“Life in the forest is a life full of patience. Whatever you need, you will get it – but it won’t be easy. It also won’t be quick.”
Mijak Penampung, a 32-year-old man with a calm stare, talks about life in his birthplace: a neighbourhood on the edge of the Bukit Duabelas National Park in Jambi province. Mijak’s voice is ﬂat like the vast stretches of rubber and palm oil plantations that are changing the face of Sumatra.
“City people like you wouldn’t be able to live this life. Life in the forest, it feels like everything is going slowly,” Mijak says. His words are precise and neatly arranged like an Indonesian language textbook. Two hours previously we had left Bangko, the capital city of Jambi’s Merangin Regency, which is in the process of being smartened up in the aftermath of large-scale rubber plantations which emerged in 1925. We ride in a car that shakes and bumps along the winding road, with its steep climbs and sudden drops, passing villages that even Mijak hasn’t visited.
Suddenly, Mijak extends his hand, gesturing to the trees and the dirt road. “We’ll stop here. The car isn’t going to make it all the way,” he explains. We stop in a quiet neighbourhood, continuing our journey on the backs of motorcycles ridden by agile youths. As the sun begins to lean to the west, we arrive at the gateway of the jungle.
Children approach me with teary eyes; women carrying babies peer out shyly from behind trees. Smoke billows from the corners of their huts. Their men are oﬀ hunting. A young man has just returned from ﬁshing in the nearby streams with a tool made of simple bamboo strips.
“We don’t look for ﬁsh at the market, but in the river. Our ancestors taught us not to use chemical poisons because they damage the environment,” Mijak speaks calmly. Mijak ﬁts his name well – in the language of the Anak Dalam people of this region, it means ‘wise person’.
An old man welcomes me. His name is Ngantap and he is the deputy leader (wakil tumenggung) of this community. He tells me about the lives of his people, who still live a nomadic, communal existence in the forest, loyal to ancient customs, as countless generations did before them.
“No one can be lazy, no one can break the rules,” Mijak explains; maybe this is what he means when he says that “everything moves slowly”. Nothing is instant, everything is balanced, and people take care of the natural environment that is their home. They ﬁsh with simple tools, as well as hunting pigs and deer. They share their catches with all members of the group, which varies in number, sometimes as many as 35 people. The plants of the forest are used to produce traditional medicines. Happiness for the Anak Dalam, according to Mijak, is the preserved forest, the source of everything in their lives.
I return from my forest experience to the urban scenes of Bangko, a city wealthy from palm oil, rubber, coal and gold, and located 400km from the regional capital, Jambi City (the old name for Sumatra, Suwarnadwipa, reﬂects its mineral riches, meaning ‘island of gold’). Passing through busy Bangko, I meet my next guide, Deri Sopian, a tall youth with a passion for the aroma of the highlands.
Deri takes me out of the city, along almost deserted roads with views of palm oil and rubber plantations on both sides, heading towards the highlands, the place where the much-prized robusta coﬀee beans grow. “Later we will arrive at a cool lake, which is rarely visited even by people who live nearby,” he promises. True to his word, after two hours on the road, a giant lake appears before us. Pauh Lake is near the village of Pulau Tengah in the Jangkat subdistrict of Merangin. At 1,400m above sea level, it is the second highest lake in Sumatra, after Gunung Tujuh Lake in Kerinci, Jambi. The lake vista is deeply relaxing; the mountains Masurai, Sumbing and Nilo are like three giants guarding the clear waters.
Local man Jumadi explains that the area produces coﬀee, vegetables and medicinal plants like patchouli to sell on the global market. He tells me that almost every family in the Jangkat highlands has a coﬀee plantation and during harvest each home produces over a tonne of coﬀee beans. The area was the ﬁrst robusta coﬀee plantation to be opened by colonists in 1926. The Dutch newspaper Staatscourant noted that, in that year, the colonial government spent more than a million guilders, a very substantial sum, on the development of coﬀee plantations in Merangin, indicating how serious the government of the day was about the potential of the product.
As Jumadi talks, the day draws to a close, darkness gathering. The cold of the highland air makes me clench my teeth. The mist begins to spread, thick and icy. Jumadi’s wife presents me with a welcome cup of steaming hot coﬀee and some snacks.
The following morning, when the mist and dew has started to dissipate and sunlight begins to shine on the coﬀee leaves, the women walk with baskets to their ﬁelds. The valleys are gently welcoming, seemingly open in laughter. Days here do not begin in a rush. No one is hurrying; the hours pass, and any sense of restlessness seems to be forgotten. The winds blow, bringing a chill to the valleys and the feet of the mountains.
As I daydream, Jumadi’s wife happily interrupts with another steaming-hot glass of coﬀee before we take to the road again. With my guide Deri, we make our way back to Bangko, visiting a ﬂower garden on the way and stopping by the Sigerincing waterfall in Lembah Masurai.
After returning to Bangko, I visit the Merangin Geopark, a geo-conservation zone with a wide variety of ancient fossilised plants, go to the local museum and explore the cuisine. On my ﬁnal evening in Merangin, Deri serves me a glass of coﬀee that he has blended and brewed himself with beans from the Jangkat highlands, using a more thorough and complex process than I had previously experienced.
In Deri’s hands, the ﬂavour becomes softer – it’s the ﬁrst time I have tasted a robusta coﬀee that is so smooth and delicious on my tongue and in my throat. The subtle and light ﬂavour makes me think of the mist in the highlands, the thick jungle, the forest and its people who continue to live according to their deep-rooted traditions and wisdom.