Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Bario, Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo

Posted on March 4th, 2005

Urban Bario

A lot of thoughts go through your mind when you are lost and alone at night in the jungle highlands of Borneo. In my case, chief among these thoughts was “How the hell did I get lost in a place with only one *^%&%# road???” I have a long and storied history of getting lost in various urban jungles, usually clutching a deficient map and desperately searching for non-existent street signs, but I was taking this anti-aptitude to new giddying heights on this particular evening in the infinitely more menacing, genuine jungle.

When I wasn’t cursing my abysmal orientation skills, I was mentally reviewing all of the native animals of Borneo that I had viewed from a safe distance a few days earlier at Jong’s Crocodile Farm. Then I categorized this list into what could conceivably be lurking in the highland bushes and finally distilled from that group a list of what could maim or kill me. Truthfully, it was ultimately a short, non-intimidating roll-call of small, furry, harmless creatures, but this did little to soothe me.

I had walked out of Bario - a tiny jungle village nestled in a valley nearly 5,000 feet above sea level - 45 minutes earlier at a fast clip, heading for my objective, Gem’s lodge, six kilometers (three miles) down a muddy jungle road. I had lingered too long in Bario, waiting out a series of downpours and the quickly setting sun and distant regrouping clouds were cause for mild concern, but I was optimistic. I knew that average human walking pace was about three miles per hour and if I really poured it on, I could be at the lodge in about 45 minutes, just as total darkness was setting in and with any luck before the next round of showers caught up with me. I had spent the afternoon at Bario’s new Telecenter, the village’s pride and joy, catching up on neglected cyber-duties while simultaneously charging both of my laptop batteries. I had depleted both laptop batteries earlier in the day at Gem’s Lodge. The Lodge had been doing without electricity for four days, ever since the installation of a new diesel generator that made a lot of noise, but no actual electricity. The Telecenter is open four hours a day, five days a week, solar powered and sports surprisingly speedy Internet service provided by a satellite feed. A 21st century marvel in 19th century Bario.

Central Bario, the Telecenter is is the right

The road out of town.

I was traveling light for my furious, ill-fated walk, carrying my tiny day bag which held my laptop, the spare battery, power cable, camera, raincoat, water bottle and roll-on bug repellent. Even in the cool early evening, the jungle humidity combined with my walking pace had me drenched in sweat in minutes. After 45 minutes of intense walking, it was utterly dark and I was in the middle of nowhere. Worse still, the road was now climbing a sizeable, unfamiliar hill. Though I was plainly only paying mild attention during my walk into town, I was certain I had not passed this particular obstacle. Just as I was absorbing the inconceivable possibility of having somehow taken a wrong turn on a road with no turns, I crested the hill and saw lights. Knowing Gem’s Lodge was candle-powered at the moment, this cemented my status as hopelessly lost and confused. Additionally, there wasn’t just one set of lights. Even through the murky night, I could make out a half dozen Kelabit longhouses grouped together at the bottom of the hill. Showing up unannounced at a longhouse, nevermind as a dufus stranger after dark, is not recommended, but I needed directions, so I headed toward the light.

The only ace up my sleeve throughout this disaster, was my key chain light. While I was home in October, my friend Laura J turned me onto the Garrity key chain light (US$5 at Wallgreens). Cracker-thin and about two inches long, it casts a startlingly bright beam of light for its size. This little miracle had repeatedly proven to be invaluable over the previous three months while stumbling through dark hostel rooms, preparing for bed while trying not to wake sleeping roommates, but now it was going to single handedly save my bacon.

I used the key chain light to guide me over a narrow, two-log “bridge” that crossed a thin marsh, separating the longhouses from the road. A small child standing on the nearest porch saw me coming and summoned an adult who thankfully spoke some English. I explained the situation and asked for directions, but deep down I was hoping that someone would take mercy on my sorry self, put me in their truck, or failing that, the village tractor with a top speed of four miles per hour, and drive me to my destination. Having just spent a week in the company of the Iban tribe, people who would give you their last Insulin shot if you asked for it, I was hopeful the highland dwelling Kelabit tribesmen would be similarly generous and helpful. They were not. At least this guy wasn’t. He curtly gave me the dispiriting news that I had indeed missed a vital turn, that was nearly 4km back toward Bario. Then he turned around and disappeared back into the longhouse without another word. I was on my own.

Not only was it full-on night, but my trailing thick cloud-cover had overtaken me. Mercifully, it wasn’t raining yet, but equally I didn’t even have the benefit of moonlight to help me along. I was able to stumble along in the dark, just able to make out the course of the road, hitting the key chain light every few moments to scan for the innumerable potholes, ruts, fresh piles of water buffalo shit that could swallow a shoe and muddy slicks that could lead to a leg-flailing, ass-slide into the boggy, roadside trench. Once in a while, way off in the distance, there was lightning. Assuming no further screw-ups, and I wasn’t overly-optimistic about this, I was looking at a minimum of another hour and 20 minutes of careful, trudging through the jungle, with a bag full of very un-waterproof, expensive equipment. A rain shower would have been catastrophic. And let’s not forget the ever-disconcerting prospect of stepping on the tail of one of the little, cuddly jungle creatures, that I imagined sprouted six inch fangs and bad attitudes when the sun went down.

Forty cautious minutes later, I saw the familiar sight of De Plateau Lodge. I had flown into Bario with De Plateau’s owner, Douglas, and I stopped to verify the quick and vague directions I had received at the longhouse. Douglas assured me that there was a turn off just up the hill from his place that I had neglected to note both on my way into Bario that morning and again as I motored past on my return while racing against time, light and the elements. After the turn, it was yet another forty minutes down atrocious, ankle breaking terrain to Gem’s Lodge. I managed this, surviving a hair-raising encounter with two jumpy water buffalo and walking through a horror film sized cobweb, straddling the entire road, that could have detained a Doberman, before finally arriving at the lodge, much to the relief of my hosts.

Gem's Lodge.

The kitchen where we spent our evenings.

Gem’s Lodge is owned and run by Jaman and his wife Sumi, both Kelabit tribe members and natives of Bario. Jaman’s jungle trekking skills and the wonderful hospitality provided at Gem’s Lodge are so wondrous that Lonely Planet nearly falls over itself singing their praises and every bit of it is true. Jaman is an infectiously cheerful, friendly guy who takes great pleasure in hosting people at his large, comfortable, well-equipped lodge. When he isn’t maintaining the lodge, he guides groups on jungle treks for as little as two hours and as long as six days. Sumi, who despite having pushed out three kids and been the repeated victim of highland dentistry, is a beautiful, energized woman, who spends her days in constant motion; cooking, cleaning, gardening and weaving souvenir can-holders for the guests from bandanus leaves that she collects from the surrounding jungle. Sumi never sits still, rarely stops smiling and sings all day long. This is exactly the remote, quiet, totally beguiling place where one could imagine getting comfortable and never leaving. For my part, my three night stay turned into five and even then I wasn’t ready to leave. After a full week in Kuching, sitting in Stewart’s car for hours on end, my longhouse trip and the productivity-robbing effects of repeated rice wine benders, I was horribly behind in my journal and picture processing. I knew the instant that I stepped up to the peaceful solitude of Gem’s Lodge that I would be staging my catch-up on work and sleep there.

Sumi and two of her three kids.

Jaman (center) and buddies.

These gigantic, gravity-defying butterflies lived around the lodge.

Bario, population 800, is deep in the center of the Sarawak highlands, within blow-dart range of the Indonesian border. It’s only accessible by the daily 18 seater prop plane service from Miri on the northern coast and Marudi an upriver town, bordering Brunei. Well, truthfully you can also reach Bario by journeying upriver and overland, but this is a grueling three week excursion and no sane person has made this trek in over 30 years. The diminutive center of town is comprised of a half-moon collection of tiny shops, modest cafes and the Telecenter. Despite the painless one hour flight to get yourself into Bario, there is a profound sensation of having arrived in one of the most remote, disconnected places you are ever likely to visit. People are sparse. “Roads” are grass and butter-soft sandstone, peppered with incessant suspension crushing fissures. Electricity is available through generators and solar cells. Plumbing is via forced water coming down distant mountains. There are few vehicles in Bario. Everything needs to be air-lifted to the tiny airfield. Anything larger than a moped requires a ride on a specially chartered plane, costing roughly US$1,300. With Bario’s humble economy, saving up to buy and ship a simple, tiny jeep into town is a life-long investment. Many people get by on motorcycles or bikes, but most simply walk. Bario’s 800 residents are spread out in small settlements and far-flung longhouses over tens of kilometers. In this simple, but demanding jungle lifestyle, an eight or ten kilometer walk carrying upwards of 100 pounds on their backs isn’t extraordinary. It gets worse. For many of the residents, even the deficient road isn’t an option. A thin jungle path is the only access that many longhouses have to the rest of the world (read: Bario), so yes indeed, everything that is taken to or from home has to be done on one’s back. And these guys are legendary. Burdensome sacks of jungle fruits being taken to market, 32 inch TVs (followed by the ubiquitous satellite dish), old fashion metal, foot-pump sewing machines and even 6 foot wide rolls of corrugated tin roofing are routinely hauled in and out of the jungle. Sometimes these items are carried for days. It’s unfathomable.

Sadly, the clock is ticking for Bario’s cherished isolation, along with the highland jungle and the very way of life for the Kelabit tribe. Logging companies are making quick work of the countryside. It’s estimated that in five or six years a logging road will reach Bario that will wind all the way down to Miri. Nevermind the gut-wrenching sight of a decimated landscape, when the jungle is gone the Kelabit settlements that subsist off the land will be left standing without their only resource. Instead, if they’re lucky, they will receive a one-time wad of money to compensate them for their loss. With their foundation for self-sufficiency gone and having never known anything else, they will have few options when the money runs out except to head for a big city and start from scratch with few urban-ready marketable skills. The people who stay in Bario will suddenly have to come up with the funds to buy the goods that they once collected from the surrounding area, including food, medicine and, ludicrously, the lumber that once occupied their backyards, which will have to be shipped back to Bario from Miri at great expense. Trekking as an activity will be gone and so then will the modest tourism that Bario currently enjoys. Jaman and Sumi will have to go back to farming. Get here while you can folks.

But enough of that. Back to enjoying the moment.

The electricity shortcoming at the lodge required me to make the daily trip into Bario to charge various batteries at the Telecenter and/or Lian’s place. Lian, a good friend of Jaman’s, shares local guiding duties and even baby-sits Gem’s Lodge while Jaman is away on multi-day treks. All this and Lian runs his own modest longhouse-style lodge just outside central Bario. Lian installed solar cells three years earlier, so I spent a fair about of time hanging out in his living room, working and watching the Travel Channel on his satellite TV as I replenished my laptop batteries.

The road into town had some obstacles.

The one hour trudge into Bario never got easier, though after my night of unintentional jungle touring I could hit that insufferable turn with my eyes closed. Walking was slow, hot and when it wasn’t damp from rain the powdered-sugar consistency of the road, meant that you were covered in dust and grit by the time you reached the village. One day, after my night wandering rural Bario in the dark, Jaman took pity on me and offered one of his son’s bikes to ease the trip. The problem was that the road was so appallingly beaten that biking was only marginally faster than walking and three times as strenuous. Also, as I discovered on the short, deeply rutted, breakneck hill just outside of the lodge gates, the bike did not have brakes. It was an Evil Kenevil moment that should have killed me, or at least broken my back, but somehow I wrestled the bike back under control just before I shot onto the slightly less terrifying wood-plank bridge.

When I wasn’t writing I did some minor, solo jungle trekking. Knowing my proclivity for losing direction, I stuck to the well-used trails. Even though these trails were clearly being maintained (if they weren’t the jungle would gobble them up in a matter of weeks), with rickety, but serviceable cable and wood plank bridges and even a few mysterious property fences, the dense jungle surroundings and the fact that I never saw another sole on these walks made it feel as if I were possibly the first person to venture into these regions in years.

This is off-roading it.

It's almost too overgrown to see, but i am crossing a dodgy cable, wood plank bridge that had been reinforced with metal sheeting.

The only mildly menacing aspect to these treks were the water buffalos. There wasn’t a single instance where these hulks ever made me feel the least bit threatened, but that didn’t change the fact that they had giant horns and could flatten a mid-sized car if they wanted to. I maintain that even the most docile creatures are bound to have a bad day now and again, so I never took it for granted that I might cross one of these beasts during a particularly poignant moment and become the target of its discontent. With the exception of one nervous, stare-down episode, the water buffalo would turn and run into the bushes as soon as they laid eyes on me.

Beating the heat

The satellite dish is out back

Aside from my initially cool reception at the longhouse, the Kelabits turned out to be entirely gracious and wonderfully good-natured people. I met much of the movers and shakers of Bario in my first 24 hours and they never hesitated to bend over backwards to help me out. Only a few of the hardcore aging locals looked the part of the classic Kelabit member, covered in tattoos, with their earlobes pierced and stretched, dangling down to their shoulders from years of supporting large, heavy ornaments. No one wears traditional garb outside of official ceremonies. Growing up in Bario used to be very rough – before the airfield opened, kids had to trek to and from their respective boarding schools through the jungle for up to three weeks, one way – but the locals have a playful sense of humor about their back-water existence and don’t hesitate to impishly encourage misconceptions about highland jungle life. During my visit, a friend of Jaman’s had kindly delivered the faulty component of his new generator back to Miri for analysis. The mechanic in Miri became loudly indignant that Jaman had tinkered with the component, changing the factory settings, in an effort to correct the problem on his own. The friend decided to have a little fun with the grumpy, big-city mechanic, saying (roughly paraphrased) “Of course we tried to fix it ourselves! Do you have any idea what we had to do to get this thing to Miri? Four guys had to fasten it to a bamboo pole and carry it eight hours through the jungle, at 3AM, uphill, with no shoes…” and so on. In actuality, a guy backed his jeep up to the generator shed, loaded it and had it at the airfield in 20 minutes. Moreover, the influx of satellite dishes in Bario, some mirthfully perched on the sides of leaning, dilapidated stilt houses, is a constant reminder that the Kelabit have left their former, detached isolation far behind.

A nearby longhouse settlement

Kelabit longhouse.

They speak the international language of volleyball in Bario. No kidding. They even have a women's league.

The church.

I spent my evenings at the lodge sitting on the floor in the candlelit kitchen with Jaman, Sumi, Lian and/or the smattering of other guests. Jaman was educated during a period when all classes in Malaysia were conducted in English. His vocabulary is impressive. Sumi speaks only a handful of words in English, but she still manages to sit and follow along at times, interjecting her own questions and always laughing when we did whether she understood or not. Jaman is an excellent story teller with decades of the kinds of anecdotes that inevitably occur while living on a developing, jungle island. One night while it was just he, Sumi and I nibbling on jungle fruit, while their kids, home for the weekend, sat cross the kitchen doing their homework by candlelight, Jaman explained his intense fear of flying by recounting how he had survived two plane crashes in the space of nine months back in 1991. Holy dairy cow! What are the odds? Well, perhaps in deep Borneo, plane crash odds increase a bit, but still… I couldn’t fault his phobia. And I slowly began to dread my own return flight to the coast.

Before I left, Jaman took me and a few guests with him to a Kelabit longhouse so we could look around while he helped the residents with some paperwork. The modern Kelabit longhouses are drastically different from the Iban longhouses. Rather than being bare and wide open, the communal area is where all food preparation and storage rooms are located. The private living quarters are in an adjacent building connected to the communal building by a series of short footbridges, one leading to each door. The classic Kelabit longhouses did not have separate living quarters. Everyone lived and worked in the one communal building. As I tried to imagine this existence, I commented, with an accompanying wink, about the lack of privacy. Jaman laughed and explained that he actually had to ask the elder tribesmen about the intimacy limitations of the old days, on behalf of a curious researcher. He couldn’t ask the question directly of course, so he simply asked “What did you do when you wanted to have children?” The tribesmen all laughed, knowing the root of the question and explained that whenever they had jungle fever, they would sneak off to the farm house (each family had their own farm house by their respective patches of land). Or failing that, they could usually sneak in a quickie “when it rained very hard.”

After five nights I left Bario. It’s always mildly difficult to leave a newly familiar place, having earned hard-won knowledge like the best places to stay, eat, hangout and get drunk, knowing that you have to start the tiring discovery process all over again. This issue aside, there have been very few instances over the past 20 months where I have been truly regretful to leave someplace. Bario is at the top of that list. As a traveler, while you can usually count on your hosts/locals to wish you well and maybe even say something to the effect that you’re always welcome to visit, it’s usually just a genial, polite exercise. Almost mechanical. In Kuching I walked away with several firm and genuine invitations to return and stay in people’s private homes. In Bario, there was a sincere tone of melancholy as I bade farewell to my friends. Nearly everyone I knew was at the airport as I waited for my plane. I would have liked to think they were all there just to see me off, but the airport is one of the main social centers in Bario and many people go there daily to use the public phone, receive freight/family/guests or just sit with a coffee and watch the action. Still, while I walked the gauntlet, saying goodbye to all these people, some of whom I had only spoken to briefly, I was overwhelmed by the intense sincerity each of them showed when they wished me well and hoped that I might return some day. Not surprisingly, I felt a particular attachment to Jaman and Sumi. These two were like my caregivers way out there in the jungle and consequently I developed a reverential affection for them. And despite my roll as the guy who disappeared with his laptop for extended periods of time, reappearing only to be fed until bursting three times a day by Sumi, they seemed to have an inexplicable fondness for me. This was reinforced on my final night at the lodge, as the three of us fought the urge to go to sleep at a reasonable hour, knowing we all had an early start (Jaman and Sumi rise without fail at 6:00AM each morning), instead staying up until the wee hours, trading stories in the shadowy kitchen.

Jaman lingered at the airport with me until the bitter end, lamenting about how we had never had the chance to trek together. I promised him I would do my very best to return to correct that oversight. And for once really I meant it.

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