Babes in Borneo: The Search for Mary

This entry is part 17 of 21 in the series: Bert's Eye View

This is the story of a group of wild women I am fortunate enough to call friends. They were all living in Indonesia 20-some years ago.

Twila is graceful strength personified. She is tasteful, dignified, and brilliant. There’s also a bit of a wild monkey buried in there that comes out to play every now and then. She has an almost royal demeanor. It occurs naturally. There is no presumption or intent involved. She has a presence that fills a room about 3 minutes before she comes in. She and her biz partner, Kobie, are the beauty and brains behind Twila Wilson & Associates, Inc. an internationally renowned interior design firm, sporting 2 covers (so far) of Architectural Digest and too many other magazines to go over right now. Her firm is based out of  St.Croix , they kick ass and take names.  At the time of this story, she owned Java Wraps, a batik clothing company with stores throughout the Caribbean and wholesaling to another 350 stores in the States.

Connie is a force of nature and a human catalyst. A Texas tornado, aka Connie-Bob. She rolls through town and everybody is laughing and smiling in a wake of destruction, and they don’t know quite what happened to them. The day after is a head-scratcher. We’re born one day apart and we’ve been thick as thieves since 1982. We’ve been there for each other through life’s ups and downs and heaven help anybody who messes with either one of us. We have each other’s backs and always will. She ran off almost all of my girlfriends if they lasted more than a couple of days. She finally let me keep one (my ex for 25 years), but I found out recently that she and Twila had a bet that it wouldn’t last for more than 6 months. I’ve never been what you would call a treat. She’s bossy and likes to point me in a direction, let me go, and watch to see what will happen. She and Twila are the reason I ended up opening the resort in Costa Rica. Now she’s aiming me toward the Turks and Caicos IslandsWe’ll see. Her son, Cove, will be going away to college soon so we’ll see what the hell she does next. She is a gifted writer, designer and architect, teacher, and can nail a foreign language in about 3 or 4 weeks. She handled Twila’s manufacturing in Bali  and Yogyakarta. She also handled manufacturing for Chico’s Clothing in Istanbul for three years. Who knows…? She currently splits her time between her ranch in the hill country of Texas and the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.

Lois and I have been talking for over 25 years by telex, internet, and phone and we have these wonderful friends in common. At the time of this adventure she was the Fitness Director at the Mandarin Hotel in Jakarta. She is founder and CEO of Lois Hill Accessories and spends half of the year in NYC and half in Asia.  Her jewelry is available at LoisHill.com  and at Jared’s Galleria of Fine Jewelry Nationwide. She has also just launched a line called LOIS exclusively for Kay Jewelers. Her designs originate from a deep understanding and a spooky feel of cultures long gone. Take a minute and look at her stuff. She’s not playin’. She is also a generous philanthropist for causes she believes in.

Cherie is a petite little thing. A retail entrepreneur and clothing manufacturer, she can make it anywhere in the world if it’s warm and tropical. She, Twila, and Connie were all Caribbean girls.

Mary, the subject of the story was a hard-hitting freelance journalist. Her area of coverage was Southeast Asia and China.

We’re going to turn the story over to  Connie Chick now. She wrote the story after collaborating with Twila and Lois for memories. I can’t even remember what I had for lunch….

We could hear the sound of beating drums far in the distance like something out of an old Tarzan movie. I slapped at another giant insect that was trying to extract blood from my neck; the jungles of Borneo were full of them. When it became clear the Bapak was leading us toward the haunting sounds, my heart skipped a beat. I glanced at Cherie, Twila and Lois and saw that anxiety had shrouded them too. Bapak is the Indonesian word for father, in this case the father, or leader, of a remote tribe in the jungles of Borneo. Our Bapak was taking us on a rare journey to witness the power of the black magic and white magic of a neighboring tribe, a six-hour trek away. The tribes of Borneo live their daily lives by this power. As we would later come to learn, a power that should not be underestimated. We had been trekking for five hours through thick, steamy jungle when dusk started to seep through the canopy, descending down on us as if ominous black magic were filling the air. Dusk quickly mutated into something pitchy and foreboding, and the cacophony of jungle sounds infused with the beating of the drums to form an intoxicating orchestra. There was no turning back. The beating drums grew louder as we moved in their direction. The allure of the unknown was overwhelming.

As we approached the longhouse, silhouettes scrambled about readying themselves for our arrival. There was only the light of a waning moon and some candles burning amongst the commotion inside. The cracks and gaps on the side of the wooden long house gave way to painted faces peering out on us. We climbed up a strange and steep wooden ladder that was nothing more than a log with notched-out steps. We stood at the doorway marveling at the scene. The air inside choked with smoke, and the dim candle light flickered as the jungle breeze leeched through the walls. The smell of clove cigarettes and must hung on the breeze and clung to our nostrils. The entire tribe of around twenty families lived under this one roof. It was a long open space; the only division being the straw floor mats that separated one family from another. Men, women, and children were adorned in ceremonial garb. Exotic bare-chested men with ornately wrapped headdresses donned intricate colorful batik sarongs tied short for dancing. “Borneo trader beads” wrapped the ankles and biceps of the striking dancers. Their sinewy bodies were laden with bells that filled the room with magical sounds as the tribe danced their bizarre dance around one another. Their faces were smeared with a translucent white paint-like substance, giving them a ghostly appearance. On the floor to one side, a group of young boys beat huge primitive drums, called kendhangs, with the palms of their hands. Powerful rhythmic sound pierced the air and pulsated through our souls; leading to the heightened sense of excitement that now filled the long house. The deafening concert was euphoric.

Each dancer whirled a magnificent aureate Keris, dagger, above his head, creating a dance within a dance. The electric movement hastened as the drums beat faster, and the bare-chested creatures spun around one another forming a ceremonial circle. It was dizzying. The dancers hung on to vines that spilled out from above; twirling faster and faster until their heads jerked back and their eyes rolled up into their sockets as they embraced the trance that engulfed their very souls. The trance spun them almost superhumanly up into the shadows of the smoky rafters where pigs, chickens, and god knows what, were tied. In skilled precision, with single swipes of the keris, the transfixed creatures took the heads of every beast in the rafters. 

The slaughter was fast and furious as blood slung wall to wall around the room; the crimson liquid entangled with the enchanting sounds, the smoky smells, and the gyration of the dream dancers to spawn a freakishly surreal tango of its own. Lois and I stood spellbound. Twila, barely audible above the drums, yelled frantically from across the room for us to get back. I let out a shocked scream as the warm sticky animal blood slashed across my face and drenched my head and body. It was the infamous scene from Carrie. I wailed, “I think my heart’s gonna explode.” Dazed, I looked over at Lois who stood blood-soaked and mute. The drums stopped abruptly when the old Shamans, called Dukuns, rushed to the dancers who had collapsed on the floor with tremors. The Dukuns wore long white sarongs and white sashes draped over their shoulders making them appear saintly. They covered the dancers with pure white cloths and swung smoking incense rhythmically over their convulsing bodies to summon the dancers back from the other side.

Then something unspeakable caught our attention. The four of us noticed it at the same time. There was a narrow wooden ledge running the length of the wall above us. We moved in closer to get a better look, expecting the unexpected, but we weren’t prepared for what we saw. A chill ran down my spine when I realized that I was staring at a shrunken head! It was tiny, about the size of a grapefruit, with eyes and lips sewn shut, shriveled skin, and dark oily hair hung in long strings below the ledge. There were more of them disbursed along the ledge like trophies. We could not hold our panic down; it spewed out with every gasp for air. The Bapak was quick to react and told us that this tribe hadn’t hunted heads in at least five years, except every so often when they were angry with an enemy. “Don’t worry. You girls are not in danger,” he said. Michael Rockefeller, son of the late New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, flashed through my runaway thoughts. Michael Rockefeller disappeared after traveling to a remote part of Indonesia in 1961; allegedly captured and eaten by a local tribe. An uneasiness draped the room. We were worried.

 It was a bizarre and cryptic letter that hurled Cherie, Twila, Lois, and me into the wilds of Borneo that year. Cherie’s journalist friend, Mary, wrote to let Cherie know that she had gone to Borneo to write an article on fisheries and things had taken a twist. Mary had fallen in love and married Hasan, from a tribe of locals called Bugis. Later we found out that Bugis were, at one time, tribes of ruthless pirates that plagued early English and Dutch trading ships. It is said that the fear the Bugis pirates inflicted spawned the term “Boogieman”, a term that has long been used to terrorize children all over the world. We didn’t hesitate to strap on our backpacks, climb aboard the puddle-jumper, and head to the jungles of Borneo in search of Mary. Beyond that, we really hadn’t thought things through, not uncommon for us.

Twila, Cherie, and I headed out from Bali, while Lois was heading out from Jakarta and would try to meet us in Samarinda, Borneo; however, we didn’t think she was going to make the trip. Since communication was slow to non-existent in Indonesia in the late 1980’s, we had no idea if Lois was going to meet us, or if Mary had received the letter Cherie wrote informing her of our plans to come rescue her. Because Borneo was so primitive, chances were good that Mary had not received Cherie’s letter. If this was the case, finding her might prove to be quite challenging. The only clues Mary revealed in her letter involved traveling thirty-five hours up the Mahakam River. From there we would have to trek through the jungle, and search out local tribes to inquire about a tall, red-headed Australian woman. We all spoke Indonesian, so at least we had that going for us. Cherie, Twila, and I landed at a small primitive airstrip in Samarinda and were walking across the runway, when Lois jumped out from behind the bushes and scared the hell out of us! It was a great surprise, and we were on our way.

We hired a small rustic boat to take us up river and were boarding when, to our shock, up walks Mary! Another great surprise, and of course, we were ecstatic! To this day I still can’t believe it worked out, and we all hooked up- it was one of those mind-blowing moments in life. The turbulent, muddy waters of the Mahakam River sprawled before us like a giant snake ready to swallow us up at every bend. Our adorable Borneo boat captain, who looked to be all of fourteen, was quick to give us the lowdown on the unwritten laws of the mighty river: plug up all your orifices because if you fall overboard, there are little creatures that like to swim up any openings they can find and do damage. We had our plugs ready! The river is a logging route and wild stray logs moving at rapid speeds could hit us – this actually did happen several times, knocking out our motor and stranding us for long periods of time. The river trip is a long thirty-five hours with nothing but jungle on both banks, so bathroom breaks were an adventure! Our young captain found this amusing with a boat full of girls. We were off to find out what powers held Mary captivated deep in the jungles of Borneo.








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Bert Woodson

Bert Woodson currently lives on Florida’s Gulf Coast in Cortez, with his Rhodesian Ridgeback, Colt, and Colt’s kitty Woof. (Yes, he named him.)

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