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A Walk in the Woods: Foraging with the Batek

*A story written by Good Boy Travels*

In the center of peninsular Malaysia, just outside the ancestral lands of what is now Taman Negara National Park lies a small community of under 200. Native to these parts, the Batek are a jungle people. Their quiet is of the trees. Their walk is a tried and true gait on paths known only to them like a convoy of ants knowing their destination, knowing their way. A people of politeness and manners. No joke too funny to laugh too loud. No taboo too crazy to stir them. Their calm is infectious. I watch. Only the presence of mysterious visitors gains their attention. I assume they have had mat saleh in their village before, but their look towards “foreigners” is not one of surprise, but rather a look of experience. From around a corner, young and adult alike look on as we walk through the village. The children are a little more daring in their attempt to get a closer look. Upon eye contact, they giggle and run. The village is an image of development trying to make its way through. A dusty plot surrounded by lush palm oil plantation, signs of change are apparent. Housing structures vary tremendously. Cement bungalows line the main thoroughfare. Bamboo huts stand erect where cement has not been poured. Families sit out front on their shaded porches. Toddlers cling to their teenage sisters. A curiosity unstilled.

GoodBoy Travels - imageOur arrival in the village was quiet. We pull up in a hired truck and are unloaded. Parking is at the entrance. Five of us climb out and we hesitantly make our way to the center of the village 100 meters from the truck. Angela, Ecoteer ground staff, knows the Batek. They know her. We approach following her lead. She walks in, proud of her progress smiling and talking to the men. Because of access, only the men speak Malay well. They are the only community members that hold jobs outside of the village. Laborers, drivers, security, or hired hands remain to be their common source of modern income. Development pushes on.

My first real introduction is with Alex. Ironically, he is an Englishman working with MYCAT and has been welcomed into the Batek community to live and work with them. Sitting on a curb with neighbors, he is putting on his hiking boots as he jokes in Malay and a broken Batek dialect. The children are feeling more comfortable with their recognition of Angela and have come out onto the streets to see what the arrival of so many Ecoteer volunteers has brought. In time, three women of age appear, a mere five feet tall and equipped with nothing more than their rattan baskets and a parang, “machete.” They calmly walk into the growing crowd, quiet and confident. They cut right through and continue down the road, then pause in the shade. Mentioned to us, to stop in the shade and wait for the crowd to follow is a recent development in the foraging tour itinerary. They would typically leave when ready and continue walking until their hearts’ content. Our naïevity has surely softened them.

imageAfter gathering ourselves, we depart. Through the healthy palm plantation that rests outside the village we make our way across the white stone gravel paths. 15 meters tall with a diameter of 10 meters, the palm offers shade as we make our way to a clearing. Through a fell forest entrance, the sun hits us. Cleared by anonymous locals for use in monocrop farming, the Batek quietly guide us through what used to be their access to the rainforest making it that much farther to reach undisturbed woods and foraging materials. With no shoes, three women lead the convoy into the tree line. I am already sweating after 30 minutes of walking on flat ground. The hike starts. Slowly I begin to hear the *whip* of the machete. Branches fall. 15 meter bamboo reduced to moveable parts. *crack* *snap* I look on to find the women, barefoot, snapping fallen limbs with nothing more than their sheer foot pounding power. “Woah…” is all I can muster. I get an acknowledging snicker from behind.

We make our first rest stop. Water bottles are furnished with lightning speed. Cigarettes are rolled with forest leaves. Burning. And a quiet comes over us. Our lines of sight begin to move from the forest floor to the canopy above. And patiently we wait. Small conversations in Batek start to emerge. They are pointing through the trees planning our route. Every once in a while their gaze would come across us as if to size us up as fit for the hike. Our heart rates calmed. Our sweat drying. The volume of our conversations and laughter signals that we are ready for the hike ahead of us. We push on. As rote as it may seem, the up and down of the jungle terrain is nothing but new and invigorating. Every step is planned. I begin to see where my foot should land two meters in advance. At some points, the path is only as wide as a human foot and to be careless would mean an uncomfortable five meter slip. 45 minutes of rocks, leaves, trees, dead logs and thorny bark upon uninterrupted terrain of ascending hills and we have reached our destination.

We find ourselves at a two-pool waterfall. The Batek begin to enter the upper pool and dig deep against the outer wall. I watch their eyes as they navigate by touch. They begin to extract dead and fallen leaves. Leaves. The Batek do not involve themselves in too many modern conveniences, but fresh water is something their community will not forego. The leaves they are extracting are blocking a fresh water hose from pumping water to the village below. The main mission of this foraging trek is to ensure that fresh water flows in the pipes for the Batek people. Mission one complete. We set up day camp just above the riverflow. Two of our three guides find a suitable tapioca and begin excavating the roots. Through a hard clay soil they throw their pickaxe into the ground with all of their energy. Like a well-oiled machine they have a rhythm of two throws then a reach-in to clear the debris. Carefully they claw at the sun hardened soil and pull out a shard of tapioca root. Sweat beads drip from foreheads. They are clearly spent from their 30-minute dig. Alex, who has been watching and learning for many trips before decides to ask if he can help. A quick no and dismissing laugh is the reply, initially. Soon, she stands straight up from her crouched position and hands the axe to Alex. Gladly, he obliges. His attempts are honest, but taxing. His sweat beads are dripping fast. His tapioca shards are mashed. His axe throws are strong, but not as calculated. It is apparent within minutes that what the Batek are capable of making look simple is exhaustiing, calculated and perfected. I change my gaze. He does not catch me watching. In the distance, I notice the women have gathered and are cutting at bamboo. Telling Alex that I am leaving him, I make my way through the brush to the gathered women.

The smell of deadwood burning and bamboo heating drifts through the foliage. My curiosity builds. I make my way to the fire. The women avert their eyes. They are shy in a way of respect and return to their work. Cutting bamboo. Green flakes fly. Bamboo sectionals are formed into cups. A long bamboo sits propped above the fire at an angle. Water is boiling inside. Angela and Ecoteer volunteer, Emily, take the bamboo cups to the base of the waterfall for rinse and prep. I sit watching quietly at the peace of the day camp and the green of the forest. Cicadas orchestrate incessantly around us. The smell of the campfire is ever present. It crackles randomly. The cup washing party returns and sachets of ground coffee are stuffed into the boiling water followed by nearly 3 cups of sugar. We wait as it steeps. The magic of the forest grabs our attention when it can. There are silences far from awkward. The coffee is done and carefully poured into the individual cups as the tapioca shards are prepped and cleaned for the fire. In minutes they are dug from the burning embers. Like jungle ‘hot potato’ the roasted shards are peeled back and surgically bit into then juggle-passed to the next person still holding a bamboo cup of coffee. We are but a spectacle of giggling foreigners for our local guides. They respectfully struggle not to stare and are left smiling amongst themselves. The coffee is finished. The tapioca eaten. We bury the coals and are led off. Mission two complete.

The return route is calm and quiet. Many of us are tired. As always it seems faster on the way back. The forest waits for no one. It is still alive. The waters still run. The ants still march. Bird life carries on and the cicada symphony plays. Leeches. They do not let us pass unfettered. The thing about leeches is their vigor and timing. I am at the back. Leeches are inevitable. My socks are in my pack. I know my destiny.

Before reaching the fringe of the forest we stop and a vine is assessed. Quickly a blade is drawn. *Sing* A vine is cut. There is a tug. A twist. Then winding. Tug. Twist. Then, winding. Five meters of vine later and I learn we are collecting rattan. Final mission three accomplished. Used for furniture, rope and foraging baskets, rattan is one of the many invaluable materials sourced naturally from the forests that these Batek and the orang asli for that matter rely on. These are the same forests that wild boar, jungle herbs and ecosystem services like fresh air originate. Fell primarily for monocrop culture and real estate, it is no wonder that the curious stares which welcomed us into the village were long and piercing. I stand with a sobered amazement trying to imagine a time before. I am trying to see what was.