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White waters and wild durians

Where: I reach Semamu, a village where locals see me like a walking stack of Rupiahs; I find a very expensive longboat passage (with complimentary wild durian) down tumultuous waters; I reach Malinau. [Late January 2016]

Going down the river.

As the dirt road approached Semamu, I started to see more traces of human passage. The abundance of wild game easy to spot and approach must have been a joy for local hunters, and it probably explained the many abandoned bivouacs I was walking past. In the afternoon I came across two hunters on motorbikes, the first humans I met in two days. I asked if Semamu was far but we could not manage to communicate. I greeted them and continued walking, wanting to cover as much distance as I could before dark. I also hurried to put distance between me and the two strangers, who were armed with rifles and I did not know if I could trust. A while later they came back, offering to take me to Semamu. I accepted reluctantly: even if they pretended to do not understand me I knew that they would want to be paid for their help; moreover, that stretch of road could have been my last before rejoining civilisation. In any case, meeting the two hunters had broken the spell. I was not in forest territory anymore, but in the territory of men. There was no point for me in pretending otherwise, and I hopped on the back of one of the bikes.
Accepting their lift did not turn out to be a bad idea after all: we arrived to Semamu more than one hour later, in the dark. As I expected, suddenly their communication skills improved and they asked me for money: they asked me half a million Indonesian rupiah for their lift. Foolery. Their sneaky ways made me think of not giving them anything. But it was dark, I was alone, nobody else knew where I was and they were armed. It was better to bargain while I still had bargaining power. I gave them 100’000 rupiah (about 8 €) each.


In Semamu they took me to the home of the ultra-octogenarian Martinus. There, the hunters who gave me a lift gathered with Martinus and his family to stare and giggle at me, the strange orang putih who had showed up alone, from the forest, carrying an enormous backpack and fancy hiking poles they had never seen before. I knew Martinus from somebody who mentioned his name to me in Binuang. Apparently he had recently walked from Binuang to Semamu on his own to move some water buffalos between the two villages. At his age it took him four days. That is what would have taken me, without even having to herd buffalos, had not the two hunters picked me up. More importantly for me and my trip, Martinus owned the only longboat in Semamu. I asked him about it, and he was keen on offering the longboat and two boatmen to take me to Malinau… For three million rupiah. That was 200 euros! I could have bought a two-way flight ticket for any destination in South-East Asia for that amount, and still have enough change to go out for drinks. “Let’s talk about it in the morning”, I said. He let me sleep on the floor of his house for the night.
In the morning, I made a timid attempt at bargaining:
“…So, Martinus, about the longboat…”
“Yes?” (smiling).
“…How about we make it satu juta [one million] rupiah?”
Tidak, no, tiga [three] juta” (smiling and not budging).
“But that’s crazy! I could fly to Bangkok for that price. Let’s make it dua [two] jutaBoleh?” (me, giggling and not really trying).
Tidak. Maliau jauh [far]. Water is low. Lots of work. Tiga juta.” (Him, still smiling).
I bent under the power of monopoly and accepted. “So be it then! Tiga juta. It’d better be a solid boat.”
The alternative would have been walking for at least five days on a dirt road scorched and hardened by the Sun. At least, Martinus did not mess around and we arranged the trip for that very morning. His two sons would guide me. “I cannot come”, he said, and I thought it was because he was too old; but then he added: “I have to harvest rice today”.
Navigation did not turn out to be for the weak or those with slow reflexes. Sections of slow-moving waters would alternate with shallow shoals, boulders, narrow passages, rapids, eddies. Around us, the forest. At some point, my boatmen stopped by the river bank. We unloaded the boat from the luggage and one of them took off, alone, to manage a particularly tricky section. From the bank, we watched him manage the roaring waters, guide the boat through a narrow passage between big boulders and safely land it a few tens of meters downriver. In that moment I realised that the money I paid for the passage was a fair price after all. I wondered how they were planning to bring the longboat back to the village.

Before the going got tough…
…And after.

Three hours into the boat trip, the landscape by the banks changed rapidly. I first started seeing patches of secondary forest reclaiming old logged plots. Then, I sighted rafts of trees ready to be sent downstream. Then, the last patches of primary forest left the ground to vast extents of logged land, and the human presence (boats, logging stations, groups of shacks) increased sharply. A road started to follow the river bank. We even came across tall metal bridges. The river was broad and calm now, its waters brown with sediment. At around midday we stopped at the loggers’ village of Harapan Maju to find a new propeller for the longboat – the old one had been damaged in the rapids. We arrived in a village in the outskirts of Malinau around three in the afternoon. The village was close to a large plant for processing timber and had grown along the high banks of shallow canals that branched off the river. Soon before landing, my guides disassembled the rifle that they were carrying in the boat and hid it into a canvas wrap, smirking at me. Then they left the river and turned resolutely into one of the shallow canals. We landed on one of the many wooden piers on stilts that gave access to the houses, and they took me to the home of an acquaintance of theirs. The house was nice and fresh. The floors and the lower half of the walls were covered in cheap tiles, and my attention was drawn by two old and mismatched velvet armchairs; it felt like being in one of those popular Italian apartments that spawn across Italy during the economic boom of the sixties, when suddenly also the petit bourgeois class could afford cheap but vaguely pretentious furniture. Two teenage kids and their mother tried to keep me company in a goofily amused way while one of the boatmen disappeared for a while. He reappeared a while later with a motorbike and two helmets – certainly a special courtesy for me, the orang putih. I paid the three million rupiah that I owed them, then I hopped on the back of the motorbike and, some fifteen minutes later, my boatman-turned-biker dropped me in Malinau.
We waved each other goodbye rapidly. We had not spent enough time together to build much of a relationship. Even if we enjoyed our trip down the river, and even if the boatmen enjoyed posing for my camera, to them I was probably simply the gila orang-putih [crazy white man] who one day walked out of the forest and paid them a fortune for a boat trip; on my side, I had not even learned their names. How were they going to go back to Semamu? What took us six hours travelling downstream was going to take them days going against the current. I was a little worried about their trip back, but I soon felt selfishly glad that it was not my problem. By then I knew: in Borneo, things always seemed to work out, eventually. They surely had learned it much before me, and they lived their lives by it. There was no reason to worry.

I was dehidrated, sunburnt, and I had eaten only durian all day. I left the dusty road, found refuge in a hotel – a real hotel! – with the luxury of air conditioning, and fell asleep.