The Soul of Borneo
The island of Borneo is not a circle. It’s more of a triangular oval with rough edges and indentations. As such, it is very difficult to determine the exact center of the island. Nevertheless, if you look at a map of Borneo and attempt to put your finger on the very center, the place you put your finger would pretty much be the exact spot where we are presently camping. We are situated on a bend in a river somewhere in the deep jungle between the villages of Long Apari and Tanjun Lokan. No doubt, it is probably not the exact mathematical center. But as I lie here in my tent with the rain cover off, looking up through a tiny hole in the canopy at the few stars shining through, I feel as if I have indeed found the center.
Insects and bugs chatter as they fly incessantly into the protective netting of my tent. Faint moonlight sets the jungle world a glow. Fireflies flash through the trees. The sound of wildlife around me is so intense I feel as if I am immersed in a super natural symphony. For two and a half months, I have traveled around Borneo. During that time, I have seen many shopping malls and the various scars of modernization. Over and over I have asked myself; what has happened to Borneo? Does the Borneo of image, the Borneo of dream no longer exist? The wonder world of infinite vegetation and amazing biodiversity has been destroyed and exploited to meet the commercial demands of the modern economic system. The headhunters no longer hunt heads, the orangutans are all dying out and the trees are disappearing so fast that the environmentalists can’t even keep track. But still, somewhere at the very center…the essence of Borneo…the soul of Borneo still thrives. Perhaps Borneo, and what is happening here, is a symbol or metaphor for what is happening to the entire planet. The body of humans, the body of the planet is slowly corrupted by psychotic notions of economic progress. But somewhere deep inside, the souls of humans, the soul of the planet and the soul of Borneo are still pure. Will we recognize the error of our ways, rediscover our souls and the soul of the planet and stop the destruction before it’s too late? I seriously doubt it. But as I lie here in my tent, surrounded by jungle purity, a glimmer of hope arises within me. We can change. Destruction is not inevitable. We can find truth…in places like this. And use that truth to revitalize the world and change the way we interact with the planet…
Rabun arrives at our losmen at about 8:30 am. We shoulder our packs and follow him down to the river where a motorized canoe is waiting to take us upstream to the trailhead. The boat ride alone is quite an adventure. White water rapids, shallow waters and protruding rocks provide ample reasons for fear and anxiety. We are splashed a few times and we almost flip but the boat operator is truly a master. After two hours of precarious maneuvering through a spectacular jungle canyon, the boat pulls over to the shoreline. It’s time for the long walk to begin.
In addition to Rabun, there are two other guides, both of whom are indigenous Dayaks. Bang Beang appears to be in his mid 30s while Tiong can’t be more than 20. Compared to us, the rattan packs they carry are very small. All they have is a big sack of rice and the necessary instruments of jungle survival; machetes, shotguns, blowpipes and fishing net. For the next five or six days, we will live off the resources of the jungle. I am excited by the possibility. I want to live the primitive jungle lifestyle and re-awaken the animal self that lies within me.
The beginning of the trail is very steep and very overgrown. No doubt, I would not be able to find it or follow it without a guide. The old guy Rabun leads the way. I’m second, Hans (a.k.a. Mr. Clean) is after me with the two younger guides bringing up the rear. Our pace is very slow as we climb our way out of the canyon. In fact, my brain tells me the pace is too slow. Although I have a heavy pack and the temperature is oppressively hot and humid, I still find myself on the heels of Rabun, slowing down so I don’t run into him. The journey is supposed to take five to seven days. At the rate we are moving, I imagine it will take ten. But no, maybe I’m mistaken. I don’t know or understand the jungle. The old guy does. Maybe he goes slowly to watch for dangers such as snakes or to make sure of the way. I sure hope he is not too old or out of shape to handle the journey. He certainly looks fit enough. A bit old, maybe mid 50s, but that gives him experience and he looks strong and healthy. But the truth is, it’s very hard to tell. He speaks no English so I can’t even really ask him about it. It sure would be a pain in the ass if we had to turn back because one of the guides can’t make it.
After about an hour of steep climbing through thick jungle, we reach the top of the gorge and stop for a short rest. The trail is more distinct now and the way ahead looks to be downhill and flat. Perhaps the hardest part is over now and it’s easy walking after this…yeah right. As we rest and drink water; one of the guides hears a sound in the jungle. I hear nothing specific but it must be something good because the three Dayak guides get rather excited. Rabun signals for us to be quiet, Bang Beang takes off his shoes, grabs his blowpipe full of poison darts and heads into the dense vegetation. He must be crazy going barefoot into that tangle. With poisonous snakes, spiders, leeches and ants, there’s a regular smorgasbord of monsters to attack his feet. But no, he’s not crazy. He’s just a native Dayak. And the essence of Dayaks, the soul of Dayaks is expressed and manifested through the ancient art of hunting wild animals in the jungle. No…Bang Beang is not even close to crazy. Actually, he is quite the opposite. He is doing the thing that comes most naturally to him.
Unfortunately, Bang Beang is unsuccessful in his hunt. Somehow, his quarry eludes him and he returns to the trail empty handed. Oh well, no doubt there will be plenty of opportunity to hunt jungle creatures in the coming days. For now, we shoulder our packs and continue on down the trail. The next several hours are truly incredible. The steep part over, the trail flattens out and becomes much easier to follow. Not easy by civilized human standards, just easier than before. The heat is still intense, my pack heavy, the humidity is oppressive and we have to trudge through many leech infested swamp holes. Surprisingly, leeches are something that you can get used to. Of course the first couple that attach themselves to me kind of freak me out. But after a while they become commonplace and my psychology adapts. Every time we stop for a brief rest, I scan my legs, feet and arms for the little bastards and nonchalantly pluck them off. Leeches smeeches, I can handle the jungle.
For the most part, the trail follows small streams and rivers. There are occasional crossings and no bridges. We have to splash through ankle deep water and sometimes wade through up to our knees. For me, it’s no problem. I learned my lesson in Bako and traded in my heavy hiking boots for cheap running shoes. I slosh through the water without a second thought. Mr. Clean, however, has issues. He wears those ridiculously dysfunctional military style hiking boots that become a serious burden when wet. So every time we reach a river crossing, he has to decide between taking off his shoes and slowing us or just stomping on through and suffering the consequences. For the first couple of crossings, he stops to remove his shoes. After a while though, there are so many crossings that stopping at each one becomes absurd. He has no choice but to accept the fact that his feet and boots will be wet and heavy for the entire journey. Oh well, he’s a tough young man, he can handle it.
Since the only food we brought is a bag of rice, we have to hope that the fruits of the jungle will supplement our nutritional needs. In that regard, we strike gold in the mid afternoon. A mother load of perfectly ripe durians has fallen all around the path. The three Dayak guides get so excited that they practically jump for joy. “Makan makan,” (eat, eat) they shout as they begin picking up the fruit, cracking it open and passing it around. Truth be told, durian is not exactly one of my favorite fruits. It’s very large, no doubt, and loaded with nutritional value, but it has a bad smell and a strange taste. It often goes by the commonplace name of stinky fruit. Traveling in this part of the world, I have met many people who just love it, think it’s the greatest fruit ever. My reaction, however, has been less than enthusiastic. Of course I’ve eaten it several times, mostly to be polite to locals who have offered it to me with great fanfare. To say I’ve enjoyed eating it though would be an exaggeration. Actually, given a choice, I’d probably never buy it in a supermarket… Now, however, is different. After four hours of trekking through hot, steamy jungle, the durians taste like heaven. I’ve never tasted anything better. I can feel the power of the fruit, the nutrition of the fruit, the energy of the fruit seeping into my system. It’s like a drug, but not a drug, the force of nature unleashed. It gives life…it gives strength…it gives power. As I munch down the creamy pulp enthusiastically, the thought runs through my mind. I am the jungle and the jungle is me.
After our lunch of durian, we continue walking for several more hours. To say the walk is beautiful or wonderful is an inadequate understatement. It’s impossible to find words to describe the vision that envelopes me. It’s not just something to see, but something to experience with all five senses. The taste of durian lingers on my tongue, sweat pours from my body as the heart beats strongly within. I pluck occasional leeches from my feet and legs, insects buzz, birds chirp, unseen creatures slither and move through the super dense vegetation. Tiny beams of sunlight slide through small holes in the canopy to electrify the greenery. Streams and small rivers trickle, splash, gleam and glisten. My body is wet but so is the jungle. Sunlight and moisture combine to give the surroundings a hallucinatory glow. The water that makes up my body and the light that illuminates my soul combine to receive this multi-sensory experience. I am the jungle and the jungle is me. The human animal within me is alive and well on the living breathing planet.
During this portion of our walk, the ordering of our group mixes up somewhat. Bang Beang no longer brings up the rear. Instead, he charges ahead alone and barefoot with shotgun and blowpipe ready to take down any animal he might cross. The young guide Tiong goes second and I follow him. Somewhere in the distance behind is the old guy Rabun and Mr. Clean with his military clothes and very big backpack. Tiong is far enough ahead of me that I can barely see him and the others are so far behind that it seems as if I am walking through the jungle alone and this factor multiplies the intensity of the experience. The trail is clear enough to see now and the others are close enough that it is very unlikely I will get lost. But still, under the circumstances, I can imagine what it would be like to be lost in such a jungle. Oddly enough, there is a part of my nature that longs for exactly that. Something inside me wants to get lost. At the same time, the thought or possibility of actually being lost scares the hell out of me. Such is the contradictory nature of my very confused soul.
But I don’t get lost. Around four in the afternoon, I climb a small hill and then descend to a rather wide river. On the other side of the river, Bang Beang and Tiong have a small fire going and a little camp set up. This is the place where we are staying the night. I wade across the river to join them. Immediately upon reaching the other side, I drop my heavy pack, strip to my underwear and plunge into the river. Now I’ve had some pretty great bathing experiences in my life but this one may very well be the best; a bend in the river, the middle of the jungle, a body worn out, beaten and soaked with sweat. The moment I hit the water, my body releases a spontaneous exultation. This is joy, this is wonder, this is illumination; this is glory. I am one with the jungle, one with the universe…connected to god. Ahhhhhhhh. Breathe in, breathe out. Wallow in the moment. Soak up the sensation. Let the experience linger for as long as possible.
A short while later, Hans and Rabun arrive. Everyone looks and feels good. The first leg of our journey is completed. We’ve made it this far, we should be able to make the rest. So now we relax and enjoy the afternoon and evening. We hang our sweat soaked clothes on bamboo poles to dry in the sun. We swim in the river and sit on the rocks. We watch the sunlight glitter through the canopy. It sure would be nice to speak with our Dayak guides to learn some specifics about their way of life, their spiritual traditions, their hunting techniques and thoughts on the jungle. But they speak no English and we speak no Dayak. Real communication is impossible so we have to settle for smiles and nods.
We do share a communal meal together. The guides take turns with the fishing net and manage to haul in a decent number of small silver fish from the river in front of us. The fish are boiled in a big pot with salt and a large quantity of rice completes the meal. There are no plates or silverware so the food is served on some bamboo leaves and we eat with our hands. Actually, we only use the right hand because the left is used for other things. I have to correct Mr. Clean about this. He seems to think it matters not as he is toilet paper man rather than a water and left hand man. I explain that the guides are unaware of his toilet habits and he finally agrees and puts his left hand away.
Truthfully, I find eating fresh food from the jungle with my hand rather than silverware to be a rather fulfilling experience. Somehow it makes the activity more authentic, more real…less hygienic perhaps, but what’s the big deal. So far at least, with the exception of the minor annoyance caused by my growing dislike for Hans, the jungle experience is proving to be everything I hoped and dreamed about when I came to Borneo. Here I am, dead center middle of the island, surrounded by virgin jungle, camping out with native Dayak guides, eating fresh food from the jungle with my bare hands after bathing in a jungle river. It’s perfect. How could it be better? But alas, just as I have this thought, a nasty little honey bee stings me in the hip just above my ass. Ow! That hurts. But what can I do? It’s all part of the experience. I’ll take the pain. I’ll take the suffering. I’ll take the leech sores and mosquito bites and bee stings. I’ll take the sweat and the toil and the ache and the pain. I’ll take it all. As long as I get moments like this: a perfect moment in the middle of the deep, dense, dark jungle.
After we eat, we make our sleeping arrangements. The guides stretch out sack cloth on the rocks while I set up my tent without the rain cover and put my sleeping bag inside. Unbelievably, Mr. Clean has absolutely nothing for a sleeping set up. Truthfully, I learned of this absurdity back in Tiong Hong but I still find it hard to believe. He came to the jungle with the biggest pack I’ve ever seen but it contains no tent, no mosquito net, no sleeping bag and no sleeping mat. What does he have in there? Well, it’s hard to say; mostly clothes of the camouflage fashion and various militaristic accessories (boots, a very big tough guy knife, an antique compass, etc). But he also has a nice collection of board games like Backgammon and Connect Four. Of course he has an MP3 player and speakers to go with it. But more than anything, I think he has personal hygiene and beauty products. As a matter of fact, I sort of have the impression that he has enough shit in that bag to start his own salon. All in all, it seems that Mr. Clean is perfectly prepared as a tourist for an extended stay in a beach bungalow, but he is completely unprepared for the jungle. Now, if I were a mean and nasty person, I would leave him to his own devices. He’d have to curl up with his fashionable sarong next to the guides on the rocks. He’d spend the night getting eaten by insects and probably give up on the whole adventure the following morning. But I’m not mean and nasty, I’m nice. So I let him use my mosquito net for insect protection and my tent’s rain cover for a blanket.
Anyway, the perfect day ends as I lie on my back on top of my sleeping bag and stare up at the jungle through the netting of my tent. The light fades and the darkness grows. The guides are talking in the background in the Dayak language and their voices serve as the baseline for the symphony that now surrounds me. As the light disappears, the sounds of the insects and animals seem to get louder. The jungle is alive in the daytime but even more alive at night. The cacophony of noises entrances me. The lingering light and flashes of fireflies amaze me. The durian, fish and rice digesting inside energize me. The scent of pollen and fish and jungle moisture and fresh clean oxygenated jungle air intoxicates me. I am one with the universe. I am one with god. As I lie here in the growing darkness, I feel as if after two and a half months of searching, I have finally found the soul of Borneo.