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Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Trekking in Borneo – Brett

“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.

But we knew none of this as our Twin Otter touched down in little Bario – several hundred souls and the center of the universe for this vast region of primary forest and waning culture. We spent the first day anxiously waiting for our guide to appear out of the jungle. We listened to the rain hammer the tin roof over our heads and took advantage of a dry spell to wander the deep mud pit that serves as the only road through the middle of the village. We day-dreamed about poisonous bugs and deadly snakes. We stared longingly into the thick forest surrounding us – a little scared about what we might actually find in there. That night Ainee served up fresh wild boar (which she had been smoking all day) and plates of the famous local pineapple that lacks any tartness and just melts in your mouth like warm buttery sugar. Heaven. The mutton-bone soup and the chicken curry (not a local dish) left a little to be desired, but hey – we were definitely not complaining. Finally, out of the dark, comes a little man with a big smile and an easy laugh. Reddy was to be our guide for the next four days – and would become a great friend and teacher that we will never forget. Sweet! It looked like this was actually going to happen! We went to bed with full bellies and dreamed of hanging vines and wild rivers and... leeches.

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.

So what will happen to these small villages scattered around the “developing” nation of Malaysia? Many will simply cease to exist and will quickly be reclaimed by the unrelenting jungle. But some of these towns have decided that they want to survive and so they are re-inventing themselves. Bario, for better or worse, has one of those rare souls who can see the forest and the trees. John is in his late-thirties and has brought in anthropology and business students from the local university in Sarawak to develop “e-Bario”. Bario, this little town only accessible by 14 hours of treacherous logging road (and only in the dry season) or by the tiny Twin Otter airplanes that fly in from the coast, now has a couple of solar arrays, a diesel generator, a handful of 4x4 pickup trucks, and – the internet. John is pushing “eco-tourism” with a vengeance and has helped promote more than half a dozen guest houses and lodges (some quite nice) in and around town. He regularly goes to the capital (Kuala Lumpur) to seek funding from the government for his seemingly never-ending list of projects. He even organized a “slow-food” festival last year(!). John has brought awareness of the “United Nations Declaration on the Right of Indigenous Peoples” to the local population and regularly pays “courtesy calls” to the logging company scouts who “accidentally” stray into the area. John understands that nothing will happen without the assistance of the government and he is relentless in his quest to market Bario and the surrounding natural beauty in a way that forces the government to recognize and protect this valuable resource. For better or worse? Again, this exposure to the modern world hastens the decline of the local culture and there are grumblings around town about John's self-promotion and rumors that much of the development money goes to him. There was the US$12 Million hydroelectric project that ran for one day before being declared a failure and being abandoned. There are the deals with the logging company trading land rights for the promise of a paved road through town. And along with the proposed national park will come restrictions on guiding and hunting and off-trail travel.

It would take a novel to fully describe the experiences of the next four days, but my childhood dreams of going to “the jungle in Borneo” have been successfully fulfilled. I don't think Jenny or I will ever again set up camp in the rain without laughing about Reddy and Stephen chopping down trees and cutting vines to build our sleeping platform while we huddled under a tarp in the pouring rain (like the helpless white tourists that we were). I have not the talent to describe the beauty of the nameless creek where we ate a delicious lunch of smoked barking deer, water spinach, and ear mushrooms. And until you experience it, you will never fully appreciate the jungle orchestra or what sunset looks like from deep under the canopy of some of the world's last pristine rain forest.

To Supan and Nabun, Stephen and Reddy, Ainee and John and the wonderful people of Bario, Pa'Ukat, and Pa'Lungan – terima kasih banyak, thank you very much. We are now a part of pulong tau “our forest” and we will never forget this amazing experience.
(To see the rest of the photos - click here.)