Self grooming for most people is a daily ritual. Freshly shampoo’d hair, freshly shaved legs and clean feet is usually nothing to harp on about, or even rejoice in. For whatever reason, however, during my time spent living in remote locations whether it be on a sandy island surrounded by mangroves, or in the middle of a tropical rainforest, nothing has ever become more of a sacred ritual than “cheer-up grooming”.
It was a sad day, I had been living in the middle of a North Sumatran rainforest for two weeks with two peers from my university. One was a PhD student and the other was an honours student. Who was I? Well, I was more of a tag along with the aim of deducing a future research project for the following year. Jumping at the opportunity to spend as much time out of Australia as possible, I convinced the university I needed a whole month to settle on a project, meanwhile I had already figured out what I was going to do and my fellow university students were up up and away to continue their research back home. Knowing about five Indonesian words, I stood bewildered in front of the pondok (bare bones cabin), the only building in the forest, after I waved goodbye to the only English speaking people in a 100 kilometre radius.
Looking at the pondok, there were a group of local men sitting in a circle, shirts off, playing a betting game and smoking cigarettes. I suddenly realised that I was a fish out of water with no life-saving puddles in site. Suddenly super aware of my own body, my pale white skin, my not-Muslim-in-the-slightest attitude and the large leech bite bleeding through my shirt, giving the illusion that I was shot in the stomach. What was I even allowed to do in this situation? Could I even sit down in the same area as them? Could I even talk to them? In my anxious moment of self awareness, I slunk up to the top level of the pondok and collected a towel, a razor, some soap, shampoo and conditioner as well as a pair of pants and a shirt I had not had to wash in a bucket of creek water yet.
Living in a humid forest, it is so easy to let yourself go for a long long time. What’s the point of washing your hair when you will sweat it into a greasy mess in a few hours anyway? What is the point of washing your feet when they will just get covered in leach bites anyway? What is the point of washing your shirt when a new leech will bite you tomorrow anyway? Self grooming soon becomes a relief, rather than a necessity really quickly.
Undressing in the room a few hundred meters away from the pondok, I looked at the huge bucket of water that was not only my shower, but also the washing machine and the flush for the toilet. A “mandi”, or as you would call it “a bucket of water and a scoop” is the crux of any Indonesian household, or middle-of-the-forest residence. I looked down at my body, scratched and bruised from head to toe, which complemented the array of leech holes perfectly. Was I dirty or tanned from all this time outside? How did I still have any hair left after the trees have continued to rip it off of my head every time I ventured into dense patches of forest? Oh wait…there it all was…on my legs.
I scrubbed and I washed and I shaved until I felt totally brand new. My clean clothes complemented my new shiny skin that was at least five shades lighter than before and I felt five times better than before. I went back up stairs to moisturise and continue this self grooming session until I knew my role in this world, and thankfully moments later I hear a call from down stairs.
I peeked down to the bottom floor. A young field researcher looked up at me.
“Kamu suka mie?”
I knew “kamu” meant you and “suka” meant like but what in Allah’s name was “mie”? Meat? Me? did I like him? I took a leap of faith, said yes, and went downstairs.
Sitting around was a group of men eating none other than fresh bowls of fried noodles….oh that’s what mie was, noodles! The man that asked me if I liked noodles was smiling at me ready to hand me a plate. I ate thankfully.
“Terima Kasih” Thank you!
“Sama Sama” No worries.
I realised how awkward it was that I couldn’t speak to the men as I ate, it seemed rude and unfriendly but to my surprise, they all started trying to talk to me as best they could. One of them got out a translating app on his Nokia and a note pad and we tried the best we could to go back and forth answering each other’s questions.
Later that night, a section of my ankle exposed as I got up from my sitting position. “Where is your hair?” one of the men said with a disgusted look on his face. After working out what he asked I motioned that it was gone.
“Tidak bagus” Not good.
And after that, I felt good because I had friends, and thus could let my leg hair grow wild like a viking beard flowing from my legs, just how the Indonesian’s like it.
To this day, if I am unsure of how to feel, what to do, or if I need some cheering up on a primal level, I still go to a little bit of extra effort to take some time for myself to transform my dusty old body into a shiny and clean one. If it works in the forest, it can work anywhere. I guess the mentality is, if you feel good on the outside, you often feel good on the inside too which can get you through anything. The year after I ate noodles with the field staff, I did end up returning to carry out my own field study alone with the same men, who complimented me on my practised and improved conversational language skills. Here is a picture of me below, teaching them all how to speak English. A fresh start gets you a long way, as does a fresh body.