By Mike Deeter
Three days of exploring the rivers and jungles of Indonesian Borneo had us looking for hot showers, and most importantly cold beers, the second we were back in what passed for civilization on that primordial island. We had just traveled up the Sekonyer River to Camp Leakey, a research station located in the heart of Tanjung Puting National Park. The jungles of southern Borneo are notoriously inhospitable and exploring by river is one’s best bet to avoid ending up lost or eaten.
Our mode of travel was aboard a shot-out old klotok, a type of traditional Indonesian boat, named the Kunang-kunang. We spent our days trekking through the jungle’s interior when not watching it pass by as our small boat hammered its way up-river, threatening to give up the ghost any minute. When night came, so did the bugs, literally thousands of them. They came in all shapes and sizes, materializing in full-on assault mode from the Stygian blackness at the toggle of a headlamp. Sleep was elusive under the net in our above-deck perch, as the bites and stings rivaled those I endured back in the day at the Jungle Warfare School in Panama.
We stepped off after completing the return leg of our journey worn-out and wearing stink like a second skin. With a day to kill before heading to Bali, we grabbed a hotel room and posted up in the dusty town of Pangkalan Bun. As we now had mandatory downtime and nowhere to be, beer was on our minds. Day-drinking in foreign lands, where we knew neither the customs nor the language, had become our pastime of sorts.
Unfortunately, room service didn’t serve alcohol, so I left the little lady to clean up and settle in while I went on a beer run. Armed only with a single word of Indonesian, I rambled the streets blindly asking for the national beer by name, Bintang, and came up short every time. I expanded my search perimeter, passing a school on my wanderings when a company-size element of screaming kids bum-rushed me en masse from the playground.
I stood my ground, squared up, and dug my heels in; so help me God I wasn’t going let those little fuckers take me without a fight. Thankfully, the stampede stopped within a foot of me and I finally made out what they were saying: “Vin Diesel.” Their confusion was likely due to my bald head and somewhere-between-chubby-and-muscular frame. Happy to not be the center of an international incident, I smiled and obliged their intrusion, making my escape when their interest quickly faded.
Thoughts of failure and the futility of the project began to creep into my subconscious, I felt my efforts would have been better put to pissing up a rope. I clung to hope, though, and continued the pursuit for another hour, eventually stumbling into a shop that had six Bintang Zero’s up for grabs. Not one for light beer under normal circumstances, I took what was on offer with humility even though there was only a single cold one in the lot.
Back in the room I told the story of my adventure before claiming the only cold one as my prize for the Herculean effort. I cracked it open and tipped it back, tempering my urge to chug it down in one gulp. Refreshing, cool, effervescent liquid gold with a subtle hint of malt washed over my tastebuds. Dopamine flooded my synapses, firing off a cascade of exhilaration in the pleasure centers of my brain—almost. Something was amiss. I was taking another pull when my wife started speaking.
“Bintang Zero, non-alcoholic malt beverage,” she read on the side of her warm can.
At that moment, the distinct call to prayer sounded off from somewhere outside our room. My beer run was a failure and the reason was becoming painfully obvious. Alcohol, while not technically illegal in the predominantly Muslim town, was seriously frowned upon. I poured the remainder of my disappointment down the drain and we committed to making up for lost time at the airport lounge.