The end of the crossing, and back to the border

Where: I bask in the sun of Malinau; my fashion taste is conquered by the colourful Indonesian shirts; I reach Tarakan; I realise that the way back from there will not be straightforward either, and also that a smile can stand in for a valid visa sometimes.

[February 2016]

Malinau reminded me of a mixture of villages that I saw in Madagascar (its dusty roads), Ecuador (its street life), and the Malaysian side of Borneo (its people), all flavoured with a purely literary taste of Indochina. The roads were dusty and scorched by the sun. Rare ferries sailed the river, while the iron bridge above it was busy with motorbikes and cars. As the sun prepared to set, the traffic slowed down and everything, the town, the river, the hills around became soaked in a golden light. From the bridge I could see kids swimming and playing by the river bank in the evening calm.

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The orange light became darker and a light fog appeared, mixed with the smoke of the house fires and of the burning heaps of trash. Imams from at least three different mosques were singing and praying at the same time, and their overlapping voices created a gripping cacophony. Then the prayer was over, and it was silence. The night came in from the dark hills around the village, suddenly as it always happens in the tropics.


That night, in Malinau, I felt at peace. I spent one more day and a night in Malinau to soak in its beautiful vibe and to take pictures – the day and the night before I was enjoying myself too much to risk of breaking the flow by taking pictures. I was lucky enough to be rewarded with beautiful smiles and another beautiful sunset.
The day after, I took the “speedboat” to Tarakan, a city on an island with the same name sitting between the estuary of the Sesayap river and the Sea of Celebes. I decided to sit on the roof of the ferry again, to enjoy the view and the breeze. The downside was that I ended up drenched by a rainstorm. The upside was a great view of the mangrove forest on the river banks, and being the first to have a whiff of sea air. The Sesayap estuary was vast and its brackish waters harboured many low islands. On one of them was the hectic, noisy city of Tarakan. Its tall ugly buildings looked as if they were slowly rotting on their foundation of mud. That was the end of my Borneo crossing.


Everybody looked at me and yelled greetings, even if they were only riding part on one of the many motorbikes, without a chance for me to answer back. “Hellomister!” they would scream, vrooming away. Some would expand: “Hellomister whatsyourname whereyoufrom!” without punctuation, or slowing down, or the expectation of an answer.


I remained stranded in that rotting city for three days until I found a sit on an airplane that would take me out of there. At first I considered continuing my explorations on the island of Celebes, but I did not feel like trying my luck by taking too many flights, even if domestic, without a valid visa. Moreover, I felt like I was done adventuring for a while. I eventually found a sit on a small one-engine Cessna with 14 seats (including the pilots’) headed for Long Bawan, just by the Malaysian border. Nobody noticed the absence of an entry visa to Indonesia on my passport.

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The river delta as ween when I flew away from Tarakan.

After landing in Long Bawan I simply headed westwards, towards the border with Malaysia just a few kilometres away. This time I was on a dirtroad and the border was actually guarded by three officers in a shack. Although they were wearing uniforms and shoes, instead of shorts and flip-flops, their control of my passport was as relaxed as on my way into Indonesia. They jotted my name and passport number on a notebook, they did not notice the absence of a visa, and after a couple of minutes of banter they let me go. The next steps were easy: I waited for a couple of days in the village of Ba’Kelalan, until I could find a seat on another small, overloaded airplane – at that time of the year, the bags of freshly harvested rice had the priority on the boarding. After a quick stop-over in Bario to deliver rice we took off to land in Miri, were my crossing had started seven weeks prior.

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The border.

 

5 thoughts on “The end of the crossing, and back to the border

  1. Sebastian

    Thank you for sharing your story! I enjoyed reading each part and having been to Bario myself I could imagine all the places.

    It is sad to hear about David. I met him in 2016 and he was very friendly and helpful in arranging my trek to Gunung Murud. Although I hiked up alone from Pa Lungan, he offered to take me for a daily rate of 150 rm, which I found was a fair enough price and way below what a guide would charge in peninsular Malaysia to lead a 1 man tour. He even drew me a map and gave me very detailed description of the trail to the summit. That map is one of my dearest travel souvenirs and without his input I would have never made it to the summit (or back to Pa Lungan).

    I was planning to visit the Indonesia side, but hearing your account of human encroachment into the forest it is putting me off. The area is after all meant to be the last wilderness of Borneo, or at least that is what people call the Kayan Mentarang National Park. Any more input on this?

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    1. Hello, thank you for your message. In fairness it’s possible that I was misunderstanding my guide’s attitude as dodgy and micro-managing while he was just trying to be helpful. I don’t think so, but he’s not here to tell his side of the story. I should change his name in the blog post too. It takes two to tango, and maybe he would say that I was the one being a grumpy dick… Anyways, I have only seen a tiny bit of the Indonesian side of Borneo but I think it is THE palce to be if you’re interested in nature and conservation in the island. That’s where the next big match for nature protection is being played. I am hoping to go back one day and document the situation in the rest of Kalimantan, particularly the central and southern areas. If I were you I’d look into crossing the border at coordinates 0°57’57.5″N 110°20’40.9″E (I don’t think it’s allowed though) or, even easier, flying to Kalimantan and explore the regions of Western Kalimantan and Central Kalimantan. If they suck you can always fly/board a ferry to Java or Sulawesi from there. The Lonely Planet guide said something about organised tours in the interion of North Kalimantan from one of the cities on the coast (perhaps Tarakan, or Samarinda, or Balikpapan). I don’t have the guide at hand but you might want to look into that.

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  2. NESS J

    You’ve only been to Borneo twice, and now you’re an expert about Borneo’s lost of “plant diversity” and “deforestation”. Congratulations! I was referring to what you wrote on your About page.

    Why do you white people always insist on acting like you’re always the “good” guys, and everyone else in the world is always the “bad” guys? Everyone else always does everything wrong to you. When will you start look at your own country, look at the many problems in your own country and realize that you are the source of all the biggest problems in this world?

    Look at the size of your cities, how much of land area they took? Are we supposed to believe that no trees were chopped off during the course of their development throughout centuries? Look at where in the world the consumption of electricity and internet is the highest. But of course you people keep quiet about this because that’s you doing the damage to the earth. Nope, can’t stop accessing the internet, can you? What about countries with highest carbon emission in the world? Nope, won’t talk about that all that much either, because now that’s YOUR country in the top 10 list there, doing the damage day in day out.

    You lot pretend to care so much about “biodiversity” in other countries, have you actually looked at the state of biodiversity in your own country? Australia for example, have been always so loud about the so-called deforestation in Southeast Asia, but when it comes to the KOALAS in their home land, they are being really quiet about it. Did you know that koalas are near extinction and Australia still try to hide this from everyone in the world. How cute.

    Everyone is avoiding to use palm oil because they supposedly care so much about biodiversity and our mother earth, right? But what about the internet usage? It’s not a necessity, so why can’t everyone stop using internet if they care so much about planet earth? Servers that keep websites up on the internet runs 24/7, every minute of every second. Of course you can’t. Of course there’s no movement about boycotting the internet, electricity, or cars!!

    You people are bunch of hypocrites.

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    1. Hello “Ness J”,

      Thank you for your message.
      I don’t claim at all to be an expert of Borneo’s issues, quite the opposite: by travelling and studying about Borneo I realised that there’s still a lot that I don’t know, and that it is not easy to see beyond the rhetorics of “Good” and “Evil”. Yet I try, just as I tried to write my notes in a way and a tone that was critical but not judgemental. If you read more on my website you will see that I wrote not only about deforestation but also about the efforts done against it, both by people from Borneo and by people from abroad. Given your response, either I failed at it or you are projecting on my words a frustration of yours that comes from somewhere else. I will review my notes to try to figure it out. Meanwhile I suggest you to try to do the same, because your message sounds very much like a judgemental attack of a stranger over the internet done under the comfort of anonymity. I find that there is more to be gained from an open conversation than from pointing fingers. That way we can both learn from each other even if we don’t end up agreeing completely or if we don’t change each other’s point of view completely.

      I am well aware of deforestation in general, not only in Borneo. As for deforestation in Australia, the world’s news was all over it last year so I don’t know who are these “they” that were “really quiet about it”. Regardless, your “whataboutism” is not a solution: just because deforestation happens everywhere does not make it right.
      I agree with you with regards to deforestation in Europe, and it is something that I also thought about when I was in Sabah (I may or may not have written about it in the website). I think that Borneo and Europe are on very similar trajectories with regards to the exploitation of the land, they are simply at different stages of it. Palm plantations in Sabah made me think of the hills of Tuscany: both have elements of beauty in them (these are two of my pictures of Borneo that I like the most: https://www.instagram.com/p/BSo08cZjIS5/ and https://www.instagram.com/p/BSo0wRmjdrx/ ), yet they are both the product of heavy environmental change imposed by humans. The hills of Tuscany look the way they look because of millenia of human intervention, so we are used to it. Palm plantations are very recent and many are not used to it yet, but they are equally far from any resemblance of a “natural” environment as the hills of Tuscany. It’s a conundrum. There can be beauty in destruction, and destruction and creation are not as clearly separated as we would like them to be sometimes. Yet if something is destroyed, it can be lost forever.

      With regards to “white people” and to “us” (white people?) being hypocrites, that’s a whole different can of worms. Are you saying that hypocrisy is a feature of all white people, and white people only? If you genuinely think so I invite you to look around you with an open mind, whatever your ethnicity is, and you will soon realise otherwise.

      With regards to MY country, as you call it, I don’t know what you are referring to. I am originally from Italy, I lived in Switzerland where I studied and taught ecology, I was lucky enough to spend a few months in Borneo, and now I live in South Africa, where I work as an ecologist. I like to think that the World is our country, mine and yours and everyone’s. If I travelled in Borneo and if I write about it it’s not to judge it but to learn about it and from it. I really enjoyed my time in Borneo, I still think about it on a regular basis. I met some great people there (and a few jerks too, but that’s life). The notes that I wrote and that you are reading come from a place of love, not from a desire of being judgemental or from a feeling of superiority.
      If you feel like continuing this conversation in a respectful manner I will be happy to read more of your thoughts. Meanwhile I wish you all the best.

      Cheers

      Marco

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    2. As for the strong and direct language that I use in my notes: I tried to keep my impressions from the trip as “raw” as I could. I re-read some of my notes now for the first time in years, and I see that my description of Tarakan as a “rotting city” is less than flattering. You can read it in different ways: either Tarakan is really as ugly as I describe it, or my impression of it was biased by how tired I was from the trip. Or we can also agree that the truth is somewhere in the middle: I was so tired that I was acting like a bit of a prick, and at the same time Tarakan may indeed not be a beautiful city.

      In general, with these notes of mine I am trying to do two things: entertain the reader and hopefully transmit a few of the many things that I learned about Borneo and about myself. To me Borneo was a place of adventure, of contrasts, of lights and shadows, of beauty and ugliness, and that’s what makes it special and memorable to me.

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