The Heart of Borneo

This is another story in my series about the incredible good times I have had traveling in Muslim countries.  I am attempting to provide a small measure of antidote to the Islamaphobic stories in the mainstream media.   This tale takes place on the island of Borneo in the nation of Indonesia.   The country of Indonesia has more Muslims than any other country on earth but the community where this story takes place is a mixed community of Muslims, Christians and animist natives.  Indeed, the couple that saves the day is a mixed couple with a Muslim husband and Christian wife.  Religion does not come up directly in the story because that is not what the story is about.  But I include this story in the series because of the important part religious and ethnic tolerance plays in the background of the story.

I should also mention that the character Hans Clean is the fictionalized version of a young German guy I met on a boat dock in Borneo and ended up traveling with for two weeks.  This story is one chapter in a book I wrote about the entire crazy adventure.  In the book, certain aspects of  “Mr. Clean’s” personality were emphasized in order to help the grand sweeping metaphor.  But in reality, “Mr. Clean” was not so bad.

Finally, I realize that certain aspects of this story are, perhaps, a bit sappy.  But this was all written right after I almost died a horrid death in the deep dark jungle so of course I was feeling sappy.  If you want to know what happened in the deep dark jungle you can always buy the book.


The Heart of Borneo

Tiong Hong, Kalimentan, Indonesian Borneo; March 10, 2010.

It really is a beautiful universe.  The kindness, generosity and open hearts of the vast majority of human beings that occupy this planet never ceases to amaze me.  Yeah, I know, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.    With all the war, murder, rape and torture we hear about on the news, one could easily be led to believe that the vast majority of human beings are evil, rotten, nasty creatures.  But I disagree.    There may be a few nasty people out there, but they are really just a very small percentage of the whole population.   The conflict and despair we all suffer derives most frequently from miscommunications and cultural misunderstanding, not from evil people acting in evil ways.   Perhaps I’m overly optimistic, but I believe that if we strip away the metaphors and illusions that confuse us and look inside the hearts of human beings, what we will find at the very center is not fear, hatred and selfishness but a natural instinct to reach out to others with love…

When I awake on my fourth morning in the jungle, I am very happy to be alive.  I reach up and touch my neck and head.  Yup…it’s still attached…no blood, no scars, no open wound.  I guess the Dayaks really have given up headhunting.  I crawl from my tent and see my guides drinking coffee and laughing.  I’d sure like to know what they are laughing about.  They pour me some coffee and I offer thanks and then I say with a smile, “so, are we all ready to go to Tanjun Lokan today?”

“No,” says Rabun, “we return to Tiong Hong.”

“But look,” I say, “the river is down so we can go forward over the mountains.”  It’s true.  It didn’t rain during the night so the river has receded to the level of the first day.

Rabun points at his knee and says “pain.”

I do some charades to tell Rabun I will throw him over my shoulder and carry him over the mountain.  I also communicate to Tiong that he can have my tent if we go to Tanjun Lokan.  But the truth is; I have given up the possibility.  I’m no longer arguing with the guides, I’m just joking.  I’ve accepted defeat so I make light of the situation.  After a while, the guides realize I’m joking.  They are happy that they are getting their way.  I’m not sure if they laugh at me or with me but they do laugh.

Mr. Clean awakes and we pack up our stuff.  We start early, before the bees arrive.  The journey back is not particularly bad but not particularly good either.  The jungle is still beautiful but it loses a lot of its magic because we’ve seen it before and are now backtracking.  We stop at the first campsite to eat some rice and fish and are once again inundated with bees.  I don’t get stung anymore but their swarming behavior is an unpleasant reminder of the hell I have already suffered.  Thankfully, the stings on my leg and foot from last night did not excessively swell and my hip is doing much better now.  As a matter of fact, my only remaining bee issue is my swollen forearm that looks like Popeye.  But I’m pretty certain that’s going to be all right as well.  As we continue, we get harassed by more leeches and the air is oppressively hot and buggy, but these things are expected on any jungle trek.  So all in all, it’s a fairly typical all day trek through dense virgin tropical jungle.



Actually, the biggest problem I have during the course of this all day walk is the thoughts which are running through my head concerning what will happen when we get back to the town of Tiong Hong.  The fact of the matter is, it took Mr. Clean and I, 1.2 million rupiahs (120 U.S. dollars) each to travel up the river to Tiong Hong and that does not include the money we spent on food and shelter.    Realistically, we need about 2.5 million rupiahs to get the two of us back down the river to civilization and we only have about 1 million between us.  In other words, if the guides don’t give us at least some of our money back, we won’t be able to return.  And since the guides don’t seem inclined to return any of our money, we are seriously fucked.  I am envisioning a nightmare scenario in Tiong Hong involving police, arguments and having to beg.  It does occur to me that the entire million rupiahs (100 dollars)we have between us is really my money and with luck I could possibly make it down alone.  But that would involve totally ditching Mr. Clean.  And although this thought does have some appeal, nice Pat and my karma won’t allow me to do it.  Thus, one way or another, I’m going to have to play out the nightmare scenario and hope for the best.

We reach the Mahakan River and the beginning of the trail in the late afternoon.    Cultural confusion multiplies after Beang hitches a ride with a passing boat and goes ahead to the next village and returns with an empty boat and a boat operator.    The guides want Mr. Clean and I to pay one million rupiahs for the boat transport back to Tiong Hong.     Thankfully, my time possessed by the demon of anger has passed and my usual good natured self is occupying my body.  So I don’t yell and scream or get angry in response to this absurd demand for more money.    I just laugh.  “You want more money from me,” I say, “now that’s funny.”  I laugh again and climb in the boat and refuse to pay attention to any more of their requests for money.   They babble back and forth a bit in their own language but eventually get in the boat and we head for Tiong Hong without them insisting on money.     Oh no.  I can see it coming.  The situation in Tiong Hong is going to be bad.  There’s going to be police.  There’s going to be confusion and anger and stupidity.    It truly is an unfair universe.  But hey, at least I still have my head.  And there are no more bees.  If I look at it like that, it’s not really a big deal.  How bad can it possibly be?  I can’t be stuck in Tiong Hong forever without money.  Something will work out somehow.    Perhaps it is the simple fact that the direction of my travel has changed from upstream to downstream, but something also seems to have changed in my consciousness.   No longer am I fighting through difficult and complicated situations.  I have let go.    The roller coaster of experience has a hold of me and is taking me forward to the next attraction…  Dayak justice…  All I can do is sit back and see what will happen.

Meanwhile, Mr. Clean’s mood has become worse.  As we make our way down river, he is raging with anger.   I think the demand for money for the boat has pushed him over the edge.  Up until that point, he was still living within his important tourist delusion.   He thought for sure they would give us our money back.   He didn’t believe they would dare to rip us off.    But reality is now starting to sink in.  The robbery is over and done with.  They have our money.  We’re just lucky they are taking us back to civilization and not killing us.    If they don’t give us our money back, Mr. Clean says he wants to go to the highest of authorities.  He will report this misconduct all the way up the chain of command from superior to superior until he gets to the top.    He will not be ripped off.  He will have justice…   I, however, gave up believing in the metaphor of justice many years ago.   I don’t for a second believe we will find any kind of justice in Tiong Hong or anywhere else.    I only hope this situation unfolds in such a way that we are allowed to return down the river to civilization.   Other than that, I’m not worried.   As a matter of fact, I am now finding the unfolding story to be quite humorous.  Yeah, sure, before I was mad.  But that was because of the bees…you know; the jungle delusion.    I never really get very mad about being ripped off.  Shit, it happens all the time, everywhere on the planet in every conceivable situation.    As long as they don’t kill us or hurt us, in the grand scheme of things, a hundred bucks here and a hundred bucks there doesn’t really amount to much.  And I sometimes appreciate the artistry that local criminals use in their various operations.    This particular case is a regular classic in the tourist rip-off genre.  Can’t you just here them laughing about it around a campfire as they guzzle back the arak?     “That’s right, we took these two stupid white guys to the middle of the jungle, set them up to camp next to a bee hive and then forced them to hang out with Rabun for a couple days while we went hunting; charged them 450 bucks for the full jungle treatment. Ha ha ha ha ha…”



Anyway, we arrive back in Tiong Hong just as it is getting dark.  The boat pulls up to a dock down beneath the losmen (guesthouse).    After we unload our belongings, the guides again start demanding money to pay for the boat journey.  In return, we demand they return the money we paid them to take us over the mountains.  The multi-lingual non-conversation flies back and forth in descending darkness, the engine motor revs and the boat pulls away.  We are left standing alone on the boat dock in Tiong Hong in the dark.    All our belongings are filthy and disgusting.  We are exhausted and bitten and stung and sweat covered.    And most depressingly, we don’t have enough money.   It’ll cost at least two million to get us down the river and we only have a million between us.  We can’t even afford to stay in a losmen.   What in the hell are we going to do?   We do the only thing we can do.  We impose the burden of our pathetic miserable existences upon the kindness of relative strangers.

The walk through town is ridiculous.  We are a walking manifestation of the pathetic loser tourist archetypes.  Everybody in the small town knows that we set out to cross the mountain range and reach the other side of the island.  But here we are… returning defeated, exhausted, dirty and broke.    Our failure is complete.   From heroic traveler to pathetic beggar in one fell swoop.  We didn’t accomplish our mission and now we have to throw ourselves on the mercy of the people…   I suggest we stay the night at the losmen (guesthouse) and try to deal with the problem in the morning, but Mr. Clean will not wait.  We can’t afford a night at the losmen because we don’t have enough money to get down the river.    So we bypass the losmen and trudge through town with all our belongings until we reach the home of Sy and Ez. They are the young couple we met before we went on our trek.  He is the only one in town who speaks English and he acted as our translator when we hired the guides.

We are standing in the front yard, absolutely filthy, with all our disgusting belongings when Ez comes out to the front porch to greet us.   “Obviously,” he says with a hesitant smile, “things didn’t work out quite like you hoped.    Are you hurt or injured or sick?”

“No,” I say with a smile, “we’re not hurt.  We just got ripped off.”

“Really,” he says, “what happened?”

And so, I tell the story of what happened.  I give a very abbreviated version and do not elaborate or dramatize as I tend to do.  Mr. Clean does not interrupt me or attempt to correct me.  I don’t belabor them with demands for justice but instead I emphasize the unfortunate nature of the situation.    The guides didn’t take us over the mountains as they promised.  And if they don’t give us back some of the money then we do not have enough money to get down the river.

“Try not to worry,” says Ez, “we will figure something out.”  He then speaks to Sy for a minute in Indonesian as if repeating the story.  And then he turns back to us.  “Sy says you are both welcome to stay here and you don’t have to pay.  She will fix a room for you.    Go ahead and use the bathroom in the back of the house to clean yourselves up.   After you are settled and comfortable, we will discuss what to do next.”

And so, for the millionth time in my life, my pathetic ass is saved from desperation by the kindness of strangers.    I drop my big pack and head directly to the bathroom where I make use of the bucket shower.    I dress in my one remaining clean shirt and clean shorts.    I hang all my dirty, wet, smelly things on the line outside and put my now almost empty backpack into the room set aside for us.  Unfortunately, I am going to have to share the room with Mr. Clean… But beggars can’t be choosers right… The cosmic joke continues…  We re-convene on the porch to drink tea and consider further our situation.



First of all, Ez informs us that if we want to go to the authorities, he will go with us and act as translator and help us.    But he also suggests that it might be wiser if he goes and talks to the guides first on our behalf.      He asks us what we want from the guides.

“3 million,” says Mr. Clean, “they can have 1.5 for expenses but they didn’t take us over the mountains so they shouldn’t get paid.  It’s only fair.  If we don’t get 3 million back, I’m taking this to the highest authorities.”

“3 million would be nice,” I say, “but enough to get us back down the river would be fine with me.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” says Ez.  “And as for getting down the river, I have to go to Samarinda this week anyway.  If you guys go with me, it will probably be a lot cheaper.    In the meantime, you are welcome to stay here with our family for as long as you like.  You don’t have to pay anything.  You are like family to us.”

So, there you have it…the heart of Borneo.    Nice people who open their homes to help strangers in need…    And for the next several days, help us they do.  They give us food to eat, a place to sleep and water to wash with.     It’s more than that though.   Providing strangers with the basic needs of human survival is one thing; it’s commonplace, it’s a fundamental of most belief systems, it happens all over the planet, everywhere and all the time.     But what Ez, Sy and their family give us is something much more than the basics for survival.    I hate to be sentimental or sappy or corny, but the fact of the matter is, what they give us is love.  The time and energy they devote to us beyond what could possibly be expected is enough to make me feel warm and fuzzy at the very core.    How to explain it?  How to describe it?  From where does this wonderful characteristic in humans arise?   Is it internal; a fundamental aspect of human nature perhaps; the other side of selfishness…an instinct to love?    Or is it a learned behavior; an ideology based confusion that pushes us away from our normal tendency to fear and attack the unknown.     I don’t know the answer.  I don’t know where it comes from.  But I do know that it is real.    And to experience first hand a full on dose of genuine, un-corrupted, human kindness is a truly impressive emotional splash…

After we share a nice meal together of fish and rice and awesome peanut crackers, Ez leaves the house to seek out the guides.    He says it will be easier if we wait behind.    He returns in about an hour and we meet with him on the porch.  Now finally, we will hear the guides’ side of the story.    Not surprisingly…the guides meant us no harm.  It was all a misunderstanding, cultural confusion, a break down in communication.  They didn’t take us to the mountains to rip us off.  They didn’t just plan a hunting trip for us to pay for…of course not.   Rabun really did hurt his knee.   That was the only problem.  They had every intention to take us over the mountains as they promised.     The problem was that only Rabun knew the route to Tanjun Lokan so the other two could not go without him.   Accidents happen, bad luck happens, it’s not their fault that they didn’t make it.  They still guided us in the jungle for four days so they should be paid for what they did.   Maybe we should get some money back but another problem is that their wives have already spent all the money…there’s none of it left to give back.    There’s no way they can give us 3 million.  But maybe they can give us some…enough to get us down the river.    They will talk it over tonight with their wives and let us know tomorrow morning.

“Dammit,” says Mr. Clean, “they better give us 3 million or I’m going to report it to the regional tourism authority.”

“We need at least a million more to get down the river,” I say, “speaking of which, is there a cheaper way than speedboat to get from here to Long Bagun?”

“Of course,” says Ez, “the speedboat costs 800,000 a person.  But if you catch a ride in a longboat that’s going there anyway to pick up cargo, you can usually go for 500,000 and sometimes even less.    Sy has relatives who have shops and they might have a boat going this week.  Tomorrow morning we will try to find out.  Remember, I want to go too.”

With everything resolved for now, we drink tea and conversate the night away.    It’s strange really, to be in the middle of conversation between Ez and Mr. Clean.    They are of similar ages with many commonalities but yet opposing universes.  Mr. Clean is a manifestation of all things annoyingly western.    He has a lurking arrogance and an attitude of subtle superiority.  Ez, on the other hand, is just like his name…easy…   He takes the world as it is and seems to let criticisms and antagonisms slide right off of him.     Mr. Clean blathers on and on about the stock market and banks and western medicine and the ignorance of the local people about garbage disposal.   Ez smiles, shrugs his shoulders, picks up his guitar and starts to sing…all you need is just a little patience…

As usual, I awake early the following morning.  All is good.  I let go my worries and accept the hand of fate.   Everything is going to work out.   We will make it down the river. I sit on a bench on the front porch of Sy’s house and watch the morning light in the sky.    All I need now is a good cup of coffee…whammo… it’s a beautiful universe.   Sy’s sister is standing in the doorway with a coffee pot and cups.  She gives one to me.   Not the best coffee in the world, but under the circumstances, it’s pretty freakin’ awesome.     She speaks no English and does not stay.    She merely gives me a cup and leaves me to my thoughts.   Where does this kindness come from?  I’ve never met these people.  I’ve never done anything for them.  They have nothing to gain by helping me.  So why help me?    Because that’s the kind of world they believe in.

Ez joins me on the porch shortly after sunrise.  He too, drinks coffee.    Some time later, Mr. Clean comes outside as well.    As we are all sitting there, the two younger guides from our jungle journey come up to the porch.  They don’t greet us or even look at us.  They just walk past and into the house.  Ez follows them inside.   When Ez comes back out, he asks us to follow him to a quiet place so we can talk.    We walk away from the house until we reach a small dock overlooking the river.  He then tells me that the guides are ashamed to speak to us because of what happened.     After the time we spent together in the jungle, we are like brothers to them.  They don’t want us to think that they robbed us, but their wives spent most of the money.  All they can possibly give back is this; 1,500,000 rupiahs.  Please don’t report them to the authorities.   Ez hands me the wad of bills.

“It’s fine with me,” I say, “it’s enough to get us down the river and that’s all that counts.”

“I don’t know,” says Mr. Clean, “I don’t think it’s enough.  I still feel like we are getting ripped off.  They should give us at least 2 million.”

“As far as I’m concerned,” I say, “it was all a cultural misunderstanding.    We had bad luck because the guide hurt his knee.  Everything else that went wrong was caused by miscommunication.   In the grand scheme of things, 3 million rupiahs (300 bucks) is not exactly a bad price for a four day adventure deep in virgin jungle with Dayak guides.    There will be no further complaint from me.  The matter is settled.  I only wish there was some way to express to the guides our apologies for the confusion and thanks for all their help.”

“I don’t know,” says Mr. Clean, “I still feel like we got ripped off.  But as long as we can get down the river, I guess it doesn’t matter that much.”

“No worries,” says Ez, “you’ll get down the river.   We will all go together in the next few days.”

We collect and count all our money and find a total of 2.4 million.  That should be enough to get us both barely downstream.      Ez learns that there’s a cargo long boat going towards Long Bagun from one of the shops in town.    It’s leaving this week but the exact date is uncertain.  We can splurge out any day and spend 800,000 each on a speed boat to Long Bagun.     But that would leave us with only 800,000 more for the last two thirds of the journey.   Or we can stay as the guests of Ez and Sy and leave on the much cheaper cargo boat whenever it leaves.     We decide to accept the hospitality of our new found Indonesian family and stay right where we are until Ez and the cargo boat are ready to go.    And so, the heart of Borneo wraps itself around me and gives me a nice big hug.


If you like this story, maybe you want to buy the book that it is a chapter of.  Or, perhaps, one of my other books.  Thanks.


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