This is a guest post by our good friend Terence on a research trip for a future expedition.
I got an email from Foundlost Expeditions for a possible job two years back. I proposed a research expedition visiting a semi-nomadic tribe in the heart of Borneo. I wanted to explore the lives of a nomadic culture. A culture so elusive and mythical, the 18th century colonists hailed them as the ‘mystical forest dwellers’ of Borneo. Their shy and stealthy nature paired with an unmatched knowledge of the forest had made them highly regarded as such by the Victorian Colonists. I had yet ventured to a nomadic settlement, let alone met nomads in person. Only in books that I had so passionately read, I lived among their footsteps through the jungle highlands and under the canopy of trees. Having never been around nomads in flesh and blood, I wasn’t prepared to organize a Foundlost expedition without ever having traveled to the place myself. It was time I embarked on a journey to a place I had only seen through the printed word. It was time I made the journey to the highlands of Borneo to meet the Penan tribe.
I landed in Miri. Beaches, caves and seafood galore. The quaint coastal town of Sarawak is fueled by the oil & gas industry. It’s a gateway to many tourist attractions and jungle adventures. Miri’s inhabitants include an expanse of Malaysia’s indigenous cultures and expats spending months at sea drilling for petroleum. I only stayed the night in this enjoyable little town.
I got in contact with Robin Kasi. A local man of Kelabit decent (one of many local indigenous cultures in Sarawak) who runs a guesthouse in Lg Seridan, an established little Christian village in the middle of the jungle highlands. Robin Kasi and his wife Yami are featured in many of the books written about his friendship with the famed Rainforest Hero, Bruno Manser. Bruno was a Swiss sheep herder and a self-taught naturalist who lived among the nomadic Penan people for 6 years. He dressed like them, talked liked them and roamed the jungles with them. He was accepted as one of their own and catalogued the vast biodiversity of flora and fauna around him. He helped unite all the indigenous tribes in Sarawak against the logging companies and government to save their home from further destruction in the 80s, and caught global attention of his adopted life as one of the nomads. But not long after he was arrested by the Malaysian authorities for overstaying his visa and deported back to Switzerland. He summoned world leaders during the UN peace talks to save Borneo’s rainforest from further deforestation but to no avail. He snuck back into Sarawak from Brunei a few years later hoping to return to his nomadic life but was never seen again after that. Rumour has it, he was murdered and his body hidden in the jungle by thugs hired by the logging companies. It was this story of Bruno Manser that fuelled my interest with the Penan tribe. It brought me to this very place eager to know more.
The plane landed on the remote single runway surrounded by a lush sea of green. Mountains sprayed against the landscape creating a panorama of green tips with long ridge lines crisscrossing land. I stepped off the plane to nothing but the sound of the jungle singing its anthem from a distance while the afternoon sun beat down on me. The airport terminal is a small building about the size of a tiny house with local villagers ready to board the plane back to Miri towncentre. Among the villagers waiting in the tiny hall was a man in his 40s who stood out from the rest. He stood at the back of the room with weary eyes on the arrivals. He gleamed at the arrivals but shy-ed away from eye contact. He stood tense with his muscular arms at his side with a slight hunch from his broad shoulders, yet he seemed calm among the crowd.
"You must be Terence. My name is Yami, Robin Kasi's wife. You requested a room at our guesthouse yes? Let me introduce you to your guide." Said an elderly lady while pulling my hand towards the strange man in the corner.
"This is Gerawat. Gerawat is a Penan and he will your guide to the Penan village. He will take you there tomorrow but tonight you will sleep in his house. You can sleep in our guesthouse when you are back from the village" said Yami.
I shook Gerawat’s hand nervously, having just finally met a Penan man. His handshake was soft, followed by a toothless smile. The lady shy-ing behind Gerawat was his wife Ina who returned with the same toothless smile and an even softer handshake. They were very quiet and soft spoken as I followed my guide and his wife to their house tucked far away on the edge of the Christian village and next to the forest. We passed the last house of the village and through a hidden narrow path covered in tall grass. Gerawat and his wife pushed through the tall grass with me tailing behind and the day's light dimmed as we walked under the canopy of trees. At this veryw moment, I realized that we had entered the jungles of Borneo.
Through the bush, across the stream and over a wooden bridge, I finally arrived at Gerawat's modest abode. He invited me into his house and showed me where I’d spend the night. The house creaked with every step. I slept in the common room which was the biggest space they had. No furniture but a rose print linoleum mat on the floor. Hot tea was served in plastic cups with stale biscuits on the balcony. Gerawat sat on the wooden floor leaning against the wall with the orange light of the setting sun cast to his side. We chat about my intentions and what I was doing here. He was curious to know why I had come all the way here alone to a destination rarely visited by tourists. We spoke in Malay most of the time even though it wasn't his first language. Now 50 years of age, Gerawat had 4 four children. Three of whom were staying with him and the other married to another Penan man in another village. He spoke of the time when the forest was left intact and migrating from one Sago rich location to another. He reminisced of his memories in his younger days when the nomadic lifestyle was still prevalent. He gripped onto a reality where the timber companies would go away with the trees left alone and animals roamed as they pleased. Refusing to accept that the nomadic days of the Penan are over, we talked some more about life as a Penan in the old days and what might come of the future. Gerawat and his wife retired for the night in their private hut kept separate from the house. I slept on the floor with the songs of insects orchestrating the night's lullaby.
We took off in the dark while the sun still slept under a black velvet sky. The insects and birds still singing their songs of the night. Our bags packed with 4 days of food, we marched off into the forest. Margaret, Gerawat's daughter and designated camp cook, and Jamin, Gerawat’s son, was our second lead guide. Gerawat wore a traditional hand-woven bamboo basket on his back intricately designed and fashioned with shoulder straps. He had a machete bought from the Kenyah tribe up the river kept in a wooden sheath tied around his waist. He cradled a blowpipe made from 'Belian' wood about 7 feet in length with a metal spearhead bound at the end of its nozzle. We crossed rivers with water up to our waists, traversed along the edges of steep cliffs and climbed up and over collages of fallen trees. Our path was sheltered under the canopy's shadow protecting us from the heat of the sun. Brightly coloured insects flew off leaves across my path with every step I took. I marvelled at the journey I was in and felt that I was in my element. I was happy to be far away from the city and with company I’ve felt passionately about. Soon we emerged from the shadows and onto a dirt-road of orange mud and clay bulldozed by the logging company. These are highways for off road vehicles and timber trucks carrying bodies of trees to and from logging camps and logging sites. The loggers often gave the locals a lift at the back of their truck without anything in return. We rode at the back of a Toyota Hilux with the scenic view of the mountains falling beyond the valley. Each fleeting peak had its own unique shape and character. How much I admired them and how I wished to scale those tropical giants.
We hopped off the Hilux at a split road and proceeded to walk downhill hand-railing the forest. After crossing a small river and the last steep walk up the gradient road, wooden houses formed scattered across a flat grassy plain.
"Is this your village?" I asked.
"Of course it is!" He replied with his toothless smile.
The houses were placed in a circle with children playing in the middle of it. Small houses made from roughly cut wooden planks and zinc plates for roofs. Every house had a balcony and elevated with wooden pilling off the ground. The village strategically placed at the bottom of a bowl of hills with trees surrounding the rim. The afternoon bared the sun's pride and hid among the hills and at dawn and dusk. Dogs sniffed curiosity while chickens refuged under the shade of the houses. A bald man wearing a pair of sunglasses made for running waltzed towards us with yet another toothless smile, jovial to meet old friends and a new visitor. I would later know his name is John and he never once took off his sporty eye-wear. Another man in bigger built came to give his greetings wearing his shiny blue 80's running shorts and collar t-shirt with traditional bamboo bracelets on both hands and above his two calves. He was the head of the village and Gerawat’s elder brother.
Soon most of the villagers came out to greet us with a soft handshake and a warm shy smile. The biggest building in the village was a church and that was where I slept for the next few nights. Like Gerawat's home in Long Seridan, there wasn't any furniture but a wide and long space of wooden walls in the dark hall. The floor creaked with every step I took and pictures of elders were nailed on the wall. This was a fairly modern Penan village I thought compared to the descriptions I read from the book about the Penan. Back then, the Penan lived in lean-to rudimentary huts made from tree samplings and a collage of leaves for a roof. They roasted animals they had hunted and ate fruits that they had gathered. When it rains, water trickles down onto the rustic platform where they laid to sleep. Everything was meant to be dismantled quickly to always made to be on the move. The Penan today are as settled as their Kelabit neighbours. They grow rice and sweet potatoes to harvest. Potato leaves are plucked and boiled in an aluminium pot over a wood fire stove. They have a tool-shed with shovels, a chainsaw and the communal motorcycles shared between them for commutes to and from Long Seridan. On the edge of the village was undeniably a toilet shed! However due to the lack of plumbing facilities to flush and drain the manure, it has been left unused.
I paced around the houses with a friendly smile and sweets for the children of Long Tarum. A little girl about the age of three in her soiled yellow dress walked up to me with a curious expression. She tugged on my shirt and spoke to me in her toddler language. Every word was accompanied by her finger pointed at something. I opened up my pack of cookies and gave one to her. She took the cookie but stood there waiting with her eyes fixed on my face.
"Dah!" she said sharply while pointing to her other friend.
"Yes that is your cookie" I replied.
"DAH!" she said again sharper this time while still pointing at her friend who was now walking towards us.
She pointed to my snack and then once more to her friend and that's when I realised that this little girl is demanding that I must give a cookie to her friend too! I marveled at her thoughts and wondered how much it means to share in the Penan culture. The Penan I learned later have an extreme obligation to share everything. Every animal caught by the hunter will divide every part of the animal to every family equally. The hunter does not take a bigger piece of himself nor does he takes the most favoured. Everything is divided meticulously for everyone to share. Every fruit gathered by the group will be placed in a pile then divided equally to every family. If only one fish is caught, the fish will be meshed into a pulp then divided so that everyone gets a taste of the fish. Nobody is left hungry in the Penan culture and everyone carries the same weight.
The morning after, we headed off into the jungle with our day-packs to visit the resting place of Gerawat’s Mother. She passed 3 years ago from natural causes and was given a Christian burial, half a day's walk away from the village. Gerawat wanted to show me the logging sites from the timber companies and the amount of land masticated by the demand of this precious resource. Simple blockades were built by the villagers in attempt to stop the loggers from entering. These blockades were fashioned with long and tall samplings made into multiple Xs across the road. Leaves and rocks were used to ornament the blockade and seem to have some spiritual aid.
"We make these blockades and mark our trees with red paint to tell the loggers that this is our land. They can cut down trees but they cannot cut down the trees on our land. How will the animals live without the trees and how will we live without the animals? The fruits no longer bear and the day gets hotter. We try and try to stop them but we cannot change their minds." said Gerawat.
We jaunt across the barren strip with piles of tree-logs laid on the side of the road. The logs with were marked with codes to differentiate the type of trees or where it has been felled. Some logs were as large as 2m in diameter and 15m long laid alongside the logging dirt road. Logging campsites stood along the roads parked with trucks, bulldozers and heavy machines to lift and transport logs. I smiled and waved at a fellow logger who sat inside of a bulldozer puffing away on his rolled cigarette.
"Hello, busy day today?" I asked with a smile.
"No.. We cannot work today. There is no diesel for our machines to work. Cannot work without diesel" replied the man.
"Are you a local man?" I asked.
"No I am Philipino but I work as a logger for 15 years now. But only for one week with this company. I am new here." He replied.
"Do you have family here?"
"No they are in Cebu now."
"Do you see them often?"
"If I get enough money I can see them. If I don't have money, I cannot see them. I haven’t seen them for 2 years."
We conversed for a little while more in Malay and he spoke about his family and the type of work he has. John was his name. An honest man working as a logger to support his family back home in the Philippines.
We walked along the dirt road for another 2 hours and got picked up by truck to reach 'Camp Lima- Lima', which was the logging basecamp in the vicinity. This fully operational basecamp had all the essentials of a timber parade. There was a fleet of trucks fit with off-road tyres parked on an open flat yard. At the corner of the yard was a truck depot and maintenance hut with two men soiled in black grease cranking their tools with a cigarette hung on their lips. Stray dogs were scattered across the camp resting under the shades of trucks hiding from the heat of the day. There was a mess-hall with the sound of a large woks against the roar of a fiery stove in the kitchen. Wooden houses and quarters with logging men resting on their porches. They sat with their feet up leaning back against their plastic chairs, eyes fixed on their smartphones and cigarette in hand to pass the time. We walked through the parade like outsiders in a dry western film with the eyes of its characters staring us.
At the end of the base-camp there was another blockade presumably made by the people of Lg Tarum. Beyond the blockade lies the resting place of Gerawat's Mother. It was sheltered with a thin aluminium roof on bracket made of wood. Underneath was a rectangular concrete tomb with a wooden cross over it. OA 1.12.2015" were the inscriptions written with a black marker on the cross and carved on the concrete tomb. I asked Gerawat about his mother and he thought of her very fondly. She died of old age presumably from an old heart. On the side of the tomb was a pink children's backpack with an illustration of Elsa from the movie Frozen.
"Who's was this?" I asked.
"Well this was my mom's" Gerawat said with a smile and it had all of her belongings inside of it. Her clothes, bracelets, anklets and accessories to name a few.
We hiked back to logging basecamp and bought cold cans of Coke from the camp's convenient store. We sat on the veranda over-looking the valley while the camp residents walked pass with a light nod and maybe a smile or two. A black Toyota Hilux came and parked by the convenient store. A large man wearing a white collar t-shirt and a gold chain around his neck stepped out of the Hilux and approached Gerawat with a smile. Gerawat exchanged his greeting with the large man and spoke in hush tonnes inside the convenient store while we sat outside drinking our Coke. I learned later his name was Mr Lee from Miri, the manager of the whole logging operation in the area. He spoke to Gerawat making promises but Gerawat doesn't seem to take his word to the heart. He came out of the store and saw me resting my feet up with a can of coke in hand.
“So what are you doing here?” he asked.
“I’m just visiting Long Tarum.”
“Why?” he asked sternly.
“I’m just exploring”
“But why here? Nobody comes here just to visit or explore Long Tarum. Especially a person like you. Who are you and what are you doing here?” he asked once more unsatisfied with the answers I’ve given him.
I started to get nervous with the whole situation. What seems to be a casual conversation turned into an interrogation. I was in the middle of a huge logging operation and Sarawak stems many controversies on logging operators with thugs running the logging industry. I feared Mr Lee may have suspected me to be a local reporter or journalist trying to snitch out a logging site. We were miles from anything and in the middle of nowhere. No one here but the Penan villagers and loggers.
“I read a lot about the Penans and I wanted to visit a Penan Village” I said looking straight into his eyes.
“But why here?”
I didn’t know what to say at this point. I was too anxious to say anything when Gerawat intervened.
“He is my friend and a guest of Long Tarum. He came here to visit my village and to visit my mother’s grave”
Mr Lee smiled. He smiled and leaned back into the plastic chair to lit his cigarette. Seemingly impressed with Gerawat’s reply. Penan people are not rebellious nor are they aggressive in behaviour. They shy away from confrontation and refrain to speak-up for themselves. However what I’ve witnessed was Gerawat breaking that norm speaking up for me.
Mr. Lee offered us a ride back to Long Tarum at the back of his Hilux. The loggers in Sarawak carries an infamous repertoire throughout the golden age of timber. A notorious group of thugs to most but saints to some. The loggers usually provide free rides for the Penan people from one village to the head village on a rotational schedule to keep the peace between the loggers and the local people. I have read some articles of rape cases among the loggers with the Penan being their victims. Loggers would give a lift to any local Penan on the logging and drop them off in her village while getting familiar with their homes and activities. The logger could easily sneak into the victim's home if there was no one and rape the victim. The victim could file a police report but would have to travel long distances over days of walking just to make a report. Most Penan people lack identification documents and their report would go unrecorded. The Penan people are not a culture to retaliate or seek revenge but prefers to stay out of harm’s way if conflict arises. That is why there are many similar cases of rape that goes unnoticed by the authorities and the loggers know that getting away with such an act would be easy.
I spent the rest of the next day pondering about the village and reading extensively on my book. It was a Sunday. A day of worship among the villagers of Chirstian faith. The hall which I made my humble living space was occupied for this religious occasion. I packed my things to the side and let the space be filled with the holy sermon. The whole village dressed in their brightly coloured long sleeve shirts and long dark pants. Everyone sat on the wooden floorboards while the pastor begins his sermon aided with a guitar in hand and a songbook laid on the ground. Songs were sung and prayers were met. Each of its Long Tarum residence had their heads lowered with their eyes closed thanking their creator for their precious moments in this side of the world. The men and women spent the rest of the day chatting while the children carried on their play routine outside.
I left the village shortly after on a truck back to Lg Seridan with Gerawat, Jamin and Margaret by my side. We took a moment to say goodbye in hopes to meet again. I saw it in Gerawat eyes the look of hope for his culture. I could not bear the burden of an empty promise to stop the destruction of his home. Instead, I promised to help in whatever small way I could to provide for his family and his village. I paid my dues to Gerawat for his services and thanked him for sharing a small part of his life with me. I walked back to the guesthouse in Lg Seridan with my heavy rucksack and was welcomed once again by the Robin family. I spent a little more time with the Robin family and they told me stories about their long lost friend Bruno Manser.
I went to visit Gerawat’s village in July of 2018. This trip was a reconnaissance trip for a future project with an expedition company called Foundlost I have found online. The trip enabled clients to research and raise the awareness of the plight the Penan people are in right now. I was supposed to organize and lead the trip back to Lg Tarum in the summer of 2019 but due to ethical and safety reasons, I have cancelled the research expedition. Transportation and logistics was planned however I cannot guarantee the safety of both my clients and the people of Lg Tarum if the logging company did not want more attention from outsiders after my encounter with Mr. Lee.
The Penan people are still fighting for the right of their ancestral land. Due to the lack of proof and the nomadic nature of the Penan, it is difficult for them to prove their ancestral ownership of the lands in Sarawak. They have no historical evidence that lasted through the centuries as everything they own is made of the gatherings of the forest, eroded with time. Instead of tombstones, they prefer to bury their dead under tree logs. However the BMF (Bruno Manser Foundation) setup by Bruno Manser and his family are helping the Penan people the map out their ancestral land and territories. These maps are used to convinced the Sarawak Forrestry Department of the ownership of the land to stop logging companies from felling the trees from that area.
Following my last visit, I’ve worked freelance jobs of different outdoor adventure and expedition companies. Both local and international but I have longed to go back to Borneo to visit Long Tarum again. I have yet to explore the further reaches of remote villages in and around Sarawak.