Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Quest for Belihó

Every millimeter travelled is filled with yet another unexpected find, a new smell, a new flavor, a new sound.  This is Borneo in a nutshell, an astounding diversity of people, languages and cultures that make every step feel like you have defied the conventional notions of space and time. 

Drops of Life
The next boat to Kapit leaves in a couple of hours, sparing me enough time to fill up on sweet coffee and Chinese doughnuts.  The boat is packed to the gills with food, fuel, tools and provisions to be brought upriver to those who lack access to the apparent convenience and comfort of modern living.  Dark gray clouds march down the Batang Rejang, the longest river in Malaysia dubbed the “Amazon of Borneo”.  As drops of life engulf our vessel we embark on our three-hour tour.  

Upon reaching Kapit the vibrations begin to soften and the mellow upriver vibes of the Orang Ulu, “remote people”, start to be felt.  Gazing into the river a day and a night float by. 

The mid-morning sun makes its way through the clouds.  Boats dance on the pier, pirouetting closer and further to each other rhythmically.  An instant after pushing off the dock in Kapit the town vanishes into the dense green of the jungle.  The roar of the engines drowns out the symphony of the wild while its majestic players float by in plain sight; vibrantly colored birds zoom by. 

A couple of hours into the five-hour journey, the Orang Ulu slowly trickle out into their riverside villages. Family and friends greet returning travelers while lending a hand to shoulder the loads of the city that they bring with them.  With the heavy baggage of modernity strapped onto my shoulders I step onto the concrete platform in the village of Belaga.  Men and women beautifully decorated in tribal ink, piercings and stretched earlobes watch attentively as an alien steps onto their land.  I tentatively offer a smile, which is reciprocated by comforting smiles and laughter.  My anticipated anxiety over a clash of cultures swiftly dissolves into the cool river breeze.

I climb up the steep stairs and walk towards the small stretch of shops that comprises the heart of Belaga.  I immediately notice some fellow travelers that I had met in Kapit sitting in a kopi kedai (coffee shop) having a late afternoon lunch in their muddy boots.  They excitedly share tales of a morning trek into the jungle and encounters with a nomadic tribe.  They invite me for an afternoon swim in nearby waterfall. 

Just around the way is Daniel’s Corner Guesthouse owned and operated by Mr. Daniel Levoh, a warm and welcoming retired schoolteacher who has lived all of his life along the shores of the Batang Rejang.  He now spends his days sharing his tales of simpler times with all of those willing to hear.  Deeply proud of his cultural heritage, he is always happy to bring foreigners to get a glimpse. 

After the informal check-in protocol is completed I blurt out the thought that has been invading my mind for the past few weeks, “do you know where I can find red durians?”  He responds with a prolonged deep stare.  It seemed like a simple question at the time but I had yet to realize its profound implications.  Mr. Daniel launches into a full discourse on jungle fruit trees, plants and animals that are becoming more rare by the minute.  In fact, some of these formerly common plants and animals haven’t been seen in years.  Durio dulcis, known as Belihó by the Kayan and durian merah by Malays, belongs to the unfortunate fraternity of those pushed to the brink of extinction by deforestation and habitat loss.   Deep red in color and outstandingly sweet this fruit has become so hard to find that many locals are unaware of its existence.  “Also, you are late” Mr. Daniel adds, “durian season is almost over.”  Despite these somber facts there is no time to sulk in despair, the waterfall awaits.  

The waterfall is breathtaking and so are the two gigantic hornbills that glide by as the sun gets lost in the jungle.

         The village slowly comes to life.  Accompanied by Mr. Daniel, I gingerly stroll through the market filled with the colors and smells of the jungle.  I buy some mesmerizing tampoi from a tattooed lady.  The price is so cheap that I give her twice as much and still feel like it’s not a fair deal. 

Mr. Daniel runs into his usual morning coffee crew comprised of old friends, village elders, tribal chiefs and a guy I had met on the boat coming from Kapit.  After being introduced to the group as “the guy looking for Belihó” the chatter begins.  The younger men in the group do not know that such thing exists, but the elders are waxing poetic, childhood memories of treks into the jungle to find the mythical fruit.  Mr. Daniel acts as a translator when necessary since a lot of human communication transcends the limitations of language and culture.  When his turn comes around, Mr. Daniel jumps into a full lecture on his life story, blending in the recent history of the region, stories of his forefathers and insights into the culture and the animistic beliefs of his people; the passion for teaching has not retired from Mr. Daniel.  Immersed in all of this information we take off on our journey, the quest for Belihó.

A white veil of clouds diffuses the bright rays of the mid-morning sun, sky blue seeps through the cracks as the deep green jungle hugs us all into our small boat.  Mr. Daniel mans the helm as Hussein signals directions from the bow to avoid the logs and fishing traps set up in the muddy waters of the river.  Other vessels pushed by motor and muscle glide through the main thread that weaves together a tapestry of villages that lie along the banks of the Batang Rejang. 


Pure Muscle
An hour into our journey we make the first stop at Long Liten, a recently built longhouse for the Kejaman people who were forced to move from their ancestral lands to accommodate for the construction of the Bakun Dam.  The dam, which started to operate in late 2010, was built to harness the strength of the Rejang and generate electricity for the power-hungry city dwellers on the coasts.   In the process, more than 11,000 people were displaced from their lands and a swath of virgin forest roughly the size of Singapore (690 km2) now lay submerged under water, including scores of Belihó trees. 

Mr. Daniel in Long Liten
Greed and power might have drowned the lands of the Kejaman and the neighboring Kayan, Lahanan, and Kenyah but their culture remains strong in their new dwellings.  The building materials are all that have changed, the essence of a sustainable community harmoniously co-existing with nature still remains.   

Longhouses are communal living spaces where everyone in the village lives under one roof.  Each family has its own separate room, kitchen, bathroom, a small apartment of sorts, but life revolves around the contiguous common area in the front.  This is the space for shared activities, which foster social interactions and tighten the bond of those living in the longhouse, making it more of an extended family than a village.  

Longhouse Kitchen

As we walk through this never-ending front porch of sorts called ruai, we shake hands, say hello and give gifts to the kids and elderly, candy and red tobacco, respectively.  The far end is lively, men are fixing and cleaning fishing nets and the women are deeply engaged in vibrant conversation.  Our intrusion inadvertently lowers the volume for an instant but as soon as Mr. Daniel talks his way into the circle we are invited into the cacophony.  An older lady beautifully decorated with intricate patterns of ink on her arms and legs asks us to come closer and join her.  She prepares some betel nut and tobacco for chewing while also rolling a tobacco fatty for each one of us.  A bit dizzy from the deluge of stimulants I am mesmerized by her tattoos and by an older lady oozing tradition and life to my right.

Rollin' a Fatty

Tribal Ink

Tribal Ink 2

          We say our goodbyes and slowly walk back to our boat, along the way walking by altars with smooth round rocks that protect the village from evil spirits.  Smoothly sailing up the river, we make our way to Long Mejawah a Kayan longhouse where we will have lunch later on.  We drop off some rice and veggies we got in the morning market for them to prepare while we go check out the Bakun Dam, only a few kilometers upriver.

The steady river current intensifies.  The subtle vibrations of the breeze, the birds and even the rumbling of the engine are drowned out by a thunderous roar of thousands of liters of pristine water from the heavens being pushed through the concrete belly of this man-made monstrosity.  Death and destruction rain down in a never-ending mist.  All life around it has been consumed, not only in the flooded area behind the dam but everything in, around and in front of it as well. A full day travelling up the river of life, only to be encountered by a wall of death at the end. 

Wall of Death
Heavy-hearted and full of pain I snap a few pictures through the mist.  We walk around for a while attempting to get closer, but I have no space to feel or experience anything else.  All that I can think of is: How can we do this?  How can we destroy something so beautiful?  I’m pretty sure that the people watching their flat-screens and charging their smartphones in the air-conditioned apartments in the cities on the coast are not thinking of this at all, but I can’t think of anything else.

Back in Long Mejawah tea and biscuits greet us as we unwind in the ruai.  The sense of family, tradition and community that permeates the air dissipates some of the feelings of pain and anger that still linger inside.  I make my way through the door and into the room where lunch is served, family style and on the floor.  Rice, wild jungle ferns known as midin, freshly caught river fish in a coconut broth, river snails in a blazingly spicy chili sauce and macaque.  I skip the monkey but dig into everything else which is delicious.  I am told that if I come back tomorrow they will be serving a freshly slaughtered iguana, which I am invited to see in the back, bloody, headless and tailless.  Mr. Daniel gets dibs on the tail, supposedly a very strong aphrodisiac.  “Jungle Viagra” says Mr. Daniel as he shows me a plastic bag full of reptile.       

Men at Work

Candy with Grandma
 Chiillin’ in the ruai for a bit we enjoy a snapshot of just another day in the longhouse.  Kids eat candy and grandmothers turn their skirts into swings.  Men labor on.  Simply letting the moment be Mr. Daniel snaps me out of my trance when he asks me to come sit close to him.  He’s consumed in conversation with an elder man.  Speaking in a tribal dialect I am completely lost with the exception of the few instances that the word Belihó jumps out at me.  He looks at me with a smile and tells me it’s time to go, he knows where there’s a tree.

We start our journey down river towards Long Segaham, the Kejaman longhouse where my encounter with Belihó awaits.  We reach Long Segaham and ask a gentleman that has been working on his boat since we passed by him on our way upriver a few hours ago.  Mr. Daniel engages him in conversation.  After a brief exchange the man leaves.  Mr. Daniel tells us that he will get a person who knows where the tree is, but it likely has no fruit. The place can only be reached on a smaller boat because it is up a smaller tributary of the river, which is a bit more shallow and full of fishing traps.  The tree is somewhere in the jungle amongst other fruit trees planted there years ago by a beloved village chief.  I am beyond excited since what he is talking about is a pulau buah, a fruit island within the jungle, which is a sustainable farming approach practiced by the people of Borneo for hundreds if not thousands of years.   

The cool air of the late afternoon cuts into my sun burnt skin.  I still hold on to a thin thread of hope that there will at least be one red durian waiting there for me, but the journey has been so exhilarating and revealing that the destination is almost an afterthought.  I marvel at how far we are willing to go to experience the exotic, at my determination to get there and at the uniqueness of this moment, zooming through the jungle looking for fruit.  I get goose bumps.     

The boat slows down and turns into a small clearing in the jungle along the river.  My new friend signals that this is the place.  I jump into knee-deep mud, camera in hand and a gleam in my eye.  We plod through the mud and into the wild.  Chempadaks, rambutans, tampoi belimbing, I am immersed in the exquisite delicacies of the jungle; there are fruit trees all around me.  I follow my guide up a short but steep slope and he stops in front of a giant buttressed monument of tree.  I look at the ground and see lots of fruit, all rotten, but the long skinny spinterns with hints of red still in them are telling me a story. 

Cool moist mud pushes in between my toes.  I take a deep breath and marvel at the massive tree.  I look up, I get closer, I put my hand on its bark and connect to something larger.  I am here with you right now.  I found you Belihó.