Go with the Flow – Borneo, Malaysia

Go with the Flow
Borneo, Malaysia

“Belaga, Belaga, Belaga…”

I felt like a pull-string doll stuck on a single utterance. For days I had hitched rides on logging trucks and dugout canoes, traveling alone, crossing language-zones, relying on my one known word, that of my destination – Belaga. Once there, at that outcrop of civilization à la Borneo, Belaga proved a predictably dirty, crowded frontier town. For someone weary that meant a night under a roof, use of a bathroom of sorts, at the best hovel-hotel I could find.

Within minutes of my noon arrival, I was befriended by a group of Kayan teenagers from a longhouse about a mile upstream. They considered me high excitement, a rarity. Why pay for a room, they asked, when I could stay for free at a genuine longhouse?

Passing around a bottle of “whiskey” (really wine, but expressed in English), we severely overloaded two canoes, paddled across the river and upstream in the shallows. At this point, I was a virtual captive. Whereas no serious hanky-panky was planned and my possessions were safe, it became obvious that, at least for these English-wielding toughs, I was here less for my celebrity status than for my relative wealth.

I was informed that although my accommodation (a mat on the floor of a common room) was free, the cost of my meals would far exceed the price of a modest hotel room. No great fortune. Soon an older brother arrived, a big fish in this small pond. He was about twenty, slimmer and taller than his thick-limbed brethren. During the week he traveled between longhouses, teaching English. He had an easy charm and was well-liked, a local success story. With his quick intelligence, good-looks, and a zest for the superficial, he made a tolerable hustler.

He took command of the situation, and of me. I was given a tour. Actually, he was displaying me like a trophy. It was a snake-charmer’s act – Look, I can control this dangerous creature, under these circumstances. Apparently, I was dangerous. People retreated before our advance. Much of the day’s work and social life takes place on the common-roofed porch. These activities were abruptly abandoned as the populace fled, peering at us from indoors.

My guide explained this as “shyness”, but I knew I represented a vast power that could – and would – sweep aside their puny lives. Although I wanted to assure them that I would never exceed my share, in a very indirect way, that is not true. I consume a lot of most everything from everyhere and everyone.

Although their fearful reaction to me was not welcome, it did confer more respect than I was accustomed to. It was not, therefore, totally disquieting. Elsewhere I had enjoyed my special status, unearned and unconsidered, expressed in smiles and nods.

We ended up in a warehouse-type room with two surprises. The first was a communal television, powered by a generator, where one channel could be accessed each evening for two hours. More surprising, a third of the room was fenced off from floor to ceiling and guarded by an ancient woman with more keys than teeth. This was not consistent with my rosy picture of longhouse life, where everything was shared. What needed to be locked-up in a social paradise? What, but alcohol!

I was offered a beer. I declined. When pressed, I accepted politely. The bolt was slid open and soon everyone in my entourage – growing to about fifteen teenagers – had a beer in hand, nodding their thanks. Not a great amount, but it was uncomfortable to be fleeced, and a wound to my perceived celebrity status. I decided not to dwell on it. Go with the flow.

After this, I was pretty much left on my own for a few hours. I wandered about taking pictures, never without at least several pairs of eyes on me, especially children. I was fascinated with the juxtaposition of two millennia – bright litter of the twentieth century vying with the stolid past. Christ shared a wall with totems and monkey meat was served with Coke.

I walked behind the weathered hulk of the longhouse. A hundred yards in length, this horizontal condominium on stilts accommodated an entire village. It was my age, 50, and at its life-expectancy. The need for a new one was apparent, but that effort demanded a community, one that believed in its future.

From here, neglected fields disappeared into a strangled jungle. I passed near some girls giggling and moving exaggeratedly to music. I heard, for the first time, that bouncy party-tune, the Macarena. I crossed the open fields and entered the jungle, in gradations. Overgrown stumps, sparse second-growth, and then the real thing – an island of original reality. Warbles, trills, and shrieks emanated from the far-above canopy. Sunlight fell onto the forest floor like a spice.

When I returned, my happy hustler host emerged from a back room, clad only in a towel. He threw one at me. “It’s time to bathe.” Evidently, he wanted to complete his side of the transaction and supply me with a genuine experience. We were at one end of the longhouse and at sufficient distance from his neighbors that they were uninhibited by my attendance. When we reached the end of the steep forty-foot slope, walking down one of many step-notched logs, he removed his towel and hung it on a bush. I was chagrined to notice he had not removed his underpants, as I had. But when I mentioned my dilemma to him, he just shrugged and smiled, “It’s okay.”

The river here was at least two hundred yards wide and maintained a good steady flow. But in the shallows, which extended out a couple of dozen feet, the water just swirled in slow eddies. To reach the water’s edge, we had to abandon the log and traverse the last fifteen feet through the thickest, richest mud I had ever encountered. It oozed up between my toes all the way to my knees before supporting my weight. At first, I found this beach disconcerting, almost loathsome. What was down there, in all that mud? I imagined sharply broken branches, leeches, and microscopic parasites.

My companion was unconcerned. Down the length of the longhouse – adults and children, children and more laughing children – were happily lifting their sarongs and joining the community bath. Soon I was exulting in the sheer sensuality of this mud-up-the-legs embrace. Each step was like entering nature in a novel and intimate way.

We walked into the water up to our waists. I was invigorated and wanted to go for a swim, but nobody else was. Despite their proximity to and dependence on the river, I don’t think they knew how to swim.

While we lathered up, my host grew quite talkative. When he heard I was from California, he seemed envious. I wanted to tell him it’s not that great. But I could see the beneficent qualities of this area were fading fast. Soon only a squalor would remain, with just enough media contact for the contrast to give rise to an embittered hopelessness. Television’s beautiful window can be a disfiguring mirror.

“The longhouses are just becoming pathetic. The river is dying.” He ran his hand through the gravy-colored water. “Five years ago, the Rejang ran clear. There were fish. Just five years ago.” He looked away.

Gone was the street-wise opportunist. Nostalgia, at age twenty. We were silent. Wispy, translucent insects flitted in the dying light. Lazy waves puckered brown lips, smacking Borneo is Bleeding. A phalanx of ducks whooshed by. Everything felt immediate, transient, vulnerable.

I lay back in the warm water and watched the people at their social bath, strung out for a hundred yards. Floating there, I thought of them as I saw them – half in the darkening water, half in the darkening sky. Halved.

I spun myself slowly, taking it all in, memorizing. Too much. Too little. I wanted to hold on, hug something – like the day, not final as this rushing, this rushing by of something precious, forever.

Whole forests and communities were flowing down these rivers. On the surface, rafts of logs, under the surface, silt, and that glorious mud on the banks. Drain forest, I thought, insulating myself with puns, substituting something minimally creative for something massively destructive.

“It’s the logging,” His voice broke my reverie and I stood up. “The Chinese back in Kuala Lumpur don’t care. It’s just for the quick money.” I watched his face contort. He shrugged. The bath was over.

It was strange to hear a hustler decrying the quick buck. But I heard it again in Kapit, where I was approached by an Iban street-capitalist, out to see what his greatest asset, a little English, could get him. It was just conversation. I didn’t want a girl and I didn’t have a cigarette. Nervously, he responded to my questions about life in this small river-port city. Things were booming now, he said, at least for some. Yet everyone knew that with the last log, everything would go bust. It was stupid, he summarized, corrupt. But he didn’t want to talk long, apologizing that it was a political issue that could land one in jail, especially complaining to a foreigner.

I heard it once more in Kuching while walking on the far outskirts late one Saturday evening. Half-lost, I was called over by a group of Malay youths gathered around a fire. One was ostentatiously playing with a machete. Ignoring them wasn’t an option. They wanted to know if I was a logging executive. I was glad I wasn’t.

On the flight from Kuching to Singapore, the short on-screen entertainment was preceded by a commercial. “Guinness Beer is Good for You,” it sloganeered. I reflected on truth in advertising. Certainly one advertisement I had seen in Sibu had a ring of truth to it. It was for Husqvarna chainsaws. “We make the world.”

I looked out the airplane window and saw a wide, meandering river flowing into the South China Sea. The brown it was discharging fanned out for miles. Borneo is bleeding.


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