When I undertook my crossing of Borneo, I set Bario as a minimum goal. I said to myself, “If I fail to walk across Borneo, I must at least reach the Kelabit highlands. I must at least reach Bario overland”.
Looking forwards from Miri, from Marudi, from Long Lellang, there were so many uncertainties on my way that, in my mind, Bario became a destination rather than just a stage on my way towards the east coast. But then, in between of all the “there’s no way to Bario”, “The forest is too thick”, “there are no walking paths anymore”, “just go back to Miri and take an airplane” that people kept telling me along the way, there were also those that would say “boleh, boleh (‘it can be done’), go to this place, ask for this guy, he can find you a guide”. Once I embraced the unspoken bornean philosophy that eventually things always work out, once things started spinning in the right direction, the distance from Bario kept shortening at a steady pace.
As an unexpected consequence, when I reached Bario my body was still reasonably fresh (as it can be after ten days marching in the rainforest), but my mind suddenly felt tired and satisfied. Finding the energy and the will for leaving Bario and continuing eastward became a challenge. I had reached what I had unconsciously elected as the destination of my trip. That had been easier than I expected, yet by no means easy. I had reached the mysterious Bario, I had brought my respects to the twin-peaked white mountain of Batu Lawi. Why continuing? Wasn’t it iconic enough as an ending for my exploration? I had collected enough notes and pictures for writing a book, enough anecdotes for making plenty of good pub stories back in Europe, perhaps even enough experiences to stand up to the ideal of adventurer I aimed at becoming in my childhood dreams. I was composing powerful images in my head, imagining of narrating the story of my trip: “Bario, a Bornean Shangri-La”; “Batu Lawi, the White Mountain, like a Moby Dick of stone, standing its ground in the green sea of the rain forest, scarred by the logging companies but undefeated”.
I decided to go back to Miri for a few days. It was time to clean up, disinfect my swollen legs, heal the leech bites, and clear my mind. For the occasion, I made another exception to the ‘rules of engagement’ of my Bornean crossing, and I went back by airplane. I came to Borneo with the idea of crossing it on foot or by boat. By the time I left Miri for the first time I had already relaxed the rules to allow for land vehicles, as I left the city on a pickup truck. The new rule was: I must travel overland towards the East, but I can fly to move back and forth over the territories I have already trodden on overland. Thinking back, it is peculiar that I felt the need of a set of rules during my trip, even if that meant adding some and bending others. I will leave to the psychologists among the readers to explain why I cannot just say “fuck it” and wing things, enjoying them as they come.
Anyways, among my existential doubts (“am I cheating? Is my Bornean crossing still ‘valid’?”) I took off and watched Bario disappear in the distance. I watched the forest moving below me, first thick, then marked by cleared patches and dirt roads where the logging companies had arrived. I saw these earth-red wrinkles and spots becoming denser and denser as the coast approached, until the forest left room to the oil palm monocultures that span for tens of kilometres on the coastal plains.
In Miri airport, modernity hit me. Concrete, taxis, ATM machines, a Starbuck’s cafe. No forest canopy to protect me from the blazing sun. Although confusing, being back into the world had it perks. I could finally replace my socks, worn and torn by the jungle. Furthermore, inside the shiny shopping mall there was a bookshop. I found a biography of Bruno Manser (“Rainforest Hero” by Ruedi Suter); Manser’s book “Voices from the Rainforest”, that witness the abuse of the local communities at the hands of logging companies and colluded politicians in the 1980s and ’90s; and “Money Logging” by Lukas Straumann, an account of what he calls the ‘timber mafia’, based in Malaysia and South-East Asia and with connections all over the world. On top of this I bought a copy of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and Stevenson’s “Kidnapped”, adventure novels to distract me from my own.
For more than a week I enjoyed a daily routine. I would go to a cafe and drink coffee while updating my journal, then I would read about Bruno Manser and the asian logging industry. In the afternoon I would go to the cinema, a luxury I almost forgot about. In the evening I would go back to my hotel, where rooms that smelled of sigarette smoke could be rented for 48 ringgit a day or 22 ringgit a hour, and walls and furniture were covered in tiles to ease the cleaning – if anyone bothered.
Reading about the people and the forests I had just crossed offered me a new perspective and revived my curiosity. I realized that my little walkabout was the continuation of a process started by many explorers before me. And I, like them, was starting to feel less of an “explorer” and more of something else. I had gone beyond the stereotypes, I was willing to see the nuances and the complexity of reality. I was not seeing myself as an outside observer anymore. I was living this. I was, to put it in Graham Greene’s words, engagé. Which may not be good for a journalist, but it is great for a traveler.
In the retreat of that hookers’ hotel I found my motivation again. I was not doing this trip for a book, for being perceived in a certain way by others, for satisfying my childhood dreams. Maybe a bit. But I was doing it mostly to see for myself, to know, to understand. And I was sharing my findings and my views not for showing off, but for the pleasure of sharing. Now that my soar body was healed and my mind rested, I could see it clearly.
It was time to fly back to Bario, take my overland crossing up from where I left it.