Across the forest, into the hills


About half a day walk and a short boat ride from Long Lellang there is a small Penan village called Long Sabai. Lease, who is hosting me in Long Lellang, has told me that it will be easy to find someone willing to guide me to Bario among the 50 or so inhabitants.

After a night of rest in one of the villagers’ house I am introduced to my guides: Ukau and Luat show up in the morning in full forest attire, namely ragged shorts and shirt, battered rubber shoes, parang (the Malaysian machete), and spear-tipped hardwood blowpipes. They carry their poisoned blowpipe arrows inside bamboo quivers. The rest of their luggage is packed into panniers woven out of rattan (thorny climbing palms) fibers. It’s a sight out of time. Just when I was starting to dismiss my expectations about the forest dwellers of Borneo as bookish fantasies, there come these two men, that look like Hemingwayan characters. We smile and shake hands. They do not speak english, so as soon as I show up they ask me (in Penan) if I want to go to Bario. All I understand is “Bario” and, as I confirm, they simply set off to the forest without a word. I am confused. I say “wait wait wait!” and I call the kid that guided me to Long Sabai to translate. I want us to agree on a fare before we set off to Bario, a hike that – I have been told – could last any time between three days and a week. Everywhere I have been to, in the Sarawakian interior, there is the habit of giving food and shelter without asking for anything in return. It is an unwritten rule that the guest, at the moment of leaving, will “leave an offer” to thank their hosts according to the guest’s resources. It is a beautiful habit of hospitality, that guarantees shelter also to the least resourceful. But in this case I want to agree on a payment for my guides before hand. I have only a certain amount of cash and I want to be sure I can pay them, and avoid unpleasant situations once arrived at destination. Moreover, as I tell them laughing, I would rather avoid arguments if my opponents carry spear-tipped blowpipes. Anyways we agree for a daily wage of 100 ringgit each and, all three being glad that the awkward negotiating moment is over, we set off. I ask which way is Bario. They point the blowpipe north-east: “that way”. I ask: “jauh?” Ukau, the older of my guides, confirms: “jauh”. And when Penan admit that a place is far, it means it is really far.

* thanks to uncle Ernest and aunt Lydia for the title of this piece.

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