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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.

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.

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.

The border