During my years of traveling both as a backpacker and traveler by bicycle, I have been more than once dazzled by what the world has to offer. Its landscapes, its ecosystems and its phenomena are some of the reasons that always make me want to keep going out, to see more, to learn more, to feel more. From the very beginning, Indonesia would receive us with an overdose of emotions, the kind of emotions from which it is extremely difficult to come back from. Difficult because after having been through experiences that make you release so much adrenaline, once you are past them, you cannot help but ask yourself - Will I ever feel again after this?
From Tawau in Malaysian Borneo we had to leave on a speedboat as there are no land connections. We left for Tarakan island in Kalimantan, the Indonesian side of Borneo. Indonesia not only welcomed us with waves of heat and adrenalina but with incredible hospitality. We knew nothing about Tarakan when we got there and all of the budget accommodation was fully booked. After two hours of riding aimlessly, an elder man approached me with his motorbike to engage into a conversation. I told him that we had no place to sleep and that we were just looking for at least a piece of garden where we could set up our mosquito net. Edy, a 75 years-old retired seaman that had traveled to most of the ports of this planet and was able to communicate in at least 7 languages, told us that he would take us to his nephew's home where we could camp in his garden. Edy has the energy and the health of man 40 years younger than him and he would talk to us and treat us with the sweetness of a grandfather. Once we were at his nephew's house, neither him nor his whole family would allow us to camp in the garden, no way, that's unthinkable, not outside. They immediately set up a private room for us, in the house, with clean sheets, towels and prepared the bathroom so we could take a shower, while they went out to buy us dinner. That's how Imam, the immensely affectionate nephew would welcome us. An insane football fanatic that was truly fascinated with me for being Argentine and with Julia for being from Barcelona. Imam had a print at the entrance door of his house reading "MESSI, ARGENTINA, BOCA JUNIORS". He named three out of his four kids: Claudio (Caniggia), Gabriel (Batistuta) and Pablo (Airmar) all of them world renowned Argentina football players, and he said his names filled with pride. The fourth one turned to be a girl and none was named Diego (Maradona), no good Muslim is fond of drugs. I had to curse my karma! I didn't want to break his heart and tell him that I'm pretty much the only Argentine who truly despises football. Imam was very moved for having and Argentine at home and I'm not exaggerating, so I was not going to ruin it. That's how Indonesia welcomed us in our first day, with that strong hospitality that it is so typical of muslim countries.
In Tarakan, we were faced with two options to continue our journey. One would be to take the shortcut and take the ferry straight to Sulawesi, the other one being taking a very rough 750km long solitary road cutting across the sparsely inhabited jungle of Kalimantan to get to Samarinda and from there take the boat. Those who know me and have been reading me for a long time know very well that we took the second option. We left the island on a very small speedboat packed like sardins, where the bikes barely fit in. We first sailed on the sea until finally getting into a wild delta that would eventually take us to the small town of Tengjung Selor. It didn't take more than 5km to find ourselves cycling in what could be defined as a roller coaster. Riding here brought a very horrible memory from school: trigonometry. The insanely steep and endless ups and downs of the road that started that very day made me feel like I was riding along a sinusoidal curve that would continue infinitely. It felt like trigonometry on wheels, although at least now it felt that the wheels were actually round and not square as it felt when I was back in school and university.
This sinusoidal curve didn't let us catch our breath, it truly felt like a roller coaster, we would up up up, slowly, painfully, bellow 5km/h, having to zigzag every once in a while to deal with the steep slope and reduce the use of muscle to preserve the oxygen. The heart was throbbing, pumping very fast as though desperately trying to come out of the chest, cursing every single gram that I was taking, cursing me for being a photographer. Once at the top of each slope, we would let ourselves go in a sort of adrenaline limbo, it didn't take more than a few meters to reach speeds as high as 65km/h, it was true madness (and stupidity since we don't wear helmets). On the steep way downhill we would try to gain as much speed as possible, that way we would be able to gain a lot of distance into the next climb without pedaling. This is pretty much how we spent the first exhausting 120 km to Berau, the first and last city that we would see in 750km in the wild. It was 16 km before getting there when a young guy approached me on his motorbike to ask me if we needed anything. It was almost the end of the day and we knew nothing about Berau so I asked him if he knew where we could camp. He told me not to worry and that he would contact some of his friends in town to come and help us. What I didn't know is that I was talking to a member of the Berau Cycling Community and that right after he left he would call several members of the community to tell them that two foreigners were on the way. 5km before reaching the town two cyclist came our way looking for us to lead you into their bunker. More of them started to join on the way. Once in their headquarters, at least 15 others came to see us, to have their photos taken with us and to satisfy their thirst for curiosity. The mechanic among them serviced our bikes for free, the others brought drinks and they concluded that they would all chip in to pay for a hotel for us to stay and have a good rest before setting off to the jungle. They did believe we were insane for trying to cycle to Samarinda, so they invited us to a great dinner and booked us a very nice hotel. One of them was a journalist, director of the biggest local newspaper. He interviewed us, had our photos taken and by 6 am the morning after we were on the cover of all newspapers in the city
At 7 am the next day, around 25 cyclists were waiting for us at the door of our hotel, ready to pedal with us the first 30 km on the way to Samarinda. They gave us helmets as presents that we had to wear, none of them could believe that we wanted to cycle across the jungle. They would tell us that the road was shattered, that there was no traffic, that it was all jungle with terrible slopes, that nobody lived there and that it took 28 hs for a strong car in good condition to ride those 620 km left. I'm not gonna lie, coming from local cyclists, this was pretty intimidating, We really had no idea what we were gonna find.
The jungle is life.
Generally speaking, there's always something that makes up for such harsh journeys. In this case it was one of those experiences that leave you speechless: being in the jungle. Describing the experience of riding across the jungle, is by definition a useless task, because it is impossible to put into words the myriad stimuli arising from the mere fact of being right there. If I had to try I would begin by saying that jungle means life and not because the other ecosystems are less "alive", but because it is in the jungle where you can truly feel the vibrations of billions of animal and plant species inhabiting in it, and you can experience the fury of the weather phenomena and atmospheric conditions that make it possible. It is as though you had an invisible giant breathing on your neck, it is there, but you can't really see it and you know it's huge and wild and untamed. The jungle is never silent, it's always buzzing, sometimes it buzzes so much that you feel beautiful tickles on your body while cycling. The perfect harmony of an orchestra of who knows how many millions of exotic birds and insects playing in unison was true magic to the ears.
Sometimes I found it hard to believe how such different sounds could be harmonized to produce such perfect symphony, almost as if they had agreed beforehand to give a mass concert. Still, you look all around you and at first sight you see nothing but literally impenetrable jungle, making invisible all those living creatures that live in it and off it. It extends indefinitely in the horizon, the amount of tree species is simply impossible to count, some of them come out from the rest as high as 30-40 m high. Having not being for the intense buzzing, it seemed there was absolutely nobody there, but it would just take to stop for a minute and stay in silence to start becoming aware of the movements of an unimaginable amount of creatures. Creeping, crawling there were ants, scorpions, giant centipedes, snakes, lizards hidden in the trees and bellow the thick rug of plants covering the ground. Then there were the noisiest ones, jumping in the air from one tree canopy to the next there were colonies of monkeys going all around, birds producing some of the most exotic and spectacular singing that I have ever heard in my life and the most amazing, the few wild orangutans remaining alive timidly fleeing into the bushes every time they would hear our presence nearby. The jungle is a perfect whole, organic, sonorous, harmonious, it is pure life at its finest. It is so big and so vast that no photo ever can even get close to depict the infinite phenomena that occur in it at any given time. It is the most frustrating that I lived as a photographer: the magnitude of its essence is impossible to photograph.
Turn off the sun!
As our friend from the Berau cycling community had previously told us, after 30 km the road became very rough. From Tengjung Selor until there, the road, despite its insanely steep climbs, was paved, but from now on it was a sea of loose stones, almost impossible to ride at times, forcing us to get off and push. The slopes didn't get any easier either up or down. The engineers that planned this road didn't bother much, instead of planning the typical serpent-like road that progressively lead to passes, they said: "the hell with it, let's just do a straight line". The jungle is everything but flat. As there's almost no people driving along this road, the access to water was pretty much limited to some shady road canteens that could be found every 30-35 km, a distance that may not seem too much, but considering that we were only able to pull off anywhere between 45 to 66 km a day due to the difficulty of the road, we would only get to one or two a day. That meant we would have to be carrying up to 10 kg extra of water and food and with this, my bike would reach around 75kg which could be felt. On the other hand, Julia with her 50 kg, was facing for the first time a truly tough road, her toughest until then. I could list the same list of difficulties that I mention of any trip, and like in Tibet I would say the difficulty was the altitude and the cold, in here the toughest thing to deal with was the extreme humid tropical heat. At 6 am it was already daylight and you could still feel some of the fresh air remaining from the night, at 7 am you could already feel some gentle warmth, at 8 am we already started sweating a lot, at 9 am high humidity came into effect and the place became a sauna, at 10 am it was already difficult to tolerate the sun hitting the skin, at 11 am we were already suffering with the heat and by 12 am, if there were no clouds it was suicidal to keep cycling and we had to stop like it or not. Heat in the jungle is torrid, humid, it asphyxiates. Having the sun on the face was unbearable and having it on the back felt like somebody was ironing clothes on it. Our pace was very slow, sweating our lives away, our synthetic "breathable" clothes completely soaked as if we had just come out of a pool.
In the jungle is when one truly comes to realize that the biggest organ in our bodies is the skin. Every little square millimeter of it sweats, you sweat from areas that under normal circumstances you wouldn't, arms, feet, ears, fingers, the palms of my hands sweated so much water that it felt like touching a pond and this would make my handlebar slip from them over and over and when climbing slow I would lose balance because of this. If you are not paying careful attention, dehydration as fast and imminent, we had to constantly drink water, super hot water by the way, disgusting, 4,5,6 liters of waters were gone like nothing and the most impressive thing is that this didn't increase the amount of time we would have to pee, all the water we drank went out through the pores. Noon was like living in a sauna, we used to spend them in some abandoned shack or under anything that would produce some kind of shade. There was nothing we could do until at least 3 pm. In some way, cycling here felt like a body purification. A group of clouds coming that would block the sun for a at least a few minutes felt like a true blessing, it would be the incentive that would allow us to continue throughout the rest of these endless days, but they were never enough. The true gift would come at some point though. The jungle self-regulates itself, throughout the day the heat and humidity slowly build up clouds that only seeing them became scary, they would turn black, infernal, they would announce the arrival of something very powerful. The first thunders were the sign for getting to a refuge soon. At that point the jungle turned magically silent as if waiting for something to happen, a drop would fall followed by and another, and another and after a couple of minutes hell was unleashed. There is really no way to describe it, the rain was so thick that you couldn't see through, it hit the ground with such strength that it felt it was going to drill it. The loggers in the region place big buckets of water, 50 to a 100 liters ones, to collect the rain and use the water for bathing and boiling. These would fill in no time, it was simply astonishing to see it. Rain water is pretty much the only source of water in this region. During the 20 min or so that these massive storms would last for allowed us to be able to breath again. The rain brought everything back to life, everything felt fully alive after it, the green seemed greener, the creatures sang almost hysterically, you could feel their joy and they would transmit it. I cannot express enough how deeply moved I would feel before the majestic of nature. At 3 pm despite our reluctance we would have to continue, everything still burns but days in the tropics are particularly short, so we just had to keep going. At 4 pm it felt as if the sun were even stronger and at that time one is just yearning for the day to end. At 5 pm it slowly started to slow down and only 45 minutes after that the night would start to fall bringing back the magic of relief. The fresh air liberated by the trees felt like a blessing, giant moons would come out behind the silhouettes of the trees, showing in between the clouds above the horizon. Unless we could foresee some rain coming, we would hang our mosquito net from some trees or even from our bicycles and we would lie down, facing up looking at this sublime sky painted with billions stars, listening to the sweet symphonies of the innumerable bugs that would take the night shift for the singing and one would only try to overcome the fatigue and not fall asleep to enjoy a bit more of the beauty of the night, when finally the sun had been turned off.
Wounds that wouldn't heal
The amount of bugs and creatures that inhabit the jungle is infinite and sometimes it is better not to see it because it might be terrifying. When you need to use the toilet in nature and you walk out of the road going through this thick crust of plants without being able to see what lies bellow it, you are walking in unpredictable territory. It is when one of these creatures accidentally come out to the road that one would have an idea of what could be found when walking off-road.
Now, I have no idea what sort of conditions come together in the tropic, but here, wounds seem to take ages to heal. Once could have them open for weeks, infected, causing lots of pain and it is pretty annoying. As usual, mosquito bites are the worst, one bite would first become a bump, after scratching it for a short while a small whole would open at the tip, from that point on, it would degenerate into a horrible infection and the itch would be come so unbearable that sometimes I would've wanted to cut off my ankle. At other times, you even have no clue of what bit you. The mosquito net is efficient to stop flying bugs, but bellow, through the ground there were always ants, spiders, centipedes, etc. During three weeks I had to bear with this horrible wound made by an unknown creature. I would use betadyne and other stuff but nothing could prevent it from getting infected or help it heal. Sometimes the pain was such that I felt the toe throbbing when taking off my shoes.
Julia also had lots of open wounds on her legs, even worse than mine sometimes. Some from mosquitos and some from UB (unidentified bugs). But we knew that all these wounds would eventually heal, there are others that are permanent will never do, the ones that we humans cause to our environment.
The palm is death
These very intense experiences across the jungle made us appreciate nature and its wonders more than ever before. After 350 km of tough riding we reached Muara Wuahau, a piece of precious jungle that has been wiped out in order to give way to the dreadful oil palm. If I used the word life above to define the jungle, I can clearly use death as the perfect word to define the palm. As soon as we entered this huge patch of land used for the monoculture of the oil palm what stroke us right away was the silence. The silence was deafening, it tormented us, it represented the death of those bugs and creatures that had been accompanying us until there, sweetening our way with their wonderful symphonies.
Indonesia, like its sinister neighbor, is also the fast track to exterminate its jungle in exchange of fast cash fattening the pockets of a few. The high corruption, the greed of a few criminals that don't have the least regard for life and poverty, are the main factors that are making this sad process seemingly irreversible. There is quite a lot of jungle remaining but very little considering what Borneo must've been once a long time ago. What's more, it all seems that the situation is getting worse and worse every year and faster than ever. When hunger strikes, poverty makes people do whatever they are presented with in order to survive. Sometimes I use to think, in a self-critical way and say to myself: it is so easy to fight for the environment and even be an activist when it is not you the one who's hungry and need to scrape a living every single day of your life. Greed ignores life and poverty is used to execute the orders of those who rule simply because they don't have another choice. How do you explain to somebody very poor who moved to Kalimantan from an even poorer region that is being used to wipe out the jungle and plant the oil palm for cents, that what he does is harmful and wrong, when that's the only way he has to feed his family and improve their lives? It is a vicious circle that has no end and it shows clearly how sick the world is.
After leaving this hideous region of palms pestering the environment we happily went back to the jungle, but it would never be the same again. To begin with, there was more traffic and the experience wasn't that intimate anymore as we got closer to Samarinda. After Muara Wuahau we were able to visit some Dayak tribes, who have inhabited Kalimantan since the dawn of time. As it happened in the Cordillera in northern Philippines, the older generations show traces of a past totally different from today. Their bodies completely tattooed from head to toes, their ear lobes fully stretched.
Women sit all day on the floor of their homes doing their traditional crafts. It was imposible to communicate with them because they can only speak their dialect. Sadly, the younger generations have already been swallowed by the present and at first sight they show little to no connection with their ancestors.
As if the oil palm weren't already bad enough, Kalimantan has another tragedy, that of its precious mineral resources. By the time we were already cycling in more populated areas of the jungle, we were cycling yet another slop and when reached the top of it, we got to be at the very edge of what had to be the hugest crater that I had seen in my life. It was so big, that the huge trucks that were going up and down the winding roads going in and out of it, were reduced to tiny yellow dots moving. Several of the mining giants of the planet, starting with the Australian monster Rio Tinto, abuse the local corruption and are devastating thousands of hectares to get to more coal. They have so much money that they build themselves new roads in order to speed up the transfer of the carbon from the mines to the port and they build them way faster than the government. Once there, the coal goes straight to Europe, Australia, China the U.S, etc. To make all this happen, there's always a battalion of poor people ready to execute it, in the worst conditions of course, because the final cost for the international market always has to be the lowest possible.
What started as a sublime experience across one of the richest jungles left in the planet slowly degenerated in what all call reality today, a depressing reality. The reality of the destruction of our planet together with the exhaustion of our resources. For this and much more I think we deserve each of the catastrophes that are happening every year. In the final days of our journey to Samarinda and with quite a bitter taste in our mouths, we finally crossed the Equator, this is actually indicated on the road. The ups and downs never stopped until very few kilometers before the reaching the city. The heat along all this Equator region made us sweat until the very last drop of fluids. We reached Samarinda, an ugly port city, very tired but happy about having finished with these first 750 km that gave us a feel of what it's like to experience the best of what our world and its nature have to offer. We made new Indonesian friends there and we spent the time resting and eating better food while we waited for our ferry to Pare-Pare in the southern coast of Sulawesi.