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SNAKES ALIVE!.. Mansur Geiger in Kalimantan Part 2

King cobra.

Harris: You talked about an experience with a python. What about encounters with poisonous snakes? 

Mansur: One of the worst was in the Katingan River which runs through to the west of the Kahayan River, way, way up river, actually where Bapak told us to live. This was one of those jungle latihan experiences.

We were going off to work along a jungle path, and we had a young guide who was our out-front guy. I had wandered off the path and he turned around and called me. And as he did that, not looking where he was going, he trod on this huge king cobra. It was about four meters long and I was next in line.

It was one of those moments that just went into sort of freeze frame. I've seen it in the movies, but this was real life. The snake was raised to strike, and this was a tiny little guy, the snake was literally taller than him striking down at him. He was trying to avoid it with kung fu-type moves; they all know a kind of martial art defence.

So he’s brushing it off, and everyone else ran away, and then the snake looked around and there I was. I instinctively turned to run, but managed to fall in a hole and completely dislocated my back. I couldn’t move. And as I fell I thought, “Oh dear, here it is! Death, by King Cobra!” In my mind’s eye, I could see this fanged thing coming cheek-to-cheek with me in the next five seconds.

I had a big mandau knife that I always used to carry for cleaning the pathways and stuff. I thought, do I want to go arm-to-arm with this bugger? And I thought, there's no point, l ain’t going to win. So I just went completely limp. The thing sure enough came up and pretty well kissed me on the nose with his huge, long, flicking tongue and looked at me as if to say, “OK. Yeah, you’re not that interesting.” And went away. The strange thing was I felt entirely calm through this whole encounter.

 Harris: Wow!

Mansur: I gathered myself together. I managed to stand up, but I realized something really bad had happened to my back. There were about five of us who had all scattered, and we came back together and walked down to the river about 50 meters away where I found the young kid on the riverbank. He was sitting there very calmly and he said, “I’ve been bitten”, and there were these two enormous puncture marks in his groin.

Then the interesting thing that happened was that we all instantly went into prayer. And this kid was completely calm. And then my original guide, Pak Sumbin, disappeared into the forest and came back about two minutes later with a chunk of wood which was oozing white sap,its called a pohon kupang. So we tried to wash the wound and then rub this sap on. You couldn’t cut the bite, it was right in his groin, and you couldn’t tourniquet it.

I pulled Pak Sumbin aside and asked, “So what's the story?” And he said, “Well, if he’s conscious in 20 minutes, that’s a good sign. And if he isn't dead in three hours, he might well make it.” We were days from anywhere. We had no means of calling up a big company helicopter for support or evacuation. I went back to the little kid and he said, “Yeah. Well don’t let me be a bother to you. You need to go on about your busy day I’ll just lay here and die.” These people have a remarkably surrendered nature.

I went back to the others and said, “Listen, I'm not capable of watching someone die from a king cobra bite.” It destroys the nervous system and you just suffocate as your lungs don’t operate anymore. “So I'm going off. Let's make a stretcher and take him back to camp, make him comfortable. And I'm just staying away for three hours. You know better than I what to do with this. Use some of your local magic and remedies, guys, because I sure ain’t got any.”

But that’s not the end of the story because when they looped the stretcher and put him on it, and we’re going to carry him out, we walked past this huge clamp of roots, one of these big Baringin trees. The snake had gone in there. So we all walked by it, and then the snake came straight up and went lunging at the same guy on the stretcher.

Harris: The same guy again?

Mansur: Same guy. I didn’t know why it didn’t bother with anyone else, but he was just pissed with that guy. Maybe because he was the one who had trodden on it? They must have some kind of primitive memory.

A real memory bank like, “You’re the bugger who trod on me. I'm not interested in that big guy.” Cobras are very concerned about the use of their poison. A cobra doesn’t have the most deadly poison but it will surely kill you, it has the most volume. It has enough to kill 33 grown men. I’ve done a little research on snakes over the years

Harris: But you mean it doesn’t like to waste it?

Mansur: Yeah. They look after it. Anyway, I went on with work, but I couldn’t think about anything else but this guy dying, and there was this horrible day of wondering what was going on. I went back to the camp in the late afternoon and the kid was sitting up eating a bowl of noodles. He had a very swollen leg, and a big smile in his face and someone said, “Oh, yeah, he’s probably OK.”

So the next day we took him straight down to find a hospital, and I was realizing more and more that something was really wrong with my back. By the time I got back to Jakarta I was really in a bad way, I couldn’t move, and I ended up having horrendous back problems for a year.

Harris: And the boy survived?

Mansur: Yeah, he came back about two months later and said, “I want to go back to work.” And we all looked at each other and said, “Well OK.” And he came back but every day we walked up a river I noticed that if he was in the front, we’d meet a snake. So we ended up calling him Snake-Bait. “Okay, Snake-Bait if you're coming with us today, you go way up front. We will follow way behind.” Eventually, we found some other work for him to do.

But the closure to that whole story was almost exactly a year later, about 200 meters from that spot. I was still in pain from my back although it had got a lot better to the extent that I could sort of walk. So one afternoon we were out in the jungle looking at different rocks. And I was climbing up a really steep cliff and it was getting dark.

And the camp was just over the back of this steep ridge. There was one guy gone ahead of me who was cutting a basic path through the vegetation which was mostly small saplings on the jungle floor. I was crawling up this big chunk of roots. And as I pulled myself over the top of the ridge and there right in my face was this cobra poised to strike.

I spontaneously threw myself backwards and I must have gone down quite a long way. I was sailing through the air backwards thinking, “Oh dear. I'm going to stake myself on one of the saplings”, because they cut them with a real spear point at the end of them.

Fortunately I landed on my two feet and screamed out, “Snake!” All the guys shot off in every direction. And then this little bugger of a snake came down from three or four meters up the cliff and chased me.

I got a super blast of adrenalin and ran up the hill and beat every bush Dayak going to escape the snake. Exhausted, I stumbled back to camp, fell in the river, cleaned up and went to bed. And then the next morning, I woke up sleeping on a little mattress and said, “Oh, something is really different. What is it?” And the ache in my back that had been particularly acute in the morning had gone.

Harris: How amazing!

Working with the Dayaks

Mansur: Yeah, so all the Dayaks were joking, they love these kinds of situations, “Oh, you know, so it was the big snake's little brother who came to fix you up.” For them life is constantly under threat and the way they cope with it is to joke about the extraordinary circumstances under which they live. They’re the most self-entertaining people I've ever met.

They’re not yet disturbed by the material forces and wanting new hand phones or TVs or whatever. They are just totally accepting of their situation, “This is what we've got, let's have fun.”

And we used to have a lot of fun while we worked hard and they work really, really well. Many times over the years, people from different mining companies would ask me, “How on earth do you get these guys to work? We have a nightmare. We just can't keep them there. They sign on and five days later they disappear and go home.”

And I said, “Well, do you have a kind of typical white men professional, authoritarian, procedural-based program in place?” And of course most of them said, “Yeah.” I said, “Well, you got to realize these guys have never worked in that way.”

And do you think they just accept your authority, and acting like a big boss telling them, 'Listen here you dumb little bugger. Grab this thing and carry it up the hill otherwise you're fired.” And are you surprised when they say, 'Well fine. Goodbye?'”

So I was always on the same level with them. I don’t know how I learned the trick. I mean it was very easy because I lived my life in their houses, ate their food and travelled in their canoes, they were my exploration team.

So we were all on equal terms and I certainly never had the kind of managerial systems in place to be clocking in and clocking out, but we've managed it very much on that basis and now here we are wanting to start again and haven't had anyone at work for four years other than our core team, but they're all flooding back and all keen to work again. These people are black and white. They either love you or hate you; they don’t know our world of compromise.

Bapak once said to me, “The important thing with these people is that you feed them really well and treat them well and then they’ll do anything for you.” I mean we all still have to learn and adapt on both sides, and gradually of course we have brought them up to safety regulations, for example. I mean early on they wouldn’t want to wear shoes or a safety helmet.

Gradually we've introduced these things and they're very quick to learn. But again, it's simply the way of delivery. If you talk it to them not in an authoritarian way but actually say “please” they will do anything for you. I always used to say to these companies and different people, “Did you ever try using ‘Please?’”

Oh yeah, they'd say, “But that’s kind of odd. As the boss of exploration, why would I ask my employees with please?”

I said, “Well, I think you’ll find you’ll get a lot better result.”

Kalimantan Kids Club

Harris: And from the earliest days of the mining there was always an informal kind of social welfare aspect, wasn't there? You always used to do things like helping with their education, didn't you? So, it wasn’t like there was a big community liaison program in place but you spontaneously tried to help.

Mansur: Those really early years were quite a dilemma for me, being the first guy going up the river. It was like, “Oh-oh, here I am Mr. Coca Cola.” Because they started asking for things like watches, and I used to think about that - what is it that we can do to really help these people into a future that’s destined to come?

I mean, there's going to be development whether anyone likes it or not. Frankly I knew they're far better off with us in Subud as the people with a greater vision and mission, Bapak’s vision and mission for Kalimantan, than with anyone else. So that was the justification for me for being there.

But then it just came to me, well, the single thing that we can do is give them education because I’ve came to see how unbelievably smart they are, how uncontaminated their intelligence was. You can take someone who has never seen a water pump before in his life, and you say, “This, this, and this and you start it like this, then you do this.” And they’re like, “Oh, OK, fine.” They're very quick because they have survival instincts and survival logic. These are real bush people constantly living on the edge of survival.

So we started what we called the Kalimantan Kids Club which was initially funded by Murray and I and then others joined, such as Michael and Mariam David, and Susila Dharma. We started giving scholarships and that’s now been absorbed into Yayasan Tambuhak Sinta (YTS), the foundation that Bardolf Paul runs, and I think over the years we helped something like 150 kids through varying levels of schooling and higher education.

Yeah, I really came to that singular thing. The only one thing we can give here is education. Because only then they’ll have means to really participate in whatever unfolds. And be real participants and not just observers. They will have the means to do it. So one thing led to another and we actually set up the foundation. We started Kalimantan Kids Club about 1990, and then we setup YTS in 1997.

And then in 2002 we managed to attract Bardolf to come. In 2006 we established Bina Cita Utama which now schools 100 kids and has become greatly appreciated and valued by local people and government, it’s done much for Subud’s image in Central Kalimantan. More than 400 Subud members have financially supported BCU over the past 6 years and helped it to a near breakeven point. Our next project is to build a school campus that will accommodate 350 students. Hamid da Silva has donated 10 hectares of land to help facilitate this.

Bardolf came in with a new approach and built YTS up to what it is today, recognized internationally and by local government as a community development approach which is quite unique. Which actually brings about real measurable successes, and everyone these days is looking for measurable results.

YTS has developed collaborations and funding from more than 20 international Aid Agencies including UNDP, UNIDO, UNTAD, Ford Foundation, AusAid from the Australian Government and the Global Environment Fund. YTS is a world header today in reducing the use of mercury by local miners. Freeport, who of course have social problems with their mine in Papua, like everyone these days acknowledge just how important community relationships are.

The mineral project will fully fund and support all our YTS community programs this year and that funding will dramatically increase along with exploration success into millions of dollars annually. This is a massive bonus for us as YTS embeds most of our social development objectives and vision.

Our partners recognize that this social asset is as valuable as our mineral prospectivity. We started really early on this aspect of relationships. It began with my very first years going up the river in their boats and in their canoes and eating their food and developing a trust and a genuine respect..

I mean, these guys still ring me up, and if the word goes out that we’re back at work, they’ll be saying “Oh, we heard you're going back to work?” “Yeah.” “What can I do?” It is basic human nature to want to be appreciated.

 One guy last week, I haven’t seen him for like four years, he said, “I want to be a rock stacker and a night watchman.” So, this is an area where we’ve been jostling with our new partners a bit, because they don’t normally engage local people directly, they use contractors. So they think, “What? You’ve organized all these guys?”

Usually they just contract with an outside company to do the job. We believe that in the long run there are far greater benefits by training local people to do the work and directly benefit from the project. My friend who wanted to work as a watchman is now in Jakarta training as a lab assistant so he can help in preparing all the rock core drill samples we will produce for analysis.

At the end of the day, people living in remote and underdeveloped regions firstly want the opportunity to have good livelihoods, education and health services. What many environmental groups and agencies don’t seem to realize these days is that if you actually provide these things you have a far better likelihood of establishing meaningful environmental conservation.

If people have a good livelihoods they are far less likely to cut down trees or dredge up rivers for gold to feed their families. Its these activities that are most destructive to the environment in remote places..

In the final article in this series, Mansur talks about the prospects now that KGC has joined with Freeport.