Eric Hansen: Stranger in the Forest: On Foot Across Borneo. Kuala Lumpur, S. Abdul Majeed & Co., 1993. 283 pages, RM22.50.
review by Otto Steinmayer.
Borneo boasts herself the subject of many good books, of science both biological and social, of war, and of travel. Eric Hansen’s Stranger in the Forest is the most recent and most distinguished of the travel books.
“Recent” is relative. Hansen describes journeys that took place 12 years ago. Stranger originally appeared in 1988; and now Abdul Majeed & Co. have obliged us by publishing a Malaysian edition.
Hansen tells of himself as a young, intrepid and
at the same time—as he
often admits—foolhardy man, who walked across the island from north
coast to east coast. Other white folk had made similar trips; Hansen,
unusually, did it alone. That choice ensured great hardship and
disappointment, but also rewards. Facing difficulties Hansen faced the
realities of Borneo and of her peoples’ life.
Stranger is probably the last of the
genre; Hansen visited when
Borneo had little time to spare. Neither the Dayak people nor the
government had yet understood the rate of destruction. Borneans were
going about their lives much as they always had, without the anxiety
and bitterness that developed, and on their part the government was not
suspicious of foreigners.
Hansen got away with what no one could now. He evaded paper legalities with a miraculous grace, and he financed his walk by peddling shotgun shells in the hills.
The deluge hit even as he was walking. The first logging blockade happened in 1981. Now no place in Sarawak is more than half a day from a logging road.
Hansen first got on the road in Vietnam days, leaving the US to dodge the draft. He caught an affection for Sarawak in 1976 as he stopped by on his way from Jakarta to Singapore. Hansen was looking for a taste of The Native and did what I did 15 years later: viz., he went to Kapit and waited for something to happen. He quickly got invited to a gawai some hours upriver, relished the riot, and his passion for Borneo was rooted.
In the Berkeley library he conned books and planned a trip across the Interior. Back in Sarawak, after a number of false starts, he found himself ignorant and unprepared for his arduous intent. At last, upriver from Marudi he approached two Penan, John Bong and Tingang Na, who engaged themselves to guide him overland to Bario. These men gently introduced Hansen to the forest, and coached him in the formules de politesse that seem pointless in the city but are so necessary in a life on harsher terms.
From Bario Hansen hired two more guides of equal
tact who took him into
Kalimantan, and he descended the Bahau river as far as Long Bia and its
missionary station. This had taken four months. Then, in a hired boat,
midriver 50 miles from Tanjung Selor, he ordered the helmsman to turn
around and head again to the ulu. Perhaps Hansen was unable to
face civilization, having again met with bourgeois modernity; one
crewman in the boat grumbled, “orang gila.”
Hansen’s route back over the watershed took him through a number of small villages on the Kayan and Mahakam rivers. He passed through Long Nawang several times as he shuttled through villages, and finally back on his way to Sarawak via a tributary of the Balui, which joins Sg. Rejang at Belaga. From Belaga it was an easy trip home. The immigration official at Subang didn’t even notice that Hansen’s passport had expired.
Such was Hansen’s route, that takes in no very impressive features of Borneo, either of landscape or of people, if you judge according to tourist-brochures. The high-spots of the journey for the reader are two: he was in Kalimantan suspected of being a penyamun, a collector of blood for heavy development projects (they know about this in Kuching, too), and spent an anxious few weeks alone. And on the way over the mountains to Sarawak he killed a deer with a spear.
Hansen, like me, is attracted simply by the
forest and by the idea of
living in it. This is a lot less glamorous than it sounds; the rewards
lie in other qualities.
Actually, it’s not all that hard to be a
“native”; we are all, indeed,
descended from hunters and nomads like the Penan. Life in the woods
demands much of the body—something we could all use. And the skills are
there, tested and not difficult to be learnt. But, to be a beginner!
For a white man, that is humbling. As did Hansen, I have found my body
about 30% too large for anything in Borneo—my father-in-law
bounces over batang that break under me, I can’t fit in boats
or wriggle through clumps of thorns. Stranger is an account of
the Borneo forest comprehensible to anyone not overly familiar with it,
a description of what it feels like to be a beginner in the wilderness.
Laurence Sterne, lounging in a chaise in the
yard of a French inn, divided travelers into the Idle, the Inquisitive,
the Lying, the Proud, the Vain, the Splenetic, the Delinquent and
Felonious, the Unfortunate and Innocent, the Simple, and the
Sentimental (meaning thereby himself). You may understand Sterne as
saying that anyone who goes abroad is each of these by turns.
Hip people these days distinguish between “travellers” and “tourists.” Though this seems to me spurious—step abroad from our native soil, nay often from the door of our houses, and we all become tourists—it does dramatize the fact that we are often not aware of the tangle of motives that send us to Other Places.
Dayak peoples have a custom by which young men will travel out far from their home to find work and adventure. The Ibans call this bejalai; other peoples have other names. Hansen, having many times asked himself that traveller’s question, “What am I doing here?” was pleased, as he groped for a way to explain his journey to a troupe of Kenyah met on the trail, to have them put the words in his mouth— “Tuan, you too are on peselai, just like us.”
Why a Bornean interpretation better than another? Hansen might have remembered that the second poem of his own people was about a man who travelled:
He saw the towns and knew the minds of many men.
The curious thing is that Stranger is several books. This is what makes it much more than the average piece of travel. The charm of Stranger lies in the immediacy of Hansen’s rendering of his impressions; and the irritation in that Hansen has not, even after four years, digested his experience, but remains overwhelmed and baffled by it.
Only a certain type of person could have written Stranger. Of course, it took courage, persistence, patience, and humility to perform the trip; it took honesty and pride to write about it. This mix of qualities appears strange and contradictory, and indeed Stranger abounds in contradictions. Hansen feels praised when he is “accepted,” as above, and in another case near the end when he is pleased that the people of Long Busong mistook him for a Dayak. Yet his whole purpose in Borneo is to make a journey no Dayak would ever consider. Hansen is scrupulously honest about his own feelings and failings; yet he cannot resist the temptation to exaggerate in details such as “eight-foot” monitor lizards. The “first nomadic Penan” Hansen meets he describes in terms of the exotic:
His earlobes were distended, and he wore his hair in a ponytail that hung to his waist. The hair on his forehead was cut in a perfectly straight line, and there wasn’t a trace of facial hair on his copper-colored cheeks. He was dressed in a loincloth and a very worn Western T-shirt that read, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” The incongruity of his T-shirt didn’t detract a bit from his mesmerizing appearance.
Blowpipe, poison darts, and parang follow in due order. We westerners are so desperately hungry for “authenticity” that we do not understand that the word is meaningless. Pray, why should a Sgt. Pepper t-shirt seem incongruous? The man’s loincloth itself was woven in Shanghai, his parang may have been forged from the spring of a Ford. Is this stranger than a Ming porcelain bathtub finding its way to Bario in the 16th century, or Rembrandt in Holland vanishing pictures with damar this Penan man’s ancestors collected?
Please, if Mr Hansen is listening, let me apologize: I have no intention of playing the “old Borneo hand” or some other vulgar colonialist charade. It is a fault of many white writers about Borneo that each tries to own it exclusively. I protest that I admire his magnificent and brave journey through a place my heart sings in, and I envy (without malice) him his experience of wildness I will never be able to taste.
My point is that the travel book itself is a disturbing genre. (What is the most famous travel-book in English? Gulliver’s Travels, a complete fantasy that tells us more truth about ourselves than we care to hear.) We can’t do without the travel book because we need the information—Hansen, by the way, is a generous and valuable collector of information. In order to do that we have to talk about “Here” and “There.” In other words the genre of travel book only makes sense if the writer writes for a settled audience, like him, at Home. This first antithesis opens the way for a lot of other antitheses: “civilized” vs. “primitive,” “strange” vs. “familiar,” “society” vs. “nature,” “modern” vs. “backward,” leading inevitably to “Us” vs. “Them” and “Good” vs. “Bad.”
None of these distinctions make much sense when examined closely, especially when they become lumped together. It is simply untrue with regard to Borneo that, for example, “Interior” means “authentic” and “coast” means “phony.” I’m sure Hansen understands this; but to be over-subtle makes no travel-book.
The romantic figure, the figure you can write about, is the renegado, the person who rejects his people and their values, his home, his ties, and goes out “on his own terms.” Some of these actually sink into the landscape and disappear, in Sarawak, notably, an man named Arundell who in the 30s became an Iban. We only know about him at second hand. Bruno Manser, too, probably would have been content as an obscure, ordinary Penan if he had not felt that way of life threatened. Hansen chose, like Odysseus, to go out, and then he chose to return and to write.
Stranger then well exhibits the tension of modern Borneo, the tension in which both the tourists and the natives live: the tension of the entire modern world, where nobody is purely anything anymore, but we all live in between cultures, principally between the exhausting demands and exactions of Official “culture” with its Official music, thought, definitions of what a good Malaysian, &c., ought to be, all carried out in the midst of degraded and incomprehensible physical surroundings, and the world of our own standards and duties to our soul and self, that meaning which we partly inherit and partly laboriously construct.
Travellers of any sensibility have come to the feeling that people really are the same everywhere, or that they share what other people feel. Nobody’s been able to prove this is so, and the truth is probably inexpressible. This is the tragedy of the travel-book, that has to shadow this feeling through the tricks and lies of words. Hansen’s Stranger bears comparison to Lévi-Strauss’s great Triste Tropiques in this respect. It is not having to leave, the recognition that he cannot, and does not want, to be a Native that Hansen regrets, it is the incoherence of the modern world, the decay of a nature that once made possible a way of life one could understand, and the fragmentation that renders people strangers to one another.