LIFE IN A JUNGLE OIL CAMP
Our life took an adventuresome turn in the 70's when my husband, a Chevron engineer was assigned to a Cal-Tex production office in Rumbai, Sumatra. We had to do some “boning up” to find out where we were going. We discovered that Sumatra is one of the larger and less-populated Indonesian islands, south of Vietnam and Rumbai is in the center of it. The camp, about a mile in diameter, had been literally carved out of the jungle, and was accessible only by boat or plane. The company had attempted to provide a little American atmosphere for us with an office complex, a huge club house, with ballroom and restaurant, an Olympic-size swimming pool, 18-hole golf course, schools, churches, medical facilities and housing. There were about 100 “Ex-pat” families, mostly Americans, and 500 Indonesian families living there.
My first inkling that life in the jungle was going to be an “adventure” occurred when my husband, who had preceded me on this assignment by three months, met me in Singapore. He calmly handed me a Food Catalog and announced, “Honey, where you’re going there is no GROCERY STORE! We have to order our food out of this book, six weeks in advance, and you must plan on a lot of entertaining.” At this point, this experienced Home Ec teacher “lost it”. Somehow, we lived through that crisis and found it was a challenge to prove that we could eat well without a corner grocery or a Super Market.
Our house was an antiquated Swedish wooden prefab, two feet off the ground on concrete pillars, topped with inverted metal pans to protect us from snakes and bugs. This prefab had twelve-foot ceilings, floor to ceiling, wood shuttered windows, which mercifully had been updated with glass panes and refrigeration units in an attempt to keep us cool in this very hot and humid climate.
My next “adventure” was “inheriting” two servants, Wari, our cook, and Djahruhl, our houseboy and gardener from the former residents of our house. They spoke no English, and we spoke no Indonesian. After several frustrating days of hand-signals, it became clear that learning their language must be our #1 priority.
Our day usually began with breakfast on our screened-in porch. We never lacked for entertainment. Usually there were monkeys leaping
from trees, across the road from us and sometimes bare-foot Indonesian women, carrying fruit and vegetables in trays on their heads came by to tempt us with their wares. Breakfast over, my husband walked to work–a luxury for him after years of long commutes. I often played golf, while it was still cool. It cost me all of 25 cents for the caddie’s fee. A certain person is still kidding me about the tournament that I won with a 34 handicap.
Probably the biggest adjustment for most of us wives was what to do with all this free time we now had. Because we were all in the same “fix”, we did a lot of creative organizing, together with the Indonesian women, and ended up with all sorts of activities: we put on fashion show, plays, musical programs, fairs and golf tournaments. We developed classes in Indonesian, English, bridge, square-dancing, cooking, sewing, Bible and art, etc., etc. Most of us soon found ourselves “too busy”, if you can believe that.
I didn’t realize what an “eye opener” was in store for me when I asked an Indonesian friend to show me Pekanbaru, the closest native town. We boarded a Cal-Tex bus that took us about three miles to the edge of a fast-flowing, chocolate-colored Siak river. The road was busy with pedestrians, men on bicycles, motorcycles and women all in colorful batiks carrying small children on their hips. “Old timers” had told us that it wasn’t uncommon to see huge pythons stretched across the road...so I was watching! While I didn’t see a snake, I saw people washing clothes, bathing, cleaning their teeth and tending to the unmentionables all in the same small roadside ditch.
A new challenge presented itself when we reached the edge of the large Siak river and had to walk across on a pontoon bridge. It is really tricky trying to keep one’s balance when the bridge underneath one moves up and down, but somehow we got to the other side. I discovered that Pekanbaru is actually a cluster of booths, surrounding a huge open-air market. One look at the fish and meat, black with flies, convinced me to never complain again about having to use a food catalog.
Evenings were especially nice. While we were walking around camp, we were keenly aware of the sounds: the muezzin, atop the Muslim minaret calling the faithful to prayer, the constant buzz of katydids, the croaking of frogs, the screeches of monkeys, all mingled with the
voices of children, who like us, were enjoying the best part of the day.
We look back over the seven years we spent with these gentle, brown-skinned Indonesian people in their beautiful jungle, as being truly an unforgettable adventure.
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