Into the Heart of Borneo (Borneo)

Friends of mine cycled around the island of Borneo in the 1990s as part of their Numbum World Tent-Camping Tour. They told great stories, of which I remember three key points:

1) Air conditioning is bad for you and causes chills which can lead to fever and flu.

2) Butterflies in Borneo are the size of dinner plates.

3) The Sultan of Brunai, the richest man in the world, is so paranoid that he will not allow foreigners to purchase maps of the place. This makes cycling difficult.

book coverOh, and I think there was something about always holding your shoes upside down and shaking them, lest they contain a dangerous tropical surprise.

Redmond O’Hanlon, also dry-witted and British, says much the same in this funny and fascinating travel book. I recognized so many of the experiences he describes from having cycled myself – solo – in Malaysia and Thailand. And in India and Japan with my friends. Everything is bigger in the tropics – check. Wonderfully, the flowers. Horribly, the insects. It’s always too bloody hot. Check.

And never, NEVER ask what you are eating until after you have finished it. The one time I broke this rule I discovered that a Japanese sashimi bar had served me raw horsemeat.

I’m Sorry, But This Dish Is So Nasty That I Could Not Possibly Eat It *

* An actual phrase in a 1920 English/Japanese phrasebook

In the following scene, British poet James and naturalist Redmond have hired three Iban trackers to take them up a local river into the heart of the jungle. In mid-nowhere, James cooks up some local vegetables for himself, Redmond, and the three Iban.

Turkey berry<<James took up his spoon and began to eat. “Makai! Makai!” he said, pleased with himself.

Dana sniffed and looked about, concerned. Inghai laid his mug aside. Leon prodded his hot pile of teron pipit with a forefinger and licked its end, gingerly. James had that look that cooks get, that evident readiness to avenge an insult with disproportionate violence, so I tried a mouthful. They tasted a bit like school peas, or rather they tasted a bit like school peas might if you took each one and injected it with a small dose of that particular haemorrhoid cream which is made from the oil of shark’s fins. A tiny movement, to my left, caught my eye. Dana’s tattooed hand had made a quick flip towards a bush.

Badas!” said Dana, wiping his lips and putting down his empty mug. Badas, Jams!”

kingfisher bird
Indian kingfishers are beautiful, but Borneo’s really take the mosquito.

“Just a squillionth part too rich, do you think?” said James.

“No, no. Perfetto, ottime. Vegetables at last, entirely thanks to you,” I said, as the haemorrhoid cream squeezed itself between my teeth, flowed thick and viscous and warm beneath my tongue, oozed up to oil my epiglottis.

“Ouches! Ouches!” shouted Leon suddenly, jumping up from his seat on the jungle floor, clutching his buttocks, knocking his tin over, stamping on the ground with his feet. “Ants! Very bloody ants!”

“Never mind,” said James. “There’s a bit more here.”

“No, noes, thank you,” said Leon, rubbing his stomach. “Badas. But now I full up.”

Inghai gathered up the tins to wash in the river, and took the mugful of teron pipit with him.>>

I regret to say the two Englishmen are not nearly as clever at getting rid of the special fish stew that is next on the menu, served by the Ibans. It is bad enough when Redmond thinks the bubble-gummies floating on the surface are the swim bladders of the fish. But when he asks what they are and is told they are the intestinal parasites that live IN the fish…(a delicacy…)

Well, you see why that rule exists. (Btw, teron pipit, or turkey berry, is described by Wikipedia as a key ingredient in some rodenticides and in Haitian voodoo. Dana, the Iban chief, describes the taste as similar to rat shit.)

 The Locals (Human)

Iban man on the river
Iban man on the river

It’s quite interesting to read about all the different tribes of Borneo and their customs. Besides the fierce Iban hunters, we encounter the Kenyah and the Kayan in the interior, while Leon likes to tease James about the headhunting practices of the Ukit who slip through the trees, unseen except by the hairs on the back of your neck. In earlier times (but still as late as World War II) they shot poisoned blowdarts at their enemies.

The cities are populated by the Malay and the Chinese. (In my experience you really can’t go anywhere in southeast Asia without tripping over a Chinatown. Displaced Indians also seem to have settled across the region.)

 The Locals (Animal)

An orangutang
Orang Utang means “Man of the Forest” in Malay

Borneo is one of the richest rainforests in the world. The creepy dangerous fauna is part of what makes this book so enjoyable to read from your air-conditioned, Elephant ant-free home – a home in which you are not likely to encounter any of the 600 species of snake in Borneo. Where you can stroll out of doors without acquiring a coat of leeches. Where life may be dull, but it’s usually safe.

For a time, after the advent of Darwin’s theories, Borneo was thought to have been the cradle of civilization. Although that proved to be wrong, you can see why it had a run as a valid theory. The intensity of the jungle, where everything grows so ferociously, and the presence of the wonderful Orang Utan, once thought to be Early Man with a slight speech impediment – are just two of the factors that fueled this theory.

Orang Utan San Diego Zoo
Orang Utan at the San Diego Zoo. Digital photography leaves much to be desired – my old manual Cannon EOS would have recorded him as very orange, which he was.

Great read. Five bottles of arak (rice brandy)!

NOTE: Proofreaders and editors of English will notice I have not adhered to AP style regarding the quotation of passages from a book.

By beginning with << and ending with >> I have avoided the whole messy business of using single and triple quotation marks for speech inside the main quote.

I feel that since the purpose of punctuation is to clarify rather than confuse, this is perfectly acceptable for my personal blog.

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