all morning building myself a sleeping platform, and by midday the bamboo and rattan had cut my hands to shreds. Around me a small village has sprung up, with more families arriving as the day wears on. Work would continue on the hayak shelters throughout the week, and they became bigger and better by the day. Saplings are cut freely for building, and well-trodden paths soon developed between the houses as surrounding brush is trampled down. The camp is split into three little islands of hayaks, my own simple shelter sitting alone in a central no-man’s land—the unfortunate product of a jungle-style urban sprawl.
Now, as the evening draws in, thoughts turn to tomorrow’s activities. Men tend to their blowguns and poison darts, women fashion fishing rods and fix nets, and the children charge around camp with remarkable energy, swinging on vines, backflipping into the river, and cutting down small trees to build shelters of their own. Wood smoke rises from cooking fires and fish fry in the old metal woks. Yet soon night will draw in and the Batek will do what they do best—sit, talk, laugh, drink copious amounts of sugared tea and eat. It seems that’s why we’re here after all. And all around the jungle sings its chorus.
This is part of a larger series of articles on the Batek expedition
TALES FROM THE JUNGLE
OTHER BATEK ARTICLES
A jungle village begins to take shape
The next day I am awoken from deep sleep by the rapid dance of tiny paws across my back: the Batek fondness of pets never fails to take me by surprise. This particular creature, Anol’s pet squirrel, would run free in the jungle all day, coming back at night to sleep in a rucksack with the family. The boy had also brought a bird, dull-coloured and about the size of a fist, which he would feed by hand, bathe and climb trees to retrieve it at night.
The sound of firewood splitting punctuates the crisp air, fuel for tea and the customary breakfast of, once again, fish and rice. I lie in, listening to the sounds of the camp around me and watching as the sun rises through the trees above. Anol, Aman and Cina soon tire of chasing one other and come to sit on the edge of my platform for company. The sounds of the jungle begin to wake and tendrils of smoke curl up into the canopy. There is the smell of tobacco in leaf rolls, a gentle patter of last night’s rainwater falling from the trees. In the distance I hear a troupe of gibbons begin their whooping chorus as they move off to start their day.
Later in the day we headed into the forest on a foraging trip. The root of a viciously spiked shrub, dug up, sliced small and beaten to a pulp was leached into a jungle stream, white tendrils of its toxic essence creeping through the water like a subaquatic smoke. Fish became drowsy and floated to the surface where they were plucked from the stream by adult and child alike. Later we cut to the ground a couple of giant palms, the trunk hacked open and peeled back to reveal the heart’s chalky white flesh. It was impressive: little work for a massive quantity of food. The children gorged on the sweet white vegetable, crunching it as they stood, while the remainder was carried back to camp to be sliced and boiled. Even the boiling water was drunk: a pleasant, herbal tasting tea. Heart of palm and fried fish it was for lunch.
Heart of palm and fish for lunch: The fruits of a morning's foraging
Camp life ebbed and flowed with the heat of the day. Food is cooked and consumed at random, people squatting in circles around the steaming pots to eat. The stream that flowed in a wide meander around camp becomes the scene of clothes washing, bathing, and play. Children splash each other in the clear water, standing naked or wrapped in faded sarongs. They swing from vines and chase each other up trees, while in camp their brothers and sisters absorb themselves with machetes and baby animals. I stop to watch little Cina dripping wax from a candle onto her hand, giggling with satisfaction as the hot liquid solidifies on her skin.
Out here they are truly free: supervision from parents is lax, and they play as they please, running all day and curling into corners when they crash. There are no bed times, no health and safety, washing requirements or curfews here. And so is well, for their play is their schooling, and thus they learn the way of the jungle forager. Much of their game is in imitation of their elders: the use of bare soles as a backstop for machete carving; the catching of fish to snack on; digging with digging sticks; making fires; and trying their hand at building small shelters. These young Batek are already independent to an extraordinary degree, and I marvel as I watch a group of six-year olds catch and cook fish before felling small trees to construct raised beds of their own.
More than anything I am struck by the vibrancy that surrounds me. There is an aliveness and vitality of colour that the camera cannot capture, nor which I can explain. I feel as if looking though some colour enhancing glasses—and that’s from someone who’s colour blind!
Children of the rainforest
It is different out here in the jungle with them. Most negatives of their quasi-forager culture are gone. Out here it is a simpler and more traditional existence: more to do and less social politics. A smaller group feels more natural: true tribe and family. Families and individuals come and go throughout the week, staying for a night or two with friends or settling in to build hayaks of their own. I’m told that another larger camp has been built deeper in the jungle, in the forest corridor of Sungai Yu. At last I begin to see first-hand the ancestral nomadism of the Batek.
All that said, there’s still plenty of free time, and as is typical in such communities we spend much of the day sitting in the shade of shelters, laughing and talking. In many ways our presence is that of glorified camping, for most of our food we have brought with us. Yet here there is an extreme juxtaposition, as our rice and vegetables are supplemented by fishing and foraging. The men endlessly apply poison to their blowgun darts, perhaps more in a show of masculine pride and traditional nostalgia than for actual use, yet at least a few times I see pairs slink off into the jungle at dark in search of mouse deer or civet.
Akoi applies poison to the tips of his blowgun darts
They tell me we came to collect ‘aweigh’, the rattan vine with which we have built our shelters, but we’ve been here now four days and I have yet to see any move to do so. I think perhaps the idea serves more as an excuse to be out here than any actual purpose, or perhaps this is just the Batek way: it wouldn’t seem out of place.
I feel better out here too—more on equal terms. Even with my unfortunate location at the village’s centre, here I have my own space to which I can withdraw, my own work to attend to. I am no longer in somebodies’ home, eating at somebody else’s hearth. Social effort is less and interaction flows more naturally between the tribe and I. Yet even so, it is draining being in a fish tank, never truly able to relax. A social anxiety for cultural correctness and the constant work to decipher this strange language keeps me always in a state of mental overdrive. Twice I walked out to the nearby village of Merapoh, the twelve-mile round trip my chance to decompress and enjoy some alone time, a luxury extremely hard to find in camp.
My own shaky attempt at a Batek-style jungle shelter
I am sitting in Doi’s shelter. Her husband Kuhm squats in front of us, building a fire to cook our evening rice and fish. The atmosphere of the village permeates me like a physical entity, and I can’t help wondering on this as the natural state of human society.
It is the smooth wooden slats of split bamboo against my skin, the smell of fish from the fire; the sound of the jungle that hems us in on all sides. But more so it is the human community that flows around me. Cina and Aman lie curled up beside me in blankets, Cina’s little head against my lap, Aman with the baby squirrel tucked under his sheets. Around the camp are little groups, huddled around the orange glow of cooking fires as they enjoy a dinner of rice and eel; tea and the warmth of the flames. There is the low hum of nasal Batek, laughter and the crackle of wood in flame. Throughout the night there will linger a constant hum of human community, punctuating the jungle’s teeming buzz of nocturnal life. Someone is always up—eating and talking, babies and snoring—the natural pattern of human sleep, uninfluenced by the insulation and overstimulation of modern society.
A home in the jungle
But right now, beyond the fire circles, the jungle cries its dusk chorus. The camp is a haven amidst a green ocean of living shadows, and suddenly the great unknown wilderness seems friendly and welcoming—cradling our little space of home amidst its mighty arms. Around us great trees stretch to the moonlit sky, and beyond the borders of our clearing the wildness of tropical life teems untamed. Yet our small collection of open-sided hayaks feel as homely as any house or dwelling I have ever lived in.
I feel that there is something more here, a wildness beyond even the most admirable of expedition and wild-camping culture of our western society. The difference is that here this is normality, not the exception. This belongingness within the forest, it is another life—one of living in and as a part, not as a visitor. We live a life of daily happenings here, isolated, whilst the rest of the world goes on simultaneously elsewhere. To think of that other life continuing on outside, back home in England, in the many communities I know and love elsewhere, is strange. Somehow it would make more sense to me for it all to have paused in time. It is so far removed, so difficult to explain and convey, even in comparison to pathways outside the grasp of conventional society. Here it is a different paradigm of existence altogether, challenging even to describe. I am experiencing another world.
Yet it has been this way for all of human kind, and somewhere, deep down and instinctual, far below the nurture of a western upbringing, I feel it resonate still. Like the stirrings of a memory long forgotten; a dream from a distant past. I find it difficult to believe that I am here: the surrealism of living amongst this community of foragers as if it were entirely normal. But in a strange way it is: here are friends and an adopted family; an existence as natural as our species itself. My mind struggles with the parallel feelings of an extraordinary experience beside that of deeply-engrained belongingness: each emotion as strong and visceral as the other.
I turn to Ming beside me and ask in faltering Batek, 'Do you like living in the jungle or the village more?’. His eyes take on a glassy sheen, as if remembering a distant childhood amidst the forests of old. ‘Ba heughb’ he replies—‘In the jungle’. There is meaning in his gaze.
The camp is a constant buzz of activity: cooking, washing and eating, interspersed with long periods of lazy socialising
On the sixth evening the sky grew dark long before dusk with the threat of storm. Heat and humidity became close and oppressive, and the camp became a flurry of activity. Shelter tarps were tightened, palm rooves fixed and hayaks closed in tight. I headed to the river to wash, anxious to shed the day’s mud and stickiness before the rains came. It was cold, and I lay face down in the flowing water enjoying the stimulation on my skin. My thoughts wandered: the Batek never washed at dusk—perhaps they don’t like the cold? Or maybe its taboo: a time of spirits? Or perhaps they’re much the same thing.
While I wash, the blood sacrifice is called—a desperate attempt to appease the spirits of the jungle for our encroachments of the day. But the spirits aren’t happy. I sense no small storm is coming.
Thunder cracks across the sky and lightning illuminates the village—blasts of startling white light in diffuse pulses through the clouds. Then the wind comes, and it comes in hard, leading the assault for the rains that follow. Trees sway and threaten to fall while the Batek cluster under the shelters they deem best placed, barely scrambling under cover before the heavens open. Fast and thick: fat drops of drenching wetness. Fires burn low and the village settles in for the night.
Hayaks are the scene of food preparation and conversation, while outside foraging goes on in earnest
I sleep little: heavy rain threatens to collapse my tarp, and I quickly learn that my shelter is not suited to such deluge. Unlike the Batek with their variable anchor points I’ve tied my corners too high and my feet are drenched throughout the night. The Batek sleep uneasily. They know only too well the dangers of flash floods and strong winds. It is the story of many a myth and legend: ‘olof’, the ‘broken ground’, and ‘chilan’, the spirit taboos and blood sacrifice.
Twice I wake to crashes nearby as giant trees bludgeon a path the ground, Batek shouts and calls echoing the reverberation of their mighty impacts. That night there is a sense of power far beyond human kind: the power of nature in all her ancient might. To be in the presence of such otherworldly presence is humbling—a visceral insight to the paradoxical fragility and wild freedom of human life.
When morning finally breaks, bright and clear, other than the sodden ground there’s no tale of last night’s drama. Refreshed and sun-charged, the jungle begins its vibrant chorus while our little village emerges from hiding. Intensifying rays send steam from the thatched rooves and rainforest canopy, and life amongst the great green city begins again as normal.
After a further two nights of deluge the decision is made to head back to the village. They may still be wild—the true people of the forest—but these Batek know the comforts of enclosed houses; the sanctuary of a permanent bamboo shelter. That evening we make a sudden rush to cover the miles back as thunder rolls ominously overhead. In the darkness I slip and fall, plastering myself in slick, cloying mud. It is the jungle toying with me, a gentle reminder that it will always have the upper hand.
Adopted family and a home from home
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