"Welcome to Jakarta," the sign read. And: "Death Penalty for Drug Traffickers!"
"All that exclamation point needs is a happy emoticon," said my traveling companion, novelist Eve Yohalem.
"Or one of those ADA icons with someone hanging from a noose," I added.
Other than knowing President Obama lived there as a child, I'm embarrassed to admit I knew so little about Indonesia. Turns out -- hello? -- it's the fourth largest country in the world, and home to the world's largest Muslim population, which seemed moderate until terrorists blew up two tourist hotels right after I left.
Then again, none of my friends know anything about Borneo, either, which is why they kept asking me about my trip to Burma. Or Bombay. Or Bangladesh. Or, in one case, the Galapagos.
I traveled to this country I'd never thought about to visit a woman I'd never heard of: Dr. Birutė Galdikas. Dr. Galdikas was one of three female protégés of legendary archeologist Louis Leakey -- along with Jane Goodall, whose studies with chimps made her a scientific rock star, and Diane Fossey, whose murder while studying gorillas made her a martyr. Together, the three of them became known as Leakey's Angels.
When I explained this to rocker Storm Large, she asked, "What's a leaky angel?"
Eve wanted to meet Dr. Galdikas to research a book. As for bringing me along, I guess an urban Jewish woman feels more comfortable venturing deep into the jungle of a Muslim country to observe wild orangutans while in the company of an urban gay man. As such, I was apprehensive, excited and drenched in sweat the entire time, thanks to fear and 100 percent humidity. What I didn't expect was to find a financial story. A story about margarine and malfeasance.
You see, between 1978 and 2000, Indonesia lost 40 million hectares of forest, equivalent to the combined size of Germany and the Netherlands. And its rate of deforestation continues to be the highest in the world, making Indonesia the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
The major culprit is the production of palm oil, which is exported worldwide to make cooking, oil, margarine, soap, and even lipstick.
The clear-cutting not only threatens our future way of life, it immediately imperils Indonesia's orangutans. According the Orangutan Foundation International, the wild orangutan population -- most of which is in Indonesia -- has decreased in the last decade by as much as 50 percent. In addition to Camp Leakey, her research facility in the jungle, Dr. Galdikas founded the Orangutan Care Center to house orangutans orphaned by deforestation. The center serves 330 orangutans, each with a story that could break your heart open like a piece of tropical fruit.
Due to the recession, institutional support for Dr. Galdikas's work is down by as much as 60 percent, and the care center teeters on the precipice of financial ruin. The consequences are dire. Most of the orangutans are not ready to be released into the wild. Without the care center, they will starve and die. It's really that bad.
In Malay, "orangutan" means "person of the forest." Indeed, orangutans share 97 percent of our DNA; perhaps a little more for those of you with hairy backs. If you looked into the soulful eyes of these magnificent "persons," as I did, you wouldn't hesitate to do whatever you could to help.
Which, oddly, led me back to President Obama. Visiting Indonesia made me think a lot about his having lived here, raising important questions like, How did it shape his worldview? And, Did he sweat as much as I did? But it also got me thinking how he funded his campaign primarily with small donations. Sure, that turned out to be a myth, but the president's campaign nevertheless raised $113.2 million from contributions of $200 or less.
"So why can't we do the same for the orangutans?" I thought. After all, at OFI, you can adopt one of the orphans for a year for just $75. That's 20 cents per day. I know it sounds ambitious, but if everyone reading this made that donation, then forwarded the link to this article to their friends, it would only take 6,400 people to cover the orangutan care center's $480,000 annual budget. And then, 330 of our closest relatives will live, and the foremost orangutan primatologist in the world will continue her mission to save them, their ecosystem and, ultimately, the planet.
And that, my friends, is The Upside.
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