“One, Two, Three!” Jenny puts her whole body into it, pulls hard, and the skin of the barking deer strips right off like a banana peel.
This is what we said we wanted – to live off the land in the jungle of Borneo. And we are getting more than we bargained for. Our mountain survival skills and Gore-tex jackets are mostly useless when the forest is so thick you can't see more than 20 meters, there's 100% humidity, and every step means picking up another leech or two that quickly start climbing towards those vulnerable parts...
Now that the skin is off, the machete makes quick work of separating the legs and shoulders, ribs, and haunches. The cuts are laid out on palm fronds, then the raw meat is loaded up and we continue walking through the jungle, collecting more pieces of dinner as we go. Wild ginger, water spinach, mushrooms, palm hearts – everything we need is here in the forest. The rice is grown locally in the villages, fish are pulled from the crystal clear streams, and there are natural salt licks found on the long, winding ridges here in the highlands. The salt is traded for coffee grown down a little lower towards the coast and sugar is made from the palm sap. Even the oil for cooking comes from the ubiquitous palms. Our four-day trek is filled with lessons about local medicine with the jungle supplying everything from eye-drops to local anesthetic to blood clotting agents to digestive aids. You have a headache? No problem, let's just take some of this leaf and brew it into a tea. Got bit by a centipede? Here, put some of this sap on it – it will take away the sting and make the swelling go down. Need to write a contract or send a message? Easy – scratch it onto the back of this broad leaf and let it dry for a day and you've got a water-resistant record that will last for years. Thirsty? Chip a little hole in the side of a bamboo tree, stick a reed in the hole, and suck – pure, filtered water. Mmmm, so good!
Our two guides, Reddy and Stephen, are both Kelabits – part of the larger group of Borneo natives known as Dayaks. They grew up here in the jungle learning the same skills that their fathers and their father's fathers have been passing down for thousands of years. Yes, their long-houses used to have skulls hanging inside, but that was ages ago. The Christian missionaries who have so influenced this area over the last hundred years helped put a stop to that, along with the local governments who recognized that the island's fierce reputation was keeping potential traders away. But these skills are quickly falling to the lure of high-paying jobs in the big city. The small villages are devoid of anyone between the ages of 10 and 35 as the logging roads that started going in over the last ten years have allowed the extraction of both natural resources and the talented young children from these once isolated communities. The old folks are the only ones left to plant the rice and many of the villages have been abandoned altogether, or their numbers have dwindled to tens of hardy souls who still wake up every morning, put on their bamboo hats, grab a grass-woven grocery bag, and head into the “jungle supermarket” to get breakfast.
The next morning we set off – leech-proof socks pulled up to our knees. An hour later the logging road gave way to a water buffalo path and then a foot path and then – just jungle. We spent our first night in the little (34 person) village of Pa'Lungan – a three hour walk to the nearest (often impassable) road of any kind. After dinner we learned that a young anthropology PhD candidate from Chicago had recently left after spending two and a half years here studying this ancient culture.