Curious Encounters of the Human Kind: Borneo True Asian Tales of Folly, Greed, Ambition and Dreams by Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

Curious Encounters: Borneo, a collection of observances, polemical essays, flights of fantasy, keen observations and learned discussions, is a crash introduction to the physical, economic and political realities of Borneo – the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak; the small territory ruled by the Sultan of Brunei and the four Indonesian provinces that make up the southern three quarters of the island.

American author Paul Spencer Sochaczewski has spent over 40 years traveling in Southeast Asia. In 1969, he visited Sarawak at age 22 when he took a life-changing tour of duty with the U.S. Peace Corp, assisting non-American primary school teachers. Later he worked with the WWF on campaigns to protect rainforests and biological diversity. An inveterate traveler, this worldly and perspicacious writer demystifies Borneo’s culture and history. His book is filled with stories of doomed orangutans, unforgivable crimes against nature and human rights, corrupt government leaders, voracious timber merchants, insatiable oil palm plantation owners, plus several feel good humorous stories of human foibles, ambition and achievement.

The events, characters and settings in the book take place on both sides of the border between Kalimantan and East Malaysia; sometimes overlapping, other times intermingling. One such story is The Search for Ali, the teenage assistant who helped Alfred Russell Wallace during his adventures around Southeast Asia and who never received the credit he deserved. Without Ali’s assistance, it’s unlikely that Wallace would’ve ever been successful in his 8-year journey that culminated in his development of the Theory of Natural Selection.

Headhunters Fight Control of the Forests dives into the underlying causes of the 2001 massacre of some 500 Madurese transmigrants by roving gangs of Dayaks. The author convincingly explains that these ethnic-specific killings were actually a fight for control of the island’s natural resources, but fails to explain why only the people from Madura Island were specifically targeted while their Javanese and Balinese migrant neighbors were left alone by the marauders.

The Literate Orangutan is a first-class discussion of this complex and endearing primate’s intelligence and physical dexterity. These all too human animals exhibit human emotions, intellect, the ability to acquire language and to form close relationships with humans. Although some 40,000 survive on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, habitat loss, illegal logging, fire and poaching are all taking their toll. The hard truth is that in another 20 years there will be no more orangutans living in the wild.

Why Travel Far? is a wistful ode to boyish wanderlust. In the story, the writer/narrator searches for adventure in the jungles of Kalimantan that would be “modestly dangerous.” As is his wont, Paul digresses to the larger question of what propels a man to seek adventure in foreign lands. Bruno and the Blowpipes is only tangentially about Bruno Manser who waged a passionate and ultimately fatal war to protect Borneo’s rainforests from loggers. His body nor any of his personal effects have ever been found. We learn that this lone Swiss activist is destined to become an unsolved Asian mystery like the disappearances of Michael Rockefeller in the Asmat region of West New Guinea in 1961 and Thailand-based silk entrepreneur Jim Thompson’s disappearance in Malaysia’s Cameroon Highlands in 1967.

As one of his favorite writers, Sochaczewski set out to follow in Somerset Maugham’s footsteps. Surfing with Somerset recounts his attempt to surf the same break that Maugham wrote about in 1921 when his boat capsized in a tidal bore in Sarawak. The height of the rolling tide on this section of the Batang Lupar River can reach a frothy and dangerous two meters. Moreover, this is a region of man-eating 4-m-long saltwater crocodiles.

Krumbling Kratons tells of the first rajah of Borneo – not James Brooke, but Alexander Hare who was guilty of unhinged despotism, flagrant disregard for British colonial law and sexual excesses in which his seat of power – Banjarmasin in the southern part of the island – was reduced to poverty, disorder and unprofitability. This is an entertaining, free-wheeling and fantastical discourse on the foibles of nation-building, the cruelty and the capriciousness of monarchs and people in high places, with offshoot discussions on the Knights Templar and a portrait of an imposter.

In The (Almost) Last Shaman, a manang (traditional healer) of the Iban tribe, one of the last of his kind, chases away malevolent spirits, makes the ill well again and protects people from ghosts. In this story, Sochaczewski dispels a few misconceptions, explains popular folklore and urban legends, Dayak cosmology, discusses traditional vs. modern culture and the shaman’s placebo-like efficacy in treating maladies.

Like few other contemporary travel books, Curious Encounters: Borneo is a rare and revealing window on how and why Sarawak, Sabah and Kalimantan have played hosts to a painful and unceasing stew of environmental and social destruction, rampant deforestation, government scorn of tribal land rights and brown-on-brown colonialism. These are captivating tales of dreams unfulfilled, opportunities missed and unproven theories that pose tantalizing questions.

Curious Encounters of the Human Kind Borneo by Paul Spencer Sochaczewski, Explorer’s Eye Press 2016, ISBN-978-294-057-3103, 183 pages, dimensions 13.5 cmx20 cm.


Review by Bill Dalton

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