Lonely Conservationists

Sapphire (Lorises and roller-coasters)

Written by Sapphire Hampshire

Photo by Wawan Tarniwan

Java, Indonesia. October 2017.

You’re on a mountain, a steep mountain, its 4am, you wake to the sound of the call to prayer from the mosques echoing down the mountain. You drift back into a light sleep waking up again later to the revving of scooters as they whiz past the field house towards the farmland. You hear the caged songbirds tweeting, then chitter chatter starts, you hear more revving of scooters. You walk downstairs and greet the cleaning lady and cook “Selamat Pagi Ibu”. As you eat your breakfast you smell rice cooking and hear tofu sizzling in the pan of palm oil. You take off your socks and head into the wet-room. Water is running in the water bath as you brush your teeth, you step across the wet floor, you hear again the revving outside, people shouting on a megaphone. “Ah it must be a Friday” they’re playing sports in the village. You hear a rumble of footsteps and giggles as you enter the lounge, “Miss, Miss” they shout as several kids pop their head through the door. You walk out and colour with them, “Miss” “MISS”. You tell them in Indonesian you have to go, but hand them paper and pencils and set them a colouring challenge. You walk down the hill and jump onto a scooter and head down the mountain. “Buleh, buleh” people shout as they see you, kids run up to you in the shop “buleh”, “hello”, you pose for several photos. On your way back up the mountain you feel the breeze hit your face as you hold on for dear life during the steep gradients of the hill. Back home you hear the revving, birds tweeting, call to prayer, chitter chatter, revving again, chitter chatter, dogs howling, revving, “miss, miss”, call to prayer, “Selamat Siang”, shouting, revving, call to prayer. Suddenly it is 5pm. You head to bed, and sleep until 9pm, eat some dinner. You now hear distant revving, the chitter chatter has died down and some dogs are still howling. As you get dressed, you hear the rain start to pour, you shove a spare coat into your bag. You grab your water, your headtorch and you head out into the rain. Underfoot you feel squelching in the mud, you step over rocks, and you feel your thighs as you walk up the mountain. You meet the first shift team, track the loris and start your shift. Squelching, rain, “can you see them?” clambering through the rocks, climbing through thick bamboo, “beep beep” from the tracker. “buzzzzzz” those mosquitoes are coming, track through the mud some more, clamber up a cliff face. More rain, hide in a shelter, “ah shit my stuffs wet”. Switch coat, keep tracking “beep beep”. It’s suddenly 3am. A cool breeze sweeps through and the tracker starts a fire, crackle, crackle. It is all calm. The loris is in its sleep-spot for the night. You look around, you see the stars, you try to stay warm and in that moment you feel calm. A sense of peace as you wait for the inevitable call to prayer to start again at 4am. You walk back down the mountain, the sun is starting the rise. You hear the cockerels call as you head into the house. Covered in mud and sweat you quickly rinse your arms and hands and peel off your layers. Snuggling into bed you shut your eyes just as the world begins to come alive again.

Hey I’m Saphy, I’m British but I focus on conservation globally. It may have seemed a bit odd but I promise my introduction serves a purpose. This was a typical day during my internship with the Little Fireface Project back in 2017-2018. I spent 8 months on the island of Java, Indonesia studying the critically endangered Javan slow loris. So why am I writing this blog now? I have spent a large amount of my life struggling with General Anxiety Disorder, mild OCD and hypersensitivity to sound and just before Java I had been diagnosed with an additional condition. It has taken me years to understand why I spent a lot of the time on edge over there. Despite the same routines in the village occurring every day, nothing was ever truly the same. It also felt like nothing ever stopped and everything was constant. But considering my mental health, the constant shifts in environment, those slight changes, the amount of noise and external stimulus I was processing on a minute-by-minute basis clearly kept me anxious, but I didn’t really realise that at the time.

The placement gave me some amazing skills, I got to see slow lorises in the wild and really help with conservation. I got to meet incredible people, teach at schools, and engage in public outreach. Really awesome. But for 6 months after my placement my view was very different than what it is today. I was desperate to leave, I spent days crying, I felt anxious 24/7, I always felt like I didn’t know what I was doing and when I did take charge or initiative I would be knocked down (irrational fear really, my supervisor was a really kind woman and I have a lot to thank her for). I couldn’t drown out the noise, and in a house full, sometimes too full, of people I often felt left out, or isolated and alone. Leaving Java I was bombarded daily with “how was it, it looked amazing”. Yet I didn’t want to talk about it, all I could remember was those moments where I couldn’t escape, everything was loud and I had felt trapped. The culture shift was hard to process after 8 months away also. I was back in a world where people didn’t look at you or talk to you, scooters and bikes are not the common vehicle and I hadn’t heard a mosque in weeks. That also felt strange. I felt like I’d been picked up out of this world I lived in and that maybe it had never even happened. I used to dream I was still there and wake up dreadfully confused.  In the months after I still had to finish my project and worked super hard with the data we had collected from the camera traps and in the end I was proud of my work. Still very much am. Finishing it also allowed me to feel a sense of completion, in which I started to notice my positive memories coming back.

I could now list a million and one things of why my placement was so valuable, both as a budding scientist and for my own personal growth. I could also list so many amazing memories and positives about living where I did.  But I want to tell you how hard it was to accept all the positives, because my own mental state had built me into a prison. I really felt like a lonely conservationist living there, despite being literally surrounded by people and never alone. I also experienced my estranged father dying and my grandma back home dying and unable to leave and be with my family took its toll on me a lot. I felt so far, so far away from home. I have never been a homesick person, yet I made my own mum cry on Christmas Day because I told her all I wanted is to be at home. Looking back, I have so many fantastic memories surrounding that moment and that day was an exception for me, and I didn’t hate it, but by the end it had just made me upset and I had called my mum.  My brain had fixated on that. It took me a long time to stop associating all my Instagram photos with the negative memories and actually the positive memories of why I took the photos.

By my 4th month in, the furthest from the village I’d been is the local town which has a pizza hut with Wifi. One day everything came crashing down around me. I had fallen during a shift and hurt my ankle, I had been stuck at home unable to do anything for days, and one day I lost it when I found one of the house cats had pooed in my bed. I sat crying for hours. My supervisor sat with me, talked, listened, showed how much she cared and her kindness. A common theme if I think about it. Hélène not only worked insane hours, but made the time to laugh, joke and supervise me – as well as others. She had been there through both family deaths. I connected to her, but with that came the anxiety of letting her down. She wasn’t just a supervisor to me, she was my family and I never wanted to disappoint her. There were times of friction due to high high stress levels from both of us. But in the end I can’t imagine a world without her and what she has done for me. The feelings of being left out dissipated when over Christmas our team got really small and I connected with Imanol. You see, a lot of these feelings of anxiety, stress, not enjoying yourself, made me feel ungrateful. I recognise how lucky I was to have the opportunity to go to Java and work with such an incredible project, and I realise how great it was I could get a high enough student loan to afford to live there and be there. Therefore, when you feel crap about it, it feels like you are being ungrateful and that in itself makes you feel so much worse. This was the same dilemma when I was home, because I couldn’t for a while remember the positives, but could not tell people the negatives without risk of sounding ungrateful. I now happily can acknowledge both and am confident enough to explain WHY I struggled and not put the blame on other people, the project, the place. Because in reality that’s their life. I did fit in and there are aspects I truly miss. I enjoyed that although things were constantly happening, it was actually pretty relaxed. I miss the people and the kindness they showed me when invited to large events or when I lived briefly with my Indonesian teacher and his family. I miss speaking another language and sharing stories and riding on the scooters down the mountain in a poncho because it was raining so hard. But on those days where I did feel anxious, all I remember are the noises and the feeling of isolation. I would fixate on them. I would find every step torture if in mud, I would find every call to prayer so loud I couldn’t concentrate. But there were so many other days where none of that mattered and I would be out smiling laughing, playing with the kids, out on day shifts saying hello to the farmers. I spent a lot of time looking at camera trap photos and I enjoyed it.

I find it incredible how our brains work when we have trauma or anxiety or hypersensitivity – because I can read my introduction in two very distinct ways. The first reading is with a positive outlook on a day. I can think about the creative way I made my hoodie wrap around my face to avoid mosquitoes, how I enjoyed the smell of the cooking during the morning, how waking up to the call to prayer at 4am meant I got to learn about Lala and Ida’s relationship with their religion. I enjoyed the sounds of the scooters as I whizzed down the mountains and getting to speak with random people and kids in Indonesian. On the good days these sounds and actions were good and I enjoyed the day. On anxious days, however, my introduction sounds like a nightmare to me. The constant stimulus, environment change, sounds, back-and-forth, sounds, more sounds. Overwhelming. No wonder I struggled on those days. But I could never really pinpoint it. Thus never could understand how to help myself. I didn’t practice mindfulness because I hadn’t worked out how. But I had unknowingly taken some of those important steps, without realising.

For example: the language. Learning Indonesian really helped. I think I’d have been lost without it. Being able to talk to the people who drove me on the scooter down the mountain, or the kids in the schools made me feel I could connect. The more I learnt Indonesian the less trapped and lonely I began to feel. I also took a break and went on holiday to Singapore and Sumatra and saw my mum and that change and that slight feeling of home helped push me through the last part of the internship. Living a small conservative Muslim traditional Sundanese village means you have to change your way of living to respect the culture and although I am comfortable to, sometimes it can be challenging. I am the first person to tell you that I grew up privileged. My family weren’t comfortably off with money during my childhood, yet our background gave us more systematic rights than several other people deal with. My mother also was incredible and did everything she could for me regardless of money. Therefore, I grew up in a fairly wealthy area, though not wealthy ourselves, with bursary to a private school and for many years I ignorantly reaped the benefits of a privileged white girl life. Travelling from age 13 to countries further than Europe helped open my eyes at an early age. Therefore, my ability to adapt to different lifestyles is pretty good, and I really enjoy experiencing other cultures, because I think it is super important. But this doesn’t mean that sometimes you just want those home comforts back. I didn’t know how to cope with it at the time. I think I have learnt a lot now. That was my first time away without seeing my family for more than 6 months and it shook my world. Despite being an adult and 22 I felt like a baby. But I realise that is important to go through. As I had to grow up into my previous life with my family, when you move and change cultures, you have to grow up again into that life. It can be hard, but it was worth every second. I would never ever regret any of it. I don’t see the point in regrets anyhow, but I really think Java did me the world of good. And I felt such relief when I began to go through that realisation. I was then able to share my stories and memories, and I actively started to learn from the experience too, sharing both the positive and the negative.

I’ve always enjoyed my alone time, but in a privileged manner I guess so to speak. It’s why I always preferred “second shift” – one where I go out at 11pm and stay out past 5am. Because on my shifts was when I felt most at peace, even if chasing a loris or hiding in a shelter from torrential rain. The actual shifts were my focus. It was hard to climb the mountain and navigate the fields and chase lorises for hours – but it’s what I loved doing. I loved it. I loved seeing them, recording their behaviour and finding happiness. I enjoyed the quieter nights where I could see the stars and the only sounds were from me, one of the trackers and the devices we used. At other times I also found peace in being alone, for example I spent New Year sat on the roof watching the fireworks down the mountain and I called my family.

However, there is a major difference between feeling lonely and having alone time. The feeling of loneliness was draining, negative and exacerbated all my self-doubts, worries and insecurities. For months the idea of being alone drowned out the reality of actually having a tight knit connection with the people there. When I did open up to both Hélène and Imanol, I realised that everyone has these feelings. It’s normal. It’s okay to feel it, but we have to find a way to cope and sharing how I felt really changed things for me. I also had the pleasure of meeting some incredible people on the way like Abdullah and Wita who worked for the project. Towards the end I also got to meet Matt and Lucy who also lit up my life. If I’d have succumb to the earlier feelings of wanting to leave, I’d have never met those two – and they changed my life for the better. It’s just so easy to get wrapped up in our heads, particularly when we spend our days in perpetual anxiety, triggered at the small things and therefore unable to cope with the big things. I choose to acknowledge that I felt both amazing and shit during my placement. Because in reality, that’s the truth. Sometimes it felt like hell and I wanted to leave and I was crying, but other days I laughed my head off and can’t imagine having not been there. Mental health is stigmatized still, I still find it hard with my current endeavours, but going through my experience in Java has led me to grow into the conservationist I am now.

The world of conservation can feel brutal and helpless at times. That is an important lesson I learnt whilst over there. It was hard on some days to remain positive. There was one night I distinctly remember watching Maaf (one of the lorises we tracked) walk on the ground for 11 minutes during a shift and I just cried. Knowing that humans have destroyed the habitat is heart-breaking yet you have to realise their livelihood mattes too. Thus, the next day I likely remained pessimistic. However several days spark joy in you, like when you find a loris caring for a new baby or you interact with local children in the village who have started to understand why it is important to save them. I think working out in the field for long periods, especially in remote areas, is difficult and I think it is a roller-coaster of emotions, particularly when coupled with a lot of sensitivity with mental health problems. However without Java I doubt I’d be half the person, half the scientist and half the conservationist I am today. Whilst I have learnt a lot, grown a lot and learnt how to cope with many of the issues I faced back then, I still struggle. I doubt the struggle will ever fully go away, and I’m okay with that. Knowing I was strong enough to cope then, has led to me coping through things I never knew I could now. Now I am away from home again, initially for 4 months studying in New Zealand but has been extended until November due to the pandemic. I also have plans for next year (let’s hope they happen) – and I will not let my mental health get in my way, but I also will not ignore it. I have chosen to speak out about anxiety now, and I try my best now to share my stories to help others not feel so alone, often how I’ve felt during my life.

Being a conservationist takes guts. We are setting ourselves up for a higher level roller-coaster of life than we could choose, but I believe it is worth it. Because we are fighting for the environment, for the animals which can’t fight for themselves and despite feeling like a lonely conservationist, I know that really we are unified in how we feel. You shouldn’t have to walk away from an experience and only say the positives and hide the negatives so you don’t feel shame. I think we should be embracing that conservation can be bloody hard, as long as we embrace the good too – even if sometimes that takes a while and a bit of work from our brains to accept.

I hope you could follow my rambling. I also have to point out that my blog is focused on how I coped with my mental health in the field, not the work I did there. However, I feel it’s important to me to just give you a heads up on finding the project and the research in-case any of you are interested. You can search the Javan Slow Loris on google,  but be sure to avoid any “cute” pet-like videos – and you can check out the main conservation work happening at the Little Fireface Project (first thing that pops up when you google). With that said, I’d be interested to know how any of you reading my introduction interpreted it emotionally or if any emotion occurred at all. Thank you for listening to me, it was difficult to revisit some of those emotions when writing this. It obviously isn’t the full story, there are a million more amazing moments and also struggles I faced. But some things I am choosing to keep to myself, for my own sake. I want to reiterate that this experience is the reason I am the conservationist I am today, despite starting that journey many years before. Therefore although I have several stories, I felt this one really needed to be told. And in the end it has set me on a path I want to be on… conserving tropical nocturnal mammals. That’s my goal, my dream. With my mental health I know it can be difficult to cope at times, but it isn’t about me, it’s about the animals I’m trying to save. That is what led me to survive my challenges in Java and what pushes me to this day. I am truly grateful for the project, the people I met and the experiences I had out in Indonesia – and I look forward to going back one day as I really cherish what it has done for me. I hope you all can find strength while facing hardships on your paths and journeys and hopefully by confiding in one-another we can choose to be not-so-lonely-but-still-sometimes-lonely-conservationists.

For more of Sapphire, check out @saphy_saft on Instagram 

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