He slipped, bare-footed, in to our camp one night, bringing nothing but a machete hung on a belt of rattan at his waist, and the tattered shirt and trousers he was wearing. With his wide face and raven-black hair cut in a straight fringe over his brown eyes, he was unmistakably Penan. He appeared out of the undergrowth like a gentle Clouded Leopard.
A couple of our local Beriwan guides could communicate with him. He told us his name was Musi. He had lived in the forest all his life, alone since his father had died, maybe alone for years, time was a difficult concept. Occasionally he met up and travelled with other nomadic Penan.
We were in a camp, deep in the Sarawak rainforest. Musi stayed with us for the next couple of weeks, rarely making more than fleeting eye contact, always with a shy smile, and with endless willingness.
We watched with admiration his forest skills, skills that ensured his ability to live easily and harmoniously in his forest home; his ability to navigate his way though what seemed to us identical, unchanging jungle. In minutes we could be disorientated, confused, lost but Musi would unfailingly guide us home.
We would return to our hammocks in the evenings, usually in torrential rain, of the type and intensity that only the equator can drum-up. Everything, including our firewood, would be saturated. He hunkered over the dead embers, and in seconds flames crackled to life.
He accepted the food we offered him with a nod of his head. Tinned tuna, biscuits, processed cheese, he would eat it all, but it was obvious that it was not his food of choice.
One day, when he was effortlessly cutting a trail for us through spiny, skin-ripping creepers he noticed a dead squirrel laying amongst the leaf litter on the forest floor. He leapt to pick it up, smelt it, briefly studied its rustic fur, and then tied it to his waist. That evening, he carved a wooden skewer, impaled the squirrel and toasted it over the fire, long black tail and all. He ate it with unconcealed enjoyment, like a teenager who had finally been bought a bag of chips after days of brown bread sandwiches.
It was clear from his reserved demeanour that he had experienced little contact with people. He took pains to say ‘thank you’ or ‘terima kasi’ when given food or assistance. But it was a social nicety that he seemed to find mildly amusing maybe even embarrassing. With their co-operative way of life, Penan have not had the need to constantly express gratitude – helping each other is a given, as central to their way of life as breathing.
After a couple of weeks, just as we had became reliant on his skills and his constant care, he disappeared back into the wilderness, as quickly and quietly as he had appeared.