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Stranger in the Forest: On Foot across Borneo (Vintage Departures) [Paperback]

Eric Hansen

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Book Description

1 Dec 2000 Vintage Departures
Eric Hansen was the first westerner ever to walk across the island of Borneo. Completely cut off from the outside world for seven months, he traveled nearly 1,500 miles with small bands of nomadic hunters known as Penan. Beneath the rain forest canopy, they trekked through a hauntingly beautiful jungle where snakes and frogs fly, pigs climb trees, giant carnivorous plants eat mice, and mushrooms glow at night.

At once a modern classic of travel literature and a gripping adventure story, Stranger in the Forest provides a rare and intimate look at the vanishing way of life of one of the last surviving groups of rain forest dwellers. Hansen's absorbing, and often chilling, account of his exploits is tempered with the humor and humanity that prompted the Penan to take him into their world and to share their secrets.

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First Sentence
IN AUGUST 1976 I was faced with a simple choice: to fly directly from Djakarta to Singapore or to go to Singapore by way of Kuching, Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

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Amazon.com: 4.7 out of 5 stars  31 reviews
44 of 49 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Gentle Man of Borneo 27 Dec 2000
By hugh riminton - Published on Amazon.com
What a little beauty this is!
Nearly 20 years ago, a gangling, footloose American gets boozed with a bunch of Borneo river-dwellers, and finds himself bound in a gentle obsession.
Soon after, he takes off across the island of Borneo on foot armed with a quick schooling in tribal bartering systems and not much else. He has no visa, no valid passport, an unreliable map, and a few sentences of Bahasa Indonesian.
He can survive in the rainforest only as long as he maintains the trust of the people he meets, as guides, tutors, friends. He does far more than survive, and it is clear from the modesty, resilience and humor that comes through in his writing, that he was made for just this journey.
For months on end he immerses himself in a world of exquisite natural richness, among a people who are white-skinned in the permanent shade of the forest canopy, who have no tradition of stories of the moon or stars because they are almost never seen.
For weeks at a time he and his hunter guides are - in a Western sense - utterly "lost", moving apparently aimlessly through trackless bush. When Hansen asks one of his companions how they will find their way to their destination, the Penan hunter says simply: "We will follow our feelings." Without ever labouring it, Hansen has written a travel book that is deeply satisfying to the spirit, full of wonder and rich in humor. He also captures the moment at which an ancient, closed culture hears the first troubling thunder of global economics.
When finally he reaches the coast, Hansen is so depressed by "civilisation" that he does the sane thing - slipping back into the jungle to retrace his steps, all the way back to Sarawak.
So truly does he tell his story, I find myself missing him - wondering what he got up to when he finally returned to the US, what travels he might have done since. As I was finishing this book, I saw a travel brochure extolling Kuching, the Sarawak trading town that was Hansen's first step-off point. The glossy explained how easy it was nowadays to travel inland, with the interior "opened up by good logging roads".
Eric Hansen, lead the weeping.
19 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Masterful story telling 27 Nov 1999
By Joshua Suarez - Published on Amazon.com
I read this unforgettable book several years ago and recommended it to one of the reviewers in your home page! I remember the unusually captivating style that transports you right there in the seething rainforest with Eric, Bok and Weng. His descriptions of the language and culture are accurate and helped me see the linguistic and cultural connections between Borneo and a certain Filipino tribal group (Pampangos) I never realized before. Truly an adventurous experience that I have rarely enjoyed with other books. Eric Hansen is one of very few present day writers that I enjoy. A must read for those who enjoy a break from this concrete jungle and sometimes mean-spirited world we call civilization. That jungle will seem more civilized than some places you've been to in times past.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Spell-binding 9 Nov 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Hansen's greatness lies in his humble attitude. Too often the travel writer can sound like the great explorer accompanied by a multitude of porters, but not Hansen. A beautifully sculpted story. Funny and frightening, always wonderfully detailed. I read this book in one sitting and then immediately read it again. Get the copy with the photograph of the young Penan woman in the front - it is the most striking, enigmatic portrait I have ever seen.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Easily one of the most absorbing and well-written travelogues ever 13 July 2006
By Tim F. Martin - Published on Amazon.com
_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.
9 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Where few have traveled 25 Mar 2002
By M. Ropiequet - Published on Amazon.com
Eric Hansen has gone where few have traveled, and few have wanted to travel. His epic adventure is more than a guide to the region: it is a rare glimpse into an unimagined world. Despite National Geographic type articles, one would never have dreamed of this world of extraordinary people, going about what they consider ordinary lives. He did not just breeze into their country with an expedition mindset, guides and porters, al la the ordinary expedition management styles; rather he moved slowly and quietly, at a pace set by the people of the villages through which he passed. I felt priveleged to have been able to glimpse (albeit secondhandedly), his trip, and the lives of the very courageous people who not only live in Borneo; but have made a wonderful life for themselves, people who have a vast knowledge of the resources of their forests and the wildlife in them. From a modern worldview, these people may seem primitive; but he reveals them to be quite sophisticated within their world, and to have the character traits which lead to a good life in their world. It is one of the most appealing adventure stories I have ever read, written in a simple straightforward style, full of humor, pathos and intelligence. Excellent reading!
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