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Expresso with the Headhunters: A journey through the jungles of Borneo by John Wassner
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THIS?
This was bought by me from Amazon prior to our own travels to Borneo as I like to read books set in places where I am going or have recently been. I was a bit disappointed as there were so few books set in Borneo and all of them were based in Sarawak and of course we didn't go to Sarawak and only visited Sabah. We chose Sabah as neither of us really wanted to stay in a Longhouse and we both wanted to see orang-utans and they are mainly found in Sabah. It seemed to us that Sarawak offered the culture while Sabah had the wildlife and that was our main interest so Sabah it was.
A BIT OF BACKGROUND
For those of you who are unaware Borneo is a large island ( third largest in the world) to the east of Malaysia which has two states which are part of Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak, Brunei is also on the island as well as a large part of the island known as Kalimantan which is Indonesian.
This book is a travel account written by the Australian John Wasser who decided he wanted to visit Sarawak after reading an article in 'The Star' while in the Hilton in Kuala Lumpur about the Iban (sea Dayaks) tribe . He then picked up a book called 'Sarawak' at Singapore airport and having read this made decision to visit the 'Land of the Headhunters'. After twelve months of planning and preparation he embarked upon his trip.
I wasn't sure at first whether I would take to the author and his exploits as he seemed to spend a lot of his time smoking and drinking coffee which I have nothing against per se but isn't really that interesting in a travel account.
Throughout his trip he had a local guide, first a lady, called Josephine of the Kayan tribe and seemed to be related to many families in various longhouses near Belaga and who travelled with a 'hello Kitty' bag. At other times when deeper in the jungle visiting the Penan, Punan and Ukit tribes he has a guide called Patrick who joined him in many a local beverage in the different longhouses.
The book doesn't pretend to be a deep and meaningful cultural study of these Borneo tribes nor does the author make any judgements about their former headhunting exploits or the interesting foods which he experiences while staying with the local tribes. He comes over as a very down to earth sort of bloke who isn't afraid to try anything.
During his travels he learns to walk like a Penan through the jungle. He discovered that the tribal people could walk quietly and easily through the muddy, difficult jungle terrain while he crashed and slithered his way mostly on his bottom on the descents. They taught him to relax and sort of roll his hips, I wasn't quite sure what the gait was but he seemed to find it helped.
When visiting some of the longhouses he was offered monkey stew, palm fronds and fish that was more bone than fish but he gamely ate it and smiled. Perhaps the 'tuak' and 'borak' which he drank in great quantity helped the rather unusual dishes slip down.
During his journey he walked or slipped and fell through dense jungle and went up and down the Rajang River by high speed jet boat which were converted planes, the wings taken off and an outboard motor attached apparently. Longboats were another mode of transport utilised as well as jeeps and logging lorries shared with about thirty other passengers in the back which sounded like a most uncomfortable experience.
SOME PRETTY SERIOUS ISSUES
Serious points are made on some subjects such as the problem of logging the forests, flooding a large area to create the Bakun dam , which necessitated the government building modern wooden houses for some tribes instead of their traditional l would have thought.
The author also makes the point that 25% of modern drugs that we use today came from knowledge gained from tribal people in various parts of the world.
"Yet of an estimated 80,000 species of plants found in the Amazon alone, less than 500 have been studied and analysed. Considering that nearly 70% of plants in tropical forests are known to have anti-tumour properties and any one of them could lead to a breakthrough in cancer research, the lack of interest...by modern science is astonishing, to say the least."
Having had a mother, uncle and several friends die of cancer I found that a very profound and quite worrying comment on the priorities of modern medical and scientific research.
He continues by quoting Dr Wade Davies of Harvard who says," the rainforests offer some 75,000 edible plants, of which a mere 150 are used commercially." It makes you wonder whether some of the world's hungry could be fed in this way. Beside these plants there is a palm tree with oil like olive oil, a tree that has a resin that can be used unprocessed to run a diesel engine, plants with biodegradable pesticides and so many more interesting and really useful plants that could help solve many of the world's problems but no-one seems to be interested in finding out more.
MEETING THE FAUNA
The animals encountered range from the tiny mouse deer and fawn grazing beside the river as they float by through to monkeys leaping through trees before being shot by blow pipe and then becoming part of a stew. Other beasts he was less thrilled to meet were the huge variety of snakes. The flying snakes which somehow fly from trees by flattening themselves and gliding considerable distances through the forest.
I really liked the way the author was so at home with the local tribes people. He was ahppy to sleep on the longhouse floor and bathe in the river, even use the river as a toilet. He had trouble getting up the log 'staircase ' into the longhouse and often slipped off or fell in the mud getting out of the boats which seemed to cause great mirth amongst the local children and adults alike. I found his easy going attitude and openness as well as he willingness to try anything without making any judgement about the food or drink. There was one longhouse where there was filth and rotting food and they were invited to stay, they decided to sleep on the beach nearby and were careful about eating but that was the only place where they encountered an unhygienic situation.
I found this easy to read and interesting once I got into the book. He had a chatty sort of style as though he was telling the reader about his travels, there was no superior attitude either towards the tribal people or the reader. He was completely matter of fact in his descriptions; he observed closely without judgement and joined in with enthusiasm when invited. He came across as a really approachable person and the fact that he was welcomed so enthusiastically everywhere he went backed this up.
I was fascinated by his experiences but this is not the sort of travel that appeals to me at all. I like my creature comforts, a shower with soap and hot water and a bed is essential to my needs. I really admire someone who can cope with travelling and living with these sorts of discomforts and the food would be a real challenge to me. Just read this description, I was nearly sick after reading it. The women were bartering over a bucket, the author asked what it was and was told it was 'fat for cooking', he took a closer look in the bucket;
" It's an oozing mass of entrails, gristle, floating fat and various parts of animals that have seen better days. One of the longhouse chefs plunges her hand into the slop and examines the contents...."
If I had seen that I would have had to run and find a bush or tree to be sick behind and there is no way i could have then eaten ANYTHING that might have been cooked in that. This was bought for the cooking of a major longhouse feast to celebrate an old headhunting custom. Even writing that again has made my stomach churn!!
In the centre of the book are a few pages of photos .some in colour and they really helped me picture some of the things he talks about. There is a photo of the express boats which were created by taking wings off small planes. Others show longhouses, children and some of the people he met as well as scenery of the area. I thought they provided a nice addition to the text and as I often do with books like this I turned to the pictures after reading just the first few pages as I love seeing what the author looks like as well as some of the other people in the book.
WOULD I RECOMMEND?
I found this a very interesting read but I do think you would have to have an interest in the area and know a little about Borneo to find it so. I didn't find it at all pompous and superior as some travel writers can be. I learned a lot about the different tribes in Sarawak and the way they live. I do hope that they are able to continue living in this way if they want to and that their knowledge of the jungle and all the treasures it holds are not lost to humanity by encouraging them to 'advance' into modern society.
This book can be bought from Amazon for £2.61 plus postage for a used copy.
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