I dread the return…
The way an average person finds comfort and safety in the mediocre routines of life, the simple expectations of everyday, I dread the return to it.
That there will be hot water when you turn the tap on, light with the flick of a switch, the bus rumbling to your stop, though a little late, which may make you complain.
In Tenom ,still sparsely populated, there are dusty roads and an expanse of cleared earth lay in front of me, populated with colourful yet precariously dishevelled minivans. If they could run on charisma alone, these ‘bemo’s ‘ would travel forever. For the first time in four and a half months, I am not travelling under my own steam.
I had cried myself to sleep that first night in Pontianak, in Indonesian the name of the town means ‘vampire’, it had sucked the life right out of me.
Uncanny and somehow so pure, this return to biological self. For all this time, it feels now like forever, I have trekked, slid, poled my way on bamboo rafts, hunted and gathered with thirteen of the dayak tribes of borneo, learned so much I could explode with my new understandings, and ability to live with and from the Earth. Like a female Bear Grills, only lonelier, there never was a film crew to mark my passage.
It is not a true loneliness. The tribal people took me in as one of their own, even letting me hunt the mouse deer as a female. A taboo to their kind, it had been the only insistence I had ever made, and I had not done so since. The Punan Bah, the nomadic tribe who occasionally guided me had paid me back for my ratification of the rules of balance, ‘losing’ me in the forest til I learned to ask no questions, to change nothing, influence nothing, learn only, like a child.
They had also left my feverish, bloated body on a barely used logging road to Banjarmasin when I first became sick with dengue, and had saved my life. The tiny family run Timber Dana Company had taken me to the city, deposited me in hospital. (Those horrible people who cut down the trees, whom single handedly, back when I knew and understood nothing, I was going to stop!) But in those fever filled days all I remember was the kindness and that they gave me a toothbrush…oh, heaven. Thank you Timber Dana.
As my strength had returned Tailah, an out of work guide, fed me durian to make me strong again, and took me to the barely visited Loksado Region to teach me how to make bamboo rafts for the flooded rest of my journey, and to walk me 4 days into the jungle to strengthen my body and resolve, to translate the knowledge and names of plants and animals I had learned until now, into English.
We had watched on my third night out of hospital, his hostal, his work, his family and most of the stilted wooden river community of Banjarmasin burn down. So bright it was like day within night, but it was an ugly agonizing red day, a dangerous light, the end of so many lives in an instant, and so many more in the slow death, their houses, enterprises, families, boats, produce and dreams became the red sky.
Too much maybe, i had seen, but this is never enough.
Here i stand, after the tears of Pontianak, the blood tears. That i couldn’t sleep where artificial lights existed, that the sounds of cars or motorised transport, woke me like sirens, even though they were far away and barely perceptible. The biggest tears fell when i was hungry. Thought of food gripped me, base, real, rustic, as part of my surroundings and until now, I had always reached for my knife, but not anymore. Now i must grip my wallet. The concept seems unrealistic, imperfect, unnatural. Damaging to the self I have found.
And now the big step, I will return from this village to the lights, hostels, music and bustle of Gunung Emas. My last way station to the change back, the becoming ‘human’ again on my way to Kota Kinabalu.
I feel part animal, instinctual. Sometimes, I think I am talking to people, but it is only in my thoughts i am speaking, they hear nothing, and think me an idiot. Was i doing that with the tribes too? But in some mysterious way they had heard? Maybe I have been alone too long, talking to myself , it is almost like these civilised people fear me.. These people in their western clothes and Taoist rather than animist beliefs. Maybe we just no longer understand each other, and its nothing to do with language.
The last Bidayuh Elder had told me that I walk like a predator, always looking, tracking. I beg to differ, my pack is very heavy, so I am weighed forward, trudging, head low. I enter the dusty expanse and head towards those jack- in- the- box minivans.
‘Gunug Emas?’ I enquire.
I am told to take the Kota kinabalu bus, but  must pay the whole fare. I sit and read while the van fills to bursting, then a little more. A chicken or six hang upside down from the Hand made roof racks squawking, then we fit in a few more people, I am trying to force myself some breathing space, but squeeze out for a cigarette.
I casually ask the driver, looking at the pulsating, bursting minivan, although I already know the answer. ‘when do we leave?’
‘When we’re full’. I already knew.
‘To where do i go?’ He asks, ‘There are heavy rains coming.’
‘Asmara, Gunung Emas’ the hostel on Emas mountain, I say.
His face lights up. I assume he has a family member working there, for him to get excited so..
‘Asmara, Gunung Emas’ he repeats, for a moment deep in thought. ‘We go now’ He says.
Grabbing three of the four people squashed in to the passenger side he pulls them out and makes room for me , beside the candy cane gear stick, beside him.
Its only been a four hour wait, not the longest I’d known. At the start of this adventure I had waited for a boat for eight days on the Mahakam river, reiterating my mantra ‘ there is no boat.’ It had been not long after the release of The Matrix, it echoed in my head more clearly than ‘ there is no spoon’.
So I was surprised while there was still breathing room, and no one on my lap, that we were leaving.
The first heavy drops of the monsoonal rains fell as we turned out of the dust bowl, which in moments, will become sucking mud, the drops fall so heavy, I think they are injuring the four or so people on the roof.
I am just thankful and fearful to be in a vehicle and moving, it is a sensation like no other, Colette had said ‘ the great affair is to move’ and I felt every bump, every turn, every slide, every vibration like it was my first time in a motorised object, a magic object.
Then I felt the drivers hand on my leg!
What! I am tactful at first, taking it off and resting it back on the gearstick.
Not to be outdone he tries again, I am faster on the reflex action of knocking it away this time. He laughs and turns to me ‘ Asmara?’
‘Asmara, Gunung Emas’ I smile back.
This dissuades him a while but I am so lulled by the movement and the sound of the rain, I fall asleep anyway, he probably put his hand back, I never knew.
As we climb into the mountains, the comfort and proximity of so many bodies has lulled most into sleep and near the base of the second largest peak, he stops the van, wakes me and says ‘ Gunung Emas’ triumphantly.
I shake my head sleepily, no ‘Asmara, Hotal’, ‘hostel, hotel’ I say. He begrudgingly starts the van in its fits and shakes of life- the people on the roof must be fuming.
Up, up we go, curling, curving, it has become asphalt and at least the road is easier going, he tries to stop at the first lights, but I urge him on. I know what I am looking for, though it has no name, the hostel I seek is also a refuge for animals being returned to the wild, so when I see pictures of sun bears on the side of the road, I know I’m there.
I tell the driver, he is almost bursting with a ‘FINALLY!’ look on his face. I explain that I also need my pack, I am staying. As the roof mites and he untie my pack, I run through the mist to the tiny shelter which is the reception, to ask for a bed. I start off speaking in bahasa Indonesia, but she stops me and says she speaks English if that is easier for me.
There are shouts from the van and those getting rained on, but the driver now stands patiently, a few metres behind me, my dripping pack at his feet.
The receptionist, Amina, later to become my friend, asks why he stands there. ‘Haven’t you paid?’ I say yes, before I got out, but he seemed to strangely not want the money, only finally accepting it.
‘What exactly did you ask for?’ she enquires of me.
‘Asmara, Gunung Emas’ I say.
Her face drops like shards of a broken mirror, and she sizes me up. Amina leans in to me quietly, in English she says, ‘now, grab your pack, and start to follow me- if he follows us, run when I tell you to run, and don’t stop until I say.’
I’m confused, tired, and suddenly very wary, I follow her down two large flights of steps cut into the mountain, he is close behind me…
As we hit a landing she yells run and we hot foot it to the very last hut, swinging the door shut as his arms try to push it open and barricading the door with my pack and whatever we can grab. Slide the lock across and
She bursts into laughter…
We are both all giggles leaning against that battered door, the pounding of the big drivers’ fists like a massage. His screams like an animal in pain.
Amina is literally in tears of amusement, chokingly trying to tell me.
‘Asrama is hostel’, she explains. ‘Asmara is ‘sex without love’ and you have promised him that’.
He hollers and howls and she tries to explain to him the mistake I’d made, but he’s been worked up the last six hours for this and he doesn’t want to hear.
I think of all the people in the van, on the van, in the rain… and me throwing the word asmara around, like it meant what I thought it meant. Given it is the capital of Eritrea and the name of a perfume in Australia; I forgive myself the indiscretion of using a more familiar word. No wonder I had mixed the letters around. But, if only I knew what it meant.
It takes more than half an hour for him to calm, and he fakes walking away and we nearly fall for it, unlocking the door, but then hear the landing creak and just in time slide the bolt back.
Amina and I slide to the floor, exhausted, mostly from amusement value, the laughter, the shock. I open my bag and offer her some food, probably dried meat from my last hunt and we sit together, knees up against the door, like mischievous teenagers.
Just listening to the rain and hoping he will leave, at some stage we crawl into the hammocks and wake in the morn to the calls of the animals.
And a shared smile that unites us.
Some words can paint a thousand pictures.
That poor driver.

Dedicated to Amina, and those of other strangers’ kindness in my travels, that read the situations with such clarity and saved me from, rape or death or pain, just because they see and help, because they feel the world we live in… Thank you!

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