When I leave Data Bila I do not do it alone. Rani, Flora’s younger brother, will be my guide to Long Lellang. At first I am not too sure about this 21-year-old kid with well-groomed hair, who shows up with a Nike baseball hat worn à la hip-hop, in shorts and flip-flops.
My hunch is wrong. Even at his young age, and being from one of the most recent Penan generations, he knows his way into the forest. He points at the fruits we find and teaches me which ones are edible. I learn that toboh (“ginger” in Penan) plants are often edible, either their roots, stems or fruits, raw or cooked, and he shows me a liana that can quench the traveller’s thirst with the water in its trunk. We walk the distance from Data Bila to the village of Long Benali in four hours and a half, crossing forest, fern meadows and a patch of chest-tall blooming orchids. I pay Rani 150 ringgit for a half-day walk, proof that I still have to figure out fair fares.
In Long Benali they tell me that Long Lellang is still “jauh banyak” (very far), three hours walking, and they suggest to go by longboat. Rani sets off to find a boatman, and as usual the network of friendships and family relationships does the deed. In minutes, Rani finds a cousin of his willing to drive me to Ling Lellang. He asks 150 ringgit and I shave 50 ringgit off it. In any case, this is going to be an expensive day. I guess my 100 ringgit will cover the boatman’s food and gas expenses for quite some time. How to blame him. Moreover, the boat ride is worth it. Once again, on water as well as in the forest, the Penan show their skills, driving the longboat between the hidden stones in the low water and occasionally making the flat-bottomed canoe skate on the riverbed without damage. Damselflies with black and electric-blue wings race us flying beside the boat. A species of dypterocarp with red, winged fruits is fruiting along the river banks and on the hills around, creating reddish patches in the forest canopy that remind me of autumn.
In less than one hour we reach Long Lellang. Here, as usual, the first person I ask for information invites me at his place for a coffee and for the night. Long Lellang is connected to Miri with a few weekly flights, and Lease, my host, works at the airstrip as a firefighter. He tells me that no guide has shown up looking for me in the past few days. My attempts at getting in touch with Seluma, my contact in Miri, from the forest must have failed, and my phone does not work in Long Lellang. Lease tells me to do not worry. Long Lellang is a Kelabit village, and in the surroundings there are Penan villages. Here or there, I will find guides. For now, he tells me to relax and enjoy the food. “You should have been here yesterday. We had our ‘name change ceremony’, we slaughtered four pigs for the occasion”. It is a Kelabit tradition to change name when one becomes parent for the first time, and then again when one becomes grandparent for the first time. For the event, called Irau Mekaa’ Ngadan, all the village is involved in celebrations and libations. Lease is right, I think while feasting on the leftovers from the Irau. There is no need to worry. I am learning that in Borneo, somehow, things always work out.