The shopkeeper of Long San, named Jab, drives me on his 4×4 as far as it is safe to drive on the muddy and slippery logging road. Then he pulls over. “This is it. This is the only road, just follow it and you will reach Data Bila. If you have doubts follow the motorbike tracks, the Penan use them to move around here”. I find myself alone.
It’s a beautiful sunny day, with some friendly clouds crowning the forested hills surrounding me, yet I feel a hint of a shiver along the spine.
After walking quite a while along the road I see a man emerging from the forest, barefoot and armed with a shotgun. I gather my poor Malay to ask how is the hunt going and whether the village is far. “Kampung jauh?” “Tidak” (no) he answers, making signs to mean that the village is two or three hills ahead. I keep walking without seeing signs of the village, until another hunter reaches me on a scooter. He is carrying a freshly killed kijang (barking deer), gutted and beheaded. He offers me a lift. We drive for a few km, him with the deer between his legs, me balancing behind him with my heavy backpack on my back and trying not to bounce off, and finally we reach the kampung. I am learning that the perception of distances changes with the ethnic groups, with their familiarity with the forest and moving in general. Most Kayan of Long Miri, long settled, would hop on a scooter to travel any distance above 150 m, even within their small village. For a Penan, a few hour walk followed by a 20 minute motorbike ride is “not far”.
Data Bila is a small village right at the end of the logging road. As most Penan people of the Baram region, they try to obstruct the activity of the logging companies and they don’t allow loggers’ trucks to drive to the village. Even if the people of Data Bila, like most Penan, are not nomadic anymore, their link to the forest is still strong and they rely on it for food and other resources. In spite of this, their rights to the land have often been ignored to the advantage of the timber companies’ interests. This struggle has been going on at least since the 1980’s and it is still unresolved.
The history of interactions of Penan people with people ‘from the outside’ is mostly one of exploitation and violated rights, yet they are incredibly hospitable with me. They do not receive many visitors here, and a scruffy white guy with a too heavy backpack and very little idea of what he is throwing himself into does not represent a threat but a welcome digression from day-to-day life. People are shy and curious at the same time.When I ask if it is possible to head to Long Lellang right away, they reply: “we can surely find you a guide. But if you stay for the night, then we can practice english!” All the youngs go to school in Long San, but the chances of speaking English with “orang putih” (white people) are rare.
Everybody want me to stop by their house and have a “kopi” (the appalling mix of soluble coffee, milk powder and sugar that is the rule in Borneo). A kid by the name of Nuen appoints himself as my personal guide. He takes me from house to house, introduces me to the people, shows me his little field with rice, sago, cassava, pineapple, and even a pond for farming fish. He is from a village nearby but works here as a builder. He shows me the new church he is working at. As everybody I meet he is incredibly humble: he speaks a pretty good english insisting that it is not fluent enough; he plays the guitar (church songs) convinced that he is too slow and clumsy. I stay for the night in the house of Jaslin, the hunter that drove me to the villages. Dinner consists in rice, vegetables from the forest, and babui (Penan for wild boar) stewed with ginger flowers. In Long Lama and Long Miri the cooking was still done with gas, but here they use wood. Everything delicately smells of smoke, which gives me a comfortable feeling of home.
The next morning, leaving is not easy. I wake up early, when most of the house is still asleep, and Flora, Jaslin’s wife, finally breaks her shyness and dares speaking english with me. People come from the other houses to say goodbye. Breakfast drags on, I cannot decide to leave. Nuen tells me that, if only I could stay longer, there is a beautiful waterfall in the jungle he would like to show me… But my contact in Miri should have organized a guide for me in Long Lellang and I am already two days late. There is no phone signal here, so I cannot call to verify. I must go. (I am not used to bornean logistics, I cannot imagine that my contact in Miri never managed to organize a guide for me and nobody is expecting me in Long Lellang). I add another moving goodbye to the list, I get to the end of the road, and I walk into the forest.