“Borneo” has always evoked vivid images for me – dense jungle, wild animals, loud jungle noises.  I wanted to come here to experience the wild and to search for my inner Indiana Jones.  As you’ll read below, I never found him.

After a recommendation from a fellow traveler and rave reviews in our guide book, we flew to Bario – a remote “town” in the Kelabit Highlands only accessible by plane.  The first Westerner arrived here after World War II by parachuting into the area.  While lots has changed in the past 50 years, the jungle is still alive and well (although threatened by the logging companies that are quickly approaching the area).

Yesterday, we set off on a 8-hour trek through the jungle.  We enlisted the assistance of a local guide named Marshall, who came prepared for the hike with a machete and a 12-gauge shotgun.  Borneo 047-1.JPGMarshall is the kind of man that doesn’t really exist in the West anymore.  A true jungle man that could crush Indiana Jones with 2 fingers.  Marshall grew up playing in the jungle, learning how to survive in the environment.  To this day, much of the food he eats comes from the vegetation and the animals that live there.  Since access to the area is only by plane, there’s no real supermarket in Bario – the jungle is his Kroger.  In fact, we almost shot a wild boar during our hike; unfortunately, the animal moved just out of sight as Marshall aimed his gun.  Borneo 023-1.JPG

We had read about the many leeches that live in the jungle and that like to grab on to you and suck your blood for dinner.  I sort of assumed that this was a rare occurrence and was mainly meant to scare tourists.  To help minimize the attack, Marshall recommended that we take tobacco leaves and rub them on our socks and shoes.  Supposedly, the leeches hate the smell and taste of tobacco.  Lies!!  I think this was a sick way for the locals to exact revenge on the white man who occupied their land for several hundred years.  In reality, tobacco must be like caviar to leeches.

I first noticed a problem about 2 hours into the hike.  There was a quick, painful bite on my leg.  When I looked down, I was horrified to see a leech burrowing into my skin.  I immediately grabbed the little blood-sucker and started pulling.  These are powerful creatures.  The leech had tasted my blood and loved it.  My resolve was strong, though, and I eventually yanked the parasite off of me, threw him onto the jungle floor and crushed him with my shoe.  While it was a gruesome death for the creature, I must admit that I received a lot of pleasure.

After enduring this awful event, Shanna and I became obsessed with leech prevention.  We tucked the legs of our pants deep into our socks and constantly checked for signs of the leech.  This worked for awhile.  After a lunch of rice wrapped in banana leaves (prepared by our lovely lodge owner, Sumi), I got a slight itch on my stomach.  This was the beginning of one of the most traumatic events of my life.  When I raised my shirt and looked down, I almost passed out when I saw a leech buried deep inside my belly button.

Immediately, I remembered a story I once read about a boy who had a worm crawl into his body through his belly button.  The worm then multiplied into thousands of worms that eventually ate away at his body until he died.  I imagined my stomach filled with thousands of leeches; the story would be broadcast on Dateline or 60 Minutes.  I would forever be known as “leech boy”.

After controlling my fear and getting an action plan, I decided ask a grown man – Marshall – to attempt to remove the blood-filled parasite.  It was a humbling experience, but Marshall was able Borneo 039-1.JPGto use a stick coated with salt (leeches hate salt; salt is now my favorite product in the world – I plan on writing the good people at Morton’s salt a letter of appreciation for their fine product) to coax the leech out of my belly button and onto the jungle floor (where Marshall used his machete to cut the little guy in half – I smiled thinking about the pain the leech endured).

For the next several hours, I bled profusely through my belly button. When we returned to our lodge via a boat ride down a jungle river, I did a leech check and found out that about 10 leeches had successfully attached to my body, sucked my blood until they were satisfied and dropped off only after they were completely bloated.

Oh, by the way – the jungle trek was amazing: dense vegetation, crazy river crossings and scary jungle noises.  Of course, I’ll never remember anything about the hike other than those nasty leeches.  Borneo 051-1.JPG