The Bongo Man

A while ago, I entered a competition called Genius Olympiad. Thankfully, my essay made it to the final round. However, the trip to New York and back is far too expensive. So instead, I’ve decided to share my essay here. Hope it brings you a little moment of reflection… =)

***

I’ve always longed to see the “spirit” of nature. Oftentimes I’ve asked myself, what would it be like to feel the heartbeat of a forest, or to hear flocks of birds take flight across wide open fields? What would it be like to observe, uninhibitedly, monkeys swinging from branch to branch in the thriving Amazon rainforest? What kind of person would I have been had I grown up in a world of dark starry nights instead of artificial city constellations?

Then, in fifth grade, I finally found my own “deep connection” with nature.

It was one of those days where the sun shone and the sky blazed blue, scattered slightly with clouds. The breeze blew, bringing scents of warm soto, cow dung, and burning wood, curiously all mixed into one. Panting, I made the final leap through the air.

“Yes! I win!”

Face crimson with sweat, my friend Alia staggered behind and planted her hands on her knees.

“You… got a… head start,” she rasped.

“I did not.”

Pushing aside a hanging branch, we stepped into the shadows of the forest canopy. Here, it was a whole other world. Here, light danced in strange ways before us, casting its rays upon crawling critters on the forest floor and fallen fruits. Branches rustled and creatures scuttled. The air was vibrant with the smell of the moist soil that pillowed our feet.

Treading lightly, we weaved between slants of sunlight, when a boom suddenly echoed through the air.

Thud. Thud. The sound was constant, reverberating through the foliage. We stood rooted to the spot.

“Do you hear that?” I whispered.

Alia nodded frantically. We peered at the tangled greens surrounding us. But nothing had changed. Keeping still, we waited with bated breaths. Yet miraculously, the thudding had stopped. A whimper escaped from Alia’s mouth.

Our eyes met, and at that moment, I saw a look of decisiveness set hard in hers. Then, the girl who feared the dark and spiders turned on her heels and darted back the path we’d taken. I stood agape.

“I have to go, Soph!” she exclaimed without looking back. Sighing, I plopped down on a fallen tree. Just then, the thudding as of drums started again.

Reflexively, I stood back up. My heart beat in the thunderous flutter of a symphony. A bongo man…? I thought, trying to name the thing which I could not describe.

And as I stood there, deserted by Alia, something rushed through my veins—a feeling which to this day I will never forget. I noticed how ethereal light streamed through the patches of sky above, setting aglow the weeds below. The beating continued. At that moment, feet planted firmly on the ground, I gazed deep into the shadows—trying, with all my might, to find something. But there was nothing. Still. The air quivered with the drumming; the slapping of an invisible bongo man’s palms upon his skin-bound instrument. My breath caught in my chest.

At that moment, it grew on me that the forest was alive.

Trees spoke in their soft shaking branches; the damp earth beneath me thrived with teeming beings; each unique leaf shone resplendently in the sun. At that moment, I was the intruder. But they’d let me into their world.

To this day, I do not know what the “bongo man” is, or if he even exists. It’s impossible, however, because beyond that forest was a lake that stretched on to the hills a mile away. No one lived in that forest—not that I knew of. So could it be that on that day I’d heard the forest’s heartbeat?

If I did, there’s no chance of ever hearing it again, because now that forest has been cut down in place of a housing complex. What once was my safe haven when I needed tranquility is now row upon row of identical homes. The life that thrived in that secret place is now dead. Only to be remembered in wistful memory.

How many other places like that forest have been cleared to build places for us? We, humans, are like viruses that pollute the lungs of the earth with our constructions. Too quickly, people cut down the habitats of countless living beings to build houses, roads, and a succession of abandoned stores. Green eyes do not allow for green footprints. Thus, the corporations and industries take and take from nature’s diminishing supplies without pausing to think. We are the intruders of nature.

I’ve come to realize that perhaps that day might never come again—that encounter with nature’s “spirit”—especially in places where people congest. Places like my hometown Jakarta.

This realization used to hit me full on, when I noticed the piles of trash that littered the streets while I sat—cocooned in cool AC—guiltily aware that I was contributing to the blankets of noxious fumes that poisoned the air.

The city I grew up in is a hubbub—with streams of people slipping through the cars in the midst of honks and dust. Street vendors stand selling yellow mango slices and nuts, street singers strum on screechy guitars, and old women carrying babies stretch out their wrinkled sun-burnt hands, eyes tired of hoping for some change. Hidden behind wavering heat rays, a dim sour-egg sun dangles.

In that metropolis, we are all preoccupied. Besides the traffic, which immediately affects us, we’ve become oblivious to the state of our surroundings. Although it’s true that there is a never-ending supply of poster contests and speech contests relating to the upkeep of the environment, what would be the point if no one still takes action? What would be the point if all we do is worry, without lifting a finger to help?

Sometimes I feel that garbage is like the beggars that find a livelihood in Jakarta’s traffic—always there, yet often ignored. I know this to be true because I see it everywhere. Riding the open-windowed angkot (minivan taxis) home from school, I see this in the fields overflowing with rotting plastic; I see it in the murky brown stream clogged with the same trash—which ironically boasts a banner atop with a warning against littering; I see it in the sprawling factories that chug out black fumes to the sky and toxic chemicals to the rivers; I see it in the mountains of my mother’s village excavated for sand and rocks. And I smell it in the acrid smoke of burning garbage at the sides of jam-packed streets.

When I walk to school, the foul smell of garbage fills my mouth. I notice people’s houses right in front the trash pile and silently, I wonder how they could live with that and not do anything about it.

What I felt in the forest was special, but I don’t think it was unique. I believe that many have had experiences similar to mine. However, what about the generations of the future? With all that we now do to the environment, would they ever chance to lose themselves in nature too?

These days, fewer and fewer kids know the joy of running through rice paddies, so intent they are on reaching the next video game level or watching the new film. If even now we disconnect ourselves from nature, what would happen when all the forests and trees in the world disappeared—replaced by their synthetic forms? Pure oxygen replaced by individual oxygen tanks? It’s possible.

Although sometimes we may feel powerless—like all we try to do is pathetic compared to the objectives of corporations and the government—I believe one person could make a difference. By doing small things, we can.

Because if everyone in the world used recyclable bags instead of plastic ones, we can. If everyone in the world didn’t take more than what they needed, we can. If everyone in the world had a share in finding solutions to matters of the environment, then I believe we can. We can make this world a better place. But first, we have to care.

***

The other day on my way to school, I heard a rhythmic pounding. Alongside that was a voice, deep and rough, singing an old Indonesian song that for a split second made me shiver with déjà vu. But it wasn’t the man’s voice that got me. It was the beat that complemented it.

As the man came into view, I noticed how he sat—the way a plastic water gallon squatted in front of him; his crouched posture as his hands danced atop the gallon. Behind him were scats of the usual garbage—candy wrappers and bottle caps—in soggy piles upon the ground. My thoughts flew back to that day in the forest. I thought of how far we’d come; how softly the earth’s heartbeat thudded in the shrill city noise. And I wondered, how far will this go on?

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