Sunday, November 16, 2014

A Jungle Book

"Keep your money. You can print money, but you can't print land. We want our land."
--Penan tribesmen in Central Borneo in response to local government bribes

The travel writer Eric Hansen's memoir, Stranger in the Forest, an account of his 1982 peregrinations on the island of Borneo, is like an elegy to a form of travel, and more importantly, a way of existence, that in the course of my lifetime, has not quite ceased to exist but has changed irreparably and for the worse. Hansen spent about seven months crisscrossing the jungles of Borneo, about 4000km in distance, two thirds of it on foot, a lot of the walking through pristine rain forest. He could not do it by himself (it turns out no one in Borneo wanders alone in the jungle due to fear of evil spirits, or just as troublesome, accusations of being an evil spirit, which happened to Hansen at one unlucky juncture); that he traveled most of the way with guides does not diminish the accomplishment. Hansen put his life in the hands of the hill people of the Penan tribe. Already by the time of Hansen's publication of the novel in 1988, the local government of Sarawak had granted massive concessions to timber companies, justifying their exploitation of indigenous land on the grounds that Penan hunters did not know how to utilize resources.  Hansen's "walk" then, was not just the first but the last of its kind really possible before contemporary globalization-- taking off in the 1980s-- would mean full-speed expansion of corporate penetration into virgin forests.

Hansen's ambitions to walk across Borneo are more fantasy than reality, and inadequate planning leads him into making numerous false starts, his endeavors sabotaged by duplicitous guides, the bearing of inadequate trade items, and an ankle injury. These setbacks aren't necessarily a waste of time, as gifted with language ability (or maybe by virtue of studious efforts), he develops decent Malay fluency and locates the right people to advise him on routes, and more importantly, which trade items to bring. An experienced merchant tutors him on tables of local trade item value and encourages him to consider profit-to-size-and-weight ratios (shotgun shells being small and portable and having excellent barter value, he picks up 250 rounds, along with four kilos of beads and two kilos of tobacco).

Hansen finally finds the right guides and plunges deep into the forest, so much so that he doesn't see the sun for four weeks. They carry no more food than they need for a couple days, hunting the rest, feeding on bats, snakes, and pig (Hansen demonstrates time and again a remarkably adventurous palate).  The jungle, so mysterious, foreboding, and inexplicable to novice trekkers, is a revelation of bounty and utilitarian things: "A piece of thin bark placed between two small river rocks became a drinking fountain; a leaf plucked off a certain tree, folded double, and sucked on to create a vibrating sound, would call the inquisitive barking deer to within shotgun range; a vine known as kulit elang, when pounded and dipped in water and scrubbed on our ankles, would keep leeches from climbing up our legs."

The heterogeneity of Borneo's arboreal life is incredible: "The diversity of tree species alone is estimated at a staggering 2500. In one ten-hectare sample plot of Borneo jungle, the Royal Geographical Society has identified nearly 800 species of trees, more than 20 times the total number of native tree species in all of Britain." They go weeks without seeing any other people, living off the spoils of the jungle. What they do not eat or smoke quickly putrefies and is recycled into the forest floor. Hansen concludes, "the rain forest was a living, breathing organism capable of consuming and digesting me was disconcerting, but also rather exciting. It made me feel as if we were traveling through the intestinal flora of some giant leafy creature."

There is a long learning curve for Hansen but he gets it: "I became blissfully preoccupied with the present tense. It was at about this time I finally came to accept the fact that the rain forest was not a chaotic wilderness to be battled and conquered. There was nothing to conquer, and the chaos was entirely due to my inexperience." There is no straight line in the jungle. His guides do not lead him in the most direct route. They cannot tell him how long the journey will take-- it all depends on how good the hunting is along the way. Eventually Hansen sheds "my Western concepts of time, comfort, and privacy. When I first entered the jungle and let go of my margins of safety to become vulnerable to a place I didn't understand, it was terrifying. I had slowly learned, however, to live with the fear and uncertainty. Also I realized that the physical journey was not the great accomplishment. The value of the trip lay in everyday encounters, and the destination gradually became a by-product of the journey."

This conclusion would make sense as Hansen is walking in the jungle for the pure thrill of being there. His style of travel is full immersion-- not only does he learn Malay, but he befriends his guides and villagers, drinks arak and enjoys their exotic food, participates in their dance ceremonies, follows their customs. Many times he makes a fool of himself, but by doing so he builds trust. He adapts to their sense of time and belief system-- very superstitious by Western standards-- and conducts himself with patience, grace, and respect.  Comparisons are inevitable and I can't help thinking of Paul Theroux, a wonderful writer, but one who seems always on the move, resistant to adaptation, and a hell of a lot grumpier and meaner in terms of value judgments. From Hansen you get the sense of an egalitarian idealism-- he's a true humanist: empathetic and compassionate, a lover. His writing is descriptive and thorough, and he tells a good story-- there will be many when you spend seven months in virgin forest speaking a new tongue, learning to hunt, going weeks without sunlight under the cover of enormous jungle canopies. 

Penan hill people (c) Eric Hansen

However good he is describing his adventures, this book is as much amateur anthropology as it is travel memoir (and that is not meant to be a criticism). We've come so very far with technology; so few of us know how to live off the land as our distant ancestors did. It is wonderful to know that in my lifetime tribesmen like the Penan can still live off the forests, but it is a tragedy to learn their way of life is highly endangered. We can only hope that Eric Hansen's childhood dream of jungle adventure-- manifested in this book-- has raised awareness of this David & Goliath situation.

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