THE ROAD WORRIERS
In deepest, darkest Brunei, Vijay Verghese discovers the need for speed
HAVE you ever met a headhunter? I haven’t. The closest I’ve got is in the classifieds and they wouldn’t know the difference between me in an Armani suit and me in a pot of boiling water with garlic for seasoning.
So when an opportunity arises to visit Brunei, the so-called Jewel in the Jungle, a place teeming with unimaginable creepycrawlies, steaming rainforests and primitive tribes who even today live in stilted houses on green rivers (and drive expensive Japanese cars), my body thrills to a new purpose.
Stepping into a rainforest is like communing with your inner child. Hear that happy, gurgling, sucking sound? Well, if it’s not your inner child, it’s very likely some primeval goo you’ve just stepped in and those pricey Timberland shoes are ready to retire.
Still, it certainly beats gazing at your navel, which I’ve tried and all I’ve found there is belly fluff, enough to clothe the entire population of Bangladesh. It is, I must say, a cheap and eco-friendly option.
But take it from me, the Brunei rainforest is the place to be. Tough business concluded — chiefly entailing finding a cab to shuttle us about the place — we hop into a rental car and roar off for our tryst with destiny in deepest, darkest Brunei. I take the wheel, my assistant Libby scans a large map and Toom, a colleague with a remarkably short name for a Thai (which is why we hired her in the first place), hums tunes in the back.
Navigation is easy. Brunei’s solitary and excellent highway runs almost ramrod straight, east-west across the northern shoreline. After an hour the road shrivels to two lanes and wobbles uncertainly towards the Sarawak border. We turn off south and the going gets rough. An hour later Libby is slumped glassy-eyed and Toom is in a coma in the back seat. Dengue? Malaria? Snake bite? The answer is deeply disturbing: a classic case of what-the-heck-are-we-doinghere, a terrible syndrome affecting thirtysomethings deprived of television and MTV for too long.
Libby is moaning. Just a few hours earlier she was reclining in her humungous suite at the posh Empire Hotel, where if it isn’t marble or gold it’s thrown out. Now she is in the middle of a rainforest speeding towards, well, more rainforest.
Thus far we haven’t seen long houses, headhunters or posters of Britney Spears. Terminal boredom is setting in, so I consider my moral predicament. To save my staff, I have to find a working TV set, and fast. We have to plug into the latest South Korean soap or even just Teletubbies. But should a 1000-year-old rainforest be allowed to dictate terms to you? Take that road and the next thing you know you’re hugging trees and singing Joan Baez songs.
Libby still has a faint pulse and Toom is stirring, if sluggishly, so I press on. Labi village flashes by and soon we are churning through red slush. The forest closes in. The problem with roads in rainforests is simple. There aren’t any. The few that pretend to be roads go from nowhere to nowhere. Here, rivers are the true arteries of commerce and life. Always remember that.
Just then, Libby surfaces in the front passenger seat. ‘‘ Looping roads make me carsick,’’ she declares. There are loops and bumps ahead. It is time to act. In every journey there is a defining moment and this is it. Now I’ll show the ladies what Real Men do in Real Emergencies. I stop the car, get out and prepare to run. Libby appears fine, for the moment, so I cautiously re-enter the vehicle and give Toom the wheel.
Pluck a Bangkok native out of perpetual gridlock and present 15cm of clear space in front and you’ll go from 20km/h to 40km/h. Sorry, make that 80km/h; no, 90km/h.
Back on the highway the needle quivers at 160km/h. Libby grows paler, my eyes grow to saucers, but the adrenalin is surging. We are awake. We are saved, but for how long? We brace and wait for the inevitable.
Then it happens. There is a sinister whoosh, the car shudders and a matronly woman in a headscarf driving a Toyota Landcruiser roars past.
She must be doing 200km/h. In the Muslim kingdom of Brunei. With proboscis monkeys watching. Deep in the jungle where time stands still, but women obviously don’t. Three more women roar past, all in immaculate headscarfs as the radio breaks in: ‘‘ Expect fog and two degrees tonight.’’ I am relieved to learn it is a London station.
I am going to survive after all and pose to primitive tribes a question that has troubled sociologists for many years: ‘‘ Do your cars run on unleaded?’’ Hong Kong-based Vijay Verghese runs the website www.smarttravelasia.com.