Friday, January 12, 2018

Traveling with SJ: Meeting Doctress Dolittle in Borneo

“I used to like palm trees,” I thought, as I watched them whiz past our car window in a green-brown blur. “Now I can’t stand them.” We were on our third day of travel across the interior highways of Malaysian Borneo and the view still hadn’t changed. The legendary jungles and exotic Tarzan vines of my imagination had quickly evaporated, replaced by endless oil palms. A robotic forest, they stood ugly and unnatural in their manufactured rows.

No signs of wildlife, no bird song, just dusty leaves, caked earth, and humid air that dripped with the smell of diesel fumes and acrid burning plastic. Across the heart of Borneo, acre upon acre of palm oil plantations extended toward the horizon like an apocalyptic mirage. But no matter how hard I rubbed my eyes, I couldn’t make it disappear.

I stole a glance at our taxi man’s eyes in the rearview mirror. ‘How many times has he done this drive?’ I thought. ‘Does he do it with numb eyes? Did he see what it looked like before the plantations came?’ Adan had spoken few words since we’d jumped into the back of his aging black Nissan two hours earlier, but then he broke the silence to read my mind. “I hate it,” he said.

“Everywhere, the palms.” In just 30 years, his family had watched dirt roads paved, concrete consume jungle, and animals pushed farther from home and closer to their’s—Sukau, a small town on the banks of the Kinabatangan River in the northeastern corner of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo.

Adan was taking us to his family’s homestay there, a third-generation house built on stilts near the river’s edge. His family is one of many tourism operators in the area offering accommodation and riverboat excursions to spot wildlife.

And with good reason—the Lower Kinabatangan is one of the last places on earth where you can see the endangered orangutan and Asian pygmy elephant in the wild. Borneo is the only home for the endemic proboscis monkey, owner to the most bizarre nose and only beer belly in the primate kingdom, and host to over 300 bird species like the Elvis-haired rhinoceros hornbill. Snaking 560 km (350 mi), the mighty Kinabatangan sustains one of the most biologically diverse habitats in the world. So two hours into our 2.5 hour drive, where was the rainforest?

As we’d come to learn, Borneo (the world’s third largest island, shared by Malaysia, Indonesia, and the tiny nation of Brunei), has lost 30 percent of its forest in the last 40 years, with palm oil expansion, illegal logging, and ensuing forest fires to blame. The real reason the Kinabatangan is a ringer for tourists hoping to spot wildlife is because encroaching deforestation has forced animals closer to the river’s edge.

I saw patches of jungle thinner than two lane highways running parallel to the bank. Self-preservation has also forced many locals to sell their hereditary land to the palm oil corporations, exacerbating the problem. But they don’t put that on the tourist brochures. No one wants to vacation in the movie Fern Gully.

The road to Sukau was straight, but I felt queasy. There was no question I’d soon be having nightmares starring zombie palm trees. At last we dusted into the homestay’s driveway and the view finally changed. Enter, Adan’s sister, Maria Amit, Doctress Dolittle of the Kinabatangan, Restorer of Faith in Humanity, and Owner/Operator of the Sukau River Homestay. As we shook hands, her eyes laughed from behind thin-rimmed glasses.

She wore a headscarf and long sleeved shirt despite the heat, and a sarong of the Orang Sungai people. With round cheeks framing a kind face, in four days I never saw Maria without a calm smile. As a host, she knew when her guests were curious for conversation or preferred silence; something she’s undoubtedly perfected over nine years of opening her home. Her stories illuminated Borneo’s past for us, well beyond her 40 years.