Editors' Choice

Into Borneo

by Ken Matusow

He did his best to get away from it all.

Yogya was stifling. The heat and humidity of central Java was always difficult to endure. But it was more than that. I was being smothered by the cloying banality of the Yogya traveler scene. Along the tiny alleyways of Gang Sosrowijayan, embedded within central Yogyakarta, the cultural capital of Indonesia also known as Yogya, lay a travelers’ ghetto.

Young Europeans and North Americans, sprinkled with a moderate dose of Aussies and Kiwis, shared the narrow alleys with Indonesian food hawkers and sellers of garish t-shirts and fake batik. Street-side food vendors, known as warungs, sold tasty Indonesian favorites such as nasi goreng (fried rice), mie goreng (fried noodles), or laksa (fragrant noodle soup).

The quiet roar of the warung woks, accompanied by the lilt of the Indonesian vendors, combined with the aroma of garlic and Indonesian spices to fill the little streets with the ambiance of exotic Asia. Curiously, as this was Indonesia, the cafes, restaurants, and hotels that lined the Gang sported English language signs, rather than Indonesian, that advertised simple Western food that catered to the traveler-saturated neighborhood. It was an interesting mix of East and West, a mélange of various textures that, if combined harmoniously, could create a marvelous palette of internationalism.

Instead, I saw a discordant collection of insensitive and arrogant Westerners coupled with greedy, local rip-off artists. In this sour mood I entered a little café that catered to the hoards of backpackers that meandered aimlessly down the dirty sidewalks. “I hate tourists, they’re not like travelers!” growled one the enlightened travelers. “They don’t see the real Indonesia shut up in their Hilton Hotels. They don’t eat the local food or meet the real people of the country,” he murmured to his fellow travelers while munching down a helping of French fries. As my enlightened friend paused to take a swig of his Coke, Helle, a gloomy bookbinder from Sweden with whom I happened to be traveling, marched into the café and sat down at my table. “Bloody Germans. They are always complaining.” In Helle’s world nearly every person she didn’t like happened to be German, whether or not they spoke the language. “I can’t stand Yogyakarta she complained. Maybe I’ll head off to Sumatra or Bali. Good idea Helle”, I replied desperately hoping she would actually go. For the past three weeks Helle had attached herself to me like a kind of Swedish leech. With that, I mumbled a good-bye and trudged the grimy lanes of Gang Sosrowijayan back to the hovel of a hotel the Indonesians call a losmen.

I’d been traveling too long. The delicate dance of East and West had morphed into a cynical and pompous exhibition of human futility. A few weeks before I reveled in the fusion of Indonesian mysticism and Western practicality; now I perceived a jaded and ugly reality. The spiced aromas of the street-side warungs transmuted into putrid smells of unsanitary food, deep-fried in recycled, overused cooking oil. I needed to get away from Helle, the travelers, the hawkers, the entire travel scene. I needed to get away from civilization, especially Javanese civilization.

I had just finished reading “Into the Heart of Borneo” penned by the intrepid adventure travel writer Redmond O’Hanlon and the whimsical poet James Fenton. The book chronicled their trek into the seldom-visited interior of the island complete with descriptions of foot long, non-Scandinavian, leeches, overwhelming heat and humidity, and a constant diet of Arak and boiled lizard. Retelling their adventure with a mix of humor and terror they were perpetually lost and completely dependent on their Dayak guides as the two bumbled their way inland.

I decided to follow in their footsteps. I would make my way to Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo, travel by road as far as possible, then venture by boat and on foot into the interior. As I bullied my way into the interior I would connect with the Dayak people, the fabled headhunters of Borneo who guided O’Hanlon and Fenton. I would explore where Lonely Planet fears to tread. In short, I would invent my very own voyage into an Indonesian Heart of Darkness.

Two hours later a travel agent had me booked on an overnight bus to Surabaya, followed by a quick flight to Banjamasin, located on the shores of South Kalimantan, the southern section of the Indonesian part of Borneo. Early that evening I boarded the bus and settled into my reserved seat to begin my trip to somewhere into the heart of Borneo.

Early the next morning my plane landed in Banjamasin, a canal-laden town often called the Venice of the East. After a brief tour of the city, I headed to the bus station and jumped on the first bus I came across that made the twenty-four hour run to Balikpapan, a city situated on the eastern side of the immense island. The bus was jammed, with six persons to a row, rather than the usual four. Our overloaded, creaky bus lurched along an unpaved, potholed road. Some of the passengers hung their heads out the window, retching. Every few hours our bus would stop for a bathroom and meal break. Very late at night, sitting at an outdoor café during one of these stops, our little group of travelers was enveloped by a flock of giant moths, moths the size of birds. We sat quietly, exhausted by the bus ride, drinking tea as the moths swarmed around a single, barely functional streetlight. We sat in a shadow world, an island of barely discernable civilization that was embedded within the darkness of Borneo. I was the only Westerner. There were no French fries. I was happy.

Unlike Banjamarsin, Balikpapan was an ugly city, populated with rusty refineries and the ex-patriots who ran them. This was oil country. The only attractive place in town was the bus station, festooned with signs advertising departures to exotic destinations such as Samarinda and Tenggarong. It was to Tenggarong I was headed. It was literally the end of the road. Past Tenggarong the only way farther into the interior of Borneo was by boat, up the Mahakam River. That is where I wanted to go, up the Mahakam River to the land of the legendary Dayak headhunters of central Borneo. I was getting close.

It had taken me two days and two nights of non-stop traveling to get to the wharfs of Tenggarong. I sat on the ground with legs crossed, leaning against my backpack, watching the little, shallow draft boats dock and undock from the piers on the Mahakam. I had no idea where any of them went. I supposed the larger ones went farther, but who was to know? No one spoke any English and few spoke Bahasa Indonesia, the common language of the country. There were no signs, departure gates, or little brochures that described exotic Borneo and the marvelous boat trips that ferried tourists up the river. In broken Bahasa I would ask one of the boatmen where one of the boats was heading. He would cheerfully tell me the name of the destination; the name of a town or village of which I had never heard. I didn’t have a map of the area and my guidebook didn’t get into the details about this part of Borneo. The names of the towns and villages of the Mahakam were random noises, mumbo-jumbo devoid of any meaning. I had finally left the Gringo Trail was truly on my own.

After a couple of hours of frustration and confusion, I took the only course of action that seemed reasonable. I carefully scouted the flotilla of boats and picked the one that looked the cleanest, least crowded, and, most importantly, the safest. I walked onto the boat, dumped my pack, and myself, on the deck and waited for the boat to go somewhere, hopefully upriver into the heart of the ever-darkening Borneo.

I was very much a novelty. There were perhaps twenty people on the small boat, each of them carrying bundles of personal belongings carefully wrapped and placed on the deck to mark their territory. By tacit agreement, the crew and passengers (it was hard to tell them apart) reserved a nice, large space for me with a clear view of the river. The craft was perhaps forty feet long and ten wide. The deck was covered by a kind of plastic that looked a lot like shiny wrapping paper, slick and slippery with a pleasing flowered pattern. Four feet above the deck was the ceiling. It was impossible to stand. To move around everyone either hopped around on his or her haunches like frogs or attempted to slowly walk, bent over at the waist in a perpetual bow.

The crew and passengers each took turns trying to speak with me. Young mothers with children would shyly look at me with big eyes and intone the universal mantra heard by travelers all over Indonesia, “Hello mister.” Young macho men would frog hop up to me, clap me on the back, look me in the eye, and demand “Hello mister?” Apparently everyone in Indonesia studied the same English primer, a book that began, on page one, with the phrase, “Hello mister.” We eventually decided to give up debating in English and took turns having equally fascinating chats in Indonesian. The one common language we truly shared was a love of the game of chess. For some unknown reason Indonesians are crazy about chess. They, the men at least, play it all the time, usually gambling large amounts of cash on the outcome. Being a reasonably competent player, chess had become my entrée into Indonesian society. It was the icebreaker, and often got me invited to private homes or events usually closed to outsiders. And so it was on our little boat. After dispatching some of the passengers, I was soon invited to do battle against the captain.

I quickly fell into the natural rhythms of the boat as it inexorably motored up the river. The low ceiling kept the strong sun at bay; the movement of the boat, always heading upstream, created a constant breeze. The green river was wide and the ride was smooth. The riverbanks long since denuded of rainforest by illegal logging, were occasionally populated with small villages or isolated compounds. The people on the shore invariably waved. I always waved back. In mid-afternoon the boat tied up at a kind of primitive, floating shopping center. A series of tiny, wooden shops and restaurants, built on barge-like structures, bobbed in the flowing waters, close to shore, but not connected to the riverbanks. I guessed it was a kind of a Borneo style rest stop on the Mahakam freeway. I tried eating at one of the tiny restaurants. The food was foreign and quite nauseating. Boiled lizard perhaps? After an hour, we were once again chugging upriver, heading ever inland to a seldom-visited part of the planet. I had no free will as inexorable pull of Borneo drew me to its heart.

I read, played chess, and chatted as the afternoon gave way to evening. A single light bulb, hung from the low ceiling, provided security from the darkness of Borneo while a cassette player played the strange pentatonic music of Indonesia for our little community of voyagers. As a rainless lightning storm painted the sky red, I unrolled my sleeping bag, climbed in, and drifted to sleep unsure where I was going.

When I awoke the next morning we were already docked. As the entire retinue of passengers got off at this stop, I cleverly figured the boat ride was over. I grabbed my pack hopped onto shore, threaded my way through someone’s kitchen and found myself walking on a boardwalk hovering ten feet above a swamp. Shops and houses lined the wooden street. Wooden side paths spread out from the main road snaking their way through the trees and marsh grass. Nowhere did this village, or anything in it, ever touch the ground. It hovered a convenient ten feet above the marsh, floating like a wooden cloud above a green ocean. I quickly found a losmen and checked myself in, but not before checking the hotel register. A quick scan determined that only a single other traveler with a western sounding name had used the hotel within the past four months. I had no idea where I had landed, no clue as to what the town was called, but I was home. Yogya was a distant memory.

I ended up spending two full days in this nameless town. The local English teacher quickly got word that a native English speaker, an American no less, had invaded his floating dominion. He tracked me down (it wasn’t very difficult) and immediately drafted me to be a guest speaker at one of his classes. We walked on the wooden walkways to the school, talking in a patois of English and Indonesian of life in the interior of Borneo. He described a village, Tanjung Isuy, which lay just upriver. Tanjung Isuy was first of the Dayak settlements that dotted the interior of Borneo. The Dayaks were primitives, according to the English teacher. Barely civilized, they had only recently been tamed of the grimy habit of taking the heads of visitors for souvenirs. The Dayaks were legend among Indonesians. Mainstream Indonesians looked upon the Dayaks as Americans do Native American, an exotic people of ancient heritage, both noble and cruel. They were outsiders, relics of an older age, no longer relevant to modern times. The Dayaks were quaint, but it was the time for something new and modern thought most mainstream Indonesians. It was the job of my friend the English teacher and his Javanese acquaintances to bring civilization to the darkness that smothered central Borneo.

I also managed to befriend another local, one who happened to be a Dayak. Unsurprisingly, he had a different view of things. He and his tribe were just trying to live a normal life. Yet year after year, on a government sponsored program designed to thin out grossly overpopulated Java, immigrants from that hated island poured into Borneo. They took all the best jobs, spread the bastardized, invented language of Bahasa Indonesia, and, in general, looked down on the Dayak peoples. My Dayak friend lived on the cusp between the Indonesian and the indigenous parts of Borneo. He was fearful of the future and untrusting of the motivations of the government.

To both of my new acquaintances I was viewed as a kind of umpire or judge. I was the disinterested third party, the outsider who could bring credibility to their muddy corner of the globe, and their respective views of Borneo. Would I bless the official policy of the government, or would I romantically take the side of the headhunters. As they both eagerly awaited my verdict I declared myself out of my depth. I would not and could not take sides. Although I secretly harbored a stronger connection to the Dayak version, I kept these feelings carefully hidden. However, the story of the Dayaks had captured my imagination. I had escaped purview of the guidebooks. I was free and on my own now.

My Dayak friend arranged for me to travel by mail canoe upriver to Tanjung Isuy. This was the only way to reach the first of the indigenous villages. I was to leave the next morning for the four-hour river trip. I was getting close.

The next morning I piled into a canoe like boat. I was accompanied by another traveler, an Indonesian cigarette salesman, who, presumably, was planning to sell cigarettes to the Dayaks as part of the grand Indonesian plan to bring civilization to the heathens. He was dressed in a prim, but slightly ratty, blue suit carrying a brief case filled with cigarettes. Sitting ramrod straight, he didn’t speak much, preferring to spy the scenery that glided past our canoe. The river gradually narrowed until we were softly sliding past swamp grass that encased the now fifteen foot wide river in walls of green. The feeling grew within me that, despite the re-assurances of our pilot, we were completely lost, doomed to forever motor around Borneo with a silent Javanese cigarette salesmen as my eternal companion.

Eventually, the river widened into a kind of lake. On the shores of the lake like river arose a decidedly odd village. Only a single building deep it spread out on both shores like a spreading rash, a veneer of urbanity desperately trying to survive the wildness of the island. The village was ten feet wide, but seemingly miles long. On one side of each building was the river; on the other side was the swamp. I sat on the boat dumbfounded. This village made no sense what so ever. Apparently, the village was also home to a tribe of voracious cigarette smokers, for this is where my salesman companion hopped off the boat to sell his wares.

As we quietly motored upstream, the lake once again transformed into a river as the rash-like village slowly disappeared into our wake. It was just the pilot and myself. The next stop was Tanjung Isuy. Were there any hotels in Tanjung Isuy? Maybe I would get to stay in a traditional Dayak long house. What did one eat in Dayakland? I hoped it wasn’t brains or boiled lizard, or quirky tourists. Frankly, I was quite nervous. But it was a marvelous nervousness, the kind that always accompanies a voyage into the unknown. This was why I traveled.

Silence greeted me as we put-in on the banks of the river at Tanjung Isuy. I carried my pack over my head as I waded from the boat to the shore, and walked to what appeared to be the main square. I dumped my pack on the ground, and surveyed my new home. There were no people; there was no noise or movement. The village looked deserted, dead.

“Gdae mate!” I spun around a spied a very white looking person with a decidedly Australian accent. After almost a week of constant traveling to one of the least known parts of the globe to visit the last of the world’s headhunters, my first contact turned out to be a volunteer from Australia. He was sent to Tanjung Isuy as part of a Peace Corp style project to put in green refuse barrels and nicely painted street signs. Although the barrels were a nice thought, I couldn’t think of any reason to put up street signs in a village with no cars. But there they were, freshly painted, in English of course: Oak, Elm, Main, etc. The Aussies obviously tried catch the spirit of the land. The reason the village was so empty was that the entire population was in the newly built rec hall putting up decorations for the evening’s disco. The Aussies were finished, their task of putting up signs and tidying up the streets complete. Chalk up another victory for the Foreign Service. Their job done, they decided to celebrate with a proper disco, complete with turntable and LP’s. Why not clean up the culture as well as the street litter?

And so, that evening, the Aussies, dressed in their best party clothes, showed the local headhunters what being Australian really meant. Beer flowed and people danced, the white people anyway. The locals attended the disco in a kind of daze. They held hands; their backs flush against the walls of the building. They stared wide-eyed, watching the Australian volunteers twist and shout, boogie and jive. Every once in a while an overly brave or extroverted Dayak man, never a woman, would move to the dance floor and wildly flail his arms and legs to the music. The Dayaks clearly had no idea what the crazy Westerners were up to. Their village had been invaded by strangers from a strange land. What we all realized, whether arrogant Javanese, well meaning Australians, bewildered Dayaks, or nosey American, was that there was no escape from modernity. The melting pot that now encompassed our small planet overflowed with the corrosive liquid of assimilation.

Thus ended my journey to visit the headhunters of central Borneo. My determined quest to find a personal heart of darkness somewhere in central Borneo had been thwarted by the realities of the modern world. I had ended up where I had begun. The next morning I bid farewell to my newfound friends, both Dayak and Australian, boarded the mail boat and began the return trip. As is often the case in travel, the journey itself is siren that touches ones heart; the destination is merely an excuse for the trip. My visit to the Heart of the Borneo Darkness turned out like my first scary experience at a junior prom. Mr. Kurtz, meet Madonna.


Ken Matusow is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Between technology startups and consulting contracts he usually takes off to explore the developing world, often for months or years at a time. He also works as a volunteer to assist technology companies in remote parts of the globe. Working with groups such as Geek Corps and the International Executive Service Corp, he has assisted and advised technology companies in Bulgaria, Mongolia, South Africa, and West Africa. He lives in northern California with his wife, Barbara.

About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.




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