Sun, 26 Mar 2000

Risking life and limb to gather prized bird's nests

Text and photos by Ali Budiman

KEBUMEN, Central Java (JP): With acrobatic movements in the open air, a man cautiously climbed the bamboo ladder leaning against the steep cave wall. Guarding his distance from the fellow climbers ahead in order not to exceed the load, his bare feet deftly went up and down.

To enter the crevasse of the cave horizontally, a piece of bamboo was pushed sideways like a footbridge, its extremity entering the niche sculpted in the wall, with a piece of rope or bamboo parallel above the head for a hold. The bamboo footbridge was held together by an ijuk (palm fiber) rope.

In position, with a long pole with a conical extremity, he started to prod the nests of the walet (a kind of swallow) from the fissures of the cave walls. When he succeeded in seizing the object, he cautiously put the article, which resembled a cluster of rice noodles, in a special shoulder bag made of coconut fiber. Far below the waves of the South Sea were rumbling, like an endless symphony of nature breaking against the rocky walls.

The roaring sea did not deter Sartimin and his coworkers, who risk their lives to collect the bird's nests. They were not scared, even after witnessing the death of Wiryo Prawiro.

It happened one hot afternoon in mid-1987, when Sartimin, Wiryo and four other bird's nest collectors were at work. Two among them reached for the nests with a pole, while the others were tying bamboo pieces, fixing a rope in the cave wall with a peg for a hold. The rays of a candle and a long flashlight occasionally provided illumination. Their position was more than 10 meters in the wall of the cave, called Karangpasir, in the Karangbolong area, Central Java.

Without any warning or omen, a heartbreaking cry was heard from a colleague on the inside left, together with the cracking of the piece of bamboo he was standing on. Pak Wir, the thin and silent man who was repairing the bamboo footbridge, fell to the left, a rocky area. In a few moments, he disappeared under the rolling waves. All of the others, who were at a certain distance from each other, fell silent. His body was never found.

The tragedy which occurred in front of his eyes, and which remains fresh in his memory, has not deterred Sartimin from continuing his work. There was a time when he was in doubt, when he mulled becoming a conductor on an intercity bus, but this man, now 43, is now more confident to continue the work inherited from his ancestors.

He smiled as he took a deep drag on a clove cigarette when asked to speak of fate.

Sartimin, who graduated from junior high school in 1973, is known as Pak Mandor (Mr. Foreman) by the bird's nest collectors in his group. He is a civil servant in the regional revenues agency of Kebumen regency who is active in the private cooperative of bird's nest gatherers.

Medium-quality bird's nests attain a price of US$1,000 a kilogram in the market, which is the reason in the gathering season there is close supervision by officials of the subdistrict administration, the local military and the police.


On the Thursday night before the gathering season begins, the villagers organize ceremonial meals at their respective homes, performing a ritual to clean themselves physically and mentally. They eat adequately and pray a lot. They refrain from drinking alcohol, having sexual intercourse and swearing.

They also ask for permission from the authority of Nyai Loro Kidul, the Queen of the South Sea Kingdom. On Friday afternoon a ceremony is held by the community at the subdistrict office. The objective is that all the people working in the gathering season are protected and will remain safe through the blessing of God.

The gathering of bird's nests takes place in the second, fourth, seventh and ninth months of the Javanese calendar (this year, the calendar starts in April).

In order to maintain the population of the swallows, the gatherers must be able to choose which nests must be left untouched to allow for the hatching of the eggs.

Two or three days are required in one season to gather the nests. On other days, the gatherers' task is to take turns to stand guard to protect the caves from thieves. They usually take risks by swimming to the mouth of the caves at night.

What if, despite all the efforts to be careful, to adhere to the proscriptions, to hold rituals and to pray, disaster strikes?

"That is fate. We are resigned to be called by Nyai Loro Kidul," Sartimin said.

He pointed to Salimin, a thickly mustached man of 31. At age 23, when he started work with the group as a professional gatherer, Salimin fell from a height of 10 meters. He was unconscious and was carried in relays climbing a 70-meter wall over a distance of one kilometer. He suffered a light concussion. He had stitches above his right ear and his right cheek, and lost one front upper tooth. He regained consciousness after 48 hours and was hospitalized for one week at the general hospital in the town of Gombong.

But when he recovered, Salimin returned to work.

"I want to stay in this profession in good health, hopefully until I am 50 or 55, like the others," Salimin said.

The gatherers believe that if the queen does not deign to take somebody as a court servant in her kingdom, there are always circumstances to save somebody involved in an accident.

In the beliefs, or myths, that imbue the life of the people who are dependent on their livelihood and environment in the South Sea region, there is always the existence of a great force, in plain view, that is led by a highly respected queen. The terrifying ocean has endowed rich natural resources in the form of highly priced fish or walet nests which have an extremely high sales value, although the local inhabitants are not the consumers. The inhabitants hold ceremonial meals and rituals to pay respect to the South Sea Queen, and try to obey the prohibitions, such as not to wear green clothes or batik with parangrusak motives when they are on the southern coast, or else they could be taken by Nyai. There is no fisherman who would dare to look for fish using explosives if he does not want to incur a curse.

Most bird's nests pickers have had spiritual experiences with the Nyai. Their stories are hard to differentiate between hallucinations, dreams and real visualizations, but they have one thing in common. The happenings invariably take place while they are semiconscious, in the dark of night, while they are alone (if a colleague is around, he is asleep). In the transitory stage between sleep, or imagination, or an apparition, in one of the corners of a rock wall stand two princesses dressed like a queen, their faces and bodies seeming to radiate in their beauty. One only dares to look briefly, the combined feeling of respect and fear making him render homage with a downward gaze. Often, they do not want to tell others about their momentous experiences.

"It is hard to describe the feeling of respect accorded to the South Sea power. We believe that Nyai Loro Kidul bestows on us bird's nests, yields of the sea and all the natural riches along the southern coast. Personally, I believe in the story, but I am not too obsessed with it because, as a Muslim, I believe above all in the greatness of God," Salimin said.