STRANGER IN THE FOREST On Foot Across Borneo By Eric Hansen Houghton Mifflin. 286 pp. $17.95
NEVER HAS an island so obscure attracted so many writers. The poor people of Borneo must think the rest of the world hopelessly uninteresting and its writers helpless and daffy, for so many foreigners have descended upon their land, pencil and paper at the ready, to faithfully make note of their curious customs and marvelous forests. A conscientious reader could fill a bookcase with more than a century's worth of impressions of Borneo, but none of the authors, I'll wager, fulfilled his mission with such adventure, common sense and awe as Eric Hansen in Stranger in the Forest. It is a book in the highest tradition of travel writing, encompassing grace, curiosity and fear.
Could it be that the more improbable the journey, the better the writing? Hansen set out to cross this equatorial land on foot, carrying with him a woefully inadequate map, bedding, a knife and other necessities, as well as barter bait: hundreds of shotgun shells, blocks of salt and floral prints. From Muhammed Aidid, a man he met at the outset of his journey, he learned the intricate system of barter in which one item is parlayed into another and that one into yet another.
For example, five sticks of chewing tobacco would get him one bottle of homebrew, and enough dry rice to fill one mok -- an empty eight-ounce condensed milk can -- was enough to feed a meal to one man. Muhammed suggested that Hansen trade sufficient shotgun shells, a highly prized commodity, for a young water buffalo, fatten up the animal over an extended period of time, and then trade it for other necessities. The author declined, but armed with Aidid's invaluable lessons in barter, he was able to walk into any village and within reason trade goods for his needs, whether they be food, lodging, guides, or a boat to float him downriver.
Between villages Hansen followed rivers and trails. Native guides, chosen by chance and intuition, led him down seldom-used pathways through almost impenetrable tropical forests. For meals, he squatted with his guides, sharing rice and fatty pig meat on a leaf. They dined on bee larvae, boa constrictor, bats, monkeys, lightning bugs and mushrooms that glowed in the dark. "I managed to stumble and fall heavily on my face and backside at least ten times each day," he writes. "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 fishhooks." On occasion, his guides had to come cut him loose, so entangled in growth was he. "Humility was the first jungle skill I acquired."
HANSEN'S indulgences are worthwhile, and his introspection wears none of the cloak of smugness or false modesty. Had he been British, he might have yielded to imperial instincts and hired four spear carriers to hoist him from sea to murky sea. But his nationalism -- he is a U.S. citizen now living in Bali -- seemed to be of less and less importance as first he shed his passport (a "highly overrated piece of identification") and finally his values. "The challenge was to do it alone, to make myself completely vulnerable, and to be changed by the environment." Toward the end he neared his goal: "I was losing my appetite for truth based on rational, Western thought processes or even the spoken word . . . I shed my Western concepts of time, comfort and privacy."
Travel, Hansen notes, "is the act of leaving familiarity behind." Among his first in-country experiences was to attend a village ceremony at which the custom was to beat fellow revelers over the head with limp (but living) roosters. His description makes the wildest Warholian party seem like tea-time at the Algonquin. When his sophisticated map proved utterly worthless in the jungle, he followed one his guides made from sticks, stones, grass stalks and leaves. During the same arduous jungle trek, he came across a man struggling up a steep embankment with a Singer sewing machine strapped to his back. Clearly, I thought while absorbed by page after page of Stranger in the Forest, Hansen's trip was one I'd much rather read about than take.
And finally, Hansen gives us two of the requirements for the best of the travel genre: a deceptively simple recipe and socially significant values. The dish is Telluh Babi, sour preserved pork, which, aged in a section of giant bamboo, takes from one to six months to prepare, depending on how much of a hurry you're in. Hansen's social observations are simple and direct -- that multinational timber concerns are gnawing away at the lifeblood of the rain forest, foisting western values on villagers, thereby diminishing forever their centuries-old way of life. Stranger in the Forest captures with spirit the traditional life which the author fears is too soon coming to its end.
Tom Miller is the author of "The Panama Hat Trail."