visits Borneo in Indonesia


Wolf Oberhammer

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ASIA > Indonesia > Borneo

Dropping Out: High-tech to Low-tech

Wolf Oberhammer

Article & Pictures © 2006 Wolf Oberhammer

T/T #50
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Could I be anywhere on this earth more exotic or scenic?

There is no reply to the email I sent to the General Manager. He never replies my emails. The senior manager responsible for my timesheet is surprised to see me in the office. He thought I would be on vacation another week. It seems like I am interrupting everyone's busy schedule by inquiring about the project status. Maybe I should just sit idle at my desk until someone assigns work to me.

Tense and angry faces!There are a lot of tense and angry faces at the other office where I am working on contract. It took all Spring and summer to converge upon a specification acceptable to the design team. The situation is tense, long hours need to be spent in the office to get a design done in time. There's a mixture of urgency to get the project done and worry that sharing too much information will make one redundant; it creates a state of havoc. You need to get the job done urgently, but you are not sure of your exact deliverables and what everyone else is doing. It's the kind of atmosphere that takes any joy out of what otherwise might be interesting work. Contracting can be a big headache.

Ever since the high tech bubble collapsed I have been grateful to have work but have found the actual work totally unsatisfying. I used to be proud of being part of the high-tech world. These days the movie Office Space seems more ironical than humorous.

* * *

I nearly lose my balance as our 25 foot craft gets lifted abruptly by a swell in the South China Sea, causing me to awake from my pondering life as it was on the other side of the planet just a few months back.

Lots of sea and sky - click to enlargeGlancing at the mountains separating Sarawak from Kalimantan (Indonesia) north of Ganung (mount) Puih, I ask myself, "Could I be anywhere on this earth more exotic or scenic?" The sparsely populated north west point of Borneo shows no signs of human settlements as viewed a few miles offshore. Just endless mountains and forests skirt the bay to the west of us, and to the east, just a few small island interrupt the endless water merging into the sky.

I employ three fisherman to ferry me from Sematang to Tolan Melano, a remote bay only accessible by boat. The youngest of the three describes the land we are about to see and explains it is a place where the Indonesian fishing boats shelter during stormy seas.

Hopefully, desperately poor Indonesian fisherman won't view this white man as a rich catch of a different kind, I ponder. Our vessel looks smallish but sea-worthy.

I doubt in North America many would venture this far from shore in a craft so small. I have seen no sign of life-jackets. Maybe they are an inconvenience or unnecessary expense on a wooden vessel where one could hold onto a wooden plank till the next fishing vessel comes to aid. Now that I cannot even make out the shore we left from, I comfort myself with the thought that the water we carry and the second tank of fuel gives us a few hours lease on life. I had read that in the remote atolls of the Pacific they begin the search for a missing fisherman two weeks after he fails to return. I am certain they will do it sooner in this part of the world.

Onboard our small craft - click to enlargeNow I remember the frequent squalls that appear out of nowhere. The sky is never blue from horizon to horizon, nor is it often totally cloud covered in this part of the world. So, ‘out of the blue’ high winds and strong rain are not uncommon. I comfort myself thinking the squalls rarely last more than a few hours and put aside the thought that our tiny vessel seems no more than a nutshell in the immensity of water. The fishermen appear seasoned and I assume I am safe.

The beach of the bay - click to enlargeAs we reach the bay, I photograph like the anxious tourist I saw on the Kuching waterfront. Stumbling over coconuts as we enter the jungle made me realize I have arrived at the exact place I daydreamed about when work was particularly boring or stressful. In my many daydreams it was a deserted island, not a remote peninsula like this. With the nearest road 100 miles to the south, the distinction means little to me now.

As we stumble beyond the first row of trees I realize the shore is not deserted. A couple of squatters obviously live off the land and the sea. This is the other side of the spectrum, the spectrum where our side consists of salary, pension plan, office cubicles, schedule, politics and some science. This side of the spectrum I can only guess by the chicken feeding on coconuts and fly-covered fish drying in the sun on a piece of wood high up where the dogs cannot reach it.

The two room dwelling is perched five feet above the ground and looks smallish, cluttered with clothing and randomly placed items needed for everyday life. A single layer of planks cover the walls, a shield against the frequent heavy downpours. Windows consist of one-foot square openings with a shutter hinged to one side. There are a number of smaller structures, their use or function beyond my understanding, however, I suddenly realized, spending 365 days of the year in such a remote place would call for considerable self-provided infrastructure.

Island life - click to enlargeSo here is was, laid out before me, a real working 3D model of my fantasy, life far from the corporate world I learned to hate in the last few years. This is the place where summer lives. The temperature here ranges from 22 to 32 Centigrade all year round, day or night. A rich sea available most every day to catch fish or spend time doing what one would do by the sea that is always warm and usually very calm. Scenery like those on the travel magazine's cover: Island or Caribbean are the names of two I remember from the book store.

I barely contemplated my fantasy for as much as an hour when I began to see its many flaws. I had this strange mix-up of my 2 weeks in the Caribbean vs. 365 days on a remote island (or peninsula). Removed from infrastructure, where you barely remember what the inside of a western restaurant looks like, a day, like each of the other 364 days, consists of gathering food, planting vegetables, cleaning house, washing clothes, gathering firewood, expanding or maintaining a vegetable garden or hunting to produce variety in a monotonous chicken and fish diet.

Failing to succeed at my project will land me at the lines of an unemployment office or a simple, low-paying job. Failure to provide by his wits, for the squatter' might have much more dire consequences.

Conversation with the one or two neighbours might be a bit monotonous on day two or three and I doubt I still be talking to him day 365 (assuming I would understand more than 2 words of his language).

Of course, I realized long ago, dropping-out of society has a hefty price attached. That is not to say there are not wonderful alternatives to cubicle life for those brave and ambitious enough to search the remote corners of the globe. The purpose of my trip to this bay was to examine a piece of land that is for sale. It is located a two-hour boat trip from the Kuching water front. Seems plausible some tourists might want to sail with me two days and spend one or more nights at a very remote and peaceful bay.

You see, if this project plan works, I buy my fish from my neighbour and chat with an Australian guy never needing to learn Malay. Call it contracting out.

After reading this article, you might like to read Wolf's subsequent article revealing how things went after that, in Borneo: Malaysia - Life in the Slow Lane


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