If you are the kind of reader who wants to make the world around you disappear, this is the book for you: travel writer Eric Hansen's "Stranger in the Forest: On Foot Across Borneo." It's high on my Christmas list this year--at least ten friends will find copies in their Christmas stocking. It belongs to my favorite genre of writing: tales of extreme experiences, recounted by people who have survived them, and who have emerged from impossibly grueling situations with a heightened sense of life and of their own physical and spiritual powers. For some years now, I have been collecting and reading such books. Of all the wonderful things I own, they are perhaps my most prized possessions, offering inspiration and sustenance in the matter of what is humanly possible, at times when the sky is falling and the lions are charging.
In "Stranger in the Forest," Hansen describes how his extraordinarily low tolerance for boredom and routine, combined with his craving for unique experiences, made him seek "something so far beyond my comprehension that I would have to step completely out of my skin to understand and become a part of my surroundings." It led him to leave his familiar routines in San Francisco and set himself the task of walking across the island of Borneo. "The challenge," he writes, "was to do it alone, to make myself completely vulnerable, and to be changed by the environment." The narrative that results from this endeavor does not disappoint. I promise you it will race all your engines.
Hansen does end up with two Penan guides--decorated with blue-black tattoos of flowers and leaves on their legs--whom he paid to hunt, cook, cut a path through the jungle, build nightly shelters, and accompany him on what proves to be nothing less than a journey back into the Stone Age. It took only a week spent in their company to realize how helpless and dependent he was. "I had no jungle skills," he writes. Like a fish out of water, he didn't know how to blend in. But for his guides, he undoubtedly would have perished.
"Despite total concentration," he declares early on, "I managed to stumble and fall heavily on my face and backside at least ten times each day. My shins, knees, elbows, and shoulders soon became battered from many falls...I slid down muddy trails, hands grabbing the air, as long trailing vines reached out to trip and choke me as well as to rip my clothing and skin with one-way barbs that acted like fish hooks." The lack of sun (which barely penetrated the rain-forest canopy) and any distant views, were completely disorienting, and made printed maps useless, so he was forced to surrender all control to his guides, and after a while, he no longer minded being lost. "It was a relief to unburden myself from the problems of destination, time, and direction," and just surrender to the experience of being in such alien and intense circumstances, with people to whom he was "a slightly amusing stranger who had some shotgun shells that they needed....I spent much of my time thinking; they spent theirs looking for food and a place to sleep."
Then there were the fuzzy red caterpillars that, if stepped on, would bore a hole through your foot. And the soup, made from bee larvae, which gripped him with longing for English afternoon tea and scones, laced with whipped cream and thick strawberry jam. And the excruciating, incessant hum of insects, like "a deranged orchestra [that] played on without need for a conductor or audience," drowning out any possibility of conversation.
"I was hearing courtship calls, declarations of feeding territories, threats, warnings, and startled shrieks of terror as unseen prey was torn to pieces by silent predators." One day they happened on a giant red-rock python, coiled on a river rock, iridescent and shimmering. One of the guides hacked the creature's head off during its midday nap and fastened the writhing, headless, ten-foot-long snake to his rattan backpack.
Four months later, on the journey back, Hansen sums up what he what he is feeling: "Apart from my feet, I was in excellent health. My stomach had flattened, and I had developed an acute sense of smell and hearing...More significantly, I had shed my Western concepts of time, comfort, and privacy.
When I first entered the jungle and let go of my margins of safety to become vulnerable to a place I didn't understand, it was terrifying. I had slowly learned, however, to live with fear and uncertainty...My day dream of crossing the Borneo rain forest was going to come true; that knowledge gave me an incredible sense of power and self-assurance...Behind me lay four months and one thousand five hundred miles of jungle travel." When he finally does get home, he has a hard time readjusting.
This is a wonderful book, and I hope that anyone who reads it because of me will find it as invigorating as I did.