Giving Asia a Chance … in Borneo

I accepted the invitation to Indonesia specifically because it’s a part of the globe I am fearful of. I enjoy what people like to call “westernized” countries. I enjoy learning about history and being challenged only to try foods that I can recognize, I get too excited about beautiful architecture and I can relate to the people of Europe in a way that doesn’t push me too far out of my comfort zone. In my search for home, Asia never factors into the equation because I consider first the things that fear me, never stopping to see or listen for the things that might elicit an opposite reaction within Asia.

It is that which scares us that we should sometimes race headlong towards. These are the things that make us grow into better human beings if we allow them to.

When I first found out that I would be traveling by boat up a river in the jungle of Borneo (Kalimantan), to explore a National Park and see orang utans in their natural habitat … I pictured something like the beautiful moments in The African Queen. Taking our meals on the boat as we drifted down a river and sleeping on that same boat, sounded romantic. I even perused the guest list for our trip wondering who could be the Bogart to my Hepburn.

I believe it was hour two of our cruise upriver that I turned to Juno and said, “This is not romantic. I’m not sure why people think it would be.” Thinking silently to myself, why did you ever? That was after I had begun to sweat like it was an Olympic sport, after our guide had informed us of how many crocodiles and deadly snakes were in the brown water below us and when I realized just how much we’d be roughing it by sleeping aboard the boat I sat on, panic level rising rapidly.

At our departure dock we were greeted by traditional Indonesian dancers who performed an entire routine to drum and flute music. We had our pictures taken, we were filmed by a video crew, treated like pseudo-celebrities. Once we said goodbye to half our crew who would be in a second boat, I really took the time to look around and my heart sank. All visions of romance faded away and I realized our experience would be far more like camping in Costa Rica than starring in an epic romance sans sweat. Hell, I was already covered in perspiration during the performance on the dock. They say the harder you fly, the farther you fall and nothing could better describe the change from my beliefs before the boat ride, to my feelings in the first day.Then something happened, I forgot about the snakes, only considering them when others made such fearful notions a topic of conversation. What I found to put in the place of all my fears, was joy in the closeness to nature and such beautiful animals — who seemed to exhibit some of the same characteristics so attractive in human beings. As I watched mother orang utans in the jungle, their babies clinging to them like second skin, I could see love and care in every movement of their bodies from the way they walked, to the way they swung through trees, always sheltering their young as they flew through the air. It is a sappy observation and a difficult one to write, being a sarcastic woman who thrives on a little bit of detachment as a norm. It’s no less true. If the garden of eden was real, there’s some form of it still alive in Borneo, threatened more every day because of palm oil concessions and a changing Indonesian economy. I couldn’t help but feel a heart string tugging deep in the jungle, so far outside the former boundaries of my comfort zone. It’s what distracted me from the things I might otherwise have not enjoyed and helped me to see the simple joy in our Borneo experience. It’s what made every moment of roughing it seem far more like having found the winning lottery ticket. (My only lingering regret from the experience was that in only using my iPhone, it was difficult to get great close-up photos of the orang utans. I wish that I could have taken out a personal loan before the trip to invest in a good camera with a zoom lens like some of the other members of our group were lugging with them. It’s the first time that’s ever happened since I stopped carrying my 5DmII last year.)Our last meal on our last night was in the glow of candlelight. Were we all changed in some way by the time we sat down for that breaking of bread? Or was it just me? It was over, seemingly, in a blink. The other boats pulled away and we were left in a sort of blackness, our eyes not seeing, our ears, hearing — barely a sound but the river and giant palms slowly moving in the dark night. All seemed to say at once, “Is the engine working? Why did they leave us? What’s going on?” The answer appeared out our port side in the aforementioned palm trees. It was the reason our captain had made us stay behind. With no lights on, no motor running and an ink-black night, there was nothing to obstruct us from seeing a swarm of fireflies, so thick and so fast moving it was mesmerizing. We sat as a group, transfixed, for several minutes. I kept thinking that it was one of the most magical moments of my life even as one moment turned into many and then time seemed to stand still.

It’s hard to put into words how different these fireflies were. I grew up seeing them in my backyard as a kid, always slow and never plentiful. I remember seeing a few every 15 seconds or so, an eternity for a child. This swarm was like, well, a glitter bomb that went off and simply stayed where it had exploded, never settling to the ground or going away. So fast moving were the Indonesian fireflies that they had the capacity to almost hypnotize me.

When our boat finally did pull away to head home, proceeding slowly, still without lights down the dark river — I had to put in my headphones and take a moment to myself without the conversation of my comrades. If no one else was changed by our days on the river, I was. I knew it in a bone deep, make-your-eyes-water kind of way. Appropriately, when I could again see the sky or an outline of the trees, what I could make out overhead was one, bright star directly above and in front of us. As if to say, “Yes, this is the way.”
Many thanks to Indonesia Tourism who brought me to the islands for my first experience in Asia. I have so many more stories to come and I can’t wait to share them with you. Though my trip was sponsored, all opinions in this post are solely my own.

  • October 25, 2012

    Beautiful post. I’ve visited the Malaysian side but would LOVE to get to Kalimantan sometime – it seems so much more wild. It’s heartbreaking about the palm tree plantations, though, isn’t it? Especially since palm can actually be more sustainable than other oil crops, which doesn’t make it such a clear ‘bad guy…’

    So curious to see where Borneo is in the next 5 years. And those fireflies 😉

  • October 29, 2012

    Lovely experience Kirsten. This is definitely a tour I would love to take… Going off the beaten path usually delivers surprises that make a trip more memorable.

  • November 17, 2012

    Your description of your fear of the snakes and crocodiles beneath your boat reminds me of the feelings I had while kayaking through the mangroves of Turks & Caicos, where baby sharks were said to reside. I was a pretty bad rower and added to that we were not supposed to make a lot of noise, so we don’t “upset” the sharks and other creatures. So at least you were in a better position not rowing in a tiny kayak, fearful you may lose balance any time 🙂 your pictures with the orangutans swinging from tree to tree are spectacular.

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