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Cheeky guides and new friends

A man and his buffalo dragging a sledge loaded with rice, Lembudud, Indonesian Borneo, 2016.

I spent one night in Lembudud at some friends of Davy’s. It was as far as my guide had agreed to lead me, it was time to pay him. According to what we agreed in Pa’ Lungan I should have paid him 650 damn ringgit, namely the fare for four days of guiding plus some extra for food. In reality he had guided me for just about a eight-hour day. Even if his was an obvious scamming attempt, I still hesitated to renegotiate the terms we discussed in Pa’ Lungan; “after all we shook hands”, I thought, proving that sometimes it is a thin line between honesty and gullibility.

Instead of paying him a reasonable fare, namely 130 or 150 ringgit for a day’s guiding, or even 260 or 300 to cover his walk back, I offered him 450 ringgit. He replied sheepishly: “If you can’t make it 500…” He was just shamelessly trying to milk as much money from me as he could. I ignored him. Later that evening he offered to take me to a bar nearby, “with music and beautiful girls”, if I offered him a beer. I told him that he could buy plenty with the money I had already given him, and went to bed. What an unpleasant character. In the morning he kept trying to find out my plans and the next stages of my trip, in order, I imagine, to try and suck more money out of me or to recommend me to friends of his. Indeed he recommended me to a certain Alex B. in Long Bawan, but by that point I only wanted to get Davy out of my sight and free myself from his attempts at micromanaging me. In the morning, as soon as he left to see some friends, I sneaked out and left to Long Bawan.
The area was thick with paddy fields and villages, well connected by good dirt-roads. Beyond the rice fields were hills, partly cultivated, partly logged, partly – further away from the villages – still lush with forests. The general appearance was that of a well-established rural area. Cars and motorbikes were not uncommon, but I also saw a farmer using a water buffalo to drag a wheel-less “sledge-cart”.
I arrived to Long Bawan by foot and by hitchhiking. I stopped in a coffee shop to sip a copi and ask for directions and, who did I meet? Davy, who casually stopped there to drink a cup of tea. Once again he did not miss the opportunity to ‘help’ me pay the bill. “Copi is 10’000 rupiah”. The menu hanging from the wall in front of us said 5’000. I pointed out the ‘mistake’ and left without saying goodbye to him, only giving him an annoyed smirk. I thought I had seen the last of him. I was wrong.
That evening I checked in at the “Malindo” Hotel (the name being a contraction of Malaysia and Indonesia). Later that night I heard somebody knocking at the door of my room. I opened to a stranger dressed in a camouflage jacket. He was also carrying a two-way radio, so at first I thought he was from the Indonesian border patrol. “Damn”, I thought, “they realized that a foreigner crossed the border without a visa and they are finally pulling their things together.” It took me a minute to realize who he really was. He was Alex, Davy’s friend, who had somehow found out that I had arrived and he had looked for me in the handful of hotels in Long Bawan until he tracked me down. As I fully realized who he was, my worries of being captured by the Indonesian police were replaced by an oddly calm, focused, growing anger. I had had enough of Davy and his friends. “You must fill a form with your personal information and your whereabouts”, he said. I must? I lost it. I asked him if he was a government representative or a guide. He was neither. I told him that his friend Davy had already squeezed enough money out of me, that my whereabouts were none of his business, that showing up at one’s hotel room at night uninvited is not the way of doing business, and that I did not want to see or hear of him again. In all this tirade I managed to maintain some form of manners, but my anger must have transpired from my tone and my facial expressions because Alex left at a brisk pace, brushing the walls and mumbling apologies.
The day after, to be sure, I changed hotel. Once again I was the only customer. Thinking back, it still amazes me that places as remote as Long Bawan in the middle of Borneo would have a hotel, let alone more than one. These hotels were very minimal, usually set upstairs from a tavern or a general shop at the ground floor. The owners would split the floor in as many rooms at they could, put a bed or even just a mattress in each, and call it a hotel.
Long Bawan even had a post office. Outside, an old indian motorbike with the insignia of the Indonesian Posts waited to deliver the mail. The office was manned by the mailman, his wife, and their crying baby. I remembered that I had some postcards and even some Malaysian stamps between the pages of my journal. I decided to try my luck and mail some messages to friends in Italy and Switzerland. Being there, in the middle of Borneo, sending paper mail from an Indonesian post office using Malaysian stamps felt unreal, one of the many moments of my Bornean trip that seemed to belong to an adventure book from my childhood more than to reality. (All my postcards reached their destinations, some within weeks, some after months).
At the tavern by my hotel I met Ali, a Malay transporter from the coast. Ali spoke good english, thanks to the fact that he used to be a teacher near Miri. He then married a local woman and became a professional pick-up truck driver. He explained to me that this area of Kalimantan cannot be reached via car from the rest of Indonesian Borneo, but it is possible to drive here from Sarawak with pick-up trucks. Such a situation made Long Bawan and the surrounding villages dependent on Sarawak for importing goods and exporting their rice, and transporters like Ali thrive.*
Ali’s kindness and hospitality dissipated the grouch and distrust left by my encounters with Davy and Alex. After I told Ali about it, he took it up as a personal duty to help me out for the next leg of my trip. First, he took me for a tour of the surroundings. We went to Long Umung, to some of his wife’s relatives. In spite of the language barrier (Ali and I were the only english speakers), everybody was very fiendly. We had copi by the family’s fish pond, then we had a dinner of epic proportions that included fish caught that very afternoon. In the meantime Ali and I gathered information on how could I continue my trip eastward.
At first we only received the usual row of “tidak boleh”, “it’s not possible”, “it can’t be done”. Then somebody suggested that I could go to Long Padi by car and then continue to Melinau. Somebody else corrected them: the roads shown on my map were terrible, it would have taken a week on a motorbike, which meant two weeks or more on foot. Somebody else suggested to pass by Wa’Yangun, a village half a day away from Long Umung by foot. Some said it would take three days to walk from there to Melinau, some seven. I was accustomed to the very loose Bornean time estimates by them, and I did not mind them. The important thing to me was that there was a way forward.

*I found out only then that it would have been possible to drive from the coastal city of Lawas to Ba’ Kalalan, just north of Bario, in a matter of hours, and from there drive across the border to Long Bawan. Even if I had known it in advance, I would have still tried to find a way across the forest, as I did.