Borneo: Belief


Even on vacation I struggle with goal-setting and achievement.

I love to bird watch. But what sort of spotting should give me the most satisfaction? A half- glimpse of what what might possibly be a rhinosaurus hornbill or a face to face conversation with what definitely is a common sparrow?

And if I see nine, ten, fourteen curved-bill spidereaters for a furtive millisecond each, have I truly seen one at all?  Could I pick it



out of a line up and swear to it in court—flowerpecker, broadbill, leafbird, spidereater?


In my heart, I know love the sociable Buffy Fish Owl best, a round, russet bird who isn’t rare or flagrantly colored, who perches low on trees and blinks back at us while we stare at him for greedy minutes on end.

Buffy Fish Owls don’t eat fish at all, they eat frogs.  And once while we were spying on a civet cat in the moonlight, the owl made mewing noises just to tease us.

I guess I like my birds how I like my friends: solid and true, with a sense of humor.


We asked our guide, Dave, how hardcore wildlife spotters react when they see the animal they’ve been hoping to see.  Some reach for their cameras, he told us.  Some stare dumbfounded. Some cry.

Others are edgy and cranky in anticipation. When they see their animal—clouded leopard, tarsier, wrinkled hornbill, the adrenaline rush leaves them giddy and generous and the whole rest of the trip is easy.

Dave said he’s had wealthy Russian tourists try to buy the wildlife they spot—how much for the orangutan?  Guide! Get me that leopard.

Some people want to own things, in order to believe that they are real.

Some people just want.



Once Dave saw an American man, at the end of the last day of his National Geographic tour, berating his guide because they hadn’t seen any Bornean Pygmy Elephants.

“I was told there would be elephants,” the man bellyached. “Why haven’t you shown us elephants?”

The guide held up a finger.  “One moment please,” he said. He pulled out his phone and pretended to dial.

“Hello, elephants?” he said.  “I’ve got a man here waiting to see you, can you come down so he can get a photo?”

Dave loved that cheek. “Brilliant,” he gushed. “I can’t believe the guide had the balls to pull that off.”

“I bet National Geographic gave that guy a voucher,” I said, because I’ve been on those trips with that man who wanted what he wanted.

“Bloody worth it,” Dave declared.



As neophytes who arrived at Deramakot with limited gear, we weren’t sure how we would react to our first big wildlife sighting. Ramona was hoping for elephants.  Clouded leopards seemed too good to be true.  I’ve always wanted to see a flying squirrel and I’ve read about leeches but never actually seen one.


Dave said don’t worry, we’ll find leeches then wish we hadn’t.  He also said that the forest has multitudes of flying squirrels, so many that he doesn’t bother to point them out unless all the other animal spotting is a total bust.

I guess I like my wildlife how I like my friends: numerous and easy to locate.


Half an hour into our first night drive down the Deramakot logging road, a colugo slid in the sky over our truck. We saw the full arc of its glide, lit up under the full moonlight, swooping from a tree in front, over our heads and into the dark forest beyond.

None of us had even known that colugo existed before that night, but we clapped and cheered because now we’d seen one.

“Thank you!” we stood up and shouted.  “Thank you!”


A bit further down the road, Dave pointed his light at a small wriggling mass balancing in the thin branches of a tree.

“Slow Loris,” he said.

“Wait. There’s two.”

We waited.

“My GOD!” he swore. “He’s got his foot in her face!”

We waited.

“Are they fighting?” we asked.

“They are making MORE Slow Loris,” he exclaimed showing remarkable tact, even in his excitement. “I’ve never seen this before.  I’ve got to get this on film.”

I swear the punchline is always about sex.


Dave knows a man who is comitted to spotting all the big cats in the world, one by one. He’s marking cats off his list, one by one: cheetah, jaguar, tiger.  Lion, cougar, lynx.



“What’s the hardest cat to find?” I asked, thinking of Bigfoot, which is also hard to see but people still try.


“Borneo Bay Cat,” he said without pausing to think. “Just a little brown thing but hardly anyone has ever seen one.”

I looked it up, later.

Borneo Bay Cats are endemic to Borneo.  They are so rare that there are no population estimates. No studies of the species have been conducted in the wild and almost everything known about them comes from fifty year old museum specimens and the corpse of a female Bay Cat caught in a trap in 1992, kept in captivity for months then brought to the Sarawak museum right before she died.

It takes belief to stalk a Borneo Bay Cat, day after day, looking for something that may not still be real.

Think about Bigfoot again.

It’s a very fine line, if you ask me, between intrepid rare animal tracker and cryptozoologist whack.

Parse the difference between a Bay Cat and Bigfoot and you get a bunch of enormous plaster foot casts compared to a few  dusty museum specimens.

Common ground?  A whole lot of faith.


In my mythology and folklore class we talk about how important it is to be able to suspend our disbelief. That sometimes in myths, in religion, in love, we have to let go of our need to KNOW and simply allow the story unfold.



I used to have a boyfriend whose dream was to meet an alien.

He swore that if he ever caught a glimpse of an extra-terrestrial, he would run toward it, as fast as he could, just to see how close he could get. I always imagined him leaping into its arms (?) like a reunited lover.

That same boyfriend claimed that if he ever got close to a space ship, he would walk right on board and fly away into the unknown without thinking twice about who he left behind. (Me.)

“What if you died five seconds after you got into the spaceship?” I asked, because although I wanted to support him but I didn’t want him to waste his life working toward a stupid goal when he could be focusing on me.

“Totally worth it,” he answered.

“What if you died so fast you didn’t even ever know you were ever on a spaceship at all?” I pushed.

“Totally worth it,” he repeated.


I admire the ardor that drives that kind of desire, but I’m content to let the universe reveal its mysteries in its own time.

Maybe aliens don’t WANT a human on their space ship.

Maybe Bigfoot doesn’t want to be found.

Maybe a Bay Cat has been following the catwatcher this whole time.  A small brown cat, lithe and private, spying  from the bushes as the catwatcher hacks through leech-infested Bornean forests, searching for something that has already found him.




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