_Stranger in the Forest_ by Eric Hansen is easily one of the most absorbing and well-written travelogues I have ever read. This extraordinary book chronicles Hansen's remarkable journey across the island of Borneo in 1982. The author traveled some 2,400 miles on the island, largely on foot and through tropical rain forest on an island that straddles the equator; actually he made two trips, traveling four months and 1,500 miles before turning around and going back across the island, a mere 50 miles from the ocean (to the astonishment of his traveling companions and shouts of "Crazy man!").
Writing of his childhood imaginations about exotic and faraway jungles and his own later adult fantasies after spending hours in the library reading about the island, Hansen found he had a lot to learn about the realities of Borneo. Emboldened by an earlier visit to the island in 1976, his first attempts to penetrate the interior and reach the highlands and meet real forest nomads - the "jungle of my library fantasies" - met with continual frustration. For over eight weeks he went up one river after another, sometimes getting as much as 70 miles before being stymied by dishonest guides, insufficient amounts of gasoline for the outboard motors, or unfriendly villages, which would often price gouge Hansen, charging exorbitant rates for simple services and fail to provide him the necessary guides to proceed further on foot. The trade goods he bought generally did not interest the locals, Hansen found it hard to interact in the non-monetary economy of the interior, and even his Western manners were a source of problems (it took the author a while to realize direct questions were quite rude in many situations and would not likely produce the answers or results he sought).
Retreating to the coast, Hansen reevaluated his trip and had the very good fortune of becoming friends with Syed Muhammad Aidid, a man in Marudi, Malaysia. This businessman, familiar with both the ways of both the West and the jungle interior, took Hansen under his wing, teaching him the complex economic system of the highlands and jungle. The author learned that an empty, 8-ounce tin of sweetened condensed milk was the standard unit of measure and was called a mok, with all other volumes being calculated in multiples of 1 mok (for example, 3 moks of dry rice equal one day's rice for a man). He learned of valuable, light-weight items to bring to trade for food and services, items like sugee (Lombek chewing tobacco), manik-manik (colored seed beads used for decoration), and in particular shotgun shells (1 shell equal to one day's labor for a man or if caught - as they were illegal - 1 year in jail). He also learned of valuable items he could procure in villages for trade later, such as gaharu, a local wood with concentrations of aromatic sap, favored in Asian medicine and in the Middle East for making incense and perfume.
With Muhammad Aidid's help, Hansen was soon on his way back into the interior, paying his guides with wages made up of shotgun shells, manik-manik, and sugee. He managed to secure guides for his particularly successful first half of his trip with two Penan men, John Bong and Tingang Na; being his first guides, they were vital in his become proficient on the island. Communicating in bahasa pasar, a basic form of modern Malay that is the trade language of Sarawak (the Malaysian side of the island) and Kalimantan (the Indonesia side) - and later on in Indonesian with other guides - Hansen spent four weeks with these two guides before reading the Kelabit highlands (where he spent two weeks). These two guides (and after leaving the highlands, two other Penan guides, Bo `Hok and Weng) showed Hansen the ways of the rain forest; how to walk without tripping all the time, what plants and animals were good to eat and which were not, how to make camp for the night, how to hunt, and a great deal of tribal and jungle lore. The journey through the rain forest was portrayed in vivid prose and was extremely well-written. Hansen learned of many locally useful plants, such as akar korek (the "matches vine;" once lit, the dried vine smokes for days and is excellent for transporting fire), akar sukilang (a vine that can be beaten to a pulp and spread in water to stupefy fish, making them easy to catch), and most of all the sago palm (from which the Penan get their staple food, sago flour, which he was able to witness being made). He encountered many animals also; flying snakes and lizards, fire ants (with which he had an unfortunate encounter), flying foxes (which taste terrible), wild pigs (which taste excellent and are an important food source), gibbons, black hornbills (which come when called), and barking deer among others.
The star though of the book were the people of Borneo, both the settled tribal groups (of where there eleven, which included groups such as the Kelabit, Iban, and Kenyah), and the shy forest nomads, the Penan, true experts of the forest but uncomfortable in direct sunlight and in large communities. He had many excellent encounters with these people, as a number of them were friendly and generous, allowing him to participate in Gawai Antu, an Iban tribute to departed spirits, a time of much merry-making and drinking of large quantities of arak (a type of rough distilled spirit); learn about the peselai (the "long journey," undertaken by young men to seek status and gain coveted goods from the coast, a journey taking months or even years); watch blowpipes being made, and much more. He also had bad experiences; in addition to some gouging in some villages, during his second journey, when traveled alone for a time, he was feared by some villages of being a bali saleng, an evil and nearly invulnerable spirit that walked alone at night, seeking to get blood for magical ceremonies.