Summary of the previous episodes: I found my way from Miri to Bario across the forest by truck, boat and on foot. Not content, once in Bario I involved my new kelabit friends Julian and Philippe in a suffer-fest to reopen the trail to the mythical mountain of Batu Lawi. After that my body and mind were so worn out that I took a break and flew back to Miri to pull myself together and decide the next steps: give up or carry on? Go big or go home? Are you dying to find out what I chose? Read on and find out [spoiler alert: I carried on].
The reactions of the people of Bario at my return from my retreat in Miri were sweet. People would wave at me, as people from bornean villages do when a stranger from overseas is visiting – an attitude of friendly curiosity towards the exotic white people that I call the “orang putih effect”. But this time it was something more than that: people would recognise me and smile, their curiosity replaced by the fondness of seeing me again. One would say “Hey! You’re back!” and another: “You shaved your beard! I almost didn’t recognise you!”. I figured that such popularity was due to my recent expedition to Batu Lawi with Julian and Philippe, who I imagined made sure to exaggerate the epics of our adventure in my absence. My ego did not complain.
At the longhouse, Julian and his mother Sina were happy to give me a bed for cheap and stuff me with food as always. That night, the three of us sit around the table after a rich dinner of Bario rice and stewed vegetables from the forest. While Sina was trying to make me drunk with a liqueur extracted from Bario pineapples, Julian helped me making a battle plan:
“First you have to go back to Pa’ Umor, Philippe’s village. You know the way, it’s a dirt road. I can even give you a ride if you want.”
“Thank you Julian, but after my break in the concrete of Miri I need a good stroll in the forest. I am happy to walk” I replied, drinking the pineapple liqueur. It was dangerously sweet. Sina filled my glass again as I emptied it and poured a sip to herself saying: “drink, don’t make me drink by myself.” I complied. Julian continued:
“Find Philippe, he will show you the way to Pa’ Lungan. That’s another dirt road, an old one built by the logging companies when they were still trying to cut pulung tau [our forest]. Anyways. In Pa’ Lungan you can probably find a guide to take you to Lembudud. That’s the first village across the border.”
“How is the road?”
“No road. Only a few paths used by hunters.” I nodded and emptied my glass. Sina promptly filled it with pineapple spirit again, with a cheeky smile in her old eyes. At that point I didn’t even pretend to protest, I just embraced the incoming drunkness. I accepted that my last night in Bario would have been a wobbly one.
“And what about passing the border?” I asked smirking. Julian smirked back and shook his shoulders: “just see how it goes”. We had had that conversation before. The rules for crossing the border with Indonesia in the Kelabit highlands were unclear at best. There are only two official points of transit from Malaysia to Indonesia in Borneo, and they are both by the coast. Everywhere else there are no official checkpoints simply because there are barely any roads, or border-crossers to check. Most of the Sarawak-Kalimantan border exists only on paper, while in practice the forest is a deterrent good enough for most travellers. In the few places where there are villages near the border on both sides, the locals are more or less informally allowed to cross at will (in theory they have special papers, and some of them do, but in practice nobody seems to check them). Whether or not I would be able to cross the border had been a long-standing source of doubt for me. Bario has an immigration office, but they are not allowed to stamp passports. Hearsay was that there was an Indonesian military post in Lembudud, but their attitude towards border-crossers was unclear. Back in Kuala Lumpur I managed to obtain a visa from the Indonesian embassy, but they told me I could have used it only at the checkpoint in Tawau (250 km East-Nort-East of Bario as the crow flies). In any case that visa had expired by the time I reached Bario, so it would not have been of much help anyways. At that point, fuelled by Sina’s pineapple distillate, I decided to listen to Julian’s advice: I was going to wing it and hope for the best.
The following morning I left early and I soon arrived to Pa’ Umor. Philippe was not at home, but a kid in his teens told me that he was harvesting rice and he offered to show me the way to the padi fields. As soon as Philippe saw us coming, a kopi was on the fire and he lighted a cigarette. We climbed a wobbly ladder and walked into the hut on stilts where Philippe stayed during the harvest, then we sat on low stools to sip our copi and smoke. Only then I realised that the kid that guided me there was another son of his. “Philippe! How can you have a son so grown-up?” “Oh, you know, I was young…” he replied, cracking one of his trademark rascal smirks.
It was time to go. We hugged goodbye, then Philippe went back to his harvest and I continued in my wandering. The way from Philippe’s rice field to Pa’ Lungan took me a few hours walk on a 4×4 track through a partially logged forest. On my way I met only a couple of guys on a Yamaha scooter, one of those little, seemingly unstoppable bikes that seem capable to reach the most remote areas of Borneo. The forest on the sides of the road became sparser and sparser, and by early afternoon I arrived to the sleepy village of Pa’ Lungan. The village consisted in perhaps fifteen huts on stilts built around a grassy square the size of a football field. I saw a handful of guys sitting by their scooters, talking and playing with a puppy. Back in Bario they gave me a name of a possible guide: “David Atu?” I asked. They pointed me to his house. David agreed to guide me, but he would soon reveal himself to be a greedy, seedy character. He looked at the map of the area that Julian, Philippe and I had drawn by hand, and he sketched the possible ways to Lembudud while giving me a complicated talk of how long each way would take and how much would it cost. David claimed that the walk to Lembudud would take at least three days, and wanted to be paid also for the time it would have taken for him to walk back. I found this absurd policy elsewhere; it allegedly started by a WWF expedition that came to the area and it was then retained by some local guides as standard practice to overcharge the rare travellers. As a result of long and complicated reasoning, David asked me to be paid for five days in advance for his service as a guide. Luckily I refused: I would have soon found out that Lembudud is, in truth, only eight-hour away by easy walk. Anyways David agreed to guide me, but he needed a day “to finish the harvest and get ready”. The day after, a light drizzle convinced David to ditch the harvest, opting instead for killing one can of beer after the other with some friends from the village. The drinking session started in the morning and carried on through the day, accompanied by a roasted porcupine that one of David’s friends shot from his truck on the 4×4 track from Miri. A stereo was blasting Malay country music, that is, american-style country music with lyrics in Malay (this extravagant musical medley was popular in the villages of the Kelabit highlands when I was there). The guy with the puppy that I met the day before showed up for the party, and only then I realized that the puppy was not a dog, as I first thought, but a little sun bear. Sun bears are widespread in South-East Asian forests, where their populations are threatened by habitat loss and hunting. Locals fear them, but humans are more of a threat for sun bears than sun bears are to humans. When asked, the guys told me that they “found” the puppy in the forest, but they glossed over the destiny of its mother, that I assumed was hunted for food.
The way from Pa’ Lungan to Lembudud is marked by a clear path. David explained that some guy from Bario wanted to create a tourist lodge in the forest between the two villages; he started digging and solidifying the path and building a lodge on stilts, but a quarrel over land ownership ensued between villages and the works stopped. The large huts of stilts that could have housed tourists were then used by hunters. Inside, couches and furniture that somebody managed to haul half way through the forest were left to rot. When we got there, a band of Indonesian poachers was camped there, busy at smoking deer and monkey meat. David’s plan was to camp there for the night, but I insisted on continuing. It was only early afternoon and there were way too many strangers with rifles there for me to feel safe. We had just caught these Indonesian hunters poaching in Malaysia territory, and although I was about to cross the border irregularly myself, they did not know that. Moreover, I was a lone orang putih from far away carrying a large rucksack full of gear and goods. There were too many reasons why somebody could have been tempted to do something stupid. I felt like a very easy target, and I was. By then I was not even trusting my guide that much anymore. I hurried him to leave.
Soon after we reached a watershed in the forest. We stopped for a rest and a sip of water, and David told me: “this is the border. Here is Malaysia, there is Indonesia.” I looked around: there were no signs or fences. The only human trace were some empty packets of noodles and tins of food abandoned by the rare forest-dwellers. I giggled at all my worries about my not-strictly-legal raid into Indonesian territory. I knew there was a small military post in Lembudud where I could still have had troubles, but crossing the border and seeing that it was indeed just an imaginary line on a map put much of my concern at rest. A few hours later, in Lembudud, my optimism resulted justified. At the last moment I decided to play by the rules and notify the military post of my presence. “I’d rather be sent back now than put in an Indonesian jail later”, I thought. We stopped by the military post. Nobody in sight. Minutes later a kid in military hat, trunk, shorts and flip-flops hurried to us. He was the soldier in charge of the post. He looked at David’s papers, then at my passport. He did not check for a visa and simply jotted the date, name, and passport number on a battered notebook. That was it! I got my passport back hiding my disbelief, thanked with a “terima kasih” and a smile, and walked away. My crossing into Indonesia had not worked out in a Butch Cassidy style in the end, but it had worked out.
Now it was going to be all downhill till the East coast! Or so I thought. All those days and kilometers roaming Borneo, and I still didn’t know better than that.