July 08, 2008

Korrie Layun Rampan


by Korrie Layun Rampan

Cited from The Jakarta Post, Sunday, November 02, 2003

I had not been back to enjoy the beauty of this river for 40 years.

As a child, I took pride in Nyuatan River, where I first learned to swim, went fishing and paddled a boat against a strong current.

I was able catch bigger baung and belida fish, tortoises, even jelawat and patin fish, turtles and crocodiles.

Along with my elder brother Tingang, I was almost dragged down under a heap of wood caught on a fallen tree trunk, with its branches blocking the flow of flotsam from upstream. It happened when a crocodile pulled the rope tied to a long rattan stem floating in the stream.

With a dead monkey as bait, the crocodile trap was set afloat near the upper side of Nyomit Bay. Tingang immediately paddled toward the tip of the drifting stem and yanked the rope to make its iron hook become entangled in the reptile's guts. Perhaps out of fright or pain from its snagged belly, it quickly dove into the riverbed, going downstream under the scrap.

Our boat nearly tipped over as it hit the drooping log, which hampered river traffic with its top end lying halfway across. If my brother had not promptly released the rattan rope that he held, the boat might have slipped down under the sinking tree top.

I reversed the boat at once. The rattan tip of the trap sank for a while, drifting downstream. The crocodile was apparently trying to hide itself under the scrap to evade the hunt. But it had swallowed the monkey with the hook sticking inside. Wherever it went, the stem would show its floating tip to signal its whereabouts to my brother.

With his previous crocodile hunting experience on the river, he was certainly aware that hooked crocodiles were easy to haul onto the water surface. Yet it's on this surface that anglers should be particularly alert, because the powerful tail of this reptile could even smash down the large proboscis ape monkey native to this area of Kalimantan.

Jerking the rope he'd grabbed in the downstream current, he asked me to paddle to the bank. The boat was rocking slightly as the crocodile struggled hard and tried to swim further down. Tingang gripped the rope and the boat was tugged along by the crocodile, gliding fast downstream.

But when it was approaching the bay, the rope he clasped loosened. Then he drew the cord to reduce the distance between the crocodile and the boat. My heart was pounding for fear of those sharp-toothed long jaws snatching and devouring us both.

My brother already displayed the courage of a man. Showing no bewilderment or dread, he kept pulling the rope so that he got even closer to the crocodile. Now and again, it hit the boat with its tail, but Tingang deftly blocked the attack with the paddle blade. Another harder strike broke the blade and he was almost knocked off-balance.

Fortunately, he retained the handle to keep guard and save himself in case it smashed again. Meanwhile, the boat continued to cruise down the river and my brother tried to tie up its jaws. When he managed to lasso the jaws with the noose he had prepared, he jerked the rope to tighten the loop. He twisted the cord round and round to render the animal hopeless.

We so wanted to declare that we were top crocodile catchers. The next morning we would proudly tell our local villagers that we were no longer children thanks to our feat. So we tied the strapped reptile with a long rope to a robust wild mango tree to prevent it from escaping while allowing it to submerge. When people gathered, we would show them how two kids were the real conquerors of the "river king".

But before we had the opportunity to boast about our catch in the village, uncle Kojajanga found the crocodile dead at dawn.

"I went to the bay to lift a fish trap and when I returned I found it lifeless," I remembered him telling us.

But we got a good price for its skin. A Chinese trader from the city visiting the village bought our crocodile skin and Tingang deposited the money in a bank, enabling him to go to secondary school.

He told me later that the money left in his account was spent on his college tuition until graduation. He knew crocodile hunting was risky but he loved it. "Some day," he said wistfully, "nobody will catch crocodiles because they will no longer be found in this river."

I had no idea of the truth of his words at that time. But after my long absence from my ancestral village to study in the city -- and brought back by a desperate note from my mother about my father's sickness -- I realized that everything had changed.

When I went back to the stream where I had grown up, I felt something was missing. The shady rengas trees known for their fine timber, from which honeycombs hung in the past, no longer covered river plains.

Even nangka air, a kind of jackfruit formerly used as bait for catching baung and jelawat fish, was gone without a trace. Only some dahuq trees were left, with their yellow fruit dangling in clusters. The giant trees of the past were nowhere to be found, as if they had been uprooted by tornadoes and flown to realms of the hereafter! Puti and bilas trees, also the habitat of honeybees, vanished, probably due to long droughts or widespread forest fires several years ago.

I took a motorcycle taxi from Mencimai and Pucak Lomuq crossroads till I reached the riverbank to go by boat to Rinding village.

"So you're a native of Rinding?" asked the young man paddling the boat. "I've never seen you here so far."

"I'm a native here indeed," I affirmed. "But I was away for 40 years. This place has changed a lot."

"You left 40 years ago?" he responded with surprise. "It means you're 21 years older than me. Are you working in Jakarta?"

"I've been working there since I graduated in Yogyakarta," was my reply. "Do you go to college?"

"I can't afford to. Rattan is now worthless. Lakes are drying up and abandoned by fish because of the spread of water hyacinth. Our land has been stripped of logs, only forest products can be collected. But only a few have such permits. My father just cultivates dry fields..."

"Who's your father?"

"Upo Solai Puaq."

I remembered who his father was. He was my cousin.

"Your dad was my playmate. I used to go downstream myself by boat to school in Damai, but once it almost sank. Later I went to secondary and high school in Samarinda, before attending college in Yogyakarta and settling in Jakarta."

"You must be Pelanuk Muntih Jelo," the other youth at the bow said. "Only bapak Pelanuk Muntih Jelo has not returned. The others have been back, so we recognize them."

"You're right. You are brothers?"

"Yes, we are."

"Where's your dad's school?"

"Dad never attended school. Neither did mom. Rinding has no school. Only two houses are now left, or three with Usmaha Tinga's home, which nearly collapsed because it had been left abandoned for so long."

I could not express my emotions. When the boat was moored at the spot where villagers bathed, I suddenly remembered how Tingang and I had caught uncle Kojajanga stepping out of the house of a woman, Mileuwaq, during that foggy dawn when we went to check on the crocodile.

Perhaps in an attempt to avert suspicion, Kojajanga said he was checking that crocodile we had tied to the wild mango tree was dead.

Now, I jumped onto the shore. As I looked in the direction of downstream, a river extended to the east, seemingly penetrating a marshy forest.

"The bay has been cut off," said the one at the stern. "There were big floods and the family graves by the bay were washed away, because its plains were shattered by mighty flows of flood water."

I felt apprehensive. So the graves of my ancestors had vanished along with the broken bay that turned into a river?

Suddenly there was the sound of a gong struck repeatedly, signaling a death. In whose home? In my parents'? Or in Upo Solai Puaq's? I started going up the hill as fast as possible.

I was no stranger here but I was confused that there were only two houses. Where were the hundreds of homes from the past? It was like those deserted mining towns after workers sought new sources of livelihood in other places.

I knew in my heart that the sound came from my parents' home.

As I hurried into the house, I saw six or seven unfamiliar faces in the packed room.

An old man looked up and called me. "You're back home, Pelanuk Muntih Jelo?"

His voice was unchanged though his face and body were different. He was my father.

I was suddenly swept by an intense feeling of alienation. Why had my mom been taken and not my father? I had left for 40 years, never believing I would return for one day, and now the smell of death and decay pervaded my village.

I looked for my brother among the faces. Had death taken him to? And would it now take me as well, like it had taken my mom, the forests, the crocodiles and what had once been my beautiful home.
Translated by Aris Prawira