This is when the sadness of travel hits him hardest. Not when stuck at a desolate bus station, surrounded by others who hate it there as much as he does, or holed up in a cheap room in a dreary, forbidding district devoid of travellers, but at times like this. Crammed in a van like this, surrounded by people like this. He stares out of the window to avoid his fellow travellers, struggling to keep the ever more familiar chagrin from ruining everything. This is supposed to be fun.
‘Mike, how long is the drive?’ A German girl asks the driver. Linda or Linnet or something, she made a big thing about nobody remembering her name right. His name most probably isn’t Mike. It’s just Mike when he drives us. Because we can’t remember the names they have.
‘Only one more hour. Then we visit KangDa village for traditional KangDa village experience tour. Then one more hour. Then we arrive at Boloran camp six o’clock for a traditional meal with drinks and evening traditional entertainment.’
Sentences that sound like they have been practiced and uttered over and over again. With that slight feel to them you’re not sure the speaker understands all the words they use. As opposed to us, who don’t bother to practice anything more than the local ‘thank you’. But really, who says ‘o’clock’? Mike does. ‘Mike’.
‘Will there be a toilet in the village?’ Lenette asks.
A ‘traditional’ toilet, no doubt.
One more hour. An hour to lose himself in the landscape some more, the rolling hills that turn into foothills. The ebb and flow of human settlements, strewing their plastic waste along roads and streams like indestructible breadcrumbs leading back home. The rough edges between cultivation and the wilderness you probably don’t love unambiguously once you live right next to it.
‘What a beautiful scenery was that, don’t you think?’ Lanet asks him when they leave the van.
Beautiful… Would he use that word for the raw feelings elicited by driving through this province? Maybe, but it would not be the romantic ‘beauty’ Linet referred to.
‘Yes, very beautiful.’
And now he wonders about the wildlife, curious what still thrives here, what has been hunted to extinction. Curious what the local kids are being scared with in bedtime stories. Their version of Red Riding Hood and the wolf. If that is how it works here. He can’t escape being a western boy.
Or maybe it was the sign they passed when entering the village:
WELCOME TO KANG DA
HUNGINGO HUNTER VILLAGE
An unfamiliar beast was painted under it. Hungingo? What were they trying to draw there? If only his smartphone worked here.
The afternoon sun glares through the village like a nosy neighbour, peeping under the sun roofs of the souvenir stalls, shining through the small windows of the tiny ‘traditional’ wooden huts they are ushered into and out of, like large, white cattle. A flock of kids follows from a distance.
In front of what seems to be a bigger hut, ‘Mike’ starts another set of well-used lines.
‘This is the house of the village hunter. Many village people today also hunt for bird or fish or some small animal like that. But before, village people hunt for hungingo.’
His hands make small and then large gestures. He pauses for effect. Lannet takes a picture with her DSLR. A couple more in the group suddenly decide to take a photograph as well.
‘Today, hungingo have almost disappear. Only very few left. Not many people know where to find hungingo. Here lives the last hunter of hungingo. The hunt only happen one time each year. So now you will hear the traditional story of hunting hungingo.’
Glorified cows? Some kind of big goat? What is he tricked into oohing and aahing over? He’ll admit the mystery alleviates his travel depression. But grudgingly. He should’ve read the leaflet when he signed up for this day trip.
Resigned, he follows ‘Mike’, ducks through the small door, enters the hunter’s house. He looks up into a space that is way, way bigger than he anticipated.
Holy damn. A gigantic skull is suspended along the entire ceiling. Possibly the biggest skull he’s been physically close to. What the hell is a crazy skull like that doing in a village like this? How does he not know about these hungingo things? What are they, dinosaurs?
And then a woman enters. She is mature but not old, short and very muscular. Her face, though covered in tattoos, exudes the calm and confidence characteristic of those who know what they know. She folds her legs on a cushion on the floor as the tourists awkwardly squat down to sit. Her tattooed hands rub her stocky underarms, and she starts her story:
I am the last hungingo hunter.
Like my mother before me was, and her mother before.
I climb the mountain, once a year.
And I find my hungingo once a year.
I find the one that wants to be found.
And when I find her, we dance.
We dance to the death of one of us.
Which is the death of us both.
I will take her name, or I will lose my name.
It can take short or long but time is different when we dance.
You only know after she dies.
Or you will never know at all.
She gets up, her feet carry her around the room like a boy ballet dancer.
Of all my tools along this wall,
I bring none. They are for later.
For when the fur has to become fur.
For when the meat has to become meat.
For when the bones are dead.
And the skull has no face anymore.
Tools glide in and out of her hands, handled with gestures so precise they feel a thousand years old. Then she unhooks a simple, curiously curved knife, hanging alone on the wall at the end.
I only bring this knife.
And a bag of string.
This string I string through the forest.
On my way back, alone, with a new name.
So we can go back together.
Bring back the hungingo together.
The string is longer every year.
She unties the fastening on a leather shoulder bag, a giant coil of handmade thin red rope rolls out on the floor.
But if I die, I die alone
I must die alone and I must not be found
Because I will become hungingo
Like my mother before me
And her mother before
I am the last hungingo hunter
And I will be the last hungingo too.
He is not sure why he didn’t google ‘hungingo’ on the computer afterwards. It would’ve been a better way to spend his time than the ‘traditional’ entertainment night. He is also not sure why he didn’t feel like blogging about it, or posting pictures on Facebook.
Ever since, he thinks about the hunters everywhere that went extinct together with their prey. He hopes they had the kind of closure the hungingo hunter woman will have. He doubts it. He doubts anybody remembers their name. He doesn’t, anyway. Or maybe that’s just him never having cared enough about these things in the first place.
Why does he care now?
At the airport on the way back home, some time later, a familiar face shows up.
‘Hi, how are you? What did you think of this country?’ she asks him. ‘Will you want to come back?’
‘Not really,’ he says.
‘I want to come back here. It is such a magical place.’
She holds up a book from the airport souvenir shop titled ‘Die letzte Jägerin der Hungingo’. The shop that disgusts him, because it is full of stuffed toys and wooden statues shaped like hungingos. It sells infinitely more hungingos than there are still left on that mountain. And it will keep on selling after they’re gone.
‘I love this story. They are really Amazons, it is so inspiring. If I have a daughter, I will read her this story.’
He doesn’t know how to start explaining why he doesn’t agree at all. There are no daughters, don’t you see. It says ‘die letzte’ for a reason.
‘Have a good trip home, Lenetta,’ he says after a while.
‘It’s Lorette,’ she smiles wryly. ‘But that’s OK. Nobody ever remembers it right.’
But at least you will have daughters, he thinks.
Not that far from there, out of his sight, out of everyone’s sight, a little girl follows her mother’s steps through the room, like a ballet dancer. Silently, a giant skull looms over them, listens to the poem they rehearse together, every night. Like she did with her mother, and her mother’s mother before.
‘Mom, what’s a hungingo smell like?’ the little girl asks.
‘I don’t know, sweetheart,’ the woman says. ‘I have never seen one.’
Annemarie Opmeer started out as a comparative literature and gender studies major, ended up as editor-in-chief of Down to Earth, the independent magazine of Friends of the Earth Nederlands, survives by having helped the start of Against The Stream/Dharma Punx Netherlands, lives in their favourite Dutch polder.